05 May 2020
The Star Wars roleplaying games haven’t just brought the galaxy far, far away as seen on the big screen to our tabletops – they’ve expanded and redefined the very sci-fi universe itself
It’s 1987 and Lucasfilm is floundering. Return of the Jedi threatens to be the swan song of Star Wars. The series fails on the small screen and future universe novels are axed – or, rather, lightsabered. This beloved titan looks to be a mere cultural footnote. Then something magical happens.
A small tabletop studio named West End Games steps in. On the back of the unlikely success of their previous release – Ghostbusters: A Frightfully Cheerful Roleplaying Game – the small team turns off their targeting computer and takes the shot. This event would change history forever, and this is where our journey begins.
The D6 Era
Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game would find immediate success, receiving the 1987 Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Rules. It was decidedly a revamping of the solid d6-based Ghostbusters core system, serving a cinematic game that fades to the background as it supports narrative action and tremendous flare.
The spirit of the design whispers from every word on every page, as its unusually conversational tone is gripping. Scattered throughout the volume are in-universe ads imploring you to join the Empire or purchase the new Incom T-65 X-Wing.
Its system consists of rolling fistfuls of six-siders against a target number. Even character creation is breezy as you grab a pre-defined template and spend a commercial break customising your stats.
The philosophy was simple: immerse the player in this magical universe at every opportunity. It was a tremendous success.
Before this design’s lengthy run from ‘87 to ‘99 across multiple editions, things were looking grim. That Star Wars vigour was still pulsing in the background of fans’ hearts, but it needed a reawakening. The RPG’s ensuing success did just that.
A major component of this achievement was the roguish nature of the design studio. The team didn’t simply present a small hardback full of those wonderful bits of inspiration; they manufactured an entire galaxy of content. Before Star Wars: The RPG Rodians didn’t exist. Yes, Greedo was a man in a green suit threatening Han’s freedom, but we didn’t know what those peculiar bumpy-noggin aliens were called or where they hailed from. West End Games told us.
The Star Wars RPG detailed each of those oddball species found in the Mos Eisley cantina. All of this information was found in the first supplement, the Star Wars Sourcebook. Poring through the pages felt like unearthing a lost encyclopaedia of wondrous knowledge. This was Star Wars and it was the cure for what ailed us.
Best of all, it would continue across 140 or so supplements and expansions for this excellent game.
That feeling of playing on the fuzzy edge of the film’s boundaries encompassed the soul of George Lucas’ creation. It reaffirmed that childlike awe we desperately craved. It would come to save Star Wars.
The Expanded Universe used West End’s RPG as a springboard. There’s a famous story of author Timothy Zahn, newly commissioned to write the Thrawn trilogy of novels set after the events of Return of the Jedi, being given a stack of roleplaying books. That’s difficult to fathom under the shadow of the intellectual property’s current reach, but it highlights the vast impact this creative work birthed.
It’s not too much of an overstep to suggest this first version of the roleplaying game saved Star Wars. It kept the franchise alive and formulated a progressive take on the world and its inhabitants. The effect would be profound and influential.
Yet nothing lasts forever. Over a decade of glorious content came to an end with West End Games’ 1998 bankruptcy. On the heels of its capitulation, Wizards of the Coast stepped in.
The D20 Saga
Dungeons & Dragons’ third edition was a force. It revitalised the pre-eminent fantasy roleplaying title and had legions of fans. It was natural for Wizards of the Coast to strap some white plastoid armor to the bones of the system.
The bulky fit wasn’t exceptional. The d20 system is a very structured and rigid class-based affair. It requires scouring through lists of abilities, tweaking gear and juggling a bantha’s share of numbers. When you’re in the weeds juggling XP across a convoluted multi-classed build or totalling encumbrance for the 20 pieces of gear you’re carrying, you’re not exactly playing out childhood fantasies of being Han Solo or Princess Leia.
West End Games’ system was cinematic because it was light and fast, supporting constant drama as it got out of the way and let the protagonists act. The d20 take could be that way, but only if the game master overlooked the heavier combat systems and worked continually to keep the tempo high.
It’s remarkable how closely the game’s paradigm reflected the cultural tone of the time. The Phantom Menace arrived to immediate celebration as we were starving for more Star Wars. It did not take long, however, for the gnashing of teeth and clenching of fists to emerge.
Jar Jar Binks, midichlorians and Anakin Skywalker’s portrayal all combined for a sucker punch to the rabid Star Wars fan’s jaw. None of it fit. The film desperately sought to recapture the glory of its past and it was a resounding failure.
That’s not to say it was irredeemable. If you could detach yourself from expectations and manufacture some distance from those wondrous three original movies, you could find moments of joy. The opening sequence, that podrace scene and the concept of battle droids were all compelling factors on the big screen.
The d20 Star Wars Roleplaying Game was also redeemable. Swapping out hit points for the more cinematic vitality was solid. Force users were interesting and their power level felt surprisingly appropriate. Droid players were actually capable. Emotional moments of splendour and creativity were waiting to be teased from minds and tables, even if it wasn’t exactly Star Wars.
It was also quite successful. On the back of d20 fever, it thrived across three editions. The final system update, the Saga Edition, even functioned as a test run for many concepts that would make their way into Dungeons & Dragons’ fourth edition.
Much like its predecessor, this edition also worked to expand and develop various limbs of its parent property. The brave new world of the prequels offered dozens of fresh alien species and the worlds they inhabited. New data was offered on Dugs and Neimoidians concerning their homeworlds and characteristics. As information flowed and the Expanded Universe once again began borrowing concepts, the Star Wars gestalt ignited anew.
While these games offered new characterisations for writers to draw from, the EU itself gave back to the tabletop. This was most visibly seen in the embracement of the New Jedi Order era and the Yuuzhan Vong, a mysterious Force-immune race that would invade the galaxy. The rich material cultivated in the roleplaying world birthed thousands of campaigns and a wave of new blood.
The closing of this chapter occurred in 2007. Wizards of the Coast announced it was dropping the Star Wars licence and placing its focus elsewhere. Everything came to a sudden and disappointing halt, similar to the emotional imbroglio of a world post-Revenge of the Sith.
The Narrative Age
Fantasy Flight Games shocked us all in 2012 when it announced its acquisition of the Star Wars licence. We now had little X-Wing miniatures to scoot around the table, Imperial dungeons to assault and a new series of roleplaying books to get lost in.
This narrative dice system was a doozy. It was based upon the experimental third edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. The central mechanism involved a dice pool of varying polyhedrals all with proprietary symbols. There was a deep impression and visible influence from the burgeoning independent RPG scene of designers, such as Vincent Baker (Apocalypse World), Jason Morningstar (Fiasco) and Luke Crane (The Burning Wheel).
Again, Star Wars was forced into a pre-existing framework. Just as the original film, A New Hope, was built upon the DNA of sci-fi ancestors such as Dune, its roleplaying counterpart would continually be expressed through existing schemes.
What’s most interesting is how Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game attempts to bridge the gap of its forebears. It straddles the line, sometimes erratically, between cinematic action and detailed structure. There’s encumbrance, structured abilities and rigid gear profiles, but it also wants the story to have players on the edge of their seats. The resolution system can be fast and flexible, allowing for narrative to quickly run and trouble to flourish. It can’t quite separate itself from either of the previous iterations, so instead it embraces both – for better and worse.
Once again, the philosophy behind the design would parallel the direction of a new film series. The Force Awakens and its progeny would go to great lengths to prove they were still cut from the cloth of that magical 1977 film. You can see the writers and actors straining under the weight of the franchise. At every turn of Episode VII, J.J. Abrams shines a light on a piece of their world and says, “See, this is Star Wars.”
The Fantasy Flight system struggles with this as well. The game is split across three hardbacks, each featuring a different aspect of the Rebellion era. You can join the fight against the Empire, wield the force as a Jedi or haul cargo on the rim for fistfuls of credits. There’s a lot of glamour and visual pizzazz scattered across the large manuals. It can strain at times to pull it all together, appearing to tick off boxes instead of producing an organic cinematic experience.
Yet, like Disney’s production, the game is able to overcome its idiosyncrasies. The initially convoluted dice system internalises after a scene or two. It breeds a complex narrative of emotional and dramatic release. It’s a wild ride.
There’s a remarkable sense of unknown resting on the tinged corners of the many pages. Coinciding with the unsteady forward momentum of the recent films, the design sits in limbo regarding its future. There’s a sense of finality out of reach and it’s difficult to distance ourselves from the stream of new content. Constructing the full picture is impossible as it doesn’t exist.
Residing in that murkiness is this system’s relationship with the EU. When Disney jettisoned nearly the entirety of Star Wars literature it left a void. Fantasy Flight has poked the undulating abyss with its toe, delving into some of the more esoteric corners of the galaxy. Supplements like Lords of Nal Hutta offer an intimate look into Hutt space. The wealth of detail included is flush with narrative. The colour and scope of the various products in this line all feel as though they’re working to fundamentally produce a similar vision to that of previous EU authors. The totality of the presentation is the bow tying this current vision neatly together.
The Next Episode
In traversing from system to system and acclimating oneself to these various eras, one common thread of unison persists: Star Wars endures. Each of these games retains a strong following running lateral to that of the source material.
The original d6 system recently received a 30th Anniversary Edition. This slipcase set includes the hardback rules as well as the fantastic sourcebook. The d20 version can still be scrounged up in its various forms and players are still found gathered around many a table at conventions. Fantasy Flight’s latest take is a living and breathing entity with continued support across many releases. Recent news has even sparked a fury with the announcement of Clone Wars material.
Star Wars is a property is beloved like none other. Fantasy Flight could collapse, with these books sent to the trash compactor, and it would not matter – fans scattered across thousands of cities would still take to thousands of stars and forge their own saga.
Words by Charlie Theel
This review originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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