How a RPG Changed the Star Wars' Universe
  • How a RPG Changed the Star Wars Universe


    The unstoppable franchise that is Star Wars is back in the headlines thanks to the blockbuster success of Rogue One, a film that delves into the sci-fi epic's detailed backstory. It's easy to forget that when Disney acquired the Star Wars license and redefined what was canon, the company declared that the tabletop role-playing game was an integral part of defining the universe.


    The Legacy of the Star Wars RPG

    When Disney took over the Star Wars license from George Lucas, fans were curious as to what would be considered canon. Right out of the gate, Disney made it clear that the role-playing game was part of the official universe:

    In order to give maximum creative freedom to the filmmakers and also preserve an element of surprise and discovery for the audience, Star Wars Episodes VII-IX will not tell the same story told in the post-Return of the Jedi Expanded Universe. While the universe that readers knew is changing, it is not being discarded. Creators of new Star Wars entertainment have full access to the rich content of the Expanded Universe. For example, elements of the EU are included in Star Wars Rebels. The Inquisitor, the Imperial Security Bureau, and Sienar Fleet Systems are story elements in the new animated series, and all these ideas find their origins in roleplaying game material published in the 1980s.

    How did a tabletop role-playing game come to define one of the most beloved franchises in sci-fi history? To understand that, we have to understand the state of Star Wars in the 1980s.

    "Star Wars Was Dead"

    Rob Wieland explains the state of the franchise in the late 80s on Geek & Sundry:

    Star Wars was dead in 1987. It’s hard to imagine a time without a constant release of books, comics, and other media set in that far, far away galaxy. But the last movie was a few years old and kids were getting tired of playing with the same toys. The Marvel Comics series wrapped up. A few tie-in books had been released but the stories set in that universe had been told. So it seemed like a fairly small risk to license Star Wars to a small RPG company based out of Honesdale, PA. West End Games had a hit on their hands with their Ghostbusters RPG and used the same system for the basis of their new Star Wars game. Despite the lull in the fandom, the game was a massive hit, and the company started producing supplements that expanded the universe beyond what was seen in the movies.

    Shannon Appelcline picks up the thread in Designers & Dragons - the 80s:

    West End’s experience with the licensed Ghostbusters has been listed as one reason for their successful bid. However, West End Games had another advantage not enjoyed by most RPG companies: it, Bucci Imports, and a variety of other companies were wholly owned by the Palter family who freely transferred money among them. Bucci had helped West End when times were lean — getting a tax write-off in the process — and now they offered to advance $100,000 to Lucasfilm, which may well have been the highest advance for a roleplaying property to that date.

    Chris Baker explains on Glixel how West End Games picked up the license:

    Greg Costikyan, a co-creator of Paranoia, was one of the people tasked with securing the Star Wars license. “We flew out to California to meet with Lucasfilm,” he says. “We made a bid of $100k. We later learned that TSR had tried to get the license too, but they only bid $70k.” Costikyan says that the people at Lucasfilm didn’t seem to think that the franchise was dead at that point – Lucas’ original vision had called for nine films, after all. But they were fully aware that Star Wars was essentially in hibernation, as if frozen in carbonite. “They felt it was clearly going to be a long time before there was another Star Wars movie,” says Costikyan. “Lucasfilm thought that an RPG could help keep Star Wars active in the minds of geeks, which was why the licensing deal had some value to them.”

    Costikyan left West End Games in 1987 before the game was ready for release, which is when Bill Slavicsek entered the picture. Slavicsek created the Star Wars Sourcebook, which would flesh out everything from how Star Wars' technology worked to the various creatures and aliens populating the galaxy. It didn't hurt that Slavicsek was a huge fan, having watched the movies nearly 40 times:

    “It so enthralled me that I wanted to go again and again and watch the reaction of my friends and family members to it,” he says. “It was unlike anything I’d seen before. It wasn’t a clean, sterile sci-fi universe – it was lived-in and visceral.” Slavicsek says that, to his mind, there are fundamental similarities between the universe that George Lucas created and the ones that RPG designers create. “Star Wars and D&D aren’t just telling stories – they’re opening up the imagination,” he says...But there were huge holes in the canon that Slavicsek and his co-writer Curtis Smith would have to fill in themselves. Movies simply don’t require the level of exhaustive detail that a game would. The West End designers had to create all that, getting signoff from Lucasfilm on major additions. “We didn’t want to add anything that didn’t fit the milieu, like any tech that seemed too Star Trek,” says Slavicsek.

    Fortunately, Lucasfilm didn't have strong opinions about the universe at the time -- a level of freedom unthinkable today with a popular franchise:

    “Lucasfilm was fairly hands off,” says Costikyan. “They would have the occasional directive, like, 'you can’t show a stormtrooper with their helmets off,’ I guess because they thought that a property based on the Clone Wars was going to come out eventually. They didn’t want us to kill off the main characters, but we didn’t want to kill them off anyway. We thought players would want to create their own characters in this world.” Slavicsek was like Adam in the Garden of Eden, giving names to all of the creatures in God’s creation.

    It was the role-playing game that came up with names for ithorians (originally known as "Hammerheads") and twi'leks. Slavicsek didn't know it then, but he was creating a setting bible for all of Star Wars.

    The Word of God

    Creating a role-playing game requires enough tools so that the game master can adapt on the fly, which means systemizing the universe in a way similar to setting bibles for television and movies. The Game Narrative Toolbox explains the importance of these bibles:

    The Game Bible (also referred to as a Universe Bible or Story Bible) is one of the most important documents a development team uses. As a narrative designer, you'll be responsible for overseeing a game bible's production, or you may write it yourself. The bible serves as a reference for the entire team, including level designers, systems designers, artists, sound designers, and game writers. It documents all of a game's worldbuilding and lore, and may include information covering character development, storylines, and missions/quests.

    Of particular import is the possibility of transmedia spinoffs, which was not as common in the 80s as it is today. The importance of a game bible would be a turning point for Star Wars when Timothy Zahn wrote Heir to the Empire, which picked up where Return of the Jedi left off:

    Zahn was actually given the RPG sourcebook material to use as reference when he wrote his novel. “The way I heard it, Zahn was insulted by this at first,” says Slavicsek. “But then he figured that it was better to use our material as a resource rather than have to create a bunch off stuff from scratch.”

    Zahn later said in an interview, as quoted in Designers & Dragons - the 80s:

    “The Star Wars movies themselves are always my basic source of ‘real’ knowledge. Supplementing that is a tremendous body of background material put together by West End Games over the years for their Star Wars role playing game. The WEG source books saved me from having to reinvent the wheel many times in writing Heir [to the Empire].”

    Things progressed from there:

    Lucasfilm was emboldened by Zahn’s success. The computer game wing, LucasArts, was gaining a reputation for making quality games in the early 90’s and finally turned its attention to Star Wars with the classics X-Wing and TIE Fighter. Several of the ships in this game series, like the Assault Shuttle, first appeared in the pages of the Star Wars RPG. A close scan of the credits for TIE Fighter even shows a thank you to West End for supplying materials. West End took a page from LucasArts and offered an opportunity to play Imperial characters in its Heroes and Rogues supplement.

    The impact of West End Games' work reverberates even in other role-playing games:

    The influence of the RPG was felt even after the game moved from West End to Wizards of the Coast. One of the most popular Star Wars comics during this time was Knights of the Old Republic. Wizards of the Coast got the author of the comic, John Jackson Miller, to work on the sourcebook for the Star Wars Saga Edition RPG. Saga Edition detailed many of the different eras of the Star Wars Expanded Universe since the first series of Zahn novels, even offering a starship sourcebook that authors used to describe the interiors of favorite ships like the Imperial shuttle.

    Going Rogue

    Which brings us back to the fateful decision when Disney decided what was canon in the new universe. It turns out the Story Group that oversees Star Wars canon includes Pablo Hidalgo, who wrote several sourcebooks for West End Games before joining Lucasfilm. The influence of the tabletop role-playing game continues even today, and it echoes in the plot of Rogue One. As Matt Burnett, writer for Cartoon Network's Steven Universe, put it on Twitter:

    Rogue One looks like a West End Games Star Wars RPG session brought to life. I am reborn.

    Gamers everywhere can take comfort in knowing that the Star Wars we know today is a descendant of the efforts of tabletop game designers.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
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    Comments 92 Comments
    1. Flexor the Mighty! -
      I had a few of the WEG Star Wars books, still do, but never got a chance to play them. I did like it a lot more than the D20 books and other systems that came out later, at least in terms of "feel".
    1. Razz0putin's Avatar
      Razz0putin -
      Well in all fairness to the D20. They fit the D6 system into the D20 mold. They tried and for the most part succeeded. It was a good effort but it failed to have some of the built in limitations that D6 built into it's core which player's of course exploited. A good try but I'll stick with my D6 if I'm playing Star Wars.
    1. Jiggawatts's Avatar
      Jiggawatts -
      Quote Originally Posted by The Glen View Post
      I ran so many epic campaigns from that game. My friends still talk about all the fun we had. Wish they would reprint it, but that's a pipe dream.
      Have you seen this? Lulu is your friend.

      http://www.d6holocron.com/downloads/books/REUP.pdf
    1. The Glen's Avatar
      The Glen -
      That dear sir, is a thing of beauty.
    1. GreyLord's Avatar
      GreyLord -
      I don't think the WEG Star Wars RPG is canon, to be honest. If it were, heir to the empire (at least the sourcebook from WEG) would also be Canon. I think they are taking elements from the WEG SW RPG and incorporating it (much like they might take elements from the EU Legends these days), but I don't think they've given it the stamp of officially being canon in and of itself. Just some elements, just like other EU portions that they've selected to use.

      PS: I would agree with Celebrim currently. At first I really liked TFA, but then I wiped off the nostalgia lense as I heard more and more complaints about it. I looked at what they were saying, actually thought about it and realized they were right. TFA, more than any other series, tries to erase the Original Trilogy out of existence, or at least say that everything that happened wasn't worth it because TFA does away with any gains made in the original trilogy and ignores a LOT of the stuff that happens in the OT. It really seems that someone hated Star Wars but was mandated that they had to make a film that would get fans to watch it, hence the nostalgia factor.

      On the otherhand, Rogue One seems like something a fan that truly love Star Wars crafted. It is the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy and is absolutely Awesome!
    1. The Glen's Avatar
      The Glen -
      It was canon until The Force Awakens came out. WEG had an agreement with Lucas that anything he let go to print would be canon. Several vehicles in the RPG actually made it into the movies, in particular the Colossus. The agreement went out the window with the removal of the Thrawn trilogy, so now its just 'legends'.
    1. aramis erak's Avatar
      aramis erak -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lord Rasputin View Post
      The movie was on CBS in February 1984. We taped it, commercials and all. Its date is unmistakable, as there were news blurbs about the New Hampshire primaries during the broadcast.
      The movie in question is ROTJ - which was still in theaters in mid 87, and not on broadcast (check the link in my other post) until 89...

      Quote Originally Posted by The Glen View Post
      It was canon until The Force Awakens came out. WEG had an agreement with Lucas that anything he let go to print would be canon. Several vehicles in the RPG actually made it into the movies, in particular the Colossus. The agreement went out the window with the removal of the Thrawn trilogy, so now its just 'legends'.
      All prior agreements went out the window with Disney. Especially since Lucas isn't in control anymore.
    1. Flexor the Mighty! -
      Quote Originally Posted by GreyLord View Post
      I don't think the WEG Star Wars RPG is canon, to be honest. If it were, heir to the empire (at least the sourcebook from WEG) would also be Canon. I think they are taking elements from the WEG SW RPG and incorporating it (much like they might take elements from the EU Legends these days), but I don't think they've given it the stamp of officially being canon in and of itself. Just some elements, just like other EU portions that they've selected to use.

      PS: I would agree with Celebrim currently. At first I really liked TFA, but then I wiped off the nostalgia lense as I heard more and more complaints about it. I looked at what they were saying, actually thought about it and realized they were right. TFA, more than any other series, tries to erase the Original Trilogy out of existence, or at least say that everything that happened wasn't worth it because TFA does away with any gains made in the original trilogy and ignores a LOT of the stuff that happens in the OT. It really seems that someone hated Star Wars but was mandated that they had to make a film that would get fans to watch it, hence the nostalgia factor.

      On the otherhand, Rogue One seems like something a fan that truly love Star Wars crafted. It is the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy and is absolutely Awesome!
      I haven't seen R1 but I thought TFA was trying to reboot the series without rebooting it, so they just wiped out the outcomes of the first trilogy for the most part and reset the story to A New Hope pt 2. Star Wars is dear to me but I don't think I'll be along for the ride on the new trilogy, and I did want to love it so much.
    1. M.T. Black's Avatar
      M.T. Black -
      The first edition of D6 Star Wars remains one of my favourite RPGs of all time
    1. TrippyHippy's Avatar
      TrippyHippy -
      One other thing Shannon Appelcline also discusses in his writings is the impact of Star Wars on the Traveller RPG. Even though Traveller has it's own default universe (The Third Imperium) to run with, it may have hit perfect timing in it's 1977 release to coincide with the release of the original Star Wars movie. While Traveller tried to stay more in tune with hard sci-fi, it shared the same sort of grimy, second-hand-car, wheeling/dealing aspects of the Star Wars feel. In the same way kids were basically playing Indiana Jones globetrotting tales with early Call of Cthulhu campaigns, many took Traveller as a way of playing Han Solo in space too.

      And of course, when an official Star Wars RPG came out in 1987, the Traveller sales dipped significantly, although the rise of Cyberpunk RPGs at the same time also had an impact. The thing about the WEG Star Wars RPG is that it removed all the mechanical complexity of play, from character generation through to space combat and just captured the easy narrative drive of the movies to a perfection. In my view, while highly professionally made, the later versions of Star Wars RPG (WotC and FFG) weren't ever quite as simple to play - but maybe that is just me.

      With regards to The Force Awakens, I was just pleased that the tone and look of the movie was in synch with the original movies again (as opposed to The Phantom Menace, et al). The young characters were likeable too, and hopefully they can move on a little more from aping the original trilogy in Episode 8 and beyond. Rogue One was terrific though.
    1. talien's Avatar
      talien -
      Quote Originally Posted by Sands999 View Post
      Hey the link "Disney made it clear that the role-playing game was part of the official universe:" goes to a 404 error page. Curious to see the actual cited source on that if it still exists.
      My apologies, I fixed it, there was an extra "http" at the end: http://www.starwars.com/news/the-leg...rns-a-new-page
    1. ccs's Avatar
      ccs -
      Quote Originally Posted by Desh-Rae-Halra View Post
      @Celebrim

      To hate something more than Jar Jar Binks, not possible that is!
      Meditate I must
      I'll give you one # & one letter: 4E
    1. ccs's Avatar
      ccs -
      Quote Originally Posted by aramis erak View Post
      The movie in question is ROTJ - which was still in theaters in mid 87,
      Lol. And so were a great many other old movies. Somewhere in the country/world.....
      RoTJ came out in May of '83. So I'm sure you were not watching it in '87 as part of it's initial theatrical release.

      I know SW was re-released in '85. Did they do the same for Empire & Jedi in 86/87?
    1. Sands999's Avatar
      Sands999 -
      Quote Originally Posted by M.T. Black View Post
      The first edition of D6 Star Wars remains one of my favourite RPGs of all time
      Mine too 👍
    1. Sands999's Avatar
      Sands999 -
      Quote Originally Posted by talien View Post
      My apologies, I fixed it, there was an extra "http" at the end: http://www.starwars.com/news/the-leg...rns-a-new-page
      Thanks!
    1. fjw70's Avatar
      fjw70 -
      Quote Originally Posted by TrippyHippy View Post
      The thing about the WEG Star Wars RPG is that it removed all the mechanical complexity of play, from character generation through to space combat and just captured the easy narrative drive of the movies to a perfection. In my view, while highly professionally made, the later versions of Star Wars RPG (WotC and FFG) weren't ever quite as simple to play - but maybe that is just me.
      I agree. While I think FFG is pretty easy to play at the table I really dislike the character building elements and much prefer the simpler 1e d6 simpleness. I do love the FFG dice mechanic though and am looking for a way to combine the two.
    1. Lord Twig's Avatar
      Lord Twig -
      Something that has unfortunately become more prominent in today's age is the idea that what you think is so obviously true that everyone else must agree with you. So when someone says they think it is not true they are lying and secretly just hate it. This is of course ridiculous.

      So no, the writer, directory, producer, etc. of the Force Awakens does not hate Star Wars. They just have a different opinion of where the Star Wars story should go after the original trilogy. Just because you don't like it doesn't mean that everyone else agrees with you. Many people love the new movie, including many die-hard Star Wars fans.

      So stop and think about it. What is more likely? Is it more likely that many people just have a different opinion? Or is it more likely that your opinion is so obviously correct that everyone who says they like the movie actually secretly hates it and are all just lying?

      For the record I really like the Force Awakens and like the way it is going. It most certainly did not "destroy" the original trilogy. I also read the Heir to the Empire trilogy and found it to be pretty mediocre. I know Thrawn was supposed to be some genius military tactician, but he certainly didn't act that way in the books.

      Honestly both the new movie and the books start with the same premise. The Imperial fleet is still out there and they aren't going to just surrender. Whereas the books have Thrawn and his fleet, the Force Awakens has the First Order. Of the two I prefer the First Order. Certainly the First Order was more successful in their opening gambit than Thrawn was in his. Even if they lost their big weapon in the counter strike.

      All this is IMHO of course.

      So yeah. Main point is that just because you don't like the way the new Star Wars stories are going doesn't mean that those that do like it (including the people writing it) hate Star Wars. It is just a difference of opinion between people who all love Star Wars.
    1. marv's Avatar
      marv -
      I wish that TFA had kept the WEG canon of the Solo children Jaina, Jacen and Anakin.
    1. Ancalagon's Avatar
      Ancalagon -
      Quote Originally Posted by Emirikol_Del'Tessain View Post
      It's funny. I've said Rebels has felt like a d6 Star Wars campaign from the first episode.

      Kudos, West End.
      I hope this won't ruffle feathers, but my feeling was "this feels just like a Star Wars Saga story!"

      ... but then again I haven't played the d6 Star Wars. Still, West End Games did a great job that is certain.
    1. Emirikol_Prime's Avatar
      Emirikol_Prime -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ancalagon View Post
      I hope this won't ruffle feathers, but my feeling was "this feels just like a Star Wars Saga story!"

      ... but then again I haven't played the d6 Star Wars. Still, West End Games did a great job that is certain.
      Exactly. It's all what you're familiar with. *grin*
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