The Legacy of the Star Wars RPGWhen 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 GodCreating 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 RogueWhich 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.