RPGs Finally Get Some Credit in Defining a Galaxy: A Review

When Disney took over the Star Wars universe, the press release called out role-playing games as part of the new Star Wars canon. Since then, Pablo Hidalgo has been a champion of bringing content established in West End Games' (WEG) tabletop role-playing Star Wars books into the movies and cartoons. But it all started with Bill Slavicsek, who sets the record straight in his new book, Defining a Galaxy: 30 Years in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.

World-building for a tabletop role-playing game has a lot in common with creating a setting bible for a media franchise. It also forces some difficult questions that a writer might normally ignore or hand wave in service to the story. For Bill, that issue was the names of the various alien species ("Ithorian" and "Quarren"), which were largely relegated to whatever the toy company Kenner called them ("Hammerhead" and "Squid Head," respectively).

What goes unsaid was how WEG got the license in the first place. WEG was not the largest tabletop RPG company at the time, but its bid for the Star Wars license was higher than competitors. Bill doesn't go into details as to exactly why or how much but has said elsewhere that WEG's $100K offer was pitted against TSR who offered $70K. Bill goes on to speculate that there were several companies circling the license with Star Wars games planned, so the spate of sci-fi games that came out afterward.

For fans of WEG's D6 system, there's even a hidden gem -- Bill update the mechanics for use in convention play on pages 155-158.

One of the prescient things Bill did as part of his research for WEG was to delve into the Lucasfilm archives. This practice has become commonplace now (much of the animated Star Wars Rebels cartoon was inspired by Ralph McQuarrie's original works), but back then it was revolutionary -- and also gave WEG's subsequent source books authenticity that no one else could claim. As much as Bill fleshed-out aspects of the Star Wars universe with his own imagination, he did so with a reverence for the source material that drew on the original series, along with the smattering of novels that were produced at the time, whenever possible.

This philosophy would serve WEG well. Bill evolved from a backup filling in for various staff to the mastermind behind multiple Star Wars products. That alone is an achievement for the history books, but most remarkably, Bill repeated the act later in his career, becoming the Star Wars lead for Wizards of the Coast when his new employer got the license. Bill's Star Wars expertise goes well beyond just role-playing games -- he wrote the second and third editions of A Guide to the Star Wars Universe.

Bill's anecdotes are priceless as he doles out tidbits about what started as a stray reference in a WEG source book would later become canon -- twice! -- both in the Extended Universe and then in the new Disney core. In addition to the aforementioned Ithorians and Quarren, he named the Twi'leks (which, if Lucasfilm had its way, would been named "Bib Fortunas"), Disney used the Inquisitors, the Imperial Security Bureau, Sienar Flight Systems, Ryloth, the Interdictor Cruiser. and details of the Sabacc game. Most striking is the recent reference to Shantipole, an adventure Bill worked on that was largely replicated in a Rebels episode.

By the end of the book it's clear Bill had to write it. Defining a Galaxy distills much of his panel discussions, anecdotes, and interviews about the origin of many Star Wars tropes into one place. More important, it sets the facts straight about someone who was nearly as influential as George Lucas in setting up the Star Wars we know today. If you've ever wondered about the importance of role-playing games in the larger pop culture landscape, Defining a Galaxy leaves little doubt that our hobby is a major contributor, now more than ever. And for that, we have Bill to thank.

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.
 
Michael Tresca

Comments

Henry

Autoexreginated
Bill Slavicsek’s been unknown to far too many SW fans - then again, many fans seem to treat George Lucas’ Star Wars as being somehow perfect compared to the work of Disney and others, easily glossing over the things that used to be maligned in the past (e.g. the whole ‘Han shot first’ thing and many of the minor changes in the Special Editions), not realizing that the Star Wars we love is the work of not ONE set of hands, but HUNDREDS (Ben Burtt, Gary Kurtz, Irvin Kershner, and Slavicsek, to name just a few). Like most successful IPs, your favorite part of it might not have come from the top name in the credits.
 

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
I love SW but it is a setting where jedis are the stars of the show and no-force adepts become "boring" without those superpowers. I miss some things from the SW legends, the expanded universe, but also I don't like too much the Skywalker family like the centre of the attention. After the fall of the empire a lot of things happened and almost all linked with Skywalkers.

This setting needs more force adepts but neither jedis nor siths.

Other matter is the sci-fi get old very fast, and ne generations miss a lot of modern technology is real now but they don't appear in the old works.

* How would be the mind-transfer and the digital immortality in SW?
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Also, fun fact: the book includes a few of Slavicsek's house rules for the d6 Star Wars RPG near the end!
 

Jer

Adventurer
I love SW but it is a setting where jedis are the stars of the show and no-force adepts become "boring" without those superpowers. I miss some things from the SW legends, the expanded universe, but also I don't like too much the Skywalker family like the centre of the attention. After the fall of the empire a lot of things happened and almost all linked with Skywalkers.

This setting needs more force adepts but neither jedis nor siths.
Eh - I actually think it's the opposite. I think that the RPGs and the Expanded Universe stuff focuses way too much on the Force and Jedi politics and not enough on the rest of the Space Opera that is the Star Wars Universe. Han Solo and Chewbacca were major parts of what made the first trilogy great, and it was because they were awesome, not because they had Force powers. One of my big complaints about the prequel trilogy is that it immersed itself in the Jedi and ignored a good half of what made the first trilogy so great[*].

This is one of the things that I appreciate about the new movies - a move to try to have some characters that aren't Jedi and don't have Force powers but are still have interested and exciting stories to tell. (Yeah part of this is because JJ Abrams decided to lean heavily on the first movie when making his first sequel and replicated a lot of the beats which required that mix of characters, but it's still more interesting to me than "more superpowered Force users" - if I want a movie full of people with superpowers, Disney also owns the Avengers after all).

[*] And by "what made the first trilogy so great" I mean the Ewoks, of course.
 

Jacob Lewis

The One with the Force
In all seriousness, this is on my personal Must-Read list now. I never knew how much the original WEG roleplaying game contributed to and expanded the Star Wars universe. It came at a time when the trilogy was considered complete, and interest waned as new material and merchandise seemed to be winding down. And then I was introduced to D&D.

Had anyone I knew at the time introduced me to this system, I suspect things would have been different for me. Like a lot of fans, I could not imagine anything "more Star Wars" than what I saw in the movies. The Emperor was defeated. The Death Star was destroyed, twice! What else was left to get my attention as a willing participant, unless I'm playing a Skywalker?

Such a missed opportunity for me!

Nowadays, however, I have discovered the sheer joy that is roleplaying in the greatly expanded and newly revisited Star Wars universe, as well as a many new ways to play in and read about a galaxy far, far away. The latest RPG from FFG offers a new way to roleplay that I have found refreshingly liberating from the old binary d20 edition treadmill. It is vastly superior in many ways and challenges conventional thinking, which can often pose a barrier for veteran gamers set in their expectations or what an rpg should or shouldn't be. In my experience, I find people who are more interested in storytelling than mechanics (particularly new players who have not had a lot of experience with other rpgs) to respond with a more positive first impression.

Getting back on topic, I have been able to see the influence from the original WEG version throughout the various novels, comics, video games, television series, and subsequent versions of the game itself. And while Disney has opted to pcik and choose which parts are still considered canon (and which parts they are developing to make their own), they have not completely ignored their roots. Rodians are still called rodians. Thrawn is still a major character in the Star Wars universe, thanks to the Rebels show, though we still do not know where Zahn's Heir trilogy still stands. And despite the Skywalker story maintaining the focus for so long, we have seen there is much more to the universe, which is a very, very big place.

Be one with the Force. The Force is with us, again.
 

Ralif Redhammer

Adventurer
This sounds like it’ll be an interesting read. The West End Games Star Wars RPG existed at an interesting time, perhaps unique to all the other Star Wars RPGs that have come since.

Back when I was running the game, we actually only had one person playing a Jedi, and it was the broken-down Quixotic Jedi archetype at that. I guess blasters, bounty hunters, and starships were all more exciting to my gaming group.
 

Draegn

Explorer
I have a love hate relationship with this game. Regardless of version or edition, I found it to be extremely frustrating. Perhaps it is due to the people I played with. RAW the player whose character is so skilled that he can call the emperor on the holonet and curse him not once but twice in the same scene without consequence. The player that looks up Solo's 14th level stats, Solo who is supposed to be one of the top ten pilots in galaxy but is made to look like a chump because the player's character was built to fly rings around him at 4th level.

An entire galaxy to play in but we always have to go to the planets shown in the films and always meet film characters.

And never mind that force users were supposed to be very very rare, you couldn't avoid hitting one when swinging a dead kitten.

I much prefer Traveller.
 

TarionzCousin

Second Most Angelic Devil Ever
And never mind that force users were supposed to be very very rare, you couldn't avoid hitting one when swinging a dead kitten.
Dead kittens attract Force users like the world's most powerful magnet attracts paper clips; I thought everyone knew that. B-)
 

Panda-s1

Explorer
Bill Slavicsek’s been unknown to far too many SW fans - then again, many fans seem to treat George Lucas’ Star Wars as being somehow perfect compared to the work of Disney and others, easily glossing over the things that used to be maligned in the past (e.g. the whole ‘Han shot first’ thing and many of the minor changes in the Special Editions)
I don't know what universe you're living in, I know plenty of fans who complain about the old movies constantly (and that's not even talking about the special editions). now fans my age may be more accepting of the prequel trilogy and special edition movies, but by no means do fans of any era treat the Lucas-era Star Wars as "perfect".
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
I don't know what universe you're living in, I know plenty of fans who complain about the old movies constantly (and that's not even talking about the special editions). now fans my age may be more accepting of the prequel trilogy and special edition movies, but by no means do fans of any era treat the Lucas-era Star Wars as "perfect".
Just google “Disney ruined Star Wars” and you’ll get a deluge of fan-hate; now, there are also plenty of people who talk about Lucas ruining Star Wars with special editions and midichlorians as well, don’t misunderstand - but it seems like as time goes on and the Sale of Lucasfilm retreats further away in time, a rose-colored picture of “old Lucasfilm” seems to be emerging, and most particularly is the image of the first three films as the gold standard by which all others have fallen short. My point is that people often forget that, if it was only George Lucas making contributions to the original trilogy, it would likely not have been as popular as it was. One could actually attribute as much of Star Wars’ success to Marcia Lucas as George. In some ways, the best thing that happened to Empire Strikes back was George Lucas needing to divide attention and giving control to Irving Kirshner, because of the freedom he gave both the actors and crew to perform their craft without micromanagement.

George is a fantastic visionary for the broad strokes, but he seems to work best when he’s tempered by the contributions of others on the fine details.
 

Panda-s1

Explorer
Just google “Disney ruined Star Wars” and you’ll get a deluge of fan-hate[...]
yes, I'm fully aware of the hate toward the newer Star Wars thank you, you don't need to inform me. if there's one thing to take from what I said is that your average star wars fan is wretched and believe anything other than the original theatrical versions of A New Hope (sorry I mean Star Wars) and Empire Strikes Back is trash. this isn't a dichotomy either, you'll find plenty of fans who hate both the special edition movies and the newer trilogy. there's nothing "emergent" about nostalgia for Lucas's original vision, that's been the default since Return of the Jedi first came out.
 

Mournblade94

Explorer
yes, I'm fully aware of the hate toward the newer Star Wars thank you, you don't need to inform me. if there's one thing to take from what I said is that your average star wars fan is wretched and believe anything other than the original theatrical versions of A New Hope (sorry I mean Star Wars) and Empire Strikes Back is trash. this isn't a dichotomy either, you'll find plenty of fans who hate both the special edition movies and the newer trilogy. there's nothing "emergent" about nostalgia for Lucas's original vision, that's been the default since Return of the Jedi first came out.
You can be a huge STAR WARS fan, not be wretched, Recognize the Force Awakens as good, and STILL think The LAst Jedi was an awful movie.

I've been a defender of EVERY movie that came out for Star Wars, especially the prequels. The only movie I can't defend and despise is The Last Jedi. That's when I started to question whether Disney was a good thing for Star Wars.

For some reason, people get very sensitive towards fans that recognize the Last Jedi as a bad Star Wars film.
 

MGibster

Adventurer
I have a love hate relationship with this game. Regardless of version or edition, I found it to be extremely frustrating. Perhaps it is due to the people I played with. RAW the player whose character is so skilled that he can call the emperor on the holonet and curse him not once but twice in the same scene without consequence. The player that looks up Solo's 14th level stats, Solo who is supposed to be one of the top ten pilots in galaxy but is made to look like a chump because the player's character was built to fly rings around him at 4th level.
You're thinking of a different game. The WEG version of Star Wars didn't have character levels.
 

MGibster

Adventurer
After 1985 Star Wars pretty much disappeared from toy aisles. In 1987 I can't remember seeing any Star Wars products on the shelves other than WEG's role playing game. Some of our younger readers here might not remember a time when Star Wars products weren't on the shelves! It's amazing that some things created for the game actually appeared in later Star Wars media.
 

Panda-s1

Explorer
For some reason, people get very sensitive towards fans that recognize the Last Jedi as a bad Star Wars film.
I mean for starters it doesn't help they're so insecure as to necro a 3 week old thread because someone disagrees with them.

but also the arguments against TLJ feel inane at best. I don't even want to touch the absolute garbage arguments (though I will say the video saying "diversity ruined star wars" that YouTube keeps suggesting can :):):):) right off). beyond that a lot of the arguments feel like either people weren't paying attention, or just can't accept certain plot points. it also doesn't help that your average fan who hates TLJ feels the need to crap on it at every opportunity. like I'm not the biggest fan of RotJ but I still enjoy it.

After 1985 Star Wars pretty much disappeared from toy aisles. In 1987 I can't remember seeing any Star Wars products on the shelves other than WEG's role playing game. Some of our younger readers here might not remember a time when Star Wars products weren't on the shelves! It's amazing that some things created for the game actually appeared in later Star Wars media.
it feels weird reading about this, my early childhood took place in the early 90's and it always felt like star wars was omnipresent. like I remember boys in my school talking about it and even playing with star wars toys. even if it weren't in shelves, I do remember the slew of video games for Nintendo consoles, and the OT playing on TV was always an event.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member

Folks,

If you can't keep it respectful, things will go very badly for you. This goes for both sides of the argument. If you can't be okay with other folks liking things you don't, or vice versa, go find a thread you can be constructive in before it is too late.
 

Mournblade94

Explorer
I mean for starters it doesn't help they're so insecure as to necro a 3 week old thread because someone disagrees with them.

but also the arguments against TLJ feel inane at best. I don't even want to touch the absolute garbage arguments (though I will say the video saying "diversity ruined star wars" that YouTube keeps suggesting can :):):):) right off). beyond that a lot of the arguments feel like either people weren't paying attention, or just can't accept certain plot points. it also doesn't help that your average fan who hates TLJ feels the need to crap on it at every opportunity. like I'm not the biggest fan of RotJ but I still enjoy it.
Yes Insecurity. Because people that have been away for awhile never read threads that interest them. I wasn't particularly interested in checking the date. So Occams razor definitely points to me being insecure. You are allowed to think the arguments against the movie are inane. Its a discussion about an item of entertainment. I think the arguments are rather spot on so there you go (don't straw man me by saying I suddenly agree with the anti-diversity crowd, Im fine with the ethnicity, gender, or sexuality of any character in the Disney Star Wars. Rian Johnson just demonstrated a lack of grasp on the characters. The diversity in Star Wars isn't an issue. Its simply Rian Johnson tried to deconstruct Star Wars by misunderstanding characters.

Note Ive been called insecure and apparently one other person quoted me on this but got hidden. So my point was kind of made. People lose their mind if you criticize the last jedi. Go enjoy the movie as a fan.
 

Mournblade94

Explorer
The names of the aliens like Bib Fortuna, and alot of the guys that just had names like Prune Face got actualy names from Bill Slavicek. the Star Wars sourcebook in 1988 is one of the best, if not THE best Star Wars movie resource ever published.
 

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