A Long Time Ago, From a Publisher Far, Far In the Red…

What with The Force Awakens cramming Star Wars hype in our faces 24/7 (much of it merited, to be fair, it’s really good), now’s probably a good time to note down my impressions of the old West End Games version of the Star Wars RPG. One of the members of my Monday evening group has been running a campaign of it for a while now, and though I’ve had brief brushes with the system previously this is the most exposure I’ve ever had to it.

The West End Games version of Star Wars first game out in 1987, and uses a variant of their in-house D6 System which was originally developed for the Ghostbusters RPG. The core book was designed by Greg Costikyan, as one of his last major contributions to West End before he would part way with the company due to disagreements with its owner, Scott Palter. (Also departing at the same time, for the same reasons, was Greg’s fellow Paranoia co-designer Eric Goldberg, who also pulled editing duties on the 1st Edition of Star Wars. The exodus of designers who really “got” Paranoia and were responsible for much of its tone would eventually have dire consequences for the Paranoia line, but that’s a story for another day.) The game see a second edition and a revised and expanded version of the second edition released over the years, as well as generating a massive library of supplements. In fact, an extensive amount of the “Expanded Universe” was invented by West End, or influenced by their work – most notably, Timothy Zahn used West End’s RPG materials when he was writing the Thrawn Trilogy which is generally credited with being the work that really made the Expanded Universe take off. Even though much of the Expanded Universe has been declared non-canon by Disney these days, a few concepts from it have crept back into canon here and there, so West End’s fingerprints still linger on the franchise.

The system presented here is nice and simple, in stark contrast to the general fashion when it came to mid-1980s RPG design – though it was an instant hit, winning the Origins award for its rules. The D6 system is perhaps the earliest widely-known example of a dice pool system in RPGs – attributes and skills correspond to dice in the pool, and then you roll them and add together. This can lead to a bit of a slowdown at points for counting – it would be Shadowrun that would introduce the idea, later used extensively by White Wolf, of having a success/failure target number and simply counting the number of dice that hit this benchmark – but otherwise it’s reasonably easy. Elegantly, multiple actions can be attempted in a single round if necessary by simply penalising your pool by one die per action attempted, though as the book points out this will be rarely worth it for starting characters.

The main variation between editions, aside from minor tweaks to the skill list, concerns the Wild Die. This is an inheritance from Ghostbusters (where it was called the Ghost Die) which was left out of the 1st Edition of Star Wars, but added back into the 2nd Edition. If this rule is used, you have to nominate one of the dice in your pool as the Wild Die (using a die of a different colour from the others is a handy way to do this); if you roll a 1, you reroll the Wild Die, and if it’s a 1 you botched the roll and if it’s anything other than a 1 you count it as a 1 and work out your total as normal, whereas if you roll a 6 you get to add that to your roll, and reroll the Wild Die and add whatever you get (and 6s on the reroll keep generating further rerolls until you roll something that isn’t a 6).

The Wild Die tends to have the effect of making the results of rolls less predictable; since 1 in 6 rolls will get at least one bonus reroll, 1 in 36 will get at least two, and 1 in 36 will be botches. Given the number of time you roll dice in a typical session, I’ve found that in play you can usually expect to get at least one botch and a brace of bonus rerolls each session. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on how you like to take your Star Wars; play without the wild die, and people will generally be good at what they are good at and bad at what they are bad at, whilst throw it in and sudden reversals of fortune become more prominent and there are fewer guarantees. (One often-cited problem with this version of Star Wars is the received wisdom that Wookies are effectively blaster-proof; if this bugs you, the combination of the Wild Die and the tweaks to the damage system between editions may alleviate the issue.) For the Monday evening games, our GM runs with the Wild Die, and I’ve found it adds to the game more than it detracts for it – in particular, having seen The Force Awakens recently it seems to me that dramatic reversals of fortune are regular occurrences in the Star Wars universe and the Wild Die is a good way of making that happen.

One thing that seems fairly consistent across editions is that the core book is very good at introducing you to various concepts – I have the 1st edition book and it is written in a very clear and easy to understand style. One thing West End Games seem to have understood is that a licence like Star Wars lets them put out a game which, rarely for games which aren’t Dungeons & Dragons, has a real potential to gain a substantial base of players who have never had any prior experience with RPGs, and they go all-out in the book to make it a nice, smooth introduction to the format. Some of these are reasonable enough – there’s quite a nice solo adventure provided, for instance – but other aspects of the presentation fall a bit flat with me, in particular the convention that many subsequent adventures would follow of providing a pre-written script for the group to read through before kicking off the action proper. Whilst in principle I can see the point of this – it’s to substitute for the opening crawl in the movies and get the scenario started off in the midst of the action – in practice, I tend to find that reading from boxed text in general is a chore lots of people don’t enjoy and so reading the script ends up feeling stilted, forced, and boring. We don’t bother wish such things in the Monday evening group (the referee in question having developed their own scenarios anyway), but I  did once play with a group who actually did that, and found it impossibly boring then – then again, I didn’t play with them much after that due to other factors, like their surprising tolerance for friends surfing furry porn at the gaming table.

It is easy to imagine an alternate universe where West End never lost the Star Wars licence; their version of the RPG was a major success, after all, and Lucasfilm only pulled the licence from them in 1998 after West End declared bankruptcy due to, I’m not kidding, a complex failed business arrangement involving Palter’s family’s shoe factory. Taking a licence away from a licensee who has gone bankrupt is an entirely reasonable move – after all, if they can’t pay their bills, how can you be confident they’re going to be able to pay the royalties they owe you? – but it did kick West End into a long, deeply embarrassing death spiral (exacerbated by the loss of Paranoia, perhaps their most well-regarded RPG outside of Star Wars, after the original designers sued to get the rights back). Later, Wizards would put out a D20 adaptation of Star Wars which would act as the basis of Knights of the Old Republic and whose Saga Edition would be a testbed for many ideas that later saw light in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, and now Fantasy Flight have put out a small family of Star Wars RPGs (apparently using the same publishing rationale as the Warhammer 40,000 RPGs of having different games to focus on different types of character).

Without getting into spoilers, I can say that The Force Awakens presents a Star Wars universe which harks back to the tone of the original trilogy, gives ample space for mixed parties of Force-users and non-Force users, and is presently replete with opportunities for adventure. Whilst obviously only Fantasy Flight are really in a position to publish official source material for the Force Awakens era, I think D6 Star Wars remains a perfectly viable system for gaming in either the time period of the original trilogy (for which official material is amply available) or the sequel trilogy (for which it should be reasonably easy to devixe your own material for.) You could even use it to run a game in the Old Republic, or run with the prequels if you really wanted to. Perhaps you could make a rule that Jar Jar always botches unless he rolls a 6 on the Wild Die or something.

12 thoughts on “A Long Time Ago, From a Publisher Far, Far In the Red…

  1. Interesting, while I agree with the wild die working well towards capturing the swings of the films I just find that the system fails to give a feel of the Star Wars universe, outside of combat which I agree can be exciting I just find myself being easily distracted (not by porn!) as I don’t really feel immersed in the game. Sorry.

    1. It’s a tricky one, because an awful lot of what’s distinctive about Star Wars comes from its rapid-fire pacing – it tosses action scenes and plot points at you so quickly that you barely have time to think about the plot holes – but it’s very hard to translate that into a tabletop RPG format, where pacing tends to be more varied. Between D20 and D6 I think D6 has a better chance of delivering that pacing, but it’s a tricky thing to pull off in practice.

      I don’t know what FFG’s Star Wars games are like but I’m slightly put off by the way they divide the line up into the Force-user game, the smuggler game and the rebel pilot game, when in most of the movies (the original trilogy plus [i]Force Awakens[/i]) mixed parties are not just viable, they’re actually the norm. On the one hand, balancing Force-users against people who don’t use the Force is a difficult task, but I don’t think the solution is to give up trying.

  2. While I agree that Force users are difficult to balance against non force users I think the presence of the Force has to be an integral part of the Star Wars experience.
    As the Real Thing once asked, ‘Can you feel the Force?’, sadly for me the answer in a lot of Star Wars games is erm, not really.

    1. One of the things which makes me hesitant about FFG’s Star Wars RPGs is the way they saved the one revolving around Force user to last. Maybe it was a cynical marketing ploy to hold back one of the iconic, distinctive parts of the setting until people had already invested in two other game lines. Maybe they had really serious trouble actually making their Force system work, which doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.

      Either way, partitioning Force-user PCs off into their own RPG makes me think FFG didn’t even bother to try balancing them against other PCs – PCs in the various 40K RPGs aren’t balanced against each other and FFG seemed determined to follow the same publication model.

      1. But as you say, those are two very different kettles of fish. The 40K literature, and universe, features groups of protagonists working at very different scales, as well as in different environments. At the lowest level the humble guardsman just tries to get by in endless war. Rogue Traders and Inquisitors operate with far more freedom, deal with a much broader range of environments, and try to cope with system-level threats using potent but still human resources. Space Marines have a narrow military and special ops focus again, but deal with threats that would slaughter the rest in moments.

        It makes sense that an average soldier, a superhuman special ops expert, a piratical trade emperor and a secret agent need different games, not just so that each can shine, but because they have very different objectives and purposes.

        Star Wars just doesn’t have that sort of segregation going on. It’s all about that ragtag bunch of whatevers. Unless one game is about AT-AT pilots and another is about politicians, it just doesn’t feel right to try and split them up this way.

      2. Yeah, I’m something like 99% sure that the motivation has more to do with money and padding out the game lines than anything else.

        To be fair, I suspect that was also the case when Black Industries originally cooked up this publication model for the 40K RPGs. But as you say, it actually makes miles more sense in a 40K context, and if they just did one big generic “Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay” RPG then in practical terms to run a campaign that made any sense you’d need to restrict it to one concept or the other anyway.

        Though that said, Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader actually provide a decent platform for low-power and high-power mixed parties respectively, since the bodies they deal with are already canonically dealing with rag-tag misfit bands anyway. It makes sense to partition Deathwatch because in the fluff Space Marines are meant to be a) on a whole other level from mainline humans and b) primarily working with other Space Marines 99.99999% of the time. Only War it made sense to have separately if you want to run a game about army guys actually being in an army. (If you want them to be detached from the army Dark Heresy/Rogue Trader already has you covered.) Black Crusade is explicitly about rag-tag bands of misfits because hey, Chaos.

        So there’s an extent to which it feels like the partitioning in the Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPGs is actually stronger than those in the 40K RPGs, even as in terms of fluff and the sort of stories told in the respective universes that’s the opposite direction to the way you wanna go.

        Then again, I can’t really blame FFG for wanting to squeeze as much money out of their Star Wars licence as they can. Licensed RPGs are a double-edged sword – WEG was so dependent on them that, even though they were already in choppy waters financially when it happened, losing the Star Wars licence really was the death blow for them because it killed off one of their primary sources of income. That being the case, it seems sensible to get as much as you can out of a licence when you have it because you can’t count on holding onto it forever.

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