Defining a Galaxy: 30 Years In a Galaxy Far, Far Away is not, I should say at the beginning, a book which does for the Star Wars RPGs what Playing At the World or even Hawk & Moor did for Dungeons & Dragons. Playing At the World was very much an academically rigorous study, derived mostly from primary documentary sources where possible and putting strong caveats on anything based solely on anecdote. Hawk & Moor had somewhat less rigorous standards of evidence and was a bit more “popular history” than scholarly in its approach, but it made a point of taking into account as many different sources as possible, so whilst it did make more use of anecdote, it at least allows dissenting narratives some space of their own.
On the other hand, Defining a Galaxy presents a single individual’s perspective, and largely does so without providing supporting documentation. Taken with that pinch of salt, though, Defining a Galaxy still represents the most comprehensive one-stop look we’ve ever been given of the origins of the original D6 system-based Star Wars RPG, its impact on the franchise, and how the franchise and its licensed RPGs evolved after that.
This is because the perspective we get is that of the memoir’s author, Bill Slavicsek. On the RPG side of the equation, Slavicsek was one of the writers on the original Star Wars Sourcebook, one of the two books which kicked off the RPG line (and, as the setting book, the one which needed to do the most in terms of fleshing out the Star Wars setting), and soon after that ended up in overall charge of the West End Games Star Wars product line up until his departure from WEG in the early 1990s. (And from the point after he left the game line he did a few bits of freelance work for the line in addition, and under his custodianship the general approach of the game line to how it would adapt material into sourcebooks and adventures largely took hold.)
Then after that, Slavicsek would end up working at TSR, not only surviving the buyout by Wizards of the Coast but in overall charge of the RPG side of things there, where he would be the lead designer on their D20 System-based Star Wars RPG and be overall custodian of the line right through his tenure there, until Wizards surrendered the licence. Thus, Slavicsek has played an absolutely crucial role in not just one but two of the different major incarnations of Star Wars in RPG form. (The third incarnation, managed by Fantasy Flight Games, uses yet a third system, but still uses ideas conceived in previous editions.)
In parallel to all this, Slavicsek’s extensive collaboration with the licensing department at Lucasfilm turned out not to be a necessary part of the job of managing the WEG and Wizards of the Coast lines, but also opened up further doors for him to contribute to Star Wars. Slavicsek would be in charge of producing the second and third editions of A Guide to the Star Wars Universe, which was the closest thing to a core “canon bible” that the franchise had during the Expanded Universe era. The work necessary to do this saw him work with his Lucasfilm counterparts to come up with a clear definition of canon for Star Wars, originating the distinction between “G-canon” (stuff in the original movies and mandates by George Lucas) and what was an Expanded Universe addition; as time went by this would lead to a much more complex hierarchy of canonical information.
Many will already know the basic story of how the original West End Games RPG took the Star Wars franchise at a time when it was considered tapped out and injected life back into it, creating not only the conditions needed for the Expanded Universe to become a publishing phenomenon of its own but also building on the canonical information and inventing a bunch of concepts that were not only widely used in Expanded Universe material but have made their way into canon and even survived the Disney Retcon. (The species name of the Twi’leks, for instance, was made up by Bill for the Star Wars Companion).
Still, Slavicsek’s book – written in a fairly conversational tone – is a useful embellishment of those details. It isn’t necessary as valuable as a more comprehensive history of the era taking into account more people’s recollections and diving deeper into documentary evidence would be – but at the same time, I’m sure anyone planning to produce such a thing would find this an invaluable source, not just for the facts discussed but also for laying out the names and roles of the various people who made the RPG a reality.
For fans of the RPG, there’s even a rather nice little bonus: towards the end, Slavicsek regales you with the tale of how he ended up running a one-off of the original West End Games Star Wars RPG at an Italian convention in 2017, some 30 years after it was originally published, and on looking at the rules he came up with some ways to make them play a bit smoother and faster (and we’re talking a system that’s already pretty smooth and fast here); he provides here the details on those tweaks, representing a sort of “30th anniversary patch” for the system incorporating a few decades of hindsight.
Don’t expect high literature here – this is pretty much Uncle Bill sitting you down and telling you a story – and keep in mind its nature as anecdote, but if you want an insight into a crucial moment in the development of the Expanded Universe or an appreciation of just how much of the D6 and D20 RPG material has made its way into the new era (in part because the Lucasfilm Story Group includes personnel who are still on good terms with Bill and who consider his Star Wars Sourcebook and similar work to provide a useful basis for the “physics” of Star Wars even if they change a lot of the story and character details), it’s certainly worth a look.