The Arcane Top 50 – Where Are They Now?

Arcane, a short-lived British tabletop gaming magazine from Future Publishing which ran from December 1995 to June 1997, is a name to conjure by for many gamers of around my age. I came to the hobby after White Dwarf had become a Games Workshop in-house advertising platform, and just as Dragon was on the verge of dropping its coverage of non-TSR RPGs altogether; that meant I got a brief taster of TSR having a broader scope of coverage, and missed out on the golden age of White Dwarf altogether.

With other RPG-focused gaming magazines available in the UK only available on a decidedly variable basis (whatever did happen to ol’ Valkyrie?), the arrival of Arcane was immensely welcome. Sure, even by this early stage the Internet was already becoming an incomparable source of both homebrewed material and cutting-edge RPG news, but much of that was in the form of Usenet and forum discussions of variable quality or ASCII text files. To get something which was informative, read well, and looked nice, print media was still just about where it was at.

Truth be told, taking a look back at Arcane in more recent years I’m less impressed than I was at the time. It took largely the same approach to its own subject matter (primarily RPGs, with some secondary consideration to CCGs – because they were so hot at the time they really couldn’t be ignored – and perhaps a light sniff of board game content) that Future’s videogame magazines took to theirs, particularly the lighter-hearted PC Gamer/Amiga Power side of things rather than the likes of, say, Edge. That meant it focused more on brief news snippets, reviews, and fairly entry-level articles on subjects than it did on offering much in the way of in-depth treatment of matters.

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Slavicsek’s Star Wars Saga

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 & DragonsPlaying 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.

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The Other Half of the Galaxy

It’s now pretty well known that West End Games’ take on Star Wars became a major seed of what became the Expanded Universe. Whilst additional stories of questionable canonicity have always been part of the franchise – Alan Dean Foster did Splinter of the Mind’s Eye back when the original trilogy was coming out, based on the story George Lucas had mapped out for the second movie in case the studios wouldn’t give him the budget for Empire Strikes Back – but it’s fair to say that the whole Expanded Universe thing didn’t kick into high gear until Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, and it’s well known how when he was writing that Lucasfilm gave him a fat stack of West End supplements to use as background reference material. Although much of the Expanded Universe has been declared non-canon by Disney (though they still acknowledge its existence under the Star Wars Legends label), extensive details of the West End line remain having crept into canon via the later films and other materials that didn’t get made into unhistory.

One reason that the West End line has been so influential is because of the sheer mass of material produced for it. As well as providing sourcebooks based on obvious subjects like the Rebellion and the Empire, it also did supplements based on specific releases, so not only did you have supplements focused on each of the original trilogy but you also had a phenomenon where each new Expanded Universe hit ended up getting its own West End sourcebook building on what it did, and since that Expanded Universe stuff was building on things West End had done you ended up with a feedback loop going where West End were constantly churning out ideas. (This was exacerbated in their late-life shovelware period, where they cranked out Star Wars stuff at a wild pace because it was a licence to print money for them and the main thing making their business viable.)

Just as West End was the wellspring of the Expanded Universe, The Star Wars Sourcebook is the seed of that approach. The actual 1st edition Star Wars RPG rulebook didn’t actually​ include an awful lot in the way of setting information, and to be honest it didn’t necessarily need to – if there’s one franchise out there where you can reasonably be sure most people have a passing familiarity with the setting, it’s Star Wars. The Sourcebook was published alongside the core rules and was mainly authored by Bill Slavicsek, the line editor for the Star Wars RPG, and you can sort of see it as the other half of the originally intended core line. (Remember, the supplement churn didn’t go into high gear until the RPG started selling in a big way.)

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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.

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