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Thorsteinn Mar

Thorsteinn Mar

Mar 4, 2024  ·  16 min read

The History of Star Wars Roleplaying Games

History

Star Wars

In 1987, West End Games published the first Star Wars RPG. In the three decades since then, different publishers have tried creating a system to bring this great space fantasy to life.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

Few fantasies (yes, Star Wars is a fantasy - Space fantasy!) have a fanbase as loyal and strong as Star Wars. Millions watch the movies every year, and over 100 novels set in the Star Wars universe have been published, some penned by brilliant writers like Timothy Zahn and Chuck Wendig.

The first Star Wars RPG was published in 1987, four years after the release of Return of the Jedi. At that point, there were no plans to produce more films, and the three films dictated the setting. Since then, Lucasfilm and Lucasarts produced not only the prequel (though some hardcore Star Wars fans refuse to admit their existence), introducing probably the most hated character in the history of movies, but also many great computer and video games (X-wing vs. Tie-Fighter anyone!?!). After Disney acquired the IP, five more movies were produced, along with many popular TV shows and cartoons.

The license to publish a Star Wars RPG has been in the hands of four different game developers over the years: West End Games, Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Flight Games, and now Edge Studios. Each of these, save for Edge Studios, has introduced its own roleplaying system to Star Wars and produced modules and sourcebooks, some of which have been quite good.

West End Games

West End Games (or WEG) was the first publisher to introduce a Star Wars RPG. The system used was a d6 system based on the Ghostbuster RPG, which WEG had published earlier. WEG put a lot of effort and work into the setting, and Lucasfilm was so impressed that when Timothy Zahn wrote the Thrawn trilogy, he was sent a box with source materials from the roleplaying game and told to base his story on that material (oh, man, did I love my Dark Force rising sourcebook!). WEG published about 140 sourcebooks and modules for their Star Wars RPG, which was twice revised, and many of these have become classics.

The Ghostbusters RPS was initially designed by none other than Sandy Petersen, Lynn Willis, and Greg Stafford, the very same people who designed Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest. Greg Costikyan used that system as a base for the West End Games version of Star Wars, a roleplaying game that became very popular.

The system was relatively simple. It used 6 attributes (Dexterity, Strength, Perception, Knowledge, Mechanical, and Technical) and many skills, which were linked to each of these attributes, e.g., the Blaster skill was linked to Dexterity. Every attribute had a number assigned to it, which represented how many dice you'd roll for that attribute; for example, you could have 4D in Dexterity.

Character actions were resolved by making dice rolls against a difficulty number, and there were two types of rolls: standard DC rolls and opposed rolls. Jedi powers had their own subsystem and could be quite powerful.

The WEG system was both fun and challenging. The modules promoted, for most parts, roleplaying and problem solving, though, of course, they contained a fair share of blaster fights, dealing with the ordinary scum and villainy, and searching for droids some guy on a moisture farm misplaced. The modules and sourcebooks focused on retaining as much of the spirit of Star Wars as possible, and what's even better is that many of the modules didn't involve large-scale threatening events but were more modest in their approach to Star Wars.

Since WEG published many great modules, it's hard to pick one, but since I've both played and gm'ed Tatooine Manhunt, and it's always been great, that is the one that I always recommend to fellow Star Wars fans. It has everything a good Star Wars module needs: investigations, Rebel heroes, evil bounty hunters, and the Empire on the PC's heels. I think that module is pretty much the epitome of how I see Star Wars modules.

Wizards of the Coast

Written by Bill Slavicsek, Andy Colling, and JD Walker, the Star Wars Roleplaying Game was published by Wizards of the Coast in late 2000 and revised in 2002. It used the d20 roleplaying system and had pretty much the same generic system as D&D, of course, with some modifications, such as the Wounds and Vitality mechanics and a few added skills such as Astrogate, Pilot, and Treat Injury. In 2007, the game was revised and reproduced using the Saga system, which was somewhere a little south of 4th edition D&D, using classes and character talent trees along with a more streamlined skill system.

Both editions used the same ability system as D&D, and checks were performed in the same way. The first two versions of the game used a Wounds & Vitality system instead of hit points, though, in the Saga system, good old HPs were back in the game along with a condition-tracking mechanism. The Saga system also introduced Destiny points, which had a great beneficial effect on the PCs.

Of the two editions, I always found the Saga system had more lure to it. For a hardcore D&D player, it was easy to learn, and the rules were more streamlined than in D&D 3.5. The game was also quick and cinematic, especially the Saga system, which didn't allow multiple attacks in a round unless your character had special feats, making sure that combat was fast and often brutal due to the condition track.

There were many sourcebooks published for all editions, many of which were fine, though I have to admit I often found the content lacking the touch the West End Games sourcebook had. I think that when WoTC wasn't trying to follow other designers' transcripts, they produced their best books, e.g., The Unknown Regions.

There weren't many modules published for WoTC's Star Wars, but the company did produce one line of modules that linked to a campaign called Dawn of Defiance. There are a few modules in it that are good, and I think that the best one is the first one, Traitor's Gambit.

Fantasy Flight Games

In 2012, Fantasy Flight Games got the license to publish Star Wars material. They produced a three-fold roleplaying game, a board game, a trading card game, and a strategic miniature game. It seems to me that FFG figured out that to some people, Star Wars is almost sacred, and some of those people will buy anything with the Star Wars logo on it (I'm not one of those people, oh, no, I'm not. Whoever told you that is rebel scum and a traitor and should be taken away!).

FFG's Star Wars roleplaying game was in line with FFG's other games. It used a special set of dice with different symbols called narrative dice, and players and game masters, after building a dice pool, interpreted the signs of the dice once cast. Characters have 6 different attributes and can have many skills. There are many different species and careers, each of which has its own talent tree.

There are three different versions of the game, each with its own flavor. Edge of the Empire was published first, and in it, you take on the role of Han Solo's ilk, i.e., the scoundrels, smugglers, and explorers. The game revolves around exploration and common skulduggery, dealing with crime lords and Hutts, and avoiding imperial entanglements. In Age of Rebellion, you take on the role of rebel fighters, eager to fight the evil Galactic Empire and thwart their plans of galactic dominance. And finally, in Force and Destiny, you play as a Jedi, bent on using the force to solve your problems.

Each of these games has pretty much the same ruleset, with some minor modifications, e.g., in EotE, you have Obligation, while in AoR, you have Duty, and in FnD, you have Morality, which are subsystems to monitor and govern your character's ties and feelings towards events, things, and actions. Just like the Saga System, FFG's Star Wars roleplaying game uses Destiny points, though they have slightly more value in FFG's game.

What makes this roleplaying game great is the interpretation of the novelty dice. It offers not only the game master a chance to make each encounter more fun and more memorable but also the players to pitch in and become cooperative in the creation, simply not only governing their own character but also having a chance at dictating how things go.

I've used this system a lot to play with my teenage son and his friends, and they love it. They quickly learned how to interpret the dice and use Destiny Points to make the game even more fun. They constantly add their own ideas to how they'd like the dice interpreted, and it's awesome. It really opens up the game, making the narrative more of a collective effort.

When I played the game first with this group of teenagers, I introduced the dice and taught them how to read the different symbols and interpret them for the game. Then we went off to Coruscant, where the player characters had to deal with a shady politician in league with the Black Sun Syndicate. At one point in the narrative, the player characters are chasing a Black Sun operative through the hallways of a skyscraper. The villain reached an airspeeder docking bay in the building and jumped into one of the airspeeders docked there. He threw a grenade into the docking bay as he swooshed away, destroying all the other airspeeders and ensuring his escape. Or so he thought. The players all looked dismal and annoyed that the villain got away, as the player characters discovered that they had no means of following the evil operative. Then the face of one of the players lit up, and he called out: “Hey, guys, can’t we spend a Destiny Point? What if not all the airspeeders were destroyed?” This was such a good use of a Destiny Point I went along with.

This is one of the things that makes this edition of Star Wars one of the best there is, in my opinion. The freedom and agency the players have to affect the narrative and make it their own is wonderful and makes each story set in the system, whether published or homebrewed, unique and fun.

I must admit, I haven't read all the modules from FFG, but of those I have read and played, I think that the Jewel of Yavin is a top-notch module. In a way, it reminds me of Tatooine Manhunt; it has investigations, a number of roleplaying encounters, and a few encounters where you need to bring out your sporting blasters and vibro-daggers. It's simply a great module, which I think every Star Wars RPG fan would enjoy playing.

Edge Studios

In late 2020, Fantasy Flight Games announced that they would no longer support their Star Wars Roleplaying game. Parent company Asmodee moved the license to the Star Wars Roleplaying game to Edge Studios, which was another subsidiary of Asmodee.

Edge Studios only reprinted the core books published by Fantasy Flight Games for a while, but in late 2022, the first new books were published by Edge Studios, and in late 2023, the starter sets for all games were reprinted along with the novelty dice, which had been unavailable for some time. Hopefully, this is only an indication of what is to come from Edge Studios since this version of Star Wars roleplaying is a great one.

The unlicensed 5E version

For those who absolutely must use 5E for every roleplaying game they play, I was told by a rogue IG-88 droid that by going online and using a holodeck, one can find a suitable 5E version of Star Wars. I have tried it out, and it is easy to run and fun to play.

Of course, despite being quite professional and obviously made by people who love Star Wars and 5E, it is not a licensed version, so you won’t find any copyright-protected content, such as the Star Wars logo and so on.

The problem with Star Wars roleplaying games

There's one problem with Star Wars roleplaying games, a problem that each and every one of these games has failed to solve in a suitable manner. That problem is fighting in space!

Whether you choose YT-1300 freighters, slick B-wings, or even Calamari Cruisers, when you're fighting in space, none of these roleplaying games manage to capture the feel of the films, especially when dogfighting.

Of course, you could always, if you're using the latest version of Star Wars, simply use models from the X-wing miniature game, and modify the rules a bit, but still... Since blasting your way out of spaceports, attacking Star Destroyers head-on, and navigating your way, no matter the odds (never tell me the odds!), through an asteroid field with a squadron of Tie-fighters hot on your tail is such an integral part of Star Wars, I've always felt this part a bit lacking.

It seems to me that the rules for space fighting often seem either too complicated and slow the game down or too elaborate, with too many possibilities for players to choose from. Perhaps this is just me, but I've often felt after running an encounter that involved space fighting that it was lacking and wasn't quite what I had imagined or in mind, and often leaves players making the same skill checks over and over again, even sometimes leaving out a player or two.

Therefore, when I run Star Wars games, I always try to keep space fighting to the minimum, but when I run them, I ensure that they do not take more than 3 or 4 rounds and that every player has something to do.

Perhaps the only version that does this adequately is the unofficial 5E version, where each spaceship has the same stat block as a monster and abides by the same action economy.

Return of the first Star Wars RPG

FFG, shortly prior to stopping publishing Star Wars roleplaying games, re-published the first two Star Wars Roleplaying Game books published by West End Game. I thought that was awesome. I still have mine, and sometimes I go through them, feeling nostalgic and missing those nights I spent in a small windowless room with five other 16-year-old boys, fighting the evil Empire to restore the Old Republic.

Well, those days are gone. Now I can play in my own living room, with plenty of open windows (I've since then learned that 16-year-old boys tend to smell bad after a few hours in a small, windowless room), fighting to earn more credits to pay off the damn bounty hunter in that Mandalorian armor who keeps showing up, saying that I'm no good to her dead and I better do the dishes before the guys arrive... no, wait, that's my wife!