Star Wars has undoubtedly been on the brain lately, for both good and bad reasons. From “fans” behaving poorly to Disney cashing in however they can, you can’t turn around without running into something involving the franchise.
To be fair, for those of us around since the originals were in theaters, this isn’t anything new. Maybe we didn’t have social media through which to voice our opinions (or show the worst side of humanity), but Star Wars fans have always been an active group.
During (and after) the original trilogy, we had books, comics, and games to tide us over, plus the occasional special event. When the prequels came out, new fans became excited while old ones grew agitated, but new life was breathed into the franchise.
One of the fascinating aspects of Star Wars fandom is how you measure the different eras. Do you divide everything solely by the movie trilogies? Perhaps you prefer to see things by the stories in the books and comics in each period? Some even measure the high points of different times by the video and computer games available?
For me, I’ve found you can match the three eras of Star Wars with one hobby: role-playing games.
There have only been three licensed Star Wars tabletop RPGs, and I feel they each reflect the trilogy and fandom at the time. From the mechanics to the artwork, playing each one puts you in the mindset of that era.
Don’t believe me? Well, let’s flashback to the first RPG…
As far as anyone was concerned at the time, Star Wars had ended in 1983 with Return of the Jedi. Other than signing off on using his world, George Lucas was done with stories, lore, and universe building.
Then, in 1987, West End Games (WEG) became the first to acquire the license to a Star Wars RPG. As Lucas wasn’t creating anything new, and very little was written, WEG had free reign to mold the galaxy as they saw fit.
In fact, WEG’s Star Wars RPG was so well-written, it became the basis for much of the Expanded Universe. Lucasfilm even declared their work “canon,” to the point future writers had to base their work off the RPG’s literature.
So, how does the WEG RPG reflect the original trilogy? For one, it’s full of the imagination and mystery the original movies held.
When we watched the movies during the 70’s and 80’s, there was little explanation for anything from the Force to alien species. We just took things like Mandalorian armor, rancors, and force lightning for granted.
WEG Star Wars filled in some of that explanation and gave us exponentially more. By the time the RPG ended, they’d published almost 150 different sourcebooks and adventures, each adding more to the franchise.
The gameplay also reflects the feel of “cutting edge” 80’s RPGs – it attempts to break free of the stereotypical D&D game, but still echoes that style. Instead of classes, you chose templates, often reflecting archetypes found in the movies; characters have attributes and skills, and you roll dice (and add them together) to beat a target number.
Like the original movies, WEG’s RPG brought something new but was still mired in the ideas and tropes of the past.
WEG declared bankruptcy and was restructured in 1998, losing the license… a mere year before The Phantom Menace hit theaters.
In 2000, the lucrative franchise license was gobbled up by Wizards of the Coast (WotC), which had just been purchased by Hasbro. Both companies were riding high – WotC was responsible for Magic: the Gathering and had acquired Dungeons & Dragons a few years prior.
At the time, WotC had also been responsible for the “d20 boom”, thanks to their Open Gaming License (OGL). Now everybody could use D&D (3rd ed.) rules for their games or supplements, and the majority of RPG books often used that d20 system.
WotC themselves used their license to create a d20 version of Star Wars, including classes, hit points, and rolling 20-sided dice to beat target numbers. The “cutting edge” style of WEG’s system was basically watered down to “D&D in space.”
To be fair, this perfectly reflects Lucas direction with the prequels – make them palatable to the biggest audience, rather than focus on innovation. I don’t hate the prequels (like many), but those movies seemed to cater to audiences who liked CGI glitz with little substance.
The same seemed true of WotC’s run with the Star Wars RPG, which seemed more interested in marketing to D&D players than trying anything new. Most of the supplements only added stats to established lore from the movies, books, etc.
I also saw a parallel between Lucas’ arrogance and that of Hasbro/WotC. Both were riding high, believing themselves the “peak” of their chosen franchises; Lucas overwrote years of EU for his vision, and WotC thought d20 was the pinnacle of RPGs.
Both were in for a harsh lesson from reality. Fans were critical of the prequels, and even the Oscars snubbed their visual effects; in the meantime, even with an attempt at new edition, WotC’s d20 boom turned into a bust.
WotC did not renew their license with Lucasfilm, who instead began a new era of Star Wars games with Fantasy Flight Games (FFG). Ironically, FFG acquired the rights to produce games only a year before Lucasfilm was sold to Disney, but luckily their license has remained.
FFG was already producing the X-Wing Miniatures Game and Star Wars: The Card Game, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for them to move on into the RPG industry. They began with Edge of the Empire (EotE), a game that took the focus of Star Wars down to the local level.
The great thing about EotE was how it scaled back the universe from the epic scale of the prequels. No Jedi or Galactic War, FFG Star Wars was about scoundrels and mercenaries trying to survive during the Rise of the Empire.
Of course, they did add those things in two later games, but the reminder that Star Wars is more than lightsabers and X-Wings was much appreciated.
Although released several years before The Force Awakens, FFG’s approach was similar to the sequels. Gone were the flash and CGI, replaced with practical effects and classic tropes; Episode VII tried to appeal to original fans the same way FFG’s Star Wars did for WEG players.
Also, while WotC’s Star Wars was part of the attempt to make everything D&D, FFG incorporated more story-driven game mechanics. No more all-or-nothing successes d20 rolls or dull combat, FFG Star Wars had successes with consequences (or failures with benefits) plus a more cinematic flair to fights and starship battles.
Whether you love or hate the sequels (and side films), there’s something to be said for multiple approaches to storytelling, unlike the single vision and cliché of the prequels. When I play an FFG game, each situation or campaign is the same, often going in different directions.
In the words of crotchety Luke, “This is not going to go the way you think,” and that’s something I love about FFG’s system.
I’m not saying you can’t play any of the eras in each of the systems. I’d love to see a prequel game using WEG’s system, and FFG is actually designed for the original trilogy (even though it’s from the Disney era).
These RPGs, however, are products of their time, much like the movies on which they’re based. Some of that flavor carries over and can enhance the gameplay.
Can you determine what era of Star Wars someone prefers based on their RPG choice? Do these games really reflect the movies of their time?
I like to think so, and I think it’s a good gauge for figuring out what new players may want to play. “Trust in the force,” they say; that, or “something, something, something Dark Side.”
I guess it depends on your era of Star Wars RPG.