I first became exposed to Star Wars roleplaying games with Wizards of the Coast’s d20 system. I collected many of those sourcebooks and intermittently played with friends. I dabbled with Fantasy Flight’s newer, narrative-focused system, as well. But the original West End Games version had preceded me; I was born about a year after the publication of the first edition. Yet it held an important place in Star Wars history, keeping interest in the franchise alive at a low point and helping feed the re-ignition of popularity in the early nineties, so I’ve long been aware of it, though never involved with it or truly knowledgeable about its systems.
When Fantasy Flight announced a special anniversary edition over a year ago, I was pretty excited to get the chance to explore this game system. While the release was delayed, that delay was well worth it; this is a worthy addition to the various sourcebooks and systems on my shelf.
There are two books included in this anniversary set: a rulebook and a sourcebook.
The rulebook offers a fairly simple game system oriented around six-sided dice. I imagine that this helped its popularity in the late eighties and early nineties: not only was it more Star Wars to play around in, but it was incredibly easy to throw together the materials to play! Creating player characters (or, for the GM, NPCs and monsters) seems quite simple, with a quick distribution of abilities and a focus more on skills. Plus, any new player could simply grab one of the templates from the back and start with an archetype that allowed for room to role-play while requiring only a few minutes to prepare for the game.
Some of the modifiers and more advanced rules, as usual, got a bit math-heavy and convoluted, but the most complex of those rules were condensed into compact tables across a few pages at the end of the book. And more importantly, the rulebook consistently advised a focus on fun, cinematic, creative, narrative play that prioritized player experience over strict adherence to rules. A GM with a healthy knowledge of the rules and willingness to let things slide as needed, focusing more on working with players to craft a fun collaborative experience, could thrive with this system.
It was funny, then, to see the advertisements in these new editions promoting Fantasy Flight Star Wars game systems. Their narrative RPG is fun, but the need for custom dice plus the necessary learning of the various dice symbols and how they interact seems to actually result in a more exclusionary, rules-heavy environment than that offered by the WEG game, even if less numbers are strictly involved.
The sourcebook was the volume that I enjoyed the most. Even though I knew it influenced a lot of the tone, lore, and language of the EU, I was still surprised and impressed to see how much was still relevant. Even with the new canon, the sourcebook only seldom was directly contradicted. It wisely limited itself to extrapolations from the movies, so even the most specific Clone Wars references can for the most part be easily integrated into the current canon. In contrast, most character descriptions are now outdated and at least somewhat contradicted, and I actually preferred most of the new versions over the old; of all characters, Boba Fett’s remained one of the most accurate still, given the mysteriousness of the character at the time and the lack of hard answers.
Other unique lore elements I actually preferred: droids (or at least the more advanced droids) are definitely treated as sentients who are cruelly held in bondage, and the Force is a mystic religion that allows access to its secrets to just about anyone willing to train diligently under a Jedi Master (downplaying bloodlines and the like, though still keeping Jedi abilities quite limited because it is very clear that the universe intended here has virtually no Jedi left to learn from). Interestingly, the EU and the prequels moved away from some of these ideas, but the newest properties are coming back around to some of these interpretations.
There were very few lore elements in this early version of Star Wars that I actually disliked. The primary element that I found unpleasant: this version of Star Wars is very anthropocentric, and there’s almost as much of a divide between all of humanity in contrast to Aliens as there is between Rebellion and Empire. In a large galaxy, of course there are unaffiliated, unknown, and lost societies out there, and I wouldn’t want that removed from Star Wars. But the newer canon has integrated aliens into a much more diverse version of the galaxy–heck, the prequel trilogy really started that shift. I wouldn’t want to go back to a view where aliens were always so other, where the various non-human races were lumped together simply by being non-human, classified broadly with a capital-A Alien designation. (This version also leans hard into the roleplaying tradition of assigning fairly rigid personality and cultural traits by race.)
In a similar vein, I prefer the newer, more nuanced approach to the Mon Calamari and the Quarren. Their involvement in larger galactic society, rather than being newcomers, makes them less “Exotic.” Still, it’s impossible not to recognize how much has been carried over from the WEG sourcebook. The Mon Cal and the Quarren still shared a homeworld, and the Quarren still felt jealous of the Mon Cal. The Quarren joining with the Separatists, and later realigning with the Mon Calamari, and the Mon Calamari’s oppression under the Empire and early support of the Rebellion, are clearly drawn from elements of their original story. In all things, later Star Wars owes a significant debt to this early attempt at a Star Wars RPG–not to mention that so much of the weird nineties Star Wars short fiction that I love so much emerged out of communities oriented around the game.
Finally, I must point out the charm of the use of movie stills and a wealth of concept artwork to illustrate the various races, equipment, vehicles, and concepts described within.
The original WEG game holds up to the test of time. And this beautiful anniversary edition, with hardcover core rulebook and sourcebook contained in a slim black casing with beautiful cover art, is an excellent version to introduce oneself to it.
I sure hope that I have the opportunity to play soon. David Schwarz’s recent advice on Eleven-ThirtyEight for leading your own RPG campaign certainly got me thinking about the possibilities just as I was reading through these WEG books. Plus, I’d already accumulated some fun WEG companion books from past convention sellers, providing additional lore and examples of NPC stats to me well before I’d even read the core books…
I don’t know if I’ll have the time, or even an interested group of friends who would have the same time available, but we’ll see.