Mention Star Wars and Ghostbusters in the same sentence, and most people will assume that you are indulging in some geek-culture comparison. Both were enormously successful films, both have rabidly devoted fan bases, and both spawned a host of franchise off-shots like action figures, cartoon series and fiction. Amongst those spin-offs were role-playing games.
Given that we’re a podcast devoted to RPG history, you’d be on the right track assuming that this would be what we’re talking about.
It would probably surprise most folks to learn that Ghostbusters got an RPG before Star Wars. Viewed through a modern lens, this seems somewhat off. After all, fun as Ghostbusters is, isn’t the Star Wars franchise worth something like $70 billion? Aren’t they continually churning out movie blockbusters and critically acclaimed TV shows? You don’t get bought by Disney unless you’re a rock solid money maker, right?
True, but back in 1986 – the year that the Ghostbusters’ RPG was released – Ghostbusters had recently grossed just shy of $300 million at the box office. There was talk of a new film, a cartoon was just about to be released, a video game based on the film had proven to be a surprise hit, Marvel were publishing Ghostbusters comics, and there was a line of action figures in development. Hell, they even had their own breakfast cereal!
By contrast, Star Wars was old news. There were a couple of – fairly terrible – cartoons still limping along, two made for TV movies had just ended, and Marvel were looking to drop their comic book lines. While the merchandising was reputed to be worth around $2 billion, interest in it was starting to tail off. Also, the movies had “only” grossed around $30 million. Simply put. People were losing interest in the galaxy far, far away, and were much more drawn to the catch phrase “Who ya gonna call?”
It therefore seemed logical that the team behind Call of Cthulhu – the world’s most successful horror roleplaying game – would team up with West End Games – publishers of Paranoia, one of the funniest RPGs out there – to produce, under license from Columbia pictures, the Ghostbusters RPG.
What has this got to do with Star Wars, other than to show how quickly the public lose interest in established franchises? Well, firstly, the system that was developed for Ghostbusters – what became known as the D6 system – became the backbone of the Star Wars RPG. Secondly, it meant that when West End games picked up the license for what is now a multi-billion dollar franchise they did so for a song.
It also meant that when they sat down and started creating material for their new RPG, they did so in a complete vacuum.
You see, by 1987 – the year that West End games got their license for Star Wars and also the 10th anniversary of the release of the first flim – there was literally nothing new being created for fans of the franchise. The last new material that hopeful Star Wars fans had got were a series of “Droids” comics published in 1986 to tie in with the cartoon series. Other than that – nothing.
Therefore, West End games were in the fortunate position of having an audience hungry for new content and a carte blanche to go forth and create.
And man, did they take that mandate and run with it!
In the first three years after the game was launched the went ahead and released over 20 supplements! The supplements that were released varied in quality, but the most important thing for Star Wars fans were that not only did they now have a place where they could have epic adventures in the Star Wars universe, they now saw the universe that they have loved seeing on cinema screens being EXPANDED before their very eyes. Early adventures dealt with familiar territory like the desert world of Tatooine, but very quickly West End started giving names to characters and species that previously had only been known by fan nicknames or side notes in the scripts.
That strange looking alien that you glimpsed for a few seconds in the cantina? Now fans knew he belonged to a species called the “Ithorians”. They also found out much about the planet Ithor (fourth planet in the Ottega star system if you’re interested), the Ithorian culture, they fact that they had ecological priests serving the “mother jungle” and the fact that Ithorians actually had two mouths which let them speak in stereo. This was much better detail than “Uh…yeah…he’s the guy that had that figure released called ‘Hammerhead’…”
The very first supplement – the Star Wars sourcebook – included ten such entries for alien species along with chapters on starships, droids, vehicles, creatures, equipment, Stormtroopers, bases and a host of heroes and villains. Sure, there were several things that George Lucas had specified as being off-limits and sacrosanct (basically everything that would end up in the prequels) but everything else? All of that was up for grabs for the creative minds at West End games.
They were so prolific, that when Timothy Zahn was given a commission to write the “Thrawn Trilogy” he was sent a bumper bundle of West End goodies and told that this was the universe in which he should base his new novels! Even nowadays, following the Disney take over of Star Wars and their decree that the only things that were canon were the movies and anything produced by Disney following their acquisition of the franchise, a lot of the terms established by West End games remain in use.
So, background aside, how did this game play? After all, there have been many games out there with rich and wonderful backgrounds, but which ultimately are undone by fairly lacklustre systems. Well, as was mentioned earlier, the system used for Star Wars was based off the one that was previously developed for Ghostbusters. As can be imagined, one thing that was at the forefront of the designers’ minds when creating a ruleset for a game based off the madcap Ghostbusters’ movie was that it had to be fast, easy to follow, and which cover pretty much any eventuality. After all, this was a world that played fast and easy with the rules of physics (and paraphysics!) so it was important that the GM should be able to make rulings on the fly for whatever nonsense that the players wanted to get up to. When you considered that at this period in time a lot of RPGs were becoming more and more complex (take a look at Rolemaster and AD&D stuff that was out then!) Ghostbusters’ rules merrily backflipped in the opposite direction. A game where characters only had four stats? What was this – a Fighting Fantasy book?
When Star Wars was being developed, it took this system, tweaked it slightly and ran with it. Within a few paragraphs of its opening, the rulebook acknowledges that what the GM should be doing is creating an ADVENTURE for the players – which is to say a story with an interesting plot. This doesn’t see the GM creating some kind of space dungeon which he populates with loot and Star Wars themed monsters to be tackled. Instead, the GM’s role is likened to that of a film director. They are encouraged to think of “scenes” and cut between them to keep the action moving.
The rules are very much based around this free-flowing, fast-moving pace. Characters have dice pools of abilities and when they want to do something the GM assigns a difficulty number. Then, based on how close they are to the number, the GM narrates the results. That’s it – simple. Sure, there can be more nuance to it, but in a nutshell the rules really are that simple. In fact, the players section of the rulebook doesn’t even reach ten pages!
Players are encouraged to picked a character “template” which they can customise. These templates are simple Star Wars stereotypes, and I’ve had arguments with other roleplayers who have suggested that these are cop-outs. However, how is a template any different from a D&D class? If you take a look at Youtube you can find all manner of videos explaining how to “optimise your class build” for D&D 5th edition – so I’m not sure I can see any difference between that and what West End Games were doing almost a quarter of century before.
In fact, the beauty of these templates were two fold – firstly it allowed players to very quickly get their characters up and running. You’re a bounty hunter? Cool – stick a few points in your various weapon skills and you’re ready to go. You’re the pilot? Well, I guess you’re going to need to know how to fly and fix an X-Wing. The senator? You’re party’s face so load up on those interpersonal skills. However, it was the second function of these templates that was so cool – they helped people get into character almost straight away. Everyone’s seen Star Wars. Nobody needs to be told how to behave as a bolshy young senator, or a jedi or as a Wookie. Sure, you can absolutely put your own spin on things, but if you just want to get up and running it’s pretty easy to say “I’ll play a smuggler” and start calling people “kid” and mumbling things like “Never tell me the odds” when things get hairy. In fact, I’m pretty sure that when I used to play, there was at least one player who said “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” in every session…
The Gamesmaster’s chapters are longer than the players’ – but a lot of that is taken up with examples of just how to go about setting the difficulty numbers for various activities (the result of which means I now know just how tricky it is to hit the thermal exhaust port on the Death Star – good job Luke!). The combat chapter makes it quite clear that this is NOT a tactical wargame, and it’s very much designed with the fast moving spirit of the movies in mind. Everything is largely abstract and players are encouraged to act in as heroic a manner as possible, rather than just saying “I plug another Storm Trooper”.
Chapters follow on various key aspects of the Star Wars universe like droids, ships and the force, but the real difference comes when the rulebook starts exploring how to write an adventure.
Now bear in mind, up until this point – with a few notable exceptions – most thought in RPGs around designing adventures revolved around “What challenges are in the party’s path, where do they show up, and what reward exists for defeating them?” A lot of gaming modules followed the linear path of “Going to location X, overcoming obstacle Y, getting access to location Z and repeating until successful”. Star Wars flipped that on its head. The focus here was story, and when they mentioned earlier that the GM should think of himself as a director they weren’t kidding.
Sure, the templates helped the players get into character, but something that Star Wars official supplements included, and which the adventure chapter suggested that all GMs incorporate into their own adventures was scripts. Actual “character 1 says this, then character 2 says this” type scripts.
I can imagine a lot of modern roleplayers being utterly horrified about this, but these scripts were always fun and – more importantly – served a few valuable purposes.
Firstly, they very much made it clear to the players “You’re the cast of a movie”. Sounds like a small thing, but when you’re told “You’re the A-listers in this film” it encourages you to act in a second way.
Secondly, they did a wonderful job of imparting pretty good information. Rather than “You all meet up in the cantina and decide to go on an adventure” these scripts very firmly made it clear to the players why they were together and what they were meant to be doing.
Finally, they set the mood for what was to come, and plunged the players straight into the action. All the Star Wars published adventures I’ve played in did exactly the same thing – they took a leaf out of the movies’ books and plunged the players straight into the action In Media Res. Much like Episode IV begins with Princess Leia being pursued by Darth Vadar, rather than dealing with the minutiae of the theft of the Death Star plans, the adventure modules produced by West End games rarely start with the players in a briefing room getting orders from some general. “Black Ice” begins with them infiltrating an Imperial Research Facility. “Tatooine Manhunt” sees them waiting to make contact with a spy who has some information the Alliance desperately needs. “Scavenger Hunt” has them pursuing an Imperial transport through space. My personal favourite – “Starfall” – sees them confined in the brig of an Imperial Star Destroyer, heading towards a date with an interrogation droid.
Aside from being extremely atmospheric, the “In Media Res” approach was simply more exciting for players. I remember players looking forward to the start of new adventures, as they always knew that they would open with a bang! Plus, Star Wars was the one of those games where you didn’t have to sit through long, drawn out background sessions. Anyone who wanted to play would have seen the movies – hell, even if they hadn’t they’d KNOW of them – and rather than having to start with a recap on what the political situation was in the galaxy at any given moment, you just dropped the players in, gave them the equivalent of the opening crawl, had them read the script and they were off. They knew what they had to do, they knew they were the heroes and they got on with it.
I have compared this to the one time I tried to run the Nephilim RPG – a very detailed and background rich occult roleplaying game – and I quickly discovered that I was boring myself as I trudged my way through the background and saw the exhausted looks in my prospective players’ eyes…
Another device popular in the Star Wars RPG is the concept of “cuts”. Often, in published adventures – usually at the end of a chapter – you’d find stage directions. Consider this from Starfall. The players have just been through some fairly high action scenes and are having a rest. The NPC accompanying them assures them that he has found an easier route through the Star Destroyer (which is currently under attack from a Rebel fleet).
CUT AWAY TO KOLAFF
INTERIOR: SUBJIGATOR BRIDGE. Framed against a sea of stars, Captain Kolaff peers anxiously out the giant viewport. At his right, the female Imperial official scowls impatiently.
“They’re coming” the captain says, “I can feel them drawing closer.”
There then follows some dialogue which makes it clear that the Imperials no longer believe the Rebels to be dead and that they are searching to bring them back into custody. Plus, it also hints at some kind of diabolical plan being concocted by the Captain. Would the players know this in character? Absolutely not? Does it add to the game? 100%. Their faces when some kind of plot twist is revealed is often reward enough, but these cuts help to reinforce the cinematic feel of the adventure.
One of my favourite moments like this occurred during a homebrew adventure I ran once. The rebels were on a mission to steal a protype star fighter, and had put themselves into a fairly favourable position, and were contemplating their next move which was to get onto the hanger floor and get access to the ship. We then cut away to an Imperial Shuttle landing at the base, the ramp crashing down and a tall, black cloaked figure descending. The station’s governor bowed before it and said “Lord Vadar. We are honoured by your presence.” before it cut back to the players.
Now, I knew that Vadar had next to nothing to do with the adventure – they were never going to encounter him – but now they; the players; had the knowledge that he was on the station. For the next few encounters they were jumpy as hell, and acted as if they were in a race against time. They no longer wanted to be on that station – they wanted to complete their mission and get out of there!
Of course, once they completed and blaster their way out of the station and jumped into hyperspace, I couldn’t resist having another cut…
CUT TO VADAR
INTERIOR: STAR DESTROYER BRIDGE. Two enlisted imperial troopers drag a body out of Vadar’s shadow.
“Apology accepted, Governor” the dark lord says before turning to look at the field of stars outside of the view port, in the direction the Rebels fled. He reaches down with a gloved hand and presses a button. A hologram of an Imperial officer, who is nervously straightening his jacket, appears on screen.
Vadar stares at it for a second before intoning “Commander, find out whatever you can about those Rebel saboteurs, and have the information beamed directly to my Star Destroyer.”
FADE TO BLACK
I’m pretty sure Vadar never showed up again, but they were continually looking over their shoulders for bounty hunters and assassins after that…
There was a lot of great advice in the adventure chapter – ranging from “what is Space Opera?” to pacing, to why heroes should be “script immune” (which is to say they have their reckoning at the climax of the story) and how to maintain an atmosphere. My personal favourite is when and how to introduce a “I have a bad feeling about this…” moment which is very Star Wars.
A lot of this advice seems commonplace now, but remember when this was written. Back then, a lot of sourcebooks were more interested in cramming in monsters, treasure and spells than advice on how to run a good story.
The original Star Wars RPG did a lot of things right but, like all roleplaying games, there were always people who wanted more. A new edition came out in 1992, and it did a great job of adding some new setting elements. One things that West End Games did was take the concept of the New Republic from the post Return of the Jedi timeline and develop it. Second edition would see a lot new Republic material released which gave fans a whole different (but familiar!) setting to play with.
Unfortunately – at least to my mind – this new edition added in more complication than existed in the original. It still wasn’t quite in the league of AD&D rules bloat, but it wasn’t as fast moving and free flowing as before. As an example, whilst the original edition gave the players nine pages to read and then they were good to go, the new edition “kind of” explains this before launching into how to create a more advanced character and providing various lists of skills. It also made the Force MUCH more complicated and turned chases – which had previously been a fast-moving exercise in abstraction and very much in keeping with the Star Wars theme – into a much more tactical battle….
It was still a fun game – but it felt, at least to those of us who had played the original, that it had put on a few pounds since 1987…
A revised an expanded second edition was released four years later in 1996 which sought to address some of the issues from second edition. It also included an extremely comprehensive background section that was a treasure trove for ideas for aspiring GMs, but sadly it came too late. West End Games were facing financials problems, and the last supplement for Star Wars – Classic Adventures: volume 5 – was released in 1998 before the license to produce Star Wars material was lost.
There have been other Star Wars RPGs since then – notably by Wizards of the Coast and Fantasy Flight – but none of them captured the fast moving, cinematic atmosphere of the original films as well as the West End Games edition. What’s more, despite West End falling on hard times near the end, it was they who kept the light of hope burning for Star Wars fans during that period of the late 80s when it felt like the franchise was dying, and it was they who built most of the universe that Star Wars fans take for granted nowadays. So whenever you play a Star Wars video game and wonder “Who named that type of blaster?” or watch one of the Disney TV shows and think “Where did that alien species get its name?” chances are, it came from one of the creative minds at West End games.