Let the Wookie Win: 30 Years of Role-Playing Star Wars

As the youngest of three geek brothers, I was aware of role-playing games before I was literate. I can fondly remember my pleas to be allowed to play Dungeons & Dragons falling on deaf, adolescent ears and so I would try to figure out manuals based on their pictures. Even once I could read, trying to parse just how the different Star Frontiers species were mechanically distinct or how to use the point buy system in Toon to accurately reflect my current animated favourites proved a daunting challenge. Friends would run rudimentary games or dungeons for me and and I for them but it wasn’t until I was in late middle-school and my middle brother returned from several years working in Kyrghizstan that I finally had a patient tutor to sit with me and truly work out how to play a game and that game was Star Wars.

Specifically, it was the original 1980s West End Games version of Star Wars before the license would be swapped around like so much unrefined Coaxium between Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro and Fantasy Flight/Asmodee/Embracer Group AB. West End Games also provided young Leeman with both Torg and Paranoia which prompted a lot of curiosity but Star Wars was a known quantity and so the one I was most willing to puzzle out and bring to the table. The original Star Wars had a simple dice pool mechanic with target numbers so there wasn’t too much to struggle with and soon I was running games for friends at sleepovers or between classes. My friend Jackson had a long-running Quixotic Jedi Boink LaVache who was a frequent hero of these adventures but character creation was very simple, particularly with the easily photocopiable pages of pre-generated heroes from which to choose so more often than not, we just ran one-offs.

I made a ton of mistakes and picked up no shortage of bad GMing habits that no doubt I haven’t completely rid myself of but it was a joyous apprenticeship and I’m grateful to my brother for patiently explaining the problems of rail-roading and to all my friends who put up with me crashing their ships into anything I could think of menacing them with unlimited waves of stormtroopers.

I got to college right as West End was starting to fall apart and Wizards was on the ascendancy and the 3rd edition of Dungeons and Dragons would hoover up much of my limited spare change that previously I would have spent on floppy Star Wars books. It was then with great excitement and perhaps limited foresight that I rejoiced at Star Wars being smashed together with D&D to produce the d20 system that I would play over the next decade. Gone were my simple handfuls of d6s and in their place were pages of rules, too many skills, feats for days, and the opportunity to purchase more and more sourcebooks.

Once I got to grad school, I quickly found a critical mass of gamers and soon introduced the idea of running a pre-clone wars game using the d20 system. This would prove to be the only campaign I would GM start to finish. It was a hot mess that saw me burgling from Silent Hill, Eternal Darkness, and even raiding my brothers’ old Star Frontiers books. It was a wild and raucous time and I miss having the free-time and communal living situation to facilitate such an expedition.

I would continue to play d20 Star Wars off and on but eventually editions began to shift and Saga came out. I poked at it but by then I was working in retail and trying to make more conscientious spending choices and it didn’t quite sit well with me so I stuck it out with my old game. When Fantasy Flight came out with their own system I hadn’t picked up my books in a good long while having fallen back into the D&D gravity well where I would orbit for many years.

As a quick aside, a few years ago I had the opportunity to interview Bill Slavicsek for my Ask Lovecraft After Dark interview series. He worked for West End Games and Wizards of the Coast and worked on both of their iterations of the Star Wars RPG plus more and it was an absolute dream come true to get to talk with him about his work. If nothing else, I hope you’ll give it a listen.

Fast forward to earlier this year and my local forever GM reminding me of my offer to run a Star Wars game so he would have a chance to play amid GMing multiple campaigns. This was an on and off-again discussion and a few years back I had made baby steps towards running something by purchasing a pdf of the Scum and Villainy game. It looked fun but inertia won out and I never moved forward with the idea until this year. Lugging out all my various editions, I slammed them down in front of prospective players and we debated what we wanted to do. D20 was the closest to Dungeons and Dragons but the prospect of navigating the rules gave pause. West End offered the simplest gaming experience but ultimately folks were tempted by funkiness of Scum and Villainy so here we are.

We’re only a few sessions in and navigating some of the unfamiliar bumps and peculiarities of the system but it’s so far been a blast and reskinning it for Star Wars has been fairly straightforward given how much of Star Wars was in the game’s DNA. I have no idea how long we’ll stick it out but I’m glad to be back in the captain’s chair, flying my players through all sorts of ridiculous adventure. We’ll see where the Force leads us.

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