How a Pen and Paper RPG Brought 'Star Wars' Back From the Dead

How a Pen and Paper RPG Brought 'Star Wars' Back From the Dead

'Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game' was (quite literally) the only game in town for 'Star Wars' fans for almost 10 years. Lucasfilm

In 1987, 'Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game' took a pile of notes from Lucasfilm and built a universe that's still used today

In 1987, 'Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game' took a pile of notes from Lucasfilm and built a universe that's still used today

Imagine living in a time when it seemed like the Star Wars phenomenon had run its course. That’s almost impossible to conceive of now, or at any point in the last 25 years. Even in the Nineties, before the prequels had been announced, or during that terrible drought between the prequels and The Force Awakens, there were still tie-in TV shows and comics and action figures and video games and Darth Tater Potato Heads, all helping to keep the franchise alive.

But there was a time when Star Wars was completely moribund. In the late Eighties, the original film trilogy was a distant memory, the kid-friendly TV specials were done, the Saturday morning cartoons had petered out, and there were no new novels or toys on the horizon. This was an era before every single intellectual property that had ever been vaguely popular, from Point Blank to Poltergeist, got recycled. At the end of the Reagan era, it genuinely seemed to many that the lifecycle of George Lucas’ film franchise seen its day in the sun.

That’s why it was sort of crazy that West End Games, a maker of Dungeons & Dragons-style tabletop role-playing games, would spend a fortune to license Star Wars in 1986. Bill Slavicsek, who helped create Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game for West End, remembers telling a friend who worked for Marvel Comics about the project. “He said, ‘Why would you make that?! That’s a dead license!’” recalls Slavicsek.

But Star Wars wasn’t dead. And the tabletop game was one of the things that helped keep the the franchise's flame alive in the minds of countless fans. West End’s RPG wasn’t merely a stopgap – it helped to flesh out the details of that galaxy far, far away in the darkest days. In giving players the backstory and framework they needed to have their own adventures in Star Wars, the game became a cornerstone of the Expanded Universe, adding names and story elements that are still in use today.

Tabletop games are sort of amazing. With a handful of dice, a couple of rule books, and a few willing friends, players could create their own limitless world, a sort of shared hallucination. “It’s an act of group storytelling,” says Slavicsek.

It was also a crowded and competitive industry by the mid-Eighties. Dungeons & Dragons creator TSR was the major player, but upstart companies were rushing to create competing games built around different settings and licenses. Before making a bid for Star Wars, West End had had success with original RPGs like the dystopian sci-fi comedy Paranoia, and an adaptation of Ghostbusters.

Greg Costikyan, a co-creator of Paranoia, was one of the people tasked with securing the Star Wars license. “We flew out to California to meet with Lucasfilm,” he says. “We made a bid of $100k. We later learned that TSR had tried to get the license too, but they only bid $70k.”

Costikyan says that the people at Lucasfilm didn’t seem to think that the franchise was dead at that point – Lucas’ original vision had called for nine films, after all. But they were fully aware that Star Wars was essentially in hibernation, as if frozen in carbonite. “They felt it was clearly going to be a long time before there was another Star Wars movie,” says Costikyan. “Lucasfilm thought that an RPG could help keep Star Wars active in the minds of geeks, which was why the licensing deal had some value to them.”

Costikyan set to work on creating the rulebook for the Star Wars: Roleplaying Game. His work on it would be a crowning achievement in some people’s careers, but it was a just sidenote for him. He would go on to create influential and innovative tabletop, PC, mobile and social games in a variety of genres, and write extensively on game design. He won a Game Developers Choice Maverick Award for his early and tireless efforts to create digital distribution systems for indie video games. He’s now a senior game designer at mobile games publisher Backflip Studios, the company behind Paper Toss and Dragonvale.

He’d been interested in the franchise since he first encountered it at World Sci-Fi Con the year before the first film was released. “The filmmakers had taken a room at the con, and were showing stills and little clips,” he says. “It looked like it had the makings of a really good space opera.”

He saw the original film at an early matinee after an all-night D&D session. A fellow participant in that role-playing marathon had bought a ticket to Star Wars, but was too exhausted to attend. Costikyan bought the ticket and watched the film, then stuck around to watch the next showing.

“There’s great worldbuilding in that film, often done with very simple special effects,” he says. “Like the two suns in the sky on Tatooine. That’s just a double exposure, but I’d never seen anything like that. I also liked the fact that the characters weren’t all nice and happy. There was an interesting dynamic where they got upset with each other, they bantered and whined.”

Now that he was working on the game, he rewatched the films intensively. West End wouldn’t just have to recreate the set-pieces from the film – they would actually have to systematize how action played out in that universe. “Like, exactly how fast would your body temperature drop on the ice planet of Hoth?,” says Costikyan. “There needed to be mechanical implications for what we saw in the movies. In the films, Stormtroopers famously cannot hit anything. In the game, we needed to allow them to hit things occasionally; otherwise, there’s no drama involved.”

“I had a couple of design objectives,” says Costikyan. “Unlike most RPGs, I knew that we weren’t selling purely to people who were already into D&D. This needed a simpler paradigm.”

He focused on the most intense and memorable moments in the films: Droids trying to walk across a corridor in the middle of a pitched battle, pursuing their own secret agenda while laser blasts ricocheted around them. Luke and Leia preparing to swing across a chasm on on a flimsy rope, sharing a quick kiss for luck (a detail that seems far more icky with the benefit of hindsight.) “I wanted a system that really lends itself to those sorts of exploits, those moments that were cinematic and exciting,” says Costikyan.

West End’s designers divided up the different types of characters in the film into different classes that players could choose to be. They also introduced a few types that hadn’t appeared in the film. “There were obvious ones like bounty hunters and smugglers,” says Costikyan. “A particular favorite of mine was the failed Jedi – a drunk who didn’t quite make it, but had some control of the Force.”

The way I heard it, Zahn was insulted by this at first. But then he figured that it was better to use our material as a resource rather than have to create a bunch off stuff from scratch.

While Costikyan was working on the rule book, Bill Slavicsek, an editor at West End, was overseeing the The Star Wars Sourcebook. It would flesh out the details of the universe – everything from how repulsorlift engines and lightsabers worked to the backstory on characters and the biological makeup of the various monsters and alien races.

Slavicsek was also a huge fan of the film franchise. He had watched them 38 times in the theater. “It so enthralled me that I wanted to go again and again and watch the reaction of my friends and family members to it,” he says. “It was unlike anything I’d seen before. It wasn’t a clean, sterile sci-fi universe – it was lived-in and visceral.”

Slavicsek says that, to his mind, there are fundamental similarities between the universe that George Lucas created and the ones that RPG designers create. “Star Wars and D&D aren’t just telling stories – they’re opening up the imagination,” he says.

Slavicsek started by learning everything he could about the universe of the films. “The Internet didn’t exist back then,” he says. “We had to do all the research ourselves.” He hounded Lucasfilm for photos, magazines, and archival material.

But there were huge holes in the canon that Slavicsek and his co-writer Curtis Smith would have to fill in themselves. Movies simply don’t require the level of exhaustive detail that a game would. The West End designers had to create all that, getting signoff from Lucasfilm on major additions. “We didn’t want to add anything that didn’t fit the milieu, like any tech that seemed too Star Trek,” says Slavicsek.

“Lucasfilm was fairly hands off,” says Costikyan. “They would have the occasional directive, like, 'you can’t show a stormtrooper with their helmets off,’ I guess because they thought that a property based on the Clone Wars was going to come out eventually. They didn’t want us to kill off the main characters, but we didn’t want to kill them off anyway. We thought players would want to create their own characters in this world.”

Slavicsek was like Adam in the Garden of Eden, giving names to all of the creatures in God’s creation. For instance, there’s a bizarre alien that’s glimpsed briefly in the famous cantina scene from Star Wars that has a long curving neck and eyes on either side of its wide, flat skull. The Kenner toy line simply referred to the creature as Hammerhead. “I convinced Lucasfilm that ‘The Hammerheads’ wasn’t a good name for a species,” he says. “If anything, they’d take that name as an insult.” Slavicsek renamed them Ithorians, and the sourcebook described the herd-like society they had developed on their lushly forested homeworld.

He also declared that the alien creatures with conical protuberances on top of their heads, like Oola, the dancing slave girl at Jabba the Hutt’s palace, were the Twi’Lek. “It’s neat to see names I invented 25 years ago show up now in toys and cartoons and novels,” says Slavicsek.

The sourcebook was studded with short stories and narratives, written as if they were excerpts from actual works from within the Star Wars universe. “We put it together in such a way that statistics were just a small part of it,” says Slavicsek. The book didn’t just describe the characteristics of the giant space slugs that almost devoured the Millennium Falcon in The Empire Strikes Back. There was also a clever pastiche of Moby Dick presented as a brief snippet from the autobiography of a spacefarer who had witnessed one ship captain’s destructive obsession with hunting down a space slug.

There was a narrative richness to the sourcebook that fired the imaginations of players, and hinted at lives of characters beyond the key figures in the films. It didn’t just give the backstory on Han Solo, and explain why Jabba the Hutt put a price on his head. It included a memo that was supposedly sent from the accountant Calk Fen to Jabba which itemized Solo’s debts, and explained why the the Hutt was well within his rights to demand the smuggler’s head. “As always, the decisions of the mighty Jabba are fair, just, and extremely profitable!” writes Fen.

When the rulebook and sourcebook launched in late 1987, their popularity caught Lucasfilm by surprise. “I think it began to dawn on them that there was a lot more to what they had with this franchise than they’d thought,” says Slavicsek. “What we were doing gave impetus to other licensees.”

Within a few years of the launch of Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game, Lucasfilm signed off on a new line of Star Wars comics, and Heir to the Empire, a novel written by Timothy Zahn that would explain what happened immediately after the events in Return of the Jedi. Zahn was actually given the RPG sourcebook material to use as reference when he wrote his novel. “The way I heard it, Zahn was insulted by this at first,” says Slavicsek. “But then he figured that it was better to use our material as a resource rather than have to create a bunch off stuff from scratch.”

Slavicsek would oversee the Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game for several more years, and would eventually be tapped to write several editions of the exhaustive Guide to the Star Wars Universe, in the process becoming one of the foremost authorities on the subject. He continued to design tabletop RPGs, eventually rising to a leadership role at Wizards of the Coast, the company that bought D&D's publisher TSR back in 1997. While there, Slavicsek directed the creation of the third and fourth editions of D&D, and he also co-designed another Star Wars RPG at Wizards of the Coast, one that was designed around third edition D&D's baseline rules. He’s now a senior writer and content designer at Zenimax, where he works on creating new scenarios and dialogue for The Elder Scrolls Online.

The sourcebooks that Slavicsek spearheaded continue to have an influence on Star Wars, even after the vast Expanded Universe was declared non-canonical a few years ago. The new Story Group within Lucasfilm, which oversees every new narrative element to make sure that it all fits together, includes Pablo Hidalgo, who himself wrote several sourcebooks for West End before going to Lucasfilm.

Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game told stories that are still sustaining the franchise to this day. Last year, Slavicsek saw an episode of the canon-correct TV series Star Wars Rebels that concerned the creation of the B-Wing fighter ship. It lifted names and story elements from “Strike Force: Shantipole,” a 1988 module for the West End RPG that he had edited. “I really get a kick out of stuff like that,” says Slavicsek.