I’m starting to take a look back at some of the different game systems I’ve played over the years, and providing a quick review of them. Starting with an RPG I was first introduced to in the early 1990s, which was based on something which had been a large part of my childhood.
As s game system, Star Wars by West End Games is pretty darned close to being perfect. It was the first non-Dungeons and Dragons game I ever played more than one session of, and I was hooked from the moment I read the rules.
First published in 1987, for a long while it pretty much became the reference material for anything Star Wars related, and kicked off the Expanded Universe that began with Timothy Zahn’s books. The Return of the Jedi had been the last major film of the series, and there wasn’t much else going on. So for Star Wars fans starved of new content, it was a way to explore the universe. For me, Star Wars had been a large part of my childhood, but I’d sort of forgotten about it until we started playing this RPG.
It’s a simple game, but not too simple, with pretty much everything you need is there on the character sheet. You have six attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Perception, Technical, Knowledge and Mechanical), and a number of skills based off those attributes. If you have a Dexterity of 4D then it means you roll 4d6 for a Dexterity check, or any of the skills under it.
Your typical ‘hero’ has 18D to distribute at character generation, giving an average of 3D on each attribute (compared to 2D for a non-heroic NPC). Humans can vary between 2D and 5D, whilst aliens can vary between 1D and 6D.
An individual skill can be raised beyond the level of the attribute. If you put up a skill by a Dice, say Blaster to 5D, you roll 5d6 for that skill. Easy. Dice are split into ‘pips’, so the skill progression goes xD, xD+1, xD+2, (x+1)D. You add the dice together to give a total number, and if that equals or exceeds the target then you succeed. A very easy difficulty is 5, going up to 20 for difficult or even higher.
It’s a quick and simple system, but has enough concrete mechanics to it to keep those who find games like Fate too wishy washy feel.
Not only is the system strong, it fits the genre and setting beautifully. Combat is fast moving, the skills are well chosen to match the sorts of things that characters in the films did, and the feel is of heroes versus an evil Galactic empire. If you wanted to play smugglers, or criminals, or Imperial tax inspectors you could though without really having to change much of anything.
Jedi and the Force
The game has rules for Jedi and Force Powers, which were pretty weak for starting characters but there was a break point where you started to become quite effective. Lightsabres were really hard to use, but if you had Force skills then these could be added to your skill and damage done – so there comes a point where you start to become really effective.
In combat, you normally take a single action, but can take further actions by reducing your skill by a Die. So if you have 5D+2 Blaster skill, and your target is within short range (difficulty 10), you may dice to take two extra shots at a -2D penalty, so taking three shots at 3D+2. It allows skilled characters to take on multiple stormtroopers.
And then you have Force Points – which every character starts with. When you spend a Force Point, all your skills and attributes double for that round. So your 5D+2 skill becomes 10D+4 – that’s an awful lot of stormtroopers you can take out. If you have a lightsabre, you suddenly have a much higher skill and are also doing a lot more damage. A relatively inexperienced Jedi can go from being barely useful to deadly by spending a Force Point at the right point in time.
As well as a quality set of mechanics, the amount of source material for it was considerable. It provided stats for a wide number of ships, not all of which were in the original films, as well as far more details for the various aliens that appeared than were previously available.
This provides a much wider variety of things for a GM to introduce to keep things interesting. Not everyone has to fly a YT-1300 (the class of ship that the Millennium Falcon was).
The Timothy Zahn books were covered, as were the comics and various other aspects of the Expanded Universe. This continued up until 1999, when West End Games lost the license. It was generally of high quality.
The rules suggested a very cinematic style of game – one we never really took up, but it was interesting nonetheless. Being based on the films, it tried to portray a film-like quality to the stories.
It suggested providing cutaway scenes to players, allowing them to see what was going on even though their characters would have no way of doing so. Maybe the GM provides a scene of an Imperial officer giving commands to his troops to prepare for a ground invasion, or describing Imperial Star Destroyers coming out of hyperspace near the planet, when the characters aren’t able to see that.
Obviously, a lot of the published adventures drew heavy inspiration from the movies, in terms of scenes and even quotes. The first adventure we played, Tatooine Manhunt, obviously took us to Mos Eisley, and the GM (who hadn’t been as much as a Star Wars fan as the rest of us) started to think we’d read the adventure. As soon as a fight started in the cantina, he started to say that the bartender yells… and we all chimed in with “No Blasters! No Blasters!”. Also, we accurately guessed that the docking bay was number 94. Adventures being filled with references like this really helped get people into the right mood for the game.
Characters from the films, such as Luke or Vader, were meant to have script immunity. It’s something we never used, but in the game as written, the films would happen as they did. You couldn’t kill Vader or Tarkin before their time – the GM was meant to always ensured that if they were introduced into a scenario than they would survive.
Given that it was based on space opera, PCs were larger than life heroes. Despite this, it didn’t really have the scaling problems that a game like Dungeons and Dragons had. Your skills got better, which meant you could shoot more and dodge better, but your ability to resist damage didn’t go up. You didn’t become impervious to smaller threats. It wasn’t perfect, and it was possible to design characters that were very tough, but it was easier to control.
Life After Star Wars
After WEG lost their license to Star Wars, the D6 system lived on. They re-published the system as a number of generic books – amongst them D6 Space, D6 Fantasy and D6 Adventure. These are now available for free download, but at the time they were available as hardbacks.
They take a (slightly modified) generic version of the rules and make them available for use in heroic fiction. We’ve tried the D6 Adventure rules for a 1930s pulp game, and they worked okay, though the superiority of PCs compared to NPCs was far more noticeable. It’s relatively easy to fix if you need to – give NPCs more dice to build their characters with (or reduce what PCs get).
The WEG version of the Star Wars RPG is still my favoured version of RPG rules for the setting though. The Edge of the Empire rules from Fantasy Flight are interesting, and pretty good, but I’m not a fan of the fancy dice. The d20 version just didn’t feel right, with its classes and levels.
We played this a lot in the 1990s, and a bit in the 2000s, but it’s been a while since we’ve touched it. Whether I’ll ever get around to playing it again I don’t know, but my collection will be staying on my main gaming bookshelf for some time to come.