RPG Review: Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game (1987)

Born in 1971, Star Wars cast a wide shadow on the culture of my youth. There's a joke on the internet along the lines you can tell you grew up in the 70s and 80s in that by the time of Return of the Jedi you thought Princess Leia or Han Solo were hot...

We had our action figures. Our bed sheets. Our narrated storybooks (on vinyl!)  I remember anxiously awaiting the release of the Star Wars Holiday Special in 1979 (note - even at the age of eight I managed to be disappointed).  After Empire Strikes Back there were massive debates as to whether Darth Vader was telling Luke the truth regarding being Luke's father.

After 1983 it kind of fizzled out. There were some odd Ewok tv-movies and the Droids and Ewoks television shows but neither lasted very long. The Marvel Star Wars comic book lasted until 1986.

In 1987 West End Games placed advertisements in Dragon magazine announcing their Star Wars RPG. I was an excited fan - I'd experimented with adapting Star Wars to AD&D without much success though I'd had better success tweaking TSR's Marvel Super Heroes RPG for it. West End, as I recall, advertised three core products - the main RPG, the Star Wars Sourcebook and the Star Warriors starship combat game. In this review I'll just be talking about the original RPG.

The Star Wars RPG was a fairly compact book, about 140 pages in length, black and white with color inserts. It was illustrated with stills from the movies as well as Ralph McQuarrie concept art. The color was used to great affect, with some memorable in-universe advertisements and propaganda. There really wasn't much in the way of background - it was Star Wars. Three movies, that was it. No expanded universe references. And everyone knew Star Wars.

As far as the rules engine went, it was a dice pool system based off one of West End Games' previous RPGs, Ghostbusters (which had actually been designed by Chaosium, creators of the Call of Cthulhu RPG). I was always a little amused by people who stated a d20 Star Wars RPG must be "D&D in space" - by that standard the original RPG was "Ghostbusters in space". (Though in truth I think it's fair to say it took Wizards of the Coast three tries to get Star Wars right.)

You had six attributes in Star Wars. Each attribute had a set of skills which were based off of it. For example, the Blasters skill was under the Dexterity Attribute while the Starship Piloting skill could be found under Mechanical. Each attribute was rated by the number of dice (always six-sided) that you rolled - from 2D (i.e. 2D6) to 4D. Modifiers could often be found with an attribute rating - you could have an attribute of 2D, 2D+1, 2D+2, 3D, 3D+1, 3D+2, 4D. If you lacked a skill you just rolled the attribute. Having a skill gave you a bonus above your attribute. You rolled against various difficulty ratings or the rolls of opponents.

While there were no character classes the game did make use of templates - starting points for characters which you would then customize. Templates included concepts like Brash Pilot, Laconic Scout, Failed Jedi, Smuggler, Alien Force User, Young Jedi, Wookie First Mate, etc. While they didn't reveal how to make your own templates until the 2nd edition they weren't so complicated that you couldn't figure out the "secret formula" with a few minutes consideration.

The game encouraged cinematic behavior. Multiple actions were easy to adjudicate - for every action after the first you lost a die from your roll. If you would normally roll 5D+2 for Blasters and fired three times then each shot would be 3D+2. Characters had Force Points to allow them to modify fate - spending a Force Point allowed you to double all your abilities for a round. If you spent it heroically you got the Force Point back at the end of the adventure. Spending it at a dramatically appropriate moment - like blowing up a Death Star, you got it back with an extra one.

Speaking of the Force, you could be a Force-user.  Force-users had three additional skills, unattached to any attribute - Control, Sense, and Alter. Each of these skills had lists of powers that could be used with them, with some powers requiring the use of two or three Force skills. The use of the Control and Sense skills also allowed you to improve your ability to hit with a lightsaber, parry blaster bolts, or do additional damage. Force-users were tough to play, resembling low-level magic-users in D&D at first - typically your Force skills would be low - often just 1D, and the difficulties were often high. This, though was in keeping with what we knew of the universe at the time - the only Force-users in the movies were Luke, Obi-Wan, Yoda, Darth Vader, and the Emperor. And it wasn't until Return of the Jedi that Luke, the only PC-like character, truly emerged as a force to be reckoned with.

The game came with a simple starship combat system - it wasn't designed to be a tactical representation but rather covered the types of dogfights you saw in the movies. The Millenium Falcon vs. a few TIE fighters. X-wing vs. TIE fighter.

While lacking a large equipment list, the game did cover all the basics and gave you enough starships to get started. A starting adventure was included - Rebel Breakout - kind of a dungeon crawl through a mine trying to avoid stormtroopers and get the heck out of there while trying to join the Rebel Alliance. There were also several adventure seeds to give GMs ideas on where to go next.

One thing the West End Games incarnation was legendary for was its ease of play. I can definitely attest to that. I received the game Christmas Eve in 1987 and the next morning my brother and I were playing the introductory adventure. I've probably introduced more people to RPGs via incarnations of this game than any other game, including Dungeons & Dragons. But it worked well for long-term play - I've played and GM-ed in numerous Star Wars campaigns. It had some weak points - Force users eventually become quite potent to the detriment of other characters - but it captured the universe of the original movies splendidly. I've found it worked well for small and large groups and in addition to campaign-play made a fine system for a quick pick-up game. West End Games hit a home run with their first at-bat with Star Wars.

West End Games hit hard financial times just before The Phantom Menace was released and the license went to Wizards of the Coast. I think the final incarnation Wizards produced, Star Wars Saga Edition was by far their best version. It was an excellent game but unlike the West End incarnation, it was not a game geared towards novices - nor was it one that encouraged lightning fast play. Now Fantasy Flight Games is taking their turn at making a Star Wars RPG with a public beta going on (one that as of this moment I'm not very familiar with). If the copyright gods could ever align perfectly I'd love for some way to be found to re-release the original West End Games Star Wars RPG in a way similar to the recent Advanced Dungeons & Dragons re-releases. It should be doable - Dark Horse Comics has, for example, been able to republish the old Marvel Comics Star Wars material.


  1. Still the best Star Wars game ever. A classic RPG, as much fun to read as to play.

    But I have to laugh at the statement that Wizards of the Coast ever got Star Wars right.


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