Classic RPG Review #7: Star Wars RPG

Star Wars, The Roleplaying Game
first edition hardcover
by Greg Costikyan
1987 West End Games

What Tolkien did for Fantasy, Star Wars in a way did for Science Fiction. Or Science Fantasy, more properly, because Star Wars is not exactly hard core Sci Fi, with it's religious Jedi knights waving their light sabres driven by the mystic “Force”. It's a special kind of Science, obviously. And maybe that is partly why the movies became such a phenomenon.

Ten years after the first movie (named part IV), the official Star Wars Roleplaying Game was a fact. A letter-sized hardcover, pleasant to hold, well bound with sixteen extra glossy pages in colour. It's made to be used, and to last nonetheless. And believe it or not, that also goes for the content of the game. It's a good game. And it even managed to keep the feel of the movies.

The book wastes little time on complex rules or exposees. Instead you are quickly invited to choose a hero template and modify it as you wish. You can choose to be a young Jedi, a smuggler, a native, or even a Wookie – although you have to say “ooaarggh” like a wookie and not sound lame. And there are plenty of other options. Statistics are already filled in, and all you have to do is choose a name, and distribute seven dice among your skills. And then you have to decide, together with the other players and the game master how your heroes know eachother. Player interaction is at least as important as statistics.

This game wastes no time on rules. The focus is on story telling and on role playing. Role playing as in play acting and “being” someone else for a while. Game master advice starts on page 29, and not somewhere as an afterthought. This game is closer to theater than to war gaming, and if you ask me that's good. Game introductions are adviced to be scripted in advance by the game master. Each hero is to say a line which conveys where we are and why. And then the game can start. My players are not too keen on having their lines written for them, but I've seen it work well for others. Its innovative at the very least.

The Force and the Dark Side are represented too, in the form of points. Force points allow you to do heroic things or save your ass. Dark side points you get for doing evil things. If you have too many dark side points your hero reverts to the game master. Playing evil heroes or villains is strictly verboten. It's a clear and moralistic choice. But to me it also feels chicken.

What I missed most though is the feel that you can really make a difference as a hero. It seems as if you may only move in the shadows of the demigod Skywalker and his father Vader. You can't do anything big, because that might change the big Star Wars story. And the Star Wars story is holy. So at best you can play the non-influential nephew of the sidekick of the sidekick of Han Solo, and nag endlessly about your insignificance. And since this is not a game about ants but about heroes, that feeling annoys me. So far it even kept me from actually playing more than a scene.

If you ignore the Star Wars canon, maybe. If you spin off your own version of its universe where your players can be the ultimate heroes. Where they can be the last of the last of the Jedi and change the walk of the universe, maybe then. Or maybe if they could play the Dark Side too. Then this good game could be a great game.

(rules are elegant, mostly simple, easy to learn, fairly realistic and fairly balanced, but detail sometimes lacks and many extra rolls are needed)
(the game is true to the Star Wars universe, which is a strong backdrop, and its advice to game masters and tips for role playing are abundant)
(the game is easy to learn, and fun to play, but you can't play Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader or make a real difference in the universe)
(science fantasy true to the earlier Star Wars movies, with humans, wookies and weird creatures, limited skill based with small pools of sixsided dice and bonusses, heroes made from modified templates, “the force” - a sort of magic – is available to some but bound to strict codes, if these codes are broken your hero reverts to “the dark side”)


  1. Actually, in my campaigns I often took aspects of the movies and had the player characters take complete control over it, thereby influencing the (already static) outcome of the movies. E.g. those bad-ass TIE interceptors in Return Of The Jedi? They were supposed to be the Empire's ultimate answer to the X-Wing. Yet, strangely, in the film they didn't amount to much. Why? My characters had -many years before- introduced a small flaw in the design, thereby directly influencing the outcome of the Battle Over Endor.
    There are many more such examples: Vader lost TWO potential dark side apprentices due to my characters. General Dodonna AND Admiral Ackbar were saved from certain death.
    It's very easy to be a major hero in Star Wars and be "faithful" to the canon. A hero isn't defined solely by fighting the Emperor mano a mano. If the player characters are happy not fighting Vader or Palpatine directly (...and surviving), then the scope for epic roleplaying in this Universe is ...well...epic!
    (That said, we are eagerly awaiting Star Wars RPG Edition 42 "Imperious Basterds", where you get to kill Palpatine with a heavy repeating blaster).

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  3. Very happy to hear you DID find a way to be both heroic and stay canon. Was it your personal idea, or did you pick it up from someone else? I did not really feel this option from the 1st edition.

    And maybe I like the future to be even more open than just canon ;-)

  4. Star Wars future? It's ancient history, mate! A long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away..., remember? :-)

    Anyway, although I have always been partial to 'for want of a nail the Kingdom was lost' causal storytelling, much of the old Bantam Star Wars novels took exactly that approach, with thusfar considered small cogs (or bit players) *actually* having a *massive* influence or effect. Many of the West End Games source books also adopt and promote that approach.

    I find that incredibly enjoyable. You don't *need* to change the Universe to play around in it (nigh) limitlessly. It's just a personal preference though. I wouldn't enjoy an alternate Universe where PCs could go up against Vader and *win*. That wouldn't be the Star Wars I know and love.