Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game (1987)
Author: Greg Costikan (Rulebook), Bill Slavicsek & Curtis Smith (Sourcebook)
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games (Originally West End Games)
Page Count: Two 144 page books
Available Formats: Print
$47.94 on Amazon
The Return of the Jedi, released in 1983, was seen at the time as the last Star Wars movie, though there were murmurs of Lucas someday completing has nine-episode saga. Things were slowing down on the Star Wars front. Marvel Comics ceased publishing their Star Wars comic in 1986 and their juvenile Droids and Ewoks comics lines ended a year later. By the end of 1986, the animated Droids and Ewoks tv shows were also over. In the amusement park where I worked, you could get Star Wars action figures dirt cheap at our redemption center. I think we had a gazillion snowtroopers. Little did everyone know, Star Wars was about to experience its first rebirth and it would be shepherded by West End Games.
West End Games (WEG) had begun transforming from a wargaming company to an RPG one. They had two previous RPGs – Paranoia, released in 1984, and Ghostbusters, released in 1986. Ghostbusters is especially relevant. Ghostbusters was designed by Chaosium for WEG – you can even find the Chaosium logo on the Ghostbusters RPG. On its own, Ghostbusters is a fantastic game – in my opinion, one of the all-time great RPGs and certainly worthy of its own article. Then, 1987 saw the release of West End Games’ Star Wars RPG using the Ghostbusters rules as its core, though the rules in Star Wars RPG were much cleaner and more polished.
Until shortly before The Phantom Menace was released, West End held the license and released various upgrades and revisions to the game over the years. You can still get the 1st edition today, with Fantasy Flight Games recently releasing a boxed reprint of the 1st edition and the first Star Wars Sourcebook.
When opening the book readers are greeted with black and white pages and color plates with Ralph McQuarrie artwork and movie stills; some of these color plates are in the form of advertisements or propaganda – tour the galaxy, buy an R2-unit, join the Empire, join the Rebel Alliance. The game is broken into three sections – the Player, Gamemaster, and Adventure sections.
Chapter One of the Player’s Section has character creation rules. They are pretty simple. You pick a template and add skills to the template. Characters in Star Wars have attributes and skills, both measured in Dice. The dice have ratings indicating the number of dice to roll and a number to add to the total (pips). The pips are 0, 1, or 2. So sequentially you might have 2D, 2D+1, 2D+2, 3D, 3D+1, etc. Attributes are quite broad. The average of a character’s attributes, unless they are Force users (more on that later), will be 3D (characters less phenomenal than PCs will average 2D for their attributes). Each attribute has a number of skills under it. Your base rating in a skill is your attribute rating. You can improve skills but not attributes. The attributes are:
- Dexterity – Covers things like blasters, dodging, lightsabers, etc.
- Knowledge – Languages, alien species, etc.
- Mechanical – Piloting, starship weapons, navigating through hyperspace
- Perception – Noticing things, manipulating people
- Strength – Brawling, lifting, climbing – and used to resist damage
- Technical – Fixing people, droids, and devices
A starting character gets seven dice to improve skills. Each die can be broken down into three pips if desired. Below can be found a sample character developed from the smuggler template. The end of the book has a series of templates characters can use.
The game has two dozen templates, covering tons of iconic roles such as smuggler, gambler, senator, bounty hunter, minor Jedi, etc., with rules on how to create new templates.
Chapter Two, The Bare Bones, gives a very high-level overview of how to play. Basically, you roll your skill (or attribute) and try to beat a difficulty number. Under normal circumstances, Roark will roll 5D (five six-sided dice) and add 1 when shooting his blaster. You can also make an opposed roll—two characters both make skill rolls and try to get the higher number. Some situations might change the number of dice you roll. For example, in a combat round, a character can perform an unlimited number of actions. However, each action beyond the first triggers a one die penalty to all actions in that round. For example, if Roark shoots his blaster twice, both rolls will be at 4D+1. Short of Force powers to control pain, wounds further reduce your dice as well.
Combat is broken up into segments. If you only take one action in combat, you act in segment one. If you take two actions, you act in segments one and two. All characters declare their actions at the start of a round and they are resolved segment by segment. If within a phase it is important to know who acts first (like in shooting), the higher die roll goes first. Characters cannot skip segments.
What about dodging, parrying with a sword or lightsaber, etc.? Those are reaction skills. You can declare them when you need them and they add to your multiple-action-penalty. The penalty is not retroactive – if you’ve already fired a shot and then declare a dodge, the resolved shot stays resolved. The dodge/parry result adds to the difficulty of all applicable attacks against you – but for that phase only.
Difficulty provides the target number, ranging from Very Easy (5) to Very Difficult (25). Punching someone or taking a point-blank shot is Very Easy while a long-range shot or attacking with a lightsaber is Difficult (20).
Each weapon has a damage code. If you hit, you roll the damage code vs. the target’s strength. Getting hurt is a bit of a big deal in Star Wars, as this table shows:
- Damage roll <= Strength roll – stunned – falls prone, cannot act rest of the round
- Damage roll > Strength roll – wounded – falls prone, cannot act rest of round, -1D to all attribute and skill rolls. Characters who are wounded twice are incapacitated
- Damage roll > 2x Strength roll – incapacitated – cannot take any action until healed. If suffer another wound or incapacitation result, become mortally wounded
- Damage roll > 3x Strength roll – Mortally wounded – as incapacitated. Every round roll 2D. If less than the number of rounds mortally wounded, dies.
Characters get skill points after an adventure. To increase a skill a pip costs the number of dice currently in front of the pip. For example, to improve Roark’s blaster from 5D+1 to 6D+1 will cost 16 skill points – 5 to go from 5D+1 to 5D+2, 5 to go from 5D+2 to 6D, and 6 to go from 6D to 6D+1. Not all skill points need to be spent – they can be banked.
What about the Force? First, all PCs start with a Force Point. When the character spends a Force Point, they double all their dice codes for a round. If they do it for evil, you lose the Force Point and gain a Dark Side Point. With every Dark Side Point, there is an increased chance of going over to the Dark Side. If you do it for something selfish but not really evil – doubling a Strength roll to resist damage – the point is permanently gone. If you use it for heroic purposes you get it back at the end of the adventure. If you do this at a dramatically heroic moment – the climax of an adventure, for example, you get it back plus an extra one. Per later GM rules, if a character ends an adventure with no Force Points and wasn’t heroic, he or she will still get a single Force Point.
Characters with Force skills can gain Dark Side Points for evil actions, even when not spending Force Points. There are three Force skills, functioning a little like attributes. A character starting with Force skills will have less dice in his attributes. The three Force skills are Control, Sense, and Alter, though not all Force users start with all of them. Control lets you maintain precise control of your body – resist poison, accelerate healing, etc. Sense lets you… well, Sense the Force. You can use Sense as a reaction skill to parry blaster bolts (and if a blast misses, you can declare a second reaction in that segment to redirect it). Combining sense and control lets you read minds, project thoughts, see into the past, present, or future, etc. Alter lets you lift rocks and, by combining with control, help others resist poison, accelerate healing, etc. Combining all three skills lets you do things like alter people’s minds (“these aren’t the droids you’re looking for”).
There are also some additional notes about lightsabers. While most melee weapons use Strength as a component of damage, lightsabers use Control. The sense skill, in addition to being used to parry blaster bolts, can be used for regular melee parries with the lightsaber.
The Force skills are handled very basically – the GM section later in the book goes into a lot more detail.
What I found amazing when I first got this RPG—and do to this day—is even without a ton of details, how much is packed into this section. It’s a pretty revolutionary way of gaming. The combat system was (and remains) very unusual, with its attack rolls doubling as initiative. That’s something they got away from almost immediately and looking back, I think that might have been a mistake. I’d definitely suggest taking it for a “rules as written” spin first.
Chapter Three, An Introduction to Roleplaying is a simple, choose-your-own-adventure sequence, designed to walk players through the concepts introduced thus far.
Chapter numbers restart in the GM section. Chapter One, An Introduction to Gamemastering is a brief, high-level overview of being a GM, with special emphasis to maintaining the feel of Star Wars.
Chapter Two, Attributes and Skills provides a much deeper dive into the attributes and skills found on character sheets. A lot of detail is given, with lots of examples of difficulty numbers and Star Wars relevant prose—sometimes taken straight from the classic movies, sometimes made for the game. My favorite is an example of a Failed Jedi trying to convince a GM to allow them to use Survival to find booze; “I’m telling you, liquor’s a necessity of life for me”.
Chapter Three, Combat, elaborates on the combat rules, with rules for things like armor (reduces your Dexterity in return for a bonus to reducing damage), stun settings, explosives, deflecting/redirecting blaster bolts with a lightsaber, etc.
Chapter Four, Damage and Healing, is a one page-chapter. It covers the use of medpacs, the most common way to heal damage. In the rules as written, a character can benefit from a medpac once a day—this was almost immediately changed allow multiple uses per day, but at increasing difficulty. I preferred this, Star Wars damage can get rough. The chapter also covers the use of rejuvenation tanks (later called bacta tanks) and natural healing. Finally, there are rules for falling and collisions, though they refer you to a table in the back of the book.
Chapter Five, Starships covers the use of starships in the game. It covers booking transport and making hyperspace jumps. The astrogation table makes the assumption that all trips are several days in length – this was almost immediately changed to basing hyperspace jumps in hours—a change I believe was correct and in keeping with the films. Indeed, I’d argue most Star Wars RPGs underestimate the speed of hyperspace in this setting.
It also details starship combat – at least, fighter combat. Ships have some new characteristics. Let’s take a look at two iconic ships as presented in the game.
- Hyperdrive multiplier – Lower is good as you multiply the base travel time by this
- Nav Computer – WIthout a Nav Computer, hyperspace jumps are very difficult – though R2 units can carry hyperspace jump coordinates
- Hyperdrive Backups: Indicates if the ship has a much slower backup hyperdrive
- Sublight Speed: Added to all starship piloting rolls relying on speed
- Maneuverability: Added to all starship piloting rolls dependent on maneuverability – typically for evasive actions
- Hull: Equivalent of Strength dice for resisting damage
- Weapons: Fire Control is added to a character’s starship gunnery skill and damage indicates the damage a weapon does on a hit.
- Shields – When successfully used, provides a bonus to Hull rolls.
So in starship combat, you might have a freighter with its own gunner, shield operator, pilot, etc. Or you might have a fighter where one character does everything. Like in regular combat, starship combat is broken down into segments:
- Piloting Segment – Pilots (and other characters) declare what they are doing
- Speed Segment – Taking the example of two ships, ships are at short, medium, or long range. If both pilots want to close or expand the range, then the range shifts by 1. Going beyond long range ends the combat. If one player wants to close and the other wants to flee, then you roll piloting plus speed. The winner gets to shift the range one unit – either closer or further.
- First Fire Segment – Those firing weapons act, as do those taking reactions.
- Subsequent Fire Segments
As you can see, the starship combat rules are an expansion of regular combat. It does cover a lot of stuff not found in normal combat – deflector shields, missiles/torpedoes, etc.
The starship combat rules of the 1st edition have long been my favorite part of the RPG. Later editions added more detail but I always felt the raw simplicity of the original rules were perfect. One addition I did typically make from later edition was the use of scale rules to handle scenarios like speeders vs. walkers, fighters vs. capital ships, etc., but for the most common types of battles found in RPGs, these rules were perfect.
Chapter Six, The Force fully addresses Force-users. West End Games had the unenviable task of codifying the Force—at a time with no supplemental material, Expanded Universe, etc. One little tidbit that I enjoy is the declaration of the Jedi code – it is well known in the setting today, but I believe this was its first appearance –
There is no emotion; there is peace.
There is no ignorance; there is knowledge.
There is no passion; there is serenity.
There is no death; there is the Force.
As mentioned earlier, the Force is broken into three skills, Control, Sense, and Alter. Per the rules, with a week of training, a character can be taught a Force skill at 1D. That necessity of having a teacher is the tricky part—the game assumes the period shortly after Episode IV – A New Hope when teachers are few and far between. The only way to start with Force skills is to choose a template with them.
Moreover, a pupil can only be taught up to a teacher’s skill level. Up to this point, Force skills are simply improved like any other skill. To go above a teacher’s skill level costs double the skill points. Interestingly, the rules are silent on what happens if a student has no teacher—it seems to suggest improvement is impossible, but one could just as easily go with the double cost in those cases. The idea of having a “teacher” with lower skill levels seems odd.
What about the Dark Side. As mentioned earlier, Force users gain Dark Side Points when they perform evil acts (and any character when spending Force Points for evil). Every time a Dark Side Point is gained you roll a D6. If the roll is less than your Dark Side Points, you go over to the Dark Side. Also, Dark Side Points give you a bonus to all Force skills – 1D per Dark Side Point. In my games, this led to a strong temptation to get a “freebie” Dark Side Point – you can’t go over the Dark Side with just one… By operating free of the Dark Side and generally seeking to atone a character can, after an adventure spent doing so, clear a Dark Side Point.
How do characters use Force skills? Every Force skill unlocks a set of powers. Control, Sense, and Alter all have their own lists of powers—and a character has access to all the powers for a Skill. There are also Control + Sense, Control + Alter, and Control + Sense + Alter powers. If you have those two or three skills you get all the combined powers. (In the 1st edition, there are no Sense + Alter powers, though later editions had some).
Every power has a difficulty number—often modified by proximity and/or relationship with the target. Powers that use two or three skills have two or three difficulties – one for each skill. This use of multiple skills does incur a -1D penalty per skill used over the first, as normal for the game, with the option to eliminate this by making one skill roll per round, delaying the effect of the power. If a character is being influenced by a Force power, they resist with their Perception or Control rating.
Some powers can be kept up – when this is done the character doesn’t need to roll every round but they are effectively using one or more skills, so other skill uses incur a -1D (or greater) penalty.
The Force powers are geared towards simulating what we see Obi-Wan, Luke, and Darth Vader do in the original trilogy as well as obvious extensions. For example:
- Darth Vader kills Rebel captain – possible use of the Alter power Injure/Kill.
- Obi-Wan revives Luke – possible use of Control + Sense powers of Return to Consciousness.
- Obi-Wan gets into Mos Eisley past stormtroopers (“you don’t need to see his identification”) – Control + Sense + Alter power of Affect Mind (also used when he distracts stormtroopers on the Death Star).
- Darth Vader chokes people remotely – Control + Sense + Alter power of Telekinetic Kill.
- Luke pulls lightsaber to his hand in the Wampa’s cave – Alter power of Telekinesis.
- Luke navigates to Dagobah without a navicomputer or coordinates from R2-D2 – Sense power of Instinctive Astrogation.
- Luke has visions of the future – Control + Sense power of Farseeing.
- Darth Vader catches Han’s blaster bolts – Control power of Absorb/Dissipate Energy.
- Luke contacts Leia telepathically – Control + Sense power of Projective Telepathy.
- Darth Vader probes Luke’s mind telepathically sense power of Receptive Telepathy.
There are a few things from the films that are not obviously represented. There is no example of the Force Lightning the Emperor uses. And I don’t believe the powers can represent Luke’s leap out of the carbon freeze chamber at Cloud City – except perhaps with telekinesis. In general, the rules do leave a lot to interpretation. For example, the difficulty of Telekinesis is simply based on the mass-modified by proximity. How does one use it to represent slamming a Battle Droid against a wall or slamming two Imperial Guards together? It’s a GM call.
Chapter Seven, Other Characters gives us rules for characters outside the basic templates found in the game. It includes rules for making up new templates, aliens, and droids. Droids are pretty simple in this RPG – a droid has 1D in all attributes but they have 12D to spend in one, two or three skills. Droids can have armor by spending a skill point on it. There are some rules for droid PCs—they have 1D in all attributes but get 18D in one, two, or three skills.
There are also a list of stock characters: stormtroopers, standard humans, and standard specialists, as well as guidance for using templates for NPCs as well.
Finally we have the Adventure Section. Chapter One, Running Adventures gives guidance for running adventures. It recommends giving out scripts to set the mood (I found that didn’t work too well for my groups) and beginning “in media res”, Latin for “in the middle of things” – i.e. starting in the middle of the action, like Leia’s ship being chased by a Star Destroyer, not with the theft of the Death Star plans. This was, in my opinion, superb advice—my adventures always went best going this way, but it does require player buy-in. The chapter also has advice on when to fudge things, when it is ok for characters to die or fail, etc. It provides guidance on how many skill points to give out (typically three to ten per adventure).
Chapter Two, Designing Adventures, has guidance on how to design adventures (as opposed to running them). It talks about what is a space opera, outlines, how to create memorable NPCs, etc. It reminds players how grand the worlds of Star Wars are and encourages GMs to embrace that. It’s standard advice, but well-given and tuned perfectly for Star Wars.
Chapter Three, Rebel Breakout, is an introductory adventure about a group of characters joining the Rebel Alliance – their contact goes missing and they find themselves on the run from the Empire in an abandoned mine. It’s a little bit of a linear dungeon crawl in places, but I’ve found it works great for an introductory adventure – it has lots of scenes that teach different rules, dangerous terrain, and an escape on Y-Wing fighters while being chased by TIE fighters.
Chapter Four, Adventure Ideas is ten adventure seeds. Some are a little weird – aliens capture Imperials and Rebels and subject them to strange athletic competitions. Others are more iconic – escaping Hoth, learning how to make a lightsaber, etc.
After this come the charts and tables often referred to followed by a few advertisements. The original West End Games version had ads for a Han Solo collectible plate, some West End Games products (Star Wars Sourcebook, Paranoia, and Ghostbusters) – Fantasy Flight Games understandably updated this.
While this has been focused on the core book, I’d like to give a brief overview of the sourcebook – something that comes with the core roles as a two-book set from Fantasy Flight Games.
The Star Wars Sourcebook is one of the earliest attempts to really dive into the Star Wars universe – the paperback Encyclopedia that came out a year or two earlier being another example. Many of the chapters have no game stats but instead, describe certain aspects of the setting. Let’s give a quick chapter-by-chapter breakdown:
Chapter One, General Spacecraft Systems defines hyperdrives, sublight drives, weapons, shields, tractor beams, sensors, life support, and escape equipment. No rules here, but excellent flavor text.
Chapter Two, Starfighters, gives overviews and stats for various fighters in the universe. It includes the Z-95 Headhunter, never seen in the movies but referred to in Han Solo novels and eventually appearing in The Clone Wars animated series. It also includes the core Rebel fighters – the A-Wing, B-Wing, X-WIng, and Y-Wing. It’s got a nice blueprint of an X-Wing fighter. It also details TIE fighters – the main fighter, the Interceptor, and the bomber. A table also details some of the more unusual TIE types – a Republic-era variant, the first Imperial TIEs, recon TIEs, fire control TIEs, and a bomber predecessor. A diagram also shows the breakdown of a Star Destroyer TIE Fighter Wing – broken down into squadrons, flights, and elements.
Chapter Three, Combat Starships details the larger combat starships. It details Corellian Corvettes, Escort Frigates, Victory-Class Destroyers, Imperial Star Destroyers, and Mon Calamari Star Cruisers. The Victory-Class Destroyer (also referred to as Victory-Class Star Destroyer, and how it is almost always referred to nowadays) is designed to be a Republic-era Imperial Star Destroyer predecessor, commissioned at the end of the Clone Wars. These ships lack hull and shield ratings as the sourcebook was released prior to scale rules making capital ship combat practical.
Chapter Four, Space Transports details the ships that move goods throughout the galaxy, featuring ships like barges, container ships, rebel transports, bulk freighters, passenger liners, and stock light freighters – including stats for the YT-1300 and its most famous example, the Millennium Falcon. I was overjoyed to find deck plans for the Falcon, though these plans have long since been superseded. (Though to this day you can still find these plans on t-shirts).
Chapter Five, Droids, details the different kinds of droids in the galaxy. Beyond the astromech and protocol droids (which also appeared in the core book), it features medical, probe, and assassin droids.
Chapter Six, Repulsorlift Vehicles features vehicles which make use of repulsorlifts to operate atmospherically. Their stats are compatible with starfighters, so you can have a TIE Fighter shooting at a Rebel Snowspeeder. It includes landspeeders, airspeeders (such as the Rebel Snowspeeder), Cloud Cars, Sail Barges, Skiffs, Speeder Bikes, and Swoops.
Chapter Seven, Imperial Ground Assault Vehicles details AT-ATs and AT-STs, with notes as to how to scale them with repulsorlift vehicles and starfighters.
Chapter Eight, Aliens, has background and stats for aliens of the Star Wars universe – Ewoks, Gamorreans, Ithorians, Jawas, Mon Calamari, Quarren, Sand People, Sullustans, Twi’leks, and Wookiees. For those aliens not in the core rulebook, guidance to add 6D to stats is given if PC templates are desired. (This isn’t really balanced as a player could add 6D all to one stat – clearly not the intent – the 2nd edition of this book suggested adding one full die per stat).
Chapter Nine, Creatures gives us some of the “monsters” of the setting – Banthas, Dewbacks, Mynocks, the Rancor, Space Slugs, and Tauntauns.
Chapter Ten, General Equipment details the personal equipment to be found in the setting. Some new weapons are given, like the Force Pike or bayonet. Descriptions of various tools, medical equipment, survival shelters, etc. are also given.
Chapter Eleven, Lightsabers is a two-page description of lightsabers. Interestingly, lightsaber crystals aren’t yet a fully formed idea in the setting – rather, lightsabers are described as having between one and three jewels that determine the beam’s frequency, with the best sabers coming from natural jewels, but “evidently, the Jedi can forge synthetic jewels with a small furnace and a few basic elements”.
Chapter Twelve, Stormtroopers, detail the Empire’s elite shock troops. They are described as totally loyal and “cannot be bribed, seduced, or blackmailed into betraying their Emperor”. In addition to the standard stormtroopers, we also get stats on Cold Assault Troops, Zero-G Stormtroopers, and Scouts.
Chapter Thirteen, Rebel Bases describes the various kinds of bases used by the Rebellion as well as providing a sample starfighter base, Tierfon Outpost.
Chapter Fourteen, Imperial Garrisons details ground bases used by the Empire, including a basic plan and breakdown of personnel and vehicles.
Chapter Fifteen, Heroes and Villains, gives stats on some of the “big names” of the universe, the stats representing the characters shortly after Episode IV. In my opinion, the character stats are a little over-inflated but still manageable – I seem to recall later books getting a bit over the top. One oddity is the characters don’t really follow the rules as written – for example, in the rules, there is just a single “Blaster” skill while Han Solo has Blaster at 9D+1 and Blaster Rifle at 5D+1. It is when we get to characters like Darth Vader and Obi-Wan that we get some extremely high stats. Some oddities there too – I’m not sure, for example why Obi-Wan, Darth Vader, and Yoda all bumped up their gambling skills modestly. Perhaps during the Clone Wars, they played a lot of cards…
How does this decades-old game hold-up? In my opinion, incredibly well. West End Games, to use a sports idiom, hit a home run on their first at-bat with Star Wars. It’s a game that deserves to be considered a classic and deserves its recent reprint. I’ve played every version of Star Wars: all the West End Games versions, all the Wizards of the Coast versions, and the current FFG incarnation. FFG did a great job combining narrative and crunch. There are all sorts of “tricks” your character can develop in the FFG version. The West End Games incarnations, next to it, can appear pretty primitive. However, this simplicity is a grand feature as well – the first time I played the 1st edition was literally the day I got it. I’ve taught at least a dozen people how to play the West End Games versions, for many it was their first gaming experience. Within minutes they understood the basic rules and had their first character ready to go. And play is incredibly fast.
How does 1st edition West End Games compare with later versions – both as the 1st edition got developed and later editions? Later editions are more refined and have a much more standard turn sequence. They’re a little less dangerous to players, by design. More “stuff” gets defined as the game evolved – capital ship combat, Force powers, etc. One of the big expansions for the 1st edition was Galaxy Guide 6: Tramp Freighters, bringing commerce, smuggling, and loan sharks to the Star Wars universe.
What would I use the 1st edition for today? It’d still make a great Rebellion-era Star Wars game. It would also work fantastically well for smugglers and the like. I think it would work very well for the current sequel movies. It was pretty much made for adventures like Rogue One. It handles basic Force-users reasonably well but I think it wouldn’t be a good match for a Clone Wars-era game focused heavily on the Jedi. I do think it could also handle the period of the sequel trilogy well. Regardless of the setting you use it for, it does require a GM willing to make some spur-of-the-moment rulings, but it benefits from having a system that readily supports that.
~ Daniel Stack
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