In the world of old school D&D, popular sentiment is that the game is intended to be an open “sandbox” affair, a place where the players are free to choose their own destinies. The dice fall as they may, the death count can grow impressive, and the characters are working-class stiffs who possess the possibility of becoming heroes—so long as the dice and good fortune go their way.
West End Games’ Star Wars is about as antipodal to that school of thought as you can get. The players are heroes with a capital “H”, the adventures are laid out long before the group gathers, and the game master is instructed to regularly fudge the dice to make sure the players stay on that track so as to ensure the story reaches its intended climax. That makes the school of thought behind Star Wars “far, far away” from that which is prevalent in the OSR.
But is this necessarily a bad thing? When it comes to D&D, my mind set is similar to that of my old school mon frères. D&D is meant to be played as a wide-open game of exploration, with story coming from the events as they occur. The nascent possibility of heroic exploits and the renown that accompanies such trumps that of built-in heroism and nigh-superhuman accomplishments. But this outlook doesn’t work with all roleplaying games and can be in fact detrimental to some of them.
Star Wars is one such case. It is a game that was designed not to ape a particular genre, such as D&D was intended to do, but to recreate a very specific series of stories and the world(s) in which they occur. With an intent like that, a narrower focus is naturally needed. This is not to say that you can’t run an open sandbox campaign set in the Star Wars universe, but why pound round pegs into square holes when a more generic sci-fi rules system would work better?
Players approach the Star Wars universe with certain preconceived notions. After all, in many cases, Star Wars is as close as one gets to a lingua franca or common religion amongst gamers. No matter what our backgrounds or ages, the 20th Century Fox fanfare and those scrolling words hits a shared nerve, carrying us immediately to a specific time and place even if we couldn’t necessarily pinpoint that location on a star map or timeline. They’re going to expect to encounter Wookiees and Jawas, to shoot bounty hunters and race speeder bikes, and to swing across chasms and duel with lightsabers. Any game master who doesn’t meet those expectations is shortchanging his players (and probably shouldn't be playing Star Wars to start). And thus, there is a need for at least a narrow-gauge railroad to the campaign.
This has been on my mind a lot lately because I’m now running a Star Wars game. Some weeks ago, I realized that the Stonehell sequel will likely occupy my summer and I was not looking forward to working on the book AND running my Labyrinth Lord game at the same time. I’ve been getting close to the fantasy saturation point and I needed something to cleanse my palette. Since summer is traditionally the time for sprawling, no-brainer movie blockbusters, I figured why not spend this summer with the biggest blockbuster of them all? My players happily agreed to put Watchfires & Thrones on the backburner and to tread the myriad worlds of George Lucas’ universe. But, as an old saw goes, you can take the boy out of the old school, but you can’t take the old school out of the boy.
One of the nagging problems with Star Wars or any other licensed roleplaying game is that the players are aware that no matter what they do or accomplish, they are never really the big damn heroes of the setting. Somewhere out there are NPCs more renowned and respected than they’ll ever be, because only one person can ever blow up the Death Star (OK, maybe two people) or defeat Voldemort or be the chosen vampire slayer. The players are forever second banana to that person’s exploits. I simply couldn’t have that. I can make concessions, but not if there’s a way around them and I luckily had an idea to do so. Enter “A New New Hope.”
The premise of my summer Star Wars campaign is that the events of the first movie (and you know what I mean by “first”) didn’t happen. Rather than take up the campaign after the Battle of Yavin, which is the usual default time for most D6 Star Wars games, this story begins just prior to that first title crawl. The PCs have just stolen the Death Star plans from a secret Imperial R&D facility and must now get them safely into Alliance hands. How’s that for an opener? In just the first session I managed to squeeze in a speeder chase, a planet consisting of both icy glaciers and rivers of lava, exploding starships, Darth Vader, salvaged droids, and, as a nod to the fact that this isn’t a sandbox setting, a speeding mag-rail train (I’m so meta sometimes). But I run a loose railroad and although the players are all bound for Pittsburg (figuratively speaking); at least they get to choose what route they're going to take to get there.