Wednesday, May 25, 2011

School’s Out Week: Star Was (D6)

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.


Anonymous said...

That's a thoroughly excellent premise for a game of D6 Star Wars. I hope you continue to post about this, because I'm very intersted to see where it goes and to what extent the players attempt to replicate (or not) the actions of Luke, Han, Chewie etc.

Risus Monkey said...

Sounds fantastic! I have fond memories of D6 Star Wars, even though we only played it once. I'd love to try out something along the lines of what you are doing.

And re: being second fiddle to famous character in established IP. I've been running a Buffy the vampire Slayer game for many years now and we go around the problem by setting prior to the events in the show. Our conceit is that the events of the show will still happen, but (6 seasons into our series) that is still over six months away. Our Slayer will have to die, but everybody accepts that.

Anonymous said...

Ditto on the funness of the SW d6 premise and the desire to hear more about it. The few Star Wars campaigns I've run (and it's been a loooong time) had the players as far removed from the main action as possible so they could be the heroes. Your alternate timeline idea is even better.

Michael Curtis said...

I'm not certain how much additional coverage of the New New Hope game will appear here over the summer, but I will offer this:

In classic WEG Star Wars fashion, I had everyone read from a prepared script at the start of the game. This took a lot of the exposition off of my shoulders and the players seemed to enjoy it. You can read that script for yourself by downloading it here.

Billiam Babble said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Fisher said...

You know, I always wondered why so many people find the d6 system to be perfect for Star Wars because it never struck me as such. Maybe they just play fast-and-loose enough that the system doesn’t really matter much as long as it stays out of the way.

Billiam Babble said...

I bought Traveller after reading a review claiming it would be like Star Wars, back when mainstream Sci-FDi RPGs were only a handful. It can be very sandbox. It's very NOT Star Wars. It's not even very Space Opera. Perhaps Star Frontiers would have been a better purchase, but it still wasn't quite "Star Wars".

I rather like Star Wars D6...

Quick flash forward to SW d20:
Never quite understood the need for 7th level stormtroopers. ;) -I don't care how "elite" they are - they should be "blaster-fodder" (but the legacy of the d20 Star Wars game is many adjustments to D&D - like survivable hps for 1st levelers - but there's whole essays on this I'm sure ...) I do have a soft spot for my WotC SW Saga Edition.

Although starting characters could flunk a lot of difficult tasks with low skills pips/points. The armour system was beatifically simple. helmet +1, vest +1, trooper armour +1D, as were skills and damage.

Some of the character templates were a bit clunky (owning stock light freighter=massive debt). The earlier books were considerably simpler than the later rules - and they were set in "classic" Star Wars (within the 3 original movies) - but you NEVER played the characters in the films. I have a few modules and they were pretty badly written - you would have to railroad the players through tough encounters (reminding me of TSR Indiana Jones), but the simplicity of system and the premise of the game was ace. I didn't get into the new novels, so much of the Expanded Universe was lost on me. Thrawn-who?
The first edition is a little flawed but still lovely in it's goal and completeness. Very "pulp"!

Incidentally, I'm pretty sure a good amount of modern SW lore was established by these games (simultaneously with the some of the video games)
It was WEG SW range which gave us the Z-95 Headhunter (using an early design sketch of an x-wing) and Jodo Kast (Boba Fett lookalike) and some earlier classes of Star Destroyer. As a DM - the environment felt familiar enough and there was just enough scope for customisation. I only played a few games, they were fairly thrilling - a lot of dice on the table, mind. ;)

Thanks for the memories. :)

DaveL said...

Your "prepared script" was awesome! I played a fast and loose Star Wars type game many years ago, sans rules! We just winged it, I had a rubix cube that I pasted numbers on to use for a die, a "magic 8-ball" Yoda for advice ("search your feelings," "you know it to be true," etc) and it was the most fun I ever had playing an RPG.


Jamie Albrecht said...

I've always wanted to run a pre-Battle of Yavin Rebellion game where the characters are the equivalent of a French Resistance cell in a bustling city, carrying out sabotage and rescuing prisoners under the nose of the Empire. There's room for all sorts of characters and specialists in a premise like that.

Anthony Emmel said...

And now to assert my nerd cred.

The Z-95's first appearance is actually in the 1979 novel "Han Solo at Star End." and the fact that I read that when it came out when I was 9 makes me feel old. :)

Doing what's now called a Star Wars "Infinities" campaign, where things take a "what if path" different from the movies is actually one of my favorite things to do these days.

Of course, I also like to set campaigns after the first movie and ignore everything else EXCEPT for those early Marvel comics. Very different feel, even from ESB. Oh, and "Splinter of the Mind's Eye" and the aforementioned Han Solo novels. A different feel, definitely.

Billiam Babble said...

@Anthony re. Z-95
No way! :D
*corrected, humbled in acquiring new arcane knowledge*
I love the fact that much of the good stuff doesn't come from Lucas. ;)

Brent said...

Having played the D6 SW game continuously since 1988, I can say without a doubt, that you have just as expansive a realm of possibilities as any other game universe – especially if you rule out everything post 1998 and take a realistic view.

That means 25,000 years of history, 500,000+ sectors, over 36 million+ worlds... It can be immense and 99.999% of the galaxy is not even mentioned (and that's just the 60º wedge that the "Known Galaxy" occupies).

While it is true that there can be a lot of overshadowing by the major players in the story and a lot of railroading, it is ultimately how you approach it. Just because you can't save the galaxy does not mean saving a bunch of Twi'leks from slavers or running a cargo of illegal drugs to help some kid get the meds she needs are not heroic acts the players can relish.

Hell, one of my favorite scenes in my entire history as a gamemaster was when two of my players decided to tango in a restaurant on Dac.