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Star Wars: The Phantom Game


Updates: Before moving on to the topic at hand, I'd like to take a brief moment to thank everyone who expressed their opinions regarding last month's column, "Apocalypse Never." I appear to have struck a chord with people. While the bulk of the commentary was very positive, there were some who disagreed with me vehemently. Among those who did were a sizable minority impressed with Dream Pod Nine's latest game, Tribe 8. These forthright souls recommended that I take a look at the game before I write off post-apocalyptic roleplaying for good. You can rest assured that I shall endeavor to do that –– although it'd be a lot easier if someone sent me a review copy ;) Watch this space for future updates on this story.

I'd also like to thank everyone for their kind words about my review of Unknown Armies by Atlas Games. Again, I seem to have a struck some chord with more people than I'd have thought. Given the hype surrounding the release of this game, I thought I'd receive more negative replies than positive ones (even the game's creator, John Tynes, sent me a very nice e-mail about my review). I guess it just goes to show what I've known all along: honesty is the best policy in game reviews. If you don't like a game, don't be afraid to say so.

Unless you've had your head in the sand for the last few months, you know about and are breathlessly awaiting the release of Episode I of the new Star Wars trilogy. Entitled The Phantom Menace, this film details the first adventure of young Anakin Skywalker (the future Darth Vader to those who somehow don't know) and opens across North America on 19 May of this year. I think it's safe to say that I'll be in line pretty early in the morning on that day, along with some of stalwart (and slightly crazy) friends. My wife thinks I'm insane and perhaps I am. I mean, getting up at 4 AM to stand in line behind some moron who's been waiting for even longer in a meticulously-made Boba Fett costume isn't exactly the height of mental health. Of course, I'm rarely accused of being sane –– I'm working on my Ph.D. in 17th century philosophy, after all. At the same time, Star Wars was a major element of my childhood and, like many others of my generation, it'll take a lot to keep me away from the theater that spring morning.

Naturally, I'm also a big fan of West End's Star Wars roleplaying game. Over the last decade or more, I've had a lot of fun running and participating in games set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The game system that West End produced is well-suited to its setting and easy to master. In all honesty, I have a very hard time imagining a game better suited to capturing George Lucas's vision in a roleplaying format.

Yet, that's exactly what I've begun to consider. Despite the cries of "we're not dead yet" emanating from Honesdale these days, West End seems a spent force. The company may survive in some fashion, but it'll never be the same. I also doubt very much that the Star Wars RPG license will remain with West End indefinitely. Admittedly, neither Lucasfilm nor West End has announced that the license has been revoked and granted to another company. That this is the case doesn't mean that West End will necessarily retain it. I believe that there's a good chance that Star Wars will simply die as a roleplaying game. Such a license is very small potatoes to Lucasfilm, who are more accustomed to multi-billion dollar deals with Hasbro for action figures and the like. Lucasfilm doesn't need to grant anyone a license to produce an RPG. If West End continues in its current sorry state, there's no guarantee that any company will be producing an official Star Wars game in time for the release of The Phantom Menace.

This hasn't stopped the rumor mill from churning at a prodigious rate. Lots of names, from TSR/WOTC to FASA to Decipher, have been mentioned as possible publishers of a new Star Wars RPG. Of course, these rumors are just that. Thus far, there has been no evidence to suggest that anyone other than West End has the license. At the same time, West End hasn't produced any new Star Wars products in almost a year and that situation will not change any time soon. Indeed, it's unlikely West End will produce any new products at all until this summer at the earliest (don't even mention the Torg comic collection –– repackaging old stuff does not count as new product).

With this in mind, what's a boy to do in May when, after having seen Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi take on Darth Maul and the forces of darkness, he has a serious hankering to run a Star Wars Episode I-style campaign? That's a very good question and one without an easy answer. The most obvious choice, of course, would be to dust off the old West End game and retrofit the information in there to work in the waning days of the Old Republic. Whatever one may think of Dark Horse Comics and their abominable Star Wars stories (don't even get me started on Dark Empire), the Tales of the Jedi Companion book by WEG will serve an Episode I GM in good stead. Even without it, West End's Star Wars RPG is by far the best choice. The mere fact that it the game was designed with the setting in mind is greatly in its favor.

However, the fact remains that there may be newbies who either don't have or can't find the old West End materials. Don't believe me? Try living in Toronto, where I am currently trapped. You'd think the fifth-largest city on the continent would have game stores aplenty, but you'd be wrong. To add insult to injury, few have a good supply of Star Wars game materials. Even if I lived in a more game store-rich town, there's still a good chance that I won't be able to get the stuff I need. Now, you could just order the books directly from West End's website. The company could surely use the cashflow. They're even holding a "Pre-Movie Sale" that reduces the price of some older supplements by 50%. I'd advise anyone interested in these items to take advantage of it now.

Still, it's not a foregone conclusion that this is the route that everyone will or even should take. So, what other options are there? What other contenders are there for the coveted role of being a Star Wars game engine? Strictly speaking, just about any game system could be made to serve. Now, why you'd want to run Star Wars using Toon rules is beyond me, but then so are furbies. Long ago, I ran an ill-fated Star Wars game using the classic Traveller rules from GDW. The old supplement 1001 Characters even included stats for Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, if I recall correctly. Unfortunately, there was always something lost in the translation. Han Solo was not a five-term merchant with a free trader nor were stormtroopers wearing battle dress. And what rank is a Grand Moff anyway? Is it naval, army, or bureaucratic? Too many questions for my teenaged mind and too few answers. 

So, as I see it, though, there are only a few serious possibilities besides West End's own game. Two are very obvious: TSR's Alternity and Steve Jackson's GURPS. Indeed, both come to mind for much the same reasons: flexibility and availability. GURPS in particular has a great deal of source material available to make the GM's job of creating stats for Trade Federation Battle Droids and Naboo Fighters that much easier. Of these two, I'd recommend Alternity over GURPS, if only because Alternity handles high-powered butt-kicking action more easily. I mean, have you ever played GURPS Supers? Ouch. After all, Jedi are superhuman in their abilities and you need a game that can handle that kind of power. Alternity seems ready-made to handle larger-than-life heroes and situations. Indeed, I still wonder how well it could handle ordinary situations. Now, I know there are a lot of GURPS partisans out there, so please don't write me and say how great the game system is. The fact is that, in my experience, GURPS breaks down as a system the farther one gets beyond low-magic fantasy. Most high-tech settings are just too much for it to handle adequately. Fortunately, Star Wars, especially in its Episode I flavor, is somewhere in between SF and fantasy. Given that, GURPS might be made to serve quite creditably, even though I wouldn't recommend it.

Another option is White Wolf's Trinity. Despite protestations to the contrary, I still believe this game to be about superheroes in the 22nd Century. I can't see any way around this interpretation. While there are those who might balk at playing in such a setting, it's hard to deny that a rule system capable of handling such things might work well for Star Wars. Many of the psionic aptitudes included in Trinity could easily serve as Jedi powers. The Storyteller system isn't without its flaws, but it is easily understandable and quite flexible. One of the big problems with Trinity is that, unlike Alternity and GURPS, it's not a generic system. It wasn't designed to ported to other settings. This is particularly true of Trinity's technology, which is a little low-powered for Star Wars.

Holistic Design's Fading Suns might also be pressed into service. While the game setting is much darker than Star Wars, it is a science fantasy setting, complete with magic and mental powers (including their own versions of the "light" and "dark side" of the Force). Heck, there are even light sabers, whatever they actually call them. My main hesitation in recommending Fading Suns is that I find the combat system to be rather tedious. Even more so than Alternity, it is quite hard to kill decently-armored opponents under this system. Somehow this doesn't seem true to Star Wars reality where dozens of stormtroopers can be taken down by a spunky princess from Alderaan. However, there are enough other similarities between these realities to consider using it.

In the end, though, I am skeptical whether any game system will serve as well as West End's own. Like Chaosium's former game Pendragon, WEG's Star Wars is one of those rare games that possesses a system perfectly suited to its setting. It is very, very hard to imagine any alternative, never mind a better one. In a way, this is a great shame, as it might make life a little more difficult for Episode I-obsessed gamers wanting to play out their stories set in the dying days of the Old Republic.

I'd be interested to hear from anyone out there who runs (or plans to run) a Star Wars game using an alternate rules system. The creativity of my fellow gamers never ceases to amaze me. Depending on the level of response, I may present my findings in an update accompanying a future column.

James M.

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