May 19, 2022
Link to article: RPG Review: West End Games Star Wars

RPG Review: West End Games Star Wars

Image courtesy Fantasy Flight Games

With The Book of Boba Fett out now, I figured this would be as good a time as any to take a closer look at one of the myriad options for TTRPGs set in a galaxy far, far away: Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game. Although there are many newer options, I find this edition not as clumsy or random as more recent entries; an elegant system for a more civilized age… Actually scratch that. I’m not 100% certain the age was any more civilized, but let’s get a little context around its release before going further.

Commonly referred to as West End Games Star Wars (or WEG Star Wars for short), this was the first major system for the vaunted media property. The licensing agreement was struck at a time when public interest in the franchise was waning. Return of the Jedi had definitively concluded the original trilogy four years earlier and little else was on the horizon. Improbably, much of WEG’s work found its way into official canon. Their sourcebooks conferred the official names for several races including the Rodians, Twi’leks, and Ithorians, who were simply called “hammerheads” before. Lucasfilm thought so highly of the material that when they hired Timothy Zahn to write the Thrawn Trilogy, they gave him WEG Star Wars books as reference material.

Aside from being extremely influential in the course of Star Wars history, what made this system so popular? Well, let’s look at the core elements.

Skills and Character Creation

WEG Star Wars is a skill-based, rather than class-based game. If you’re unfamiliar with this distinction, Seth Skorkowsky has a fantastic video that goes in depth on the subject. In a sentence though, this means that characters in this game are a collection of skills untethered to a set of related core competencies.

However, this system is friendly for those coming from class-based systems like D&D. The core rules strongly suggest picking from one of 24 premade archetypes that are roughly analogous to classes. If you don’t find something that suits your style among them, you’re free to create whatever you want. If you want to make a cantina-brawling smooth-talker, you can. If you want to be a starship repair specialist and galaxy-class swimmer, you got it.

Skills have six major categories: dexterity, knowledge, mechanical, perception, strength, and technical. Checks are resolved by rolling a pool of d6s. In short, the better you are at something the more d6s you roll, and the higher you roll the higher your chance of success.

Combat

Combat is fairly easy to grasp. One unique wrinkle is that everything happens more or less simultaneously. The notable exception is if two combatants are trying to do the same thing like shoot each other or dive for a loose light saber. When this happens, whoever rolled the highest gets their action first. For example, in the cantina Han and Greedo both use their blaster skill, Han rolls higher, so he shoots down Greedo before he can fire.

You can perform as many actions as you’d like, but each action beyond your first (including moving) subtracts a d6 from your roll. While it’s not bad to try to do two things in a round, anything beyond that makes your chances of success at any one thing pretty minimal. For example, you can attempt a daring charge towards some stormtroopers, fire your blaster, and dodge the incoming volley of lasers. While doing all those things at once, you’re likely only rolling 2d6 for those skills at most. When you consider a medium difficulty task needs around a 10 to succeed, you start to see how focusing on one or two actions is usually the way to go.

There aren’t hit points in the traditional sense in WEG Star Wars. Instead you have what’s called a wound status. When you’re hit, depending on how high your strength roll is, you’re either stunned, wounded, or incapacitated. Stunned characters basically lose their turn, wounded characters get a penalty on all rolls, and incapaciated are knocked out. Unlike in many HP-based systems, this means you’re unlikely to hit an enemy 4 or 5 times in a row and have them still up wreaking havoc on the party. If this does happen, it’s noteworthy and makes you feel like you’re squaring off against the rancor or battling Boba Fett on the deck of Jabba’s barge. Combat is much faster and frenetic, capturing the feel of a shootout in a Star Wars movie.

Image Courtesy Fantasy Flight Games

Jedi and Lightsabers

Every Star Wars game, regardless of format, has one big challenge: how to make playing as a Jedi feel appropriately powerful without breaking the game. To illustrate this conundrum, think about how the parties fared in Phantom Menace versus New Hope. With two Jedi at or near their prime, Padme and company were able to breeze into the heavily fortified Theed Palace dispatching throngs of battle droids in the process. Their progress was only slowed when Darth Maul came and drew the attention of Obi-Wan and Qui Gonn. However, if you look at the Death Star rescue from New Hope, it’s quite the opposite. With a Jedi master well past his prime, the heroes were at a constant disadvantage having to rely on stealth, subterfuge, and running away to complete their mission. To keep Jedi feeling special yet balanced, WEG Star Wars assumes there are few (if any) true Jedi knights or masters left in the galaxy.

Before going further, let’s discuss how the Force works in WEG Star Wars. The most common manifestation is through Force points, as every character begins with one. Using a Force point lets you double all your attributes and skills for the next round (if you would roll 3d6 for your blaster skill, you now roll 6d6). Depending on the context in which you deploy your Force points, you can gain them back, gain additional, or even drift towards the dark side. If you use Force points to enrich yourself or save your own skin, you risk getting dark side points. Each time you accumulate dark side points, the GM rolls a d6 and if it’s less than the number of dark side points, your character is seduced by evil and you lose control of them. They become an NPC and you have to bring in a new character. On the other hand, if you act altruistically, you may get your points back. For example, if you use your Force points to shove a child out of the way of a careless patrolling hovertank, the GM can elect to return it to you. If you take it a step further and act heroically at a narratively impactful moment, you may earn additional Force points. For example, if Luke used Force points to nail his shot destroying the Death Star, the GM would likely award him the initial force point back with an additional for future use. 

This system works on so many levels. From a pure gameplay standpoint, it greatly reduces the chances of bum rolls at critical points in the story. Say your brash smuggler is the only hero left standing and needs a bullseye to bring down the hunter-killer droid. Rather than, “oops I rolled a four, guess we’re all dead,” it makes it so the scoundrel digs deep and hits the mechanical assassin’s weak-spot. It encourages roleplay by rewarding bravery in defense of the party, which has the knock-on effect of strengthening the bonds of the player characters. And lastly, it just nails a key aspect of Star Wars: the clutch action. It so perfectly encapsulates the tension of R2-D2 shutting down the trash compactor at the last possible second, Han just narrowly piloting the Falcon out of the mouth of the asteroid worm, or Darth Vader resisting Palpetine’s force lightning to toss him into the abyss.

If you wish to play as a Force user, there’s only three skills: control, sense, and alter. Without giving an exhaustive description of each, control is how a character uses the Force to control their own body, sense is their induction of information via the Force, and alter is their ability to affect their surroundings (i.e. telekinesis). All of these skills can be combined in one way or another to produce all the Jedi powers in the Star Wars universe. For example, to restore an unconscious character, you’d need to roll both control and alter.

As I mentioned before, the core rules keep Jedi characters from becoming too powerful by making these abilities hard to come by. You can only improve force skills by seeking out increasingly rare sources of knowledge, so achieving knight status would likely be the culmination of a character’s arc rather than the beginning or middle. Jedi characters are close to Luke at the beginning of Empire Strikes Back or Rey partway between Force Awakens and Last Jedi.

One final piece on the force in WEG Star Wars, but it’s critical: lightsabers. All characters can use lightsabers, but they’re extremely rare. In the hands of a layperson, they’re not much more powerful than vibroblades except for their ability to cut opponents’ melee weapons in half. To use a lightsaber to its fullest, your character has to have some points in the control skill. At first glance, a lightsaber duel might seem disappointingly anti-climactic, but there’s more going on with lightsaber combat than meets the eye. Since you can choose to parry, dodge, or attack in any combination, duels can end up in a rather complex rock-paper-scissors style dance. When you throw in using your environment to your advantage, sword fights can get pretty interesting pretty quickly.

Cons

The most glaring issue I’ve seen with the game is the space combat and starship rules are pretty sparse. The core rules go as far to acknowledge the limited rules for space battles. There just aren’t rules for larger engagements like the battle of Hoth or the Death Star run. This isn’t the system for your Rogue Squadron campaign. Even smaller scale conflicts leave something to be desired. Since the game doesn’t use a grid, it can be especially hard to visualize three dimensional dogfights. If you’re looking to incorporate more aerial encounters, I’ve heard the second edition improved this aspect quite a bit.

One additional aspect that’s absent from the original is the “wild die” mechanic. Under this rule, one of the dice you roll is a different color. When it comes up six, you roll again adding the result to your total. If another six comes up, repeat the process. Conversely, a roll of one on the wild die indicates a narrative complication. You might not fail whatever you’re attempting outright, but some new complication emerges. For example, you roll to shoot the swoop gang member off his speeder. You pass the check, but you rolled a one on your wild die. You indeed blasted the thug but now his out of control bike is careening towards you!

It’s hard to describe exactly, but this mechanic goes a long way towards making the game feel like Star Wars. Even when running first edition, I’d strongly suggest using this as a house rule.

TL;DR

All in all, I’d put this system in the “must try” category. The rules might be fairly simple, but there aren’t really times where you feel held back from doing anything in the Star Wars universe. The only people I wouldn’t recommend this game to are those super into tactical combat or people who just don’t like Star Wars in general. The system unequivocally succeeds at being fast paced, cinematic, and true to the pacing of the films. Although West End Games lost the rights to the Star Wars license in the late 90s, a few years back Fantasy Flight published a hardbound collectors edition, so there’s quite a few physical copies out there in circulation. I saw one the other day going for around $20. If you’re looking to escort a powerful baby across the galaxy or take over a crime syndicate from a dead slug, this is the system I’d use. 

Check out all of our reviews here!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.