Tuesday, November 1, 2016

WEG Memoirs: Player to Publisher

When I first began working at West End Games in 1993 I had to rapidly transition my mindset from that of a Star Wars gamer fan to that of an editor for an established Star Wars game line. I had experience on both fronts, having played roleplaying games since 1982, including the Star Wars game since its publication in 1987, and having worked for almost three years as a reporter and then an editor at a hometown weekly newspaper with a particularly exacting editorial mentor. My newspaper experience prepared me for various aspects of working at West End’s editorial department, yet my adventures with the Star Wars Roleplaying Game didn’t prepare me for managing with and in fact relying on the greater “Expanded Universe” that, even in those early days of Star Wars’ resurgence with fans, was rapidly growing out of hand.

As a gamer I had a small collection of the already numerous sourcebooks and supplements West End published since the game’s release. Of course I had the rulebook and Star Wars Sourcebook, and bought the gamemaster screen because, well, every games needs a screen. Like any gamer my aquisitions reflected my personal interests in what I felt was important in my own game: the Rebel and Imperial Sourcebooks, Galaxy Guide 6: Tramp Freighters, Cracken’s Rebel Field Guide, and a few scenarios (Tatooine Manhunt and Scavenger Hunt, more for the color maps than anything else). I’d even picked up the Heir to the Empire Sourcebook since the Timothy Zahn novel had re-ignited interest in Star Wars and was the first new literary material for the setting in ages. Alas, I didn’t incorporate many elements from the Heir to the Empire Sourcebook because my own play style as a gamemaster relied primarily on elements from the three classic Star Wars films, with a few useful bits drawn from game sourcebooks I felt fit with my vision of the universe. Most of my design philosophy boiled down to one adage: if it wasn’t in the films, it really didn’t have a place in my game. This created a gap between what I was willing to use from other Star Wars sources and what I needed as a gamemaster to create engaging adventures for my players. I relied on my own creativity to design new planets and locations, stat out new droids, weapons, ships, and aliens, and plot adventures in the spirit of the original films (as I interpreted it). Along the way a few other elements from popular media crept in, including the ED-209 from the Robocop film and a vengeful, camouflaged alien terrorizing an Imperial research base inspired by the alien from Predator. To me these “enhancements” didn’t overshadow the overall tone of our Star Wars campaign; our group consisted of gamers, not official writers and editors for the Lucasfilm-approved game line.

So when I arrived at West End Games in the summer of 1993 I had to adjust my mindset, particularly as coached (and sometimes chided) by the then-Star Wars editor, an avid fanboy with views on the galaxy far, far away tempered by a few years dealing with Lucasfilm approvals people and the handful of other licensees with permission to create and publish Star Wars material. I quickly adopted a mindset that didn’t always feel right from my perspective as a Star Wars fan, gamer, and creator: where possible incorporate elements previously published in West End sources (and less so in other licensees’ materials) instead of using only the material from the films. The game line adopted the view that it was a big galaxy out there, with plenty of room for new material (as long as it was in the “spirit” of Star Wars), though not too much new material. A number of times in my first few months I was told not to create something new when a similar element already existed, particularly if published in a West End sourcebook. This all proved a balancing act to find a workable medium between using only what we saw in the original films (my tendency) and relying wholly on elements created in prior game publications, between creating original material and using what was available in the ever expanding universe.

The repeated use of material West End had created served another purpose: in publishing more material incorporating past creations, West End seemed to reinforce the legitimacy of those elements in the eyes of Lucasfilm, other licensees, and fans. The really good creations resonated with fans and naturally found more frequent use in future sourcebooks and other media. Personalities such as Airen Cracken and Platt Okeefe proved popular, while some West End locations found use in novels and comic books. Writer Timothy Zahn helped reinforce West End’s contributions to the “Expanded Universe.” He found the wealth of previously created setting elements a useful reference so he didn’t re-define already approved pieces of the Star Wars universe (and didn’t have to worry about creating yet another setting bit that required Lucasfilm approval). Using established elements helped him integrate his stories into the broad tapestry of Star Wars continuity.

As the Star Wars franchise grew, so did the scope of the “Expanded Universe.” So much material existed it proved difficult to search to see if something had already been done, if someone had already developed a useful element, if something we were creating went against established continuity. A host of people helped adjudicate continuity issues, from game writers and editors to a dedicated team of approvals staffers at Lucasfilm. As the scope grew, as more people of varying degrees of familiarity with the license contributed to the franchise, as more product flooded the market, it’s understandable that some continuity conflicts were overlooked, disagreements emerged (as they seem to naturally do among fan communities) about what was truly official and in the “spirit” of Star Wars. While I am sometimes dismayed that many of West End’s and my own contributions to the Star Wars universe were seemingly dismissed with the announcement that the “Expanded Universe” was no longer as official as previously believed, I understand the necessity of starting fresh to give a new licensee and hence the new films the creative freedom to tell compelling and engaging stories without the hindrance of an overwhelmingly comprehensive and burdensome body of continuity. Fans of West End’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game have reason to celebrate as bits of the old game world make cameo appearances in newer material – television cartoons, comics, novels, and, of course, new movies – returning them in some small way to a sense of legitimacy among Star Wars fans and gamers as we revel in a renewed interest in our favorite galaxy far, far away.

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