Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Star Wars: A Dead License

 If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

Obi-Wan Kenobi

Today it’s hard to imagine a world without Star Wars. We’re awash in everything from that galaxy far, far away: numerous streaming cartoon and live action shows, novels, comic books, action figures, Lego sets, a host of new films in theaters, and even occasionally roleplaying games. It certainly helps that one of the word’s major toy manufacturers (Hasbro) has a license to make Star Wars toys and one of the largest (if not the largest) media company (Disney) owns Lucasfilm (and hence the Star Wars intellectual property) since buying it for $4 billion and change from George Lucas in 2012. But some of us old relics have been around long enough to remember a distant time toward the end of the 20th century when it seemed Star Wars – which for a time played such a huge part in our youthful culture of blockbuster movies back then – was fading into obscurity.

West End Games’ production manager Richard Hawran told the story (possibly apocryphal) about the company sales manager around 1990 or so, before I was hired in 1993 and even before Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire hit bookstore shelves in 1991. The sales manager wanted to sideline production of Star Wars Roleplaying Game supplements because Star Wars is a dead license.”

For all intents and purposes he was right. Star Wars had a good run, but at that point it wasn’t going anywhere. In 1990 the franchise hadn’t released a feature-length film to theaters since Return of the Jedi in 1983. Sure, we had a few made-for-television Ewok movies and the Droids and Ewoks cartoon series. Topps Star Wars trading card lines ended after covering Return of the Jedi in 1983. Marvel Comics wrapped up its series based on the films in 1986, though special editions and, of course, comics based on Ewoks and Droids lingered until 1987. Collectors of this memorabilia and the Kenner toys carried the flame, but it wasn’t enough in a pre-internet world to maintain or increase popularity. West End’s 1987 release of Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game, winning the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game Rules of 1987, found fertile ground in fans and gamers, but not enough to elevate it in the public eye; certainly not notable enough to inspire more official media efforts from Lucasfilm. Star Wars had faded from our shared cultural consciousness aside from a few nerds who still reveled in the old trading cards, comics, and toys, along with the newer roleplaying game. It was such a forgotten cliché that a friend of mine, speaking at her high school graduation in 1990, lamented how kids in those days didn’t even know who Darth Vader was.

While West End’s Star Wars game was not enough to rekindle the franchise flame, it was well-placed to benefit from renewed interest in the license when Bantam published Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire in 1991. It shot to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list. At the time I’d been running Star Wars roleplaying game adventures and campaigns since discovering it in 1987, mostly with friends in my hometown during breaks from college (though I made one or two failed attempts to get a game going on campus). I discovered the newly released hardcover on a display in front of Waldenbooks at the Danbury Fair Mall (yes, I’m showing my age). It was a no-brainer instant purchase.

On several occasions Zahn noted drawing upon West End Games’ sourcebooks for setting elements – aliens, starships, vehicles, weapons and technology – so he didn’t have to “reinvent the wheel.” His work focused on authentic characterizations of heroes from the films and engaging new characters embroiled in intrigues as the New Republic confronted emerging threats. With subsequent novels released in 1992 and 1993, Zahn and Bantam helped renew interest in the Star Wars franchise and gave the roleplaying game a wider reach than ever before.

In 1993 West End hired me to establish a quarterly publication, the Star Wars Adventure Journal, to feature new adventures, source material, and game-related fiction. The company slowly increased the number of Star Wars game releases, cultivating new writers (some from the Journal’s proving grounds), and ultimately producing three to four new products a month during the mid 1990s until the company’s demise, laying off staff and filing for bankruptcy in the summer of 1998.

By then the Star Wars franchise was riding the renewed interest back into the public eye. In my West End Games days we often hoped Lucasfilm might develop a television show to expand the universe’s bounds. CGI in films was in its infancy; Babylon 5 was one of the first television series to rely on CGI for science fiction space battles and other effects. Understandably Lucasfilm was more interested in using CGI for its film projects, first the re-issue of the original Star Wars movie trilogy in the Special Editions, which hit theaters in 1997, and then in the subsequent prequel trilogy over the next few years. Alas, by that time West End’s roleplaying game license was gone, the game all but forgotten except among a few loyal fans, and Wizards of the Coast using the game rights to adapt Star Wars to the Dungeons & Dragons D20 game mechanics.

The earliest materials released in the mid 1990s during Star Wars’ renewed ascendance still have their followings. No doubt fans of the earliest Dark Horse Comics Star Wars series still exist. Trading card aficionados had new sets of cards with original artwork to collect. Electronic games have come a long way since then, but some of us have fond memories of playing those earliest games like X-Wing and Dark Forces. I still receive occasional comments from folks who loved the roleplaying game...some of whom still play today. Fans still relish the earliest novels, with some authors, notably Timothy Zahn, still contributing to the galaxy far, far away all these many years later.

Despite Disney wiping the continuity slate clean to better allow its creatives to produce new stories, elements from the “expanded universe” continue seeping into new material. I don’t immerse myself in it anymore beyond seeing the latest movies and watching the newest series released on Disney Plus. I smile a little when I spot something from previously dismissed continuity, particularly if it originated in a West End roleplaying game product. I bought some of the DK visual guides to my favorite “new” films – Rogue One and Solo – and felt some very small satisfaction seeing my name in the acknowledgments of the YT-1300 Millennium Falcon Owner’s Workshop Manual. With all these new media releases I find some satisfaction sharing the joy of re-discovering Star Wars with my son; for him the franchise inhabits a pantheon of fan material on par with Godzilla, Doctor Who, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m thankful Star Wars – and maybe my paltry contributions to its greater universe – has survived to entertain and enthrall new generations.


  1. I'm of the firm belief that without WEG Star Wars, there would be NO franchise today. Certainly not the extensive property it is. Maybe just a reboot or two (similar to the "Clash o the Titans" films).

    I think you and the other WEG designers have a lot to be proud of.

  2. Thanks for the kind sentiments, JB. Reflecting on time at WEG is bittersweet, but it’s always reassuring to hear folks who appreciate our work all these years later.

  3. Thank you for such a fantastic retrospective post here! Full of insight that makes me instantly nostalgic. I graduated from high school in '96 and I remember that time when Star Wars just "wasn't that cool" in the early 90's. Timothy Zahn's trilogy made me a fan again and at the time, 1992, I had tried ordering the Star Wars Sourcebook through the Intergalactic Trade Card Co. They said they couldn't get it anymore, as a new edition was coming out... so my first two West End Games purchases were the 2nd edition corebook (Blue Vader) and Sourcebook from my local Eric Fuchs Hobbies.

    Our AD&D second edition campaign had just concluded the summer of '92, so me, being the Star Wars nerd of the group - was asked to run it when they found out that I bought the books, and the rest is history. I keep my copies of the Adventure Journals close, as Charlene Newcomb's story is still some of my favorite submissions, next to Timothy Zahn's.

    Best to you and the family!
    - Brett

  4. It’s still the best Star Wars RPG around, Peter.
    Our group still plays it and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
    Thank you, and Paul, and Steve, and Greg and all the other people at WEG who created an immortal little masterpiece.
    Y’all done good. 👍🙂👍

  5. Thank you all for the kind words. It's always flattering to hear people still enjoy the game today and remember the folks who brought it to life all those years ago.


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