Tuesday, March 29, 2022

WEG Memoirs: Intro Adventure Game

 This is one of the best intros to RPGs I’ve ever seen.”

Andrew Rilstone, Arcane magazine

This year’s GAMA trade show recently wrapped up. The occasional posts from folks who attended stir up memories of the few times I went with West End sales managers to promote our games, especially the Star Wars Adventure Journal and the roleplaying game. It was more than 25 years ago, so my memory remains foggy, but I recall going three times to GAMA: in New Orleans, LA, Reno, NV, and Atlantic City, NJ. These offered good opportunities to promote games face-to-face with store owners and spend off hours chatting with colleagues in other companies. At one of these the then-sales manager at Iron Crown Enterprises traded me a copy of the company’s boxed Lord of the Rings Adventure Game published back in 1991. Combined with my nostalgic love of boxed sets and my urge to introduce newcomers to the adventure gaming hobby, it provided the inspiration for the Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game.

I still have fond memories of my earliest roleplaying game boxed sets filled with goodies with the potential to inspire seemingly endless hours of play. Granted, most of these boxes served as convenient storage for a few rulebooks, supplements, and adventures, but sometimes included folded maps (Thieves’ World), handouts, size comparison charts (Call of Cthulhu), and, of course, dice. TSR boxed sets eventually came loaded with piles of handouts and maps beyond the sourcebooks. In the early and mid 1980s boxed sets seemed the standard for delivering the core roleplaying game materials. I always – and still – find boxed sets the best format for introducing newcomers to roleplaying games, especially if we intend for them to learn right out of the box instead of from friends demonstrating how to play. While not ideal the Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons boxed sets gave me my first taste of roleplaying games. Other beginner boxes have tried introducing newcomers to the adventure gaming hobby, balancing a measured approach to teaching the game with cool goodies in the box: most editions of D&D (some with multiple “starter sets”); the Pathfinder Beginner Box (one of my favorites, as I’ve mentioned before); and the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game.

Aside from rekindling my nostalgia for boxed roleplaying games the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game demonstrated a different approach to teaching the game. The box came with all kinds of goodies, some expected, others I found novel (at least from my own gaming experiences). A slim rulebook outlined the essentials like character creation and actions. Location maps provided settings where the cardboard cut-out standees (with stats on the back) could maneuver. The obligatory full-color map of Middle-earth proved an attractive addition for any fan. But the adventure book really caught my eye. At first glance the text consisted of what I’d call a “programmed solitaire tutorial,” with numbered entries like the classic Choose Your Own Adventure books; it was a method West End used to outline mechanics and setting material in earlier rulebooks like Paranoia and Star Wars. But this adventure, however, took the programmed solo tutorial format to the next level. Sure, this was a “solo adventure” but from the perspective of the gamemaster running the scenario for several friends. Player choice determined which entries to read, with further text walking the gamemaster through the relevant rules and results conveyed back to the players.

The approach inspired me to develop and pitch a proposal to West End management for a similar treatment for the Star Wars Roleplaying Game. We’d received news that Lucasfilms was releasing the special edition Star Wars trilogy in 1997, so we developed the intro game to coincide with those releases. The full-color, hard-cover revised and expanded edition had released in 1996, but management hoped a more traditional game format – meaning a game in a box with dice and pieces – might make its way into mainstream retailers and into the homes of casual fans who’d never tried roleplaying games at all...but who might try if it featured their favorite galaxy far, far away.

We wanted something unique to West End’s Star Wars line, a box packed with goodies, rules derived from the existing system (to which beginners could transition if ready), and a complete Star Wars campaign experience.

I’m still amazed opening the box how much we manage to pack in there. We split the game material into three volumes, two digest-sized booklets (one for players, the other for the “narrator” gamemaster), and one regular-sized campaign book. Although we didn’t include a full-color map (such as those enclosed with the earliest adventures released for the game) we settled on several 11x17-inch single-fold, black-and-white maps, with each side showing either a typical encounter location or something more specific from the game adventures: deck plans for a YT-1300 freighter, part of downtown Mos Eisley, the cantina (both from Jacquays’ amazing maps from Tatooine Manhunt), a docking bay, plus the Rebe base and Imperial scout post from the campaign. The box included full-page character templates for all the major stereotypes. Four cardstock sheets included character and vehicle stand-ups to cut out, fold, and assemble: one each for the character templates, lots of Imperial adversaries, speeder bikes, speeders, even an AT-ST, and a host of gamemaster characters from the campaign adventures. Eight sheets of perforated cards (with eight cards per sheet) provided handy references with a color photo/art on one side and game stats on the other: all the vehicles, creatures, adversaries, and ships mentioned in the narrator book useful in running a film-inspired game; Force powers to dole out to Jedi; even specific characters and vehicles from the campaign. (I have a set of these in my standard “to-go” Star Wars Roleplaying Game binder along with dice, pregenerated characters, the rulebook, and Instant Adventures). I don’t recall the box’s retail price, but I think West End took a loss and sold it for $19.95.

The two digest-sized rulebooks catered to players and the “narrator” (gamemaster). Each began with brief programmed text adventures, the first walking the single player through a situation, teaching necessary rules along the way: a scout investigates an escape pod landing near his hidden rebel base on a remote planet. The second walked the narrator through a group adventure with other players, with each entry talking about how to describe the scene, coordinate actions, how to interpret skill rolls, and move on to the next encounter: the Empire assaults the characters’ now-discovered Rebel base and they must evacuate into the surrounding countryside before stormtroopers capture them. After each programmed adventure the rulebooks covered the relevant mechanics and procedures in more detail, focusing on creating characters from templates and running adventures, with a host of useful source material (bolstered by the illustrated reference cards). The art department filled each with black-and-white movie stills relevant to each section, along with plenty of useful reference sidebars and other graphic embellishments. Overall I tried distilling the existing second edition game rules into a for more accessible to casual gamers and fans. In many cases I veered heavily toward the first edition rules, remembering my own enjoyment of them and their lack of fiddly bits hardcore gamers might prefer. I wanted more intuitive simplicity rather than system crunch. In this I was mostly successful, though I was expressly told I could not eliminate the “wild die” I so vehemently disliked (and still dislike). I also tried to keep the language simple and concise, making sure to present concepts in logical order for folks to learn. A later review from Andrew Rilstone writing in Arcane magazine proved I’d done a decent enough job at this: “It’s all be done so well that I wonder whether the author is in fact a professional teacher or perhaps an author of text books.”

Both adventures in the rulebooks served as the starting point for the sprawling, planet-bound series of adventures in the campaign book. After the characters fled the Imperial assault of their base, they travel across the face of Edan (the planet), seeking allies and resources and ultimately taking on the Imperial occupation force. My old friend Steve Luminati wrote it; years ago he had run it as a Star Wars Roleplaying Game campaign for friends back in our hometown in Connecticut, with the difficult limitation of keeping all the action “planetside” (earning that as the campaign’s nickname). While this might not cater to fans’ concept of Star Wars action including starships, space battles, and planet-hopping, it really served to gradually introduce more challenging game concepts one adventure at a time. It demonstrated how one might build a campaign out of related locations and gamemater characters (both allies and adversaries) to create engaging episodes and a fulfilling story arc.

Every time a new product arrived in the warehouse our production manager Richard Hawran enthusiastically bounded through the offices handing out everyone’s copy of the product. I’m sure folks were impressed with the Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game; it’s still one of the products of which I’m most proud. Alas, I have no production or sales numbers for it. Copies made it through West End’s traditional distribution network – meaning to hobby and game stores and a few chain bookstores – but I believe some appeared in Toys R Us locations in New York and New Jersey. It came out in time for the special edition releases of the classic trilogy, though I don’t know if that boosted interest or sales. Reviews from the gaming press were quite positive and still a source of satisfaction for me today. “The game is fast-moving, exciting and almost incapable of getting bogged down in discussions concerning rules interpretations,” wrote Jon Leitheusser in InQuest magazine. “For beginners this is a top-notch product that I can’t recommend highly enough.” “It is about as clearly explained an introduction to roleplaying as you could imagine; everything is approached clearly and methodically and, a lot of the time, entertainingly.,” said Rilstone in his Arcane review. “But the best thing about the book is the clarity of its explanations. Joe [Gamer] didn't feel that he was struggling through a referee book, or even reading a story; he felt that an experienced referee was chatting to him giving clear, sensible advice about how to runt he game and give the players a good time.”

In retrospect the Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game did not win over multitudes of Star Wars fans to the roleplaying games. Its limited distribution through West End’s usual hobby and publishing channels, even appearing in Toys R Us, and its extremely reasonable price point for the production values included in the box, did not result in a financial windfall of sales. I’m sure it provided – and still provides – a comprehensive beginner experience that, perhaps, still inspires people to continue gaming in their favorite galaxy far, far away. It didn’t propel me into many professional opportunities to design beginner friendly games, though I’ve continued my advocacy for such approaches in my own personal endeavors (it did spawn a version to support West End’s Men in Black game). Its publication, the release of the classic trilogy special edition movies, and ultimately the promise of the long-awaited prequels, could not prevent West End’s death spiral into bankruptcy in the first half of 1998 (heck, I doubt anything could have prevented that). Despite these regrets I still have fond memories and great pride for the Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game. I still hear from folks using that version of the game – or even just the maps, cardstock characters, and reference cards – for their adventures today. Although I helped shape the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, Second Edition – Revised & Expanded with West End’s staff, an effort some view as the best version of the game, I still feel like the Intro Adventure Game is my best personal contribution to the game line along with the Star Wars Adventure Journal. If that’s the only Star Wars gaming legacy people remember about me, I can live with that.

The Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game contains the same rules at its heart, but simplifies the system by disposing with a number of the advanced rules – rules that could easily overwhelm new players and get in the way of having a really great time the first time they play. This was the whole point of the Introductory Adventure Game and the designers succeeded admirably.”

Jon Leitheusser, InQuest magazine

Postscript

I cannot talk about the Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game without commenting on the back-of-the-box illustration by prolific Star Wars Roleplaying Game freelance artist Mike Vilardi. It shows the typical image of kids gathered around a table for a roleplaying game, with my smuggler character Platt Okeefe as gamemaster describing the in-game scene, a Rodian looking over someone’s shoulder, a stormtrooper watching warily in the background, Boba Fett in the distant shadows, even R2-D2 shooting some dice into the air. It embodies all the drama, excitement, wonder, and playfulness I want at the gaming table. As part of that playfulness you’ll find my image in two spots. The girl in purple is maneuvering a character stand-up bearing my face, with the unmistakable beard, glasses, and hat. And the kid right next to Platt...well, I suppose that’s me, too, in spirit, wistfully pining away for her and in a sense longing for and reveling in the imaginary escape Star Wars has often provided.


5 comments:

  1. Still my favorite version of the West End Games Star Wars D6 rules and if given my choice they will be the first rules off the shelf I'd run a campaign in today. Everything you need is in the two guide books - assuming your GM mind has the imagination to glance over at some of the stock stats and do the on-the-fly tweaking necessary to expand the options in different directions the guides don't explicitly lay out.

    While Mini Six is a delightfully streamlined collection of various rules that existed around at the time of its publication I think it suffers in areas that the Intro game doesn't: clarity. The clarity of the rules is what makes the IAG product so extensible without needing dozens of optional rules systems.

    I've mentioned it before to you privately but I just want to say it again: IAG has brought *100s of hours* (more certainly!) of joy into my life and my kids' lives. It is easily my favorite box set WEG produced in the Star Wars era and I'd personally argue the best of them as well. Comparing it to the modern day Beginner Boxes FFG (now Edge Studios) produced for their Star Wars line makes me think it is still the best-in-class Star Wars beginner game. While the visual contents of the FFG boxes are very well done the rules are poorly explained and lack most of the fundamentals needed to take the game "beyond the box." As such we've not really invested any time in expanding our FFG collection where as we will always look to pick up a printed copy of WEG book (if the price is right) - not as a collector's item but as another resource to draw inspiration from in our Intro games.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for your kind words, Shawn. I'm always flattered to hear not only that our WEG work still sees play today, but that it's preferable over all the other options available.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I picked this up about ten years ago for an excellent price. Open but apparently unused as none of the cards are punched or the figures are cut out. It's beautiful. My problem is that I always have problems besmirching such things of beauty even though I bought it to play, not to collect. That and I've had trouble getting anyone to play it (or 1st edition) with me.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I still got a shrink wrapped copy about 2 years ago for cheap. It's played in now. My absolute favourite edition of the Star Wars D6 rules and still the best intro box ever made. I haven't seen any other beginner boxes teaching a game so well to players and GM alike. None manage to put so much content in I can play for years with just this one box. I was amazed when I realized there where cards for NPC, vehicles and creatures in it that did not come up in the intro adventure at all. So good. It's a marvel and it is a crime it is not better known.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'd love to get my hands on a copy of this. I can't even remember seeing it for sale in the UK. I suppose it was at some point.

    ReplyDelete

We welcome civil discussion and polite engagement. We reserve the right to remove comments that do not respect others in this regard.