Tuesday, July 12, 2022

WEG Memoirs: The X-Files RPG

I was at a loss for this week’s Hobby Games Recce piece (an all-too-frequent occurrence these days). So I found my masking tape and put an “X” in the window, hoping my secret contact could help me out, give me a clue, send me in the right direction. Next morning I found a mysterious envelope at my front door. Inside I discovered the terrible truth about a long-dead conspiracy: notes for a planned X-Files Roleplaying Game....

I’ve had X-Files on my mind recently. I’ve been sucked into watching episodes on Comet – “THE place for Science Fiction programming on television” – in the normal schedule or on one of the channel’s frequent weekend marathons. On a recent visit to my hometown and my favorite independent bookstore (Books on the Common) I also picked up a print copy of Jack Sanders’ Ridgefield Names, which reminded me of the Great Swamp there, of a spooky story I once told someone while driving through the swamp late one night, and of an adventure I wrote and later sold to Pyramid Magazine. I originally designed the piece, “The Great Swamp Beast,” for an X-Files roleplaying game West End Games proposed to Fox in the late 1990s. Alas, like so many efforts, it didn’t go anywhere. But I still have some notes, an outline, character sheet, and other ephemera attesting to the game’s early yet aborted development.

In looking for a contract for the Pyramid article sale I stumbled on some files with notes on West End’s attempt to get the licensing rights to produce an X-Files roleplaying game. My files don’t have any dates, but from notes indicating which designers would write different sections of the rulebook I’d estimate it was around 1996-1997 (though, as always, my memory remains dusty and prone to error). Spearheaded by game designer and editor George Strayton (who went on to pursue more higher-profile, successful endeavors), the game would have used the mechanics made popular by the Star Wars Roleplaying Game (then the company’s “cash cow”) with some innovations from The D6 System: The Customizable Roleplaying Game (1996) Strayton also developed to codify the system in a standalone rulebook. We remained optimistic at our chances of producing an X-Files game; while management (and Strayton I expect) pursued the license negotiations with Fox, the design team hammered out enough basics to not only start the moment we received approval but to run a demonstration game to help pitch the idea to the licensor if necessary.

The notes in my folder consist of a few stapled and loose pages. The stapled set seems to come from an outline for “Folder Two” (“folders” being chapters): it outlines game specifics for characters/agents, notably a listing of skills (all starting at 2D with no attributes); a note that players added 15D to skills with none exceeding 5D; some bits on creating custom skills; notes on combat injuries; and a list of other information to include on the character sheet. A double-sided photocopy shows the tentative design for a character sheet. The trademark X-Files typewriter “X” divides each side into quarters, each section containing different game and agent information, including a notation to use the advantages/disadvantages system developed in the D6 System rulebook. My file also had a more traditional character sheet I developed later to use on my own running the swamp beast adventure for friends (and maybe at a convention...I’m not sure).

Some loose sheets look like they’re the rough rulebook outline, with a few pages obviously photocopied with handwritten notes (presumably Strayton’s). These repeat the character sheet information but also offer ideas for the different chapters and which West End staffers would develop and write them. Having my plate full editing the Star Wars Adventure Journal my assignments included what seemed typical for me, 10,000 words for the introductory “Solitaire Investigation” and another 10,000 words for the group adventure (similar to the format we took with the revised and expanded second edition of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, though I recall stepping in to work on several additional sections of that project...). Otherwise the outline seems pretty standard with one exception: notes for “Foreward by Chris Carter” and “Fiction by Keven Anderson.” These were, obviously, wishful thinking but possibilities to consider (and sell to management) if West End got the license. At the time author Kevin J. Anderson – who’d written a short story for the Star Wars Adventure Journal – was in the middle of writing a trilogy of X-Files novels; having the creative mind behind the series write the forward would have given the game an even more official stamp of authority.

I’ve discussed licensing roleplaying games before. They’re a mixed bag for publishers. Sure, they can capitalize on fan interest (and game designer enthusiasm) and generate some solid sales, but they’re also fraught with pitfalls: poor timing/fading interest, hefty fees and royalties, frustrating approvals processes at nearly every stage. The X-Files roleplaying game quickly stumbled into the licensing minefield. I vaguely recall a concern – typical for licensed properties – that roleplaying game material would interfere with or contradict concepts in development for the television show, creating a continuity burden for the producers and discrepancies noted by fans. (Disney solved this issue after acquiring Lucasfilm and its Star Wars property simply by declaring “expanded universe” elements outside the scope of continuity...and re-introducing what they wanted in dribs and drabs as necessary for set dressing, fan service, or convenience.) I also think Fox insisted creator Chris Carter review and approve all materials, a production nightmare given his own packed schedule. I wasn’t part of the negotiating team, but I’d expect the licensing terms were phenomenally exorbitant for a media property in its prime. While management negotiated for the license, Strayton led West End’s editorial staff working up an outline, character sheet, and a sample scenario to run if we ever got to the point where we’d make an actual pitch and offer to demonstrate the game. I don’t remember if there was a specific term or incident when the company decided to stop pursuing the license – as usual, creating the game seemed more exciting than the logistics behind getting the rights and publishing it – but it fell by the wayside, certainly when West End acquired rights for the Men in Black roleplaying game and started development for 1997.

In the mean time other non-licensed conspiracy games emerged to scratch the X-Files itch. Perhaps the earliest was Eden Studios’ Conspiracy X (early 1996), before West End started pursuing the X-Files license. Delta Green later integrated the popular Cthulhu mythos into the genre. Others focused on various “aliens among us” conspiracies similar to the X-Files without the license’s built-in popularity. On the surface Men in Black covered some of this in its own, unique setting, but it veered more toward action and comedy than the conspiratorially moody, creepy X-Files. Of course, as I’ve discussed before, gamers don’t need a licensed game to have fun in their favorite media universes; no doubt many used their favorite game mechanics to play out similar if not outright X-Files investigations at home.

In the months after West End’s bankruptcy disaster (the beginning of my “Desperate Freelancing Days”) I developed the adventure I’d conceived for the X-Files game proposal and submitted it to S. John Ross during his brief tenure editing Pyramid Magazine, which had, months before, just transitioned from print format to a weekly, subscription-based online format. At the time three cents per word was the roleplaying game publishing industry standard rate for freelancers (I fear it’s still pretty much the same today...) and any money was welcome while I frantically pursued freelance game writing work and day-job possibilities.

(I had initially thought of revamping “The Great Swamp Beast” as a PDF freebie, but, though I couldn’t find my contract, the writer guidelines I have from that time indicate the company purchased all electronic rights. I assume The Great Swamp Beast” remains copyright 1998 by Steve Jackson Games, buried somewhere on the company website with the rest of the electronic Pyramid Magazine content. And though my X-Files roleplaying game notes indicate some hints at where I might have gone with another adventure, I have little time, energy, interest, or incentive in developing that at the moment.)

Although these memories often leave a bittersweet taste in my mind, they also remind me of the incredible talent West End assembled and the amazing products we produced. Despite how much we got on each other’s nerves, it was my privilege to work with folks who could pour out this kind of effort on demand, whether writing and editing Star Wars game material, collaborating on a pitch to acquire a license, preparing convention events, or pulling together to salvage any number of production disasters. It was a hotbed of creativity, passion, and ego all poured into some of the period’s best roleplaying game materials.

1 comment:

  1. I remember when WEG started done short run or one-and-done IP games (Men in Black, Xena/Hercules, etc) and always thought the D6 system would've been a good fit for X-Files. I was a huge fan at the time. I thought the MiB RPG was great fun for what it was, tongue firmly planted in cheek and leaning hard into the goofier, more comedic elements of the source material. My group had great fun playing it over a decade after it was out of print and the LACK of supplemental material was refreshing and freeing.

    Twenty-five years later and a decade of experience freelancing, boy howdy do I have a better understanding of what a roll of the dice IP-based games can be. I've worked on enough now to understand it's almost always mired in red tape from the IP originator and you're absolutely never going to please all the fans.

    But I digress. The closest I feel there ever was to an X-Files RPG was White Wolf's "Project Twilight" supplement for World of Darkness and Werewolf: The Apocalypse specifically. Great little book, if you ever get a chance to read it.


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