How a Tabletop RPG Brought 'Star Wars' Back From the Dead

In 1987, 'Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game' took a pile of notes from Lucasfilm and built a universe that's still used today

'Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game' was (quite literally) the only game in town for 'Star Wars' fans for almost 10 years. Credit: Lucasfilm

Imagine living in a time when it seemed like the Star Wars phenomenon had run its course. That's almost impossible to conceive of now, or at any point in the last 25 years. Even in the Nineties, before the prequels had been announced, or during that terrible drought between the prequels and The Force Awakens, there were still tie-in TV shows and comics and action figures and video games and Darth Tater Potato Heads, all helping to keep the franchise alive.

But there was a time when Star Wars was completely moribund. In the late Eighties, the original film trilogy was a distant memory, the kid-friendly TV specials were done, the Saturday morning cartoons had petered out, and there were no new novels or toys on the horizon. This was an era before every single intellectual property that had ever been vaguely popular, from Point Blank to Poltergeist, got recycled. At the end of the Reagan era, it genuinely seemed to many that the lifecycle of George Lucas' film franchise had seen its day in the sun.

That's why it was sort of crazy that West End Games, a maker of Dungeons & Dragons-style tabletop role-playing games, would spend a fortune to license Star Wars in 1986. Bill Slavicsek, who helped create Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game for West End, remembers telling a friend who worked for Marvel Comics about the project. “He said, ‘Why would you make that?! That’s a dead license!’” recalls Slavicsek.

But Star Wars wasn't dead. And the tabletop game was one of the things that helped keep the the franchise's flame alive in the minds of countless fans. West End’s RPG wasn’t merely a stopgap – it helped to flesh out the details of that galaxy far, far away in the darkest days. In giving players the backstory and framework they needed to have their own adventures in Star Wars, the game became a cornerstone of the Expanded Universe, adding names and story elements that are still in use today.

Tabletop games are sort of amazing. With a handful of dice, a couple of rule books and a few willing friends, players could create their own limitless world, a sort of shared hallucination. "It's an act of group storytelling," says Slavicsek.

It was also a crowded and competitive industry by the mid-Eighties. Dungeons & Dragons creator TSR was the major player, but upstart companies were rushing to create competing games built around different settings and licenses. Before making a bid for Star Wars, West End had had success with original RPGs, like the dystopian sci-fi comedy Paranoia and an adaptation of Ghostbusters.

Greg Costikyan, a co-creator of Paranoia, was one of the people tasked with securing the Star Wars license. "We flew out to California to meet with Lucasfilm," he says. "We made a bid of $100,000. We later learned that TSR had tried to get the license too, but they only bid $70K."