Welcome to The Force Does Not Throw Dice, a new series of articles where we are going to be exploring the fun world of playing and directing tabletop roleplaying games in the Galaxy Far, Far Away, and where we are planning to impart some sage advice and encouragement to both Game Masters and players. If you’ve never played a Star Wars RPG, keep reading all the same, for our first article is going to have a small discussion on setting and canon. What should the continuity in our campaign be like? Should we discard all official materials or should we try to choose between one of the official portrayals? Hello, I’m Dave and I’ve been directing games for more than twenty years!
Playing in the Star Wars galaxy comes with a few constraints that playing in your own homebrew sci-fi setting doesn’t. First and foremost, there’s the metaplot: Luke Skywalker defeated Darth Vader and saved the galaxy, not your player characters. If you are playing tramp freighter spacers or bounty hunters, that’s probably okay with you, but many groups are used to a more heroic kind of roleplaying and find these restrictions completely unacceptable.
Many gaming groups sidestep this problem by setting their games in an alternate universe, one where their characters can fall in love with Leia and/or Han and be the ones to destroy the Death Star; some other gamers prefer to play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and have their player characters have their adventures in the cracks of the saga (like, I dunno, being the ones to steal the Death Stars plans; hey, there were official precedents!). Some of this last kind of gamers even insist on making their adventures perfectly fit with the “canon” of the saga, bending themselves over to make sure the official word is respected no matter what.
My own approach is sympathetic to this last option, but not as strict: I like my games to make use of both original and official material, and both me and my players like to see our games as never-published parts of the saga. While we’ve always had as a guiding principle that whatever happens on the table (our “table canon”) supersedes the official canon, I admit that having a strong official setting to base your campaign on is great, both as a time saver and as a way to avoid having to rely too much on improvising and making stuff up on the fly. What’s the fine for not having your ship’s paperwork up to date? West End Games knew.
My gaming group has always played the rules-light D6 edition, as we tend to use SWRPG as a palate cleanser from the considerably crunchier roleplaying games we play regularly. Still, we’ve always kept buying new material and we really liked the approach Fantasy Flight Games took with the Star Wars galaxy. Thanks to the Story Group allowing them to be unfettered by the constraints of continuity as long as their material felt like Star Wars, FFG has been freely mixing canon, Legends and completely original material, usually to good effect. And why not? The Star Wars galaxy is a fantastic narrative setting, but there are some elements in it that don’t necessarily make it a good roleplaying setting. In this article, we are going to suggest that you follow FFG’s example: choose a strong base first (we go with the way the galaxy worked under West End Games) and then spend some time considering some topics you find important, deciding which portrayal works better as a roleplaying setting, using what you like and discarding the rest. So, let’s cherry pick which elements we are going to use for our own campaign! We’ll analyze this with a couple of examples.
Example #1: Kessel
The layout of Kessel is not an important topic when getting your campaign ready, but let’s say we wanted to direct a classic “escape from Kessel” adventure and thus we had to decide how to portray it. The descriptions of Kessel given in Legends and in canon couldn’t be any more different. Old Kessel was a planetoid with little to no atmosphere, governed by Imperials first and then by ruffians; new Kessel is a regular planet with a corrupt monarchy and a mix of Imperials and drug lords. How should our Kessel be?
- First, we are going to go with Kessel as shown in Star Wars Rebels. The space potato is charming, but it’s also physically impossible (and I know some of my science-minded players wouldn’t forgive me if I did something like that). The lack of atmosphere can be an interesting gameplay mechanic, but we don’t find it particularly attractive: still, we are going to drop some mentions of atmospheric processors to leave open the possibility of them malfunctioning some day. We are going to keep the Garrison Moon from Legends, as it’s going to be very useful to generate encounters when entering or leaving Kessel. Plus the idea of a heavily-armored moon hanging over your head is very Star Wars.
- We are going to keep the political system as shown in the new canon. The idea of a corrupt monarchy in the Pyke Syndicate‘s pocket serves us well, as it opens many adventure possibilities: the planet is no longer just an Imperial prison, but there’s also both a local government and a crime syndicate operating in the shadows. What happens if a new and ambitious king comes to power and decides it’s time to take the planet back? Or what if the Empire gets tired of the Pykes? And what if -of course- your characters are trapped in the resulting chaos during their daring prison escape?
- We are going to keep the prison system from Legends. The reasons for this are mostly practical: there are several maps and stats published, and we want to be able to make good use of them. We are also going to make sure we see several sick Wookiees working in the tunnels, though, as a nod to Rebels.
- We are also going to respect the spice spiders. Dune ripoff or not, they are a big part of what makes Kessel a special place for us. Plus it makes gallivanting through the tunnels a risky proposition. Honestly, escaping from Imperial forces just to find yourself facing a massive spider is as classic RPG as they make ’em!
- We are also keeping The Maw. It’s a great visual, and there’s always some crazy pilot that decides that it’s a good hiding place from Imperial or Pyke pursuers. We are going to ignore any Celestial connections or preternatural beings, though. We prefer to have it as just a physical obstacle.
So now we have our Kessel, the Kessel we are going to use in our adventure. It has some canon and some Legends, it’s probably going to have some original material (I’m thinking about having some Pterodactyl-like creatures up in the sky, for example, and I’m already thinking of some kind of rusty, industrial-looking walkers that the soldiers of the House of Kessel could use), and it’s a great setting for our adventure.
Example #2: Mandalorians
Now, let’s get straight to the hardcore stuff: it’s time to think on how we are going to portray Mandalorians in our campaign. This is a more touchy topic, as many fans really love the way Mandos were portrayed in Legends and were distraught by the changes brought on by the new canon. Our keyword here is going to be “flexibility”. So let’s take a look at how we could portray Mandalorians in our campaign:
- First, Mandalorians are a big draw for players. We are going to make clear that not all Mandalorians are pacifists and also that not all “traditionalists” are Death Watch. People want to play armored badasses and antiheroes, but some people are not okay with playing irredeemable murderers. So let’s say that lonely wandering Mandalorians that believe in the old ways are a thing (and, if we are directing D6, let’s make available to our players a Mandalorian Wanderer character template inspired by The Man with No Name). We are also going to keep most of the Karen Traviss lore as “the old ways”, an optional source for players that want to delve deep into their character’s beliefs, but we are going to make clear that few current Mandalorians follow all of the old tenets to the letter. Let the players choose what they like: they like the Mando’a language and religion, but don’t care about the clans? So be it.
- Now, we also love to use Mandalorians as elite opponents, so we are going to keep the Death Watch as a possible enemy in our campaign world. We briefly considered also having roving gangs of random Mando bandits, in the style of the Mandalorian mercenaries from KOTOR, but we thought it wasn’t a good idea. The reasons for this are twofold: first, we want any encounter against Mandalorians to feel special, so they are never going to be used as cannon fodder; second, they are also a character option, so we need to tread carefully and avoid painting all Mandalorians as enemies to fight against. So, whenever we need Mandalorian enemies, we are going to use the Mandalorian Death Watch and soon we’ll turn its very awesome name into a synonym of terror for our players.
- In what’s sure to hurt many some of our readers’ feelings, we are going to initially ignore the clone-Mandalorian connection from Legends. In most Clone Wars-era campaigns a big chunk of characters are going to be clones, and we prefer them to have allegiance to the Republic and the Jedi rather than to a culture that’s not even aligned with them. That said, in case we have any players that love the Republic Commando portrayal, we are going to leave a door open for Clone Commandos, rescuing the concept of Cuy’val Dar and thus making it possible to have certain clones that have been raised in the Mandalorian culture. Hey, whatever floats your boat.
- We are going to go with the planet Mandalore as shown in The Clone Wars. While the way the Marvel comics depicted it was interesting, we are not really in need of another jungle planet. But the overcrowded cube city in the middle of a desert wasteland? That’s a nice oppressive setting that immediately speaks of conspiracies and backstabbing. And hey, if we want an epic showdown in a City of Bone, we can do it all the same.
- And lastly, we are going to keep all of the ships and equipment we can, no matter what the source is. We are going to have WESTAR-35 blasters and Gauntlet fighters next to Pursuer enforcement ships and Q-Carriers. Because more equipment means more character options, and character options are never bad.
So this is how we start building our gaming setting. The mantra is “choose what you like, discard the rest”, because it’s your game after all. Now, tell us in the comments how your personal gaming GFFA is! And see you next time!