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Looking to the Past: Star Wars Rebels and West End Games

Yes, I first owned the sometimes hilarious Spanish translation. Leave me alone.
Yes, I first owned the sometimes hilarious Spanish translation. Leave me alone.

Since the first announcement of the Expanded Universe reboot, it was said that what now is known as Star Wars Legends was still going to be used, not as gospel but as an inspiration and source for the new canon. And there’s perhaps no better place to see that The Powers That Be were not kidding than in the romance that the Star Wars Rebels cartoon has with the old roleplaying game published by West End Games, a game that introduced such classic concepts as Imperial Inquisitors, the Imperial Security Bureau or Interdictor cruisers, concepts that have lately graced our TVs. But why the WEG game? What makes such a venerable source so suitable to become part of the backbone of the new continuity?

West End Games published the very first Star Wars roleplaying game. The first edition of their game was released in 1987, and soon became the most authoritative source of reference material on anything related to the Galaxy Far Far Away. Initially having nothing to base their sourcebooks on but the original trilogy, the novelizations and radio dramas, and Brian Daley’s Han Solo novels, the developers of the roleplaying game took on the task of expanding this universe and not only dissected and classified the existing sources, but also put together a pretty thorough description of almost every corner of the Star Wars universe. In the times before Essential Guides and Visual Dictionaries, WEG published dozens of roleplaying manuals covering topics as vast as the Galactic Empire itself or as narrow as the legal situation of scouts in the New Republic era, describing almost every single nook and cranny of the galaxy with a level of detail that probably has never been reached again.

The Imperial Army. No, really.

Of course, such a massive body of work would become the foundation of the Expanded Universe, beginning in 1991 with Heir to the Empire: at Lucasfilm Licensing’s urging, Zahn took much of the technology (like Imperial Dreadnaughts or Skipray Blastboats) and even some plot points (like the existence of the Corellian Treaty) straight from the published West End Games sourcebooks. As the EU grew, so did WEG’s efforts to catalogue, expand and clarify every single source that was released. A titanic effort, yes, but one that made the gaming table an exciting and coherent place.

Still, WEG wasn’t perfect. Sometimes the material they produced veered too close to hard, or military, sci-fi, forgetting the space fantasy origins of Star Wars and going for a grittier tone that clashed with the high adventure style the system claimed to favor. Sometimes their interpretation of the universe was questionable: they insisted there was a regular imperial army, for example, larger in number and better trained than the stormtroopers, for no apparent reason other than to explain where General Veers came from. Their portrayal of Darth Vader, for example, doesn’t really gel with the character as we know him today. And we’ve talked before of the conflicts their depiction of TIE fighters as non-pressurized starships—just to justify the TIE pilot breath masks and to drive home the point of how little the Empire care about their pilots—caused with comics that required having TIE pilots talk to each other and were forced to add a disclaimer clarifying that we were only able to see their facial expressions for dramatic purposes. Perhaps, in their efforts to be thorough, sometimes they went too far.

Hmm, I wondered what ever happened to this guy.

But most of what they produced still holds up. Check the Imperial Sourcebook, for example, considered by many to be the jewel of WEG’s crown. This sourcebook describes the Empire as the oppressive machine it should be. In there, we first discover the existence of COMPNOR, the Imperial equivalent to the Nazi Party, the political arm of Palpatine, and we see how many of their subdivisions work: we see political commissaries censoring art, we see the “Imperial youth” of the Subadult Group being trained as faithful devotees of the Empire, we witness the fanatical cruelty of the Imperial Security Bureau in their zeal to root out the traitors. We take a deeper and very satisfying look at the inner working of the Empire, and it shouldn’t surprise us that the Story Group has decided to take a big chunk of the material that WEG produced and update it for the new continuity, especially for Rebels. Discard what doesn’t work, but keep the rest.

So here’s to WEG, an old roleplaying game that still has its adepts (this author included). You’ve managed to be the backbone of Star Wars for two consecutive continuities, and you are barely showing your age. May we never stop discovering new jewels in the thousands of pages they released over a marvelous decade.

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