Armagideon Time

As great as I’m told my memory is, things to fall through the cracks on a regular basis. This is especially true when there isn’t a Big Event to help me fix the proper sequence of events, and I don’t notice the omission until some stray stimulus eventually jars it loose.

The early months of 1991 were fairly uneventful. I had a source of income, thanks to my scholarship, which also gave me an incentive to turn things around after a dismal first semester. The college Sci-Fi Club provided me with a new social circle to pal around with, but I still retained ties to my closest high school acquaintances. Apart from the utter absence of a romantic life, it was a comfy place to be in. That’s probably why I don’t remember much of the period before the disastrous AD&D run that inspired my Warhammer campaign and drew me into the club’s inner circle.

The only things I do recall clearly from that time were a short-lived comic shop that sprung up on opposite the corner of Main and Swanton Streets in Winchester and an equally short-lived Star Wars “d6″ RPG campaign I ran for Lil Bro and my buddy Damian.

Star Wars was one of Damian’s things, and one I didn’t share apart from childhood immersion and fond memories of the toys. Damian, on the other hand was one of the Truly Faithful who carried the torch through the wilderness years when most geeks referred to the franchise in the past tense. West End Games’ Star Wars RPG was made for people like Damian. Released to “celebrate” the tenth anniversary of the first film, the initial trio of sourcebooks were handsomely designed hardbacks stuffed to the seams with rules, sample adventures, stills from the movie, and heaping gobs of fan service.

I won’t play the jaded card here. The books were a joy to flip through, and served as a nice distraction from Damian pitching a controller-busting fit over a “CHEAP! CHEATING!” boss-fight in whatever NES or Master System game he was playing at the time. As I mentioned above, Star Wars was the stuff of nostalgia at the time. The bits of trivia and esoteric callbacks were fascinating in an era before they became an all-consuming way of life.

Some it was a bit cloying and excessively reverential to the source material, but that was by design. The folks who crafted the game knew exactly what they were doing, putting together a product aimed at Star Wars fans in general, not just gamers who also happened to be fond of the franchise. (That was probably a matter of semantics in 1987, though.) What really caught my attention, however, was the game’s mechanics.

The designers, unlike too many contemporary fans, understood that Star Wars was a genre unto itself. It may have borrowed from old sci-fi serials and samurai flicks, but the thematic language and internal logic followed a proprietary formula. It’s fundamentally kinetic, epic in scope, and rooted in wide-angle spectacle. Everything is predicated on a constant sense of momentum, a gawp-inducing rush meant to keep the audience from dwelling on the thinness of the narrative and its many inconsistencies. Stuff happens because it’s required to maintain the current thrill-wave or set up the next one.

The little details matter, but not as points of some (ugh) canon. They’re set dressing and world-building on the fly, tantalizing suggestions of a depth which was never seriously meant to be elaborated upon.

The Star Wars RPG rules system channeled this ethos into mechanics that were fast, loose, and easy for novice gamers to grasp. You threw a fistful of six-sided dice and hope to reach a fairly achievable target threshold. If you wanted to take multiple actions, you deducted a die from each successive go-round. While some RPG blue-noses dismissed it as being “unrealistic” or “childish,” it reflected the source material where a hip-shooting hero could down a half dozen Stormtroopers with a single volley before leaping across some bottomless chasm.

From my perspective, it resolved what had been my biggest problem with the the various superhero-themed systems I’d sampled and — thanks to the inclusion of “force powers” — provided an easily template for cross-genre translation.

It took a couple of years before that moment of inspiration manifested around the gaming table. As flexible as the system was, it didn’t quite lend itself to “traditional” superheroic material. What it needed was something a bit more scaled back, something equal parts space-opera and superheroic, something like…

…the “Five Years Later” relaunch of DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, which dumped the formerly squeaky clean superteens into a grimy, semi-cyberpunk dystopia. The series was a favorite of mine during my senior year of high school and first couple years of college, and its genre-blending style lent itself perfectly to the “d6″ system. It motivated me to pick up a copy of the core rulebook at Excalibur (I later swiped the Sci-Fi Club’s copy of the companion sourcebook) and start planning a campaign in earnest.

I ended up jettisoning most of the grittiness of the Legion comics in favor of a more generic space-opera with minor superpowers vibe. Even this proved too difficult for the canonically literal Damian to grasp. The repeated loop of “but you’re using the Star Wars rules” and eventually wore me down to the point of allowing him to run a bounty hunter with Jedi — excuse me, “sensei” — powers. It didn’t stop me from wanting to slap him every time he asked why we never visited Cloud City or Hoth. (Lil Bro, being on the same sibling wavelength as me, had an easier time adjusting and played a spy with powers inspired my Matter-Eater Lad.)

The campaign ran for a half-dozen sessions, and ended only because my Sci-Fi Club Warhammer run began taking up more of my concentration and time. It was easily the most painless experience I’ve ever had as a gamesmaster (Damian’s nonsense aside), thanks to the system’s straightforward mechanics and “if it sounds cool, why not” approach to spot calls. Unfortunately, my later attempts to return to the game all fell apart during the planning stages. The closest I ever got was writing up the rough notes for a pirate-themed run during one of my shifts in the campus library and modifying a Shadowrun figure for the anticipated protagonist.

Oh, well. At least this trip down memory lane made me want to pull my old Star Wars RPG books out of storage and give them a place on the Never-to-Be-Played-Again Shelf of Honor, as a reminder of some good times and a bygone era when there was “just enough” Star Wars floating around the popcult realm.

Related posts:

  1. Role-Playing with the Changes: Dubious companion
  2. Role-Playing with the Changes: What you mech of it
  3. Role-Playing with the Changes: Fourth time’s the charm

2 Responses to “Role-Playing with the Changes: A long long time ago”

  1. Viru

    My first RPG ever, and what a good one it was. Perfect system-theme match. When Star Wars was just three great movies and that was the main point of it.

  2. E.T.Smith

    Bizarrely, I snatched up the Sourcebook to SW D6 (with all it’s in-universe setting description) long before getting around to the main RPG. Because, to fourteen-year-old me, rules were boring but reading how an X-Wing “actually” worked was awesome. Looking back now, it’s amusing to see the only cross-promotional SW merch advertised on the last page is a Han Solo _collectible plate_. Old-style pop culture veneration (put it in your display cabinet, right between the King Kong and Gone with the Wind plates) soon to be blown away by rapacious youth-focused franchise building.

    Also, I’m honestly surprised _Rifts_ hasn’t figured into this series yet, since Damian sounds like exactly the sort if person that game called out to.

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