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How Star Wars was (and is still) shaped by an RPG from the '80s

How a musty old RPG put a name to many of your favorite things from Star Wars

Star Wars lore is immense. And while fans today are comfortable throwing around terms like 'Twi’lek,' 'Ithorian,' and 'Basic' in conversation, the question remains of how Star Wars built such a robust vocabulary after its original trilogy.

Interestingly enough, the level of detail in the franchise’s universe can be partly credited to the 1987 Star Wars tabletop role-playing game. Created at a time when other tabletop role-playing games (commonly abbreviated as TTRPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons were taking the world by storm, Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game sated the first generation of fans’ desire for more stories from a galaxy far, far away.

What is a TTRPG?

But first off, let’s clarify what a TTRPG actually is, and how a game can change the trajectory of a franchise. Tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars aren’t just games – they’re stories told by the players themselves. The players immerse themselves in the established world of the game, thanks to a document called a sourcebook. The sourcebook details the history, cultures, technology, and other relevant information about the game’s setting. In turn, the sourcebook creates a 'sandbox' that the game takes place in. The game is led by a gamemaster (also known as a Dungeonmaster in Dungeons & Dragons) who creates a narrative and series of scenarios that the players must roll dice to determine the outcome of.

TTRPGs hinge upon the unique backstory and stats that players choose for their character. As you might imagine, the possibilities are endless in something as vast as Star Wars.

Why was the Star Wars TTRPG important?

The sourcebook for Star Wars’ TTRPG was unprecedented in the level of detail it gave to George Lucas’s nascent universe. Episode IV: A New Hope was a surprise hit in 1977, and went on to win several Academy Awards the next year. The film’s blend of Westerns and samurai films in a rich space opera world was unlike anything that American audiences had seen before. To put it simply, there was so much in Episode IV that felt novel – lightsabers, hyperspace travel, strange aliens, cyborgs. It all necessitated an explanation.

Written by Bill Slavicsek and Curtis Smith, the sourcebook became central to Star Wars’ Expanded Universe of novels and other media. The Star Wars Expanded Universe, known today as 'Star Wars Legends,' refers to the comics, novels, video games, and television shows created before Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2014. All novels, comics, video games, television shows – you name it – created after mid-2014 are considered part of the official Star Wars canon. The creation of Star Wars Legends saved Disney from being burdened by years of existing stories, while still honoring past contributions to Star Wars lore.

Remarkably, the Star Wars TTRPG sourcebook gave names for distinctive alien races seen in the original trilogy, like Twi’leks and Ithorians. It also expanded on the cultural backstories of aliens like the Wookiees on their homeworld of Kashyyyk, and the Ewoks on Endor. The sourcebook’s description of Wookiee cities on Kashyyyk even served as the basis for Timothy Zahn’s depiction of the planet in the first book of the Thrawn trilogy, Heir to the Empire, from 1991.

The sourcebook’s impact on Star Wars doesn’t stop there. It also created cornerstone concepts such as Basic – the common language that humans and other aliens speak to each other in – as well as the Jedi Code. Something as important as Basic is easy to take for granted while watching Star Wars films, because there are rarely scenes where aliens are unintelligible, but Legends novels stress the role that the language plays across the galaxy. For instance, in the novel Star Wars: The Old Republic: Annihilation by Drew Karpyshyn, a Twi’lek smuggler named Teff’ith ordinarily speaks Basic with a heavy accent. However, while working undercover, Teff’ith can drop her accent and choppy way of speaking in order to impersonate other people. As such, one simple concept from the TTRPG sourcebook birthed a rich new way of exploring various cultures in the galaxy.

Perhaps the sourcebook’s greatest creation is the Jedi Code. While the Jedi Code has made scant appearances in the Star Wars films, it’s remained a central Jedi teaching in novels and comics. The values reflected in the Jedi Code are an essential part of what differentiates them from the Sith, who have a Code of their own. The Code is as follows:

There is no emotion, there is peace.

There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.

There is no passion, there is serenity.

There is no chaos, there is harmony.

There is no death, there is the Force.

Is the Star Wars TTRPG still impacting the franchise?

Beyond impacting early Star Wars Expanded Universe stories, the sourcebook created planets and characters recently featured in Star Wars television shows on Disney+. A dramatic arc on the television show Andor concerned Mon Mothma’s homeworld of Chandrila, where the politician became more and more disillusioned by her culture’s conservative values. Chandrila, as it turns out, was created in the Star Wars RPG sourcebook. Likewise, the Ahsoka show recently brought assassin droids into Star Wars canon again, after they were best known for appearing in the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic video game from 2003. The assassin droids on Ahsoka resemble one of the assassin droid illustrations from the sourcebook.

The return of Chandrila and assassin droids to canon evidences the self-referential nature of Star Wars at this point in time. It has been thirty five years since the sourcebook first created these elements of Star Wars. Chandrila and assassin droids have since appeared in Legends stories, before they finally entered canon. It is precisely because of Legends media like the TTRPG sourcebook and novels like Darth Plagueis that Chandrila and other parts of Star Wars lore built their cache within the franchise, necessitating their inclusion in official canon. Thus, the creation of Chandrila and assassin droids in the TTRPG sourcebook evidences how Star Wars is ultimately evolutionary, as opposed to revolutionary. At this point in time, it is a story partly based on past concepts in its franchise history. Considering that the majority of Star Wars history exists in Legends continuity, since Lucasfilm wasn’t acquired by Disney until 2014, this fact isn’t all that surprising.

What does this mean for our understanding of Star Wars today?

If anything, the sourcebook proves that the separation between official Star Wars canon and Legends is far more muddled than many fans realize. After all, because it was published in 1987, the sourcebook is considered to be under the Legends banner. And yet, things like Basic, Chandrila, and assassin droids continue to pop up in canonical Star Wars media.

The continued influence of the TTRPG sourcebook on the future of Star Wars proves that ultimately, creative inspiration is not bound by canon laws. While Legends media largely has no bearing on the Star Wars universe anymore, some of its most ambitious ideas are too good to ignore. Ultimately, this is partly why corporate interests can never truly usurp the influence of organic creativity. It is unnatural for a myth as collaborative as Star Wars to fully ignore its own history.

All myths have their own central text, and the 1987 Star Wars TTRPG sourcebook is one of these pillars. If fans wish to understand what the future of the franchise has in store, perhaps they should learn about its past first. As more and more elements from Legends media make the jump into official Star Wars canon, it appears that the path forward is an acknowledgement of what’s come before.

Star Wars timeline: From long, long ago to the latest developments in a galaxy far, far away.

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