An inevitable discussion about canon sets in whenever geeks talk about their fandoms. Keeping track of lore across multiple tie-ins is part of the fun—and frustration—of being a fan. Those stories rarely affect the original media. Producers don’t want to alienate potential consumers by making them do extra work to enjoy a show or a movie. Sometimes, a subtle reference may slide in for the hardcore fan to notice. There is, however, one big exception to this rule. It’s for a small art house film called Star Wars, and it was influenced not by a novel or a comic, but by the role-playing game released nearly 30 years ago.
Star Wars was dead in 1987. It’s hard to imagine a time without a constant release of books, comics, and other media set in that far, far away galaxy. But the last movie was a few years old and kids were getting tired of playing with the same toys. The Marvel Comics series wrapped up. A few tie-in books had been released but the stories set in that universe had been told. So it seemed like a fairly small risk to license Star Wars to a small RPG company based out of Honesdale, PA. West End Games had a hit on their hands with their Ghostbusters RPG and used the same system for the bases of their new Star Wars game. Despite the lull in the fandom, the game was a massive hit, and the company started producing supplement that expanded the universe beyond what was seen in the movies.
Lucasfilm started to explore getting back into the Star Wars book business in 1990, by hiring Timothy Zahn to write the novel that would eventually come to be known as Heir to the Empire. But when he asked for a setting bible for research, the company didn’t have one! So instead he turned to the sourcebooks from the West End Games RPG. Some of the material from those sourcebooks, like the structure of the Empire, made it into his books. The success of Heir to the Empire and the eventual Thrawn trilogy birthed the Expanded Universe. West End Games capitalized on the success by not only releasing sourcebooks for its game that featured Zahn as a consultant, but also expanding offerings of original materials set in the post-Return Of The Jedi era Zahn created. They even collaborated directly on a boxed set (remember those?) called The Darkstryder Campaign where players were sent after an Imperial fugitive into a sector of unknown space.
Lucasfilm was emboldened by Zahn’s success. The computer game wing, LucasArts, was gaining a reputation for making quality games in the early 90’s and finally turned its attention to Star Wars with the classics X-Wing and TIE Fighter. Several of the ships in this game series, like the Assault Shuttle, first appeared in the pages of the Star Wars RPG. A close scan of the credits for TIE Fighter even shows a thank you to West End for supplying materials. West End took a page from LucasArts and offered an opportunity to play Imperial characters in its Heroes and Rogues supplement.
The influence of the RPG was felt even after the game moved from West End to Wizards of the Coast. One of the most popular Star Wars comics during this time was Knights of the Old Republic. Wizards of the Coast got the author of the comic, John Jackson Miller, to work on the sourcebook for the Star Wars Saga Edition RPG. Saga Edition detailed many of the different eras of the Star Wars Expanded Universe since the first series of Zahn novels, even offering a starship sourcebook that authors used to describe the interiors of favorite ships like the Imperial shuttle.
Even today, with most of the Expanded Universe now considered to be unofficial, the influence of the RPG can be felt. Grand Admiral Thrawn was announced as the main villain for the new season of Star Wars Rebels, which could mean more elements from Zahn’s books and the West End Games RPG could be returning. Airen Cracken, created for a series of sourcebooks for the West End game, remains one of the crewmembers that helped Lando Calrissian fly the Millennium Falcon at the Battle of Endor. Fantasy Flight Games currently carries the Star Wars license and the three lines it produces for the game are slowly bringing material back from the older games into the new canon. Will Rogue One or Star Wars VIII feature a background nod to something that was first detailed in the pages of the RPG? Only eagle-eyed fans will know for sure.
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Featured Image Credits: Star Wars Rebels
Image Credits: West End Games