Editor and developer of the Star Wars RPG and its expansions
Interview: May 2019
When was your first encounter with the Star Wars franchise and what did you think of it?
I know I followed the build-up to the film through Starlog Magazine, and I know I purchased the first issue of the Marvel Comic and the novelization when they were released shortly before the debut of the movie. It’s the actual day of release that remains fresh in my mind. May 25, 1977. For all that I had read, I can honestly say I wasn’t prepared for the movie I was about to see. I remember we cut school that day and traveled into Manhattan, to the Loews Astor Plaza, to get in line and wait for the first showing to go on sale. We were the first ones there, of course, and the line grew to an acceptable half-dozen or so other groups by the time the ticket booth opened. From the moment the words “A long time ago …” appeared upon the screen, to the opening scroll, to the Star Destroyer that went on forever, I was hooked. There was no going back. Star Wars (it wasn’t Episode IV or A New Hope yet) had a profound and lasting effect on me. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was going to become one of the biggest influences on my life and career moving forward—and I was still just in high school at the time! We stayed and watched the movie three times that day. When we emerged from the theater hours later, the line had grown to stretch around the block, and it never seemed to get any shorter that entire summer. I saw Star Wars on thirty-eight separate occasions that summer. What did I think? I thought it was the greatest movie ever made! Hey, I was a kid. But it remains one of my favorite films of all time, and it changed the way movies were made.
You joined West End Games in 1986, a year before the Star Wars RPG was released. How did you become the editor of so many Star Wars RPG books?
I started as an editor at West End Games, but before my first year of employment had ended, I was also writing and designing and developing products. I started on board games (such as RAF, Cosmic Encounter, and Kings & Things), then got to work on West End Games’ two roleplaying game lines, Paranoia and Ghostbusters. When Star Wars was presented to the staff, I wasn’t even scheduled to work on it. Someone had to handle the other product lines, and I was still the new kid on the block. It wasn’t long before I was able to demonstrate my love and knowledge of the property, and because I was good and fast at what I do, my first assignment was to team up with lead editor Paul Murphy to help develop and edit the roleplaying game rulebook. Initially, I was handed the introductory adventure and told to develop a format and get it ready for publication. After that, I followed behind Paul to make sure the book was as perfect as we could make it. About this time, Curtis Smith, the creative head of the studio at the time, was behind schedule on writing The Star Wars Sourcebook. He tagged me to be his co-writer to get the product finished by deadline, and I wound up writing the bulk of the book. As we finished the RPG and Sourcebook, West End Games was also in the process of moving the company to Pennsylvania. About this time, everyone above me decided, for one reason or another, to depart and seek their fortunes elsewhere. I wound up initially as the lead for Star Wars and shortly after that they promoted me to the creative lead of the company. After that, I wrote or edited much of what we were producing for Star Wars, and I developed everything before we sent it to Lucasfilm Licensing (LFL) for approval.
The Star Wars RPG came out in a time when Star Wars was more dead than alive. No new movies, no TV series, no comics and no books. Why release a game based on a franchise that wasn’t alive?
Prior to Star Wars, West End Games launched and had great success with another game based on a movie, Ghostbusters. We demonstrated that there was interest in a beloved but underutilized property if the product created to support it was good and true to the source material. We did that for Ghostbusters, and we certainly did that for Star Wars. In fact, getting to work on the Star Wars franchise at a time when we were literally the only people playing in that particular sandbox gave us a level of freedom that wouldn’t have been possible at any other time. With that freedom, we were able to lay the foundation for what would become the Expanded Universe—a foundation that’s still in place and being used in everything they’re creating today, from comics to novels, tv series to movies, even the new theme parks! Star Wars would have had a renaissance eventually, but I’m proud of the hand we had in helping it get there sooner rather than later.
Can you tell how the creative process of creating the Star Wars RPG went?
Greg Costikyan designed the RPG. For that product, I served as one of the editor/developers. All I remember about the RPG was getting involved in a ton of playtests, editing the pages as Greg handed them off, and playing the “Rebel Breakout” adventure over and over again to fine tune the flow. It wasn’t until I got pulled into The Star Wars Sourcebook that I actually saw the creative process from start to finish. Curtis Smith and I flew to Skywalker Ranch for a series of meetings with our contacts there. We presented our product plan, explained the nature of the products we wanted to create, and had to convince them to let us add details to what was in the movies and novelizations in order to develop the wealth of material needed for a roleplaying game. After that, the process was the same as it always was—create the best possible product you could for a property that you loved and respected. We had no idea at the time that what we were doing was going to have any effect at all on the greater Star Wars property. In fact, we were told repeatedly that George Lucas wasn’t beholden to anything we created. So, me and the West End Games creative staff would brainstorm product ideas, create outlines, and get them approved by LFL before assigning them to a staff designer or a freelancer. If I didn’t write a product personally, I either edited it or did a development pass to bring it up to standards before sending it to LFL for approval. That was the process, repeated over and over for the five years that I ran the line. At some point, our success had convinced LFL to expand their licensing opportunities, and a comic book and novel partner was brought onboard. That’s when LFL decided they wanted everything to match up, and our products became the reference materials for the other licensees.
In which ways was George Lucas involved?
We had very little interaction with George Lucas. We worked closely with the people in Lucasfilm Licensing, but Mr. Lucas was busy doing other things. We could occasionally ask him a question, but it had to be something he could answer with either a “Yes” or a “No,” and the question had to fit on an index card. Otherwise, our direction and guidelines came from LFL, and we were all kind of making it up as we went along. We were the first partner that was actually making new content for the Star Wars universe since the Han Solo and Lando novels and the Marvel Comics. And we were doing it in an unprecedented way by describing and expanding upon things seen in the actual movies. I know Mr. Lucas had our miniatures on his desk (we sent him a set of the metal miniatures that we had specially painted just for him), and he would purchase some of our art for display, but that’s really the extent of our interaction.
What was the hardest thing you’ve experienced while working on the Star Wars RPG and its books.
Probably the first conversations with LFL, when I had to convince them to allow us to create things beyond what we saw in the movies. I remember walking them through the aliens section of The Sourcebook. Presenting my arguments for why Hammerhead and Snaggletooth were great for helping a prop person find the right mask, but they were terrible names for intelligent species. That, and doing the research back in the days before the Internet. I had to comb through every novel (there were nine we were allowed to draw from and one we were asked to pretty much ignore), every “Art of” book and movie “Sketch Book,” the movie scripts, my collection of Starlog Magazines, the Marvel Comics (though we didn’t wind up using a lot from those), and the video tapes of the three original movies. I made reams of notes and jotted down loads of ideas as I poured through these resources over and over again.
You’re the author of the 2nd and 3rd editions of A Guide to the Star Wars Universe, a book that was seen on George Lucas’ desk when he was working on the Prequel Trilogy. Are there to your knowledge things in the prequels you created?
Your guess is as good as mine. I’ve seen information that says that the name “Rodian” made it into Mr. Lucas’s handwritten scripts and production notes, but it wasn’t used in the movies. It did eventually show up in the Clone Wars and Rebels animated shows, though. It also looks like some of our Force powers served as inspiration for what we see the Jedi do in the movies, the Jedi Code, and the use of Aurebesh script (we assigned meaning to the letters in one of our products). In the end, I’m just glad that the products we made inspired Mr. Lucas, in their own small way, to finally get back to the universe he created.
Which Star Wars West End Games book are you most proud of?
I’m proud of all my products. Kind of like a parent with a lot of kids. But I always go back to the one that more or less made my name in the industry, The Star Wars Sourcebook. Even reading it today, thirty plus years later, there’s still a lot of great moments and information in that book. If that’s all I’m ever remembered for, that’s good enough for me.
30 years after the original release Fantasy Flight Games re-released the Star Wars RPG and Sourcebook. Do you know if there are plans to re-release more old Star Wars West End Games books?
I don’t have any specific insight into what FFG may or may not be planning. I know that they decided to pay homage to the original pair of books and I’m very grateful that they did. The reprints are beautiful and true to the original editions. I’m glad they’re available again for anyone who wants to see where all this started.
After three decades the West End Games books are sought after collectibles and still well loved by many fans. What do you think is the secret behind this?
All of the creators that worked with me on the original Star Wars RPG products loved Star Wars. We poured our hearts and souls into those books and tried our best to be true to the source material. And by having one vision that brought all those products together gave them all a focus and a voice that spoke to fans of the movies, whether they were gamers or not. In fact, we went out of our way to write the products as source material first and game books second. I’m just glad we were moderately successful in making the Star Wars universe come alive in those early West End Games products.
In the fall of 2018 your book Defining A Galaxy was released, a book about your time at West End Games and creating the Star Wars RPG. Why should every Star Wars fan buy it and read it?
I was feeling nostalgic as 2017 rolled around. It was not only the 40th anniversary of the original Star Wars film, it was also the 30th anniversary of the Star Wars RPG and Sourcebook. I attended Star Wars Celebration that year as a fan for the first time in forever, and when I got back I just felt that I had to collect my memories of how the West End Games products came together. To preserve the history, at least the way I remember it happening. Versions of what I was writing served as the basis for presentations I participated in that year at GenCon and the Lucca Comics and Game Fair. I tried to make it a fast and entertaining read while also telling the origin story, as it were, of what would become the Star Wars Expanded Universe. If you have an interest in Star Wars and where a lot of the background material comes from, or if you have an interest in the behind-the-scenes details that go into the creation of game products and worldbuilding, then I think you’ll get something out of my book. In the end, though, I wrote it so I would remember how all those products came together. It was written as much for me as for posterity. And it’s interesting to look back at a time when Star Wars wasn’t the focus of the public eye, when most of the world had decided it was no longer popular or relevant. Lucky for us, West End Games had a different idea and they let me take that idea and run with it. My book tells that story.