Tabletop roleplaying games have a long tradition. It just so happens that their tradition is about as long as that of the Star Wars universe. It should not come as a surprise that during the years, demand has come from fans of both Star Wars and RPG who wanted to experience the mixture of both.
The offer has met the demand. More than once, in fact. Any generic SF-friendly RPG system could probably be adjusted to accommodate the Star Wars universe, but three different official iterations of Star Wars roleplaying have been created throughout the years.
West End Games’ Star Wars RPG
The first successful Star Wars RPG came out in 1989. It has all the marks of the traditional, “old school” way of roleplaying. And that is not only thanks to the typical 80s design and black-and-white illustrations.
West End Games’ SWRPG uses the d6 system. Primary attributes (such as Dexterity, Perception and Mechanical) influence secondary skills (including also combat skills). How good a character is can determined by how many dice can they roll for the skill in question.
Despite its antiquity, the original Star Wars RPG has everything a good RPG needs. West End Games have continued to publish numerous supplementary sourcebooks and stand-alone adventures throughout the years. (Their successors would later do the same.) Some notable supplements include a Thrawn Trilogy Sourcebook (supervised by Timothy Zahn) outlining the setting familiar from the classic Star Wars novels.
The West End Games Company continued publishing its products until 1999. After the company went bankrupt, the torch was picked up by Wizards of the Coast.
Star Wars “Dungeons and Dragons”-style
Wizards of the Coast have long been one of the most influential companies when it comes to fantasy and sci-fi tabletop games. Throughout the 2000s, they held the license to the Star Wars roleplaying game, and did it their own way.
Their SWRPG came out around the same time Wizards published their 3.0 version of Dungeons and Dragons rules. SWRPG essentially means applying the d20 rule system to Star Wars universe. It is done to such a degree that anyone who has played D&D will immediately catch up on all the rules after reading half a page. Majority of the basic handbook is D&D with race and class names swapped for Star Wars-related ones.
One major difference (at least in the standard version) is that unlike spellcasters in D&D, the Force-users do not have “spells”, but Force is used as special type of trained skills which exert the Jedi’s vitality points upon use. Vitality points are another invention, unlike in other d20 games, here characters have Vitality points that keep them up, and only Wound points represent actual fatal damage (the system is roughly comparable to D&D’s above-zero and below-zero HP rule).
Wizards’ game came in several editions, the original (similar to 3.5 D&D), the revised (changing some details, such as that armour provides damage reduction instead of defense bonus), and then the Saga Edition. The Saga Edition is more streamlined and reflects similar change to that between D&D 3rd and 4th and further editions. The focus shifts a little towards abilities useful during encounters, skills are simplified.
It needs to be said, however, that for all similarity to D&D, Wizards’ SWRPG manages to tweak the rules in a way that makes them fitting for the Star Wars universe and also very realistic-seeming for instance in regards to combat.
Edge of the Empire et al.
From 2012 onwards, the license to Star Wars roleplaying has passed to the Fantasy Flight Games, another major board game maker. They have published several major starting packages (first major one being the Edge of the Empire, followed by Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny) offering different settings to start the adventure (focusing on the adventurers on the fringes of space, on Rebels, and on Jedi, respectively).
What one notices about the system on first sight is the use of multiple dice. Anyone familiar with FFG’s other games knows that they are fond of making various special dice with special symbols, and their Star Wars RPG is no exception. Despite the first impression, however, the change is largely cosmetic (the handbook even includes a page on how to convert the dice rolls to “normal” six-, eight-, and twelve-sided dice).
Just like the previous games, FF’s SWRPG offers the rules for various settings – including the latest, the Force Awakens era. (On the flip side, however, it does not offer the settings for the New Jedi Order or Old Republic eras, unlike its predecessors.)
On closer look, the system does not differ dramatically from that of Wizards’ game: the six chief abilities got renamed and shuffled about, but are essentially the same (only Brawn substitutes Strength and Constitution while Intelligence is split into Cunning and Intellect), and skill selection is kind of similar. FF’s game is leaning to the easier side to learn, and from the get-go, it places a bit more emphasis on establishing the character’s background. There are actual rules focusing on determining character’s motivation and origins, which is a very good move not only for starting roleplayers.
Just like in the other cases, however, majority of actual abilities the characters pick are combat-related. This is done with the use of skill trees, such as that exist in various RPG video games.
So Which Is The Best?
Despite all the differences between the various play systems, all three variants of the Star Wars RPG are very similar in the core. If you are thinking about running a SW roleplaying campaign, I simply suggest you pick whatever best suits your playing style.
Fantasy Flight Games has the advantage that it is still publishing; on the other hand, the others have an already existing supplement of bonus handbooks available, covering everything from vehicle combat to all existing alien races. Wizard of the Coast’s core/revised game may have the most detailed rules and expansions, followed by West End Games’ d6 system. Wizards’ Saga edition, on the other hand, may be the best for quick, battle-centered games and along with the Edge of the Empire may be the easiest to get into for new players. Completely unexperienced players may appreciate either, depending on whether they prefer to get a straightforward introduction into roleplaying (FF’s game) or combat (Wizards’ Saga edition).
Ultimately however, tabletop RPGs are about what you make out of them. So, my final advice is – pick any rulebook and make the best out of what you have. The chief ingredient, after all, is imagination.