Roleplaying the Galaxy: Exactly how long ago?
You’ve read up on your preferred system, compiled the necessary materials and friends/acquaintances, and now you’re ready to make the hyperspace jump into the Star Wars galaxy, taking on, working around, or serving the evil Galactic Empire. As everyone excitedly chats about their favorite moments from the movies, however, either yourself or another participant tentatively raises a hand. “Well, is anyone open to the possibility of playing in a different era?”
Yes, to the majority of fans, or “casuals” (a term used here precisely, and not as an insult), the sandbox of Star Wars is simply what’s been portrayed on film, meaning the Galactic Civil War between the Empire and Rebellion and, for prequel fans, the Clone Wars. However, here we celebrate the entirety of Lucas-approved material, which encompasses decades of interwoven worldbuilding and storytelling. And, as the name implies, it truly is expansive. Each era touched upon in these materials is rich with character and story opportunities, so let’s go over a broad breakdown of each one. Maybe your RPG group’s decision isn’t as clear-cut as you originally supposed…
And, while sourcebooks are usually fantastic, well-compiled resources, nothing quite beats experiencing the actual stories of an era, so I’ll be providing what I hope are helpful recommendations, where applicable.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s tackle the various eras chronologically, meaning we begin with the Dawn of the Jedi era and the gathering of the mysterious Tho Yor ships. Over thirty-six millennia before Luke Skywalker makes his one shot in a million and begins the saga for us, multiple pre-hyperspacefaring species hear the call of ancient starships through the Force, board, and are transported to the world of Tython. Here, various disciples of the Force, including the Order of the Dai Bendu, form the Je’daii Order. Life is hazardous for non-Force-sensitives on Tython, however, and the normies leave to settle around the system. Tensions grow, this thing called a Despot War is fought about ten thousand years later, and the Je’daii encounter the Rakatan Infinite Empire shortly thereafter, a faction quite literally fueled by the Dark Side (an aspect of the Force referred to by the Je’daii as Bogan).
This era is a bit of a double-edged sword (which the Je’daii are using now, by the way), in that it’s liberating in terms of being able to forge almost any type of story before, during, or after the Force War with the Rakata depicted in the Dawn of the Jedi comics, but limiting in the scope of the galaxy. Without hyperspace travel, the planets to be visited are few. That said, there are countless ways to build an intriguing narrative in a confined setting when you have Jedi precursors who utilize the Light (Ashla) and Dark Sides, ride beasts, and have formed their own planetary culture. Or maybe your player characters would be from surrounding planets, living out their lives in distrust of the Je’daii. And (you’ll likely come to notice this is a theme of mine), this is a game. No one’s looking to you to continue the official history of the galaxy. You want your crew to have a ship that can travel the whole galaxy? Maybe they salvage Rakatan tech, channeling the Dark Side to travel from Varl (witnessing the events that led to the birth of the Hutt Empire) to Korriban (fractured after the death of King Adas). You can even shift your setting a few centuries one way or the other, taking part in whatever notable galactic events you read up on that pique your interest. Maybe your party’s even tinkered with Rakatan tech in an attempt to match what Corellians and Duros later succeed in doing; crafting a hyperdrive without the need of the Force. The efforts have succeeded…but only to a point. The ship can now travel through hyperspace without Dark Side use, but it can only make highly unstable hyperspace tunnels, which make the ship leap unpredictably forward through space and time, as depicted in the novel Crosscurrent.
Boom! Doctor Who with ancient Jedi, and now you can visit pivotal moments in galactic history across millennia! Stupid? Yep. Contrived? Proudly. Fun? Sure sounds like it!
Our next broad era of time covers a handful of centuries over twenty thousand years later. When people talk about the Old Republic, this is usually what they’re (probably) praising. Mandalorians have gathered, striking against the Republic. They aim to take over the galaxy, and they just might succeed. The Jedi Council refuses to enter the war, sensing some kind of…phantom menace, but this hothead Revan and his buddies think the council’s unfeeling cowards. Revan assumes command of Republic forces, leading them to victory, then promptly disappears, popping back up again to announce himself as Darth Revan, now leading an endless war fleet against the Republic he just saved. Many Jedi support Revan, believing him to be the rightful ruler of the galaxy, in place of the weakened Republic. The Mandalorian wars are over. The Jedi Civil War has begun.
Intrigued? Pick up the Knights of the Old Republic comics, the video game of the same name, and its sequel (and in that order), none of which can I recommend highly enough. I’d even suggest the Old Republic follow-up comics, books, and MMORPG, which serve as a flawed but functional continuation of the story.
Whichever entry you try first, I defy you to come out the other end without a cool character or story idea to explore. This whole era is rich with possibility. Want to be a team of Republic infantry, pilots, or fleet officers thrown up against the unstoppable wave that is the Mandalorian onslaught? Or maybe you’re refugees liberated by Revan, only to face his chilling, tactical conquest when he reemerges as a Sith Lord. Do you flee? Resist? Pledge your loyalty?
This next era holds a special place in my heart, as I’ve had the immense good fortune to realize an incredibly personal, heartfelt story in it as a player. It’s about a thousand years before the events of the original Star Wars movie, and the New Sith Wars have ravaged the galaxy on-and-off for almost a millennium, following the Fourth Great Schism and the rebirth of the Sith Empire. Sith Lords battle each other for status and power, a weary Republic clings to the hope provided by the Jedi Army of Light, and a young upstart among the Sith seeks to tear down and rebuild a corrupt and failing order.
As the last major era before the time of the Skywalkers, the events depicted here retroactively inform and bolster the events of Lucas’s films to the fullest. My reading recommendations include, chronologically, the Knight Errant comics and novel, the Jedi vs. Sith comic, and, of course, the masterpiece that is the Darth Bane trilogy. Are you a soldier? A Jedi? In these dark days, the two can be one and the same. Or perhaps you bask in the Dark Side, serving the whims of lords such as Daiman, Odion, or Kaan. Alternatively, what sort of nightmare struggles do politics represent in a time when bloody clashes between Jedi and Sith determine the course of the galaxy? Are you a medic, trooper, or Jedi healer just trying to help those displaced by war?
My own, cherished experience in this era is built on the drastic shift following the war, in the time after the Ruusan Reformation. The Sith are believed to be extinct, with Jedi forces nearly obliterated as well. Enter my character, Korrigosh Govorrish, a Klatooinian Jedi student whose master was consumed by darkness in the final battle. His struggles in having lost the only mother he’d ever known and helping to rebuild and defend a Jedi order he’s come to fundamentally question have been a depressing joy to explore. It’s nearly impossible to overstate the vicarious catharsis and turmoil I’ve experienced on Korrigosh’s behalf as he grapples with layered traumas, hopes, and insecurities, and the era he lives in is no small part of that. Building a compelling backstory and discussing goals with your game master (or players) is going to be the subject of its own article, I assure you. Until then, my main point here is to urge you to let your setting, character, and party ideas feed into each other. RPGs are a wholly unique form of collaborative storytelling, but they only function to their fullest when we’re open to the fictional world, its many assets, and each other.
Next up is the prequel era and the Clone Wars. I’m gonna assume anything covered in the movies is well-known to you all, so I’ll keep it brief. Plagueis (almost certainly) creates a human vergence in the Force. Palpatine manipulates said vergence and the Republic, instigating the Clone Wars between the Republic and the Confederacy of Independent Systems and discarding his old apprentice(s) when he takes vergence-boy as his new one, Darth Vader. Beyond that, I’d recommend the Republic comic series and its Clone Wars successor as research material, along with the Clone Wars animated miniseries and the episodes of The Clone Wars that aren’t a complete waste of time. Happy hunting. I could list many more, but someone will still inform me of all the ones I missed, so I’ll leave it there.
With all the surrounding material of this era, there’s a lot to play with here, the most fascinating to me being the outlying conflicts that are caught up in the overall war by association. Maybe your planet has sided with one faction or the other, simply because it grants them resources to pursue their own ends? Still, I understand the draw of the war proper. Whether clone, Jedi, or Separatist agent, there are so many disparate motivations and journeys to explore.
And, of course, we come to the Dark Times and the good ol’ GCW. Rebel versus Imperial. Classic. The war extends well beyond The Return of the Jedi, however. Maybe your player group is caught up in a skirmish with one of the warlords to rise in the wake of Palpatine’s death; or you’re forced to flee Operation Shadow Hand and the reborn Emperor himself! Conversely, don’t be so quick to cast aside the Dark Times and their campaign potential. It’s not only Jedi who are on the run, but anyone who can touch the Force. Perhaps your team has gathered to secure passage into Wild Space, not wishing to have your infant Force abilities used in service to the Empire as Hands, Inquisitors, or Royal Guards.
For appropriately grim, Dark Times fuel, I’d suggest the Dark Times, Purge, and Darth Vader and the Lost Command comics, as well as the Coruscant Nights, The Last of the Jedi, and The Force Unleashed books (or games). For Original Trilogy and after in the Galactic Civil War, try the Empire, Rebellion, X-wing, and original Star Wars comics (carries through, between, and past the movies), and, as for novels: The Han Solo Trilogy, Shadows of the Empire, and Darksaber for inspiration on Hutts and other scum; The Truce at Bakura, The Thrawn Trilogy, and the X-wing series for some great, early-New Republic struggles; The Jedi Academy Trilogy, Children of the Jedi, and Junior/Young Jedi Knights for early, post-Endor Jedi days (also check out the Jedi Academy video game); and The Black Fleet Crisis Trilogy, The New Rebellion, The Corellian Trilogy, and The Hand of Thrawn Duology for insight into the final days of the war. Again, I’m sure I missed someone’s favorite and put something that renders me worthy of scorn in its place, so feel free to check other recommended reading lists.
Now we come to perhaps the most controversial of eras in the Expanded Universe; the series-spanning conflict of The New Jedi Order deca-ennealogy novels (and, later, the Invasion comic), the Yuuzhan Vong War. I get why people don’t like it. I do. The Vong are brutal, terrifying, genocidal warriors whose actions claim the lives of well-established, beloved characters. Detractors argue, not altogether unjustifiably, that this series is at odds with Lucas’s vision of the world. I, however, unabashedly love this arc. I can defend why another time, if anyone cares, but here I’ll simply say that the sheer devastation on a galactic scale provides a wealth of roleplaying opportunities.
Trillions are slain in the Yuuzhan Vong War, with trillions more displaced by the relentless advance of the extragalactic invaders. Are you one such refugee, now driven to take the fight back to your merciless foes?
Maybe you’re a Jedi, struggling with your understanding of the Force in the face of those who seemingly exist
apart from it. Dozens of factions otherwise self-contained or at each other’s throats even join forces to combat the mutual threat the Vong represent. Are you a Hapan defector on a team with smugglers, remnants of the Black Sun crime syndicate, and slaves from Hutt space fighting for their freedom? Is everyone even willing to play a band of Vong Shamed Ones, shunned and attacked by both sides as you struggle to find some way to do good and serve the will of the Jeedai?
I’m currently running a campaign in this era that’s over thirty sessions in, and we’ve barely even interacted with the war directly, though that promises to change soon. If you like aspects of an era but prefer to use its broader conflicts as a backdrop, rather than a focus, there are definitely ways to explore pockets of the galaxy depicted only before or after in a way that open their own, near-limitless opportunities.
But, enough of that. Let’s move on to an era universally loved (he declared sarcastically); that of the rise, reign, fall, and fallout of Darth Caedus. One of the Jedi’s greatest heroes vanishes, returning more powerful and, perhaps, much darker, during a conflict between the Chiss and Killiks. Soon, Caedus declares himself to be the new Lord of the Sith, seeking to seize control of the galaxy. Sounding familiar? Yes, Darth Caedus, in many ways a creation of the Yuuzhan Vong War, assumes command of the New Republic’s successor government, the Galactic Alliance, seeking to corrupt other Jedi and reshape the galaxy as he sees fit. He’s brought down by another Jedi hero, but, in the war’s wake, Jedi are distrusted perhaps more than ever, the sentiment only furthered by unsympathetic new leaders and the fact that many young Jedi begin going violently insane. Jedi Grand Master Luke Skywalker successfully uncovers the darkness behind it all and subdues it with the aid of some new Dark Side frienemies, but the galaxy is, once again, forever changed.
For the full story, peruse the pages or audio files of The Dark Nest Trilogy and the nine-apiece series of Legacy of the Force and Fate of the Jedi…and (we live in hope!) The Sword of the Jedi Trilogy*. Preferably after the books listed from the past eras. Hurts, don’t it? Don’t despair. From great pain can come great inspiration. What are your favorite, underused heroes doing in these years? Be part of a crew, faction, army that answers to them and explore that question with your friends. Have an idea for how entities or events depicted in these series might have had ripple effects in a remote star system? Go nuts!
And, finally, we come to the time of the Skywalker/Solo heirs depicted in the Legacy comic, well over a century past the death of Papa Vader. The Sith be back, this time as legion in the One Sith under Darth Krayt. Some of the Imperial Remnant supports him, the rest remaining loyal to Emperor Roan Fel, even after Krayt usurps the throne. The Galactic Alliance, meanwhile, is still kicking, opposing Krayt and his Sith Empire, and the Jedi…well, they’ve had better days. Their Grand Master and many of their order have been massacred on Ossus, with many others gone into hiding or leaving the Jedi life behind. Among the latter is a young man by the name of Cade Skywalker, an infuriating but sympathetic addition to the lineage. He has great power but fears being used because of it. Fears that are well-founded, it so happens, as Krayt is hunting him. Fantastic space battles and three-way Force-user skirmishes ensue, and the Sith are believed, once again, to be beaten. But, as a certain young Solo discovers, that may be nothing more than wishful thinking…
If you want unbridled freedom in your RPG campaign, this’ll probably be the most attractive era for you. Tech is at an all-time high, the Jedi have recovered much of their previously lost knowledge, and the galaxy is completely open to explore. Don’t even want to deal with the main plot line shown in the comics? Pick up after. What do you think becomes of the galaxy after the final issue of Legacy? Could your team of Imperial Knights play an integral part of it? Or maybe you want to explore the years preceding the attack on Ossus. What sort of joint endeavors might bring the GA and Fel Empire together, and what team of specialists (that’s you guys) would they need to see them through?
But remember, even all these eras are still just the surface. Maybe you want to design your own, from ships to galactic conflicts, or to explore the little-known slices of EU history. What was it like to live under the xenophobic might of the Pius Dea, or to be a spacefarer on the cusp of a galaxy-changing discovery as the first hyperlanes were charted? Most of the eras I’ve listed have their own RPG sourcebooks, in one form or another, but don’t let the absence of one deter you from exploring a time and place that captures your imagination. I’ll discuss building characters, ships, etc. for whatever system you’re using another time, but please know that it’s possible, easy, and fun.
Discuss with your group, determine which era excites you collectively the most, and start building a new piece of it.
May the Force be with you!
*For those who don’t know, this series was announced, then promptly canceled with the arrival of the new canon timeline.
Seth Saunders is an avid reader of the Star Wars Expanded Universe who writes his own science fiction and fantasy novels under the pen name S.J. Saunders. You can find him all over social media @EhsJaySaunders and explore his work over at SJSaunders.com.
To see more from Seth, click here!