Earlier this month, Lucasfilm’s Star Wars loremaster Pablo Hidalgo posted extracts from a 1994 Star Wars style guide on social media, presenting a wonderfully prescient window into how the early creators of the Expanded Universe saw Star Wars. The whole guide has even more intriguing insights to offer.
We managed to obtain a full copy of the guide — which was originally created for West End Games, the creators of the widely popular Star Wars tabletop roleplaying game that was published between 1987 and 1999 — in the wake of Hidalgo’s spotlight on the book. Originally developed for writers who wanted to pitch new adventures and pieces of fiction for the game, the vast majority of the guide details the process of drafting and submitting work to West End Games, and how to write in the “adventure” format for a tabletop RPG, in the first place.
But the guide also dedicates an entire chapter to coaching writers on how to write good Star Wars material. The number one suggestion is to avoid “clichés and poorly executed concepts [that] we see repeatedly” in pitches. But the chapter also paints a fascinating insight into how the Expanded Universe wanted to be seen in its earliest days, as distinct from the original films — and how important it was to not just create stories that had the classic Star Wars feeling, and built upon the galaxy far, far away in interesting ways.
Reading the guide, one of the most interesting things that pervades the overall sentiment is that the Star Wars stories West End wanted were very specifically not the simple battles of good versus evil, or the lighthearted space-fantasy side of the movies.
West End expected storytelling aimed at “highly intelligent high school, college, and older-age individuals” — not just stories focusing on the areas of Star Wars that are rarely covered in the first three movies, but ones that offered a much more morally complex view of the universe. Star Wars was to be taken seriously, and not be made fun of. At the same time, writers were encouraged not to go too far, aiming for a PG or PG-13 level of violence, no swearing (outside of fictional expletives), and definitely no nudity — although general romantic elements were permitted, in the style of Han and Leia’s relationship in the films.
As you can see from the excerpt above, villainy had to have motivation outside of moustache-twirling escapades, and the guide repeatedly expresses that the galaxy at large was not populated by evil Imperial citizens simply because they were ruled by an oppressive government, but normal people with their own wants and needs. That said, in another moment of delightful hindsight, the guide later on reminds writers that Stormtroopers are “fanatically loyal”, and even in the post-Return of the Jedi world, would be “unswayable” from the Empire, so writers shouldn’t tell stories about defecting Stormtroopers. Sorry, Finn!
That “reality” was also expected in writer’s ability to depict logically consistent worlds and characters, almost pointedly in regards to some oft-joked about elements from the Star Wars movies — one particularly good line mentions that if writers create a character who is a legendarily fearsome Bounty Hunter, they should make them “act like one and not make juvenile mistakes”, which sounds all too familiar. This also came into play when creating new worlds. West End Games didn’t want single-biome worlds (they cited Hoth and Tatooine as “extremes”), or planets with a single civilisation surrounded by desolate wilderness, but fleshed out, realistic depictions of societies and environments rarely seen in the movies.
Speaking of which, “rarely seen in the movies” was the other major mantra West End hammered into its writers. The emphasis was to explore the Star Wars galaxy as it was never shown on screen: the past was an absolute no-go (presumably as, by 1994, George Lucas’ prequel films were already in development). And returning to familiar locations and worlds, or introducing something that was simply a bigger, badder version of something shown in the movies were frowned upon greatly.
This likewise extended to the presence of familiar faces — something West End expressly stated as a big no-no. Characters like Leia, Luke, and Han could have cameo appearances at most (“think of Sean Connery in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” is the then-timely advice), and new villains were expected, instead of the likes of Darth Vader or the Emperor playing a direct role. The feel of Star Wars was important, but it had to be applied to new material and new stories, not draped over ideas and concepts fans already knew from the films.
This breadth was a great strength of the Expanded Universe, and an interesting parallel as Star Wars entered a period of film-making that was all about delving into its history and mirroring what had gone before.
So how did West End Games expect its writers to do all this? By delving into the Star Wars Expanded Universe as deeply as they could. Their knowledge of Star Wars couldn’t just come from the movies, but the three years of expanded material found in the RPG itself and the plethora of books and comics that had been released ever since Timothy Zahn’s fabled Heir to the Empire trilogy had reignited the canon.
Potential writers were given a timeline of the wider Expanded Universe (which you can see below) that corresponds with the events of the novels about the period during and after the original films — with the expectations that writers will be at least familiar with the events and technology being explored in the EU at the time. All this was in service of one continued goal: creating a new universe that had the vibe of Star Wars, but built upon it with new ideas, deeper stories, and fresh locations that it delivered something completely unlike what Star Wars viewers had ever seen before.
Sure, it can be funny in hindsight to look back at some of these rules and laugh at how the later Expanded Universe, the prequels, and even The Force Awakens completely ignored them (One line in particular about West End being uninterested in “aliens invade the galaxy” stories, which would infamously occur in the EU with the arrival of the Yuuzahn Vong). But above all, it’s fascinating to see the divergent paths the Star Wars expanded universe and the films themselves were about to split into.
With the prequels just a few short years away, George Lucas was expanding the Star Wars fiction by seeking to explain its mysteries and delve into its past — who was Anakin Skywalker before he became Darth Vader? What were the Clone Wars? What were the Jedi like at the height of their powers? This stuff was all about exploring familiar elements and bridging them together, to fully explore the fall and rise of the Skywalker saga. The Expanded Universe — and in it, West End Games — believed that Star Wars‘ future lay in the future itself: new places, new people, new, interesting conflicts, free of the heroes, villains, and events that had already played out on the big screen.
Given the generally tepid reaction to the prequels, it would seem popular consensus all these years later agreed with the EU when it came to creating great new Star Wars stories. But regardless of what you believe, it’s fascinating to see how that divergence between the source material and its expanded media began — and the roots of it can be found right in West End’s style guide, all those years ago.
All Images provided from the Star Wars Stylebook Version 2.0, printed by West End Games in 1994.