Descent Into Dropbox

Tabletop culture is a lot like Mitski, in that it bets on losing dogs.

It’s popular among OSR/indie spheres to see game designers of a certain vintage lamenting the loss of Google+ as the last place where the RPG community was gathered in a single venue. I’m pretty sure tabletop game designers were the only people actually using Google+ at a certain point, much like how late-stage Myspace became a shockingly good platform for musicians due to it being the only non-Tumblr platform with music playback functionality, before the discourse fragmented onto a dozen different platforms that all eventually congregated onto Twitter before splitting again with that dumpster fire (I am NOT writing about the Birdsite on this Christian blog, because I only write about things I can comprehend, and post-Twitter Twitter is nothing if not abject chaos) sent everyone back to and ENworld and onto and and The Cauldron and Bluesky and a few other venues I’m sure I’m forgetting about and countless Discord servers both public and private.

Part of this is the nature of the hobby. A lot of the culture surrounding tabletop role-playing games is fundamentally ephemeral as part of the improv-meets-quadratic-equations nature of tabletop as a hobby, comprised of shared in-jokes, house-rules and homebrew held together by a patchwork of forum threads, social media conversations, and fan wikis that range from the comprehensive to the deplorable.

I can joke to LARPer friends who are as far into the deeplore of a game like Vampire: The Masquerade as I am and, despite their playing with totally different groups, in a totally different medium, we both have relatively similar enough experiences with the source material to joke about metaplot characters like Boukephos (an oft-mentioned but rarely elaborated on ‘eternal wanderer’ kind of Lasombra) or Helena (Helen of Troy, of ‘face that launched a thousand ships’ fame, who is the progenitor of almost every Toreador still unalive in modern nights because VTM is goofy as shit (affectionate)), despite having played with GMs who wildly reinterpreted these characters to suit the needs of their campaigns. And that’s great! This kind of cross-group communication is one of the unifying things of an otherwise fairly solitary hobby, but it also largely exists as a strange half-oral tradition of reinterpreting the sourcebooks with a modern lens that often runs counter to what the designers or the publishers intended, tailored to the specialised audience and then recounted, altered, and embellished when it gets shared between people outside of the in-group.

Bits and pieces of that ephemeral communication get remembered well after their shelf life: most oldheads are probably sick to death of hearing about Tucker’s Kobolds at this point, but most people can’t really remember which version of D&D that story originates from, or if that even matters to the recounting of it. Almost everyone who cares to read old gaming threads and actual plays can name Ol’ Man Henderson as the character who ‘won’ Call of Cthulhu, but almost nobody remembers that the author of it came out post-script and admitted that they were actually playing Trail of Cthulhu, its adaptation to the Gumshoe system. People still tend to reference FATAL, and not more recent or more obscure games of equally repugnant and difficult to understand content, when you need to bring up an example of an unambiguously bad TTRPG as a punchline. Even with the digitization of old BECMI and B/X sourcebooks leading to a wave of critical re-evaluation of the origins of D&D in the late 2000’s, we haven’t gotten much further than Keep at the Borderlands in terms of exploring what D&D meant to its players at the time.

It’s easier to shape tabletop culture with a media property. You’d be hard-pressed to find modern fans of D&D or Warhammer 40K whose perception of the work hasn’t been shaped by Critical Role, or If The Emperor Had A Text To Speech Device. But those media properties are no less ephemeral in nature, and no less subject to the whims of rights-holders; Critical Role constantly seems like it is on the brink of cutting ties with Wizards of the Coast with each passing controversy, experimenting with publishing their own bespoke systems like Candela Obscura and Daggerheart to get out from under the pull of their media empire being built on a system whose owners keep shooting themselves in the foot in the pursuit of recurrent user spending of the video game space, with none of the boiling frog that games publishers were able to cultivate over a decade. They repeatedly have to dance around using characters like Vecna and ‘The Raven Queen’ in their own publications and adaptations, despite D&D latching onto the popularity of Critical Role by throwing incidental characters from the show like Joe Manganiello’s personal blorbo Arkhan The Cruel into their own official modules and co-signing their Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount at the height of the series’ popularity. Bruva Alfabusa, creator of Text-To-Speech, was eventually forced to relaunch the series as a World of Darkness-based Hunter: The Parenting after a sudden shift in Warhammer’s policy regarding fan animations, brought about by the launch of their own streaming platform. While Paradox has been supportive of World of Darkness fan content through the Dark Pack, World of Darkness still traces its origins to White Wolf, once among the more litigious of the notoriously litigious 90’s tabletop publishers in a pre-OGL we-wont-sue-you-for-saying-Armour-Class space.

Even at the highest levels of tabletop culture, in its most polished and ‘legitimate’ forms, you’re only ever one DMCA claim from going away.

This is the other side of the discussion on the ephemerality of tabletop culture. The fundamental imposition of IP rights on a hobby that is built upon collaborative storytelling in a shared setting that’s mostly stolen from Tolkien and Moorcock has produced an environment where, paradoxically, everyone is encouraged to create, everyone is encouraged to adapt, and nobody is encouraged to share. Any peace treaty meant to foster community expression, like the OGL, can be revoked at a publisher’s whim, as WotC proved when they attempted to revoke it and were forced to concede the Fifth Edition SRD, a collection of mechanics that they legally hold no claim to, to the Creative Commons. People share anyway, because the fun of stories is in telling them as much as the fun of games lies in playing them, and as I mentioned in my essay about Bloodlines and the spirit of the old school cRPG, half the fun of tabletop lies is the transgressive thrill of doing whatever you want with someone else’s setting.

It also means that tabletop culture is constantly at risk of losing huge swathes of its history when, for example, notoriously destructive corporation Wizards of the Coast suddenly wipes out ten years of discussion, homebrew, errata, and creativity when they suddenly decide that they don’t want to pay people to run their forums for them.

Let’s talk about Star Wars Saga Edition.

Saga Edition was the Star Wars tabletop game I grew up with, the one that was modern at the time and the one my brain orients all the others around. I’ve been getting back into it recently, as part of a wave of nostalgia I’m feeling towards the Knights of the Old Republic duology, and more broadly as part of my exploration into the realm of d20 systems that aren’t D&D as background research for my next tabletop project.

Saga Edition, and its predecessor Star Wars d20, are the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion of tabletop adaptations of Star Wars. They’re the unloved middle-child, wedged between the nostalgic fan favourite (West End Games’ Star Wars d6 system, or Star Wars WEG) and the most modern entry (Fantasy Flight Games’ Edge of the Empire, Age of Rebellion, and Force & Destiny, collectively referred to as Star Wars FFG).

Star Wars FFG is an incredibly well-designed game that gets very little official love and very few reprints, thankfully precluding me from calling it the ‘Skyrim of Tabletop Games’, due to FFG being at the centre of a vast amount of corporate chaos that will be elaborated on when I finally publish my long-belated analysis of the life and times of notoriously reckless games mega-publisher Embracer Group. It is however the newest Star Wars Tabletop game, the only one that officially encompasses the Disney Canon, meaning that it has gained enough of an audience to have a healthy ecosystem of updating the material not covered in the official releases due to time or LucasFilm restrictions (like the Sequel Trilogy, The Mandalorian, or Andor) into well-produced fan-made sourcebooks.

Star Wars WEG is a beloved classic system that had influence so far-reaching in the perception of the franchise it was licensed from that future creators who either worked on WEG products or were inspired by WEG products drew inspiration from it when determining the tone and the content of the franchise for decades after it ended publication. Due to West End Games going out of business and the new stewards of their OpenD6 system porting a serial-numbers-filed-off version of the game to the OGL, it is also easily adapted and remixed with varying degress of ‘admitting you’re a Star Wars game’ (my favourite being HyperspaceD6, a streamlined port of the ruleset.)

It would be remiss of me not to mention that there are also incredibly well-supported Star Wars 5e and Savage Worlds: Star Wars hacks, because the streets find their own uses for things.

If you want Star Wars, as it presently exists or as it existed roughly around the time of the Thrawn Trilogy, you have dozens of options. This means that Saga Edition, in 2023, appeals exclusively to a subset of sickos that exclusively want to play a type of Star Wars that only truly existed from around 2000-2007, when we had Knights of the Old Republic and the Genndy Tartakovsky Clone Wars cartoon, but before The Clone Wars heralded George Lucas’s official return to having direct involvement in the Franchise in the pre-buyout years of attempting to maximize the value of Lucasfilm to prospective buyers by putting a lot of expensive projects in development (like Star Wars Underworld, the notoriously ‘too expensive to film’ TV-Show-That-Never-Was) and finishing roughly two of them.

Fortunately: I’m sickos.

After the Disney purchase, Star Wars as a going concern has been terrified to tackle the themes and much of the iconography of the Prequel Trilogy, even as Lucasfilm’s own creative foibles create an equally maligned era in the Sequels and they mine a specific kind of Clone Wars nostalgia, the ‘ignoring every part of The Phantom Menace that isn’t Duel of the Fates and the Clone Trooper battles’ kind of nostalgia, with Disney+ projects like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Bad Batch.

The Old Republic has continued, albeit under the Legends moniker, but that game has been shunted to lesser developers from its already ignominious origins of being a B-Team project within one of BioWare’s support studios. Anything that engages with Knights of the Old Republic and its more personal stories of identity and agency against a setting where Destiny is a tangible force that pulls you down pre-ordained paths, outside of an apparently impossible to develop remake and offhand references to Revan and Malachor, appears to be a non-starter. Their cross-media experiment to produce another ‘merchandise without a movie’ project in the vein of Shadows of the Empire has produced an equivalent franchise in The High Republic, the book equivalent of an industry plant, a franchise with no constituency.

So Saga Edition speaks to the specific kind of Star Wars that I find compelling, which is why I’ve been enjoying my dive back into it.

I can also see why it was a TTRPG that was born to die.

Saga Edition launched during a period of change for Wizards of the Coast, one where they realised that the peace treaty they forced upon third-party creators with the OGL might some day be used as a weapon against them. With characteristic hubris, they attempted to replace the OGL with a more restrictive GSL, notoriously leading to the creation of Pathfinder and the erosion of WotC’s market share in the tabletop space. They won that war, eventually, but capitulated to obvious fan and Third-Party Publisher demand by walking back every change 4e introduced, including the more restrictive license.

Time is a flat circle.

But Star Wars was always exempt from the OGL-- d20 and Saga Edition were both born out of a special agreement between WotC and Lucasfilm, preventing the publication of any third-party titles. This meant that Star Wars d20 and the later Saga Edition were beholden solely to their official support.

Official support was slim. By the release of Saga Edition, it became clear that all hands were needed on deck to right the ship of D&D, and the expiration of WotC’s Star Wars license was only three years away. It received fourteen total sourcebooks, which was still more than the previous editions of Star Wars d20 received in their comparatively longer runs, and Dawn of Defiance, an Adventure Path-esque free campaign that was released episodically online from 2007-2009.

Dawn of Defiance places the players in the role of Rebel agents in the months after the end of the Clone Wars, forming the early resistance against the Empire and uncovering a project to build a really big Star Destroyer and blowing it up, setting the Empire back on the project twenty years. It’s the kind of dumb fun that makes for a phenomenal campaign when the players have a GM who takes the care to smooth out the rough edges in the published module and knows where to add more flavour. It was lucky, then, that Wizards of the Coast had forums for GMs who were running Dawn of Defiance to collaborate on homebrews, additions, and alterations to improve the players’ experience with the game. There were thirty page threads for each of the chapters, now mostly lost due to WotC’s forums purge in 2015 and largely inaccessible through Wayback Machine due to quirks of early-2010s forum software, of GMs sharing tips and expansions for running the content.

And that was it! Dawn of Defiance ended a few months before WotC lost the Star Wars license in 2010 as the one and only Adventure Path for Saga Edition. Two sourcebooks followed in 2010, one on running spy campaigns called Galaxy of Intrigue and another for exploration focused campaigns called The Unknown Regions, before the rights were up and Saga Edition was left with no more official content coming and only vague promises of an upcoming game announced in 2011, with a project that would eventually crystallize into Star Wars FFG.

To fill the void, there was an explosion in homebrew campaign materials made on the WotC forums. By virtue of its popularity, and the fact that there were no other models for how to build a Saga Edition campaign, Dawn of Defiance became the model for all future homebrew adventures in Saga Edition.

Discussions of how to ‘enhance’ Dawn of Defiance led to the creation of Epic Level modules like the Dawn of Defiance Epilogue, where Lady Alya Aldrete, an information broker from the official campaign, informs the max-level party that they have a rare opportunity to break into Emperor Palpatine’s personal residence on Byss for a certain suicide run against the strongest forces the Empire had to defend their overlord. This style of play was clearly desirable to players, but entirely unsupported by any official material. Dawn of Defiance advertised taking characters from level one to twenty, but could not provide answers for what they would actually do with that power. So why not try to kill the Emperor?

Two of the largest of these projects that spiralled out of Defiance were Dawn of Shadows, which transplants the ten-part format of Dawn of Defiance to a story of court drama and droid rebellions in a heroic, reformed Fel Empire 1000 years after the Original Trilogy, and Eve of Destruction, a relic-hunting adventure that went 5000 years in the other direction, setting itself in a time pre-dating the KotOR games by almost a thousand years.

They are both charmingly flawed projects. Dawn of Shadows relies heavily on fanservice callbacks to older Star Wars material to draw its laughs, and relies far too much on royal family melodrama to sell the twists and turns of its episodic narrative. Eve of Destruction is brilliant but seemingly unfinished, ending on an ambivalent note right as the stakes of the narrative increase. It is impossible to judge either harshly though, as projects by enthusiastic (and anonymous) amateurs, as both are clearly passion projects made out of clear appreciation for the setting and the system.

Rise of the Rebellion, however, requires absolutely no caching in ‘good for a fan project’ platitudes. It’s a fucking amazing four modules, and the least talked-about of the three ‘big’ homebrew projects for Saga Edition.

It is not documented anywhere, and its impossible-to-search name only brings up fan edits of Rogue One and various discussions of Andor. I found the files at the very bottom of a disorganized fan modules Google Drive.

I was not expecting it to be one of my favourite RPG reads in a long while.

It’s well-written, well-designed, and incredibly well paced, the product of authors who very clearly understand both the strengths of the system and the specific themes and vibes of the Prequel trilogy, dropping players into a world of seedy senators, daring heists, high-stakes card games, and Jedi struggling to maintain their moral compasses while staying hidden after Order 66.

It is also unfinished. Module RR-03, “Trouble on Lanthrym” instructs players to play it before RR-05, “The Cularin Job”. Nowhere else on any of the modules are the orders a player is supposed to play the modules in mentioned; they all end on a note suggesting that the next module will pick up on the mysteries of the first, only to drop the players into a completely different scenario.

I had to know whether the collections were incomplete. It was impossible to tell whether this was an anthology project from multiple authors with varying degrees of communication, or if it was a small, mislabelled subset of a broader campaign that was missing chunks.

I was up to do some digital archaeology.

I had some success a few weeks earlier using the Wayback Machine to grab old, long-lost hacks of Savage Worlds settings like Savage Half-Life and Savage Worlds: Westeros.

It was a fun mystery, to me, to search for more of the game I was enjoying reading so much that also seemed impossible to search for. The modules, like Dawn of Shadows and Eve of Destruction, were anonymous. In this case, it was credited only to ‘The RotR Team.’

This essay was originally going to focus on the process of uncovering the anonymous authors of Rise of the Rebellion, to determine whether they made anything else, but I grew increasingly uncomfortable at the prospect of rummaging through long-buried forum threads and now-deleted personal websites to sate my own curiosity after I got some kind of answer, in an old post on an archived page from the WotC forums by a figure who is known in the Saga Edition community to this day as being one of the most meticulous curators of homebrew content for the system. He shouted out Rise of the Rebellion in that forum post, and listed the names of its two designers with a link to their website. Their website is long dead, has a name tied to what I can reasonably guess to be their rough geographic location, and any archives of it on the Wayback Machine have been purged, likely at their own insistence.

Out of curiosity to see whether the developers worked in the industry after they published Rise of the Rebellion, I plugged their names into a database of tabletop games. I found, contrary to what I was expecting to find, that one of them (at least) worked in the industry before they published Rise of the Rebellion.

At this point, I was ready to write a really sad conclusion about the ephemerality of online maybe being a good thing if you don’t want your identity to be made public and leave well enough alone, but then I went to look in my Savage Worlds folder for the bit I mentioned a few paragraphs ago and realised that the name seemed a bit familiar, and then I realised that this person actually made a sick fucking Aliens Savage World hack.

Motherfucker! I downloaded a book from them a week ago!

They’re still publishing, too! I cross-referenced those books, and they’re putting out some really good Savage Worlds work on DriveThruRPG through the SWAG program.

So no, there’s no poignant ending to this piece reflecting on the inherent ephemeral nature of online communications and the art mattering more than the artist. When’s The Cularin Job coming out, you bollocks?