There are some important names in Star Wars history, names that even casual fans of the franchise will know. Names such as Alan Ladd Jr., Gary Kurtz, John Dykstra, Raymond Velasco, and Ralph McQuarrie. These, along with George Lucas and John Williams, are some of the builders of the franchise that most any fan will recognize.
But how about Bill Slavicsek? Does that name ring any bells? Because it should.
Way back when, even before there was an expanded universe, there was Bill. Not only Bill of course, but when you look at his bibliography you begin to understand his place in all of this.
Hereís a slice:
ē The Star Wars Sourcebook (first and second edition)
ē Imperial Sourcebook
ē Rebellion Sourcebook
ē Thrawn Trilogy Sourcebook
ē A Guide to the Star Wars Universe (second and third edition)
ē Galaxy Guide Volumes 1-5
If you know these books, and there are more, then you are aware of the contributions theyíve made to the Star Wars universe. Indeed, Bill has contributed more content to the galaxy than just about anybody else, including George Lucas.
Between his time spent at West End Games and his ensuing years of contributions, Bill has written over 2.5 million words on the subject.
Heís either directly or indirectly responsible for the names of countless ships, alien species, planets, and many, many other things that we take for granted in the Star Wars lexicon. Just a few examples are Inquisitors, Rodians, Twiíleks, Ryloth, Imperial Security Bureau, Sienar Fleet Systems, Ithorians, Interdictor Cruiser, Shantipole, Sabacc, ďmedpacĒ and so on.
Still going strong, Bill just wrote and released ďDefining a Galaxy: Celebrating 30 Years of Roleplaying in a Galaxy Far, Far AwayĒ which looks back at how it all started for him. From his early days at West End Games where they made the first Star Wars RPG, his many trips to Lucasfilm/Skywalker Ranch, all the way up to his involvement in helping create the Expanded Universe. As the title suggests, it is a memoir celebrating 30 years of role-playing games set in the Star Wars universe.
Nowadays, Bill works for ďZenimax Online StudiosĒ as a senior writer on the very popular MMORPG The Elder Scrolls Online game, plays RPGs as often as he can, and still loves Star Wars.
We caught up with Bill and discussed a few of these things.
First off, congratulations on the release of ďDefining a GalaxyĒ. When did you come up with the idea for the book and how long was the process?
It was right around the time of Celebration 2017 in Orlando. Pablo Hidalgo from the Lucasfilm story group had contacted me with the idea for a panel on Star Wars role playing games. We tried to pull it together for Orlando but couldnít get it set up in time.
So, I thought this is the kind of stuff people ask me about all the time, itís the 30th anniversary of the publication of the sourcebook, so I started to write everything down that I could remember. At first it started out just for my own edification, so as not to lose any of it.
Then as the year progressed, right after Celebration, Sterling Hershey (WEG) contacted me and said they were doing a panel at GenCon and asked if I would participate.
I told him that I had already begun putting it all together, and we both agreed this was a good opportunity to present it to people.
I continued to write throughout 2017, and I had a draft done around October, which was the anniversary of the sourcebook (October 1st). During the GenCon event in August, I ran into Stan Brown from the Rogue Genius group, and we talked. He loved the idea and said they would love to publish the book.
Eventually I wrapped it up around the time Solo: A Star Wars Story was released and handed in my final version shortly after.
How do you think you would fit in this new Disney Era of Star Wars publishing? Where most of the content is controlled and filtered through the story group?
I think the formation of the Lucasfilm story group was a great idea, consolidating that power. When we tried that in the beginning, a lot of what they were using back then was the stuff I put together for them. This was before the internet of course.
So, the formation of a group and a continuity was attempted early on, but it got away from them quickly. They simply didnít have a large enough staff at the time that was dedicated to it, and they wanted to give the licensees a little more leeway from my point of view. So, some of the things that got through, as I look back now, was good and some of it was questionable. This was all depending on your take on what should or should not be considered canon.
So, I think developing the story group and giving them the ability to wrangle it all in, is a great step forward for a property so rich in lore and story.
For me? I think I would fit in today. Thatís kind of what I do, focus on that continuity whether itís Star Wars in the early days, or Dungeonís & Dragons, or now Elder Scrolls Online. We want to keep that lore consistent and want an ongoing good story; it makes for a better property that way.
Do you think having this oversight, this continuity control stifles creativity from a writing standpoint?
Part of both the benefit and the risk of working in a shared universe is that you must play with their toys. And you must do it in a respectful manner.
I havenít worked directly with Pablo (Hidalgo) and Leland (Chee) since the creation of the story group, but I know how they used to work prior. I imagine the only time you would get stifled is if you came up with something wacky and/or very off topic.
Iíve always worked in an environment that had a shared universe, even when we were creating it. So, you always want to keep some level of control over it or it can get out of hand. Things like this can get away from you quickly.
One of the great things for me, even though I havenít worked with them since Disney took over, is that Iím kind of there in spirit. One of the first press-releases Kathleen Kennedy put out was that they were keeping all the 1980ís role-playing material.
ďThe Inquisitor, the Imperial Security Bureau, and Sienar Fleet Systems are story elements in the new animated series, and all these ideas find their origins in roleplaying game material published in the 1980s.Ē
For me, the great part was watching The Clone Wars and especially Star Wars Rebels, which played like a version of the role-playing game. It was so much fun hearing them say those names I invented all those years ago. I never expected to hear them out loud.
When you were developing the first Star Wars RPG/Sourcebook and follow-up editions and guides, how important was the story aspect? Did it take priority over the mechanics of the game?
To me, itís always about the story first. I started out as a game master in order to explore, with early Dungeons & Dragons especially, the idea of the group story. At West End Games, we had learned from our previous game ďParanoiaĒ, that so many people didnít have groups to play with. And they would send us letters all the time saying how much they were enjoying reading the books and to keep it up.
So, when Greg Costikyan decided to do the Star Wars RPG and I was writing the sourcebook, part of it was bringing what we loved about Star Wars to life in a way that people could utilize. It was not only meant for the game play, but to help them see the bigger picture.
One of the things on my mind as I was pulling the book together, was how to fill some of these pages. And thatís where a lot of these short stories came from.
In general, the whole idea was to write a book that not only contained important information from an RPG standpoint but contained stuff that fans would want to read and devour.
Because there was just so little at the time beyond the movies and companion novels, getting Lucasfilm to agree to it was interesting. But they finally came around.
You almost took a job writing for Vending Machine Times instead of West End Games. How did that happen?
I was a year out of college and just finished up a yearlong stint at a small weekly newspaper. Originally, I was journalism major, so I thought thatís where I was going to wind up anyways.
But when I started looking for a real job, one that paid, I really wanted something that I would also get excited about. The Vending Machine Times was the closest thing I had found to that because sometimes you would deal with something I was interested in, like a coin-op game.
The West End Games job came along but I had never heard of them at the time, even though I was a long time D&D player. So, I wasnít sure what I was getting into, but I was interested in it strictly from a gaming point of view.
The problem was I had already said ďyesĒ to Vending Machine Times when WEG offered me a job. So, breaking my word to VMT was the part I struggled with the most, although it wasnít that long of one.
Itís easy for us to romanticize the early days at West End Games, a group of fans getting to create this amazing Star Wars content. In reality, it was probably a ton of long days and lots of sleeping at the office?
One of my friends always makes jokes about me working at a games company. They think we just play games all day, wear Santaís elves hats, and turn out finished product. Like its magic.
When we were developing the Star Wars role-playing game, we play tested the game endlessly. We all offered all kinds of suggestions and feedback. When we finally got into the editing process, Paul Murphy and I were responsible for how we wanted the RPG and the books to look and feel.
There was only around six of us at the time, all doing writing, developing, editing, and play testing. I was still relatively new when we got the Star Wars license, less than a year with the company when we got it. So, most of my time at the beginning was spent being an editor and a typesetter, the function which I was originally hired for.
I began to branch out into design around that time because the projects I was assigned to edit, needed more work. They needed more substance.
The sourcebook was originally supposed to be just Curtis Smith, but he was also working as our boss at the time. Because of that heíd fallen behind on his deadlines for the book. He had written about 10-15 pages of the book at that point and was stuck, so he brought me in to help him. That was my first big push forward to show the company what I could do, and I ended up writing the rest of the book myself.
But again, the whole team was commenting, editing, and playtesting. It took us well over a year to finish the RPG and the source book. Those that were involved, were busy all the time, a big chunk of which included the research that we were doing. It was all very extensive and new, we didnít have the expanded universe yet or my book for that matter, which came later.
All our research was done by watching the videos, looking at Starlog Magazine, and going to Lucasfilm archives and seeing what they had. We made a lot of trips to Lucasfilm and Skywalker Ranch in those early days, which was great obviously.
It was most definitely a lot of work for all of us, but it was so fun and rewarding at the same time. Iíve never looked back at anything Iíve done and thought it was a slog.
Before any of this, you were a massive Star Wars fan and role-playing game enthusiast. How did it feel suddenly being a contributor to both?
I learned very quickly when I first started out that when you interview people that you admire, you learn to approach it in a professional manner. Not to geek out on them.
You need to hit it with a professional manner but truthfully, deep down inside, it was amazing to be at Skywalker Ranch in those days. It was so peaceful and quiet, set out in the hills outside of San Francisco. For us, it was like its own version of Disneyland.
Then offsite, going to the archive vaults, it reminded me of going into the Indiana Jones warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Except all the boxes were open and you could see into them. That was amazing to see all these things used in the films in real life for the first time.
In the book you talk about working very closely with Lucasfilm for many years. How is it that you never actually worked for the company? It seems like such an obvious choice looking back on it.
It came up a few times, I mean, we definitely talked about it. They didnít really seem to have the budget by the time I left West End, although they had me do the Guide to the Star Stars Universe books.
After I had left West End, they would still send me books to look at and look for feedback on. I think if they would have had the budget, they would have hired me back in those days. They were a very small team back then, even throughout the Wizard of the Coast years the team was not very big, the toy and publishing group anyways. Itís much bigger now.
By the time it came up again, I had already been promoted to Director and Vice President at Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro, so I was settled, there was no way to leave at that point.
Looking back and the countless contributions you've made to Star Wars, is there anything that stands? Something you are particularly fond of?
Iím just impressed, looking back at them, how well they hold up and that theyíre still relevant. Sure, I would write a little less passive tense these days, but in general Iím still very happy with the work Iíve done. And how it still seems relevant even though itís been 30+ years.
I suppose the Sourcebook will always be the one thing that put my name on the map, for people who keep track of those sorts of things.
Even beyond that, once Eric, Greg, and Curtis left West End, I was the most senior person, so I got to run the show for the next five years. So, everything we did for Star Wars in those years passed through my hands, and that was just to make sure the continuity was tight. I was sort of the continuity cop back then.
And even though I didnít have that role at Lucasfilm, I did at West End. I made sure everything was on the level for story and quality that I was striving for. You never want to put out less than your best work. Iím proud of the work we did.
You are still and avid fan of Star Wars, reading and watching it all the time. What stands out for you these days?
I mostly like reading the comic books; itís easier for me to keep up with because theyíre quick and easy to get through.
Currently, the ongoing Star Wars series is pretty good. Greg Pakís ďAge of Rebellion: Princess LeiaĒ and ďAge of Rebellion: Grand Moff TarkinĒ was good I thought. I was surprised how nasty Pak made Tarkin, but I thought it worked out well in that case.
We watched Star Wars Resistance Season One; I liked it but not as much as Star Wars Rebels. Itís not hitting at the level that The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels did, not yet anyways.
Iíve been following Zahnís new Thrawn books mostly because I like Tim and I want to see how he brings that character into the new era.
The last book that I read was ďFrom a Certain Point of ViewĒ, which basically looks like they took the old Galaxy Guide books and told everyone to write a story based on them.
Beyond all of that, Iím really looking forward to the Galaxyís Edge theme park and hotel!
For the players and GMís out there, how much time should someone spend on character and story development?
For a player character, it obviously needs all the mechanical stuff it needs to succeed, so you need to fill out the character sheet before you do anything else.
Iíve had players that make reams of material for their characters but not because it necessarily helps them at the table, they just enjoy doing that. If you enjoy doing that and have the time, thatís fine, go do that.
What you need for the character at the table is enough of an idea of who you want to play and how you want them to behave in most situations. If youíre beyond that then youíre probably thinking too much, and only do that if thatís what you like to do.
For a game master, when I put stuff together for my home game, itís on a piece of paper with enough notes that I can wing it if I have to. Iím very comfortable making it up as we go along. Playing off what the players are bringing to the table is something not everybody can do.
I also have colleagues, professionals, who create reams of material for an adventure or a campaign. When you overprepare, itís easy to get lost sometimes when the player goes in a direction they havenít been before. You can go too far as a games master also.
I recommend that since this is hobby, do the level of work that makes you comfortable, but understand that you donít have to do very much at all. In general, players donít know whatís behind your GM screen, thatís your domain. If you can make it up as you go along, thatís great. If you need more notes, thatís great. If you want to write enough to publish a book, do that if thatís what excites you. But I wouldnít recommend that to the average player.
Lastly, what do you think of the Fantasy Flight Games versions of Star Wars RPG?
Iíve looked at them, and Iíve certainly played the standalone games. But I have not tried to run or play the RPG game, although I do have a professional curiosity towards them. I own and have read a few of the books.
The specialized dice are not my thing because itís just another aspect you need to learn to play, on top of everything else. But other people I know love it, and thatís great. Iíve played a version of it when it was still War Hammer, maybe ten years ago now? So, Iíve played the system, just not a Star Wars system.
Bill was very generous with his time and couldnít have been nicer. If you want to learn more about Bill and what went into making these early Star Wars RPGís, and the formation of the EU, pick up this book. Itís a fun read, and whatever level of Star Wars fan you are Iím sure youíll get something from it.
Like I said, his contributions to Star Wars, something we all know and love, are second to maybe only George Lucas himself. Any chance to you get to listen to him speak, definitely take advantage of the opportunity.
You can order "Defining a Galaxy" HERE.
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