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August 1, 2004

An Unofficial History of the D6 System

Since its first appearance in 1986, West End Games' D6 System has undergone refinement through several permutations, from the prototypical and novice-friendly Ghostbusters game engine to the current incarnation in the core books for D6 Adventure, Space, and Fantasy. The game's simple core rule -- "roll your attribute or skill dice higher than a difficulty number" -- was among the first to use dice pools in an era when most roleplaying games focused on more abstract and complex representations of reality through game mechanics. The D6 System's popularity developed primarily from its symbiotic relationship with popular licensed settings, from Ghostbusters and Star Wars to Men in Black and Hercules & Xena, which drove high-visibility sales for many years. The combination of an intuitive game engine with well-known settings helped ensure the system's success.

This essay surveys the various game releases incorporating the D6 System, focusing primarily on system innovations and presentation. It is not a history of West End Games, though some events in that company's past affect developments in D6.

What Makes A D6 Game?

Official D6 System games usually come from the company that holds the rights to that game engine: West End Games. That corporate identity changed hands several times in the late 1990s due to financial difficulties, and in November 2003 emerged in its latest incarnation, owned by Eric Gibson's Purgatory Publishing. 

D6 games have two core concepts, one focusing on game mechanics, and the other on thematic/presentation elements:

* Attributes and skills are represented by die codes instead of set numeric values, which players must roll equal to or higher than a difficulty number to succeed (sometimes with the aid of bonus dice). All other rules flow from this central mechanic.

* Rules presentation is geared toward newcomers (whether gaming novices or new D6 players) customized to a particular and popular setting (often a licensed media property).

Ghostbusters

The gaming community generally acknowledges that Ghostbusters: A Frightfully Cheerful Roleplaying Game first used the core D6 System mechanic of dice pools representing attributes and skills. Released in 1986 with a license from Columbia Pictures Industries, the boxed set drew on the popular Ghostbusters film starring Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, Ernie Hudson, and Annie Potts. The rules even contained numerous cartoon images of the movie characters adding occasional marginal commentary. Chaosium's Sandy Petersen and Lynn Willis, with Greg Stafford, designed the core rules system. Such game industry notables as Aaron Allston, Scott Haring, and Daniel Greenberg contributed to the sequel game (Ghostbusters International) and a line of adventures.

Ghostbusters was West End Games' second roleplaying game line after the cult hit Paranoia, released in 1984. Before that, the company produced wargames with high production values: color maps, cardboard counters, dice, and the ever-popular sealed counter trays (which remained much-sought-after items years after the wargames went out of stock). West End brought similar high production values to its roleplaying game components.

System Innovations

As the prototype D6 System game, Ghostbusters established several core mechanics that later evolved into elements current D6 players would recognize. Each character had four traits (attributes), each with an associated special talent (skill). Traits had values from one to seven, while talent increased those. If a character did not have a specific talent to deal with a situation, he defaulted to his trait. Characters could choose talents from an established list (much like a skill list). Difficulties ranged from Easy (with a difficulty number of 5), to hard (20) and impossible (30).

In addition to normal dice, the game included one Ghost Die with the Ghostbusters symbol taking the place of the six -- the prototype Wild Die. Players incorporated the Ghost Die in each roll they made, and experienced some form of failure (often humorous) if they rolled the ghost.

Each character began with 20 Brownie Points, which served as the forerunners of Character Points. They enabled players to use additional dice to accomplish tasks, but they had to declare their use before the roll. Players could roll as many dice as they had remaining Brownie Points. These also functioned as a measure of success or failure: those accomplishing scenario goals received more points, those hit in combat or failing important rolls lost points. Anyone collecting 30 Brownie Points could use them to improve a Trait by one.

The "How To Play" booklet -- what readers first saw upon opening the box -- encouraged people to dive into the game by playing the characters from the Ghostbusters film, included on perforated reference cards as a form of pre-generated character template.

Presentation

The components in the Ghostbusters boxed set provided a model for presenting games to newcomers and fans of popular films. It included three levels of the rules: a three-page "How To Play" flyer that covered the basics and got gamers playing right out of the box; a 24-page "Training Manual" that served as a basic rulebook, elaborating simply on the simple concepts in the starter flyer; and the "Operations Manual," which functioned as the full-fledged sourcebook with more examples, scenarios, ghosts, adventure ideas, stats for typical non-player characters, and a random adventure generator. Two sheets of perforated cards contained the stats for the main film characters (pre-generated character templates of a sort) and a host of smaller equipment cards detailing various gadgets and artifacts used during scenarios.

On a visual level, such production values weren't new. In 1982 TSR's Star Frontiers also contained a similar array of components, including basic and advanced rule booklets, maps, and counters. But it did not focus on a licensed media property and thus did not have a particular tone to promote through the text. (At the time, West End Games was emerging as one of a handful of companies that could offer such high production values as industry leader TSR.) Ghostbusters' designers and developers already had practice at infusing game rules with the appropriate (and humorous) atmosphere from previous work on Paranoia. Movie characters appeared in the margins to offer comic commentary. In-universe paperwork provided props for "Releases from Damages," "Temporary EPA Permit," and the useful "Last Will and Testament" for Ghostbusters characters. Movie stills enhanced the rulebooks' graphic presentation and reminded players they were running around a world where they could learn everything they needed to know from watching a film.

Ghostbusters would be the last D6 System game appearing in a box packed with all the trappings until the release of the Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game in 1997. Although West End Games later published several flagship, non-D6 games as boxed sets -- such as second edition Paranoia, Shatterzone, Indiana Jones, and Bloodshadows -- the overall expense of producing such high-value components as foldout maps, perforated cards, and special dice became prohibitive. Much of the roleplaying game industry followed this trend, which focused on releasing core rules sets in books rather than boxes to avoid high production expenses and open the way into major bookstore chains, which at that time understood how to market and display books better than boxes.

The Star Wars Roleplaying Game

In 1987 the Star Wars franchise seemed dead in the water. The last film, Return of the Jedi, opened in 1983. In the subsequent years, the avalanche of marketing made popular by the Star Wars movies died off (and certainly held no promise for a product as esoteric as a roleplaying game). Filmmaker George Lucas focused his efforts on obscure projects like Howard the Duck and Willow. The popularity of Star Wars seemed little more than nostalgia for the days of action figures and trading cards.

West End Games established a licensing agreement with Lucasfilm Ltd. to produce a Star Wars roleplaying game, and published the two-book set in 1987, ten years after the original movie's release. Designers Greg Costikyan, Curtis Smith, and Bill Slavicsek refined the D6 System from Ghostbusters into a more substantial game engine suitable for the cinematic action of the Star Wars films. The first edition rules and sourcebook drew gamers and movie fans into the roleplaying universe far, far away, and spawned a line of scenarios and supplements that supported an ever-growing consumer base. In 1991, the release of Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire -- the first original sequel novel in the Star Wars galaxy -- re-ignited massive fan interest in the franchise, and sent scores of enthusiasts to roleplaying game books seeking officially licensed source material expanding the scope of the galaxy.

A second edition of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game released in 1992, followed by the Star Wars Roleplaying Game: Second Edition -- Revised & Expanded (1996), and the Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game (1997). (For a detailed comparison of the three main versions, see the Griffon Dispatch "WEG's Star Wars RPG: Which Edition?") The game line published more than 120 products (including revisions of previously released books and 15 issues of The Official Star Wars Adventure Journal) and was sublicensed and translated into several foreign languages before West End lost the license in 1998 during its financial troubles.

System Innovations

Overall the Star Wars Roleplaying Game refined Ghostbusters into the familiar game engine incorporating many of the core mechanics that now form the D6 System. Where the earlier game strove to achieve a basic framework for humorous action, Star Wars created a workable and detailed game engine to simulate cinematic drama in a particular, more serious universe. Players needed more rules guidance and character options to fit the conflicts and technology of the Star Wars galaxy.

The Star Wars Roleplaying Game modified a character's basic stats, changing four traits into six attributes, and one talent per trait into a short list of skills in which everyone had some proficiency (a die code that defaulted to the value of the associated attribute). Various editions of the Star Wars game differed in offering every template the same skills or customizing skill lists to what a character could reasonably know. The game retained the core rule of rolling a die pool equal to or greater than a difficulty number. 

The first edition did not include any rules for a Wild Die. Some might argue the range of results one could roll in a die pool were chance enough for critical successes and failures, while others would say a Wild Die -- and one that "exploded" each time a six appeared in succession -- added to the heroic cinematic nature of the game. This argument obviously won out with the designers of the second edition, which included Wild Die rules. If a one appeared on the Wild Die, it might simply affect a lower die roll total, or, at the gamemaster's discretion, signify some critical failure. A six on the Wild Die added to the result and was rolled again as a bonus. Second Edition -- Revised & Expanded included the Wild Die, by then a standard D6 System convention, though for simplicity's sake in catering to a younger market, the Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game omitted the Wild Die.

Ghostbusters' Brownie Points split into two systems to aid character rolls: Force Points and Character Points. To accommodate the role of the Force in the Star Wars galaxy, the game included Force Points representing every character's innate ability to tap the power of the Force. (Jedi also had access to Force powers based on their capacity for using three Force skills: control, sense, and alter.) When a player used a Force Point -- prior to making any die rolls -- she could double all die codes for that round only. Combined with the game's multi-action rules, it allowed characters to undertake amazing and heroic feats in the face of insurmountable odds. Force Points were rarely awarded, though, and were overpowered for boosting less-important rolls. Character Points replaced the standard Experience Point mechanic from first edition, which only allowed players to use them to improve their characters' stats. Character Points served both the purpose of experience and bonus points, forcing players to decide if they wanted to boost die rolls by one, two, or three dice after their roll, or save them for character improvement later. As with Ghostbusters, accomplishing a scenario garnered Character Point awards, varying by the degree of success.

The Star Wars Roleplaying Game refined the concept from Ghostbusters of playing film characters using pre-generated stat cards. Instead of gamers arguing over who got to play Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Chewbacca, players customized their own characters based on stereotypical templates that offered similar roles, such as smuggler, minor Jedi, young senatorial, and Wookiee. This gave everyone the chance to pick a template, add some skill dice, and dive into the game, and was particularly important in first edition, which introduced Star Wars gaming. Later editions provided different templates, and players always had the option of creating their own once they were comfortable with the system. The concept of pre-generated characters -- even ones gamers customized by assigning 7D to skills -- still accomplished the goal of making this D6 game a quick start-up for newcomers.

Presentation

The various editions of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game followed Ghostbusters' lead in using movie stills for illustrations enhancing the rulebooks, as well as incorporating thematic text to encourage a cinematic style of play emulating the films. Many fans hadn't seen Star Wars movie shots since their old trading card days, and their pervasive presence in the first edition rules helped rekindle their interest in Star Wars and stimulate their imaginations about the possibilities of roleplaying in that universe. 

First edition included two books (288 pages total), the main rules and the sourcebook, essential for providing the stats for numerous ships, vehicles, droids, and other elements of the Star Wars universe encountered in the game. Although black-and-white throughout with spot full-color insets detailing "in-universe" advertisements for the Imperial Navy, Incom, Industrial Automaton, and other Star Wars corporations, it relied exclusively on movie stills, with no illustrations for the character templates. It still remains one of the stronger visual presentations for the game line. The 176-page second edition compacted rules and universe source material into one book, but its reliance on original line art of varying quality (from mediocre to excellent) and a dense layout (subheads were not well organized and sometimes indistinguishable in magnitude from each other) did not make it stand out from the avalanche of similarly sized roleplaying game books flooding the market in the early 1990s. Graphically its one saving grace over first edition was the inclusion of illustrations with each character template. Second Edition -- Revised & Expanded (288 pages) was everything the previous two editions should have been: full-color, comprehensive in coverage of rules and universe information, and packed with color film stills and high-quality, original color artwork.

Each edition focused on introducing new and established gamers to roleplaying in the Star Wars universe. Rules included hints on running games, getting into the mood of the universe, many examples, pages of handy reference charts, and sidebar suggestions on using props, sound effects, and Star Wars toys. First edition's overall gung-ho attitude and borderline corny suggestions saturate the text like the enthusiasm from a ten year-old surrounded by Star Wars action figures. Second edition generally avoids this tone in favor of language more appropriate to a roleplaying game manual. Second Edition -- Revised & Expanded found a pleasant middle ground, giving responsibility for in-universe banter and suggestions to a crowd of original characters like General Airen Cracken, smuggler Platt Okeefe, and Rebellion historian Voren Na'al, who introduced new chapters and offered sidebar commentary throughout the text (much like the Ghostbusters characters in that game). 

Each version had differing tactics for encouraging play "right out of the box," even if they didn't come in one. First edition included solitaire and group scenarios, plus a handful of adventure ideas with outlines detailing each episode. These appeared toward the back of the book more to illustrate the rules established up front. Second edition buried its several detailed adventure hooks amidst its gamemastering rules, but included no moderate-length group adventure and no solitaire scenario. Second Edition -- Revised & Expanded displayed the solitaire tutorial adventure up front for those just diving into the game, with a full-length group adventure later on (and no list of adventure ideas/hooks). The solo scenario, though, appeared in the book's introduction, before any rules chapters, along with an example of play and a four-page player handout summarizing the concept of roleplaying, basic rules, handy skills, resolving actions, Wild Die mechanics, special statistics, and even in-universe slang.

The Star Wars Roleplaying Game set the standard for the D6 System for almost 10 years before any new developments or settings appeared.

D6 History Part Two: Post-Star Wars D6 Developments

 

   "This is called a Griffin because it is a winged quadruped. This kind of wild animal is born in Hyperborean parts, or in mountains. All its bodily members are like a lion's, but its wings and mask are like an eagle's. It is vehemently hostile to horses. But it will also tear to pieces any human beings which it happens to come across." 

-- The Book of Beasts, translated by T.H. White
 
Except where otherwise noted, all text material copyright 2003-2007 Peter Schweighofer.