Sunday, October 5, 2014

An Unofficial History of the D6 System part 2

This post serves to rescue the D6 History story off of the WayBackMachine. It is the 2nd part. See the first part here (An Unofficial History of the D6 System part 1). In an attempted to locate the article recently, I discovered all links appeared dead. The excellent essay is written by +Peter Schweighofer . I thought it a shame that it was no longer readily available. So, here I present the essay...

An Unofficial History of the D6 System, Part II
From its origins as an engine for the licensed Ghostbusters game to its long run as the core Star Wars game system, D6 continued to refine itself as an easy system linked to interesting properties that inspired its presentation. Future developments brought D6 in different directions for better or worse.

D6 Versus MasterBook
Before Timothy Zahn's novel Heir to the Empire renewed interest in Star Wars, and before the strength of such fan awareness was apparent, West End's sales and marketing staff was convinced the Star Wars license was dead. Roleplaying game product sales were good, but the company had already embarked on games using a new engine: the rules set that would eventually become MasterBookTORG (1990) was the first such release, followed by Shatterzone(1993), and ultimately MasterBook itself (1994), with the Worlds of Indiana Jones and Bloodshadows as initial settings.

This schism between a D6 Star Wars Roleplaying Game and West End's other game system occurred for several reasons. In those days, management and the design/editorial team wanted a departure from a reliance on Star Wars and its game system. They had stronger faith in their own original game mechanics, and an uncertainty/unwillingness to use D6 in any other game. No doubt personalities were involved that reinforced this rift. The design/editorial team at least (if not upper management) was uncertain about the status of the D6 System as a rules set apart from Star Wars. Did West End's license with Lucasfilm allow it to separate the D6 System game mechanics developed for the Star Wars Roleplaying Game and incorporate it into other original and licensed games with the Star Wars trappings stripped out? (Ultimately the answer was "yes," but the company didn't reach that conclusion until MasterBook had gained a stranglehold on corporate affairs).

But the company slowly realized it needed to cash in on its now best-selling game line -- Star Wars -- which had introduced the D6 system to a large consumer base of fans and gamers. With the resurgence in all things Star Wars, a second edition of the game, mediocre sales of the MasterBook lines (including disastrous sales for such licensed media properties as Tank GirlSpecies, and Tales from the Crypt), and the inevitable change in design/editorial personnel, West End determined it owned the D6 System mechanics apart from the Star Wars license. At this time the staff made a conscious effort to aggressively promote D6 as a house system. The D6 System became the default rules set for new licensed games, particularly Men in Black and Hercules & Xena; no further games were released using MasterBook. Stat and rules conversions from MasterBook to D6 became standard handouts at conventions (though they wouldn't be available online until well after the company’s financial difficulties).

The D6 System: The Customizable Roleplaying Game
West End's staff realized it needed a core rulebook for D6. Prohibited by time and finances from launching a product on the scale even approaching any version of the Star Wars rules, it assembled The D6 System, an 80-page hodgepodge of rules, advice, and options for customizing D6 to any game setting. The book served more as a D6 roleplaying game toolkit than a full-fledged game system. It suffered from cramming all the trappings of a complete roleplaying game -- chapters on character creation, combat, running adventures, and gamemastering -- while incorporating new developments into D6. As such, it included no sample settings or genre material.

Established Star Wars players seeking guidance on translating their favorite game worlds to D6 snatched up the short print run, and advocates of West End hailed it as the beginning of a new campaign to promote D6 apart from Star Wars, but the product failed to soar on its own without an associated setting and an outstanding graphic presentation. It still served effectively as the D6 core rulebook in the absence of any other effort.

System Innovations
The D6 System introduced several new developments, most from the conversion of various elements from MasterBook and the urge to address concerns with the mechanics as presented in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game.

Several skill types required players to pick specific fields. For instance, a character couldn't have languages 5D or piloting 6D, but had to list languages: German 5D and starfighter piloting 6D. Players could trade in initial character creation skill dice to gain advantages, or take disadvantages to receive more skill dice or offset advantages. The core die roll mechanic remained the same, though the damage system provided a "body points" option (similar to "hit point" rules of traditional fantasy roleplaying games) in addition to the standard "wounds" system. The rules offered a variant round structure besides the traditional initiative-driven one: one in which actions and resolutions were simultaneously or continuously resolved.

Two editions of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game had cemented the Wild Die rules into the fabric of D6, and The D6 System only reinforced its existence.
Since the Force was a concept owned by Lucasfilm, non-Star Wars incarnations of D6 had to find a new term for this popular skill roll boost. Force Points became Fate Points, but still gave characters the same potential for over-the-top cinematic accomplishments and multiple actions. Character Points remained much the same as before, though their use was limited to a maximum of two for any roll.

A "Supernatural Powers" chapter outlined rules for magic, psionics, and superhero abilities. Brief sections gave hints on incorporating them into character creation or advancement, and using them in the game. A handful of sample spells, psychic powers, and superpowers provided gamemasters with handy examples and materials for immediate play.

The D6 System offered no templates as examples of possible characters or genres gamers could play. The character creation section did, however, offer a list of various character professions, including typical skills and a brief description of each role.

The D6 System was certainly not presented as a product for novice gamers. The customizable aspect and lack of setting geared it more toward established players who enjoyed tinkering with system mechanics/options and tailoring it to their own settings. The text lacked any tone associated with a style of play because it was not inclined toward any particular genre. The D6 System was a roleplaying game manual, and its organization and language reflected that.
Lack of setting direction also contributed to the wide-ranging themes of the artwork. Although the quality varies and most pieces relate to their associated text in some vague way, the art reflected the book's hodgepodge approach. As an interesting aside, many pieces included representations of the art staff (beheaded, attacked by a velociraptor, eaten by maggots, confronting aliens) as well as the lead D6 designer at the time.

Further D6 Iterations
Soon after the release of The D6 System, West End produced a swarm of licensed D6 games. None found the vast fan and consumer base that propelled the Star Wars Roleplaying Game for so many years. Each one promoted the core game and presentation concepts that gamers had come to expect from D6.
Each game reworked the text to fit its genre, but retained most of the core rules with some variations. Players resolved tasks by rolling a number of attribute or skill dice equal to or higher than a given difficulty. In two cases -- Hercules & Xena and DC Universe -- players used special dice with four success symbols and two failure symbols, with a wild die with signs that functioned as the dreaded one and exploding six. Known as D6 Prime (and later D6 Legend), this simplified system addressed the frequent complaint of having to roll and total too many dice. Of course, the Wild Die survived through every incarnation. Characters Points functioned as usual, and templates provided gamers with ready-made characters, or at least ideas on creating their own.

Presentation values remained high, particularly on the Hercules & Xena and Metabarons roleplaying games, which included full-color rulebooks. Each game line adopted its own tone appropriate to the license, and tailored game terminology to suit the genre. The DC Universe game in particular had to accommodate a superpowers system that had no correlation in previous D6 games.

West End's design staff actively pursued popular media licenses for subsequent D6 releases. Three notorious licenses stand out that, for various reasons, never reached publication: despite the release of a popular Mission Impossible movie, management refused to pursue a related D6 game license; interest in an X-Fileslicense ended when the approvals process began looking like a bureaucratic and creative nightmare; and the Stargate: SG-1 game died (with half a draft of D6rules already completed) when the company declared bankruptcy. Despite these setbacks, West End continued releasing quality licensed D6 games.

Each game from this period deserves some note, even if they contributed debatable degrees of innovation to the overall D6 game engine.

Indiana Jones Adventures: Although not a stand-alone D6 system game, Indiana Jones Adventures was one of the first results of West End's campaign to use the marketing recognition the Star Wars Roleplaying Game had garnered for D6. It broke the corporate mindset that non-Star Wars licensed games couldn't use the D6 System. This supplement attempted to retrofit D6 to the most popular MasterBook license (incidentally a successful Lucasfilm license), with references to basic game mechanics from the D6 System: The Customizable Roleplaying Game. The 96-page book relied on 12 pages of rules that organized skills under attributes, offered a handful of new advantages and disadvantages, listed short stats for various adversaries (from gangsters and Nazis to crocodiles and snakes), and summarized stats on period weapons, armor, vehicles, and adventure gear on several tables. Very little effort was made to make it a complete, newcomer-friendly roleplaying game. The intent was to provide all those Star Wars Roleplaying Game players -- who were undoubtedly also Indiana Jones fans -- an avenue for playing in that universe without the cumbersome and intimidating MasterBook rules set. To complete the package and give gamers a chance to run D6 characters in Indiana Jones, the book also contained one introductory solitaire scenario, three group adventures, four templates, a blank character sheet, and the MasterBook-to-D6conversion. (A proposal was actually made for a D6 Indiana Jones Roleplaying Game core rule- and sourcebook of the scale and quality of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game: Second Edition -- Revised & Expanded, but financial limitations, schedule considerations, and marketing concerns prevented pursuing this course.)

Men in Black Roleplaying Game: News of a Men in Black film with stars like Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones prompted West End executives to make a bid for the roleplaying game rights, with publication in 1998 around the time of the movie's release. The game book contained few innovations in the D6 system, repackaging the rules and format into the film universe, complete with solitaire tutorial adventure, group adventure, the standard rules lineup, and a host of templates. In the tradition of past licensed games, it contained movie stills, official film image line art, and some original art, along with shots of various West End Games staffers posing as men in black. A subsequent Men in Black Introductory Adventure Game and an Alien Recognition Guide were not worth the insane and often contradictory licensing approvals hassle, and did not drive satisfactory sales, so the game line was eventually dropped.

Hercules & Xena Roleplaying Game: This D6 game cashed in on the popular Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess syndicated television shows. In the true spirit of the programs, the rules rambled on with a casual, often comic tone, and the source material offered genre-appropriate information on ancient Greece. Production values were high, with the box packing a full-color "Hero's Guide," two-color "Secrets of the Ancient World" sourcebook, full-color gamemaster screen, and three slim booklets containing one solitaire and two group adventures. Since the game pioneered the D6 Prime system, it included special dice with symbols from the shows denoting successes and failures. Its publication in the first half of 1998 ensured the game line's death when West End shut down in July, and planned (and in some cases, completed) supplements died on the vine.

DC Universe Roleplaying Game: No amount of new games, marketing, or sales could save West End Games from bankruptcy in 1998, despite continued strong interest in the Star Wars game (especially with the first prequel premiering in 1999) and a fistful of hot licensed products. After a series of purchases by French companies (Yeti Entertainment and later Humanoids), the company became West End Games/D6 Legend. Its first release was based on a licensing deal that began before bankruptcy, but faded after a year or two beneath the strain of corporate strife. The DC Universe Roleplaying Game and its several published supplements catered to the superhero genre and fans of the comic books. The game more effectively incorporated advantages and disadvantages in the D6 System, and explored the scope of interpreting super abilities with the game engine. DC Universe kept the D6 System alive despite West End's corporate troubles.

Metabarons: After its acquisition by Humanoids, West End Games/D6 Legend produced a D6 game based on the parent company's hyped comic book property, Metabarons. A pseudo space opera on the grand scale of Frank Herbert's Dune with gratuitous graphic violence and sexual content only the French could condone, the Metabarons graphic novels were hugely popular in France, but only marginally accepted in America. The game directly translated mechanics from the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, adapting various game concepts such as the dark and light sides of the Force to such Metabarons terminology as Aramax and Necro-Dream. A hastily designed system to simulate the rather ill-defined psionics shown in the comics encouraged gamemasters to determine skill difficulties based on variables of what one wanted to accomplish (range, effect, duration, number of people). An Honor Code system helped define characters' motivations in relation to the universe. The rulebook followed Revised & Expanded's format, including full color throughout, chapter introductions from in-universe characters, a solitaire tutorial adventure, and a group scenario. A lack of available and approved source material on the universe directly translated to a deficiency of such information in the rulebook, though a setting sourcebook was later published in France. The game did poorly in the United States, where few comic book fans latched onto the Metabarons license. After Metabarons released in 2001, interest in West End and consequently D6 dissipated.

Psibertroopers: This stand-alone product managed to carry the D6 torch a little farther. Having left the hybrid Humanoids/West End Games, former owner Scott Palter set out on his own, managed to obtain a license to use the D6 System, and pursued his own game universe through his company, Final Sword Productions. With Ron Fricke he co-authored Psibertroopers, the first of several planned releases in a series called Dead Night of Space. The setting merged elements of the giant mecha, psionics, and space opera genres, with universe information and fiction vignettes. In the absence of an official D6 rulebook, it contained an eight-page quickstart rules section up front. Psibertroopers continued the tradition of including the rules summary, a handful of templates, and two detailed adventure hooks. It used the Honor Code system introduced byMetabarons as a tool for classifying character motivation, and further developed the psionics system from that game, tailoring it to fit the Dead Night of Space universe. Psibertroopers' most significant game innovation, the chess piece goons system, defined expendable adversaries as pawns, knights, bishops, or rooks, each with predetermined target hit numbers, damage thresholds, and attack/damage dice suitable to their levels.

A New Beginning: D6 AdventureSpace, and Fantasy
In late 2003 Humanoids sold most of the West End Games assets to Eric Gibson of Purgatory Publishing Inc. in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. These included much of "old" West End's non-licensed properties, including the popular TORG roleplaying game, Shatterzone, and the D6 System (rights to the cult favorite Paranoia reverted back to its original creators).

Work began to develop The D6 System for publication for both old West End Games fans and new gamers. The approach so far has consisted of three core rulebooks, each interpreting The D6 System into a popular genre: adventure, space, and fantasy. The company plans to release supplements further elaborating on game mechanics and settings for each genre.

System Innovations
The latest incarnation of D6 retains the core mechanics developed over the years: a basic die pool roll to determine success or failure; Character and Fate Points to boost rolls; the Wild Die; numerous customizable character templates.The D6 System further refines the idea of advantages, disadvantages, and special abilities, building them into a more elaborate, point-based character generation system for those seeking such structure. The systems for magic, metaphysics, and psionics draw on previous mechanics, particularly those developed in the DC Universe game and the general outlines from The D6 System Customizable Roleplaying Game.

Two elements stand out in The D6 System, though they're not particularly core concepts. D6 Space offers a system for creating a ship based on mass and energy output. The addition of energy units generated by a craft's engine and used to power various systems smacks of the old classic Star Fleet Battles, but infuses the system with a degree of realism (and bookkeeping) for those who want it. Gamers who prefer the old Star Wars style of quick-and-dirty starship action without keeping track of energy units can easily ignore the system.
One page in each book offers a solution to one of the core criticisms of D6 deterrents: the game sometimes requires players to roll and count too many dice. (Personally I've never seen this as a problem -- there's something of a power trip to rolling two handfuls of dice and waiting pensively as one counts them to see if, or more frequently how much one achieves success.) The "Die Code Simplification" tables offer two means of going easy on the dice: roll 5D (including the Wild Die) and add a modifier based on the large die code, or roll the Wild Die and add a different, higher modifier. For instance, to roll 20D damage, roll 5D and add 53, or roll one Wild Die and add 67. It still involves math (sorry, folks), but effectively eliminates the “too many dice” argument.

Each of the three core rulebooks is a 144-page hardcover. Line them up in order side-by-side and the covers form a contiguous triptych. Obviously elements such as layout and artwork directly reflect each genre, and game mechanics (skill names, magic/psionic systems, vehicles) are tailored to each setting. Although each rulebook stands as its own game, they offer little in the way of setting material.

The games nicely cater to both newcomers and experienced gamers. A very short solitaire tutorial adventure starts each book after the perfunctory "what is roleplaying" sections. Sidebars summarize basics of character creation, skills, difficulties, and most elements needed to start play. A handful of character templates in the back offers a few ideas for players, though experienced gamers have everything they need to customize their own. Individual chapters for character and combat options avoid cluttering the main rules with variants. Charts stand out in sidebars, and forms for spell creation and starship construction help organize information.

The D6 System may be the first West End Games release to finally enjoy decent web support. The company experienced financial troubles just as the internet came into its own in the game industry. From the mid- to late-90s, a fan site called WEDGE (West End Dedicated Game Enthusiasts) offered various game tidbits and the first of any widely disseminated D6 materials. The site was infrequently updated with fan-contributed adventures and rules variants, and served as the first (and initially the only) place to find West End support on the web. After West End's bankruptcy, D6 material and its variants increased on the internet, including a plethora of unofficial Star Wars-related game sites and free fan games heavily incorporating D6 elements.

West End Games' latest incarnation is the only one to offer any reliable web support for The D6 System. The current site provides free PDF downloads that include rules systems reference sheets, character templates, blank character sheets, and flyers on gamemastering, writing adventures, and introducing people to roleplaying games. Such offerings seem mundane in this internet age, but remain key to satisfying a core gamer base and attracting new players.

What's Next?
The D6 System will never see the same sales numbers as the Star Wars Roleplaying Game without a fabulously successful and lasting licensed setting or two (and those seem hard to come by these days). The game will never recover from the blow dealt by West End's bankruptcy in 1998, and the subsequent absence of regularly released product using the game engine in the intervening years.

The current incarnation of West End Games, however, has an enthusiastic strategy to regain former players and recruit new ones. Free material on the website supports existing publications without numerous releases each month (which one might debate are not possible given changes in the industry, economy, and consumer base). The web also offers a chance for gamers to peruse the system through templates, rules summaries, and sample pages from game books. It also promotes new releases and convention demo games, another key strategy in raising awareness of The D6 System.

The company seems committed to releasing a product a month. With all three core rulebooks available, subsequent publications seem to focus on expanding rules and settings for the genres. Assuming the quality of product remains the same or improves, and web support remains a central priority, The D6 System seems well on the road back to more mainstream gaming.

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