Game: Babylon 5 Roleplaying Game and Fact Book
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Series: Babylon 5: d20
Review Dated: 14th, July 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10 [ Good ]
Total Score: 13
Average Score: 6.50
Ooo! Shiny! Purple! I’m not describing some mythic twenty-sided die but airing my first impressions of the new Babylon 5 Roleplaying Game.
Unlike the new d20 license from Mongoose Publishing, this review does not have the luxury of a forward from J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski admits his own roleplaying experience. He played Cthulhu, discovered that roleplayers aren’t like normal people and never roleplayed again. This means the B5 creator has not used any of the previous incarnations of the B5 RPGs. I wonder if this one will win him around.
This review isn’t a satisfying hardbound collection of 304 glossy pages either. The game is. The front cover depicts the B5 station at the classic angle, the title of the book is above the picture and “Signs and Portents” below. The covers are black but a border of purple-tinted space surrounds the pages inside.
“Signs and Portents” is important. It’s whacked on the front cover for a reason (and not just because it’s the name of Mongoose’s newly launched magazine). Signs and Portents is the name of the first season of the B5 TV show.
The full title of the book is worth stressing too, it’s the Babylon 5 “Roleplaying Game and Fact Book”.
The book concentrates entirely on the first season. Sinclair is in charge. Deleen has no hair. The B5 crew aren’t worried about Shadows. If you want stats, rules and observations for the plot twists and story arcs that come later then you’ll need to buy one of the promised sourcebooks.
You can’t play a Ranger yet. Hmm. It would be impossible to do a Babylon 5 core rules book because those rules are already in a separate book. The third edition of the Player’s Handbook provides the core rules. Too much would need to be cut from the book to summarise all five seasons in 400 pages or even 500 pages.
The one book per season approach eliminates space concerns. I feel it also makes it easier to map your B5 campaign to the events in the series. If that’s what you want to do. There’s little danger that the subsequent sourcebooks won’t appear.
Mongoose’s productivity has been described as machine-like. The debate won’t be whether we’ll get the promised sourcebooks but whether we get The Coming of Shadows, Point of No Return, No Surrender, No Retreat and The Wheel of Fire before the end of the year or whether they’ll be spaced out a bit.
As is fairly common with third party campaign worlds the d20 system has been tweaked to suit the flavour of the game. Armour doesn’t make you harder to hit. Mongoose already made that call for their Judge Dredd RPG. The amount of hit points a character enjoys has also been reduced. As was fairly succinctly put on a roleplaying newsgroup, “level 20 characters can now actually die without needing to walk into a star”.
Hit dice are gone completely. You start with a few hit points and then receive only a few more as you go up levels. You Constitution bonus won’t earn you any more either. It’s not walking into stars that you have to worry about; it’s people with guns.
This is a brave move and one that I welcome with open arms. People who got shot in B5 went down and were lucky to get back up again, boxing was a messy, bloody and dangerous affair, and you had to be smart or well connected to do well.
Constitution bonuses help characters stabilise rather than quickly bleed to death and the bonus is also applied to medical checks rolled for them.
After the forward from Straczynski and a quick introduction, the book gets going in traditional d20 style; we’re thrust into character generation.
Races first – and six of them. Human, Centauri, Minbari, Narn, Drazi and Brakiri welcome us with the racial traits, description, personality, relations, beliefs, languages, names as well as notes on the planetary systems controlled and a summary on typical starfarers for each.
I can’t but help feel that the Brakiri get short-changed here. There’s no picture of a Brakiri. I’m a Babylon 5 fan, not a Babylon 5 expert and I’m left to match the text description to the stills in the book. Is think “stills” is the right word, I’m talking about a single still frame image from the TV used as a picture in the book. The Lord of the Rings RPG uses stills to but I feel that the B5 game does it better. Humans aren’t the most charismatic of the races on the station (or in the universe) either.
I always had the feeling from B5 that mankind was, if not the charismatic race, the diplomatic race. Here they’re the standard, vanilla, extra feat earning race. It might come down to semantics. The game describes mankind as the race most willing to work with aliens. A human is willing to be charismatic when other charismatic aliens have given up. Races have favourite classes too.
The core classes are agent, diplomat, lurker, officer, scientist, soldier, telepath and worker.
Agents are suitably scary, they receive the sneak attack class special and that extra damage is lethal.
The diplomat is horribly broken. Okay. It depends on how you play your game but I can’t deal with the way this class is set up. As the main class special ability the diplomat gains contacts.
Does that mean an agent can’t have any contacts? If other classes can get contacts then doesn’t that screw the diplomat class?
A diplomat has no chance of visiting, for example, Mars and building up a network of contacts there unless he times his visit so that he levels up there. In fact, contacts are single people. Diplomats will never have a network of contacts. Contacts should be left to roleplaying and plot. At the most, they should be a background attribute, not a character advancement mechanic as they are here.
Lurkers don’t have to live Down Below because the game doesn’t have to be set on B5. Lurkers are always disenchanted, outsiders. Lurkers, the ones who survive, are lucky Jacks of all Trades.
Officers are nicely cinematic. The highest-ranked class special “Legendary Speech” only takes a minute to give. This is right for a TV series and it suits roleplaying games too. You to do get pick what sort of officer you are too: one serving in the fleet, a pilot or in the ground forces.
Similarly, scientists pick a primary area of study and enjoy peripheral studies as they advance.
The soldier class shouldn’t simply be seen as someone charging around on a battlefield, the class is designed to suit security teams and terrorists or anyone trained with melee and close combat weapons. In fact, the book even suggests soldiers could be officers. We could end up playing the synonym game there.
Telepaths will be a popular class. There are telepathic abilities and telepathic feats and these become available quickly as the class levels up. Picking the p-rating is the contentious bit. Pick your target area P1-2, P3-5, P6-8 or P9-12 and the chart will tell you the dice you need to bounce to randomly work out exactly where you are in that level and what the penalties are. Essentially the lower the P category the more skill and hit points the character has. If you’re going to be P4 you might as well be P5. Yes, telepath is a class. No, you can’t multi-class into it later.
There are two types of workers, blue-collar and white-collar. You decide which one you want to play at level 1. Then sit back and wait for 6th level when you get a pay raise. There’s nothing else in the class specials and although that leaves the table looking rather empty I have to admit it suits the genre. The Worker class playable, it’s just not as interesting as the others. There’s nothing stopping a worker multi-classing or pick up a prestige class.
Skills and feats are used without any serious tinkering. There are some changes; forgery, for example, is much more hi-tech. There are a couple of pages dedicated to either new skills or re-writes of old ones. In the feats section, you’ll see that the telepath’s p-rating becomes a prerequisite. Far Telepathy, for example, requires P4 or higher.
Combat is nice and easy (and deadly). Armour Class is out and Defence Value is in. Armour still has a part to play, the Damage Reduction value soaks up the incoming hit. You can’t stack your Damage Reduction by wearing different types and layers of armour. Running gunfights are smooth; weapons in the B5 future are small, lightweight and agile enough to be used without fuss. Characters can aim their weapons, use rapid-fire or spray an area without getting lost in-game mechanics. Stray shots are a possibility; gunfights in crowded areas might just hit mow down the wrong people. There’s also a whack of environmental dangers listed in the combat chapter.
Vehicle and spacecraft combat is so simple that it’s also found in the main combat section. One of the key successes in the Babylon 5 RPG is the ease at which spacecraft fighting is handled. It’s adapted from DragonStar.
The gunners/pilot’s ranged attack bonus and d20 roll are pitched against the target’s vehicle’s defence value.
In some cases an “acquire target” bonus might be applied. The Damage Reduction value of the target vehicle soaks up any hit and the surplus goes through to reduce the target’s hit point value. Critical Hits have the additional effect of provoking a role on something like the superstructure, engine, control systems or weapons chart.
The damage reduction mechanic really works here. It’s easy to hit Babylon 5 with a shot from your fighter. You just have no chance of actually damaging the mighty space station with your puny one-man fighter’s laser.
The book makes this boast too; attacking B5 is futile. Except, it isn’t. Just a dozen pages before you can clearly see that the old Earth Nova Dreadnoughts have Laser/Pulse Arrays that could happily punch through the Babylon 5 station of 2258.
Plenty of alien ships could send mankind scurrying to build Babylon 6 too. This is good. This is how it seemed in the series.
Those stats for the Nova Dreadnoughts are found in the chapter following Combat. Equipment contains everything from knives to Minbari Shalin Warcruisers!
I have to admit I spent a geeky amount of time flicking through the spaceship stats and comparing them against one another! I could just about go for epic Babylon 5 space fleet battle about now. In game terms, this is a good thing.
I’d be as happy to run a starfaring game as I would one set in Down Below. In this respect, the book’s won me over from a position of scepticism.
There are just a few niggles though. A “twin-linked uni-pulse cannon” assigned to a ship is actually a set of two weapons, hence the “twin”. You need to double the damage dice stat. I just found myself checking that two twin-linked weapons would be four firing ports. I think there are misprints in the Interceptor rules too. It’s terrible not knowing for sure.
The Interceptors are those point defence anti-fighter weapons that large Earth craft and B5 uses. We’re told Mk1 Interceptors can fire in three modes but not what these modes are. We’re told that Mk 2 Interceptors grant a +40 Damage Reduction bonus while firing in Matrix mode and there’s a further +10 for every other Mk 2’s in the same firing arc that are able to join in too.
That seems like a huge number; Babylon 5 has a DR of 18, the Sharlin Warcruiser has a DR of 22 and the Vorlon transport has a DR of 16. If the bonuses were +4 and +1 I’d still be covering my custom-built battle cruiser with Mk 2 Interceptors. Ah, rules for custom-built spaceships – that’s something I’ll chomp at the bit for until a sourcebook provides them.
No one used to d20 magic or psionics will struggle with the telepath abilities. They’re not level dependant, they’re P-Rating controlled. I’ve banned Danger Sense from every game I’ve GM’ed or turned it into such a “psi point” gobbling monster that no one wanted it but there’s no escaping it now.
GMs will be kept busy by their telepath characters. I’m sure we’ll see new telepath powers in a later book but I think the balance here is right. There are enough powers (a few pages of) to keep most people happy and all the telepath rules you’ll need. The effects Hyperspace has on telepathic powers are covered here – they’ve got a longer range.
“Alone in the Night” is a tour of the Babylon 5 space station. It’s not comprehensive, I doubt it could have been, but it is very good. There’s the role of the Docker’s Guide, Transport Association, Command and Control, Jumpgate Operation, Sensors & Scans and then rules for damaging the station, the defence grid and spacecraft complement.
That’s just the first couple of sections. It’s the day-to-day aspects of the station and the staff covered here. Omsbuds, for examples, are the legal Judge of the station.
You can subscribe to the Universe Today newspaper for 1,000 credits per year. The Cobra Bays for the Starfuries are localed within the support struts behind the Command Sphere. Kosh’s transport is in Docking Bay 13. The Dark Star is a sleazy dance bar.
By the time we’re into the physical tour of the station, we’ve got the benefit of the colour-coded sectors to guide us. There’s a two paged map (108-109) that introduces this chapter and it’s the sort of thing that B5 die-hards would love to have on their wall as a poster.
We’ve got the stats for the key characters as they were in the year 2258. Sinclair is an 8th level Human Officer (pilot). Vir’s a 1st level diplomat. We’ve got Kosh’s bio but no stats. We’re told to assume some basics, he’s a P15 telepath, he has an energy attack and we must wait for the Vorlons and Shadows sourcebook.
There’s a two-paged “map” showing the major solar systems and governments (in 2257). The map works by showing major race homeworlds as large yellow suns, other key places with different symbols and then links them together with hyperspace jump routes. Z’ha’dum is there but you need to bypass several dead worlds and then deal with the restricted jump routes. No one’s going to find it by accident.
As the two-paged map of Babylon 5 starts “Alone in the Night” this map marks the beginning of “Sky Full of Stars”. Actually, that’s a complete lie. The B5 map carries the Telepath Chapter tags on the side of the page and the solar system map has the “Alone in the Night” pair. They need to be shifted up.
And the Sky Full of Stars describes space travel, Jumpgate procedure and hyperspace travel. The chapter talks about The Earth Alliance, EarthForce, Mars Colony and the dread Psi Corps.
There’s a rather nice timeline for the Earth Alliance that begins at 2085 after the end of the Third World War and continues up to 2257 with the key events marked on it. The chapter gives the key races a similar treatment. The Centauri Republic’s section enjoys a morbid introduction in the form of a quote from Kosh. “They are alone. They are a dying people. We should let them pass.” We’ve also got brief looks at the Minbari Federation, the Narn Regime and a little bit about the Vorlon Empire. There’s room for the major players in the League of Non-Aligned Worlds.
This section briefly looks at the Abbai Matriarchy, the Brakiri Syndicracy, the Gaim Intelligence, the Markab Theocracy and then the Vree Trading Guilds.
“Signs and Portents”, the chapter, is nearly a 100 pages long and is the most significant offering in the RPG. Each and every episode from the first season is summarised in chronological order (and let’s not debate the time fussy Babylon 4 episode too much).
If the previous chapters haven’t done enough to earn the extra “and Fact Book” in the full title to the B5 RPG then this one does. If you don’t have the DVDs and want an accurate reference for your game then this is it. “Signs and Portents” do more than just provide a glossy episode guide; it adds game mechanics.
After each summary, there’s a set of appropriate game rules for what happened. There are stats for the Raider command and control ship after Midnight on the Firing Line.
We have a bestiary style stat/character sheet entry for the renegade Soul Hunter and for the insectoid N’Grath after the Soul Hunter episode. The book’s done well to take the “Ooo, I want to use that in my game” bits from each episode. It then gives you what you need to use those interesting bits in your game. In addition, there’s a set of plot hooks for each.
You don’t need to know anything about B5 in order to play the game. I share the view with author Matthew Sprange that it would be great to take players who have no idea of what’s going to happen through a campaign.
If you do know how things will pan out then… why not go warn Londo to keep his mouth shut around Mr Morden? That’s an interesting question. In the campaign chapter, there’s a discussion on the pros and cons of that very thing.
It’s more than possible to run a game outside the sphere of the TV show and movies. Players may never need to meet Talia Winters. Then again, that idea may suck.
The whole point might be to engage with the popular characters from the screen. That’s no problem either. GMs may then decide to let their players radically change the course of B5’s future or decide that it’s set in stone. For example, no matter what the PCs do, the Narn and the Centauri will always find a reason to go to war. I think it’s a tricky decision. I found the observations here helpful.
The same campaign chapter does extremely well at encouraging and helping GMs produce a Babylon 5 flavoured game (and not just A.N. Other d20 in space.) Multiple Story arcs are discussed, along with the use of B5 iconography and observations on J. Michael Straczynski’s own plot building strategy. Start at the end and work backwards.
GMs will, of course, have to work out at least two possible endings: failure and success. There are suggestions on how to use the rules and world setting to run a campaign where the players are EarthForce Officers, Starfarers, Psi Corps, in the Narn military, in the Centauri Royal Court or even as part of an IPX Expedition.
Prestige Classes. What? You thought there would be a d20 campaign setting without prestige classes? Think again. There’s more than a couple to pick from; the Fence, the Mutari (from the Trail of Blood boxing episode), the Planetary Surveyor, the Psi Cop, Psi Corp Military Specialist, the Raider, the Terrorist, the Thenta Makur Assassin, the Truth Seeker and the Xenoarchaeologist. They’re all safely from the season one stories and plot arc.
The book finishes with two pages of glossary, two pages of designer notes and five pages of index. Huzzah. I’m not the only GM who’ll celebrate the presence of a thorough index.
It’s not a “wow” game. Babylon 5 is a “mop your B5-fan-boy brow” and “phew-it-works” game. It’s a successful game.
If you want to play Babylon 5 then this RPG will let you do it. You can easily play on the station itself, in space or on one of the planets. There are wow parts in the book, sections and paragraphs that just seem to launch dozens of plot ideas and there’s the success of the simple but effective spacecraft fighting rules. I
will sulk about the diplomat class for some time to come. “I’m not buying the new Babylon 5 game. No matter what!” a friend told that to me a few weeks ago. I think this book is good enough to change his mind. He may find niggles in it or sets of rules he doesn’t like, as I’ve done but the RPG as a whole is a victory.
The unique flavour of Babylon 5 is alive and strong and that’s what matters.
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