Operation Quick Launch (Final Draft)
Operation Quick Launch
When d20 Future was first announced by Wizards of the Coast, there was a lot of excitement among d20 Modern fans and publishers. But when it actually was released, well, it kind of fizzled. Something of a lukewarm reception among fans, and not really much in the way of publisher support, either from WOTC or 3rd parties. (Pretty much only some PDFs from RPGObjects).
Enter Dawning Star, a new science fiction setting from Blue Devil Games (and available through Indie Press Revolution), which hopefully will address this void.
This book, Operation Quick Launch, is just the first in a planned series for the setting. As the name implies, it's meant to get you up and running in the setting and pretty much gives you what you need in both terms of background and rules to use the setting. While it is based on d20 Future's rules, you really only need d20 Modern.
Many other books in the line are planned for 2005 alone.
The Dawning Star Setting
The setting is a bit like a combination of the old PC game Alien Legacy (with some bits of the game Alpha Centauri), and the TV shows Stargate Atlantis and Babylon 5, with a dash of Trigun. Or at least elements from each, along with some SF classics and even some bits from UFO Lore.
Basically, near 2200 or so, Earth gets destroyed. But there is some warning, and so before that happens, 40 million or so people escape in 20 big evacuation ships (plus various smaller ships), and plan to move at well below light speed to a nearby star system which happens to have a moon that can be terraformed relatively easily*.
However, near the edge of our solar system they encounter a mysterious space station. Sort of like a stargate or gateway. This gets activated and transports the ships all over the galaxy, sort of in clumps of ship.
This setting revolves around what happens to the ship the Dawning Star (thus the name). It ends up in a very unique star system they call "Helios" and setting up shop on a planet dubbed "Eos".
Eos is fairly earthlike, though it apparently needed some terra-forming to make the atmosphere easily breathable, there was some sort of pollution that caused coughing.
At first, everything was fine and dandy on the planet. At least all the humans got together. But eventually people got sick of the ruling government, and left the main city to strike it out on their own.
These various smaller settlements have banded together into something called the "Eos Freedom League". They really really don't like the big government (the Dawning Star Republic) much, and so spent a lot of time either plotting against it, or trying to outdo it economically. (Though the latter is unlikely, since there's a huge difference in size).
While there is a great deal of room for conflict, it seems like an opportunity was missed somewhat by basically only have one evacuation ship make it to Eos and thus basically only having 2 human factions. While I really didn't like the PC game Alpha Centauri (as it was full of tree hugging, planet is a living being stuff which makes my skin crawl), I did like how it had so many different factions (16 total, including in the expansion pack, methinks).
The planet is described in a decent amount of detail. Sort of "atlas" level. You get a map of the place, some basic information on each major settlement, what they do, who they are, how many, etc.
There's really only the one major city on the planet, Dawning Star (named after the ship), which has about 2 million inhabitants. There's probably about a dozen other small towns mentioned, generally with populations only in the low tens of thousand. (The second biggest settlement after Dawning Star has only 30,000 people. The 3rd has 28,000, and the rest drop off dramatically).
There's sort of a western feel to the outlying towns and such. Very frontiersy, including lots of cowboys. Or murcowboys (the murcow is an alien animal kinda like a cow, but tastes like pork, which seems to have largely taken the place of cows on Eos. Which I don't think would actually replace cows, since a lot of people don't like pork as much as cow. At least not for steaks. Just like you don't make bacon out of cows. Dolphins, maybe.)
But there's more to life on Eos than humanity and its squabbles. The former Earthlings are not alone. At first they only noticed the many ancient ruins littering the planet, but after a fairly long time on the planet (40 years or so), a race of beings suspiciously similar to humans named the "Velin" introduced themselves. (There are reasons for both the delay and the similarity). As mentioned, these are very close in appearance to human, other than having a slightly different colored (grey-ish) and leathery skin. Sort of like George Hamilton.
Unlike George Hamilton, their culture is very similar to that of American Indians. They have largely made peace with humanity, thinking humanity is their long lost brothers. These are detailed as a playable race in the game.
Besides the Velin, there are the aliens you know and love from UFO folklore, the Greys. Or as they apparently call themselves, the Tentaari. They met the humans a couple years before the Velin did, but aparently don't actually live on Eos, but out in space someplace.
They have a fairly complicated backstory (including an explanation for their love of probing people), but one I really can't go into without giving away spoilers. But suffice it to say, they have something of a hidden agenda, though they are nominally on the same side as the humans and the Velin. (These are not playable in the book. There also apparently aren't all that many of them)
So who is on the other side? Well, this is where it reminds me a bit of Babylon 5. There's a race of mysterious beings called the "Darklings", at least that is the name the humans use. The Velin use the true name of Vaasi, but they can't seem to convince the humans that these critters exist. Since the Vaasi rarely show themselves.
Thankfully for the humans & Velin, because the Vaasi are pretty nasty fellows. If the Alien from well, Alien was a 10, and Alf from well, Alf, was a 0, then these would be in the 8.5 or so range, nastier than Mork (if less hairy) or the Alien from Spaceballs, but not as tough as say a Predator.
There are hints of other aliens, apparently called Saurians, presumably a race of lizard folk (who hopefully look like Jane Badler...). I'm not sure if they are friend or foe.
The setting is excellent, with potential for lots of different types of game. You could focus on the conflict between the human factions, and play sort of an espionage/cyberpunk style game. (Though as mentioned, this would have been better if there were more factions/humans). You could focus on exploring the ruins, sort of high tech dungeon crawls.
You could focus on a military style game dealing with fighting the Vaasi. Bughunting really, since they are in fact insects.
There are lots and lots of adventure seed ideas given (most of them along the above lines).
Really, the only sort of space game that doesn't seem all that possible is a Free Trader sort commonly found in Traveller, where the PCs fly around the galaxy in a spaceship. Since spaceships are extremely rare and not something generally owned by private individuals. But I like the gaming potential of the setting.
The last 20 or so pages of the book is a sample adventure that illustrates the conflict between the Dawning Star Republic and the Eos Freedom League. While I generally like the setting, the adventure didn't do much for me. For one, it seemed an somewhat poor introductory adventure. The PCs are apparently aimlessly wandering in the woods while they suddenly have to take shelter in a secret government lab. Too much railroading is needed to get them involved.
Secondly, the actions of the EFL in this seem unlikely - they would almost certainly be sufficient cause for a war, but the original problem their action is supposed to fix or cover up wouldn't really even been that big a deal, since the DSR guys started it. So there is really no motive for the EFL's action. (Though admittedly, given my libertarian leanings, I tend to think of them as the "good" guys).
The book is probably about half setting and half rules material, though of course, the rules material is largely based on the setting.
As mentioned, you get a writeup for the Velin as a playable race. They are tough and wise but a bit dim and uncharismatic.
After that comes some new Talent Trees. If you aren't overly familiar with d20 Modern, it has something called "Talents", which are sort of like feat chains, but tied into the abilities of the 6 basic character classes (Strong Hero, Smart Hero, etc). There's actually not that big of a selection of them in the d20 Modern book, generally I think 2 or 3 trees per class.
This pretty much doubles the available amount, an extra 2-4 for each class.
There are lots of new classes. Very interestingly, there are 2 racial classes, one for humans and one for Velin. The book says they are new to d20 Modern, but that's not quite true, the Second World Sourcebook was the first one that had them, period (As far as I know) and that was a d20/d20 Modern hybrid book.
The human one is "Human Survivor" and the Velin one is "Velin Hunter". They are really more like prestige classes than Racial Classes. (Usually racial classes are for a more powerful race than is typically playable, and it lets them start off weaker then gain levels to gradually become a normal member of its race)
Beyond that there are several new advanced classes and a couple prestige classes. The advanced classes are: Air Runner, Barter Jack, Colonial Leader, Gunhand, Lawman, Rancher, Rebuilder, and Velin Guardian.
The Air Runner is sort of a hot shot pilot, there being few roads between settlements on Eos. The Barter Jack is a freelance trader type. The Gunhand is something of a rarity in d20 Modern, a gunmen that is actually good at combat (most gun oriented classes in d20 Modern seem to have the mediocre base attack bonus progession, something that has always puzzled me, since it has the effect of making martial artists better with guns than gunfighters, albeit with fewer gun related special abilities). The rest are pretty self-explanatory.
I am no means an expert when it comes to d20 Modern class balancing. But to my eye the classes do look balanced. The gunhand for instance, may have a better BAB than most other gun fighting classes, but only has a d8 for hit dice.
The two prestige classes are Republic Ranger (sort of like the old Texas Ranger) and Velin Guardian. I'm really not up on d20 Modern enough to know just what is the difference between a prestige and advanced class (other than prestige seems to be better and with stricter entry requirements), but these are both 5th level.
2 new skills are introduced, Barter and Terraforming. Personally, I tend to dislike adding new skills to d20, since the skills are meant to be fairly broad and there are a few categories that is meant to represent catch-all skills or skills that aren't common to most people (Craft, Profession, and Knowledge).
In this case, I really think Barter is sort of redundant - the "Diplomacy" skill pretty much covers that sort of thing (negotiation & bribery).
Terraforming probably should have been Craft (Terraforming), I'd think, since you are making a planet (or new ecosystem), and the write of the skill in the book greatly resembles the ones for craft skills.
Stil, neither is exactly a deal breaker. Only Barter would seem to be a common skill, though I would note that none of the sample characters or NPCs in the book seem to have it. (Some characters in the adventure do have the terraforming skill).
There's quite an impressive array of new equipment in this book. In fact, when it comes to guns, there's more than what was included in d20 Future, filling in many of the gaps from that product. Most notably it adds gyrojet weapons.
Not everything is new, but many weapons and items from d20 Modern/d20 Future are adapted to fit the Dawning Star setting. That is, they are given specific names and such. While it might seem like a minor thing, it helps provide a cohesive background to the game.
Because there really aren't any roads between the settlements, most the travel is done by air. So there are a lot of different air vehicles. Mostly vectored thrust stuff, but some regular aircraft.
There's only a handful of human starships in the Helios systems, but most of them get stats. Including that of the sort that the Dawning Star was. (Apparently a later book is coming out with info on alien spaceships and apparently with rules for combat and such. So presumably you could buy that instead of d20 Future if you don't have d20 Future)
The layout of the book is quite nice. Very easy to read. The looks are actually somewhat similar to the old WEG Star Wars books, from the latter day era when they were putting out their best stuff. But the paper quality is better. It's black & white, but the paper is glossy and fairly thick. I would have liked to have seen the name of the chapter (or number) in the outside margins, but not all that many companies do that.
The artwork is generally good. Somewhat stylish looking than realistic, but it generally works. It all seems to be done by the same artist, Danilo Moretti, so there's no clash in styles, and for just one guy, a lot of it.
I do dislike most of the technical illustrations. Most are way too stylized to be practical (or easy to build). The guns are all curvy, with things jutting out and with the handles going the wrong way.
And the spaceships... The Dawning Star (the ship) looks like the Gnomish Sidewheeler from Spelljammer. Just wacky looking. Other ships are catamaran like. That is, seemingly have two hulls stuck together, which makes sense for the water but not so much in space (or the atmosphere).
I am not a design expert by any means, but it seems to me that primitive starships would be very boxy. Especially evacuation ships - you'd want to try to maximize the available volume inside the ship and something easy to build and that pretty much implies a brick shape, since atmospheric performance doesn't really matter.
My final thoughts...
I have conflicting thoughts on this. I really like the setting a lot, but at the same time, I find the basic premise rather depressing - Earth being destroyed and all. I know a lot of people don't even like post-apocalyptic games because of this, but in those, the Earth is still around, just banged up a bit. In this, it's not even there anymore (presumably).
Still, as a setting, it's utterly fascinating - once I started reading it I was glued to it until I finished.
Not very many science fiction games are plausible. Not so much technology, but how people act in the future and how society developers. About the only one I ever found plausible was 2300 A.D. from GDW, and even then they got where you put the A.D. wrong (it should go in front). For the most part (see my note below and the above bit about the cows), this is very plausible.
All in all, it's a compelling product, very much an A.
N.B. I hope it doesn't become what I call (to adapt a phrase), a "d20 Heartbreaker". That is, a setting that is excellent and shows great signs of things to come. But then those further books never materialize because of one thing or another (low sales, overly ambitious release schedule, kaiju attacks). Lords of the Night. Second World. Sovereign Stone. The stuff from Perpetrated Press. Dragonstar. Etc, etc, etc.
So, buy this book and help it avoid that fate. It really is good.
(Though bear in mind, according to the biographies of the authors, the guy who owns Blue Devil Games is a lawyer specializing in debt collection, which presumably means (besides probably having sent me a nasty letter or two, given my credit record) that the company is on good financial footing and probably will be in the future.)
All of that is baseless speculation, though.
* One of the things about a science fiction setting is that fans really should have second thoughts about second guessing the designers, even though that's a fun thing to do. While some things may seem very implausible to the fan/reader, there may be reasons for it they don't know about. In this case, a mysterious dark object about the size of the moon hitting the Earth is about as likely as me having a threesome with Lucy Liu and Bea Arthur - it's possible theoretically, but it just ain't gonna happen naturally.
Similarly, some of the details about the evacuation of the Earth strike me as odd, like simply abandoning the solar system instead of setting up shop on Mars (which would hopefully have a permanent base by 2200 anyway) or taking military equipment (tanks & fighters), since a) they probably wouldn't expect aliens and b) if they did it wouldn't be enough to make much of a difference.
But there are quite probably explanations and reasons for all this that haven't been mentioned or just aren't apparent.