Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Dawning Star 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, 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 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. Or at least elements from each, along with some SF classics and even 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 starsystem 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, 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).


But there's more to life on Eos than the squabbles of humanity. 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 (greyish) 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 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, 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), 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.

Setting Summary

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 in fact, since they are in fact insects.

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.

Also important, the setting is largely believable (other than the Earth getting destroyed bit).

New Rules

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.

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 2-3 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".

Beyond that there are several new advanced classes and a couple prestige classes.

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.

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 is a couple of categories that is meant to reprsent.

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).

New Gear

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.)


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, 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 looks like the Gnomish Sidewheeler from Spelljammer. Just wacky looking. Other ships are catamaran like. That is, seemingly have two hulls stuck together.

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.

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 (persumably).

Still, it's a very impressive book.

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).

This is extremely plausible for the most part.

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 Prepetrated Press. Dragonstar. Etc, etc, etc.

So, buy this book. It really is good. A

* 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, 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.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Dungeon Crawl Classics 14: Disco Infernum

WelI like adventures. I like adventures a lot. I love to use them and re-use them, borrowing locations and NPCs as well as using the adventure itself.

I am honestly not the most creative person in the world and thus am not that great at coming up with adventures. I generally tend to rip off movies I've seen and books I've read for characters and story ideas.

Unfortunately, the adventure is almost a dying breed these days. Only a handful of companies are still making them for d20. Basically Necromancer and Goodman Games (and technically Hogshead, with their Fright Night line, but those are modern d20).

Being budget minded (aka, generally broke) I generally liked modules priced around $20 or so. Usually these would be 96-128 page modules and were generally a great value. But unfortunately, those are even rarer than modules, period. Necromancer has largely moved on to making giant, epic sized adventures, generally way out of my price range ($30+) and most of Goodman's stuff is cheaper but fairly small ($10-12 for 32-48 pages).

So when I saw this module, priced around $20 and at 88 pages, it seemed a through back of the classic years of d20, if not quite the classic era of gaming.

It's actually 6 connected adventures/dungeons. There's an overall plot, but the 6 adventures are not necessarily meant to be played back to back. Thus the title - "Interludes" they are meant to be played between other larger adventures (like the other Dungeon Crawl Classics).

Actually, that's only partially true. The last 4 adventures do seem like they would need to be run back to back. Not directly, but it's almost like a CRPG. At the end of one dungeon, you find information which leads you to the next dungeon and so a location pops up on the map.

The level of adventures ranges from 1-3 for the first to 11-13th for the last. The module won't really take a character from 1st to 13th (nor was this the intent), as mentioned, they are meant to be "interludes".

Basically they all are related to the return of this fairly evil wizard, who plots to build an evil telescope and rule the world (or at least the area). What's so evil about the telescope? Well, it's not like the evil telescope that bit off Tycho Brahe's nose, apparently this one provides bonuses to summon devils.

(This artifact actually is somewhat problematic in my homebrew world, which doesn't actually have many stars, only around 20. Most the lights in the sky are actually the homes of the gods. Which means that things in a telescope would pretty much look the same)

The first adventure really shouldn't be played for 1st level characters. While it's common for range descriptors to go from 1st to 3rd levels, there's actually a pretty hefty difference between a 1st level character and a 3rd (or even 2nd, for that matter).

It's really unsuitable for 1st level characters as the bad guy at the end is just too tough for 1st level characters. Beyond having damage reduction (which is dealt with as part of the adventure), it's got a fairly high armor class and does a lot of damage per round, which means a dead party of 1st level characters in all likelihood.

Anyway, the adventure involves the PCs coming across a hippie commune (really!) that has been wiped out by rats lead by a wererat in conjunction (or competition, rather) with a group of raiders . For some reason, this is supposed to bother the PCs, and instead of congratulating the rats on a job well done, they go into the nest and wipe them out.

The second adventure is bit better in terms of starting off. The PCs are passing by a town with the very unlikely (and Pagan Flanders like) name of "Blessings Be". It seems a nearby religious shrine (but one that doesn't seem to fit the name of the town) has been taken over. Presumably the PCs will help.

This adventure I liked a lot.

The third (for levels 5-7) is interesting, but not really usuable in my homebrew setting, though largely because I mostly stick to the critters in the 1st edition Monster Manual. Basically the PCs sort of stumble across the lair of a Xill while chasing a drow that tried to kill them.

Xills are sort of like a cross between Alien and Predator. They implant people with eggs, like Alien and are sorta gross looking, but are hunters like Predator, and can sort of phase in and out (which Predators can't do, but does remind me of their ability to turn semi-invisible.

The lair is quite alien. In fact, it would make a pretty decent alien spaceship or base.

It seems rather unlikely to me that the PC would actually be able to kill the Xill in question. Because as mentioned, he can basically plane travel, while characters of 5th to 7th level are unlikely to be able to follow him.

The forth adventure gave me horrible flashbacks to the PC game "Dungeon Siege". Basically, it's set in a mine. While the mine isn't as horrible complex

The fifth adventure involves the PCs travelling to a wizard's tower that happens to be sinking into hot tar.

The last adventure is the final showdown between the PCs and the evil wizard, Albrecht Skullshank. (Who is tougher than his name or stature would imply.)

This is actually quite inventive, but has a couple of possible problems. First off, well, the whole premise seems to be that even though the PCs have foiled this guy's plans to build his evil telescope, he still built it just fine. Thus rendering the first 5 adventueres basically pointless.

Secondly if they live, they presumably end up in possession of said evil telescope. Which doesn't seem to be all that useful for most people.

I enjoyed the art in this. For one, it has some illustrations by Jim Holloway, one of my favorite artists. But also some of the illustrations are just plain funny. In particular the sort of "mini" illustrations, especially one that features a party of adventurers fleeing from some dinosaurs. There's a lot of artists, 11 by my count, so the difference in styles is noticeable, but most do have sort of a retro look.


It's okay. Some things are kind of weird. Like the ananchoristic stuff, like the hippie commune and the town presumably named after a real world religion's catch phrase. And while it's probably okay for most D&D games, it doesn't mesh with my world enough for me to use all of it. Probably about half. So in that sense, I regret buying it (I wish there was a gaming store closer, so I could look through books...). But that's just my personal bias. (I really really hate hippies)