Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Operation Quick Launch (Final Draft)

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 (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.

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 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).

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. 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).

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. 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.

Blood & Relics 2 (Final)

Blood and Relics


Blood and Relics is a occult sourcebook for d20 Modern from RPGObjects and d20 Modern guru Chuck Rice. This is actually the revised edition, which revises and expands the original. Since I don't have the original, I can't say what is different, other than it's about twice as big. It's primarily a PDF (which I'm reviewing), but also apparently available in print form.

Nominally it's a setting, but only nominally - most of the rules (the classes and such) can be adapted to regular d20 Modern with no problem as far as I can tell, other than taking a different approach to magic (aka FX in d20 Modern terminology) than normal.

The setting itself is fairly straight forward in it's basic premise - it's set in the real world, except that there is an occult (in both meanings, magical and hidden) war going on between the forces of good and the forces of evil. This is called "The Blood War" (somewhat unoriginally, but does fit their naming scheme of their line of books).

One the evil side of the Blood War you have the Dark Powers, apparently called the "Caeder". These are more or less your stereotypical demon or "fiend" (in D&D/d20 terms). On the good side, you seemingly have most the monotheistic religions, plus, in a twist out of the DaVinci Code, Jesus's offspring and the Templars. (Really though, this theory goes back ages, to at least "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" (which apparently was in part the inspiration for this product, though apparently it's been years since the author of this read that book), possibly earlier, it just gets dusted off every few years.).


The first chapter of the book, and what I think is the most readily useful part, is on new character options.

First off is several new allegiances (basically the d20 Modern version of "Alignment", basically the same thing but vaguer), based mostly on the 7 deadly sins and virtuous virtues.

More interestingly is a whole bunch of new advanced classes. This is really the best part of the product.

The first two classes are similar, but sort of opposites. The Believer, which would be a follower of the good forces, while the Cultist is a follower of the evil. The Believer doesn't get to cast spells per se, but gets "Sacred Ritual Feats", which can be similar to spells (more on that later). The Cultist gets some "Profane Ritual Feats" which are similar, but can also cast spells via a spell point system (ditching the traditional d20 spell slot system).

There's a trio of thematically similar classes - the Grave Robber, the Relic Seeker, and the Monitor. The Relic Seeker is essentially Indiana Jones, both in terms of what he does (tries to get ancient goodies for museums and such) and how he does it (dodging and ducking and such). The Grave Robber is one who sells the stuff or keeps it instead of putting it in a museum, and his class abilities are more influence based - evil minions and the like. (Pretty much all the bad guys in the Indiana Jones movies are this). Monitors are secret guys that prefer to keep ancient stuff away from others to keep them out of evil hands. (These are the mysterious guys often found in the Indiana Jones movies. Also The Mummy. They ride out of nowhere and shoot at everyone)

I think there probably was room for a class similar to Lara Croft of Tomb Raider fame or Brenden Frasier's character from the Mummy, the two fisted gun toting sort of treasure hunter, but this could probably be accomplished by the Relic Seeker class along with some multiclassing with some of the gun based classes in the d20 Modern rulebook.

Also, there's something called a "Dark Warrior". Basically a person that makes a pact with dark forces for added combat prowess. I think he would be someone like Lance Henrikson from The Omen II or Bill Romanowski from the Denver Broncos.

And though I don't think it quite fits the setting, there is also a Witch class. Which seems more like a classical witch (say Circe or Medea) than the Wiccan sort of Witch or the Martha Stewart/Leona Helmsley/Elton John sort of witch.

Beyond the various new classes, there's a number of feats, including feats that are magical rituals. The Cultist gets "Profane Ritual" feats and the Believer gets "Sacred Ritual" feats.

The rituals are something of a mixed lot. Some are ways of gaining spell points for Cultists, generally by sacrificing somebody, though some do bad things to people (like giving them horrible nightmares). The ones for the Believer tend to be things like turning a sword from a normal one to a flaming one, or blessing or castigating things or people.

The second chapter introduces "Spiritual Afflictions". Basically, they are ways a character can get tainted or corrupted by evil. Most of the 7 deadly sins are afflictions, plus a few more that seem more smurfly than evil.

Honestly, I'm not sure I like this, since the 7 sin stuff never appealed to me, plus as an existentialist, I think man is free, but, it really does fit the source material.

There's also 3 pages of rules for demonic possession and exorcism.

The third chapter, about 25 pages or so, is on secret societies. Basically, you get a history and description of that secret society, where they fit into the "Blood War" and a prestige (or is that advanced?) class.

Two are basically different offshoots of the old Catholic Inquisition. One from the Spanish branch and one sort of reformed.

There's a secret occult force of the Israeli Government, the Isayet Omega.

And of course the Templars. Gotta have the Templars in a setting like this. This product takes the tack that the Templars were actually more or less Cathars, and in fact, founded by the Cathars. (This is one of those murky areas, while there were apparently some connections between the two groups (at least some of the early members of the Templars came from that Cathar section of France), they do seem to have different outlooks on life which makes me find this to be somewhat unlikely. )

It does have one very new twist. There's a group called the "Salem Seven". In this setting, it seems that the Salem Witches (from the famous witch trials) were actually agents of the Templars.

Any setting has to have villains, and in this, the Teutonic Knights take that role. Which fits them pretty well, I think.

The last chapter is a "Campaign Guide". It explains the background of the setting, including a timeline of important occult events in it. Somewhat amusingly, for a setting that basically revolves around the children of Jesus, the Common Era dating system is used for the timeline.

Beyond that, it contains writeups for various legendary artifacts. Excalibur, the Shroud of Turin, Longinus (aka the Spear of Destiny, the spear that pierced Jesus's side), Nails of the True Cross, etc. And there's some very interesting rules for creating holy or blasphemous books, including a few sample tomes.

And there's a writeups of various supernatural nasties/beings (mostly evil ones, for good ones you might want to check out the old Encyclopedia of Angels from the now defunct Fast Forward). The Lord of Vermin, the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse (woohoo, finally d20 Modern stats for Rick Flair!), and some generic fiends.

Rounding out the chapter and PDF is a series of tables for the new feats in the game.


The PDF itself is solidly done up to RPGObjects usual high standards. Everything is bookmarked nicely. And there are 2 different versions, one for the screen and printing. I did notice that that the Cultist seems to have a web address in his Class skills. (Apparently they are web designers, like the Heaven's Gates people).

This is actually funny, the font they used for headings has a really weird looking "M" and in fact it took me quite a while to realize it was an "M", not a "ITI". I thought some of the things were written in latin or something. Heh. Like "Exorcisiti", instead of "Exorcism". And I was confused as to what a "Horseitian" was.

Half the art is by Marcio Fiorito, whose stuff I always liked. I'm not familiar with John Longenbaugh, the guy who did the rest of the art, but I like his art a lot, too. So it's a nice looking pdf.

Final Thoughts

I have mixed feelings about this. I think the rules part is very good, and it certainly gives writeups of a whole lot of secret societies and real world relics and such, and is useful for a general real world occult sourcebook for d20 Modern. But on the other hand, I think the setting has some internal contradictions.

I mean, basically, it's pretty much based on the concept of the Apocalypse - the anti-christ is coming and all that stuff. Which is fine as far as that goes, but then you have all these groups which have a completely different sort of theology sort of shoe-horned in. For instance, you have a group of Israelis hunting down the anti-christ by the orders of the Israeli government. But that doesn't make sense, because pretty much by definition, Jews don't happen to believe in the antichrist. Otherwise they wouldn't be Jews. In fact, their whole concept of "messiah" is completely different than the Christian one.

Or Jesus's children. In this, they are protected by the Cathars (or their descendants). But the Cathars were basically docetic, that is, they didn't think Jesus had a real physical body. And they generally frowned on children in general. So I find it hard to believe they would found a group to protect said children.

Still, most of the contradictions reflect the source material (like Holy Blood, Holy Grail) and the genre in general that it's trying to emulate. At least it doesn't have Tom Hanks in this. B+