#RPGThursday Retrospective -Cortex Worlds (Serenity, 2005; Battlestar Galactica, 2007; Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition, 2008)

I spent 2007-2009 stationed overseas, and my access to gaming materials was limited. Upon my return stateside in 2009, I quickly searched the local game stores and found a game that changed my RPG life. The game was an RPG based on the reimagined Battlestar Galactica TV series. Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (BSG) represents to my a major turning point in my RPG gaming history.

It’s in Color!

Courtesy Battlestarwiki

BSG was a very different game that I had seen in the past few years. First off, the Corebook was a hardcover that was lavishly illustrated with pictures from the TV series. It did not have the desktop publishing feel that I had become accustomed to in the past few years (see the 1990’s and my Second RPG Interregnum).

Cortex at the Core

BSG used the Cortex System (these days the BSG version is known as Cortex Classic). In Cortex, character attributes are not numbers, but a die type ranging from d4 to d12+d4. Skills were also described by die types, and each character also had Assets or Complications that also were rated by a die type. The core mechanic was a simple Skill Die + Attribute Die vs. a Difficulty number.

Assets and Complications were very interesting to me. BSG was the first time I really saw a mechanical impact of role playing characteristics of a player character. But the part that really excited me was Plot Points. Although I had played with Hero Points in James Bond 007 RPG, it was the Plot Points mechanic in BSG where I first started understanding a “game economy.” I also have to say that BSG has my second-favorite ever Combat Example (second only to James Bond 007 RPG) which replays a scene recognizable from the series.

The other very interesting part of BSG were vehicles. Unlike vehicles and spacecraft in the Traveller RPG games, BSG described vehicles in the same way characters were presented; attributes and traits. I actually embraced this approach because it was more “narrative” and fit with the Assets/Complications and Plot Points in supporting more narrative play.

Finding Serenity

So much did I like BSG that I went in search of another Cortex System game; Serenity. Published by Margret Weis in 2005, it was the 2005 Origins Awards Gamer’s Choice Best Role Playing Game of the Year Winner. I had missed this one but now caught up. Serenity uses a earlier (and slightly less refined) version of Cortex Classic but was similar enough that I caught on easily.

A Savage Exploration

Having caught the “attribute as dice” bug, in 2008 I picked up the then-new Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition. Described as “Fast! Furious! and Fun!” I quickly discovered that this rulebook was another set of rules sans setting. It also had a near-miniatures rules feel to it (see Figures and Battle Mats, p. 4). That said, I really was intrigued by:

  • Character attributes described by dice
  • Edges/Hinderances
  • Wild Cards and Extras (maybe the first time I recognized “Minion” rules)
  • Bennies (Game Economy)
  • Initiative using playing cards

The part that confused me was Arcane Backgrounds. I had a difficult time grasping this at first, and really didn’t understand what Arcane Background could do until seeing it used in a later setting book.

Discovering a New Narrative

The major impact BSG/Serenity and Savage Worlds had on my RPG gaming experience was the introduction of a more narrative style of play. The use of Assets/Complications or Edges/Hinderances along with the game economy tools of Plot Points/Bennies totally changed how I viewed playing RPGs. My games became less simulationist and more narrative. Now, I had seen (and played) some more narrative games (like James Bond 007 RPG or even Babylon Project) but I did not fully recognize what was happening. With Cortex System and Savage Worlds I recognized this change in gaming style and embraced it. It also helped that at this time I moved away from a preference for hard(ish) sci-fi settings and went to settings influenced by pulp (in no small part due to my discovery of the Wold Newton Universe through Philip Jose Farmer’s Tarzan Alive and The Other Log of Phileas Fog and Win Scott Eckert’s Myths for the Modern Age

The move to narrative also explains my next purchase.

Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game, Copyright (c) 2007 Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd. and Universal Studios Licensing LLLP. 

Serenity Role Playing Game, Copyright (C) 2005 Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd. and Universal Studios Licensing LLLP.

Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition, Copyright (C) 2008 Pinnacle Entertainment Group. Produced under license by Studio 2 Publishing, Inc.

#RPGThursday Retrospective – Ending My Second RPG Interregnum

While preparing this RPG retrospective series, I discovered that there were two significant gaps in time between my RPG purchases. The first interregnum was between 1986 and the mid-1990s. The second interregnum was from the late-1990s to 2005.

The first purchases after my second RPG interregnum also reflect a change in the RPG industry that I was slow to catch up on, but ultimately started me on a path of learning RPGs unlike I had ever experienced before. What I had missed during my second interregnum was the birth of Open Game Content, and the release of the Open Game License (OGL) in 2000 by Wizards of the Coast.

The OGL released, for public use, certain portions of RPG systems – the Open Game Content. I say “systems” because the OGL was initially intended to release for public use the underlying rules system, or “mechanics” of the game, and not settings.

I discovered this when in 2005 I purchased Prime Directive d20 (PD20). The cover clearly states that this is the “Core Rulebook.” What I missed was the (obvious) yellow text box on the back cover which stated:

Requires the use of the Third Edition Player’s Handbook (v 3.5) published by Wizards of the Coast. Compatible with all d20 rulebooks so GMs will have resources to create infinite new worlds to explore.

Well, that sucked. After being lured in by the “Core Rulebook” on the cover, I instead was hunting around for whatever these “d20 rulebooks” were. I found a seller in England named Mongoose Publishing that sold The Mongoose Modern Pocket Handbook. I think I was lured in by the publisher’s blurb on the backcover:

The Mongoose Modern Pocket Handbook is a simple guide to the world’s most popular Modern roleplaying game system. It contains exactly what a reader needs to play the game and nothing else.

With this guide to the intricacies of the Modern OGL rules set, Players and Games Masters can make use of any other setting or devise their own for a campaign that is uniquely theirs while still retaining the basic framework of the Modern OGL game. If it is a basic rule covering character creation, combat, equipment, vehicles, creatures or magic, it has a home in these pages.

Everything you need, in a pocket-sized edition with a pocket-sized price.

So I ordered one (and paid way too much in shipping – another costly lesson learned).

I am sure you already see my obvious mistake. First, I didn’t understand the d20 product line meaning I didn’t understand the difference between Third Edition and Modern rulebooks. Second, I was very confused when I tried to read the Modern Handbook. There were many rules, presented in a not-very-friendly manner, but no setting. I remember trying to make sense of the rules and being confused for days and days. I compounded my confusion by trying to play Prime Directive d20 using the Modern Handbook. Although the PD20 back cover claimed “compatible with all d20 rulebooks” the reality is the differences between Third Edition (v3.5) and Modern were enough to make play virtually unachievable for me. This was especially true since I was starting out with above-average confusion by not understanding d20 to begin with.

Prime Directive d20 started with a good fiction piece, which was interesting because it did NOT feature a Prime Team. This is emblematic of the entire book – it suffers from an identity crisis. In Chapter 3: Character Classes there are five “Adventure Party Formats” introduced:

  1. The Bridge Crew: Officers on Call
  2. Special Assignment: Ready for Anything
  3. Prime Team: The Best of the Best
  4. Fighter Pilots: Wild Dogfights, Wild Parties
  5. Freelancers: Have Phaser, Will Travel

The first is obviously Star Trek. Problem is, this is the Star Fleet Universe, with a recommended setting taking place right before the big General War kicks off. The second setting is the sort featured in the opening fiction; a team thrown together for a special mission. The third is the namesake of the system, but notes that characters start at 9th Level (so much for a beginner’s adventure). The fourth setting was likely an attempt to capitalize on the (then) successful Battlestar Galactica reimagining. The final setting, Freelancers, looked to be PD20′s version of Traveller. The greatest problem with PD20 is that the Third Edition (v3.5) rules don’t do a good job of portraying any of these tropes.

The Mongoose Modern Pocket Handbook I now know is actually a System Reference Document (SRD) and is not supposed to be a rulebook for playing an RPG. An SRD is the foundation used to construct an RPG rulebook. Problem was I tried to play using the SRD with no success at the time.

At this same time, I discovered a web site on an alternative history of the Luftwaffe named Luft ’46. This in turn led me to a comic book series, Luftwaffe 1946 by Ted Nomura. In a fortunate coincidence, I also somehow discovered DriveThruRPG. In my second-ever purchase from the site, I downloaded Luftwaffe: 1946 Role Playing Game.

Luftwaffe: 1946 Role Playing Game is not a complete RPG – it is a setting book like PD20. Unlike PD20, it used another rules set, the ACTION! SYSTEM. Now I was even more confused and more than a little bit upset. Why on Earth can I not get a “complete” game? Why do I have to keep buying a separate rulebook and setting book? I downloaded a free version of the ACTION! SYSTEM and tried to learn the game.

Luftwaffe: 1946 Role Playing Game tries to be an RPG homage to Luftwaffe 1946. A major part of the core setting is aircraft combat. This demands a strong air combat system. The problem is the ACTION! SYSTEM does NOT have a good vehicle combat system. Without a good fighter combat system, the existence of this entire game is questionable. It also didn’t help that in the introduction Ted Nomura gets upset that he cannot find good plastic model kits with accurate swastika decals. This makes him declare:

Being educated in America and thus thinking that we’re a free press society, I found the obvious censorship of history highly insulting to my intelligence. Thus, at the beginning of the early 1970’s, I made a more careful study of Nazi Germany and found out that their atrocities were not much worse than what any other major countries had done to their people and their neighbors throughout the centuries of warfare. Focusing only on a select few seemed not only unfair but inaccurate. – p. 7

After reading this, I put Luftwaffe: 1946 Role Playing Game on a back shelf. It wasn’t pulled out again until this retrospective series (and I think I am going to shred the printed copy and reuse the binder for another game).

After the Luftwaffe: 1946 failure, I looked around and found a setting book that I thought I liked, ACTION! CLASSICS The War of the Worlds Source Book. The cover of this book looked promising because it proudly proclaimed the book contained “Game stats for both Action! System and d20 System.” This would be great; if I didn’t like the ACTION! SYSTEM I could always go to d20.

The War of the Worlds Source Book starts out with H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds novel. The novel takes up the first 76 pages of the book. The book is only 101 pages long. This meant the actual game material was slim, and what was there was often repeated (ACTION! SYSTEM/d20 System). Given that I never really enjoyed the ACTION! SYSTEM or d20, I gave up on this setting.

What I didn’t realize then, but see now, is that the OGL had changed the RPG industry. The  OGL allowed rules sets to go public, and enabled many smaller publishers to publish their own settings. The RPG industry focus had turned from RPG rules to RPG settings.

Not all was bad at this time. Using DriveThruRPG I was able to buy books for older games that I had missed out on. Publishers like Far Future Enterprises sold CDs with older Traveller RPG collections. I eagerly picked these up and thoroughly enjoyed the rediscovery of these older classics and going back to my RPG roots from the late-1970s and 1980s. The future of RPGs was dead to me – I was not a d20 player and I didn’t want all those other new systems.

That was, until my next purchase.

Luftwaffe: 1946 title (c) 1996, 2001 Ted Nomura and Ben Dunn. All other material is (c) 1996, 2001 Antarctic Press. The Luftwaffe: 1946 and related material are used under license. Luftwaffe: 1946 Role Playing Game Copyright (c) 2003 Battlefield Press, Inc.

Action! Classics: The War of the Worlds Sourcebook copyright (c) 2003 by Gold Rush Games.

The Mongoose Modern Pocket Handbook is (c) 2004 Mongoose Publishing.

Prime Directive d20 is copyright (c) 2005 by Amarillo Design Bureau, Inc. “d20 System” and the “d20 System” logo are trademarks of Wizards of the Coast, Inc. and are used according to the terms of the d20 System License version 5.0. Elements of the Star Fleet Universe are property of Paramount Pictures Corporation and are used with their permission.

“The Traveller game in all forms is owned by Far Future Enterprises. Copyright 1977-2016 Far Future Enterprises.”

#FourRPGs of Influence

Reading the #FourRPGs hashtag on Twitter is a great nostalgia trip, as well a thinking challenge. Here are the four RPGs that most influenced me.

From tasteofsoundsfiles.wordpress.com

#1 – Classic Traveller (Published 1977 – discovered 1979)

Anybody remember the game store Fascination Corner in Arapahoe Mall in the Southeast suburbs of Denver? It was there I bought my first war-game, Panzer, by Yaquinto Games in 1979. Soon after that, I found a little black box with a very simple logo. The game was Traveller, and it was a role-playing game. Being a huge Star Wars fan, I just had to have the game. This was my gateway into RPGs. Although I had friends who played Dungeons & Dragons, I didn’t (fantasy didn’t catch my attention then, and to this day still doesn’t). I have never looked back since.

I actively played RPGs until the mid-late 1980’s. After college, my job and family didn’t really give me the time to play. Instead, I became a bit of a collector. I tried to keep up with Traveller (buying Marc Miller’s T4 and later the Mongoose Traveller versions). I tried other Somewhere in the mid-2000’s, I discovered DriveThruRPG, and started building an electronic collection of games that I had missed. Being a huge Traveller RPG fan, I stayed with GDW RPGs for the longest time. Sure, I dabbled in other systems (like the James Bond 007 RPG), but I really tried to stay away from Dungeons & Dragons. I had tried my hand at D20 Modern, invested heavily in the Star Wars: Saga Edition, and even looked at Savage Worlds, but none of then really captured my interest.

From en.battlestarwiki.org

#2 – Battlestar Galactica (Published and discovered 2007)

Being a huge fan of the show, I just had to have Margret Weis’ Battlestar Galactica RPG. I was immediately sold on what is now known as the Cortex Classic System (which, in retrospect, is not so different from Savage Worlds). The Battlestar Galactica RPG was a major turning point for me because it was with this game that I truly embraced designs beyond the Classic Traveller system. The Plot Points system, i.e. a tangible game currency for the players to influence the story, was a major break from my previous gaming philosophy. I realized that I was too fixated on systems like Classic Traveller, with its many sub-games, which is very wargame-like and not actually a great storytelling engine. I continued to follow the Cortex system, and these days really enjoy the Firefly RPG using the Cortex Plus system.

From en.wikipedia.org

#3 – Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (Published and discovered 2013)

While Battlestar Galactica started me on the path to narrative RPG play, I didn’t truly arrive until Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. I had got the core rule book and the Beginner’s Game and tried to play with my boys. But at first I just didn’t “get it.” What do all those funny dice really mean? One day I discovered the Order 66 podcast, and listened to their advice on Triumph and Despair. At that moment it all clicked. From then, I was sold on the the system and strongly believe that this game is the best marriage of theme and gameplay. That said, I have to say that the later volumes of this game system, Age of Rebellion and Force & Destiny don’t hold my interest as much as Edge of the Empire does.

From evilhat.com

#4 –Atomic Robo (Published and discovered 2014)

After Edge of the Empire, I started looking for other narrative RPGs. Somehow, I happened across a copy of Atomic Robo. I picked up the game (mostly on a whim) but after reading it was so intrigued by the gaming possibilities. As fortune would have it, I also discovered a Bundle of Holding that had many FATE products. I discovered I had been missing out on a great game system. Now, in addition to Atomic Robo, I enjoy Diaspora (FATE 3.0) and Mindjammer (FATE Core). I have even played a few games using FATE Accelerated with the boys, much to their (and my) enjoyment.

Truth be told, these days I pay much more attention to the “game engine” than the actual game. I admit that my favorite “game engine” these days is FATE Core. That said, I still enjoy Traveller (and even the much-maligned Traveller 5) although the newest Mongoose Traveller Second Edition is not impressing me.

#Mindjammer RPG – Winning My Heart and Mind

I have been playing around with Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game for a few months now. Mechanics-wise I am fairly comfortable with it given it is based on the FATE Core engine. However, setting-wise, I have a few problems.

First off, I am not a big fan of transhumanism sci-fi adventure in my RPG’s. Maybe I am a bit too old-fashioned and love my classic space pulp and space opera a bit too much. That’s what I get for growing up with the Classic Traveller RPG! That said, I do like my Battlestar Galactica RPG….

In my first few readings of the Mindjammer setting, I was put off by the Commonality. In the core rulebook the Commonality comes across as a unified, monolithic polity with common agenda and goals. The primary goal seems to be to reintegrate rediscovered worlds regardless of if they want to or not. This made mw think that my Mindjammer characters were going to always be the outsiders because I fancy myself more of a Browncoat than an Alliance “purple belly.”

I was very happy when I read the first Mindjammer adventure, Hearts and Minds. Besides being a great adventure that helps one understand the game better, it also introduces factions  of the Commonality (see p. 35-37). All told there are six factions mentioned, with two major ones defined as either a Major Organisation or a Supporting Organisation. After reading this part of the adventure I am much more comfortable with the setting. Yes, I understand that I could of done this on my own (after all, its MY game) but I appreciate when a setting is flexible enough to accommodate my style or trope of play.

RPG Thursday – It’s a Shiny Day Again

Courtesy MWP

Recent news from Margaret Weis Productions (MWP) tells of the return of an RPG based on Joss Whedon’s beloved Firefly/Serenity TV series and movie.

A couple of thoughts come to mind here. First, from the subtitle of the press release, what does MWP mean when they say “Pick-Up-And-Play Games?” This line is repeated in the body text where MWP states, “MWP’s own crew of seasoned designers and creators of licensed role-playing games, stand ready to develop an all-new series of pick-up-and-play games and game supplements.” Second – and closely related to my first question – will this new RPG use the latest version of Cortex or an older or newer system?

MWP previously produced the Serenity RPG. This was the first game to use their Cortex System (named after the Cortex in Firefly/Serenity and now known as Cortex Classic). As an early effort, the game had much further development done through later releases, especially items like the Big Damn Heroes Handbook which was as much a Cortex System update as a sourcebook. It also apparently had a limited license – MWP was able to use only the movie.

Later MWP RPG games took Cortex through several upgrades and outright system changes. Changes to the point that the early versions of Cortex are almost not recognizable when placed next to the later versions, now known as Cortex Plus. Cortex started out as a dice pool mechanic that also used Plot Points to create a cinematic effect. As Cortex developed over the years, it has become much more narrative in approach. To see what I mean take a look at the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Example of Play from the MWP website. The battle scene presented uses no figures, no map, but only pools of dice and some sticky notes yet it moves along rapidly in a good representation of an action-packed comic book superhero confrontation. This is much different than Cortex Classic. Look at this Example of Play taken from the Battlestar Galactica Quickstart Guide which certainly captures the cinematic aspects of the source material but in a much different, more recognizable (classic RPG?) way.

Karl “Helo” Agathon (played in this example by Sean) has been trapped on Cylon-occupied Caprica for weeks with his co-pilot, Sharon “Boomer” Valerii. They have fled one hiding place after another and have recently discovered a shelter beneath a restaurant. They are planning to rest and re-supply. Helo has ventured upstairs to make a hot breakfast, while Boomer catches some extra sleep.

GM: Helo, you find that the perishable food has all spoiled. You do discover plenty of canned and boxed food in the pantry, including oatmeal and toaster pastries.

Sean: The pastries should be fine. I heat them up in the toaster and look for a couple of clean plates.

GM: While you’re scrounging around the cupboards, you hear a loud crash and the sound of broken glass coming from up front, near the door.

Sean: Frak! I look for someplace where I can hide and see what’s going on.

GM: Okay, roll your Alertness + Covert. Sean rolls the dice for a total of 11. The GM rolls Alertness + Perception for the Cylon Centurion who is entering the front door. The Cylon gets an 8.

GM: You are pressed up against the wall. From here, you can see tall shadows moving in through the door. You hear heavy footsteps.

Sean: I pull out my pistol, trying to stay as quiet and stealthy as possible. Any way I can get a better view from my vantage point?

GM: You look around and see a stainless steel dishwarmer off to one side. In its reflection you can make at two Cylon Centurions. They slowly walk around the room.

Sean: I remain quiet and perfectly still in my hiding place. Maybe they’ll go away.

GM: They continue to look around the room, but something’s up. The Centurion closest to you readies its arm-mounted rifle, though neither of them are looking your way. The Game Master rolls again for the Cylon’s chance to spot Helo, and again the Centurion fails.

GM: You smell something baking.

Sean: Uh oh. Is breakfast still toasting?

GM: Yes, and it looks ready to pop up.

Sean: How far away is the toaster?

GM: Do you mean the Cylon, or—

Sean: The one holding my breakfast!

GM: It’s about fifteen feet away. The first Cylon Centurion is only a few feet away, partially separated from you by a frosted glass wall.

Sean: I make sure the safety is off of my gun.

GM: Sure enough, the pastries pop up, and the sound alerts the Cylons. Both Centurions spin toward the source of the sound. At the same moment, Sharon walks through the door from the stairs.They turn away from you, focus on her.

Sean: I fire at the closest toaster—er, Cylon! I yell for Sharon to run!

GM: Since the Cylons were not aware of you, you have the Initiative and can go ahead and roll the attack: Agility + Guns. Sean rolls, scoring a 17. Shouting a short phrase does not count as an action in combat.

Sean: Good roll! Did I hit? The GM determines that the Cylon was standing still, facing Sharon. As an Easy target, the Cylon’s defense was 3. He calculates base damage as 14. He also adds 3 more points for the weapon damage of the pistol—a total of 17!

GM: Your armor-piercing rounds hit. The first shell tears through the back of the Cylon’s head, and the second goes through its torso. The Centurion looks as if it’s about to drop. Now we have to take a look at Initiative. The GM checks everyone’s Initiative ratings. The surviving Cylon Centurion goes first, then Sharon, then Helo. Checking the Cylon’s game information, the GM rolls an attack on Helo. The result is a 9.

GM: The remaining Cylon shoves its way past its comrade and begins firing at you in a wide arc. Sharon stumbles to get out of the line of fire. Are you going to be attacking this turn or defending?

Sean: These things have automatic weapons. I’m dodging, and I’m going to dive for cover when my action comes up.

GM: Roll Agility + Dodge.

Sean: I’m spending two Plot Points on my dodge action! Sean rolls the Attribute and Skill dice, and adds a d4 for the Plot Points. All together, he rolls an 11.

GM: You barely dive out of the way as bullets tear the room to shreds. You duck behind the bar, even as light fixtures and other debris fall down on you from the ceiling.

(For the record, I do think that MWP has some of the best Examples of Play since old Victory Games and their James Bond 007 game. Go to this link and read the two-column example of play starting on page 12 of the pdf which has a classic set of scenes from Goldfinger and an in-game version side-by-side.)

I for one welcome the narrative approach to gaming. I dare say that narrative RPG play is gaining popularity and will get a huge shot-in-the-arm when Fantasy Flight Games releases the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Core Rulebook in the second quarter of 2013. This narrative surge is in stark contrast to what Wizards of the Coast (WotC) appears to be trying to do by releasing Dungeons & Dragon classics. Although I have no personal interest in DnD 5e, it will be interesting to see just how many narrative elements WotC does – or does not – bring into their new edition.

RPG Thursday – A Retrospective Look at The Babylon Project

Courtesy RPG Geek

Not long ago, I was in a (sometimes) FLGS and saw a whole slew of Mongoose D20 Babylon 5 RPGbooks. Having seen this sit on the shelf for over a year, I approached the staff and was able to make a deal to get a nice discount on a bulk buy. All the books I purchased were source books covering races or campaigns; I don’t have the Mongoose Babylon 5 D20 rules nor do I want them given they were based on Dungeons & Dragon Third Edition. What I do have is Mongoose Traveller Universe of Babylon 5 and the much older Chameleon Eclectic Entertainment, Inc. The Babylon Project.

I actually didn’t remember much of The Babylon Project and never actually played it with a group.  I do remember thinking the combat system was “complicated.”  I recently took the time to reread the rules. In doing so, I now have to reconsider the game and give it more credit than I had previously.

In terms of production values, the book was ahead of its times. Full-color pages make it rich looking, even if some of the art is of marginal quality (a mix of photos from the series and artwork inspired by the same). Today people would scream for a low-ink version for print-at-home.

I remember not liking character generation. Of course, I had grown up on Classic Traveller  making many of the concepts in The Babylon Project seem foreign. Character generation in The Babylon Project uses a combination storytelling and point-buy approach and is done in three phases. In the first phase, the player uses storytelling aspects to create a character concept and basic history. This in turn leads to adjusting the 13 attributes that define your character. Attributes are rated 1-9 with each race having a typical attribute value. Players can adjust the typical attributes based on the concept and background but for every attribute raised another has to be lowered. The second phase – childhood – has the player answer another set of questions which guide picking Learned Skills and Characteristics (an early version of the Savage Worlds or Cortex System advantages/hindrances). This same process is repeated in a third phase – adulthood – which again gains Learned Skills and more (or changed) Characteristics. This system was very much NOT what I had grown up with in Traveller or my other RPGs of this time like FASA’s Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game or the first edition of Prime Directive. At the time, I think it was just too different for me to be comfortable; now I see it for what it is – a well thought out, guided, lifepath character generation system.

The adventure and campaign system focuses less on episodic events than on creation of a story arc. The Babylon Project certainly tries to match the grand, sweeping, epic feel of the series. The mechanic used is the Story Chart which the Gamemaster uses to loosely chart out the path of the campaign. The Story Chart uses four basic symbols to lay out an adventure:

  • Non-exclusive Chapters: Events which do not directly relate to other events in the story; can be worked into story almost any point to uncover key pieces of information, encounter non-critical NPCs, or experience important scenes.
  • Exclusive Chapters: Events which the characters must experience and can only happen once; these change the nature of the story and cannot be revisited or reversed.
  • Independent Chapters: Not critical to the overall puzzle, but may help.
  • Information: The flow between chapters that lead from one to another.

Like character generation, I think at the time I viewed this (again) as too different to understand. Today, I can see the designer’s intent and zeal to get closer to the grand, sweeping, epic feel of Babylon 5. Unfortunately, even today I don’t often see a similar approach in other games that could use it like Star Wars Saga Edition or even Battlestar Galactica.

The core Game Mechanic is actually very simple. Players compare Attribute+Skill and Specialty+/- Modifiers +/- a Random Modifier against a Task Difficulty set by the GM. To use the examples from the book:

Jessica is attempting to bypass the reactor control circuitry. The bypass isn’t particularly difficult, but Jessica is working by flashlight in zero-G. Dana specifies that Jessica will take the necessary time to make sure the job is done right. Taking all of those factors into consideration, the GM decides that the task is Difficult, which gives it a Difficulty Number of 11. Jessica’s Intelligence is 5; her skill in Engineering: Electrical is 3; and her Specialty in Electrical Applications adds another 2 – all totaling to an Ability of 10. Her GM decides that no additional penalties or bonuses apply. (The Babylon Project, p. 90)

The Random Modifier is created by taking two die (a green positive and red negative) and rolling. Look at the lowest number. That die is now the modifier – positive if the green die and negative if the red. This makes the Random Modified range from +5 to -5.  To continue using the example from the rule book:

Dana rolls the dice. Her Negative Die result is 5, with a Positive Die result of 2. Thus, her Random Modifier is +2. (The Babylon Project, p. 91)

The degree of success or failure is also a consideration. As the example continues:

Jessica’s Ability in her attempt to bypass the reactor control circuitry is 10. Adding the Random Modifier of +2 just rolled by Dana gets a total Result of 12. That’s 1 over the Difficulty of 11 set by the GM – a Marginal Success. The GM tells Dana that Jessica’s bypass has fixed the problem, but that it won’t hold up for long, and not at all if the reactor is run at over half its rated power output. Thus, her success in the task resolution fixes the problem, but the GM interprets its marginal nature as a limitation on engine power and fortitude. (The Babylon Project, p. 91)

Given my close acquaintance with Classic Traveller and the definite lack of a clearly defined task system – much less an emphasis on degrees of success – it is not surprising I didn’t immediately embrace the simple task mechanic in The Babylon Project.

Combat comes in two forms, Close and Ranged, and is played in phases of two-seconds each meaning the player character gets a single action. Players make an attacker roll versus a defender roll. An important combat consideration is aim point; there is a default aim point and if the attacker wants to (or must) aim elsewhere there is a modifier. The degree of success determines how close to the aim point the hit occurs and the level of damage. Combat then moves to Immediate Effects. This table determines if the hit results in immediate death, stun, or impairment. Given the Damage Ratings of the weapons and not-so-great armor this means combat in The Babylon Project is very dangerous! Once combat is over, then Final Effects are dealt with, to include the extent of injuries and wounds. Like all of The Babylon Project, there is a heavy emphasis on the storytelling effect of the injury. Again this is nothing like Classic Traveller yet today I can see the design effect the designer was reaching for – speedy combat using the simple core mechanic with detailed wounds and healing latter. I think the designer achieved what he was trying to do with combat.

The Babylon Project also uses Fortune Points, this games version of Bennies or Plot Points. Each player starts a session with five Fortune Points. Fortune Points can be used to improve a task roll, save  your life in combat, and attempt a task that the player normally could not attempt. This game mechanism is not found in Classic Traveller and a the time I think I saw it as too cinematic or “space opera” for my hard sci-fi taste. Today, I take for granted the use of Plot Points or Bennies or like mechanisms as a useful tool for players to exercise narrative control on the game instead of leaving it in the sole hands of the GM. I have also grown to appreciate the cinematic benefits of Plot Points as I have moved (a bit) away from hard sci-fi rules mechanics.

Courtesy RPG Geek

The last page of The Babylon Project rulebook is a one-page GM Reference Sheet. Literally everything needed to run the game is on this one page. Really…everything! How did they ever expect to sell a GM screen? In fact they did – it was one of the items I also picked up in my bulk buy – and used three panels. The left panel has Attributes and Skills (a useful reminder of the entire list available) as well as Martial Arts Maneuvers (rules added in the Earthforce Sourcebook supplement). The right panel is a Weapons and Armor table – again useful but not absolutely essential. The center panel is a colorful, slightly reformatted version of the original GM Reference Guide.

Courtesy RPG Geek

It would also be negligent of me not to mention that one of the reasons I originally got The Babylon Project was for the space combat system. Introduced in Earthforce Sourcebook, the space combat system was developed by Jon Tuffley and based on his successful Full Thrust miniatures system. This approach to incorporating popular, known, miniatures space combat rules and an RPG was later repeated by the Traveller community with the publication of Power Projection: Fleet.

Rereading The Babylon Project has opened my eyes to just how much of a gem this game really is. Compared to the more recent Mongoose Traveller Universe of Babylon 5, which I reviewed in 2011, the earlier The Babylon Project is more appropriate to the source and setting. Since the 1997 publication of the game, I have also matured as an RPG player and am more comfortable with the narrative/storytelling  and cinematic aspects of the rules. I can now see where The Babylon Project is much like the early Cortex System (Serenity and Battlestar Galactica RPGs) or Savage Worlds – game systems I really love and enjoy playing.  I think I will work on a story arc for The Babylon Project and see what happens….

RPG Thursday – My Top Seven RPG Internet Meme

James over at Grognardia started it, and I am late to get on the bandwagon.

My top 7 played RPGs in 2012 (and a good marker for the past several years):

1 – Classic Traveller (Admittedly not so much the RPG but the setting. I especially have played the games of Classic Traveller such as Striker, Book 5: High Guard, Adventure 5: Trillion Credit Squadron, Imperium, Fifth Frontier War, and Power Projection: Fleet; as well as using adventures such as Adventure 7: Broadsword as inspiration for Tomorrow’s War.)

2- Mongoose Traveller (including Hammer’s Slammers, Outpost Mars and Orbital)

3 – Battlestar Galactica

4 – Serenity

5 – Prime Directive

6 – Mouse Guard

7 – Others I played around with in 2012 were Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and the new Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner’s Game. Also messed around with Space: 1889 and A Song of Ice and Fire: Game of Thrones Edition.