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.
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.
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….