Opening the book is a lush rekindling of the original excitement of the first episode of the Babylon 5 TV show: that thrill of something in which it's going to be possible to get totally involved. It's interesting that Matthew Sprange says in his Designer’s Notes that "I remember thinking at the time that the characters and locations would make for a superb roleplaying game..." – so did I! Matthew has had the resources and impetus to turn this thought into a reality.
The entire book is printed in full colour. It has a rather 'heavy' page border that doesn't contribute that much to the overall appearance, but which is offset by the tremendous number of illustrations, many of which are stills from the TV show itself, but all carefully chosen to illustrate the section of the book concerned.
The book begins with a brief Introduction that, in a very few pages, give an overview of the contents, of the differences between 'standard' D20 rules and those used herein, and still find time to explain that combat in Babylon 5 is DEADLY and that while it's likely there will be combat, the wise character will do their level best to settle matters via diplomacy and negotiation rather than at the point of a PPG. This, then, is – possibly uniquely amongst D20 systems – intended as a ROLE-PLAYING game, rather than an opportunity to fight!
Next comes a delightful 2-page ramble from the pen of J. Michael Straczynski (who, if you don't happen to know, is the chap who came up with the entire Babylon 5 show). He says he only ever tried role-playing once, but having seen his ideas come to live so dramatically on the small screen he can well imagine what we are about and so was happy to see this latest version of his creation see the light of day.
After a brief overview of recent history and the rationale behind the creation of the Babylon 5 station (and why it's number 5), we get on to character generation. To start with, you need to decide what race your character is, and full details are provided for Humans, Centauri, Minbari, Narn, Drazi, and Brakiri. For each there are notes on common racial traits and habits, enough to give you an idea of how that race reacts to life (but with a note that while these are typical, individuals may well be different!). If these races don't suit you, there are notes on the Gaim, Markab, Pak'ma'ra and Vree later on, although as these are less common they should be used with care.
Then, as usual, you'll need to select which class you character starts off in: Agent, Diplomat, Lurker, Officer, Scientist, Soldier, Telepath and Worker. Most are fairly self-explanatory – the Lurker is the criminal end of being a rogue, the Agent a suaver, government or corporate sponsored version. The Scientist is a scholar, and includes medics, at 1st level you choose in which 'science' – which can be just about any sphere of study you care to name – you specialise, and this affects some of your skills.
Like all D20 games, as you level up you can choose to take levels in a different class from the one you start in (but if you want to be a Telepath you need to start off there). There are other oddities about the Telepath class. To start with, each Telepath has a P-Rating that determines how powerful you are, and which telepathic abilities can be learned at all. While you get to choose the P-Rating, there are checks and balances in place to ensure that if you really, really want to be a very powerful Telepath you are curtailed in the number of skill points and hit points that you have.
This section is followed by the usual Skills and Feats material. Skills are quite broad in scope, with the opportunity to specialise. Of particular interest are the Telepath feats, which can be used in combination with the Telepath Abilities (dealt with later on) to customise and enhance a Telepath character. Most feats are classified by race or are 'general' (available to all races) and can go towards establishing your racial identity.
Characters sorted, we then proceed to Combat. As already mentioned, combat is decidedly deadly in this game, and only to be undertaken with caution. You do not get large numbers of Hit Points, more like a small number at first level and merely one or two extra for each succeeding one. Normal D20 'Armour Class' isn't used either, as most weapons in this universe will go straight through... so instead you have a 'Defence Value' which is based on your total Reflex save plus any size modifier plus 10. This reflects your ability to stay out of the path of incoming fire, and can be enhanced by, for example, taking cover in the usual manner. To attack, you need to make a roll that exceeds your victim's total Defence Value. Armour, although often ineffective given the power of some of the weapons used, is able to deflect or absorb damage before it reaches your person... this is modelled by each armour type having a 'Damage Reduction' value that is subtracted from the damage done when you are hit.
The combat section, after romping through a few examples (mostly firefights), goes on to discuss other dangers that may beset characters... chief amongst them those posed by hard vacuum. There are also notes on other natural problems like microgravity effects, varying gravities on different planets, hunger and thirst, and hot and cold climates; as well as fire, poison, disease and radiation. Not to mention the note under the heading ‘Blind’ that the character cannot see!
Then comes a detailed discussion of vehicle movement and combat. Of course, there are few vehicles actually ON Babylon 5, but you may well wish to charge around outside in a Starfury or indulge in air, space or ground antics elsewhere in the universe.
This section is followed by the equipment lists. Starting money depends on your chosen character class (Lurkers with the least, Diplomats and Scientists being the best off). There are extensive notes on dealing with black market and other restricted goods, including information on how various items may be easier to obtain depending on your race. There's a small selection of weapons – the ubiquitous PPG (well, a firearm that isn't going to make a hole in the wall is a definite plus if you live on a space station!) and assorted blades, although the Minbari fighting pike is notable by its absence. There's also a collection of general equipment to choose from, toolkits, communicators, bedrolls, handcuffs, computers and so on. You can also get armour or vehicles. Ordinary clothing has been neglected, so it will be up to the GM how much your Centauri spends on fine brocade jackets! If spaceships are of interest, there are rules concerning the running costs although it's unlikely characters, at least at starting levels, will be in a position to buy one; they will probably be crew in some capacity. Still, if you have 127 million credits to your name, you can have a space liner of your very own.
The next part of the book concerns Telepaths. Here we find out what telepathic abilities there are and how they can be used. Your P-Rating not only determines how powerful you are, some abilities are not available at all to lesser talents even if your level would otherwise permit you access to them. And here's the real kicker – each time you try to use an ability you take a point of subdual damage, even if you fail the skill check. The really nasty bit is that the higher your P-Rating, the less hit points you have to lose!
Right, that's the rules out of the way. The remainder of the book – roughly two-thirds – settles down to describe the setting, concentrating mainly on the Babylon 5 station itself, although there is background and history on the rest of the universe and some of the key inhabitants. There are plans of the entire station - although it's a lush 2-page spread, the effectiveness is a bit lessened by the fact that the central parts are lost within the binding of the book, it doesn't lay fully open... maybe the end-papers would have been a better place for it. Or make the full plan available as a download, in the same way as Mongoose have done for the galactic map (which suffers the same 2-page problem). Many of the key characters from the TV show are provided, complete with full statistics, as well as sample characters that will make a starting point for your NPCs.
After the station comes the rest of the universe: thumbnail sketches of the major power blocs and some of the places – such as the Mars colony – that featured in the TV show. There’s a fair bit on the Psi Corps along with information on dealing with human telepaths both in and out of it. Basically, if you want to enjoy a quiet life as a Telepath, either join up or don't be human! Even a member of the Corps is not home free, the Corps has many regulations and is all-pervasive. While there is sufficient outline for those wishing to be Narn, Centauri or Minbari; it's only fair to say that you will have far more material to work on once you buy the relevant sourcebooks.
The next section is a very detailed episode guide and synopsis to the first series of the show. While being a useful introduction or memory-jogger even for someone who knows the show well, the main usefulness is in the plot hooks provided for every episode – often throwaway remarks that could spawn a whole campaign, never mind an adventure or two based on the events of a single episode. For those GMs who want to weave their campaigns through the story arc of the show, there is unparalleled support. As well as pure episode guides, you also get notes on plot points, items and concepts introduced during the episode and featured characters (including their full statistics).
Finally, there are comprehensive notes on running Babylon 5 campaigns. One potential problem, which is tackled head on, is how do you cope with a game based on a TV show with such a powerful story arc of its own? If you make use of it, you have to work out how much influence your characters will have on events – after all, they are the heroes of your game, whoever might have had centre stage on TV. And, how do you cope with players who know the show and have information about the 'future' that their characters will not possess? If you don't use the TV storyline as a core part of the campaign, it's best to still have it muttering along in the background – otherwise why play this game rather than any other science-fiction one? This section contains a lot of excellent advice that the GM should read while planning their campaign, and several good ideas for things that you might do. Tucked away at the end, a handful of prestige classes. And that's it, apart from a glossary, an index and a character sheet.
The wonderfully detailed episode guides and other resources that are all presented with the aim of making the GM's life both easy and productive while planning and running a campaign set in and around the station are probably the highlight of this work.
Some people have made adverse comments about the layout, and even that there are too many production pictures in there. The heavy page border doesn't contribute much, and several of the pictures are rather bigger than they need to be.
Overall, a well-researched recreation of the alternate reality we all inhabited while the TV show ran its course, this book is jam-packed with useful material for anyone wishing to run a game there.
Return to The Babylon 5 Roleplaying Game and Fact Book page.
Reviewed: 17 July 2006