When perusing through any of Mongoose’s Babylon 5 product line
a reader first thinks one thing: “Man, these are some good-looking books.”
Every book (with the exception of the E_Z portable B5 Pocket Players Handbook)
features slick color pages, tons of great screen captures and crisp, easy-to-read
text. The layout is good and the books are solidly put together, especially
the hard covers. The writing inside is strong, and for the most part written
with a scholar’s knowledge of, and deep fondness for, the source material.
The main blemish is Mongoose’s sometimes slipshod editing and sometimes
headscratch-worthy choices in the order of presentation of material.
I will echo something I’ve heard a couple of other reviewers say about
the Babylon 5 line: Why, oh why is this a D20 product and not just
OGL? For those not savvy to insider gamer nerd speak, a bit of history and definition.
Wizards of the Coast essentially ‘open sourced’ the core rules for
the 3rd edition of the venerable Dungeons and Dragons, allowing development
of products using those rules by other publishers. The license comes in two
flavors: D20 and Open Gaming License. Products made under the D20
license can only be used if you also have one or more of the big three core
books of D&D — the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon
Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual — or if you
download and print out the free System
Resource Document. Products licensed instead under the OGL
or Open Gaming License don’t need those core books and have a bit more
Mongoose's Babylon 5 is D20, and, well, having to have the Dungeons
and Dragons Players’ Handbook in order to make a Babylon 5 character
just seems weird.
That gripe notwithstanding, character creation follows the standard, fairly
painless D&D method. Roll your character's six main abilities (strength,
intelligence, charisma, etc.); choose a race (human, elf, dwarf, or whatever
in D&D; human, Minbari, Narn, or whatever in Babylon 5);
choose a class; choose a whole lot of skills and feats and other special abilities.
The classes are . . . well, they're classes, but they make sense
for the Babylon 5 universe and hold together well. The core classes
are different from the fighters and wizards of D&D, of course;
the telepath is a new standalone class, for instance. The usual collection of
skills and feats, with add-ons for the various races and consideration given
for the futuristic era. One of the largest and most fundamental changes a seasoned
D20 player will notice is a drastic reduction in the hit points characters receive.
I’ll get to that in the combat section below.
Obviously alien races play a big part in the universe of Babylon 5, and
characters have a lot of options here. The initial races allowed for character
creation are human, Narn, Centauri, Minbari, Drazi and Brakiri. Each race has
its own strengths and weaknesses, as well as various dedicated prestige classes
and feats. If you have the money to burn, the "big four" — the
Narn Regime, the Centauri Republic and the Minbari Federation — also get
their own dedicated game books, all of them nice, if pricey, hardback affairs,
packed with Babylon 5 information.
Telepathy is handled in a fairly elegant manner that really keeps in the spirit
of the show. Telepathy itself is a skill, with the relative strength of the
telepath (measured in “P” ratings) increasing his or her own skills
and abilities, but limiting the telepath’s skill set in regard to other,
“real world” skills and abilities. The logic being, I suppose, that
the telepath is spending more time concentrating and honing his paranormal abilities
than learning to, say, fix a jump gate. The breakdown allows for a nice range
of characters from working-Joe, commercial telepaths to grim Psi-Cops on the
beat (a prestige class).
Combat in the universe of Babylon 5 is deadly. The low hit points
of the average character, and the large amount of damage even a tiny firearm
can do, make any combat potentially lethal. Ship-to-ship combat is handled the
same way: short and brutal. If you climb into a starfury in this game, you better
be a damn good pilot and a damn good shot. Again in keeping with the vibe of
the Babylon 5 universe, people can die pretty easily. Except for Captain
Sheridan, of course.
The last part of the main rule book is essentially an episode-by-episode breakdown
of the first season, including character descriptions and rules, equipment and
other miscellany particular to each episode. It is here that the book really
shines. This final section as well as the four other season guides are my favorite
part of the product line. Being a pretty diehard Babylon 5 fan, I read
these analyses raptly. Whoever Mongoose hired or had on staff to watch the episodes
and report on them was seriously on task.
It is here where Mongoose’s attention shines. Sure, they can’t
edit for a tinker’s damn, but man, someone had the remote in hand with
notes nearby for the season breakdowns. I’d like to rewatch the series
with the season books in hand to see if I agreed with them or not. Seriously,
they're good. The race books and the specialized groups’ books are decently
written, but the real strength is in the season guides.
The specialized group books, Rangers and Technomages, are
a tad weak. The technomages book borrows heavily from the Technomages novels
by Jeanne Cavelos, a decent series, but not shown on the, uh, show. And the
Rangers book feels more like a collection of columns for Signs
and Portents, Mongoose’s house magazine, than an actual book. They
have two adventure collections as well, with “The Fiery Trial” being
a pretty standout adventure collection. The second collection, “Into the
Crucible,” not so much.
They do a good job presenting the characters of Babylon 5, showing
them in the first series with starting stats and then updating them through
the season books so you can see how they have grown. One problem: There are
prestige classes that obviously seem based on the characters — but the
characters themselves don’t have them! But otherwise, they do a fantastic
job of developing the characters through the years.
There is a lot to like in Mongoose’s work. They have a genuine love
for the show and a scholarly knowledge of the source material. There is also
a bit to dislike: lackadaisical editing, placement of material in no logical
order, and, again, using the D20 license instead of the OGL. If you are a Babylon
5 fan, you are going to fall in love with this collection. And if you aren’t,
the psi-corp will roust you from your bunk and expose you for the Earth Traitor
that you are.