February 22, 2014

Babylon 5 RPG - a few thoughts and rambling considerations

Yep, February.  Dismal month, with cold temps and lots of snowfall that needed to be cleaned up.

Most of my recent gaming posts have had to do with Star Wars RPGs, specifically FFG's Edge of the Empire, so I thought I might ramble a bit about a different sci-fi RPG setting, one that I've enjoyed quite a bit.

Like the subject line says, the RPG in question is the Babylon 5 RPG published by Mongoose Publishing, particularly the 2nd edition.  For me at least, this was the version of the game where things really started to gel into making this it's own RPG instead of yet another D&D knock-off.

For those of you that don't know about Babylon 5... shame on you.  It's one of the first TV series to prove that you could have a multi-season story arc built around an ensemble cast with elements from the earlier episodes tying back to episodes from later seasons.  It could easily sustain multiple plot arcs that while separate were not wholly divorced from the overall story.  It had characters grow and evolve over the seasons.  As the character G'Kar said during the first season,"Nobody here is exactly what they seem."

So onto the RPG, of which I've been re-reading due to a very high likelihood of getting to play this game for more than just a handful of sessions (hopefully).  The setting of Babylon 5 is a tricky one to bring to the gaming table, especially for being a d20 system.  When most folks here "d20 system" they tend to conclude that said game is focused predominantly upon combat.  But in B5, trying to simply brute-force your way to the solution isn't going to work; yes, there are times when a fighting pike or a PPG will help, but the series more often required the cast to out-think the opposition, or to come up with novel and unusual ways to achieve victory; when the latest Shadow War started, nobody in-series would have even begun to think of trying Sheridan's method to win the war for all time.

Personally, I think the best setting for a Babylon 5 campaign is after the events of the TV series.  Even if you take the short-lived Crusade series into mind, there's a nice five year window where the galaxy is in a relative state of peace, and the younger races are just starting to learn what it means to truly be in charge of their own destinies.  There's no major galaxy-spanning villains to be found, and the Interstellar Alliance is still in its infancy, though it does benefit from the leadership of Sheridan and Delenn as well as the support of the Rangers.  Even if the station itself doesn't make an appearance in your campaign, the fact that there's no scripted material for events taking place after the series helps give both GMs and players a greater sense of freedom in what sort of games they might like to run/play.  I know that there are supplementary books and other TV series that take place after the main series, but most of those can be easily and safely dismissed as "non-canon" for a GM's game.

One major challenge for a GM is one that often crops up in many RPGs... what exactly brings an EarthForce fighter jock, a Narn soldier, a Minbari telepath, and a Human covert agent into being a group?  With most fantasy RPGs, there's the common thread of "professional adventurers" in that their common goal is to find vicious monsters and slaughter them for XP and loot.  It's probably for the best that the GM have a basic structure in mind for their campaign, and let the PCs know about it so they can design characters with an eye towards "why would my PC take part in this?"

On the crunch side of things, there's some very interesting changes.  One immediate change is that the base classes are limited to 10 levels each; much like in d20 Modern, if you want to go beyond 10th level, you'll need to multi-class in order to pull it off.  Another big change is that hit point totals are a lot lower than you'll find in pretty much any other d20 game; most characters will be lucky to have more than 10 hit points at 1st level, and it'll be a great many more levels before they can really hope to break 20, much less 30.  Seeing as how the average handgun in this game does 2d6 damage, the system reflects how the lead characters in the TV series made finding cover one of their top priorities when a firefight broke out.

Several skills have been combined into a macro skill, making things a bit easier on PCs that want to be good at certain things, enabling them to do so without having to spread their skill points too far around.  These combinations include such popular things as rolling Spot and Listen into Notice as well as Balance and Tumbling into Acrobatics.  The game also accounts for this being a future setting, with new skills to govern dealing with technology or conducting various actions that wouldn't occur in your typical D&D fantasy setting.

Telepaths were a notable element of the B5 series, being very powerful as it was incredibly difficult for mundanes to block a telepath's abilities.  The RPG reflects that, and the higher a telepath's P-rating (roughly how strong a telepath is), the harder it becomes for a mundane to block them.  In an interesting arrangement, telepath PCs pretty much start out with access to all the telepathic powers presented, both in the core rulebook and in the Lurker's Guide to Telepaths supplement (which I suggest picking up if you can, as it adds a lot of options for PC teeps).  Of course, the drawback is that certain telepath powers require the user to have a minimum P-rating in order to pull them off; while a telepath can "push" their abilities to a limited extent, a lot of the really major powers are probably going to remain out reach of most telepath PCs, particularly if they don't take advantage of the Telepath class' 1st level option to forego a bonus feat in exchange for a hefty boost to their P-rating.

But while going through the book, I noted some things that were part of why I grew dissatisfied and generally disinterested in most d20 systems (Star Wars Saga Edition being the major exception).  There was the "favored class" restriction, which for a game that seems structured to favor and encourage multi-classing felt unnecessarily restrictive.  And most importantly, there was the skill point system, which again was problematic for a game where your skills are far more important to solving a crisis than your attack bonus or weapon selection or even telepathic powers.

Oddly enough, I found myself looking to Paizo's Pathfinder for solutions to some of those issues.  For starters, the skill system could easily be replaced with the Pathfinder system, which simply does away with the Level+3 cap for skills and increased cost for cross-class skills, and instead uses a flat cost of 1 skill point per rank, and with class skills getting a +3 bonus to the check modifier.  To be honest, this is the one thing I truly liked about Pathfinder, and something I'd probably carry over into any d20-based game I were to run that wasn't Saga Edition.

The other Pathfinder solution was how they handled favored classes, which simply does away with the penalty aspect and instead provides the PC their choice of a bonus skill point or a bonus hit point if they take a level in their favored class.  While Pathfinder simply cites that whatever class you took at first level is your favored class, for Babylon 5 RPG I might consider keeping the favored classes listed for each of the races, with Humans using the "class at first level is your favored class."  Since this is a game that's more focused on your skills, I could see players opting for that extra skill point, although the extra hit point would be enticing given the low hit point totals that I mentioned earlier.

Now, I've gotten to play this game a few times before, in a rather short-lived campaign set around the time of the Crusade series and based around Andromeda Station, an Earth Alliance station that served as both EarthForce staging point and trade center; sort of like a mini-B5, but lacking the diplomatic importance of the titular station.  Our group was comprised of 3rd level characters, with myself playing a Human Ranger that was on undercover assignment to investigate a smuggling cartel that was rumored to be dealing in Shadow technology.

Now, by the end of the first session, the simple fact that combat is so dangerous was made very clear when the Narn soldier/bodyguard rushed out to face a trio of thugs armed with cheap PPG pistols.  The Narn was critically wounded and crippled by the end of the first volley, having not even managed to get within 20 feet of the thugs; it was a fact that the Centauri exiled noble took a great deal of delight in, given the almost instant animosity between the two characters (in-game only, the players were long-time friends in real life).  It was through employing Batman-like tactics that my Ranger was able to take down two of the thugs, freeing up the Centauri and the Human bounty huntress to dispatch the third one... and they never knew I was there ;)  We only played one additional session after that before we opted to move onto something else (what it was, I don't remember), so there were a lot of potential plot hooks that never got resolved, such as the Centauri exile trying to clear the name of his noble house, the bounty huntress to track down a war criminal that she had some personal history with, or my Ranger's mission to find out just what those smugglers were dealing in.  A shame really, as there undoubtedly could have been some great stories told in that campaign.

So, as mentioned prior, odds are certainly looking to be in my favor of playing this game again.  I've already had made the two Pathfinder-based suggestions to the GM, and he was certainly in favor of them.  He did mention about maybe bringing in the Combat Maneuver system from Pathfinder as well to replace the grapple/disarm/trip business that's caused no shortage of headaches for d20 gamers, but that remains to be seen.  There hasn't been much talk about what the campaign is going to be about, which does have me concerned a little given what I mentioned before about how a widely disparate group of characters can lead to some issues in the game's direction.  However, the GM is a friend of mine, and I'm willing to trust his discretion on this.  Though admittedly part of that is that he's approved my re-purposing my Human Ranger from the prior campaign for this one, making the necessary updates to bring him to 4th level and to account for using the Pathfinder method of skills.  I figure I'm going to wind up taking the bonus skill points for staying in my character's favored class, since to be a competent Ranger you need to cover a lot of ground when it comes to skills.

So far I only know of one other character, that one being a female Human telepath.  Given the player in question has a habit of playing social-savvy femme fatales (seriously, I can count on one hand the number of character she's played that weren't that), I suspect she'll be a high Charisma hottie and likely adept at using her telepathic prowess to enhance her social acumen.  There's also been a running gag that when she and I are in the same game, our PCs tend to hook-up; given that she'll be a telepath and I'm playing a Ranger, be interesting to see how that shakes out.

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