Babylon 5 is one of my guilty pleasures; a 1990’s sic-fi TV series that actually had a story beyond “the monster of the week.” When it first aired I was overseas a lot and really only got to watch it in reruns or later when it streamed online for a while.
In the world of roleplaying games, there have been a few publishers that handled the Babylon 5 license. In 1997, WireFrame Productions co-published The Babylon Project with Chameleon Eclectic. I reminisced about this game in January 2013 and, after rereading that post, find that my opinion has not changed.
In the early 20-oughts Mongoose Publishing picked up the license and produced a new rulebook based on D&D 3rd Edition. I never got the core rules, but over time have picked up many of the sourcebooks and supplements that Mongoose published to use as reference material for campaigns. I have guides to seasons 2-5 (The Coming of Shadows, The Point of No Return, No Surrender No Retreat, and Wheel of Fire). I also have sourcebooks for several major powers (Earth Alliance, Minbari , and Narn) as well as a campaign book for Earthforce. Other supplements include, The Rangers, Free Mars, and The Zocalo (galactic trade and black markets).
In 2008 Mongoose repackaged the Babylon 5 rules using their Traveller RPG license. In a post from May 2011 I was less-than-impressed with those rules, and that has not changed. But as a result of nearly 20 years of collecting, I have a pretty robust set of Babylon 5 RPG books. Enough that I could make a story arc (using The Babylon Project method) with details from the D20 sourcebooks and supplements. In February 2013 I even stat’ed up a character.
Add this one to the growing “Winter Wish List” of projects!
I was listening to a random gaming podcast recently (can’t remember which one) and the topic of discussion was playing licensed games. The discussion revolved around a Star Wars campaign where one person knew waaaaay too much canon and ruined the game for the other players because they had their own view of how the story should develop. Personally I like licensed products such as Serenity or Battlestar Galactica or James Bond. I even don’t mind playing in rich settings like the Third Imperium for Traveller.
I was thumbing through one of my recent acquisitions, Mongoose Publishing’s d20 SystemBabylon 5 : The Earth Alliance Fact Book. In the Life in the EA chapter I found a discussion on the War of the Koreas. The part that really attracted my attention was the last paragraph:
Today, conditions in North Korea are even worse than those in China. North Korea is governed entirely by Chinese senators, who ensure the North remains in poverty. The citizens look across the fortified Southern border with longing, and the South generally feels it should help its brothers in the North as much as possible. A growing revolutionary movement in both countries is beginning to stir up interest in North Korean independence from the Chinese sphere. (The Earth Alliance Fact Book, Mongoose Publishing 3333 (2003), p. 81)
So this got me thinking…how about creating a character that is being swept up in this revolutionary movement? Digging deeper into the history of the Earth Alliance, I found dates for the War of the Koreas in 2082. Given a current date of my campaign of 2256, that’s nearly 175 years of intervening time. How do I explain the connection to North Korea my character has after all those years?
Using Traveller: Universe of Babylon 5 , I created a character. Human, 38 years old with 5 terms of service. But it was not enough…it didn’t tell me about the motivations and desires of the character. So I created a generations mechanic to help map out the characters family. Assuming that every generation is roughly 25 years, I used a simple positive-negative die mechanic to create a random variable from 25 – ranging from 20 to 37 – which gave me the age of the father in each generation at the time a son was born. In this case, I got five generations going back to around 2082. At that point, still using the history in the Fact Book, I started dropping the ancestors into the timeline. What I got after about an hours work was a very rich, deep background.
As I was thumbing through the Traveller B5book, I ended up in the telepaths section. I usually avoid psionics in Traveller but in the case of the Babylon 5 it has a very important role in the setting. So I rolled for psionic strength. Then I read more about Psi Corps and had to work into the backstory just why the character was psionic but not part of Psi Corps.
So I give you R.J. Kim…long removed from North Korea but just maybe a good candidate for joining that budding revolutionary movement.
R.J.Kim comes from an ethnically North Korean family that has succeeded for over 150 years to hang onto its traditional roots. He can trace his family tree back five generations to when his family lived in Pyongyang under the Kim family that had ruled North Korea since the mid-20th century. World War III was harsh on the family as they lived through the worst of the American bombing campaign and were displaced to refugee camps along the Chinese border. R.J.’s great-great grandfather joined the Old Raiders at the behest of the Chinese and was a young deck officer during the Raid on Triton (also known as the Triton Massacre) in 2130. In an ironic twist of fate, the family eventually joined the Belt Alliance and moved to Proxima from Earth. R.J.s father was openly employed by the Belt Alliance but secretly a member of a Proxima paramilitary organization that supported Mars during its disputes with Earth in 2212 before going underground following the collapse of that movement.
R.J. was born in 2218 on Proxima III. His early education, like many children of Belt Alliance employees, focused on trade skills (Admin, Trade, Persuade). He also loved animals (Animal) while his grandmother ensured he learned his native tongue (Language – Korean).
As a teen, R.J. watched the Dilgar War and dreamed of being a starfighter pilot. At age 18, R.J. joined EarthForce but was not able to land an officers commission (enlist Fleet). As an Able Spacehand (Rank 0), he got into the Flight Branch once he completed Basic Training (Gun Combat – Pistols, Gunner, Mechanic, Pilot (Small Craft), Vacc Suit, Zero-G). Unfortunately for R.J., he found himself in several barracks fights when it was exposed that his great-great grandfather was a member of the Raiders that massacred civilians at Triton in 2130 (Event 42 – Accused). Labeled a discipline problem, R.J. failed to advance but was able to reenlist. Seeing that he was not going to be able to fly starfighters, R.J. worked himself into a job where he was able to learn about surface flyers (Flyer- Winged). Unfortunately, in his second term events took a turn for the worse when the ship R.J. was assigned to suffered a shipboard emergency (Mishap 7 – Shipboard Emergency) and R.J. was again blamed since the disaster was traced back to an unexplained explosion in the fuel cells of a fighter he was responsible for maintaining. R.J. was thrown out of the service with very little to show for his years of effort (Muster Out Benefits – 1000 Cr).
His dreams shattered and feeling like the universe was against him, R.J. fell into a deep depression and wandered his way back home to Proxima (second career – Lurker Wanderer). The sudden start to the Earth-Mimbari War further depressed R.J. since he felt that he belonged among the stars in the fighting. When the war came to Proxima, R.J. joined the many people that fled the cities to avoid destruction (Athletics- Endurance, Survival). During this time, he helped a very wealthy patron by acting as his guide during the exodus (Event 45 – Save Wealthy Individual – Gain Contact and 2 Enemy).
Following the Earth-Mimbari War, as life returned to normal on Proxima, R.J. used his contact to land a job as an agent for the Belt Alliance (Muster Out Lurker – 8,000 Cr, third career – Corporate Agent). He became something of a corporate scout (Computers, Recon) but on his very first assignment he was betrayed by his Wealthy Contact (Life Event – Betrayal). The contact wanted R.J. to smuggle drugs for him, but R.J. was trying to get his life back together and instead turned his Wealthy patron over to the authorities, gaining him a powerful enemy (Gain Enemy).
As a reward for his honesty, the Belt Alliance sent R.J. to advanced training classes (Life Event 21 – Advanced Training) but R.J.’s lack of formal education seemingly led once again to disaster (Roll Edu 10+ for success – roll of 5 (-1 DM)…failure). However, R.J. has discovered a deep secret; he is a telepath (Latent Untrained Telepath, Psi Rating 2, Sensing 0). Using his Belt Alliance corporate job as a cover, R.J. avoided the Psi Corps but knows he will be on the run the rest of his life.
Accepting his life as a rogue telepath, R.J. left his Corporate Agent job (Muster Out – 7,500 Cr, Multi-Part PPG Pistol) and tried to get as far away from both the Psi Corps and his Corporate Enemy as he could. The year is 2256 and R.J. Kim is a day laborer on Babylon 5. He lives a poor lifestyle (300Cr/month) and has a cramped bedsit in Downbelow (400Cr/month). His entire life is contained in his carryall and bedroll.
While helping to offload a tramp freighter one day, R.J. came into contact with a group of South Korean missionaries. Infatuated with the daughter of one member, R.J. went to a prayer meeting the group had arranged for the few ethnic Koreans on Babylon 5. After the meeting, R.J. was approached by several members of the group who revealed that they are always looking for contacts in the far reaches of space that could help with certain “activities” in support of gaining North Korean independence – by democratic processes if possible – and by the gun if necessary.
Sources used: Traveller: Universe of Babylon 5 (MGP 3811, 2002); The Earth Alliance Fact Book (Mongoose d20, MGP 3333, 2003); EarthForce Campaign Book (Mongoose d20, MGP 3354, 2005).
The Appearance: Full-size (8.5”x11”) pdf with 200 pages (pdf is 204). Cover appears to have been taken from the series, but the tones are weighted towards the blues and much of the color is washed out. Interior layout is a mix of single- and double-columns. All pages feature edges that add to the ambiance. The softcover version is in grey scale tones and each page has a light grey background (apparently the hardcover version was full-color) which appears to be watermark-type images from the series.The unfortunate effect of this watermarking and the black print makes the pages VERY hard to read. Call-out boxes are even harder to read since the background becomes a darker shade of grey with the same black print on it. Images are taken from the series but are – again – VERY hard to see since they are somewhat pixilated. In the pdf version, the pages are on a white background (no watermarking images – better for printing!) and the images are color. The overall color scheme still favors blues but all-in-all the pdf is at least legible!
The Setting: This is the Mongoose Publishing adaptation of the Babylon 5 universe using the Mongoose Traveller RPG engine. It apparently was also an adaptation based on a previous d20 version by Mongoose.
The Content: The back cover of this book states “…this book is a one-stop resource for Babylon 5 fans….Comprehensive rules govern everything from character creation through to Starfury combat with Traveller’s tried and tested systems tailored to the unique environment of Babylon 5.” In trying to live up to this boast, the book is broken down into the following sections:
“Introduction” (2 pages) which spends 1/4 of its time talking about how it differs from the OGL d20 version
“Welcome to Babylon 5” (19 pages) focuses on some history (with a definite Earth/Human/Earthforce slant) as well as introducing various races; a 2-page spread on the Starfury fighter is also here
“Characters in the Babylon 5 Universe” (8 pages) modifies the CharGen system by introducing the different B5 races
“Careers” (45 pages) has 10 different careers (Agent, Army, Citizen, Diplomat, Fleet, Lurker, Marines, Merchant, Ranger, and Scholar)
“Equipment” (14 pages) is a standard Traveller ironmongery
“Space Travel and Ships” (25 pages) modifies the starship travel rules as well as introduces new weapons and ships related to the B5 setting
“Telepaths and the Psi Corps” (16 pages) introduces modified/expanded rules on how to handle psychics in the B5 setting
“Babylon 5 Revealed” (29 pages) provides background information on the B5 station itself as well as characters from the series
“Voices in the Wilderness” (40 pages) provides Traveller-style subsector maps and info for most of the B5 universe
“License” (1 page) which interestingly is BLANK in my softcover copy
The Verdict: This may be a good setting but users may never know because it is just so darn hard to read! The page colors make it so shadow-like in the softcover are so bad I can only read it directly under strong lights. Besides that, this book needs a proofreader! At least check the layout; the section “Voices in the Wilderness” keeps the “Babylon 5 Revealed” headers. The most egregious error to me is on page 89 where a picture of an unpainted miniaturetank is is used. Come on! At least you could spring for a stock-art image of a futuristic tank or just not include the picture!
On a bit of a calmer note, this book shows its OGL d20 roots. Like several other Mongoose translations, this one to falls short of hitting the mark when it comes to rules translations. For instance, look a the station itself. On page 133 the station defenses are listed as follows:
8 x Quad-Linked Heavy Particle Beams
8 x Independent Heavy Particle Beams (fore, aft, port and starboard arrays)
48 x Triple Turrets, each housing x3 Pulse Cannons
So lets see; the Quad-Linked Heavy Particle Beams are NOT/NOT found in the Core Rulebook unless there is a new quad turret, or is the Quad-Linked Particle Beam a Bay? Even the New Ship Weapons section (page 97) doesn’t list a Heavy Particle Beam either. The new weapons list does have Pulse Cannons, but lists them by light/medium/heavy. So what sits in the Triple Turrets? This is but just one example of the poor rules translation found throughout this book.
What about the setting and the boast “one-stop resource.” Try again. This setting is too vague and lacks details to bring it to life. There is no Game Master section that talks about the themes of B5 and how to bring it to life. One needs to find a good wiki resource to fill in the gaping holes in the background needed to make this game playable.
Somewhere way back in this blog I swore not to buy another Mongoose product. Shame on me, I had a coupon from a FLGS and tried to do my part to jump start the economy. Universe of Babylon 5 is a reminder that I need to keep away from richly themed Mongoose products because their track record tells me – and you – that you will most likely be disappointed with what you have and even more upset at what you should have but don’t.