D20 Future Review

Oh dear oh dear. While d20 Modern is a glowing example of how to create a flexible role-playing system for a modern-age setting, it’s d20 Future supplement misses the mark, badly.

It’s main failing is quite simply that the future is a big place, and d20 Future tries to cover all bases in one go. As a result, the coverage is just too shallow for areas that matter most. There are badly constructed rules mixed in with half-complete information, all of which makes this a supplement that ought to have gone back to the editing table well before it reached publication. It’s a shame, but this is a case of ambition outstripping page count.

The supplement aims to cover anything remotely futuristic, from Starship Troopers style bug hunting to Dimension travel to sci-fi horror to genetically-enhanced warriors to Mech warriors to Traveller style space exploration to post-apocalypse Mad Maxery. It’s just too much. Far, far too much. This is what happens When Brainstorms Go Wild. Some of the settings get little more than a two-page nod complete with obligatory token Advanced Classes, while others (most notably the Mech setting) gets a whole chapter devoted the iconic sit-in-and-ride robots. If you’re not using Mechs, it’s a waste of page space. If you do, then there’s other chapters equally useless to you. As I said, it’s a mess.

It doesn’t help things that the chapter about space travel begins with a big expose about space travel being all-but-impossible. That’s like the Monster Manual going into excruciating detail about why Dragons can’t exist. It kills the magic, and eliminates the entire reason we buy the book. We’ve bought the pseudo-science, accept it and give us the rules to make it happen. Don’t kill the dream, ok? The rules for FTL travel, warpgates, etc, are presented in such a “well, if you must have it” kind of way, I hardly know why the author bothered. If doesn’t help that the starships rules themselves barely acknowledge these engine designs, that Jump Drives (long the staple of sci-fi travel) are only apparently available at the highest given tech level (AKA Nirvana, where anything is only a replicator away), or that the starship rules themselves are just plain terrible. These should be cool, exciting, and (if it suits the setting) let the players have access to – if not outright own – a starship of their own for cool adventures through the stars. The purchase DCs for starships are far too high, far too abstract and much too arbitrary to be usable. Any ship can take any weapon, engine or equipment provided it’s available at the given Progress Level. There’s no limits due to ship mass, no limits to…well, anything, really. Shipbuilding 101, this isn’t. Traveller circa 1977 had it better than this, and that was 30 fricking years ago. Have game designers learned nothing?? It doesn’t help that the Wealth system which works so well in the Modern cinematic era just doesn’t in many Future settings. Your classic Elite-style space trader needs to worry about the Credits, to feel the value of an offer of 5,000Cr to ship an unmarked package halfway across space. Similarly, in a post-apocalyptic world, barter is the name of the game and the Wealth system again has no place. It should have been scrapped in preference to hard currency for the Future setting, with a nod in some appendix to work out how to convert back should the need arise.

The starship section (I struggle to call it a construction system, as it isn’t) is a good case in point. To work out the purchase DC of a complete starship, here’s what you do:

  1. Determine the item cost (in dollars, by referring to a table) of the starship and each of it’s systems
  2. Total them up
  3. Cross reference back on the table to find the final purchase DC of the finished article.
    Which begs the question – why not just put the costs in dollars/Cr in the first place, then just add them up to find the final purchase DC if you’re using the Wealth-based system?

Not that the purchase DCs are realistic in any way in the first place. In the given example, a Fast Freighter costs $20million, yet the ion engines are a mere $20,000 and the autopilot is just $1,200. I don’t know why they bothered with prices if they’re going to be silly. Really, I don’t.

As an alternative to buying a ship, they suggest borrowing one, requisitioning one (probably the best option), renting one or stealing one. The renting option suggests a DC for renting one for a day. Given that the starship engine rules make it clear that it’s barely possible to get to the moon and back in a day, what’s the point in that? Again, Traveller 1977 got it right, this misses completely.

In another example of rules ineptitude, here’s the rules for how to land a starship:

Entering a planetary atmosphere safely requires a Pilot check (DC20) each round for 1d20+20 rounds it takes to slow the ship using friction alone. Success means that the ship takes only 3d6 points of fire damage each round. Failure means that the ship’s angle is too low…the ship takes 6d6 points of fire damage each round…..fails by 5 points or more….10d6 points of fire damage each round…..

I don’t think anyone would ever expect a player to make on average 30 Pilot checks just to see if they landed the ship ok! By those rules, the law of average states that even the best Pilot is going to roll a 1 at least once and the ship is going to take damage. It’s not clear if the ship’s hardness is deducted from this damage. I hope so, or every single starship will be destroyed on re-entry. Realistic? Nope. Badly broken and unusable rule? Yep!

Starships use scale terms from standard d20, but they are used to represent difference sizes here. The smallest starship is Huge size which means anything up to 250’ long. That’s larger than Colossal everywhere in d20!!! If you’re going to use the terms, at least be consistent.

The combat rules are repeated, just for starships, including rules for grappling. No, really. There’s even some grappling arms you can add to a starship. It’s a clear case of equipment being invented just to justify the rule.

It all amounts to a terrible, terrible waste of ink where starships are concerned.

Did I mention that there’s no rules for world and star system generation or that the Environments section is just a bad rehash about the dangers of Radiation? It’s not worth bothering over, honestly.

It is a shame, because there’s a lot in here that’s actually good. Thr advanced classes are good, as is the future equipment, uses for skills and starship weaponry. A few of the Campaign Models deserve more in depth treatment – most notably Bughunters and Genetech, but the others appear to be there to please Alternity fans, who probably wouldn’t play this anyway.

This should have been two books – D20 Space which takes D20 Modern to the stars with solid starship rules for taking cinematic action to the stars. It should have given campaign settings for space opera, plus varying mixes of D&D critters to provide horror-in-space and fantasy-in-space excitement. There should have been the Spelljammer campaign setting, not some gawd awful Alternity Star*Drive tripe.

The second book, D20 High Tech, should give rules for Mech, genetics and other futuristic setting where starship travel isn’t the focus. It could have looked at bringing Warforged into D20 Modern as high-science robotic AI creations, and provided rules for creating near-future Bladerunner adventures.

Alas, instead we get this unholy mess.

One to avoid.

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