When I first heard about DragonStar, it was because Reuben was touting it up as a totally awesome way to incorporate Starjammer into 3rd Edition D&D. My first thought about the game was That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. My second thought was That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.
DragonStar is Fantasy Flight Games’ 2001 attempt to put the Dungeons and Dragons world in space. Using the 3rd edition/d20 rules, the game took the D&D world and added spaceships and future tech to it. It’s not really Science-Fiction, more Space Opera at best and Science Fantasy most of the time, and is my current vehicle to try and re-create Planet Stories type tropes in an RPG.
The DragonStar Galaxy
The metaplot… makes no freaking sense. It’s based around the idea that dragons made some kind of grand consortium and divided up the galaxy between the metallics and chromatics, got into a war over it, signed a treaty to share rulership, and trade off every now and then. So, it’s a lot like Shadowrun, only replace the Johnsons and corporate dragons with greedy D&D dragons sitting on their piles of gold and phat lewt. Now the Red dragon rules the universe. As such, his NKVD-esque army of truncheon-wielding Drow are roaming the worlds, blowing stuff up and making people disappear. Also, there’s a “Unification Church” which breaks all dieties down into 12 generically symbolic avatars, and the church’s heresy “Duallists,” who break it down further into worshiping “good” and worshiping “evil.” And a lot of the worlds are being heavily industrialized and becoming ultra-future-tech-laden. And there’s Kobolds. And Orcs are like Serenity’s Reavers, only a tad more sane.
In a way, it allows you to jump between all the d20 game worlds you’ve got—they can be other “planets” here—and it makes a good baseline for Spelljammer. But to be honest, the background is so much cheese. Why would the “good” dragons align with the “bad?” Why would the metallic dragons wait five centuries for their first chance to rule? Who the heck thought up, and who believed in, the Unification Church? Too many parts of the plot come about as simple plot devices, unexplained and just there as setting. Like too many things in fantasy, they don’t really fit in well to a world that developed and evolved, and instead just sprung out of nowhere and have been like that forever.
In the end, the Starfarer’s Guide is pretty light on the fluff and heavy on actually running the game. That’s what makes it good.
Between the art and the dedication to George Lucas, the game feels like D&D filtered through two lenses, one being the Shadowrun lens, the other being the Star Wars lens. It feels a lot like Star Wars originally did, a tribute to Flash Gordon and pulp science fiction, only with the Shadowrun noir-like angle. The setting is rife with possibility: run the Sword of Rhiannon game, where your two-fisted archeologists uncover a secret city of lost gods. Or take the Star Wars smuggler route, running around the gritty urban city of steam vents and fascist Drow cops, or work as mercenaries (“shadow runners” perchance?). Or the Serenity smuggler route, doing dirty work on the rugged frontier. Or have them strap on their jetpacks and fight off the Kobold horde of the feared dragon Ming the Merciless.
The Starfarer’s Handbook is largely mechanics based, focusing on introducing the rules as its own Player’s Handbook. The Guide to the Galaxy is the world-book (which also has Spellware, cyberware for the fantasy future, some new vaguely useful monsters, and some planet generation rules), which just isn’t as useful unless you want to run the established setting. There’s a lot of new ground to cover in terms of new mechanics, all of which are pretty useful for playing the game.
System and Rules
For the most part, the Starfarer’s Guide relies on the fact that you have your own Player’s Handbook, which is both good and bad: you don’t need to convert it to Pathfinder or 3.5 because it doesn’t have that many stats in there to convert, expecting you to just pull them out of your core rulebooks. Each of the core races gets a minor benefit for the new space rules, like Dwarves getting a gravity bonus or something. What is new is largely for the setting.
For races, we have Orcs, Drow, and Half-Dragons, the latter two both crucial to the setting, which have level adjustments pretty similar to their 3.0 equivalents. Brand new are Soulmechs, which are like Warforged only done earlier and slightly differently. For example, Soulmechs get a number of construct traits as racial abilities, but a lot of harsh penalties balance it out, like not being able to cure a Soulmech with divine magic. Honestly Warforged are more balanced, but it’s nice to see the idea show up well before Eberron.
There’s a bunch of new classes, all centered around the spacefaring future. The two base classes are the Pilot, much as it sounds, and the Mechanist, who gets a poor BAB progression, trapfinding, and the ability to modify and disable tech. The Pilot is pretty specialized, but useful, while the Mechanist feels a little weak in the post-3.5 world. The new prestige classes are the Gundancer, a monk specializing in gun-fu, the self-describing and charismatic Negotiator, and the Technomancer, who commands machinery and has a small list of tech-based spells. Oh, there’s also notes for carrying over the core classes and prestige classes, and Thug NPC class, which is like a really useless rogue.
Skills also get a slight overhaul, and there are nine new ones, only some of them useful. (It’s 3.0 after all, with its Intuit Direction skill; some like Demolitions and Use [Tech] Device should stand on their own, but some could combine well with other skills in Pathfinder.) There’s also around 30 new feats, of which a number are pretty cool, working off new abilities like piloting spaceships and automatic gunfire. The only bothersome thing is that Two-Weapon Fighting doesn’t cover firearms, so there’s a Two-Gun Shooting feat, which likewise (3.0 anyone?) needs Ambidexterity to work right. Slightly irritating, but still just a minor problem.
The next huge chunk of the book is taken up with technology and stuff, including spaceships, space fighters, ground vehicles, a few new spells and some spellbook rules, and more. Weapons are specifically more powerful, with some of the more powerful blasters doing multiple d10’s in damage, and armor gives ridiculous bonuses (some of the heavy armors have AC bonuses over +10; I’d cap it and give them DR just so you can hit someone wearing one). There’s sensors and “subterfuge gear,” and a section on building and modding robots, and a chapter on the new combat rules, which are similar (but different) from d20 Modern and Spycraft.
I’m a huge fan of what I can do with DragonStar. The Starfarer’s Handbook can easily be converted into Pathfinder since it doesn’t tread too much on the core d20 rules, the crunch is solid, and there’s a universe of possible ways to run an awesome game with it. On top of all that, it’s dirt cheap; I have the feeling many people didn’t like DragonStar, since there’s a half-dozen used copies on the Amazon Marketplace for $5.86 (original MSRP: $27.95).
The Guide to the Galaxy isn’t terribly useful, but has some useful rules for running the game and a lot of background on the standard setting, in all its mediocrity. There’s also:
- The Player’s Companion, which is a hodgepodge of additional rules which couldn’t go anywhere else, including feats, some more classes, psionics, and spellware, and not an actual player’s companion.
- Galactic Races, a splatbook with rules for 16 more races, ranging from the obvious (Kobolds, Lizardfolk) to dull (cat-people, arcane space elves) to the so-freaking-strange-it’s-amazing (bird-like…face-huggers with free-floating eyes, beings of living crystal who made Ioun stones, amorphous gel-people).
- Smuggler’s Run, which has some more ship schematics and designs, rules for smuggling and commerce, some new gear, and various other rules for a smuggler/mercenary/free trader campaign.
- Imperial Supply, a vast storehouse of various items and gear and stuff, including computers, robots, weapons, armor, vehicles, and drugs. Because we really needed to see more future drugs in the d20 system.
- And two adventures by Mystic Eye Games, Raw Recruits and Heart of the Machine, for those of us who like pre-made adventures.