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Mongoose Traveller: The Universe of Babylon 5

Traveller:  The Universe of Babylon 5. Bryan Steele and Stuart Machin
Mongoose Publishing http://www.mongoosepublishing.com
204pp, B&W softcover/colour PDF
UKú20.00/US$34.95

Overview

When Mongoose took up the Traveller license, they promised players a number of setting-specific sourcebooks, and speculation was proven right when the first of these turned out to be for Babylon 5, which they have been publishing D20/OGL rulebooks for for some time. Sadly, as Mongoose have decided not to renew their license for B5, it's a truncated line with a mere two sourcebooks and one scenario pack published before the line died at the end of June. Thankfully the first sourcebook has a wealth of information for prospective B5 players, though a lot of it is fairly superficial...

On the Shelf

The book's design is quite nice, the cover is an iconic CGI image of a Starfury flying away from Babylon 5 against a black background with a B5 logo above and the Traveller one below. It follows on nicely from the Spinward Marches sourcebook's cover, and merges the two properties well. Interior design is lifted directly from the 2nd Edition D20 rulebooks, though the template was clearly taken from a sourcebook for the Drakh or the Shadows as the icon in the upper right of odd-numbered pages resembles a Shadow's eyes, and the Babylon 5 Logo in the bottom left of the book has a Drakh ship spearing it. The final compilation PDF Mongoose published for their D20 system uses the same template, and it's a bit sad that the last few books in the line have this formatting gaffe.

Initial impressions

On a flip through I was well impressed with the book. There's an apparent wealth of information with a background section, a character generation section that expands on the rules in the core Traveller rules, an equipment section that details B5-specific weapons and gear, stats and deckplans for a few ships, an extensive section on Telepathy (as B5's psionics differ significantly from Traveller) and an atlas of various B5 worlds complete with star maps. The PDF adds an introductory adventure which isn't in the print version.

On Closer inspection

Unfortunately a lot of the info seems superficial. The background section is largely taken directly from the 2nd edition D20 rulebook, and a bit scattered and unfocussed - much of Babylon 5's history that pertains to all the nations is buried in the Earth section, and while the rules make reference to events later in the show's timeline, the background information stops early in series 2 - again the default setting for the D20 game. When you get to the rules themselves some parts pick up - the character creation section is well laid out and details the changes from the core Traveller rules (mainly that some careers are dropped, others renamed and one added). There are four detailed races here - humans, Narn, Centauri and Minbari with some notes on how to play each of the races, specific skills, attribute changes and limitations on what careers can be chosen in caste-specific societies. this is an interesting derivation from Traveller and helps to give the book some B5 flavour - the Caste system of the Minbari was a major plot point in the series. Four more races - the Abbai, Brakiri, Drazi and Pak'ma'ra (the four most prominent minor races in the universe) get lists of racial modifiers to give players and GMs at least some guidelines on how to use them in games.

The Careers chapter details mainly the changes from Traveller to B5, and to a degree this is both interesting and dissapointing. With the exception of the new careers (Diplomat and Ranger) you get new Mishaps and Events tables and have to refer to the core Traveller rulebook for benefits, skill tables and advancement rolls. Obviously, Mongoose don't want to clutter the book with redundant data, but it does mean you have to flip between two books during character generation. The event tables are d66 based like High Guard and Mercenary, and are specific to Babylon 5's events. There's also race-specific 2d6 based life events tables and timeline-specific events tables too.

The timeline-specific events tables are a very nce touch, as you can integrate your character into B5's nuanced history by seeing what they did during the Dilgar War (referenced in the episode Deathwalker and other places) , Earth-Minbari War (mentioned a lot in the show, and the focus of the episodes The Sky full of Stars, Legacies, Revelations, and the TV movie In the Beginning)the Babylon Project era (the time between the Earth-Minbari war and series 2 of the TV show), the Shadow War (Series 2-4 of the show), the Rise of the Interstellar Alliance (the second half of series 4 and series 5), or the Crusade (the short-lived spin-off Crusade).

The equipment section is a bit on the small side, leaving GMs to mix and match B5-specirfic gear like PPGs and Minbari fighting pikes with Traveller staples like the standard vacc suit and ballistic weapons. There's also a few flaws in terms of editing and proofreading here - the print edition has D20 rules for concussion grenades (fixed in the PDF), and the ranged weapons stats has an Auto column that lists Yes or no instead of a numeric rating (which hasn't been fixed in the PDF nor an errata posted, to the best of my knowledge). there's very little reference to Tech level here - either as a guideline for availability or to show how weapons improve as TL increases. The Space Travel and Ships section is largely well-put together. It goes into some detail about how lower-tech races in B5 have no access to artificial gravity or gravity-manipulation drives and have to resort to spinning hulls and fusion rockets, and provides an alternative set of power plant and engine tables for higher-tech level races. There's a writeup of how FTL travel differs in B5 from Traveller, which is the site of another editing mistake in the print book - again some D20 rules slip in here in place of their Traveller counterparts, but it's corrected in the PDF. There's also a list of High Guard-compatible weapons which are specific to B5's ships such as pulse cannons and neutron lasers. Ship stats and deckplans cover the Starfury and Thunderbolt class Earth fighters, a small and large frieghter, the Narn Frazi fighter, a light Earth Shuttle, the Minbari Nial fighter, the Earth Olympus corvette, and the raider delta-V fighter (which dosen't appear in the PDF).

While the stats are fine on a basic level, you soon run into problems - the freighters are built using grav drives, giving them fuel enough for weeks, if not months, while the fusion rocket-equipped Olympus corvette has only enough fuel for 4 hours. Sadly the Traveller rules for endurance don't make for very fast B5 ships, and a mod to the rules here would have been much more useful. Indeed, I've run some calculations on converting some stock Traveller ships to B5 civilian craft by swapping out the jump drive and grav drive for a fusion engine, and the fuel consumption makes for a few hours flight at best. If you're going to track such things, I'd suggest a house rule to increase fusion rocket fuel efficiency by at least a factor of 10, which would allow ships to make a normal jump without having to coast for much of the trip.

The next section is Telepathy and the Psi Corps, which features the modified rules for telepaths in the B5 universe - as I noted above, they're considerably different from Traveller's psionics. Generally a B5 telepath will have a more limited selection of abilities than a Traveller psion, but this gives more chances for specialisation as well. Much of the background section may be of interest to B5 fans, as it's largely a synopsis of the first two Psi Corps novels by Gergory Keyes - a trilogy of little-seen but well-regarded novels that add a lot of background info to the setting. Of course, there's a counter-argument that the wordcount could have been shaved a bit here in favour of more general background information.

Following this is a writeup of Babylon 5 itself. Like much of the background information, is is directly taken from the D20 rulebook, and while it's interesting, much of it is just a compilation of facts taken from the show with the odd bit of new information or specific rules. And annoyingly there's no map of the station here. This is somewhat made up though by the inclusion of stats for most of B5's movers and shakers and a selection of sample NPCs.

The atlas is a wealth of interesting information backed up with frustration. the information that is there is very good, with UPPs and a bit of background for many planets that provides plenty of adventure hooks, but the maps in the book are printed in a different order to the world writeups, and the jump routes between subsectors aren't on the maps. Also, a number of minor worlds are left off the maps entirely (not to mention Epsilon Eridani, the location of Babylon 5 itself!). While a poster-sized map with all jump routes and Epsilon Eridani is available on the mongoose website, it still leaves off a lot of minor worlds, and these don't even get UPPs. An approach similar to *the Spinward Marches *would have been far more preferable here with writeups of worlds beside the appropriate subsector map, and a list of UPPs for all worlds in that subsector. I've seen a few people advocate using the old map that used to be downloadable from the Mongoose site, but was published in the 2nd Edition D20 rulebook, the 2nd Edition A Call to Arms fleet book, the Galactic Guide and the Earth-Minbari War sourcebook from A Call to Arms first edition, and quite frankly, if you have access to it, it might be a better resource than the maps here.

Summary

This is very much a mixed bag of a book. The information that is present is very good, but it's somewhat scattershot and is definitely of more use if you're familiar with the background. I don't think I'd recommend this as a blind purchase for someone who wants to jump feet first into a Babylon 5 game without some supplementary information to get the players and GM more grounded in the background. for someone who is familiar with the setting and is willing to put a bit of legwork in, the book provides a good framework and a lot of interesting story hooks. Ultimately it fails for trying to be a jack of all trades, but given the short-handed status of the Babylon 5/Traveller line, it's likely the best that could be done in the situation at hand.