Pros: Cool photos; very clear rules; nifty info
Cons: Perhaps shouldn’t have been d20; minor gaffes
Rating: 4 out of 5
First posted 10/14/2002
“Farscape:” It’s the award-winning science fiction TV show that took the Sci-Fi channel by storm. An astronaut performing an experiment accidentally shot himself through a wormhole to a totally different region of space, where he found himself embroiled in a mess of escaping alien prisoners. It was one of the channel’s first real hits – and, of course, like all good TV, it has now been canceled. After the end of this season, we won’t get to see any more.
This makes the “Farscape Roleplaying Game” all the better an investment for us “Farscape” fans. If we can’t see it on TV, why not keep it alive in our own living rooms? The Alderac Entertainment Group finally came out with the main rulebook for the game, and it’s quite something. By the way, it’s done on the d20 System license, so you’ll need a copy of the “Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition Player’s Handbook” in order to play it. But more on that later…
Overall this is a truly beautiful book. Everything is in gorgeous full color. There are a gazillion photos from the show and the book is solid hardcover. The style is beautiful. It isn’t, however, perfect.
The Farscape-esque font used for chapter headings and table headings is very difficult to read. The last thing you want is to have to puzzle out the headings of five different tables to find the one you’re looking for when you’re in a hurry during game-play.
The artwork for the player character (PC) races is silly-looking in most cases. It makes most of the races look squat, short, and childish.
My last complaint is something that I realize many people won’t agree with, so take it for what it’s worth. Almost all of the photos are of the excessively-posed variety. After a while I just really wanted to see a few more shots of normal action instead!
First you’ll find a remarkably helpful Table of Contents that includes sub-section page listings as well as chapter headings. (Things in this book are very well-organized and easy to find, by the way!) Next there’s a brief bit of fiction, as well as a few notes about “Farscape” in specific and roleplaying in general.
If you haven’t watched much of the show, then save the fiction until you’ve read the rest of the book; I think it won’t make much sense without that background. Also, an odd note: the fiction dialogue did too good a job of mimicking dialogue from the show – which means it “sounds” very unnatural on the page. (Dialogue on the screen and in a fiction book are fairly different things, and the author was trying to stick too close to the show.) In addition, although you can tell from the story that the author thought he was turning a cliche on its head, instead he simply turned it into a different cliche. The brief intro on roleplaying and the show is good, however.
Chapter 1 is a 55-page series overview, including the little details of every episode in the first two seasons of the TV show. I thought this was at least partially a waste of space. There are episode guides on the web already, as well as in book form. Anyone already familiar with the show probably won’t need most of this detail, and anyone who isn’t familiar with the show probably won’t want to read every last nitty-gritty detail. A briefer summary would have sufficed.
Chapter 2 is much more useful and serves most of the purposes for which players might want the episode guide anyway – it’s a guide to the characters of “Farscape,” explaining what they’re like and what roads they’ve traveled over the first two seasons of the show. (Everything in this book assumes that you’re starting at the end of season 2 of the show.)
Chapter 3 covers the races of “Farscape.” Well, those races that can be used as PCs, anyway. The mechanical details (the bonuses, penalties, and so forth associated with playing each race) are found in later chapters – this is religious, societal, and evolutionary background material. In general it’s okay, but it seemed like there were a number of details that just didn’t entirely make sense, as well as minor inconsistencies, particularly in the evolutionary information. There are also inobvious but semi-frequent typos in this part of the book.
Chapter 4 covers the Uncharted Territories, providing many stations, planets, and so on for your characters to visit. This material is great, and there are definite plot hooks at each location. There’s also a nice range of territories to choose from – prisons, mining colonies, gambling planets, political asylums, shipyards, agricultural planets, retirement colonies, and much more!
Chapter 5 covers character creation, dealing in particular with ability scores and some derived values (wound points and control points). Chapter 6 handles the mechanical details of PC races, while Chapter 7 goes over character classes and Chapter 8 provides feats, powers, and skills for your characters. [If you're familiar with the d20 System, you'll understand those terms. If you aren't, we'll talk about a couple of the major ones shortly.] Chapter 9 handles equipment.
Some of the racial class restrictions seem arbitrary (Baniks can be Techs but not Scientists?), as do some of the skills (Aristocrats get Disguise? Sounds like they’re trying too hard to mimic Rygel from the show). Some also seem slightly inconsistent with the earlier race descriptions. For instance, on p. 87 you’ll read that Delvians are “fairly resistant to … diseases.” On p. 153, however, we’re told that their “physiology reacts harshly to damage and illness,” and their score adjustments reflect this.
I was quite surprised at first that humans weren’t presented as a racial possibility (sure, they aren’t found in that region of space, but at the very least someone might want to mimic the show). However, the book presents stats for the characters from the show in the back of the book, and if you look at those, you’ll see that John is listed as a “Human (Sebacean Offshoot).” (The Sebaceans and their offshoot races, of course, do have an entry as a PC race.) That works fine as a mechanic, but this should have been mentioned in the Sebacean section of Chapter 6.
Other than that, however, there are plenty of classes (11) and races (12) from which to choose. The information provided for feats, powers, and skills, by the way, is quite thorough, methodical, and useful, although I might have liked a wider selection of them (perhaps instead of the 55 pages of episode summary).
Chapter 10 covers combat, and it does it in a very thorough and straightforward manner! Your first couple of combats are likely to be slow as you get the hang of it, but they should get easier with experience. Next, Chapter 11 covers ships, and includes ship construction and ship-to-ship combat rules. I don’t have as much experience dealing with mechanics such as these, and so can’t judge them as well.
Chapter 12 contains all sorts of information for the game master (GM, the person who runs the game), on everything from giving your campaign the flavor of the show, to creating adventures and campaigns and running non-player characters (NPCs – those characters run by the GM rather than players). I particularly liked this chapter; it briefly touched on most of my favorite issues and handled them smoothly. I’m rather picky when it comes to issues of GMing, and nothing here raised my hackles.
Chapter 13 provides lifeforms for use in your game (27, if I counted correctly). Once again there are little details that just felt slightly wrong, as in Chapter 3. There’s a decent range of challenge ratings [if you aren't familiar with d20, this is a mechanic to help you figure out what your group of characters is capable of handling as an adversary], particularly at the low end – which should help you get your campaign started. The Appendix includes sample NPCs that are really templates of various character types that your group might encounter – very handy! There’s also a nice character sheet for photocopying, a pretty thorough index, and – of course – statistics for the main characters from the TV show.
The d20 System, Licensed Properties, and Who Is This Game For, Anyway?
You might be asking yourself, “okay, so if I haven’t seen the show, will I enjoy the RPG? If I’ve seen the show but I haven’t roleplayed before, is this a good place to start? If I love the show but don’t want to roleplay, does this book have anything for me?” Unfortunately, this RPG has some audience confusions.
A Bit about Licensed Properties
One of the things that makes growing the roleplaying industry so difficult is the fact that it’s hard to get into, as a player. Usually new people only get into the market when someone who already plays introduces them to RPGs. Although there has been something of a push to make games more user-friendly for just this reason, it’s still tough for non-roleplayers to simply pick up an RPG, grab some friends, and start playing.
Licensed properties (things like the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” RPG, the “Lord of the Rings” RPG, etc.) are the perfect opportunity to bring in new people, because people who love the show (or movie) but haven’t roleplayed before might pick up the book and look at it. If the company makes the book pretty enough, and interesting enough, with details that fans of the show might want to learn (like all that stuff about the races and lifeforms of “Farscape”), then some of them might buy the book, get a few of their friends together, and start playing just to see what it’s like. And maybe the market grows a little. That’s the idea, anyway.
The d20 System
The d20 System is a licensed gaming system provided by Wizards of the Coast. This means that if you’re a gaming company, you can put out material that makes use of the d20 rules system instead of having to create your own proprietary rules system. This has some good effects – it means that companies can concentrate on putting out neat worlds and settings (creating, playtesting, and fixing a new rules system can take a lot more time and effort than writing a new setting!). It also means that you, the player, can play lots of games without having to learn a new set of rules in order to do it, because some of the rules will always be consistent between d20-based games.
However, it also means that you need to have a copy of the “Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition Player’s Handbook” in order to play any d20 game. Now, if the company wants fans of the TV show to be able to pick up the RPG and run it as soon as they get the book home and read through it, then ideally they shouldn’t have used a licensed system – it means that fans will quite possibly get the game home, say to themselves, “I need a whole other book? Screw that,” and never play the game.
In theory they could handle this by putting big, bold notices on the book stating that this other book is necessary in order to play the game; hopefully a few people would go ahead and buy that other book. However, they only sort-of do that. There’s a tiny d20 System logo on the back of the book, where you’ll also find a tiny notation that the game “Requires the use of the Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition Player’s Handbook published by Wizards of the Coast.” The text in the rules sections makes reference to “The Player’s Handbook” quite frequently, but as far as I could tell, it never once actually said “The Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook” within the text. This may seem like a small thing, but if you’re hoping to bring in fans of the show who’ve never roleplayed before, then you really need to make things as easy and obvious as possible for them.
Who Is This Game For, Then?
What makes this a real shame is that it’s clear that someone wanted this book to appeal to inexperienced roleplayers. The chapter for the GM is clear and helpful, and covers a lot of the basics for someone who’s never been a GM before. The rules crunchies (skills, feats, etc.) are very clear and well-detailed.
Will this book be of interest to fans who don’t want to roleplay? Possibly – it really depends on your budget. There is the episode guide, but you can find those elsewhere. What stands the largest chance of attracting such people is the information on lifeforms, races, and the Uncharted Territories, as well as all the photos. Unfortunately, I’m not sure there’s enough of that stuff to convince someone to pay nearly $40 for this book (there’s something else those 55 pages could have been used for).
With a little more care, this could have been a great introduction to roleplaying for “Farscape” fans! As it is, it best suits roleplayers (of any stripe – I believe even people who don’t watch the show would enjoy this game) who’ve had at least a bare minimum of experience with the d20 System – or who are willing to go pick up a copy of D&D first and get acquainted with it. If you’re thinking of getting this as a holiday present for a fan, make sure they have D&D3E first – or bundle both books together.
Units of Measurement: Anyone familiar with the TV show knows that they use odd units of measurement (arns, cycles, microts, etc.). After a while of watching the show you start to pick up what these are meant to be roughly equivalent to (cycles = years, arns = hours, etc.). The roleplaying game similarly uses the units of measurement from the show, for the most part. Sometimes the writers explain them, but unless I missed something (always possible), there’s no table that explains all of them. Such a thing would have been extremely useful, particularly for players unfamiliar with the show.
Simulating the Show: This one is personal preference, but I’ll mention it anyway. As anyone familiar with the d20 system knows, it’s a class-based level-based system. I.e., you play “a scientist” or “a warrior” or “a diplomat” (that’s called your character class) or maybe, if you multi-class, “a warrior/scientist.” Your character only improves in fits and starts, when you “go up levels” as you gain experience. You can take a lot more damage as you get more experienced; you can also learn new skills and improve old ones when you go up levels. This (arguably, I know) is not realistic.
In many cases that’s okay. You’re playing a warrior in a random fantasy society – you don’t particularly need realistic. However, since some people will conceivably come to the game because they want to simulate the TV show, in my opinion the d20 System wasn’t the best way to do that. Of course, I’m splitting hairs over design decisions that most people probably won’t care about at this point, so it’s time to wrap this up.
I really do like this game. Overall it’s a gorgeous book that’s very well put-together; fans of the show who’ve had at least a little experience with roleplaying will enjoy it quite a bit. When you get down to the details some portions of the book don’t fare as well, but if you aren’t a detail-oriented person then it probably won’t bother you. If you are, you can decide for yourself whether the things I mentioned in my review would bother you or not.