Babylon 5 Cast

What happened to the Babylon 5 RPGs

Some time ago I visited a used bookstore and found they had copies of an old Babylon 5 RPG book.  They actually had quite a few, and from several different publishers.  After a random chat with some folks on Twitter I decided to splurge on the books and see what rabbit hole it let me down.  As it turns out I had purchased not one, but 2 different RPG’s.  Each used a different system.  The oldest was its own proprietary thing; the other was an adaptation of the D20 OGL from wizards of the coast.  I had a lot of questions and about why such a storied franchise had been bounced around and remade so many times; and why it was out of print.  So I went looking.

It turns out that none of the RPG’s are considered canon, that J. Michael Straczynski disliked each of them, and especially loathed Mongoose publishing and their multiple attempts to make Babylon 5 fit into other mechanical systems.  I suspect it’s more than that though.  The chief complaint seemed to be that each incarnation failed to capture the lore and feel of Babylon 5 in some way.  In Mongoose’s case their supplements bent and even broke lore.  The only game that isn’t canon that seems to have escaped direct criticism was “A Call to Arms” which was a tabletop miniatures game of space combat. JMS was so peeved about the RPGs that when the official encyclopedia project was created they specifically listed the games as not cannon in any way, shape, or form forever.

The Babylon Project was the first game I looked at.  It was published by Chameleon Eclectic and only had a handful of expansions.  It is the most unique system in that it was crafted by someone who must have been both a fan of the book, and a statistician.  That is both a compliment and cause for concern.  The rolling system in TBP is incredibly unique in that it eschews the traditional roll higher or lower than X convention of most RPG’s for what I can best describe as box plot die rolls.  If it sounds weird and convoluted that’s because it is.  For the traditional roll higher than X system you get a nice smooth bell curve of probabilities where you can judge your success as a hard percentage.

If you have to roll a 7 or higher on 2D6 there’s a better than 50% chance of success.  With TBP you look at your skill and see where you are already under the curve.  So let’s say you needed that 7 or better, just like in a traditional system, and you had a skill of 7.  You would think that an automatic success would occur.  You would be wrong.  TBP adds that box plot element.  You now have a range around your skill with which to fail or succeed, all at random.  A second bell curve within the original curve now exists.  This does two things, it makes every roll extra uncertain, and it also adds extra narrative opportunity as the rules allow for both critical success and failure.  This applies to both trained and untrained persons.

In our previous example a person with a skill of 7 has a good chance of success; but also a good chance to screw things up.  A person with a skill of 2 also has a chance to accomplish the same task thanks to the box plot, however because the narrative elements are tied to the box plot the repercussions of failure are the same for both a high and low skill player despite the chances of success being very different.  This encourages low level players to take risks.  They might just succeed and they can’t botch it any worse than a trained master.  The trained master however has to worry a little bit.  Their successes are great, but their failures are magnified.  It’s a nice narrative touch but it’s all buried in a super weird roll that involves opposing dice rolls you make against yourself; which is why I’m convinced whoever wrote the system must have been a statistician or actuary in a former life.  The biggest sin in TBP however was its combat system.  It takes the targeting difficulty modifiers of a tabletop war game like Battletech and marries them to a wound and bleed system that allows a player character to be both killed instantly or forced to crawl for help with their guts hanging out over a 30 minute period.  While a very cool idea it’s mired in charts, specialized graphics and a resolution system that takes longer than the actual combat.  The one really positive thing was the way they created campaigns.  They went in depth on how to create multiple arc stories using a formulaic map of events that is reminiscent of a screenwriting tool.  A very helpful tool for new GMs.

 Mongoose’s multiple incarnations of Babylon 5 are both the most gratuitous and expansive.  I really don’t have much to say except that of the 1.2 gigabytes of Babylon 5 RPG PDFs I have 90% of them are Mongoose publications.  They were prolific in throwing out content.  Normally I would say this was a great thing, but JMS complained about their disregard for canon and he isn’t wrong.  Many of the books are just… not great. That said it is a treasure trove of information, just shoehorned into a D&D adjacent package.  The same applies to the Traveller iteration.  Mongoose didn’t build a system based around a world; they used the world as a setting for the system. This isn’t to say it doesn’t have merits but it just doesn’t feel quite right.  I’m again going to point out how prolific their content was.  If you ever decide to play one of the systems or even homebrew a Bab 5 system you should steal liberally from their modules.  Anything you decide to do with them is likely to be better.

In both the Chameleon and Mongoose attempts at an RPG something was lost; whether it was a design issue or even a disregard for canon.  Of the two I would recommend the Chameleon system as it’s the most unique and better captures the setting.  Both systems are now out of print and defunct.  You can find physical copies on ebay or at used bookstores if you look.  You can also find PDFs in some places.  Good hunting. 

We live for the one, we die for the one.