Review: d20 Past

Copyright Nicholas HM Caldwell © 2005

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

"Threaten the world with a full-spectrum nega-pulse emitter bomb!"

Let's be clear. The switch from D&D 3.0 to 3.5 was the final straw for me with D&D. Mechanically the changes were, in the main, an improvement, but rendering my collection of fourteen D&D 3.0 books obsolete did not endear 3.5 to me. (Only fourteen! I can hear the howls of derision from those who had much larger 3.0 collections) I bought the new revised core rulebooks because I had to for TGC purposes, but I have no intention of GMing D&D again. So why do I own a copy of d20 Past? Curiosity, to be honest, as I wanted to see how Wizards would handle historical roleplaying. It was a Christmas present.

d20 Past is a 96-page softback written by James Wyatt and Gwendolyn F.M. Kestrel and published by Wizards of the Coast. It's not a massive hardback tome of several hundred pages like d20 Modern, d20 Future or indeed most D&D books. It is a supplement to d20 Modern, not a standalone product, and to be honest, you'll need the Urban Arcana Campaign Setting book as well.

It kicks off with a two-page introduction. This indicates what is to come and indicates the temporal scope of the book, namely Progress Levels 3 and 4 in d20-speak, which takes us from the Renaissance to the end of World War Two. Later eras are the domain of d20 Modern and d20 Future; earlier eras aren't covered, so if you want to run Imperial Rome and the like, you are out of luck.

Chapter One looks at differing views on history (is civilization a march of progress ever onward and upward? are we mere shadows of past glories? is history the result of the manipulations of secret cabals? or is everything just random chance?) and styles of historical campaigns. This is good stuff as indeed are the later discussions on communication and gender roles. The text briefly visits national identity and religious worldviews before degenerating into rules about movement, both tactical and strategic. Did I mention that I really hate the emphasis in 3.5 of measuring all tactical movement in terms of squares rather than feet?

Chapter Two is "Rules Components", a whistle-stop tour of the modifications necessary to d20 Modern for playing in premodern eras. All the existing starting occupations are considered for suitability and modified as necessary and some new careers and lifestyles are added to the mix. This is sound work. Likewise there is due coverage given to skills and feats that depend on technology with helpful dates for the advent of key inventions and techniques sprinkled through the descriptions. Next up is a fairly comprehensive weapons listing (eight pages of descriptions and tables) and a shorter (but just as useful) list of sailing ships, early aircraft, and vintage / pre-war automobiles. There are also modified rules for handling naval combat in the Age of Sail. Finally there is a new Advanced Class, the Explorer, which could be used in any of d20 Past's ages of interest and an example explorer character. This chapter does what it sets out to do and does it pretty well.

Chapter Three is the first of the three featured settings of d20 Past. "Age of Adventure" is sorcery and swashbuckling in equal measure. Broadsword and longbow have been replaced by musket and rapier and the year is 1667. Suggestions are given for including Department-7 in the setting, and the roles played by magic, drakes (which inhabit the great ocean depths) and monsters. Campaign ideas are suggested by discursions into the power groups of the era - the absolute monarchs, the trading companies, the dragon-blooded Sorcerers, the indigenous natives of the Americas and Africa with their potent Shamans, and pirates. "New" monsters, such as Ghouls, Nighthags, and Sea Devils, are provided, although gamers with access to 3.x Monster Manuals will have seen most of this before. Lastly in terms of mechanics comes the Musketeer presented as a prestige class with feats that really do support swashbuckling combat (thumbs up there), the Shaman detailed as an Advanced class with class abilities that properly support the archetype (again thumbs up), and the final Advanced class of the Sorcerer, which draws its power from a draconic heritage - many of its abilities remind me of the Dragon Disciple prestige class (from 3.0's Tome and Blood and the 3.5 Dungeon Master's Guide). All three have a corresponding example character fully statted up, which is again a helpful touch. The chapter closes with three scenario synopses: "Pieces of Eight" (Caribbean piracy), "The Diamond Necklace Affair" (18th-century intrigue), and "Fire Burn & Cauldron Bubble" (horror in the jungles). The first and the third are interesting starting points, but the "The Diamond Necklace Affair" (based on the historical events) is out of time (so to speak) and is far too well-known. I'd much rather have seen an original intrigue scenario or a new take on D'Artagnan and comrades.

Chapter Four takes us to the nineteenth century with Shadow Stalkers. This is gothic horror in the streets of Victorian London and the Wild West of the gunslingers. It is pitched as a precursor to the Shadow Chasers campaign model that forms one of the d20 Modern settings. Technology is weaker and resistance groups are weaker and more naive but heroes have more magical resources on their side. Three new "foes" are presented: Baskerville Hounds portrayed as hell hounds, Hydes (in the sense of Dr Jekyll's unpleasant alter ego), and the Order of the Crimson Dawn (an organization that has succumbed to the temptations of Shadow and dark magic). Again, we have a new prestige class, the Frontier Marshal, judge, jury and executioner for the Wild West. There are also two new Advanced Classes: the Mesmerist and the Spiritualist. The former are low-powered psionic adepts; the latter use the power of the spirit world to wield divine magic, but do this through scrolls and items rather than spell-casting per se. Class abilities such as Seance and Spirit Projection really give the Spiritualist a verisimilitude. Indeed all three classes in this chapter have been well imagined and implemented. Two scenario synopses are given for this era. "Desert Tomb" is a short locale-driven scenario in the spirit of Indiana Jones or "The Mummy". "Dead Men's Hands" is a longer event-driven Western horror adventure, complete with a map of the town of Fallen Birch and floor plan of the Four Aces Saloon. Both could be fun to run and game.

Chapter Five leads us to the inter-war years with the last featured era of Pulp Heroes. This is 1930s Earth but with mad scientists, masked crimefighters and private eyes battling it out with tommy-gun toting gangsters, Nazis tracking down ancient relics, and so on. There are two fun tables for dreaming up the names of weird and wondrous inventions by mixing scientific-sounding words in interesting combinations. Threaten the world with a full-spectrum nega-pulse emitter bomb! Save New York with a zortillium field converter shield! The era's archetypal enemies are Nazis and a number of exemplar Nazis, including pilots, scientists, soldiers and officers are statted up ready to use. Fans of Biggles can rejoice in the Flying Ace prestige class, while the criminal classes have the Gangster Advanced Class complete with lots of sneak attack and contact abilities. There is also a Scientist Advanced Class, which emphasises the creation of inventions and feats (similar to metamagic feats) that can simplify, miniaturise and extend the uses of inventions. Rather than provide a list of plausible inventions, the rules take the easy route of having Scientists create devices that duplicate magical effects. The chapter closes with two good adventures ("A New Drug" set in Hong Kong and "Fountain of Youth" - a classic stop-the-Nazis gaining the secret of immortality.)

Finally there is an Appendix for the Shaman's spell list and descriptions of new spells not found in d20 Modern or Urban Arcana. Anyone with access to a 3.x Player's Handbook won't find much new here.

Overall, d20 Past gives a glimpse of what can be done with historical role-playing using D&D rules. In terms of game mechanics, it ranges from very good to excellent d20 rules. It isn't, however, a substitute for a proper knowledge of history - anyone wanting detailed coverage of any of the featured eras would do better to pick up the appropriate GURPS sourcebook or spend a lot of time in the library. Regular readers of Dragon and Polyhedron magazines in recent years may also find some of the material to be revisions of previously published articles. d20 Past tries hard, but misses the opportunity to be the definitive work on historical role-playing.