Rappy’s RPG Reviews: d20 Past

03 Apr

You've created a time paradox!

NOTICE: All art on this page is from Wizards of the Coast, and is thus copyright of its appropriate authors. It is shown here via the d20 Past Art Gallery as reference only.

Hey again readers! Last time on my part of the blogging triad, we looked into the dark depths of the potential post-apocalyptic future. And what is best to follow that up with? Why, the past, of course! D20 Past, to be specific. …Shush, it makes sense.

With Columbus, you can sail the seven seas! With Columbus, you can put your mind at ease!

Laying Down the Foundation

Like buildings and nations, games need a solid foundation, so we’ll start at the beginning: with the basics of d20 Past. As with d20 Apocalypse, the first portion of this book focuses on serving up options for just what a past campaign is. Is history predestined or mutable? Are we heading toward a bright future or away from a utopian point in the past? Do you want normal history, alternate history, magic and monsters (no points for guessing which one this book will nearly entirely focus on)? All are within your hands, as are rules for overland travel…which…probably should have been in the core rulebook, to be honest. We also get hooks on just what a historic campaign entails, although this sometimes includes waiving history in favor of fun. Ffor instance, the book suggests there be no limits for female characters in spite of the oppressive asshats of various historical cultures; I can understand this, since I doubt I’d want to play a male character just because of the era, but still…a little bit too handwavy. Why not let us fight against the adversity rather than ignore it? But again, getting off on a tangent here. New occupations presented are Cloistered, Cosmopolitan, On the Run (essentially “professional fugitive”), Primitive, Servant, Slave, and the infamous Aristocrat. Suffice to say, I’ve heard plenty of flack about the Aristocrat; it’s understandable, considering you’re getting +6 Wealth and +2 Reputation, which outshines what most occupations manage to get. Still, I feel that it can be used just fine as long as you use it in moderation… but that’s just me.

Arguably the most useful part of the book, the next 4 1/2 pages detail what skills and feats are altered or not present in the three eras of history. There are also several new feats introduced, such as Minions (Leadership with a different name), Sidekick (cohorts with a different name), and Obscure Knowledge (Bardic Knowledge-in-a-feat). The equipment section, though…yeah. There are much better gatherings of past tech that cover larger portions of history; From Stone to Steel by MonkeyGod Enterprises and Blood and Guts: Small Arms of WWII by RPGObjects are two particularly good examples. Same goes for naval combat (in that case, Skull and Bones from Green Ronin and Blood and Guts: Deep Blue Sea by RPGObjects did it better). The wind effects are, again, something that should have been core material (and are indeed core material…in Dungeons and Dragons). Finally, we have the Explorer advanced class. Unlike the same-named advanced class from d20 Future, the d20 Past Explorer focuses on being Indiana Jones rather than a Bard-Rogue hybrid; indeed, the d20 Past Explorer even gets a sidekick at 10th level. It’s a fairly solid advanced class, which is a relief, considering some of the stuff we’ve already seen before even reaching the end of the second chapter.

The zombie master, night hag, and, really.

Musketeers of the Cauldron-Boiling Caribbean

Did my header for this section make sense? Well, believe it or not, that actually sums up Chapter 3: Age of Adventure fairly well. We have a setting that 1. openly assumes that magic is an accepted part of reality 2. assumes that you want a supernatural past no matter what. Indeed, after a brief introduction to the age of sail, we are slapped with monsters. Ranging from the wee CR 1/3 dragonet and CR 2 sahuagin “sea devil” to the mighty hurricane-producing CR 20 sea drake, these seven beasts cover the bases of all levels of play. Let’s take a look at all of the monsters through a Good, Bad, and Ugly scale.

-The Good: Sea drakes are epic, and truly bring home the nightmarish power of dragons, while the dragonet is pretty much essential for the Sorcerer (see in a little bit). The zombie lord master isn’t too shabby either, as a CR 13 Undead that can both animate the undead and ward off the living through an aura of fear and a horrendous stench. The only question I have is why the zombie lord is a static monster rather than a template, but…eh.

-The Bad: The night hag and sea devil seem somewhat out of place, essentially drug screaming from the Monster Manual without trying to figure out why they were dragged here. The siren is also essentially a smarter, more effective harpy that happens to have a sonic clap attack (!).

-The Ugly: The ghoul. Seriously, what the hell is up with that thing? It is a CR 4 shapeshifting undead that can turn into a hyena in this incarnation.

We also get some new classes. Three, to be precise: the Musketeer, Shaman, and Sorcerer. Let’s take a look at them, then, shall we?

The best thing in d20 Past.

-Musketeer: This is the most interesting of the three, by far. The Musketeer prestige class manages to be 5 levels of interesting features and one of the few classes in the entire book that work without supernatural trappings. While most of the Musketeer’s abilities focus on dodging and retaliating with rapier action, the most interesting class feature is one that allows the Musketeer to add their Intelligence bonus to attack rolls. This is a really fascinating ability, and an idea I’m surprised wasn’t spread around more with the ability score-based class system of d20 Modern. While it is suggested that you use a class buildup of Strong Hero/Fast Hero/Soldier to get into Musketeer, I can’t help but imagine that (if done right) Strong Hero/Archaic Weaponmaster or Fast Hero/Swashbuckler would be more effective builds when combined with the Musketeer.

-Shaman: Essentially a 10-level Druid, only with the ability to meld with their animal companion into a single lycanthrope-like “spiritmeld” instead of pure no holds barred shapeshifting. It’s…erm…interesting?

-Sorcerer: Arcane spellcasters that get their magical prowess (and more) from the great sea drakes. Essentially a 10-level hybrid of the Charisma-based freeform arcane casting of the Dungeons and Dragons Sorcerer and the powers of the D&D prestige class known as the Dragon Disciple. It’s okay, but it’s somewhat hard to see how these really fit into the swashbuckling genre compared to the Shaman.

Finally, there are three adventures. Pieces of Eight is your standard pirate treasure hunt, only with ghouls and sirens thrown in; it’s about as interesting as you’d expect. The Diamond Necklace Affair has no supernatural ties, has many paths into the interwoven intrigues of the French nobility and the Musketeers, and is overall the best of these three small adventures. Last but not least, we have Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble, in which the heroes must brave a monstrous flytrap-infested jungle to stop a sorceress, zombie lord, and night hag that are demanding sacrifices from a village that houses the last of the Incas. It’s interesting, but somewhat disjointed, and is heavily tied to the supernatural, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

I hate to argue with the undead corpse of a pharaoh, but...I don't think that's how you're supposed to use an ankh.

Vampires and Mummies and Hydes, oh my!

And what better to follow up a supernatural-filled chapter than…another supernatural-filled chapter? Yes, my viewers, the second of the campaign setting idea chapters, Shadow Stalkers, is also dedicated to paranormal creatures; indeed, Shadow Stalkers is a direct d20 Past port of the Shadow Chasers campaign idea from the d20 Modern Core Rulebook! I know that d20 Modern’s core campaign settings were two magical and one psionic campaign, but really now. D20 Future did well at dividing its bases between aliens, mecha, genetic engineering, and more…why was d20 Past so different? Oh, that’s right, I remember now. While d20 Future was 223 pages long, d20 Past only received a meager 96! Excuse me for a moment…

…Okay, moment’s over. Shadow Stalkers manages to make this even more pathetic in that, while being a campaign setting dedicated to fighting monsters, it only has…2 monsters. 2 monsters! The Baskerville Hound and the Hyde template are both…okay….but they don’t bear any huge fruit for a setting that is specifically labelled as “go fight monsters all over the Victorian era world”! The Mesmerist advanced class is pretty pathetic as well, dedicating class levels to…powers and feats. That’s it. No special qualities, just…powers and feats. The Spiritualist, on the other hand, gets warding against death effects, spell scrolls, turn/rebuke undead, undead contacts via seance, and astral projection. Once again proving that psions cannot have nice things while spellcasters can. Oh, and there’s also the Frontier Marshal prestige class, which is a hybrid of sniper and general ass-kicking. There’s also two small adventures about a mummy’s tomb and a poker-playing vampire, but…really, who cares? This chapter gets a solid meh from me.

What, you thought I was just joking with that header?

Attack of the Cyborg Nazis!

Our final chapter deals with World War I and II and completes our trifecta of bit part settings. “Pulp Heroes” replaces the magic that permeated the other two chapters with…science that works like magic. Oh, and Nazis, plenty of Nazis. Seven Nazis, to be specific, from the CR 1 Nazi soldier to the CR 9 Nazi athlete. Because we all know athletes beat soldiers, right? Anyway, in the same formula as the last two chapters, we get one new prestige class and two advanced classes. In this case, the prestige class is the Flying Ace, who focuses on beefing up planes in combat and surviving those battles he managed to lose. The Gangster advanced class, on the other hand, is a thug with contacts and Rogue-style sneak attacks. The Scientist is the final part of this trio, and….erm…yeah. It’s more or less a hybrid of d20 Modern core’s Techie and Field Scientist advanced classes. There’s also an adventure focusing on fighting Nazis that are questing for the Fountain of Youth, Indiana Jones-style, and another one that features a Japanese mad scientist who is planning on using a SCIENCE!! drug to turn people into beastfolk. Neither are that interesting.

The biggest problem with this chapter is that fighting pulp Nazis has been done in d20 Modern before. It’s been done better. And most importantly, it’s been done with more than 16 pages to work with.

Final Thoughts

D20 Past had such promise as an idea…but for whatever reason, instead of having a full sourcebook like d20 Future, its potential was squandered by filtering three narrowly-focused campaigns and some various rules into a 96-page title. Even worse, most of its subjects have been done better! Victorian Monstrosities has more nasties than Shadow Stalkers, Thrilling Tales blows Pulp Heroes out of the water, etc. , etc.  Such potential, but such waste. There are some decent parts of the book, would would I recommend it overall? Hell no. D20 Past gets a 4/10, managing to be slightly below mediocre and barely above failure.


Posted by on April 3, 2010 in RPG Reviews


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2 responses to “Rappy’s RPG Reviews: d20 Past

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