On one level Mecha’s and D&D don’t seem to mesh coherently, and yet there seems to be something appealing about the concept as it’s definitely been a hot item of late---appearing in everything from Privateer Press’ Iron Crown world and Goodman Games’ upcoming DragonMech. Bastion Press takes a crack at the genre with Doom Striders, and succeeds beyond my wildest expectations.
My biggest fear is that the high fantasy elements---those elements that make D&D what it is---would be watered down by Sci-Fi until it was a painfully diluted shadow of itself. My concerns were unwarranted, and it shows just how flexible the granddaddy of RPGs can be under firm and innovative guidance.
Doom Striders, Bastion Press’ term for “mecha” (a word with obvious connotations which would, if used in a D&D session, undermine games believability), are used in magical constructs used in many different fashions. Wizards might use them to guard their sanctuaries, while priests may craft them as monuments to their faith or as crusading avengers and warriors would utilize them in war. In truth, like robots in science fiction, Doom Striders can be used in any conceivable role.
Clearly, when dealing with a subject so far removed from traditional high-fantasy conventions, a D&D sourcebook must make its case immediately that it doesn’t upset the delicate balance inherent to the system and its game worlds. Bastion Press convincing explains in the first chapter just how Doom Striders can mesh with fantasy civilizations and provides a plausible back-story as to how this revolution in technology came about. I tend to be a hardened traditionalist and yet I willingly bought the pitch, so I imagine most gamers be equally satisfied.
I was perhaps most impressed with the chapter devoted to designing Doom Striders, since the developers had to balance the fine line between comprehensiveness and ease of use. While the construction process takes into account everything from size (ranging from medium to colossal), power sources (arcanofurnaces and prayer engines----how cool is that?), weapons, armor, and building materials (everything from adamantine and mithral to dragonscale and necrotic tissue!), it never loses sight of the fact that D&D is a role-playing game and not a tactical exercise like wargaming. The entire chapter is ably supported by numerous illustrations that provide a visual guide to the various options laid-out before you.
War evolves to keep pace with the weapons used to fight them, and so it’s clear that new combat rules would be required to handle Doom Striders. The rules are slightly modified from that of standard D&D. Some of the necessary innovations include hit placement for critical hits and damage as directed to both the Doom Striders and its crew, but there are a host of minor differences---everything from saving throws to the many actions that the crew inside can perform---that must be addressed as well. Several play tests suggest the rule changes are well designed and lack notable omissions. I was pleased to see rules for mass combat, as I imagine many doom strider campaigns will resemble Robotech or Battletech-like wars.
What would a d20 book be without new player options? Doom striders includes seven new feats and three options of the Profession skill pertaining directly to the handling of mechas, as well as a pair of prestige classes: the Doom Strider Captain and the Master Engineer. Both PrCs are necessary and fill a niche, but they’re rather bland. I would have liked to have seen some fresh options in addition, demonstrating the potential of a Doom Strider campaign. Perhaps they could have been representative of the organizations detailed in the chapter on Allies and Adversaries.
This final chapter is invaluable to game masters, as it details six organizations and twenty-four individuals that utilize Doom Striders and are designed to be easily adapted to any setting. Several of the organizations were inspired ideas, and could be the focus of an entire campaign. The Witch Hunters, for example, are a mercenary band specializing in eliminating magic-users (‘whether you need a wizard’s tower razed or an evil temple blown up, this group of mercenaries is the right choice for the job”), while the Blood Watch are bloodthirsty sell-swords who use vampirically-powered striders (though in my campaign the crew would be vampires as well…).
Visually, Doom Striders is a very attractive product. The artwork is generally of only average quality, but the technical drawings, including the two dozen sample striders offered and the illustrations that accompany the construction process, are simply stunning. Even the borders, which are usually something that doesn’t even register with me, adds to the feel of the book with a cool mechanical gear motif. The one let-down is the unusually large font, which while easy on the eyes also means you’re getting less content than you would expect for a 128-page book.
Despite some aspects that could---in my estimation---have been pulled off better, Doom Striders emerges as a fine product. It’s far more than “just” another d20 sword-and-sorcery sourcebook. It’s d20 sword-and-sorcery that’s done with intelligence, style, and enthusiasm, and it succeeds in expanding the horizons of D&D in a way that’s not easy to find nowadays.