Review of DragonMech

Review Summary
Capsule Review
Written Review

September 4, 2006


by: Bard Bloom


Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)

Steampunk meets D&D. Hulking mechanical monsters made by dwarves and gnomes, powered by steam or magic or hordes of undead. Remarkably well-done and stylish.

Bard Bloom has written 5 reviews, with average style of 3.80 and average substance of 3.60. The reviewer's previous review was of Heroes of Might and Magic V.

This review has been read 7142 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: DragonMech
Publisher: Sword & Sorcery Studio
Author: Joseph Goodman
Category: RPG

Cost: $35
Pages: 236
Year: 2004

SKU: WW 17600
ISBN: 1-58846-988-3


Review of DragonMech


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I don't generally like d20 supplements: about a -4 penalty on their rolls to please me, on no particular scale. I don't care for steampunk particularly either: about -2. I'm not much into mech either: about -1. So with a -7 penalty, I didn't really expect to enjoy Dragonmech. I had driven about an hour to get to the gaming store, though, and I hadn't found anything I felt like buying at that point, so I was being thorough and read a bit.

And bought it, and read it, and was pretty happy that I did.

Digression: Why I Don't Usually Like d20 Supplements

I don't generally like d20 supplements. The core third edition D&D is a fine game in my opinion: a bit baroque, maybe, but a very good rendition of an old classic game. Most supplements and most games built on it aren't nearly so interesting to me.

One reason for that is that there are a number of obligatory forms that, evidently, must appear in any d20 supplement: lists of feats, new prestige classes, new spells, new monsters, new magic items. It's not impossible to do those in cool ways -- I do read spell lists and monster lists for fun -- but most of the time, in d20 supplements, they come out looking like filler material. And a feat that gives a +2 bonus to two skills just isn't going to be very interesting to read, no matter how thematically appropriate it may be, or how crucial to someone's character concept.

Another reason is setting. D&D has a fairly distinctive world style, with its mix of humans, elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes, half-elves, half-orcs, and so on, and its sprinkling of exceedingly powerful people, and its odd take on polytheism, and its insane assortment of monsters who mostly live on the outskirts of the civilized world or underground, and so on. (Which, not coincidentally, makes it a good world-style for gaming.) But lots of settings aren't like that, especially ones from fiction, and trying to cram them into d20 rules doesn't seem to do either of them justice. Just before I looked at Dragonmech, I had spent a while debating whether to get the d20 version of Black Company. I like Glen Cook a lot, and I like D&D, but the combination didn't seem to work very well for me.

Dragonmech, in my opinion, is a d20 supplement done right. It does the obligatory forms well: its new classes have lots of flavor and their own reasons for existing, and don't overlap the other classes too much. It doesn't have very many new spells or monsters or magic items, but the ones it has make sense.

And, most importantly, it takes advantage of the D&D world style, using it in a new way that wouldn't have worked nearly as well if it hadn't started with D&D. Rather than being a flaw, as it seemed to be for the d20 Black Company, it's a strong point.

This is d20 done right.

The Setting

A century ago, it was a traditional d20 world, and you know pretty much what that was like. Then the moon got closer to the earth, so close that the lunar surface started pouring off the moon and falling to earth as a vicious excoriating rain of dust, or as terrible meteor storms. Also, it's close enough so that the lunar dragons (more dangerous than the terrestrial varieties) can fly to earth to hunt. And the lunar gods are fighting the terrestrial ones, too.

Which was a problem for civilization. Mostly the surface dwellers tried to move underground, which the extant underground dwellers complained about, and things were not particularly happy for a long time.

So, the dwarves invented or revived the art of making gigantic mechanized walking vehicles powered by steam. This was important, because they were heavy enough to stand the lunar rain and to fight lunar dragons. And, being dwarves, they actually made a few gigantic walking mech cities, a thousand feet tall and damned impressive. Plus, of course, lots of mech in the 10-100 foot range for various purposes.

And, it's a D&D world, so of course the elves had to keep up. They turned the remains of their trees (which did not do very well in the meteor storms) into mech of their own, powered by magic.

And the humans did their own variation, powered by slave labor. And the gnomes made some powered by clockwork. And some freaky necromancers made ones powered by the exertions of zombies.

And now the lunar rain is diminishing -- most of the loose stuff on the surface of the moon has already hit the earth -- and people are coming out to the surface more, and, naturally, fighting pretty bitterly over the stuff that's left intact.

Classes

The standard D&D classes are still around. There are a few modifications for the setting: the battle between the terrestrial and lunar gods makes clerics weaker; the general devastation makes training in wizardry more scarce, etc. Then, there are new classes.

  1. Clockwork Ranger: There are whole ecosystems living in the gear forests inside of the giant mech. Clockwork rangers are regular rangers who work with that ecosystem, and have a few minor changes to account for it.
  2. Coglayers are the people who make clockwork and steam technology. They go adventuring to increase their power, test their devices, and get enough money to pay for their expensive equipment. The main thing they do is make steam-powered devices (see below), though they can repair mech when they get damaged.
  3. Mech Jockeys are the pilots of mech, capable of driving them and using them to fight. They're the ones who will actually take on lunar dragons personally. Their powers are, naturally, mech-oriented. E.g., one of the big limitations of mech is that critical hits on them can be very devastating, damaging equipment and such; a good jockey can avoid the worse of them.
  4. Steamborgs are people who have replaced parts of their bodies with steam-powered mechanisms. They're not slick and sleek like high-tech cyborgs; they're noisy and clunky and smoky. At first level they get a small boiler built into their back, with a smokestack that spews exhaust. The boiler draws water from the steamborg's body, so steamborgs need to drink three times what regular people do. As they increase in level, they can get more artificial parts, giving bonuses on Strength or Dex or attack or armor or saves or speed or damage or hit dice -- they can customize themselves pretty thoroughly. They also get to build clockwork devices into themselves, e.g., give themselves an extra arm for an extra attack. They pay pretty heavily for this. As they become more metallic, they can lose their humanity for days at a time, which is kind of bad.

Prestige Classes

  1. Anklebiters are specialists in attacking mech. One nice and important part of game balance is that, indeed, non-mech can attack mech and win, despite the mecha's huge advantages in hit points and damage. The humans sort of jump on the mecha's legs, climb up, pry open the door, charge inside, and kill the pilots and crew. Or get stepped on in the process.
  2. Assimilated are steamborgs who integrate themselves with mech. One of the requisites for this class is failing a few too many "lose humanity" rolls. They're very rare. They make very good mech, but very bad humans; e.g., their Reflex saves decrease as they go up level and get more integrated with their machine. At 3d level they are quadriplegic, permanantly wired into the machine. At 5th level, the remaining bits of the human body aren't important for the character, not even the brain. A hideous and stylish class.
  3. Vessel of Dotrak is an odd one. Dotrak isn't quite a god; it's an evolving entity that is probably becoming the new god of clockwork and steamtech. Dotrak isn't very good at being a god yet. It does pick people to be its priests -- they don't choose the prestige class, it chooses them (based on how suitable they are, so most Vessels of Dotrak are probably pretty happy about it). They also don't choose to go up level in the class; it sometimes just happens when they gain a level, and sometimes doesn't. They're sensible clockwork clerics, with powers like "turn construct".

Obligatory Forms: Skills, Feats, and Spells

Well, the skills aren't interesting or surprising, they're obligatory things like "Mech Pilot" and "Craft (Mech)".

The feats ... some of them are pretty obvious, like "Craft Magical Mech". Some are sensible setting-specific ones, like "Mech Fu" (giving you some nice unarmed combat style things when you're fighting using a mech), and "Moonwatcher" (lets you predict the lunar weather.)

There are a scattering of spells that do things for or to clockwork, steam works, and so on. "Animate Gears", for example, animates scrap metal about as effectively as "Animate Dead" animates corpses. "Rebuild Soul" is a form or reincarnation which raises the victim into a clockwork body.

There's not a huge amount of material here, but what is here, is here for a good and sensible reason.

Now, things get interesting

Steam Powers are little engines and automata and gadgets that coglayers can assemble and use. They can do quasi-magical things: launch fireballs, generate force fields, shoot projectiles, hold a shield and use it in your defense ... all sorts of things. There's not a list of steam powers as such, though, the way there's a spell list. There's a list of steam power components. Like, there's a "pilot light", which makes a small flame. By itself it's not very useful. Add a pump, and it makes a line of low-intensity flame. Add an amplifier to that, and you get a line of dangerous flame. Add a billows (by which I think they mean "bellows") and you get a cone of fire, a flamethrower.

There are about forty parts, and a coglayer can assemble roughly (Level + Int Bonus) of them into devices, given money and time and assistants. Some of them are pretty fancy, like the Discriminator (which can tell the difference between friends and enemies, or any other single kind of categorization), or the Clockwork Puppet (which is a small robot body).

In Dragonmech you're probably going to want to make weapons, like an extra arm that swings a sword on your behalf, or a robot cat equipped with a flamethrower and enough intellect to use it right, or a portable force-cage trap, or ... a clever player could come up with a huge variety of useful or devastating devices, with a construction kit like this.

Mechs are the point of the game. They're big and bulky and strong and clumsy and hugely armored and intricate and kinda fragile. They need a pilot, but a skilled pilot can make them do pretty amazing things. They are awkward: a 2000-foot-tall animated tree does not turn quickly. They are extremely vulnerable to certain attacks that don't bother smaller things nearly so much, like tripping. When a 2000-foot-tall animated tree trips, the whole tactical situation changes.

Critical hits on mechs are devastating, and get worse as the mech gets more damaged. A critical hit might just paralyze an arm, until your brave engineer runs and repairs the arm from the inside in the middle of battle. Or it might damage your boiler, meaning that your whole mech freezes for a few rounds. Or, if you're in a steam mech that's already somewhat damaged, it might cause a steam leak, slowly cooking on board until it's fixed ... or actually explode the main boiler, which is kind of bad.

They're insanely strong, but they're far from invulnerable: they can be defeated by other mechs, or, crucially, by people not using mechs as well. Mechs are quite easy to hit. They're hard to damage (they subtract Hardness from each hit's damage, meaning that most attacks won't even bother a city-sized mech. This seems sensible.) They get really lousy saving throws against most things. Normal-sized people can climb up mechs and open the hatches and get inside and kill the pilot and crew.

DragonMech has a whole subsystem for building mechs. It sounds reasonable, and allows for some useful options (you can make your mech harder to trip, but it costs 15% more), but I didn't try those rules out.

Mech combat is a centerpiece of the game, and, again, I haven't tried those rules out. It uses fairly ordinary d20 rules at all sizes, though mechs have their own tables when they take critical hits, and of course various maneuvers work better (stepping over obstructions) or worse (jumping) for mech than for people. Small mech in combat aren't hugely different from monsters; large mech in combat are more like warships.

There's a catalog of mechs, a mech monster manual. It shows quite a sensible range of designs, including some quite odd ones like the elven "Rodwalker", equipped with four oversided fireball wands which double as clubs in close combat.

And back to standard things

There's an extensive catalog of equipment: chainsaw axes and rust-monster-extract grenades and magnetic bombs and hydraulic armor. It's reasonably interesting if you like equipment catalogs. There are some nice details even if you don't: I liked "gearmail" best of all. It's low-grade armor made by sewing salvaged oily gears on a jacket, made by the desparate and pretty much too low-quality to be available in stores. That's a good description of the whole world of Dragonmech.

Another item on the "Unusual items" table is "Fruits and vegetables". They cost 20-30 times what they do in standard D&D worlds, because so little agriculture is possible under the lunar rain. (There's plenty of food for the surviving population, but mostly underground sorts of things.) The book notes that "many a character would rather enjoy the luxury of eating such food and drink rather than selling it".

Combining magic and steam can give some quite scary devices, like catapults which make their projectile ethereal until it gets to its target -- or even mechs enchanted with useful spells. This section is relatively scanty, I believe because there hasn't been very much time for wizards and engineers to work together.

Then there's a gazetter of the world, and a list of ordinary monsters, and an index, and other obligatory things. It's well-written, and there is an index.

The art fits the material. It's all smoky, slightly blurry images of mechs, and people who seem half-mech themselves. Grim and old-style industrial and depressing. Or it's crisp images of oily gears scattered across the page. It conveys the spirit of the setting nicely.

Scores

Style: 5. The material is quite cool, both in general topic and in the details -- and that in the opinion of a reviewer who doesn't really like the general topic. The art works nicely in this book.

Substance: 5. There are lots of good ideas in here. The game makes sense. It builds on standard D&D tropes, and does cool new things with them. It's got its own distinctive character, despite being a d20 game in a world that was a standard D&D world until pretty recently. It's got several good things that players should be able to be ingenious and creative with, and fairly few things that are simply there to get an extra +3 on your Fortitude save or whatever.

If you like reading RPGs, and if you'd given up on D&D supplements 'cause they mostly don't make good reading, definitely check this one out.

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