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
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
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.
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.
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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
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
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.
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.