Hoo, it’s been awhile! When I took my brief hiatus following the birth of Baby Grue I had promised a second look at the rest of the Esper Genesis core rulebook. An attentive reader pointed out that I didn’t come back to this, so today I’m coming back to it! If you missed it, last time we looked at races, classes, and backgrounds in this game. Today we’re looking at setting, stuff, and aliens!
Equipment in Esper Genesis works largely like equipment in vanilla 5e does. You buy it with currency (the EG galaxy uses the “cubil” which is abbreviated “cu” and doesn’t appear to have any smaller denominations) and use it with proficiencies. While there are futuristic pieces of armor (from the nanoweave suit to the fusion armor) but as they all follow the light/medium/heavy system it’s not breaking any mechanics. If you were expecting big mechs to march around in then I’m sorry, but I can offer you a sweet hoverbike and/or jetski in the vehicles section so you’ll have to be happy with that.
Weapons also follow the familiar categories for 5e with new futuristic options but there is an interesting twist. Weapons don’t do crazy amounts of damage like they do in settings where you need to balances bows and guns, but there are new weapon qualities that can make them more deadly against under-equipped primitives (or bystanders, I guess). All firearms except the hold-out, tiny kind have the high-velocity quality which gives some reload rules but also is more effective against unarmored targets: an extra die of damage and a crit range of 19-20. This is a great, simple way to handle this without a lot of extra bookkeeping and dice. In most cases, guns do a reasonable amount of damage and it’s only a big deal against people who are unprepared.
The other rules for explosive and energy burst likewise add some features players are probably expecting but successfully moves them to exceptions-based niche situations. The same is true for recoil and burst fire. Weapons with recoil have a minimum Strength to handle them and if you are trying to use an overpowered weapon then you don’t get to add your Dexterity mod to the attack. Again, things are normal except in special cases. Burst fire is an area effect that triggers a saving throw and it’s only in these spray-and-pray situations that you worry about reloading.
This trend continues through the other equipment in this chapter, going along with the rules-as-written in D&D 5e with extra rules for those special situations that might come up. I’ll admit, I went looking for the “X-tra Crazy Sci-Fi Wildness!” in this book and when I didn’t find it I felt a bit miffed. After mulling it over for a few moments, though, I realized that this was a much better way to go. After all, Esper Genesis uses the ruleset for D&D 5e because they’re flexible and great. If you cracked them open to fill with crazy mechanics to cover rifles and powered armor. Just use the rules as written and include some crazy for when people want that epic sci-fi experience.
Vessels in Esper Genesis use “sorium drives” to travel faster than light and jump between star systems. This is space-folding style FTL rather than warp drives or hyperspace so ships instantly transport across space by folding spacetime into a single point. This sort of instant jumping only works between systems with Crucibles, though, so outside of that you have to bend spacetime to travel something like 5-10 lightyears in a day. This is remarkably slow compared to other sci-fi settings which makes for a very disconnected galaxy with “points of light” in the form of those Crucible systems that can instantly connect folks.
Ships vary in size from escape pods and starfighters to city ships and starbases. The “bridge crew” of a ship typically includes a pilot, a gunner, and a technician with captain and co-pilot as “optional positions” (a little rude). For your typical PC ship and party size this means that one or two people in the party won’t have much to do while the ship is maneuvering and doing exciting things. This is probably fine but it does create an issue for GMs keeping the table’s attention. Apparently there are more detailed ship rules (including tactical combat rules) in an upcoming supplement called the Master Technician’s Guide. Maybe that will give us more ideas too.
Four “player ships” (two of which are starfighters) and six NPC ships are provided to give you a start. The trick is, though, that this chapter is the opposite of the equipment chapter above. Where the equipment mostly works within the rules as written and finds ways to include special cases to capture the sci-fi feel, the ship rules are very detailed and very particular. This is certainly something to farm out to the pilot character since that player has shown an interest in being the group’s ship rules expert and it makes sense that spaceships would take up a large amount of the rules in a space opera setting. Still… this is a lot of new stuff to learn.
All of these ships are zooming around a galaxy jam-packed with interesting areas and cultures. It seems to be more or less the Milky Way (though the galaxy is given the name “Aria’s Wheel”) and most of it lies unexplored and waiting for hapless PCs to wander into. The main setting is a curved series of major systems called the Silrayne Arc which is based around the shining world of Silrayne Prime that everyone looks to for cultural things.
The Tessara System where Silrayne Prime can be found is part of the densely packed Core Sectors near the center of the galaxy. These are important because they are in the middle of everything but also because they are the oldest stable galactic society around. Tessara was a battleground more than a thousand years ago after folks were fighting over the first known Crucible and its infinite power. The conflict ended with the Sorium Accords and Silrayne became the de facto capital of the galaxy.
Outside the Core is the Inner Colonies which exist in the shadow of the prominent Core Sectors. There’s not a lot to bring you here except for two Crucible systems and some rumors. A little farther out in the Mid-Expanse which includes Earth as well as the homeworlds of the dendus and the lorendi (discussed last time). This is clearly the place to base a campaign as there are plenty of stable systems but also a lot of edginess to threaten PCs with.
Farther out are the rough-and-tumble Rim Sectors which have a few more PC race homeworlds and a lot of dangerous secrets. Even further out the Outer Zones are that place on the galactic map where there are big blank spaces and warnings about dragons. Even further strangeness might be found in other dimensions and planes of existence but, as a sidebar says, that’s up to GMs to write up.
Obviously this setting owes a lot of its themes to Star Wars and it might come across as a little derivative. Personally, I’m not as fully steeped in Star Wars lore and I feel that the setting and terms from that franchise have been co-opted so much that it’s fair game. If this bothers you, though, feel free to rework things a little bit. In the end, the setting descriptions are really just eight pages out of the book’s three hundred so it’s a little on the thin side anyways. That does include a two-page map, though, and some cool plot hooks but you’ll be making up a lot of the galaxy on your own regardless.
So… the Threats section of this book is a little underwhelming. It says out the outset that it’s meant to interact with the Esper powers earlier in the book and directs us to the upcoming Threats Database supplement for more. At the same time, the stat blocks have no context at all (What the heck is an “alphalite?” And no, the Esper power doesn’t give context either.) and the specific collection is just strange.
There are a series of creatures called “mecharoids” (Cirrus, Prime-Alpha, and Prime-Delta) but no word on how these differ from drones or constructs. There’s also something called a “Gamaroid” but I don’t even know if this is the same sort of thing as the mecharoids. Some alien species have paragraphs describing what they look like but others don’t so you’re left to your own devices figuring out what a polykepha is, why it has two heads, and why it is always of an evil alignment.
There’s also the fact that in these spare eight pages the authors have included a Sentient Topiary and a riding horse, the latter of which could be picked from the Monster Manual. There’s also a pseudo-scientific familiar called a “bonded companion” that I have so many questions about. It’s made out of sorium (the same stuff that powers the stardrives) but is also semi-sentient and can take any form you imagine when you “create it” as an “extension of yourself.” So sorium is sentient? Or it can be imprinted with sentience? Are these creatures from another plane or is it a part of your mind house in sorium? Big question marks.
I really like Esper Genesis as a game. It’s got great mechanics and it sticks with the baseline of D&D 5e so that it’s easily implemented. The various races are fun and have lots of potential and even the mythology of the Crucibles and how they have shaped galactic society is great. The spaceship rules are complex but not unapproachable and I can certainly see a fun campaign of planet-hopping.
But Esper Genesis as a setting? It feels really rough. It feels like reading through someone’s game session notes from a long-running campaign and trying to make a setting from it. I like the seed of it but I would need quite a bit of time to figure out the basics of this galaxy, let alone come up with a story to run in it. No doubt future supplements will address this but I don’t want to have to buy more stuff just to make the stuff I already have functional.
So the final question is: how does this fit into the wider field of sci-fi D&D spinoffs? For my money, the most flexible and intuitive 5e modern ruleset is still Ultramodern5 but I will definitely say that it doesn’t mesh magic and technology together super seamlessly. If you want to have a space opera campaign then I find Starfinder too crunchy and Hyperlanes too abstracted. That makes Epser Genesis the best out of that lot and I would end up cribbing the setting from the first two and fleshing out the galaxy for EG with those. Now that is a game I could run tonight.