Book Review: Battlelords of the Twenty-Third Century Rulebook by Lawrence R. Sims and SSDC

Though I have to admit I’m more of a fantasy roleplayer than anything else these days, I used to dabble in futuristic worlds from time to time. That list included FASA‘s Battletech and Mechwarrior, Dream Pod 9‘s Heavy Gear, R. Talsorian GamesCyberpunk 2020, GDW‘s Traveller, West End GamesParanoia and Star Wars Roleplaying Game… and I’m sure I’m missing a few.

But it’s been a while since I’ve seriously looked at anything in science fiction.
So Battlelords of the Twenty-Third Century from writer Lawrence R. Sims and publisher SSDC Inc. was a bit of a shock to the system. That said, as I read through the rules it was a bit of a throwback to older, more complex systems and the setting was quite intriguing. It hit me a bit like the webcomic Schlock Mercenary meeting the backstory of Aliens or Blade Runner where the corporations run everything.

The Battlelords rulebook weighs in at 292 pages with a crisp, clean technical look and feel that reminded me of the Cyberpunk 2020 books. The artwork really sells the setting well for me, with art scattered every few pages throughout the book. With a product of this size, the amount of artwork was refreshing.

Chapter 1 drops you right into a mercenary mission with a mixed group of talents and races. The full page picture on page 6 and the story give you a taste of what mercenary life is like and it’s not pretty. You have to depend on people with varied agendas and watch your step constantly whether in the line of fire or on the sidelines.

From there, Chapter 2 introduces you to the known universe of the 23rd century. Money and power are the prime motivators as the mega-corporations run it all. Really, the corps probably control everything from various governments to the flow of information – anything to get a profit and affect the bottom line. As a result, the corps have hired the Battlelords to get things done on the front lines and mercenaries are the tools applied to various jobs. The players in Battlelords are those mercenaries hired to do whatever their corporate masters require – combat, exploration, theft, espionage… it’s all there.

Chapter 3 goes deeper, documenting each of the twelve different races (with variants). It’s more of a Star Wars universe than a Star Trek one, with widely different racial characteristics around the universe – everything from empaths, reptilian, and leonine beings to amorphos blobs, humans, things with tentacles, and everything in-between. I really appreciate the “Everybody Is A Little Bit Freaky” boxes for each race, which points out that there are unique quirks to any choice you make – from the Python Lizards getting crazy whenever it rains to the Chatillan Empaths being chronic sleepwalkers.

In Chapter 4, you get to the guts of character generation and there’s a lot of detail here as well. Strength, Manual Dexterity, IQ, Agility, Constitution, Aggression, Intuition, and Charisma are your Vital Statistics. And then you have secondaries such as Terrestrial Knowledge, Military Leadership, Persuasion, and Bargaining. Though it’s definitely not Dungeons & Dragons, there are some similarities in the way races are structured. Beyond that though, there are twenty three steps to creating a character, but don’t let that shock you. Mostly the steps just walk through the various chunks of the character sheet explaining how things like Black Marks and Social Status fit into the whole of the game.

I’m a sucker for random tables and love the “I Was Just Growing Up” tables to give your character a bit more crunch. Everything from giving a character Narcolepsy to being the winner of the Galactic Super Lotto and getting an additional 2,000 credits a month is on the various tables, so you can end up with some very random quirks to add some personality if you don’t have one figured out quite yet.

Chapter 5 focuses on skills. And as you might expect in a futuristic game, there are a lot of them. Everything is covered from hand to hand combat to cybernetic repair, demolitions, various engineering disciplines, medical knowledge, and more. Thankfully most of the information is captured in tables at the beginning of the chapter and further detail (if necessary) is included in the skill descriptions at the end of the chapter.

Chapter 6 and 7 focus on armor, weapons, and equipment. Just like with skills, there are a ton of options here. Everything from standard body armor types and rifles to flamethrowers, mechanized armor, cybernetics, computer equipment and so on. If you can’t find something to spend some creds on in these lists, you’re not looking hard enough.

In Chapter 8 you learn about “matrices,” which equate to various powers – empathic, energy controlling, and healing. With all the universe to pick races from, Matrix Controllers (or MCs for short) have a lot of choices. All you have to do is find a master to teach you how to access these abilities. Psychic powers for Empaths like ESP, illusions, and astral travel are just the beginning. Energy Controllers are scary. Characters with the ability to fold space and time? Wow!

Chapter 9 details combat, which seems pretty straightforward. It’s your traditional three step approach – initiative, declaring actions, and performing the actions. Where it gets interesting for me is with critical hits. The “Critical Hits” table reminds me of Rolemaster. Roll a 48? The character is hit in the Liver and bleeding. 29? Right thigh bone is shattered. 96? Bye bye. The shot entered the eye and exited the back of the skull. Modern and futuristic combat is just brutal!

Chapter 10 offers an overview of what’s going on in the Galactic Alliance, and as you might suspect the universe is hopping. Governments and corporations are constantly jockeying for position and power and all varieties of mercenaries are used as pawns on the board. But it’s not just the known issues you have to contend with. There’s also the various galactic phenomena such as black holes, ion storms, rifts, and more that you have to watch out for while traveling through space.

Instead of a “Dungeon master” in Battlelords, you have “The Battle Master” or BM as described in Chapter 11. What I like about this section is that it offers some great suggestions on how to run games – whether you like to ad-lib your way through an adventure with nary a plan in sight or are guiding your PCs through the maze of possible scenarios – there are better ways to run your games. Everything from experience points and stat checks to defining the difficulty levels for various tasks is discussed. I think every BM should have this chapter printed out and kept handy if they choose to run a game!

Lastly in Chapter 12, you are presented with a campaign setting to start with. Hell’s Point. Sounds a lot like Bespin from The Empire Strikes Back in some respects. But with maps and adventure hooks, there’s plenty here to get any enterprising Battlelords group in business quickly. NPCs, maps, and even a mini-adventure – The Flexsteel Jungle – to get you going. Who wouldn’t want a promising career in security aboard the cloud city?

The rest of the book offers some pre-made characters in the Archetypes section as well as an appendix of star maps, a quick reference, an index, and a character sheet you can print and use.

The Battlelords of the Twenty-Third Century Rulebook is basically a complete game and campaign in a book. Rules, characters, setting, adventures – they’re all covered. But it’s just a start. The setting is so open ended that any creative BM should be able to use adventure ideas from books, television, and movies to generate an endless supply of plots, subplots, and missions for a group of mercenary characters. What’s the ultimate goal? That’s for the mega-corps to decide.

Be sure to check out the Battlelords of the Twenty-Third Century Rulebook at RPGNow or DriveThruRPG!

And for more information about the game, be sure to hit the SSDC website!

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