Thank you to Kyana for telling me about today's topic, Dragonstar! I was originally going to make this a 3E OdditE post before I decided the whole book merited going over.
(Also I've decided to change "Furt Digs Into" to "Let's Dig Into" because I feel like I spam my name enough around here and it's starting to feel a little self-involved. It's not like I have a brand to market- yet.)
Between TSR's discontinuation of Spelljammer and the launch of Pathfinder's soft sci-fi spinoff Starfinder, there was a proliferation of small science-fantasy settings for d20 and other systems, all trying to fill a niche that wasn't completely dominated by a triple-A publisher.
One of these was Dragonstar, published by Fantasy Flight Games in 2001. It ran for a few years before being quietly discontinued somewhere between 2007 and 2008, coinciding with the end of the 3rd edition that it was created for. The website still functions and you can purchase pretty much everything digitally these days, though I don't believe the dedicated forums exist anymore.
We are introduced to the world (actually galaxy) of Dragonstar by a long first-person exposition by one John Caspian, a shoutout-tastic exiled prince originally from a relatively ordinary world in the style of standardized western faux-medieval fantasy. He was a typical adventurer with hopes, dreams, and a kingdom to reclaim, until the day the sky split open and spaceships bombarded every major city on the planet into submission. The emperor was executed by the invaders, his daughter was installed as figurehead, and the entire planet was summarily turned into another province of the galactic Dragon Empire.
Caspian delivers this exposition to a rookie years later, as they now both serve in that same empire's Imperial Legions as conscripts. Their new lot in life is to bring that same overwhelming firepower and iron-fisted ultimatum to bear on other worlds. It's a bit like waking up one morning to find the Imperium of Man from Warhammer 40k at your doorstep ready to 'adopt' your world, but more cosmopolitan and with fewer alt-right memes. The legionnaires do this either voluntarily or at gunpoint, in exchange for the promises of citizenship, adventure, and other perks in a rather Roman twist.
Caspian laments much of what has been done and continues to be done, but it's evident that this is the new normal for him. His way of understanding the universe completely disintegrated when his world was conquered by offworlders he'd never fathomed the existence of before. His way of coping with it, of surviving, was the same as it is for so many others when their world gets blown wide open: accept it, try to survive, and maybe find a new place for yourself among the stars.
Assuming the DM introduces Dragonstar to your campaign by starting it off as a traditional fantasy world only to swerve into a sci-fi invasion, new PCs might do well to heed his advice. Or maybe they should reject it entirely and flee for the planetary or galactic fringes ASAP- the last thing we need is another gods-damned collaborator becoming a cog in this scaly, imperial machine.
The Dragon Empire is exactly what it sounds like; an empire ruled by dragons.
As some of the most magically powerful creatures in the galaxy it was inevitable that they'd eventually take to the stars. (One piece of info omitted from Caspian's history lesson is that space flight was actually invented by a gnomish confederation long before dragons got in on it.) In doing so, they discovered that there are other dragons who are similarly powerful but out numbered on other planets. Eventually they began to band together, in interplanetary kingdoms that were divided (unsurprisingly) by subtype.
The metallic kingdom of Qesemet and the chromatic kingdom of Asamet ("golden kingdom" and "iron kingdom", respectively) soon came to blows over their apparently inborn differences and started a war that wiped out entire planets, with plenty of mortals getting caught in the middle. Billions died as little more than footnotes in the histories of these two expanding superpowers. After all, individual differences aside, both kingdoms were built on the idea of draconic supremacy.
Only the near-extinction of the neutral yellow dragons due to some unknown catastrophe convinced the others to hammer out a peace. Otherwise, they feared, dragons would all wipe themselves out. After a lot of bickering and politicking, the kingdoms merged together into a single Empire (no fancy draconic name for this one, I'm afraid) where sections of the galaxy are de facto controlled by various houses and other factions within the greater whole, all of them nominally on the same side.
Part of what glued the empire together to begin with was a power-sharing agreement between the different colors of dragon. Each dragon "house" was allowed to rule for 1,000 years with an elected leader acting as emperor, after which point they handed the reins over to the next color in the chain of succession. It's the first use of rotating monarchy I've seen in a fantasy world, to my memory.
The empire began with the gold dragons under the empire's founder, Khelorn. Then over the next 5,000 years it went to the silvers, bronzes, brasses, and coppers, before we reach the rulers of the modern day- red dragons, led by the ancient red wyrm Mezzenbone.
The non-dragon subjects of the empire were sold on the idea that they'd get 5,000 years of peace when it all started, and they did. But now their descendants have to suffer the consequences of that agreement- not that they would have been able to do all that much against their unified dragon overlords if they wanted to.
The transfer of power was peaceful, and Mezzenbone didn't immediately declare himself emperor for life, but problems quickly emerged under the reign of the first of the chromatic dragons. Mezzenbone is unrepentantly evil, but it remains to be seen whether he is "merely" a tyrant who promotes war abroad while curbing rights and liberties back home, or if he's dedicated to the destruction of every bit of peace and stability that has come to the galaxy in spite of the machinations of dragons. He adored the mayhem of the Dragon War, after all. He has been in power for less than 100 years so far, which means only 900+ more to go before we get a palate cleanser in the form of the blue dragons.
This is the era players are dropped into, as a millennia-long status quo crumbles away into a time of danger and uncertainty. The metallics and chromatics both knew something like this might happen when the empire was founded. But when you're so privileged and live for so many tens of thousands of years that just waiting a millennium for the guy you don't like to leave office is no big deal, it's easy to overlook countless generations of mortal life.
It's not all a Dune-esque tale of feudal space darkness, though. This is still D&D, usable with all of the genre contortions that you can fit it into. There are still wizards, halflings, and bards. There just also happen to be battleships, space marines, and all manner of other sci-fi trappings mixed in. It doesn't do retro swashbuckling like Spelljammer did because the technology is more advanced, but that opens up other avenues in turn. It can be rather space operatic at times.
Worldbuilding & Religion
One of the most interesting parts of Dragonstar to me is how it incorporates the sameyness of early 2000s fantasy settings into the world-building. It's another universe where no matter where you go, what planet you visit, you can find a civilization of dwarves that speak dwarvish, elves that speak elvish, humans who speak some mutually intelligible dialect of common, etc.- except in this universe, it confuses the hell out of scholars.
The implausibility of this seeming fact of life has been wondered at for a while, and people have tried to address it and provide several explanations for it over the centuries. Their current most popular answer? Deific panspermia.
According to the Unification Church (the dominant religion in the empire), there were once twelve incredibly powerful beings who traveled the cosmos, ordering planets and seeding them with prefab life that always seems to develop in roughly the same way. Each of these beings embodied different concepts that keen observers now see (or perhaps try to see) mixed and matched in every deity worshiped across the galaxy: every god is just a reflection of one or more of these primordial "Deitypes", as the church calls them. Naturally, dragons consider themselves the favored children of these gods, and claim to act in their name (when it is politically advantageous to do so).
Deitypes are essentially a fantasy reimagining of real-life methods of religious and cultural comparison like Interpretatio Graeca or Romana, whereby one society attempts to understand other societies by relating similar parts of their belief systems to their own- essentially translating their gods and myths into a more recognizable language.
Up to a certain point, this is religious syncretism (and/or multi-traditionalism) like you get whenever you put two or more cultures in direct contact with one another. But when the group applying this interpretation is also a massively powerful, hegemonic force, it also affects real one-way change upon the subject of interpretation. This is clearly visible in Dragonstar, where the vast majority of the empire's citizens follow the Unification Church and either worship the pantheon of the Twelve, or worship local gods that have long since been given the deitype treatment.
There are two exceptions to this rule. The first is barbarians. The barbarian class actually gets a whole new rule about how they never abandon their old gods or refer to them using generic Unification titles. Barbarians are also typed as backwater folks from the galactic fringes who are decidedly unusual for their steadfast dedication to the old ways. That shows how profoundly the church (and the empire that indirectly promotes it) has shaped religion and the way people conceive of it; it is epistemic violence on a nearly galactic scale, and it's getting a little bit closer to becoming absolute with every new planetary conquest.
The second exception is Dualists. They are the largest minority religion in the empire, who responded to the reductionism of Unification with an even more radical reductionism of their own. They developed a sort of Zarathustran dualism where everything in the cosmos is reflective of the conflict between the generative Creator (typed as good) and the destructive Adversary (evil). This "Dualist Heresy" is divided between those who side with one or the other, and the so-called purists who venerate the oppositional totality of things. I like to imagine the purists approach it in a manner similar to dharmic cyclical transformation or Daoist radical acceptance, rather than the erratically swinging pendulum flavor of True Neutral that druids were saddled with in the old days.
As hinted at above, all of the standard D&D species can be found across the Dragon Empire and beyond. Each gets a few additional features that interact with Dragonstar's unique skills or technologies, but otherwise they are unchanged from their base game forms in either mechanics or temperament. Dwarves are still miners, except nowadays they're likely to do it on asteroids, etc.
The core list was expanded for Dragonstar, adding a few more playable options to explore the vast expanse of space with- these include drow and orcs, the half-dragon template, and a brand new "race" called soulmechs.
Drow are still just as problematic as ever, except in the Dragonstar galaxy an appreciable number of them have traded in their spider silk lingerie for a black leather coat and a pair of jackboots. Drow comprise almost the entire Imperial Secret Police Directorate, and they serve Mezzenbone by rooting out perceived threats to the emperor like good little fascists. In this universe they still worship the Spider Goddess (Lolth with the serial number filed off), who is identified as a mixture of the Mother and Destroyer deitypes.
Orcs are, well... orcs. Still mostly chaotic evil, still mostly worshipers of war deities. They do get a little attention paid to their overall zest for life, however; drinking, dancing, feasting, and celebrating all their emotions, not just the violent and destructive ones, is how they live. Additionally, orc women are given a shred of interiority by flocking in growing numbers to more cosmopolitan areas of the empire because they won't live like borderline-chattel the way traditional orcish society expects them to.
Reading that part, I was remound of the sizeable population of orc and half-orc women that cropped up in Forgotten Realms' Phsant after some Zhentish orcs helped defeat the Tuigan Horde and got a taste for "civilization". Since Mezzenbone came to power, fringe orcs have started warmongering and invading neighboring planets that were previously considered more off-limits because of their membership in the empire. Mezzy boy is more than happy for that, because it gives the sensationalist media a bigger controversy to pay attention to, leaving him free to pursue his own authoritarian schemes.
... I don't like how accurate to real life that has become in the decades since Dragonstar was published.
Half-dragons here are as rough on a character's ECL as they are in base D&D, but they get some pretty big nonmechanical perks for living in the Dragon Empire. Even under the metallic dragons it was a highly stratified society, with dragons at the top and dragon-blooded creatures directly below them. Half-dragons enjoy a lot of social privilege compared to other humanoids, and more than a few of them are the spoiled illegitimate children of powerful dragon house members, unable to ever ascend to politics but free to tug at their parents' purse strings.
Soulmechs are Dragonstar's answer to the question of sentient AI. You cannot create a truly self-aware artificial intelligence using only technology- at least not yet. Instead, you can create a fully functional android body and then stuff a person's soul into it at the time of death to act as its pilot and guiding intelligence.
The process is expensive and time-consuming, but results in an effectively immortal body with almost all the abilities one had in the flesh. Unsurprisingly, a lot of rich people do this to cheat death. Some heinous crimes against humanoidity can also be committed on unwilling subjects of the soul transfer process. We're talking some real Black Mirror type stuff.
Soulmechs are notable, to me at least, for not falling into the whole "cybernetics eat your soul" trope. They suffer a -2 to Charisma from their new bodies, but they are still living things who are not prone to cold, calculated insanity or anything else that some sci-fi writers like to throw at the question of transhumanity. They're also pretty well-integrated into the empire at large, with only staunch traditionalist elves and drow seeming to have a problem with them- and even then, it's more a distaste for the unnatural ritual involved in the soulmech's creation, rather than the soulmech as an individual.
There are other species detailed in the supplement Galactic Races. Some them which are introductions of core species to the universe like centaurs, derro, and kobolds. Others are slight variations on common D&D species like the elems, who are like genasi except born from external planar influence instead of outsider ancestry. Others are more unique to Dragonstar, like the ith-kon mindflayer hybrids, living crystal tarn idoun, sapient ooze ulb, or the quasta, which I can only describe as hyper-inquisitive bird people crossed with one of the angels from the book of Ezekiel.
|"Be not afrai- ooh, what does this button do?"|
Oruks are another entry in that book that I want to give a bit of attention here. They're ogre-orc crossbreeds who have since become a viable and self-sustaining people. They're even worse pariahs than half-orcs, and either stay isolated on their "primitive" home worlds or go adventuring out of desperation. Instead of the usual no-downsides hybrid vigor or the creepy anti-miscegenation tropes that mixed groups get in a lot of D&D-derivative games, oruks get a mixed bag.
They are Large like their ogre ancestors, very strong and sturdy, and able to take feats to give themselves natural armor and higher strength checks. But their dense bone structure and thick skin cause them to suffer from poor lung capacity- they can't ever breathe quite enough to keep their massive bodies running smoothly. It's a very weird, very isolated instance of the writers nodding to the square-cube law as it applies to living things, in a game where giants and tarrasques regularly run around without collapsing under their own weight.
Core classes are mechanically unchanged, with the exception of small additions like skill lists or language on how new proficiencies work- fighters can take various gun-related feats as their bonus feats, for example. There are technological weapons and armor with a section dedicated to them, including high-tech versions of normal weapons, as well as vehicles and other devices that fall under the purview of two new classes; the pilot and mechanist.
Pilots are dedicated to, well, piloting the various vehicles and mechs that Dragonstar has to offer. I would have expected them to receive more than 4+Int skill points per level or to receive a class bonus to piloting, but no such luck- not that cheesing skills is hard in 3rd edition. Instead, their class abilities are dedicated to combat bonuses while piloting vehicles; dodge AC, to-hit, increased critical threat range with guns, speed, x/day damage reducing dodge actions, and bonus feats for more piloting tricks and bonuses.
Aside from the limited-use dodge maneuvers, the features are extremely passive numerical buffs. That's probably fine since vehicles themselves have a whole dedicated rules system to make up for any lack of depth and choice that the class offers, but by itself the pilot feels like a beefier NPC class than one intended for PCs. Outside of their machines, they get almost nothing- d6 HD, light armor, martial weapons, 3/4ths BAB, and bad/good/bad saves.
Mechanists are Dragonstar's glorified mechanics, but they are not quite as narrow in usefulness as Pilots. They get skills and trapfinding like a rogue, bonus feats, can specialize in types of technology like a ranger can terrains, two different abilities to jury-rig or temporarily unjam technological devices out in the field, an offensive sabotage ability, and can provide +1 through to +5 upgrades to any piece of tech at no cost. Upgraded tech is more prone to failure and harder to repair, but mechanists can make that all go away with a Repair check, and again, it's not hard to get skill modifiers crazy-high in 3E. As with pilots, mechanists like fish out of water when not specifically doing their respective machine thing- Tier 4, both of them, if I was to give a preliminary ranking.
I was struck by how open-ended the sabotage ability is. There's no daily limit, it's presumably only a standard action, and the DC to use it is a flat 20 no matter what you want. As long as you are in touch range and can make the check, you can disable one function of a device. Make it so a rifle can't fire, stop a hovertank in its (lack of) tracks, or deal scaling damage to a soulmech. Granted, you have to be in melee range and an enemy mechanist can undo your sabotage with a quick repair, but with surprise and/or planning you can absolutely cripple enemy machines or spread mayhem.
(One quick aside related to technology, since we're on the topic:
When I got to the weapons, power armor, and vehicles, I was shocked to find that there was no malfunction system like you'd get in later d20 games like Pathfinder. Things just do the things they're built to do without fear of catastrophic failure or explosions, barring the work of saboteurs or Plot. It simplifies things in a way that I don't dislike, especially in a game with a mechanist class. Because if the majority of the party's gear can break, it will break, and that would both make the mechanist absolutely necessary for a tolerable pace of play, and make it a very boring class to play. All they'd do every encounter is hotfix guns jammed by yet another full-auto attack.)
For the Prestige
The handbook also adds a few prestige classes, as any 3rd party splat worth its salt (and many that are not) does. These are the Gundancer, Negotiator, and Technomancer, all of them 10 levels long.
Gundancers are warrior-monks who have embraced the way of shooting people in the face. They even get a 1st-level class feature called Gun-Fu that makes them harder to disarm, as well as immune to AoOs while wielding light firearms in threatened spaces. They also get abilities to shoot better (surprise surprise), disarm enemies and shoot them in the faces with their own guns, steady their aim, become affected by haste 1/day, unleash a barrage of shots at everything in range 1/day, and absorb (and inexplicably heal from) a shot from an energy weapon 1/day.
The limited-use abilities are flavorful but too limiting, as is almost always the case. The concept of a Gun-Fu monk is redeemingly hilarious though. It's one of the parts of this book that dips into the pink mohawk style of Shadowrun tropes, and I'm kind of into it. Play this class if you want to be like the gun-kata guy from Equilibrium- the movie, not the German power metal band.
Negotiators are diplomancers who can be equally professional or sleazy, depending on player action. They get a mess of abilities to speak any given language when it's needed, alter people's reactions to them, detect lies, scrying, and surveillance, use the power of suggestion, and eventually read people's minds while being resistant to the same.
But most importantly, they gain the ability to Take 10 on bluff, diplomacy, intimidate, and sense motive checks at 1st level. This is the ultimate dip for anyone looking to push their charisma to the next level in a Dragonstar campaign. Just have a contingency plan for when the DM wizens up and starts throwing robots and other social-immune foes at you.
Technomancers merge the Dragon Empire's "twin pillars" of magic and machine, as the book puts it. Dragons are natural sorcerers and massive nerds both, so this makes sense. Technomancers are mechanists who have enough arcane magical talent to empower their tools and let them mess with the properties of nearby technology.
This ranges from changing the energy type of a weapon, to confusing and dominating robots, to turning themselves into code and hijacking a nearby vehicle. They also get some energy- and utility-themed half-casting. It doesn't stack with whatever class they got 1st-level arcane spells from for the requirements though, so this PrC is far better for a mechanist than for a wizard.
They are also the most Shadowrun-ass thing I've ever seen, if this art is anything to go by.
There are a few other books in the Dragonstar line that I might look into later if I've missed something juicy, but I'm pretty content with this delve, and I hope you liked it too.
I can't believe I neglected to mention the part where wizards have datapads instead of spellbooks, and they can wirelessly transfer or download them off of the internet. Scrolls are basically magical PDFs that self-destruct when you cast them. Rogues and mechanists can hack a spellbook if its malware protection isn't up to snuff. It's goofy and I love it.
That is all.