It’s not often that I pick up a role-playing game rule book that’s so compelling a read that I have a hard time putting it down. Fading Suns d20 is one of those games.
I bought the 2nd edition hardcover rulebook for the original game at GenCon 2000, and read through the book in less than a week, reveling in the detailed dark future spawned by the folks at Holistic Designs. I’d been skeptical at first – the game had gotten a lot of good press in gaming circles, but I find most dark futures to be so apathetic, so down right nihilist as to be unplayable. I do not want to revel in the darkness of my own soul – I want to be a hero!
But that’s not a problem with Fading Suns. The game does depict a distant, crumbling future in which humanity’s two great Republics have fallen, and a medieval stellar empire has risen in their place. It is a future in which the Church has tried to smother humanities hunger to explore, decrying technology as an evil so great that it is causing the very suns to fade! Serfs suffer and tremble before the might of nobles, psionic abilities have begun to peal away at people’s minds, and priests are able to perform miracles. It’s also a future in which an emperor is struggling to found a dynasty while fending off attack from royal houses, while mercantile forces conspired to forge a Third Republic.
It’s a universe where the very survival of humanity hangs in the balance, and where players can truly make a difference. They can succeed and lead the human race to new conquests and new heights … or fail and watch mankind collapse in upon itself as the suns themselves die.
But as great as Fading Suns is, the game sat on the shelf in my gaming closet for years. Theoretically, it wasn’t a lack of interest that caused the game to languish – most of the folks in my campaign were interested in giving it a try – but it was a game that utilized its own unique rule set, one in which character creation could best be described as laborious. Having everyone create characters for going to take time, explaining the rule set was going to take even longer, and all of it was going to have to be done using only one rulebook. It all seemed like a hell of a lot of work for a one or two night trial run.
So the game gathered dust for a few years. And then Fading Suns d20 was released late last year.
The great advantage to d20 is that it’s a subset of the Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition rules, and a heck of a lot of people play D&D 3E (including all of the guys in my gaming group). And that means that regardless of which d20 offspring you’re playing, 9 times out of ten your players are going to know most of the rules. Oh some of the details might be changed – for example, Call of Cthulhu ditches character classes, Fading Suns uses a skills-based magic system, and Godlike adds a “Cool” stat — but the core mechanics remain the same.
With Fading Suns d20 I was able to sit down with two of my players and run them through character creation without having to pause to explain what a “feat” or “skill” was. It still took a few hours to put characters together, but that was mostly because the players were intent on tricking out their characters … and we only had the one rule book. My own familiarity with the d20 rules was as important as my players’. When it came time to run the game, I – as the game master – already knew most of what I need to know. I didn’t have to fumble my way through, constantly referring to the rule book … I just ran it.
One concern I had was that Holistic’s role-playing intensive game would fall apart in the power-gamer paradise of d20. I shouldn’t worried: Holistic didn’t sacrifice the integrity of the game in order to jump on the d20 bandwagon – all of the great background for the game and most of the character complexity was faithfully translated to the new system.
What’s the secret of Fading Suns d20’s success? Feats … and lots of them! Fading Suns d20 has 75 – count ’em 75 – new feats. These are divided between general feats that improve skills or provide combat enhancements, and social feats, which are all about bending people to your character’s will, negotiating for powerful favors and – at high enough levels – even acquiring saintly powers. Characters – which the game suggests start at 3rd level — acquire these feats at a substantially accelerated rate over that found in traditional D&D. The end result is that Fading Suns d20 characters are just at cool as their traditional brethren, and that’s saying something.
The game isn’t perfect. The rules for modern and futuristic weapons — rifles, blasters and such – are barebones and don’t go far enough in addressing the eternal d20 questions of attacks of opportunity. My playtesters and I ended up just winging it. The game could use better online support: like most gaming companies, Holistic Design doesn’t offer any sort of FAQ on their site. It’s a shame, because I’ve always found FAQs to be the single most useful tool (aside from the rulebook) when it comes to playtesting a new game.
I always liked the Fading Suns critical success system, in which you could succeed at a roll by exceeding a target number – or really succeed by hitting that number dead-on. Unfortunately d20, with its unending quest for bonuses, doesn’t lend itself to that sort of system and I’m guessing the Holistic Design folks decided it wasn’t worth the pain to translate it. Still, it would have been a very nice addition to the game, and to the Open Gaming community in general.
Ultimately, I judged the success of this game in large part on the reaction from my players (although occasionally I do disagree with them). And my players loved this game. They loved the setting, loved the umpteen feats, and loved the firepower. It’s got us pondering how to fit a d20 Fading Suns game in with or regular D&D game, and finally moved my Fading Suns core book of the shelf. And that, I think, is quite an accomplishment.
The Fading Suns d20 Home Page
http://www.holistic-design.com/FSd20/FSd20.html (Internet Archive)
The official home page for d20 Fading Suns. Includes d20 character sheets, basic information on Pandemonium (one of the FS worlds), and Diplomatic Immunity, an introductory adventure set on Pandemonium. All are available for download as Adobe Acrobat files.
Fading Suns Yahoo! Group
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Fading_Suns_Games/ (Internet Archive)
A discussion forum for FS. It’s seen better days, but the traffic’s still coming in at around a hundred posts a month.
The Fading Suns Wordsmiths Guild
http://www.fadingsuns.de/ (Internet Archive)
A site dedicated to Fading Suns short fiction. It also has an NPC gallery.
A fan of Fading Suns 1st and 2nd edition reviews the d20 version.
http://www.d20gurus.com/reviews/012.shtml (Internet Archive)
A favorable review of the game, from a Fading Suns newbie.