Opening with a Setting Introduction, which describes the variety of game types that you can play in this bleak yet chaotic apocalypic future-Earth, a setting rich with a wealth of opportunity for those brave, perhaps vicious, enough to sieze what they want and defend it against all comers. The background is explained, a gradual decline brought about by wars, economic catastrophes and environmental damage: no single apocalyptic event but a succession of disaster after disaster that brought once-green Earth to its present state of barren wasteland scattered with giant city-fortresses ruled by warlords.
Scene set, Chapter 2: Races looks at, well, the races available to players. The default is, of course, human beings - as described in the 'Humans' section of the Dungeons & Dragons 4e Player's Handbook. However, if 'fantasy' elements are required, the use of this ruleset means that the D&D fantasy races are compatible - even if they are explained away as aliens or from another dimension within your game. Or there are other options here: you might want to play an android, for example, a robot with artificial intelligence that has developed self-awareness... a process which tends to end in insanity. The formulae of D&D 4e have been used to good effect with such as 'Play an XXX if you want...' and powers for androids being renamed 'skill programs' - very neat retooling of the ruleset to suit the game setting. You could also pick a cyborg, a human with a lot of prosthetic enhancement and replacement. Stranger are the experimentals, subjects of mind or body altering biological experimentation, and gene freaks, who are genetically engineered humans, altered to excel in one specific area. Strangest of all, perhaps, are the risen, who have died and been restored to life by technogical means.
Next, Chapter 3: Classes examines the different career paths that characters can follow. Different races tend to be better at different classes, but you can enter whichever one that you wish. There are three to choose from: athlete, diplomat and specialist. Fantasy classes from D&D can also be used, the most suitable being those that draw on the martial or psionic power sources... unless you want to go really fantasy, of course. Athletes excel in melee, specialists in ranged combat, whilst diplomats use their minds and their charms to achieve desired outcomes. For each, a wealth of exploits and other features enable you to customise the character within these broad categories to end up with whatever you want. It's clear that plenty of thought has gone into these.
Chapter 4 then presents some paragon paths for those who reach 11th level and choose to specialise further. These are based on past history and inclinations, not on any specific class, and all are available to any character. Relic hunter, killer, high-tech gladiator, free agent, king of the streets, tunnel rat... it's the style in which you go about your adventures, the areas in which you wish to excel, that determine which, if any, you choose.
Race and class decided, on to Chapter 5: Skills and Feats. There are two new skills - Psych and Science - to equip your character to deal with the world as it is now, as well as notes on how to adapt existing D&D skills to the setting, in particular how to use knowledge of nature to forage in the wastelands. There are plenty of setting-specific feats to choose from as well. This is followed by Chapter 6: Equipment and Vehicles, so that you can kit out your newly-created character. In this setting, each fortress-city has its own currency, often held in electronic format: fine whilst you stay in one place, but what if you are visiting, or travel around a lot - or just have to leave in a hurry? Once you move on, electronic funds need to be converted into something more tangible. Precious metals and gems are a standard, of course, but drugs, medicines and ammunition are also popular. Then on to armour and weapons, and more general gear including medicines, food, and the various necessities characters are likely to need. An interesting point is that gear is defined as the stuff your character has that makes a difference to his being able to complete the adventure. Services - from lodgings to those of 'sex workers' and even a scale of bribes - and vehicles are also included here.
Next is Chapter 7: Experiments. Here are described several protracted procedures that characters might wish to undertake. They fit an analogous position to the 'Rituals' of D&D although they can involve the use of a wide range of skills. So if you wish to reanimate a fallen character, or persuade one of those archaic satellites to give you a view of the world from space... here's how. A character sheet blank, and off you go...
Despite the overview of the setting given at the beginning, the GM is going to have to engage in quite a bit of pre-game designing: surroundings, personalities, as well as whatever adventure is to take place. This work gives you the tools and a glimpse at the setting, but more work is needed before you will be ready to stride forth and adventure in the Altered Earth. What is here is good, clearly presented, consistently thought out... but it feels almost as if there's a second part to the book yet to come.
[4 of 5 Stars!]