Wednesday, October 8, 2014

History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part One: 1976-1984)

The Apocalypse vexes me. More than other genres I’ve tackled, Post-Apocalypse games seem obvious, but when I look closely I cut and add items madly. I suspect my picks this time will be more contested. And I haven't even made up my mind about Judge Dredd...

If a game self-defines as post-apocalyptic, I'll include it. After that I have some ground rules. First and most obviously there needs to be an apocalypse. This can be a war, conquest, nuclear exchange, reality warp, invasion, cataclysm, meteor strike, plague, infestation, or any other major event which devastates the existing order. That event may be in the far or recent past. Second, that event should shape the game in the present. So, for example, Mystara has the Blackmoor engine explosion which reshaped the world and changed everything. But that’s an incident in the distant past long forgotten and removed from the present world. Third, there’s a focus on survival in the setting. It might be personal survival, it might be the survival of a community, it might be survival of an identity. This can come in many shapes and forms.

Those three really define it for me. Several other elements commonly appear in these games, but don’t define it. Exploration, for example, is key to many. That may be physical exploration of lost or strange locations. But it can also include rediscovery of lost knowledge or reforging contacts shattered by the events. Some settings include changes or mutations brought on by the event, but that isn’t a defining feature. Relics of the past, while common, don’t define a post-apocalyptic game either.

Many games exist in the margins of the definitions- and I’ll be wrestling with those across these lists. My definitions cut out a number that- looked at from another standpoint- could have gone on. For example, I’m leaving off most cyberpunk games. Both Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun have cataclysms in the backdrop. For the former general societal collapse and for the latter the eruption of the Sixth World. They both have some wastelands, but those are just places to pass through. Otherwise the focus on the game isn’t the traditional play of post-apocalypse games- survival and exploration. 

I’ve also left off games where the focus is on fighting back against the apocalypse. In a sense the full effects of the cataclysm haven’t really happened. So I leave off 50 Fathoms, The Mechanoid Invasion, Necessary Evil and their alien invasions. On the other hand, I think Fantasy Flight’s Midnight qualifies as post-apocalyptic. Defeating the evil crisis remains an open question and the world’s been completely reshaped by Izrador’s conquest. Then again Base Raiders offers an interesting world crisis, but the scope is limited. The result is less a question of survival and more of exploitation so I won't include it. I also leave off “disaster” books which simply detail a collapse or crisis event, unless they include significant material covering campaigns run in the aftermath.

As we saw with the Horror lists, there’s an explosion of Zombie games in recent years. Some of these offer either a general discussion of zombies or a sourcebook for using them in different settings. Others present a distinct zombie outbreak and build a world around that. Generally if I have two or more Zombie games on the same list, I’ll group them together into a Miscellaneous: Zombie entry. I might break that rule if I spot something truly striking or worth calling out.

To keep this list easy to read I’m tightening the years covered. As we get closer to the present the lists expand and contract weirdly. I include mostly core books, but also significant setting or sourcebooks. I’m consolidating “spin-off” supplements into a single entry. For example you'll see at the end of this list isolated modules for a line using post-apocalyptic elements. Given the number of great things published I haven't included everything I want. I try to only list revised editions which significantly change a line or present a milestone. Generally I only include published material- print or electronic. I skip freebie or self-published games. I'm sure I've left something off without adequate reason; feel free to add a comment about a line I missed (if published from 1976 to 1984). I've arranged these by year and then alphabetically within that year.

I'd only just gotten the hang of cutting open giant rats to search for treasure when my sister tried out Metamorphosis Alpha on me. She didn't give me much information on this new game. I rolled up a weird character, wandered into a domed garden, and was promptly eaten. I only played Metamorphosis Alpha once, but I remember sneaking into her room and flipping through the book. I didn't get the game, except for the sense of desperate survival in a harsh environment. This wasn't about diving into a dungeon for loot. This was about being stuck in a horrible place trying to survive. I'd remember that later when the first horror rpgs arrived.

Metamorphosis Alpha is the first post-apocalyptic game, but strikingly doesn't use the post-nuke setting which would become a default in next several years. Instead characters were passengers of a giant seed-ship where things went terribly wrong. I made the connection years later when I watched Dr. Who's The Ark in Space and finally read Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky. The game itself is a wonderful and brilliant mish-mash. Readers have to disentangle the system from the setting. Every page is filled with wild ideas, but it will take a GM effort to bring everything together. While it eventually became eclipsed by Gamma World, MA set the stage for a new approach to gaming- one of the earliest sci-fi games as well as the first post-apocalypse rpg. While early D&D borrowed a little from Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival, this put that challenge in a new context. Gamers can still buy the original pdf and this year Goodman Games successfully launched a Kickstarter for a reprint which includes a mass of additional material.
Metamorphosis Alpha at RPGNow

2. Simian Conquest (1978)
I started gaming in the early, early days. I have strong memories of obscure games that sat on the shelf of the FLGS for years, but I don't remember this one. I could do a list of "non-licensed licensed-setting" games- including many where the company ended up slapped with a lawsuit. Simian Conquest's clearly the Planet of the Apes rpg (movie, not book). Some blurbs describe it as humorous, but that's not clear. You can play as an ape or as an astronaut. So it is kind of Post-Apocalyptic depending on your character, I suppose...and how much you stick to the plot of the movies. ("You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!")

3. Gamma World (1978)
And here comes the boom. We played Gamma World in the early days. It overshadowed Top Secret and Boot Hill as our non-D&D game of choice for years. And how can you not be drawn to this game? Look at that cover...what's going on there? And it actually conceals the sheer craziness inside. Gamma World takes some of the ideas of Metamorphosis Alpha- mutations, sci-fi, and survival and makes something new out of them. It cites several sources, including Ralph Bakshi's Wizards. That and the newly arrived Heavy Metal magazine drive the game. The interior illustrations go all over the place. But the game itself feels much more playable than Metamorphosis Alpha. Players can move through the book more clearly, character creation's up front, and the lessons learned from D&D's presentation shape the layout.

The crazy mess of the setting's possible because the apocalypse takes place in the 25th Century. In the far future a nuclear war breaks out resulting in a world of talking rabbits with bandoliers, stop-sign wielding madmen, and high-tech artifacts. Here's the thing- I never quite got that the "event" took place in the distant future. So more often than not I mixed bits and pieces of present tech into the setting (Walkmen tape players, Apple Macintosh). Gamma World existed in a weirdly flexible state (which actually makes the most recent "reality warp" edition make a little more sense).

From Gamma World I learned a classic trope of post-apocalypse games. Young tribal members have to go out into the wilderness to find something to save the village or carry out a rite of ascension. We'd end up doing that dozens of time. Gamma World presented a world of anachronisms, showing that any tale or trope could be rebuilt with a science-fantasy frame. It offered a more robust system of random mutation tables. Players could choose their type, but beyond that had to settle with their results- good and bad. It made rolling up characters a desperate and fun gamble. One awesome element, little used in modern games, was the random artifact interaction table. Players rolled on the flowchart to see if they could figure out how to use a device, break it, or set it off in their hands. It was a great system and one worth lifting for other games.

Gamma World got modest support from TSR, with only two modules GW1: Legion of Gold and GW2: Famine in Far-Go released for it. They also put out a GM screen. It went through several printings, with IIRC different colors on the booklet cover. According to wikipedia, TSR planned to do Metamorphosis Alpha to Omega which would have adapted the earlier game to the new rules. But the publication of a second edition of GW in '83 (see later on the list) put the kibosh on that.

The Morrow Project always seemed like a reaction to the gonzo weird of Gamma World. Everything about it seemed serious and adult. I avoided it because it looked like a 'mature' the stark presentation did nothing to grab my tween imagination. In Morrow Project, the PCs play frozen sleeper survivalists awoken in a post-nuclear war future. It aims to be more realistic but still adds pseudo-scientific elements like flora and fauna mutated by the radiation. It focuses squarely on survival and exploration, with perhaps even a hint of being a building game as you try to find other survivor caches. Morrow has a definite military vibe to it, with our "out of time" characters organized as teams. In that regards its a precursor to other gun-love and military games. Artist Richard Tucholka would go on to design the crazy and elaborate firearm systems of various Tri-Tac games (see some below). Supplements included Personal and Vehicular Loads and Vehicular Blueprints: Volume I, but they also released several modules. I'm not sure about the full edition history, but the most distinct revision seems to be 2013's The Morrow Project 4th Edition.

5. Aftermath! (1981)
Fantasy Games Unlimited scared me off for many years. My sister ran me thorough character creation for Chivalry & Sorcery once, I flipped through Space Opera a single time, and one of the smartest people I knew, Gene Ha, spoke lovingly of the complexity of Aftermath!. It sounded too heavy. Eventually I broke down and started picking up FGU games, but I always steered clear of what I assumed was the insane detail of this game. Looking at it now...I think I was a little right. Even knowing the weird math and design choices in games like Bushido and Daredevils, Aftermath's still a big shower of crazy detail and odd game focus. So many figured stats and totals, a two-page combat flow chart, strange look-ups, location-based hits and armor class, labeled hex grid examples for everything. It feels very wargamery- like a reaction from grognard gamers bothered by the loosey-goosey nature of other games. However Aftermath! had a solid following, supported with several supplements.

The oddest thing for me is something the game actually hides in its box set presentation. The cover blurb describes this as "A Role Playing Game set in a Post Holocaust world." The back cover expands that a little but doesn't offer much detail. That obscures one of the most interesting things about Aftermath!, that it actually offers a generic game system combined with a toolkit for running post-apocalyptic games. The first book of the core three included doesn't even mention the setting. Instead it is a 60 page set of general rpg rules- not unlike the booklets included in early Runequest and other Chaosium games covering Basic Role-Playing. But this is significantly more detailed. It might have been one of the earliest generic rpg products if it had been published separately. Book two covers character creation, but still avoids concrete setting. Book three finally addresses that and talks about options for the kinds of "Ruin" that could come to the world- nuclear, biological, social- and the implications of the passage of time. Its almost too much- where a few detailed and concrete examples of different settings might have made it more useful. Aftermath is interesting and a fascinating artifact of the time. But post-apocalyptic GMs might find the tools and ideas on offer in the campaign book worth looking at.

6. Car Wars (1981)
While Car Wars began as a board game, it evolved into a pseudo rpg. The basic game offered a simple post-collapse backdrop with warriors competing in arena contests with weaponized vehicles. It drew from Death Race, Mad Max, and Damnation Alley. But as the game expanded, the designers fleshed out that setting, resulting in the creation of Autoduel America. Gazetteers and a GURPS supplement would solidify that as a complete world playable as a board game, miniatures simulation, or rpg. The game itself evolved to incorporate more rgp elements. Each supplement- Sunday Drivers, Truck Stop, Dueltrack- added on to that. Eventually we got adventures like Convoy, Mean Streets, and Ultraforce which pretty much confirmed the game's status as an rpg.

Side Note: Car Wars is interesting in creating a distinct sense of place. Some of that came from the need to construct a game-able setting. While it's a post-collapse setting, there's still a strong sense of civilization. It isn't The Road Warrior. Survival's a question- less so exploration. Games Workshop went a slightly different route with Dark Future, buying more into a full apocalypse. Car Wars also blurs the line between board game and rpg. It combines elements of both, but leans towards the former. Other rpg board games like Mordheim: City of the Damned, Necromunda and Confrontation: Dogs of War can be easily distinguished in having players control and manage multiple characters. But what about Inquisitor or MechWarrior? RPG Geek lists both of those as rpgs, despite the heavy miniature focus of them. Yet it rejects Wreck Age, which is a role-playing game that has additional rules for playing the system as a skirmish game. Clearly there's still some controversy.

7. Gamma World 2nd Edition (1983)
I'm hesitant to mark out Gamma World 2e as a distinct item and edition, but there's a key change here. It isn't in rules themselves. GS 2e tightens the system, expands important material (like mutations and monsters), and adds a wealth of material for the GM. But what really clinches it for me is the presentation. If the original Gamma World's a product of the 1970's- basic layout, weird ordering, gonzo art, and hodge-podge feel; then Gamma World 2e is the 1980's. Here outsider ideas and images have been carefully repackaged and re-presented. No longer does it feel like an underground comic, instead it looks and feels like a Saturday morning cartoon version of heavy metal. The elephant in the room here is 1980's Thundarr the Barbarian. Every gamer I know who saw it said the same thing: Gamma World the Cartoon. And we loved it for that. Of course Lords of Light, the short documentary on the creation of Thundarr makes no mention of that, citing other sources. But we know better. This edition of Gamma World wants to be popular and tries too hard.

I didn't pick up Gamma World 2e at the time. The look didn't appeal to me and I'd begun to gravitate to superhero and spy games. Once again TSR supported it modestly, with only two modules, a GM screen, and a character sheet pack. Within two years they would be back at the well. The next edition would make a more radical shift and be much less backwards compatible.

8. Mutant (1984)
Sweden has a long and interesting history of rpgs. On G+, Olav Nygård, has been posting about their history with the tag #swedishrpgs. He says, 
"In #swedishrpgs , the post-apocalyptic slot is occupied by Mutant. Originally borrowing its rules from Drakar och Demoner and everything else from Gamma World, it has since evolved in multiple directions...Featuring a dude in a Luke Skywalker-esque pajamas and a rainbow, the cover of Mutant 1ed signaled that the apocalyptic future might not be such a bad place after all."
Mutant has a specific setting, with devolved technology and deadly radiation zones. Like Gamma World players can be mutated humans or animals. It was supported by a number of supplements and went on to spawn several editions. Modiphus will be releasing an English translation of the most recent version, Mutant Year Zero this winter.

9. Paranoia (1984)
Paranoia offers a different post-apocalypse world. The apocalypse has changed things and you have to fight to survive but your challenges aren't the wilderness and monsters, but bureaucracy and your fellow clones. Paranoia draws from another strain of sci- fi. Instead of Moorcockian weirdness, Paul O. Williams' fallen America, or Ellisonian rad survival, it draws more on Stanislaw Lem, Aldous Huxley, and A Canticle for Liebowitz. It offers a black dystopian comedy- and a product completely unlike any other rpg of the day. We'd had attempts at injecting humor and rpg parody articles, but nothing sustained itself and carried through like Paranoia.

And that may be why I had a hard time thinking of this as a post-apocalyptic game. As I mentioned in the intro, I left out some games where there's been a collapse, but that collapse serves more as backdrop rather than framing the game. You could argue that's the case with Paranoia. On the other hand I'd believe the Big Whoops and what it spawned colors everything about the game: the Cold War paranoia rewritten, pop culture mistranslated, a collapse which scrambles sense into nonsense. Add to that the day to day tension of existence and I think you have a remarkably PA game, though jammed into an enclosed space. Ironically once later Paranoia editions got outside and presented details of the collapse and the world, it destroyed much of the setting's tension.

Paranoia's a great game. Its the only game I've ever won a tournament of. And one I won't run. Every single time I ran it, I ended up with angry players and in-fighting regardless of how I framed things. I loved reading the books and rules. The early editions are smart, funny, and completely unlike anything else going on at the time. I'd say Paranoia's essential reading for anyone considering a post-apocalypse game. It might not have exactly the tone you're seeking, but consider how these elements could be dialed in your desired direction- or how a few moments of levity might make what comes later even more horrible. 

This is an odd one. In Rhand a space colony is overrun by an alien invasion force known as the Spectrals. Now five hundred years have passed since that invasion. What results is a devolved world of mixed technology and barbarian sensibility. Think the Horseclans novels with alien invaders. The result is a mish-mash which could be seen as post-apocalyptic or as straight sci-fi. More interesting is that Leading Edge Games went back and reworked this concept into a much more conventional setting with Living Steel. That game's still crazy and over the top, but it embraces high-tech, superweapons, and sci-fi over the fallen sword & science setting of the original.

11. Twilight: 2000 (1984)
Twilight 2000 was the new hotness around our area for a long time. We had a strong wargame and miniatures community. T2000 ended up drawing from that pool as well as rpgers. It smartly hooked into mid-1980's Tom Clancy, Red Dawn, Reagan-era sensibilities. I picked up the core set, but only a played a couple of sessions with it. I knew several micro-armor players who loved it- as well as my friend Gene. He's always been attracted to details and he had an infectious enthusiasm about the T2000 concept.

Twilight 2000 stakes out a territory for itself as an authentic and realistic rpg experience. I'm not saying it is, but that's certainly how they positioned the game. And while there had been other military rpgs before this (Merc, Recon, Commando), this game lifted that genre out of niche status. Its also the first post-apocalyptic rpg to put the players straight into the still-smoldering ruins. Scattered characters from across the armed forces have to figure out how to survive and get home in the wake of civilization's collapse. Or they have to figure out how to construct some kind of order- military or social- in a world gone mad. No mutants, no talking animals- just tanks, guns, and societal collapse.

There's a phrase my wife uses, "Machine Love," to describe games filled with the minutiae of gun lists, equipment guides, and vehicle annexes. To her they represent a weird, collector-like fascination with stuff over people and characters. They're often wargamery or power fantasy games. I don't think they're a bad thing: that's an experience some people appreciate from games. I grew up fascinated by Palladium's weapons books, the Q Manual, and Guns, Guns, Guns. It's that lizard part of my brain that still has a fondness for Twilight 2000. Think about this- we're nearly as far on the other side of their predicted apocalypse as they were when they pinned it to the future.

12. Miscellaneous: Post-Apocalypse Supplements

Several supplements for other games take advantage of a post-apocalyptic setting. The earliest of these is Security Station (1980). I could never get enough gaming in when I was young, so I'd pick up Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures and Metagaming Microquests for Melee & Wizard. I can say with some certainty that I never legitimately finished one. I'd get killed off quickly every single time. I ended up using them like CYOAs and simply reading through. Of those Fantasy Trip adventures, Security Station remains one of the strangest. Your fantasy characters have to go through a gate into an atomic wasteland to raid a hi-tech bunker on this ruined Earth. Effectively it was Expedition to the Barrier Peaks mixed with nuclear war. I remember the dungeon being dangerous and arbitrary. I wish someone would reprint these adventures- perhaps even make them available as a playable online resource.

A few years later saw OMEGAKRON (1984) arrive. Developed for the bizarre Lords of Creation rpg, this one had the party trapped in a future post-nuke Akron, OH. This weird module can still be picked up for cheap. Also in the early 1980s Richard Tucholka developed a host of rpgs. Notable among them is Fringeworthy, a cross-dimensional travel rpg (which the later Stargate looks suspiciously like...). Rogue 417 (1984) is a sourcebook for Fringeworthy which presents a world where a bioweapon spread across the world, unleashing zombie-like creatures. That may make it the first zombie rpg. This material can be used as a world to be explored or else as the starting point for a campaign. Likewise Invasion U.S.! served dual purposes as well. It could be used as a new location or as the basis for a Red Dawn-style game. That's a little outside my definitions, but I thought it worth mentioning.