Tuesday, November 18, 2014

History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part Three: 1988-1990)

In my last entry I looked at post-apocalyptic sources up through 1979. These included the books, movies, TV shows, and comics which might have influenced designers of the earliest games: Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World, The Morrow Project, Aftermath, and beyond. For this post I move forward into the Reagan-dominated 1980’s. It's a time that opens with cold-war paranoia in a new, strange form and ends with a desperate scramble to find fresh threats and enemies. RPGs faced the same challenge; some stuck with old stand bys while others found new apocalypses.  Last time I started with books, so let’s flip that. Tell me if I miss anything awesome. 

MOVIES of the ‘80’s
The Road Warrior (1981), She (1982), Warriors of the Wastelands (1983), Endgame (1983), Warrior of the Lost World (1983), Testament (1983), Yor: Hunter from the Future (1983), Radioactive Dreams (1984), Night of the Comet (1984), Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), Red Dawn (1984), Terminator (1984), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), Warriors of the Apocalypse (1985), America 3000 (1986), Robot Holocaust (1986), When the Wind Blows (1986), Solarbabies (1986), Cherry 2000 (1987), Creepozoids (1987), Hell Comes to Frogtown (1987), Steel Dawn (1987), She-Wolves of the Wasteland (1988), World Gone Wild (1988), The Blood of Heroes (1989), Cyborg (1989), Millennium (1989), Slipstream (1989)

A couple of thoughts. I think it’s hard to overstate the impact of The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome on gaming. I don’t just mean the whole genre of Autoduelling it sparked with Car Wars, Dark Future, and the like. Even more you see impact of those costume and set designs on the art and imagery of post-apocalyptic games of the 1980’s. All bondage tribesmen of later works spring from that. As well, clearly producers realized post-apocalypse movies could be made cheap. Get some patchwork outfits, head out into the desert, mix up guns and spears, and voila! You have a post-civilization wasteland. There are some terrible, terrible low-budget movies on that list above.

BOOKS of the ‘80’s
The Book of the New Sun series (Gene Wolfe, 1980), “The Pelbar Cycle” (Paul O. Williams, 1981), The Quiet Earth (Craig Harrison, 1981), The White Plague (Frank Herbert, 1982), The Dark Tower series (Stephen King, 1982), The Amtrak Wars series (Patrick Tilley, 1983), The “Ashes” series (William W. Johnstone, 1983), The Unforsaken Hiero (Sterling Lanier, 1983), Galapagos (Kurt Vonnegut, 1985), The Postman (David Brin, 1985), This is the Way the World Ends (James Morrow, 1985), The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1985), Endworld series (David Robbins, 1986), Fire Brats series (Various, 1987), Obernewtyn Chronicles (Isobelle Carmody, 1987), Swan Song (Robert McCammon, 1987), Wraeththu series(Storm Constantine, 1987), Wolf in Shadow trilogy (David Gemmell, 1987), In the Country of Last Things (Paul Auster, 1987), The Gate to Women’s Country (Sherri Tepper, 1988), The Last Ship (William Brinkley, 1988), Tea from an Empty Cup (Pat Cadigan, 1988), Plague 99 (Jean Ute, 1989).

I love how post-apocalyptic elements bleed into other genres here. We see fantasy blends, high literature, young adult, and even pulp action. Perhaps the most surprising thing for me is the sheer volume of shitty men’s adventure novels with a post-apocalypse dressing. You have to be of a certain age to remember when “Men’s Adventure” had its own section of the bookstore (filled with Mack Bolan and The Destroyer novels). I guess it shouldn't surprise me that the 1980's generated the equivalent of romance novels for survivalists.

OTHER MEDIA in the ‘80’s
TV: Thundarr the Barbarian (1980), The Day After (1983), V (1983), Threads (1984), The Tripods (1984), Amerika (1987), Knights of God (1987), War of the Worlds: the Second Invasion (1988)

Other: X-Men “Days of Future Past” (1981), Akira (1982), Vampire Hunter D (1983), Fist of the North Star (1983), Dragon Ball Z: Cell Saga (1984), Appleseed (1985), Ex-Mutants (1986), Wasteland (1988), Dark Future (1988).

I’m probably leaving off some important manga and anime. In particular I’ve seen several places refer to Robotech and/or Macross as post-apocalyptic. Are they? I’m not familiar enough with the series- either the originals or the American bastardization- to make any kind of judgment. I tried reading the Wikipedia pages, but it was beyond my ability to parse.

To keep this list easy to read I’ve tightened 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 consolidate “spin-off” supplements into a single entry. For example you may 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 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 1985 to 1987). I've arranged these by year and then alphabetically within that year. If you'd like to support this project, please check out my Patreon page.

1. High Colonies (1988)
High Colonies falls into the category of ‘pre-remaindered rpgs’. These games came from smaller presses in the late 80's and early '90's. Chessex, Greenfield, and other distributors picked them up and pushed them with the weekly new rpgs. They'd arrive and drop into the miscellaneous section of the rpg shelf, next to copies of Nightlife and Legacy: War of Ages. They'd sit there for years before eventually shifting to the used section to clear space. When I went to other stores I'd see the same books over and over again. I remember a decade later visiting a pop-up game shop which had clearly bought a cheap shelf-filler package. They had three copies of High Colonies in front of the complete line of It Came from the Late, Late, Late Show.

High Colonies doesn't offer much in the way of a game. It borrows and lifts from other systems and sketches things out loosely. But it does presnet a novel premise. Humanity has spread into the solar system, but a nuclear war renders the Earth uninhabitable. The survivors scatter across space stations around the solar system. Players generally take the role of mercenaries (i.e. space murderhoboes) hired to defend or attack these colonies. The concept's a solid one and it comes from designer Eric Hotz, well known to fans of Columbia Games. It has a crunchy, hard sci-fi edge to it. High Colonies reminds me a little of Space 1999 and more importantly the final stories in The Martian Chronicles.

I didn't even realize that this game had an actual setting. I'd assumed it was simply a comedic mish-mash. But according to wikipedia, "Macho Women with Guns is set in a near-future America where society has collapsed due to the misdeeds of the Reagan Administration. Taking advantage of the earthly chaos, Satan has dispatched his female minions, the Batwinged Bimbos From Hell, to rebuild society in a form he approves of. The Vatican has responded to Satan's plans by dispatching its elite group of warrior nuns, The Sisters of Our Lady of Harley-Davidson to combat the bimbos. The two groups of women compete (sometimes violently) to rebuild civilization by vanquishing post-apocalyptic menaces and male chauvinism."

People bought it. We always had copies going out the door at the store. The supplements…not so much (Batwinged Bimbos from Hell, Renegade Nuns on Wheels). It was as if the joke had been sold by the core book and few needed an expansion. The game did well enough to produce a revised edition, a d20 version, as well as translations into several languages.

3. Athanor (1989)
A French rpg, Athanor returns to a kitchen-sink approach for post-apocalyptic gaming. A virus has wiped out most of humanity, forcing them to live in thousands of tiny, scattered micro-zones with differing climates and cultures. Only large corporate entities provide any communication. Psi powers have developed during humanity’s time in these domed settlements. Athanor itself refers to an alchemical furnace, in this case the crucible of these settlements (I think). You might expect, as with many PA games, that players would be exploring the outside world. They would scavenge and observe changes. Instead Athanor focuses on the exploration of parallel worlds and micro-universes. That's an odd shift and shoves some of the apocalyptic elements into the background. The game didn't last long, with only a GM screen and a single setting supplement.

I mentioned before the Car Wars series of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. Those did fairly well for SJG Games for several years, enhancing the RPG side of Autodueling and giving solo players a chance to play. Freeway Warrior offers another CYOA post-apocalypse game, this time from Joe Dever, the author of the popular Lone Wolf adventure game books. The series wears its Mad Max heart on its sleeve. We have a stoic main character, Cal Phoenix (of course), leading a colony of survivors across a wasteland US while being pursued by a vengeful biker gang. The series did well enough to support four books. There's an interesting shift between the books’ simple and stark UK covers and the gonzo US artwork.

5. Mutant (1989)
Here's another game which might not qualify as post-apocalypse by my definition. But it does show how game lines can shift over time. The Swedish rpgs Mutant and Mutant 2 appeared previously. They're classic descendants of the Gamma World tradition. However by the late 80's cyberpunk had become the rage. Target Games decided to release a new version of Mutant borrowing more from that genre and Judge Dredd. While the game kept a dark, dystopian future with mega-cities, it ditched all of the classic radiation-created craziness. So mutated animals, youthful exploration of ruins, and the like vanished. Mutants still existed but as transformed humans, often discriminated against. Devastated lands between the cities remain, but this aspect is downplayed (as it was in the Judge Dredd rpg). This version is referred to as New Mutant or Mutant 2089 to distinguish it from the previous versions. It did decently enough to generate about a dozen supplements, several expanding the cyberpunk and netrunning elements.

Target would eventually shift the Mutant brand even further, resulting (via a twisted route) in Mutant Chronicles, which we'll see on a latter list. Like Cyberpunk 2020 or Shadowrun, Mutant 2089 shows the "apocalypse as backdrop" or perhaps "shitty future" genre. Something bad has happened and reshaped the world, but we're not living in the shadow of it. It is just different and life carries on. So these games are literally post-apocalyptic, but play doesn't revolve around those elements. You see what I mean?

6. Mutazoids (1989)
One of the pleasures of finally having Designers & Dragons in hand is the ability to check the history of some of these smaller, flash-in-the-pan companies and discover a world of zany complexity. Ken Whitman, a graphic designer, formed Whit Productions to release Mutazoids. He then formed another similarly named company to do a couple of games we'll see on the next list. Then after handing that company off to investors he became TSR's GenCon Coordinator. Still later he was at the heart of the fiasco which was Traveller T4: Marc Miller's Traveller.

Mutazoids offers an interesting post-apocalyptic future. Rather than a fully devastated world, we instead have a significantly changed Earth. An artificial plague kills off much of humanity, but more importantly causes genetic changes for children of the survivors. This results in beings with slight deformities (Acceptables), highly potent transformed beings (Mutazoids), and humans with hidden talents (Supers). Fear of the plague and these mutants has allowed the rise of a fascist, dystopian government. Strikingly you play not as these mutants, but instead as Enforcers- agents of the government attempting to contain the threat and maintain the power of the Second Republic. That's a different direction to take, especially given the awesome Minotaur dude on the cover. There's a mix of X-Men and Logan's Run here.

7. Road Rebels (1989)
*Cue wailing guitar riff* ROAD REBELS!!! Normally on these lists I avoid self-published games, but this one I had to cover. It looks to be a post-apocalyptic heartbreaker in the vein of Road Warrior. A commentary of RPGNet says "We've got Captain Planet meets Mad Max meets Mars Attacks." But to really taste the ambition, you need the back cover blurb:

"Road Rebels is the first role playing game designed with the serious role player in mind. In this very complete basic game are 16 pages of weapons of all technology levels, 30 pages of cars, trucks, buses, tractor trailers, and motorcycles, several creatures, poisons, acid, diseases and special equipment. An entire chapter is devoted to advanced combat rules that include fighting underwater, strangling, back stabbing, street fighting, and various other ways to thrash an opponent.

Vehicles can be highly modified with weapons, armor, handling modifications and engine modifications such as nitrous oxide, turbo chargers, or super chargers. Characters may drive their vehicles on or off road, in snow or in mud, up or down hills, run over buildings, cars, cats, or pedestrians that are in the way. Forget speed limits, road signs, and slow drivers. In Road Rebels when someone cuts you off you can cut him out.

Characters can become highly skilled in combat, in driving, stealth, perception or other obtainable skills. Characters may use any type of weapon including flame throwers, acid spraying guns, explosives, explosive ammo, swords, axes, clubs, knives, baseball bats, pool sticks, whips, chains, crossbows, pistols, rifles, shotguns, broken weapons or whatever else a character can get a hold of.

To survive in the world of Road Rebels one should be 12 years or older, be armed with a six and ten sided die, and be ready to take on the challenge of the exciting new world of Road Rebels."

That pretty much tells you the game's focus. And it’s impressive in being the first game for serious role players (as opposed to casual? non-professional?).

8. La Terre Creuse (1989)
A French rpg, aka The Hollow Earth. This apparently draws loosely from a series of sci-fi novels by Alain Paris. Humanity goes deep underground for many centuries following a massive event called the Silent Death. They evolve into a strange science-fantasy society ala Hawkmoon. The French reviewers at GROG draw strong parallels between the two settings. It feels like a revision of those ideas to utilize more complicated game mechanics. The setting’s equally complex with a mix of Vril Magics, micro-hollow worlds, decayed technology, and a weird high medieval vibe. I wish I knew French given the odd Google translation: "The dogma of the Hollow Earth, which is faith in what is called the current "Imperium," says that humanity is evolving not on the outer face of the earth, but on its inner face. And the sky, the sun ... the moon are bright spots hanging in the center of the Earth. In addition, there are other hollow lands, which can be accessed through passages located at the poles. The analogy used in the presentation of the world is "a sponge whose solid part consists of rock, to infinity and whose bubbles, holes, hollow home land."" The game itself doesn't seem to have done particularly well, generating only a single setting supplement and a GM screen. That seems to be the average for these these ambitious but flawed games of the period.

9. Age of Ruin (1990)
All I have is a few scattered scraps on this one. The description at Noble Knight Games states "A post-apocalyptic RPG, set around 80 years after a third world war caused by lack of natural resources. The dominant weapon was called the Red Death, a plague which killed by mutating the DNA of the infected. If you survived, your children were mutants. It uses a simple percentile attribute and skill-based system. Includes a fast-playing vehicle combat system, and an introductory mini- campaign/adventure." The back covers explains that "The Earth has been ravaged by environmental disaster. Humanity has been twisted by a diabolical plague. Mankind struggles for survival against savage mutants and a brutal environment. Only the brave and strong survive. WELCOME TO THE AGE OF RUIN."

Cutting Edge Games of Tempe, AZ only published this, as well as a single supplement Realm of the Beast. The cover is awesome and so 1990 as to be painful. None of the authors seem to have gone on to publish other rpgs.

A game which might be a little ahead of its time...not necessarily in terms of mechanics (it came from GDW) but more for its whimsy and subject matter. It licensed the comic Xenozoic Tales which ran from '87 to '96 across several publishers with a little over a dozen issues. C&D saw a heavy push across multiple media including trading cards, video games, and a cartoon show. In the future humanity escapes a ravaged Earth by building underground. After six centuries they return to the surface to find it overrun with once-extinct lifeforms. Now they must survive in this fallen world with only limited and rudimentary technology. It’s post-apocalypse mixed with pulp and dinosaurs. Cadillacs and Dinosaurs remains one of the brighter and more upbeat PA games published. Survival's still an issue, but there's an equally potent sense of fun.

Cadillacs and Dinosaurs never did well for several reasons. First, the license built on a thin comic book basis with few issues available. Second it never saw serious support from GDW. Third while the setting might be light, fast and pulp, the system is anything but. Instead it builds on the tactical mechanics of Twilight 2000, perhaps not the best fit. It might be a single 144 page book, but it packs a ton in: including a host of rules for multiple combat problems and situations. While the T2K system doesn't kill it, it doesn't help. I suspect even a fast and furious system (like say Savage Worlds) would have had an equally uphill battle grabbing market share with this concept.

An Italian RPG which loosely translates to “Sons of the Holocaust.” Italian publisher BlackOut released this after modest success with the fantasy rpg Lords of Chaos. Figli dell'Olocausto is a military-heavy post-apocalyptic rpg not unlike Aftermath or The Morrow project. A nuclear war in 2004 leads to mutations and the present chaotic state of the world in 2028. Some comments praise the interesting and crunchy approach, but they also point to major gaps in information and concepts. Others simply describe it as crap. BlackOut published nothing else for the game and seem to have ceased doing anything rpg related after this.

12. RIFTS  (1990)
Rifts is, for me, the ultimate Quantum game. It exists simultaneously as awesome and awful. From a distance, it seems amazing. Look at the concept: a nuclear war in a high-tech future results in the disruption of magical ley-line energies which shatter reality and tear the world open with rifts, allowing beings from across the dimensions to pour into and take control of various zones. That's brilliant. But then I collapse the wave function. I actually look at the rules, the layout, the system craziness. And that's so not what I want to run and play. Yet smart gamers I know and respect had their formative experiences with this rpg. Some still play it.

No other game has done multi-genre with a distinct setting as effectively as Rifts. It brings together supernatural, mutant, cyborg, psychic, elder horror, and divine elements in a way no other game does. Every supplement has amazing crazy artwork and cool ideas running through it, from Wormwood to Atlantis to Mystic Russia. Rifts takes place about 300 years after the cataclysmic event. The world has settled somewhat and now the struggle’s more for control than absolute survival. Palladium would later come back to consider the early post-event era with Rifts Chaos Earth. Rifts remains an important post-apocalyptic game, even if that concept does get buried under the sheer diversity of material. Also please note that I refuse to use all caps for the game's title in text.

13. Twilight: 2000 (1990)
When the first edition of Twilight 2000 came out, I still had nightmares about nuclear war. My father taught political science. I'd sat through several horrific documentaries about the effects of a nuclear exchange. He had maps in his office showing the impact and fallout from a strike in the United States. I used to compare that to other maps, trying to figure out what a nuke hitting Chicago or Detroit would do to us. By 1990 I began to have some hope about the future. I couldn't be sure, but things looked promising- at least as far as all of us not dying in a horrific nuclear blast.

GDW’s second edition of Twilight 2000 had several obstacles. It had to consider the geopolitical changes and evolution in game design. For the former it made several small shifts intended to make things slightly more realistic. It kept the concept of a limited nuclear exchange, combined with more realistic forms of internal collapse. As to game changes, GDW for better or worse embraced crunch and gunlove. Sixty plus pages of the revised version present weapon and vehicle cards. That makes sense- all of the gun, operation, and equipment guides published for T2000 sold like hotcakes. At the store we had a strong contingent of military buffs who bought everything even though they never played rpgs. GDW knew their target audience and kept an emphasis on combat and detailed resolution, even as they made a few allowances to open the game up. The second edition included rules allowing civilian PCs. In 1993 GDW returned and again changed the mechanics slightly to a 2.2 version. This was intended to bring Twilight 2000 in line with their house system and make it compatible with Traveller: The New Era. GDW also published a version of this, Merc 2000, which kept the super-crunchy mechanics. That allowed gamers to play mercs operating in various brush-fire wars.
14. Wastelands (1990)
Another Swedish game, Wastelands also shrugs off the legacy of Gamma World. However instead of cyberpunk, goes for a Mad Max look. I'm not sure if there's a good term to describe that gritty sci-fi trapping: Tribal? Autoexotic? something like that? However despite that appearance, this isn't a world of depleted resources. According to the translated wikipedia entry, "Wastelands takes place "after the disaster", thirty years after a devastating invasion from space creatures called byrr. A portion of humanity lives in the complex - City complex under byrrs control, while the rest live in the wilderness, so-called wastelands . The game is more focused on action than on misery." The game seems to emphasize gang conflicts and tribal warfare. Lancelot Games only published two supplements for this game before sliding into bankruptcy.

15. Miscellaneous: Post-Apocalypse Supplements
This time I have one genre-crossing supplement and one corner case to consider. I'm leaving off some items with incidental post-apocalyptic twists. For example some GURPS setting books include sidebar post-apocalyptic variants. Champions in 3-D (1990), on the other hand, includes several different post-crash parallel dimensions for use in supers campaigns. “Horror World” (alien parasites have taken over) and “Disaster World” seem the most obvious choices. They aren't classically post-apocalyptic, but the book does offer a toolkit for building such parallel worlds.

Other dimensions also factors into another game from this era: Torg (1990). I have to admit I never got into Torg because I wasn't sure what the hook was. Only after it had gone out of print did I discover its card-driven elements (something I usually dig). Like Rifts, Torg offers a multi-genre setting. But it places the characters right in the middle of a reality war. It isn't exactly post-apocalyptic, though several of the dimensions offer dystopian settings. Perhaps the closest might be the Orrosh or Horror Kingdom, but I'm uncertain. I'll need to turn to others who know Torg better than I.

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