Monday, November 24, 2014

History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part Four: 1991-1993)

When I approach these lists I usually have a sense of the genre: the trappings, what belongs, what doesn’t. But as I research and make choices, the boundaries inevitably shift and change. I see how others define this and what they consider vital themes. Post-Apocalyptic has struck me particularly because I came in with a decidedly narrow concept. But I’ve seen a range of games described by designers and players as apocalyptic. And usually their choices make sense. So I need to disrupt the limits I set up in the first post in this series.

We can break up Post-Apocalyptic/Apocalyptic games based on three sets of identifiers. The first is the game’s relation to the apocalypse- i.e. how long ago it happened and how prominently that figures into the play. The second considers the main play features of the game: survival, building, exploration, etc. The third breaks these games down by the source of the apocalypse and its impact. This still leaves some fuzzy boundaries (AFMBE’s open approach makes it harder to read), but it may help reveal why gamers consider these games post-apocalyptic and how they play.

Here’s how I’d divide games based on when the apocalypse happened. I’ll stick with examples drawn from these lists so far.

Aftermath: Games set in during or in the immediate aftermath of the cataclysmic event. The survivors must figure out how to deal with this new world. Or they may also be able to fight against and turn back the apocalypse. While some time has passed, most characters went through the trauma of the event. (Freedom Fighters, Twilight 2000, Apocalypse)
Children of the Fire: At least a generation has passed since the devastation of the world. A new order has emerged, but there remain those who remember the old ways. Knowledge and technology has not faded, but communities may not be able to act on it. Emerging civilizations have come to accept the current status and work to carve out a role in this new world. (Car Wars, Future in Flames, Mutazoids).
Civilization in the Ruins: Decades, generation, centuries even have passed since the destruction of the world. New civilizations and orders have risen and fallen. Ruins remain, as well as artifacts of the past. The devastation has become a story, reworked and retold. But it remains a shadow hanging over everything. Things from the time before may still emerge and threaten. (Gamma World, The Morrow Project, RIFTS).
Forgotten Earth: Enough time has passed that the previous world has become myth and legend. Only the faintest traces and palimpsests remain. Elements of the previous world exist purely as touchstones for the players rather than the characters in the world. (Hawkmoon, La Terre Creuse, Synnibarr)

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 1991 to 1993). 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. AfterWars (1991)
At first this looks like a classic post-apocalyptic game featuring a devastated earth, mutant wastelands, and battles against deadly gangs to survive. It posits an alternate earth where Gorbachav’s failure leads to a nuclear war between the US and USSR. But AfterWars offers a twist in the form of "Universe Joints." These features apparently lead to alternate dimensions. It reminds me a little of the French Game Athanor. I don't know much beyond that. I feel a little stupid because I remember Afterwars at the game shop for years, but I'm not sure I even flipped through it. How do these other dimensions work? If the world's so awful, what's keeping the players from resettling a better parallel dimensions? I haven’t uncovered enough about the set up to comment. Afterwars apparently has a simply system, with a strong military emphasis like so many of these post-apocalyptic games.

2. WarpWorld (1991)
The RPG industry has several quiet and unheralded masters. Greg Porter is one of them. His system designs have evolved, from TimeLords to CORPS to EABA. He's been involved with gaming for many decades, developing a devoted following and creating solid games. They don’t break the gaming world open and they're retro in many ways. But they're smartly designed and cleanly laid out. Through all of the ups and downs of the industry, BTRC has continued on.

WarpWorld's interesting- and the cover has a Thundarr vibe to it. It offers a post-ruin society, but with a twist. At the beginning of the 21st Century Old Gods and Elder Beings return to our universe. This changes the very fabric of existence, bringing back magic and disrupting high technology. Humanity's development is forced back about a hundred years. They must uncover new principles and integrate science with new fantastic ways. There's a hint of Shadowrun here, but taken in another direction. But instead of adapting and blending with the tech, the world shift destroys it. WarpWorld includes two versions of the setting: one in the immediate aftermath and another 300 years later. It’s an interesting game and potentially useful as a sourcebook for this campaign type. My only real critique is that the name WarpWorld has more of a sci-fi ring to it.

3. The World of Synnibarr (1991, rev 1993)
Synnibarr stands for several rpg archetypes. It fits squarely into the Forgotten Earth sub-genre mentioned above. Last list I mentioned Rifts and how crazy that could be. Synnibarr is much worse and much more over the top. It makes Rifts look as restrained and crafted as Kagematsu. Synnibarr offers an insane, kitchen-sink, multi-genre rpg set on a hollowed-out Mars 50,000 years in the future. Earth has been destroyed and even within this planetary spaceship a series of disasters have wrecked civilization. (Yo dawg, I hear you like apocalypses so I put an apocalypse inside your apocalypse).

I looked through Synnibarr several times at the store. Some describe it as a fantasy heartbreaker. That may be true. I don't think I can do justice to the mechanics. But responses to the actual material have been divided. Darren MacLennan's RPGNet review ends with the phrase "May God Have Mercy on My Soul". On the other hand, Roger Mier presents a more balanced assessment. Synnibarr has an extensive entry on TV Tropes and has been the subject of a Something Awful excoriation. Yet SA turned around and helped support a more recent Kickstarter to bring back Synnibarr. So, perhaps more than any other game I'm presenting on this list, YRMV.

Additional Note: I've been thinking about Synnibarr since I did my first draft. Mechanically, it’s a goofy game with strange options and a desperately stitched-together feel. But it also feels like so many early homebrews I played or heard about in the 1980's. I recognize the impulse to put in everything you can and come up with awesomely cool names, crazy sets of choices, and a deep setting backstory filled with weird elements in it. More than anything else Synnibarr feels like a naked translation of someone's earliest campaign setting. And I think you have to at least admire the ambition there: to write all of that up and publish a massive volume like this? That's energy and drive.

4. Gamma World (1992)
There's an interesting move in the early '90s with several companies shifting (some might say flailing) through iterations to develop a workable and semi-universal house system. You can read GDW's changes with Twilight 2K 2.2, Traveller THE, and Rolemaster Standard System in this light. GURPS, Storyteller, and Hero had all demonstrated that lines could have synergies or support multiple game settings. TSR would first try to bring everything in line with a new version of AD&D before banking on Amazing Engine. There's some irony that WotC's d20 would fulfill some of those ambitions much later.

The fourth stab at Gamma World ditched the color-coded chart system of the third edition. The original source of that system, Marvel Super Heroes was seeing its last releases at this point. GW 4e tried to bring the game in line with the newly revised AD&D 2e mechanics. Striking there's also a move to move of a scavenger, early GW aesthetic in the artwork. Third edition had focused on a certain kind of techwank, especially with the covers. There's some of that here. For example the Gamma Knights boxed set focuses on battle armor (and is as much a board game as an rpg supplement). This edition gets some love on the boards today- with many feeling it brought the game back to its roots. Gamma World 4th got five supplements, a mix of adventures and sourcebooks. However by Gen Con 1993, they announced that there would be no further development of the line. And so Gamma World dropped off screen again.

5. KinRise (1992)
Nightlife's an overlooked horror game. It anticipates the modern "monsters as heroes" genre as a dedicated rpg, arriving the year before Vampire the Masquerade. But Stellar Games never managed to grab market share. They offered a more humorous take and lacked the graphic design chops to build an approachable image. White Wolf knew how to focus and create a brand. Instead Nightlife generated goofy experiments like Kinlife. Here the warring tribes of monsters have to survive after a nuclear apocalypse.

The setting material drops the players straight into the craziness. When sweep from fiction to history and then by page twelve we're into a Radiation Effects table. I love how handwaving and nuts this is- we're not going to explain what we're doing; have some more rules. That's not to say the material isn't interesting. If offers a solid consideration of the resource crunch these monsters now live under. Their "Herds" have been decimated and scattered into isolated, xenophobic enclaves, making survival and quiet hunting more dangerous. KinRise also offers striking factions, a neat take on how these monsters evolve, and several new mechanics for the game. It may be a niche, but for GMs wanting to run a post-apocalypse with classic monsters, KinRise offers an awesome resource. Even the much later Mirrors doesn't offer the same level of zany concepts.

The second edition of Mutazoids seems to be more an expansion than a significant revision. It seems to expand the setting more and offer a starting scenario. As I mentioned for the first edition, this game has a changed rather than fully devastated 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. You don't play as these mutants, but instead as Enforcers- agents of the government attempting to contain the threat and maintain the power of the Second Republic. Whit Publications supported this with a single sourcebook, Mutazoids City Source Book, complete with typo-filled jacket copy.

7. Mutant R.Y.M.D (1992)
Sort of a sequel to New Mutant (as seen on the last list). This evolves the Swedish pseudo-post-apocalyptic setting further. Earth's Mega-Corporations have spread into space. But when they reach a mysterious 10th planet, Nero, they unleash an ancient supernatural evil. So suddenly we have elder horrors in space- complete with some monsters and elements borrowed from Kult. This version of Mutant lasted briefly before being shut down. I'm uncertain if the switch was to retool things further or instead start with a clean slate. Target Games came back almost immediately with Mutant Chronicles, as you'll see below.

8. Sun and Storm (1992)
This one's hard to find much about. Sun and Storm appears to be a fantasy setting with a broken world backdrop. That also includes lost technology. There's mention of technomantic devices, and a Wyrmship Technical Manual. It seems to fall into the Forgotten Earth sub-genre Tim Kirk's capsule review on mentions, "While covered only briefly it’s an interestingly different approach to Fantasy, Dragon's created the Universe, Storm Dragon's are twisted and evil and Sun Dragons good and light, or something like that, what is really interesting is when it gets to the point that the world was once a beautiful paradise of technowizardy until Hectizor arrived killed cities, and animated the corpses of the dead as Kreidempek Shock troops and sent them out to destroy more cities and so on....but who's Hectizor?

Well he’s a Stormwyrm, evil and malevolent and trying to destroy the beauty created by Saurileth named Merdesaur, and ye sguess what that the PC's homeworld. While it is suggested that Space Travel is possible it is covered in the game though they mention Wyrmships which are ships of technomagical power created in the image of the Wyrms."

So I suspect this is a kitchen-sink heartbreaker which uses post-apocalyptic elements purely as trappings.

9. Wizards (1992)
The year Whit Publications released Mutazoids 2e, it launched a licenses it clearly thought would take the gaming world by storm (as well as a WWF rpg). Ralph Bakshi's Wizards remains a striking and important film for those raised in the 1970's: mad, psychedelic, and a weird mix of fantasy with post-apocalypse no one else has captured. It is part comedy, part sexy-times fairies, part legendary quest, part undead armored Nazis from the future. I never did more than flip through the main book, but online commenters regard it as a decent, if workmanlike adaptation of the material. Digital Orc has an overview on his blog.

Whit supported this line with several publications within a year or so. Players got the obligatory character sheets and GM screen supplements, but also Montagar and Scortch. Both are detailed 80-page regional sourcebooks. I'm surprised to see Whit published that much for the line. I recall the core book sitting on the shelf at the local store and then vanishing, never restocked. I heard and saw almost nothing about it in the years which followed. I'd assumed it was a flash in the pan like so many others.

Wizards the film influenced a lot of early role-playing. You can see some of that in Gamma World. The movie itself came out in '77, but had a cult following through VHS tapes and cable presentation. The designers clearly felt that was enough to sustain an rpg fifteen years later. But I have a theory- and I may be wrong. Wizards was wild and crazy and it inspired people. In the early 1980's I saw at least three distinct homebrew campaigns lifting elements from Wizards, Heavy Metal, and other sources (in one case Gor, ugh). Gamers had already begun to shape multi-genre, weird apocalypse games with these elements and ideas. It isn't a reach from there to Rifts or Synnibarr. So by 1992, games had already assimilated these concepts, rendering this less interesting. Or it could be distribution problems or rise of White Wolf...not sure.

Acorner case for this list, but an interesting example of throwing down an apocalypse to remix a setting. By 1992, Basic D&D and the Gazetteers for the Known World covered a lot of ground. Yet plans were still on the books for products to expand and extend the setting and the line. Then Wrath of the Immortals hit, smashing the world with seevral cataclysms including a massive asteroid strike, destruction of a continent, spread of elemental plagues, and so on. It allowed players to participate in these world-shaking events, but only at the highest Immortal level. But most groups looked to it more as setting material. Wrath of the Immortals felt like split between metaplot goofiness and an attempt to bring new ideas to the line. However the different messages out of TSR at the time suggest incoherence rather than a solid game plan.

I've covered the Gazetteer line before- and I love many of them. Rather than revitalizing the line, Wrath of the Immortals stuck a dagger in it. It signaled a transition to AD&D 2e and away from the Dungeons& Dragons Rules Cyclopedia. More importantly changes created by this cataclysmic event didn't resonate or grab players. Those who had bought all of the previous material felt alienated. I deliberately haven't reviewed products like Karameikos: Kingdom of Adventure and Glantri Kingdom of Magic because they disappointed me so much. They took solid earlier ideas and ran them through a shredder. I'm sure my reaction comes from attachment to the originals rather than any objective reading. In terms of post-apocalyptic elements, it is worth nothing that the Known World builds on Blackmoor's original "spaceship engine blows up and changes the world." Wrath of the Immortals has some links to that, particularly in revelations about magic and radiation.

11. Apocalypse (1993)
Before Mayfair emigrated to Catan, they made awesome rpg products (and non-awesome ones to be sure). Their Role Aids line landed them in hot water with TSR several times. That's too bad since the line produced some great stuff like Arch Magic, Demons, and The Keep (ok, maybe not that last one). Apocalypse is a boxed set describing how to destroy your fantasy setting. Written by Jonathan Tweet, it offers a toolkit for apocalypses and a fully developed apocalyptic campaign. The latter's quite well done- although marred by Mayfair's odd layout and text design choices. The toolkit is particularly awesome and talk about setting up, playing out, and resolving various apocalyptic scenarios. Post-apocalyptic fantasy GMs will find this immensely useful. The book also includes a substantive section on how to run games in the wake of your cataclysm. While unavailable as a pdf, you can often find copies of this in good shape online or at conventions. Highly recommended.

I have to lump this in with a retcon for a previous list, Buck Rogers XXVc (1990). I grew up with the Buck Rogers movie and TV show as major, terrible influences. Even as a kid I knew they weren't good. But I looked forward to the Space Nosferatu episode and the one which looked like they would reference Star Wars but instead had Chris Sarandon revealing his dark secret: a detachable head. The movie has Rogers going into the nuclear wasteland ruins of Old Chicago in a particularly harrowing scene. But post-apocalypse plot vanishes after that. I'd written that off as an oddity. But after asking around it turns out those post-apocalyptic elements frame the original stories and setting. You wouldn't know that from Buck Rogers XXVc which emphasizes space battles, high tech equipment, and a clean design that only slightly harken back to the originals. It mentions a devastated and recovering earth, but that's second fiddle to SPACE!

When this version of BR didn't do well enough, TSR went back to the well with High Adventure Cliffhangers. It looks cool and definitely wants to buy into the original pulp look and feel. The game's more streamlined. Where the original borrowed from AD&D, this one aims for a lighter approach. It returns to the original Buck Rogers premise. Instead of an interplanetary Martian enemy, we have the Han Empire. America has been destroyed and various gangs battle over it. From Asia, The Han have emerged to seize control. There's more than a little Yellow Peril on display here, but I'm unsure how much of that made its way into the RPG. TSR only published the core set and a single supplement. War Against the Han. I like the idea of a pulp post-apocalypse game- with unrealistic depictions of radiation and a 1930's look to everything. That might be a setting worth exploring, especially if you flipped around some of the colonial and potentially racist elements.

The elephant in the room when talking about Buck Rogers is Lorraine Williams. Williams took over TSR in 1986. You can see some discussion of that in "The Ambush at Sheridan Springs" and in Designers & Dragons overview of the company. The important thing to recognize is that Williams personally had the rights to Buck Rogers. That may explain the hype for the setting across TSR in the early 1990's, including both board and role-playing games. She pushed the company to publish these products and TSR in turn paid her family royalties.

13. Mutant Chronicles (1993)
I'm really curious about what pushed Target games to kill off Mutant RYMD and immediately republished with this new version, Mutant Chronicles? Did they want to remove associations with the old Mutant line? Was there some kind of designer or internal struggle at the company? Or did they realize that this property could be both an ass-kicking, testosterone powered rpg and a potential threat to the rising dominance of GW with Warhammer 40K? Regardless of the reasoning, Mutant Chronicles spawned a strong line: card games, miniatures, video games, multiple editions of the rpg, and even a Ron Perlman film.

Mutant Chronicles has a wild and distinctive art style, though you can clearly see the influence of Games Workshop on presentation and design. MC takes the basics from Mutant RYMD but refines and develops them. In this bleak future techno-fantasy, a dread supernatural force known as the Dark Legion has been unleashed. The solar system has been devastated in the battle with these corrupting, undead and demonic legions. Humanity itself has been splintered into distinct factions- each with their own agendas and secrets. While it might look as over-the-top as Rifts, Mutant Chronicles has a strong central setting and premise. It is a gonzo military rpg. While other missions are possible, the presumption is a team of hardened heroes waging war on corruption (either human or Necrophage).

Mutant Chronicles would be Target Games' second game quickly translated into English. The first was Kult and you can see some of those influences here. They published several full color sourcebooks for Mutant Chronicles, many of them splatbooks for the different factions. I owned almost all of these, inherited from my late friend Barry. He loved the setting but like me, found the actual mechanics more than blah. Target produced a 2nd edtion of the game in '97 but did little to support it. Instead the rpg portion dried up and the setting moved on weakly in other fields.

I'm a big hypocrite. Above I condemned TSR for their setting-smashing with Wrath of the Immortals. Now I'm about to talk admiring about GDW's bravery in changing up Traveller. The New Era threw away most of the world and setting building of the previous decade and a half. For many reasons interstellar society and trade has collapsed, leaving multiple worlds in ruins and creating chaos. Most importantly "The Virus" pushed this collapse. A free-floating consciousness which infected and moved through electronics, The Virus took over infrastructure in many places. Infected "Vampire" fleets and automated cities killed their inhabitants. The shift opened up several new play modes for Traveller veterans and raised the stakes for survival and exploration. One of the striking themes present is the fragility of human survival in space.

Traveller: The New Era polarized the community. Many resented the destruction of the established setting. Multiple companies had spent years developing various sectors and concepts. Now players found that material invalidated. Others found the shift refreshing, allowing them to reuse older supplements in new ways. They also appreciated the integration of grittier and more modern sci-fi concepts into the Traveller universe. Certainly the shadow of Cyberpunk hangs heavy over the new version. GDW also took the opportunity to rework the mechanics, making TNE a house system and reworking Twilight 2000 into v2.2 to bring that in line. The New Era got some strong support, but financial problems at the company meant that it only lasted a few years. The next versions-Marc Miller's Traveller (4th Edition) and GURPS Traveller- both rolled back and did away with the concept of collapse.

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