Tuesday, December 23, 2014

History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part Five: 1994-1996)

Keep Calm and Remain Indoors
Last time I broke down post-apocalypse games into four sub-genres. These aren’t precise but help me understand how games fit or don’t fit here. The first group I called Aftermath. These games take place during or in the immediate aftermath of the cataclysmic event. Survivors must discover how to deal with this new world. Alternately they may also be able to fight against and limit the apocalypse. In these games, some time may have passed, but most characters went through the trauma of the event.

I have a hard time drawing a line for some of these games. At what point do these become post-apocalyptic? If the fallout from “The Event” is still happening, but the players can stop it, does that count? For example, in Last Best Hope, the disaster movie rpg, we have scenarios where PCs rush to stop Armageddon and some where they work to reverse it. Consider the difference between the films World War Z and Shawn of the Dead versus something like Dawn of the Dead or Resident Evil: Armageddon. In the former we have an outbreak, it is catastrophic, but society recovers from it- status quo restored. In the latter, that’s never going to happen. Civilization has been crushed. We can never turn back the clock. This question arises again with several Call of Cthulhu supplements and White Wolf’s entire Time of Judgment event.

Another version of this sub-genre has an ongoing secret war against the apocalypse. A couple of games on this list use this, implying their war’s far gone enough to tip things over. The seal’s been broken and the conflict has changed the world. Other secret wars aren’t as clearly post-apocalyptic. For example as awful as Kult’s setting is, it comes across more as modern urban horror. The same for Werewolf the Apocalypse or Demon Hunters. In these cases the war has been fought for a long time. Secret War rpgs I’d consider post-apocalyptic usually have a recent outbreak or event.

Why think about this? For me, that you can’t go back is central to post-apocalyptic stories. That doesn’t necessarily mean a hopeless world. Many of these games focus on rebuilding, but to something new and different, shaped by the texture of the apocalypse (military, biological, environmental, etc). Some shift the premise entirely to survival. That’s usually a darker approach. But if the characters can turn things around and rebuild their old world, then we haven’t really seen an apocalypse.

Whatever You Do, Don't Think About the Event
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 1994 to 1996). 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. Earthdawn (1993)
I have to begin this list with a major retcon. I left Earthdawn off the previous installment. I think it rightfully belongs here. I saw some comments dismissing that from gamers who’d played it as a more straight fantasy setting. But we have an apocalypse here. And that is the Scourge, a time when other-worldly Horrors scoured the land. Various nations and peoples, desperate to escape the impending apocalypse, built great underground cities, called kaers. After 400 hundred years, those have opened. The peoples have begun to move out and explore the ruins of their world. In many ways, it reminds me of the Morrow Project, with groups of people leaving from these isolated enclaves to explore the rest of the world.

While GMs can present a more explored and conventional world, Earthdawn lends itself to post-apocalyptic themes. We have the recent event leaving a lingering fear across civilization. We have exploration of a strange and unknown world. We have rival factions rising up to seize control. We have artifacts of the ancient past to be found and figured out. We have the threat of contagion and the possibility of the remaining Horrors. We have peoples transformed by the events. Some supplements for Earthdawn focus more on this than others. For example Parlainth: The Forgotten City combines the feeling of a classic dungeon crawl with the sense of exploring an post-disaster ruined city. Other supplements do more to fill in the spaces of the world. I prefer the former to the latter, I like the idea of an uncertain world. It lends itself to a kind of hex-crawl exploration.

2. Marauder 2107 (1994)
Various apocalypses (apocalypti?) run through Japanese manga and anime. In some cases we get the wasteland wandering of Fist of the North Star or Appleseed. Or we have Armageddon as continuing battle as in Blue Gender or Casshern. But I'm struck by stories where the apocalypse remains unexplained or hidden, like Big O, Evangelion, or No. 6. Sometimes civilizations exist in enclaves without any explanation. That's simply a facet of the setting, like Ergo Proxy. Sometimes there's an ongoing crises changing the world but somehow they keep it hidden, like Betterman. Someone with more experience than I could break down those themes and tropes. At a glance, it seems to me that Japanese popular media has a different relation to these ideas than Western.

Marauder 2107 runs those anime concepts through American eyes. It offers an extensive timeline of collapse and war leading up to a nuclear exchange in 2093. The game itself takes place in City State Pacifica, a surviving Japanese archaeology. Marauder takes its cues from Appleseed here, but with more interaction and description of the wastelands. Transformed creatures, called Breeders, offer a non-human biological threat. The game lends itself to a tech-heavy urban or survivalist wilderness campaign. It isn't a bad setting, just a little generic. The system reflects the designs of the era- crunch and specific detail especially for equipment and machines. It clearly owes a debt to Cyberpunk and other R.Talsorian games. Maelstrom released two supplements for this, Breeder Compendium and MAR-13-M.

This Hungarian cyberpunk-esque rpg has an interesting twist. A series of comets strike the Earth, destroying humanity. This leaves the Martian colonies stranded and alone in a hostile environment. Plus there's an alien invasion. Double the apocalypses. It offers a classic dystopian setting, with mega-corporations running the show. This edition was apparently problematic in system and presentation. The books fell apart. The designer wasn't paid, the company didn't follow up, and the line died. The game’s premise reminds me a little of Red Faction and Mars: War Logs

4. Dark Sun (1995)
Dark Sun is TSR’s most radical and ambitious setting. It breaks furthest away from conventional fantasy. Planescape moves into the multiverse, but remains about the established rules. Spelljammer shifts the action into pseudo-space, but it is still in contact with all of the usual TSR fantasy tropes- including the other settings. But Dark Sun shatters that, killing the usual gods and twisting magic. Yes, we've got some familiar races, but this world has changed them, in some cases making them the old things in name only. And, of course, psionics, the black sheep of AD&D, makes its return here.

You may note that this is another entry which properly should have appeared on an earlier list ('91). I can get away with this a little because 1995 saw a revised boxed set. This expanded the physical setting, added more maps, moved the timeline forward, and fixed some of the problematic psionic rules. It also changed the look of the line, not for the better. Dark Sun had extensive support for many years, with much of that now available in pdf form.

The apocalypse of Athas hasn't been a suddenly thing. Instead consists of a gradual depletion and poisoning. A dying sun and the use of Defiling Magic leaves ecological disaster. The people have adapted, becoming as brutal as the world itself. I'd put this in the "Civilization in the Ruins" rather than "Forgotten Earth" sub-genre because those causes still remain and threaten the world.

Is this the most disrespected edition of Paranoia? Yes. Tragically this ended up being West End Games' last stab at the game. Beginning with the goofy joke of the title (i.e. skipping two editions), Paranoia 5e took a cartoony approach to the material. That includes artwork which took a nosedive in quality. This version aims for a purely Zap! style of play, and even that's presented in the shallowest way possible. Later fans, designers, & editors expunged this edition from their memory, declaring it an “ungame.” WEG only released one supplement for this edition, Creatures of the Nightcycle, a parody of Vampire: the Masquerade. Allen Varney cited rumors that this edition saw a 90% drop in sales. Keep in mind at the time WEG was also heavily investing in the various MasterBook lines (as you can see from elsewhere on this list). Apparently in response to fans' reaction WEG worked on a third edition, but this never saw the light of day as WEG went under.

This came out the same year that Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins kicked off their immensely popular Left Behind series. I don't know much about those books except they generated a terrible movie and Jesus blows people up. Religion and RPGs have always been strange bedfellows. Christian panics may have actually helped D&D garner attention in the early 1980s. I know a few people hid their gaming from their family for fear of an intervention. At the same time we've seen attempts to reconcile gaming and faith, like DragonRaid and Redemption.

And then there's something like Rapture, which borrows from Christian mythology but twists it around. It offers players a modern setting with a war between the Celestial Forces and Lucifer’s Infernal Armies. But any faith will do and players can take on those to aid them. Plus the Vatican's probably behind it all. Rapture describes itself as "A Roleplaying Game of Theological Terror." All the various Horsemen roam the world and its up to the PCs to fight against them in a secret or not so secret war. This version did well enough to produce a single supplement and a GM screen. When Holistic Design jumped into the d20, they produced a new version- Rapture: The Second Coming (d20 edition)- for d20 Modern. That brings striking designers like Bill Bridges and Andrew Greenberg on board.

7. The End (1995)
Another post-Biblical Apocalypse rpg, The End embraces the Rapture and deals with the question of those left behind. Publisher Scapegoat Games is notable for having been kicked out of Gen Con for violating guidelines regarding religious materials with this game. The premise is striking- Armageddon has come and gone. The elect have been taken to Heaven, the dammed have died and been sent to Hell. But a portion of humanity remains, those not given over to either side. God shuts down the shop and humanity's meager survivors are left to run a world trashed by divine conflict.

The End takes an aggressive approach, buying into a certain kind of gaming punk rock aesthetic. The back cover includes a mature reader warning, ala Black Dog Games products. It focuses on a scattered America divided into various colony regions. The everything decays faster and some magic exists, but it remains modest. Campaigns seem to focus on scarcity and hopelessness. The original d10 based version of The End only did well enough to merit a GM's screen. However a few years later Tyranny Games released a more successful d20 version. That's the trend with several of these late 90's experiments. It’s interesting to look at the striking and colorful original cover versus the stark approach of the more recent version. Tyranny Games supported the line with three campaign/adventure modules, but the collapse of the d20 market seems to have swallowed them.

There comes a point when I look at the list of properties West End Games licensed for Masterbook and I think: "What were these guys on?"* So we have Tank Girl, based on the movie which bombed that same year. That unfortunately means the sourcebook doesn't focus on the original comic by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin. That's a wonderful, crazy beast which, of course, looks a lot like Gorillaz (which Hewlett co-created). Even when drawn by other people the comic had a manic energy. It remains beloved, with a large format Tank Girl book funding via Kickstarter in less than 48 hours.

But here we have an rpg setting for the pretty terrible film based on that. It's a slightly surreal post-apocalypse outback wasteland. Water's the most valuable commodity, controlled by an evil corporation. And there's mutant kangaroos. The focus is on goofiness and scavenging. I don't know what else I can say about this. The problem is that the movie's such a mess and slipshod adaptation of the original material, I can't imagine what the rpg's like. And yes, I know some people love it as a cult classic. But…this…?

*I say this as someone who pitched a version of a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen RPG before the film came out.

And this completes our trilogy of Final Revelation games for this period. My experience with this comes from the later Eden Studios version, Armageddon: The End Times Corebook. I ran a couple of demo scenarios for that at conventions. In this setting a warlord has arisen and changed the world, sending civilization into chaos. He's probably the Antichrist, but that's not entirely clear. As a result everything has become dark, violent, and paramilitary. Armageddon's a strange game which doesn't always make clear what players are supposed to do. Instead it presents a situation and leaves it at that. When I put together demos, even having studied the background, I had a hard time pitching it.

Is it Twilight 2000 meets Kult? On the one hand there's a heavy fascination with the military, vehicles, and weaponry. A later fan-developed supplement, Armed Force focused on this with a book even longer than the core volume. On the other hand, Armageddon contains another kitchen-sink approach to the supernatural. Players can run run Scions of the Gods, Nephilim, Atlantaens, wizards, other gifted, and even just vanilla humans. There's a blender full of cosmologies here. Armageddon falls squarely into my Aftermath category. The apocalypse has already begun and maybe the players can mitigate it or maybe they'll make it worse.

10. Asylum (1996)
In Asylum the skies have been covered an airborne algae called the Blanket Seed. In turn the world has gone mad. In this wasteland civilization has been reduced to Wards, collections of the mad. Inmates, Staff, and Orderlies, all insane, live there. This is a dark, low tech game where players struggle to survive in these awful places. There's a strong sense of setting here, but perhaps not a great sense of what the play is like. Asylum focuses on exploring concepts and seeing how much more mad your character will become. It offers a rule-light game with a strikingly different apocalypse.

Sidebar: One of my favorite Philip K Dick books is Clans of the Alphane Moon. In that humanity has exiled the mentally ill to another planet where they've formed different communes based on their particular diagnosis. It’s not a sophisticated book but striking for its consideration of the topic in 1964. Dick himself had his own struggles with mental health. Why mention this? Because how weird and off-key that book seems to me now. It always makes me leery when I see books, movies or games treating mental illness as a plot device.

11. Blood Dawn (1996)
As I've said before, the '90's is a fertile graveyard of games. Stand-alone games with weird settings, maybe supported by a supplement or two but more often than not simply vanishing into the discount rack of stores. Blood Dawn’s back cover offers a nuclear war followed by a world of "Magic, Mutations, and Machines." It has the look of a kitchen-sink approach. Mad Max with superhumans, cybernetics, and wizards? My favorite review describes this as "a busy product." Players have a distinct role in the setting, as "Prophets." These enhanced agents act for benevolent Guardians attempting to rebuild the world. 

12. Taiga 3rd Edition (1996)
Set in a post-apocalyptic Russia, an environmental event has devastated the world. The aim and tone of Taiga seems to be low-tech survival in a brutal environment. While it has mutations, those are more a plague than a gift. Overall it offers be a dark and awful setting. The Taiga of the title refers not to the landscape type, but to the handful of survivable areas remaining. There's little in the way of fantasy or chrome here. This third edition appears to be the only one published in North America, released by Renaissance Ink, a miniatures company. I haven't found anything about the earlier editions, but a European fourth edition appeared the following year. This cleaned things up and came on higher quality paper. It also stripped out the system for cybernetics to focus on the brutal, survivalist tone of the game.

13. The World of Aden (1996)
I came late to computer rpgs. I never played Zork, Bard's Tale, Wizardry, Ultima, or any of the other classics. I think Might & Magic VI provided my first taste of that genre. I missed all of the great SSI games, including the many legendary “Gold Box” D&D ones. Drawn from another SSI computer game, World of Aden appears to be a sword & sorcery game with a Thundarr or even steampunk vibe to it. It’s actually built on a trilogy of novels I'm having a hard time finding anything about. Only one volume appears to be in print...with a review by Shawn Carman on Amazon. West End Games, in their explosion of licenses for MasterBook, went into production based on those novels and a pair of games. In Aden There's an event called the Darkfall destroying civilization, making it an Aftermath game, but there's also hints of lost technology. Though it didn't do well for WEG, apparently there was enough interest to Kickstart of a Pathfinder version of the setting. The difference between the earlier cover and the new one is pretty hilarious.

14. Miscellaneous: Other Games
A few rpg books fall in the post-apocalyptic margins during this period. I list couple of fantasy games above, but I'm not sure if Fifth Age DragonLance falls into this category. This takes place thirty years after the second Cataclysm of Krynn. It feels like the shake-up which hit Mystara- a change and shift in the status quo, but not a total destruction of the world. Another TSR product, The 24-Hour War, is a Gamma World-themed Endless Quest volume. I have a hard time imagining how you contain the craziness of that setting in a CYOA novel. The irony here is that this book is the last Gamma World product TSR ever published. During this era everyone had some form of CYOA line. Mammoth, I believe had a couple, including the” Virtual Reality Adventure line.” Its Heart of Ice ('94) has a frozen Earth controlled by a mad supercomputer.

Less marginal are a couple of products for existing lines using post-apocalyptic themes. Steve Jackson games produced GURPS Autoduel (Second Edition) ('96). The original GURPS Autoduel had been one of the earliest sourcebooks for GURPS. It had been supported by a host of supplements cross-designed standard Cars Wars. By the mid-90's that line had declined, with the only new product being a revision of the Car Wars Compendium. This new Autoduel vanished quickly. End of the World: Three Cases of Climatic Confrontation offers a set of adventures for Call of Cthulhu designed to end the world (or at least a campaign). Each could be used to jump off into an apocalypse. Until Pagan kicked into high gear, Triad Entertainment produced the best and craziest third-party CoC adventures.

Finally, I’ve left off a product I’ve seen a couple of places describe as post apocalyptic, but I think falls into the more desperate and awful: HōL aka Human Occupied Landfill (’94). Dirt Merchant developed this parody game, but White Wolf published it via “Mature” imprint, Black Dog Games Factory. Some people love it, and some think it grabs low-hanging fruit in its scatological, forced punk approach. Taking place in a literal human dumping group on a distant planet, HōL’s about survival but as much in a meta-sense since the game systems designed to squash you under its thumb. So while it shares some of the themes of the genre, I don’t think it fully fits.