Tuesday, September 29, 2015

History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part 16: 2012)

A few weeks back, a commenter had a couple of problems with these lists. On the one hand, they disliked the format and appearance. That’s a fair cop. Blogger offers limitations to the presentation. I’m sure I could improve that with some study, but I’ve been lazy about that. For example, I haven’t changed the the site's background in a couple of years. So, I’d agree, but I haven’t figured out how long it would take me to figure out how to improve it. Of course, if the complaint’s more about style, that’s a harder question. I don’t have standard approach to the entries;  they swing between description, commentary, and review. But from experience, I know I have to do that to keep myself going.

On the other hand, the commenter also said the list had glaring omissions. I tried to follow up to see what those might be, but didn’t get a response. So I’ve gone back though these Post-Apocalyptic lists to hunt down what they might be addressing. I have one idea which I’ll put to you readers.

Is Cyberpunk post-apocalyptic?

In particular, let’s consider the big two games: Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun. When I first started these lists, I specifically left them out. My reasoning was that while they had "collapse events," those hadn’t been “apocalyptic.” The world transformed, but not destroyed. As well, IMHO key elements of post-apocalyptic games didn’t how up (Survival, Exploration, Rebuilding, Recovery). But since that first list, my definition has expanded. Hence we have plenty of "Dying Earth-Far Future" or "During the Fall" games. And Shadowrun has a pretty catastrophic series of events and dramatic changes. That makes me less confident in cyberpunk's lack of focus on Armageddon disqualifying it as post-apocalyptic. Perhaps my eventual desire to do a separate list of cyberpunk games clouds my judgement?

So I don’t know. What do you think?

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 material or sourcebooks. I consolidate “spin-off” and miscellaneous supplements into a single entry. For example at the end you'll see round-up entries with 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 in 2012). I've arranged these by year and then alphabetically within that year.

A Polish rpg set in a post-apocalyptic America. Again I ask your indulgence in my translation synthesis. In this game, it seems that a group of aliens allied with the Communists in the 1950s. This set off a century and a half of conflict. Now America has nearly fallen while dark matter and extra-dimensional forces have corrupted the Earth. The game has a mixed atmosphere. It mixes Fallout, Red Dawn, and Twilight 2000. That combination harkens back to older military rpg themes. But there's a dark fantasy undercurrent, not unlike Eden's Armageddon. The term "grotesque" pops up in the descriptions, which I assume is a buzzword the publisher has invested in. Two supplements, Combat Zone and Hard to Kill, have been released to support the core book. Everything looks striking. Despite it not appealing to me, it's nice to see how the vibrancy of the Polish RPG community.

This offers a supernatural post-apocalypse horror setting, but different from any I've seen before. A figure with a strange philosophy of absolute altruism wreaks havoc on the world, demanding everyone aid one another with no compensation- spiritual or otherwise. Those who refused were taken by creatures from The Between. The game itself takes place ten years later with the players forced to choose between acceptance & submission or a struggle to take back the world. I have yet read this, just synopses and read-throughs. Written by Matthew McFarland it uses a playing-card based resolution system. The system takes into consideration the loss of PCs and how that can act as a spur for the rest of the group. That's not an element I've seen in other post-apocalyptic games. curse the darkness has many interesting ideas. It has been supported by a companion, Infinite Shadows, and a fiction collection, The Road to Hell on Earth

A French rpg, Deus l'Ascension offers another alternate history. In the 1980's a demonic invasion devastates the Earth. The timely arrival of "Arelians" bearing potent magics halts the infernal force. Twenty years later humanity struggles in the ruins to rebuild and take back a now-divided Earth. The demons remain out there, feasting at the edges. I think the players either play Arelians or their students. There's an interesting mechanic which has PCs tracking various "soul stats" to cast magic. There's also a strong focus on the military struggle between the sides. Apparently this product arose from local micro-financing; I assume a European version of Kickstarter.

I've mentioned how much I appreciate tools for community development and building in games. Survival, exploration, recovery, and community are the legs of my ideal post-apocalyptic game. I like the idea that challenges can connect to communities and as a player I can invest in expanding those. I like how Apocalypse World and Mutant: Year Zero handles these issues. But often, even when we have those options, the game itself buys into kind of nihilism and a "might makes right" approach. The naked power of a dictator may be bad, but it takes violence to bring them down.

Flatpack's a response to that. You play WRENCHs moving through a ruined world in a quest to discover instant buildings, the Flatpacks of the title. The intent of the game is problem-solving in the face of obstacles, rather than blasting through or battling adversaries. Players bring their characters' traits to bear in an effort to reduce and fix problems. Flatpack describes itself as an optimistic rpg and so rewards constructive and creative solutions. There's a focus on puzzles- logic, physical, etc- used as tabletop elements. The Flatpacks themselves can be play objects- printed out as rewards for the group to arrange and assemble for their home. It's a cool game and one which would work across age ranges.

A pdf-only Australian game, Frankenstein Atomic Frontier lands on the main part of the list because the designers supported this with several supplements and a large revised edition which landed this year (2015). A series of wars eventually led to the creation of a new science and a new "Adam." Eventually while the conflicts devastated civilization, artificial and reconstructed beings still roamed the lands. You play one of these beings, wandering the landscape and trying to find spare parts to keep your body functioning. You have to deal with the few remnants of humanity as well as other genetic projects (like Uplifted Beasts). FAF uses card-based mechanics for resolution. The system places a lot of emphasis on finding new bits and bobs to attach to yourself, which is kind of cool. It reminds me a little of Rippers, but more organic (inorganic?) to the characters. 

Allow me to once again suggest that an awesome Bundle of Holding would be all of the classic Deadlands: Hell on Earth material. Please! In any case, Pinnacle released a new version of this setting, adapted to the newest version of Savage Worlds. The essential premise remains the same. We start with the original Deadlands setting then (Mumble Mumble) we're in 2074 and there's a big nuclear war. Hell on Earth takes up in the wastelands a decade and a half later. It offers a kitchen-sink setting worth exploring. However where the original edition got two dozen supplements, this one only ended up with two: an adventure collection The Worms' Turn and the Hell on Earth: Reloaded Companion. Both of those came out last year, so I don't know if that represents the end of this line.

As I understand it, Stars Without Number offers a pretty awesome OSR sci-fi game. Other Dust is set in the same universe and considers the fate of the lost Earth. In this setting, Jump Technology required the use of Psychics. An incident known as "The Scream" drove those psychics insane, resulting in devastation. Responses and failsafes blew out and rained death from orbit. The powers of the mad psychics combined with high tech weaponry. Satellitel defenses destroyed urban centers and transformative weapons wreaked havoc on the population. Ten generations passed, changing the landscape and humanity itself. Some of those psychics still remain, mad, exiled, and sustained by genetic advancements now lost.

I like it and the game doles that detail out in a tight single page. Just as the set up's a throw back to classic games, Other Dust's mechanics feel familiar. Roll for classic stats, pick package/class, determine mutations, roll HP, and pick starting equipment. And if that rundown put you in mind of games you already knew, then you're probably halfway to knowing the rules here. Most of the necessary mechanics show up in the first 50 pages of this 200 page volume. The layout's spartan, but it works. It isn't as evocative as old Gamma World, but it conveys the tone. So that's all good. But that's not really why you should buy it.

You should pick it up for the rest of the book. That contains the classic bits you'd expect: extensive weapon & equipment sections, a wild bestiary, a sample area, and adventure guidelines. But beyond that is a massive toolkit for post-apocalyptic GMs. Random tables to generate ideas for all kinds of things: enclaves, cabals, trade items, adventure types. It's all here and it's great. We've seen a few books with these kinds of resources before, but I think Other Dust does the best job. The ideas and structures here could be adapted for any sci-fi post-collapse game. It's well-written, dense, and cool. Highly recommended.

This is a setting and campaign background built on the d20 Modern SRD. It's good to see designers still enjoying and wringing new approaches out of that material. PAB takes place in a New Orleans overseen by Baron Samedi, an apparent necromancer, fifty years after WWIII. I was a little surprised by that combo. This setting adds in some magic, in particular the Occultist class. That's apparently significantly breaks from the classic d20 Modern mechanics. At a glance it looks like there's a focus on the making of magical objects and fetishes. The rules also include more classic near-future fare like cybernetics and robotics. About 40 pages of the 230 page book covers the fallen NOLA setting, including factions, city sections, and a host of NPCs. The rest covers mechanical aspects like exploration hazards, post-apocalyptic combat, and magic. This supplement has two versions, the complete GM's version and the truncated Players Guide. The latter contains just a portion of the former. However buying the pdf GM's guide also gives the purchaser four free copies of the Player's Guide (a nice touch). It's nice to see setting specific city material like this. Post-Apocalyptic Blues could be an interesting resource for other games, but so much of the book covers the mechanical bits. But if you dig the idea of a radioactive New Orleans for your PCs, you might consider this.

First, a digression. When I'm running down these games I check against my own copies, online reviews, and pdf previews. I try to get constrcut a sense of the game from those pieces. In the case of Reclamation, I went to download the large preview pdf from RPGNow. At the same time I started up Neutral Milk Hotel's album “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea." The pdf didn't finished loading in my browser until I hit "Holland, 1945" (aka song six). Then I clicked the button to save the pdf to my drive so I could look at it later. When the album finished, it was still downloading. Serving preview pdfs probably sits low in the queue for RPGNow, but having a 54 Meg file for a 40 page preview seems a tad excessive. tl/dr: optimize your pdf files ffs.

Reclamation came about from a Kickstarter campaign, thus proving that for every KS RPG project I'm aware of, a dozen hidden ones exist. This is another kitchen-sink post-nuclear setting. It includes mutations, magics, nano-transformations, psychics, zombie sickness, and so on. That's presented in dense and muddy nine-page prologue. I lost track of events and details. In the end I wasn't sure what to take away. That may be intentional: perhaps aiming to obscure things so the players don't have a solid foundation. I'm not sure.

The game has just as dense character sheets: traits, talents, secondary traits, combat stats, vital damage recording, personal state trackers, plus secondary pages for anyone running mages. It's not a light system which surprised me: since it's card-based. It employs standard poker decks for resolution, with each player using their own. There's some interesting bits in the system (like Masks of Experience which seem to correspond to Keys for other systems). The classes and abilities seem highly tuned to this dark and gritty setting. The mechanics (including equipment, powers, resolution, and GM's guide) take up the majority of this nearly 300 page book. While references throughout help spell out the backdrop, the full development of the setting's reserved to the prologue, epilogue, some of the adventure creation aids, and sample groups. A tiny portion of the book. If you're interested in a new setting, this may not be of as much to you. If you're hunting for a complete new game and/or resolution system, Reclamation has you covered.

But a word of warning: you'd better like crammed text. The book uses a tiny font in two columns combined with dark page frames and minor watermarking. It can be hard to read, especially the font used for boxed text. That's not a deal-breaker for some gamers, but it definitely presented an obstacle for me.

So here's an odd one. Survivors of the Fire released in 2012. However the following year the designer shut down his DriveThruRPG shop and removed everything from sale. I'm not sure of the exact reason. The Facebook posts indicate that having them on the site took some effort, more than it was worth just to leave them up. So he closed down the company. The most recent FB post for the company state the designer had been thinking about returning to making games, but ultimately decided against it.

That made getting information on the game more difficult. It seems to be set in an alternate history where a NBC (nuclear/biological/chemical) war in the 1970's destroyed civilization. The game takes up in 1980 as the PCs deal with the coming Long Winter. Beyond that, the mechanics seem to have been conventional (rolled attributes, skills, d6 basis). The designer released a couple of supplemental products: panels for a GM screen, a truncated version of the core book for players, and an adventure collection called Embers.

Originally the winner of the 2011 RPG Geek 24 RPG Contest, Toypocalypse got a revised edition in 2012. You play sentient toys in an eerie world where all humanity vanished. The buzz line reads: Toy Story meets Lord of the Flies. In only 18 pages it offers a tight explanation of the background, a character creation system with interesting choices, resolution mechanics, and a wealth of novel ideas. Each toy has Pneuma and Morale. The former measures the strength of their soul and the latter is simply their will to press on. The vanishing of humanity remains the great unexplained mystery of the setting. But the toys have little time to consider that and their own sentience, having to deal with survival and dictatorial plushies. Designer Trevor Christensen has also released an introductory campaign supplement as well, Toypocalypse Falls. This thirty page booklet details a location and the factions present, as well as offering tips for running the game.

12. Miscellaneous: Zombies
Showing up on several Best of 2012 lists, Welcome to Mortiston, USA a multi-system location supplement for zombie post-apocalyptic games. Covers details of the event and the cut-off town. It's the only Zombie-themed setting for the year, but 2012 did see three new Z-rpgs. Outlive Undead has a hook. It positions itself as a game and a training tool- teaching people how to survive the coming zombie apocalypse. So it lifts from Max Brook's The Zombie Survival Guide and the dozens of books which imitated that. It isn't a bad approach for an rpg- the conceit of using a game as a teaching instrument works. It also gives the GM an excuse for being particularly awful and unyielding. After all, if their character's can't survive, what chance to the the players have?

On the other hand, Rotworld positions itself as an OSR zombie game. It has everything you need in a compact and dense 64-page rulebook. It uses the classic Pacesetter Chill system mechanics (with a color-coded resolution table). That's a smart move- appealing to several different kinds of nostalgia. The game itself sticks with the most basic zombie-world set up. It isn't exactly my cup of tea, but it is nice to see a game with a strong sense of audience.

I'm very nearly Zed Zero convinced is vaporware. The pitch for the game is so generic- essentially "Hey Zombies!" But I also haven't been able to track down concrete information on the game or the company publishing it. There's a fairly complete entry for it on RPG Geek, with details of the authors and an ISBN. But a search on that ISBN only leads back to the Geek. The publisher Gypsy Rain Studios doesn't work through RPGNow. On the other hand, a couple of people list themselves as owning copies and commented on it, "Percentile based system. Feeling of game is slow, constant building tension. Invokes thoughts of original Resident Evil and Walking Dead comic." Does it exist? I don't know, but if it does, the developers need to do something about their social media presence (and SAY WHY THIS ZOMBIE GAME IS BETTER THAN OTHER ZOMBIE GAMES).

13. Miscellaneous: Other
This year saw several marginally post-apocalyptic setting books for existing games. Vampire Holocaust is horror-tinged post-apocalyptic setting for When Worlds Collide, dimensional exploration rpg. As you can imagine from the title, it has vampires. Oz is Drowning offers a short PA setting for the Swedish RPG, Parallel Worlds. I have no idea if this refers to Australia, the Emerald City, or the Werewolf from Buffy. Swords of Cydoria is a monograph setting for Basic Ropleplaying that I get mixed up with that Muse song. It's a fantastical world with a weird mix of technology that apparently has some post-apocalyptic secrets at the heart of it, but distantly.

More numerous are the marginally PA complete rpgs or those projects only released in electronic format. A pdf-only game with a couple of supplements available for it, Broken Urthe sets itself in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of 45th Century Earth. So take that all you games not hardcore enough to go past the 32nd Century. Fuck Armageddon A Machine Age pdf production which has the players kicking back in the face of upcoming apocalypses. In Godchild there's a war between Angels and Demons, and God loses, leaving behind a wasteland. The PCs take the role of shattered fragments of Jehovah trying to bring some order.

Mistrunner, another Kickstarter project, I'd seen some people mention this as post-apocalyptic. It is, but very distantly. The Earth's devastated, then 3000 years later we end up with an anthropomorphic animals fantasy setting. A free rpg by James Desborough and Andrew Peregrine, ImagiNation is subtitled "Roleplaying in a world of art and madness." Here the worlds of imagination and reality have begun to collide. In particular the British Isles have been subject to the manifestation and manipulation of dreams and nightmares. These lands have been isolated and cut off from the rest of the world. The PCs play scouts heading into these lands for knowledge, rescue, or other reasons. Vesna Thaw is a short, pdf-only game combining giant robots and post-collapse civilization. It has a Russian setting, with the survivors dwelling in nuclear shelters.

Finally, Kuro may or may not be post-apocalyptic. There's a few secrets buried in this cyberpunk/horror hybrid rpg set in a Japan isolated by the international community after an "incident."