Thursday, October 22, 2015

History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part 17: 2013)

With this list we close out our Post-Apocalyptic histories. All that remains is cleaning up the fallout, meaning that I’ll go over all the major PA products released last year. Then I’ll survey 2014 for the other genres I’ve covered: Horror; Steampunk & Victoriana; and Supers. After that who knows what exciting new genre we might explore? Cyberpunk, Western, Generic, Mecha? I also have to do a follow up list of the many samurai rpgs I've discovered. But for now I remain firmly lodged in my apocalypse bunker. 

I've looked at Video Games in the genre, but it has also been well represented in board games. If you look at Zombie games alone, you can find dozens. So here are the top 13 ranked Post-Apocalyptic board games on Boardgame Geek released since 2005. I’m focusing on games where an apocalypse is central to the theme. Games which skirt around or imply that collapse (A Study in Emerald, Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia, Ginkopolis) I’ve left out. I also skipped sequels and expansions. Note that these stats fluctuate, so they represent the results at time of writing.
  1. Dead of Winter (Rank 18 Rating 7.824)
  2. Battlestar Galactica (Rank 29 Rating 7.701)
  3. Earth Reborn (Rank 126 Rating 7.304)
  4. Neuroshima Hex (Rank 160 Rating 7.225)
  5. Zombicide (Rank 175 Rating 7.203)
  6. Gears of War (Rank 243 Rating 7.080)
  7. Last Night on Earth (Rank 353 Rating 6.918)
  8. The New Era (Rank 434 Rating 6.796)
  9. Doomtown: Reloaded (Rank 471 Rating 6.753)
  10. Arctic Scavengers (Rank 700 Rating 6.533)
  11. Thunderstone Advance: Numenera (Rank 732 Rating 6.514)
  12. Dawn of the Zeds (Rank 733 Rating 6.514)
  13. Mall of Horror/City of Horror (Rank 854 Rating 6.430)
That’s 5 Zombie games out of 13; less than I assumed. I’ve only played four of those games. From those I can highly recommend The New Era, set in the Neuroshima Hex world giving it strong rpg DNA. Some of the other games have rpg-like elements, most notably Dead of Winter. That’s a striking semi-cooperative game undercut by the weak execution of the Crossroad cards. YRMV. 

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 2013). I've arranged these by year and then alphabetically within that year.

I've had some time to think about this game since I read, ran, and reviewed it. The concept has stuck with me. On the one level, I love the idea of embracing an apocalypse of superheroes. Nearly all supers- heroes or villains- have vanished in Base Raiders' setting. The world's carefully established balance has been destroyed, leading to major societal changes. Any heroes left behind have to recognize their own weakness. Everyone's suddenly in the wreckage of the metahumans' great works. It's a great example of a narrowly focused disaster, with global repercussions but also making a particular group the "survivors" of the setting. 

I love the building concept of Base Raider and the frantic tensions. These superbeings left behind their stuff: weapons of infinite destruction, self-replicating robots, bizarre alien menageries, and most importantly the bases. Players might be hunting through those for answers, but they're just as likely to be seeking ways to empower themselves. That backdrop- of vast numbers of people in a "mad science" scramble akin to a gold rush- clicks for me. It suggests all kinds of plots, characters, and interesting non-combat stories. 

And presenting superbases as dungeons honestly never occurred to me. We had games and sessions where the team had to fought their way through or explored them (Death Duel with the Destroyers, Island of Dr.Destroyer) but that acted as backdrop. It wasn't a real dungeon crawl- with the place itself as a tangible obstacle, the need to track resources & the possibility of turning back, and the actual accumulation of loot. That's sharp and Base Raiders does it well. While I'm not entirely sold on the "Strange Fate" mechanics, author Ross Payton has published conversion rules for M&M, Wild Talents, and Savage Worlds.

A sci-fi rpg, Foreign Element has a heavily corporatized humanity spreading out and colonizing the stars. Then the Great Blackout hits. Contact between most of outer humanity and the core crashes. Only silence greets attempts to gain information. In Foreign Element, the PCs play search and salvage teams sent out to these lost colonies. But these RX teams aren't purely altruistic. They're heavily corporate-backed and sponsored. There's a significant sub-system where characters have different agendas and secret goals. That's a cool concept, though it does introduce some PvP elements. Some groups will find that easier than others. The game itself uses a simple dice-pool system. Advancement comes through experience and credits used to upgrade equipment and other systems. It's a cool package and worth picking up for those interested in a slightly Transhumanist sci-fi exploration game with apocalyptic overtones. Designer Nathan Hill also developed Barbarians Versus... and Eldritch Ass Kicking. So far no supplements have been released for Foreign Element.

A post-apocalyptic game with heavy horror, supernatural, and conspiracy elements. Fractured Kingdom takes place in 2202 after a hundred-year war in which the Church of the Redeemer destroyed science, technology, and advancement. The world has begun to bounce back but still remains a century behind its height. Tech exists and surrounds humanity, but it's a mix of cyberpunk and lost arts. Corporations run the show, having the greatest control over these resources. People hunt the ruins for devices, but often have no idea what these things do. At first that seems pretty sci-fi-ish

But the other major change is the presence of "Lucids." These persons possess strange, supernatural powers. They gain these by travelling to one of the four Outer Reams (Dark, Grave, Slumber, or Verdant). Their particular powers depend on which realm they entered. The PCs are Lucids, trying to survive in a fallen world filled with secret agendas, occult conspiracies, and ruthless corporations. Its a kitchen sink PA setting with a dose of Mage: the Ascension, OTE, and cyberpunk. Fractured Kingdom came out of a Kickstarter project. The publisher has only released the core book and a small freebie module. Reviews are generally favorable.

A German rpg apparently built off the Dungeonslayers fantasy game (there's also Starslayers and Zombieslayers). The system seems to be d20-esque, though I can't quite tell if it is actually based on the SRD or just reasonably close. Gammaslayers adopts a "storm the ruins, kick down the hatch, and slay the mutant" ethos. It looks like it has all of the classic tropes: contamination, mutations, robots, etc in a post-nuclear setting. There seems to be a legendary site called "Eden" which the characters hunt for. Also, as in Fallout, the PCs seem to be emerging from previously sealed vaults sometime in the 23rd Century.

Another Kickstarter project, MP 4e more than doubled it's $15K goal. It sticks with the original system and concept: Morrow Project teams awaken in a strange new world and now have to explore and rebuild. It still has a strong military vibe to it, though it looks much nicer in this edition. The new core book's a bit over 300 pages. Most of that's given over to the mechanics. There's only a little background through "in setting" material at the beginning, plus some details in the GM section. MP4E has mixed reviews online. Some love the cleaned up and unified system. Others object that little has been done to update and refine the mechanics, others take issues with some of the elements (like community management). I suspect if you dig the tone and approach of the earlier MP editions, you'll like this one. GMs looking for a more detailed simulation may also find it useful.

From the Great War came the First Founding, the creation of the Pack. Now that Pack- made up of you and your fellow samurai motorcycle warriors- roams the land: fighting duels, gaining glory, and maintaining your honor. Motobushido might at first glance seem goofy, but it isn't. It takes itself seriously and the presentation & mechanics support that. The War is a loose event, integral to the creation of the PCs order, but left open to the players. There's only a general sense of collapse given. The War has destroyed the old orders and the land is scattered and lawless. Players can develop specifics by playing out the origin tale of their Pack at the start, but the game aims for the mythic: specific factions and forces existing in a fuzzy wasteland.

Motobushido's pretty brilliant and a lovely read. There's an unusual depth of feeling here. It combines an appreciation for biking, the community of riders, and samurai imagery. More than just imagery through, it embraces a full platonic ideal of that bushido code. The game doesn't shirk away from addressing the fiction of those concepts (and the problematic elements in them), but outside of that it plays things straight. The setting's striking, but the mechanics are equally deep and interesting, using card play to simulate the tension and challenges of this world, especially dueling. There's some surprisingly deep mechanics for developing communities, running duels, and handling large conflicts. You can pick up a text-only version of the rules PWYW, but the full book's so much better. Highly recommended.

Aka Nameless Land. A big-book Italian rpg that clocks in at just under 300 pages. It takes place in 300 years after a nuclear war devastates the world. Players try to survive in a world overrun with mutants, occult organizations, and biomechanical threats. It looks classic: players generate survivors with class specialties and rolled mutations. The book includes big sections on weird powers, equipment, and monsters. There seems to be a supernatural element, but I'm unsure if that's actual magic or something more like alien contacts or psychics. It looks like there's some kind of meta-story, with conspiracies and forces trying to command this new world. The publishers have released a couple of substantial sourcebooks for the line so far.

Numenera was (and likely still is) the new hotness. So you may already be familiar with it or one of it's highly successful Kickstarters. Perhaps you're looking forward to the CRPG adaptation which hopes to follow in the footsteps of another Weird Fantasy classic, Planescape: Torment.

Numenera's world lies atop eight previous ones. It's a far, far future which normally I'd put in the "Dying Earth" PA sub-genre. But usually in that genre, the past's hidden away- thin set decoration, only hinted at. It's offered as an in-joke; recognize the tatters to catch the reference. Vance's work and Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time take this approach. In RPGs The Chronicles of Future Earth, World of Aden, and The World of Sinnibarr echo this. But Numenera explicitly considers and excavates that past. The world and the game itself centers on discovering and uncovering objects strange and powerful. The past isn't a distant backdrop, but the central play-space.

And the science-fantasy of the setting comes out of the randomness and seeming illogic of that past. The layers shouldn't make sense, they should confuse. That's hugely attractive as a GM and there's a ton of material for creating random weirdness of all kinds: psychical, psychic, cultural. The monsters provided are equally bizarre and absurd. I like the idea of a completely sandbox world for generating those mysteries. But that's not what Numenera is. Yes, the past is a sandbox, but the present is highly detailed and mapped out. Almost a hundred pages of the core book literally and figuratively map out this world. Rather than a hexcrawl of discovery, there's a dense and overwhelming setting. Really overwhelming for me; there's no good signposts for how a GM's to process this material. It doesn't have the hook of a Dark Sun or Old World. I find it confusing and off-putting.

But that's just me because a ton of people love Numenera. They also love the system which is mostly just ho-hum to me. Let me make one thing clear: the game's gorgeous. The art's amazing, the creature designs are striking, the layout's wonderful, even the font choices are unique and engaging. And Monte Cook Games has continued to support this line with a multitude of supplements. It's undoubtedly the best supported game on any of these lists.

A fantasy post-apocalyptic rpg with a weird, MS Paint-style cover. The introduction states that the old world has been destroyed by chaos, changing the nature of the earth itself. "Perilous is a game of fantastic adventure in a postapocalyptic world of monsters, mutants and magic." However in the core book there's almost no development of the setting beyond a few scattered paragraphs. Instead it offers a generic fantasy rpg system with some nods to mutations. It's a little uncertain why the apocalypse is even an element. The company's released a series of three short modules for the game, which look equally fantasy generic.

A post-apocalyptic setting and sourcebook for Tunnels & Trolls. Porphyry offers a full reskin for T&T, rather than a few add-ons. Interestingly it's designed to work with T&T 5th edition. While readers using a later version will find it compatible, it doesn't line up quite as easily. In Porphyry a cataclysm- The Burn- wiped civilization from the world. Now centuries later new peoples have begun rebuild and expand. Exploration and discovery's on the menu, with lost technologies and relics hidden in the ruins. Strikingly the devastating event isn't completely gone. Instead something of The Burn remains, isolated in the far north of the world.

Porphyry packs a ton of material into its 86 pages. A good deal of that's mechanical. It offers new forms of magic, unique races, a new system for character professions, and new approaches to damage. I'm not a T&T player, but you can certainly see the careful work and development here. We end up with a mixed tech and magic post-apocalyptic setting, which a couple of reviewers compare to Numenera in tone. I'm not sure I agree with that. Porphyry actually feels more open, with the world sketched but not locked down. It actually devotes more of its length, by percentage, to world building than many other post-apocalyptic adaptations. We've seen many on these lists that do little other than a history and some monsters. Awesome art also helps the book; while the cover's a little plain, the interior art's excellent.

A setting sourcebook for the Spanish generic rpg, Hitos. It offers rules for handling post-apocalyptic games as well as  a full multi-stage adventure. In Postapocalyptica the PCs take the role of youths forced out into the ravaged world in order to save their community. It's a classic premise, which isn't a bad place to start with games like these: easily adaptable and clear. The game looks good, with sharp art. It's nice to see non-English generic systems supporting multiple genres. Hitos has sourcebooks for Crime, Supernatural Mysteries, and Westerns. Each of these seem to be half-sourcebook, half-module, like a Savage World supplement. You can find the Hitos core book on RPGNow

This is a brilliant little storytelling game you should pick up. The Quiet Year consists of a tiny rulebook and a unique deck of cards. Players tell the story of a post-fall settlement, just entering into a year of respite between trials. They do this via declarations, gatherings, and marking ideas, objects, and places on a shared map. The cards come in four suits: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. The group works through each randomized season in order. On their turn, a player draws from the deck and then deals with its events and instructions. Usually these include questions the player must answer. Most answers add to the story of the settlement and/or the map. Players can also call for group deliberations, making things more or less tense within the community. The only thing close to mechanical for the game comes from dice to track the time to project completion. Players trying to develop and strengthen the community via these projects. Come the winter, bad things arrives and the game suddenly ends. The Quiet Year's a surprisingly moving and engaging game. It's worth playing for anyone interested in collaborative play or questions of community in the wake of collapse.

Zombie survival meets superheroes pretty much sums this up. Rotted Capes offers a stand-alone system and setting. We've seen several 'zombies meet capes' story (Marvel Zombies for example), but Rotted Capes seems closest to the ideas of Peter Clines' Ex-Heroes series. The game has some interesting concepts, in particular a focus on scavenging and tension because the PCs play ‘B-List’ heroes. It does a good job of making those concerns over survival central to the play. In most zombie post-apocalypses, you play underpowered, desperate folks. Here, despite having great powers, the world can and will still kill you. I can imagine a campaign that begins Base Raiders and then becomes Rotted Capes

Rotted Capes has straightforward mechanics. Characters begin by choosing a power source and an archetype. These modify the point spends for attributes, skills, advantages, and powers. The game has a lot of calculations and exceptions (requirements for purchases, calculated stats, modifications from archetypes). The power list's a mix of specific and effect types. Combat uses an initiative clock for each character with different actions having different time costs. It isn't exactly the same as Scion, so I'd be curious if it has the same limitation. In Scion speed kills: anything reducing your action time cost makes you significantly more effective. I've read through Rotted Capes and I'm not sure how to judge it. It feels more complex than Mutants & Masterminds. I really need to watch or read about an actual play. The mechanics make up a little more than half of the core book, the rest covers the world, history, and GMing. Gamers looking at doing a superhero zombie game will find a wealth of ideas here. Beyond that it is a pretty awesome looking book- with gruesome and evocative art.

A game using the "FateStorm Virtual Reality System." If you like descriptions of unique systems, you should check out the description of it here. In any case, Shattered Moon is the second rpg using this system (the other being Ascendancy: Rogue Marshal). It bears the subtitle: "Resist or Capitulate. The earth will follow your fate" (sic). The game use unique cards for resolution and aims for some crunch. It has the tactical approach echoing D&D 4e, with miniatures assumed for combat. The game's intended for mature readers as well, based on some content and the art. That art's a mixed bag, done entirely by the designer who also handled the layout. 

The story? The moon blows up. Supernatural forces are released. Magic comes back to Earth. Fantasy races pop up. That creates a Shadowrun-like near future post-apocalyptic setting, sans the cyberpunk elements. About 10% of Shattered Moon's material directly covers the setting, with the rest in passing through character creation and adversaries. The bulk of the book covers the system, so if you're just hunting for a setting sourcebook this isn't it (especially given the $30 price tag for the 320 page pdf). However if you're looking for a heavy and complex set of rules to sink your teeth into, this might be for you. I'd recommend checking out the online reviews. They're mixed, with most reviewers praising parts of the game, but hesitating about recommending overall product except for niche gamers. Not unlike my approach with this write-up.

15. Miscellaneous: Fragments & Corner Cases
A few companies released collections including post-apocalyptic settings or frames. Cartoon Action Hour: Season 3 includes series like the "Ani-Bots," "Asgard 3000," and "Rift Warriors." Fate Worlds: Worlds on Fire has "Burn Shift," a mixed element, rebuilding game. DramaSystem offers several more. Hillfolk has "Bots," a post-human robot setting. Blood on the Snow has "The Throne," about an angel war after God vanishes and "The Bunker" about a 1960's family emerging from shelter following a devastating war.

We also see some new editions and new electronic-only games. Yellow Dawn the post-Old Ones cyberpunk setting gets a new editions (and there's a third coming out next year).The Sundered Land is a brief, 7-page rpg from Vincent Baker aimed at a quick session of play. It got several award nominations. 7th Seal: Armageddon is a pdf-only kitchen sink post- Armageddon/Disease/Alien Invasion rpg. Millenniums & Mutations is another Gamma World-type game using Tunnels & Trolls. It's unclear if there's any connection between this and the copyright-infringing material doing much the same thing a few years previously. Finally Caustic Earth is a short contaminated world game using the D4Core system. I assume it uses d4's (thus proving there's a system for everyone).

History of Wild West RPGs: First Fifteen 

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