Monday, October 27, 2014

History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part Two: 1985-1987)

Last time I opened with loose definitions of post-apocalyptic games. This time I violate those guidelines; welcome to the list of borderline & corner cases. We now move into the mid-1980’s. By this point RPGs have been around long enough to develop patterns, older games have begun to reconfigure, and companies have started adapting existing properties. In particular we see both licensed games and pseudo-licensed games (existing series with the serial numbers filed off). It’s worth noting how experimental it all remains. Many companies finally have their feet under them business-wise, but they’re still figuring out what gamers want.

I’ve seen OSR and Retro gamers rereading the books which influenced early D&D and other games. These usually use “Appendix N” of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide as a starting point. Some have expanded the list or used it to define a campaign’s tone. We can apply that to this genre. What were some of the most important early post-apocalyptic works? What novels, films, TV shows, and comics appearing before 1980 might have influenced designers and players? If I’ve left a pre-1980 favorite off this list- please tell me in the comments. Or if something's a touchstone for you, tell me why.

The idea of a post-apocalyptic fantasy appears surprisingly early. Wikipedia cites Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) as the first modern apocalyptic novel. That’s a tale of survivors in a plague-ridden world. I’d never even heard of that book before. The period up to the end of WW2 contains several important works. H.G. Wells used the concept repeatedly with The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898). There’s also Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912); William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912); Stanley Weinbaum’s The Black Flame (1934); and Fritz Leiber’s Gather, Darkness (1943).

Post World War Two: Ape and Essence (Aldous Huxley, 1948); Earth Abides (George R. Stewart, 1949); I Am Legend (Richard Matheson, 1954); The Long Tomorrow (Leigh Brackett, 1955); The Chrysalids (John Wyndham, 1955); On the Beach (Nevil Shute, 1957); Alas Babylon (Pat Frank, 1959); Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter Miller Jr., 1960); Cat’s Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut, 1963); Farnham’s Freehold (Robert Heinlein, 1964); Dr. Bloodmoney (Philip K. Dick, 1965); I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (Harlan Ellison, 1966); Berserker (Fred Saberhagen, 1967), A Boy and his Dog (Harlan Ellison, 1969), Black Easter (James Blish, 1971); Damnation Alley (Roger Zelazny, 1969); The Rats (James Herbert, 1974); The Coming of the Horseclans (Robert Adams, 1975); Dhalgren (Samuel Delaney, 1975); Deus Irae (Philip K. Dick & Roger Zelazny, 1976); Lucifer’s Hammer (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 1977), The Stand (Stephen King, 1978); Engine Summer (John Crowley, 1979)

I’ve bolded some particularly influential books (by my reckoning). Some have stood the test of time. Last week, The New Yorker published a retrospective on A Canticle for Leibowitz. My father often used it in his Sophomore Seminar course. Another interesting fact I discovered is that what I’d dismissed as a weak Tolkien pastiche, the Shannara series, is actually post-apocalyptic. I’d love it if someone could explain that one to me.

Movies: The Birds (1952), The Day the World Ended (1955), World Without End (1956), On the Beach (1959), The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), Last Man on Earth (1964), Planet of the Apes (1968), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), The Omega Man (1971), Where Have All the People Gone? (1974), Zardoz (1974), A Boy and his Dog (1975), Logan’s Run (1975), Damnation Alley (1977), Wizards (1977), Deathsport (1978), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979), Mad Max (1979)

TV Series (either set in or with Post-Apocalyptic Episodes): The Twilight Zone (1959), Dr. Who (1963), The Outer Limits (1963), Star Trek (1966), The Starlost (1973), Casshan (1973), Planet of the Apes (1974), Return of the Planet of the Apes (1975), Space: 1999 (1975), Survivors (1975), Logan’s Run (1977), Future Boy Conan (1978)

Comics: Magnus Robot Fighter (1963), Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth (1972), Killraven (1973), Violence Jack (1973), Judge Dredd (1977), Heavy Metal (1975, 1977)

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'll 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 only 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. 

Sherri asked the other day for me to pick the most "gonzo" period of gaming. On the one hand, there's some high weirdness spinning out of the 1970's as designers flailed and tried to find a forward path in gaming. But then I think about the trends of 1980's gaming, as new blood picked up those ideas and screamed off in unknown directions. Gamers had a growing ability to actually design and publish crazy concepts- often in small-press, amateur format. There's a parallel to the explosion of electronic and DTP publications of the 2000's.

Which brings us to Freaks and Friendlies. This is a reskin of Dinky Dungeons to cover post-apocalyptic games. It follows the same style of presentation- small book in a zip-lock. I love the weird, almost Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers cover art. The game includes rules for a variety of PC types: aliens, mutants, mutant animals, androids, or vanilla humans. It also offers both magic and PSI rules, perhaps the first time we've seen that combination in one of these games.

2. Gamma World 3rd Edition (1985)
James Ward returned to Gamma World in 1985, this time retooling it to use a color-coded action table ala Marvel Super Heroes. MSH's success pushed TSR to revise GW, Star Frontiers, and Top Secret this way. Gamma World 3rd Edition arrived broken and error-filled. A year later TSR had to release the 16-page Gamma World Rules Supplement which corrected mistakes and fixed page references. You could obtain that by request and TSR stuck it in the box for later printings. It isn't clear whether lack of interest or internal chaos ultimately limited this edition. In our area the arrival of Gammarauders confused gamers about what TSR was ultimately supporting. Still they did manage to bolster the line with several linked modules: Alpha Factor, Beta Principle, Delta Fragment, and Gamma Base. They cancelled the series before publishing the final volume. GW11: Omega Project didn't see the light of day until 2003.

I wonder why Gamma World has suffered as it has over the years. Perhaps it’s the nature of this game to mutate? Consider it has had seven radically distinct editions over the years. Only a couple of those have been backwards compatible and some have changed the basic premise. Why? It could be simply bad management. It might also be that the core concept encompasses so much that you can't really quick-pitch it. But if that's true, then why is Rifts still around after so many years? It might be that designers return to Gamma World from a fondness for the lunacy of the early editions. GW felt cool because it was different, but it didn’t have the competition of modern choices. It might not be possible to recapture that. I don't know. But I do think GW has the strangest evolution and serial transformations of any game line.

I don't think Judge Dredd belongs on this list. At least I'm less certain the RPG belongs here. I had the same problem figuring out how to place it on the superhero lists. I know Judge Dredd the comic feels post-apocalyptic. But the RPGs often put those elements to the side in favor of a more traditional sci-fi action-adventure approach. In this Games Workshop edition, the Cursed Earth gets little direct treatment. It’s merely the realm lying outside the boundaries of Mega-City One, the atomic wasteland filled with horrors. The books cover it only in passing - with monster listings and some discussion of Mutants, but little else.

So Dredd doesn't necessarily match one of my key definitions: the idea of survival. But it does offer a kind of exploration: a grand tour of the dystopian world. While the mechanics don’t reflect a real consideration of it, the art clearly references this side of things. Dredd itself has always had a weird split between its sci-fi, dystopian, political commentary, fantastic, and fascist elements. What you take away may depend on what era speaks to you. So I don't know...but for the sake of completeness let's leave this here.

4. 9th Generation (1986)
A self-published rpg which appears to be crunchy as the dickens. According to RPGGeek it includes "action points, detailed hit allocation, and percentile dice to simulate detailed action." The 9th generation of the title refers to the time since the nuclear holocaust. It is one of the earliest credits for Jeff Siadek, designer of Battlestations and Lifeboat.

5. After the Bomb (1986)
I love this book. I love this game. I think you’d have to be dead inside if you look at that wrap-around cover and not go s’wa?

After the Bomb is a supplement for Teenage Mutant Turtles and Other Strangess, but at the same time it isn’t. It out of the blue throws the reader in with little or no explanation. “Hey, we’re doing anthropomorphic post-apocalypse now, hurry up and roll your character.” There’s no intro fiction, no history to wade through, no set up. Page one drops you into a random table for your character’s mutation background. And the rest of the book takes the same approach- jumping from topic to topic, throwing out NPCs, and flinging game ideas out rapid fire. It’s a brilliant mess- like the sketches of a campaign setting pulled directly from a GM’s brain. I love that messiness. In recent years I’ve seen games and gamers try to manufacture that feeling with throw-back design and hand-drawn character sheets. But those ring false to me, a case of trying too hard. After the Bomb stitches together a patchwork and the pattern emerges naturally.

Part of that comes from the brilliant Peter Laird illustrations. If you like old-school rpg art, you really ought to take a look at this. They don’t always fit with the text, but you could build a story around every picture. I think this book is great- and that’s coming from someone who is not a big Palladium fan. The layout and design of most of them make my head hurt. But this works- and it generated five supplements, some great and some less so. While Palladium published a new, less Turtle-y edition of After the Bomb in 2009, the original can still be obtained in pdf as well as the supplements.

6. Bitume (1986)
There's an earlier, self-published version of this dating to 1984, but the main edition arrived in ‘86. A French rpg, it borrows heavily from Mad Max for setting and feel. The passage of Halley's Comet in 1986 causes a world-wide disaster. The game takes places in 2020's France with players grouped into tribes and fighting for survival. Bitume means asphalt or tarmac. It has multiple editions, with a sixth in '96 seeming to be the most recent. It apparently has a generous dose of humor. Bitume seems to be OOP right now, but has several supporting publications.

I wonder how long it takes before a new form or genre generates parody. How many years after Superman's appearance did we get a comedic underwear-clad goof riffing on comic conventions? How long after Tom Swift became successful before we saw a boy genius who made things worse? How close to the first presentation of Elektra in the Greek amphitheaters before we had a comedic take on exaggerating suffering for laughs? RPG parodies came early. I remember a Dragon review of a parody game, with examples of play depicting PCs arguing with shopkeepers over prices. That couldn't be any later than 1980.

So here’s Creeks and Crawdads!, a parody of D&D through the lens of the apocalypse. In the game all higher intelligent life has been wiped out. That leaves slightly mutant crayfish as the top of the heap. They aren't fully intelligent, but close. Players roll stats and choose a class (fighter, tool user, thinker). The game apparently did well enough (or was believed in enough by the author) to spawn a supplement. Never Cry Crawdad offers an adventure module and a dungeon crawl for the setting.

So at first I assumed this was an rpg based on Snowpiercer, a French graphic novel from 1982 (Le Transperceneige). I had that in my head because I'd seen the recent film adaptation which was a movie where things happened in a sequence*. But it turns out there's another French "frozen-world ruled by evil corporations with trains" apocalypse series from the 1980's, the eponymous La compagnie des glaces which translates badly to “Ice Company.” That’s based on a series of novels by Georges-Jean Arnaud. According to a rough translation from wikipedia it presents, "A vision of a post-apocalyptic Earth where a series of dust explosions from the Moon have covered the Earth's atmosphere, intercepting sunlight and plunging the planet into a new ice age. The survivors are forced to live in cities in the world only connected by trains. The major railways reign supreme over their networks, imposing a totalitarian order on the people and hiding the truth." The game itself appears to be substantial, but comments I've seen on boards indicates it is a very rough and primitive design.

*I say this as a fan of Bong Joon-ho and someone who didn't dig the film

9. MX: Future in Flames (1986-87)  
I have an entry below showcasing supplements which merged post-apocalyptic elements with existing games. But I thought it worth giving this series of modules an entry. Growing up in the 1980's Claremont/Byrne's run on Uncanny X-Men defined the series for me. “Days of Future Past” showed an apocalyptic future which rolled logically out of the series’ ideas. It struck a chord, and it’s no surprise that Marvel would go back to that well many times in many different ways over the following decades. The most recent X-Men film shows the power of that story, in part an excuse for superhero murder-porn. I myself used the concept as a touchstone when I build my Durance reskin, Days of Future Passed.

The Future in Flames modules attempt to bring that experience to Marvel Super Heroes. That's ambitious and a dramatic tonal shift from the four-color approach of the base game. The first volume, Nightmares of Futures Past offers an open-ended, almost sandbox approach with the PCs experiencing the world of this Sentinel-controlled future. The booklet presents mostly world description, with some roughly drawn scenarios. I especially like the Search Flow Chart used for pursuit by the authorities. The second volume, The X-Potential gives more detail on the setting and the bad guys’ plans, but remains largely improvisational. Volume 3, Reap the Whirlwind assumes the players have been making progress and lays out multiple mini-adventures which can connect for a larger story. Finally Flames of Doom links to the previous adventures and offers a capstone. Players can take very different courses in fighting back against the Sentinels and their masters- a People's Revolution, a Teleporter Railroad, or Time Travel to Change the Past. Some of those options depend on choices made in previous modules, which might be a problem if the GM didn't know about that beforehand.

Overall Future in Flames remains a monumental campaign arc. I'm surprised they never bundled and re-released this before losing the license. It would have been amazing as a single volume, the Death on the Reik or Masks of Nyarlethotep of the Marvel Universe. It's worth noting that each module in the series came from a different designer or design team. There's some redundancy as a result, but each brings a new spin on the core concepts.

10. Mutant 2 (1986)
Once again I have to turn to Olav Nygård for his assessment of this Swedish RPG. He says, "Just like their American counterparts, many #swedishrpgs have strange and confusingly numbered edition. For example, when Mutant 2 arrived in 1986 it was presented as an expansion and supplement of original Mutant. However, the cover reveals that over the two years that had passed, the outlook for our post-apoc world had drastically changed." I haven't been able to find out exactly how the setting changed- I need to track that down. We've seen that "push forward" with other games (Legend of the Five Rings for example) so I'm curious how they shifted things. The cover illustration definitely moves to a weird sci-fi feel as opposed to the robed peasant presented on Mutant.

11. Cyborg Commando (1987)
Post-Apocalyptic? Maybe? It certainly seems to borrow from elements floating around at the time but mashes them up with throwback mechanics. The game describe itself as Science Fiction. Created by Gary Gygax, Kim Mohan, and Frank Mentzer, Cyborg Commando is pretty universally regarded as a mess. In a near future, xeno-morph insectoid aliens have taken over the world. The only thing that can fight them off are Laser Cats Cyborg Commandos. There's more than a little hint of Rhand: Morningstar Missions or Living Steel. The PCs take the role of powerful characters battling the invasion. The setting and world wants to be devastated Earth, our way of life trod underfoot. In that regard Cyborg Commando echoes the various "Amerika" games of the time (detailed below). But the game's a strange power-fantasy. Survival is less of a question than how many bugs the PCs can take down and how long actually resolving that will take. Weirdly three modules published for the game make the game look more post-apocalyptic than the main book- with hunts for survivors and lost ruins. They also published three novels for the game as part of the blitz. I have not read those. I will not read those. If you have read them, I’d like to know if they’re awesome or something else.

12. GURPS Horseclans (1987)
The Horseclans series nearly always came first in the bookstore’s sci-fi section. Written by Robert Adams, you'd move past Hitchhiker's Guide and Watership Down and then hit a bunch of slim series volumes. They had great covers by Ken Kelly and looked like John Carter or "Men's Adventure" books. They offered fast, easy reads- sword and stirrup with just a mix of the weird in the form of animal telepathy and Undying characters. The Undying allowed for a connection between this post-apocalyptic world and the time before. The novels have a classic message of soft civilization vs. noble savages. And in some senses they're just on the edge of being post-apocalyptic. They're much more heroic fantasy, with the fires of nuclear war as a distant backdrop.

GURPS Horseclans demonstrated that this system could be the go-to for licensing properties with a niche fanbase (GURPS Humanx came out the same year). It also demonstrated how a game supplement could be used to create a series encyclopedia. (Actually It might be worth doing lists on licensed property games…). For GURPS players it introduced new mechanics they hungered for, including mass combat. The game material focuses on the fantasy & swordsman elements. SJG released one supplement for it, GURPS Bili The Axe: Up Harzburk!. That solo adventure had so many errors that they recalled it and never re-released it.

Horseclans reminds me of another pseudo-post apocalyptic setting, Hawkmoon ('86). They both have a weird future with a catastrophic nuclear war in the distant past. But in both cases those elements feel like trappings, rather than a dominant motif. The former fits better in that it focuses on survival and exploration, but Hawkmoon's more classic high fantasy.

Paranoia 1st Edition has mechanics I love unreasonably. Or at least that's how I remember it. The skills drilled down in a bizarre chandelier-like relationship chart. You could only improve in a narrower range. I'm getting the details wrong I'm sure, but someone with four points in Combat could have Combat 1--> Guns 2-->Blaster 3-->Targeting Robots 4. Maybe the next level down would be “Firing from Behind Cover” or “Low-Light Conditions.” In order to get your full skill you'd have to match that to your action. I don't know if that's actually how it works- it seems like a fever dream of complexity to me now. But I loved it.

Some didn't. Hence the second edition of Paranoia. It aimed to simplify the mechanics and live up to the promise of the premise. The setting offered dark comedy, cheap death, and goofy incidents over dramatic stories. The mechanics of Paranoia 1st Edition got in the way. This new version left some of the complexity, but mostly as optional systems. Interestingly, I've seen people still describe this edition as old-school or simulationist, especially in comparison to the more recent XP version. Of course, I've seen die-hards reject that edition as too cartoony. The bigger question will be how that stacks against James Wallis' 
recently Kickstarted new take on the game ...

Paranoia 2nd Edition’s notable for the chaos of the line development. While it started strong, the loss of Jim Holloway and Ken Rolston led to a shift in the game's tone. It saw the creation of some great supplements (Alpha Complexities and The DOA Sector Travelogue). But it also saw the introduction of several different streams of metaplot, including the Secret Society Wars, the Computer-less world of the Crash (with bonus time-travelling), and the Reboot which brings the Computer back “sort of.” Some of the most problematic adventures of the period parody other games, like Twilightcycle: 2000 and Gamma-LOT. WEG even ate its own young as Paranoia riffed on their own rpg, The Price of Freedom (see below) with The People's Glorious Revolutionary Adventure. While the core 2nd edition book remains strong and beloved, gamers wishing to explore this era should pick and choose carefully from the published materials.

14. Miscellaneous: Post-Apocalypse Supplements
This period contains several supplements where game lines made brief forays into the Post-Apocalypse. Freeway Fighter ('85) takes the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks into Mad Max territory. It falls squarely between the publication of Battlecars and Dark Future, the other two quintessentially British road warrior games. Mystery of the Ancients ('85) is another CYOA book, this time for the Endless Quest Books. The cover may look like conventional fantasy, but the blurb describes it a "desolate future world" in which you have to rescue your sister. Terrible Swift Ford ('85) offers a module for Timemaster (which I refuse to type in all caps). Once again there's autodueling in a post-atomic wasteland, but this time they're fighting out a second Civil War. My wife thinks that’s the best game supplement title ever. Hex Escort to Hell ('86) also has characters out of time. In the mid '80's DC desperately tried to wring new life out of the Jonah Hex character by flinging him into a post-apocalyptic future. Think Kamandi without the creativity. It didn't last very long, but it did manage to spawn this solo module for DC Heroes; you know for all those superhero gamers desperately wanting to play in this setting. Finally Avengers ('87) presents an interesting track for the somewhat obscure TimeLords game. It contains an alternate setting for the main game where a temporal ambush has wiped out most of the Earth's population. The players work to rebuild humanity and find resources by travelling to alternate worlds.
15. Miscellaneous: Amerika Under Siege
So Red Dawn came out in 1984. It hit all the right notes for the 1980's- Reagan-era paranoia, Brat Pack casting, and a weird disconnect with how the world actually was. I grew up in a liberal household with a journalist mother and a political scientist father specializing in Latin America. He'd met Allende before the CIA-backed coup that killed him. I had several like-wise liberal friends in my gaming group. We laughed in the theater at Red Dawn- the manipulative story, the paranoia fantasy, the terrible practical effects. Another group ended up getting furious with us- though whether over the politics or our shattering of the film's tone I can't say. Red Dawn set a stage that others would follow, with the idiotic Amerika TV mini-series a few years later and the beloved Fortress America board game. And of course, the rpgs. 

I've debated about placing these on my lists. They don't quite fit with my definitions. Fighting back against the apocalypse always feels like some other genre to me: disaster movie, military, insurgency? But several of these self-describe as post-apocalyptic.

Year of the Phoenix is one of two such games to come out from FGU in '86. It takes a classic sci-fi approach to the idea, almost Planet of the Apes style. The PCs are astronauts hurled through a time warp into the future of 2197 where America has fallen and the Zoviets have taken over. It plunges the characters right into the insurgency and fighting to restore democracy. You’re supposed to not tell the players what they’re actually getting into- a bait & switch campaign premise.

On the other hand, Freedom Fighters takes a broader approach. The players again fight back against invaders who have overtaken America but in the near future. Freedom Fighters allows for several different invasion: classic Soviet, War of the Worlds style Martians, or a secret infiltration takeover from beyond ala The Invaders. It seems to follow the path of complexity laid down by other FGU games of the time, based on this line from the introduction, "This game is a complex one, and makes no pretense to the contrary. The rules are intricate and thorough, and are intended to provide the maximum of realism. The Gamemaster should become thoroughly familiar with them early on; players need not be as familiar, but will still benefit from knowing what is, or is not, possible within the framework of the game system." It’s worth noting that neither of these games did well enough for FGU to publish the supplements promised in core book.

The Price of Freedom is another Soviet-occupied America game, written by Greg Costikyan. It’s a big, bright and well-designed product. West End published this at the same time they were making fun of Cold-War Panic with Paranoia. I hadn’t made that connection before. I avoided the game at the time, in part because I'd read Costikyan's take on Colonialism in his Pax Britannica game. I'd always assumed Price of Freedom to be strictly serious. Some reviews certainly take it this way. But I've also heard that the game's more tongue-in-cheek. James Maliszewski at Grognardia takes that position in his retrospective of PoF. I'm not sure what to make of that- thin cover for a reactionary game or Poe's Law in action? Price of Freedom did better than its peers, with a GM screen and adventure supplement arriving the following year. But it still marked a fizzle for this premise in RPGs.
The Year of the Phoenix on RPGNow
Freedom Fighters on RPGNow

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