Thursday, March 19, 2015

History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part Eight: 2003)

I will not survive the apocalypse. Not zombies. Not nukes. Not robots. Not aliens. Not plague.

Some of you have already read this story. But the reason I haven’t posted these lists in a while is I took a tumble. A stupid tumble.

I had about an hour before I had to grab Sherri and then get prepped for my Guards of Abashan game. It struck me that they would be likely fighting in a ruined temple of a bird god that evening. I could go and buy a set of pre-painted Arakocra for D&D Attack Wing and use those as foes: right scale, bird-like, flying bases, could be re-purposed for Tengu in L5R. I knew I had enough time to get to the shop, pick those up, and still meet Sherri.

I didn’t notice the patch of ice at the base of my neighbor’s drive as I walked around to get to my car. I went down hard on my left side and back. I got up and barely made it into the house and on the couch before I blacked out from the pain. I dreamed I hadn’t actually fallen, but woke up to agony and a cold sweat. Ah, Shock, my old friend. I called Sherri, made her get another ride home, moved to another part of the couch, blacked out again, woke, and eventually settled in.

Ice packs, slings, ibuprofen, muscle relaxants, food brought to me, Netflix, pillows, Suikoden. That was my next couple of weeks. I’m terrible at being sick and worse when there’s actually something really wrong with me.

I will not survive the apocalypse.

I have no illusions, no “well maybe…” I’m done. Put a fork in me.

So maybe that’s my attraction to some of these post-apocalyptic games. I like those with a more optimistic bent. Those where you can create communities and help to save others. Where the characters, gritty and conflicted as they might be, still make the right choices and keep their humanity.
Because having those folks around is the only possible way I’m not zombie chum.

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 from 2000 to 2002). I've arranged these by year and then alphabetically within that year.

1. Cold Steel Reign (2003)
A small company takes on the post-apocalyptic Wild West, reaching into Deadlands' territories with a new spin. Here a meteor strike during the American Civil War sparks a cataclysmic shift. This rewrites the geography and tinges the whole world with a "Western" frontier lifestyle. Despite that concrete framing, Cold Steel Reign spins off to drag in a host of craziness: demon-harboring constructs, Templars, and long-forgotten secret magics. I'd assumed this was a straight alt-history, but the reviews make it clear that it dives fully into the kitchen sink.

Those reviews also suggest a clunky, crunchy system. Cold Steel Reign offers an abundance of mechanics and systems which switch from sub-system to sub-system. Add to that a host of editing problems. The game still has a FB page, last updated in 2012. You can also find character creation tutorials on YouTube. However Cold Steel Reign didn’t gain traction, with only the mammoth Player's Guide and a GM screen released. That's too bad, as there's more than a little hint of Stephen King's Dark Tower series present here.

2. Evernight (2003)
Now I’m going to semi-spoil a 12-year old adventure path. So you've been warned. Evernight begins with classic fantasy setting of Tarth. The background's written deliberately broadly: bright, archetypal, and heroic. A millennium ago this world banded together to fight off a deadly arachnid foe. Those coalitions of the willing have long since fallen to infighting. You may have guessed (or know) where this is heading. But Shane Hensley takes that expectation and twists it. Evernight's a plot point campaign: offering some options and revelations, but with a tight structure and through-line for the tale.

…Because this is actually an alien invasion of this fantasy world. Though not really. Well maybe. Anyway the Masters kick off the fun just before the campaign starts. They land in the ocean and then blast out in flying vessels to bomb the countryside. They darken the sky and seize control. Now the classic fantasy PC group must fight an underground resistance against these invaders. Of course in the backdrop of that lies truths about the origins of the races, the technology possessed by the invaders, and secrets & betrayals. Overall it offers a neat take on the freedom fighter formula we've seen in other settings. But that's combined with a highly scripted presentation. GMs looking to adapt this may have to get in up to their elbows to make changes. Despite that Evernight remains a solid and worthwhile resource.
Evernight on RPGNow

3. Gamma World d20 (2003)
As mentioned last list, TSR released a final (and well-reviewed) version of Gamma World in 2000. But WotC killed that line a year later. With the coming of D&D 3.0 companies hunted for properties- old and new- to tart up with a d20 suit. Swords & Sorcery Studios dressed up a new Gamma World for a 6th edition. They built on the d20 Modern mechanics, rather than base 3.0. They eschewed the weird-embracing riff of  of Jonathan Tweet's Omega World. Instead Gamma World 6th (or GW d20...?.) went darker and more "realistic..." Well, not realistic, just less funny and more grim (which some take as realistic).

Rather than the Ancients and Days of Fire, GW d20 provides a more detailed and extensive history. Rad remains a factor, but now biotech and nanotech come into the setting as forces reshaping this future. The game world takes place just three generations after the wars' end. That’s in line with later Gamma World editions. Still it makes me wince a little. But I suppose it doesn't matter in the great scheme of things.

Gamma World 6th has classes, but luckily those revolve around general archetypes (Strong, Dedicated, Tough) which remind me of approaches from Fate Accelerated. You can still be a Mutant...but not really a Mutant animal; instead you're an “Engineered Animal.” But you can be an android, called Synthetics here. Mutated characters get to pick their mutations, but have to balance these with negative traits. Mutations aren't the only way to get powers (called FX). You can get grafted bio-material, nanotech, cybernetics, and psionics. The mechanics of d20 require more rules to make all that work, leading to complexities and problems. On the plus side, the game includes interesting rules on handling communities- something I always like to see in these games.

Sword & Sorcery Studios supported Gamma World 6th decently. Beyond the Player's Handbook, they released two other hardcovers: the Gamma World Game Master's Guide (aka the DMG) and Machines and Mutants (aka the Monster Manual). As well three softcover supplements came out the following year. But the line as a whole soon faded, with everything dropped on the market by the end of '04. It’s unclear if the line closure came from the d20 Bubble or more the line’s general reception. Online reviews come off mixed: some like the new additions and the grittier feel, while others dislike the bad editing and broken mechanics.

Still, it was Gamma World, so there'd always be another edition...

4. JAGS Have-Not (2003)
JAGS or "Just Another Gaming System" produced some striking setting material, including C-13: The Thirteen Colonies and Wonderland. Normally I steer clear of self-published material, but Marco Chacon's massive, nearly 500 page supplement for the system looks like a labor of love. Have Not seems to be the setting title for a bundle of several related pdfs. It has a classic approach: road-gangs, wild dusty-driven plains, and...well, perhaps a quote from the introduction will do it justice (via RPG Geek),

"Have-Not is all about rolling into a small dusty town in armed vehicles and laying the .30-cal smack-down on an evil sheriff. It's about getting your friends together and heading into the Denver Ruins to brave the death machines and the bio-horrors left over from the Age of War to bring back bounty from another era. It's about being an intelligent, telepathic Bengal Tiger with a cybernetic rocket launcher or Cyborg with a built in rocket launcher-or a mobile telepathic plant-or maybe just a human, gun slinging bad-ass."

"Have-Not is about exploring a world that's been touched by a miraculous technology (controlled by the Haves, who are now gone) and then abandoned. It's about setting things right or seeing what's broken or just getting rich and powerful-or any of those things. It's about a world that's complex, that's got a lot going on, and has secrets to discover."

Telepathic Bengal Tigers with cybernetic rocket launchers.
emphasis mine.

5. LodlanD (2003)
German rpg LodlanD presents another underwater post-collapse society. The Lod of the title refers to the central city of that setting. Human experimentation to reduce CO2 emissions resulted in depletion in the atmosphere and a subsequent Ice Age. The surviving populace fled beneath the oceans, the last habitable place. The German wikipedia page suggests that unlike other post-apocalyptic games, LodlanD takes an optimistic view. The game suggests that eventually through technological and scientific progress, mankind will reclaim the surface. (Ironic given the inciting incident.) LodlanD did quite well for itself. Between '03 and '09 it released over a dozen sourcebooks, supplements, and modules. It follows the trend of other games of the period with an evolving metaplot. The publisher announced the close-down of LodlanD in '09, with the promise of a new metaplot arc coming in 2010. That seems to have not materialized, with the designer instead turning to writing novels.

6. Midnight (2003)
I've often heard Midnight described as the "Sauron Wins" rpg. That does a disservice to the depth and breadth of the work poured into this material. The world of Eredane has been under the Shadow for one hundred years. In ages past, the gods cast out Izrador, the Shadow & the god of corruptions. He in turn severed his place of exile from the heavens. Izrador built a following and fought on and off with the varied peoples for thousands of years. Finally with dark promises he pulled apart the rag-tag and exhausted coalition arrayed against him. Since then he has brought nearly everything under his sway, aided by blood sacrifices and his highly organized Church of Shadow.

For this setting, Fantasy Flight built a distinct set of d20 rules, heavily tailored to match the premise. The first edition used D&D 3.0, while the second edition corebook pulled in material from the sourcebooks and brought everything up to 3.5. The rules include a host of racial options and the elimination of all core classes save the barbarian, fighter, and rogue. Instead we have the Channeler, Defender, Legate (Clerics of the Shadow), and Wildlander. With the gods severed, no other divine magic functions. Midnight includes prestige classes, but also "Heroic Paths" granting benefits at each level. Magic has changed as well. There's a ton of material in the core book...maybe too much. The world's highly detailed and described, with dozens of nations and peoples. Like other crunchy settings (Earthdawn, Iron Kingdoms) GMs may have a hard time finding a suitable entry point.

What can the PCs do in this grim setting? I like this summary from the introduction. "The heroes of Midnight are condemned by their ideals and forced to wage a war that all but a few believe was lost long ago." The core book suggests some ideas about tone in passing- in particular keeping the sense of hope alive. I think that's an important tightrope to walk here. On the one hand this could be run as an almost Cthulhu-like setting (ala Shadows Over Vathak). On the other it could be handled more as a resistance-fighter style campaign (like Evernight above). It's interesting that you have an active force present and intent on maintaining the "apocalyptic" state of things. We’ve seen that in several cases (GURPS Reign of Steel), but nothing as singular.

Fantasy Flight supported Midnight with a host of sourcebooks, supplements, and modules. There are some amazing ones and the line has solid production values. A live-action movie intended as a pilot came out in 2008, but didn't generate interest. The last printed volume for the line appeared in '07, but FF released a D&D 4e module, The Heart of Erenland, intended to bring people into the setting in '09. Though I expect their big licenses remain many times more valuable than this IP, I'm disappointed that following the d20 crash we haven't seen a revision of this. I can imagine a modern FF board game treatment of the ideas here (beyond Runebound: Midnight). Perhaps we could even see a Pathfinder, 13th Age or D&D 5 sourcebook someday?
Midnight on RPGNow

7. Neoterra (2003)
Another EABA aftermath setting book, but distinct and unusual. The author's note explains that Neoterra's premise is built on the "scientifically sound" field of evolutionary sociobiology. In particular he cites and recommends The Bell Curve. Your awareness of and response to that will color your reading of the game. My background's in anthropology and I have a fairly dim view of it; it has problematic aspects. I'll leave it at that. Neoterra offers a subtle apocalypse. In this world, the Net has taken over, reducing and controlling humanity...sort of. The AI’s placed constraints but in general offered humanity complete freedom from want or need. There's a little mix of Transhumanism and the post-scarcity world of FreeMarket. Humanity exists to create style and develop towards "Archetypes," or new forms of existence. It's a weird set up, at least for me. It definitely has a cataclysmic incident: a war between sentient technology and the human world. But the game itself takes place long after that. NeoTerra offers more a framework than it does a detailed setting, but I suspect that's the only way to handle these concepts.
Neoterra on RPGNow

8. Neuroshima (2003)
Here's a mundane but related story. I'd heard of the boardgame Neuroshima Hex, but for some reason thought it was something like Hive, an abstract game. So it didn’t register for me. Last year, my friend Chris taught me 51st State, a dense and weird post-apocalyptic card game...based on the Neuroshima setting. Wait, what...I didn't even think there was a setting. So I put together that it was shared background for a bunch of board games.

But no, that's still wrong. In fact Neuroshima is a huge post-apocalyptic role-playing game from Poland. It has a dozen and a half supplements, but hasn't been translated to English. The designers include Ignacy Trzewiczek (now known for his board games like Imperial Settlers) and Michal Oracz (designer of De Profundis).

Despite being a Polish design, Neuroshima takes place in a fallen United States. It has a Mad Max feel, mixed with fringe elements like bred monsters and radiation-damaged nature. A nuclear war ignites a larger conflict of man versus machine. With echoes of Terminator and Reign of Steel, the machine intelligence, Moloch, controls most of the northern US. Another section has been overrun by deadly vegetation from South America. Humanity has split into multiple tribes and regions. Each has a distinct culture and approach. There's a strong focus on a person’s origins, with strangers regarded suspiciously. It seems like a standard setting, though the game offers several dials for tone. These are called colors: Steel, Chrome, Rust, and Mercury (in order of fatalism).

Neuroshima uses its own system, based on 3d20 resolution, and has a revised 1.5 edition. Sourcebooks include splatbooks, campaigns & adventures, as well as city sourcebooks covering Miami and Detroit. I'm unsure of the current state of publication. I assume it remains in print, but several web pages related to it have gone dark. Portal Games seems to have worked on an English translation at one point, but not currently. Though I imagine the market for translated rpgs is tight, we've seen some recent publications despite this (The End of the World, Kuro).

9. octaNe (2003)
To quote my friend Gene, "brilliantly vague for what it leaves out."

octaNe, according to designer Jared Sorensen, started with thinking about a “road-trip” school of Magick for Unknown Armies. From that we ended up with what the subtitle describes as "the psychotronic game of post-modern trash culture america." octaNe goes for highly improvisational and freeform mechanics in pursuing that. Rules require Rock n' Roll and terrible snack food during sessions. It includes several modes of play: Retro-Kool Kitsch, Grindhouse, Mythic Storytelling, and Gritty Hyper-realism. These define play style and goals, as well as the threat of death for the characters. The mechanics themselves are light, matching simple dice rolls to narrative declarations.

What do you actually do in the game? Well your characters drive around in this blasted wasteland having adventures. It might look like road movie directed by Jim Jarmusch? It might be game that's more Tank Girl than the Tank Girl RPG? The party's assembled from weird roles: Capuchin Monkey to Mutant Trucker to Repo Man to Six-String Samurai. It has magical traditions and high weirdness. At the same time, the setting's thinly detailed, with more than enough room for the players to fill in the gaps. For example, everything east of the Mississippi remains a great and mythic unknown...the land of Oz for the restless PCs prowling the broken roads.

I dig octaNe. It is weird in a whole different way than early Gamma World. It has a joke and a gimmick, but that doesn't oversell itself. If you're looking for a fast, crazed, and weirdly upbeat post-apocalyptic game, check it out.
octaNe on RPGNow

10. Redline (2003)
Fantasy Flight's “Horizon” series offered an interesting experiment: small but rich setting books for d20. You have to admire the throwback simplicity, describing a whole campaign premise and mechanics in a 64-page book. That’s in an era where everyone shot out hardcover monsters and a ton of d20 material came in massive chunks. Redline presents a fairly classic Road Warrior-esque setting. It wears its sources on its cover. The game uses the tightness to its advantage, cutting down to six backgrounds for races and five broad character classes. New skills are added and others tweaked; in particular I like "chatter" for the convince skill. Ten pages cover vehicle construction and fighting. These feel compressed and take a common "maneuvers with checks" approach. The section on personal fighting from the cars could have been expanded. Redline’s cataclysm remains present in "The Creep." That's a corruption mechanic based on contact with old ruins and the toxic biological agents they contain. I'm glad they limit the background to something mechanical and which actually comes into play. The book ends with a little over a dozen pages of setting ideas and monsters. Redline isn't groundbreaking, but it does the job it sets out to with skill: an easy to grok d20 standard post-apocalyptic game.

11. Rifts Chaos Earth (2003)
By 2003, Palladium had published 50+ Rifts sourcebooks, not including material released for compatible games. That divergent and multi-faceted setting takes places in the wake of a mystic/dimensional catastrophic event- but far in the past. Those events settled into the division of different worlds and dimensions. But Rifts Chaos Earth takes place in the immediate aftermath of the Great Cataclysm. The players serve as agents of the Northern Eagle Military Alliance, trying to hold things together and deal with changes wracking the world.

That's not a bad premise- putting players into a world still shifting and changing towards something drastically different. For Rifts veterans, it offers a riff on familiar concepts and a chance to see the world from another perspective. But Rifts players have always struck as wanting more and more kitchen-sink material. Chaos Earth reverses that trend, so I'm unsure of the full appeal. And the Rifts label might have put off those otherwise interested in post-apocalyptic gaming. Still Chaos Earth offers a done-in-one rpg, with a ton of setting material (and equipment). Palladium released two supplements for the setting: Creatures of Chaos, a bestiary, and Rise of Magic, which added extensive material for many magical classes.

12. Sine Requie (2003)
I mentioned this line before on my History of Horror RPG list, one of several cross-overs. Sine Requie is an Italian RPG presenting a horror-tinged alternate history. While the horror begins late in WW2, it differs from products like Weird Wars: Weird War II. Instead it takes up in the aftermath of the dead rising from the earth and all manner of unspeakable supernatural things happening. It opens in 1957, enough time for all manner of changes. The Soviet sourcebook describes a country run by a soulless computer, the ultimate technocratic dream turned to terror. Italy has a radical Inquisition. And the Nazi regime remains in power. The game has a mix of human and supernatural elements bringing darkness to the world. Sine Requie uses tarot cards for resolution rather than dice, but as far as I can tell has not been translated into English. It has several area sourcebooks (Sine Requie: IV Reich, Sine Requie: Sanctum Imperium for example.)

13. When the Sky Falls (2003)
A Malhavoc Press publication under the Swords & Sorcery imprint. When the Sky Falls details how to drop a a meteor strike into your campaign. We've seen that before in Apocalypse and Wrath of the Immortals. This aims to be a d20 toolkit for that event. The book's split 50/50 between set up & execution of the event and dealing with the magical aftermath. The former has some decent ideas on different kinds of meteorites, foreshadowing the event, and changes to the world. This last bit gets less treatment than you might expect, but this is only a 64 pages. The second half offers new systems arising out of the event: new magic styles, spells, items, and monsters. This feels a little less earthshaking than it could. A related supplement in the same series is Requiem for a God. That offers ideas for handling the passing of a major divinity on a setting. That could also lead into apocalyptic scenarios.
When the Sky Falls on RPGNow
Requiem for a God on RPGNow

14. Miscellaneous: Corner Cases
Two items fall at the margins, maybe post-apocalyptic or of interest to PA gamers. Armageddon: 2089 - Total War is a d20 setting for "WarMek"-based battles and conflict. The cover suggests a devastating war to end all others, but I suspect that's less important than cool machines blowing each other up. More relevant is Days of Fire. This presents a player-facing book of information about the coming End Times for World of Darkness, set within the cosmology of Demon: The Fallen. I guess you could consider some of the other "in-game" White Wolf books like this also apocalyptic (like Hunter Apocrypha). These are the 'found-footage' films of the rpg world. I mention this one since it seems to have a link to the big world-destroying event we'll see on the next list: Time of Judgment.
Armageddon: 2089 on RPGNow 
Days of Fire on RPGNow

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