Wednesday, March 25, 2015

History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part Nine 2004-2005)

On an earlier post, I broke down Post-Apocalyptic settings into four categories. The second of these I called “Children of the Fire” stories. In these we’re at least a generation removed from the world’s devastation. We have new orders, but some recall the old ways. Sometimes machines and technology exist, but decayed or without user understanding. We have new civilizations or cultures embracing the current state. They struggle carve out a place for themselves, often at the cost of others.

Children of the Fire stories get the best of all the worlds. You have an immediacy to the cataclysm. It still haunts people. The histories have only just begun to change and lose touch with reality. The threat- infestation, contamination, banished beasts- may still hang over the world. Perhaps people fear that disaster will return through error (Earthdawn, Traveller: The New Era). Or perhaps the disaster remains as a constant (Midnight, Dark Earth). These settings can have continuity with the old world: intact relics, undecayed ruins, heirlooms passed down. Those offer a clear contrast to the present world. They can balance the play elements: survival, exploration, action, power struggles. As well, they may establish new cultures, laws, and rules- providing some structure. But these may not have the weight of tradition and history. Players may be in a better position to question or overturn them.

These settings also imply that the characters know the setting. They have some experience and understand the threat it poses. Unlike “Aftermath” style games, characters won’t be as freaked out by the world and its changes. Children of Fire tales often establish that the world’s never going back to the way it was. Progress may be made and better societies may emerge, but the old world’s finished. Whereas an Aftermath game may offer the chance to turn back that clock, in these that opportunity has been lost. Children of Fire concepts also contrast with worlds set much later, which I call “Civilization in the Ruins.” Those games allow for more drastic changes to the environment, people, and creatures- barring in-game devices like radical mutagens or nanotech. Games set later also imply more concrete societal structures as well as multiple layers of rise and fall.

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 2004 to 2005). I've arranged these by year and then alphabetically within that year

1. Degenesis (2004)
A German rpg set 500 years after a devastating asteroid strike. Originally released in a limited edition, Degenesis received a wider release followed and then distribution as a free pdf. The designers describe the game as "Primal Punk." It has distinct and highly stylized art in heavily illustrated books. Degenesis also buys into the game design trends of the time with heavy metaplot and copious setting secrets. The title hints at the setting’s themes: a Europe splintered into various decayed culture groups (Hybrispania for Spain, Purgare for Italy, and ..."Africa" for black north Africans...Okaaaaaay....). The game complicates that with additional Cults which serve as classes. Degenesis supported three supplements on an irregular schedule before shutting down. However in 2014 a new edition appeared, Degenesis: Rebirth.

2. DragonMech (2004)
As I mentioned on my earlier Steampunk list, I love DragonMech’s subtitle, "Medieval Fantasy Mechs Powered by Steam, Magic, or the Labor of a Thousand Slaves." OK- I’m in. This d20 setting from the Sword & Sorcery line establishes a fantasy world with depth and backstory. It’s heavily mechanical, with things like gear forests atop city mechs scouted by Cogwork rangers. But why is it post-apocalyptic?

In this history, the moon grows closer and closer to the world, raining down death and destruction. That includes a hail of lunar monsters scouring the surface. To survive, the various races move underground into havens. But those are wracked by constant warfare between factions vying for space. Eventually the Dwarves craft a solution, the first and largest city-mechs designed to fight back the invaders. In some cases these machines are even more ancient, harkening back to a previous age of walking machines. Now emboldened by the developments, the various peoples set forth to retake the blasted lands. The breakdown of old orders means battles against the environment as well as among those who seek control of this chaotic world.

I'd glanced at the game in the past, but hadn't really dived in because d20 isn't my thing. However I'm taken with this- I love how far the game pushes those mechanistic ideas. I like the use of differences in power sources and the vast range of scales these things operate in. White Wolf published a total of eight books in the DragonMech line- suggesting it did fairly well. I need to collect these books.

3. Necessary Evil (2004)
Early Savage Worlds took a radical approach to campaign and setting building. They blended world sourcebooks and campaigns together to craft extended "Plot Point campaigns." Like classic campaign modules or series (The Enemy Within, Horror on the Orient Express) these offer a mostly linear through-spine to the story. But PPC’s break these multiple incidents, open scenes, and optional bits. They still have a beginning, middle, and end, but give GMs more options with a minimal presentation. However it took time for the designers to move that way. The earliest ones could be pretty railroad (like Evernight from the last list). 

The premise is a solid one. The PCs are supervillains and the last line of resistance against an alien invasion. The invaders have killed nearly all the superheroes and conquered the world. That's a neat twist- and one which gives players a different set of motivations and conflicts. I've always found bad guy games tough- even when the PCs have a shared goal or motivation. Every time I've seen them blow up due to interparty conflict and recrimination. Necessary Evil doesn't offer much advice on that point, a major weakness. As well the world’s only slightly changed by the nature of the invasion. When Necessary Evil came out it was the only source of superpower rules for Savage Worlds, but new products cover that for the present edition. Pinnacle more recently published a compact version of this for Explorers Edition.

4. Paranoia (2004)
About ten years after the publication of the previous (and generally panned) edition, Paranoia finally reappeared. It joined the ranks of Gamma World and Mutant as post-apocalyptic rpgs with more than three editions or versions. But unlike those, this Paranoia arose from old hands returning to rework the material. With West End Games' collapse a small group of writers managed to secure the IP. That's shocking in itself, given how many games have been complicated by publisher bankruptcy. Lead designer Allen Varney brought this darkly comedic setting back as Paranoia XP. Which, in a move no one saw coming, caused Mongoose to reissue the game a year later after Microsoft objected to the use of "XP."

Is it 4th edition? Perhaps. The books themselves avoid labels and focus on just being Paranoia (and excising "5th" edition from gamers' consciousness). And they took some radical steps. In the last couple of years D&D 5's work with focus groups and the fan community have gotten a good deal of attention. But Paranoia did this more explicitly and openly ten years ago. That included a developers' blog, active engagement with the fan community for suggestions, as well as a wiki-game, the Toothpaste Disaster, which created background for the revised setting. There's some irony that a game built on disruption and betrayal should be one of the first to embrace fan collaboration through new electronic tools.

This edition refined the system as well as eliminating "metaplot" concepts. It restructured play into three styles: "Zap" for crazy gunbunny PvP/PvE hijinks, "Classic" for tension and satire from engaging with the game's core premise, and "Straight" for actually running the setting darkly- with the insanity present treated as actually horrific. In general this new edition cleaned up the rules, aiming for simplicity while maintaining the core concepts. The designers updated technological and social details. The Communist Menace still exists, but alongside more modern trends. Overall reviewers and fans reacted well to this new edition. Mongoose supported it strongly, bringing on the always amazing Gareth Hanrahan as the lead in 2006. Overall they released about two dozen books including new adventures, updated classic modules, sourcebooks for new game modes, and splatbooks for things like Mutants and the Armed Forces. As well as this edition did, it isn't the last we'll see on these lists. We still have two more to go...

5. Redención (2004)
Spanish rpg Redención (t. Redemption) takes a trope we've seen before but twists it. In the near future, Earth has been destroyed by mysterious alien forces. That leaves humanity on the Moon, Mars, and near Earth orbit. The remaining government tries to keep these scattered colonies together even as they work to uncover a way to survive future attacks. The lead-up to this is humanity exploration via wormholes and first contact with aliens. That contact draws humanity into a conflict between races and eventually to the destruction of the Earth. There's some suggestion of old alien interventions with ancient civilizations. That has more than a little echo of later Stargate SG1 (complete with Egyptian mythic alien designs).

When I first read about this, alien attack scanned for me as mysterious and hidden. And I dug that weird uncertainty. It had more than a little echo of Battlestar Galactica. But it’s clear from further reading that humanity knows their attackers and their reasons. The game does echo BSG in the tensions between the needs of the community, individual interests, and control by a dominating and repressive society. Though oddly, rather than be outsiders, the game encourages characters to be agents of that government. Redención has some interesting ideas, but apparently didn't make a major impact, with only the core book appearing and no other supplements or sourcebooks.

A free rpg, but one that garnered accolades, enthusiasm, and translations into multiple languages. The Shadow of Yesterday presents a fantasy setting, devastated one hundred years ago by "Sky Fire." This world, called Near, has various non-human races. Rather than a focus on physical differences, the game defines them more through unusual outlooks and understandings. That's reflective of the game as a whole. While it is firmly in the Sword & Sorcery mode, with characters traveling through a broken and uncertain world, TSOY focuses on character personalities and drives. Specific drives, called Keys, define how characters advance. While the game emphasizes narrative, it offers a clear set of resolution methods. It has the kind of crunch many players love- skills lists and secrets (something like feats). The setting's lightly defined, with the idea of the cataclysm more as an inciting incident in the background than a constant feature. Of course that will vary depending on the GM. TSOY released under a Creative Commons license. As a result, several interesting foreign editions contained expanded material and rules modifications. The Finnish authors even presented a completely new book of setting material. It's definitely worth checking out.

7. Splicers (2004)
When I saw this cover at a distance “Post Apocalyptic Survivors vs. Transformers” popped into my head. That might be an awesome concept (with the Autobots choosing to colonize our devastated Earth rather than allowing humanity to destroy it further). But that's not what Splicers is. Instead, it’s another fully complete Palladium post-apocalypse game in the mode of System Failure and After the Bomb.

Splicers offers a future world overrun by machine overlords. It has echoes of Screamers, Hardware, and The Terminator, as well as Reign of Steel. But Splicers has a neat riff on those concepts. A nanovirus means that most metal objects can animate and come to life to attack humans. Like RoS several computer overlords exist, but in this case they're different personalities of a central computer system called the Machine. That makes the Machine slightly insane with different competing aspects working at cross purposes. There's a nice variety of the monsters on offer- drones, androids, sentient ships, and sewer prowlers.

Players run members of the human resistance. They rely on engineered biotechnology for survival. Living creatures become battlesuits worn by these warriors. Engineers connected to alien organisms control and manipulate genetic codes. PC can choose from different military roles (battlesuits, flyers, canine troops, cavalry) and classes (OCCs). If you know Palladium and understand when I tell you that this is a Mega-Damage game, then you'll probably have a solid sense of the play. Essentially characters get big guns, powers, and equipment and fight against other big things with different massive powers, weapons, and equipment. Normal humans don't even really factor here. They'd be vaporized by the backwash from these fights. Splicers offers a game which fits more with high-level Palladium, uber-power games. That separates it from Palladium’s other stand-alone post-apocalyptic games.
8. Vermine (2004)
Bug-ruled future. Nope.

Well, not just insects, but rats, bats, wolves, and other "Vermin" of the title. This French rpg takes place in 2037. The world hasn't been blown up, instead it has simply collapsed. The wild has pressed in and devastated humanity. Diseases evolve and overcome the population, even as the predator beasts evolve and develop to kill off the survivors. Characters follow different beliefs- survivalists, humanists, and adaptationists. This last group believe that they must become more like the vermin to survive. They embrace mutations and follow their ways. PCs also have behaviors (nomads, orphans, companions, and founders) defining relation to community and settlement. While setting lacks magic, it includes the occult and the idea of new faiths driving groups and approaches. Players can become shamans of these new paths. Vermine got decent support from publisher 7th Circle who picked it up with some delays after the first publisher dropped the ball. They released four more books beyond the base Player's Guide: a GM Guide, Parasite and Symbiote, Predator and Scavenger, and Rumors: 2037. However the line seems to have died by '06.

A tight setting supplement for Burning Wheel, clocking in at about 40 pages. Under a Serpent Sun is a free pdf, but one released by the publisher and strikingly the first such book released for the line. It sketches out the barest sense of a setting: an after-the-fall environment, humanity in isolated communities, escape to the wasteland, and a general feeling of doom and desperation. Instead of the concrete nature of the world, UaSS focuses on the interaction of three traits: Need, Despair, and the Answer. These form a cycle intended to shape the tone and play at the table. New Lifepath elements- tied to several different modes- tune the mechanics. The expected new skills appear, but more space is given to emotions, disease, and weird questions which serve as a kind of power here. Everything's higly abstract, and I'll admit my inability to grok Burning Wheel holds me back from fully understanding the implications of the mechanics. But I think it’s more interesting to see a post-apocalyptic game which so fully focuses on internal (to a person, to a community) threats over external ones (foes, the environment). We'll see more of that with this genre in coming years, and I think UaSS represents an important marker. It adds a new wrinkle to stories often dominated by concrete weirdness and military fetishism.

I still find it incredible that White Wolf blew up the old World of Darkness. Knowing the plans for what came after, the return to that setting with the anniversary editions, and the mixed critical reception it might not seem so amazing. But think about that. Rather than a soft reboot, another revised edition, a "Five Years Later," or a world storm, they went with finishing their lines off. That's drastic and kind of unprecedented. Even other "cataclysmic" events like Wrath of the Immortals kept the same continuity. The only examples that come to mind of similar drastic demolitions are the elimination of the original Might & Magic setting and DC's New52. Of course, said the cynics at the time, White Wolf will obviously go back to the same well...and yes, obviously. But there's something awesome in White Wolf, standard bearer for the metaplot, actually carrying that through to the logical conclusion.

Arguably all of the cWoD lines had the Apocalypse hard-coded into them: Gehenna, the Reckoning, the Ascension, the Apocalypse, the...uh...Demoning (I never read those). To bring those to a close, White Wolf presented a series of "End Cap" books. These detailed scenarios for handling the big blow up plot- pulling together setting secrets, revealing the forces behind many events, and bringing the looming threats down on the world.

Were they successful? Looking back, I'm not sure. At the time I checked out the plot developments in many of the lines. But fewer online resources existed to catch me up. So reading through the big three books (Vampire, Werewolf, Mage) ended up an exercise in repeated wtf and wait, what? These books structured around concrete and specific set ups. For example, Gehenna opens with background material and then move to four different scenarios. While each has some ideas on how to reshape them, they’re all fairly fixed. The general GM advice for running an ‘End of Night’ campaign is only about sixteen pages. In some ways White Wolf found themselves caught between the need to narratively finish things off and offering GMs interesting tools for the table. The situation ended up worse for smaller lines (Hunter, Changeling, etc) all of whom ended up stuck together in a single volume. Despite my reservations, there's a ton of material here. GMs considering how to bringing a modern urban fantasy crashing down could do worse than look to these. Or consider using these for normal characters in a world where this kind of supernatural apocalypse begins in the background and then explodes out into the open.

11. d20 Apocalypse (2005)
While I like games with interesting and distinct settings, I also appreciate a good toolbox. Some games draw in their background so heavily that you can't see what's going on. If I can't disentangle that on a GM read-through, how am I going to convey it to players? Materials which sketch out ideas, offer options, and allow for tuning dials can be great. Citybooks, Tome of Adventure Design, and Red Tide fall into this tradition. Some GURPS books do so as well, but often they're caught up in infodump over options. d20 Apocalypse offers some sandbox material for GMs but falls short of being great.

Written for use with d20 Modern and d20 Future, this book opens with a quick run-through of different apocalypses: Alien Invasion, Rogue Planet, Bio-Disaster, etc. That's great, but disappointing in that it doesn't actually do anything with that. Instead it just sums these up, but honestly most people already know those basics. Why not offer a tighter presentation and then talk about what those crashes actually look like, what are the issues or hooks, what kinds of twists can you put on them? We get the same kind of list and summary treatment of societies and eras- each of which could have benefited from more choices and utility. The book includes a chunk of d20 mechanics- structures and ruins, radiation, scavenging & gear, vehicles, monsters, mutations, and new classes. Each of these is fairly predictable and without useful ways to customize and expand the concepts. D20 Apocalypse ends with three campaign frames: Earth Inherited (Angel Invasion, 12 pages), Atomic Sunrise (Nuclear Wipeout, 10 pages), and Plague World (Morrow Project with Aliens, 11 pages). Each is fairly literal and specific: backstory, character types, factions, monsters, and a location. These could have been much more interesting with tweaks, hooks, and ways to give a GM the power to make them their own.

12. Dark Millennium (2005)
Dark Millennium gives us the End Times in the 11th century. This setting book for EABA has an interesting twist. Hell spills out onto the Earth, but Heaven doesn't respond in kind. It isn't that the Divinity's absent- miracles performed by the faithful confirm that presence. But God’s busy elsewhere. There's a focus on the historical aspects of the setting. The dark ages Europe presented has just begun to recover from the fall of Rome. But the struggle takes place across the world, with people of all faiths battling against armies of the Undead. It reminds me of Clockwork & Chivalry in which a supernatural event has wide-ranging effects on the world, but people still try to live their daily lives. Both have a strong emphasis on the tension between faith and what the characters actually have to do to survive. Like most of these BTRC setting products, Dark Millennium has a simple and clear presentation and sticks to the basics. GMs thinking about a historical post-apocalyptic game might want to check this out.

13. Low Life (2005)

I'm not sure where to start with this. Maybe that Low Life has a very distinct art style and presentation? And not exactly to my tastes. It’s a cross between Bosch and early GW art (like from the Slaves to Chaos book). It’s not entirely that I'm opposed to messy or more visceral art. I dig Rick Veitch, Steve Bissette, Robert Arneson, Jhonen Vasquez, and the like. But I've found myself put off by some versions of it in rpgs (Human Occupied Landfill, GURPS Goblins). So take my opinion in that light.

Low Life presents an earthy, fecal-infused setting for Savage Worlds. It's a world of fungi, worms, crazed chimeric fusions, and writhing flesh. All of this begins with a nuclear war, followed by an alien invasion, followed by a comet strike, followed by the dying out of the Hoomanrace and the rise of a great melting pot of sludge, mutagens, and biomass which eventually becomes this new Oith and “the Lowly.” The whole thing's called the Time of the Flush. The next era's called "After the Wipe." The game maintains this tone and approach throughout- a particular kind of pidgin for terms and concepts, goofy half-name jokes for places, and a general sense of wicked dimness to the peoples and world. Yet Low Life may be scatologically idiotic, but it isn't shallow.

There's a ton of world-building going on here. A crazy amount. Beyond the copious and evocative illustrations, there's dense text. Actually the text may be too dense- I had a hard time the small font, especially against the textured page background. But this is a labour of love for designer & artist Andy Hopp. He richly presents the different peoples, giving a substance to their grotesque. There's discussions of cosmology, presentation of diverse religions, a thick gazetteer, a bestiary, and tons of detailed adventures and plots. And while it has mechanics, it doesn't go overboard modifying Savage Worlds. Instead it provides some magic systems and unique hindrances and edges for the setting. Everything's well done and strikingly presented, and I wish it clicked for me more. If you're at all looking for a really off-beat, darkly funny post-apocalyptic, wigglingly visceral rpg, consider checking out Low Life.

We've seen a couple of other "Monsters Rule" cataclysms, but usually involving zombies or fantastic beats. Vampire Earth gives us rules by Nosferatu. Perhaps the end logic of Vampire the Masquerade? Or inverted I Am Legend? The only other vampire-dominated material I recall are the Vampire Kingdoms from Rifts.

In any case, I mentioned this game on my horror lists before. I hunted around before I realized this Savage World setting book draws on a book series. And not a small series, but one with nine volumes. The Vampire Earth Sourcebook arrived when there were still only four books in the series. As many settings have done, Vampire Earth drives post-apocalypse straight through to horror. In this case, aliens known as Kurians engineer the collapse of the world and take over. They feed on the life energy and auras of humans (ala Lifeforce). The Kurians have created a number of monstrous races, like more classic vampires and werewolves, to serve them. It's nice to see some interesting horror series get rpgs, but these aren't books I'm familiar with. As the internet has expanded, more free fan projects have adapted settings (some good, some bad). RPG books like these will need to be stronger sourcebooks offering insight to compete with that.

I recall the Storm Constantine “Wraeththu” books on the shelf at Waldenbooks. They had cool covers, but the jacket copy wasn't enough to make me buy them. I checked them out every time, but never pulled the trigger. Over the years, I've come to understand there's some controversy and weirdness with the series. So now I'm going to go on Google to find out what the books are about.

(One internet search later).

OK, so the Wraethuthu are hermaphroditic overlords who take over after humanity's decline. They appear as a mutationin the world before a global collapse which remains a mystery. The Wraeththu apparently can infect humans to become part of their species. They have magic, transformational penises. It looks at a glance like there's a good deal of sex and sexual politics within the series, which by this point has grown to eight books by the original author. It has a dense background, with tons of strange names, tropes, and concepts. And apparently the author based some books of spirituality on the concepts presented in the series. Looks like beyond that there's a strong fanfic community and even a Second Life group.

OK, so what's the rpg like? Well, the reviews seem pretty dire. Even sites which normally pander with the most fawning assessments start out with some positives and then dive into criticism. Many list the game on their top "Heartbreaker" or weird games lists. W:fete seems to feature problematic mechanics, a focus on sex, and an adoration of the Wraeththu species without any complexion or complexities. It doesn't seem like it’s very good. Rather than dig further, I think I'll point you to Jeff Reints’ post on the topic. He dislikes the game, but doesn't resort to some of the name-calling and dismissal of other reviews. He wrestles with the substance of the material. Warning though: it's a long, long read.

16. Miscellaneous: Corner Cases
Several publications fall on the margins of this genre- tangentially related, electronic only, or using the apocalypse as set dressing. d20 Future serves as part of the basis of d20 Apocalypse listed above. It includes a campaign frame, "The Wasteland" which has echoes of Gamma World. The Dark Legacies Campaign Guide is a stretch, but has suggestions of an apocalypse so far in the past that the world's essentially been remade since then. Ex Machina is a dynamite cyberpunk sourcebook from Guardians of Order. It includes "Underground Underworld," a post-crisis world in which the US smashes most other nations and brings them under their control. Anything outside the American hegemony is bombed and blasted.

Several pdf-only publications are worth mentioning. Future Broken offers a new setting for vs. Monsters with wasteland battles between cyborgs and mutants. MotoCaust is a small, standalone zombies vs. road warriors game. Broken Gears is a weird little pseudo-steampunk game. In it world collapse comes just after WW2. Scientists create a massive AI which proceeds to take over and devastate the world. The setting takes up in that rubble, with humanity unwilling to use any kind of advanced technology. Three French electronic-only products came out in this period as well. Charognards (aka Scavengers) offers a post-meteor-struck, disease-ravaged, alien-invaded wasteland. d20 Plagues has a fantasy zombie infestation world. Finally Larmes de Roulle (aka Tears of Rust) has players running mechanical caretakers for a ruined world. I think.

It's also worth noting that both Deadlands and Midnight had significant new editions in this period. 

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