Tuesday, June 30, 2015

History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part Eleven 2007)

Hey I got an ENnies nomination! Since this is my 997th post I’m filling these entries with countdowns as we head to 1000, therefore....

On earlier lists I broke Post-Apocalyptic games by distance from “The Event.” That often establishes key setting concepts (like memory, ruins, rebuilding). I’ve been thinking about other dynamics in these rpgs. They aren’t binaries, but different spectrums.
  • Realism vs. Fantasy: Some settings buy into the gonzo with strange powers, constant mutations, angelic interventions. The most recent edition of Gamma World goes all in on this. Others aim for more “realism”: radiation kills, only lunatics claim magic, and the rules of physics apply. Twilight 2000 embraces this. Usually games end up further towards the fantastic. Even games I think of as “realistic”- Morrow Project, Aftermath!- include rules for psionics, intelligent plants, and giant bugs.
  • Natural to Technological: At least two considerations fall under this. First, how much technology remains and is used? Must people rediscover these tools? Or has technology sustained and advanced despite the disaster, as in many cyberpunk-ish dystopias? Second, how does the setting showcase technology and nature- as heroes? as villains? Some games clearly suggest a lesson about the dangers of industrialization. They may have caused the devastation (as in the various Robot Overlord games). Or they signal evil, as in games where only the clear villains have sophisticated tech and weapons. On the other hand, in some settings nature itself battles the survivors. Climate collapse, desert wastelands, expanding blood fungus. Nature plans to take back what it can, and only with struggle and technology can that be held at bay.
  • Individualist to Communal: Some rpgs focus on singular heroes who carve their way through the world. They may be hunting for fame, wealth, power, or even just so they can live. Some Zombie games encourage this; be the sole survivor. On the other hand, others begin with the characters’ group and relationships. Apocalypse World and Mutant: Year Zero have this baked into their DNA. While other game hint at this approach, these games have mechanics to support and incentivize play to sustain a community.
  • Pessimism vs. Optimism: More subjective, but some games feel like they offer hope and others crush it underfoot. Some zombie material has the characters waiting for the next time someone takes the stupid ball and re-infects the refuge. Some games just seem dark, like Obsidian, Armageddon, or End Time. The world’s become terrible and it will never get better. But other games suggest hope. The players actively battle for a brighter tomorrow in Necessary Evil. Even the ambiguity of your choices there don’t destroy that hope. Gamma World’s always seemed optimistic to me: the idea that your young characters can go out, survive, and make a difference. In some ways this reflect how stable the ground is: can you build something and have it survive? Or will the world (GM) always blow it up? Though some rpgs clearly sew in damnations, this trait may depend more on how the game’s run.

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 2006). I've arranged these by year and then alphabetically within that year.

This is a pretty book. And huge one too at 400+ pages. It has every graphic tweak that grabs me: clean page backgrounds, tight but stylish borders, full color images, strong and simple text design. It works (despite the landscape page design). All good. Let's see the premise- ah, an ecological collapse. Mother Nature reclaims the world and humanity falls back to mega-cities. That’s Interesting, a strong mix of tech urban and vast wilderness. Cool. But then we hit pages from a 19th Century visionary prophet. And then the alien angels appear.

If you flipped through the book at the store or read the blurbs, you wouldn't have the gwak moment I had. Alpha Omega presents a sprawling, kitchen-sink setting. Earth hosts an ancient war between the Seraph and Ophanum forces (get it?), eons later the world turns on humanity with unceasing natural disasters. Desperate enclaves manage to adapt and survive. Then a hundred years later an "Evolutionary" appears to tell people of the imminent arrival of the ancient warring species (as well as the Elim, the Nephilim, the Grigori, and Annnunnaki). And then for 150 years humanity begins to assimilate the Evolutionary half-breeds and an array of other weird species and peoples. The game takes place in 2280, with the idea that only now are cities pushing reclaim the wilderness. It’s a weird mix of Nephilim, Eden's Armageddon, SLA Industries, and Cyberpunk, resting atop a thick bed of World of Darkness. When I see three pages of lingo, I flash back to White Wolf.

It's pretty- and it has a ton of room for play. You can pretty much do anything you want. Gamma World style exploration of the ruins? Ancient wars between powerful supernaturals? Shadowrun-esque prowlings in high-tech back-alleys? There's a ton of world-building here: locations to NPCs to organizations. You can choose from ten strange races, including humans. There's so much it becomes hard to pick out what's going on. The game looks super complex with core qualities, secondary qualities, tertiary qualities, detailed movement rates, a dense page of skills with individual use tick boxes. Plus more pages to record abilities and powers. Alpha Omega has interesting material, but the central hook’s obscure or too convoluted to get across quickly. It reminds me of Eclipse Phase's density: a strength and a weakness. Still if you're looking for a cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic, pseudo-Judeo-Christian, supernatural rpg, then this might be your bag.

I wonder how designers decide when to set a game in relation to Armageddon. What does further or closer gain you for your setting? Enough room for changes? Strong memories of the event? A sense of repeating the past? I often wonder how long after the destruction of a world before that destruction doesn't matter?

APOCalypse 2500 offers a mix of sci-fi and fantasy. It takes place 400 years after a scientific accident reshapes the world and destroys the old civilizations. There's more than a hint of Shadowrun or Wizards ("...as likely to find a sword wielding magic using elf lord as they are to come across a pissed off dwarf with a Kalashnikov and a hover cycle.") mixed with high gonzo. The wackiest of Gamma World blended with high fantasy? The art's distinctive. Unfortunately online reviews are thin on the ground and the download link for any previews has broken. And here's the thing, it has all the look and warning signs of a heartbreaker. The character sheets look detailed and crunchy- an echo of Aftermath! or Twilight 2000. Despite an off-the-wall looks, the APOCalypse 2500 site’s blurb text seems old-school and retro, but perhaps not deliberately so. I'm not sure what this game is. As a plus, the author's still supports this line up. His social media suggests a new edition forthcoming, and he's released a number of supplements for the system.

Now Battlestar Galactica fans can craft an ending they'd like. Note that I didn't watch the show, only the online reactions. While I may not have gotten into the series, the essential premise works for me. And I can easily imagine players building a whole new crew and playing out basically the same story. BSG has an elemental appeal applicable to many settings and genres. Refugees flee into the wilds when a force destroys their civilization. They search for refuge even as they're hunted by the destroyer. I've run it with a fantasy campaign, sketched out a steampunk version, and can even picture how I'd use it for a Star Trek game (a rag-tag fleet of Federation ships fleeing the Borg...). I love the idea of survivors carrying their slowly decaying enclave with them.

This adaptation takes the same approach as several other Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd. licensed games. A modest core book with lots of series art and another version of the Cortex system. That's a not a bad idea and works well when the volumes serves both as a game and a series sourcebook. Oddly BSG doesn't nearly have as much background material as something like Smallville (which has a major section of show summaries). There's some material on the history of the Twelve Tribes of Kobol, as well as general character discussions and lingo. But there's much more not covered either in mechanics and narrative. For example everyday life among the ship's gets light treatment. The drama of the political tensions and interpersonal debates (even tensions over the Cyclons) gets minimal consideration. IMHO this is the first in a series of gamebooks, but they never released the rest. If they had we might have some system for tracking the greater community, example scenarios, and discussions of events in the show. As it is MWP only released this, a GM screen, and a handful of web freebies.

I like Mecha- not as much as some, but I dig the concept. I've always preferred the more offbeat treatments to core anime like Macross or Full Metal Panic! Instead I followed Tiger & Bunny, Escaflowne, and Rahxephon. These twist or undercut the tropes. Some read Evangelion as a response to the classic mecha plot elements (clear bad guys, young pilots, government support). Bliss Stage offers another take, one which doesn't exactly subvert elements, but instead focuses on some of the logical implications. It's a game of child refugees in a post-apocalyptic future with mecha and sex.

A dream-plague afflicts the earth, sending all adults into a lethargic slumber. Economies collapse, systems break down, and remaining children try to survive. Then the authors of the syndrome, called the Bliss, send their actual attack. They dwell beyond our dimension and so strike with remotely piloted horrific machines. These mammoth bio-organic machines ravage the landscape. The remnants of humanity despair in tunnels refuges and other deep places. But now hope has arisen. A still-waking adult has discovered a means to replicate the enemy's machines. Just as they invaded our space, teen pilots will be able to take the “ANIMa” into their's. They’ll create a battlesuit from their hopes, fears, and loves to strike back and free the world.

Like Polaris, Ben Lehman's Bliss Stage begins with a strikingly evocative premise. Bliss Stage aims to emulate a television series and play out a full campaign in 4-10 sessions. The rules do offer advice for extending or shortening that, but the tight approach strengthens the game. Lehman also clearly aims the game for new players. He spends a good deal of time directly explaining play and what you actually do at the table. That's good because while it's a mecha game, a good deal of the materials built around character interactions and personal relationships. Intimacy becomes vital and the game actually spells out the levels of it. It's tough & messy, and without being overblown echoes the angst of teens. In that way it feels more like a classic anime game than most. Others focus on the crunch and machines over the people and fears.

If you're looking for an unusual storytelling game and a new way to approach anime conventions, I recommend picking this up.

There's a strong overlap between horror and post-apocalyptic, and I covered CthulhuTech on my earlier lists. As I said then: You got your transhumanist cyberpunk anime in my Lovecraftian mythos! It tastes like burning. This stand-alone horror game brings together elements I originally thought wouldn't fit. Then I reconsidered it- many of the mecha anima films have as adversaries inhuman and elder creatures (Evangelion, Blue Gender, RahXephon). As I understand it, CthulhuTech has gone through a couple of different publishers. I like seeing horror hacked into tabletop genres I wouldn't have expected. The actual game is open-ended enough to be used for several different kinds of campaigns (just as there are different anime foci)- horror, hard military, espionage, etc. Cthulhutech won an Ennie for best cover in 2009 and had several other nominations.

But is it post-apocalyptic? I've seen it labelled that way in several places. Is it? Maybe? I suspect it depends a little on how you angle the setting. It definitely has that anime-esque "big war destroyed civilization and we've rebuilt" vibe. Where the rebuilding looks more like they just changed some names and future'd things up. In the case of Cthulhutech humanity's locked in a second devastating war after barely survived the first. At the same time the Old Ones have begun to awaken and many cults work to shape and control those forces. So the previous apocalypse isn't Lovecraftian, but the next one will be.

Until last week I had no idea this was post-apocalyptic. Is that me? Is that the advertising? Some combination? I honestly thought that Monte Cook had just done an alternate core book reframing the various WoD populations. I assumed it used the WoD corebook and offered an alternate origin, like intelligent viral colonies from space creating monsters. Instead it's a world with many of the familiar WoD creatures, where an incursion by "The Iconnu" has disrupted and destroyed the middle part of America. That in turn released a "Nightmare Wave" which warped reality and created all kinds of horrors. The world's rebuilding from that devastating event and the continuing onslaught of our manifested darkest fears. All of this in a nearly 400 page book...written for D&D 3.5.

Monte Cook's World of Darkness pitches a solid and playable Armageddon. The PCs supernaturally-touched nature connects them with the source of the disaster. The setting lets you have your cake and eat it too. You get a near contemporary backdrop, with a grand dollop of disaster. You get the feel of splintered World of Darkness creatures, with less complexity. You get a post-apocalyptic aftermath, with the chance to fight back against its expansion. You get to play monsters, but there's clearly a singular bigger bad out everyone has to face. The book's thick with background material. Sometimes these d20 setting guides spend so much time on mechanical adaptations and character rules that they give little in the way of compelling setting. Besides the background details suggested in the creation rules, we get about 40 pages of initial set up and then deep presentations of two locations. That’s 25 pages on a fallen Chicago and 30 or so of a nightmarish Minneapolis. Both have detailed NPCs, locales, and plot hooks. In particular I'd recommend these urban sections for GMs running any kind of supernatural post-apocalyptic game.

There's also a chunk of d20 mechanics. Cook smartly condenses things down to five classes: Vampires, Werewolves, Mages, Demons, and Awakened (think Hunters). Each has distinct features and players can tweak their templates to emulate particular sub-types. The rules have a rich discussion of skills and feats. Most classes have a unique feat pool to cover powers. It seems complete; the werewolf section's particularly dense. Cook also works out a way to emulate Mage's improvised magick. Better d20 folks than I can say how well that works in practice. Overall if you've ever wanted a condensed adaptation of the World of Darkness to d20, this is it. MCWoD is stronger than most wanabee d20 urban horror/thinly-disguised WoD games I saw for my History of Horror RPG lists. If you like supernatural in your apocalypse, check out Monte Cook's World of Darkness.

HERO Games has awesome genre sourcebooks. That wasn't always the case. I recall Robot Warriors, Cyber HERO, and the first edition of Star HERO. Recent products like Pulp Hero and LuchaLibre Hero offer great resources for anyone interested in the genre, regardless of system. Post-Apocalyptic Hero follows that tradition, and while it isn't amazing, it has some solid material and ideas. I always check how much game-specific mechanics these kinds of books have. At a glance I'd say less than 20% covers HERO grit and in some cases (like the Radiation Effects table) they're highly adaptable and open.

The first dozen+ pages of Post-Apocalyptic Hero lists genres and variations. That's decent and probably useful for someone coming into this cold. The next 70 pages have more specifics: templates for HERO games, but also GMing advice and ideas for modelling survival and scavenging. I'm disappointed that PAH doesn't offer ideas for handling communities and societies, a major part of the genre. The bulk of the book (120+ pages) presents eight different campaign frames. They're fairly conventional- from the Road Warrior-esque "Tobacco Road" to the Z-Day of "Zombie World," to the mutated wasteland of "After the Blast." Only two have original tweaks: "Mechanon Triumphant," an Age of Ultron like alternate superhero reality and "Destinations," a bleak setting with mechanics for tracking Hope. GMs looking for new frames or examples of how to build a PA setting will find this useful. Those already running a particular world may find them less so.

But the book's bigger problem lies in the uneven art. Some of it's striking (particularly Klaus Scherwinski's work), but there's a mess of weak and throwaway illustrations. That takes away from everything else. Still I'd recommend at least checking this out to anyone doing a conventional post-apocalyptic game (Mutant: Year Zero, Aftermath!, Apocalypse World).

I love crossovers. I love TV episodes intersecting two series. I love comics with different publishers’ characters duking it out. I love strange video games that join likely (Street Fighter x Tekken) and unlikely (Persona x Fire Emblem) properties. Of those, I have a few guilty pleasure JRPGS: the terribly translated Chaos Wars (Shadow Hearts, Growlanswer, Blazing Souls, Gungrave, and more) and the much better Cross Edge (joining Darkstalkers, Disgaea, Ar Tonelico, Spectral Souls, Atelier X and Mana Khemia). In more popular games, the Kingdom Hearts series is the ultimate jam. But until now I hadn't seen a crossover tabletop rpg. I've seen shared universes (like the World of Darkness), but nothing like Tenra War.

Tenra War takes the steampunk-ish Terra the Gunslinger, mecha Angel Gear, and science fantasy Tenra Basho and crashes them into the same universe. After a devastating war between Tenra and Terra, an alien invasion of "Angels" appears. What follows is a joining and mixing of forces to battle against these invaders. Tenra War reconstructs the world of the original games and apparently brings in the foes from Angel Gear. I'm not certain about that; the most recent edition of AG looks like a classic kids in mecha game but that may differ. I dig Tenra War’s of two radically divided peoples trying to rebuild and fight against a potent foe. The closest thing I could imagine would be a steampunk version of Legend of the Five Rings coming into contact with Deadlands to battle Daleks. I'm not sure how the game actually is. But given how striking and amazing the recent Tenra Bansho Zero has been, I imagine it's pretty wild.

"Apocalyptic Neo-Victorian dystopia" about sums it up. I originally picked this up because I thought it was an alt-history Victorian horror game. But much like Etherscope, this game would like to have the cool of steampunk aesthetic but set it in the future. Both frustrate me with their double mumbo-jumbo. Why not just keep the classic timeline, perhaps work the history more carefully? While it isn't a good book by any means, the similar novel Whitechapel Gods at least hews to history with its supernatural post-apocalypse. Unhallowed Metropolis looks good, but I didn't find it compelling. I suspect because I couldn't get past the design choice. It has a supernatural zombie plague, decaying technology, vampires, and mad science. I think a GM who wants to do Steam-horror could find some good ideas here, but they'd have to work through some dross.

That's my previous assessment of UM as a steampunk game, but I want to reconsider it as post-apocalyptic. Unhallowed Metropolis popped to mind as I read about the video games Dishonored and Bloodborne. Both share an aesthetic with this rpg. In particular the former game has an interesting mechanic where you can actually help bring about the apocalypse. Behave terribly and city’s the panic and disease level rises. Going full in on that spells the death of everyone. That’s a mechanic worth adapting to the tabletop.

Unhallowed Metropolis functions better as a post-apocalyptic game than a steampunk. You have some cool disaster elements and there’s a feeling of desperation. The world’s overrun with zombies, but they’re not the central feature. You could spin the weirdly anachronistic designs and dress elements as a strange affectation to a society on the brink of collapse. They've gone a little mad. I think it could work better as surreal and mythic (like a/state). Dump the detailed history and background. This world’s simply how it is and no one's sure how this came to be. That would make it click for me.

10. Miscellaneous: Corner Cases
Two product from 2007 fall at the bounds of Post-Apocalyptic gaming. The Echoes of Heaven Campaign Setting / The Throne of God (D20 3.5) released versions in '06 & '07 for HARP, D&D 3.5, HERO, and Rolemaster. Destruction and division has come to fantasy version of Heaven which looks and sounds suspiciously like the Judeo-Christian one. There's lots of things here which echo those myths- like Dwarven form of Nephilim in a Silmarillion/Book of Enoch smash up. The worlds now caught in a open and ongoing war between Heaven, Hell, and the World. Religions have splintered and doomsday seems to approach. On the other hand, we have Maddrax: Reloaded. This is a German rpg based on a biweekly pulp sci-fi series. I looks a little like Horseclans plus Kamandi plus a riff of Men's Adventure. Seriously, it's worth looking at the Wikipedia page to catch all the genre hooks and tropes. While it looks clearly Post-Apocalyptic, Maddrax: Reloaded had a narrow distribution. It appeared as a 66 page pamphlet enclosed with volume 200 of the series. I hasn't been reprinted since. 

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