Thursday, July 23, 2015

History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part Twelve 2008)

When all is said and done, 2008's a great year for unusual apocalypses. It’s a dynamite year overall in gaming, but there’s a striking variety here. And only a single instance of a company trying to reboot an older edition game. Though we still have years to go before the end of these lists, I wanted to briefly survey what we’ve seen. So, from the existing lists, here are the sources of the Apocalypse from games with individual entries. I’ve had to fudge and make some guesses in a couple of cases.
  • 28 War (Usually nuclear)
  • 21 Supernatural (In a non-Fantasy setting)
  • 15 War (with Mutant PCs)
  • 14 Fantasy
  • 11 Alien Invasion
  • 11 Viral
  • 9 Ecological
  • 8 Robots/Computers
  • 7 Forgotten/Unknown
  • 7 Meteor/Comets
  • 7 Resource/Political Decay
  • 7 Toolbox (Generic or multiple concepts)
  • 6 Biblical
  • 6 Kitchen Sink/Combination
  • 5 Singular Event (Apes, Ship Damage)

There’s an interesting thread over at RPG Geek, What Do YouThink About Post-Apocalyptic Settings? If you dig these games, you might pop over there and offer your two cents. 

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 2008). I've arranged these by year and then alphabetically within that year.

An Italian RPG and another instance where my Google-fu has failed me. The ocean levels have risen up, nearly completely flooding the Earth. In this watery world, bands of sailing ship pirates roam and plunder. Decayed technologies still exist alongside newly recovered magical arts. The design and presentation clearly aims for a classic "Pirates of the Caribbean" look with a modern and fantasy trappings. It appears to have only had a single volume, though the pirate-enthusiast author seems to have written a couple of other similar-themed games.

That's a great name- or at least one which makes me look twice at the game. Cannibal Contagion has survival horror with a slight twist, with cannibal lunatics instead of zombies. There are been several films, like The Crazies, using this premise. Avatar's dark and super gory comic Crossed does so as well. The game offers a general post-apocalyptic setting, but doesn't spell out a particular history or event. Instead it provides a toolbox for these games. Cannibal Contagion focuses on the mental & social stress and breakdown among survivors. It uses a competitive card game mechanic to play that out. That's based on simple trumps from a playing-card deck. Trumping another player's card allows someone to add narrative to the scene. That's a clever idea and establishes flow. The longer an exchange goes on, the more damage which must be distributed. The game does present a couple of campaign set ups, including handling it as a traditional zombie game.

Palladium takes another bite of the Apocalypse with this zombie survival game. Another stand-alone rpg using the basics of the Megaversal system, Dead Reign opens several months after the initial outbreak. It has a specific history and backstory, rather than offering a toolkit ala other games (like the keystone rpg, All Flesh Must Be Eaten). There's a ton of history and set up, much written as a first-person journal. While a couple of spots work, generally it feels overwrought and artificial. It mixes forms (like a video transcript) in an awkward way. It reminds me a little Hunter the Reckoning’s approachs; but without the latter’s multiple voices. It isn't that first-person narrative doesn't work - World War Z handles that amazingly well- but here it falls flat. OOH there's a mess of interesting ideas and details here a GM could lift.

The book feels aimed for a GM- it certainly puts up barriers for players wanting to get started. I've complained about Palladium's organization before. But the previous few stand-alone rpgs they released have had more coherence. In Dead Reign we jump from sixteen pages of backstory into a discussion of the zombie observations: how they operate in the world and how they're handled in-game. We get info on P.P.E and SDC before we even get to any rules explanation. There's almost fifty pages of zombie mechanics, stat breakdowns, and other adversaries before we even begin to see how the game works- and that begins by throwing the O.C.C. (Occupational Character Classes) at the reader. And not a basic one, but a marginal optional class. The equivalent to beginning a run-down of D&D classes with an Anti-Paladin. Dead Reign feels originally intended as a zombie sourcebook for other lines. You're literally 144 pages in before you actually get to the game rules- despite having been hit with tons of stats, terminology, weapon lists, powers, etc. Other games do this, but they usually offer context and explanation.

I'm probably being unfair here. The bottom line is that Dead Reign's intended as the zombie game for Palladium vets. But it doesn't sell itself that way. A few pages on the organization at the start to show readers how to grok the game would have helped. But let's assume that you're Palladium person; is this good? There's a lot of crunchy bits for handling zombies in your game. If that's what you're looking for then you'll dig it. For GMs looking for general zombie ideas, I'm not so sure. Dead Reign feels conventional and doesn't really bring anything new to the table. You might find some useful concepts in the first half of the book. But overall the organization, density, and weak art doesn't serve the game well. On the other hand Dead Reign did well enough to garner four supplements: Civilization Gone, Dark Places, Endless Dead, and Fear the Reaper. So my argument's probably invalid.

A last minute discovery forced me to redo the numbering. Desolation is a post-apocalyptic fantasy rpg embracing the conventions of both genres. Rather than the disaster being incidental (invasion, return of great old one) this rpg embraces classic themes of the genre: survival, community, exploration, group tensions, humanity, and rebuilding.
Desolation begins with a simple description of Night of Fire and then delves into the history of the different regions. The book keeps these tight so as not to overwhelm. It could use some sidebar guides, but overall it works. From there it details the apocalypse: how it happened and what changes it wrought. I particularly like the emphasis on the disaster tearing the Weave of Magic itself and what that does in play. The game begins eighteen months  after The Long Winter. While it takes about 60 pages to get to mechanics, Desolation never feels like a slog. Each chapter has a focus, the material’s broken up into chunks, and everything takes a broad stroke approach. There’s no current map presented: the game expects it to develop through play.

The game uses a Stat/Skill combination. Races allow access to different traits. Overall the system feels moderately crunchy and unclear in places. We get figured stats, skill specializations, point buys, and large talent & flaw lists. It has some problems; I had to hunt for a long time before I figured out what kind of dice to use for checks- something you probably need to know before character creation. At 130 pages in I finally learned the game uses dice pools rather than a single check. Only on page 163 did I find out it uses the Ubiquity system (and finally get an explanation of what that means). Despite that, there’s a lot to love here. If you’re thinking about doing post-apocalypse with fantasy, this is a solid pick with some interesting twists.

If you've followed my lists, you may have noticed I twitch when I come across certain things in games. Back cover text that doesn't actually tell me what it’s about. d20 adaptations offering 90% mechanics and next to no setting. Claims to be new and unique without actually explaining what's new or unique. Kitchen-sink games with twist after to wring out double mumbo jumbo. Then there's some variant of this phrase: "I played all the other games and they weren’t realistic, so I made a game which stresses realism and has [Dragons, Mutations, Ethereal Space Beings, etc. Usually if I see this claim, I'm going to get a crunchy or over-elaborated system. Many heartbreaker games open with some variant of that.

Halcyon opens with, “Since my foray into role-playing, I have found myself constantly searching for a system that was grittier and more realistic, without depriving the gaming experience of its allure, fantasy, and pure enchantment." Several paragraphs go on to knock other unnamed games, expound on the importance of realism, and at the same time stress the system's simplicity without over-simplification. We do get a fly-by two paragraph summary of the game's premise. And then thirty-five pages of dense history and background. The concept’s Post-Apocalyptic Shadowrun. Mind you the book takes its time getting to that. We hear about economic downturns, rise of the megacorps, creation of a space elevator, collapse of democracy, a magnetic pole reversal, environmental devastation, meteor strikes, and the arrival of fantastical creatures (Elves, Demons, etc). A grittier Shadowrun cyberpunk setting with lots of devastated world. Halcyon, the titular location, is a destroyed and rebuilt New York City.

Halcyon arrived originally as a Players Guide, later expanded and released as the Halcyon Core Rulebook. The publisher only released a single supplement, a pdf-only intro adventure. In a move that makes perfect sense if you wade through the background material, the designer released a novel set in this world: Money for Nothing. If any of this sounds interesting I recommend checking out the core book preview available on RPGNow and/or the intro module. While it feels derivative to me, my own interests don't sync up with this. As I read through it felt like wasted energy: material, history, and writing which won't really impact the table or be useful to the GM. The same ideas could have been handled in a few pages. Then we could have gotten to meat of actual play and what you do in the setting quickly.

6. Helix
A small indie release that also mashes up several genres to create a "Post Apocalypse, High-Tech, Fantasy, Western Role Playing Game." In 2081 humanity struggles to survive after a nuclear war and the return of something like magic in the form of "The Code." That's presented more as reality hacking than classic sorcery. The world has added all kinds of oddness: giant scorpions, goblins, dinosaurs. Players take on pseudo-Western characters, travelling the land with their wits, powers, and six shooters. Helix received mixed online reviews with several liking the simple system, but others seeing it as thin and half-developed. The art and layout come in for harsh judgement. It appears to be currently OOP.

A German rpg. with unusual approach focusing on a time of relative peace to start. In 2190, humanity is devastated by the close pass-by of a detached section of the Lunar surface. Earthquakes, tidal waves, climate shifts destroy much of humanity. Now ten years later various factions have begun to rebuild and reconstruct. Five civilizations have emerged and a quiet peace exists between them. How that will change in the future remains to be seen. However now Gaia itself has awoken and released forces to destroy humanity and save itself.

The game suggests this battle is not as much between the different civilizations, but against the Earth itself. That's neat- other apocalypses have left us with a corrupted, polluted or transformed Earth. But I don't think we've seen one where "Nature" operates as the dominant and calculating enemy. The game itself seems to have be moderately supported with GM screen, setting supplements, and adventures. However it looks like publisher 13Mann no longer handles the line and it may be OOP.

8. Hot War
A double ENnie winner in 2009 for Best Setting and Best Writing. I don't dispute that assessment. In the 1960's the Cold War goes hot, resulting in a limited nuclear engagement. But in addition to that strange technologies and horrors originally developed by the Germans in WW2 spill out. Adapted as weapons, they add to the destruction wrought by the atomic bomb. Hot War is set in the South of England, about a year after the conflict. This is a dark London full of fear and tension. Tribalism, xenophobia, and paranoia mix with the struggle for survival. Hot War uses a tight focus on a single city to push players to consider relationships and their own humanity. I can’t help thinking about the recent video game This War of Mine.

Designer Malcolm Craig (a/state) connects Hot War with his previous game, Cold City. In that game players acted as agents in post-war Berlin, hunting down the monsters and strange tech left behind by the Nazi's. Hot War serves as a thematic sequel, set in something like the same world but not directly connected. I'm always intrigued by alt history post-apocalyptic games. We've seen several medieval ones but few set in other places or periods. Off the top of my head the only two which come to mind: Weird Wars and Clockwork & Chivalry. Though I supposed Twilight 2000 would also count now.

Hot War combines creepy fantastic and real world horrors. The graphic design's striking and the rules well-written. It includes some in-game fiction and lots of interesting postings & visual artifacts. They're brief snippets- enough to add a brushstroke to the bigger picture. Hot War has interesting mechanical elements as well. Characters have Hidden Agendas and the group can decide to have these as open or closed knowledge among the players. That's built into the highly collaborative character and campaign creation process. The game assumes the PCs will be members of the Special Situations Group: a combination intelligence agency, police, and weird stuff department. Think of a more domestic version of The Laundry from Charles Stross' series, with less access to weirdness. The frame's written openly and you could craft other kinds of campaigns- criminals, desperate survivors, enemy agents. The system's relatively basic and narrativist, but with the ability to draw in relationships and secrets mechanically.

The core book offers a lot of support: description of agencies, pre-gen characters, story ideas, rival agencies, a tour of strange London, sample frames, and recommended reading. Everything's cleanly presented and angled to make it easy for a potential GM. Here's a minor detail worth appreciating: the electronic version comes with both a standard and printer friendly version. While the standard edition looks nice and has interesting page backdrops, I find them distracting reading on a tablet. Too many games come with color page frames and watermarks, but don't let the reader turn these off. We've had electronic publications for enough years, usability ought to be second nature to publishers. Overall I highly recommend Hot War. A very cool game.

Like old-school rpgs? Don't have a copy of Gamma World 1st edition? Then I've got a game for you. Mutant Future emulates those in system, layout, and art. I'd initially assumed the designers had simply reskinned Labyrinth Lord for this. But these system's distinct, though apparently compatible with LL (something you can't say about D&D and Gamma World). Of course the original GW clocked in at only 56 pages. Mutant Future delivers about 160 pages of material, but it doesn't feel overstuffed. It keeps the simplicity of earlier systems, while rounding things out with more options.

Players can pick from one of five broad groups: Androids, Mutant Humans, Mutant Animals, Mutant Plants, and Pure Humans. Androids include Basic Androids, Synthetics, and Replicants. Players dice for the standard six characteristics and their racial pick affects hit dice and number of starting mutations. Players roll randomly for these from several tables split between beneficial and drawback powers. The game breaks these into physical, mental, and plant with the first one oddly having significantly more drawbacks. Mutant Future avoids adding too many rules with these abilities: most get a quick and dirty paragraph (a welcome relief). The game includes everything else you need: lots of monsters, encounter ideas, artifact tables and details, GM advice, sample adventures, and guidelines for combining with Labyrinth Lord. My only fault with the game is the lack of anything close to the awesome random artifact usage flowcharts from GW. Overall a strong pick and a neat game if you're into old school designs.

A hard military sci-fi setting using Savage Worlds. Triple Aces games produces several striking and well-supported settings for SW as well as their Ubiquity system. Necropolis echoes the feel and themes of Warhammer 40K and Mutant Chronicles. In the future, a supernatural force battles against the remnants of humanity, sustained by a massive and powerful Church. In this game the enemy's called the Rephaim or Dead Ones and they operate via Necromantic powers. The PCs are warriors, knights, and chaplains from the military battling against the threat. Several orders exist, offering access to different powers and traits. There's a lot of chrome and crunch here: weapons, equipment, and vehicles. The setting takes advantage of Savage World's utility as a miniatures/high combat game. Necropolis 2350 won't surprise anyone familiar with this military sf genre. It offers "Humanity's Last Stand" in a devastated galaxy. There's lots of dark corners and demented tech. But the game does the job it sets out to do and it looks good doing it. The publisher has supported this with several pdf supplements, the Necropolis 2351-55Update, and the Necropolis 2350: Adventure Compendium 1.

11. Radz
"Apocalypse with Attitude." This notably suggests the existence of an apocalypse lacking in attitude. Radz is a tongue-in-cheek game (we've seen this before with HoL, Tank Girl, and octaNe). There's an ongoing joke that everything has a "z" in place of the "s" to make it more extreme (Law Dawgz, Gleanerz) and lots of wildly spelled terms (like the Wikkid). The world's been destroyed and now you've got a Mad Max/Fallout homage landscape. The book doesn't spend too much time on the history and background, instead throwing you right into the character concepts. It has a simple skill system and a distinct art style. If you really like comedy games, then you may want to check this out, but otherwise it doesn't seem that useful.

12. Stalker
As I said above, a great year for unique world destruction. Stalker builds on the premise of "Roadside Picnic" a novella by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Aliens visit the world in several sites, and then simply leave. But their nature disrupts and changes these sites, called Zones. Scientists and scavengers go into these looking for secrets and salvage. But the very inhumanity of the landscape confronts them and hints at the absolute alien nature of what lies beyond our world. It's a solid read which you can find online. Later Russian master director Andrei Tarkovsky made a film based on it, called Stalker. The title comes from the slang for thieves who go into the Zones. That's an awesome film which plays up the sense of industrial breakdown. You seee that the visitation has uniquely disrupted the world. All of this inspired the later S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video game series which even more fully embraces the post-apocalyptic vibe. However there the strangeness comes from an anomalous explosion at the defunct Chernobyl plant. 

The Stalker rpg draws more from the original novella, though I suspect the video games' popularity has come to shape the reception. Finnish designer Ville Vuorela has created a massive game which expands the lore and concepts of the original. It hints at conspiracies, further explains how the zones have been dealt with, provides details on all the international visitation sites, and presents many tools for running the high weirdness and traps of the Zones. And does this with a diceless system. That surprised me; I'd come to associate this setting with a kind of grittiness. Stalker characters have stats and skills, but the GM and players use those to negotiate and decide results. That's a hard sell for some gamers. The Zone’s arbitrary and random- things can simply kill you with a misstep. I'm not sure if a diceless system putting fickleness in the GM's hand supports or works against that.

Interestingly, the Stalker RPG " published with the permission and license from Boris Strugatsky, who will also be receiving royalties for every copy sold. This makes it the only official "Stalker" roleplaying game out there and your support to a literary genius is highly appreciated." That clearly breaks it away from the video game. But as importantly it distinguishes itself from a several highly developed fan adaptations: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: The RPG for d20 Modern; STALKER: The Other RPG homebrew; STALKER: The Zone RPG using Dark Heresy; and Savage Worlds S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. There's a notable focus on the military/combat side in most of these versions. You have the sense the video game has more influence than the novella or film with these.

An English translation for Stalker the RPG arrived in 2012. That same year Vuorela released a novel, The Hollow Pilgrim. That's described as a Stalker RPG Novel, intended to be the first in a series created with the approval of Boris Strugatsky. It apparently takes a more conventional noir approach than the original uncanny novella. Overall the Stalker RPG received strong reviews with two caveats: translation/editorial problems and hesitation over the diceless system. Many reviewers note the rich and excellent mechanics for handling the "dungeon crawl" of Zone exploration.

So the world becomes a forest. Overnight. One day modernity. The next day a walk in the woods. Everything: buildings, cars, roads, theme parks: overgrown and emerald. Civilization holds together briefly and then flickers out. This isn't a normal forest: it has dangers and stalking beasts and a song that gets into the head of the weak-minded.

So what do you do in the Summerland? The PCs are Drifters, the rare few who have the talent to pass through "The Sea of Leaves" to uncover old things and reach out to other communities. They're necessary, but also regarded as dangerous and damaged. They lack a permanent home but must refresh and attach themselves to communities as then can. It sounds pretty compelling and Summerland does a great job setting that up, riding the line between history and myth. It has a simple, story-driven system focusing on personal issues and lives of the PCs. Characters have traumatic experiences and must deal with those in their journeys. The system takes up about a third of the book, with mechanics focusing on descriptors and tags. The remainder supports the GM: offering more ideas on the nature of the forest without taking away the mystery, giving advice for narrators, and laying out useful NPCs, places & hooks.

Summerland's another striking and sharp post-apocalyptic game. It's unlike any other. The revised and expanded version released in '09 almost doubled the page count. It looks great with smart art and excellent page design. High recommended.

Another setting from Triple Ace, Sundered Skies solders together fantasy, steampunk, and post-apocalypse. Sky ships, wonky tech, and fantasy races join for a pretty cool design. Here the world's shattering has left a deadly magical radiation permeating the skies. The lands remain as floating islands and travel between them utilizes magical vessels. I especially dig the way Sundered Skies creates a claustrophobic feeling with the magical radiation. Travel becomes more dangerous and contamination serves as constant low-level threat. Overall Sundered Skies is brutal and dark. Enslaved races, vicious in-fighting, and few factions fully on the side of good. Some of the racial options and world-building here is clever and novel (their version of the Elves and the created subject races in particular). The steampunk's more a visual element- gadgets and gear have that mixed fantasy and tech look. As with many Savage Worlds setting books, Sundered Skies offers a complete campaign arc story. That makes it less useful for GMs just looking for an overall setting sourcebook. This has been supplemented by a couple of products including Sundered Skies Companion, Sundered Skies: Compendium 1, and Sundered Skies: Compendium 2.

Yet another classic post-apocalyptic game receives a new edition, rising from the ashes yadda, yadda, yadda. With the massive shifts in geopolitics since the original 80's edition how to change things? Instead of a US/USSR conflict there's a death spiral of incidents, reactions, embargoes, brushfire conflicts, and finally a series of limited nuclear exchanges. Detailed? Yes. Realistic? That's a matter for the GM. Several reviewers take issue with the set up and it seems wonky to me. Normally that's not an issue; I'd handwave these details. But this game aims for real-world simulation and has the characters dealing with the literal and figurative fallout, so the GM will have do some tweaking...of course especially now that we're two years after the end of the world.

The Reflex system powering this beast also has issues: drunk with complexity and handfuls of d20's thrown around. It's dense and throws away the earlier versions designs to make an entirely new beast. Lots of calculations, lots of numbers. That's a risky approach and it seems to have failed here. The publisher only released a handful of pdf-only supplements. Twilight 2013 fits with a kind of rpg we've seen less and less of over time: the hard military game. While WW2 still gets attention and crunch, we've seen fewer games focus on modern or near future high chrome and high crunch soldier gaming (I've heard them called gunbunny games). That's a fairly dramatic change given how many of these existed in the early days of the this rpg genre.

16. Marginal Cases
This year had several fringe post-apocalyptic items: marginal PA themes, add on releases, and thematic adventures. For example, John Wick positions Houses of the Blooded as the anti-D&D. It has three distinct apocalypses (The Fall of the Sorcerer Kings, The Betrayer War, The Anguish). While these shape the history, they aren't forefront to the play. Misspent Youth is probably more straight dystopia, but could easily be shifted into a post-apocalyptic frame. Players control youthful rebels against a collaboratively created "Authority." Zombie Cinema is a board game/rpg hybrid. It uses concrete components to shape a collaborative storytelling zombie survival experience.

Two general rpgs get post-disaster scenarios. BRP Adventures includes "Daybreak Tomorrow" set in the first days after a nuclear war; "Escape from the Slavelands" about refugees from a machine overlord camp; "Ruin Nation" has the PCs as the resistance in a war-torn near future; and "The Time Share" delivers a world where a post-nuke anti-rad treatment has extreme side-effects. Tales of Terror Issue 1: Wastelands has two post-apocalyptic scenarios for Dread.

Finally two older games get new stuff. EABA WarpWorld adapts the earlier WarpWorld game to the more modern EABA system. The AFTERMATH! Survival Guide is a new book for an old game. This offers general information on running different kinds of campaigns (aliens, zombies) using the classic system.

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