Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Year in Post-Apocalyptic RPGs 2015 (Part One: Catalyst to Shayō)

This turned out to be a great year for the apocalypse. So great I’ve reluctantly had to split 6K words into two parts. On the plus side, I only had to write one post this week. On the minus, it was four times my usual word count. Anyway, let’s look at 2015’s apocalypses in other media.

In television we saw a few things. 12 Monkeys is and isn’t a post-apocalyptic show. We’ve seen that trope elsewhere: time travel to prevent catastrophe. But I don’t think we’ve seen that as an rpg. The Messengers also had characters attempting to prevent disaster, this time the Rapture. (BTW is the Rapture supposed to be preventable?) In SPOILER territory, Wayward Pines has an ambiguously apocalyptic backdrop. Last Man on Earth may be the first even vaguely funny post-apocalyptic comedy (aside from the Quiz Show sketches on That Mitchell & Webb Look). The Man in the High Castle is good but falls more into dystopia. We do have one big winner. Probably the most classic and interesting post-apocalyptic program to arrive was Into the Badlands, combining a wuxia feel with a fallen world.

In film we had Z for Zachariah, about a love triangle after a nuclear war. That came and went quickly. Hunger Games: Mockingjay 2, Divergent: Insurgent and Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials all offered new installments in their respective YA dystopias with hyphens. The terrible Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse mercifully seems to be one of the year’s few Z-films. Disney’s borderline Randian Tomrrowland references the apocalypse. The same could be said for the underperforming Terminator: Genisys. Of course the crown jewel of 2015 is Mad Max Fury Road. It’s amazing. It also harkens back to one of the most influential films on post-apocalyptic games, The Road Warrior.

I focus mostly on core books here. I include Kickstarter projects if they actually released in 2014. I give pdf-only releases their own entry if they’re notable, of significant size, or come from a major publisher. I’ve consolidated a ton of material into several ”Miscellaneous” items at the end. I’m sure I missed some releases. If you spot them, leave me a note in the comments.

That’s a bad name for a post-apocalyptic game. It's generic enough I assumed at first it was a universal system (ala Spark, Omni, Paragon). There's already a Catalyst Games, a pretty significant rpg publisher. There’s also the venerable Catalyst series of supplements from Flying Buffalo. The publisher could have easily tagged on another word reduce confusion (Fallen, Armageddon, World of…just something). 

This is the first product from the Cherry Picked Game and they unusually went with a boxed set. That's less common these days. I wonder if the availability of places like The Game Crafter will make that more common. Catalyst’s box includes a 270 page manual, a deck of 142 action cards, and a link to the companion app. Another interesting step forward, and one we might see more of. Catalyst also has a live action trailer on their website. Let’s say it doesn't do the game any favors.

The actual Catalyst setting goes with a tried & true Demon Invasion/Magic Returns disaster. Plague devastates humanity and now you’re among the survivors fighting back. The system uses d6's plus character stuff vs. a task number to determine success. Good, basic stuff. But Catalyst also touts their ‘card-based combat’ in promo materials. From what I can tell these aren't actually part resolution. Instead you use them to state and reveal your actions. That’s intended to create tension and potentially have players working at cross-purposes. I guess that means a limit on at table chatter? Those cards are an intriguing idea, but I'm curious how much work that makes for the GM. It looks like the GM picks cards for all the NPCs involved in a scene. 

Despite the box and app, Catalyst looks like a first product. Most of the graphic design chops went towards those cards. The core book has walls of text in places without headers. That makes reading more of a slog. Add to that the choice to make the page margins as narrow as possible. It looks weird. While that doesn’t completely undercut the product, I'd recommend checking out the game's website as well as the downloadable material to see if it fits for you. In particular see the sample, the character sheet, the GM advice, and the printable cards. The company's supported Catalyst with several supplements, including Fourth World. I point that out because this is a modern-magic game using a term suspiciously close to one closely identified with another big techno-magic game (“kof” Shadowrun “kof”). And that’s made by the company with the same name as this rpg. Deliberate?

Fragged Empire calls itself post-post-apocalypse. It’s a cool way to describe something we’ve seen before. 10,000 years in the future a galaxy-wide war devastated societies. After a 100 years of 'tribalism', four genetically engineered peoples have banded together to head forth into space. There's tension between the four, but all know they need the other to survive. It sounds of a highly developed version of Cascade Failure, one of my favs. The quickstart does a great job of setting up all this in just a couple of paragraphs. The cover art's striking so I had high hopes going in.

There's a lot to like right out of the gate. They have crisp layout and smart use of icons. The art remains nice throughout. They mention non-linear character building and a focus on sandbox play. The actual resolution system's 3d6 plus character stuff vs. a difficulty. Description can add a roll bonus (or penalty). While you're looking for a total number, each 6 rolled can be used to power special effects (ala Dragon Age, Mutant Year Zero). All good.

Then there's Tactical Miniatures Combat.
“This ruleset includes intuitive tactical combat in which you will need to react not only to your environment (cover is your friend), but also to your opponents’ actions. It also includes optional rules for miniature-free combat (pg: 30). GMs are encouraged to make combat a part of the story and to reward intelligent play. As there are no perfect, statistically balanced encounters, the players’ creativity, skill, and teamwork will be the key to victory.”
Not my bag. It used to be my bag, but then I put that bag in the attic. Fragged Empire isn't the crunchiest game I've seen. We don't have ten different details for the guns (just seven). But we do have grid examples showing range increments and spread fire. The mechanics take a sharp uptick in number of things we have to roll and calculate. You have all kinds of maneuver and actions choices. The combat rules take up 22 pages of a 42 page quickstart.

It does have optional "Theatre of the Mind" combat-- very, very abstract. It’s a race to accumulate combat successes. Think Fate contests with more damage fallout. That's great and I appreciate the inclusion. But it does mean that much of the game's given over to rules and mechanics that I'd have to jettison. The character sheets are massively built for this kind of tactical combat, so you'd want to redo those. In the end, the setting and backdrop would have to be amazing to make me do that work. Don't get me wrong- Fragged Empire’s cool and looks good, but I didn't grab me with something new and striking about the world. On the other hand, if I liked tactical combat I think I'd be all over this. What it does, it does well. Plus the company has supported it an Antagonist Archive, Protagonist Archive, and several adventures.. If you're at all interested I recommend checking out the free quickstart.

I had a chance to play this at Origins in 2015. It's an rpg-board game hybrid. Players control a character and randomly draw relationships to the characters seated next to them. This builds the fiction of the group and opens with a quick collaboration. Then the PCs wander, hoping not to die before the end conditions arrive. On a turn a player draws from one of the terrain decks, showing where the group’s moving. These cards have an event, choice, challenge, or some mix of these. Players try to maintain your Hope and not get bad status cards, so they may have to call on group resources. Many of the choices cause bad effects for other players instead of or in addition to the lead player. Hope Inhumanity banks on mad, desperate semi-cooperative play. It's decently fun and probably much more a board than role-playing game. I like the GMless, card-driven mechanics. The designer has released an updated version and an expansion (Martial Law) recently, but I haven't picked those up yet.

As has become apparent over these lists, I'm no historian. I've placed a few games in a larger context than simply the year. Mostly I like to get the timing right; to see what came before and after. Translations and Kickstarters complicate that. I've no hard and fast rule for the former. If I've seen a concrete pub date referenced, I usually go with that regardless of language/edition. For Kickstarters, I try to place them in the delivery year rather than campaign year. Some companies, shall we say, have a flexible delivery date, but still put out press releases as if the game's actually in people’s hands. 

So I have Mutant: Year Zero on my 2014 list, but I've also heard that it delivered in early 2015. (Ignoring the original 2012 Swedish release….). That gives me an excuse to mention the main game here. That’slucky because I posted a lengthy piece last week on how how awesome it is. MYZ's an example of a great game and a great rethinking. Some systems have made incremental changes over editions & reissues- you could argue that for D&D. Others have successfully rethought their approach for modern designs. Mutant: Year Zero and 7th Sea are examples of that; we'll see if the new Paranoia delivers on that promise. Some don't really change, while others miss the point (Shadowrun Anarchy). 

There’s a definitive MYZ release in 2015, even if I’m wrong about the original core book. GenLab Alpha dropped, the first sequel game for Mutant: Year Zero. It deals with genetically enhanced or uplifted animals in the same world. They're broken into multiple factions by species and held in Paradise Valley. Robot guards oversee and contain them. Scientists subject them to arbitrary experimentation. Dissent is crushed and calculating forces work to keep the groups divided.

Genlab Alpha uses the same mechanics as MYZ, with small changes to reflect these characters' nature. That makes it completely compatible with the first game, but allows it to stand alone. You choose both a species and a role for your character. Animals have their own powers, rather than mutations. When these go out of control, that character's likely to go feral or revert to instincts. The system doesn't feel like a reskinning; it feels complete and coherent. 

Perhaps most importantly, what you’re doing differs. Survival's a different question here. You're less concerned with mysteries and exploration because you know the land at the start. Instead you're trying to figure out how to escape. The parallel to Mutant: Year Zero’s Ark system is the Resistance Sheet. You’ll be be building connections, making deals, and trying to stay under the Watchers' radar. There's a clear metaplot campaign here. At the same time, the game supports just adding these animal characters to an existing MYZ campaign. In that case, you assume that the breakout occurred and they're out in the world. Or as I've done in my game, a few freakishly got away, but the vast majority remain trapped in the valley. 

Another 2015 release Zone Compendiun 3:Die, Meat Eaters, Die! assumes that escape happened a while ago. It has five new animal-based settlements for the MYZ PCs to encounter. The publishers released several other smaller support products in 2015, including a couple of pdf-only zones and a card set for GenLab Alpha. As of this writing, there's a third gamebook on Kickstarter, Mechatron. That covers robots. There's also the promise of a fourth volume dealing with Human survivors. Overall the MYZ series is solid and highly recommended.

I love the phrasing of this subtitle, "Techno-Fantasy Roleplaying." The last Mutant Chronicles came out in '97, an almost twenty-year gap. It can trace a line back to the original Swedish Mutant rpg. In 1993 the company dumped an explicitly cyberpunk version, Mutant RYMD, and republished with Mutant Chronicles. Instead of the noir and street cred of cyberpunk, they delivered an ass-kicking, testosterone powered rpg that smells more than a little like Warhammer 40K. Mutant Chronicles spawned a strong line: card games, miniatures, video games, multiple editions of the rpg, and even a Ron Perlman film. (one of seven RP movies that have rpgs associated)

Mutant Chronicles has a wild and distinctive art style, though you can clearly see the influence of Games Workshop on presentation and design. The new Modiphus edition keeps some of that, several covers come from older products or the original artist. You can spot those. They're the ones where everyone looks about to go into full 'Roid Rage. The newer covers are hit and miss, with a couple of different looks.

In the bleak future of Mutant Chronicles, a dread supernatural force known as the Dark Legion has been unleashed. The battle with these corrupting, undead and demonic legions has devastated the solar system. Humanity itself splintered into distinct factions- each with agendas and secrets. While it might look as over-the-top as Rifts, Mutant Chronicles has a strong central setting and premise. It is a gonzo military rpg. While other missions are possible, the presumption is a team of hardened heroes waging war on corruption (either human or Necrophage). Later books open that up further. 

Mutant Chronicles 3e uses the 2d20 mechanics which have become the house system for Modiphus (powering Conan, Infinity, and Star Trek). It's a crunchier system, reflecting the emphasis on combat and tactics in these settings (well, maybe not Star Trek). Successes generate momentum which can be spent to power other effects. The GM has Dark Symmetry points to power their actions. Action types, hit locations, crit tables, range calculations…there's a lot of stuff in this game. But I suspect enthusiasts will be looking for that in their play. 

Overall Mutant Chronicles 3e feels like a solidly built game. I like that we get female representation on the core book’s cover, but the boob plate's a bit much. Modiphus expands the original setting by including material for play during the emergence of the Dark Apostles. The publisher also strongly captures a dieselpunk look without making the pages muddy and unreadable. Modiphus has supported MC3 with many supplements. Five big sourcebooks came out in 2015 (The Brotherhood, Capitol, Imperial, Mishima, and Player’s Guide). Almost a dozen more released in 2016. If you're interested, check out the free quickstart.

Numenera remains the post-apocalyptic game at the top of the head. It has a very different frame and tone than its nearest rival, Mutant Year Zero. On earlier lists I've spoken about the difficulty of placing something like Numenera. It takes place so far in the future that the various destructions are a memory. That makes it a little like 13th Age, which also has the idea of older civilizations and eras buried, waiting to the uncovered. But that's a minor note in 13th Age, whereas recovery and engagement with the weird relics of lost civilizations is central. That play always reminds me of early Gamma World, that’s what it was all about.

This year saw continued support for the line with major books, pdf supplements, physical add-ons, and third party releases. Ninth World Guidebook delineates and explains even more of the land. It reaches beyond the borders of the core book's map. It's for those who like more support and presented information. Into the Night goes even further afield. This covers the moon and space beyond the world. Smaller products included maps, cards, dice sets, adventures, and Weird Discoveries: Ten Instant Adventures for Numenera, an adventure collection. 

Dread Unicorn Games released The Sun Below: Sleeping Lady, a follow up to their earlier adventure. Ryan Chaddock published The Wander, a collection of locations, encounters, and other miscellany. It's good to see some third party support, though that hasn't transformed into a movement.

Or as Google translates it, "Shrieking Planet." A French game which seems to have been supported through a crowdfunding site called ulule. The designers call it a cross between Conan, Elric, and Gamma World. It definitely has a weird & visceral sound to it. You live on the artificial world of Cyanide, in the wake of the empire of the sorcerer kings. Factions battle over relics left behind and search the wastelands for power. Tectonic plates constantly shift, forcing communities to remain on the move. Cities roll across the landscape powered by magic or weird tech. It's like sword & sorcery Numenera in some ways, with more thews at least. Planète Hurlante's built on the Microlite 4 rules, a streamlined d20 variant. You can see more about it at their ulule page.

ALL CAPS. Reality ripped asunder. Things come in; guardians fight back against them. Uses the Open d6 mechanics. Has a kitchen-sink look to it, despite the generic name.

9. Shayō
Post-apocalyptic samurai, but very different from Motobushido, the first rpg to carve out this territory. When I first saw Shayō’s cover, I thought someone'd released a Tokugawa grimdark game. Then I looked again. Now I saw the gas mask cleverly worked into the armor, the ammo clip on the belt, and the bullet holes.

Shayō is a French post-apocalyptic samurai rpg. In the near future, a series of disasters devastates the planet. After a time of conflict humanity discovers new powers and in many places returns to older, archaic ways and cultures. Japan becomes Hi-no-Moto, under the Chrysanthemum Throne and the watchful eye of the Shogun. Now the world of this neo-Shogunate is stalked samurai, tech hunters, and priests. Mutants and mad powers roam, echoing ancient legends.

Shayō has neat concept and system looks like the middle-weight complexity we’ve seen from other French games (Kuro, Polaris, Les Ombres d’Esteren). It has a point spend system, with characters built on archetypes. The resolution system seems to be d10 with roll & keep elements. I'm unsure how much Shayō looks like L5R-systemwise. Maybe I’ll eventually get a chance to find out. The game had only a core book and GM screen released in France. I really, really want to see this game in English, but the announce Kickstarter date keeps getting pushed back. At this point I'm uncertain if it will ever come about.

Part Two

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