Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Year in Post-Apocalyptic RPGs 2015 (Part Two: STALKER: gra fabularna to Winter Eternal)

We had a surplus of salvage this year. So much so I had to split this list into two parts. I'm always glad to see that-- especially when we get new core products. You can find the first half of the list-- Catalyst to Shayō-- here. I looked at PA themes in movies and TV last time, so how about in other games?

Board gaming saw some expansions, but many completely new products. Miniature-rich Zombicide released Season 3: Rue Morgue and Angry Neighbors. The first’s a stand-alone game; the latter offers an expansion into the suburbs. CMON also released Black Plague, a medieval version of this zombie game. It's nuts how much there is out there for this line as a whole. Dark Age Z covers the same medieval Z-territory with more of a Euro game approach. Lock-n-Load Publishing revised their All Things Zombies strategy game to include dealing with gangers and others survivors, creating a stronger post-apocalyptic feel. Bang the Dice Game, already a spin-off, released a spin-off version BtDG: The Walking Dead. That even got an expansion.

In non-zombie apocalypses, we saw Terminator Genisys: The Miniatures Game released, hoping to capitalize on the movie. So sorry. In more classic post-apocalypse, we saw three striking products. Bright Future is a card-driven rpg-esque game. You send characters out into the tunnels searching for equipment and technology. It can be played co-op or competitive. Night of Man offers a tactical battle against aliens after the devastation of Earth. It's a toolkit for this, including various scenarios and a point-buy game creation system. Posthuman is a huge, over-produced game which chronicles the journey of survivors across ravaged zones. It got an expansion the same year, increasing the player count to six.

In video games, we have the titanic Fallout 4. The gives you another sandbox game in the same setting, but now with a massive community-building sub-system. However, you can’t clear corpses from your town. To create hype for the game Bethesda released Fallout Shelter, a Vault-simulator app. It garnered mixed-reviews (at least among my group). Wasteland 2, a spiritual cousin to Fallout, sticks closer to the original tactical rpg mechanics. It got a PS4 release in 2015. Mad Max, based on the MM: Fury Road license, didn’t get traction. Reviewers liked some of it, but found it repetitive.

Two zombie apocalypse-games stand out: H1Z1 Just Survive and Dying Light. The latter combines parkour with horror survival. It’s striking and hard to watch at times. We also saw a lot of zombie-based shovelware. On the other hand we got three striking apocalyptic scenarios. Submerged has characters wandering through the ruins of a sunken city, searching for medicine. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, a “walking simulator,” has you wander through an aftermath. Finally Bloodborne has an overrun city infected by the attentions of otherworldly beings. Your character mediates between the real world and annihilation.

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.

This is a self-published, pseudo- unlicensed, electronic-only product from Poland. But it has a weird enough story to warrant a mention. We've seen another "Roadside Picnic" aka STALKER-based game, Stalker, the officially licensed one from Finland. It released in 2008, with an English translation in 2012. But STALKER: gra fabularna is an earlier game. RPG Geek translates the publisher's blurb thusly:
They came unannounced. They were gone without a single word. All that was left was traces of their presence.
STALKER is a complete role-playing game based on the novel "Roadside Picnic" by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Set in a near future, in a year 2014. The world if ruled by international corporations. Alien artifacts of incredible and incomprehensible powers are being extracted from the Zones surrounding alien landing sites. There are stalkers, who enter the Zones and bring back alien objects, defying corporate monopoly and ownership of extraterrestrial technologies.
The rulebook contains the rules, setting description including alien artifacts, an introductory scenario and rules regarding the use a special deck of STALKER cards
STALKER is a long lost Polish game that was announced at the end of the year 1996. It was to be published with a permission from Boris Strugatsky by Wydawnictwo S.R., at a time a publisher of Strugatskys' works in Poland. Unfortunately the publisher encountered financial difficulties and the game was never released.
STALKER resurfaced after almost 20 years. The text of the game along with almost all original illustrations (apart from a set of card deck art which was lost) was published in February 2015 as a free PDF file under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence."
For a more extended statement (in Polish), see here.

I placed Ten Candles on my horror list, but it bears mentioning here. As I described it there, the world's ending. You're survivors trying to eke out a last few minutes, hours, days. You're going to fail. Your candle will be snuffed out. That’s the game.

Yikes may be the understatement of the blog.

What kinds of horror can you evoke at the table? Dread, as in the eponymous Dread with its terrible anticipation at the table? Cosmic horror, perhaps? A nihilistic reaction to things more massive and uncaring? Shock horror done with blood and gut? Its sibling body horror or revulsion ? Jump Scares? Perhaps even the subtle horror of the uncanny as seen in some fantastic stories?

And then there's Ten Candles’ existential horror. You're not monsters dealing with your inhumanity. You're people. I don't know if I could handle this game. I don't know what kind of bleed I'd have, especially given the current climate.

My description doesn’t do it justice. If you want to read an excellent explanation and review, check out this post at Bluestocking's Organic Gaming.

Another repeat from my horror lists. The End of the World series feels like they could be played either way: as the horror of devastation or as fighting against the world’s fall. Fantasy Flight has a well-deserved reputation for slick products and smart packaging. Edge of the Empire and Warhammer FRP 3e illustrate how they've been able to elevate rpgs into hybrid projects. They don't stick with the conventional. The End of the World series doesn't head off into pseudo-board game land. Instead it takes another unusual approach while remaining a more conventional rpg than other recent FFG releases. Some of that may come from TEotW's origin as a Spanish language rpg series, El Fin Del Mundo (2013).

Each volume of The End of the World offers a complete game with a complete apocalypse. In 2015 we got Alien Invasion, Zombie Apocalypse, and Wrath of the Gods. The final volume, Revolt ofthe Machines, dropped in 2016. All share a simple basic system: six stats in three categories rated from one to five. Features expand the details (i.e. flaws/assets). Players roll a pool of positive and negative d6s. Matching negatives cancel out positives and every remaining die under the relevant stat counts as a success. Those rules take up 30+ pages of a 144 page book.

Each volume then each offers a set of sketchy scenarios, each with a slightly different twist on the events. In some cases they give clear bridges between those, but in others the elements feel like they exclude one another. If you're expecting a toolbox for developing the themes, you might be disappointed. As well if you buy multiple volumes, you're repeating much of the basic material (about 25%). You might be better served by a sourcebook or dedicated game.

However The End of the World has one big hook: you play yourselves. Scenarios have flexible starting locations so you can tailor events to your own hometown or city. There's even a mechanic for painfully deciding your own stats. That works with TEotW’s fairly simple system, both easy to pick up and get running. But a large part of your enjoyment will rely on how much you like playing yourself getting murderized. I burned out on that long ago. If you remove that element, then you're left with a fairly standard set of light rules with a bog standard Armageddon.

Based on Mini Six, a hyper-light implementation of the d6 System. Has a basic layout with rough artwork. Twilight Fall offers a kitchen-sink apocalyptic setting: "Plague Zombies, Alien Horrors, Insane Robots and Computer Programs. The population of the Earth never stood a chance." It has the look of a house campaign put together for general consumption. Could be interesting for Open d6 gamers who want ideas for their own post-apocalyptic games.

A Brazilian game from 2013, translated into English in 2015. It has a great title and a creative commons license. In the early part of the 21st century, alien invaders quietly arrive. They make no demands, instead using an EMP weapon to disrupt and devastate. They land and begin to extend their reach, taking territory from shattered humanity. But no one has actually seen the aliens and survived. You're part of the resistance, struggling to survive against terrible odds. It bills itself as a game of "desperate combat and scarce resources."

UED has several really interesting pieces of game tech. Each attribute has a dice pool. When you roll a die from that, you remove it. When you run out you have to return to rest, take shelter, or resupply. I'm curious to see how that works in practice. GMs vary hugely in how many rolls they call for; that might change that tension. Success on missions can also impact the morale of your haven. Good results allow you to upgrade that base. The actual resolution system's pretty lean- simple rolls or opposed tests to resolve points of serious challenge. UED includes an appendix with optional rules for more detailed combat. They're decent, but more granular than I want out of this.

I'm kind of amazed I hadn't heard of UED: You are the Resistance before I started assembling this list. It's very well done: good layout and smart graphic elements. The system's interesting and handles resources in a novel way. It also includes pre-gens and a sample adventure. Recommended.

This third-party setting for Savage Worlds calling itself "post-post apocalyptic." That's a clever way to phrase an approach we've seen before, what I've called Civilization in the Ruins games. In this fantasy world, the sun exploded, devastating Azegar and Ehlerrac with natural catastrophes. Then the freeze came, forcing survivors into tight settlements sustained by magic. Sorcerers recast heat & light spells every morning on globes suspended each city. Several hundred years later, explorers have discovered a new resource, shards which convert light into great heat. That's spurred tentative first steps into steam and industrial technology. Now the peoples of the eight cities have begun to venture out and reclaim the cold, not-so dead world.

It's a decent concept. Is it too close to another popular SW setting, Hellfrost? The designer says no, they're nothing alike. Winter Eternal focuses on urban adventures and changes wrought by rising technologies. Winter Eternal's neat for coming from a South African design group. Pinnacle's press release mentioned this being their first licensee from Africa. Some further hunting tracked down that designer Morné Schaap's based in Cape Town, South Africa.

16. Miscellaneous: Zombies
I mentioned End of the World: Zombies up above on the list. But this year saw other Z-games and sourcebooks. In AFMBE lingo GURPS Zombies Day One’s settings are Deadworlds. They're a collection of zombie set ups and scenarios ranging from fantasy to video-game style to space bound. It includes a couple of "aftermath" type approaches. Fear the Living offers a standard zombie survival game. It does have a couple of interesting twists, particularly collaborative zombie apocalypse creation. But that’s a short section, with a few example. It isn't a massive toolkit, but it’s an interesting idea and one you could port over to other Z-games.

The pitch line for AZ: After Zombies doesn't show what sets this apart from other undead outbreak rpgs. It mentions the percentile system, lack of character classes, and that it’s the brainchild of an industry veteran, Charles Rice. The game itself is a done-in-one rpg clocking in at 144 pages. They've released a couple of modules for AZ as well. Characters have eight stats, three derived attributes, complimented by backgrounds, traits, and optional disadvantages. Each character also has at least two skills. The base system uses random rolls to determine these, but you can simply take an average instead. The art's quite good, but I'm not sure what the killer app is here. There's mention of Unity as a group stat in the preview, and that's an interesting concept. But this year in particular saw a ton of zombie games, so I fear AZ got lost in the shuffle.

TROPES is intended to be a new basic system, and it launches with TROPES: Zombie Edition as its flagship. It's a light, d6-driven game. Characters have three stats (muscle, agility, wits), a background/ profession, and a descriptive sentence. A character's background gives a die bonus for related tasks. Those mechanics only take up the first 16 pages. It's pretty conventional, though I like the concept of exceptional rolls giving you the equivalent of fate points. TROPES: ZE does have good simple toolkit for building an outbreak. That's a decent resource and I'd like to see more of that. That's followed by NPCs, some zombie listings, and inspirational sources. TROPES: Zombies offers a quick, simple zombie game. If you like Z-horror and want something you can get to the table quickly, it fits. If you're curious about it, there's an artless PWYW version available. Small Niche Games has also released a companion and a scenario.

Finally Outbreak: Undead 2e moves this line back to classic zombies from the company's foray into generic sci-fi horror (Outbreak: Space). It touts its use of cards but they aren't integral to play. These come in three flavors: encounters, character trait, and injury reference cards. The encounter cards also include survivors so you can pick one of those and play right away. Optionally you can take an online quiz, the “SPEW AI,” and generate a version of yourself. Outbreak: Undead survival. You track your resources encumbrance. In this regard it leans towards The Walking Dead side: life in the aftermath. OB:UD doesn't focus on backstory, instead it assumes you have that in mind. ("Zombies are here. What's next?"). While Outbreak: Undead looks simple, there's an array graphic icons and color coding in the rules, as well as the use of d5's. I didn't like the first edition’s messy, collage-filled approach; this new version cleans that up. While you can't turn off the layers in the pdf, the page backgrounds aren't too intrusive. It feels like a much stronger game with significant mechanical changes.

17. Miscellaneous: Revisions and New Editions
18. Miscellaneous: Supplements
  • Alfieri di Ferro and Schiavi delle Maree: Both for the Italian game, Nameless Land. The former's a sourcebook for the Southern Continent. The latter's a large volume covering the seas of the New World, including San Francisco and Ordo Pacific. Has material for running an ocean-based campaign.
  • APOCalypse2500 GM’s Campaign Guide & Bestiary: Big book of GM tools for this rpg: optional rules, reference tables, new foes, and setting details.
  • Chaos Earth: Resurrection: An expansion for RIfts: Chaos Earth, that adds zombies (?). Might have been inspired by the success of Dead Reign.
  • Creatures of the Apocalypse Codex: Large collection of monsters for Mutant Epoch. It brings together previously published beasts and six new ones. Each entry includes loot & encounter tables, mutation listings, victims & locales, as well as a full page image to use as a handout.
  • Legacy: Echoes of the Fall: Adds three new playbooks, ten sample technologies, and a variety of threats for use with this PbtA game.
  • Post-Apocalyptic Vampire Wars: A Starbright release. Caveat Emptor. This time they've gone with WaRP as their free system of choice.
  • Ruins of Atlanta: An unusual sourcebook for the superhero game Bulletproof Blues. In the setting's "Kalos Universe" Atlanta has been destroyed by the superhero Paragon. This gives info on running a campaign in those now lawless ruins.
  • Scraps of the Rust Empire: Regional supplement for the tabletop version of Dystopia Rising. Focuses on "Oilberta, the Pacific Providence, the Under-Sea, Bridge City, and the Lilac City." I remain curious about this sourcebook series. I think I'll have to break down and pick one up to see how they're presented.
19. Miscellaneous: Modules
  • Cthulhu Apocalypse brings together three Trail of Cthulhu post-apocalyptic modules/toolkits previously released. It expands that with eight new scenarios. It's from Gareth Hanrahan and Graham Walmsley, so how can you go wrong?
  • Godchild: Two adventures, Eldruden and Hell Storm for this strange game. The blurb for the first one includes: "Angels of a God Reborn is the story of Amadi Dialla, the Eldruden, Jehovah Incarnate as Son of Man. The adventure begins with Amadi within Gul Gugorroth, subject to Grand Prafectae Madhiem's cruel experiments for the secrets of Jehovah's mind, contained within Jehovah's memories, or, Soul Mind." Also I just noticed the designer’s credited only as Gemmon (also the name of the publisher).
  • Metamorphosis Alpha: We got releases, not for any of the later editions, but for the "collectors" version of the first edition: Death Ziggurat in Zero-G, The Level of the Lost,
  • Mutant Epoch: Several modules including One Day Digs: Hunt in the Dark, Lilac Towers, and the double feature Beneath the Spire /Tunnels & Skulls. We also saw a much larger adventure sourcebook described as "multi-path,” The Flesh Weavers.

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