Friday, March 27, 2015

Eleven Pillars Post-Mortem: Play on Target Ep. 39

We try something new for this episode of Play on Target. Sam offers up one of his concluded campaigns, "The Eleven Pillars," and we dissect it. It isn’t exactly workshopping, but more a chance to see the choices made by another GM and their results. I dug it because I got to see under the hood. We looked his prep, his mechanics, his decisions- and got to question him about how those operated. We’re hoping to do this kind of exploration every once in a while- with each of us eventually putting one of our campaigns under the microscope. I’m debating  whether to present a campaign that worked or one with deep problems and player conflicts.

If you enjoy this kind of material, I also recommend you check out The Zantabulous Zorceror of Zo. That’s a solid Oz-like game using the PDQ (Prose Descriptive Quality) system. But, and I hate to say this, even better than the game is the author's outline of his own campaign. He discusses what he did and why. That’s interspersed with reactions from his players. It’s like the best commentary track ever for a campaign. I’ve also written up a few campaign post-mortems, not nearly as awesome as that: City of Ocean (Modern, Unknown Armies-Inspired), The Darkening Rift (Star Wars), Bloodlines (Mutants & Masterminds), Loosing Las Vegas (Scion: Hero), and Aftermagic Chicago (Vampire the Masquerade). 


I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M DEAD
BTW you have to admire the guts of going in to start a new campaign populated entirely by people you haven’t run for and actually give them an 8-hour session. I’m not sure I could do that, or at least not sure I wouldn’t come home and collapse. Sam talks about the challenge of figuring out what different players want from a game- one of the key elements of GMing. He managed to do that on the fly and offer a responsive campaign.

That ties into something I read this week. I got my copy of John Wick’s Play Dirty 2. It’s good- particularly the post-mortem of his Changeling the Lost campaign. He talks about a technique he crafted for 7th Sea. If you’ve read that you may have heard of it, but this was my first exposure. He breaks down campaigns into a set of activities: Action, Intrigue, Mystery, and Romance (and Military & Exploration for some games). During character creation, each player breaks down their interest in each of these areas by percentage. So Sherri might go Action 10%, Intrigue 30%, Mystery 40%, and Romance 20%. That gives the GM a rough scale and big investments (lack thereof) point to key issues. But Wick also suggests tying rewards and incentives to these areas. Handing out points, drama tokens, or some other kind of reward when players work within their favored areas. It reminds me a little of Keys from The Shadow of Yesterday- and you could probably combine the two.

Now, this system wouldn’t have worked for Sam since he dove right into the game. But it’s a nice tool for those running for new (or old) players, and break between CC & play.

MEMOIRS FOUND IN A BATHTUB
Sam mentions his “notebook” for the Ranger as a major prop he constructed. I wish we’d circled back more to that: how it was used, how well it worked, was there anything he’d have done differently with it? I had some success with a similar handout for my Changeling the Lost campaign, but I also learned a couple of lessons. You can see my big write-up on that here, The Wayward Notebook. In particular, I should have had multiple copies ready. I also probably should have broken it up into pieces, making the discovery a reward and avoiding the info dump problem. And I should have realized that because I’d gotten the inspiration to do this from a cool but flawed prop I’d seen another GM use.

A few sessions into a Hunter the Reckoning campaign, we discovered a cassette tape. When we played it, we realized it had come from another, more experienced Hunter. That confirmed for us that our experience wasn’t entirely madness or unique, which shifted the campaign. But more importantly, the GM actually played the audio for us at the table. It gave an overview of the various threats facing our stomping ground. While evocative, it slowed the pace down heavily because it dragged on for 25 minutes or so. We had to sit there and take notes, which broke the mood. As well, the GM didn’t have a transcript for the recording. We didn’t get that until a half-dozen sessions later. Having had that happen to me as a player, I should have been focused on usability. Instead I fell into many of those mistakes with my prop.

TIME IN A BAG OF HOLDING
Sam makes a great point in his discussion of time and the passage of it between campaigns. In short, he hits a tough decision about how far to move the game world forward. I’ve struggled with that in my ongoing campaign world, run significantly since ’87. The problem lies in wanting to allow enough time to pass for significant events while maintaining continuity. In Sam’s case he wanted some radical changes- to societies, to structures, and to memories of the past. He came against the typical fantasy trope of long-lived peoples (Dwarves, Elves). In order to eliminate direct experience of the “old world” the timeline had to jump forward far enough to encompass more than one generation.

I’ve jumped my campaign world forward several times. In most cases, the shift involved years or perhaps even a couple of decades. Barring a cataclysmic event, that passage of time allowed mostly for political changes, shifts in ideologies, and some new advancements or revolutions. Like many GMs, I kept that small because I wanted a direct continuity. Players could go places they recalled, interact with institutions they knew, and generally operate with some mastery. As importantly, old NPCs and PCs could be brought back in as a touchstone. Their presence could lend weight to a situation. Or the group could see how the story went for those characters.

When I made a radical jump forward like Sam, I fretted and worried over it. I didn’t think I could take back such a move. But we’d had a gap between plays in the setting, so I had the opportunity. I added more steampunk elements, excised parts I wasn’t happy with, and broke up some established forces. When the players finally met someone from a previous campaign, it came as shock and changed up some of the events’ meaning. But I pushed things forward only three centuries. And even then I kept many things intact…more than they ought to have been. But my attachment kept me from the boldness of Sam’s shift in the Eleven Pillars campaign.

Side-Note: I’ve been elbow-deep in Post-Apocalyptic games, so I’m acutely aware of how important this is to those settings. If designers want a world radically changed- full of mutated beasts, vast new societies, and weird established traditions- they have to posit a large gap between the Collapse and the Present. Of course, the further they go away from that, the less important the past becomes. That’s what makes the most recent Gamma World’s “reality storm” pretty brilliant. It bakes mutability into the setting (even more than Rifts). 


If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at www.playontarget.com.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

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

HELL CAME TO FROGTOWN
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.


PLEASE SUPPORT FROGTOWN REBUILDING PROJECTS
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.
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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)
Huh.

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. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part Eight: 2003)

DON'T CRY FOR ME ARMAGEDDON
I will not survive the apocalypse. Not zombies. Not nukes. Not robots. Not aliens. Not plague.

Some of you have already read this story. But the reason I haven’t posted these lists in a while is I took a tumble. A stupid tumble.

I had about an hour before I had to grab Sherri and then get prepped for my Guards of Abashan game. It struck me that they would be likely fighting in a ruined temple of a bird god that evening. I could go and buy a set of pre-painted Arakocra for D&D Attack Wing and use those as foes: right scale, bird-like, flying bases, could be re-purposed for Tengu in L5R. I knew I had enough time to get to the shop, pick those up, and still meet Sherri.

I didn’t notice the patch of ice at the base of my neighbor’s drive as I walked around to get to my car. I went down hard on my left side and back. I got up and barely made it into the house and on the couch before I blacked out from the pain. I dreamed I hadn’t actually fallen, but woke up to agony and a cold sweat. Ah, Shock, my old friend. I called Sherri, made her get another ride home, moved to another part of the couch, blacked out again, woke, and eventually settled in.

Ice packs, slings, ibuprofen, muscle relaxants, food brought to me, Netflix, pillows, Suikoden. That was my next couple of weeks. I’m terrible at being sick and worse when there’s actually something really wrong with me.

I will not survive the apocalypse.

I have no illusions, no “well maybe…” I’m done. Put a fork in me.

So maybe that’s my attraction to some of these post-apocalyptic games. I like those with a more optimistic bent. Those where you can create communities and help to save others. Where the characters, gritty and conflicted as they might be, still make the right choices and keep their humanity.
 
Because having those folks around is the only possible way I’m not zombie chum.


ON THIS NIGHT OF A THOUSAND BOMBS
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 2000 to 2002). I've arranged these by year and then alphabetically within that year.


1. Cold Steel Reign (2003)
A small company takes on the post-apocalyptic Wild West, reaching into Deadlands' territories with a new spin. Here a meteor strike during the American Civil War sparks a cataclysmic shift. This rewrites the geography and tinges the whole world with a "Western" frontier lifestyle. Despite that concrete framing, Cold Steel Reign spins off to drag in a host of craziness: demon-harboring constructs, Templars, and long-forgotten secret magics. I'd assumed this was a straight alt-history, but the reviews make it clear that it dives fully into the kitchen sink.

Those reviews also suggest a clunky, crunchy system. Cold Steel Reign offers an abundance of mechanics and systems which switch from sub-system to sub-system. Add to that a host of editing problems. The game still has a FB page, last updated in 2012. You can also find character creation tutorials on YouTube. However Cold Steel Reign didn’t gain traction, with only the mammoth Player's Guide and a GM screen released. That's too bad, as there's more than a little hint of Stephen King's Dark Tower series present here.

2. Evernight (2003)
Now I’m going to semi-spoil a 12-year old adventure path. So you've been warned. Evernight begins with classic fantasy setting of Tarth. The background's written deliberately broadly: bright, archetypal, and heroic. A millennium ago this world banded together to fight off a deadly arachnid foe. Those coalitions of the willing have long since fallen to infighting. You may have guessed (or know) where this is heading. But Shane Hensley takes that expectation and twists it. Evernight's a plot point campaign: offering some options and revelations, but with a tight structure and through-line for the tale.

…Because this is actually an alien invasion of this fantasy world. Though not really. Well maybe. Anyway the Masters kick off the fun just before the campaign starts. They land in the ocean and then blast out in flying vessels to bomb the countryside. They darken the sky and seize control. Now the classic fantasy PC group must fight an underground resistance against these invaders. Of course in the backdrop of that lies truths about the origins of the races, the technology possessed by the invaders, and secrets & betrayals. Overall it offers a neat take on the freedom fighter formula we've seen in other settings. But that's combined with a highly scripted presentation. GMs looking to adapt this may have to get in up to their elbows to make changes. Despite that Evernight remains a solid and worthwhile resource.
Evernight on RPGNow

3. Gamma World d20 (2003)
As mentioned last list, TSR released a final (and well-reviewed) version of Gamma World in 2000. But WotC killed that line a year later. With the coming of D&D 3.0 companies hunted for properties- old and new- to tart up with a d20 suit. Swords & Sorcery Studios dressed up a new Gamma World for a 6th edition. They built on the d20 Modern mechanics, rather than base 3.0. They eschewed the weird-embracing riff of  of Jonathan Tweet's Omega World. Instead Gamma World 6th (or GW d20...?.) went darker and more "realistic..." Well, not realistic, just less funny and more grim (which some take as realistic).

Rather than the Ancients and Days of Fire, GW d20 provides a more detailed and extensive history. Rad remains a factor, but now biotech and nanotech come into the setting as forces reshaping this future. The game world takes place just three generations after the wars' end. That’s in line with later Gamma World editions. Still it makes me wince a little. But I suppose it doesn't matter in the great scheme of things.

Gamma World 6th has classes, but luckily those revolve around general archetypes (Strong, Dedicated, Tough) which remind me of approaches from Fate Accelerated. You can still be a Mutant...but not really a Mutant animal; instead you're an “Engineered Animal.” But you can be an android, called Synthetics here. Mutated characters get to pick their mutations, but have to balance these with negative traits. Mutations aren't the only way to get powers (called FX). You can get grafted bio-material, nanotech, cybernetics, and psionics. The mechanics of d20 require more rules to make all that work, leading to complexities and problems. On the plus side, the game includes interesting rules on handling communities- something I always like to see in these games.

Sword & Sorcery Studios supported Gamma World 6th decently. Beyond the Player's Handbook, they released two other hardcovers: the Gamma World Game Master's Guide (aka the DMG) and Machines and Mutants (aka the Monster Manual). As well three softcover supplements came out the following year. But the line as a whole soon faded, with everything dropped on the market by the end of '04. It’s unclear if the line closure came from the d20 Bubble or more the line’s general reception. Online reviews come off mixed: some like the new additions and the grittier feel, while others dislike the bad editing and broken mechanics.

Still, it was Gamma World, so there'd always be another edition...

4. JAGS Have-Not (2003)
JAGS or "Just Another Gaming System" produced some striking setting material, including C-13: The Thirteen Colonies and Wonderland. Normally I steer clear of self-published material, but Marco Chacon's massive, nearly 500 page supplement for the system looks like a labor of love. Have Not seems to be the setting title for a bundle of several related pdfs. It has a classic approach: road-gangs, wild dusty-driven plains, and...well, perhaps a quote from the introduction will do it justice (via RPG Geek),

"Have-Not is all about rolling into a small dusty town in armed vehicles and laying the .30-cal smack-down on an evil sheriff. It's about getting your friends together and heading into the Denver Ruins to brave the death machines and the bio-horrors left over from the Age of War to bring back bounty from another era. It's about being an intelligent, telepathic Bengal Tiger with a cybernetic rocket launcher or Cyborg with a built in rocket launcher-or a mobile telepathic plant-or maybe just a human, gun slinging bad-ass."

"Have-Not is about exploring a world that's been touched by a miraculous technology (controlled by the Haves, who are now gone) and then abandoned. It's about setting things right or seeing what's broken or just getting rich and powerful-or any of those things. It's about a world that's complex, that's got a lot going on, and has secrets to discover."

Telepathic Bengal Tigers with cybernetic rocket launchers.
emphasis mine.

5. LodlanD (2003)
German rpg LodlanD presents another underwater post-collapse society. The Lod of the title refers to the central city of that setting. Human experimentation to reduce CO2 emissions resulted in depletion in the atmosphere and a subsequent Ice Age. The surviving populace fled beneath the oceans, the last habitable place. The German wikipedia page suggests that unlike other post-apocalyptic games, LodlanD takes an optimistic view. The game suggests that eventually through technological and scientific progress, mankind will reclaim the surface. (Ironic given the inciting incident.) LodlanD did quite well for itself. Between '03 and '09 it released over a dozen sourcebooks, supplements, and modules. It follows the trend of other games of the period with an evolving metaplot. The publisher announced the close-down of LodlanD in '09, with the promise of a new metaplot arc coming in 2010. That seems to have not materialized, with the designer instead turning to writing novels.

6. Midnight (2003)
I've often heard Midnight described as the "Sauron Wins" rpg. That does a disservice to the depth and breadth of the work poured into this material. The world of Eredane has been under the Shadow for one hundred years. In ages past, the gods cast out Izrador, the Shadow & the god of corruptions. He in turn severed his place of exile from the heavens. Izrador built a following and fought on and off with the varied peoples for thousands of years. Finally with dark promises he pulled apart the rag-tag and exhausted coalition arrayed against him. Since then he has brought nearly everything under his sway, aided by blood sacrifices and his highly organized Church of Shadow.

For this setting, Fantasy Flight built a distinct set of d20 rules, heavily tailored to match the premise. The first edition used D&D 3.0, while the second edition corebook pulled in material from the sourcebooks and brought everything up to 3.5. The rules include a host of racial options and the elimination of all core classes save the barbarian, fighter, and rogue. Instead we have the Channeler, Defender, Legate (Clerics of the Shadow), and Wildlander. With the gods severed, no other divine magic functions. Midnight includes prestige classes, but also "Heroic Paths" granting benefits at each level. Magic has changed as well. There's a ton of material in the core book...maybe too much. The world's highly detailed and described, with dozens of nations and peoples. Like other crunchy settings (Earthdawn, Iron Kingdoms) GMs may have a hard time finding a suitable entry point.

What can the PCs do in this grim setting? I like this summary from the introduction. "The heroes of Midnight are condemned by their ideals and forced to wage a war that all but a few believe was lost long ago." The core book suggests some ideas about tone in passing- in particular keeping the sense of hope alive. I think that's an important tightrope to walk here. On the one hand this could be run as an almost Cthulhu-like setting (ala Shadows Over Vathak). On the other it could be handled more as a resistance-fighter style campaign (like Evernight above). It's interesting that you have an active force present and intent on maintaining the "apocalyptic" state of things. We’ve seen that in several cases (GURPS Reign of Steel), but nothing as singular.

Fantasy Flight supported Midnight with a host of sourcebooks, supplements, and modules. There are some amazing ones and the line has solid production values. A live-action movie intended as a pilot came out in 2008, but didn't generate interest. The last printed volume for the line appeared in '07, but FF released a D&D 4e module, The Heart of Erenland, intended to bring people into the setting in '09. Though I expect their big licenses remain many times more valuable than this IP, I'm disappointed that following the d20 crash we haven't seen a revision of this. I can imagine a modern FF board game treatment of the ideas here (beyond Runebound: Midnight). Perhaps we could even see a Pathfinder, 13th Age or D&D 5 sourcebook someday?
Midnight on RPGNow

7. Neoterra (2003)
Another EABA aftermath setting book, but distinct and unusual. The author's note explains that Neoterra's premise is built on the "scientifically sound" field of evolutionary sociobiology. In particular he cites and recommends The Bell Curve. Your awareness of and response to that will color your reading of the game. My background's in anthropology and I have a fairly dim view of it; it has problematic aspects. I'll leave it at that. Neoterra offers a subtle apocalypse. In this world, the Net has taken over, reducing and controlling humanity...sort of. The AI’s placed constraints but in general offered humanity complete freedom from want or need. There's a little mix of Transhumanism and the post-scarcity world of FreeMarket. Humanity exists to create style and develop towards "Archetypes," or new forms of existence. It's a weird set up, at least for me. It definitely has a cataclysmic incident: a war between sentient technology and the human world. But the game itself takes place long after that. NeoTerra offers more a framework than it does a detailed setting, but I suspect that's the only way to handle these concepts.
Neoterra on RPGNow

8. Neuroshima (2003)
Here's a mundane but related story. I'd heard of the boardgame Neuroshima Hex, but for some reason thought it was something like Hive, an abstract game. So it didn’t register for me. Last year, my friend Chris taught me 51st State, a dense and weird post-apocalyptic card game...based on the Neuroshima setting. Wait, what...I didn't even think there was a setting. So I put together that it was shared background for a bunch of board games.

But no, that's still wrong. In fact Neuroshima is a huge post-apocalyptic role-playing game from Poland. It has a dozen and a half supplements, but hasn't been translated to English. The designers include Ignacy Trzewiczek (now known for his board games like Imperial Settlers) and Michal Oracz (designer of De Profundis).

Despite being a Polish design, Neuroshima takes place in a fallen United States. It has a Mad Max feel, mixed with fringe elements like bred monsters and radiation-damaged nature. A nuclear war ignites a larger conflict of man versus machine. With echoes of Terminator and Reign of Steel, the machine intelligence, Moloch, controls most of the northern US. Another section has been overrun by deadly vegetation from South America. Humanity has split into multiple tribes and regions. Each has a distinct culture and approach. There's a strong focus on a person’s origins, with strangers regarded suspiciously. It seems like a standard setting, though the game offers several dials for tone. These are called colors: Steel, Chrome, Rust, and Mercury (in order of fatalism).

Neuroshima uses its own system, based on 3d20 resolution, and has a revised 1.5 edition. Sourcebooks include splatbooks, campaigns & adventures, as well as city sourcebooks covering Miami and Detroit. I'm unsure of the current state of publication. I assume it remains in print, but several web pages related to it have gone dark. Portal Games seems to have worked on an English translation at one point, but not currently. Though I imagine the market for translated rpgs is tight, we've seen some recent publications despite this (The End of the World, Kuro).

9. octaNe (2003)
To quote my friend Gene, "brilliantly vague for what it leaves out."

octaNe, according to designer Jared Sorensen, started with thinking about a “road-trip” school of Magick for Unknown Armies. From that we ended up with what the subtitle describes as "the psychotronic game of post-modern trash culture america." octaNe goes for highly improvisational and freeform mechanics in pursuing that. Rules require Rock n' Roll and terrible snack food during sessions. It includes several modes of play: Retro-Kool Kitsch, Grindhouse, Mythic Storytelling, and Gritty Hyper-realism. These define play style and goals, as well as the threat of death for the characters. The mechanics themselves are light, matching simple dice rolls to narrative declarations.

What do you actually do in the game? Well your characters drive around in this blasted wasteland having adventures. It might look like road movie directed by Jim Jarmusch? It might be game that's more Tank Girl than the Tank Girl RPG? The party's assembled from weird roles: Capuchin Monkey to Mutant Trucker to Repo Man to Six-String Samurai. It has magical traditions and high weirdness. At the same time, the setting's thinly detailed, with more than enough room for the players to fill in the gaps. For example, everything east of the Mississippi remains a great and mythic unknown...the land of Oz for the restless PCs prowling the broken roads.

I dig octaNe. It is weird in a whole different way than early Gamma World. It has a joke and a gimmick, but that doesn't oversell itself. If you're looking for a fast, crazed, and weirdly upbeat post-apocalyptic game, check it out.
octaNe on RPGNow

10. Redline (2003)
Fantasy Flight's “Horizon” series offered an interesting experiment: small but rich setting books for d20. You have to admire the throwback simplicity, describing a whole campaign premise and mechanics in a 64-page book. That’s in an era where everyone shot out hardcover monsters and a ton of d20 material came in massive chunks. Redline presents a fairly classic Road Warrior-esque setting. It wears its sources on its cover. The game uses the tightness to its advantage, cutting down to six backgrounds for races and five broad character classes. New skills are added and others tweaked; in particular I like "chatter" for the convince skill. Ten pages cover vehicle construction and fighting. These feel compressed and take a common "maneuvers with checks" approach. The section on personal fighting from the cars could have been expanded. Redline’s cataclysm remains present in "The Creep." That's a corruption mechanic based on contact with old ruins and the toxic biological agents they contain. I'm glad they limit the background to something mechanical and which actually comes into play. The book ends with a little over a dozen pages of setting ideas and monsters. Redline isn't groundbreaking, but it does the job it sets out to with skill: an easy to grok d20 standard post-apocalyptic game.

11. Rifts Chaos Earth (2003)
By 2003, Palladium had published 50+ Rifts sourcebooks, not including material released for compatible games. That divergent and multi-faceted setting takes places in the wake of a mystic/dimensional catastrophic event- but far in the past. Those events settled into the division of different worlds and dimensions. But Rifts Chaos Earth takes place in the immediate aftermath of the Great Cataclysm. The players serve as agents of the Northern Eagle Military Alliance, trying to hold things together and deal with changes wracking the world.

That's not a bad premise- putting players into a world still shifting and changing towards something drastically different. For Rifts veterans, it offers a riff on familiar concepts and a chance to see the world from another perspective. But Rifts players have always struck as wanting more and more kitchen-sink material. Chaos Earth reverses that trend, so I'm unsure of the full appeal. And the Rifts label might have put off those otherwise interested in post-apocalyptic gaming. Still Chaos Earth offers a done-in-one rpg, with a ton of setting material (and equipment). Palladium released two supplements for the setting: Creatures of Chaos, a bestiary, and Rise of Magic, which added extensive material for many magical classes.

12. Sine Requie (2003)
I mentioned this line before on my History of Horror RPG list, one of several cross-overs. Sine Requie is an Italian RPG presenting a horror-tinged alternate history. While the horror begins late in WW2, it differs from products like Weird Wars: Weird War II. Instead it takes up in the aftermath of the dead rising from the earth and all manner of unspeakable supernatural things happening. It opens in 1957, enough time for all manner of changes. The Soviet sourcebook describes a country run by a soulless computer, the ultimate technocratic dream turned to terror. Italy has a radical Inquisition. And the Nazi regime remains in power. The game has a mix of human and supernatural elements bringing darkness to the world. Sine Requie uses tarot cards for resolution rather than dice, but as far as I can tell has not been translated into English. It has several area sourcebooks (Sine Requie: IV Reich, Sine Requie: Sanctum Imperium for example.)

13. When the Sky Falls (2003)
A Malhavoc Press publication under the Swords & Sorcery imprint. When the Sky Falls details how to drop a a meteor strike into your campaign. We've seen that before in Apocalypse and Wrath of the Immortals. This aims to be a d20 toolkit for that event. The book's split 50/50 between set up & execution of the event and dealing with the magical aftermath. The former has some decent ideas on different kinds of meteorites, foreshadowing the event, and changes to the world. This last bit gets less treatment than you might expect, but this is only a 64 pages. The second half offers new systems arising out of the event: new magic styles, spells, items, and monsters. This feels a little less earthshaking than it could. A related supplement in the same series is Requiem for a God. That offers ideas for handling the passing of a major divinity on a setting. That could also lead into apocalyptic scenarios.
When the Sky Falls on RPGNow
Requiem for a God on RPGNow

14. Miscellaneous: Corner Cases
Two items fall at the margins, maybe post-apocalyptic or of interest to PA gamers. Armageddon: 2089 - Total War is a d20 setting for "WarMek"-based battles and conflict. The cover suggests a devastating war to end all others, but I suspect that's less important than cool machines blowing each other up. More relevant is Days of Fire. This presents a player-facing book of information about the coming End Times for World of Darkness, set within the cosmology of Demon: The Fallen. I guess you could consider some of the other "in-game" White Wolf books like this also apocalyptic (like Hunter Apocrypha). These are the 'found-footage' films of the rpg world. I mention this one since it seems to have a link to the big world-destroying event we'll see on the next list: Time of Judgment.
Armageddon: 2089 on RPGNow 
Days of Fire on RPGNow