Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Initiative: Superhero RPG Appendix N Blog Challenge

Barking Alien put forth a challenge for Superhero GMs at this post. In brief,
“I challenge you, the Superhero RPG GM, and/or player, to list between 5 and 10 Superhero comic books, and 5 to 10 Superhero live action or animated shows or films, that typify your style of Superhero RPG campaign.”
So here’s my list- I’ll try to be brief in my reasoning. I’ve left off some stuff I adore (Tom Strong, Unbreakable, Watchmen, Wonder Woman, Starman, The Question) because while I think they’re great, there’s less a touchstone for me when I run. Each of the items below has or has had some impact on and helps describe what I want from a campaign. There’s a Venn diagram here - some of them apply strongly to some campaign forms. Others typify slightly different campaigns I’ve run or have an interest in. I’m not sure what the intersection these influences would look like.

Added: Graphs, Paper, and Games response
My Dice Are Older Than You response
Willfully and Persistently response
Held Action response
Sea of Stars response

  1. Super Friends: Weirdly enough all of the "Saturday Morning Cartoon" versions of the Justice League still stick in my head. They’re the default super-team. They’re together to fight evil. Most importantly they have a built-in nobility. I still reference stories from these series in game from time to time.
  2. The Marvel Super Heroes: These cut & paste Marvel comic series from the ‘60’s remain strongly in my mind. They had crazy over-the-top Silver Age plots usually mixed with overwrought personal drama. I think you have to be exaggerated and hyper-kinetic at the table.
  3. Spider Man ’67: There are some astonishingly weird stories here- plant invasions, cross-dimensional strangeness, and bizarre psychedelic images. I like the high weird in my game- curve ball stuff with metaphysical beats.
  4. Batman the Animated Series: If we’re doing street-level stuff, I want something intimate like this. Strong character focus, a real sense of place, and a large cast of returning NPCs. I like gritty and a little realistic, but not brutal and gruesome.
  5. Justice League Unlimited: When we do a super-team I want them to confront challenges on many levels. They have to deal with fighting baddies, but also with their place in the world. Episodic stories tie into a larger plot slowly over the course of a campaign. Big multi-part finishers.
  6. X-Men Evolution: I also like strong character backstory. While there’s some superheroics in this, most everything here’s about interactions and relationships. There’s a weird status quo between good guys and bad guys. They can interact on different terms. I like to have that negotiation from time to time.
  7. Batman Beyond: I dig high-tech plots with a degree of hand-waving. Most of my superhero games have a layer of super-science toys in the hands of important groups. I also aim for unusual motivations for my heroes and villains.
  8. Mystery Men: I want my superhero games to have some comedy in them, but played straight. Patently absurd moments are done as seriously as I can. Stay in character and respect even the oddest motives.
  9. Sky High: If superheroes have been around for a while, there’s a structure to support that: government agencies, training programs, gear shops. I like the idea of generational heroes and some characters coming out of these programs with radically different results. (Oddly in comics I dislike intensely The Initiative.)
  10. Hellboy: If there’s magic in my setting, you can count on there being some really awful stuff there. It will have monsters, elder beasts, corruption, and darker stuff. It won’t be super-science by another name with a rational explanation. There will be groups dealing with that and they will be misfits.

I don’t list any of the big live action films here. In part that’s because live-action superheroes don’t speak to me as strongly as animated ones. The three I list all have drastically different approaches to the genre. I love many live-action films (Avengers, Spider Man, Batman Begins), but they’re less in my head when I’m thinking about my campaigns.

  1. Astro City: This is what a superhero world built from the ground up is all about. Supers affect history, supers affect people, supers are human beings. Characters can have interesting personal sub-plots which can come to the center stage.
  2. The Avengers (Byrne/Perez run): Superhero teams can get caught up in bureaucracy. They may be overcome by non-superhero problems, but then they’ll have a big fight and that will clear the air briefly.
  3. X-Men (Claremont/Byrne run): If you want, I will bring the soap opera. It doesn’t always have to happen that way, but I’ll give you that if you want it as a player. Also, sometimes we’ll spend sessions on individual character backstories/personal life. I’ll tie those in to the major plot eventually. 
  4. The Defenders (#50-130): The world can be weird. Sometimes your superteam assembles for the dumbest reasons. You don’t fit together. You have to figure out how to make the best or that and actually become a team. Also, sometimes there will be absolutely insane plots.
  5. Gotham Central: There are normal people in the world who have to deal with this craziness. Some of them don’t like it. They have to clean up after the heroics. If we’re doing a street level game, you may end up at least as much hindrance as help to these people.
  6. Legion of Superheroes ("The Great Darkness Saga"): Sometimes we will go epic. It will start small, but slowly the layers will be peeled away until the big bad’s actually revealed. In that final battle, it will be no holds barred and sacrifices may have to be made.
  7. Promethea: As I mentioned earlier, the world can be weird. Sometimes the world simply accepts that weirdness. People and relationships can complicate that strangeness. The interaction of the stable and the weird will create problems.
  8. Doom Patrol or Seven Soldiers (Morrison): If I’m going to go dark, it’s likely going to come out of the weirdness. Things may double back on themselves, you may find yourselves going to strange places. Sometimes you’ll be unprepared for it and you’ll have to find a creative, lateral-thinking, mythic approach to solve things.
  9. Planetary (or The Boys): There’s a secret history to the world. That can conceal may things- legacies of herodom, alien invasions, previous universes, etc. But it can also be dark and people may have hidden that away for a reason.
  10. All-Star Superman: Anything can happen because you’re superheroes and that’s a wonderful thing.

So there it is. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Amber Diceless/Lords of Gossamer & Shadow: Play on Target Special Ep 4

On Saturday we did a special episode of Play on Target for RPG Geek’s VirtuaCon. If you’ve listened to the show, you know Brian’s love of Amber Diceless. Since we had two co-hosts out, we decided to do another game-focus episode (as we’d done with Changeling the Lost). In this we were lucky enough to be joined by Kristin Hunt, Jeff Miller, Steve Russell, and Phil Vecchione. You can grab the podcast at the link below. Also you can watch the panel's video here. In the episode we cover our experiences with Amber and Lords of Gossamer & Shadow, why diceless, and what the new game adds. BTW VirtuaCon '14 was one of the best convention experiences I've had online or IRL. If you didn't go this year, check it out next year. 

As I mention at the start of the episode, my own Amber experience begins with missed opportunities. Several times I had the chance to play with designer Eric Wujick and his immediate crew at Michicon and Windsor in the late 1980’s, early ‘90s. My friend Paul played in several sessions and reported back to me. He told me about a completely narrativist, diceless games. Anyone could make up anything and the GM simply worked it in.

And I poo-poo’d it.

I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I was in the middle of running GURPS, Champions, and Rolemaster. When I found a setting I liked but the system wasn’t up to snuff, I immediately tried to figure out what Arms Law weapon charts would fit. Or how to do create character templates for it in Hero System. Amber sounded like lunacy. Sheer lunacy.

I simply couldn’t grok it. I mean it seemed like the system meant that the players could do whatever they wanted. How the eff would I prepare for that? I needed my precious notes, planning, storylines, battle set ups, etc.

Or just as bad- the game would allow the GM to simply do whatever they wanted to the players. They could be cruel, vindictive, revel in the their despair. I knew that would happen because that’s what I would do. I mean I wouldn’t do it. Not really, but I also knew my potential to be That Guy. I’d played in games with terrible GMs who demonstrated favoritism and ignored our input. If those GMs existed then it followed that this game couldn’t work. It was a line of thinking I used to dismiss a ton of interesting ideas in those years.

At some point I got better. At some point I got brave and tried these things and found I enjoyed them- and the world didn’t collapse. Diceless and more shared power games might not be for everyone, but my experiences there enriched my gaming and I think made me a stronger GM.

I’ve run Amber a few times, in one case a short campaign with three players. It began in a modern world, with the players discovering over time that they were children of Courts and learning about their powers. However I also ran three Amber Throne Wars.

They’re brilliant. Have a group of role-players and don’t have some kind of LARP ready to throw them into? Or perhaps they object to the concept of a LARP? Run a Throne War for them. The King is dead and suddenly everyone wants to seize power. The best part of the Throne War is the auction which pits the players directly in conflict right from the start. I can get people to bid, bid, and bid some more. It’s a delight. Then you simply let them loose at one another for a few hours. I ran it with a dozen+ people one time and it remains one of my fav sessions.

One player opted to bid low in most of the stat rounds. Instead he focused on various Chaos magics and such. Once we got to the actual moving around and playing, everyone broke off and began to plot, negotiate, and backstab one another. This player offered others some of the Klondike bars he’d brought and stored in the freezer. Once he’d finished distributing the tasty delights over the course of an hour he sent me a note. It detailed everyone he’d given the ice cream to and how precisely his character had spiked it. A little meta, but it ended up being amusing since he got killed off before he could bring that to fruition.

There’s a moment in the episode when something finally clicks for me. Kristin’s describing the infinite possibilities of the different worlds. I’d always known that about the game and the setting. But for some reason in my head I still had some fairly conventional ideas. I hate to say it, but I pictured pretty plain settings- pass-through places. Some of that comes from the original Amber novels. Except for some of the high weirdness of the last race through Chaos, there’s a focus on Western fantasy tropes. But Kristin mentioned doing Shadow of Colossus as a game world and suddenly everything clicked. That these worlds could be truly novel and strange- and have stakes in them. They could be more than resources or sites for a brief scene. I suspect that’s part of what LoGS brings to the table- more weight to these worlds.

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 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

30 Days to Save Science City: Building the One-Shot City (Part One)

On Friday I ran a superhero session for VirtuaCon '14. We used the Venture City Stories rules for Fate Core

Here’s the pitch:
Science City, 1937. Once a shining beacon of progress and hope following the defeat of the Kansegu alien invasion, darkness now covers Science City. Some hint at strange forces behind the transformation of this island paradise. But clearly corruption, urban decay, foreign agents, and criminal influence have made Science City a hotbed of vice and crime. 
You’re going to fix that. 
You’re a superbeing with amazing powers and an equally difficult task. The Transatlantic League, the world-renowned team of superheroes has selected your group to fix Science City. But you only have thirty days. How you decide to do that is up to you: quiet, loud, soft, hard, above board or from the shadows. Will you prove that heroes can make a difference and keep yourselves above the muck?
I’ll set the stage and you’ll figure out what to fix and how to do that. Play involves a mix of investigation, social interaction, problem solving, and the occasional head thumping, should you so choose.
This game is based on the superhero world created by a crack team of RPGGeeks just for VirtuaCon ‘14. You can see the full write-up of that history here . You don’t have to read that or know anything about it to play, but that’s pretty cool, isn’t it? 
Game: Fate Core (using Venture City Stories mechanics)Genre: SuperheroBrief: Newly-Minted Superhero Team Tries to Save a City of Crime
I put together eight pre-gens for the group. Some of those came from VCS and the rest from example builds posted on the G+ Fate Core community. We ended up with five heroes: Doctor X (a transformed super-scientist ala the Beast), The Phantom (a wall-phasing super-agent), Shockwave (an electrical dynamo), Johnny Speed (a lightning-fast blur), and That Guy (a driven doppleganger). All the players had played some form of Fate Core. I tuned the characters a little higher since it was a one-shot (extra stunt IIRC). I’ll write up a brief session report for this game and the two others later. 

I'm going to present the materials I used to craft the scenario. It was a one-shot, but I ended up over-preparing more than a little. This is the first half of the material; after the other half I’ll talk about how I might rework and consolidate this for the future. I wanted to present an open scenario with pretty clear objectives, but allow the players solve things any way they wanted.

If you want to check out the video for the session, see here. The longer recording covers the whole session recorded via G+. I also used XSplit to record it so that you can see the Roll20 app. That's coolest in the last two parts where we get to the fight maps. 

To begin I gave them the most essential elements from the history I linked to above. The setting's a 1937 pulp America with more fantastic technology. There’s a long history of alien invasions. The most recent one, the Kansegu Invasion, was turned back in great part by Superbeings. Powered humans appeared and began to change the world. Then a short time later Mutants began to appear. They also had powers, but coupled with dramatic physical changes. This led to them being ostracized.

The PCs would all be heroes invited into The Transatlantic League, the world’s greatest superteam.  Lady Paladin, one of the higher echelon members of the League, briefed them on a secret assignment. They would take on this mission before joining offically. It required avoiding direct connection to the League for several reasons.

As Lady Paladin explained, two years ago in 1936, the League received a message from the supervillain, The Iron Gale. It was simple. She said they had until the 15th of August to clean up Monaco. The city had become a hive of scum and villainy- with supervillains, mutant refugees, and European anarchists & saboteurs filling the streets. It was a complex and confusing situation. Uncertain about the veracity, the League ignored the message. On August 15th an earthquake struck the Monaco, killing upwards of 10,000 people and destroying most of the national infrastructure. It remains in ruins today.

Two days ago the League received another message from Iron Gale. She told them they had until October 31st to clean up Science City. (At this point I went into a little more detail about the city- major America city, a close offshore island, major port and shipping locale, center of industry and trade. It had once been focused on progress and technology. Renamed after the 1901 World’s Fair there. But now it was a city given over to crime and corruption. A major superhero, The Watchman and his allies, vanished about five years ago. Since then crime had run rampant. Science City is “comic-book vaguely” located on the East Coast.)

The Iron Gale’s message left the League in a tough position. Science City is a mess. The League has ties in America, but are limited in their ability to unilaterally act there. They don’t want a panic and there’s no way to clear the city safely or reasonably. How the Iron Gale hit Monaco remains unknown. The League can’t be seen giving in to supervillain demands. At the same time they can’t ignore the situation.
Built from a map of Gotham City
So they’re sending the you in. You can decide how you want to operate- loudly or quietly. You will be given a safehouse to operate out of. And you will be given some assistance, which you will need to prioritize. We can assume that you have the basics of these things. If you need to make a roll using these resources, you assign them to do something significant, or you invoke for something, their rating will go down by 1. Assign a +4, +3, +2, and a +1. Consider that like a stress box on the aspect.
  • Agents: Trusted personnel who can carry out tasks. They can deployed as back up or to run something down on their own.
  • Contacts: Trusted local experts. This can be used as a bump to character Contacts rolls, to come up with a new contact, or as an aspect.
  • Cover: Alternate secret identities. Deeper background records- can be normal or costumed identities.
  • Resources: Money, tech, equipment

(The players chose the following order: Contacts, Agents, Resources, Cover)

What follows are the GM notes I wrote up for myself. It focuses on seven major factions in the city, plus local government structures. I tried to use the Venture City Stories structure for most of this. I dropped the “Slogan” concept and instead noted Associated NPCs/Ways In and also Hooks. I present the first three of the seven factions below. I’ll post the rest in the other half, along with a rough relationship map.

Important! This is really rough since I wrote it up purely as my GM notes. 
Current Issues
  • Vanished Local Superhero Leaves a Power Vacuum
  • Rising Tide of Violence Between Criminal Groups
  • Corruption at the Highest Levels
  • Decaying City Infrastructure

Impending Issues
  • Iron Gale’s Going to Destroy the City If They Don’t Fix It
  • Zolana Zinkman Plans to Overthrow the Government
  • Collapsing Section of the City

The Watchman had been a hereditary position, but the last Watchman was killed by his son five years ago. While he lacked the skills and powers of his father, Hippolitto Ratliff has a certain amount of animal cunning. He killed off two of his father’s associates: Dr. Dark (Verna Harrison) and Jack Frost. The third, King Midas, he captured. He’s used Midas’ transformational gifts to supplement his wealth and income. He has to be carefully with this, however, since Midas’ work takes great energy for things of complexity and stability. Ratliff plays at the playboy, enjoying his newfound freedom after his father’s death. Many think he’s simply a fop. He possesses grew physical prowess and extraordinary senses.

Oriflamme arose four years ago, about a year after dispatching his father. He carefully used his father’s accumulated research on criminal in order to carve out a place for himself. He did this by striking at and taking down Warner Harthog and his criminal organization operating in Radium Heights. Oriflamme came out of nowhere- striking quickly and quietly overnight, flipping Harthog’s organization overnight. However he’s had trouble expanding territory since then, as his information’s gone more and more stale.

The front man and highest known person within Oriflamme is Walter Kroon, an organizer and aggregator. He’s especially fond of controlling the gambling interests. Kroon is one of the few who know Ratliff’s behind the operation, but even he doesn’t know that Ratliff is the Watchman’s son. On the street they call Oriflamme "the Flames." But in private they use a set of medieval codes and masonic brotherhood practices.

Associated NPCs/Ways In: Former Housekeeper for the Ratliff family, Private Detective Who Worked with the Watchman, Discredited Organized Crime Specialist, Precious Metals Dealer, Rival Who Wants Control of the Wire Services

Hooks: Walter Kromm has a long-running feud with Davian. He was scammed by the Doctor and wants payback. Hip Ratliff is engaged to be married (Jody Fay Hobbs). His fiancé actually secretly works for the Steel Hand. They don’t know ratlif’s ID, he’s merely a mark.

High Concept: Ambitious and expanding high-end criminal organization.

Secret: Heir to the Watchman Gone Bad

Skills: Espionage +1, Resources +3, Security +2, and Violence +3

In the late 1920’s, early 1930’s Armel Stravinsky ran Stravinsky House, a kind of sanitarium and asylum for mutants. Settled on a large estate near the park which surrounds the Science City reservoir, it grew to house a large population of teens afflicted by mutations. However, in 1933 exposes and investigations by social workers revealed a host of abuses, radical experiments, and criminal activities that violated the sensibilities of the day. Stravinsky House shut down and Armel fled to California. Some inmates returned back home, some were placed elsewhere, and some vanished into the city.

A few years later an organized pattern of criminal activity began to hit Four Points and the surrounding city quarters. Detectives looking into found a weird mix of street crime and evidence of power use. Some suspected that mutant runaways were involved, but evidence suggested a larger criminal network than could account for this. Investigations rarely went anywhere given the level and nature of the crimes. That’s changed in recent years as the activities of the so-called “Orphanage” has stepped up and become more organized.

The group is centered around a handful of Stravinsky House survivors. They’re led by Enoch Kadosa. He and the others were teens when they fled into the woods to make a life for themselves. They decided to carve out a place for themselves in the decaying places and oddly flooded sections of Four Points. They’ve created a street gang, mostly youthful, with Enoch as the Fagin of the group. His low-level mind influence powers have meant that he’s able to attract runaways and keep them in his pack. Over the years he’s dominated his fellow survivors so they believe he’s their savior. The Orphanage is made up of a mixed group- mostly runaway kids and teens, some mutants who’ve heard the rumors about the group, and some adult “graduates” who are under Enoch’s thrall. Right now the group’s dangerous but unambitious. Eventually Enoch will become dissatisfied with that.

It is not generally well known that the Orphanage has mutant leadership- and discussion of that’s kept under wraps.

Associated NPCs/Ways In: Beat Cop, City Rebuilder, Social Worker, Sibling of a Controlled Gang Member, Escaped Mutant Member, Local Alderman, Daring Reporter, Hungry Scientist

Hooks: Group could be played as an ally if approached correctly. Enoch Kadosa is a rabid collector of lenticular baseball cards. One of Kadosa’s dominated humans had an accident which reset his mind. He’s angry and resentful at the manipulation and has begun to organize an anti-mutant backlash group.

High Concept: Streetwise youth gang with an organizational backbone.

Secret: Hidden Mutant Network

Skills: Espionage +2, Security +3, and Violence +3

Zinkman Industries may appear to be a mid-range corporation with some criminal ties, but in reality they are perhaps the most dangerous group operating in Science City today. Industrialist Zolana Zinkman has been ambitious and dangerous all of her life. When she assumed control of Zinkman Industries in 1923, she looked at her father’s criminal contacts not as a weakness, but as an asset. She knew that she would have to be twice as ruthless as any man in order to make her way and survive in a man’s world.

Over the years Zinkman has been suspected of being behind a number of criminal conspiracies: chemical dumping, illegal testing, corporate espionage, theft of prototypes, industrial sabotage. However they’ve managed to evade prosecution time and time again. Witnesses disappeared, accusers recanted, evidence vanished. The Watchman tangled with Zinkman several time. But money, influence, and a long history with the city meant that he was only able to stop plots rather than bring the company down.

Zinkman Industries has a stranglehold on businesses and industries in the Tomorrow Way district. Their complex in the heart of the neighborhood is a veritable independent city-state. Zinkman has several levels of security services, including her corporate agents, police on her payroll, and Department Seven. This group arranges and carries out her black ops work. That’s headed by Trevor Studer, a dangerous and highly efficient criminal with a military background. He’s also one of the few who know the truth- that Zinkman has made a bargain with the German government. In exchange for money and technical secrets she plans the destabilization and destruction of the United States government. In particular she hopes to overthrow Roosevelt by 1940 and put in place a technocrat of her choosing. Zinkman deals in treason, weapon smuggling, and preparation for a coming war.

To that end she has been making strides in adapting alien technologies banned by the United States. She has begun testing and manufacture of several energy beam systems, weaponized dirigibles, as well as battle dress armor which will make her agents invincible. Zinkman recognizes that in order for her plans to go as she wishes, she will first need to take control of Science City. She has been behind the recent escalation of violence. In particular, she has gathered dossiers on her adversaries- she hopes to negotiate with some and surgically remove others.

Associated NPCs/Ways In: Discredited scientist, Polish Agent, Junior Technician Who Knows too Much, Escaped test Subject, Reporter on the trail of a cover up, drunken payrolled cop, accountant with a conscience, sanitation engineer, Zinkman’s former lover

Hooks: Zinkman’s having an important meeting with her German handlers. She’s using the cover of a major soiree, her daughter’s engagement party. The daughter’s her heir apparent. The older son’s resentful and has been hanging out with people from the Sundown Boys. Zinkman’s currently awaiting a vital shipment of rare/illegal goods which will allow her to shift to “Phase Two.”

High Concept: Evil Corporation

Secret: Treasonous German-Allied Exploiters of Alien Tech

Skills: Bureaucracy, Espionage, Resources, Security, Tech, and Violence

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part One: 1976-1984)

The Apocalypse vexes me. More than other genres I’ve tackled, Post-Apocalypse games seem obvious, but when I look closely I cut and add items madly. I suspect my picks this time will be more contested. And I haven't even made up my mind about Judge Dredd...

If a game self-defines as post-apocalyptic, I'll include it. After that I have some ground rules. First and most obviously there needs to be an apocalypse. This can be a war, conquest, nuclear exchange, reality warp, invasion, cataclysm, meteor strike, plague, infestation, or any other major event which devastates the existing order. That event may be in the far or recent past. Second, that event should shape the game in the present. So, for example, Mystara has the Blackmoor engine explosion which reshaped the world and changed everything. But that’s an incident in the distant past long forgotten and removed from the present world. Third, there’s a focus on survival in the setting. It might be personal survival, it might be the survival of a community, it might be survival of an identity. This can come in many shapes and forms.

Those three really define it for me. Several other elements commonly appear in these games, but don’t define it. Exploration, for example, is key to many. That may be physical exploration of lost or strange locations. But it can also include rediscovery of lost knowledge or reforging contacts shattered by the events. Some settings include changes or mutations brought on by the event, but that isn’t a defining feature. Relics of the past, while common, don’t define a post-apocalyptic game either.

Many games exist in the margins of the definitions- and I’ll be wrestling with those across these lists. My definitions cut out a number that- looked at from another standpoint- could have gone on. For example, I’m leaving off most cyberpunk games. Both Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun have cataclysms in the backdrop. For the former general societal collapse and for the latter the eruption of the Sixth World. They both have some wastelands, but those are just places to pass through. Otherwise the focus on the game isn’t the traditional play of post-apocalypse games- survival and exploration. 

I’ve also left off games where the focus is on fighting back against the apocalypse. In a sense the full effects of the cataclysm haven’t really happened. So I leave off 50 Fathoms, The Mechanoid Invasion, Necessary Evil and their alien invasions. On the other hand, I think Fantasy Flight’s Midnight qualifies as post-apocalyptic. Defeating the evil crisis remains an open question and the world’s been completely reshaped by Izrador’s conquest. Then again Base Raiders offers an interesting world crisis, but the scope is limited. The result is less a question of survival and more of exploitation so I won't include it. I also leave off “disaster” books which simply detail a collapse or crisis event, unless they include significant material covering campaigns run in the aftermath.

As we saw with the Horror lists, there’s an explosion of Zombie games in recent years. Some of these offer either a general discussion of zombies or a sourcebook for using them in different settings. Others present a distinct zombie outbreak and build a world around that. Generally if I have two or more Zombie games on the same list, I’ll group them together into a Miscellaneous: Zombie entry. I might break that rule if I spot something truly striking or worth calling out.

To keep this list easy to read I’m tightening 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 or sourcebooks. I’m consolidating “spin-off” supplements into a single entry. For example you'll see at the end of this list isolated modules for a line using post-apocalyptic elements. Given the number of great things published I haven't included everything I want. I try to only 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 1976 to 1984). I've arranged these by year and then alphabetically within that year.

History of Horror RPGs
History of Superhero RPGs
History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs
History of RPG Genres Patreon Project

I'd only just gotten the hang of cutting open giant rats to search for treasure when my sister tried out Metamorphosis Alpha on me. She didn't give me much information on this new game. I rolled up a weird character, wandered into a domed garden, and was promptly eaten. I only played Metamorphosis Alpha once, but I remember sneaking into her room and flipping through the book. I didn't get the game, except for the sense of desperate survival in a harsh environment. This wasn't about diving into a dungeon for loot. This was about being stuck in a horrible place trying to survive. I'd remember that later when the first horror rpgs arrived.

Metamorphosis Alpha is the first post-apocalyptic game, but strikingly doesn't use the post-nuke setting which would become a default in next several years. Instead characters were passengers of a giant seed-ship where things went terribly wrong. I made the connection years later when I watched Dr. Who's The Ark in Space and finally read Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky. The game itself is a wonderful and brilliant mish-mash. Readers have to disentangle the system from the setting. Every page is filled with wild ideas, but it will take a GM effort to bring everything together. While it eventually became eclipsed by Gamma World, MA set the stage for a new approach to gaming- one of the earliest sci-fi games as well as the first post-apocalypse rpg. While early D&D borrowed a little from Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival, this put that challenge in a new context. Gamers can still buy the original pdf and this year Goodman Games successfully launched a Kickstarter for a reprint which includes a mass of additional material.
Metamorphosis Alpha at RPGNow

2. Simian Conquest (1978)
I started gaming in the early, early days. I have strong memories of obscure games that sat on the shelf of the FLGS for years, but I don't remember this one. I could do a list of "non-licensed licensed-setting" games- including many where the company ended up slapped with a lawsuit. Simian Conquest's clearly the Planet of the Apes rpg (movie, not book). Some blurbs describe it as humorous, but that's not clear. You can play as an ape or as an astronaut. So it is kind of Post-Apocalyptic depending on your character, I suppose...and how much you stick to the plot of the movies. ("You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!")

3. Gamma World (1978)
And here comes the boom. We played Gamma World in the early days. It overshadowed Top Secret and Boot Hill as our non-D&D game of choice for years. And how can you not be drawn to this game? Look at that cover...what's going on there? And it actually conceals the sheer craziness inside. Gamma World takes some of the ideas of Metamorphosis Alpha- mutations, sci-fi, and survival and makes something new out of them. It cites several sources, including Ralph Bakshi's Wizards. That and the newly arrived Heavy Metal magazine drive the game. The interior illustrations go all over the place. But the game itself feels much more playable than Metamorphosis Alpha. Players can move through the book more clearly, character creation's up front, and the lessons learned from D&D's presentation shape the layout.

The crazy mess of the setting's possible because the apocalypse takes place in the 25th Century. In the far future a nuclear war breaks out resulting in a world of talking rabbits with bandoliers, stop-sign wielding madmen, and high-tech artifacts. Here's the thing- I never quite got that the "event" took place in the distant future. So more often than not I mixed bits and pieces of present tech into the setting (Walkmen tape players, Apple Macintosh). Gamma World existed in a weirdly flexible state (which actually makes the most recent "reality warp" edition make a little more sense).

From Gamma World I learned a classic trope of post-apocalypse games. Young tribal members have to go out into the wilderness to find something to save the village or carry out a rite of ascension. We'd end up doing that dozens of time. Gamma World presented a world of anachronisms, showing that any tale or trope could be rebuilt with a science-fantasy frame. It offered a more robust system of random mutation tables. Players could choose their type, but beyond that had to settle with their results- good and bad. It made rolling up characters a desperate and fun gamble. One awesome element, little used in modern games, was the random artifact interaction table. Players rolled on the flowchart to see if they could figure out how to use a device, break it, or set it off in their hands. It was a great system and one worth lifting for other games.

Gamma World got modest support from TSR, with only two modules GW1: Legion of Gold and GW2: Famine in Far-Go released for it. They also put out a GM screen. It went through several printings, with IIRC different colors on the booklet cover. According to wikipedia, TSR planned to do Metamorphosis Alpha to Omega which would have adapted the earlier game to the new rules. But the publication of a second edition of GW in '83 (see later on the list) put the kibosh on that.

The Morrow Project always seemed like a reaction to the gonzo weird of Gamma World. Everything about it seemed serious and adult. I avoided it because it looked like a 'mature' the stark presentation did nothing to grab my tween imagination. In Morrow Project, the PCs play frozen sleeper survivalists awoken in a post-nuclear war future. It aims to be more realistic but still adds pseudo-scientific elements like flora and fauna mutated by the radiation. It focuses squarely on survival and exploration, with perhaps even a hint of being a building game as you try to find other survivor caches. Morrow has a definite military vibe to it, with our "out of time" characters organized as teams. In that regards its a precursor to other gun-love and military games. Artist Richard Tucholka would go on to design the crazy and elaborate firearm systems of various Tri-Tac games (see some below). Supplements included Personal and Vehicular Loads and Vehicular Blueprints: Volume I, but they also released several modules. I'm not sure about the full edition history, but the most distinct revision seems to be 2013's The Morrow Project 4th Edition.

5. Aftermath! (1981)
Fantasy Games Unlimited scared me off for many years. My sister ran me thorough character creation for Chivalry & Sorcery once, I flipped through Space Opera a single time, and one of the smartest people I knew, Gene Ha, spoke lovingly of the complexity of Aftermath!. It sounded too heavy. Eventually I broke down and started picking up FGU games, but I always steered clear of what I assumed was the insane detail of this game. Looking at it now...I think I was a little right. Even knowing the weird math and design choices in games like Bushido and Daredevils, Aftermath's still a big shower of crazy detail and odd game focus. So many figured stats and totals, a two-page combat flow chart, strange look-ups, location-based hits and armor class, labeled hex grid examples for everything. It feels very wargamery- like a reaction from grognard gamers bothered by the loosey-goosey nature of other games. However Aftermath! had a solid following, supported with several supplements.

The oddest thing for me is something the game actually hides in its box set presentation. The cover blurb describes this as "A Role Playing Game set in a Post Holocaust world." The back cover expands that a little but doesn't offer much detail. That obscures one of the most interesting things about Aftermath!, that it actually offers a generic game system combined with a toolkit for running post-apocalyptic games. The first book of the core three included doesn't even mention the setting. Instead it is a 60 page set of general rpg rules- not unlike the booklets included in early Runequest and other Chaosium games covering Basic Role-Playing. But this is significantly more detailed. It might have been one of the earliest generic rpg products if it had been published separately. Book two covers character creation, but still avoids concrete setting. Book three finally addresses that and talks about options for the kinds of "Ruin" that could come to the world- nuclear, biological, social- and the implications of the passage of time. Its almost too much- where a few detailed and concrete examples of different settings might have made it more useful. Aftermath is interesting and a fascinating artifact of the time. But post-apocalyptic GMs might find the tools and ideas on offer in the campaign book worth looking at.

6. Car Wars (1981)
While Car Wars began as a board game, it evolved into a pseudo rpg. The basic game offered a simple post-collapse backdrop with warriors competing in arena contests with weaponized vehicles. It drew from Death Race, Mad Max, and Damnation Alley. But as the game expanded, the designers fleshed out that setting, resulting in the creation of Autoduel America. Gazetteers and a GURPS supplement would solidify that as a complete world playable as a board game, miniatures simulation, or rpg. The game itself evolved to incorporate more rgp elements. Each supplement- Sunday Drivers, Truck Stop, Dueltrack- added on to that. Eventually we got adventures like Convoy, Mean Streets, and Ultraforce which pretty much confirmed the game's status as an rpg.

Side Note: Car Wars is interesting in creating a distinct sense of place. Some of that came from the need to construct a game-able setting. While it's a post-collapse setting, there's still a strong sense of civilization. It isn't The Road Warrior. Survival's a question- less so exploration. Games Workshop went a slightly different route with Dark Future, buying more into a full apocalypse. Car Wars also blurs the line between board game and rpg. It combines elements of both, but leans towards the former. Other rpg board games like Mordheim: City of the Damned, Necromunda and Confrontation: Dogs of War can be easily distinguished in having players control and manage multiple characters. But what about Inquisitor or MechWarrior? RPG Geek lists both of those as rpgs, despite the heavy miniature focus of them. Yet it rejects Wreck Age, which is a role-playing game that has additional rules for playing the system as a skirmish game. Clearly there's still some controversy.

7. Gamma World 2nd Edition (1983)
I'm hesitant to mark out Gamma World 2e as a distinct item and edition, but there's a key change here. It isn't in rules themselves. GS 2e tightens the system, expands important material (like mutations and monsters), and adds a wealth of material for the GM. But what really clinches it for me is the presentation. If the original Gamma World's a product of the 1970's- basic layout, weird ordering, gonzo art, and hodge-podge feel; then Gamma World 2e is the 1980's. Here outsider ideas and images have been carefully repackaged and re-presented. No longer does it feel like an underground comic, instead it looks and feels like a Saturday morning cartoon version of heavy metal. The elephant in the room here is 1980's Thundarr the Barbarian. Every gamer I know who saw it said the same thing: Gamma World the Cartoon. And we loved it for that. Of course Lords of Light, the short documentary on the creation of Thundarr makes no mention of that, citing other sources. But we know better. This edition of Gamma World wants to be popular and tries too hard.

I didn't pick up Gamma World 2e at the time. The look didn't appeal to me and I'd begun to gravitate to superhero and spy games. Once again TSR supported it modestly, with only two modules, a GM screen, and a character sheet pack. Within two years they would be back at the well. The next edition would make a more radical shift and be much less backwards compatible.

8. Mutant (1984)
Sweden has a long and interesting history of rpgs. On G+, Olav Nygård, has been posting about their history with the tag #swedishrpgs. He says, 
"In #swedishrpgs , the post-apocalyptic slot is occupied by Mutant. Originally borrowing its rules from Drakar och Demoner and everything else from Gamma World, it has since evolved in multiple directions...Featuring a dude in a Luke Skywalker-esque pajamas and a rainbow, the cover of Mutant 1ed signaled that the apocalyptic future might not be such a bad place after all."
Mutant has a specific setting, with devolved technology and deadly radiation zones. Like Gamma World players can be mutated humans or animals. It was supported by a number of supplements and went on to spawn several editions. Modiphus will be releasing an English translation of the most recent version, Mutant Year Zero this winter.

9. Paranoia (1984)
Paranoia offers a different post-apocalypse world. The apocalypse has changed things and you have to fight to survive but your challenges aren't the wilderness and monsters, but bureaucracy and your fellow clones. Paranoia draws from another strain of sci- fi. Instead of Moorcockian weirdness, Paul O. Williams' fallen America, or Ellisonian rad survival, it draws more on Stanislaw Lem, Aldous Huxley, and A Canticle for Liebowitz. It offers a black dystopian comedy- and a product completely unlike any other rpg of the day. We'd had attempts at injecting humor and rpg parody articles, but nothing sustained itself and carried through like Paranoia.

And that may be why I had a hard time thinking of this as a post-apocalyptic game. As I mentioned in the intro, I left out some games where there's been a collapse, but that collapse serves more as backdrop rather than framing the game. You could argue that's the case with Paranoia. On the other hand I'd believe the Big Whoops and what it spawned colors everything about the game: the Cold War paranoia rewritten, pop culture mistranslated, a collapse which scrambles sense into nonsense. Add to that the day to day tension of existence and I think you have a remarkably PA game, though jammed into an enclosed space. Ironically once later Paranoia editions got outside and presented details of the collapse and the world, it destroyed much of the setting's tension.

Paranoia's a great game. Its the only game I've ever won a tournament of. And one I won't run. Every single time I ran it, I ended up with angry players and in-fighting regardless of how I framed things. I loved reading the books and rules. The early editions are smart, funny, and completely unlike anything else going on at the time. I'd say Paranoia's essential reading for anyone considering a post-apocalypse game. It might not have exactly the tone you're seeking, but consider how these elements could be dialed in your desired direction- or how a few moments of levity might make what comes later even more horrible. 

This is an odd one. In Rhand a space colony is overrun by an alien invasion force known as the Spectrals. Now five hundred years have passed since that invasion. What results is a devolved world of mixed technology and barbarian sensibility. Think the Horseclans novels with alien invaders. The result is a mish-mash which could be seen as post-apocalyptic or as straight sci-fi. More interesting is that Leading Edge Games went back and reworked this concept into a much more conventional setting with Living Steel. That game's still crazy and over the top, but it embraces high-tech, superweapons, and sci-fi over the fallen sword & science setting of the original.

11. Twilight: 2000 (1984)
Twilight 2000 was the new hotness around our area for a long time. We had a strong wargame and miniatures community. T2000 ended up drawing from that pool as well as rpgers. It smartly hooked into mid-1980's Tom Clancy, Red Dawn, Reagan-era sensibilities. I picked up the core set, but only a played a couple of sessions with it. I knew several micro-armor players who loved it- as well as my friend Gene. He's always been attracted to details and he had an infectious enthusiasm about the T2000 concept.

Twilight 2000 stakes out a territory for itself as an authentic and realistic rpg experience. I'm not saying it is, but that's certainly how they positioned the game. And while there had been other military rpgs before this (Merc, Recon, Commando), this game lifted that genre out of niche status. Its also the first post-apocalyptic rpg to put the players straight into the still-smoldering ruins. Scattered characters from across the armed forces have to figure out how to survive and get home in the wake of civilization's collapse. Or they have to figure out how to construct some kind of order- military or social- in a world gone mad. No mutants, no talking animals- just tanks, guns, and societal collapse.

There's a phrase my wife uses, "Machine Love," to describe games filled with the minutiae of gun lists, equipment guides, and vehicle annexes. To her they represent a weird, collector-like fascination with stuff over people and characters. They're often wargamery or power fantasy games. I don't think they're a bad thing: that's an experience some people appreciate from games. I grew up fascinated by Palladium's weapons books, the Q Manual, and Guns, Guns, Guns. It's that lizard part of my brain that still has a fondness for Twilight 2000. Think about this- we're nearly as far on the other side of their predicted apocalypse as they were when they pinned it to the future.

12. Miscellaneous: Post-Apocalypse Supplements

Several supplements for other games take advantage of a post-apocalyptic setting. The earliest of these is Security Station (1980). I could never get enough gaming in when I was young, so I'd pick up Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures and Metagaming Microquests for Melee & Wizard. I can say with some certainty that I never legitimately finished one. I'd get killed off quickly every single time. I ended up using them like CYOAs and simply reading through. Of those Fantasy Trip adventures, Security Station remains one of the strangest. Your fantasy characters have to go through a gate into an atomic wasteland to raid a hi-tech bunker on this ruined Earth. Effectively it was Expedition to the Barrier Peaks mixed with nuclear war. I remember the dungeon being dangerous and arbitrary. I wish someone would reprint these adventures- perhaps even make them available as a playable online resource.

A few years later saw OMEGAKRON (1984) arrive. Developed for the bizarre Lords of Creation rpg, this one had the party trapped in a future post-nuke Akron, OH. This weird module can still be picked up for cheap. Also in the early 1980s Richard Tucholka developed a host of rpgs. Notable among them is Fringeworthy, a cross-dimensional travel rpg (which the later Stargate looks suspiciously like...). Rogue 417 (1984) is a sourcebook for Fringeworthy which presents a world where a bioweapon spread across the world, unleashing zombie-like creatures. That may make it the first zombie rpg. This material can be used as a world to be explored or else as the starting point for a campaign. Likewise Invasion U.S.! served dual purposes as well. It could be used as a new location or as the basis for a Red Dawn-style game. That's a little outside my definitions, but I thought it worth mentioning.

History of Horror RPGs
History of Superhero RPGs
History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs
History of RPG Genres Patreon Project

Monday, October 6, 2014

Amber, Spouses, Game Design & More: VirtuaCon Panels

I’ll be doing several panels for VirtuaCon so as to make myself crazy and offer an excellent resume in case anyone needs to fill out RPG panels in the future. I have a plan. Maybe next year I’ll have the courage to submit a Metatopia or GenCon panel. I moderated three panels last year for VirtuaCon, but I wanted to focused more on running games this time. So I’m only moderating and organizing one, but it is pretty cool.

Sat, Oct 11, 2:00 PM - 3:00 PM Eastern
Only two of the PLOT team could make it to VirtuaCon, so we decided to celebrate Brian Cooksey’s favorite game. In the tradition of our Changeling the Lost episode, I wanted to get gamers together to talk about running and playing. This jam considers two excellent games which share the same engine. Steve Russell, Phil Vecchione, Brian Cooksey, Kristin Hunt, and I will talk about the challenges of running, what we've done with campaigns, what drew us to the settings, and what it's like to play. Ideally we'll also have a Q&A going. If you’re curious about these games or diceless systems in general check it out. If you’re a veteran of either and want to join in, we still have another chair open. Give me a heads up.

Fri, Oct 10, 8:00 PM - 9:00 PM Eastern
“Do you Game with your SO / Partner / Lifemate? Do you wish someday you could? Submit questions and come watch a fun group of gamers talk about their highs and lows gaming with their SOs, learn some tips and tricks as well!” Rich Rogers invited Sherri and I to join in on this. Since she and I game together for 90% of our campaigns, it seems a fair cop.
24-Hour RPGs: How did you do it?

Sat, Oct 11, 2:00 AM – 3:00 AM Eastern
“Ever wonder what it was like to design an RPG in 24 hours? Join your hosts as they talk about their experiences with whipping up new games on the fly.” Yes, you read that time correctly. I’ll nap between sessions. Jacob Wood of Accessible Games will be moderating this panel. I’ve twice submitted 24 Hour Games (Witless Minions and Arclight Revelation Tianmar). I’ve also struck out twice with attempts, including a submission for this year. I’ll be curious about everyone else’s methods.

Sat, Oct 11, 6:00 AM - 7:00 AM Eastern
“As GM’s and players, we all accumulate a set of techniques and tricks we find useful time and time again. Our experienced panel will discuss their go-to tools for making gaming sessions more enjoyable for the whole group (GMs included).” Another Rich Roger joint. I have a few concrete techniques I like to share- easy and fast things, often stolen from other places.

Sun, Oct 12, 6:00 AM - 7:00 AM Eastern
“Tabletop roleplaying games are set in a variety of genres and worlds. What are some of the most popular games in each? Where do some games fall short? Join us for a survey of various RPG genres, a discussion of high and low points, and a look at upcoming new games.” Another early morning one. This panel’s led by my friend Steve Sigety (of Kaijuville). It also includes Derek Stoelting, the new Unisystem Line Developer for Eden Studios. I’m hoping to use and plug my histories of rpg genres.