Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Some Love for the Post-Apocalyptic Game

I haven;t posted much about them because I haven't been playing or running them, but one of my favorite RPG genres is the post-apocalyptic game. One big attraction of these kinds of games is the ability to run around with ridiculously overpowered weapons with no powerful authorities who can take them away from you which is a lot of fun most of the time.

The first PA game was Metamorphosis Alpha which was set on a huge generation ship somewhere out in space where things have gone somewhat wrong and now there are mutants and berserk robots running around the ship. I love the concept and I want to run that exact scenario someday, but it was not the first PA game I played.

My first PA game was Gamma World, 2nd edition. A friend bought it, his brother and I made up some characters, and then he ran it for us and it was awesome. I still have some of my characters from that game, including Roard, the mutated lion who was strong and could use a sonic blast every so often but had was vulnerable to water. He spent most of his time in plate armor and carrying a two-handed sword but he was not averse to laser weaponry when it was available. We wandered through ruins, fought bandits and raiders, took on the Legion of Gold, and eventually dropped a neutron bomb on a fortress of the Knights of Genetic Purity - not many games include nuclear weapons on the treasure tables but Gamma World does!

We stayed with Gamma World through 3rd edition and the color chart. I was OK with the mechanical differences (though I still liked 2E just fine) but I thought the background changes were annoying. The different levels of results allowed them to add in some cool effects like disintegration or stunning when certain weapons got a Red result. The most frustrating thing was that if you played it as-written then starting characters had a really hard time hitting anything.

The 4th edition came out in 1992 and made more mechanical changes. It dropped the chart and centered around d20 rolls (fairly similar to Alternity and 3E D&D which were still some years away) but it added classes of all things! I wasn't thrilled by this, preferring earlier versions' classless and even levelless design, but mechanically it was a much smoother system for a long term campaign so we played a ton of it too. Despite the reputation of being a silly game we usually played it as straight as one of our D&D games. It wasn't like we were playing Toon or Paranoia or something. GW characters were fairly tough and you could usually expect to be playing with them for a long time.

Down the road there was the Alternity (5th) edition and the outsourced d20 (6th) edition, neither of which I ever played.  There was also Omega World in Dungeon which was a pretty good translation I thought. Now we have the one based off of D&D 4E which looks like fun but which I have not purchased yet. I don't know when I would run it and if I had the time I would rather start people new to the game out with an older version, maybe 2nd.  I still own copies of 1st edition through 5th edition so there's hope yet, just not this year.

 The other "big" PA game I played a bunch was Twilight 2000:

 We got into this in the late 80's a few years after it had been published but it was still being supported. Despite being lumped in the same general genre this was a very different game from Gamma World. Weapons were deadly, characters were fragile, and supplies were limited.

Coming from GDW, maker of historical and modern wargames, you would think it would be very realistic and in a way it was but it had some odd abstractions. Instead of meticulously tracking each round of ammunition (potentially important in a game with a ton of automatic weapons and ammunition no longer being manufactured) the game tracks ammo in 3-round groups, so a 100 round belt of ammo is 33 shots in the game. It was a little weird because you get situations where a 7-round pistol only has 2 shots. It's an oddity in an otherwise hard-realism game because all of the real-world measurements have to be translated into this 1/3 number and of course you get questions of rounding. In the end, you're still tracking a bunch of ammo, it's just that the numbers are divided by 3. I never understood the rationale behind this but while it was jarring at first, we eventually grew to ignore it.

The game used a percentile system for rating skills and task resolution was a simple 3-level system: Easy = Skill X 2, Average = Skill X 1, Difficult = 1/2 Skill. This could be brutal as the best you could start with was 80% in a skill and most would be lower than that. This gave a very good chance of failure on average or difficult tasks, whether sneaking up on someone or shooting them with an M16. There was no hero point mechanic or anything similar, so you just had to live with various outcomes.

Despite some of these issues the game was fun as an exercise in survival. We determined that quite a bit of the time your state at the start of the game was as good as it was ever going to be - uninjured and well-supplied - and it was all downhill from there. gear was used up, lost, or stolen. Vehicles would break down. Ammo would be expended and not replaced. Your first big battle or two would be spectacular, but after that the missiles are gone, characters are hurt or dead, you've probably lost a vehicle or two and can no longer transport everything you had - it was a long downward spiral for the most part. Occasionally you might find a base or a warlord you could join and improve conditions, but it was rare or inevitably had some drawbacks. I would attribute this to DM style but it happened with multiple DM's and even when I tried to run it I found this to be true. It makes for an interesting counterpoint to D&D's upward progression in power and acquisition of stuff with a regular downward progression and shedding of stuff. It's an interesting game though not a particularly cheerful or lighthearted one.

It was very well supported with adventures that also served as regional sourcebooks. Post-war Europe was covered heavily at first and then the line moved back to America and covered most of the country in a series of books as well. Armies of the Night (New York City), Red Star/Lone Star (Texas), Airlords of the Ozarks (Arkansas/Missourri) all led to some really fun situations.

One other note - the art is very good, being almost all pencil works by Tim Bradstreet. I think the single artist using a single style approach gave the game a very consistent and realistic look, exactly what the game needed.

First edition was the "80's" edition, so in 1990 Twilight 2000 2.0 was released with a horrible (though definitely attention-getting) cover and made the impressive triple score of a) alienating most of the existing players by completely changing the rule system, b) completely failing to draw in new players with some exciting new mechanic or approach to the genre and c) picking absolutely the worst time for a WW3 game to come out as the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991.

 The rules changed over to a d10 system where stats and skills were rated 1-10 and then added together to resolve tasks and it was bad. Nowhere near as granular as the old system and making stats just as important as skills threw a lot of players off. Automatic weapons fire was rolled with a set chance to hit, regardless of skill and while it might be realistic it didn't sit well with players who were proud of their 90% in Combat Rifleman and found that it didn't apply to one of the major parts of combat in the game. All in all it's a really good example of how to de-satisfy a vocal and passionate fan base with unrequested changes.

The rules were also dull - not that 1st edition was flashy, but 2.0 was just...dull. One of the outcomes of a new edition should be renewed excitement about the game and some positive buzz - there was none. The cover looked like it belonged on  either a Star Wars adventure module or a Paranoia supplement. The interior artwork was largely reused Tim Bradstreet work form 1E which while good it was not new or flashy or anything cinematic - unlike the cover. Combat was very by-the-numbers with no special maneuvers or  chrome rules. It ended up playing pretty similarly to the original edition in a lot of ways but it required one to learn a whole new set of rules - why bother? There was just nothing new or innovative or exciting about the game, nothing that it did better than the old one or made new players say "I want to play that".

Finally the timing while probably not foreseeable just killed the game.  I sometime wonder if post-world war 3 gaming is as much an artifact of the 80s as cyberpunk and giant robots, as the younger set just does not get it. Zombie apocalypse -sure. Nuclear war between superpowers - "oh that's not going to happen". It's a weird little historical divide that I didn't think about at all at the time but that I have noticed more as time marches on. Anyway interest in the game outside of the already-indoctrinated dwindled rapidly as the 90's went on.

GDW retooled the game as Merc 2000 by setting the same mechanics in a less-devastated world which would allow players to be soldier types without requiring a nuclear exchange first, but it just was not that interesting for most T2K fans. They liked their anarchy and their alcohol-burning tanks and running missions for corporations in other countries was too much like Shadowrun minus all the fun stuff.

They also released a reworked edition of the game about 2 years later as Version 2.2 - this included a new version of the same system using a d20 instead of a d10 and it was much better and had a more robust skill system - I actually liked this version quite a bit and it's the same one that went out with Traveller New Era and was an update to Dark Conspiracy much like it was for Twilight. While it got some positive buzz among the players I knew it was not enough to save the game (or GDW) and it died when the company went under about 1994.

The last PA Game I have some experience with and love for is Deadlands: Hell on Earth

This is a great game with interesting (if a little clunky) mechanics featuring radiation priests, paladins, cyborgs, mutants, mad scientists, and zombies. It's everything the western version of Deadlands had + vehicles and automatic weapons. There's more of a supernatural element than in most PA games that feature a strictly technological view of things but that's kind of refreshing and helps give this universe its own flavor. Among the many supplements is one that includes an adventure that is an homage to Escape from New York, earning the whole system massive cool points with me from that alone.

When I first got it I created a bunch of characters and wrote up some short adventure scenarios and I have actually run a short campaign. I called it "Ghost Rock Blues" and wrote up a really cool introduction (think Star Wars crawl) and started the PC's off trapped in a ruined retail store in the middle of winter as a horde of walkin dead closed in. The survivors headed west and ended up doing some exploring and losing one characters running car before the game ended about 6 sessions in.

If you're a d20 fan there was a version of it made for d20 which is remarkably complete for being a one-volume treatment. There was also a separate creature book too, and it's worth finding this version if you have a group that really likes their d20 system. There has not been an official Savage Worlds version yet but I expect we'll see it someday.

Other PA games:

Aftermath - I own a copy of this and as you may have heard it is indeed ridiculously (and needlessly IMO) complex. If you think T2K is for babies, this is the game for you. Never ran it, never played it. Some of the adventures are very cool though  and I have used them for other game systems. The Australian trilogy is a particular favorite of mine.

Morrow Project - I own an adventure for this but that's the closest I have ever come to it. I've never read or even seen the rules so I really can't say much about it other than it exists and has its fans.

Autoduel - this was a GURPS supplement based on the Car Wars universe and if you like that (think Road Warrior or Death Race if you are unfamiliar with it) then you will really like this. The background and character options are very cool, the only problem comes when trying to run car combat using the GURPS combat system - you are much better off just running it in Car Wars. It's a similar problem to Mechwarrior/Battletech in integrating personal combat into a game focused on vehicular combat but it can be done. There's no nuclear exchange and not many mutants but civilization has collapsed and the countryside is now a lawless wasteland between hi-tech fortress-towns. Let me put it this way: If you think the idea of a passenger vehicle called a "Busnought" is cool then this is worth a look.

Rifts is a PA game but it is part of a different trend so I will cover it in another post.

After the Bomb was Palladium's entry into the genre (before Rifts anyway) and it's actually pretty good. I own all of the books for it and I played around with it once and it is a lot of fun. It's a little like Gamma World but not quite as random and can actually make a coherent campaign if you choose to do so.Road Hogs is an especially flavorful supplement if you get interested.

Darwin's World was an early d20 entry that I picked up in its first edition incarnation. Once they went to 2E using d20 Modern (which I never got into) I quit following the line. it fell into a sort of middle ground, being less "out-there" than Gamma World but more out there than T2K. The best thing I've heard about it recently is that a new Savage Worlds edition is coming out and that should be pretty interesting.

Mutant Future is a recent retro clone of Gamma World 1st/2nd edition and it's pretty cool though I have not run or played it yet. I expect I will in the future. You can download it here.

Final thoughts:

The post-apocalyptic role-playing game has been a rare animal, nearly dying out in the late 90's and 2000's  after being a fairly significant part of the RPG scene in the 80's. The only game that's been in print for most of that period  is Gamma World and it's been through about 7 editions in 30 years. We're in a bit of a renaissance right now with both GW's big shiny box for new-school fans and Mutant Future being available for old-school fans and Savage Darwin's World coming available as well. The one thing I keep seeing anytime one of these game comes up is that it's mainly an older crowd that cares about them. To some degree people will play what's available and these were never the dominant titles among RPG's. If most groups out there are playing D&D or Pathfinder and many players never played these kinds of games anyway then finding one is going to be difficult. In the age of the internet though, I doubt any of them will ever really die. My 2011 is booked up but given the background hype I may make 2012 my Year of the Apocalypse and run some GW or some Mutant Future for the apprentices and maybe even the main group too if they're interested.

I'd love to hear others' experiences with these if anyone reading has played them - leave a comment!


edowar39 said...

I too have always loved PA rpgs. We played a fair amount of TW2000 back in the heady days of the Cold War. I don't remember the downhill aspect of it, but maybe I was too generous with loot. The PCs did manage to steal the helicopter from the Free City of Krakow (maybe I shouldn't have let them do that, lol). I remember it being a complex, but managable, system.

We also tried a bit of Morrow Project and, as I recall, that was a pretty complicated game. We only tried it once. Half our team was wiped out with one of our own rocket launchers we'd forgotten to take out of the bunker with us. Apparently some bandits found it and tracked us down and blew us to smithereens. Oh well.

I've always had a soft spot for Gamma World, despite hardly ever having a chance to play it. It's gonzo-ness has always appealed to me.

I picked up the new 4E version of GW. It really emphasizes the silly gonzo side of the game, so it might be hard to run a 'serious' campaign using the rules. Some of the mutant origins they use sound more like super-hero powers than post-apocalyptic mutations. However, I do like a lot of what they've done with it, such as rolling for character origins and using cards for mutations and relics (don't really like the CCG aspect of the cards, though).

I've read Mutant Future and, imo, it really has more in common with Labyrinth Lord than Gamma World. Still, it looks like a decent PA rpg and would be fun to try someday.

Ed Green

Taketoshi said...

Somehow I never played TW2000, despite the fact that I was the only member of my gaming group in high school not to do a stint in the military at some point--I'm sure that we would all have loved the genre. Toward the end of our time playing together, we played some Rifts in a similar vein (gritty, resource-scarce, and deadly), but never discovered TW2000.

On the other hand, rather early on we did run into Gamma World 2E, and we absolutely loved it, even though we didn't understand it at all. I think mostly we just loved the randomness of it all. Trash can lids, laser guns and kettles for helmets, all combined with mega-beasts and the ruins of our own civlization made a great stew for a bunch of teenaged boys.

Thanks for reminding me of all the stuff I loved about it! I'm fairly glad that I lost track of it after second edition and can just go directly back to that time in my memories.

Jayson said...

"I sometime wonder if post-world war 3 gaming is as much an artifact of the 80s as cyberpunk and giant robots."

Oh, definitely. Arguably moreso.

Blacksteel said...

Edo - We never stole the copter but we spent a lot of time with the "Polish Navy" including turning our LAV into the forward turret on our own battlebarge to take on the pirates of the Vistula.

Tak - It still amazes me too how much fun GW could be. I never played with anyone who didn't have a good time with it.

Jayson - I think you're right. I think the cold war upbringing was required to really get the more realistic PA games. Cyberpunk ran on into the 90's and probably even got a kick with the internet going mainstream and giant robots , well, someone could get into those anytime I suppose.

Aemon Aylward said...

Well, here's at least one GM of our generation who's managed to get his kids playing T2K: https://www.facebook.com/waynes.books/

I think it's hard to overestimate the power of nostalgia in shaping these preferences. West End's Star Wars RPG came out when I was in high school, and as far as I'm concerned no later version has ever touched it - but I see younger gamers carrying on at length over how the d20 version is the best ever. Same thing for D&D.

That's an interesting observation about the game always ending up in a downward resource spiral in play. I never got any closer to play than rolling up characters, but I loved reading the supplements. I've toyed some with the idea of adapting the bulk of their contents for some different PA setting - maybe S.M. Stirling's "Dies the Fire" series, e.g.