Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Choosing the Post-Apocalyptic Rule-set

The third of a short series of posts on Post-Apocalypse gaming.

Now that I know what the main themes of my campaign will be, I need to pick a rule-set that will facilitate them all. Quickly skipping over the steps mentioned in my last post I can see that my themes include:
  • Religious, Nuclear and Viral apocalypse
  • Survival
  • Rebuilding
  • Advanced Technology
  • Mutation
  • Radiation
  • Supernatural Threats
  • Psionics
  • Intrigue
  • The Past-Becomes-The-Present.
A number of rules systems from an earlier Appendix N article (link) seem to be likely candidates. I'll deal with them in alphabetical order. There are plenty of other great game systems out there, including Sorcery and Super Science from Expeditious Press, Mutant Future from Goblinoid Games, After the Bomb, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and loads more. These are the one's I actually have in my collection or (in the case of Urutsk) I have either played or am about to start playing. So lets begin:
  • Aftermath is a gritty game of survival, where even finding a handful of shotguns shells can make an entire table of players cheer loudly. On the down-side, it's designed for a modern day apocalyptic setting and doesn't deal lend itself well to the inclusion of “pulp” themes such as mutation, advanced tech and the supernatural.
  • All Flesh Must Be Eaten is a zombie-focused system with some rules for the Supernatural, including characters faith based magic. Such powers would be rare in my post-rapture landscape and while supplements for more hi-tech settings exist, I just don't like the system. So this is a no.
  • Armageddon is a mid-apocalypse game in the sense that the world is going-to-shit around you. The war between good and evil has spilled onto the earth, with demons and devils joining mortal armies on the battlefield. It's an interesting setting, but again it's a more-or-less modern day setting. The option of playing a being of near-godlike power also risks taking the system beyond the post-apoc genre and into the realms of super-hero RPG's.
  • Atomic Highway: A Mad-Max style setting that positively encourages vehicle combat. Has options for including mutants in the setting but lacks rules for the supernatural or advanced tech. Has possibilities but leans too much towards vehicle-based gaming for my Post-Rapture setting.
  • Cascade Failure is a rules-system deliberately constructed to be usable in almost any post-modern or sci-fi setting. It takes the best elements of old school 3D6 games and the D20 system and mixes them together into a wonderful infusion. It has more of an old school flare than the hated D20 Modern, including, thank the designer, actual character classes rather than the frankly awful "favorite stat" based character classes of D20 modern. It has it all – psionic's, races, mutations, various tech levels and, best of all, rules for figuring out what an unknown tech item is and how to make it work. Something that far too many post-apoc systems completely lack, in my opinion. All that's missing are supernatural elements and vehicle rules (something which is going to change very shortly). Cascade failure is a very fast paced game system that suits the gritty-but-not-too-realistic style I'm looking for. As an additional plus it's (superficial) similarity to the D20 system nevertheless ensures that it should be relatively simply to convert material from D20-based systems (such as Darwin's world) with minimal effort. The strongest contender so far.
    And best of all, it's free to download here (link).
  • Darwin's World: A beautifully detailed setting for a post-apocalypse game. It has rules for everything I want in my setting except the Supernatural. However, it's a D20-based system which, as I touched upon in the previous entry, has it's pros-and-cons. On the pro-side it means that bolting on elements from other D20 systems will be nice and easy. On the downside, well, it's basically the D20 system. That being said, I very much appreciate the game's take on character generation. First the player selects a “race” based on how many generations of mutation run in the character's bloodline and then combines that with a social background (such as feral or tribesman) and finally, a class. These rules are a strong possibility, but I'm not fond of D20 as a rule-system. It's excellent in the fantasy genre but my really my thing otherwise. It also has a bare handful of character classes, an area in which I find it somewhat lacking when compared to Cascade-Failure. On top of that, it's puts way-more emphasis on mutations than I want in my campaign. Even so, this remains my second favorite option so far, if only because the setting is so lovingly crafted.
  • Dead Reign: Another modern-day zombie-apocalypse game. This time from Palladium. It's supplements include excellent tips for survival in the post-apocalypse world, including discussing safe scavenging techniques, small-unit tactics and effective scouting habits. An early Zombie Survival Guide, in other words. On the downside, this information is scattered pretty haphazardly among three books. Although a modern setting,  the fact it uses the Palladium rules-set lets me bolt in supernatural and hi-tech elements from other Palladium games such as Nightbane, After the Bomb, Beyond the Supernatural and RIFTS. Alas, Palladium games use a rule-system that is widely (and accurately) regarded as broken. An opinion I find myself in agreement with. A contender nonetheless, albeit not a strong one.
  • Eclipse Phase: I own the books, but I'm not overly familiar with the rules. However, the setting seems more post-human than post-apocalypse. If I had time I would give it a closer look but I suspect it's post-human focus would rule it out.
  • Exodus is a D20 game. Clearly inspired by Fallout and it's sequels, it's a D20 based system with all the pros and cons that entails. Frankly, if I was going to go with a D20 based system, I would go with Darwin's World rather than Exodus (and then nick lots of tech and critters from Exodus).
  • Fallout RPG: Would seem almost tailor-made. It's based on the game that shifted my gamer ADD into post-apoc mode after all. However the rules have no Supernatural element built in and the system it uses just seems, well, clunky. I can't put my finger on why I don't like the system. I just don't. A contender none-the less.
  • Gamma World: Ah, the great-grand pappy of Post-Apocalyptic gaming. Gamma World truly does have it all. It's been around for more than 30 years and undergone innumerable rules variations and down-right re-writes over the years. It's onto it's sixth or seventh edition I believe (I've long-since lost count) and has just been re-released using 4th ed rules. My biggest gripes with the newest version are: the Alpha mutation cards (apparently your character is so special she/he can develop, use and loose multiple useful mutations in a matter of hours) and the way it handles high-tech salvage. Essentiall you decide what ten things you would like your character to find over the course of his or her career and every time you locate a cache, you get to randomly determine (via a card draw) which one you wind up with. Only one use per item of course. And, yes all these powers artefact's are available in collectible card form. What a surprise. Removing those card elements from the game would leave a pretty decent system. Even if it's character generation system (worthy of a whole post in itself) makes it damn near impossible to create non-mutants characters.
    My favourite edition of the Gamma World RPG is the one that borrowed the Alternity rules system (5th edition, I think). This is a class-based rule-set and, like Cascade-Failure, was specifically designed for easy adaptation to any modern or sci-fi setting. I like the gritty combat system, which has a real feel of danger to it. Additionally, I already have the Alternity books for  psionics, supernatural creatures and unfamiliar tech. Factor in the systems existing, fairly  expansive mutation rules and it's easy to see why this is such a strong contender.
    Earlier editions of Gamma World have a little too much in common with Old School Dungeons and Dragons. I like the 3D6 system, but Cascade Failure is clearly an improvement on those older 36 DGamma World systems while Alternity has strengths of it's own.
  • Living Steel: We come to the first post-apoc game on my list which is specifically set on another world. In this case the apocalypse is an alien invasion. Characters are released from cryogenic suspension in order to help rebuild civilisation after the destruction of the Alien ship. It has a lot going for it, such as rules for building and managing a settlement. It also positively encourages troupe style play (with everyone having a stable of multiple characters to choose from). However, there is no supernatural element and, despite being a sci-fi setting, very little tech is detailed. Finally, combat is just unbelievably slow, realistic and deadly. Don't get me wrong, I like the system personally, but I doubt my players will have the patience for it. Especially not when a single gun-shot wounds means they will have to spend the next 3 weeks of game time playing a secondary character while their main one recovers. Sometimes you can take realism in a game too far.
  • Rifts: An absolutely fantastic setting which has it all: Hi-tech, Low-Tech, Magic, Psionics, the Supernatural, Gods, Aliens, Dimensional Travellers, Demons, Undead Creatures. You name it, it's in there. Alas, that's the problem. Too many things that need removed from the rules system to make it workable for me. Still an invaluable source of ideas and inspiration with literally several million words of background information and fluff in print. But it's easier to add rules-elements in than take things out. Given that the rules (it's another Palladium system, like Dead Reign) are broken to begin with, it's just not worth the effort.
  • The End is built on the premise that, “the Meek will inherit the Earth,” wasn't a promise, but a warning. The whole idea of the Rapture as the Apocalypse Event was inspired by a mixture of this setting and Stephen King's "The Stand". However, as much as I like this setting,I'm not that familiar with the rules. Certainly not familiar enough to run a game with them.
  • The Morrow Project: Another wonderful game from which I've lifted an idea wholesale (the Morrow Project itself). It's a modern post-apocalyptic setting triggered by World War III. The combat system is almost as brutal as Living Steel's and doesn't lend itself well to incorporating other elements such as mutations, high technology or the Supernatural. Finally, the existing tech provided in the rules is already somewhat dated (the game was written well over a decade ago). Lots of interesting source material to take advantage of, however, including the concept of Prime Base itself.
  • Twilight 2000: Like The Morrow Project, this is an excellent post-nuclear game. The system is quite deadly but relatively simple as far as combat is concerned and it has extensive rules for foraging and survival in the post-apocalyptic wilderness. Again, the tech provided is somewhat dated now. While tech from the Traveller sci-fi setting can be bolted on, combat just wouldn't have the right “feel” to it. Too realistic for a science fantasy, rather than a science fiction, setting.
  • Urutsk : I am very regretful to say that I don't (yet) know much about this rule-system at all, though the setting itself looks amazing. I've been following Time Shadows Urutsk blog (link) for some time now. Like my own home-brewed fantasy setting of Zama, Timeshadow has been gaming in the world of Urutsk for twenty-odd years. Unlike me, she has taken her game world from techological epoch to technological epoch and back again. Wheras Zama has always been a fantasy setting Urutsk has been the setting of fantasy, near-modern-sci-fi, hi-tech-sci-fi and post-apocalypse campaigns in it's time. 

    One thing that struck me more and more as I read through this list and wrote the above piece was how quickly I found myself comparing other rules-systems against Cascade Failure as my base-line. Having gone through the whole list, I'm convinced that Cascade Failure would be my best bet, though I intend to steal a lot of material from Exodus, Morrow Project and (most of all) Darwin's World. There's still a niggling voice in my head that whispers, "Alternity, Alternity," but the fact I enjoy Cascade failure so much (and knowing that Greg Christopher is working on a Cascade Failure based post-apoc system as wel speak) has swing me round. Who knows, perhaps Greg will even like some of what he in future blog posts enough to include the material in his new game. After all, I don't intend to leave-off doing any more post-apocalypse posts just because I haven't had a chance to game in my setting.

    Next: The Ruin at the End of the World


Anonymous said...

A very nice synopsis, but no Mutant Future by Goblinoid Games? That is a pretty snappy science fantasy/PA ruleset as well.

Dangerous Brian said...

I really wanted to include Mutant Future. I'm a huge fan of Goblinoid Games. Unfortunately I had to limit myself to rules-systems that I actually own - or have played. If it wasn't for the fact I'm getting a chance to play it tomorrow, Urutsk wouldn't have been on the list either.

I've added it the articles list of other post-apocalypse games though, so thanks for the reminder.

Anonymous said...

Well, that makes sense. The rules are free to download just to peruse and the revised edition does clean up the game.

Dangerous Brian said...

They are? I didn't know that. I'll go download them for a look. Cheers vaults.

Anonymous said...

A fair appraisal, although I'm not familiar with some of them.

'Exodus' is the 'Fallout RPG' with all the Fallout references removed btw. Long story... legal wrangle, nuff said.

I played 'Morrow Project' almost thirty years ago-ish. Great concept and idea, some great games too. As you say, some of the hi-tech is somewhat dated now. Likewise Twilight 2000.

Good post!

Dangerous Brian said...

Are we thinking of the same Fallout RPG? The one I have (V.2) uses the same stat line (SPECIAL) as the characters in the Fallout computer games while Exodus uses the standard D20 stats. Was there more than one Fallout RPG?

Ah wait, they probably had to remove the SPECIAL stat line because of copyright as well.

Anonymous said...

That I couldn't tell you. GCG bought out a Fallout D20 PnP system after Interplay granted a licence... but Bethsoft issued a cease and desist as they owned the rights. This was around 2006.

GCG overhauled the rules to remove the Fallout references and released it as 'Exodus'.

If there's an earlier version, then it could be an entirely different game. Jason Mical or Mircal rings bells as the author.

Timeshadows said...

I am honoured that you have, even provisionally, placed Urutsk up there with such fine games.

I hope that you find the system fits the setting, even if it doesn't jump out at you for Generic use.

Looking forward to the game.

Alex Osias said...

I'm pleased by the inclusion of Living Steel, though I think the system might be a bit too... dense.

Loved the source material though.

Dangerous Brian said...

Well, it felt churlish not to mention the system simply because I won't be playing until the day after this post.

I agree that Living Steel is a very dense system. But I do have soft spot for it. Ever since I picked up the old Aliens RPG from Leading Edge I've loved the authenticity of the combat system. Although, as written, it's a nightmare to run without a calculator.

Ian Coakley said...

Oooft, I remember D20Modern.


Only decent thing that came out of it was Urban Arcana, the frankly "Stupid But Awesome" setting which was pretty much D&D races entering the modern world along with magic.

Like Shadowrun, but less sci-fi, more modern. Could be done really well, but might be rotten.

Dangerous Brian said...

Yup, that pretty much sums it up.

Mecha Ace said...

You do know that you can get Darwin's World as a Savage Worlds edition, which is a lot simpler in my opinion. I even own them and would let you peruse them.

And by the way in case you're confused it's Andy B

Dangerous Brian said...

Well I do now. Thanks Andy, I'd love to take a look. We'll give you a shout for the next Pendragon game by the way. Haven't had any recently because we're moving.... to round the corner from you!

So it'll be even easier for us to schedule the pick-up Pendragon games :)