Game reviews


I am up to session 6 of a short campaign using Mutant:Year Zero, a post-apocalyptic RPG from the Free League, a Swedish mob whose games I had never heard of before I stumbled on Mutant. This game is apparently 30 years old – I’m playing the 30 year anniversary edition – and I guess it must have been available only in Swedish for most of its history, because I’d never heard of it or the Free League before. Which is a shame, because Mutant:Year Zero is a brilliant RPG, and the Free League’s work is a really refreshing and much welcome addition to the role-playing world.

Mutant: Year Zero is set in a post-apocalyptic earth, with the players taking the role of mutants, a mysterious group of humans with strange mutations that give them a kind of limited impact super power. The mutants are clustered together in an Ark, a safe haven in a world of decay and destruction, and from the Ark the mutants venture out into the ruined outer world (called the Zone), looking for artifacts left behind by the Ancients, the people who ruled the world before the apocalypse. There are no humans in this world, just mutants and threats. The world is a really decayed and ruined place, so even finding something like an old bicycle or a pistol is a huge achievement, and when the mutants start the game they will have nothing better than a hammer or slingshot made out of old scrap, probably no armour and only their wits to help them survive. From there they build up their own supplies and develop their Ark, while (perhaps) simultaneously learning the secrets of the apocalypse.

Character creation

Character creation is a simple process of spending points to buy ranks in four attributes and 13 skills. You choose a character class from a choice of eight, each of which has a unique skill that only they can use. Character classes are well suited for the environment, including archetypes like Dog Handler (who has an actual dog that can do stuff), slave (who is super tough) and stalker (who finds secrets in the Zone). You also get to choose talents, some of which are unique to your class, and you roll up a single mutation to start with. Mutations are fairly exotic things, ranging from being able to explode with spores that do damage or hide your escape to being able to read minds. Mutations are triggered with mutation points (MPs), with more MPs being spent to get bigger effects. All PCs start with one MP, but it’s dangerously easy to get more. Finally, there are no hit points in this game – you take damage directly on your attributes, which means there are four damage types, and there are mutations and conditions which can do damage to all of them. Attributes range from 1 to 6, skills will be generally no more than 3 at start.

The system

Mutant uses a unique and savage dice pool system which incorporates a huge element of risk into skill checks, along with a vicious death spiral mechanic. You roll a dice pool composed of two types of dice, attribute and skill dice. All dice are d6s, so you need to make your dice pool with two colours of dice – in the set that comes with the game you use yellow for attributes and green for skills. Any 6 is a success, and if you roll a 1 on your attribute dice that can become damage. Once you roll the dice you can make the decision to either take the result you rolled, or push the roll. Pushing means that you can reroll any dice that show no 1s or 6s. This means you can get a success even if you failed on the first roll. However, once you push the roll any 1s do damage on the attribute associated with your skill. When you push the roll you also get MPs equal to the number of 1s you rolled, so there is a benefit to taking the damage. This means though that every skill check can potentially kill you (if it is tested using strength), knock you out from fatigue (for agility) or render you useless with confusion or doubt. It also means that you become worse and worse at everything the more you make skill checks. Worse still, the GM is advised that failure should always come with a cost, so if someone rolls a dice pool and gets no successes the temptation to push it is really high – and there is great pleasure for GMs in punishing PCs who fail. The dice pool mechanic is further enhanced by adding gear dice, black dice representing the benefit of using equipment. These can get you more successes but any 1s rolled on these dice will damage your gear if you push the roll, so pushing your roll when using your favourite artifact will eventually break it unless you can get a gearhead to repair it (also a roll with a push/fail risk!)

Damage taken to attributes can be recovered with four hours of rest and consumption of a specific resource, or connection with friends (some relationships are established inside the party to help with this), but early on in the campaign the resources required are quite expensive and rare, which makes resting a costly business. The whole thing is finely balanced – at least early on – to ensure that the players are constantly on the edge of their seats, and always eagerly scrounging more stuff, but most of all always considering the risk of their next action. The game is heavily loaded with risk and decay, which makes it a really good mechanic for a living-on-the-edge post-apocalyptic setting.

Combat

Combat works pretty much on the lines of the skill system. You need at least one success to hit someone, though your opponent can defend and if they get more successes than you they can damage you. Damage is usually just 1 or 2 points per weapon, straight onto your strength attribute, with armour as a (pretty ineffectual) soak. Extra successes on your attack can be used to do extra damage or other effects like disarming your opponent, knocking them down, gaining initiative, etc. However to get extra successes will likely require that you push your attack roll – which means you damage your own strength, so one pushed roll and one hit and you can be out of combat. If your strength drops to 0 you take a critical hit, which can be fatal but most likely means you have penalties until you heal. But this combination of pushing rolls and taking damage against an attribute that can have a maximum value of 6 means that combat is absolutely lethal. Most fights only last 1 or 2 rounds and end with the entire party badly damaged, either from injuries or from pushing their rolls. I think someone has been reduced to 0 and taken a critical hit in every session so far, and there have been several fights where the PCs have been super close to TPK – in one fight a PC unleashed a huge wave of mutation powers to kill an opponent out of desperation, but their mutant powers backfired and killed them too. It’s that kind of game.

The speed and lethality of combat means you can get through a lot of fights in a session, and you can get a lot done. Where other systems might have a dungeon crawl that takes sessions to complete, in Mutant you can do an entire lair in half a session. Combat is fast and deadly and a lot of fun.

The Ark

Another excellent aspect of the game is the development of the Ark. During character creation the players also develop their Ark, describing its structure and main inhabitants and assigning it basic levels in four attributes (Warfare, Technology, Culture and Food) which determine how well the PCs can do things like defend the Ark, understand artifacts they find, obtain food, and read and write. As the PCs adventure they find artifacts, which they can choose to use or to hand over to the Ark to be stored in the Dawn Vault. If handed over, these artifacts add to the Ark’s attributes, slowly improving it. The players can also select projects to improve the Ark – things like a defensive wall or a farm or universal suffrage – which further improve the Ark. As the campaign unfolds the PCs and the Ark develop together, until the Ark goes from a desperate hard-scrabble hideout carved from the corruption to being a real home for the PCs. This mechanic is very simply set up but very effective, and the way the Ark and the PCs interact with each other to support each other’s development and achievements is really great. Seeing your players debating whether to set up a tribunal or a secret police force (or cannibalism!) is really fun.

The campaign arc

The book comes with a campaign idea and some adventures related to it, which you can choose to follow if you like. This involves uncovering the secrets of the apocalypse and the truth about the Ark and the mutants who live in it. It helps to explain a strange point made at the beginning of the book, which is that the mutants who live in the Ark don’t remember how they got there and can’t have children, and look up to a mutant called the Elder who used to offer them guidance in their new world. This means that the Ark is a kind of stand-alone setting, much younger than the apocalypse, so it’s as if the PCs just sprang into being (it’s as if a group of god-like beings just created them from nothing!) The campaign arc answers these questions, and can also tie into an amusing-looking spin-off called Genlab Alpha. However I didn’t really like the campaign arc, so I have dumped it and decided to keep the apocalypse kind of mysterious and go my own way. I’m not sure why I didn’t like it – it seems like it would be perfectly playable and very satisfying (and challenging!) to complete, and it doesn’t necessarily interfere with the other tasks like exploring the Zone and building up the Ark, which are where the real fun lies. I guess I just don’t like being told what to do, or maybe I had my own vision of the apocalypse that I wasn’t willing to compromise on. However, if you don’t use the campaign arc you’ll probably find yourself running – as I have – into trouble explaining who the PCs are and why they’re there.

Good points

This is an excellent game. My players have all exclaimed multiple times at how much they love the simple, high-risk system, and how exciting the whole thing is. The Ark development is enormously appealing, the character classes really are evocative of a post-apocalyptic game, and the constant resource-scrabbling and the nature of the threats you meet really help you immerse yourself in a post-apocalyptic worldview while you’re playing. The simple, speedy nature of the rules means we almost never argue over rules – there’s the odd aside along the lines of “isn’t it weird that they decided this” but nothing more, really – and the entire system can be memorized, pretty much, because it’s all so simple. It’s a very big difference from the other system we’re playing at the moment, Shadowrun, where we often get bogged down in complex debates about stupidly complicated rules. There also aren’t many ambiguities, so you can play through almost without checking the book, unless you need to remember something numeric (this usually only happens in the Ark development phase). Somehow this game has managed to incorporate some fairly robust resource management, stronghold development, character development and high pace adventuring within a very simple, very easily learnt package. I really cannot sing its praises enough!

Some bad points

Besides the limiting nature of the mutant definition and the campaign arc, the main flaw with this game is the simplicity of the rules themselves, which sometimes lend it a bubblegum, comic, not-so-serious feeling that is both slightly out of whack with the context, and also an inducement not to take the game too seriously. We’re having fun with this at the moment but it limits the appeal of the system for other worlds, and I think it could also undermine it over a very long campaign. The game isn’t ultimately suited to a long campaign unless you really exploit some of its less-explored details (like relationships between PCs), because the simplicity of the rules means that there is not much sense of character development, and nothing gets bigger or more complex as you go on – your mutant powers don’t grow, and really all that happens is you get a new skill point or a largely not that great new talent. In a more rich and detailed system there would be new powers or better hit points or something, but you don’t get that here. So I think it might become a bit sterile over a long campaign. However, we’re 6 sessions in and still loving it.

Other Free League products

I’m kind of amazed that this game came out 30 years ago, since it feels much more like an early-noughties indie game than a game developed when the industry was new and still at its height. I’m also very impressed by the quality of the work – the artwork and writing are top notch, it’s well laid out and organized, the order of presenting information – the way of thinking – very logical and clear, and everything very nicely packaged. I subsequently bought another game by the same company, Coriolis, which is like a more mature version of the system set in space, and it is really a stunningly beautiful book with what looks like a very rich and playable system. I’ve also jumped into a kickstarter for a fantasy version of the system, called Forbidden Lands, which looks even more beautiful. I have wanted to play high fantasy for a long time but I simply can’t find a system I like, and I think it’s possible that a mature and richer version of Mutant: Year Zero could do the job. With the benefit of being well written, beautifully packaged, and well structured by an experienced and excellent game development company – how did I miss them for so long?

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Thongor say smash!

Thongor say smash!

Late last year I ran a one-off session of Barbarians of Lemuria, a simple and stripped down sword and sorcery RPG. The session report for that adventure is here.

Barbarians of Lemuria is intended to provide rules for sword and sorcery adventuring in the style of Conan, the Lankhmar series, and Thongor, in a light and easy to play style. The game comes with its own setting, the mythical land of Lemuria, which has a long tradition in fantasy writing and film and is also the name of a great southern continent that the Victorians imagined existed somewhere in the southern hemisphere. This land is mentioned in the Strange Tales fantasy magazine and is the setting for the books about the barbarian Thongor by Lin Carter. Barbarians of Lemuria expands on these vague historical and literary references with a map and setting information, so that in addition to rules for a quick and simple sword and sorcery RPG it comes with background information on a classic setting sufficient for running a whole sword and sorcery campaign.

The game is definitely light on rules and written for brevity and ease of use. In just 211 pages it manages to encompass all the usual RPG rules plus wargaming rules, setting, monsters, a brace of sample adventures, a random adventure generator, summary tables and character sheets. All the rules for task resolution and combat are squashed into 8 pages and are perfectly sufficient to cover most scenarios you need them for. Sample adventures are typically 2-3 pages including maps and background, and are really only rough sketches for a wide array of free form approaches to the general ideas laid out in them. Wherever possible the game attempts to capture the seat-of-the-pants risk taking approach to adventure from the sword and sorcery setting through loose rules and quick and dirty approaches to problems. For example, in the section on equipment they write:

… there are no rules for encumbrance. Heroes can go around with what they can carry. They live for the day. You never know what you will need on an adventure and you can’t take everything, so why bother? Use your hero points instead. That’s what they are for. If you want backpacks full of adventuring gear, a weapon for every occasion, three spare suits of armour and a pack animal to carry it around on, then play another game. If all you want is a breechclout and a sturdy blade, play on!

I think that might be the best encumbrance rules I have ever read, and it gives a good summary of how normally picky technical details like armour, healing and so on are handled in this game. It’s a game to unleash your barbarian on the world, not to fiddle with spreadsheets.

The rules are very straightforward. Your PC has four attributes and four combat attributes plus four careers, all of which are ranked from 0 – 3 at the start. Skills are resolved with 2d6+attribute+career vs. a target number of 9 with simple difficulty modifiers; combat is the same with combat attributes in place of careers. Careers are things like slave, noble, barbarian, hunter, priest etc. and offer a bonus equal to the rank of the career in attempts to perform activities that can plausibly be related to the careers. PCs also start with a boon and if they want flaws and more boons; these give a bonus or penalty die on the 2d6 roll (like advantages/disadvantages in D&D5e), and Hero Points that have a versatile range of possible uses to make your character more effective. Some of the boons are classic sword and sorcery – for example Battle Harness turns your loin cloth or chainmail bikini into medium armour without the combat penalties of medium armour, while Missing Limb is exactly that, and comes with the rule “the game master will penalize you where appropriate.” In combat weapons do d6 damage, sometimes with a penalty or bonus die, and armour absorbs a bit of that.

Those are the whole rules – now you don’t really need to buy the book. Unless you want to enjoy the full richness of the boons and flaws and the deeply entertaining magic system, which really makes this game stand out. Magic is divided into four levels: cantrips and level 1-3 spells. Wizards have about 10-14 arcane power to spend, and spells come at increasing cost, ranging from 1-2 points for cantrips up to about 15 for level 3 spells. Wizards can reduce the cost of spells by meeting requirements, such as visible technique or taking a wound. These requirements grow in seriousness as the level of the spell increases, until at level 2 they encompass things like human sacrifice and serious injury. Level 3 spells (which can include making mental slaves and causing earthquakes) require a permanent point of arcane power to be lost. The spells themselves aren’t described – they’re up to the players and GM to negotiate – but examples are given to help with deciding the appropriate level of the spell. Also different levels of spell recuperate lost power at different rates – cantrips twice a day, level 1 spells at midnight, and level 2-3 spells just once a lunar cycle. This means that a wizard can start the game with a stupendous amount of power, but can’t use it often across a campaign. In my adventure our wizard used a couple of cantrips, one level 1 spell, recovered some of those points at midnight, then burnt all remaining points on a single level 2 spell. This means that having started the adventure with 14 points of arcane power he finished it with 0 points, and would only regain 8 of them within a day – another four would take up to a month to come back, and the remaining two up to two months. He also finished the adventure with the name of a demon tatooed on his chest and arm, seriously wounded and guilty of human sacrifice – all to power a great spell that failed.

There are also similarly simple but flexible rules for alchemists (who build things) and priests (who get divine favour). It’s perfectly possible to play these classes together too, so you can be a priest of some dark god, conjure evil magics, and build fire oil all at the same time. Monster rules are simple enough that four or six monsters can be fit into a two-page spread, including pictures and descriptions, and they are super easy to grasp. This makes the game really easy to pick up and run with in a short period of time – we started at 1pm, created characters from scratch and got through the entire adventure by 5:30 pm or so, going at a leisurely pace with lots of description and fluff.

This light-hearted and concise approach to rules really forces GM improvisation and encourages players and GM alike to plunge into the heroic, fast-and-loose style of sword and sorcery adventures. With very little time devoted to calculation, dice rolling and rules-faffing (even when new to the game) there is a lot of time and space for players to describe and improvise their PCs actions, and lots of time also for them to make heroic failures, make mistakes and retry things or go on different routes through the adventure. It really is a very good rule set for sword and sorcery, and a really good example of a game in which the rules, the writing style, the graphics and the setting all work together very well. This makes it a completely useless game if you want to pick it up and use the rules for anything else – you’d need to do some significant work to make a different setting feel right – and definitely not a game for people who like lots of crunch and detail in their gaming. But if you simply want to get rolling on an adventure with a barbarian, a druid and a beastmaster, then this is the game for you. It’s a refreshing, exciting contribution to the RPG world and a great sword and sorcery game, and I definitely recommend testing out if you want to play a swashbuckling barbarian campaign in a classic setting.

They all look the same to me

They all look the same to me

I have begun a new campaign with a new group, playing The One Ring. This is Cubicle 7’s Middle Earth role playing game, which seems to have been broadly well-received and is certainly a thoughtful and beautiful work. We’re playing on Wednesday nights for about 3 hours, and so far we’ve only managed to complete character creation, so I can’t say anything about game play, but I can give a brief description of character creation.

Basically in this game you make three choices: your culture (i.e. race); your “calling” which is some kind of aspect of your character determining things like what skills will advance fastest and (from memory) your vulnerability to the shadow; and your background, which is effectively your character class and further refines some aspects of your character. After this you get 10 points to spend on skills (advancing at 1 point per rank, cumulative), weapon skills (2 points per rank, cumulative) or a few other things. Characters have a bunch of traits that determine aspects of how their personality will affect play (e.g. brave, foolhardy etc) and also some special properties that are determined at one of these three stages. Character creation is relatively quick and involves no dice rolling: in fact nothing about it is random at all.

This character creation system has made some interesting decisions that clearly break with standard RPG character creation practice. In particular:

  • All your starting skill and weapon choices are determined by your race. Your skills are fixed and immutable – every elf or woodman starts with the same set of skills – and you have a choice of just two weapon sets, with no variation. You can use those 10 points to modify these but these 10 points are a tiny portion of the total skill allocation. You start with at least one skill at rank 3, for example, which would require almost all the 10 points to acquire. Effectively your starting abilities are entirely determined by your race
  • Your starting attributes are determined by a combination of race and background. Most backgrounds appear to be similar across the races (I didn’t get a chance to look in detail but e.g. Woodmen and Dwarves both get “Slayer” as a choice) but the attributes will be distributed differently for two races with the same background. For example I have 2/4/7 in the three attributes, while a dwarf might get 4/5/4, for example. You get to add “favour to these” but this favour amounts to just 6 points spread over the three attributes, and is only used under specific conditions, so it’s not the main determinant of your attributes
  • The majority of your starting personality traits are determined by your race. There is a list of perhaps 12, and you can choose two from a sub list of 6 that are specified for your race

Because of the combination of calling and background it is possible for two characters of the same race to differ slightly from each other in outlook, wealth and attributes, but they will essentially have exactly the same skills and almost the same attributes at the start of play. It’s not like D&D where you slightly modify the base random distribution of attributes, and skills are entirely class-based; it’s not like warhammer where attributes have a slightly different base and level of randomness and there are some additional talents. Everything is determined by your race.

What a remarkable coincidence! How amazing that a game that attempts to faithfully recreate the world of Lord of the Rings should choose a character creation system in which your race determines everything that we normally accept as mutable about a character. I have said before that Tolkien’s work is heavy with racial determinism and the race-as-destiny theories of the era in which he wrote, and I have received considerable pushback for it. I have previously adduced as evidence of this Tolkien’s attractiveness to fascists. I’ve also said that his work has undue influence on other fantasy writers and casts a shadow of racialism across the whole hobby. Well, what a surprise then to discover that a game attempting to recreate the world puts this aspect of it at the centre. And in case one were inclined to suspect that this is just a coincidence, here is the creator of the game on this issue:

The main reason behind the majority of the design choices in The One Ring is faithfulness to the sources. In Middle-earth, culture is the main defining element in an individual, and by limiting the choices in that regard help us attain a genuine ‘in-world’ perspective

Notice what that blog post adds: culture determines one’s virtues and rewards. And in this comment, “culture” is simply code for race. In attempting to recreate the world faithfully, anyone who delves into it immediately notices that they need to privilege race over all other aspects of background as a determinant of not just physical attributes but also psychological and moral attributes.

I have skimmed a few reviews of this game and the completely non-random aspect of character creation doesn’t seem to come out as a big issue for anyone. I have a suspicion that if someone tried such a tactic in any other setting their game would be viewed the worse for it, but in this case the game gets a pass. These reviews have generally also talked about how this game really is an immersive Tolkien experience, to the extent that they can’t imagine the system being used for anything else. I can’t give my opinion on that yet, since we haven’t started playing, but it certainly looks like there are many aspects beyond the character creation that imbue the game with a strong Tolkienesque flavour – the special rules for travel and fellowship and the Hope/Shadow mechanic, for example. I’m not sure if I’m going to like the system, but it looks intriguing and possibly very very good (the reviews suggest that people who play it really like it). I’ll review that when I have had a chance to test it.

I guess it’s not obvious from my critical review of Tolkien’s work but I am a real sucker for his world – I love it and have gamed in it extensively using MERP. I think The One Ring could be a vast improvement on MERP and offer exactly the right flavour of gaming that I have been looking for in Tolkien’s rich, detailed and beautiful world. But I go into that world with a clear understanding of what it is – a scientific racist, authoritarian conservative fantasy of a dead past that we can all hope will never come back to life. This game is another example of just how powerful the racial underpinnings of the world are, and how hard it is to genuinely appreciate the world without accepting that aspect of its creation. And I present this game as further evidence of my claim that whether anyone wants to admit it or not, no one can conceive of Tolkien’s world without accepting the deterministic and moralistic nature of his racial heirarchy.

While we enjoy this world and all its descendants, we should also remember that fantasy needs to be about so much more than this, and that while its creative, lyrical and mythical influences on fantasy have been huge and beneficial, the overarching influence of its scientific racism and conservatism have not done this genre – or our gaming world – any favours.

So you look into the land, it will tell you a story
Story about a journey ended long ago
Listen to the motion of the wind in the mountains
Maybe you can hear them talking like I do
They’re gonna betray you, they’re gonna forget you
Are you gonna let them take you over that way?

  • Song of the Path of Tears

[GM Note: This is a report of a part of session 8 of the Spiral Confederacy campaign. Session 8 covered a lot of different events, which are too much to describe in one post, so I’m breaking the write-up over three or four separate posts to keep them manageable]

Having successfully recovered what they believed was the Tablet of the Gods, and received a beautiful spaceship in exchange for trading away their dead cargo, the PCs returned from Slainte to The Reach. On the Reach they investigated the Tombspine again, and then they set off to Niscorp 1743 to interview the Oracle Simon Simon had established there. Unfortunately, once they were in jump space their living human cargo woke up.

Where is she!?

Where is she!?

Red Cloud of the Coming Storm

They were two days into their jump journey, the sky outside the ship its traditional inky, swirling black, all of them enjoying the luxury of having their own cabins and space to move during the week of idleness. Lam had set up a hammock on the bridge and was sleeping as close to the ship’s controls as she could safely get, while the rest of the crew attended to the activities they usually used to pass the time during the endless boredom of jump. Ahmose set about exploring every nook and cranny of the Left Hand of Darkness, familiarizing herself with every twist and turn of its structure against the inevitable time when they would have to defend it against boarders. She was leaning on a wall of the main deck, thinking of defense plans for the corridor linking the recreation area and the forward officer’s cabins, when the spaceship spoke to her. “Captain Ahmose,” It said in its smooth woman’s voice. “I am sorry to interrupt your tactical planning, but I feel I need to warn you that the patient in the medical bay has awoken, and is damaging my medical equipment. Please come and attend to him.”

Ahmose ran to the medical bay, calling to the rest of the crew as she went. They gathered outside the medical bay, Lam carrying a laser rifle, and turned on the screen next to the door. The Left Hand of Darkness showed them first the cryogenic tube that their cargo had been stored in; it had slid out of its wall mount and opened, just as if someone had activated it from outside. The cameras panned to show a scene of rampant vandalism, containers and medical supplies smashed and scattered over the floor, a diagnostic tool broken, and a broken batch of chemicals of some kind burning steadily on a bench. Finally the camera panned around to show their cargo, standing in just his loin cloth in front of a bench at the far side of the medical bay from their door. He was looking around wildly, and in one hand he held a huge hammer wreathed in fire. As they watched he began smashing the hammer down on the bench, scattering more medical equipment and sending wildfire flicking across the surface of the bench.

Ahmose turned on the intercom, and addressed the room.

“This is captain Ahmose. Please put the hammer down.”

The man froze at the sound, turned to face the door. Then he began yelling a stream of invective at the ceiling, looking wildly around the room to find the source of the sound. Nothing he yelled made any sense to them. Ahmose asked ‘Darkness if it understood, but the ship replied “I’m sorry Captain, I am familiar in over 70 languages, but this is not one of them.”

“Fine,” Ahmose grunted. “‘Darkness, please increase the CO2 level in that room until the man passes out. If we can’t speak to him we’ll restrain him.”

“Very well.” They waited and watched for a few minutes. The fire on the pool of burning chemicals began to dim, but the man’s hammer did not stop burning. At some point he began to look dazed and weak, but then he fell to one knee, whispered something to himself, and surged back to his feet, energy renewed.

Ahmose turned to Michael, the ocean priest, who had joined them in the hall. “Michael, is this man working some magic like yours?”

“Perhaps.” The priest was watching the screen intently, as if trying to read the cargo’s mind. “I can work a small invocation to enable us to communicate with him, but I need to be in his physical presence, not merely speaking through one of your technical tricks. Can you let us in?”

Ahmose nodded to Lam. “Sure, but if it gets out of hand the man goes down. We’ll see if any of his little magics are proof against a laser rifle on stun.”

They opened the door and Ahmose and Michael stepped through, Lam lurking behind. Michael whispered some small incantation, and suddenly the man’s ranting became coherent.

“WHERE IS SHE!? WHERE IS THE WITCH!? SHE WAS MINE!!! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH HER?!” He smashed his hammer down on the table, tongues of flame bursting across his hands. He did not charge forward though, perhaps wary at the sight of five people watching him.

“Please sir, calm yourself. I am Ahmose, captain of this ship. What is your name?”

He stopped in mid rant and looked askance at her. “Was it you who imprisoned me in yonder coffin!?” He demanded. He had a deep, mellifluous and multi-layered voice, and an imperious look and tone that suggested he was used to giving orders. “Did you take my witch? DID YOU?!”

Lam made to speak, but Ahmose silenced her with a gesture. “Give me your name first, sir, then we can speak of this ‘witch.’ You are a guest on my ship, and should behave accordingly.”

The man lowered his hammer a little. With his free hand he touched his belly. “I am Red Cloud of the Coming Storm, priest of the Eternal Sun. Are you my captor?”

Somewhere behind Ahmose, Alva sighed the sigh of a man deeply disappointed. Everyone knew his opinion of priests.

“That depends on your behavior, Red Cloud. We rescued you from a …” Remembering she was speaking to a priest of a remnant planet, Ahmose stopped herself from saying things he could not understand, or that Michael’s strange incantation could not translate. “… a bad situation. The ‘witch’ was dead when we found you.”

“What? Rescued me?!” His voice began to rise, and he hit himself on the chest with his free hand. Now that he was in motion, not lying in the cold cryotube, they could see that his body was a lithe mass of rippling muscle, smooth gold-toned skin drawn taut across a young warrior’s body. “What lie is this? I was in battle with the witch, I almost had her, and then suddenly I lost consciousness. You ambushed me in that battle and stole my prey! She was mine! I had the license!!” His voice rose higher, eyes wide with rage. “SHE WAS MINE! MY WITCH TO DESTROY! WHERE IS SHE!?”

“We did not ambush you! We found you in the … coffin … and rescued you from certain death. The witch was already dead.”

“Words – lies? SPEAK THE TRUTH!” After a moment he lowered the hammer, eyes narrowing. “Ah, I see that you are. So you found me already in my coffin, and put me into this dungeon…” He gestured around him. “Why? What is your purpose, woman?”

“Well, we hoped in time to find a way to return you to your … um … lands. But we did not expect you to awake from the … coffin. Please, Red Cloud, put the hammer down. We can speak calmly.”

He did not lower the hammer.

At that moment Lam pushed forward a little, so that Red Cloud could see her, and helpfully declared loudly, “You’re on a space ship, priest man, flying between the stars, and we rescued you from a burning station. You should thank us!”

Ahmose turned to glare at the foolish pilot, but before she could speak Red Cloud had his hammer up again, flaring brilliant orange. “Silence, you PALE WORM!” He looked at Ahmose. “You say you are captain here! But you let this PALE WORM speak!? It is an abomination! It should be killed and its body rendered down for magical components!”

Everyone looked in stunned silence at the gold-skinned man. He stared back at them furiously, almost quivering in rage. Only Lam moved, looking around at her friends in shock.

Simon Simon spoke first. “That’s a bit unreasonable, Red Cloud Storming, don’t you think – ”

“SILENCE, PALE WORM!” He took a step forward, and Lam raised the rifle. Ahmose raised a hand to stop him.

“Stop! No one here is being rendered into magical parts!” She held out her open hand. “These are my crew and you will speak to them respectfully, or by all the gods of the underworld I will stuff you back into that coffin myself, and shove that hammer into your mouth until you SHUT. UP.”

Red Cloud came to a sudden stop. He looked at the group of five, and the angry captain, and the room, and realized that perhaps his situation was not the best. The flames wreathing the hammer faded, and then the hammer itself began to fade, dissipating into nothing after a couple of seconds. Lam gasped in amazement, but had the good sense not to speak.

A moment later, exhaustion from months of cryosleep overtook the priest, and he fell to the floor in a daze.


There cargo was awake. They didn’t know what to do with him. They could not even speak to him if Michael were not present to work his strange magic. They could not return him to Dune, since the Navy required him for a task and they could not break the blockade; but they could not put him back in his cryochamber, not now that he was conscious. They simply had to fit him into the routine of the ship, even though he did not understand anything about it – indeed he came from a desert planet that had no oceans, and might have no concept of a ship at all. After a few hours of thought, once they had fed him and checked his health, Ahmose realized that maybe, if his planet had magic, they might have flying ships, and when she asked him, carefully, she was able to confirm that yes they did, though these vessels were exceedingly rare. She tried to explain that he was on a ship like that, only bigger, that flew between the stars.

This didn’t work, as he burst into an angry stream of rhetoric – the stars were tears cast across the fabric of the universe by an ancient sleeper woken by a nightmare, or some such, and to fly between them was blasphemy. Indeed, to think anything else was a sure sign that the person was a heretic witch, such as the one he had been hunting.

Ahmose calmed him down and managed to learn about the witch he had been chasing, who was apparently an adherent of a secret sect of heretics who believed that the stars were not tears on the fabric of reality, but other worlds, or maybe dreams, and maybe his world was a part of a bigger dream and the stars were all parts of it. This was apparently a great heresy, and anyone who believed it needed to be hunted down and killed. Red Cloud of the Coming Storm made a mission of this, and had been in battle with the witch when suddenly everything went dark and he had gone unconscious. He knew nothing about how or why he had been knocked out. He was obviously used to winning battles and being listened to, and couldn’t comprehend having been ambushed and captured.

He also could not understand much of the ship’s basic functions. Running water shocked him, and they could not speak to him clearly about the eternal night outside the ship, or about their destination or how the ship flew. When they tried to explain anything in too much detail, he would become confused and then angry. He was very quick to anger, and obstinate in his beliefs. Only Ahmose had any understanding of this – to her Red Cloud was like one of her oldest and most rural relatives back on her home planet, people who were so old they could almost remember the world before uplift, and could not understand all the modern changes that had come over her planet in the past century. But they were old and fatalistic; Red Cloud was young and vigorous, and refused to accommodate anything into his beliefs if it did not make sense.

He also had a deep hatred of pale-skinned people, who were apparently an abomination on his planet, very rare, and treated exactly as he had said. Ahmose was a rich dusky brown, but Simon Simon, Alva and Lam were all pale-skinned space dwellers – and not only were they anathema to him, but they refused to show him any respect or deference. For the first two days of their shared journey he would only refer to them as “Pale Worm” and would lose his temper if they spoke to easily to him.

After two days the effort of adaptation became too much for Red Cloud, and he retired in a state of near-depression to hide in his cabin. They set ‘Darkness to monitor him, and began investigating the means by which his cryochamber had opened. ‘Darkness kept detailed logs of the function of everything on the ship, but there was no evidence of any kind of glitch or bug – the records simply showed that the cryochamber spontaneously began its awakening cycle. Simon Simon spent days delving carefully into the deepest possible recesses of ‘Darkness’s coding to see if he could find any bugs, viruses or sleeper programs inserted by DK, the man who sold them their ship, but he found nothing. They looked at video footage of the tube and saw no one tampering with it. Finally, paranoid that the priest had an invisible ally on board, they locked everyone in the ready room and flushed air out of all the rest of the ship, hoping to kill any invisible intruders.

Nothing. There was no explanation, technological or sentient, for what had happened. Their super high-technology brand new ship had simply suffered an inconceivable malfunction that had wakened their cargo.

Only Ahmose had an explanation: “Perhaps his god woke him?”

Nobody else wanted to credit that explanation.

They could think of nothing. They could do nothing except welcome Red Cloud of the Coming Storm onto their crew, and hope their mission was not now ruined.

Red Cloud sulked in his room, and they sped through hyperspace towards Niscorp 1743, and the Oracle. The crew had no faith in gods or spirits, though they had seen plenty of evidence of both, but they could place faith in an AI. Perhaps the Oracle could tell them what had happened.

But secretly they all dreaded it. What if the Oracle could not answer their questions? What if Ahmose was right?

 

 

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The age of degenesis has begun ...

The age of degenesis has begun …

My group’s regular member Grim D returned from his annual Christmas holiday in Germany bearing a sleek black rule book for a German RPG called Degenesis, revised and newly translated into English. We were astounded by this book, both for the beauty of its contents and the scale of the project it represents, and as soon as we opened it we became obssessed. We played the first session of a short campaign last weekend, and this is my review of the good and points of this incredible game.

Overview

Degenesis is described by the developers as “Primal Punk” role-playing, set in a post-apocalyptic future 500 years after Eschaton, a meteor fall that laid waste to the earth, unleashed radical climatic changes, and released strange spores that mutate human and non-human life. In this far future humanity has regained some form of functioning society but struggles in a world ravaged by both the aftermath of disaster and the emergence of new, dangerous forms of genetic mutation called “homo degenesis”. Europe suffered the worst of the meteoric damage, and in the aftermath of the disaster Africa became ascendant – but Africa too suffers from the strange ecological changes that fell from the sky. Africans raid Europe to take slaves back to their rich lands, and the people of Europe pick over the bones of their past trying to recover even the smallest semblance of their past glory.

The rules are divided into two books: Primal Punk, which describes the world, and Katharsys, which describes the rules. In Primal Punk you learn in great detail about the history of the apocalypse and the strange things that happened afterwards, as well as the main cultures – Balkhan, Borcan, Neolibyan, etc. – that dominate the post-apocalyptic landscape and the cults from which character classes are drawn. By the time you’ve read 300 pages of history and cultural background, you are ready to begin creating a character you hope might survive this brutal ecological hellzone.

Fascist in a wetsuit

Fascist in a wetsuit

Raw passion and beauty perfectly combined

The first thing to say about this game is that it is a creation of unrivaled beauty. I haven’t seen anything as well designed and perfectly conceived since Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay back in the 1980s. The mere books themselves are a robust and imposing presence, two solid black (or white) minimalist tomes packed in an apocalypse-proof cardboard sleeve. They are constructed of high quality glossy materials, easy to read and handle, and liberally strewn with art of eye-catching beauty. The pages carry subtle prints that change according to the section, giving an atmosphere to the book without overwhelming the reader, and there are a series of symbols and iconography that are carried throughout the text. Chapters and sections of chapters start with quotes from a small cast of famous writers, ensuring that a coherent feeling of post-apocalyptic foreboding envelops the reader. Everything has a punk/skinhead/goth artistic style, as if the whole project were banged out in a squat in East Berlin to the sound of dark sub-cultural music – for example, the symbol for the Clanners cult looks a lot like something from an Einsturzende Neubauten album, and a lot of the iconography and imagery is drawn straight from pagan-core or deep ecologist/punk imagery. There’s also a healthy strain of fascist imagery and iconography throughout the text, most especially in the ever-present influence of the Spitalians, flamethrower-wielding medical extremists who will happily burn a village to save it.

Furthermore, there are movies: two trailers have been produced for the game which really beautifully capture the loneliness and desolation of the post-apocalyptic world, as well as the culture of the Spitalians who play a central role in the iconography and history of the game.  This is one of those projects were nothing was left to chance, no image or artwork allowed to jar with the theme of the books or their aesthetic, and every available medium has been used to ensure that the world completely engages its players. But what of the game itself?

Throwback in Borca ...

Throwback in Borca …

Culture, cult and concept: a simple and flexible character creation system

Characters are created by combining a culture, a concept and a cult. Cultures are the broad national groups of the post-apocalyptic world. The world has been torn asunder and smashed together, so that for example Britain, Ireland and France are merged into one culture. Choice of culture affects the upper limit that can be attained for some skills and attributes, and also the choice of cults available to the character. The player can then choose one of 20 or so concepts such as The Adventurer or The Chosen which further affect upper limits on skills and attributes. Finally a player chooses a cult, which determines yet more upper limits. Cults are broadly speaking the same as character classes, but most cults have a couple of different paths one can take. For example, I’m playing an Apocalyptic who specializes in deception and stealth (called a Cuckoo) but there are others devoted to battle or assassination; the Spitalians may be medics or they may be fighters, or a little of both.

Once these are chosen the player assigns points to skills and attributes, to take them up to their limit. The player must also choose whether their character will be primal or focussed; this choice rules out one skill and rules in another, and determines how a character will interact with the world. You can test all of this yourself with an online character generator, or see the stats for my character here. After this one also chooses backgrounds, such as resources, renown or authority, that affect your PC’s relationship to the cult of which he or she is a member.

Finally, cults have ranks, with names, and rank attainment depends on skills and backgrounds. These ranks come with benefits and responsibilities, and sometimes choice of one rank rules out development trees in others. This whole system in combination is very flexible and detailed and really makes a big break from the standard race/character class approach to character development. It also loads your PC up with a whole bunch of background narrative that extends far beyond the limited background one normally finds in fantasy systems. You haven’t even started playing and already your character is a rich and deep person…

Time ... to sacrifice everything

Time … to sacrifice everything

The system: Elegant dice pools and sudden violence

The system uses a d6 dice pool mechanism with the pool constructed from the sum of attribute and skill with modifiers, including penalty dice. Successes occur on a 4-6, and any 6 is an extreme success called a “Trigger” that enhances the outcome (e.g. every trigger is +1 damage in combat). More 1s than successes indicates a botch, and the target number of successes is set by the difficulty of the action or by an opposed skill roll by the target. For example, my character Sylvan has a 6d6 dice pool with his blade bracelet, and against an active target this will usually need to hit a target of 2. Every trigger adds one to damage, and the base damage for his blade bracelet is 3, so there’s a good chance he will hit someone who is not actively dodging and do 4-5 points of damage. He has a special talent (called a “potential”) that enables him to subtract 1d6 from the opponents active defense dice pool for every trigger he rolls, and if he rolls 2 triggers he gets a second attack. So if for example he rolls a 1,3,3,4,6,6 on his dice roll then he has three successes and two triggers. If his opponent is defending actively the opponent reduces his defense pool by two dice (for the two triggers). If his opponent fails to roll at least three successes then Sylvan will do 3+2 damage (for the two triggers) and then get a second attack (because of the two triggers). It’s a simple dice pool system that enables a rich range of outcomes without having to delve into multiple types of dice or special rules on criticals, etc. There are also systems of extended actions which enable triggers from the first part of the action (e.g. riding a horse) to carry over to the second action (e.g. attacking).

Combat is also very violent. Characters have a small pool of flesh wounds and an even smaller pool of trauma wounds, and they die when the latter hit 0. Armour takes off damage, but every trauma wound applies a -1D penalty to all actions. For example, my character Sylvan has a leather coat (2 points of soak), about 10 flesh wounds and 5 trauma wounds. A single crossbow bolt does 10 points of damage, so he will survive one if it doesn’t have too many triggers but will definitely go down to a second. The edginess of combat is further enhanced by the use of Ego in initiative. Characters have a small pool of Ego points (about 8 in Sylvan’s case) that they can use to boost initiative rolls and to add dice to the first action of the round. Initiative is rolled every round, and ego points are spent secretly. So if you spend 3 points in round 1 you get an extra 3D on your initiative and your first action, raising the possibility of killing your target instantly.

However, once your Ego reaches 0 you are unable to fight – and some characters attack Ego, which is recovered only slowly. Combat in this system is more vicious than anything I have seen in other games, and definitely best avoided. Especially since the best healers are eugenicist maniacs who will burn you as soon as treat you …

This extreme violence leads to one of the first problems I see with this game.

The flaws of an ultra-violent system

The adversary we killed in the first adventure, the Blacksmith, was a legendary figure in Scrapper history, but we wasted him in a round. This happened because the extremely violent system means that big bosses are vulnerable to large groups of low-level people. Even though he acted first, the Blacksmith could only harm one of us, and we were then all able to deliver 5-10 points of damage to him each in that first round. Tesla, in fact, delivered 22. Wounds and armour don’t scale with levels, so a Scrapper Cave Bear won’t have five times as many wounds as a beginning Scrapper. This means that if a GM doesn’t deploy a big boss with minions to screen him or her, the boss will go down in seconds. It also means that in order to have a boss tough enough to put up a fight, it’s likely the party will have to lose members quickly. This is fine if you’re into campaigns where people die quickly and get replaced, but many players aren’t and it creates strange narrative twists to have new characters popping up in the post-apocalyptic wilderness. I suspect it will also mean that players soon learn to start characters with specific weapons to ensure that they get the first death in combat. This isn’t a flaw per se, but I think it means the system will encourage a certain style of play and GMing that won’t be to everyone’s taste (fortunately, this style is very much to my taste!)

The problem of loaded histories

Another, potentially bigger problem this game faces may arise as a consequence of its own richness. Moreso than any game I have played except perhaps World of Darkness, this game has a deep and complex history and cultural milieu that is deeply interwoven with every aspect of character development and play. This makes it a great game to read and an awesome product just to have in your RPG library, but also means that the typical avenues of creativity and expression open to players and GMs may be shut down. For players there is always the option to build your own clan, giving some flexibility to character creation, but I think this richness and density of background material may be felt as constricting by some GMs. If you’re the kind of GM who likes to have a set of tools to build your own worlds with, then this game won’t work for you – once you’ve read the background material – and especially if your players are really into the background material – you’ll find it very hard to insert your own creative impulses into the game. I’m not GMing this system so I don’t know, but from the outside it looks to me like a game where the GM has to deploy their creativity very much within the confines of the given history and background, rather than against it. I think for some GMs this will make the game superficially appealing (all that rich material is ready to use!) but ultimately frustrating, because every action available to them is restricted by the canon.

Go get 'em!

Go get ’em!

Conclusion: Degenesis is a really great game

But oh what a splendid canon it is! And what a luscious, awe-inspiring introduction to that canon. Degenesis redefines standards in modern gaming, not only in terms of the sheer physical commitment to the production of the game but also the intellectual and artistic energy devoted to the content. This is no shabby low-grade kickstarter delivered late on poor-quality paper, but a real tour de force of creative energy by a small team who really have pushed the boundaries of what modern game designers are capable of. It’s fun to play, in a coherent and well-imagined world brought to vivid, stunning life by a high quality and beautiful physical product. Even if you never play it, this game is a worthwhile addition to your gaming library, but if you get it then I recommend you do try and play it because it is a simple, elegant and enjoyable system in a rich gaming world that has been brought to life for you with such loving attention to detail that you cannot help but want to wade into that spore-infested, violent future.

Enjoy it, but remember: There will come a time when you have to sacrifice everything!

Art note: the pictures are all from Marko Dudjevic, the artist for the game, whose work can be found on DeviantArt.

Review note: I am going to write a post in future specifically about the twisted politics of the game, including some of the controversy about the fascist imagery. I don’t think it detracts from the game, but more on that later.

Let's be good to each other this year, too!

Let’s be good to each other this year, too!

Another year has come to a close, and as I relax on the laziest day of the Japanese year, I naturally think about all the great gaming I have done over the past year, and my plans for next year. Although I only have one gaming group, which we loosely refer to as Team WTF, and this year our gaming group’s cohesion has been compromised by life commitments, it’s been a pretty great year. Here’s a brief review of our main campaigns and the one-offs I have enjoyed in this year of gaming.

New Horizon Campaign

Our regular, ongoing campaign has been our Cyberpunk campaign, set in the fantastic multi-tiered city of New Horizon and GM’d by the Fantastic Mr. E (not me). This campaign started in 2014, and we’re up to the 16th or 17th session, all of which I have recorded here. Most of my campaign reports are written in the voice of my character, Dedicated Retribution Unit 471 (Involuntarily Demobilized), aka The Druid or Drew. Drew is a 19 year old girl with pscyhopathic tendencies who is good at only one thing: shooting people. She is also very poorly educated and not so bright, and playing her is really fun – she’s been one of the most entertaining characters I ever played, and an excellent evolution from a similar girl I played in a Feng Shui campaign some years ago.

This cyberpunk campaign has been a GMing revelation. Our GM has put so much effort into the world and the plot, and produced such a convincing world and adventure, that even though we all agree the system sucks (seriously, Cyberpunk 2020 is bad news), we have been completely immersed in our world and really enjoying every aspect of what has been a very tough campaign so far. This campaign will probably end sometime around March, which means it will be up around 20-22 sessions and have lasted 18 months, a pretty sterling effort for a group of working adults. It will be, I think, one of the most memorable campaigns I have ever played in.

After the Flood mini-campaign

I managed to GM a short campaign called After the Flood, set in a post-apocalyptic ocean world based on the books by Stephen Baxter. This world has been flooded by some geological catastrophe (not global warming) and all the land but for a small patch of the Himalayas has been drowned. Set about 70 years after the catastrophe, the campaign followed the adventures of a small group of operatives for an ocean community called the Gyre, as they first tried to recover some vital information on lost resources, and then explored a possible lost community in the Arctic. This campaign was run using the Cyberpunk rules as well, because they seemed suited to the low-tech and basic nature of the world, and although it was only six or seven sessions long it was a really enjoyable world to game in. The game reports are on this blog, along with a bunch of background material, but I wrote the whole thing into a book that you can download in pdf form.

GMing this campaign was a lot of fun, even though it had no magic and was very rules-lite. I intend to revisit this again sometime in the next year, but to run it using a Fate-type system that is a bit more freeform and a little less punishingly stupid than the Cyberpunk system.

Spiral Confederacy Campaign

I also started GMing a Traveler campaign in a post-scarcity space opera setting called the Spiral Confederacy. We’ve only played four sessions so far with a reduced crew, on off-sessions, but it has run well and I’m enjoying it, though rumours have reached my ears that some of my players find the system itself boring. The settings so far have been great – an exploding space station over a blockaded desert world, an encounter with a huge and super-powerful space ship, and an ice planet with strange spiders and behemoths – and the PCs seem to have been caught up in some kind of human trafficking mystery by their own stupidity.

I’m really excited by the possibility of a big campaign arc for this setting, with a lot of mystery and conflict along the way, and hoping that in 2016 this can become our main campaign commitment once Cyberpunk finishes. It’ll be my first Traveler campaign in 20 years and hopefully will involve wide exploration of a galaxy that is part Culture, part Firefly and part Star Wars. I’m hoping we can achieve big things in the gulf between the stars this year!

One-off adventures

In 2015 I also joined a couple of one-offs, though my work schedule prevented me from enjoying all the games our group played. I GMd two sessions of Warhammer 3, running an old Warhammer 2 adventure, Slaves of Destiny, for two stupendously strong Dwarf PCs, which the players say they want to continue with more players in 2016. At the beginning of the year I joined an entertaining Dark Heresy adventure set in the Hive Desoleum, playing a fanatical voidborn seeker called Suleiman the Lost. Playing Dark Heresy is fun because it is so comically grim, and you can really let out all your inner demons in a world where no one is innocent and no measures too extreme. The adventure I joined was finished in a subsequent session, with a lot of heretic-burning and sacrifice before the chaos was hunted out and destroyed, but I wasn’t there for that, unfortunately. I don’t really like the Dark Heresy system, which is a shame because the universe is a lot of fun. One of our members, Tall B, objects to Dark Heresy as a campaign setting on the grounds that it is too grim, so I don’t think we’ll be seeing a lot more of this.

We also played a session of Seventh Sea, which I never got a chance to write up, in which I played a hilarious little arsehole called Tom Fumb, a tiny thief who “goes where ‘e’s gotta go, to do wot’s gotta get dun.” The Seventh Sea system is entertaining and it held a lot of promise but the session got drawn out and exhausting in a duel that no one could win (broken combat rules, I think). One of Team WTF’s members, Grim D, wants to run more of this, so I think we’ll be revisiting it sometime this year. More Tom Fumb will be awesome.

Finally I got to sample a brief End of the World adventure just before Christmas, my first ever attempt at playing in a zombie setting, and it was fun but not as satisfying as I expected. I missed out on Dragon Age, which the group ran as a 2-3 session mini-campaign, so I think in total this year I missed one Dark Heresy, a couple of Dragon Age and one Cyberpunk session.

Experimental writing

I also tried my hand at writing a few short stories for this blog in 2015, something I might try and do a little bit more of in 2016. I wrote a brief cyberpunk story, Naming Rites, about the past of one of the campaign characters, that got linked to on Reddit and attracted a tiny bit of attention. Along the same theme I wrote a bit of background for my cyberpunk character, Drew, called Russian Ghosts, and she also tried her hand at travel writing in A Siberian Druid in Venice, in which she takes a brief trip to Venice after killing the Pope. I wrote that while I was in Venice, as my attempt at offering a critique of some of the museum-like aspects of that strange town. I tried out a few other voices too, for example Gael the Plague Doctor in the Loser’s Vignette, my report of a Darkest Dungeon (computer) gaming session that didn’t work out. A lot of my writing is based on game reports, for example the attempt at fragmentary stories for Cyberpunk session 16 (Chaos Vignettes), but this year I aim to try my hand at a little more writing from outside of the games. I have also written a few personal posts this year, about growing up in the UK and Australia, and dealing with family, and I might put a little more of that on the blog too this year – I have things I want to say about growing up poor, and maybe some more historical gaming experiences to talk about. If I can find the time …

Gaming plans for 2016

In total this year I think I played or GM’d on average every fortnight, and our group met slightly more frequently than that, though we weren’t all present at every session. That’s a really excellent level of gaming for a group of adults in their 20s to 40s, with all the life commitments that adults have. I’m hoping that in 2016 we can maintain the pace. We lost one member, Killkat, to a different country, so we need to recruit new members. For 2016 I aim to explore other groups a bit, to see what else other people are doing and look for new members, but my main gaming goal for 2016 is to run a full-blown Spiral Confederacy campaign with Team WTF, and to see what fantastic adventures they can take me to in that universe. Let’s enjoy gaming together in 2016!

THIS! IS! SPARTA!

THIS! IS! YOKOSUKA!

For our final session of 2015 my group and I tried a short run through the Fantasy Flight Games zombie apocalypse role-playing game The End of the World, a rules-lite system intended to simulate zombie survival in a collapsing world. I’m going to give a very brief summary of the game we played, and then a short review of some aspects of this game, which had some good ideas but I felt fell a bit flat at the end.

The session

Our group were a university academic, game designer and computer programmer, based roughly on our own careers (see below). The adventure started with us playing an RPG in our friend’s apartment in downtown Tokyo, only to be interrupted by his housemate showing us a news report of a disaster at a nearby infectious disease research institute. A huge fire had broken out, and in running away from the fire a scientist tripped and spilled some kind of virus over himself. He promptly exploded in a shower of bloody vomit, and very quickly the area around the research institute was shutdown, with everyone warned to stay inside. That included us, gaming inside the zone where everyone was required to stay inside.

After an uncomfortable night in the tiny apartment we gave up on staying inside and went to the convenience store for supplies, only to find it full of scary sick people. We returned home, and decided to get out. Our friend Jimmy and his flatmate’s girlfriend Saito san came with us, in a car we borrowed from the landlord (this is Japan, this kind of thing happens). Our plan was to head to the US base at Yokosuka, because our game designer was a base boy originally and had American citizenship, and we had heard that America was evacuating, and we hoped to scam a lift with them. By now things were getting scary – the news was on a loop, the convenience stores deserted, and normally mild-mannered citizens turning murderous, and we had seen more than one person dying in an orgy of bloody vomit.

By the time we got on the roads chaos was starting to break out, with people in cars being attacked by other people who wanted to get out, and dead people visible in many places. But there were no zombies, it just seemed like some kind of outbreak and every scared of getting caught up in it. Escaping from one such group of no-good people we damaged the car, and pulled over at an overpass to steal two empty cars (a Prius and a Mustang!) sitting near the shadows of the overpass. As we approached the cars we heard sounds of growling and hissing from the shadows of the overpass, and suddenly a bicycle came flying out of the shadows and hit our car with such force that it shattered the window. Jimmy panicked and ran away down a side street, where something came out of the shadows at lightning speed, hit him and carried him away. We didn’t need any more encouraging – we jumped into the cars and hightailed it out of there, though nothing followed us out of that overpass. We crossed the Tama river and drove on, through streets that were alternately deserted or combat zones.

At the Yokosuka army base we were separated. They allowed the designer, Ishiba san, in, but we two and Saito san had to stay outside. As we sat there in our car wondering what to do the sun started to sink, and suddenly from all across Tokyo rose a howl of primal rage, as if monsters in the shadows were preparing to come out. We’d seen a few of these things slinking around in the shadows, and we decided it was best to hole up somewhere fast. Fortunately the programmer’s house was nearby so we drove to that in about 20 minutes, and got inside just as the sun fell below the horizon.

After that the trouble really started. Two beasts tried to get into our apartment but we prepared and ambushed them separately. Our programmer was training in sword fighting so between us we had a real steel sword, a wooden sword, and Saito san with a frying pan – she was a member of her university tennis club, and a dab hand with a heavy iron skillet. We took out two, but the second one broke my shoulder[1]. Meanwhile Ishiba san found the base attacked from within, and had to flee in a humvee, driving over a couple of the zombie creatures as he went. These zombies were not shambling weaklings, but some kind of undead werewolf-like creature, that shucked off human flesh after its transformation and turned into a howling beast of rage and hunger.

The game finished with us waiting out the night and then driving away to the edge of Tokyo. I suggested heading off to the radiation-affected area to hide, and another player suggested we should hide at the outskirts of Tokyo, going in during the day to steal supplies. That is where the adventure ended.

The game

The game was fun, but in some ways it didn’t work. I think part of the reason it didn’t work was simply narrative – we all knew it was going to be a zombie story and so there was no surprise or tension when they finally came out to play. There are three books in the series and a fourth planned, I think, so it might be better to run the session without any idea of how the apocalypse is going to happen, or even if it will, and then build a campaign that floats around that idea. In fact I have long thought of running such a campaign, starting in the 1950s or 1960s and being uncertain from the outset whether it will be a horror, alien invasion, nuclear apocalypse or something else. This system seems like it would be ideal for that, though our GM told us the online community has been saying it won’t work for campaigns.

The system also suggests that you play yourself, i.e. make a character that is based on your own traits. The system is really simple – three traits divided into offense/defense and one good and one bad point for each trait – so it would be easy to do this, but who wants to play yourself? I role-play to not be a loser, not to watch myself get eaten by zombies. So I vetoed that flat-out, and as a compromise between my preference (play people who can do stuff) and the book, we agreed to make characters similar in career and situation to ours. So I played a deeply arrogant medical doctor who was under investigation for unethical research practices, and secretly welcomed the apocalypse because it was going to derail the investigation.

That was more fun.

The system is interesting and brutal. You assemble a dice pool of positive dice based on your attribute, and negative dice based on the challenge of the task; all dice are d6s. Positive and negative dice cancel if they get the same numbers, and any positive dice left over that rolled below your attribute are successes; any negative dice left over are stresses. For example if you have an attribute of 4 and a difficulty of 1 you roll 4 positive and 1 negative die; one positive die may cancel the negative die if they roll the same; any remaining positive dice that roll under 4 are successes, and if the negative die doesn’t cancel you also suffer 1 stress. Stress accrues on the same stress track as damage, and there is a separate track for physical, mental and social damage. This is why my character died; he could have survived a single blow from the zombie (just) but he had previously accrued stress from skill checks. We realized very quickly that stress was going to be serious, and avoided skill checks after that, but even a couple are a problem. Combat was also brutal – you don’t get any defense skill, so if your enemy is some kind of insane rage zombie it rolls 5 dice to hit you with no negatives to cancel them. That’s a serious amount of damage, so anything with any ferocity or skill is a death trap.

I think the game is intended to be played this way – survival is unlikely and you need to be ready to roll up new characters regularly. But the system is so rough and fast that I suspect it might chew up interest along with characters. It does somehow manage to give a feeling of ordinary people in an ordinary world gone crazy though, so it seems like it is well suited to a zombie survival epic. The book is also very nicely laid out and stylish, so it’s worth getting if you’re interested in such an epic. I think, though, that you shouldn’t start playing yourself, and you might find yourself rapidly house-ruling it to make it bearable.

I’m not sure if zombie survival role-playing is possible now that the genre has been so completely and thoroughly dealt with by popular culture, but if you are interested in trying a gritty, dangerous role-playing game with lots of resources for different types and styles of zombie apocalypse, that is quick to pick up and easy to run, I recommend it. But be prepared to make a lot of rapid changes to the rules as they’re laid out if you want to enjoy it – and start by playing someone a little more interesting than yourself!

fn1: in the mechanic of the game, it killed me, but I made a check to survive but come back severely mauled.

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