Sunday, August 22, 2010

Post-Apocalyptic Masterpiece

Today is Sunday and there's no open post office on Sunday. If God himself was trying to publish the B/X Companion, he would have to rest from these incessant trips to the post office.

However, there is (apparently) no rest for the wicked (i.e. little old JB) 'cause if I don't keep on top of my envelope stuffing at home, I'm likely to get swamped. Fortunately, it looks like I may have picked up an "administrative assistant" (my unemployed brother). He's good with the spreadsheet thing and is a stickler for detail (Virgo), so I trust him to get the envelopes stuffed even if I insist on doing the addressing myself.

But right now, I AM taking a break. And drinking coffee down at the Wayward.

[and there's a table full of people playing Pathfinder right behind me. Wow, what IS it with Greenwood? None of these people are familiar to me at all. I don't see the bankers over there about "nerd central;" no wonder I like this place!]

Anyway, much as I'd love-love-love to blog about the trials and tribulations of being a self-publisher, that's not the point of the blog and it's time I got back to a little "business as usual."

This game is an f'ing masterpiece, as far as I'm concerned:

Twilight 2000...where have you been all my life?

How many different ways can I gush about this game? THAT's the real question here. I've blogged about my love of post-apocalyptic fantasy and my disappointment with most (all?) PA role-playing games. Not that there haven't been good ones...or good games, anyway. Just that they didn't quite "do it" for me.

T2000 does it. Oh, boy, does it ever.

Let's talk about the basic goodness first. The game rules consist of two slim books, some handy-dandy quick reference sheets (very necessary) and an "adventure" that I haven't yet bothered to read. As far as I'm concerned, I'd be perfectly happy with the rule books. They contain pretty much everything you need to play in a very tightly focused post-apoc world. Together, the books are under 64 pages long.

And they are some meaty pages.

Despite being illustrated and having blank space suitable for notations, T2000 packs A LOT of info into its pages, all focused on the setting. The setting...the last days of World War III. The nukes have flown, conventional forces mobilized, the entire world pretty much down the crapper. You play the remains of a U.S. army unit stranded in Europe, though your squad may have members of different nationalities/backgrounds as you pick up others along the road.

The rules provide everything needed for how to find find, water, fuel, etc. It's incredibly many kilos of food a person needs versus how much time it takes to gather so many kilos from particular environments, for example. Food, water, maintenance of vehicles and equipment (a constant struggle when oil for greasing parts is at a premium). It's a simulationist's dream game: there's no metagame rules for addressing premise and there's no spiral upwards of power and advancement for the gamist. It's just a world...a world with rules showing the basic entropy that would devastate our civilized world following a complete collapse of power structures.

And yet, it is tightly focused. It has meaty rules, but the game makes no attempt to manage or codify EVERYthing in the game "universe." There's no "sail boat" skill or boating rules...I don't even thing there's rules for aircraft (as high performance petroleum fuels aren't really available at this point in the alternate history...the ground trucks and vehicles are running off alcohol). It is explicit, deep, and crunchy, but it also exhibits almost perfect "economy of game design."

In addition to the RULES, the setting is well thought out and excellent for the game. Why? It's just a post-apocalypse game right? Well, T2000 provides a timeline of detailing the whole WW3 shooting match from 1995 to 2000 and how things got so out of hand, eventually moving from border skirmishes between China and the Soviet Union to all-out catastrophe. It is a thoughtful and well-crafted scenario of alternate history, certainly deeper, meatier, and more interesting than anything in, say, Rifts or Gamma World 1st edition. But because of its level of detail, including theaters of war operations, allied forces and conflict actions, it provides all the material needed for creating game scenarios in this particular game world. Plus, unlike spiraling game settings found in other games (Traveller's Imperium, Forgotten Realms, White Wolf's Aeon Trinity) the game world is pretty much static or changing only by the actions of the players. If anything, the world can only spiral downwards...into deeper collapse in other words. You'll never have to buy another supplement once you pop the top off Twilight 2000.

And while all that is very cool (from my perspective), it's not even the BEST PART of the game design. The best part is the oh so specific instructions provided to the GM on exactly how to run a T2000 campaign. I've owned a lot of sim heavy games over the years and this has been the stumbling point for most of them. Sure, they may provide a mini-adventure or two, or some sample adventure ideas. But then what do you do after you've played a one-off game. For me, this "sink-or-swim" approach has often left me foundering. As a GM playing a high concept game (like ElfQuest or CyberPunk) you have to have a very specific idea of what you want to do with the campaign, much more than "oh what a cool world setting...let's have adventures in it!"

At least if you want to have long-term consistent gaming with a system. Story Now games aren't concerned about "long-term" (generally), and gamist games (like D&D) keep people coming back for the goal of increasing one's power/level/whatever. Sim games...they need structure, NOT just "high concept" or they fall apart.

T2000 gives you a structure. It outlines how the GM should run the game. It suggests the first couple adventures/scenarios in order to introduce certain game concepts to players. It discusses both short term goals (adventures/scenarios), and long-term goals for structure. It talks about how to bring in new players or characters (should someone get killed). As with everything else, it is both thoughtful and meaty...and economical of space (taking up maybe a page-and-a-half to provide what's needed).

If you want to play a game set in "life right after The End" I don't see how one could do better than Twilight 2000. There's no wahoo mutations or radioactive monsters. It's got pretty good simulationist-love mechanics (by the way, the combat system has some very cool ideas built into it that I will totally steal and adapt to any "modern warfare" game), that while crunchy don't appear to be over-whelming (thank God for the cheat sheets, though, as there are quite a few abbreviations).

It has the gritty survival: you're fighting for food, for fuel, for ammunition, for vehicle parts.

It has the community building: keeping your squad together, adapting to those you encounter, other cities and towns trying to re-build (or maintain) their lives.

I just want to kick myself for not playing it when I had the chance back in 1987. Too bad it's out-of-print...I wonder if the latest edition is as good as this tasty gem of a game.


  1. Avoid the adventures, as they are all terrible. They ignore everything you mention above in favour of a bog-standard military mission structure which does nothing interesting with the setting. A great shame.

  2. Chello!

    When you do get around to reading "Escape From Kalisz," be sure to make a copy of the regional map and pencil in the Soviet and Polish units and where they are moving. It'll give you a better feel for how the whole thing unfolds.

    I prefer 1.0 to 2.0/2.2 and even the current Twilight 2013. There's just the right amount of crunch and the focus is on a military campaign.

    If you transfer the game Stateside, the two indispensable supplements (imo) are "Howling Wilderness" and "Armies of Darkness." They should give you enough about what's going down in the US.

  3. I remember being scared off of that one as a kid, just because it looked like it was designed for hardcore military nuts. It was also one of those games which appeared to rely on a good working knowledge of lots of real-world things (Europe, military command structures, politics) that I, as a twelve year old, just didn't have. I'm curious to check it out now, though.

    BTW, where are all these gamers in Greenwood? I live right by, and I don't run into them unless I go into the two likely spots you mentioned (Gary's or Wayward). Then again, I don't exactly fly my gamer flag, so how would I know?

  4. I probably didn't give it enough of a look back in high school, but I remember that long back story of how WWIII came about was both more detail than I wanted and seemed more implausible with each paragraph I read. It put me off.

    Probably the military focus as well, having the best arms, equipment, and training, sort of defeats the whole point of post apocalyptic games, doesn't it? I mean what makes it interesting for me is: How do I, Joe Blow, survive without any infrastructure or society?

  5. "How do I, Joe Blow, survive without any infrastructure or society?"

    Short answer: you don't.

  6. @ Kelvin: as I said, I haven't checked out the adventures yet...doesn't look like one would need them so much. More just a road map of Eastern Europe and a list of NPC-types. Thanks for the advice, though!

    @ The Iron Goat: No idea, man...obviously, I need to throw up notices at every business, perhaps link up with the Phinney-Wood blog.

    @ Anthony: I've got 1.0 and it works just fine for my purposes. I would assume that later editions provided "updates" that would just bog down the game as written...but I could be wrong.

    @ Telecanter: I actually find the timeline MORE plausible than a lot of the glossed over chronologies of other PA games. But that's just me.

    The thing is, I think the game CAN be played with a non-military theme. I believe that in a PA game setting (at least immediately following the "big bang") the military is going to be around in some sort or another (first as martial law...trying to keep civil order, then as strong men and marauders with guns as society breaks down).

    In many scenarios, Joe Blow is still going to be looking to arm himself for survival and the weapons will be military when possible (until the ammo runs out). I think T2K as written, could easily be converted to a non-military campaign...people would still have vehicles that need maintaining, they's still have to scavenge for food and water, they'd still need to get their hands on guns or bows or geiger counters (if possible). Playing civilians with the Old Military as primary antagonists might be a more realistic way of playing the game (though horribly depressing and doomed to tragedy!).
    ; )

  7. Far Future sells reprints of a number of its books, including Twilight 2000.

  8. And let's not forget that Twillight 2000 was the basis for my favorite science fiction RPG setting: 2300 AD.