98: Ninety Percent of You Die

"If life were an RPG, and God the game master, Aftermath! would be the rule system. There are rules for eating, sleeping and walking. There are rules for defecation, rules for distilling gasoline alternatives, rules for fashioning home-made armor, reloading firearm ammunition, loading muskets, blacksmithing, bowery, cooking, cleaning, camping, dialogue, running (stopping running), shooting, shooting accurately, riding horses, amputation, first aid, foraging, farming, building houses, digging wells and ... well, everything."

Russ Pitts examines the granddaddy of post-apocalyptic paper RPGs, Aftermath!

Ninety Percent of You Die

Wow. I've never heard of this game before, and it sounds really impressive. That adventure sounds creepy in a way I really dig. Congratulations on finding it and having such a great time with it!

But there was something in the article I don't understand. There seems to be a gap between the part where you establish that the system detailed and realistic, hard in the learning and slow in the playing, and the part where you talk about this great, horrifying session. But what's the connection between those two things? That is, how did the system create or add to your enjoyment that evening? You didn't mention encounter tables, but was the arcade generated taken from one or more such tables? You didn't talk about the ensuing gunfight, but did the players find the mechanics of it especially satisfying?

I guess it seems like the creepy and scary parts of that experience could be replicated in countless other roleplaying systems. What is it about this game, and this system, that you feel gives it dominion over the apocalyptic horror genre? Is it the realism? If so, then what do you see as the connection between realism and horror?

Thanks for the kind words, and the interest, bce23w (for the sake of my miserable fingers, and their inability to type names like yours, however, I'm going to call you "Roderick". Please don't take it personally.)

The dichotomy of Aftermath! (and I apologize if this was in any way unclear in the article) is that once you have the ability to replicate practically any real-world item or activity, you have the freedom to create any kind of world you choose, and have that world reflect, in every way possible, the real world. It's possible (and I've done it) to create a similar world using another system, but the sheer comprehensiveness of the Aftermath! rules makes it far more likely your creation will take on the subtle nuances of the real.

This, as the designers discovered in their playtesting, and alluded to in the game literature, more often than not manifests in a feeling of dread and misery far surpassing most other games, for what most games omit (and Aftermath! revels in) are those many, oppressive details that make real life far less glamorous than a fantasy game.

So, in my case, when I was looking for a rule system to base my campaign around, the fact that practically everything I could imagine had already been imagined (and enshrined within the rule system) by the Aftermath! creators made Aftermath! an easy choice for me. The effort required to master the rules was far outweighed by the options they gave me in creating a world that was as real as possible.

As for a link between realism and horror, I can't say. I think that often what makes apocalyptic fiction so compelling is the grittiness and realism of their environments. But I'm also a huge fan of more fantastic horror, ion the vein of Clive Barker, et.al. So I'm not sure there is a link, per se, but realism can add horror, for sure, if the reality is particularly horrifying. In Aftermath!, it is.

It's my pleasure. Please, do call me Roderick.

Maybe I was mistaken to use the word "horror." I can certainly understand how "dread" might result from rules that enforce realism. I've played computer games of such stunning depth and deadliness that dread was a reasonable response, like Ragnarok, the rogue-like that was discussed in an earlier article.

But it seems like dread can be an emotional response. I mean, watching a Hitchcock film, it doesn't take months of studying before you can be well and truly on edge. Or a good novel, for that matter, can give you the squicks as you read it the first time. Before Ragnarok really crushed me with it's, I had to try; I had to play a dozen characters and figure out plans for dealing with the various creatures in the starting forest. Only when I had gotten far enough to notice I had gotten nowhere was I. Emotionally, the time before then was null.

But games don't have to be that way. For example, Under a Serpent Sun is a post-apocalyptic setting/system hack for the originally tolkein-esque fantasy game Burning Wheel. Burning Wheel is not the least complex of systems I've used, but it certainly can be learned in less than a month. In any case, Under a Serpent Sun is soul-crushingly bleak. Not "the last water chip is broken bleak." More like, "the longer you go without killing yourself in the face of this monstrosity the human race has become, the more you win, but you know you can only go so long." And the difference isn't just one of scale, note, but of focus. The authors specifically point out, that what's important in the game is "the struggle of the characters, not what the ruined cities
look like or even the effects of radiation, dehydration or degradation." The mechanics of the game itself provide focus on the emotional fallout, not the physical or cultural kind. That is, rather than have rules for digging wells, they have rules for psychosis and death-addiction. (again: bleeeeak! ;))

If you're interested in taking a look, you can download it here: http://www.burningwheel.org/wiki/images/2/2f/Under_a_Serpent_Sun.pdf

The Burning Wheel main rules are not included, but without launching into the executive summary: It's not that complicated. Also, Serpent Sun itself is fairly unrealistic. And yet, neither of them seem glamorous by any stretch of the imagination.

Sorry to bombard you with questions. It's a simultaneously fascinating and confusing situation for me.

- Roderick

I appreciate your interest, Roderick. I haven't played Ragnarok, but Mr. McCrea's handling of the story convinced me of the game's brilliance. Also see Spanner's excellent look at I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream in this issue of The Escapist for another interesting take on dread. But I think Aftermath! is different than these, and that is due entirely to the fanaticism with which the rule system was built.

One can come to understand and accept horror through watching a gripping depiction of a horrifying tale, or by looking at horrifying pictures. One cannot truly understand the depth of horror, however, without having lived through the experience. And Aftermath! as much as any game can, allows players to fully live the experiences one would encounter in a post-apocalyptic setting. All of them. In detail to which most other games can't even aspire. The difference is similar to watching a car crash versus living through it.

Now, I omitted a great many of the rules when I played (I did not, for example, ask my players to account for every item of food eaten by their characters, and therefore force them to scavenge for food in the waste, or turn to cannibalism, merely to survive to continue playing), so I spared my players the experiencing of a great many horrors allowed for in the Aftermath! rules. But I could have forced them to, dawn til dusk, live through every possible indignity, inconvenience and injustice, and have had robust, true-to-life rules to back me up should I have so chosen.

No other game I've experienced has had that level of verisimilitude built in, and it's as much through the forced realization of the sheer horror of life post-civilization as through the storytelling that makes Aftermath! such a compellingly dreadful, and wonderfully brilliant game.

I'm tempted to offer examples, but so much detail would be required merely for the explanation, that I tire even thinking about it.

As a participant in Russ' campaign I wanted to offer a quick statement of what I thought was interesting about the Aftermath rules.

There's really two ways to design: top-down and bottom-up. I took a look at the Serpent Sun PDF you linked, and I'd call it a top-down system. They have a particular "feel" they are trying to achieve and the feel is built into the mechanics at the highest level; everything is broadly abstracted.

Aftermath is a bottom-up game. Its goal is to accurately simulate reality. The horror of Aftermath comes from the realism. It is emergent horror that surfaces from combining realistic mechanics with a bad series of events: The feeling that this is how the shit would go down.

We're touching on gamism, narrativism, and simulationism here (or, more recently, here). From what you guys have said about it, Aftermath is clearly a system designed by simulationists, for simulationists. That doesn't mean it necessarily excludes narrativists and gamists, of course, but the focus of the ruleset is on modelling events realistically.

In contrast, my personal favourite PnP RPG system is Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu. It's similar to Aftermath in that it lends itself readily to an extremely bleak yet engrossing brand of storytelling, but it's very different in that the mechanics are extremely simple. Skills are a straight percentage with only minimal modifiers; the most complex mechanic is a check against opposed stats (e.g. strength vs. strength to break down a door).

The mechanics impart a crushing sense of inevitability to the gameplay, precisely in keeping with H. P. Lovecraft's vision of the Cthulhu Mythos. Combat is to be avoided at all costs, but even so, a character -- investigator -- who plays too many sessions will inevitably either die or go insane. In Cthulhu, the apocalypse hasn't happened (yet).

Ajar, if you like bleak/creepy with easy dice rolling, check out White Wolf's latest Storyteller system. They completely borked Mage and Vampire, but the core rules are just amazing.

Seems elegantly simple on a quick read-through -- more structurally complex than Cthulhu, but without Cthulhu's awkward bits. Can you get the core rules without a setting attached?

I'm turning into kind of a ruleset collector, I guess, at least until I find a spread of rulesets that satisfy my various roleplaying wants. I've got Cthulhu (including Cthulhu Dark Ages) for horror and the d20 variant Iron Heroes for epic; I'm still looking for something suitable for sci-fi with cyberpunk trappings and something suitable for high magic fantasy (Iron Heroes is low/no magic). Maybe the first edition of White Wolf's Trinity, which uses Storyteller, will fit the first bill... and this Exalted setting of theirs seems interesting. Thanks for the recommend!

Bam, and $10 less than I paid. It's definitely suited to a modern campaign, which I tend to prefer over fantasy and way future sci-fi, but they've got about two decades' worth of unobtrusive system crammed in there. And a lot of the flavor stuff they toss in is just great short story horror writing.

Nice! And it's actually slightly cheaper for me from Amazon.ca, which is handy. One thing I didn't see reference to was something analogous to Cthulhu's Sanity score, whereby horrific events affect the investigator quantifiably. That and investigator fragility are my favourite elements of Cthulhu.

How does Aftermath handle the psychological aspect of reality? As described by Russ and Archon it sounds like it's a very effective simulation of the physical world.

As far as WoD goes, it's pretty roleplay heavy, so there wasn't much in the way of sanity, per se, but there are systems you could modify.

As far as Aftermath! goes, while I didn't try to handle the rulebook, sanity didn't factor in in our gaming sessions, despite my best effort to develop some sort of mental trauma.

And he did try, believe me. There may have been a sanity/wherewithal rule set and/or table, but I forget. I really did leave out a good section of the rule set when playing. Which is another great thing about the rules, they were dense, but the system lent itself to modifcation/omission fairly well. For the Aftermath! campaign I was mainly interested in setting up a post-apocalyptic world that was as realistic as my own studies and the rules would allow, although I did end up favoring story over simulation toward the end. So while I enjoyed the experience and praise FGU for their attention to detail, I'd probably not use the rule set again unless I wanted to go all the way with it and take a hardcore group through a gut-wrenching journey into their own hearts of darkness. Which is always a possibility ...

Ajar, for sci-fi / cyberpunk there is no better system than R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk 2020. I've played the hell out of that game for years and I heartily recommend it. Or go for Cyberpunk 2013 if you want slightly lower-tech and grittier. (The more recent material 203X is post-punk anime and has a very different flavor, though).

What about Shadowrun? Being a huge Netrunner fan (the CCG with the CP2020 license), I have a natural affinity for CP2020, but with the advent of wireless networking I can't shake the feeling that jacking in would have been supplanted by a persistent wireless network connection. The latest version of Shadowrun incorporates wireless networking, but of course with Shadowrun you have to deal with magic and whatnot as well.

Thanks for the recommend, though. I may wind up getting both. :P

Ajar:
What about Shadowrun?

No. Such ideas are mind crimes.

Hey guys, we've got this awesome, gritty setting of futuristic dystopia. You know what it needs? Fantastic elves and trolls! And magic!

Hulk smash.

Shadowrun > Cyberpunk.

Sorry, guys, that's just the way of it.

Magic is for pansies.

Is there any way to turn off Shannon's yellow name? The man is a heretic.

p.s. Ajar, look no further. CP2020 has had wireless netrunning and persistent connectivity from the get-go. In CP2020 you can have a cellular cyberdeck that keeps you persistently logged in to your real-world analogous location on the web and allows you to dynamically interact with interconnected micro-systems around you (vehicles, machines, cameras, etc.)

What CP2020 does *not* have is any equivalent of Google. Instead it seems to assume the world gets chinese-walled into bulletin boards and a host of internets that are hard to search. In 1990 that was plausible, but it's the biggest flaw in the system. It's pretty easy to fix, though. It's basically just a matter of making non-secret information easier to get with Library Search skill.

Well, I bid on the CP2020 sourcebook and a few ancillary tomes in an eBay auction. Apparently Monte Cook, of all people, is looking to get rid of some of his old unused tomes. :P

Playing it sounds onerous enough, so I can only imagine the incredible Asperger's Syndrome-havin' mind/s that must have designed this game. That there are people out there who would do such a thing is a testament to the sheer range of different kinds of weirdness present in human beings.

Thanks for the brainfood Russ. I don't play oldschool dice-rolling RPGs and I never did, but this article is still a perfect example of why I keep coming back to this site.

Rules for everything?

Has it rules for Critical Fumbles in Giving Birth and Spells/Character Classes for Magical Midwifery?

Rolemaster does. Although I don't think that's a good thing.

As for the others, in my delicate and probably heavily biased opinion:
CoC has an atrocious ruleset understood only by Lotus 123 enthusiasts. Even Sandy Petersen didn't like it that much.
Shadowrun works your biceps from the skip full of d6 you'll need for one action.
CP2020 suffers from UBERUBERUBERCYBORGS or dull as heck Netrunning.
WOD was so far up it's own back passage. (Yes, Mages can take a hit from a .50 DUP round to the head and keep going) and Requiem just took the same background and gave it new rules.

Anything d20 deserves to be skinned and dunked in a salt bath.

And unfortunately that doesn't leave many game systems (that are still being published) left.

Personally I'd look up something like All Flesh Must Be Eaten or the like with much simpler rules and then just get a good atmosphere going. Makes a lot of difference.

truly a good article, had heard mentions of Aftermath but was fun 2 fi9nd out more about it. still i think i will stick to computers doing the computing for me... if i do not c that rat scenario in Fallout 3 i will be very disappointed... you should suggest it for the next patch.

 

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