“Whatever form it takes, we posit that [the apocalypse] will wipe 90% or more of the population from the globe, and directly or indirectly shatter the major edifices of man’s culture into the bargain.” – Aftermath! Game Master’s Guide
Dodging zombies or surviving post-fallout radiation poisoning may not be everyone’s idea of a fantasy tale, but it’s hard to deny the appeal of starting anew. If you could wipe the slate clean, what would you change? If you lived in the post-apocalypse world, where no law existed and anything was possible, how would you live? Who would you be? One way to find out is to play Aftermath!.
Created in 1981, during the “golden age” of pen and paper roleplaying games, Aftermath! is in every possible way a pinnacle of RPG gaming. The game was published by Fantasy Games Unlimited and created by Paul Hume and Bob Charette, the team who, eight years later, designed the well-remembered and heavily influential Shadowrun. RPGs of this era were typically over-designed and often complex to the point of alienating even dedicated players. Aftermath!, in this respect, puts them all to shame. The game is so mystifyingly cumbersome, so beautifully complicated, that even the hardest of the hard core find it to be impenetrable – and brilliant.
Imagine a game in which every object was usable, every item could be fashioned into a weapon (or armor) and every imaginable circumstance was planned for and organized into a chart. Now imagine that this game was 100 percent accurate to real-world objects, weapons, athletic abilities and tolerances. Imagine, in other words, a total world simulation. That’s Aftermath!. 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.
The Aftermath! rules do not stipulate what happened to cause the apocalypse (that’s left to the game master), but they do allow for practically every possible scenario imaginable, from alien invasion to zombie infestation, detailing the after-effects of each. Including The Flood.
From the Aftermath! Game Master’s Guide:
Have you ever considered the possible results of a New Ice Age, one that starts tomorrow and is in full swing within a century? Contemplate the pre-ruin unrest inherent in that situation! If we manage to melt the polar ice with a Green House Effect, not much, say 5% in the next 50 years, with a little help from some theory that does not pan out (say using nuclear warheads to clear a trans-polar channel, or some equally harebrained scheme), do you care to picture the resulting rise in sea level and its effects on our society? Or just drop a decently-sized celestial traveler onto the Earth, or swing some massive cosmic hitchhiker through the system on a course too close for comfort. Bang! No more civilization.
The major attraction of this type of game, to paraphrase the rule book (and Spider-Man) is also its major disadvantage: With the power to simulate every possible action or activity ever conceived by man comes the responsibility to do the accounting. Or to put it more simply: If you play Aftermath!, you’ll be consulting a lot of tables.
“The basic procedure for combat is straightforward. … A flowchart … is provided.” – Aftermath! Basic Rules
A typical encounter in Aftermath! goes like this: Our player, let’s call him Mad Max, enters a cave at the edge of a ruined city. In this cave, Max finds a man who’s been making his living scavenging food and supplies from the ruins of the aforementioned city. Let’s call our scavenger Bob.
The game master rolls to determine Bob’s reaction to Max. The Reaction Table is consulted. Bob’s reaction is “bad” – he is not happy that his home has been invaded. We now enter Detailed Action Time (DAT), or, in other words, combat.
The DAT display (a hex map) is brought out. Max places his figure where he stands; the GM places Bob. The DAT display is used to judge the line-of-sight and side or rear attack penalties. Let’s say Max and Bob are facing each other, so there are no penalties. The Range Table is consulted to determine whether or not Max’s weapon, a .357 Magnum revolver, can hit Bob. As it turns out, Bob is relatively close to Max, within 20 meters, meaning he is within the “effective” range of Max’s revolver. Max is all set.
The order of battle is pre-determined. Each round is broken into “phases” during which each player will act. The player with the highest Base Action Phase goes first. Max has the higher BAP in this instance. He decides to shoot Bob. He rolls a 20-sided die. Max is rolling “against” his own skill with the revolver. If he rolls below or equal to his Base Chance for Success with a pistol, he hits Bob; if not, he misses. Max’s roll is equal to his BCS. He hits Bob. Hooray! But wait, there’s more.
In each situation there may be one or more “modifiers” to the player’s BCS. We must first consult the Situation Modifier Table to determine if Max is doing any of the various things that will modify his score, such as kneeling, running or attacking in poor light. Max is doing none of these things, but there is a “distraction” present – our cave is filled with smoke from a nearby fire. This will distract Max, hindering his ability to fire his weapon accurately. The amount of distraction is up to the GM, so let’s say our smoke introduces a penalty of one point. This point is added to the Max’s roll, meaning he has rolled higher than his BCS. Max has missed. Max is sad. But wait, we’re not done.
We’ve forgotten to consult the Inherent Accuracy Table to determine if the type of weapon being employed adds any modifiers (carbine rifles add +3 to hit). Let’s say Max is using a pistol with a “standard” length barrel. This gives him a +1 bonus, subtracting one point from his roll, meaning he once again has succeeded. Max is happy again. But we’re still not done. The GM will now subtract Bob’s Overall Defense Ability from Max’s roll to hit. Bob’s ODA is 1, which, when subtracted from Max’s roll, means Max has again missed. Shoot. But wait! We forgot that Bob is sitting down! Max caught him eating his dinner of scavenged canned ham. This gives Max a two-point bonus to his attack roll. He hits! Hooray!
Having hit his target, Max now makes another roll and consults another table – this time, the Hit Location Table. The result of this roll indicates where Bob is hit. In this case it’s the 4 location, the upper right chest. Now if Max has enough skill points in the use of a pistol, he can “aim” by relocating his shot however many points along the opponent’s body. Max has a high enough skill score to aim by two points, so he moves his shot to Bob’s 2 location – his face. Brilliant! We now consult the Bob’s armor sheet to see how much armor he has at that location, but he has none, because, well, it’s his face, and also, he was eating dinner. Can’t do that with a face mask. (If he were wearing armor there, however, we would consult another table to determine how much damage the armor itself takes, and whether or not it’s destroyed and therefore unsalvageable.) So, Bob has taken a round from a .357 Magnum full in the face with no protection. We must now determine how badly he is hurt. It’s time to consult another table.
Each type of firearm ammunition in Aftermath! (there are over 50) has a particular damage modifier. This is called the Bullet Damage Group, and there is a table for it. There are also multiple types of damage in Aftermath! (lethal, subdual, crushing and combination), also with tables, but in this case it’s simple: Firearms deal lethal damage, so we consult the BDG table to see how many dice we must roll. We discover that the .357 Magnum has a BDG of 11, which, according to the Aftermath! firearm damage formula, means we roll one d10, then add one point. Max rolls a 10, adds one, and so deals 11 points of lethal damage to Bob’s face. Smashing! But we’re not done yet.
We now consult Bob’s Damage Resistance Total (his hit points) to see how he fares against this attack, and discover that his DRT is only 15. The 11 point attack devastates him. We could, if we wanted (or had time), consult Bob’s System Shock Factor, to determine if the amount of damage done exceeds his ability to keep from going into shock – which would force him to roll a save against his Health Ability to see if he is immediately rendered unable to defend himself – but we’re going to make an executive ruling in this case and decide that an 11-point blow to his face with a .357 caliber bullet does the job. Bob is faceless and will soon be dead. Success! Max, in the cave, with the revolver.
This sequence of events typically takes anywhere from 10 minutes to a half hour, with the players and GM doing all of the addition, subtraction and bookkeeping. Compare that to the three seconds it takes to perform the exact same actions in a computer RPG, like, for example, Fallout, with the computer doing all of the grunt work, and you begin to see why computer games are wiping the floor with their paper-bound ancestors.
“It is not necessary to be fully conversant with all the details in order to start to play. Diseases and poisons, for example, may not come into play for many game sessions.” – Aftermath! Basic Rules
Although an Aftermath! session often feels more like doing taxes than playing a game, the very structure that makes playing Aftermath! such a tedious chore also allows for some truly remarkable play experiences. The depth offered by Hume and Charette’s attention to detail is unparalleled by any other RPG, and if you can manage to slog through the immense, Mt. Kilimanjaro-esque learning curve (after almost a month of intense studying of the rules, I still had to consult the rule books every session), you’ll find yourself playing in a world that feels as real as our own. And that, depending on the imagination of your GM and fellow players, is when things can get interesting.
Want to assault an underwater laboratory manned by extra terrestrial sex slavers and guarded by zombie sharks? Aftermath! has rules for that. You can also be a mutated tribal human, if you want, and carry any kind of gun you’ve ever imagined. Do you like that lever-action Winchester Chuck Conner carried in The Rifleman? It’s in there: Game Master’s Guide, page 75, classification: R8. How about Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum (“the most powerful handgun in the world”)? Page 74, classification: P24. There are, in fact, over 200 different firearms represented in Aftermath!, more perhaps than at a militia meeting, and each has a full set of “true-to-life” stats.
“By now, it is probably crystal clear to most of you that an Aftermath! campaign can get pretty sickening.” – Aftermath! Player’s Guide
In the campaign I recently ran for a few friends, the Ruin was caused by a nuclear war, circa 1988. The cold war had not ended, the wall had not fallen. Instead, someone pushed a button and all hell broke loose. The game was set about 30 years after the apocalypse, in the American Southwest. The players, on the way to somewhere else, heard a rumor about missing children and an old, abandoned arcade inhabited by ghosts. Stumbling upon this arcade in their travels, the players decided to investigate. What they found inside horrified them and gave them nightmares for days afterwards.
The arcade was an old pizza parlor, abandoned after the war when the power went out. Someone (or something) had recently taken up residence and installed a generator to provide power to the animatronic, dancing animals. But that’s not all they found. In one room, the ultra-violet planetarium decorated with day-glo stickers of stars, they found the ultra-illuminated, tiny bones of hundreds of small children. In another room, they found a play pen filled with plastic balls (the kind children jump around in). Beneath the balls was a squirming carpet of tiny, infant rats. In still another room, where the animatronic animals danced their routine, lay the sleeping army of adult, mutant rats who had spawned the infants and stolen and eaten the dead children. In still another room lay the two mutated, intelligent rats controlling the rat army. The players found them lying in a bed, side-by-side, holding hands. The male woke up when the players entered, reached under his pillow and pulled out a gun.
Such are the horrors that can be created in Aftermath! and witnessing the reactions of the players as they immersed themselves in this world, recoiled at the “sight” of the tiny, gnawed bones, shrieked in terror at the discovery of the infant rats and their mutated parents, and then fled in horror upon discovering the intelligent “boss” rats in their lair, remains one of the best play experiences I’ve ever had, and well worth the weeks of headaches caused by learning the labyrinthine rule system. We’ve yet to finish that campaign, but I have a feeling when we do, 90 percent of the players will die. Perhaps I’ll consult the table.
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.