A differnet kind of old school, Part 2 - The Lay of the Land after the Bomb

Speaking from the heart, I adore the Aftermath! RPG. But that’s in no small part because I have so many happy memories of playing it as a young man, and I’m fully willing to admit that my recollections are in gentle soft focus.

As I look at the rules again, I’m reminded in part why I liked it, and can see that it informed as much of my Gamer DNA as Champions or GURPS ever did, and set me on the course I’m on today, a niche gamer among the gamer niche. A fan of strict simulation and deep immersion, of detail and verisimilitude as sacrosanct.

But as I look at the book before me, at the organization it presented, I wonder just how in the hell a bunch of thirteen-year-old's figured out how to play in the first place, let alone kept coming back to it time and time again. So there, my first negative point in what is sure to become a tiresome, self-indulgent hand-job in time - Hume and Charrette didn’t always have the best sense of organization. To say that there's a bit of cross referencing that goes on is a touch of an understatement.

They start with noble intentions. Three separate books forming the core of your game is a time-honored tradition after all, so there’s some history there. And the rough designations are sound as well - a book to cover the essential mechanics that everyone will need to know (“Basic Rules for Role Playing Simulation” they called it - ask me again why I love this system...), backed up sensibly by a player’s guide (“Survivors of the Aftermath - a Player’s Handbook for a Post-Holocaust World”) and a GM’s guide (“The World of the Aftermath - a Gamemaster’s Guide for a Post-Holocaust World”).

Where things go off the rails is in what’s included in each book. They start strong - really strong - with the Basic Rules, covering what makes up a character (attributes, talents, skills and how they all interact), the basics of combat (which is really robust and detailed, injury and healing, and other spot rules for things like barriers (walls, doors and the like), and the effects of hazards like fire and acid. All in all, it’s a brilliant little starter for any setting, not just PA games, and I know that they use these same base rules for their Bushido game as well.

Things go a little off the rails when you get to the second book. It’s a Player’s Handbook, and starts out intelligently enough with a random character creation process. It is the thing that most players will care most about, perhaps even more than the general rules. All of the skills are explained in a very general way at least, and by the time you get to page 23 you wonder what they’re going to do with the rest of the space. And then interestingly there’s an eighteen page treatise on guns. This isn’t just a quick overview leading inevitably to a list of weapons - no, in fact there’s no gun list in this book at all. These are rules I would expect to appear either in the Basic Rules - along with the rest of combat - or in the GM’s guide, as there’s heaps of discussion on the impact of barrel length on bullet damage, the various firing stances one may adopt, all of the steps involved in reloading a rifled musket, automatic fire and the minutest variations of ammunition including high-powered rounds, hollow points and shot shell ballistics.

My friends and I were already pretty gun savvy before we started playing. This shored up our knowledge thoroughly and led one of the crew to actually get into hand-loading himself so don’t discount the scholarship. Just... question the book placement.

After that a chapter on explosives is entirely routine, and mercifully brief, leading finally to something players once again care about intensely - gear and the barter point system that the game uses throughout to provide relative values for equipment in a world without currency. Because it’s about gear, it eventually also includes vehicles, and covers everything from bicycles to armored personnel carriers to main battle tanks to passenger helicopters.

After this, you might think the third book would be a bit of an anticlimax, but the logic in putting guns and explosives into the second book starts to take shape when you see what’s left on the syllabus. You begin with a crash course on how the world ends, with specific Q&A to use to design your own apocalypse. Everything is considered, from the antiquated even in the 80’s conventional war option to the ripped from today’s headlines ecological collapse, with diversions to alien invasion and asteroid impacts. Then they cover the day to day operational stuff - searching and foraging, encounters and hazards, critters (including mutated apes, nuff said) and NPC rules.

Finally we get into the sort of stuff that not every GM is going to know him or herself inherently as they pick up the book. Rules on things like long-lasting biological weapon agents; how to generate power when the grid’s gone down; the most adorably 1980’s computer rules; cybernetics for a setting that proposes we get further along than Red Dawn before it all goes to hell. It closes out with rules for mass combat (knowing full well you’re going to want to stage a raid on a fortified oil refinery in the Australian Outback eventually), mutations (rules from a more naively hopeful age where science fiction still allowed for miracles along with the devastation) and rules for character reputation. Then tucked in at the very end, a list of a couple hundred 1981 vintage firearms to populate your weapon caches with and an almost afterthought page on how to calculate stats for your own firearms.

In addition to all this ruley-settingy stuff, every book spends some amount of time education folk on how to be good gamers, good players and good GMs. They talk about the kinds of decisions that have to be made when you’re gaming in as bleak a world as the post-apocalypse, and very plainly talk about things like cannibalism and just which morals we hold onto when it all goes to pot.

Again, this is a game that is held up as one of the most complicated, most complex, most highly detail oriented games in many collections - I can find you several entries on various blogs that talked about “the most complex game in my collection” that spoke of Aftermath. Now remember that all of these intricate rules - which I will go into more detail on in future posts - all of them fit in a hair over 220 pages. The Pathfinder Core Rulebook is 2.5 times that size.

Next time, we'll actually start talking about some of these crazy rules, and why they are so awesome - and even where they're not.


  1. To be grudgingly fair to Pathfinder, what the 1980s taught RPG designers was that it's less complex in play to have one core mechanic, modified where necessary, than to have a separate rules subsystem for each thing (AD&D1 with its tables of stuff you can do with each stat); if you have a framework like that, you can have much more stuff in terms of things the rules can handle without overloading the players.

    On the organisation of game books - I think you may just have given me a podcast segment. For a modern "small", i.e. single-setting, game, I think it's pretty much assumed these days that you'll lead off the player book with character generation, though that's a lot less intimidating when you only have 20-30 skills to describe than when it's GURPS.

    One of the things that the Internet has given us is a relative lack of need for real-world information in game books. You wouldn't include "how a gun works" in a game now; nor would you spent half a book talking about the geography and political structure of the United Kingdom before spending the other half talking about the vampires and werewolves and things. Sure, you can give pointers and mention where the general understanding gets it wrong, but it's nothing like the bulk it used to be.


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