Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Retrospective: The Morrow Project

As I think I've mentioned before, when I was a kid, there were certain games that had a mystique associated with them. This mystique wasn't always a good thing; sometimes it was a bad thing, as in the case of, for example, Chivalry & Sorcery, which my friends and I deemed "too complex" and "unplayable." Looking back on it, I realize that most such games were ones we didn't play or didn't know people who played and so either assumed were "bad" games or "elite" ones -- games so amazing that only a special few gamers were worthy to play them. TimeLine Limited's 1980 post-apocalyptic RPG The Morrow Project fell into the latter category.

Unlike Gamma World, which was my post-apocalyptic game of choice, The Morrow Project had a reputation for being "realistic." In retrospect, this reputation was ill-deserved, but, back then, games that fetishized firearms and military gear were typically considered realistic, even if, as in TMP's case, they also included "undead" beings reanimated by radiation. I think TMP's reputation was also based on its premise: the characters are all cryogenically frozen soldiers and scientists who awaken 150 years after a nuclear holocaust destroyed civilization as we know it. As a premise, it's a good one, since it allows the players to portray people not unlike themselves who are thrown headlong into a world gone mad where they're expected to try to lay the groundwork for a rebirth of civilization. This gives both players and referees a straightforward frame of reference and structure on which to build a campaign.

The Morrow Project suffered somewhat from having a fairly uninspired game system, except where combat was concerned, where the aforementioned gun fetishism comes into play. But like a lot of games from those days, gamers overlooked rules inadequacies because the world it described was a compelling one. Living nearly 30 years later, it's hard to remember just how plausible a nuclear holocaust seemed to many people, particularly young men. While I certainly didn't live in perpetual fear of World War III, I didn't discount its possibility and I spent many hours imagining what my life might be like if such a thing did occur. What made The Morrow Project so attractive was that it simultaneously acknowledged my youthful fears and assuaged them by giving us a chance to play men and women from the present trying to save the future. Even now, I find the scenario it paints a powerful one.

TimeLine Limited still exists, albeit under different ownership. There have been plans for a 4th edition of The Morrow Project for some time, but they have yet to see the light of day, owing, I suspect, to the limited resources of the current owners. That's too bad, because a revamped version of the game, with simpler but expanded rules and an updated setting could be just as compelling today as it was back in 1980. Fear of nuclear annihilation may not be as common as it once was, but most of us, I think, still worry about the future and the possibility that our actions today might create not a better but a worse world. Games like The Morrow Project speak to that possibility in an engaging way, which is a pretty good goal for any roleplaying game in my opinion.

31 comments:

  1. Oh my... I have nothing but fond memories about TMP. We played it only a couple of times before I put it back in its shrinkwrap, but man, the awesome, the awesome. You mentioned gun fetishism, and boy, did this game deliver... me, being a weapons fan, me loves me some good ole TMP ;)

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  2. Morrow Project was my favourite Post-Apo game, and the nly one I actually played a lot (apart La Compagnie Des Glaces, from a french novel). I had in my teenager room a full map of France with the random locations of all nuclear heads which fall upon! I would probably play it again if I would find interested players.

    Skills were published as options in a supplement, but the 1 chance on 6 to hurt a vein when you fire in the knee, and such details, were great. I learned a lot about guns reading it...

    A possible leftist variant would be to plays posadists coming back the uclear war, rather than Morrows.

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  3. The cryogenic angle is a nice one.

    I dearly love Gamma World, but sometimes grow impatient with the "Your character doesn't know what that commonplace modern day object is" thing.

    That's not to say the post-apocalypse primitives exploring the wonders of the ancients thing can't be well handled, but sometimes making everyone pretend they don't know what a vending machine or pay phone is after they've guessed from your description is a little tedious.

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  4. It would go against the "realist" nature of the game, but it would be fun to experiment with a TMP campaign that's actually the very early stages of the Europa that Dorian Hawkmoon lives in.

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  5. I loved TMP, and had a blast one summer running it for my friends. I had a big road atlas, and used the tables and such to determine what cities and locations warheads had fallen on (carefully matching the map scale with listed diameters and danger zones according to the type of warhead), and used a highlighter to annotate the map with big yellow circles. It was a blast dreaming up consequences, from there.

    The players were Recon (I always wanted to do a follow-up with MARS, but never got around to it).

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  6. Lots of fun has been had with TMP.

    * Nice to read Nicolas' love for it.

    * Early Tragic Millennium does sound interesting, and do-able, with more Gamma World thrown in. :)

    * I see a lot of TMP (+ GW) in Iron Kingdoms.

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  7. @ Bigfella

    I always hated that too. But there can be some fun in roleplaying not knowing about a thing when you as a player do know about it.

    But instead, what if you reserved that sort of silliness for the objects which the players wouldn't know about? Like futuristic objects invented after the present day but before the apocalypse?

    I always come up with different-shaped weapons and gadgets and such. Of course they will know what a vending machine is. It's the dangerous stuff that's fun though ;)

    In TMP though, it looks like you're frozen just before the point where civilization crashes. Technoloigcal advancement beyond that point seems unlikely if society is just trying to pick up the pieces of what they used to have.

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  8. All my nerd pals who were also WW2 fans loved this game for the military aspect. It was that aspect that kept me very uninterested. When they told me about various games, that just seemed like a lot of driving military vehicles, orders getting shouted, and pot-shots getting taken at wildlife, I was glad I passed on it.

    Not a knock at it mind you, it's just that things military and gun-related had no real interest for me in general, unless the supernatural or superpowers were somehow involved.

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  9. TMP was an interesting sandbox project, but my warm and fuzzy post-apocalypse gaming memories centre around Aftermath, not TMP. Aftermath's system is (although more complex) rather more playable in the long haul than TMP (in my admittedly limited experience), and the base game was specifically designed to give the GM (or group) more control over the precise circumstances of destruction and fallout.

    Aftermath is a game that I might be likely to play again before I die: TMP is most probably not, even with some spanky new edition coming sometime in the undefined future. However, it's entirely possible that I would rip off the conceit from TMP and use it with another set of rules like Aftermath, or more likely something more modern by Greg Porter (CORPS, or EABA, probably the latter).

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  10. All my nerd pals who were also WW2 fans loved this game for the military aspect. It was that aspect that kept me very uninterested. When they told me about various games, that just seemed like a lot of driving military vehicles, orders getting shouted, and pot-shots getting taken at wildlife, I was glad I passed on it.

    Not a knock at it mind you, it's just that things military and gun-related had no real interest for me in general, unless the supernatural or superpowers were somehow involved.


    Historical question for everyone: Is there any crossover to speak of between survivalist/military-fetishist types and roleplayers? I know there's at least one insane white-supremacist roleplaying game (RaHoWa), but I'm wondering whether political fantasists (e.g. far-right anti-gov't survivalist conspiracist types) have ever seen the potential for doing 'exercises' in the form of RPGs.

    If not, whew!

    If so, have these guys been written about anywhere? (This is precisely the kind of subterranean history that peeks out at the edges of James's early-RPG-culture posts, e.g. 80's macho gun fetishism...)

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  11. "a revamped version of the game, with simpler but expanded rules and an updated setting could be just as compelling today as it was back in 1980."

    I wonder if this can be done with the new Twilight: 2013 reboot.

    I had long heard about TMP and a few years ago ordered my copy. I was much disappointed. Leaving aside the rules, which I found uninspired at best, the book itself was really more of just a catalog of poorly-mimeographed pictures of guns, grenades, rocket launchers - all manner of military weapons. It felt to me not so much a RPG as it was a military surplus catalog with some half-assed rules tacked onto it.

    I understand and respect the "nostalgia" aspect of the game, and I agree that the premise is a very interesting idea. But I don't feel this game aged well at all and couldn't possibly imagine using this game today as written. I'd simply pull the idea and implement it with a cleaner system.

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  12. @ 1d30
    Yeah, when the player can improv an entertaining bit of business from their character being unfamiliar with current tech, then it's all good, but if you're doing it just to stay "realistic" that's when it bogs down.

    2nd Edition GW used the futuristic tech angle pretty much. Since the apocalypse was somewhere in the 24th. century, that covered their bases pretty well. There was stuff on the treasure list left pretty much up to the GM to figure out what it even was.

    For my stuff, I generally assumed certain things would still be recognised, at least in concept, like cars or guns, whereas things like ATMs or gas stations I described in as objective terms as I could so they weren't as obvious.

    Bottom line, your mileage may vary, and I'm really talking about the strict extreme of playing "you don't know what that is". Then again, player knowledge vs. character knowledge has always been a bugaboo, in any system you wanna name.

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  13. I always liked the *idea* of TMP. But the execution seemed flawed. I am also a fan of Aftermath. But my favorite PA game is still 4th edition Gamma World.

    And I think there is a correlation between 'armchair survivalists' and RPGs. I am both. I think the link is speculation. Both involve wondering, "What if...". I was also a child of the Cold War. I grew up *knowing* that the world was going to end in a rain of nuclear fire. It wasn't a question of if, but of when. The feeling didn't go away until Clinton's second term. And then it returned with Bush's second term... *sigh*

    But I cherish my TMP books.

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  14. Thanx, Timeshadows!

    There was "price for freedom", or something like this, where players were suppose to play US citizen organising resistance after the soviets conquered USA. I never played it, but a friend of mine did - in a reverse game, playing russian resiting to US occupation, and still remember it as one of his best game sessions.

    Casus Belli, the main french RPG and wargames magazine during the 80's, published an article against the "reagan's games", against "Price for freedom" (note that the wargame section of the magazine was rather discretely pro-soviet).

    Paranoïa was also more or less on the same mood, but the fact it was comical make it easier to adopt. Note the same magzine denounced his authors as pro-colonialism for some of their wargames - but I don't remember excatly why.

    As far as I can remember, I don't see any left-winged game in the same mood. Maybe I should write a marxist version of D&D ;)

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  15. I thought The Price of Freedom was a very tongue in cheek game; eg. an RPG version of the schlock classic Red Dawn. I have to admit I've never played or seen either (nor TMP). Was it actually intended as a "serious" game, a la Twilight 2000?

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  16. If you like The Morrow Project then I suggest you might want to acquire Different Worlds 33, simply for amusing convention game anecdotes from the designers.

    I think my favourite was when a heavily armed Recon team who met a coon-skin capped individual on the way to the Texas to stop the invasion: "Ain't ya heard? Santa Anna's on ta march!"

    For post apocalyptic games I'm a fan of Aftermath myself. Although a friend had a truly magnificent Gamma World campaign that transcended the original game.

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  17. Twilight 2000 was interesting not for the rules (I never liked GDW's later rules sets), but for the fact that, as I recall, the house campaign of WW III was used to create the setting for the 2300 AD game.

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  18. I have a definite fondness for TMP, although I never ran or played it. If given the chance, I'd probably run a modified version of the setting using the CORPS rules.

    As a note, there was a second printing back in the day which grafted the skill system from BRP onto the system, adding a little more depth to character creation and non-combat interactions.

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  19. @Knightsky:

    BRP would be a great fit, as would a medium-grain implementation of GURPS. Both would provide a fair dose of "reality", without seeming overly awkward or cumbersome.

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  20. Several of the PCs and NPCs in my Mutant Future campaign were cryogenically frozen soldiers that joined up with the PCs when they revived them in their explorations of an ancient military base. It has worked very nicely, providing the party with some members who are intimately familiar with technological artifacts (not to mention possessing computer skills!).

    I will have to look into TMP a little more, sounds interesting in idea if not execution.

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  21. As somebody who did a good portion of his formative roleplaying in Northern Idaho, I can absolutely confirm the popularity (at the time) of RPGs among the "armchair survivalist/paranoid wingnut" community. Think Dale Gribble from King of the Hill, and you'll know exactly the type of guy I mean.

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  22. James, you never fail to supply me with potent shots of that special kind of nostalgia that involves memories you had forgotten you even had. Rock on.

    Never played it either. I only thought to want to buy it after no stores I knew carried it anymore. Definitely one of those Mystique games though.

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  23. As somebody who did a good portion of his formative roleplaying in Northern Idaho, I can absolutely confirm the popularity (at the time) of RPGs among the "armchair survivalist/paranoid wingnut" community. Think Dale Gribble from King of the Hill, and you'll know exactly the type of guy I mean.

    Interesting. I imagine there's an article to be done about the differences in roleplay styles between isolated pockets of gamers (e.g. in my small hometown where we had one cape-wearer in school), urban affinity groups, and groups in less dense places like Lake Geneva. I imagine such regional differences are less pronounced now, post-Internet; all the more reason to write them up before such groups disappear altogether...

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  24. Interesting. I imagine there's an article to be done about the differences in roleplay styles between isolated pockets of gamers

    Looking forward to your article.

    Glad to see all the love for The Morrow Project.

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  25. Wally,

    RaHoWa, the role playing game, oh dear!

    I played both, Gamma World and Aftermath!, but it was the original Twilight 2000 that was really haunting. I was fascinated by the original Chivalry and Sorcery, but could never find anybody who had the rules. I don't have any ill feelings about GW. For my GW setting I had a tribe of mutant animals living in the New Mexican desert on the edge of the military weapons proving grounds and in which Native American spirits were active. The bad guys were a bunch of cannibals holed up in an old state prison they used as a fortress. But it was very much Man versus Nature kind of a game. Both, Aftermath! and Twilight 2000 were more tedious, fighting to survive kind of a deal without the magic, monsters or the walking dead.

    I wore an army jacket in high school, scared people with my political views, but the other high school kids I hung out with, who were also into guns and field jackets, did not play any role-playing games, and, come to think of it, neither did they end up enlisting into any kind of a miltary, except one other kid. At the same time, none of the (mostly D&D) RPG playing types I was gaming with, were into any kind of politics. The stereotype that came closest to anything otehr than sci-fi/fantasy was a shy skinny kid playing a huge barbarian bullying and beating up other players' in-game D&D characters. I am not making this one up! In the age of the first edition AD&D his was a 4th Edition character complete with the comic book style up-muscled barbarian hulk darwing, with bleached white hair and a miniature crossbow strapped to the wrist! I also had a DM, who was a history major, who believed that FDR was communist and that New Deal was the worst thing that happeened to America. This was as close as I ever came to survivalists and gun fanciers playing D&D.

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  26. I play Morrow Project with gun-loving survivalists in the midwestern US. Really. And have a good time. Rather than talk at length about that (odd) experience, I wrote about it on my own blog here:
    http://strangevistas.wordpress.com/2009/10/01/how-i-play-the-morrow-project/

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  27. As far as I can remember, I don't see any left-winged game in the same mood. Maybe I should write a marxist version of D&D ;)

    The closest thing to an early leftist RPG that comes to mind is the "new games" movement, which I believe sprung up in the 70s and still has some momentum in parts of Europe. Early D&D actually seems to me to occupy a very strange political space where new-age crystal-wavers got together with RAND-style military wargamers... sort of the nerd equivalent of the Rolling Stones at Altamont, but with fewer Hells Angels stabbing zoned-out hippies.

    Greg Costikyan has some interesting leftist or pseudo-leftist RPG-esque projects floating around -- his Brechtian "Bestial Acts" is an interesting stab at interactive political theatre, for instance.

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  28. For me and my D&D playing high school buddies back in the early 80’s, TMP was one of those games that separated the kids from the adults and the rumors that only people who played it were ex- military survivalist types ( might actually be true too!) That said it really is a cool game and was decades ahead of the post apocalypse survival craze you see in the main stream these days. It really should be republished again.

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  29. You want post-apocalypse survival craze? Go to the Balkans, Iraq, Sudan, parts of northern Mexico and a few other places! No need for nukes or cryogenics!

    With regards to left-wing or right wing role-playing, I think that it's all in how the DM establishes the setting. If the King is corupt, if the knights abuse their peasants if the church is oppressive and inquisition burns witches, with a band of thieves robbing the rich and feeding the poor, then you have what may be considred a left-wing D&D setting. By same token, you can impart an occult feel to the game, with all th classes of demons and devils, and detailed descriptions of hells presented in AD&D, not that many people do, DESPITE the occult feel of some of the artwork. I don't think that it's necessarily the right wing interprtation to accept AD&D assumptions at face value: GOOD Kings and Nobles, HAPPY peasants, INFALLIBLE clergy administering miracles. I guess AD&D CAN be construed as monarchust and conservative in its asumptions, but I don;t think that many players tink about these things.

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  30. I am running a MP Campaign at
    http://henrick.com/ca4

    I have always loved the world of the MP which is greatly expand in the modules. My Issue with the game rules is that they were fine in the 1980' but they really need a re working.

    I am debating switching the game system for the campaign to D20 Modern so that its more fleshed out.

    I Think the the best part of the MP is that the players start out:

    More Powerful than 90% of the People around them. In D&D terms they are LV10, when everyone else is LV 1. But to make up for this, They Are supposed to Help everyone rebuild the world.

    I find that a really interesting responsibility for the players than most Post Destruction Games do not use. "We give you lots of weapons, but go and help the common person" instead of "Go into this ancient place and take what you can for your use only". I really find that a excellent world for the players to be in.

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  31. have you seen the new playtest version?

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