Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Retrospective: Aftermath!

If you've been in the hobby long enough, one of the things you eventually learn is that there are some games around which have sprung up, weed-like, a number of "facts" that nearly everyone accepts as true, except for those gamers who've actually bothered to play the game in question. FGU's 1981 post-apocalyptic RPG Aftermath! is one such game. In my youth, Aftermath!, like most FGU games, was generally held to be an unplayable, complicated mess compared to other post-apocalyptic games like Gamma World or even The Morrow Project. Like all such conventional wisdom, there is some truth to it, but there's also much that this common impression gets wrong and frustratingly so, as, beneath it all, Aftermath! is actually a pretty good game -- or rather, it provides the framework for a pretty good game.

Like many FGU games, Aftermath! came in a boxed set, with three rulebooks (a basic rulebook, a player's book, and a referee's guide), along with an introductory scenario. The rulebooks range in length for 48-64 pages each and, taken together, include everything you'd need to play. Indeed, they contain more than most people would need to play, as Aftermath! was quite exhaustive in its treatment of topics pertaining to post-apocalyptic gaming. Everything, from diseases to mass battles to mutations to the effects, physical and social, of cannibalism are discussed, along with many more topics of potential interest. The referee could thus pick and choose precisely how much detail he wanted in his campaign and run with it.

And that was the real beauty of Aftermath!, the thing that a lot of gamers overlooked while staring wide-eyed at the lengthy combat and movement rules: the tool kit approach it took to the post-apocalyptic genre. Whereas both Gamma World and The Morrow Project presented coherent (I use the term loosely) settings to use with your campaign, Aftermath! did no such thing. It leaves open the question of how the world ended. Indeed, it leaves open the question of what the post-fall world is like as well, not to mention how long after the fall the campaign begins and what the conditions of the ruined Earth might be.

Instead of presenting a campaign setting ready to use, Aftermath! offers lots of options, trusting the referee to build the world he and his players will most enjoy. Thus, the world might be brought low by World War III, an alien invasion, a comet impact, an epidemic, or even the return of magic. Obviously, the game doesn't include full support for all these options in terms of rules, but many of them are given a solid treatment and the game provides the rules necessary for the referee to adjudicate the most common situations relating to each possible scenario. Consequently, an Aftermath! campaign might be a gritty, realistic one in which humanity destroyed itself in a nuclear holocaust or it could be a more gonzo one in which a genetically engineered virus wiped out much of the species but gave many of the survivors bizarre mutations. The game even supports -- with stats -- playing in the world of Planet of the Apes, if that's the kind of thing you enjoy.

Rules-wise, Aftermath! is definitely in line with most of FGU's other games. It's complex, involving some math and a fair number of charts. I found it a bit more complicated than Daredevils, whose rules are similar (no surprise, as both games share the same designers), but, with the exception of the overly fiddly movement rules, I don't think they're any more complex than many games produced nowadays. That's not to say they're to my taste; I prefer my games a fair bit simpler, generally speaking. But I don't think that Aftermath! quite deserves the reputation it had in my younger days of being "unplayable." Like all RPGs, particularly early ones, it demands a creative and mentally agile referee to be fun, one who knows when to use and when to ignore rules. So, perhaps it's truer to say that, as an "out-of-the-box" game, Aftermath! leaves a lot to be desired.

However, I'm not sure it's fair to judge Aftermath! on the same standards as RPGs written for mass market of newcomers to the hobby. Aftermath! is most definitely an "advanced" game, which is to say, it's not written for novice gamers. The game assumes that players are already familiar with what a roleplaying game is and how such a game works. Likewise, it assumes that the referee and players alike have a desire to create their own setting rather than use one that's been pre-packaged and presented to them for their use. It's the gaming equivalent of being given a large cookbook and told to make dinner for one's friends rather than being given a take-out menu from which to order a dinner for them. There's nothing wrong with take-out food, but, sometimes, one wants to make a meal from scratch. So it is with RPGs and Aftermath! is a game written for those who want to make their own post-apocalyptic RPG, using the many "recipes" it provides within its pages.

If you're interested, you can still get copies of Aftermath!, along with some newer supplements direct from FGU here.

28 comments:

  1. I played Aftermath! back in the day. I found it far from "unplayable" though it was deadly to characters.

    I often find myself drawn back to the game, though finding an audience is a bit tougher these days.

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  2. I was one of those that loved it back in my gaming youth. We made a number of flow charts that helped keep us on track when doing things that left us confused.

    I have very fond memories of two campaigns run with Aftermath. A Post-Biological/Nuclear war setting in New Orleans and a post-asteroid strike run set in the Ozarks.

    I'll always remember the look on my players' faces when the learned what was in the gumbo ......

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  3. I've played Aftermath; in the hands of someone who knows the game, it's quite playable, reasonably smooth, and has a lot of interesting mechanical features. I like the game, and I'd be happy to play it again; if given the choice myself to chose a game I might chose it for a series of post-apocalyptic adventures, or, I might chose Greg Porter's EABA (an entirely different game, mechanically, but similar in spirit in its dedication to being a toolkit ruleset, and providing mechanics that lead to "logical" simulation).

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  4. I think it might have been the hit location graphic that did it. Round our way it was to be found clutched in the same hands that held Squad Leader, so I confess I never gave it a fair shake.

    Your review makes me think I should have; I never knew it as anything other than a legendary combat system.

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  5. Believe it or not, I had a friend in college who used the Aftermath engine to power his fantasy campaign. He'd managed to work a lot of the kinks out of the system, as it ran fairly smoothly. I'd had no experience with the system and found it fun. We used the standard Aftermath character sheets, probably due to the absolute lack of anything decent in desktop publishing when I was a university lad (Macs hadn't been invented yet).

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  6. I played it, so it wasn't unplayable. However, it cured me of what was, at the time, an ever increasing desire for "realism." I read it as well, and the presentation turned me off. That said, all this may have something to do with the gaming group as well. They were crap.

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  7. This is one of those games I really, REALLY wish I owned.

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  8. Thanks for the retrospective, James. I've never played Aftermath, but have lovehated Space Opera for going on 30 years.

    Can you comment not on Aftermath's merits per se, but rather on its potential utility to someone with a well-rounded collection of PA games?

    Thanks in advance.

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  9. I've loved Aftermath! since the early 80s. The last time I ran the game was about ~1996 and I have used the materials in every PA game I've run up to the present. As a resource, it is excellent.

    In fact, I've recently found a set of old campaign notes from the mid 90s and have been posting them on my blog: http://asshatpaladins.blogspot.com/search/label/Atomic%20Thursday

    I post a new bit of the campaign every Thursday (Atomic Thursday!).
    Check them out if you are interested!

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  10. I strongly disagree, compared to D&D in all of its incarnations up to 3rd edition as well as Gamma World, some of Aftermath's rules are ridiculously complicated and bog down gameplay, especially with combat. In fact, that's why I got rid of it, and I have no regrets for doing so.

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  11. Ironically, I was just on the FGU site yesterday trying to figure out if I should order any of the Aftermath stuff I didn't own.
    I played a fair bit of Aftermath long ago, and would say it's better than most FGU games from the same time. Far better, in my opinion, than Space Opera. Still, while I enjoyed it at the time, it is, I believe, inarguably overly complex. In some cases, laughably so. However, I loved the toolkit approach of the game (I'm in the market for a new Science Fiction game that takes that kind of approach at the moment.) I've never read a published Aftermath scenario (I lost the little one that came with the rules very early on), so I'm curious to see what people have done with the toolkit. I'll probably check them out.

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  12. > and would say it's better than most FGU games from the same time.

    "Different", anyhow, since of course it wasn't originally designed by/for FGU: acquired from Phoenix along with Bushido (which was already ex. Tyr Games).

    @James, aside: which FGU games were /not/ held to be unplayable, complicated messes? (not necessarily for answering in this post, but curious as to which & why)

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  13. To answer an earlier "Open Friday" question, this is another of those games I chose not to play "way back when" and now regret.

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  14. It's funny, but each of the end-o-the-world games seems to have a movie they would be perfect for. Gamma World for a fantasy apocalype like Wizards, Morrow Project for a Logan's Run or other "light" version of the apocalype, or Aftermath for more gritty "real" ones like Mad Max or the recent Book of Eli or The Road (which also had little in the way of how the world ended).

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  15. I think most people were scared by the density of the rule set. Large books with very little white space and small print. But the system worked well and was quite fun to play. The rules were actually well organised if you knew how the game worked. Of course, knowing Bushido and Daredevils was a great advantage in this.

    I ran a post-Stars Are Right Cthulhu game set in New York using these rules and it was quite fun. [It was assumed the players were made of sterner stuff than most of the population and could actually cope with the sanity-shattering effect of the Mythos.]

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  16. I played in a demo game of Aftermath at DragonCon a few years ago with one of the game's authors. He had a one-page summary of the rule mechanics, which made comprehending the system much easier. Makes me wonder if Aftermath would have achieved its status as being complex-to-the-point-of-unplayability if the game had actually been, y'know, edited.

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  17. We used Aftermath to run games based on source material as far apart as Mad Max, the Survivalist and V, and it seemed to work fine for all of those. Sometimes I get the urge to replace my original set with the new stuff and see if I can take it for a spin again.

    Now, if you want to talk complicated games, may I point you in the direction of any of Leading Edge's boxed sets - like Phoenix Command or Living Steel. Those were more complex than Aftermath.

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  18. @Monte: Have you had the chance to check out Starblazer Adventures? It's a FATE/Fudge game so it's not at all old-school, but it's a very impressive sci-fi RPG toolkit. Hell, you can play with sentient battle cruiser AND alcoholic Ewok PC's *in the same party* a la Bank's Culture books...

    And it's fairly crunchy too; no hand-wavey hippie bulls#it here. No sir! ;)

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  19. I ran an Aftermath campaign in highschool. Our group also played games like Star Fleet Battles, Third Reich and Squad Leader, so dense rules did not dissuade us.

    Still, we WERE in high school. In a somewhat Mad Max-ish campaign, I devised an economy based upon drugs as currency. Not that any of us had any personal experience beyond Cheech & Chong movies.

    As I recall, a large difference between Aftermath and D&D was the amount of rules expertise required by the player. In most incarnations of 70s-90s D&D (until the splat book explosion), the player did not need much rule set expertise. Aftermath required a lot of book keeping (is this a critical success? then increase your talent that pertains to that skill by .05 or something) in addition to many rolls on different charts.

    As another reminder of the past, I was forced to cancel the campaign because my parents (who barely tolerated RPGs) destroyed my rulebooks because I was reading them when I should have been sleeping or studying or something. Yes, really. So I began a Rolemaster campaign because I was not yet deterred by cumbersome character generation.

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  20. Nice Russ Pitts article on Aftermath here.

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  21. irbyz sayeth -
    @James, aside: which FGU games were /not/ held to be unplayable, complicated messes? (not necessarily for answering in this post, but curious as to which & why)

    Villains & Vigilantes, while it certainly had bits that were... quirky... by modern standards, and a few spots that really needed to be sanded down to prevent broken ouchiness (there were some abuses with Growth that were... yeah), was eminently playable, and very well supported for the time.

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  22. My group and I loved Aftermath!, and played many campaigns of it back in the day. It was quite playable, and we were the kind of players that didn't mind a little complexity (loved Chivalry and Sorcery too). I have to admit I still look through the books wistfully now and then. No way I could get anyone to play it now.
    The thrill of battling intelligent super-rats over a can of stew... good times...

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  23. @knightsky: I'd love to have a copy of that summary sheet!

    We played it back in the day. Lord knows how. Probably by ignoring a lot of it, like we did in AD&D. lol

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  24. When my friends and I played Aftermath! back in the day, we had nicknamed it AmmoQuest!. You see you only had so many bullets to start and the only way to get more bullets was to take them from people who had them and who would, of course, use them to prevent you from getting them. When encountering a rival group of survivors, all other groups of survivors were, of course, rivals in the game of survival, the goal was trying to come up with a plan to get their ammo while expending the least amount of ammo possible in the process either by using your precious ammo on them or they using their coveted ammo on you. It never seemed to work according to plan and we never had enough ammo that we felt secure, not to mention clean food, water and gas; don't get me started on gas!. All and all most of our time was spent in resource management rather than adventuring, still it was a hoot and we had a great time. Thinking about it, I miss that kind of gaming today, where most games you play gloss over the details of how much food to bring and how to feed your horses in the desert.

    ED

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  25. Edited? Did someone just say "edited" in relation to FGU games?

    I was so shocked to read that, I fumbled my roll on Aftermath's Stop Running Table and fell right over.

    Snark aside, we have to give it to FGU for fostering - however unintentionally - creativity and resourcefulness among players.

    Everyone, and I do mean everyone, played House Rules campaigns for C&S, SO & Aftermath because the games simply could not be played as set forth in their rulebooks.

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  26. I'd have the "inert" sons be something to be celebrated. A sign of divine favor. Perhaps closeness to the living earth? Something that is a responsibility of a kind, that you need to put in a place of honor and pray in the presence of. After all, a simple failure is merely "inert." A 1 should be something special.

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  27. My group played Aftermath! in high school (mid-80's) and it was fantastic. I was game master, and as long as I knew what was going on, it was fast and smooth. The key is to be forgiving of the complexity and use it only when necessary.

    And where else can you find an old helicopter and teach yourself how to fly it to destroy the tank that is defending the last store house of vaccine against the mutating engineered virus?

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  28. Had great fun with Aftermath! back in the day. The perfect game for me. I'd walk around the city, visualizing places as being overgrown, destroyed. Complex but I think playable, even back when I was 16. I also really like the evocative box text. "Illuminates the ruins with a bloody light..." I needed that game, at that time, and we thrived. I went from that to Skyrealms of Jorune, and thus to a little over ten years of Traveller, then Battletech.

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