Saturday, September 12, 2020

REVIEW: Barbarians of the Ruined Earth

The foreword to the original 1978 edition of Gamma World cites the three books as its inspirations: Brian Aldiss's The Long Afternoon of Earth, Andre Norton's Star Man's Son, and Sterling Lanier's Hiero's Journey. The foreword also names a single movie, Ralph Bakshi's trippy 1977 cult classic, Wizards. 

That's quite an eclectic list, but one that nevertheless makes sense, given the freewheeling nature of Gamma World. Indeed, the foreword explicitly acknowledges this when it says,

The rules are flexible enough to allow for a variety of approaches to the game – anything from a strictly "hard" science-fiction attention to physical probabilities to a free-flowing Bakshian combination of science-fiction and fantasy. It is relatively simple to integrate these rules with the ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS™ rules, as they were edited with this in mind.

The AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, published the following year, includes a section entitled "Mutants & Magic" that provides brief guidelines for translating characters and monsters between the two games. Reading this section of the DMG was, in fact, what first alerted me to the existence of Gamma World. I sought the game out not only because I've always been a huge fan of post-apocalyptic literature, but also because I wanted to run a campaign that freely mixed magic and high technology. 

In this, I had been greatly inspired by the Ruby-Spears Saturday morning cartoon Thundarr the Barbarian, which broadcast only twenty-one episodes over the course of 1980 to 1981. Thundarr is decidedly a kids' show, but it crackles – one might even say Kirby krackles – with imagination. The world of savagery, super-science, and sorcery it imagines was very close to what I'd wanted to create by mixing Gamma World and D&D

I never succeeded in creating the "mutants & magic" setting of my dreams, which is why I greeted the arrival of Barbarians of the Ruined Earth with such pleasure. This game presents the setting I wanted forty years ago – but it's so much better than I could have done. Written by Mike Evans and using The Black Hack rules, Barbarians of the Ruined Earth (hereafter BotRE) presents  a"twisted, untamed, and dangerous" post-apocalyptic world that arose in the wake of an alien planet's destruction of the Moon, raining death upon the Earth and forever changing it, "as alien matter and genetic material mixed with our own." The new world that arose was one "of depravity, Stupendous Science, and nefarious Sorcery!"

Evans is up front about his indebtedness to Thundarr, as well as another Saturday morning cartoon, The Pirates of Dark Water (1991), and the most recent installment of the Mad Max series, Fury Road (2015). I'm a strong believer in acknowledging one's inspirations, which is why it's great see that BotRE includes its own Appendix N, which lists all of the media that influenced the development of the setting, not just those mentioned above. Like the inspirations of Gamma World's foreword, it's an eclectic collection, but reading the titles there, I immediately understood what Evans was trying to evoke. 

True to its Black Hack heritage, BotRE is a class-based RPG with eight original classes, four for humans and four for non-humans. The human classes consist of barbarians (obviously), death priests (who invoke miracles by calling upon the energy of all those who have died since the Great Calamity), scavengers, and urchins. The non-human classes consist of beastmen, robots, sorcerers (in keeping with the approach of Thundarr), and Vek (raptor men). It's a good mix of character types, providing lots of opportunities for different styles of play, in addition to offering insights into the current state of the Ruined Earth. 

In fact, that's true of most sections of the book. Evans excels at avoiding huge info-dumps or tedious exposition, preferring instead to offer little tidbits of detail or flashes of color that inspire rather than constrain the imagination. This is true of descriptions of equipment, animal companions, and hirelings, for example. The bestiary takes a similar tack and, as a result, is one of the best sections of the book. Described are 46 adversaries, ranging from flying saucer aliens to animated trash men to killer clowns and more. I cannot begin to do justice to the bestiary, which runs the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime. Magic, mutations, cyberware, and stupendous science (magic items) each get their own (though smaller) sections as well.

Aside from the bestiary, two other chapters stand out. The first is dedicated to GM's tools. It includes many random tables to aid the GM in creating adventures, generating NPCs, villages, religions, weather, weird mounts, and other related topics. The second offers an overview of the Western Lands – post-apocalyptic Los Angeles and Santa Monica. Thirteen unique locales are named, along with short descriptions of each. One location, Nukatomi Plaza, is a massive arcology, presented as a dungeon for exploration by characters seeking knowledge, power, and loot. Taken together, these two chapters give the GM plenty of ideas to use immediately or to serve as 

I should take a moment to speak about the art and layout of BotRE. The book is profusely – and colorfully – illustrated by a variety of artists. Standouts include Kelvin Green, David Lewis Johnson, and James V. West, but truthfully all the art is top notch and does a terrific job of evoking the game's heavy metal meets '80s Saturday morning cartoon vibe. The layout and graphic design by Matt Hildebrand are clean and attractive and nicely complement the content.

All in all, Barbarians of the Ruined Earth is a smart, vibrant, and fun take on the post-apocalyptic genre, presented in an engagingly written and pleasingly presented 162-page book. It's everything my younger self wanted in a game of this kind – wild mutations, sinister sorcery, ancient technology, and, above all, fun. Reading through this book, I found myself thinking of ideas for characters, adventures, and locations, which is exactly what a good RPG should do. This is not a game simply to be read; it demands to be played. Grab a copy and roll some dice: those mutant overlords and tyrannical sorcerers aren't going to defeat themselves.

19 comments:

  1. Congratulations on starting the blog again. Double kudos for opening the comments again, which were always a great feature of this blog.
    I didn't know that Wizards was referenced in Gamma World. Pretty cool.

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  2. I have this book, haven't had a chance to play/run it, but given my love of Gamma World, I had to pick it up.

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  3. Such a pleasure to be reading your posts again!! Thanks so much for doing this.

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  4. Thanks so much for the review! I really appreciate it!

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    1. Seconded. Thanks for the kind words, James!

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    2. Thirded! Awesome review, James, and thanks for the shout-out!

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    3. Fourthed! Thanks so much, James -- and thanks, Mike, for including me on this one. Definitely one of my favorite projects I've worked on.

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  5. Sounds to me like Nukatomi Plaza is a shout out to Nakatomi Plaza from Die Hard.

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    1. You are almost certainly correct. I didn't catch it, because, believe it or not, I have never seen Die Hard.

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    2. It is totally a nod to Die Hard ;P

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  6. Great game. Great review. And great to have Grognardia back, James!

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  7. Glad to see you back posting! Lots of good stuff so far, thanks for sharing.

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  8. Thank you for opening the comments! And of course, for coming back, we missed you a lot.

    I was really interested in this game, as Mike Evans always makes graet games. But I really dislike The Black Hack!

    I won't say it's a bad game, I'm sure it's not, and I'm sure it works as intended, but I don't like its specific rules and systems, in the same way I don't like avocado or sushi (raw fish, yewk!), not because it's bad, but because I just don't, no clear explanation.

    So I get I'll pass this time.

    Thank you again, James.

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    1. Lol. I get you. The roll under isn't for everyone. It worked for my group and I've watched many casual gamers grok the rules super easy compared to other D&D variants where I have to keep reminding them of powers, rules, etc.

      With its simple rules and more theater of the mind I felt it was a perfect fit for Thundarr-style action. No measuring distance, no modifiers, tracking ammo, etc.

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  9. Also I'd be remiss to mention it here- there is a great Barbarians community on FB:)

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/3376417885725581

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  10. Good to be reading Grognardia again.
    : )

    RE: BotRE

    I am not familiar with Black Hack. How do you find this game stacks up against Mutant Future? Just curious, as it always struck me that MF (when combined with B/X for magic) would be a great way to get to that "magical post-apocalyptic" setting you're looking for. Like you, the genre is right in my wheel house.

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