Monday, November 21, 2011

REVIEW: Nuclear Sunset: The Southwest

If there's a recent old school game that I feel hasn't gotten the attention it deserves, it's Mutant Future from Goblinoid Games. I personally think that's a shame, because, while it is a very good retro-clone for playing Gamma World, it's actually much more expansive than that. The combination of its compatibility with Labyrinth Lord and its lack of a specific setting makes Mutant Future a good foundation on which to build a variety of gonzo science fantasy campaigns. Ironically, those two qualities may also partly explain why the game hasn't received the love I think it ought to have received, which is why I've thought for a while now that what Mutant Future needed was a solid campaign supplement to show off its possibilities.

Apparently, Charles Rice had similar thoughts and decided to do something about it by producing Nuclear Sunset: The Southwest, the first installment in a gonzo post-apocalyptic setting that takes its esthetic cues from Westerns, but whose content shows a mix of influences, including UFOlogy. I'll admit that I was quite prepared to dislike Nuclear Sunset: The Southwest. Being a big fan of Westerns, I tend to be more than a little snobby about the way the genre is so often misused and caricatured, especially in crossovers with other genres. And while a post-apocalyptic setting is a very good fit for Western themes and esthetics, I was nevertheless apprehensive. I've seen too many poorly executed Western-influenced creations not to assume the worst.

For the most part, my apprehension was baseless. Nuclear Sunset: The Southwest is a well done little setting, described in a 24-page PDF and selling for $1.99. One of its best qualities is that it takes itself seriously without being self-serious. That is, this isn't a silly setting, with mutant horses acting as lawmen or anything like that, but it's also not a setting that's so straitlaced that a funky mutant animal or plant character is an impossibility. Silliness is a big danger in post-apocalyptic settings, especially those that adopt a 50s B-movie approach to mutation as Mutant Future (and Gamma World) does. On the other hand, a big part of the fun of games like Mutant Future are the wildly improbable mutants. There's thus a fine line between inadvertently straying into parody and bleeding all the fun out a post-apocalyptic RPG setting -- a line that I think Nuclear Sunset: The Southwest walks pretty well.

This supplement details an area of indeterminate size situated in the southwest of the former United States. I say "indeterminate" because its single map doesn't include a scale, though any familiar with the region should quickly recognize its major locales: Rhino (Reno), Salt Lick (Salt Lake City), Tusk (Tucson), Vega (Las Vegas), etc. The lack of a scale isn't a deal-breaker by any means, especially when one can easily consult a real world map to determine how far Reno is from Salt Lake City, but it is an annoyance. Fortunately, there's a lot of clever and inspiring ideas in Nuclear Sunset: The Southwest to make up for this oversight, chief among them being the implication that extraterrestrials from Groom Lake/Area 51 are present in the post-apocalyptic world, now freed from the oversight of the defunct US government and engaged in mysterious activities throughout the Southwest.

Of course, the aliens present only one possible source of conflict in the setting. In addition to the struggles between various settlements, there's the rising power of New Aztekia, led by the Lord of the Sun, not to mention several power groups independent of any settlement. There's Hell's Heart, a coalition of criminal gangs; the Nightgliders, who seek the power of man-made flight; the 88th, a collection of human and android soldiers seeking to rebuild America; the Marshals, itinerant self-appointed keepers of law and order; and Uforia, which seeks contact with the aforementioned aliens. Throughout Rice peppers the supplement with adventure hooks and off-handed references to people, places, and events intended to serve as inspiration to the referee in making the Southwest his own setting.

Nuclear Sunset: The Southwest is written in clear, occasionally evocative language, though not without typos and editorial errors. It includes both black and white and color art throughout. I could have done without the colored backgrounds on each page, since they sometimes made the text harder to read. Much like Blackmarsh, Nuclear Sunset: The Southwest is more of a sketch of a setting than something more complete. Whether one views that as is a virtue or a flaw depends on what one expects out of a setting supplement. I myself was largely happy with its level of detail, though I will admit that I was disappointed that some aspects of the implied setting -- New Aztekia, for example -- get very little detail. Likewise, this product is almost entirely stat-less, which no doubt broadens its utility to players of other post-apocalyptic games, but it does somewhat call into question its being touted as a Mutant Future supplement.

In the end, I like Nuclear Sunset: The Southwest; there's the germ of a fun setting in here. I just wanted more, even if, at $1.99, it's actually quite a bargain. Perhaps Charles Rice will return to the Nuclear Sunset setting and produce additional products that offer some of the details I wished had been included in this one.

Presentation: 6 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a sketch of a setting to use as the basis for your own post-apocalyptic roleplaying game campaign.
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest either in post-apocalyptic settings or using someone else's setting for your own campaign.


  1. There could easily be so many awesome settings for Mutant Future, it's a shame this one hasn't been more fleshed out or continued by other supplements.

  2. From what I've read from Charles Rice's blog, I think he does eventually intend to follow it up with more supplements. He recently went to work for Mayfair Games, sold Vigilance Press, and moved, so I suspect it put some of those plans on hold. It'll be interesting to see what he does next.

    As a d20 Modern devotee, I admired Rice's work on the "Blood and..." line for RPG objects. He tends to write shorter stuff along the same lines as Adamant Entertainment. I liked them because it was easy to mix and match stuff, and the cost to collect was ridiculously low.

    If I recall correctly, he also did a couple of things for their excellent Darwin's World setting as well.

  3. I wonder if the lack of Mutant Future material comes from a a lack of long running Mutant Future campaigns. The OSR, and therefore the hypothetical product's target audience, is very big on the DIY philosophy. It would seem to me that most people who would write such a product are playing D&D much more than MF, and therefore wouldn't have had anything that could be turned into a MF adventure or setting.

  4. This looks like an interesting background.
    @ Evan- I think you are on to something. In D&D games you have pretty stable racial cultures and iconic monsters to work with.
    Gamma World type games are more chaotic and open.
    I think what I'm trying to say is I can't think of an exmple of an over arching campaign background for Gamma World that you could with D&D such as Greyhawk, Mystara, Forgotten Realms, etc..
    Or at least not as well known or developed.

  5. PS- I haven't read Darwin's World and I wasn't including Rifts.
    But each group's New York, Great Lakes region, Texas, Knights of Genetic Purity kingdoms, Sleeth colleges or whatever is going to be different than every other group's capmaign background.

  6. I did a rather similar Mutant California setting for a pbp I ran, with Baywatch GELFS, Sunnydale Nosferatu, and the ruins of Aztlan Free State and the NAU (North American Union) - map is here (SFW):

  7. There isn't much power progression in core MF, arguably 'Mutants & Mazes' (MF appendix with D&D style PC progression) is better for longer term play. The way some monsters were massively boosted from LL (morlocks) while others stayed the same (wolves), and the disparity between PC races (tons of hp, low attacks) vs 'monster' races based on hd (low hp, high attack accuracy) was also a bit of a problem.

    Maybe running it as Mutants & Mazes but with PCs starting around 5th level would work for a longer term game.

  8. This... this kinda sounds like a more gonzo Fallout, especially the original ones and New Vegas.