Thursday, August 5, 2021

Retrospective: The Free City of Krakow

As a child of the 1970s and '80s, the idea that there might one day be a thermonuclear war between the nations of NATO and the Warsaw Pact was easy to believe. Consequently, I had an immense fascination with post-apocalyptic stories and speculations. In the roleplaying realm, my earliest experiences were with TSR's Gamma World, which I adored (and still do). However, I think there's little question that Gamma World doesn't present a "realistic" version of the End, or at least not one that bears much resemblance to the likely outcome of the simmering Cold War tensions that formed the background of my early life.

That's why, when GDW released Twilight: 2000 in 1984, I didn't need to be convinced to pick up a copy. I was already a fan of GDW, but this game seemed to play to the company's strengths. Founded by wargamers, GDW seemed to me to evince the kind of hard-nosed, practical mindset I associated, rightly or wrongly, with military types. If I'd trust any gaming company to make a solid, grounded RPG about life after the Third World War, it was GDW. 

And, for the most part, my trust was well-founded. Twilight: 2000 was far from perfect – many of its rules were more cumbersome than they needed to be – but its presentation of a post-apocalyptic early 21st century was a compelling and, dare I say, believable one, given the parameters established in the game's setting. In addition, GDW thoroughly supported Twilight: 2000 with a wide array of supplementary modules, starting with The Free City of Krakow in 1985. This 44-page book was written by William H. Keith, one of the famed Keith Brothers, who had contributed so much excellent material to GDW's Traveller. 

The Free City of Krakow is a very interesting book. Though it does include outlines for multiple adventures, including one very significant one, the bulk of the book is gazetteer of the titular city, its inhabitants, and factions. According to the module's history section, Krakow declared itself a free city in late 1999, after its garrison, the Polish 8th Motorized Rifle Division, supported this declaration and its commander accepted the position of Police Prefect. Now, Krakow operates as a kind of "Casablanca of Eastern Europe," free from the control of the shattered remnants of the Warsaw Pact forces in the area, as well as the NATO stragglers that still survive. It's a pretty interesting set-up for a home base out of which player characters can operate, made all the more interesting by the presence of multiple plots, both large and small, in which they can participate.

The city of Krakow itself is described in detail, along with maps and information on each of the cities districts. Special attention is paid to the economics and infrastructure of the city, since these are the key to Krakow's continued survival. Equally important are the major NPCs who live here, starting with the head of the city council, known as the Dowodca (Leader) – a charismatic and self-aggrandizing fellow who views himself as a Man of Destiny. Pitted against him is the Police Prefect, a former major general in the Polish Army, who feels he would better run the city. Krakow also holds operatives of the KGB, CIA, and DIA, the Israeli Shabak, and other smaller groups, like crime syndicates. It's a cauldron of intrigue and duplicity – and the perfect environment for adventure.

Speaking of which, The Free City of Krakow provides plenty of adventure outlines for the referee to use, either directly or as seeds for creating his own. One of them is potentially quite significant, as it involves an invention that might enable microcomputers whose chips were destroyed by the EMPs of nuclear strikes and counterstrikes to function again. Needless to say, if true, this invention is something various parties would kill – or at least pay huge sums – for and it represents a major Maguffin with the potential to tip the balance of power in the post-war world. 

Re-reading The Free City of Krakow, what strikes me is how much emphasis GDW places on rebuilding civilization in the aftermath of World War III. Despite its reputation in some circles, Twilight: 2000 was not a game of ruthless murderhobo-ism. Yes, it could be played that way, but the supplementary material generally presented situations where the player characters could improve the lives of those they encountered. This is true of The Free City of Krakow too, which includes lots of detail on smaller settlements that exist in the shadow of the Free City and its bloodthirsty politics. Adventures and campaigns set in this region will inevitably present many opportunities for characters to use their skills to help pick up the pieces of the fallen world. It's precisely for this reason that I so like the module and the others that GDW published over the course of Twilight: 2000's run and why I look forward to one day playing the game again.


  1. I actually shied off from both Twilight:2000 and the earlier Aftermath games, despite being a fan of Gamma World. As you said, GW was so obviously implausible it wasn't something I ever took seriously, but the other two - they're still far too optimistic about what a full-blown nuclear exchange between superpowers would result in, but their greater realism was still a real turn-off for me. Only major game from GDW I never owned, and i still have no desire to.

    It was easy to believe that everything could end in a flash and
    a firestorm back in the day because that was reality - and it hasn't changed at all. We like to pretend there's no chance of a nuclear war happening, that the fall of the USSR has somehow ended that danger for good, that human error or misjudgement couldn't result in a civilization-ending exchange of warheads - but warheads are mostly still out there, as are the delivery systems for them. We spent a good part of this year speculating about how safe it was for an increasingly delusional Trump to have the "nuclear football" in his possession. It's clear that China's plans for expansion in the Pacific are going to lead to armed conflict eventually, whether it's a direct clash with teh US or them bullying the Philippines or Viet Nam or some other smaller nation. Russia is playing ugly games of brinkmanship, using deniable cyberterrorists to harry the US while sheltering behind the threat of their USSR-era nukes. Israel and Iran are likely to go to war over the latter's attempts to develop their own nuclear weapons, which is clearly a line Israel will not permit them to cross no matter what the cost. And virtually every terrorist group in the world would give anything to get their hands on an atomic weapon to detonate somewhere, almost anywhere, just to make a point, triggering who knows what response form the world's nuclear powers. Hell, some French submarine crew could have a really bad day and start WW3.

    And we try not to think about any of it, because so much time has passed since 1945 and nothing has happened and things will carry on without the nukes going off forever. Right?

    Twilight: 2000 is very much not my cup of tea.

    1. Dude, right there with you. I'm so worried right now about an increasingly demented Biden ordering a final solution to insufficiently vaxxed areas of the country and cleansing them in a nuclear fire.

      That said, the book and wargame of Team Yankee might be worthwhile prequel/Session 0 material for Twilight:2000. You could maybe run it like a Dungeon Crawl Classics character funnel.

    2. Biden is not demented. He is just very hard of hearing. That is not going to happen. Reagan was the only president with dementia and he didn't take anyone out with nukes.

    3. Personal politics are distasteful. That being said: c’mon folks, it’s a great game! To say that you’re what, too anxious concerning the Cold War (past and present) to play it???? The idea of it what, upsets you too much?
      I guess? Each to his own, and all, but man, it’s a game.
      You all RESLLY need to stay away from war games, you might get PTSD....

  2. Some of the T2k modules were a similar kind of sandbox adventure. The PCs are presented with a McGuffin that they cannot use themselves, but a larger faction could use. The GM is presented with a region in some detail, including multiple factions that would want the McGuffin, and could use it to make life better for more people. Black Madonna, for instance, is very similar.

    I remain a big fan of the game, its creators, and its setting.

  3. I too prefer the old 78' edition of Gammaworld, but for a more realistic, post apocalypse RPG we played Morrow Project a few times. These days, I would probably make up my own setting using BRP or some D20 version.

  4. Realistic portrayal of life (if you can call it that) right after the bomb isn't very gameable, it would closely resemble Threads (the British docudrama series, one of the most depressing things I've seen in my life) or Letters from a dead man (the 1986 Russian movie). Gamma World is about as serious as I want to go with this genre.

    However, you can go to places if considerable time, perhaps centuries passed after the bomb, and society functions again in its twisted ways. A canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller's novel has such a setting, you got your mysterious artifacts, dungeons and monsters (mostly other humans with ulterior motives) ready-made. Heck, the story starts with a bona fide dungeon crawl. It would be interesting to have a game with sessions down the timeline, one stage affecting the other like Civilization. Rebuilding and hubris, threatening mankind's works once again would make a splendid theme as well.

  5. I took awhile before posting as I had a lot of memories to try and unjumble here.

    So excited to purchase this game as it scratched my itch for love of all things military. My own group had mostly abandoned fantasy, created our own military RPGS, or had been running existing games like MSPE, James Bond, Espionage/Justice Inc., Behind Enemy Lines, Merc, etc. So another game like T2K was very welcome! Until we ran it. I don't recall details but I remember us not liking it, and abandoning it after a handful of sessions.

    That said, It really didn't scratch my itch for PA "Adventure"- It was maybe too grounded in reality and a year or two before I had come up with my own (crappy) "modern military" game system printed out via my Commodore 64 and MPS dot matrix printer, and two of the other guys in the group had collaborated on a WWIII game as well, printed out at a father's place of work, spiral bound, even including art (one was a budding comic book artist). We were SERIOUS about this stuff, lol.

    As regards to existing systems at the time- I guess Gamma World was too gonzo for us and got weirder in the second edition as far as we could tell. I had both, but nobody ever wanted to play GW. I got Aftermath when it was released and it influenced my own game in many ways but it was just too crunchy and poorly designed like most of FGU's output. I *think* we ran some Rogue 417 (?). The Morrow Project was the standout favorite from a theme/fictional viewpoint, and we just adapted it to our own rules or I might have even done so with MSPE.

  6. Didn't they update their backstory after the wall fell, to make a united Germany the catalyst that set things off?

  7. I never really played it, but it was one of my first RPGs and I still love to read the journal entry fluff in these books. Looking forward to the new version.