Thursday, 11 September 2014

Review - EarthAD 2: Roleplaying after the Cataclysm

Review by Richard Williams

Authors: Brett M. Bernstein, Peter C. Spahn, Paul Bustamante, Aaron Kavli
Publisher: Precis Intermedia
One Line Summary: A one-stop shop for all your post-apocalyptic gaming needs.

“Welcome to EarthAD 2: Roleplaying After the Cataclysm. This game can be played as a one-shot adventure, series of adventures, or as a foundation for your own post-apocalyptic sagas. Because of the flexibility of the setting, your favorite movie, television program, comic, or novel can be the basis for your own stories. Regardless of your intentions, EarthAD 2 is a toolkit for your own post- apocalyptic adventures—designed to be versatile, so that only your imagination can limit your
enjoyment.”

The horrors of post apocalypse survival are nothing new to the seasoned gamer to the extent that rolling up your sleeves before downing your anti-rad pills and donning a full face gas mask is as familiar as a day at the office to many roleplayers.  So do you really need more of this heavily mined genre?

Yes. Yes you do.

Because there are as many different visions of the apocalypse as there are eyes to see it. From meteor strike to nuclear war to zombie plague outbreak to simple and generic “it happened”, there have been more stabs at the post-apocalyptic yarn than… I don’t know, some faintly disturbing simile involving stabbing. But LOADS, is my point. And any fan worthy of the name has imagined their own involvement in such dire times, each with their own take on exactly what to do when there’s more dust fields than oceans and your neighbour pops round to borrow a cup of sugar and eat your brains.

The creators of EarthAD 2 are not only aware of this need to legitimately take down your neighbours and co-workers, they share your passion and have allowed themselves to be influenced by just about every version of the apocalypse committed to film, radio, comic book, video game and IPCC report. The result? A rule book designed to help you play out whatever personal dreams of end of the world mayhem you’ve been harbouring ever since you first heard the phrase ‘nuclear winter’.

EarthAD 2 is a generic rules system so rather than being tied into one creator’s take on this oh-so popular subject you can now mix and match or simply play it old school vanilla but in a setting of your own devising. So far, so laudable. But how have they done?

Frankly, great. Seriously great.

Character creation is not complicated and once you’ve rolled up one PC you’ll find that you can whizz through it fairly quickly should you need to again. There’s a stock character list so comprehensive (from pure-strain human to evolved aquatic mutants, via cyborgs and space creatures) that I’m more annoyed at being spoiled for choice than anything else.

The skills list is similarly thorough and has aimed at covering every conceivable type of activity/ability you can think of in your efforts to survive the cataclysm. In one respect this is a good thing since you shouldn’t ever have to ask your GM “what should I roll to do XYZ?” and get a reply telling you to just roll whatever you think seems to be the closest stat. On the downside, however, the bewildering array lends itself more to rule-junkies than the gamers who rank simplicity above all else, a demographic which includes me.

The rules for using vehicles are simple and easy to use and, again, there is another list of ‘gimmicks’ (basically a skills and modifications list) for vehicles which gamers that like to personalise their machines will appreciate.

The chapter for combat and resolving actions (manfully dubbed ‘Getting Things Done’) is accessibly written, the core mechanic being:

'In order to determine if a task succeeds, first compute the skill total, which is equal to the sum of the relevant ability and skill ratings. Then roll two six-sided dice and calculate their sum. This gives us a dice total. A character accomplishes a routine task when his dice total is less than or equal to his skill total. Also, snake eyes (double ones) is an automatic success and boxcars (double sixes) is an automatic failure.

FOR EXAMPLE

Crowboy is attempting to determine how much a part for his transport will cost using his commodities skill. His reasoning ability is 4 and his skill level is 6—this makes a skill total of 10. He rolls two dice which result in a 5 and 4, for a total of 9. Since this total is less than the skill total of 10, the task is successful and Jim is very close with his assessment.'

Simple. So simple I copied and pasted it right out of the PDF rather than try to find a way to paraphrase, which would have probably sounded more complicated. Why make life harder?

There is a difficulty rating for most tasks which will make things harder or easier (typically harder) but players will find this intuitive since, as we know, some things are appreciable harder to do than others. I feel another dose of laziness coming on:

'FOR EXAMPLE

Kendell is attempting to open the door to an Old Earth shelter. Since the lock on the door is secured with advanced computer systems that are still functioning, the gamemaster decides that this is a challenging task—a difficulty rating of 4. Kendell has an Old Earth toolkit for just such an occasion. The gamemaster decides that the toolkit is a big help to Kendell and really does a lot of the work for him, so the difficulty is modified by -2diff. The final difficulty of the task is now a 2 (4 - 2).'

Straightforward, simple and easy to apply. There are also handy charts in the rules to help GMs make sure they’re using the right difficulty ratings and skills.

My gripe, at this stage, is not so much that the rules are complicated, it’s that there are so many things that have been taken into consideration that it can be a little daunting for first time GMs and those who are new to this system. But then, if you want a comprehensive guide to the end of the world, that’s what you can expect. Just don’t be surprised if your first few gaming sessions run with several breaks to check the rules.

But that’s all for the rules! The meat and bones of this book is examples of post apocalypse and how to game in them. Yes this book is designed for people to be able to run an end of the world scenario right off the top of their head while not worrying about how to make it work but it doesn’t fail to give you plenty to work with too.

There is copious material here for locations, environments, hazards, creatures and anything else you’re going to need to throw at the PCs. Likewise there are some sample adventures to get you on your feet and a raft of pre-generated characters for those, like me, who sometimes prefer to let someone else do all the work while you have all the fun.

In conclusion this rulebook is a ‘does what it says on the tin’ affair. Need something to support your game set after the zombies have launched the nukes at all the dinosaurs which were battling aliens that arrived on a meteor? EarthAD 2 makes this distinct possibility a gaming reality. There is a fair amount of minutia to get bogged down in so I can’t say that it’s the easiest thing to take on board quickly but several sessions should see gamers rattling along nicely.

Now, I’m off to club a super mutant with the claw from a mutated crab. And maybe play a game.