Penang Review: After the End 2 – The New World

It’s been a while since I sat down to review the After the End (AtE) series by +Pk Levine  (the Rev Pee Kitty, Jason “PK” Levine, the assistant Line Editor for GURPS). I did a detail review of the first book, Wastelanders, which covered the characters book.

These worked-example series are not new for GURPS. The first and most spectacularly successful, with at least 20 volumes either published or in the works, was GURPS Dungeon Fantasy. Followed shortly by the less successful but in many ways more awesome GURPS Action, the over-the-top 400-point Monster Hunters (and for those who want to dial it down to a “mere” 200 points, you can get the Sidekicks volume), and now After the End.

To brush up on what’s come before, first go read Sunday Review: GURPS After the End 1 – Wastelanders. I’ll wait.

OK. Let’s get to it.

The Highlights

The second volume in worked-example series is the campaign book, and AtE2 is no exception. It’s concise one-page Table of Contents gives you 54 pages of content (including the index, which is two pages long). The book is divided into four chapters:

  1. The End. This walks you through defining how civilization ended, long ago. (5 pages)
  2. Wasteland Hazards. Depending on your choices for The End, this leads you through challenges that will have to be overcome in day to day adventuring. (21 pages)
  3. Boldly Going Forth. Each of the topics covered (my notation for what SJG calls C-HEADS) is a particular challenge to be met. Survival, terrain and ruins, combat, tech . . . even making friends in a dog-eat-people world. (19 pages)
  4. Post-Apocalyptic Game Mastering. A short section on styles of campaigns and how the feel of your game will reflect in the challenges and their resolution. (4 pages)
Introduction

The core of the introduction is perhaps a quarter-page of text. It lays out the mission of the book, which contains a very important note, made implicitly. 
The hazards that are to be faced are going to be laid out in detail, and those hazards are meant to be very well known to the players. The largest chapter in the book, Chapter 2 on hazards, is not supposed to be a surprise. The things required to survive, if not prosper or thrive, in the post-apocalyptic wasteland are things the players’ characters have been living with and doing all their lives. When they stop doing these things, they die. 
So don’t hide that – it’s player-facing info. In fact, here’s a player facing list of things that each skill, advantage, and ability can do provided by No School Grognard.
Chapter One: The End

To play a game set after the apocalypse, you have to know how it went down. Chapter 1 talks about different possible (not to say equally plausible) endings, and asks the classic SciFi question: what then?
Cause and Effects

The end will have different shapes and sizes. If a mysterious radiation surge or teleportation event simply removes 99.99% of the world’s population, leaving but a million random folks on the globe, that’s going to be very different than World War 5.
The key bit is in the lead-in paragraph to the topic. A single cause of the end of the world is unlikely. Ten at once is unbelievable. Also, while I’m glad the book didn’t go into it, a look at the difference between Proximate Cause and Ultimate Cause is useful here for prospective GMs. The ultimate cause is often the basic “what the heck happened?” question. The proximate cause or causes is what occurred as a result of that. Sure, the bombs fell, but it was the damage to food production, power, and loss of the transport network that killed civilization.
Each subtopic – a cause and it’s effects – is given three blocks of information. How the disaster might have been the primary cause of the fall of civilization, how this might have arisen as a secondary effect of some other cause, and what hazards are to be encountered as a result.
Listed Hazards include nuclear war, cosmological events, giant impact of a space object like a comet or asteroid, lethal pathogens, nature gone awry, SkyNet, societal breakdown, zombies, and aliens.
The primary cause information is pretty sparse, because mostly the intro text covers what the disaster is, and you don’t need to think too much about how a global nuclear war might be a bad thing. The secondary causes information is more subtle, because it talks about which items might likely spring from others (nuclear holocaust on a local scale to try and sterilize a run-away pathogen? Terrifyingly plausible). The key bit of secondary effects is when an event is unlikely as a secondary. A world-killing asteroid is not an also-ran . . . it’s the main event.
The most utility for the GM is in the Appropriate Hazards section, which is of course exactly what it says: which of the hazards detailed in Chapter Two are associated with this disaster.
Tech Level

A very, very, very short discussion of the implications of what the Tech Level (TL) of a world was at the time of its end introduces some key points . . . and then leaves them on the table for you to figure out. The warning can be summarized as “high TL stuff can change your campaign a lot,” with the caveat that low starting funds will limit how much gear can be had (that’s “nearly none,” since a fully functional Glock will run you more than 10x your starting funds in most cases).
How Long Ago

The final subtopic in this chapter discusses some interesting bits on when the world actually ended. The book is definitively not about living through it – thought that might make a fun one-shot mini-campaign – so the book talks about the implications of the space between the fall and the game. I’m going to rephrase the sections in terms of generations of about 30 years.
50 years ago. Plenty of people are still alive to remember the fall. In terms of 2015 (for easy math), the apocalypse happened in 1965. One can easily imagine someone who was in college or early adulthood being an elderly sage about the way life used to be. Or, if the world ended in 2015, the gae is set in 2065.
150 years ago. Everyone living at that time, even infants, is dead. The fall happened in 1865 – the US Civil War or the Crimean War ended the world. It will be difficult to imagine or know how people lived then, and even harder to imagine how they think. Dueling had gone out of fashion in the early to mid 1800s, and the dress sword was no longer the mark of a free man. And of course, formal US Slavery ended in this time period. If the world ended in 2015, the game is in 2165.
250 years ago. The world ended in 1765, before the American Colonies of England broke away. If the world ended in 2015, the game in 2265. Note that the TV show Babylon 5 is set in this time frame in the future – so uninterrupted, the world can be expected to be entirely different.

Chapter Two: Wasteland Hazards
The chapter on hazards is, by a narrow margin, the longest in the book. It details the kind of threats the players will face. It also makes explicit what was implied in the introduction: share this with your friends.

After making these decisions, it’s important for the GM to share them with the players, so they know how to build their characters. He doesn’t have to reveal any secrets or be overly specific: “In this world, rogue bots will be a huge issue. They’re everywhere. Because they scorched the sky, everything is freezing as well, so be prepared for ice and snow. Radiation, toxins, munitions, and nanotech will pop up occasionally. Other hazards will be relatively rare.”

Each type of hazard is given some thoughtful detail. While not precisely written up like a trap in Dungeons and Dragons, the game mechanical effects of encountering the hazard are always listed. Also listed are the skills required to detect, avoid, diagnose, and cure (or at least treat) the effects of the hazard. The traits that come in handy pop off the page thanks to judicious use of bold text for such.
Some of the treated hazards, and notes about them.
Chemicals and Munitions. This details the nasty byproducts of a modern society, stripped of the protections that usually arise around such things. Spills, dumps, and weapons are all covered, as are mutagens and other nasties.
Climate. When you can’t just go inside and shut the doors, trusting your air conditioning to protect you, weather and climate is a real threat. Even if you’re not basing the campaign around climate gone wrong, extreme heat or extreme cold can be lethal by themselves lacking appropriate gear and preparation. If that storm happens to be acid rain, or the sandstorm is blowing around a radioactive particulate too? Well, sucks. Also give a paragraph is the all-important topic of safe drinking water.
Disease. The hits keep on coming. Even if disease was the actual cause of the downfall, it’s not likely to just go away the way a nuke does. Sickness and disease are constant companions in the world, doubly so if it actually was the root cause of all the pain. The rules talk about diagnosis, discovery, interacting with diseases and their victims, immunity, and provides some sample diseases, such as cholera and mega-flu, and deals with weaponized versions of each.
Gangs. When law and order breaks down, people organize for good or ill. As this subsection is effectively one of the “nasty NPC” subsections, it’s three pages by itself. Encampments and raiding parties are details (and more), plus good advice on general attitude of a gang, from desperate (we do this ’cause we have to) to depraved (we do it for fun). Gangers are given mini-templates and some lenses as well, with three ganger subtypes (raider, O.G. (?), and Boss) and two lenses.
Mutants. A bit on detecting mutants, a bit on curing them. And then three more pages of a mutant bestiary. Human(ish) mutants, animals (with endearing names like killigator), and plants. 
Nanotechnology. Swarms of robots designed to destroy. As a hazard, you get the limited disassembler nano, the self-propagating grey goo, and two types of nanovirus – the nanoburn (delivers toxic damage after paralyzing you) and the proteus virus (rewrites your DNA; could even be beneficial . . . but probably isn’t).
Paramilitaries. Like gangs but better. And worse. More heavily armed and organized than gangs, these ex-mililtary, ex-law enforcement, ex-mercenary, or simply just a bunch of guys. The key is the organization and leadership tend to be more structured, and the gear tends to be more, well, militaristic. The section covers motivation, leadership, and resources, and then gives three sample soldiers. These groups are a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they are very, very dangerous. On the other . . . so much loot.
Radiation. The rules for radiation and radiation points are in AtE1. The rest of this short section gives skills for dealing with radiation and the dosages emitted by different threats.
Rogue Bots. Combat robots for the win. Could be an omnipresent threat (Reign of Steel; Terminator), or a one-off. How to determine a ‘bots strengths and weaknesses, and how to reprogram it. Two sample combat robots to kill characters.
Zombies. If you really, really want to go this way, buy the book (GURPS Zombies). But for this book, you get a healthy three pages so you can play your own version of 28 Days Later or The Walking Dead. Discusses variations on how they were caused/created, how they spread their condition, and two sample zombies. Then a subsection on horde combat for when you’re beset by a vast quantity of shamblers. This includes a quick-and-dirty box on the effects of being grappled, and the zombie takedown. The rest is a flow diagram for quick, low-to-no detail fighting when the PCs are outnumbered 2:1 or more. 
Chapter Three: Boldly Going Forth

The game makes the important assumption that the campaign is not “After the End: Hiding in a Bunker.” The next 19 pages detail the kinds of things that living and traveling in the wasteland will make you deal with.
Survival. The basics – hunting, gathering, finding water, making camp/shelter, and travel. Each has concise rules that are light on mechanics and heavy on results. Gathering is low-yield but safe. Hunting (with rules for using animals included) is higher yield but risky in both result and danger. A nice rule of thumb for travel with and without scouting ahead is provided. A lot can be ported out of this section to other games, but use caution – the entire book is predicated on it being a hazardous, post-disaster wasteland, not a verdant but low-TL wilderness. Subtle difference, but worth checking out.
Ruins and Bunkers. Structures are one of the important trappings of a civilization gone bad, and the book gives about four full pages (about 10% of the book, for comparison) to the topic. How to get in is really a section on what’s keeping you out. Fences, walls, hungry dinosaurs, and anti-intrusion machineguns all fit the bill. Creaky floors, falling walls (and ceilings!), and bringing the house down accidentally and on purpose will keep the players on their toes (assuming they have toes Mutants, you know). A box provides a simple falling table for when the floor gives out. Finally, a brief section on purposeful traps – poisons, bombs, zappers.
Scavenging. Sorting out the good stuff from mountains of useless crap for fun and profit. And survival. A handy table gives modifiers to your Scrounging roll based on what kind of area it is, and how well it’s been picked-over before. Typical types of loot are listed, and the odds of a “stash,” an intentionally-hidden mound of awesome. The results will be stuff depending on the quality of the roll, and tables provide inspiration. 
Inventions, Upgrades, and Repair. This is the “how to be a Gadgeteer” section, which is important to the genre. How to take the various crap you pull out of the wasteland and turn it into all the things Roy Hinkley makes on Gilligan’s Island. This is another large section, with rules for inventions worth up to millions provided (that’s a lot of bullets and bottlecaps). Upgrading, repairing, and analyzing the function of gear is also covered. (I have glossed over the detailed rules for inventing and creating things; it can be a metagame in and of itself; I’d caution GMs to watch for that if the gadgeteer is being a fun vampire).
Computers. The need for clean power, good operating conditions, and actual software and hardware to run it on will make these limited. And therefore valuable. 
Combat. Likely to be rather a lot of this. The first section borrows and modifies the simplified gunplay section from Action 2. Range bands and simplified rapid fire. Some optional rules like shooting two guns (also known as wasting twice as much ammo, which is actually money in this world), predictive shooting (ranged deceptive attacks), and using guns as melee weapons. There are brief rules for determining enemy tactics, using mockery and taunts, and the element of surprise.
Persuasion. Finally, three pages are dedicated to winning the mutated hearts and minds of your fellow wastelanders in ways that don’t involve high-speed projectiles. Befriending folks, creating followers, bartering in town are all covered as a list of tasks that you can do (see No School Grognard’s skill summary, linked above, for a consolidated ability-centric list). All sorts of personal and crowd-based situations are covered with this method, from shopping to riling up a mob.
Chapter Four: Post-Apocalyptic Game Mastering
The book closes with advice to the prospective GM on running the game.
Campaign Styles and Morality. These two sections give a bit of a matrix for campaign feel. Cinematic campaigns are built around the characters doing awesome stuff; the world exists for them. Heroic Realism and Gritty campaigns has the characters existing in the world, which really couldn’t give a rip about them. Heroic Realism has more opportunity to shine and excel. The Morality axis varies from ‘heart of gold’ to ‘every man for himself,’ and flavors the kinds of characters that will be made, and available design choices. Cinematic/Heroic characters are rather less likely to have Sadism.
Downtime. This section provides a useful schmorgasbord of things to do when you’re not actively adventuring. Gathering, scavenging, attracting throngs of followers, or building gadgets all qualify.
Gear. Advice on how to deal with expensive but fragile gear, but also how to emphasize the transitory nature of such finds. Sure, you found a car. But then the gang blows it up. That sniper rifle you found? Got sand in the bolt and now the chamber doesn’t seal. The laser pistol you covet? It wasn’t in your holster in the morning, and that attractive townie wasn’t in your tent when you woke up. In fact, said townie isn’t in town anymore.
Making Everyone Useful. This section is almost, but not quite, misnamed. It does cover making characters useful, but is really about the kind of challenges that are particularly appealing to each character type from AtE1. It also talks about how to tailor rewards for each type, so that challege, participation, and reward all are aimed appropriately at the kind of party that has been created.
Boxed Text
As always, peripheral but useful information is isolated and highlighted using boxed text. It might be my imagination, but this book seems to have more boxes than usual, though they are almost always very short.
Supernatural Ends. Clarifies that while supernatural apocalypses are possible (“Suddenly I find myself needing to know the plural of apocalypse.” -Riley Finn, Buffy the Vampire Slayer S4), they’ve been kept out of the book to keep it focus. I smell sequel.

Seriously – After the End X – Wrath of God Type Stuff would be a fun addition.

The Prodigal Colony and Even Shorter.  A rare double-D Boxhead (yeah, yeah, boob jokes. I get it.) Each section talks about a variation of the theme. The Prodigal Colony talks about a fully-functioning high TL colony sending a mission back to the lost and fallen homeworld of earth. This likely indicated a genre switch for the game . . . unless of course that colony had their own fall. Even Shorter notes that “apocalypse now” is not the focus of the book.
Temperature Tolerance. A very brief simplification of the advantage in question.
Slavers. A quick note on the value of human merchandise, and the conditions in which slaves are kept and held.
Hostile Townies. Not all unwelcoming persons travel around in vehicle convoys with flaming guitars. Some towns are just unfriendly. This box lists useful skills for detecting such, when the obvious “they’re shooting at us as a sign of welcome, like Minbari!” fails.
One of Us. Uh oh. Hidden mutants.
Aliens. What to do when it’s time for the close encounters to come out of the background. Stats for a Grey alien are provided.
Paramilitary Rank. One of the only places with a Rank advantage that has actual value. Small value, but value nonetheless.
Smart Zombies. Oh, you’re in for it now.
So You’ve Been Grappled. Simplified grappling at the hands of a zombie horde.
Complimentary Skills. Explains the nature and use of related skills to help with tasks.
Pack it Up! Having gear and keeping gear and knowing where gear is is the job for Freight Handling! With notes, tasks, and details on dealing with stowed stuff.
Blowing Stuff Up. Simple rules of thumb for breaking or totally destroying stuff. 
Falls. Simplified human-centered table for falling damage, for when the floor gives way.
Ruins are Dangerous. Yeah, well, duh. You go right ahead and explore that building. That radioactive, pathogen-ridden building.
Tech-Level Modifier. A quick table for use with the invention, repair, and gadget rules.
Selling Inventions. A rule for pricing stuff the players (or NPCs) come up with. Spoiler: it’s not worth as much as you think it should be. Ever.
Patching up. This is a 1/3-page box on how to adjudicate the various healing rules in a genre that has no fixed Tech Level assumptions. This is presented as a task list, and in most cases replacing any other healing rules with the guidelines here in other games probably isn’t a bad call.
New Gear. Three items, mostly medically-oriented.
Keeping Heroes Alive. This short box gives fates other than death, but requires the players to cooperate, and the GM to be lenient when it comes to horrible fates. Or at least lethal ones.
Gruesome Color. A very brief note on how cultural diversions can make the game more viscerally real.
Ballistic’s Report

One thing that cannot be said about AtE2 is that it’s missing big chunks of things you need. It’s all in there.
The book will aid a GM in walking through how the world ended, some secondary effects, and then provide associated hazards that will be encountered, to be shared with the players. Combined with the campaign style and morality in play, the players can then make appropriate characters.
The mechanics-centric take on on game tasks (survival, combat, interpersonal interaction, gear) is  welcome approach to this sort of thing, with the stylistic “skills in bold” drawing needed attention to where such things are located in the text. 
The material is well written and presented in a concise fashion. Sometimes too concise, as there are a few things that could have been usefully given just a bit more play, such as the implications of higher TL items.
The campaign book presented here is a toolkit book, more so than Action 2 or even Monster Hunters 2. Those have the advantage of having the world be more or less as-is, but with spies/monsters respectively. That allows for more flavor to emerge in the writing, which was not always as evident in this manuscript as other works by the same author. I think that’s the nature of the beast – if this book assumed a particular, fixed apocalypse with particular, fixed secondary disasters, more flavor could be evident. The only real slight here is that it makes the book read a bit dry. Still evocative and effective in achieving the goal, however, which is to facilitate world-building.
I know of at least one campaign, if not two, being spun up as I write this that take advantage of this book. And for that, it’s highly usable, with clear answers to “how do I do X?” that all are pointed at a common set of genre assumptions. In short, it is very successful as a worked-example campaign book. The bits on hazards and ruins are particularly exportable, too.
It’s a good book, and along with its character-based sibling, will allow the creation of rich games in the genre. Walking Dead? Check. Terminator? Check. This Quiet Earth? Check. Waterworld? You betcha. Road Warrior? Of course.
Can’t really ask for much more.

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