Similar to my article series "Dust Off" (which I have yet to advance beyond it's first installment *cough*) the "Penlight" format will offer a cursory impression on role-playing games both old and new which may have escaped notice from the larger gaming community. And of course it is all laced with utter subjective opinion. Oh, and most importantly: this will be in English.
First in this series I have selected THE MUTANT EPOCH which is a rather new rpg from 2011 but certainly has the feel of an old-school product in a variety of ways. It's subtitled "tabletop adventure role-playing game" and this emphasis is not without reason. For it truly embodies the spirit of adventure roleplaying and in both heart and soul. It is practically ingrained into the whole writing. And in a good sense. TME is a post-apocalyptic rpg in the vein of TSR's beloved Gamma World/Metamorphosis Alpha. Meaning lots of 80's style nuclear wasteland action and gonzo sci-fi goodness. But compared to it's iconic predecessors TME offers more depth and lots and lots and lots of hard-hitting illustrations by William McAusland of Dungeon Crawl Classics fame. It's no secret that I have long been a fan of his artwork. In fact, William is also the creative head behind both setting and game system which is somewhat aptly named "Outland System".
Now, if that in itself is not enough to whet your appetite then let me hasten to add that both the amount and quality of material is overwhelming. Seriously, this guy and his staff are not showing any signs of letting up. I was positively shocked to learn that all of this amazing stuff managed to escape my notice until earlier this year.
But to those who did not grow up with radioactive badgers, walking plants and android warriors I will explain what it is all about. TME proposes a future in which mankind did achieve some amazing scientific breakthroughs but was then brought to the brink of extinction by a series of cataclysms and wars. Yet it managed to hold on in the face of a quickly deteriorating civilization. The world was forever changed.
Few species escaped the nuclear, biological and chemical upheaval unscathed and so mutation was as popular among the surviving critters as Justin Bieber was among teens without pubic hair. Which is okay for the player because he can now choose from anthropomorphic animals, mutants, clones, replicas, androids or cyborgs when selecting his character race. Oh, and don't forget those pure-strain humans. They're still around as well.
Amidst all the terror and death in this new and lawless wasteland there are those who try to advance civilization and hold on to order. Player characters are supposed to be so-called excavators digging among the ruins to find the treasures of an era gone by. Re-phrase: the post-apocalyptic adventurer. TME offers a starting setting which is named "The Crossroads Region" and details the armored barter town called "Pitford" in its own sourcebook. It is one of the best "end times" game supplements I have ever read. The main rulebook only has scarce information on the setting and encourages GMs to develop their own ideas. And it delivers cerebral kickstarters galore. So let me get into the core rulebook some more.
TME offers a game system which builds on percentile-based dice rolls and has two main rules mechanics: combat and hazard checks. While the first is rather self-explanatory the second covers most in-betweens. Be they skills or other actions that player characters attempt out of combat. I have yet to test the game system thoroughly but while it appears somewhat clunky at times I believe it plays rather fast once your character is generated and ready for adventure. Which, I might add, will take some time. TME offers lots of choices and no two characters will ever be alike. Here all of its old-school goodness really shines. The entire process of putting together a player persona in this blasted world is randomized by default. And it really gives a shit about balancing. Which is music to my ears. You might be rolling up some pure-strain slave whore with no survival skills save erotic arts or you could end up with a battle cyborg that puts Robocop to shame. Not to mention extreme forms of mutated humans which make Kuato from Total Recall or the Rippers from Tank Girl look like your friendly sunday morning televangelist. Speaking of morals, TME is refreshingly open in this regard. You'll find slavery, nudity, prostitution, drug use, racism and lots of gory details complete with eviscerated humans and severed limbs. Good thing Outland Arts is based out of Canada *wink*.
But to me this is exactly what this sort of post-apocalyptic gaming should be all about. And that certainly isn't balancing. Not in a world where the balance of nature went straight to hell and back to kick your ass. That said, TME manages to pull off the stunt of making it all fit together in a sort of haphazard and yet coherent sort of way. After all, there are power blocs in the setting and they don't take kindly to certain species. You might be that hulking three-headed 8 foot mutant with a hair trigger temper and bulging muscles all over but when it comes to finding a spot in the world to enjoy some form of respite you might find out that "no loitering" is enforced with a couple of .50 caliber rounds from a machine gun to the dome of your thick skull.
Having said that I must stress that TME allows for your own personal choice of how much wackiness you want to include. You could play it more sci-fi with emphasis on robots or cyborgs and minimal mutation involved or you could go TMNT: After the bomb or Rifts-style and beyond. The whole system seems to work equally well when keeping out the freaky stuff altogether, like humanoid animals and such. Actually, while its engine, the Outland System, is certainly serviceable TME really drives home its whole point with the amount of detail and options it provides. Don't buy this book if you're easily intimidated by long lists and randomized tables to roll lots of dice on. Because they are at the heart of this game. Apart from the gorgeous illus by McAusland I think that the scope and staggering detail TME brings to the post-apocalyptic world is it's most outstanding feature. It delivers that sense of original old-school-wonder I had when I first opened my Gamma World rulebook. And it grows from there 'cause it does not thrive on nostalgia but improves on it.
But since this is getting longer than I originally intended let me finish it up for now. In short: if you are looking for a more than solid rpg covering the whole range of post-apocalyptic gaming then you owe it to yourself to give TME more than just a cursory glance. Be sure to check out the amazing website and the friendly community with lots of cool stuff and bonus content to download. I mean it: it has been quite some time since last I was that impressed. To get a glimpse of the thematic style and artwork of THE MUTANT EPOCH check out this video introduction as well.