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Author Topic: Desolation  (Read 2801 times)

Dan Davenport

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Desolation
« on: May 01, 2011, 06:43:24 PM »
The name’s Davenport. I review games.

So the other day I answer I knock at my office door, and there stands my old pal Scotty the Dwarf.

Now, I oughta mention that his real name ain’t “Scotty”  ̶  it’s Bladedoom Swordmountain. But since I ain’t waistin’ my breath with a name that long and hokey, and since he’s not keen on goin’ by “BDSM” for short, “Scotty” it is.

And Scotty looked like he’d seen better days.

“Oy!” he says, holding up a chipped coffee cup. “Kin ye spare a cup o’ nails?”

“Nails?” I says. “I thought you guys were all about the gold.”

“Have ye not heard?” he says. “The Apocalypse has come! Ye can’t eat gold, nor build a shelter with it.

“But ‘ere,” he says. “See for yourself.”

So he hands over the core rulebook for http://www.desolationrpg.com/"Desolation: Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy Roleplaying. I flip through the thing, and it looks like someone crashed good ol’ D&D headlong into Road Warrior territory. Not the sort of thing you see every day, even in the reviewin’ biz.

I agreed to give it a look, and I even thought about lettin’ Scotty borrow the shower. Dunno where he’d been, but he was ripe.

Guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, though.

The dwarves of yore made mighty smells.





Substance



Chapter 1:  Before

Desolation is kind enough to detail a nice high fantasy setting  ̶  the continent of Scondera  ̶  before tearing it down.

“Nice” is a relative term, of course. The setting wasn’t hey-nonny-nonny as all that. There were raids by orcs and goblins, and an entire region called the Warlands. Still, it was a place of magical wonders  ̶  not “magitech,” exactly, but certainly featuring soaring architecture impossible by the laws of physics and powerful magic items out the wazoo. I’m a little lukewarm on the setting, insofar as I don’t find myself caring enough about it to mourn its passing.

However, as the chapter describes the regions of the world, it also describes the perspectives of citizens of those regions  ̶  a helpful inclusion for PC development.





Chapter 2: The Apocalypse

The book leaves the cause of the apocalypse  ̶  known as the Night of Fire  ̶  unstated. That’s probably just as well, since the kitchen sink nature of the disaster would make practically any explanation seem inadequate. In addition to meteors, volcanoes, earthquakes, storms, and tidal waves, the very fabric of magic itself (known as the Weave) was ripped asunder, resulting in backfiring magic items, mutated wildlife, and incinerated spellcasters. That’s important, because change in magic from a source of wonder to a source of fear is a key element of the post-apocalypse setting.

A year-long equivalent of a nuclear winter follows the disaster, further whittling down the survivors. To be honest, the destruction is so thorough that I have a difficult time believing that a viable population survived at all.





Chapter 3: After

This chapter begins where the last one left off, describing in haunting terms the world after the Apocalypse: shipwrecks on newly-formed mountains, eternally-burning forests, lakes of lava, villages of the undead, and other freakish anomalies. It also deals with the social aftermath: a world devoid of high culture, ruled by barter, power, and fear of magic.

From there, the chapter revisits the lands described in Chapter 1, revealing the blasted remains. Conversely, the text describes nine communities that have risen out of the rubble, offering not only potential encounters, but also ideas of how people may be eking out a post-apocalyptic living.

Overall, I consider this one of the best written and most useful chapters in the book, beautifully presenting the status quo of the setting in very appealing terms.





Chapter 4: Character Creation

The basic process of character creation mirrors that of http://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/13/13893.phtml">Hollow Earth Expedition. The biggest change comes in the form of the fantasy races available:

  • Dwarves (desert or mountain)

  • Elves

  • Gnomes

  • Humans

  • Island Folk (somewhat akin to halfings/kender)

  • Mongrels (mixed-heritage bestial types)

  • Rovers (semi-aquatic Gypsies)


The races offer a few interesting twists on the standard tropes, by far the most noteworthy of which is the treatment of the elves. It seems that 600 years prior to the Apocalypse, the elves were banished from Nature due to a colossal screw-up on the part of their druids. As a result, animals and (when possible) plants will make elves their priority one target in any encounter, elves avoid forests like the Plague, and elves staying put for any length of time result in crop failure and animal illnesses. I admire the unconventional approach to elves as a thoroughly fallen and humbled race, although I find it a bit excessive in practice, insofar as it renders elves borderline unplayable. It’s hard enough to survive in this setting without having your character booted out of any settlement to protect the precious produce and livestock.

In a more general sense, I’m cool to the approach taken to racial perks. Specifically, there are no attribute bonuses, per sé. Instead, the various nonhuman races get one extra die when spending Style points on relevant rolls: Body for dwarves, Willpower for elves, etc. The stated reason for this design was to keep the focus on playing races for their personalities rather than their perks. I can understand that, but I still feel it a bit unrealistic to have racial stereotypes based solely upon rolls using Style points.

In my GenCon game, I played a dwarf scavenger who, in a bit of a twist, relied on dexterity rather than strength in combat. He certainly felt dwarven enough to play, although the relative lack of the typical dwarven mechanical perks bugged me a bit.  





Chapter 5: Magic

Magic in Desolation may best be described in three words: powerful, freeform, and dangerous.

All spells fall into one of nine categories...

  • Alter/Enchant Characters

  • Alter/Enchant Objects

  • Create/Conjure

  • Damage

  • Disrupt Spells

  • Healing

  • Increase/Decrease Attribute

  • Increase/Decrease Skill

  • Perform Tasks


...and all spell casters fall into one of seven race-related magical traditions:

  • Animism  ̶  Affects fate, fortune, and health (Island Folk)

  • Beguiling  ̶  Affects memory, emotion and perceptions (Rovers)

  • Elemental  ̶  Manipulates and takes properties of bonded elemental (Elves)

  • Necromancy  ̶  Affects life, death and the undead (Humans)

  • Primal Magic  ̶  Affects Nature through a totem animal spirit (Mongrels, Oruskans)

  • Rune Magic  ̶  Manipulates the properties of objects via runes (Dwarves)

  • Sorcery  ̶  Affects and uses the energy of the Weave (Humans)


Limiting the sheer power of magic in the setting is Burn. For every die that fails to beat the target number, the caster receives a point of non-lethal damage – even on a successful roll. This means that magicians may not want to use their full Magic Skill in a casting attempt.

I’m generally a little dubious about freeform magic systems, which seem to me to lack a bit in flavor, but the tradition-specific restrictions make up for this to a large degree. I do regret the fact that there aren’t lost spells to discover, but the precious nature of recovered magic items makes up for that, as well.





Chapter 6: Religion

Warning: This chapter gets a tad spoilery. If you plan on playing and want to maximize the mystery of the setting, please skip ahead.

Okay, so you’ve got a high fantasy setting that had the ever-loving crap kicked out of it. This raises the question of what the various gods that usually populate such settings were doing while all that was going on.

The answer is: nothing.

Because as far as the setting’s concerned, they either don’t exist or just do nothing to make themselves known.

Instead, there are two impersonal cosmic forces, the Two Above: one representing creation and the other representing destruction. Various religions may include worship of the Two Above, either directly or in the context of a larger pantheon, but such worship garners the supplicants nothing. Religion in the setting is a matter of faith in the purest sense.

So why does the book spend an 11-page chapter discussing religion? Largely because of the important factor belief plays in a character’s worldview. Personally, I find the amount of detail presented to be a tad excessive, as a few succinct descriptions of the setting’s faiths would have sufficed for me. Still, the degree of detail does help flesh out the setting, especially in the way it describes how the various faiths have reacted and/or adapted to the Apocalypse.





Chapter 7: Rules

Because I have already shared my thoughts on the Ubiquity system in my http://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/13/13893.phtml">Hollow Earth Expedition review, I will refer readers there rather than copy/paste the text.





Chapter 8: Combat

Again, there are no changes from the basic Ubiquity system in http://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/13/13893.phtml">Hollow Earth Expedition. Please see that review for my thoughts.






Chapter 9: Equipment

The title of this chapter is slightly misleading, insofar as it deals solely with weapons and armor. That’s a shame, given the emphasis the setting places on the rarity of all goods and services.

That said, it does a fantastic job of handling these subjects from a post-apocalyptic perspective.

In the world of Desolation, scavenging has replaced shopping. As a result, the lists of weapons and armor list not prices, but rather on the difficulty of scavenging attempt to locate them.

I really like the fact that the game distinguishes between items in good condition and those that are worn or improvised Road Warrior-style. On a botch, items in good condition become worn, while items that are worn or improvised break. This helps emphasize just how precious a functioning tool can be.

I do think that the game could use some rules for barter. I suppose the scavenging difficulty serves as an indicator of value, but lacking such a value for non-weapon items, trade becomes problematic. This is especially grating given the emphasis on just how valuable such commonplace items as nails can be.





Chapter 10: Storytelling

I frequently find this sort of “how to GM the game” chapter to be of dubious value, but such is not the case here. This chapter skillfully recaps the various elements of the setting and how they can impact the story. Included are helpful goals for traveling in such a hazardous world, the hazards themselves, various campaign models, and the challenges faced by the races in the setting.

I particularly appreciate the treatment of hunger, an enemy sure to be ever-present. The subsection illustrates the opportunities presented by playing out the search for food and water while offering a more streamlined approach to use when such tasks grow tiresome.

Another great idea involves the use of flashbacks to the characters’ experiences before or during the Apocalypse. To this end, a helpful sidebar presents options for handling the less-dangerous magic of the Before.

Scenario: A Few Good Men

The  chapter includes a fairly decent introductory adventure, suitable for a PC group that’s been together for almost any amount of time. Low on supplies, the group comes upon a small, relatively pleasant village feeling threatened by a band of marauders and a nearby wizard. The townspeople hire the PCs to deal with the latter.

As it turns out, the wizard isn’t a Necromancer as the townspeople fear, but rather a well-meaning Sorcerer who’s merely taken up residence in an abandoned Necromancer’s tower. Unfortunately, the Necromancer’s skeletal servants are still performing their appointed tasks around the tower, and, while harmless, won’t do much to dissuade the PCs that the wizard is one of the Bad Guys.

In fact, in the GenCon game in which I played this scenario, the group’s Elementalist decided to nuke the tower with fire rather than confront the unfortunate wizard directly. While this feat probably couldn’t be duplicated after subsequent changes to the magic system before the game’s publication, this does illustrate that PCs are likely to shoot first and ask questions later  ̶  especially if they’re subject to the nearly ubiquitous fear of magic in the setting. This would be especially unfortunate, since the idea is for the PCs to make nice with the wizard and get his help in dealing with the aforementioned marauders.

Nevertheless, the adventure does manage to convey many of the game’s themes  ̶  scarcity, fear of magic, isolation, etc.  ̶  while offering a nice mix of interaction and combat. (Even if the PCs are inclined to talk their way through most situations, a monster attack will assure at least some of the latter.)





Chapter 11: Bestiary

As my regular readers know, I’m really big on bestiaries. Desolation does not disappoint in this regard.

  • Animals  ̶  magical creatures unique to the setting, such as dirk wasps, core delvers, quill apes, and scab rats (12 entries)

  • Awoken  ̶  magical creatures extinct pre-Apocalypse, such as dragons and griffons (5 entries)

  • Deep Horrors  ̶  vaguely Lovecraftian insectoid monstrosities from deep beneath the earth (3 entries)

  • Oruskans  ̶  goblins, seal-like kobolds, orcs, and trolls

  • Plants & Fungi  ̶  zombie-making corpse fungi and deadly elven chokers

  • Elementals  ̶  air, earth, fire, and water

  • Undead  ̶  zombies and skeletons

  • Weave Creatures  ̶  strange magical creatures created by the tearing of the Weave (2 entries)


The fun doesn’t stop there, though. The chapter includes stats for no less than 60 common animals. (Well, common animals and some of their giant counterparts.)

Still not enough for you? Well, the chapter also features rules to mutate those common animals, making them Broken (physically and/or mentally mutated), Weave-Touched (given spell-like abilities), or both. Want a fire-breathing saber-toothed carnivorous elephant? No problem at all.

All of this adds up to an absolutely stellar bestiary that will keep the GM supplied with critters for a long, long time, and with a relatively small page count. The only omissions that spring to mind are demonic entities, which, given the nature of the setting’s theology, may not exist anyway.

One last touch that I love: all animals have a Nutritional Value, indicating how many people a fresh carcass can feed if properly dressed  ̶  another great idea given the difficulty of survival in the setting. (And yes, even creatures like orcs and trolls have Nutritional Values. Desperate times, etc., etc...)





Style

The art in this hardback varies quite a bit in quality. Most of the black and white illustrations left me rather uninspired, although the full-color character templates are quite good. Overall, there’s a good balance of art to text, and the layout makes for an easy read. The exception is the in-character text, which for some reason changes fonts in a chaotic jumble that may be supposed to look somehow “apocalyptic” but is really just apocalyptically annoying.

The text is straightforward when detailing the rules and evocative when describing the setting, so I have no complaints there. Again, the in-character text is a bit of an exception  ̶  while the maddening font motif certainly didn’t help matters, I found the overall content of the stories opening the chapters to range from passable to horrible. The tale of a post-apocalyptic stand-up comic in particular fell resoundingly into the latter category.





Conclusion

I give Desolation high marks for attempting something no game I’m aware of has done: taken the tropes of a nuclear apocalypse and applied them to a fantasy setting. I know that many, many fantasy games are set in worlds that are post-apocalyptic to some degree  ̶  Talislanta and Earthdawn spring immediately to mind  ̶  but these do not deal with life in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, when merely finding one’s next meal is an accomplishment.

The whole thing is a bit too bleak for my taste, but given that bleakness is the point, that hardly matters. If you want a game that gives you everything you need for D&D meets Road Warrior madness, you really can’t go wrong here  ̶ especially if you’re already a fan of the Ubiquity system. And even if you’re not, snagging a PDF copy of the game might be worth it as an idea mine alone. Give this one a look.
« Last Edit: May 02, 2011, 07:59:40 AM by Dan Davenport »
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hgjs

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Desolation
« Reply #1 on: May 02, 2011, 04:24:56 AM »
Dan, would you mind reducing the size of the font you're using for "Introduction", since it looks weird when it appears on the front page?

Another solution would be to rearrange the start a bit, so the "preview" paragraph doesn't include the first heading.  (You might not have been aware, but the start of every review gets posted to the front page of the website, which increases exposure but also means that it can be displayed in ways you weren't expecting.)
 

Dan Davenport

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« Reply #2 on: May 02, 2011, 08:01:25 AM »
Quote from: hgjs;455009
Dan, would you mind reducing the size of the font you're using for "Introduction", since it looks weird when it appears on the front page?

Another solution would be to rearrange the start a bit, so the "preview" paragraph doesn't include the first heading.  (You might not have been aware, but the start of every review gets posted to the front page of the website, which increases exposure but also means that it can be displayed in ways you weren't expecting.)


Whoops! Sorry about that. I nuked the first heading and will adjust my formatting on future reviews accordingly.
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Silverlion

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« Reply #3 on: May 02, 2011, 06:01:44 PM »
Great! You say P-A fantasy! How does it differ from other fantasy? It has fallen civilizations and lost magic? Wait how is that different? It's bleaker!

Dark Sun managed the whole concept of "post-apocalyptic" better in tone. It made fantasy in the D&D vein feel less traditional. Desolation misses the post-apocalyptic aspects and is way too traditional medieval fantasy.
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« Reply #4 on: May 02, 2011, 06:44:45 PM »
Interesting review. Does the system play pretty fast, or is combat slow and tedious?
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Dan Davenport

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« Reply #5 on: May 02, 2011, 09:05:17 PM »
Quote from: Silverlion;455185
Great! You say P-A fantasy! How does it differ from other fantasy? It has fallen civilizations and lost magic? Wait how is that different? It's bleaker!

Dark Sun managed the whole concept of "post-apocalyptic" better in tone. It made fantasy in the D&D vein feel less traditional. Desolation misses the post-apocalyptic aspects and is way too traditional medieval fantasy.


It's different because it's a traditional medieval fantasy setting that's just been hit by the magical equivalent to a full-scale nuclear war, and then some. The traditional elements are supposed to be there. It's as much to say that Twilight 2000 isn't post-apocalyptic because there are too many pre-apocalypse elements present.
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Dan Davenport

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« Reply #6 on: May 02, 2011, 09:07:13 PM »
Quote from: danbuter;455197
Interesting review. Does the system play pretty fast, or is combat slow and tedious?


It's pretty fast in straightforward combat. All of the offensive and defensive scores are front-loaded into one roll each, which speeds things up. On the downside, this means that there's no such thing as a clumsy-but-powerful attack.
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« Reply #7 on: May 03, 2011, 12:04:28 AM »
Quote from: Dan Davenport;455223
It's different because it's a traditional medieval fantasy setting that's just been hit by the magical equivalent to a full-scale nuclear war, and then some. The traditional elements are supposed to be there. It's as much to say that Twilight 2000 isn't post-apocalyptic because there are too many pre-apocalypse elements present.


Yeah but many traditional fantasy settings have done that--ad nauseum, already.

4E D&D assumes that as default play (hence points of light.)


I don't think selling it as Post-apocalyptic was disingenuous, so much as its and appellation that doesn't really describe anything about the game.

 It certainly isn't all that different than standard fantasy rpg settings. Heck the most interesting thing was the seal-like kobolds, and they get the short shift.

Dragonlance has had two or more apocalypses. Forgotten Realms had one with the Time of Troubles (maybe more..) Birthright had one in ages past.  Scarred Lands is set after one, and so on.

It really is just a matter of timing here. I think it weakens the game because it didn't try and do more with the idea of "apocalypse."
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« Reply #8 on: May 03, 2011, 05:43:15 AM »
Dan, how would you compare the setting to say Dark Sun (which I think of as PA)?

Dan Davenport

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« Reply #9 on: May 03, 2011, 08:30:19 AM »
Quote from: BedrockBrendan;455346
Dan, how would you compare the setting to say Dark Sun (which I think of as PA)?


My Dark Sun information is all second-hand, so I can't give you an authoritative answer. Based on what I do know, I would say that the biggest difference is that the Dark Sun setting has had time to form a "new normal" (e.g., prevalent psionics, changed races). The world of Desolation has just experienced the Apocalypse; as such, if there's ever going to be a "new normal," the PCs may have a hand in creating it. In Desolation, you're not traveling through ancient ruins from an Apocalypse long past or one that took place over an extended period of time (which I think is the case with Dark Sun?) -- you're traveling through the ruins of the world you knew.
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Dan Davenport

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« Reply #10 on: May 03, 2011, 12:50:08 PM »
Quote from: Silverlion;455291
Yeah but many traditional fantasy settings have done that--ad nauseum, already.

4E D&D assumes that as default play (hence points of light.)


I don't think selling it as Post-apocalyptic was disingenuous, so much as its and appellation that doesn't really describe anything about the game.

 It certainly isn't all that different than standard fantasy rpg settings. Heck the most interesting thing was the seal-like kobolds, and they get the short shift.

Dragonlance has had two or more apocalypses. Forgotten Realms had one with the Time of Troubles (maybe more..) Birthright had one in ages past.  Scarred Lands is set after one, and so on.

It really is just a matter of timing here. I think it weakens the game because it didn't try and do more with the idea of "apocalypse."


I'm honestly not seeing your argument here.

Desolation is different because the Apocalypse just happened. Why are you comparing it to settings in which the Apocalypse happened in "ages past"?

As for not doing enough with the Apocalypse: untold billions of people are dead, society is totally shattered, the economy no longer exists, magic is fundamentally changed, the landscape is completely altered, mutated creatures are running amok...

I'm just not seeing how this is your average "meet in a tavern and go hunt in a dungeon for gold" setting.
« Last Edit: May 03, 2011, 01:10:07 PM by Dan Davenport »
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« Reply #11 on: May 03, 2011, 04:35:19 PM »
Quote from: Dan Davenport;455361
My Dark Sun information is all second-hand, so I can't give you an authoritative answer. Based on what I do know, I would say that the biggest difference is that the Dark Sun setting has had time to form a "new normal" (e.g., prevalent psionics, changed races). The world of Desolation has just experienced the Apocalypse; as such, if there's ever going to be a "new normal," the PCs may have a hand in creating it. In Desolation, you're not traveling through ancient ruins from an Apocalypse long past or one that took place over an extended period of time (which I think is the case with Dark Sun?) -- you're traveling through the ruins of the world you knew.


Thanks.