Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

"Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a damn big snake!"

Let me start with a bang.

Not the Big Bang, but a big bang nevertheless. And a question.

Imagine if you will that you are President Harry S. Truman and have just been informed that in a last ditch attempt to prevent the allies from winning the war, Hitler has initiated  Götterdämmerung and unleashed the Midguard Serpent? What would you do? This is the question posed -- and answered -- in The Day After Ragnarok
($19.95, Atomic Overmind Press), a post-WW2, post-apocalypse, post-Ragnarok campaign setting for the popular Shane Hensley’s Savage Worlds ($9.99, Pinnacle Entertainment Group) rules set (a version has just appeared for the HERO System, and it would not be a surprise if another appeared for Green Ronin Publishing’s Mutants & Masterminds too). Published by Atomic Overmind Press and written by Ken Hite, the man who kept sending us those Suppressed Transmissions and recently won an Origins award for his Tour de Lovecraft: The Tales, this literally drops an apocalypse on the world and drop kicks Conan into 1948. Well, not Conan himself, but a Howardian aesthetic at the very least. Unlike most Savage Worlds supplements, this is primarily a source book. It does not come with its own Plot Point campaign, the setting being too darned big for that, instead offering us several example outlines and an extensive GM’s toolkit for each of them.


Hite’s answer is that Truman would order a B-29 to fly the Trinity Device through the serpent’s eye and into the brain of Jörmungandr and detonate it. With the Midguard Serpent brought low by the fires of the atom, the once mythical creature’s shattered body crashed to the earth to be followed by the poisonous rain of its blood. Segments landed on and smashed Britain, divided Europe with the Serpent Curtain, and caused a super tsunami that raced across the Atlantic to ravage the USA as far West as the Rockies. Now in 1948, much of Europe and the Near East are held in Stalin’s red grip behind the Serpent Curtain; the British Empire is based in Australia and South Africa under King Henry IX with Rhodes University in South Africa having taken up the mantle of Oxford and Cambridge universities and India split between the Empire and the Congress Party; Japan retains her Empire after the Allies were forced to sue for peace; and California is the home of the USA under President Earl Warren. The rest of the once USA is bookended by the deserts of the High Plains and the Drowned Coast, home to the scavengers, squatters, and adventurers; with the city states of the Mayoralties between them. The latter ranging from despotic and desperate city states to a strangely fertile Soviet Iowa, with strange twisted monsters rampaging in between, usually of a serpentine nature. Meanwhile, Professor Bernard Childermass builds rockets for the Royal Rocketry Air Force at Woomera; Djehuti-Yamun leads the Children of Set, the most malignant of the newly arisen snake cults; and who knows what loyalties and pay drive Otto Skorzeny’s adventures?

As well as destroying much of the world and increasing both the number of, and the potency of the planet’s snakes, the Serpent Fall has introduced magic to the world, both Arcane and Miracles, along with the new science of Ophi-Tec. The latter comes born of the study of the massive remnants of the Midguard Serpent and in the few years since its fall, has encompassed biotechnology, energy, and even advanced aero technology.  So far the Ophi-Tec has produced the microwave blasting Marconi Gun, artificial Gill Arrays, Neural Stimulators, Ophiline (refined Serpent oil -- better than gas!), and even delta wing rocket planes, like the Avro Blackhawk.  Speleo-herpetologists continue to harvest Serpent parts -- such as the scientists of the Royal Society at the Hereford Cut (the location of the serpent’s belly) -- and develop new devices.

In game terms, Ophi-Tec replaces the Arcane Background (Weird Science) background with powers represented by individual pieces of Ophi-Tec.  Unfortunately a character needs to be connected in some way, for example to the Rhodes University or a government, to possess Ophi-Tec, either that or have acquired it on the black market.  Similarly, Psionics is also a possible option for a character, but only if he happens to highly connected to the Soviet Union.  Taking an Arcane Background though is an expensive option, taking the equivalent of two Edges to acquire.  Stalin though, regards magic as “reactionary superstition” even though he has his own frost giant or Nart allies, preferring to promote Soviet scientific ideals, perhaps embodied in his engineered man-apes, used to infiltrate British Africa.

The Day After Ragnarok’s mix of the post apocalypse and the post-World War II makes possible numerous other character options.  Want to be Sykes-Fairburn trained commando on the make, a mountie of the RCMP patrolling the Canadian Poisoned Lands, a bush pilot serving the Mayoralties, a Rhodes Scholar obsessed with the Serpentfall, or a Texas Ranger laying down the law along the Rio Grande?  These can be created with ease, and just reading the book itself suggests numerous other possibilities.  How about an Amish survivor turned gun fighting “Holy Roller” or a PBY-Catalina pilot running guns and word of democracy into the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere?

Most Savage Worlds settings come with a Plot Point campaign -- a campaign that allows the players plenty of freedom of movement and usually exposes their characters to the secrets of the setting.  The Day After Ragnarok does not come with a Plot Point campaign, primarily because the setting is just too big...  Hite instead offers four outlines that the GM can flesh out.  These cast the player characters as traditional freelancers, as agents for the Crown (or some other government or agency), as local protectors in Los Angeles, or as part of the effort to rebuild America after the tsunami.  Alongside these are details of the numerous monsters that now walk the night (like the Death-Worm, the Giant Gila Monster, and the Ghoul, and let us not forget the dangers of “Serpent Taint”), an adventure generator (with examples), and generators for both encounters and cities in the Poisoned Lands.  Best of all are the superb Top Five lists, of which Top Five Places To Stomp Nazis and Top Five Secret Bases are the obvious highlights.

What is obvious in reading The Day After Ragnarok is that Hite’s own underlying inclination is towards running this as a Conan 1948 game set in Robert E. Howard’s own country of Texas or at least in the Mayoralties.  The monsters of the Poisoned Lands and the generators for both encounters and cities in the Poisoned Lands are evidence of this, but the book comes with details enough for a GM to set his game elsewhere. Long time fans of Hite’s Suppressed Transmissions will recognise the same combination of alternate history, conspiracy, and arch weirdness in The Day After Ragnarok, and so should enjoy seeing Hite’s imagination given the space to create a fully fledged setting.

Think Conan meets Mad Max and “SMGs & Sorcery” and what you have in The Day After Ragnarok is a wildly imaginative, fantastic Pulp setting.

Only Ken Hite’s imagination though, could stretch as far as suggesting that Ronald Reagan could star in the 1946 movie, Conan of Cimmeria.