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Friday, 1 April 2016

Whom the Gods Doth Bore

The End of the World is the line of survival horror RPGs published by Fantasy Flight Games. Licensed and adapted from quartet of titles originally published in Spanish by Edge Entertainment as El Fin del Mundo, each of the four titles explores four different types of apocalypse. The first, The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse, deals with the rise of the dead; the second, Wrath of the Gods, with the return of deities intent on mankind’s destruction; the third, Alien Invasion, with the arrival of little green men; and the fourth, Revolt of the Machines, with robots that strikes back. At the heart of each title in the line is a simple question… “Could you survive the apocalypse?” For the key feature of the line is that players create not ‘fantasy’ modern characters through which they experience the end of the world, but create versions of themselves and see how they might survive.

So, as the title suggests, The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods is all about the return of the gods and is thus about how you—that is, the ordinary gamer sat reading this review—would survive. Further, it asks this again and again, presenting five ‘scenarios’ that take the player characters through the return of the gods and beyond. The inference is that this is done right from where you are sitting—round the gaming table with your friends—and into the neighbourhood where you live (and game). The question is, can this be done again and again with the players starting anew to face yet another miffed Mythos turning up and claiming what its dangerous deities believe to be rightly theirs? Further, does The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods bring anything new to the apocalyptic-post-apocalyptic genre?

To create a character—or rather to create a version of himself—a player assigns ten points across six attributes, each rated between one and five and paired into three Aspects. Each aspect consists of an offensive and a defensive attribute. So the Physical aspects are Dexterity and Vitality, the Mental aspects are Logic and Willpower, and the Social aspects are Charisma and Empathy. Once this is done, the process gets slightly complicated in that every other player gets to take a secret vote on each of a player’s pairings. A positive vote for an Aspect allows a player to raise one of the Aspect’s attributes by one whilst a negative vote forces him to lower an attribute by one. An equal number of positive and negative votes results in no changes being made.

The player then assigns a Feature to each Aspect. A Feature can be positive or negative, for example ‘Crack Shot’, ‘Deaf’, ‘Athlete’, or ‘Arachnophobe’. Only a few Features are listed in the rules, so the players may be on their own if they want fuller inspiration. A character can gain extra Features during the voting process for Aspects—if the group voted to improve an Aspect, then the player must accept a negative Feature and improve the Aspect or reject the group’s vote to improve the Aspect. Conversely, if the group voted to reduce an Aspect, then the player must either a positive Feature and reduce the Aspect or reject the group’s vote to reduce the Aspect. (Similarly, the only way in which a player character can improve is by the rest of the group voting for such changes).

Next, a player gets to write down his equipment he already has with him, that is, whatever he has on his person and perhaps in his bag—which in the case of most gamers is going to be dice, gaming books, and pens, plus a mobile telephone (and whatever might be to hand, depending on his location). Lastly, a player records any Traumas, the equivalent of wounds—physical, mental, or social—that he may be suffering from at the start of the game. This might be a broken arm, diabetes, depression, or acute shyness, but unless the Trauma is obvious, a player is under no obligation to reveal any.

So the sample character is essentially me (and no, there was nobody around to vote on this when I wrote it up) and that really is what I have on me at the moment. I can also count myself lucky that I really do not have any Traumas.

A sample Player Character
Physical Aspects
Dexterity 2
Vitality 3
Mental Aspects
Logic 3
Willpower 3
Social Aspects
Charisma 2
Empathy 3

Features
Physical: Shortsighted
Mental: Decently educated
Social: Smartarse

Equipment
Backpack containing pens, business cards, copies of Monster Manual for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, The Undercroft #1, and Vacant Ritual Assembly #1; warm clothing (great coat, woolen hat, gloves, and scarf); wallet (travel passes, cash card, £30 in notes and coins) and keys

To undertake any action a player rolls a handful of six-sided dice in two colours—white for positive dice and black for negative dice (of course, the two colours of dice can be any colour, but black and white is nice and simple). Positive dice come from a player’s attributes as well as any relevant Features and benefits from the situation, equipment, assistance from NPCs and other characters, whereas negative dice come from the difficulty of the task, from negative Features and Traumas, and from hindrances from the situation and equipment. Once all of the dice have been rolled, the dice are compared with positive and negative dice of the same value cancel each other out. Any remaining positive dice equal to, or less than, the attribute selected for the test count as successes. Typically, only one success is needed, but the GM is free to require more and they are used in opposed tests and combat. Conversely, the number of negative dice leftover counts as Stress and Stress is where The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods gets slightly more interesting.

Each Aspect of a character—physical, mental, or social—has an associated Stress Track consisting of nine boxes arranged in a three-by-three grid. Damage comes from performing difficult tasks and experiencing traumatic events with damage suffered is marked off the appropriate Stress Track. If all nine boxes on a Stress Track are filled in, then the player suffers a serious trauma or even death. For the Physical Stress Track, this is probably death; for the Mental Stress, track this is irreversible insanity; and for the Social Stress track, this is catatonia. At just nine boxes in a Stress Track, your representation of as a player character feels weak, but as the player suffers Stress, he also builds up a resistance to it. This reduces the amount of Stress he suffers, so effectively the more Stress he suffers, the more he grows inured to it—so for example, the first time that a player loses an ally to a zombie attack, he suffers Stress, but happen enough times and he will be numbed to it.

For example, I and an NPC have gone scavenging in a chemist’s shop for first aid supplies, but whilst I have been successful in my mission, I have attracted the attention of bandits. Having raced to the back of the shop, we find the exit locked—and the door is heavy duty! The GM tells me that Dexterity is the involved attribute, so the target is 2. This gives me just two positive dice to roll, but fortunately I gain another for my ally and another for the crowbar I have learned to carry. Unfortunately, the GM hands me three negative dice for the quality of the door. I roll 1, 2, 3, and 6 on the positive dice and 1, 3, and 5 on the negative dice. The rolls of 1 and 3 cancel each other out, leaving 2 and 6 positive, and  5 negative. The end result is one success and one negative die—enough to get the door open, but in the process, suffer a point of Stress.

Combat is a little more complex than this. Here the number of successes count and are added as Stress to the target. Weapons add to the number of successes rolled, for example a pistol adds +3, whilst Resistance will reduce them. Stress can be converted into Trauma upon reflection, but the more severe the Trauma, the longer it takes to heal. So a point of Physical Trauma might be a twisted ankle, which takes a day and some simple first to recover from; two points of Mental Trauma could be a dread of the dead, which takes a week and counselling to overcome; and three points of Social Trauma a case of paranoia, which takes over a month to recover from. So the interesting thing here is that a player must maintain a balance between keeping Stress on his Stress Track because it will give him a certain resistance taking further Stress and having to remove it because it will ultimately kill him, despite the fact that removing it converts it into Trauma—and that hinders a player.

The rules are fairly simple, but they are not the ‘elegant narrative rules system’ that the back cover blurb promises. The problem is the difference between the effect of positive dice and the effect of negative dice. In the case of the latter, negative dice rolls are interpreted in narrative terms as Trauma and thus have an effect, but positive dice only generate successes and have no narrative effect. At its most basic in The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods, only the first success counts—what happens to the excess successes, if any? Arguably in an ‘elegant narrative rules system’ these excess successes would have an effect. Now extra successes do have a mechanical effect in more complex situations—combat and opposed rolls—but still no narrative effect. Now the guidelines for running tests do discuss determining the results of a roll, but this is only to interpret the result and not apply any other benefit which a narrative rules system might allow for. This gives the rules an imbalance that an actual ‘elegant narrative rules system’ would ideally lack and weighs an RPG that is already biased against the players further against them. Of course if this is a design feature, then sadly, the RPG does not say so.

In terms of settings, The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods offers not one, but five, as per the previous The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse. They are scenarios in the proper sense, each ‘an imagined or projected sequence of events, including in particular several detailed plans or possibilities.’ Each is divided into two sections, the Apocalypse and the Post-Apocalypse. Specifically the Apocalypse details the opening events of the apocalypse—how and when the gods return, what the players experience and how everyone else is coping with it, the nature of the mythos in question and how they can be killed—or not, mostly ‘not’, a timeline of events from the start and into the future, a set of locations and possible encounters, and a set sample stats for the members of the undead and various NPCs. The Post-Apocalypse section details what the world is like after the apocalypse and again gives a set of locations and possible encounters and sample stats for NPCs. Each of these scenarios is twenty or so pages in length and in gaming terms is more of an outline for a mini-campaign rather than an actual scenario.

The first of the five scenarios is ‘Gaea’s Revenge’ in which nature strikes back and takes the planet from modern civilisation. Giant forests regrow and destroy buildings and structures, animals attack humanity, extreme weather and earthquakes destroy towns and cities, and so forth. In the post-apocalypse, humanity has been driven out of the ruined towns and forced to take up an agrarian lifestyle whilst scavenging a dwindling supply of portable resources. The problem is that there is nothing here for the player characters to do except survive and… and… and nothing else. ‘Gaea’s Revenge’ gets the quintet of scenarios in The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods off to a disappointingly dull start. In ‘Gaea’s Revenge’, the Earth goddess’ wrath is a four-page idea that because of the format of scenarios in The End of the World series has been expanded into sixteen.

Where The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods picks up in terms of its ideas, is with the second scenario, ‘The Return of Quetzalcoatl’. As the Earth is once again beset by earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, floods, and hurricanes, an unforeseen meteor strikes the planet and then around the world five stepped pyramid temples appear. Feathered warriors step forth from them, not only fighting the police and army to a standstill, but sacrificing those captured. In the wake of the sacrifices a giant feathered serpent rises from the meteor and attacks city and army alike… As this continues, some answer a strange call to climb atop a temple and never be seen again. Then once serpent’s representative persuades the world’s leaders to a truce, the creature disappears into a temple itself. In the years after, a prophet appears preaching a Neo-Mayanist faith and seeks to unite the world.

There is no denying that ‘The Return of Quetzalcoatl’ is a more interesting setting than the previous ‘Gaea’s Revenge’, but it does feel like a very long set-up time to get to the point where the player characters have any agency or do anything other than run around trying to avoid the natural disasters. It feels far more like the set up and pay off for a good novel rather than an RPG scenario.

Better though is ‘Ragnarok’—entirely as foretold. The Sun and Moon disappear, global panic, and then everyone on Earth has a premonition of their death—their Wyrd. As a dragon and a giant wolf rampage across the planet, trolls, frost giants, and fire giants emerge to tear down cities and the dead rise to drag the living down to Hel, the gods return to Earth to fight for the fate of the world—and more. Gamers are probably as in as good a place to participate in Ragnarök given that have some understanding of it and if any one of them is a LARPer or does reenactment, then maybe they have bigger advantage, because knowing how to handle a sword and shield will more prove effective against the creatures of Norse legend than guns. Even if not, ‘Ragnarok’ presents plenty of opportunities for the characters to participate in the fate of the Nine Worlds and beyond. They even get to fulfill their Wyrd and go out in a blaze of glory!

‘Revelation’ sees the player characters live out the end of days  as the seven Seals are opened, the Four Horse of the Apocalypse ride across the planet, blood and fire rain from the sky, plagues of locusts torment the survivors, and hell-knights stalk the living. As things look bleak, The Returned fall from the sky, each inspiring great faith, but as they begin providing leadership and perhaps even hope, a great leader appears to preach against the events of the apocalypse and to offer a sense of order in the chaos. The question is, can he be trusted and does he really have the world’s interests at heart?

‘Revelation’ is a Biblical interpretation of the apocalypse for The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods. It harks back to a type of RPG setting that the industry has not seen the likes of since the rash of millenarianism at the turn of the century. Again it suffers from a certain lack of player agency, bar the player characters running around trying to avoid or escape the disasters that beset the planet. The book even goes so far as to state this, so again it takes a while before they can get involved and that again really only occurs in the post-apocalypse not the apocalypse itself.

Rounding out the quintet of scenarios is ‘That is not Dead…’, which for scholars of H.P. Lovecraft is enough to tell the reader that this is an apocalypse in which Great Cthulhu rises. Although much hinted at, the time when the stars come right and the End Times arrive, has barely been explored in RPGs of Lovecraftian investigative horror—Ripples from Carcosa and the End Time monograph for Call of Cthulhu and the recently released Cthulhu Apocalypse for Trail of Cthulhu. The scenario even goes so far as to point that anyone familiar with Lovecraft’s writings will see the similarities in the events of this apocalypse and his fiction—which of course is no longer fiction. So terrible dreams are suffered around the world, there are great storms and earthquakes in the Pacific, an indescribable monstrosity strides from sea into California, and then batrachian things emerge from lakes and oceans to abduct men and women alike. In the wake of the fear and mass hysteria, cultists dedicated to these ‘things’ betray mankind, the things colonise the surface of the planet, and even greater creatures emerge from the sea to subjugate the last of humanity.

Again, this scenario points out that there is nothing that the player characters can hope to accomplish, particularly in the apocalypse. In the post-apocalypse it is another matter, but then the planet is faced with the reality of the Cthulhu mythos, so there is little that the characters will be able to do anyway. This is less of an issue than in the other scenarios for that reason. Whilst there might be room to explore the final days of humanity, we are  doomed from day one of ‘That is not Dead…’, whereas this is not the case in the other scenarios in The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods. Too often the players have to wait around and do nothing except panic and then panic again before they get the chance to act; and too often pages and pages of each scenario are devoted to explaining what happens whilst the player characters get to do nothing.

Just as with The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse, physically, The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods is well presented. The layout is tidy and the artwork decent, and even the index is reasonable—and yet…

As novel as the idea of playing yourself facing the rise of the walking dead was, the truth is that The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse was a contender for worst RPG of 2015. It brought nothing new to the zombie genre, it was too American, it failed to address the issue of the game’s replay value—that is, the replay value of the game and oddness of playing yourself in one scenario and once it ends, starting all over again in another which means resetting yourself to your base stats. Plus it used mechanics that did not live up to their billing and in doing so favoured the game and the Referee rather than the players. Lastly, it set up a flaw that is going to run through the line as a whole—its format. Having fifty pages devoted in each entry in the line to the rules followed by ninety pages of settings and scenarios means that if you have one book in the line and then purchase another, then you are paying the same price for just two thirds of new content—and remember, neither The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse nor The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods are inexpensive books.

Unfortunately The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods suffers from nearly all of the same problems. After all, it uses the same mechanics and the same format. It is also too American in its focus and it does not address the issue of replaying yourself from one scenario in the book to next (and having to reset yourself each time). Now despite those issues—and these are issues are very unlikely to be addressed in the forthcoming The End of the World: Alien Invasion or The End of the World: Revolt of the Machines—there is one saving grace to The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods, and that is its scenarios. Even then, said scenarios are very, very far from being perfect.

What primarily makes the scenarios in The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods imperfect is simple—‘Gaea’s Revenge’. There is nothing wrong with idea behind this scenario, but at twenty or so pages, it is uninspiring and dull. Worse, if you have another entry in The End of the World series and then purchase The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods, then ‘Gaea’s Revenge’ does nothing more than increase the wasted page count to half of the book—and remember,  The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods is not an inexpensive book. The secondary issue is that the apocalypses of too many of the other scenarios leave the player characters with too little to do. Of the quintet in The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods, only ‘Ragnarok’ really gives a great deal for the player characters to do from the off and its chance for them to be heroic is refreshing from the other scenarios.

The good news is that The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is still the contender for worst RPG of 2015—The End of the World: The Wrath of the Gods does not dethrone it, although it is a pretender. The End of the World: The Wrath of the Gods feels as underdeveloped and underwhelming in an overdone presentation, but at least it presents a better range of ideas in its apocalyptic scenarios. Of these ‘Ragnarok’ is the standout scenario because it gets the player characters involved, something that the other scenarios are just too slow to do and that leaves The End of the World: The Wrath of the Gods GM with too much work to do than it should.