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Friday, 23 December 2016

Primates Proud

The latest title from Goblinoid Games is Apes Victorious: Rules for Science Fantasy Adventures on a Planet Ruled by Apes. This is an Old School Renaissance RPG in which astronauts from a future that never was land on an Earth where humanity blew itself to hell in a nuclear war forcing them to regress to the state whilst apes have evolved to become the dominant species in the post-apocalypse. From the outset and from the sparse, but great artwork, it is clear what this RPG is. Simply, Apes Victorious: Rules for Science Fantasy Adventures on a Planet Ruled by Apes is the Planet of the Apes RPG. Now there have been ape-based RPGs before, most notably Terra Primate: Savage Roleplaying in a World Where Man is the Missing Link, published by Eden Studios, but they have been lightly inspired by the Planet of the Apes series, rather than being directly inspired by the franchise as Apes Victorious is. Even then, Apes Victorious is only inspired by specific parts of the Planet of the Apes canon, in particular, the 1968 film Planet of the Apes, the 1970 film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and the 1974 Planet of the Apes television series and the 1975 Return to the Planet of the Apes animated series.

Apes Victorious then is an RPG set on the east coast of North America where the Apes have established a strictly racially divided society—Bonobos are social and serve as spies and diplomats; Chimpanzees are scholars studying both the past and the future; Gorillas are soldiers; and Orangutans are both politicians and members of the clergy, dictating policy for all aspects of Ape society, including science. What remains of Humanity on the surface of the New Earth consists of mute, simple herd creatures that often raid Ape-run farms and as a consequence when rounded up by Gorilla soldiers are either culled or put to simple, hard work. What remains of Humanity below the New Earth are the Underdwellers, long since adapted to live in the bunkers their ancestors survived the war in and advanced both technology and psionic powers. Though they rarely come to the surface as they are susceptible to ultraviolet rays from the Sun, they continue to monitor Ape activities, sometimes even going as far as send in ape-robot spies… Into this situation crashland Astronauts, star travellers from before the Nuclear War that brought about the New Earth who have been flung forward in time thousands of years. To them, the ‘New Earth’ is a strange new planet with weird parallels in evolution. They have knowledge of the past and advanced sciences, but face fierce opposition and suppression from an Ape society unwilling to countenance the idea that Humans might be able to speak, let alone be intelligent. Will they discover the truth of their situation and where they are and when they do, will they attempt to escape back to their past or stay and change the future?

Characters in Apes Victorious combine Race and Class, just like Basic Dungeons & Dragons, Labyrinth Lord, and other retroclones. Thus all Astronauts are Human, all Gorillas are soldiers, and so on. Apes Victorious offers seven Classes—Astronaut, Bonobo Agent, Chimpanzee  Scholar, Gorilla Soldier, Humanoid, Orangutan Politician, and Underdweller. The Astronaut has survival skills, general technical and scientific knowledge and skills to understand the the technology of the past and the future, plus a field of expertise in say art, computers and electronics, and medicine. The Bonobo Agent is rarely surprised, has fast reflexes, is socially adept, and is trained in climbing and sleight of hand. The Chimpanzee Scholar specialises in either Archaeology, Behavioural Science, or Medicine and can conduct research into these fields of study. The Gorilla Soldier is physically strong and strong-willed, in particular against fear or Psionic effects. The Humanoid is tough, but mute, and is capable of surviving in the wilderness. The Orangutan Politician is a priest-scientist capable of conducting research like the Chimpanzee Scholar, but not as effectively, possesses some knowledge of the past thanks to their religious studies and can also order other apes to carry out tasks. The Underdweller has infravision and can see in the dark as well as having psionic abilities.

It should be noted that these nine Classes are fiercely underwritten.  The worst example of this is the Humanoid Class, which only has five Levels, but other Classes also suffer from a lack of depth and development. For example, the Gorilla Soldier simply has his strength and his Hit Points and does not grow or change in anyway, while the Underdweller has psionic abilities and little more. Compare this to the Bonobo Agent that can get sneakier and more conniving, the Chimpanzee Scholar who can study and learn more, and the Orangutan Politician who can rise in power and give more orders. Now this understandable given the source material and its tight focus in terms of storytelling, for there is not a huge canon upon which to draw. Which leaves the players with little to draw upon and a lot of effort to be made if such characters are going to be interesting.

Characters are created by the traditional method of rolling three six-sided dice for the six attributes, which in Apes Victorious are Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Charisma, and Psionic Potential. Various modifiers are derived from these stats, all taken from one single table which is not always clear in its meaning and involves a bit of flipping back and forth. Once done, a player decides on a Class, notes down his character’s Class abilities, agrees to his character’s starting equipment with the Ape Master—as the GM is known in Apes Victorious—and the character is done. (Equipment in Apes Victorious is divided between the three categories of the RPG’s Classes—Astronaut, Apes, and Underdweller.)

Doctor Erin Schaefer
First Level Astronaut

STR 09
CON 11 (Resist Trauma 85%)
DEX 16 (Defence Modifier -2, Missile Attack Bonus +2, Initiative Adjustment +1)
INT 14  (Research & Technology Modifier +5%)
CHA 15 (Reaction Adjustment -1)
PSI 10

Hit Points 5

Class Abilities
Foraging; Understand Underdweller Technology 55%; Aeronautics, Astronomy, & Earth Sciences 1-2; Medicine 1-2

Equipment
Pistol, knife, backpack, canteen, medkit, rations

One major advantage that Underdwellers do have is that of Psionics. The Underdweller Class has Illusory Projection and ESP as its basic powers, but each will have a randomly power in addition. These other powers include Empathy, Telepathy, Empathic Projection, Telekinesis, Hypnosis, and Telekinetic Attack. There are other powers listed in the book, but these are not available to player characters. Each power has a cost to use and as long as a character has Psi points available—equal to his Psi Potential attribute—he can continue using his powers. If a power is used against an NPC, then Psionic combat ensues, which consists of the combatants rolling under their respective Psi Potential stats, with the character with the higher Psi Potential stat having a bonus.

As befitting a retroclone, Apes Victorious employs a mix of roll high and roll low dice rolls. Skill rolls are roll low, attribute rolls are roll low, combat rolls are roll low (so that a roll of one is always a hit and a roll of twenty is always a miss), whilst saving throws are roll high. The game does not use Armour Class, but instead employs a single Character Attack Table wherein a character’s Class and Level determines his ‘Roll To-Hit’ number, which of course is modified by the attacker’s Attacks and Damage and Missile Attack Bonuses and armour possessed by the target—worn or natural. What this means is that Apes Victorious uses the equivalent of a descending Armour Class, but instead of then having to roll high as in Dungeons & Dragons, characters have to roll low. Now where it gets wonky is in the sentence, “In complete darkness or attacking against invisible creatures, there a penalty of -4 to hit.” This is a holdover from previous Old School Renaissance RPGs, but it is not entirely clear whether this should be applied to the ‘Roll To-Hit’ number (the equivalent of Armour Class) or the number rolled when making the attack. This is further exacerbated in the Armour description given in the bestiary where Armour is a modifier to attack rolls against a creature with a negative number representing natural armour or quickness and a positive number representing physical vulnerability or lack of speed. So what is the penalty applied to? If a minus number is applied to the roll, then that effectively improves the roll, not penalises it. If it is instead applied to the ‘Roll To-Hit’ number, then that makes more sense as that would would lower  the ‘Roll To-Hit’ number and thus make the attack roll harder, but it could have been made clearer in the text. That said, using a mix of roll low and roll high rolls does not help the situation.

Given that Apes Victorious is weird enough with the addition of talking apes and mutant humans, it pleasingly keeps it bestiary quite low key. The weird and the wacky beings and things to found in other post apocalypse set RPGs, are not to be found here. Its bestiary mostly consists of mutated creatures like the Coywolf, the Arctic Hyena, and the Giant Fanged Toad, but in the Forbidden Zone can be found Insectoids, Cerebral Jellies, and Robot Guardians. More attention is paid to the setting of Apes Victorious and its background, in particular examining the societies and technologies of both Apes and Underdwellers. There is plenty here to help the Ape Master portray them both as well as notes on playing a character from the 1970s if playing an astronaut. Various themes are discussed, each particular to the various character types. These are essentially campaign types, whether it is the Astronauts attempting to get back to their home and time or seeking the Underdwellers, the Apes hunting the Astronauts or investigating the Underdwellers, or the Underdwellers exploring their fantastic underworld whilst fending off interest from the surface world. There is some discussion too of groups made up mixed Classes, but the options for such groups are more limited, much like the source material. Various adventure locations are also described, including a map of the future North America, plus there is also a table of Ape names (unfortunately no table of Underdweller names).

Rounding out Apes Victorious is a scenario, ‘Escape Planet Ape’, which has the characters as Astronauts dropping onto a strange planet to locate the crew of another spaceship. It is a decent little affair, one that nicely introduces the setting and the difficulties that the intelligent Astronauts will face in world where Apes fear and hate them. Lastly, there are conversion tables for Goblinoid Games other titles, including Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Future, and Spaceships & Spacemen 2e. Of the three, Apes Victorious would work better with Mutant Future and Spaceships & Spacemen 2e, plugging more easily in terms of theme into Mutant Future.

Physically, Apes Victorious is a decent digest-sized booklet. It could do with an edit here or there, but for the most part is very readable. It is lightly illustrated, but the artwork is clear, simple, and excellent.

Apes Victorious is hampered by a problem or two. The first is that whilst they do work, the rules could have been better presented and explained, especially given their simplicity. Further it would have made more sense had the rules been simply roll one way for everything, not roll low for this and roll high for that. Perhaps the setting might even have been served by a more solid rules system, perhaps the ‘Pacesetter’ mechanics which Goblinoid Games has used in Rotworld: A Game of Survival Horror Against Undead Flesh Eaters and Cryptworld: Chilling Adventures into the Unexplained is the other. The second is that some of the character Classes are very underwritten such that the players may left wondering what to do with them in comparison to other Classes. Again this might have been better addressed using another set of mechanics, but having one set of mechanics at least means that an Ape Master can easily adapt the content of Apes Victorious to a system of his choice.

Despite its problems, there is everything in Apes Victorious to get a Planet of the Apes-style campaign launched, though more support would be welcome. Perhaps some scenarios that focus on Ape, Underdweller, and mixed groups as well as Astronauts? In the meantime, the background and material the RPG presents is accessible and easily adapted or plugged into other settings and RPGs. Above all, Apes Victorious is a delightful emulation of its source material. Whilst there is no such thing as an actual Planet of the Apes RPG, there can be no doubt that Apes Victorious is the very nearest thing. You could almost say that Apes Victorious: Rules for Science Fantasy Adventures on a Planet Ruled by Apes apes the Planet of the Apes RPG that never was.