With everyone running around shouting about how good – or not – the new version from Wizards of the Coast of the original Post-Apocalyptic RPG, Gamma World, actually is, let us not forget that not everyone wants their Post-Apocalyptic future to be quite as crazy. With every intention of reviewing the new Gamma World in the near future, I shall instead take a look at a still recent offering, but one that provides a much drier, more accessible, and more familiar approach to the end of civilisation as we know it. Atomic Highway: Post-Apocalyptic Roleplaying! from radioactive ape designs and published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment provides everything necessary to play in what is a familiar setting, that of our own world after it has suffered a disaster that brought about the fall of civilisation as we know it. The nature of the disaster, whether that disaster is manmade or natural in origins and its effects are very much up to the GM to decide, but the familiarity of the setting is due to the game’s most obvious influence, the Mad Max movie trilogy.
What Atomic Highway: Post-Apocalyptic Roleplaying! offers is a fairly straight take upon the genre, though one that still has room for mutants, including both humans and animals, and psychic powers. The main influence though shows in the slightly cinematic rules, in the rules and mechanics for handling vehicles and vehicular combat, and the implied setting’s emphasis upon the need for oil and petroleum products. The book itself is a relatively easy read and comes with a nicely done introduction to roleplaying and the genre, the former primarily done through the means of a well drawn cartoon that illustrates what roleplaying is.
Character generation in Atomic Highways is a matter of making choices and assigning points. A player needs to select his character’s Race – Human or optionally, Mutant; assign Attribute points between seven core stats that range between one and five points and can together be abbreviated as “MUTANT;” choose a Rearing and a Pursuit – how he grew up and what he does now; and lastly customise and personalise the character. A Rearing and a Pursuit determines the character’s base skills with a few more points being allowed for customising these skills. Every Pursuit comes with some beginning gear, but some like the Hauler or the Road Warrior each receive a further pool of points to spend a vehicle and kitting it out. For the most part equipment is kept generic in nature, it being left to both player and GM to add the brand name of their choice. If a player decides that his character is a Mutant or a Psychic, then his mutation or psychic ability is determined randomly. A further mutation or psychic ability can be taken if a mutation or psychic flaw is taken as well.
The process is quick, each of the following examples taking five or so minutes each. The first is Jenni, a Hauler who drives a big truck between settlements. She is accompanied by Rulf, a big, heavy boned man who was once his tribe’s healer. He looks out for her when they get into scrapes and she gives him a home aboard the “Mercy,” her truck. It has been armoured and fitted with a cattle catcher and heavy tracks to make it off-road capable. A scavenged engine and transmission has been fitted to increase Mercy’s speed and agility. The only weapon that she carries is a smoke dispenser to deter tailgaters.
Muscle 3, Understanding 3, Tenacity 2, Appeal 3, Nimbleness 3, Toughness 2, Senses 2
Rearing: Nomad Pursuit: Hauler
Skills: Athletics 2, Brawl 1, Drive 4, Intimidate 1, Lore 1, Melee 2, Notice 1, Persuade 3, Scavenge 2, Shoot 3, Stealth 1, Tech 3
Gear: Knife, battered antique coffee maker, lump hammer, .357 revolver, heavy leathers and wax duster coast, toolkit
Muscle 4, Understanding 3, Tenacity 2, Appeal 1, Nimbleness 2, Toughness 4, Senses 2
Rearing: Tribal Pursuit: Healer
Skills: Athletics 2, Brawl 2, Heal 4, Intimidate 2, Lore 1, Melee 4, Notice 2, Persuade 1, Ride 2, Scavenge 1, Shoot 2, Stealth 2, Survive 1
Gear: boomerang, necklace of bones, crossbow and bolts, heavy axe, medical tools and herbs
Muscle: 4 Nimbleness: 3 Toughness: 4 Speed: 3
Passengers: Driver + 56 Health: 120 Protection: 14
Customisation: Heavy Armour, Increased Speed and Nimbleness, Off-Road Capable, Ram, Roll Cage, Smoke Dispenser
For its mechanics, Atomic Highway uses the V6 Engine. It is a dice pool system in which for any action an attribute determines the number of six-sided dice to be rolled. Each die that rolls a six counts as a success and call be rolled again to gain more successes. Whenever a skill is involved in the roll, a player can spend points up to the value of the skill itself to turn a failed roll on a die into a success.
For example, whilst on a trip, raiders have attacked Mercy and several have clambered onto her roof, forcing Rulf to climb through a hatch and attempt to knock them off the roof with his axe. To attack one of the raiders, Rulf’s rolls four dice for his axe and gets, two, four, four, and six. He does not get a six on the re-rolled die, but he spends his four Melee skill points to increase the two results of four to six each, for a grand total of three sixes or three successes. The raider attempts to dodge the axe swing, but the GM does not roll enough successes, so Rulf’s heavy axe does lethal damage equal to ten plus the wielder’s Muscle, which is multiplied by the number of successes. So Rulf inflicts a total of forty-two points of damage! The raiders are wearing light armour and only have sixteen Health each, so the GM rules with that amount of damage that Rulf’s axe cleaves through the first raider and knocks a second off the top of Mercy – this perfectly in keeping with the cinematic nature of the game’s intent. As Rulf steadies himself though, he finds himself staring at a loaded crossbow...!
Critical failures occur when all ones are rolled. Every character though, has five Fortune points. As is traditional, these can be spent to gain successes, perform dual actions, alter the plot, reduce an opponent’s successes, reduce damage, and enable the re-roll of a critical failure. Equally, there are just as many ways to regain spent Fortune, most of them revolving around the encouragement of good play.
To support its genre, Atomic Highway includes rules for scavenging and vehicular combat, plus advice aplenty. There is of course, the traditional advice for the GM, but this is joined by a series of questions that help the GM create his setting. This aspect is itself supported by sample settings and NPCs, each of which can be used as is, or as the basis of something of the GM’s own devising. There is also a scenario, “Gas Gouging.” Although quite detailed, this scenario is designed to be easily adapted to a location or to a set-up.
Physically, Atomic Highway is an decent looking book, illustrated with a lot action orientated artwork. It is a fairly light read and is generally clearly written, the index not being quite as immediately useful you would want. Where the writing really works is in the advice, being useful for both players and advice. To be fair, some of this advice might be too obvious for most players and Atomic Highway is not really being pitched at the neophyte, but if someone new to the hobby comes across this RPG, he could not go far wrong with what is written here.
If I have an issue, it might be that the game is light on both strange mutant creatures and strange mutant abilities, but then again, Atomic Highway is not written to encompass all aspects of the genre. Putting that aside, it would have been nice if the author had addressed his obvious inspirations and included a bibliography.
The truth is that Atomic Highway is anything other than a ground breaking. This is a roleplaying game that wears its fuel injected engine on its sleeve and is very obvious in its inspirations. That is no bad thing, though anyone looking for anything more might be disappointed. Yet if you happen to want a light, cinematic RPG with all of the grit and action of the Mad Max movies, then Atomic Highway: Post-Apocalyptic Roleplaying! is a solid design that will suit you down to the ground.