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Saturday, 18 April 2020

1980: The Morrow Project

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


World War III began on Thursday, November 18th, 1989.* The United States of America launched a nuclear attack in response to a Soviet missile attack over the North Pole. The rest of the world would follow in the exchange, the Soviet Union following up its nuclear attacks on the USA with biological attacks, and as first the military and then the civilian population fell victim to disease and radiation, civilisation collapsed. Within six months, some ninety-five percent of the population was dead. Fortunately, if the outbreak of the war had not been foreseen, then it had been prepared for. In 1962, a mysterious man who identified himself as Bruce Edward Morrow appeared and gathered nine of the country’s leading industrialists into an organisation known as the Council of Tomorrow. He warned them of the world’s coming destruction and convinced them to establish a means ensuring a means of humanity’s survival. This was the Morrow Project, a network of sealed bunkers or ‘boltholes’ each containing a cryogenically frozen team of soldiers, specialists, and scientists who would awaken after a nuclear war and using the cache of equipment stored with them, help reconstruct the United States of America. Unfortunately, Prime Base, the headquarters of the Morrow Project was partially sabotaged in the wake of the war, and instead of sending the signal to awaken each team immediately after the war, the signal would not be sent for another one-hundred-and-fifty years... Now each team—whether from the sixties, seventies, or eighties—awakens to find itself in a strange new land, unrecognisable from the one they knew, cut off from Prime Base, but still with their primary mission to fulfill.

*Actually, November 18th, 1989 was a Saturday.

This is the set-up for The Morrow Project, a post-apocalyptic, military orientated roleplaying game published by TimeLine Ltd in 1980. Where in other post-apocalyptic roleplaying games, such as Gamma World, the player characters are the descendants of those who survived and were changed by the great disaster which befell civilisation, who go out and explore the world, coming across the bunkers and caches of the ancients, the player characters in The Morrow Project are the ancients and are the ones leaving the bunker to explore the world. Specifically, the player characters are members of the awakened teams, unprepared for the world they now find themselves in. Their team may be a Science, MARS—Mobile Assault, Rescue, and Strike, Recon, and Specialty team, such as Engineering, Agricultural, or Psychological. They have access to arms, survival equipment, and a vehicle, typically a Commando V-150 armoured APC. Characters are defined by six attributes—Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Accuracy, Charisma, and Luck. A character is also defined by his Structure Points and Blood Points, both derived from his Strength and Constitution, and his randomly determined blood type. Structure Point and Blood Point values are determined from for some thirty or so different locations on the body. An optional attribute is PSI, which if high enough will grant the character psionic powers like empathy, healing, telepathy, telekinesis, or pyrokinetics. A character is created by rolling four six-sided dice and subtracting four for each attribute to get a range from zero to twenty.

Dave Smith
Strength 08 Constitution 15 Dexterity 08
Accuracy 16 Charisma 11 Luck 10
Blood Type: B+
Structure Points: 220
Blood Points: 220

Apart from his equipment, what is missing from the character is anything representing intelligence or knowledge. To quote the designers, this is because, “We find it best to allow the player to supply the more subtle mental and emotional talents of the character he is playing so as to more readily identify with their characters.” The character has no skills either, and indeed, there are no skills in The Morrow Project. Everything comes down to a raw roll against an attribute—or in fact, the character’s raw ability. There is some discussion of jobs and positions, from scientists and vehicle crews to the lowly kitchen porter, but they are not mechanically reflected in the game. Similarly, The Morrow Project does not address what each player character was before joining the programme and being cryogenically frozen or what their motives were. Essentially, in The Morrow Project, a player character is either a blank slate or an odd representation of the player.

Lacking skills, there is no resolution mechanic in The Morrow Project, but in general, a player is rolling against his character’s attributes using a twenty-sided die. What the roleplaying game does have is an extensive combat system, primarily focused on firefights. A character receives a number of Movements or actions per round dependent upon his Dexterity and when he attacks, his player rolls a twenty-sided die against the character’s Accuracy, aiming to get below, but not equal to the value of the attribute. This is modified for range and visibility, range and weapon modifier, firer and target movement, target size, and terrain. If the attacker fails to hit, there is still a fifty percent chance that a Luck roll will indicate a lucky hit! Only one to hit roll needs to be made for automatic fire—the number of hits by a burst being determined by roll of die equal to the number of rounds in the burst.

Then armour penetration is determined. Every weapon has an ‘E’ or efficiency factor, for example, the E-Factor for a Smith & Wesson M27 .357 revolver is ten and fifteen for a 5.56×45 mm Colt M16A1. The E-Factor represents each weapon and its ammunition type’s penetration value, and if the Armour Class of the material worn by the target is greater than the E-Factor, then the rounds will not penetrate. However, lower Armour Class values will reduce the E-Factor. For example, Armour Class 6 is equal to 0.5 cm of steel, 15.24 cm of wood, 1.52 cm of concrete, and nylon body armour, and will reduce the E-Factor of a round by six. So it would reduce the E-Factor 10 of the .357 round to five, which becomes Damage Points. Then hit location is determined and depending on the Damage Points and location, has a chance to instantly kill the target, amputate a limb, or render him unconscious. For example, the five Damage Points from the .357 round have a ninety percent chance of killing the target if his head is hit. If the target survives, the Damage Points are deducted from the location’s Structure Points. Whatever the wound, there is always a chance of the target being rendered unconscious and then there is the subsequent blood loss from the target’s Blood Points.

Hand-to-hand and melee combat is treated in a similar fashion, though with the likelihood of unconsciousness or death being confined to head hits. Hands, feet, and melee weapons do not have the E-Factor of bullets, but straightforward Damage Points, which is reduced by Armour Class—though Armour Class is more effective against such attacks. The actual damage is determined by weapon type and modified by the attacker’s Strength. In general, hand-to-hand and melee combat is faster than gun combat, and then the one set of combat mechanics you would expect to be complex—that of vehicle combat—is faster and simpler than gun combat, requiring a percentage roll to determine if a weapon is capable of damaging the vehicle, where, and if the occupants are injured. Lastly, whilst other damage types, such as electricity and of course, radiation, are described in some detail, the effects disease are handwaved aside with the application of the Morrow Project’s ‘Universal Antibody’.

The rules for combat are supported by pages and pages of guns and grenades and missiles as well as various other items of survival equipment and vehicles. All of it dates from the nineteen sixties and seventies of course, except for some advanced laser weapons, the HAAM (Hydraulically Assisted Armored Man) suit, and the MARS One all-terrain vehicle, which is reminiscent of the Landmaster vehicle from the film, Damnation Alley. All of these are powered by fusion packs supplied by the mysterious Bruce Edward Morrow.

The future world of The Morrow Project is treated somewhat haphazardly. The core book opens with a detailed list of exactly where the Russian missiles struck the United States of America, but allots the Game Master some one-hundred-and fifty missiles and warheads to drop on whatever targets she wishes. The idea here is help the Game Master apply the effects of World War III to her chosen campaign area. The effects of radiation are also discussed, and unlike its effects in roleplaying games such as Gamma World, the effects are generally negative. That said, the game does discuss how certain biological defects which could result from radiation damage to the human genome could be combined and interpreted as belonging to certain creatures out of myth. It adds to the generally more realistic approach taken by The Morrow Project to the post-apocalypse genre, but it does not make for comfortable reading.

The state of various types of technology—communications, energy, weapons, and construction—are discussed, mostly highlighting its decline following World War III. Guidance and rules are given for creating and running NPCs, either as fully rounded ‘people’ or cannon fodder with the ‘NPC Fast Kill’ table. Possible NPC motivations are also discussed. These are further expanded upon with various encounter groups. Some of these are genre staples, such as Bikers, Cannibals, Children of the Night, New Confederacy, and more, but the Ballooners—airborne traders, the Whale Worshippers, and others are nice additions. The post-apocalypse of The Morrow Project has its own flora and fauna, such as the Blue Undead—radioactive zombies, and Maggots—semi-human nocturnal mutants who live underground. Rounding out The Morrow Project is a little advice for the Game Master on setting up a game, including preparing two maps, one for the players and one for herself, and a standard introductory briefing. Lastly, the roleplaying game includes a glossary, a metric to imperial conversion table, and a bibliography of military works.

Physically, The Morrow Project is an unprepossessing book. The layout is somewhat rough and the artwork scrappy. The best artwork is that of the book’s weapons which seem to take pride of place. The organisation of the contents certainly could have been better, there being little thought given to it. 

The Morrow Project was extensively reviewed at the time of its release. Reviewing The Morrow Project in The Space Gamer Number 39 (May, 1981), William A. Barton began by highlighting the contrast between it and TSR, Inc.’s Gamma World, saying the new roleplaying game, “...[M]ay prove to be the most creditable post-holocaust RPG to date.” His lengthy review ended on a positive note with, “...[O]verall, I’d have to give The Morrow Project the highest of ratings as a SF role-playing system. If it isn’t at least nominated for the Origins awards this year, there just ain’t no justice in gameland.” Bill Fawcett reviewed The Morrow Project in Dragon #50 (June, 1981). After drawing several comparisons between Gamma World and The Morrow Project, he wrote, “These rules will appeal to two groups of gamers: those who are interested in modern weapons and combat, and those who play the GAMMA WORLD game, who will find the ideas in this game readily adaptable to that system. Anyone who considers the GAMMA WORLD game too “far out” may find THE MORROW PROJECT a less futuristic and more realistic alternative.”

Different Worlds Issue 33 (March/April, 1984) was a special post-holocaust issue and devoted much of its pages to The Morrow Project. This included ‘Playtesting the Morrow Project: An Anecdotal Report from Timeline’ and ‘Playing Hints for the Morrow Project: Advice for Players from Timeline’, both by Bill Worzel, as well as ‘Special MORROW PROJECT Module Operation – Link-Up’ by Barron Barnett and William A. Barton. Barron Barnett also reviewed The Morrow Project. He wrote, “Overall, considering the size of the company, Timeline, this critic believes The Morrow Project manual is more than worth small price it sells for.” but asked, “What does The Morrow Project need? I can sum that question in one phrase; character personalities. I generally run my Morrow Project adventures with each roleplayer knowing a little about his character’s personality in the game as well as a little of his character’s background as to why he or she is here in the first place. I think that sometimes a little past for the role-player lets them act out their part in the adventure to a more enjoyable fulfillment.”

The Morrow Project was also reviewed by the two British roleplaying magazines of the day. Phil Masters reviewed both The Morrow Project and the first scenario, Liberation at Riverton, in White Dwarf No. 42 (June, 1983). He described the roleplaying game as, “…[A] post-holocaust role-playing system with a highly specific American background, some excellent mechanisms, and a number of gaps. Liberation at Riverton is the first published scenario for the game, and looks like a labour of love for the designers. The overwhelming impression is that all this is one group's long-tested game, reflecting its originators’ tastes and personalities.” He concluded that, “The Morrow Project is a game with a very specific style, a lot of strengths, and a lot of weaknesses. Like any post-holocaust game, it may be a little depressing; it is certainly quite violent. It is, by current standards, simple and playable, and could be worse at the price.” (it should be noted that the core rules cost £7.50 in 1980) before awarding it a score of five out of ten. Similarly, Chris Baylis reviewed The Morrow Project and the second scenario, Liberation at Riverton, as well as the third, Project Damocles, in Imagine No. 2 (May, 1983). His opening comments were positive, saying that, “My first impressions of the Morrow Project made me want to begin a game immediately. The idea seemed new and exciting, and the system looked advanced, well thought out and imaginative.” before concluding effusively, “This is initially a very confusing game to play, yet with a lot of time and effort by the selected PD [Project Director], this could be the revelation role-playing game of the ’80s, becoming expandable and popular enough to rival any of the other major role-playing games available at the present time.”

It was also reviewed in Games Review, Volume 1, Issue 6 (March, 1989). Laurance Miller wrote, “Overall the game provides a good background for play, combined with detailed game mechanics for a high degree of realism within a post-holocaust environment. It is short on detailed assistance for role-playing, but this is no problem for anyone who has previously played an RPG and is countered by the addition of such information in the various scenarios that are available. Worth getting in its own right as well as a source of material for use with other similar games.”

Timeline Ltd. would go on to publish numerous supplements for The Morrow Project, as well as the interesting time travel roleplaying game, Time & Time Again in 1984. Of its three designers, Kevin Dockery would go on to write two notable works on firearms for roleplaying. One was The Armory, Volume One from Hero Games and the other was the well-received Edge of the Sword Vol. 1: Compendium of Modern Firearms published by R. Talsorian Games. This then, and the fact that Dockery was an ex-army armourer, explains the emphasis in The Morrow Project on guns. Richard Tucholka would go on to found Tri Tac Games, and notably publish Bureau 13: Stalking the Night Fantastic. A second edition of The Morrow Project was published in 1980 and a third edition in 1983—the later including a boxed set from Chris Harvey Games, a UK-based games distributor, published in 1989. The Morrow Project 4th. Edition was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign in January, 2013 by Timeline Ltd. 

Despite the positive reviews of the time, The Morrow Project, forty years on, is not a good roleplaying game, or indeed, arguably a roleplaying game at all, given its lack of player character abilities, player character development, and support for the player characters. In fact, the roleplaying aspects of The Morrow Project—or lack of them—would not be addressed until the publication in 1983 of Morrow Project Role Playing Expansion and Personal and Vehicular Basic Loads, a supplement for the third edition of the game. In this earlier edition, because of its focus on guns and combat, The Morrow Project feels far more like a set of miniatures combat rules, but without the miniatures. There is no denying that the background to The Morrow Project is interesting and not without potential, indeed lots of potential, but The Morrow Project fails to develop either that background or its set-up sufficiently. There is an amateurish quality to its production values and it very much feels like a small press product based on a home campaign of survivalist action.

The apocalypse of The Morrow Project is much drier than other post-holocaust roleplaying game of its time. It has the feel of the nineteen seventies television and film Science Fiction—so Damnation Alley and the Gene Roddenberry pilots, Genesis II and Planet Earth. There was a need for the roleplaying game though. When it was published in 1980, The Morrow Project fulfilled the hobby’s need for a military orientated post-apocalyptic roleplaying game, that is until Game Designer Workshop’s Twilight 2000 appeared in 1984.


With thanks to Doctor Andrew Cowie for providing access to Games Review, Volume 1, Issue 6.

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