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

Sunday 5 February 2023

A Grave Future

The Fall that brought about the end of humanity was generations ago. Who knows how long? Most were lost in the balls of nuclear fire that blossomed around the world and then by the biological and chemical agents which ravaged the remainder, followed by disease and starvation. The survivors and their children and their children only lived because they were infected by a fungus, one that mutated into different strains until those infected were different from one strain to the next and they were definitely not human. Some were closer to the zombies which arose from the dead, though they retained a spark of intelligence and even what might be called humanity. Others have mastered the powers of the mind. Whilst the Infection, as the fungus which infects everyone and everyone is known, enables the different Strains to survive the new world, it is far from a safe world. Areas are still poisoned by radiation and other agents from the Fall, the Fungus has also mutated animals and plants, the dead can still rise as zombies or zeds, and towns, settlements, and trade caravans can be attacked by raider clans, cannibalistic scavengers who spread the Bad Brain disease, which turns those it infects and kills into yet more raiders of those clans! Yet there is hope. The survivors of Nor’Merica—and particular, the Nor’East—are rebuilding, recovering old technology and inventing new ones. There are ways to generate electricity, but it is always in short supply. Travel is possible via trade caravans which wend their way between the fortified settlements of the Wastes as well as by sea. Yet there is another strangeness to the Infection. The Grave Mind. Death is not the end. When a Survivor does return from the dead, they often come back having had deeply strange personal experiences… And the more often a Survivor is killed and returns from the Grave Mind, the more of his personal connections with the world are lost.

This is the setting for Dystopia Rising: Evolution, the Post Apocalypse roleplaying game from Onyx Path Publishing. Originally published as Dystopia Rising by Eschaton Media in 2011, the new edition was published in 2019 following a successful Kickstarter campaign. It employs the Storypath system, a simpler and streamlined version of the earlier Storyteller system designed for slightly cinematic, effect driven play, each player able to turn his character’s actions into stunts. The core rulebook includes everything necessary to play—rules for character generation, the Storypath system, the dangers of the wastes, factions and secret societies, faith and belief, psionics, descriptions of the Nor’East, an introductory scenario, and advice for the Storyguide as the Game Master is known.

A Player Character in Dystopia Rising: Evolution has nine Attributes—Intellect, Cunning, Resolve, Might, Dexterity, Stamina, Presence, Manipulation, and Composure; several of the roleplaying game’s sixteen skills plus Skill Tricks and Specialities associated with those skills; and Edges, Paths, and Aspirations. Both Attributes and Skills are rated between one and five. A Speciality provides an enhancement when using it, for example, ‘Knifework’ for the Close Combat skill or ‘Wound Treatment’ for the Medicine skill, whilst Skill Tricks can add more dice to a roll, increase scale of what a character can do, change the Target Number for an action, or provide a free Stunt, for example, ‘Born to Ride’ for Pilot skill or ‘Bomb Awareness’ for the Lore skill. 
Dystopia Rising: Evolution includes examples of three for each skill, but encourages the Storyguide and players to create their own. Either way, it costs of point of Momentum to activate a Skill Trick. Edges are the equivalent of advantages, and for certain characters can be Faith or Psi Edges. A Player Character has three Paths. His Strain Path represents his history and strain of humanity, as well as his Strain Condition; his Role Path is his occupation or what he is good at; and his Society Path represents his connection to a group or society. The Strain Condition represents a situation or response—whether by the Survivor or to the Survivor—which will penalise his actions. In some cases, it is possible to overcome a Strain Condition, at least temporarily, but with others it is impossible. For example, one of the five pre-generated characters has the Strain Path of Vegasian, which means she is flamboyant and an entertainer, and consequently, the Strain Condition of ‘Born Coward’, meaning she is not always trusted and suffers the complication of Shifty; the Role Path of Scoundrel, good at deceiving others and relieving them of their money; and the Society Path of Black Market. In play, Paths are avenues of progress for Survivors, but also storytelling tools that the Storyguide can pull a player and Survivor into the ongoing story of a scenario or campaign. Aspirations are a character’s goals and are either short or long term.

At the heart of a Survivor is a Strain. 
Dystopia Rising: Evolution presents eight Strains—Devoted, Elitariat, Evolved, Gorgers, Landsmen, Mutants, Nomads, and Townies. These are further divided into three Lineages to provide a total of twenty-four base archetypes upon which to base a character. For example, the Devolved Strain include the unbreakable Irons, the strong Reclaimers, and the Unstable who are capable of controlling psionicists and the undead. Not all of the Strains get on with each other, but what Dystopia Rising: Evolution makes clear is that they are very much not the equivalent of race. Further, it also makes clear that the post apocalypse of the Fall means that the Survivors have transcended the negative attitudes of humanity from before.

To create a Survivor, a player devises a concept and then selects a Strain Path, Role Path, and Society Path. Each Path provides dots or points to assign to associated skills. Plus, the player has another six to freely assign. Depending upon the rating of the skills, a Survivor can also have a Skill Trick and a Speciality. He has three pools of points to assign to his Survivor’s Attributes to the three Arenas they divided into—Mental, Physical, and Social. Lastly, the Survivor receives all of the associated Edges and gear from the Paths.

Name: Mortlake
Strain: Devoted – Unborn (Condition: Not Like the Others)

Academics 0, Athletics 0, Close Combat 1, Culture 0, Empathy 1, Firearms 0, Integrity 1, Leadership 0, Lore 3 (Grave Mind Expert), Medicine 3 (Medical Genius), Persuasion 1, Pilot 0, Science 1, Subterfuge 0, Survival 2, Technology 0

Force – Intellect 3 Might 1 Prescence 1
Finesse – Cunning 4 Dexterity 3 Manipulation 3
Resilience – Resolve 2 Stamina 1 Composure 3

Strain: Devoted – Unborn 1
Role: Sawbones
Society: Psionicists’ Guild

Short: To rescue his mentor
Short: To find work as a sawbones
Long: To explore the Grave Mind

Acute Sense 1
Meditation 1
Mentor 1
Psionicist 3 (Death Shroud, Whispered Insight, Borrowed Memories)
Skilled Healer 2
Unshakable Devotion

Bandages, Healing Herbs, Shiv

Dystopia Rising: Evolution employs the Storypath system. The core mechanic uses dice pools of ten-sided dice, typically formed from the combination of a skill and an attribute, for example Pilot and Dexterity to sail a boat, Survival and Stamina to cross a wilderness, and Persuasion and Manipulation to unobtrusively get someone to do what a character wants. These skill and attribute combinations are designed to be flexible, with a character’s preferred method described as a character’s Favoured Approach. So, a character whose Favoured Approach is Force, would use Close Combat and Might in a melee fight; if Finesse, Close Combat and Dexterity; and if Resilience, then Close Combat and Stamina.

The aim when rolling, is to score Successes, a Success being a result of eight or more. Rolls of ten are added to the total and a player can roll them again. A player only needs to roll one Success for a character to complete task, but will want to roll more. Not only because Successes can be used to buy off Complications—ranging between one and five—but also because they can be used to buy Stunts which will impose Complications for others, create an Enhancement for another action, or one that it makes it difficult to act against a character. Some Stunts cost nothing, so ‘Inflict Damage’ costs nothing, though may cost more if the enemy is wearing soft armour, a ‘Critical Hit’ costs four Stunts, and so on. Instead of adding to the number of dice rolled, equipment used adds Enhancements or further Successes for a player to expend, but the player needs to roll at least one Success for equipment to be effective.

Under the Storypath system, and thus in 
Dystopia Rising: Evolution, failure is never complete. Rather, if a player does not roll any Successes, then he receives a Consolation. This can be a ‘Twist of Fate’, which reveals an alternative approach or new information; a ‘Chance Meeting’ introduces a new helpful NPC; or an ‘Unlooked-for Advantage’, an Enhancement which can be used in a future challenge. Alternatively, a character gains Momentum which can be expended to gain an Enhancement or to activate a Skill Trick or an Edge.

The rules in 
Dystopia Rising: Evolution cover narrative and dramatic scale, combat—players roll an appropriate Resilience Attribute to generate Successes to be expended on Defensive Stunts, and procedurals such as information gathering, intrigue, influence, and so on. These are all clearly explained and all easy to use in play. In general, the Storypath system is clearly presented and quick to pick up and the rules have a cinematic quality to them, especially with the availability of Stunts and Consolations in the face of failure. The rules specific to Dystopia Rising: Evolution also cover what you would expect in a post-apocalyptic setting—food and water, the dangers of dehydration, weather and radiation, diseases from Bad Brain Disease to Necrosis, scavenging and crafting, and so on.

In addition, neither death nor disability marks the end of a Survivor in 
Dystopia Rising: Evolution. In the case of the latter, there is discussion of and rules for continuing to play a disabled Survivor, including with the use of assistive devices. Indeed, one of the pre-generated Survivors is depicted as being in an armoured wheelchair and equipped with armoured leg braces. In the case of the former, there is a chance that the Survivor will return anew, the fungus that infects him, breaking down his corpse, and rebuilding it to reappear at a settlement’s Morgue, a site enhanced by psionic crystals, a few days later, memories intact, wounds repaired, but emotional attachments stripped away. If this occurs too often the Survivor may come back as a Zed, a true zombie. It is also possible to actually walk among the Zeds undetected with the Necrokinesis psionic influence, and even reach into the Grave Mind ask questions of it. Other psionic influences are more traditional, for example, Pyrokinetics and Telekinetics.

In terms of setting, 
Dystopia Rising: Evolution adds factions, a bestiary of strange creatures and things locations, and more across the Nor’East. The factions include genre classics like the bounty hunters of the Lone Star Rangers and the postmen of the Post Walkers of the Postal Service, but also those particular to the setting, such as the Road Crew which scouts out locations for the ‘Guts N Bolts’ racing tournaments, the Psionicists’ Guild—the acceptable face of psionics, and the Priests of the Sound, whose members have the blueprints of radio equipment tattooed on their skin and are zealously dedicated to building radio networks. There are secret societies too, like the Black Market, the Dead Sight Society dedicated to the eradication of psionicists, Murder, Inc, the Servants of the Undying which holds that the Grave Mind is the path to immortality, and more. Add to this a variety of different faith and churches, such as the Church of Darwin and The Nuclear Family, and the Story Guide has a rich source of background and potential NPCs to build upon. The various faiths and their churches are actually more detailed than the other organisations. This is partly because faith can play a key role in the future of Dystopia Rising: Evolution and of the Survivors, especially if a Survivor adheres to a particular creed and backs this up with Faith related Edges. Although Dystopia Rising: Evolution is a not a supernatural roleplaying game and its zombies are not the zombies of classic horror, the use of some Faith Edges push the game in that direction if only slightly.

There is good advice for the Storyguide on running 
Dystopia Rising: Evolution, from adjusting the tone of the post-apocalypse to bringing the world to life, presenting hard questions and hard choices in play and dealing with difficult players, and more. In some ways it feels familiar, but this does not stop it from good advice. Specific advice is given on how to manage the Grave Mind in play since it is intended to be a traumatic experience for the Survivor. The background hints at the horrifying nature of the Fall, before going on to emphasis the efforts to made to rebuild civilisation, hold off the raider clans, and the wariness of over expanding and exploring too far, the Midwest having become dominated by a spreading mass of trees and foliage that is home to a vast array of mutant animals and creatures. The base setting is that of Philly del Phia, which is described in some details, as are parts of Old York. The rest of the Nor’East is described in broader details and the rest of the world in details broader still. These are areas for the Storyguide to develop. Rounding out Dystopia Rising: Evolution is ‘Let the Dead Lie’, an introductory scenario for the setting which takes place in Philly del Phia. It is a two-session affair which sees the Survivors investigating the death of the brother of an NPC who has suspicions that something is amiss following his own return from the Grave Mind. It should introduce the players to the core aspects of the setting and serve as the starting point for a campaign.

Dystopia Rising: Evolution is cleanly and tidily presented. It is done in full colour, often with a rust-streaked palette. If there is an issue with Dystopia Rising: Evolution it is that the character generation is not as easy as it could be. Not from a mechanical process, but a conceptual one. Putting together a Survivor means looking at a lot of options and trying to work out what works with what. In preparing a campaign of Dystopia Rising: Evolution, the Storyguide may want to work through some concepts before presenting them to her players.

Dystopia Rising: Evolution is an engaging entry into the post-apocalyptic genre. It shifts the zombie apocalypse in a different direction, dangerous and intriguing, of course making zombies the threat, but also pushing the Player Characters ever closer and right up to that line where they too might be considered zombies themselves. And while the aim of the roleplaying game—like any other—is not necessarily to die, the Grave Mind suggests that there is something more to dying than simple oblivion. As with other Onyx Path Publishing roleplaying games, humanity remains at the forefront of the roleplaying game and in Dystopia Rising: Evolution, retaining is about not losing it to the Grave Mind, protecting the community, rebuilding civilisation, and holding off the dangers which threaten from beyond the Wastelands. Dystopia Rising: Evolution is a roleplaying game about still being human even if the body and the mind has evolved, sometimes to the point of near undeath, and it is superbly supported with an interesting array of character options for the players and a richly detailed background for the players and Storyguide.

No comments:

Post a Comment