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Sunday 2 April 2023

Dungeon Crawl Cataclysm

As prophesised long ago, in the early years of the twenty-first century, a rogue object from outer space struck the Moon. This triggered a shockwave that fractured the very surface of the Earth and set off the Great Cataclysm. That though is only one story to explain the state that the land of Umerica finds itself in. There are many others, but if the inhabitants of cannot agree about how this world came about, they can agree that is no longer like that depicted in the archives of Hollywood. It is a world of savagery, cruel sorcery, and twisted science, with technology scavenged from the ruins of the past, stolen from aliens from outer space or other dimensions, or inspired by Hollywood and bodged together from scrap. Lying between the Northern Ice Wall and the Amazonian Sea, Umerica is a barren land, dry and dusty, crisscrossed by the shattered highways of the past upon which cars rust and decay, but there are green places to be found, around which cluster settlements and farms. There are larger metropoli too, some still broken and rusting ruins, home to marauding gangs and worse, but others have been reclaimed and fortified through great technology or wizardry—if not both. The greatest of these is the Citadel of Scrap, a marvel of pre-Cataclysm splendour that actually has running water and electricity, sewers, paved streets, and broadcast entertainment in many of its districts.

Located between the Misery and Kansan Rivers, the Citadel of Scrap is also where the train lines run by the various Train barons all meet, making it an important trade hub. The Citadel of Scrap is governed by the Three Royals, technologists and wizards who from the headquarters in the Growling Tower, control the God in the Pit which sits walled off in the centre of the city. Many gods are worshipped in the Citadel of Scrap, including Buddy O’Burger, the Clown God of Feasting, Customer Service, and Cannibalism whose burger franchises can be found across Umerica, Elmos, the puppet host of eternal pain and suffering, Kizz, the mighty intergalactic god of rock and roll, Nuka, the gentle lady of the Holy Glow and mother of all Mutants, Petrolex, deity of Fuel and Fire, and Santa, the giving god. The city also welcomes visitors, but only if they have money! The Ruins, where all of the city’s rubbish is dumped, is a haven for scavengers prepared to put up with decades of refuse dumped on old, broken buildings, but is the source of the tiny brightly coloured plastic bricks which snap together and the city’s very wealthy use from which to build their homes. Beyond the walls of the Citadel of Scrap lie the Burning Lands of Yellowstone, a mixture of churning lava and boiling mud fields; to the south the Glowing Dome of Dinotastic Park, five miles high, two hundred wide, and nobody has ever been inside; to the north, the Floating Iron Isles stand on Lake Mishigun, said to be home to Fairyfolk; to the far west is Old Seattle and the Necromancers of the Space Needle; and to the south-east in Floor-Da is the Kingdom of the False Gods, a realm ruled by mad mascot gods! This is the setting for Umerica, a Gonzo Post-Apocalyptic Campaign Setting and Sourcebook for use with the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game.

The Umerican Survival Guide – Core Setting Guide is published by Shield of Faith Studios and distributed by Goodman Games. Based on articles which originally appeared in issues of the fanzine, Crawling Under a Broken Moon, it presents a post-apocalyptic setting which combines technology and Science Fiction, gods and magic, aliens and mutants, robots and cyborgs, steam trains and Mad Max-style scrap vehicles, and more. It comes complete with new Classes, rules for combat, mutations, vehicle construction and combat, a pantheon of weird gods and their magics, plus lots and lots of tables to help the Game Master run a campaign. It is important to note that The Umerican Survival Guide – Core Setting Guide is really compatible with Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic, Goodman Games’ own post-apocalyptic roleplaying game. Or rather, they are compatible mechanically, but not tonally or thematically. The Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game very much takes its cue from Gamma World with its Player Characters as Stone Age tribesmen who have little grasp of technology, but experimenting with found items being very much part of the play. However, in the setting of The Umerican Survival Guide, the Player Characters know what technology is, and even if not everyone knows how any one item actually works, they often have an idea of how it is operated. This is not to say that the Stone Age tribesmen might not be found in some forgotten corner of Umerica, but theirs is a world where Clarke’s Third Law—‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’—applies and that is not the case with Umerica. Of course, this does mean that the Game Master will need a copy of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game to run The Umerican Survival Guide – Core Setting Guide.

The Umerican Survival Guide – Core Setting Guide really begins and ends with the Citadel of Scrap, being all but bookended by sections devoted to the city. The first, in the opening section of the book, is done as an in-game travelogue delivered by a citizen as he guides visitors round the city. The last chapter in the book, ‘Secrets of the Citadel’ expands upon this for the benefit of the Game Master’s eyes only. For the most part, this is given as specific background content, such as explaining the source for each Buddy O’Burger franchise’s yummy, yummy meat or who the Three Royals are, what they are capable of, and how to bring them into play. For one of the biggest secrets in the setting, however, just exactly is the God in the Pit, is left up to the Game Master to decide, but she is given a handful of suggestions as to what it might be. The expanded descriptions of various districts in the Citadel of Scrap are accompanied by two or three adventure seeds, and more can be found throughout the book. The Umerican Survival Guide only focuses on the Citadel of Scrap in this fashion, leaving the earlier locations described earlier in the book to be detailed in other supplements,* but city itself is interesting and the book provides a lot for the Game Master to work with. Further, more detailed plot seeds can be found in the preceding chapter, the ‘GM Section’, which examines some of the themes of the setting—the world is fragmented and strange, very little is new, and advanced science is rare and as frightening as powerful sorcery, as well as offering ‘A Few interesting Places to Die’ for the benefit of the Players Characters.

* In fact, many of them are actually more detailed in issues of Crawling Under a Broken Moon.

The Umerican Survival Guide – Core Setting Guide offers nine new Classes as well as rules for creating Zero Level Player Characters suitable for the classic Character Funnel of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. The Cleric of the Wasteland is relatively little different to the Cleric Class of the core rules, though of course, he has access to a pantheon of some sixteen gods particular to the Umerica setting. The Cyborg gains partial protection from his implants and upgrades at certain Levels, such as a Weapon Port, Rapid Response Servos, or Spring-Loaded Legs, and can self-repair with his Jury Rig die. The Feral Urchin can be a Wildchild which transforms into a mini-beast, a Slinger who is a deadly shot, or a Nerd who is good with language and technology. The Fossorian is burrowing humanoid, much like a badger, has Vicious Claws and is good at Tunnelling. This Class is similar to the Dwarf in Dungeon Crawl Classics, but with claws rather than beard. The Gray is the classic alien of UFOlogy, assigned to Earth by the Gray Directorate for purposes only each Gray knows. The Gray can speak any language, is vulnerable to iron and at various Levels receives Tech Gifts from home like a Holographic Guise or a Hovering Disc. The Mutant has mutant abilities and a pool of Glow Points which can be spent to modify rolls made to use his abilities. At later Levels, the Mutant can force Spontaneous Mutagenesis to gain more mutations. The Petrol Head—much like the earlier Feral Urchin, is inspired by Mad Max—has an Ace Die to roll when driving due to his supernatural bond with his vehicle, as a Fuel Hound can sniff out petrol, and begins play with a battered buggy or motorcycle. The Robot comes from a nearby dimension or timeline and can either be a Domestic/Companion, Labour/Maintenance, or Security/Military model. Again, at various Levels, the Robot can be upgraded, components including Flight Vents, Emergency Medical Unit, and Nth Dimension Non-Euclidean Logic Generator. The Scavenger is good at finding useful scrap and is in general similar to the Thief Class. The Technologist is good at Tinkering whether that is with weapons, robots, computers, and other devices, although his actual skill in each area varies according to his Alignment. The Technologist Class is accompanied by a set of tables to roll on whenever a Tinkering check is fumbled. The Wasteland Warrior is the equivalent to the Warrior Class, but also receives an additional Mighty Deed, ‘Armour Mastery’, which works with the new armour rules in The Umerican Survival Guide. Lastly, the Wizard of the Wasteland is similar to the Wizard from Dungeon Crawl Classics and must take a supernatural patron to cast spells. Overall, the range of Classes are fun and engaging and help bring the setting’s genre into play, even where the changes are relatively minor.

The Umerican Survival Guide – Core Setting Guide introduces significant changes to combat. Although Armour Class is retained, it is no longer modified by armour worn. Instead, a Player Character gains an Armour Die which is rolled to reduce damage suffered and can be increased by wearing better armour or even layering armour. The rules for guns are kept simple, but allow for aiming—this increases the Action Die rolled to attack, and automatic fire—more dice are rolled for damage and more ammunition is expended. There are rules too for gunsmithing and a variety of different grenades, as well as new fumble and critical tables for both firearms and grenades. The equipment focuses on arms and armour, detailing a wide range, including options cheap and/or damaged goods.

The major addition to The Umerican Survival Guide – Core Setting Guide is vehicles and vehicle combat. Operating a vehicle requires a Vehicle Control Roll, especially when performing a stunt or avoiding a hazard, and not every Player Character is necessarily going to be trained to drive. Failure can result in the roll of a Wipeout Die and consultation of the Wipeout Results table, just like critical results in combat. A driver can attempt to pull stunts, the player wagering a penalty, ranging between one and five, on the Vehicle Control Roll which if the roll is failed, also increases the Action Die rolled on the Wipeout Results table. Again, the rules are kept fairly simple and easy to use, in this case, there is a pleasing balance between risk and consequences. There is no list of possible stunts and their possible penalties, so player and Game Master alike will need to improvise. Supporting the vehicle rules are stats for all sorts of vehicles from bicycles and buggies to ultralight aircraft and gyrocopters—very Mad Max, as well as trains and mechs! The latter range in height between ten and twenty feet, and are either light or heavy, and may be used labour or military purposes. All of the vehicles are kept at a low scale rather than being over the top designs capable of inflicting hundreds of points of damage. The damage their weapons would do to a Player Character is deadly enough without overdoing it. One factor limiting vehicle use is fuel supply and the Player Characters may have to spend some of their time hunting and bartering for fuel, especially if they have a Petrolhead amongst their number.

For the Wizard of the Wasteland and other spell-casting characters there is a table for ‘Mercurial Magic of the Wastelands’, whilst the ‘Grimoire of the Wastes’ adds an array of new spells specific to Umerica. These include Curse of Life which can age a target, Tech Jinx, which causes a device to malfunction or go out of control, or Former Glory, which restores an item to its previous condition. For the Cleric of the Wasteland and the Wizard of the Wasteland, there is also a long list of gods and patrons, each with their own spells, powers granted when they are invoked, and Patron Taint when that fails. All are fantastically themed, matching the gonzo feel of the setting. For example, Kizz, the mighty intergalactic god of rock and roll grants the spells Kizz My Axe, Mosh Pit, and Aspect of Kizz, all inspired by a certain rock group to very silly, thematic effect, and this applies to the other Gods and Patrons too.

As per other post-apocalyptic settings, The Umerican Survival Guide – Core Setting Guide includes rules for mutations, which work with the Mutant Character Class in particular. If a Player Character encounters a sufficiently potent radiation source or other form of mutagen, a Fortitude Save must be rolled. If this is failed, the Player Character mutates, although a Cleric can Lay on Hands to prevent this from happening. Mutations can be bestial, botanical, altered biology, freak abilities, or more, and there are table of possible mutations for each of the six categories. For example, the ‘Testudine’ entry on the Bestial Table gives a Player Character tortoise-like features, increased Armour Class, but reduced Initiative, and has a chance of also giving him an armoured carapace, better Stamina and a longer life, as well as slowed speed and poorer Agility. The rules for mutations here differ greatly from those given in the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, granting straightforward effects which come into play as soon as they are rolled, whereas in many cases, those in the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game work like spells in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game and so have to be rolled for each time to determine their effect they are used. As much fun as the mutation are in the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, those presented here are simpler and not necessarily as complex to bring into play.

Physically, The Umerican Survival Guide – Core Setting Guide is clean and tidy. The artwork varies in quality and most of it is decent enough. It does not have an index, though there is a list of tables. The former is very disappointing in this day and age, but the latter makes up for it a little.

There are four issues with The Umerican Survival Guide – Core Setting Guide. One is that it was compiled from a series of fanzines and it does feel like it in places, a series of parts put together rather than a roleplaying game designed from the start. So, the setting of Umerica does not feel like a complete whole, not helped by the lack of a good overview of the setting. However, everything works together and it is coherent and easy to grasp. The second issue is a lack of maps. There is no map of Umerica or worse, given how much attention is paid to it in the book, the Citadel of Scrap. The inclusion of such maps would perhaps have helped with the first problem, bringing the setting together and making it easier for the Game Master to grasp. The third issue is a lack of scenario which would have given the Game Master something to run and given her an idea of what sort of adventures it is designed to do. That said, it includes plenty of scenario hooks for her to develop. Lastly, a bibliography would have been nice to have seen the author’s inspirations.

Weirdly, what The Umerican Survival Guide – Core Setting Guide is reminiscent of is the roleplaying game Rifts, published by Palladium Books. It has magic, it has technology, it has mutations, it has magic, reasonably sized stompy mecha, it has a world recovering from a great disaster, and more, although not psionics. Both are post-apocalyptic roleplaying games and both share a lot of the same elements and content. However, the twenty-five-year difference between The Umerican Survival Guide – Core Setting Guide and Rifts is important. Rifts can be best described as what is technically known as a ‘Hot Mess’, a nonsensical morass of ideas with all the organisation and accessibility of a rubbish dump given book form accompanied with a complete lack of idea as what to do with it or run with it. The Umerican Survival Guide – Core Setting Guide despite sharing a great many of the same elements, is not that. It is organised in a coherent fashion and it not only includes advice for the Game Master, but it also has adventure seed after adventure seed. If Rifts is garbage dump of ideas, then The Umerican Survival Guide – Core Setting Guide is the equivalent of that rubbish actually having been sorted for recycling meaning that everything in the book is ready to use and accessible in a way that Rifts is not!

The Umerican Survival Guide – Core Setting Guide is not complete or quite fully together, but comes with everything for a gonzo post-apocalyptic campaign. It is accessible, its rules additions are straightforward and easy to use, it has lots of options in terms of Player Characters, and the setting is intriguing and run through with a dark streak of satire. For the Game Master who wants a post-apocalyptic setting and is happy with the mechanics of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, then The Umerican Survival Guide – Core Setting Guide is a great choice.

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