"Ninety Percent of You Die," Article about Aftermath! on The Escapist

edited May 2007 in Stuff to Watch
First: A heartfelt request. Story-Games is hands-down the nicest forum I've ever personally experienced and I have confidence in you all, but since this seems like a it might be a delicate matter (and since, truth be told, my own instinctive response wasn't very productive), I just want to remind everyone to be as mindful and considerate as we know we can/should. This is a thread about a not-story-game. This involves a link to a forum that isn't part of the typical circle. If you have nothing at all to say on the subject, and I would certainly understand if so, please do not just post negativity, either here or there.

Anyway, here's the article in question: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/issue/98/11

The Escapist is an online 'zine about games which focuses on critique and psycho-cultural analysis rather than preview screenshots and hyperbole. Most of them take the format of arguing for the significance of some video game's mechanics/success/failure/history/appearance. NPR, only in print, and about games.

Aftermath! is not a video game, though. It's a post-apocalyptic RPG of such table-heavy mechanical heft that Twilight 2000 has been known to say of it, "Wow, that guy's love of complexity and realism approaches the fetishistic!" (I've never heard of it before. Has anyone got any experience with it?)
The game is so mystifyingly cumbersome, so beautifully complicated, that even the hardest of the hard core find it to be impenetrable - and brilliant.
I was fascinated by this article. Nearly half of it's length is a combat example, featuring every addition and table consultation after addition and table consultation. Then it moves on to an example of successfully creepy play. People interested in directly responding to the article should do so there (req. free registration). The author is listening and responding, so it looks like genuine questions will get genuine answers. I admit that my direct response is something like "?!?" But it's expressed in a civil manner, and with a spirit of honest inquiry. So there.

As far as indirect response: How can I make games that simulate this complexity? That is, I have friends who find their enjoyment increased by complex rules-sets, which aren't always in the name of realism. I've got that bug a little, and they have it more. They like strategic play, but there seems to be something more direct at work as well: They hear about a game like this, and they are intrigued rather than repulsed (or both, also an observed and valid response).

So we have people who seem to like complexity, and people who seem to not. Is there something being perceived by the complexity-likers that can fade into the background for the simple-likers?

The two possibilities I seem to see right now are truly optional/additional systems, like the Scholar and Courtier techniques from Weapons of the Gods, or 'procedurally generated' rules-sets for given sessions, like you see in most any customizeable card game. Anyone know of other games with similarly broad appeal across this (perhaps imaginary) gap?

Comments

  • I played Aftermath one time
    It took a few hours to make characters, almost as bad as the Chivalry and Sorcery where we never figured out character creation

    I am not sure why you wish to be so complex, but to each their own. I am not sure what to suggest for the rest of your statements though other than the best to you.
  • edited May 2007
    A friend of mine bought Aftermath in high school and we were hot to play it, but after making characters and a single session of play we just gave up. It was well put together and very tempting, but soul-crushingly complex for no good reason (and we played some arbitrarily complex games, too). It's the same basic system as Bushido, interestingly, and we played the living hell out of that, but Aftermath layers on an order of magnitude of extra stuff. I should note that, unlike a lot of ginormous games (I'm thinking of Synnibarr), Aftermath all hangs together in a logical way and is well organized to a point - it's just fucking complex. I'll go check out that article now...
  • I think I still have Aftermath at home. The combat flowcharts are mindboggling. It occures to me that in order to simulate things on such scale, you would most probably need a computer to do the actual calculations and basic logic. It could be kind of cool if the program would visualize the process.
  • Aftermath uses the same basic engine as Bushido and Daredevils, written by Bob Charette and Phil Hume. The games are complex, but they are also elegantly and sensibly put together. The Charette/Hume engine is one of my favourite rolegame engines from over the years and has a lot to offer: it scales well over weak, medium, and up into veteran levels of character skill; it suffers at the very top end, but it scales much more effectively than the Basic Roleplaying engine without too much more inherent complexity at its core.

    Aftermath is the most baroque of the three games, but the elegant construction makes it very, very easy to lean heavily on the game on one side and lightly on the other: it's rather modular, so you can bring in the bits of detail that you want to focus on and leave aside other bits. (However, I do also think that effective management of which bits to include and which not to, and where to draw the line, probably requires you to have a good feel for the entire system.)

    In the hands of someone who has a good feel for the game, Aftermath actually plays very, very well. Like BRP it's easy to judge the relative strength of your skills and attributes). Tactical action (like combat) is very cleverly interleaved and thus has a rich feel of back-and-forth activity (rather like you can get from HERO). Health (wounding and fatigue) is also handled cleverly, dividing damage into subdual and lethal types, and providing an explosive top end for weapon damage (the critical hit system) which makes for an interestingly "realistic" combat system with respect to wounding.

    If I wanted a grim-and-gritty, realistic roleplaying engine at this point, I'm not sure that I would naturally choose Aftermath or any other Charette/Hume engine. Rather I might select CORPS or EABA if I wanted complexity, or BRP if I wanted simplicity.

    Like most of the other classic FGU games, the Charette/Hume games seemed tailor made for long term campaign play (C&S and Space Opera are the other games I'm thinking of and belong to "the other family" from FGU: the Simbalist family) and reward long-term play at a steady and stately pace.

    Aftermath has received a bad rap, and the combat flow chart is actually a very useful innovation that more complex games could have provided. It is an excellent play aid.

    Just my 2p.
  • Posted By: NickNovitskiThe author is listening and responding, so it looks like genuine questions will get genuine answers. I admit that my direct response is something like "?!?" But it's expressed in a civil manner, and with a spirit of honest inquiry. So there.
    I know Russ Pitts (I have not met him face-to-face, though he lives in the area) and I consider him a decent guy who believes in an honest discussion.

    I, for one, am pleasantly surprised to see that the Escapist has moved into the realm of PnP RPGs.
  • Posted By: viktor_haagAftermathhas received a bad rap, and the combat flow chart is actually a very useful innovation that more complex games could have provided. It is an excellent play aid.
    That, I very much agree with - flowcharts would be very useful with a lot of other games as well. I dig out my Aftermath books and the combat charts don't look that mindboggling any more - very complex and probably time-consuming to use, but quite straightforward.

    If anyone wants to take a peek at them flowcharts, I scanned both of them and can whisper the address. I'll take them down shortly, though, since Aftermath is still on sale somewhere, isn't it?
  • Yeah, it's available as a PDF at RPGnow & DrivethruRPG.

  • Posted By: Elliot WilenYeah, it's available as a PDF at RPGnow & DrivethruRPG.
    AFAIK, all the PDFs on sale by FGU are "scan and distill" PDFs that amount to page after page of graphics. The quality, therefore, might be not so hot and the PDF size would almost certainly be ginormous.

    On the other hand Aftermath was printed in pretty large quantity originally; it's not that hard to find a used copy in good condition. And I believe that the apocryphal "Magic Rules" are even relatively easy to get these days as well (maybe they're available through RPGNow?).
  • Posted By: NickNovitskiAs far as indirect response: How can I make games that simulate this complexity? That is, I have friends who find their enjoyment increased by complex rules-sets, which aren't always in the name of realism. I've got that bug a little, and they have it more. They like strategic play, but there seems to be something more direct at work as well: They hear about a game like this, and they are intrigued rather than repulsed (or both, also an observed and valid response).

    So we have people who seem to like complexity, and people who seem to not. Is there something being perceived by the complexity-likers that can fade into the background for the simple-likers?

    The two possibilities I seem to see right now are truly optional/additional systems, like the Scholar and Courtier techniques fromWeapons of the Gods, or 'procedurally generated' rules-sets for given sessions, like you see in most any customizeable card game. Anyone know of other games with similarly broad appeal across this (perhaps imaginary) gap?
    Hi Nick,

    Appealing to two diametrically opposed desires like this is possible, but a tall order. We're talking about creating games like chess or poker. Simple to learn, difficult to master.

    I'm not a big card gamer, so I'm not sure what you mean by procedurally generated rule sets. I do think the Weapons of the Gods approach can be a successful one.

    It's my experience that people who enjoy what you're describing (games with high points of contact), what I call technical play, are generally not necessarily interested in complexity so much as they're interested in a high number of decision points. They prefer games in which they can make lots of different decisions over how to approach a situation in play, and each approach has benefits and drawbacks. When each of the decisions has benefits and drawbacks, there's no single optimal strategy and yet it is possible to make a tactically sound choice.

    Now, most RPGs achieve that with complexity to some degree, but it is not strictly necessary. To illustrate, a great example of a really simple game with some seriously intriguing decision points is the iterated version of The Prisoner's Dilemma a classic Game Theory (mathematical game theory, not RPG theory) game. I should note that there are optimal strategies for PD, although they differ depending on the rules of the contest. Still, it took a lot of mental muscle to uncover those strategies.

    My general advice is to start with a simple, flexible core mechanic that covers what you'd like to see happen in the game. The game should be playable and enjoyable as is. Then create an optional layer of modifiers or maneuvers with both benefits and drawbacks that players can choose to use or not.

    I also recommend, if possible, allowing a game to start at the lowest level of complexity and then gradually ramp up the complexity as players achieve a level of comfort with the system as it is. If they can learn gradually, even players who prefer simple games may not have a problem with a heightened level of complexity.
  • Thor is exactly right. The simple core is your starting point. To be honest, many designers in the online community actually work very very hard to eliminate complexity from their games, because once you have a functional core it's almost impossible not to cruft complexity onto it just as a by-product of thinking about its nuances. "Wouldn't it be cool if...?" conversations after just a couple of playtests can triple the complexity of your game. Don't worry about creating the complexity. Worry about the core.

    Paul
  • I may as well add my silly Aftermath! anecdote to the mix. I played this game with some friends shortly after it first came out and we wondered in open mouthed awe at the complexity of the rules. After a few abortive attempts to play the game, we finally set down one afternoon and decided to follow the rules closely for one simple attack. An hour later one of us opened a window and tossed the book right though it. We collected it later, but never attempted to play it again.
  • Posted By: Thor & Paul
    *sounds of angels singing*
    Alright, for the first time, I think I have a genuine grasp on what it is that such folks are looking for, and what my response could be. Thank you both very much for your kind advice.

    As far as what I meant by procedural rulesets:

    If we all sit down to play, say, Burning Empires, the text presents us with a limited set of possible actions at any given moment. This text, and therefore the set, doesn't vary from session to session or group to group.

    But, if we all sit down to play a game of Magic, the 'text' that gives us that set of possible actions is either all the cards that everyone has in their hands and on the table at any given moment, or else all that plus the cards that we have chosen to be in our decks. The list of possible actions may be added to (as cards are drawn from assorted piles), or reduced (as cards are destroyed or obviated for use by other cards), or have its entries modified (when a card is played from your hand to the table, it represents a different set of options), by play, which is to say, by the actions themselves. So the actions you select from the set from a given play-state affect the play-state to follow, such that given a relatively small initial set (a very thin rule book, compared to most rpgs, plus text of the cards at the table, plus the array representing the locations of those cards in the decks), plus the iterative play of successive turns, you eventually get a much larger and more complicated set. That's how my limited understanding would characterize procedural methods in computer programming, so I called it procedural rules-sets.

    Like I said, I don't have the words to accurately call it anything more than "what happens in Magic." I'm not sure if/how it could be done in RPGs, whatever we think the distinction between the two forms is. One middle step might be a game where, rather than buying cards, there's a starting set that comes with purchase, and rules for making more. 10,000 Blank Cards, but with mechanics, and encouraging character. That's actually what I started to think about making over the course of this past year.
  • Ok. I think I'm with you. I'm honestly not sure how you could achieve something like that in an RPG without a set of cards or similar. One of the nice things about cards (speaking from experience with games like Memoir '44) is that they can convey some fairly complicated rules ideas in easy-to-digest, bite-sized chunks.

    However, it should be noted that in toto, there is no real difference between having all the rules in a book and having all the rules in cards. The cards limit your access to certain rules and your ability to make use of them (and also allow you to add a layer of complexity that would likely be unacceptable in a book), but they still represent the entirety of the set of rules of the game, just as a rule book does. Does that make sense?
  • In that view, a game like Magic that's been releasing an average of a hundred cards a month for the past 10+ years has an impossibly huge text. In which case, it seems like the barrier for entry would be similarly huge, but in practice, all you need to know for a given game is how to read the rule book and any card that actually does comes into play. Further, the published rules do not include the "rules" for designing more cards, even though there are such things, and they are one of the most important considerations for the game, and they add another dimension of...something. In fact, it's not a very big text, it's an indefinitely big text, something unbounded in expansion. It's the difference between a line of finite length and one that just keeps going according to the function/law governing it's shape.

    In the end, it might be a semantic distinction, but modularity to such an incredible degree at least seems to constitute a difference in kind in technicality, and 'seems' is what I'm looking for.
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