First and foremost, allow me to thank the publisher Ville Vuorela of Burger Games for gifting me a copy of this book and PDF for this review.
What do you get when you cross 1e Gamma World with elements of Delta Green with the parts of Morrow Project and a Lone Wolf survivalist mentality (that you might find in Cormac’s The Road) – you get the original brilliant novel by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky – The Roadside Picnic). In which, the Earth has been subject to a Visitation by alien beings who apparently just decided to make a intra-galactic stopover and left a huge damaging and devastating ecological footprint upon several parts of the globe including, the USA, Russia, Canada, France (the default zone), and Japan. Each of these zones has a different “footprint”. The impact of the aliens was to create a circular zone (smallest being 57km and largest 122km in diameter) in which all laws of the known universe are tampered with. Innocuous things can seem harmful or harmless, then there are the really deadly things artefacts that the aliens left behind and what’s more continued exposure to the zone will alter your character. So, these aliens were no worse than the litterbugs of the 1970s who made stopovers to drink their favourite beverage, piss it away in the bushes, and just freak out the local fauna. Keen observers of the scene will know that The Roadside Picnic has been made into a brilliant film by Andrei Tarkovsky called Stalker and to avoid in part to pay royalties an Ukrainian company designed a series of videogames called S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and this game (which does pay royalties) is a riff on all these.
Much of the book is description, as it is a diceless role playing system and that is what intrigued me at first and a love of the Strugatskys novel. The diceless system is essentially where players are allocated a number of points by the game master and they may choose where to place them and a series of challenges may magnify or decrease the probability of success. This involves no math but rather adding and subtraction of abilities and then rolling a d10 to determine achievement where it differs from most systems is that the players must role play the action and make sound as credible as possible and keep it within the parameters of the game. Innovative Game Masters might include something like a Jenga tower or cribbage board to assist in the accounting. The Flow system is easy and hard to master. Easy, as the basic mechanic is as described above, difficult because the rules for it are scattered throughout the text; similarly chargen is based upon fiat without any real guidelines. So, I would rather have a dedicated chapter to the workings of the FLOW system rather than having the rules somewhat interspersed. So, while the rules for FLOW are solid they are not the best application I have seen for diceless systems. However, the strength of the game lies in its fluff or chrome or as I would prefer to say extensive and intensive background.
As Strugatskys novel was vague and the Tarkovsky film was…well…a Tarkovsky film and the videogame as I have seen it played does not capture any of the two above. The premise is that players play Stalkers quasi-legal but mostly illegal individuals who go into the different zones and bring back the treasures for their patrons. For up to a few years ago, Stalking or the retrieval of artefacts was perfectly legal then the UN stepped in with an organization called: The Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures – IEC (or simply, The Institute), although, they are beyond Good and Evil – their purpose is the higher calling of saving humanity even if it involves human experimentation or maintaining a police state around the zones. Naturally, within The Institute there are elements that can be good or bad, honest or corrupt, brutal or merciful. Thus, the portrayal of The Institute as a totalitarian entity is not without merit, save, one has to remember the multitude of currents, factions, and interests that also exert their influence in totalitarian states. Thus, good old fashioned character greed can provide a motivation as well as exploration of the unknown for expeditions into the Zone and because of the changeability and chaotic ebb and flow of the natural and built environment of each expedition into a Zone could fundamentally be different from the last. Scientific curiosity can also play a factor – what are the Zones, alien visitation is simply the most popular one stated by those who survived the Event and if it was aliens why did they visit – could it be a precursor for invasion? Thus, for those games more military minded might want to try a reconnaissance of a zone and possible acquisition of xenological artefacts to defeat such an invasion. So, I would disagree with one of my previous reviewers who cited this to be akin to Call of Cthulhu. It is because of its darkness and foreboded sense of menace and peril of an unknown cosmic horror but it is also akin a good Gamma World setting – put what else could really a post apocalyptic game deliver. So, like the X-Files Lone Gunmen or MacGyver, Stalkers cumulate all sorts of crude, primitive equipment in their quest – thus they may own a hunting rifle or sniper rifle, Geiger counter, but still an old fashioned trench coat with a bag of nuts and bolts to test for magnetic and gravity anomalies. So now, I will a detailed breakdown of the fluffy and chromium oxide.
Introduction & What is Role Playing
The introduction was interesting as it gave the history of what when before it. Useful tidbits as well, as knowing that this game made to being the top game in Finland. The What is Role Playing is written by a gamer with both gamer and non-gamers in mind. It both informative and whimsical, so even the seasoned players/game masters may skip this part it is recommended for its light hearted and tongue-in-cheek look at our hobby. Most importantly it gives you a number of sources that inspired the game, not all of which are post-apocalyptic – some of them carry with it the message of benign and indifferent intelligence, others are drawn from zombie fiction. However, there are zombies of sort in this game but I am happy to report that this is not a zombie game. And, their role is so marginal that I would rather firmly place in the likes of post-apocalyptic – what if Skynet managed to invade the Transformers CPU, as these would be just the toys perhaps the Visitors left behind. After that we get two books in one (Player’s Book & Game Master’s Books) – good if you buy the PDF and want to be a player – you can give the other half to the game master but awkward if you buy the book. So, I would recommend that Game masters be the ones who purchase the book. Still the ease of have two books would have been a better choice.
Essentially, a description of the changed world as a result of an encounter with an alien intelligence 13 years ago, as this is pieced together from those within the zone, its account is fragmentary and pieced together from survivors from behind the Zone. And, because the transition from the Zone to the world outside is physically different – one can rely upon this facts as a player. It gives enough detail to outline a world gone mad, inside, and world just like our own on the outside save an ever increasing clamp of an omnipresent entity/Para-State in the form of The Institute gradually making the world into a police state. There then is account of the survivors which indeed resemble Survivors of the BBC series of the same name these are the Refugees. For whom The Institute not only wants to interrogate the survivors but perform extensive medical experiments upon them – for even humans emerge from the Zone changed by the strange environment present. Thus, this creates the potential for adventurers to emerge from the ranks of the Survivors, as well as different pulls and pushes that cause them to want to venture into the Zone beyond the mere profit motive or scientific curiosity. And, when Refugees have gone beyond the Changed, naturally become the Cursed. These are your classic mutants that are common in many post-apocalyptic games but before you think X-Men think of something more scuttle and these would be rarest of encounters – they are not meant to be serve as Bosses of each game but a way of intelligently dealing with an obstacle that may seem as human as you but fundamentally having powers far greater than you can imagine. So, this kind makes the game rather cartoonish but I would rather have the Cursed, as those who completely understand the dangers of the Zone and are so in tuned with it that they could lead the players into snares and pitfalls rather than having powers themselves.
Next up we have the description of radically different environments in broad terms. Dealing first with the spaces around them that range from the police enclosure to wild lands where two can co-exist to the zones themselves. If one does accept the prevailing theory of invasion – the Zones are the Ground Zero for all the strangeness. And, very strange it is…composed of things called anomalies (visible or invisible dangers that lurk behind akin to perhaps the petrol that leaked from their transdimensional ships), artifacts (the rubbish the Visitors left behind), and In organisms (those wind-up toys or shovels, save these are semi-sentient and know that humans are not their owners). That is the bleak part of the Zones – for the also contain Oases – areas of relative calm, peace and normality – does not stop dangers from lurking there but at least these are places were the environment wants to kills you.
Next up is comprehensive discussion of what is out there. What are some the artifacts (their strange names come the Stalkers/ Strugatskys) but game masters could always invent their own. But, part of the charm of this game is the strange names for some of these truly bizarre objects of the Zone. Artifacts being the smaller of dangers, Monuments being the larger and more static far more deadly encounters in the zone and as noted above can be seen or unseen by the Stalkers. Then we move to what could be termed as the Strange Weather of the Zone in the form of what is called: Quasichemicals, although, player’s of D&D will recognize these slimes, puddings and stinking/acid clouds. This I found was rather lamely covered. Rather then, present them as freaky weather-like occurrences they were presented as challenges.
Next up is detailed look at The Institute – the main antagonists of the environment. But, as noted above, they are not necessarily evil just perform their tasks with bureaucratic and technocratic efficiency believing that their higher calling is to return the Earth to is normal state or at least find out what the Visitors truly want by any means necessary.
The Institute has the following divisions: Management, Research and Security. Each of these are places where adventurers can find allies, patrons, adversaries or rivals outside of the Zone. It is pretty self-explanatory to what they contain. There is just a scant discussion in the Security section on how each Zone’s Institute may vary in their treatment of Stalkers, Refugees and the Changed.
If The Institute are the adversaries in the game, the Stalkers are the Byronesque anti-heroes of the whole game. They are where player characters form the bulk of their roots. For all players eventually would become Stalkers. They form two distinct types Heroes and Criminals – however things are not as Black or White as the names would imply. Heroes refer to the early stages of exploring the Zones, however, fear mounted from what was emerging from the Zones and as more activities effectively were criminalized – this pushed Stalkers into being Enemies of the State hence criminals. Thus, Stalkers become the ultimate of survivalist nutters – who else would risk life and limb for a few trinkets especially as they run the risk of becoming one of the Changed themselves. The chapter rounds out with a discussion of notable Stalker NPCs.
Next up is the Player’s Rules. This explains how FLOW works, I found this section but not the clearest thus, and I would have wanted it explained in more simply terms. FLOW emphasizes role playing over roll playing hence the addition of different options for chargen. Different abilities and characteristics from best that I can the number is assigned by Game Master fiat, allow players to have bonuses on what they are trying to accomplish – win or lose the players are expected to role play the results. Hence, my earlier suggestion of cribbage board of keeping tally of the scores. All in all FLOW is a very cool idea but not adequately explained for my tastes. Here’s hoping Burger Games might be putting more stuff on to their website in English to support the game. Or even maybe offer some alternatives chargens and systems. Ultimately, as said earlier it is the rich background that makes the game so great.
The next chapter is called on A Roadside Picnic, which, I do think is the best name but essentially is a guide to players how to adventure in this strange world which nicely dovetails into the equipment section. It is not comprehensive – other games could have some of the stuff imported in, but, it important that Stalkers live off the land rather than live off the gadgets.
Next up we have the Game Master’s Book.
It begins with a dissection of FLOW which I think parts of which should have been incorporated earlier on. But, it makes sense, as the Game Master is judge and arbitrator of all events. Because of the critical nature of all this information, while it is nicely put into boxes, there ought to be flowcharts or similar aids as any novice Game Master is bound to be overwhelmed by the accounting needed to perform all actions. Although, based a sliding scale upwards things need to be more clearly presented here. So, hopefully a GM Screen or some other GM aid is in the works.
Experience comes next – not the typical chapter, as with the experience that comes with being the Zone is not only knowledge but changes to the Player Characters… For as the players learn things they must also accept drawbacks – this is part of the chargen, as well. Then comes the extensive section on Game Mastering which is great but daunting for experienced Game Masters. Many things are old hat or second nature – the sheer volume of material presented here. There are always gems even for old hacks like myself.
Stylistically, it is written as a translation therefore, sometimes is difficult for the average reader to read. But, as I cannot read the original Finnish, I must say the translation is superb because nowhere did I really find typos or glaring errors. The cover art is fantastic and wish that they kept that motif throughout – sadly they did not, some of the art is really good and others are meh. But, it was the cover that drew to want to review this book. Fortunately, the writing is top notch – scientific and precise with a dose humor thrown in. I would have liked to see more aids like flow charts (pardon the pun) in areas dealing with FLOW and also alternatives. So, apparently this is going to be a one-shot in English with more Finnish support – so folks it is up to you to buy this book and tell Ville to produce more things in English. I would want to see a Game Master screen and more adventures and possibly other Zones being detailed or created. Perhaps the Zones appear and disappear and are part of some giant xenoforming effort. Or perhaps, they contain gateways…
Lastly, it concludes with In the Zone which is an elaborate discussion of what life is really like in the Zones with a detailed profile of the French zone and Japanese zone. Including, a discussion of the changed flora, fauna, possible artifacts and different communities that sprung inside and outside the Zone for each of these Zones and presumably if the Reader wants to set their adventures in Canada they can go back to the Strugatskys’ novel. So at the end of this review, because there have been many novels and films that have recently riffed this post-apocalyptic future – there are a few more that the author had not considered – GDW’s Dark Conspiracy could be fitted in nicely, similarly, there is anthology called Wastelands. There is lots of material that can feed into adventures. But, post-apocalyptic can run the risk of player fatigue – if running an entire campaign on it. And, that presents the greatest challenge for players and Game Masters alike. Therefore, I would suggest that Game Masters provide some sort of incentive – maybe a Zone is expanding whilst another is contracting and players are tasked with finding out why. It could be anomalies are wanted by the military for a future war with the aliens but the aliens are already among us. And, two factions exist – one advocating war and using humans as pawns and the other who were just benign visitors. All in all this book offers much especially when combined with other post-apocalyptic games such as Chronicles of a Future Earth or even parts of Gamma World.