The last message you hear on the radio from the battalion HQ is: “You’re on your own now.” Then it’s just static. The 5th US Mechanized Division is no more. It is just you, the sarge, a befuddled lieutenant you dragged out of a fox hole yesterday, Ramirez and her SAW and a local Polish kid, who had been running errands in the company. And an ol’ beat up truck nicknamed Hauler. How the hell are you going to escape the advancing Soviets, let alone get home?
This is the premise of one of my old role-playing loves, Twilight: 2000, a World War III post-apocalyptic game in a future that never was, now being republished by Swedish Free League Publishing, using another custom version of the Mutant Year-Zero ruleset.
In short, I think they’ve done an excellent job adapting their ruleset to make an intense game about humans and survival in a scary and hard future. I would very much enjoy to play or run it, and it is currently tied with Alien as the game I would most like to run for my next campaign (after I finish my now four years long D&D game).
The game system has the right level of abstraction versus crunch (to my taste), the design seems very well executed and the art and layout are excellent.
Why should I check this game out?
- If you like post-apocalyptic games
- If you enjoy more down to earth RPGs with some crunch
- If you enjoy alternate history and the Cold War
- If you want to explore very human emotions, conflicts and scenarios
- If you enjoy movies like Black Hawk Down, Fury, Apocalypse Now, Mad Max etc.
- A lot of military veterans play it
- Alien RPG players, who want more crunch for combat in Alien, can get a lot of ideas from this game.
One of the parts that made me love the 2nd edition of the game was Tim Bradstreet’s atmospheric pencil illustrations. They added that sense of the setting being in a gritty, worn real world. They remind me of Hermann’s excellent Jeremiah comics.
It is in Alpha
I got access to the Alpha-version as a Kickstarter backer, and I will in this article give an overview of my initial thoughts, and maybe convince you to check it out, or give fans of the old version a few insights. It won’t be a game for everyone, but it would be great if the audience could grow. The full game is released in 2021.
Given that it is an Alpha version, the final version of the game will obviously differ from how I describe it here, and there is content clearly left out, like more locations for the characters to visit, rules for making a base and the experience system to a name a few.
I should say that this is the 4th edition of the game. My first experience with the setting was in 8th or 9th grade, where we would play the 2nd edition at my friend Tonny’s house. I just loved it. We didn’t follow all the rules (which are complex and old fashioned), and back then I already found the skill system and character creation rules annoying, because it was impossible to make a young and skilled character. But it was where my love of the post-apocalyptic setting was established, and I was already lurking on Twilight 2000 fora when news of the new edition hit.
Tell me some more…
So, what is the game about? Well, the world has basically collapsed after the next world war. The war included significant exchanges of – mainly tactical – nuclear weapons between NATO and the Soviet Union. Nuclear winter and the collapse of infrastructure has caused wide-spread famine and disease and the and civilian authority has mostly broken down. It is a very bleak world, but Free League notes that you need to add some hope, or the whole thing becomes too depressing!
It is also worth noting that the designers clearly state that this is not a game about soldiers or the military, it is about survivors, which I really like.
The default campaign is that your unit was part of a last-ditch NATO offensive that failed, and when your division is defeated outside of a Polish town called Kalisz, you are simply let go. The group of characters are a few soldiers from this division, and maybe a couple of civilians or a CIA spy. They also might have a vehicle, but that is usually randomly determined at the start of the game. The immediate goal will be to avoid – ie flee – the oncoming Soviet troops. But then what? That it is really up to the players to decide, depending on their motivations and characters. They might try to get to comparative safety in France, or see if they can find a ship to take them home somewhere in Western Europe, or they might decide to settle down and create their own base, or perhaps follow the new meta-plot line of Operation Reset? What is certain is that it will be difficult to survive and there will be hard choices ahead.
The second campaign option in the book is playing in a collapsed Sweden, which got involved in the war. Free League is Swedish, so I find it a great addition. Especially since the Baltic Sea is a key theatre for a WWIII scenario involving Russia. Sweden has been nuked, has US Marines fighting alongside Swedish regulars and partisans against Soviet troops, and a wounded US aircraft carrier has been parked in Stockholm. A fine new twist.
The game comes with big hex maps for both Poland and Sweden.
Each hex is 10 kilometers (about 6 miles), and the referee will typically draw one encounter per hex.
Who can I play?
There are two ways to make a character: picking one of the archetypes or going through a Life Path. The key difference is the level of control you have over what your character will become. If you pick one of the archetypes (Civilian, Grunt, Gunner, Kid, Mechanic, Medic, Officer, Operator and Spook), you will have a high degree of control over the character you want to play, and they are equally skilled.
The second choice starts you out as an 18-year-old, and lets you pick the different steps in your career – both civilian and military. Each step will make you 1D6 years older, and at each step you gain skills and potentially specialties and promotion, but you also roll to see if your attributes drop or if the war breaks out, at which point you get a “final” War Career. This system is more random and can make your character both more or less skilled than the archetypes. It emulates the system the old GDW games, which Twilight: 2000 was one of and Traveller was another, in which – infamously – your character could die during character creation!
The Free League version is more abstract, which is also in line with the more stream-lined set of skills. It takes up six small pages, whereas the second edition has 12 full pages with for example 18 different officer careers – eg Naval Aviator Officer or Ranger Officer. In this edition they make do with one officer career. I think it is plenty for a core book, and for the fans who want a higher level of detail, it will be easy to make your own or – I’m sure – Free League will add new options in supplements, such as aviators.
I tried the Life Path process and ended up generating an American (you can also play a local or a Soviet), which grew up as a street kid, but who joined the military and became a medic (Combat Service Support). She only served two terms before the war broke out when she was 25 years old. Compared to the Medic archetype, she had one more stat point and three specialties versus one for the archetype, but three fewer skill ranks. Definitely a viable character, and the extra stat point she was lucky to retain, will be consistently useful, if she lives long enough in game!
For the people who’ve played other Free League games, the Twilight: 2000 system will feel familiar, but there is still a significant departure in the core mechanic. I’m going to gloss over details here, but put simply:
The game has a dice pool system, but the core dice is one from your attribute and one from your skill. You need to roll a six or higher to have a success, but your rating goes from A-F. A is a D12, B is a D10, C is a D8, D is a D6 and F is nothing (which only applies to skills). Rolling 10 or higher counts as two successes. Modifiers increase or decrease the dice you use. It is reminiscent of the rules for artifact dice in Forbidden Lands – their fantasy RPG. So, you want to try to sneak past a sentry, and you have Agility B and Recon C, you roll a D10 and a D8 and try to roll a six. If you roll two ones, you have a mishap. As in other Free League games, you can “push” the roll once, and roll again, but this causes stress or damage.
So, that is the basics. You can also have skill specializations, eg Machine Gunner or Forward Observer, but there are no talents to add additional capabilities (at least yet, I hope they add them).
There are also a couple of new mechanics.
You have a stat called Courage Under Fire, which you typically need to roll when getting shot at. Furthermore, your unit has a morale equal to the highest Command skill level in the group.
When you fire a weapon, they’ve also added Ammo Dice as a mechanic – a D6. For each of the dice you roll you get an additional chance to hit by rolling more sixes. Additional hits can be applied to nearby enemies. If you roll ones, they contribute to the chance of rolling a mishap, which will degrade your weapon. When you are done, you add the D6 together, and that is the ammo you just used. Simple and elegant – at least on paper. I haven’t tested it.
In some of the other Mutant-Year Zero games, you also rolled dice for water and food every day, but in Twilight: 2000 you need to keep track of daily rations. It was an abstraction I liked, and I hope they will reintroduce. But, of course, characters in a modern world have more options for storing and carrying rations.
Combat is quite tactical, and the default assumption is that you use a hex map (10m a hex) and the counters that comes with the game. This is where most of the crunch comes in. You need rules for various weapons, from knives to mortars to phosphorous grenades. You need to know how mines, barb wire, chemical weapons and explosions work and you need to get vehicles, from motorcycles to main battle tanks, into the mix.
The dangers of combat are accentuated by a nasty critical hit system. If you get a critical hit in the head or torso, they will nearly all be fatal, unless you get medical attention. Just moving a fatally wounded will force a Stamina roll to avoid death – a mechanic I’ve never encountered in a game. I won’t explain the system here, but I like it. It fits with the game.
The system is very deadly compared to other current games, as there is no way to mitigate getting hit using “Fate Points”, “Luck Points” or the like. A medic will be a critical component to a group.
In addition to suffering damage, you can also suffer Stress, like in the Alien RPG. It happens when you push, see a mate get critically injured or if you experience other traumatic events. If you reach zero, you are incapacitated by fear, and someone with the Command skill needs to revive you (like in Alien), but there is no “panic roll”. You can risk long term effects though, like phobias and alcoholism.
The system is less complex than previous editions and has the right level of abstraction for me.
In the second edition of the game calculating the Concussion Effect of demolitions, you needed to “divide the DP value of the charge by 2, extract the square root of the result, and multiply by 5.”
I prefer not using a calculator, when I play RPGs.
In this edition, you look at the map, and roll a number of base dice depending on the blast power of the explosion, and for each hex beyond the center you reduce the dice with one step.
The vehicle rules are where I see the most complexity.
In this, and previous editions, vehicles play a significant role. You need to maintain them and find or make fuel (from an alcohol still), and you need to repair them if you can, when they get shot at.
The vehicle can have different armor on each side, which means its facing on the map matters. Furthermore, a hit that does not penetrate the armor might have an effect, and a penetrating hit might continue to damage other parts of the vehicle. This includes the crew and passengers of course, and as a GM I am a little concerned by the likelihood of a TPK if their vehicle is hit with an explosive shell that penetrates the armor. It is realistic – but not that much fun – if 75%+ of the group is killed by a T-72 hidden behind a road-block…
Your kit is essential for your survival, so the game spends quite some pages on various guns, vehicles, accessories, grenades, explosives etc. Compared to previous editions there are fewer small arms, fewer vehicles and less details on equipment in the core book. The section takes up more than 40 pages in the Alpha edition (versus 78 in 2nd edition), so it isn’t like they breeze over it, especially compared to other current games.
What I loved then – and now – is that all the vehicles and weapons each have an illustration – in color in this edition.
To me, it seems a bit excessive that the Polish weapons get so much space, as they are basically identical to the Soviet weapons, but with different names.
There are no aircraft and only a few boats. However, especially the maritime aspects Free League has promised to follow up on, as sailing down the Vistula river to the Baltic Sea (and then home?) has always been a key part of the game.
Sand box play
True to the original, the game is a ‘sand box style’ game. The new edition core books does a better job supporting that style, however.
The original did have a solid section on Encounters and some adventuring sites, but the originals were more generic, whereas Free League has organized them to be drawn from a regular deck of cards and include intentions and drama to many of the pre-written encounter. The referee can then add additional meaning to by including references to the different factions that are also described in the game or play off on previous events.
For example, if the referee draws 7 of Clubs, it will be a group of angry starving refugees, but if it is 7 of Hearts it will be three orphan kids in a house and marauders approaching.
There are also a few encounters that feel too similar, and won’t work close together, such as the four different nuclear craters, which differ very slightly. I hope they beef them up a bit.
The game also includes random radio chatter, two pages of “mood elements” and a list of rumors, which is highly useful. It also has a solid system for survival, making camp, scrounging and trade.
That said, although the events and random encounters of previous edition aren’t as “ready to play” as this version, because the Referee will need to roll additional dice and check more tables, there is plenty of inspiration to be drawn from them.
In the Alpha edition there is only one premade location, but they should include four in the full game. The style will be familiar to people who owns or plays Mutant Year Zero or Forbidden Lands. The description contains a map with locations and brief descriptions, NPCs with motivations and rumours and plot hooks.
There is a Meta-plot about Operation Reset, but the Alpha-edition has few details on it. In the previous editions there were also actual “adventures” with a plot-line like you will find for most RPGs. I assume they will reappear.
The 1st edition of the game was published in 1984, when the Cold War was still a thing and the year 2000 in an unknown future.
As it turned out, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact were a lot weaker than they appeared. Therefore, when you in 2020 make a game, where you start with the original conclusion (a clash between NATO and the Soviets in the middle of Poland around year 2000, and a global nuclear exchange) and go backwards to write an alternate history to get to that point, you will inevitably strain realism.
I am completely fine with that, and ultimately, for most games, the details of the backstory won’t matter the slightest, because it has little to no impact on the game – just like the ancient lore in most fantasy games has very little relevance to the actual game – so who cares what China did? Or if Israel was attacked by a coalition of Soviet and Middle-Eastern forces? You have more immediate problems!
There are however a minority of long-time fans, for whom creating a “realistic” backstory is almost a sub-hobby in it itself, and – funnily enough – most of them claim to have made a backstory that IS “realistic”, from their perspective. They are right of course in saying that the Soviets would never have the capacity to invade the UK, much less supply their troops there. But that won’t matter to the vast majority of players. I say this, to flag to newcomers that there are some vocal critics out there.
If am I to criticize the current backstory a bit myself (ironic isn’t it), I think the brief backstory needs to touch on what China and India are doing in this conflict, as they are the two most populous countries in the world and nuclear powers to boot.
Conclusions & concerns
The problem with the old editions were – in my view – that they were very simulationist and not very playable for more casual players. What Free League have basically done is to take their default system, which is already meant for survival-games, and use modern game design conventions to make the game enjoyable for the more casual player.
It is still the most complex – crunchy, if you will – iteration of the Mutant Year-Zero ruleset, and I think one of the reasons is that you still need to provide game mechanical variety in a game with nothing supernatural. It is just humans with guns, motivations – and sometimes tanks or mortars – that you need to worry about. Therefore, there must be a meaningful difference between a Soviet T-72 and T-80 tank.
The Alpha edition seems very well done to me, and most of my points of critique are minor or a matter of taste.
To me, Free League, strikes a balance where the die-hard fans of the previous editions can still recognize the game that they love and making the game relevant and accessible to new players. Hopefully, that means that the veteran players will see an influx of “new blood”.
It will however be important for new players to “manage expectations” when they join a group. There are many current fans out there, who are experts on weapons and military life and who enjoy debating various Soviet tank configurations. Some seem to be very focused on “realism”, which I’m sure may include everything from extensive details on various ammunition types to the inclusion of slavery and sexual violence in the game. If lots of logistics or very dark topics are to your gaming taste, go play! But others with different perspectives on gaming might not, and I think in this game in particular, a solid conversation on what the game will feature and what it won’t, will be critical.
In my experience, even the sand box style of gameplay can be hard to manage and is not to everyone’s taste.
I will certainly look forward to this game, and I might even be able to convince my usual group to give it a go. If you’ve read this far, perhaps you will too?