A couple of days ago a new freebee raised its head over there at drivethrurpg.com. Another free set of basic rules for another post-apocalyptic roleplaying game, not the first to come, not the last vies for our attention. But will this one bite the dust? I hope it will not, because Chthonian Highways (Alpha Playtest Kit) mixes two of my favorite game themes.
Naturally, I got myself a copy (it is FREE, after all) and read through it. The first thing that sticks out to me is the license it is released under. The product uses the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If I got that right this means that everybody and his lab-mice is free to release their own material for the game world mentioned in the Alpha Kit and references to the rules presented in it as long as they use the same (non-commercial; share-alike) license to it. That is a nice touch the people behind Ironspine gave to their release: everybody who likes to add fan material to a game he or she enjoys playing will definitively be grateful for such an approach.
That being pointed out, lets talk about the game world: Chthonian Highways plays in an alternate version of our world that saw the rise of eldritch gods and monsters that H.P. Lovecraft invented at the brink of the 20th century. This world-ending event that saw giant patches of fog rolling in over the sea, massive sink holes opening all over the worlds and titanic monstrosities devastating the cities while dreams plagued humanity and insanity spread happened “20 years ago”, so the world of Chthonian Highways will have a mix of young inhabitants that never saw the world as it was before and those who still can remember what the sky was like. The changes that the rise of the ancient monstrosities brought about were massive, as our plane of existence and that of nightmarish horrors from beyond overlapped and merged, and turned much of earth into a wasteland, gave rise to swamps and jungles at the coasts and covered the horizon in black, smoke-like clouds that never seem to part during the day and rarely do so at night. The giant monsters of the beginning of the end are rarely seen now, but smaller beasts prowl this maleformed new earth, some seemingly mutants of our fauna and others completely alien and in forms without reason. Most of mankind is gone: some died in the chaos, others just walked into the mists and the sink holes, never to be seen again. Those who are left huddle together in small communities and try to deal with the maddening dreams and hopes to survive in a hostile world. They roam the land as nomads or pillaging marauders or came to worship the monsters and gods of this new age. The role of the player characters is that of hardy types that are willing to confront the world and its monsters, so not in a “safe-the-world” fashion but more like in “see tomorrow”. The game labels itself as one of action and horror, and we get rules both for mental strain and insanity as well as for automatic weapons and driving muscle cars into battle. Mad Max meets the Lovercraft Mythos, so to speak.
What the actual game will be about and what direction a campaign might take is not clear yet, and the Alpa Kit states that it (the Kit) is is more about the rules and less about the world, so we will have to see what else is in store, but personally I like what I see. There is potential in that set-up, I already thought myself about playing in a Lovecraft-Apocalypse (so, that never enticed any of my players) . Of course, it takes a creative GM. The world is there for him to warp and change, to make up monstrosities and to evoke the spirit of desperation and madness while bringing about a world that is strange and incomprehensible yet something the players can delve into. It could become hard to avoid it becoming a b-movie monster slasher and the introduction adventure goes a little bit to much into the action parts for my taste, but I think there is a lot to do there and with the right supplements that Ironspine will for sure be planing to provide, it might become a wonderful nightmarish world to re-discover.
So, what about the rules? The basics are rather simple, you have the attributes, you might have the skills and you role a d20 and add those two to reach or exceed a difficulty set by the GM. Weapons have damaged codes measured in dice attached to them, there are modifiers (either in points that modify the roll or adding a dice or forcing you to roll two dice and take the lowest) and you find the typical assortment of character classes for such a world and traits to make the character more individual, as well as “drive” (motivations) and vices. The following things I would like to mention:
There are no hit points or such: Physical damage goes against your “Body” attribute and gives you a harder time using it (by reducing it on a one-to-one scale), then to your “Precision” and than to your “Wits” and then “Psyche”. Each can take a number of points equal to its stat before the rest of the damage “flows over”. If three attributes are “Exhausted” that way, your character is about to collapse and if all four are gone, you are about to be gone if nobody saves you. “Stress damage” goes the same way, but the starts with the “Psyche” attribute and works it way from there to your body. The “damage” makes you lose attribute stats right away, reducing your ability to succeed.
What does this mean? If I am not getting it wrong, it means a lot of suffering. From the first time you get damage, you are in a downward spiral. Especially as the world will attack you from both sides, your body and your mind. This game is not going to be about brave heroes slaying the tentacled monster and cheer another for a victory. After a fight, one will be battered and bruised and perhaps unable to stand straight. And this is met by me. On the other hand, it might be hard to die.. I have not played with the game yet, but it seems that it wants to chew and munch on the characters instead of swallowing them, possibly spitting them out to repeat the process. In all fairness, I have to say that damage is regenerating rather quickly, especially if one takes into account that some of it might come from a bowie knife or a shotgun blast, because unless you “lost” two attributes in one blow, there are no (further) permanent effects. I hope I can get friends of mine for a test run, but my chances are slim. If you read this and get their first, please leave a comment! Oh..only “hard armor” can reduce damage below “1”. Just saying…
The game gives you “points” to use: a mechanic that is currently “en vogue” in game design is some kind of meta-currency for players. You have points to modify game mechanics and the outcome of dice, get this points by accepting “troubles” from the GM, by making “bad choices” based on your negative character traits or simply based on your character traits. This game uses it to and adds another source for them: if you have an automatic success (natural 20 on a d20) or an automatic failure (natural 1) you gain one of these points, which are called “drive” in this system. It surely wants to have things either coming up to speed when they run good for the characters or to lend them a hand if the dice “betrayed” them. All points that are not used will be turned into experience. The later is something I see for the first time (the general mechanic above is something of an old hat to me, as I first was introduce to it by “Vampire: the Masquerade”.
You have a car-combat system attached, as well as one for Fear and Madness: The first one does not come to a surprise if one minds the theme of the game (actually, the players seem to be traveling roadwarriors of some kind) but it means that a lot of actual play time can be soaked up by one car combat. Dice combat is time intensive even if the player characters and the NPC face off in a barroom brawl, having something more complex in regard to position and relative speed will not speed the whole thing up, right? I still have to try it out , too, but since the introduction adventure is very much about one car combat chase scene, I guess I might be true with that hunch of mine. Well… lets hope I am mistaken here.
The one thing I would like to point out about the Madness: you can buy it off with XP. The later thing will help me selling this system to some of my players (well.. might give me a chance to) because they (as a lot of other folks out there) hate to see their characters wither away and go out with a mewl. It is costly, so, and characters that try to stay sane will have lesser stats than their crew mates who don´t.
My general point of view: if you like post-apocalyptic games and if you like insanity and nightmarish monsters and a baleful game world….give it a try! I think there is potential…