Means To an End

The End of the World is a series of small, self-contained RPGs from Fantasy Flight Games, being translations of games originally released by Edge Entertainment, a major Spanish game publisher. (As well as producing their own material and being FFG’s Spanish-language licensees, they also put out Spanish-language versions of a range of other games, including FiascoCall of CthulhuTrail of Cthulhu, and Eclipse Phase.) So far as I can make out, these are straight translations, with the art and format unchanged from the Spanish versions beyond the sort of layout changes which would obviously be necessitated by the translation process.

Each of the four games in the series provides the same game system, along with a set of end-of-the-world scenarios playing on a particular theme – zombie plagues, divine wrath, alien invasion, and a Terminator-style machine revolt. The basic conceit of the game is that rather than play made-up characters (though the door is open to do that if you like), the players play themselves, faced with a world-shaking catastrophe and trying their best to survive. Since each book provides a range of different scenarios, it helps avoid to a certain extent OOC knowledge contaminating the game – even if somebody has read the core book, they don’t know which scenario you intend to use, and it isn’t necessarily safe, easy, or even sensible to try and work out which scenario is in play.

Where’s the Kaboom? There’s Supposed to Be an Earth-Shattering Kaboom!

One variety of apocalypse not depicted in the original series, and not presented in the translated game line, is the good old-fashioned nuclear armageddon. Given the recent revival of Mad Max and the strong reception of Fallout 4, this seems to be a bit of a missed opportunity. It’s possible that the developers decided that such a scenario was a bit too close to the bone to develop a game around, but given that we’re already dealing with a game in which you speculate about the gruesome ways in which you and your friends may die in the wake of various catastrophic events taking radiation sickness and nuclear blasts off the table feels coy. Still, with the system here it should be simple enough to improvise a nuclear war scenario if you like.

The System Itself

The basic outline of the game system is reiterated in each of the books, so can be happily reviewed separately from them. The system is described as a “narrative system”, which is a nice example of how the term “narrative” has become so watered-down as to be absolutely meaningless in RPG discourse, because it’s about as traditional a system I have ever seen – there’s no mechanics for sharing or usurping narrative control, there’s a very traditional split of responsibilities between players and GM, there’s a task resolution system instead of a conflict resolution system, and so on and so forth. What they really mean is that the system is extremely rules-light and doesn’t offer much in the way of deep tactical options, which means that the original 16-page Basic Roleplaying booklet or the West End Games version of Star Wars have about as much claim to being “narrative” as this does.

Character generation is, as you might expect, a bit of a novelty here since you are supposed to be statting out yourself; this amounts to dividing points between proactive and reactive physical, mental and social attributes, and then subjecting your decision to the scrutiny of your peers, who get to do a secret ballot on whether your assessment of your physical, social, and mental categories is too modest, too generous, or just right. Once that’s done, you get to write down one positive and negative trait for each category, with some room for adjustment (if your buddies voted to make you reduce your score in a category a little, you get to add an extra positive trait or remove a negative one, if they thought you should boost the category you have to either drop the positive trait or add an extra negative one). In this way, you end up with a bit of a compromise between your self-image and your friends’ assessment of you. Lastly, you are encouraged to note down any traumas – temporary detrimental effects you may be currently under – though it is explicitly stated that you do not have to disclose anything you are not comfortable disclosing to the group as part of this process.

Task resolution is another interesting process. You get a number of positive and negative six-sided dice to roll; by default, each roll starts with one positive die, and then negative dice are added to cover unhelpful factors and task difficulty and positive dice are added to represent each factor which helps you out. Then you roll the pool, and remove matching pairs of positive and negative dice until you run out of matches. Each positive die which remains that shows a number equal to or less than the attribute governing a roll is a success. The number of negative dice remaining is applied as stress of a physical, social, or mental nature, depending on the nature of the task (and potentially reduced by a certain amount if you are already stressed). If one of your stress tracks fill up, you must make a choice: either your character is written out of the game in one way or another (dying of physical stress, going insane from mental stress, or withdrawing from the group entirely due to social stress), or you wipe your stress track and take on a trauma – an ongoing negative condition which can penalise you in future situations. You can only have three traumas of any particular type, though, so if your stress track fills up whilst you already have three traumas in the relevant category you’re done.

The upshot of this system is that downtime becomes a necessity, because downtime allows you to reduce your stress track and resolve traumas. If the referee doesn’t take note of this and provide opportunities to get downtime, the characters will sooner or later die, though if you just intend to run the game as a one-shot “let’s see who survives the longest” affair that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. That said, if you want to run a longer campaign, downtime will be necessary – and helpfully, as well as outlining a particular apocalyptic event, each of the scenarios in the books also comes with a “post-apocalypse” section describing the new status quo that asserts itself and a suggested timeline of how things progress from the start of the event to the establishment of the new order, which is helpful for long-running games. Even better, each of the post-apocalypse sections is presented separately from the main apocalypse writeup in the scenario, so if you like the premise of one scenario but think the outcome posited in its post-apocalypse section is utter bullshit you can mix and match as you choose.

Zombie Apocalypse

This was the first in the series Fantasy Flight put out, and it’s an apt choice – zombies remain hot in geek culture despite their overexposure, and speculating about how you’d do in a zombie apocalypse has attained the status of an overused Facebook meme, so the idea of an RPG based around playing through that is an easy sell in many ways. On top of that, because zombies are essentially human beings who have lost certain critical faculties and may be tricky to kill, no special subsystems are needed to present them.

By and large, the apocalyptic scenarios presented here cover most of the varieties you will find in the movies – Dawn of the DeadNight of the Comet28 Days Later, all are available in one form or another. Each provides a set of NPCs which are not only very suitable for the scenario in question, but many of which can also be usefully dragged and dropped into other scenarios as needed. One case, however, leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth – this is the one where the world ends because a global conspiracy of Voodoo priests all do a big ritual in order to make zombies happen worldwide. As the game itself notes, this plays into a pop culture interpretation of Voodoo that bears no resemblance to any of the extended family of real-life religions it riffs on, but I don’t really think “We’re just going with the pop culture depiction of these beliefs!” is a credible excuse in this case.

To take a potentially and deliberately inflammatory example, if I cooked up a scenario in which a cabal of evil Jews kidnapped Christian babies and ritually sacrificed them to get blood to bake their Passover bread, nobody would let me off the hook if I added a disclaimer saying that I wasn’t depicting real Judaism, just the ridiculous caricature used in the Blood Libel – and nobody should let me off the hook for doing so either. This is a mild exaggeration – there’s absolutely nothing involving murdering Christian babies to consume their blood in any variety of Judaism, whereas the folkloric zombi is a feature of some varieties of Vodou, but at the same time the world-spanning zombie apocalypse deal was invented out of whole cloth by George Romero (influenced a bit by Matheson’s I Am Legend, though there the adversaries are vampires), and positing a worldwide conspiracy of black people to wreck civilisation (the Voodoo practitioners are not explicitly cited in the text as being black, but they are consistently depicted as black in the artwork) is the sort of fantasy scenario more suited to The Turner Diaries than a fun evening with friends.

Furthermore, the whole “this is just the fictional depiction of voodoo we are dealing with” excuse is an utter crock of shit. Whilst I am aware of a few exceptions, to my knowledge by far the majority of movies that explicitly link Voodoo practices with zombies are material like Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies or the Bela Lugosi vehicle White Zombie – films which eschew the zombie apocalypse angle entirely and instead depict zombies as acting with a far more limited and controlled scope. In fact, the whole “worldwide conspiracy of Voodoo practitioners” deal is, to my knowledge, unique to this book.

Frankly, if you have to kick off a scenario with a sidebar that amounts to sticking your fingers in your ears and going LA LA LA LA LA NOT RACIST NOT RACIST CAN’T HEAR YOU NOT RACIST, you really want to think about completely revising the chapter entirely. If you look at the scenario itself, very little would need to be changed to make the scenario be based on the actions of a worldwide cabal of generic necromancers, and then you could offer a list of possible varieties of necromancer to be behind the plot – or explicitly state that the conspiracy is a heterogeneous bunch of villains from various magical traditions. As it stands, it mars what is otherwise quite a successful book.

The Wrath of the Gods

The next volume of the series presents the exact same rules, but a new set of scenarios – this time, the end of the world scenarios presented are more supernatural and divine in nature, as the title implies. (And yes, the cover art isn’t lying – Cthulhu waking up is one of the scenarios on offer.) I found this one somewhat underwhelming compared to Zombie Apocalypse, not least because it feels like the very specific, scripted events of the apocalypses in question are much more difficult to hammer into a survivalist story. The thing about both the zombie apocalypses of Zombie Apocalypse and the machine revolts and alien invasions of the forthcoming books in the series is that they are genuinely global events, and events which you would expect to reasonably quickly put paid to mass communication. This allows play to focus on the immediate, local-scale problems of survival, and to a certain extent the macro-scale aspects of the crises in question are besides the point; a random collection of ordinary people don’t expect to run across the origin of a zombie uprising, or SkyNet’s central hub, or the main alien mothership, after all, and in the other end of the world scenarios you can have a perfectly satisfying adventure without getting into any of that (but you also have the option of throwing it in there if you want to).

Conversely, the scenarios here tend to have world-spanning implications, but the important parts tend to be highly localised. This means you need to choose either to have really significant stuff happening entirely off-camera (particularly if you can’t see a way to justify mass communications still being a thing), or plonk these events down right near where the player characters are. This, in turn, tends to undermine the idea that this game is mostly about survival and isn’t really about the player characters personally resolving what’s going on. Yes, watching Odin and Fenris duke it out is badass, but do we play RPGs to be spectators? (Worse still, some of the scenarios specifically work in ways to enlist PCs into resolving the crisis in question, directly undermining the whole “you’re just out to survive” premise and generally making it seem like the designers struggled to come up with ways to make the scenarios in this one work).

Also, it seems like the series has a quota of at least one outrageously exploitative and racist scenario per book, because there’s a Mayan-themed apocalypse here which fails on a whole bunch of levels. For starters, it suggests that the Maya mysteriously disappeared and nobody knows where they went. This is rampantly ignorant nonsense; there are extensive populations of Maya in Mesoamerica right up to the present day, and we know exactly what happened to their previous social order: the Spanish rocked up and kicked it over. Next up, the scenario has the returning Maya serve Quetzalcoatl… which is the Aztec feathered serpent deity. The Maya did have their own equivalent – they even had a name for their feathered serpent that five minutes on Wikipedia will be able to turn up for you – but why do research when we can just lazily mash together Mesoamerican cultures for cheap entertainment anyway? After all, since we are having old-timey Maya warriors (or our closest approximation of them, bearing in mind that we have done fuck all research) accompanying the returning ziggurats all over the world, we’re already in the position of treating a real world ethnic group like a bunch of avenging angels at best, scary demons at worst.

Victim of Its Own Success?

As Oscar Wilde might put it, “To have one apocalypse may be regarded as a misfortune; to have several looks like carelessness”. Whilst providing the complete game system in each book does at least mean that customers only have to buy the books in the series whose premises they are actually interested in, it does mean that once you’ve bought one of these games, there’s no reason to get any of the others unless the scenarios presented therein are particularly strong. On that grounds, I would tend to recommend Zombie Apocalypse over Wrath of the Gods. Firstly, the scenarios in Zombie Apocalypse are much better at capturing the intended “this is about surviving, not about solving a problem of global scope” tone of the series. Secondly, the NPC stats provided in Zombie Apocalypse tend towards depiction of realistic human beings rather than mythological entities, with the upshot being that you could usefully deploy a large number of the NPCs provided in Apocalypse in any of the other scenario books, or in concepts of your own devising. (It’d be a cinch to do nuclear war with that set of NPCs, for instance.)

As for the rest of the series, I’d honestly have to weigh up whether I want to get them or not. On the one hand, both alien invasions and machine uprisings sound like they’d work better than the scenarios in The Wrath of the Gods. On the other hand, buying another hardcover book is a bit much if I already own a substantial proportion of the material in there (the system part), and the system is simple enough that I reckon I could probably cook up an alien invasion or machine uprising scenario just from the stuff in Zombie Apocalypse. Perhaps a better format for the game would have been a boxed set with a system booklet and four separate scenarios booklets or something.

Of course, the alien invasion and machine uprising books are kind of unlikely to include seriously racist scenario concepts, so there’s that.

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