A Diceless Picnic In the Zone

Penned by Ville Vuorela and put out through his Burger Games small press, Stalker is an officially licensed RPG adaptation of Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Vuorela having received permission from Boris. Roadside Picnic was, as cinephiles know, adapted for cinema under the Stalker title by Tarkovsky, resulting in one of his greatest accomplishments; the videogame series S.T.A.L.K.E.R., whilst riffing on many of the same themes, was not actually an authorised release. The RPG takes its primary inspiration from Roadside Picnic itself, but has a lot of time for the particular mood and aesthetic of Stalker, whilst not giving much time to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. at all. Released in Vuorela’s native Finland in 2008 and using his Flow system, an English translation was released in 2012.

The basic premise is this: at an unspecified point in the future, some sort of extraterrestrial and/or transdimensional event happened to Earth – the Visitation. At six points along the 43rd parallel, at locations in the United States, Canada, France, Russia, China and Japan, mysterious Zones appeared where the Visitation took place. Within the Zones the laws of physics are violated in bizarre, dangerous ways, strange artifacts and monuments with unusual powers can be obtained, terrestrial lifeforms are mutated and altered into strange forms or gain strange powers and various other oddness occurs.

What caused the Zones, nobody can say. The title of the novel riffs on the theory that some alien or otherworldly entities stopped off on Earth, had a roadside picnic, left their trash behind and went on their way – it’s as plausible a theory as any. However, the danger within the Zones – vividly made clear in the alterations that refugees from them have manifested – is evident to everyone. An internationally-backed Institute was established to both study the Zones and maintain their security, forbidding entrance to anyone; soon enough the Institute’s official expeditions into the Zones ceased altogether, the danger involved in it being too unacceptable to be authorised through official channels.

Still, the Institute and private parties alike are extremely interested in surveying locations in the Zone, visiting monuments, obtaining artifacts, performing experiments and otherwise tampering with it. The fact is that, whilst ruthless methods are deployed by the Institute against trespassers, the sheer size of the Zones means they can’t actually wholly guard their borders. Thus, in the drab, ramshackle communities on the verge of the Zones, there are a few who make a living undertaking trips into the Zone for salvage or other purposes. These are known as stalkers, and these will be your PCs for the purposes of the game.

Vuorela notes in the book that setting the right tone and atmosphere is absolutely crucial for a Stalker game to feel like Stalker; without the dystopian elements of the original novel, the paranoia around the Institute, the drabness of the world surrounding the Zones, the cosmic horror of the Zones themselves and other distinctive features, the game just descends into a journey into somewhere dangerous to collect treasure, which is hardly a novel experience in RPGs. In aid of this, the text of the RPG goes above and beyond in encouraging players and referees alike to buy into the particular style of the setting and execute it accordingly. (The tools given to referees for cooking up unusual things to find in whichever Zone your PCs are exploring are highly useful, as are the provided details on the French and Japanese Zones.)

As far as the functions of the Flow system, it’s a primarily diceless system, though Vuorela makes a point that it isn’t ideologically so, admitting a role for the GM rolling dice as an aid to making decisions when you aren’t sure which alternative you prefer. As far as resolving player character actions go, however, it comes down to a diceless procedure: you ascribe a score of 1-5 to a player’s proposed course of action based on how good of an idea it is, and a score of 1-5 based on good roleplaying.

On the idea front, a goofy suggestion which abjectly fails to engage with the situation at hand would be a 1, and a fantastic idea which cuts the Gordion Knot and outsmarts any solution the referee was considering for the problem would be a 5. That much is fair enough; it is rather dependent both on the player’s understanding of the situation at hand and on the referee being willing to see the merits of someone’s idea – the latter of which potentially being a point of out-of-game conflict if the referee’s understanding of a particular subject and a player’s greatly differ.

Ultimately, however, this is a core problem of traditional-format RPGs anyway: if the referee and player are not communicating expectations effectively, so the referee doesn’t know what the player’s trying to accomplish or the player doesn’t understand what the referee has told them or they don’t realise their understanding of how a particular aspect of the world works differs, then you’re going to have a bad time. Better communication and asking questions of each other is the answer here, as it is always the case in all traditional RPGs.

On the “good roleplaying” front, my heart sank at first when I saw this aspect of the system, because generally I find it obnoxiously patronising when games ask the referee to judge the players’ roleplaying, not least because “good roleplaying” is an extremely vague standard anyway. To his credit, Vuorela actually manages to come up with a metric for this which I can actually buy into: for the purposes of the Flow system, “good roleplaying” involves coming up with proposals which are both suitable to the character’s established personality and competences and are appropriate to the atmosphere and mood of the game.

On top of that, Vuorela goes out of his way not to criticise players if they fall short – he emphatically states that most of the time you can expect your players to buy into the style of the game and play their character appropriately, so most of the time the roleplaying rating value would be 3 or above. It’s clear from the scoring guidance that you’re only meant to give a 2 if someone’s suggestion either doesn’t fit their character or is damaging to the game’s atmosphere, and only contemplate a 1 if it seriously doesn’t reflect the character’s capabilities or personality or would wreck the atmosphere or the immersion of other players.

Even then, Vuorela doesn’t resort to describing such actions as being disruptive (though I reckon a player who regularly proposed such actions probably is being disruptive); instead, he prefers to note that it might simply be an “off moment” on the player’s part like we all have, or might suggest that there’s a serious issue with the player’s understanding of their character which you may want to address and adjust for.

As far as better-than-average roleplaying goes – ie, that which would score you a 4 or a 5, that’s reserved for actions which create a strong impression in terms of their PCs’ characterisation, with 5s going to actions which not only communicate their character traits but deepen and develop them, especially if doing so invites a reaction from the other PCs.

Once you have your Idea and Roleplaying score, you add 1 to both if the character’s abilities are relevant to implementing the idea, and then you multiply them, comparing them to guideline difficulty levels. The upshot of this is that you’ll more or less always accomplish an easy or routine task so long as your proposal was remotely appropriate, even if you don’t have appropriate training, and characters will often be able to accomplish challenging or difficult tasks in their areas of expertise, but accomplishing things which are especially difficult will require some combination of good characterisation, clever planning, appropriate expertise – ideally all three.

Another nice feature of the Flow system is how if you got a very good score but it wasn’t quite enough for a success, you can still get something good out of it; there’s various “failing forward” options presented based on the final score you accomplished. This means that if you are facing an easy challenge the possible outcomes are either flat success or flat failure, whereas if what you were trying was extremely difficult and complex then a solid, well thought-through plan which falls just short of getting the result you wanted may still put you in an advantageous position.

The system makes NPC design a snap – rather than exhaustively plotting out their abilities in game terms, just assign an appropriate number to the chances of defeating them in combat (or evading them in a chase, or beating them at chess, or whatever), and then see if the players’ proposals make the grade. Overall, the Flow system seems pretty decent as a diceless resolution system for a game where you want to go rules-light, don’t want to have to work too hard to work out statistics for things you’d like to add to the setting, and which gives equal priority to inventive thinking and character portrayal on the part of the players.

This seems an appropriate fit for Stalker, where giving a full stat breakdown of the various things encountered in the Zone would seem to sap their mystery. The system would seem to work best when everyone has a good handle on how the setting works, what constitutes a “good idea” for the purposes of the setting, and what sort of atmosphere is wanted – so it might be an idea to have a group viewing of Tarkovsky’s Stalker before playing a campaign of this, or to encourage players to read the novel, though the rulebook by and large can act as a partial stand-in for either. It would fall apart pretty quickly if people are working at cross-purposes, but again, I can’t really point to a traditional RPG which doesn’t have the exact same issue.

As far as the production values on the English release go, we’re talking reasonably lukewarm. The artwork is mostly black and white sketches of which occasionally lack technical flair but at least end up dripping in atmosphere. The text is by and large competently translated, with some errors here and there, and the layout is kept nice and simple. If you’re used to full-colour fancy-pants hardcover presentation of RPGs, as has become increasingly expected by the market, it’ll seem a bit rudimentary, but those of us who remember the simple black and white presentations of earlier decades will likely take it in stride, and the ideas offered herein are hopefully strong enough to overcome the shortcomings of their presentation.

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