When the Lights Go Out All Over Europe

The Price of Freedom, weird little oddity that it is, was designed in many respects as a response to the first edition of Twilight: 2000. Both games have some important parallels: they both attempt realistic takes at a somewhat fanciful political/military scenario, said scenario setting up the assumed starting point of play for the player characters, and said scenario also making it necessary for characters to take a survivalist attitude.

This is a bit of a niche model for running an RPG, but equally it’s not altogether surprising that someone should have looked to Twilight: 2000 to see if they could mimic its success. For make no mistake about it: the first edition of the game was a huge hit. Marc Miller’s Far Future Enterprises, inheritor of the GDW legacy, offer some evidence for this: their guide to the product line includes, amongst a wealth of useful data, figures on how many of each product were printed, which tends to track reasonably closely to sales levels (since products which did not sell did not require so much in the way of reprints). The core set of 1st edition Twilight: 2000 had some 97,518 copies produced.

This is incredibly healthy by tabletop RPG standards – it’s not D&D levels, but very few games reach that order of magnitude, and by comparison GDW produced just shy of 250,000 copies of the Classic Traveller core rules when you add the various different formats they sold them on. When you consider that Traveller was the top-flight science fiction RPG of the era until it was eventually overthrown by Cyberpunk and Star Wars, it’s clear that there’s strong evidence for the contention that Twilight: 2000 was the market leader in the military RPG niche – and to a large extent it was that niche, with more or less no other attempt at a military or postapocalyptic tabletop RPG approaching its success.

Prior attempts at the “military RPG” idea had tended to fall into two categories – stuff like Recon or Merc, which took their inspiration from real-life conflicts, or stuff like The Morrow Project or Aftermath!, which took a more postapocalyptic take on things by setting the game at some point in the wake of a catastrophic nuclear exchange. Twilight: 2000 leans in a postapocalyptic direction without going full postapocalyptic – perhaps because lead designer Frank Chadwick was fully aware that if things got as far as a general exchange of nuclear weapons there’d be no game, because the prospect of anyone surviving such an event is about as unrealistic as any of the wild mutations in Gamma World. (The Price of Freedom, whilst not actually postapocalyptic, would likewise go out of its way to ensure a full nuclear exchange didn’t happen in its timeline for the same playability reasons – if you want to approach this sort of game from a remotely realistic perspective, having a full Mutually Assured Destruction exchange isn’t viable.)

The specific timeline followed in the 1984 1st edition of the game has, as its major point of divergence, a war between the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China in the mid-1990s. This eventually prompts East Germany to attempt to exit the Warsaw Pact, since they don’t want to send a generation of their youth off east to die supporting the Soviets, which prompts a momentary reunification of Germany before central Europe gets chewed up in a largely conventional land war. Whilst full-scale nuclear war doesn’t take place on a strategic MAD scale, some use of tactical nuclear weapons does occur. Both sides in the conflict chicken out from escalating to global extinction – ensuring that the war grinds on – and both NATO and the Warsaw Pact turned out to be less monolithic than they appeared, with both sides finding that some members dropped out rather than fulfilling their treaty obligations.

The end result is a global war which wears down the infrastructure of civilian government and military chain of command to the point of collapse; by the year 2000, central Europe is run by local warlords, the United States is much the same (with the remnants of the federal civilian government and the military high command not recognising each others’ legitimacy), and for all anyone knows the Soviets have it just as bad. The war has collapsed into an ugly stalemate where nobody has a real strategic goal to fight for any more, but nobody has the security and trust necessary to stop fighting. It is a bleak and depressing outcome, World War III somehow managing to happen with both a bang and a whimper, the whimper being slightly louder.

(GDW seemed to have a fondness for such stalemates; the outcome of the MegaTraveller Rebellion, even before the apocalyptic events setting up Traveller: the New Era, was similarly bleak, with the Hard Times setting book detailing how interstellar trade and co-operation unravelled as a result of the failure of any Rebellion faction to win a decisive advantage and a long night falling over the galaxy.)

The default starting scenario for Twilight: 2000 casts the player characters as members of the US Army stuck in the middle of Poland, with your command HQ having been overrun by the Soviets; the last message you got was “Good luck, you’re on your own”. The game then largely leaves it up to the players to decide what their immediate and long-term goals are and how they should go about accomplishing them; the sample scenario and provided map of Poland as it exists in this alternate year 2000 concentrate more on providing a sketch of what the current situation is at the major towns and other local landmarks that the players might head for, rather than providing a linear series of encounters for the players to slog through. GDW were always good at providing strong nonlinear scenarios like this, and the sample one here is a beauty in terms of instantly getting across the assumed style of Twilight: 2000.

As far as the presentation of information goes, the boxed set includes two slim rules booklets – one for referees, one for players – with a separate booklet for equipment, player-facing charts on a separate sheet, and referee-facing charts in another separate booklet, with the sample adventure presented in additional separate documents. This division of material takes a little getting used to, but seems to have been designed with playability in mind – with increasing rules mastery meaning that you can work off the charts alone more and don’t need so much flipping back and forth in the rules booklets.

These booklets are short but densely packed with information: the player book is 24 pages, the equipment booklet 12 pages, and the referee booklet 32 pages, the last 10 or so pages of which provide setting information. By the standards of some high-crunch 1980s systems, Twilight: 2000 is actually quite parsimonious: Chadwick has a clear angle on what is and isn’t important to the game, and provides sufficient rules to cover those aspects which it’s important to provide rules for and no more. The layout is nothing fancy but is at least nice and clear, with the result that whilst the rules can be quite dense, it’s usually nice and easy to find the rules applicable to a particular situation and not too difficult to apply them and for the most part the rules are quite sensible (with some wrinkles – you need the Recon skill to spot concealed enemies, for instance, but it isn’t a default skill everyone gets some points in straight away for some reason).

The system itself borrows a bunch of ideas from Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying – stats on a bell curve (0-20 here, rolled on 4D6-4), percentile skills, you roll against the skill adjusted for difficulty unless no skill applies, in which case you multiply the applicable stat by five and roll against that instead, and skill experience is earned through skill use. A particularly interesting quirk is the rules based on length of time spent in combat – the lower your starting stats, the longer you’ve been in combat, which has the downside that you’ve been exposed to more rads but has the major advantage that you are likely to have a better Coolness Under Fire stat – the better this stat, the less phases in combat you miss from hesitation. (Each combat turn consists of 6 rounds of action, you could lose 0-4 of these each turn to hesitation depending on your Coolness.)

Another interesting feature is the way your starting skill points are spent: rather than having one pool of these you have three, one based on your background, one based on your pre-military education, and one based on military training. Some skills can be purchased by points from any pool, but others can only be raised using points from one or two specific pools, or are more expensive of raised from a particular pool, or whatever. This system prompts the user to create a character who’s not a one-trick pony, as well as helping you come up with a sense of character history as you spend the points.

With a grim, lethal combat system, this is not a game for folk who want their characters to go cutting a bloody swathe across a Mad Max-style wasteland, and indeed the skills available – from farming to fishing to civil engineering and the like – mean that setting up and maintaining your own community, or touring the land offering aid to communities in return for the things you need are viable campaign models. The modules released over the lifespan of 1st edition could, in principle, take you on a long tour through Europe, around the continental United States, and back to Europe again for good measure, but I suspect few campaigns actually went that far – the “grand tour” largely being a device to set adventures in a broad range of locations. Other support materials included regional guidebooks and books like the Small Arms Guide or Heavy Weapons Guide, which both expanded the armaments available and, helpfully, illustrated them so that those of us who aren’t gun nerds can keep up with what’s what, and the various Vehicle Guides which did the same job for various factions’ vehicles.

It’s no surprise that GDW put a lot of stock in the game line and its associated system. Between its borrowings from Basic Roleplaying and its own innovations is clearly fresher than the Traveller/MegaTraveller rules as they stood at the time. On top of that, based on print run numbers it seems that sales of the 1st edition Twilight: 2000 box were comfortably over triple that of the MegaTraveller core box and had a shot of exceeding four times that product’s sales.

In addition to these compelling commercial and critical reasons for the game to overshadow Traveller in GDW’s priorities, I also get the distinct impression that the main figures at GDW were just plain more interested in this new system than in Traveller at this point in time. Not only did they farm out the development of MegaTraveller to DGP, but on top of that they did a bunch of gaming at the office using Twilight: 2000 as its basis. As well as taking some system ideas from Twilight: 2000, 2300AD was in fact a sequel game to it, the geopolitical status of Earth in the setting being based off an epic wargame that GDW’s key figures played to see how the world developed after the starting point described in Twilight: 2000. As well as being a novel experiment in using game outcomes as a spur for setting creativity, it also sounds like a hell of a lot of fun.

However, whereas the science fiction universe of 2300AD was far enough in the future that current events didn’t reflect very much on it, as the 1980s came to a close the original version of Twilight: 2000 began to look anachronistic. A 2nd edition came out in 1990, and initially did pretty well (eventually over 37,000 copies were printed of the 2.0 rules). A range of tweaks were applied, perhaps the major one being a shift from percentile skills and dice to a much less granular system based off of D10 rolls, but in general it’s considered reasonably easy to take material from one edition and use it with a different one.

The setting was also changed up, with the timeline for war being tweaked to take into account major events since the publication of 1st edition. In retrospect, this looks like a mistake; not only did the game come out in that narrow window after Eastern Europe had shrugged off its various Communist oligarchies but before the Soviet Union itself collapsed, making its new history redundant remarkably quickly, but in addition it meant that anyone running a long-running campaign under 1st edition rules had little reason to delve into the 2nd edition product line, since its setting materials would be contradictory.

Come 1993, GDW would release the “2.2” edition of Twilight: 2000. In a remarkably early instance of RPG rules editions being treated like software version updates, this revised version of the 2nd edition was part of an endeavour to bring all of GDW’s games under the GDW “house system” as used in Traveller: the New Era (and was also used as an excuse to tweak the setting backstory yet again). Since the house system was, via 2300 AD, a descendent of Twilight: 2000 1st edition, the tweaks needed weren’t so bad; the major difference between 2.0 and 2.2. is that the latter uses D20 for rolls, adding back in some of the granularity lost by the transition away from percentile dice and allowing for a more nuanced range of difficulty levels.

From GDW’s perspective, this little project might have made sense. Now they and their contributors would only need to keep one game system straight, whether they were writing for 2300AD or Twilight: 2000 or Dark Conspiracy or Traveller: the New Era or Space: 1889. However, the public weren’t so keen on it. As it turns out, the 2.2 rules for Twilight: 2000 sold less than 8000 copies, making it one of the most poorly-performing products in the entire line – and this despite coming out at a time when GDW was still in pretty good health.

I suspect you can chalk this up to a variety of reasons. The sense that the game’s cultural moment had passed with the end of the Cold War would be one factor – I may be playing in a forum game of 1st edition now, but there’s something of a nostalgia exercise about that. Another would be the fact that by this point the game had had three mutually exclusive backgrounds – and whilst the third embraced the idea of going counterfactual and saying “fuck it, the game takes place in a parallel timeline” so as to evergreen the setting against further geopolitical shifts, this instability would have been a turn-off for anyone who especially enjoyed the level of thought and care that had been put into the 1st edition setting.

On top of that, putting out such a rules revision within a short period of time after the original 2nd edition rules came out would have smelled funny to consumers and annoyed shop owners alike (who now had shelves full of 2.0 rulebooks to clear). As much as GDW may have found the shift to the house system convenient, it seems like most Twilight: 2000 fans weren’t anxious to upgrade, the benefits of the new D20-based system over the old D10-based system and mutual compatibility with other game lines failing to be much of a draw.

Perhaps part of the issue is that the mutual compatibility just isn’t that much use to a Twilight: 2000 game, since tonally speaking the material included in those games isn’t really suited to the Twilight: 2000 world. A failure to realise that game system should match game tone seems to have been a chronic problem in GDW by the time the 1990s hit: the 1990 game Cadillacs & Dinosaurs incongruously used a variant of the Twilight: 2000 system, despite the fact that that’s far too crunchy for any sort of game which calls itself Cadillacs & Dinosaurs.

I think, though, the largest factor in version 2.2’s failure – and the subsequent shuttering of the line – was simply that its very existence suggested that GDW didn’t wholly stand behind their work on 2nd edition. Coming altogether too soon after 2.0’s release, the very existence of a patched version would have suggested in the eyes of many fatal flaws in the previous edition – and even if people were reassured on that front, how could they be confident that they wouldn’t be asked to shift to 2.3, 2.4, or 2.5 in the near future? Whereas Wizards of the Coast were able to get away with this shit with D&D 3.5, at least in that instance they a) had the power of being market leader to exert in dragging everyone along with them and b) were addressing widely-aired complaints about the system which had cropped up among players, rather than providing a revision to the system that nobody on the consumer side was really asking for.

Between this and pulling the rug out of anyone who’d bought into the 2.0 backstory – after having done the same tone anyone whose home campaign hinged on the assumptions of the 1.0 backstory – and I feel like were I a Twilight: 2000 fan in 1993, I’d be properly annoyed at GDW; specifically, I’d feel like I’d been messed around a lot and sold a new version of the game only for it to be declared obsolescent in a fraction of the time it took 1st edition to be retired, and replaced with a version which didn’t seem confident enough in its revisions to call itself a 3rd edition but equally seemed to think that the previous edition was sufficiently flawed that its background needed rewriting and its entire core mechanic needed a revision.

Ultimately, GDW didn’t commit to standing by 2nd Edition Twilight: 2000 – in either version – to the extent that they committed to 1st Edition support. When you consider that there were at least some 60.000 folks out there who’d bought 1st Edition but then hadn’t made the transition to 2nd edition – either because they’d walked away from the game entirely or because they were perfectly happy with 1st edition as it stands, and it’s hard not to see 2nd edition as the poor cousin of the game’s original expression, a dilution of its original purity of vision in the wake of successive management decisions.

What, then, was 1st edition Twilight: 2000‘s secret? I think for me a lot of it comes from the fact that it’s a military RPG which manages to hit the perfect balance between military insight (GDW’s designers included a number of veterans) and producing something which would actually be fun to play as a game. Rigid rank is not a thing in Twilight: 2000 – the chain of command having largely softened as a result of the war and PCs being under no obligation to follow each others’ orders – and the game was surprisingly progressive for military fiction of its time. (Not only are there no system-based penalties or bonuses for playing a woman – a staple of regressive 1980s RPG design – but women were also widely represented in the artwork and snippets of fiction in the game.)

Add to this the fact that it offers up a richly imagined hypothetical military scenario with a lot of freedom for the player characters to choose which direction they go in after game start – do they still try to pursue the institutional goals of the US Army, do they turn bandit, or do they find a group of good-hearted people in need of protectors and settle down to help a community rise from the ashes? With all of these possibilities in play, the game manages to provide a setting which is, as of the moment in time captured in the core rules box, a bleak one – but it’s a bleakness which the players have the power to make better or worse, not on a geopolitical level but certainly on a regional level.

2 thoughts on “When the Lights Go Out All Over Europe

  1. The second and “2.2” editions also lose points for ending their back-cover blurb (a legitimate argument about how democracy doesn’t necessarily guarantee peace) with the rhetorical question, “How could we have forgotten that Hitler was elected?”

    …well, because he wasn’t; that’s how. “Appointed” is not “elected”, and I expected GDW to know the difference.

    1. Yeesh. I can see what they were going for (and hey, Putin’s Russia kind of bears out their argument), but that’s a severe goof on their part.

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