Postapocalyptic tabletop RPGs are a small but notable niche subgenre, with their influence perhaps most felt via Fallout – which, whilst a CRPG, was very much developed with a tabletop game fan’s sensibilities (right down to the designers originally planning to use GURPS as the underlying system before their agreement with Steve Jackson Games fell through). The forefather of them all is, of course, Gamma World – but Gamma World tends much more towards the sillier end of the postapocalyptic setting spectrum, with very unrealistic, borderline cartoonish mutations being very much the order of the day.
As such, the first clutch of games to come out following Gamma World all seem to have positioned themselves to try and offer a more serious-minded approach to the subject matter – and interestingly, they all have different ideas as to how long after the initial civilisational collapse the game should be set in. 1980’s The Morrow Project followed Gamma World in setting itself a comparably long time after the big kill; the specific conceit of the game is that PCs are all volunteers in the titular continuity-of-civilisation project, cryogenically frozen when it looked like things were about to go to shit with the intention of being thawed out after a reasonable time period had passed so that they could take the lead on rebuilding, only for the cryogenics computers to malfunction and leave them frozen for 150 years.
The major difference between this setup and Gamma World is that whilst Gamma World PCs are way too young to have any personal memories of the time before (and chances are their communities have little to no institutional memory of it), The Morrow Project presents you with PCs who only know the world before, who are able to explore and make discoveries about the postapocalyptic world whilst making full use of the technological knowhow they’ve retained, are perfectly placed to exploit any remaining technological caches they can uncover, and are tasked with restoring order and imposing their values on a hostile present day. (In some respects it can come across as a sort of time-hopping colonialism…)
Twilight: 2000, by comparison, took the opposite tack by presenting a setting in which civilisation collapsed under the weight of Too Much War within the past few years. All the player characters are not only assumed to have lived through the downfall (and therefore have vivid memories of the way things used to be), but are also among the last representatives of the pre-downfall US Army. The events of the Twilight War have been intensely disruptive – but not enough time has passed to cause people to forget that things used to be better, or the values that held sway before the war, and so when the PCs swing by to help a community rebuild it feels a bit less like colonialism and a bit more like humanitarian intervention. (Unless your PCs go bandit, of course…)
In between Twilight: 2000 and The Morrow Project, both in terms of assumed IC time period and in terms of publication date, is 1981’s Aftermath! by Paul Hume and Bob Charrette. This was a game originally prepared for publication by Phoenix Games, who’d also republished Hume and Charrette’s Bushido after its original publisher folded; however, Phoenix went bust in early 1981. Luckily, Fantasy Games Unlimited’s Scott Bizar stepped in to rescue Hume and Charrette’s two RPGs, making them part of the FGU catalogue and, I suspect, substantially increasing the extent of their distribution in the meantime. (The FGU edition of Bushido is easily the most widely-available version on the second hand market, after all.)
Aftermath! emerged from the rubble of Phoenix Games just as its characters emerge from the rubble of a grand civilisation-collapsing disaster (which the game leaves to the referee to specify, with some advice on how they reckon such a disaster would unfold); first printing copies can be identified by the fact that the FGU logo is on a sticker, hastily slapped over the Phoenix Games logo before the game went to print.
As well as being an entry into the then-new postapocalyptic subgenre, Aftermath! also seems to have been Hume and Charrette’s attempt to generalise the principles underpinning Bushido into a generic RPG system; the first booklet in the box offers up setting-agnostic Basic Rules For Roleplaying Simulation, which the other booklets then provide the Aftermath!-specific character creation guidelines, equipment details, and other setting-specific rules and guidance for. Hume and Charrette would later use a variant of the same system for Daredevils, FGU’s attempt at a “pulp adventure” RPG inspired by the likes of Doc Savage. (Hume and Charrette would later find themselves collaborating again as part of the design team for 1st edition Shadowrun – a setting which arguably mashes up their interests in cataclysmic societal shifts, weeabooism, and pulp adventure into a delicious cyberpunk-fantasy milkshake.) Because BRFRS is an awkward acronym, I’ve chosen to think of the system as the Phoenix System in honour of Phoenix Games, since whilst it didn’t originate under their auspices, it was under their watch that Hume and Charrette made the decision to try and make it a multi-genre system.
The system has a bit of a reputation for being complex, but I’d actually say it isn’t that bad. What complexity there is isn’t unnecessary for what they want to accomplish, particularly by the standards of the day. A lot of people point to the fact that the combat system routine is illustrated by a flow chart as an indication of its complexity, but I would say that if you illustrated the combat sequence of other games of a similar vintage (and a good many newer games) with a flow chart, the chart that resulted would be comparatively complex if not more so. As with Bushido itself, it’s perhaps better to say that the system is expansive rather than complex; there’s a lot of rules, but the rules cover lots of different situations, so if you want to fall back on them to adjudicate something the safety net’s there for you but you aren’t necessarily obligated to take every rule into account when running a particular scene.
What’s particularly interesting about Aftermath! is the way that it makes the age stat relevant in a way it rarely is in tabletop RPGs (since, outside of generational games like Pendragon, it’s rare that sufficient time passes in a campaign to make character aging particularly relevant). You see, the baseline assumption of Aftermath! is that campaigns take place about 2o to 30 years after the collapse of civilisation. That means that whilst older PCs will vividly remember the old ways, younger PCs will have more fragmentary recollections of them, or no memory at all, and will have grown up in a very different world – a fact reflected in their base skills and so on.
An endearing feature of Aftermath! is how much thought Hume and Charrette clearly put into the subject, as well as their willingness to regale the reader with anecdotes from their playtesting campaign to illustrate the possibilities for interesting roleplaying in a comparatively downbeat setting. Whilst some postapocalyptic fiction can form the basis of a sort of right-wing survivalist-type fantasy which revels in the destruction of the old social niceties, Aftermath! disapproves of overt banditry and warlordism (though doesn’t stand in the way of players taking their characters in such a direction if they want to), and hopes that PCs will focus on concentrating on building new communities and keeping hope alive (an approach paralleled by supplements such as Into the Ruins).
A nice aspect of the game is the leeway it gives the referee to choose the nature of the catastrophe, and the wide range of tools available to implement it. Why, there’s even guidelines for using the game to run a world where human beings have been displaced by damn dirty apes, presumably because some maniacs – damnable to hell the lot of them – blew everything up. With the game as adaptable as it is, Aftermath! feels like a solid addition to any postapocalyptic RPG collection.