Good golly, did this game ever cause a splash when it came out. The full color spread in Dragon magazine was positively riveting. It didn’t hurt that my generation was totally primed for this one, either. With Road Warrior coming out in 1981, War Games in 1983, and then both this game and Red Dawn coming out in 1984… it was inevitable, really. At the time, I don’t remember playing much that wasn’t post-apocalyptic themed, either.
In spite of how dominant this game became for its particular niche, my group never got very far with it. We muddled through character generation, sure. But the learning curve on this thing was just a little bit much for a bunch twelve year olds to try to make something out of it. Seeing the rules again as an adult with FFE’s hard copy compendium is a real trip, though. Not only is it loaded with four complete adventures that I never even saw on store shelves back in the day, but it’s got gorgeous Steve Vinters artwork throughout the whole thing. And if the rules in the original box set weren’t too much for you already, there’s more: Helicopters, Riverine Combat, and Macro Combat.
It’s an impressive piece of work. It’s also not liable to see actual play at my table anytime soon. And that’s a shame, really, because it’s a neat game. And frankly, the rules aren’t nearly so complex as my decades old memories have made them out to be. Compared to Striker (which this rule set sprang from) and Traveller: The New Era (which it developed into) it’s downright user friendly.
The thing that really hampers this game is that there is significant friction at almost every single point on the learning curve. (I last discussed this concept here.) For the most obvious example of it, just look at the organization. Rules sections are split up between a player’s booklet and a referee’s booklet in a cumbersome way. The rules reference charts are all in a separate pullout and for every significant rule, I have to go hunting for the relevant data that it’s referring to. I can’t learn anything about any significant rules component without looking in three different places!
For the novice referee, though, this thing is downright terrifying. That the default campaign is set in Poland would be another friction point. I can tell you all kinds of little regional nuggets that capture the local color of places near where I live, but Poland…? I don’t even know where to start getting my head wrapped around what it’s really like. Is there anything in the book to help a guy out? Well… the rules do give a breakdown of Poland’s armed forces and where they’re stationed. And there’s more detailed information on what happened to the various Soviet units that were operating and/or disbanding there. But how to synthesize all of this into a reasonable situation…? There’s not a thing on that. I’m just plain lost.
This data dumping wouldn’t be so bad if the introductory scenario were pretty good. Referees have to fake everything anyway and end up giving the players whatever they actually want in practice. If you can just get them going, then the stuff that’s imposing to them may not end up mattering. But the player handout alone for this is four pages long and loaded with the kind of detail that probably meant a great deal to people that were serving in the military at the time. A twelve year old kid just sees a wall of text. Heck, I look at it now and I can’t figure out how in the world players could be expected to draw anything of use from it.
Compare that to Steading of the Giant Chief where there’s just one paragraph of background information and one paragraph detailing the initial situation at the start. The Keep on the Borderlands starts with the players introducing themselves to the men-at-arms at the titular keep and then gradually easing into the adventure situations at their own pace. The Isle of Dread starts the players off with a map for them to fill in as they explore and a parchment that gives a clue as to where to find the big treasure. When role-players sit down to game, they mostly want a clear sign pointing to where the adventure is… and these classic modules all do just that.
Twilight 2000 in comparison is just complete chaos. Granted, that is the core appeal of the game: the players have all kinds of great military hardware, there’s plenty of people to use it on, and there’s no pesky chain of command to get in the way of the players doing whatever they feel like with it. I’m sure experienced referees can look at this and immediately grasp how to have fun with it. But there is absolutely no hand-holding for the novices. It’s trial by fire all the way!
I look at this game and it’s introductory scenario and I think… when can the players make it to that tavern where there’s a little old man that has a clue about the location of a weapons cache…? Are there no underground complexes in Poland of the year 2000? No? Well can I have a more linear adventure with example encounters for my group to crunch through? Or maybe a more flexible “string of pearls” adventure with a set of situations that lead one to another with variations introduced as a result of how the players perform in each stage? No…?
Well maybe I just don’t get it then. Maybe I really do need to just let go and embrace the chaos. Maybe I really do have enough tools here to navigate it if I just trust the designer. If that was the case, though… then why then couldn’t they create an introductory adventure scenario that will make me believe that?!
And the central mechanic. I’ve picked up this book on a half dozen different occasions and it was only just the other day that I realized that this game had a really slick task system for its time. Why didn’t I pick up on that earlier? Because the essential bits of what make it cool are broken off in the referee’s booklet. If you’ve got an idea this good, lead off with it. Don’t bury it!
And the combat system… it’s loaded with so many good ideas. Why am I to this day afraid to run it…? Something seems to distract me every time I sit down and try to get through a simple situation. I thought maybe it was me, but then I read the four page combat example from Challenge Magazine. It’s more dense than the rules themselves and sounds almost like a Star Fleet Battles tournament game it’s so complex. The example of actual combat with the system really is more imposing than the rules themselves!
Yes, this game made me cry. But it’s because there’s so much awesomeness here that never made it to my table. They could have included four sample characters to save me from having to slog through character generation before I could run the game. They could have included a one page cheat sheet that included everything I needed to know in order to fake my way through a session with those sample characters. They could have layered the complexity somehow so that I never felt like I had to wrap my head around the whole game at once. They could have included an introductory adventure that could be successfully run with as little preparation on the referee’s part as possible.
But hey… how could the designers know to do all that…? The second edition GURPS Basic Set was a good two years off when this game was coming out and flagrantly byzantine first edition of AD&D was still the go-to game in the rpg scene. You can’t really blame GDW for not knowing what it’d take to make a game like this comprehensible to mere mortals. The rpg market at the time simply didn’t expect anything remotely like that.