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Tuesday, 9 September 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Other Dust

This is a review of the RPG “Other Dust: Roleplaying After The End”, by Kevin Crawford, published by Sine Nomine. Its a softcover book, roughly 200 pages; with a full-colour cover depicting a pair of survivors-adventurers (who are a little too clean-shaven and well-groomed for the part, I’d say) in an impressive “ruined city” background. The interior is black and white featuring a number of interesting illustrations of good quality, plus floorplans, area maps, and a hexmap of post-apocalyptic north-eastern North America.

This is my third review of a Crawford product (the other two being Stars Without Number and Red Tide), and those of you who read the previous reviews already know that I’m a big fan.  I’m also a fan of a certain type of post-apocalyptic RPGs, namely the kind that are mostly about gonzo adventuring and no preachiness.  Gamma World 4e and Tweet’s “Omega World” are top-notch in my book; and I like RIFTS quite a lot too, if that counts.  So what about Other Dust? Does it cut the glowing radioactive mustard?

You can’t really talk about an OSR-spectrum post-apocalyptic RPG without bringing up Gamma World.  Comparisons are inevitable.  And Other Dust has a lot of things that remind one of GW: mutants, pure strain humans, monsters that are animals mutated into intelligent or semi-intelligent humanoid forms, exploring random ruins with a mix of low- and high-tech junk to find, a survival-themed aesthetic.  But Other Dust isn’t Gamma World; its not an attempt to do a GW-clone (like I’ve been told Mutant Future, a game I haven’t read, has done). And that’s probably a good thing, because Crawford’s skills would be wasted on doing something that is just a pure retread.  Stars Without Number isn’t just a clone of any old-school sci-fi game, it has new and interesting stuff while still making you think of Traveller, and staying well within the old-school aesthetic.  Red Tide is very much an old-school D&D setting, but not like any you’ve ever seen before.  And likewise, Other Dust has stuff that is reminiscent of Gamma World, but its definitely not the same.

However, this is also a bit of a two-edged sword, because it doesn’t give you quite the same experience as Gamma World.  Other Dust isn’t preachy, but it also isn’t Gonzo. Its more serious than Gamma World (or at least, the Gamma World everyone tends to imagine), and more significantly, it frames its setting within the SWN universe. Other Dust is Earth, as its found in the Stars Without Number setting. The reason for its apocalypse is connected to the history presented in the SWN rpg.  Note that it is entirely a stand-alone RPG, however, you need not buy or even have read SWN to be able to play and understand Other Dust; its completely self-contained.

What it does mean, however, is that the GM is not left free out-of-the-box to decide on his own world.  While of course he could modify it to suit whatever he actually wants to do, he is told by default just what the world is, just how the apocalypse happened, and all the other details, that are often more cleverly left somewhat vague in this kind of game.  There’s nothing particularly wrong about the background Crawford provides for the setting, its just the fact that said background is present and fully explained that is a bit unfortunate from my point of view.

Now, as with his other games, Other Dust is an OSR-type game, very loosely based on the D&D rules, and it is also a Sandbox game.  The book provides explanations about both facts, and like in his other products, provides an amazing amount of support for the “sandbox” style of play.

The system itself is nearly identical to the system in Stars Without Number; which is to say that it varies from standard D&D in a few important ways. Besides the standard six stats, you also have a complete skill system, which is resolved by rolling 2d6 and needing to beat a difficulty number (a standard “challenging” skill check has to get 8 or higher). You add whatever bonus you have in your skill to these checks; a starting skill will have a +0 bonus, however if you have no skill at all (rather than a 0) you may not even be able to attempt the check at all, or if you can you do so with a -1 penalty.
Skills are obtained by a combination of choosing a background package (origins like “city dweller”, “entertainer”, “noble”, “tribal warrior”, etc), which gives you a couple of skills, and then choosing a “training package” within your class (effectively a kind of “kit” or specific expertise in the broader class definition) that gives you the rest.

There are four classes in Other Dust: Scroungers (who have packages like “scientist”, “retriever” or “crafter”), Slayers (who have packages like “beasthunter”, “gunslinger” or “tribal champion”), Speakers (who have packages like “diplomat”, “rogue” or “trader”), and Survivors (who have packages like “explorer”, “healer” or “wild man/woman”).  Like in SWN, each class has its own special ability, usable once per day: Survivors can recover from falling to 0hp (bouncing back up to their Level in HP), Speakers can automatically convince one NPC of one thing within the realm of plausibility, Slayers can choose a single attack roll where they’ll hit on anything but a natural 1, and Scroungers can choose a single skill roll where they’ll succeed on anything but a 2.

All four classes get 1d6hp per level except survivors who get 1d6+2 per level; interestingly enough, the entire hit dice are re-rolled every time a character goes up in level, and if the re-rolled value is higher than the former hit points, supplants the previous value.

Characters also choose at creation whether to get mutations or be a “null-strain human”, immune to the effects of mutation.  Characters can roll up to three times for mutations, or can forfeit any or all of these rolls in exchange for a +1 to a single ability MODIFIER (not attribute, and to a maximum total modifier of +2). Mutations can be more or less beneficial, and all of them come with “stigmata” (which are deformities of appearance that make you somewhat more obviously a mutant); these stigmata can range from purely aesthetic (a blemish) to being seriously disadvantageous; for an extreme example, you could start the game missing a limb (amusingly, if I read the tables correctly, you could theoretically start the game with no head!). You also additionally start the game with a mutation flaw, which is yet another disadvantage of your mutated state, unless you choose to sacrifice a second of your three rolls to avoid that flaw.  Flaws are even more serious, most of them involving either extreme changes to your body parts or serious penalties from a mechanical point of view (a -3 penalty to one of your saving throws, for example).

Mutation benefits can also be quite good, but they too have a range of worth; everything from acute hearing, to having laser eyes, regeneration, or natural armor.  What’s more, many mutations require the gaining of “system strain” points, the accumulation of too many of which means that the mutation benefit will no longer be useful until time resting reduces the accumulated strain.

As these mutations (as well as the stigmata and flaws) are all rolled randomly, it seems to me that the safer bet might be to play a null-strain human (where you’ll end up with three attribute modifiers at +1!); of course, the point in a game like this is not really to try to min-max these things, but I’d point out that there does seem to be room to play the system (something a lot of other OSR games largely manage to avoid), or at least to choose a safer route.

Note that so long as you’re not a null-strain human, there is also a chance that you could end up obtaining (more) mutations later on in the game itself; exposure to radiation has a chance (upon failed saving throws) of permanently reducing one’s constitution score; if sufficient CON points have been lost, then the character may also gain a mutation (though these have a greater chance of being purely negative; the chance of any positive benefit depending on a second saving throw).

A central element of Other Dust is survival.  Of course, fans of old-school D&D aren’t really afraid of a bit of resource-management, but there is also a difference between a D&D game where you have to watch your arrows, rations and torches while trying to obtain treasure before heading back to town to restock; and a game like this where often the entire point will be to find enough food to not starve to death.  In combat, rolling a 1 or 2 in an attack means your weapon degrades (there are a set of conditions for weapons and gear keeping track of what penalties they acrue as they degrade), and I can see weapons soon becoming useless if one doesn’t manage to keep up repairs or find replacements. One gets the sense from reading this game that an inordinate amount of a campaign will involve the PCs looking anywhere they can, not for +2 swords or a stash of gems, but for enough uncontaminated water to last the week or a pile of garbage that might have enough bits and pieces to keep their weapon from falling apart completely.

There are additional mechanics meant to keep track of this ongoing struggle for survival: aside from the aforementioned system strain points and the degradation of weapons/gear, there are also points for Thirst to keep track of, and Hunger points for hunger, and Toxin points to represent the effects of eating contaminated food or water.

Again, the tone here overall is more serious than many other Post-apocalyptic games, and the level of “resource management” involved may be a turnoff to some players; on the other hand, other players who are really into this sort of thing might thrive from it.

The setting of Other Dust is, as I mentioned, the same as Stars Without Number, though from Earth’s point of view.  To give a brief summary of what is covered in far more detail in the book, the present day of the setting is the mid 29th century.  Earth had gone through a very disastrous 21st century to rise up to develop interstellar travel, and make a vast network (the Mandate) of colonies in space.  This was enhanced by the development of psychic humans and nanotechnology, contributing to the creation of “Jump Gates” that allowed for incredibly fast interstellar travel. The Mandate also created AIs, artificial intelligences called the Maestros, that could regulate every aspect of life on earth; nominally to create a paradise, but over time transforming earth into a police state full of (literal) thought control and oppression. Rebel elements began to rise up against the Mandate, and it seemed like a great upheaval was forthcoming but before this could happen an unexpected event took place: “The Scream”, a still-unexplained event where every living psychic in the galaxy was overwhelmed with an extradimensional psychic wave that killed 90% of them, and drove all the survivors incurably insane.  As the psychics were essential to the Jump Gate technology, this caused a total collapse of human civilization throughout space (the details of this being covered in SWN), but on earth, where some of the most powerful psychics of the Mandate were located, the chaos that followed was much worse. 

The insane survivors of The Scream were tremendously powerful and in positions of enormous authority; in their madness they turned on the Mandate and destroyed all of earth’s infrastructure.  Clouds of healing nanites were warped into mutation-causing “highshine”, or death-bringing “black dust”; another superpowerful psychic killed most of the Maestros (some of these AI may still exist in hiding), and the planetary defense systems of the earth were turned on itself, launching orbital strikes against the planet.  Most of the world’s population were wiped out within the first two weeks of the disaster; and the world itself was changed forever, with mutated animals and radioactive hot-spots.

As with Red Tide, Other Dust provides an amazing set of tools for Sandbox play; not only are there wonderfully-written guidelines to how to run a sandbox setting, there’s also a huge number of random tables to create different “sites” (for survivor Enclaves and Ruins) complete with their forms, sizes, tech level, details, occupants, and “tags”, which are descriptors that summarize the essence of the site and provide examples of potential friends, enemies, things therein, complications and points of interest.
There are also random tables for adventure design, providing templates for adentures based on themes like “collapse”, “privation”, “savagery”, “scavenging”, or “defiance”.
The book also contains a 10 page sample setting area: the “bonelands”, which are the post-apocalyptic northeastern seaboard of the U.S.  This section includes random wilderness encounter tables, and template “sites” for the various settlements and ruins of the region, and a fairly cool hexmap of the setting area.

Of course, you also get detailed loot tables, with different loot “types” for various sorts of opponents or locations. There are random tables for determining loot, and what traits, quirks or condition those items may have. There are extensive lists of equipment and tech, which include tech-level ratings that differentiate gear with everything from ‘stone age’ to ‘far future’ levels of sophistication. The pre-apocalypse setting having been quite technologically advanced, you have things like laser weapons, ultra high-tech armor, “stim” injections with a variety of potion-like effects, and much weirder high-tech artifacts.  Of course, none of these can be made in the setting’s present, only scavenged; the present-day tech is usually very primitive.  What you don’t have is a currency system, since in this ruined world almost all trade is done by barter, nonetheless, a basic notion of value is established for items and expenses using the Food Ration as the base unit of barter currency.

The game also has a subsystem for managing large groups; be they religions, warbands, communities, clans, or conspiracies.  This is a complete system which creates a separate set of mechanics, with details like “tiers” (the “level” of the group), resource ratings on food, tech, morale, influence and security, and a system for “resource points” that allow the group to make progress in its ratings.  There’s also a “ruin” mechanic where you can keep track of whether forces opposed to the group’s survival do enough damage to cause it to collapse.  Some groups will also have particular perks, which are special qualities that affect the group. There are mechanics for generating groups and for how to run them.

I can imagine that for some people, this kind of thing will be seen as awesome, a mechanical system for managing larger-scale communities or organizations in the setting.  For others, including myself, I think its too much book-keeping for something that I feel more comfortable doing outside a rules-structure. For those who support the former view, these rules are very complete, and include templates and examples.  For those who support the latter view, you won’t find the chapter dedicated to this whole subsystem of much value, but at least its a self-contained subsystem that any GM who wishes to could very easily ignore.

The game also provides a bestiary of about 15 pages; it also provides basic template guidelines for creating your own weird mutant animals (though sadly no interesting random tables like one might have hoped to find). The pregenerated monsters include animal-men of all types, toxic black-nanite dust clouds, cultists of the still living insane superpsychics that caused the big collapse in the first place, robots (complete with rules for building robots), and NPC stats for different types of humans one might run into; including psychics (the author chose not to include an actual psychic Character Class in the book even though about 1 in 1000 humans are supposed to be psychics; but here he provides some very rough guidelines to playing a psychic).

The tail-end of the book provides some more random tables as GM Resources; these include random tables for settlement details, lengthy and detailed random NPC generation tables, templates of quick Class stats for sample NPCs of each class (for levels 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9), quick name tables for a variety of cultural backgrounds, random maps and area-stocking tables for villages, caverns, bunkers, security stations, factories and offices; as well as random religion-generation tables (for your crazy Post-apocalyptic cult), and more general wilderness encounter tables.

In the end, I find Other Dust as impressive an oeuvre as SWN or Red Tide, but I have to say I don’t care for it quite as much.  I suspect this is for personal reasons; I just think that the level of resource-management and the survival-focus in this game would be a bit too extreme for me and my gaming group.  I guess I like my post-apocalyptic play a little more light-hearted. But if you think that games like RIFTS or Gamma World are too goofy or gonzo, but you also don’t want to just play “the road” or some misery-tourism game with no adventure at all, then Other Dust might occupy the happy medium; or rather, the “Depressing But Not As Depressing” medium.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Stanze + Balkan Sasieni

(Originally posted June 8, 2013; on the old blog)

1 comment:

  1. I started out in '75 with Metamorphosis Alpha, watching the dreadful TV series The Star Lost and reading books like Non Stop by Brian Aldis. This genre is a deep love for me. I'm one of the ones for whom Gammaworld was too non-serious, but Twilight-2000 was too unadventurous. So after having played Stars Without Number a lot, game mastering Other Dust was a no brainer for me.

    I actually have used faction, NPC group, type mechanics almost forever. The mechanics don't have to be used heavily but they build adventures around the players as those groups connected with their present location "do stuff". It also gives a mechanical process to allow player interference to have large scale effects and my players love it, even in D&D and Call of Cthulhu. That being said I do not use the subsystem fully. For example only the factions "nearby" do anything. When players re-encounter a faction after a long absence I just randomly adjust things using some story cubes to give me ideas.