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Saturday, 13 January 2018

RPGPundit Reviews: The Umerican Survival Guide

This is a review of the DCC sourcebook, The Umerican Survival Guide, written by Reid San Filippo, published by Shield of Faith Studios.
The book is a very attractive hardcover, about 285 pages long; it features a full-color cover with an art-style and image somewhat reminiscent of Fear & Loathing, with a group of oddball adventurers escaping some kind of lizard-man motorcycle gang on a post-apocalyptic land-rover. The interior is black and white, with a significant collection of similarly gonzo post-apocalyptic art.

Those of you who regularly read my blog know that I am a huge fan of Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC). I've been running a DCC game in my own setting (the Last Sun) for quite some time now. I've made a number of issues of my RPGPundit Presents series, and will be making more, that are based on that world.  For example, the first of these that is expressly in the Last Sun setting (instead of just general gonzo) is my Hipster Elves book.

Anyways, there's obviously some advantage, if you've just published a DCC-compatible book, with sending it to me for review: I'm pre-inclined to be favorable to the concept, at least. But on the other hand, there is also the chance that I might not find it lives up to my expectations for DCC.

In particular, I think that DCC is quite High Gonzo. In fact, the main book fails to really live up to the gonzo potential that is inherent in the rules.  In essence, I don't think that the default DCC concept setting-wise is quite cognizant of just how insane the rules are if they're not matched to a sufficiently crazy world. The mechanics for the corrupting nature of magic all but demand a world in the throes of mutation and decay. The rules for Divine Disapproval, which have no connection to one's alignment or behavior and only to the random vagaries of chance, mean that the Gods of the setting must be completely insane. You need a world where these things don't seem like incongruities, but rather a world where these things make internal sense.  In other words, a crazy world.

Luckily, a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting is just the kind of thing that DCC needs. It's that way for my Last Sun game, and it sure looks like it's that for the Umerican setting as well.

Umerica is set in the future of Earth, long in the future. Something collided with the moon, and a 'shock wave fractured reality itself'. The world is now a post-apocalyptic hellhole with magic and monsters on top.  Really, it's good to see that there is a consistent backstory (like there is for my Last Sun campaign), but it's not like that matters all that much. The point here isn't to fix the world, to stop some big bad, or anything like that. You're playing a gonzo gamma-world.  And to make that evident, the very first set of rules have to do with foraging for food, complete with tables for some of the awful foods people have to resort to in the setting.

Right after that is shelter. This features a table of "community housing" to let you know where a given group are living (examples include "old tunnels", "broken down vehicles" or underground complexes).

The Maslow's Hierarchy proceeds with clothing, travel, communication, law (featuring some 'unusual laws' in a table, as well as punishments), resources, and types of currencies.

Anyways, with all this in the form of introduction, I would have to say that in comparison to the Last Sun, Umerica is grittier. But don't get me wrong, the tables also make it clear that the Umerica setting doesn't take itself too seriously, either.

After that we get a section written in a first-person perspective of a citizen of a place in Umerica known as the "citadel of scrap". It's a major, mostly ruinous settlement ruled over by a triumvirate of very powerful techno-wizards; and it's a major place of trade. Its various weird neighborhoods are descriptively explained. I suspect it's presented this early in the book to serve as a kind of starting-point or home-base for a campaign if the GM wants to handle it that way.  I like the concept of the Citadel of Scrap, though I wish it hadn't been written as quasi-fiction as if a real guy was telling you about it; I hate that gimmicky style.

After this you get a chapter of other places of note in Umerica. These are described in much less detail, but each is given a few paragraph and some adventure hooks. Places include "The Burning Lands of Yellowstone", "The Floating Iron Isles" of Lake Mishigun, "The Glowing Dome of Dinotastic Park", "The Isle of Doctor Mammon", "The Kingdom of the False Gods" in the wetlands of Flor-Da, "The Lands of Aetheria", "The Menfish Pyramid of The Bass Masters" along the Misshipy river valley, "The Neuqua Valley", "The Old Seattle and the Necromancers of the Space Needle", "The Ruins of Delphia", "The Temple Refineries of Petrolex", "The Untouched Valley of the Forks", "The Vast Wasteland", and "The Whistling Marshes". You also get information about other phenomena of the setting, like the few radio and television channels still operating, the strange clown-run O'Burger restaurants, trade caravans, and the new rail barons.

The next chapter covers how to generate characters in Umerica.  This book is not a complete RPG, it's a sourcebook for DCC, but the differences between the 'inherent setting' of DCC and the Umerica setting are so significant many things have to be changed.  So here we are given a different set of Lucky Roll tables, a different Random Occupation Table (which has an acceptable number of 50 different starting occupations), an optional random race table, and then utterly new takes on character classes.

Clerics are not too dissimilar from DCC, but there's some differences to the magic system, but with more specific details relevant to ritual sacrifices. There's also a list of deities in the setting, including the cannibalistic Buddy O'Burger, Santa, Petrolex, Elmos the puppet god, Technos Discos, and more.
We get a Cyborg class, with cyber upgrades. Next, Feral Urchins who are children that never grow up, and have sneaking, luck, and are divided by alignment into wildchilds, slingers, and nerds.
Then there's a non-human class of humanoid badger-men called Fossorians, and an alien class called Grays (which is funny, because I also have the Grays in my Last Sun campaign!). There's also a Mutant class (I also have mutants in Last Sun, but your more classic post-apocalypse mutants). The Petrol Head class are road-warrior types with vehicles. There's a Robot class (Last Sun has robots, though they're usually NPCs). A scavenger class, a technologist class, and a Wasteland Warrior class.
There's also Wizards. They're quite similar to wizards in DCCs, though obviously there's a new list of Patrons unique to the Umerica setting. Curiously, these include some of the deities of Umerica, which can also be taken as Patrons.  The non-deity patrons include The Cyberhive and The Synod of Astroliches,
Later on in the book there's also a whole new mercurial-magic table for Umerica. The book also features five new DCC spells, one of each level.

There's changes to the armor class system, on account of the standard armors not being really typical here. Instead you get AC of 10+Reflex, as well as bonuses from shields or magic, etc.  But actual armor doesn't add to AC, instead it soaks damage. This is done through a fairly complex system that allows one to build up an "armor die" for soaking damage based on the various scraps of protective wear you might find in the wastelands.  The armor die value will vary wildly as you get new armor, or armor is ruined (if you get a 1 on the armor die roll), plus there's also special 'ablative armor' that doesn't add to your armor die but adds a buffer that prevents the actual armor from being destroyed. Particularly feeble armor can be destroyed on a roll of 1 or 2. Particularly strong armor might not be completely ruined. Creatures with built-in armor (eg. Robots) can also stack regular armor on top of that but it will greatly increase the fumble die.

This all looks, on paper, like a lot of record-keeping and fiddling around will be involved. But it certainly does provide depth and accuracy. I think how much you like this system will depend on how much complexity you're likely to enjoy.

Since firearms are common in Umerica, there's rules on that too, including new fumble tables and critical tables for firearms and grenades/explosives.

The rest of the equipment section has a lot of what you'd expect. There are a few unusual weapons (like a slinger that fires small circular sawblades). There's a variety of vehicles. Firearms (another thing Umerica has in common with my Last Sun game, and highlighted in my RPGPundit Presents #3: High Tech Weapons) include slugthrowers and lasers; also a wide variety of grenades, dynamite, molotov cocktails, etc.

What's maybe missing is a miscellaneous items section.

The next section features rules for vehicle maneuvers and combat, and it's quite clever! I wish I'd had these rules a couple of sessions ago in my DCC game (I just ad-libbed it all, which was fine, but these rules are snazzy). The rules are not too complex, which is great by me, and features things like basic difficulties for different types of maneuvers, and rules for ramming or wiping out. Also, obviously, chase rules.  You also get rules on chases and consuming fuel. There's also stats for basic types of vehicles (including trains, boats, aircraft, robot-vehicles, and even bicycles), and then special traits to modify them.  I'm fairly sure I'll be using these rules at some point in the future of my DCC campaign.

There's a chapter on mutations that features several interesting subtables. The style is quite gonzo post-apocalypse.

Next we get to the "how to GM" chapter, which covers some of the basic concepts of post-apocalypse gaming. I'm not a big fan of "how to GM" chapters, they're rarely excellent. This one isn't awful, but it's just good. Maybe useful to someone with extremely little experience with post-apocalypse as a genre.

The actual mechanical parts of the GM section are somewhat better than good. You get a set of mechanics to govern salvaging for useful stuff. This is pretty good, it's something that isn't always covered in P-A games. There's a bunch of salvage tables at the back of the book for added flavor.

We also get some interesting locations beyond the Citadel of Scrap, that get fleshed out a bit with potential benefits and dangers. This includes an area where the wilds have become sentient, the ruins of malls, a strange monolith of Law and Chaos, an interdimensional truck stop, plus some random plot seeds.

Next, we get to a chapter called "Secrets of the Citadel", which gives additional information aimed at the GM for the Citadel of Scrap. It covers law and justice, details on the merchant houses, underworld, black market, cults, and the mysterious God In the Pit. And, of course, the royals.
There's also more details and adventure seeds for each of the major neighborhoods of the city.

Finally, the appendices detail conversion notes for standard DCC materials into the Umerica house-rules, some recommended reading, and some pretty sweet salvage tables. A character sheet is included at the end.

All in all the Umerican Survival Guide is a fantastic product, well worthy of the DCC name. If you want to run fantasy-post-apocalypse in an OSR system, this is the setting for you (at least, until my Last Sun setting is fully released!).


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Poker + Solani's Aged Burley Flake

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