another new old-school RPG: Rotworld

A week or two ago, I read Grognardia’s quick write-up of Rotworld. I was interested! Rotworld is an old-school early-80’s-like RPG of the zombie apocalypse. I picked up a copy and put it on my tablet. Pretty soon I decided it would be worth getting a printed copy. (I like having RPG PDFs printed and spiral bound for easy reading.)

I sent it to Staples, which I’ve done with a lot of my PDF RPG books. Usually I send them to the one nearby my home in Bethlehem, but this time I sent it to the one near my office in Philadelphia, since it would be more convenient to pick up. When I went to pick up the book, the guy said, “Oh, this print job looked cool! I thought it was a comic book at first…”

So I figured he was going to then talk about how he had no idea what it turned out to be, but instead: “…but it’s an RPG! My buddy is running a zombie apocalypse RPG right now, actually!” I told him that this one looked pretty good and was from a company with a good track record for cool stuff.

Anyway, now I’ve finished a first pass. I will definitely need to make two or three. I think part of this is that there’s a lot to take in, and it’s a system with which I’m not familiar, but part of it is the book. The game seems to have a core mechanic in the Action Table system, which is primarily covered on pages 6-7. I found these two pages really baffling – specifically the section of “specific checks.” In part, I think my eyes started to cross at “cross-indexes.” Looking at the Action Table itself helped me believe that things weren’t all that complicated, but despite the book’s claim that “the game rules will always tell you which column to use” I couldn’t find much about that when I went look later.

The big concern I got when reading the rules was, “how will I ever keep all this in my head?” There seemed to be many, many specific cases to the rules, and any “specific” check involves complicated lookup. It makes me wonder whether the rules will slow down play. When I start to feel that happening with other games, I tend to make up a rule that feels like the rest of the game, fits the odds, and is simple. I had a hard time imagining what kind of rules I’d make up, since the Action Table system seemed like it should be universal enough already.

The book has (as far as I can recall, anyway) only one example of play, on page

  1. It’s a decent overview of what the game might feel like before you start reading the rest of the rules, but it isn’t enough to demonstrate the rules in play. (If you’re following along with the book, for example: how do we know the zombie hit Ann by a margin of seven?)

I’m willing to believe that the Action Table system can be a nice, simple mechanic for dealing with almost any challenge, but it doesn’t come off that way in the rules as written. I’d love to see the explanations on pages 6-7 rewritten, and to see a few more detailed examples of play throughout the book. I’m not sure what I’d want to jettison, if I had to, to fit this in.

The thing is, the book is actually very dense with useful stuff. Like many old-school RPGs, it has dozens of one-off subsystems for different scenarios, and I think most of them are good ones to include. It has a bunch of rules for scavenging, determining whether the TV news is still on, or whether that bite you just got is going to be fatal. It’s a great set of rules. If I try and try and can’t get my head around the Action Table system, I could definitely see myself using half of the rules in the book, anyway.

The layout is usually very good, although sometimes there’s inset text that makes columns too narrow. (See page 28, Base Chance Determination.) The skills lists marks “exclusive” skills with a †, which is fine, except that it puts it at the beginning of each line, making it a little harder to scan. These are pretty small nits, though. Overall, the book looks good and just like I’d expect. The art is good, and has the “serious but fun” look of the 80’s RPGs that the whole game recalls. I don’t think there’s clearly too much or too little of it, either.

So, the book was definitely worth it, even if I don’t end up running a Rotworld campaign. I’m hoping to get my head around the rules, even if only long enough to really determine that I don’t like them. I think what I might like to get at least as much as text reworking, though, is a podcast of some actual play. I think those are seriously underused as a teaching mechanism.

Written on November 9, 2011
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