About Me

Saturday, May 9, 2015


Before the US Army came up with the concept of the Social Terrain, David Cook and Harold Johnson at TSR designed a board game in 1981, called Escape From New York. It was based on an awesome John Carpenter film of the same name. The game was fast paced, exceptionally well designed, and featured a revolutionary board design. The genius of the game was that all game play and game mechanic folded into telling a story. The weakness of the game was that the story mirrored the movie, and did not go beyond it. In other words, no event was possible other than what happened in the film. Survival was difficult, movie outcome hard to achieve. Too bad, same design was not applied to any other game, this was a one-shot deal, and a classic, the way the first edition of the Dungeon! was.

But the revolutionary part of interest to us was the way the game board was mapped. The board was Manhattan, New York, but it was represented in an original way, using the four-color scheme reminiscent of the Four Color Theorem in Mathematics, but having nothing to do with it. The color of the space on which the playing piece landed on the game board, denoted the type of the environment that went beyond mere geography or topography. There were Red, Green, White, and Orange spaces. Red spaces were urban jungle, Green and White were urban Open Spaces (Green being parks and White, open lots), and Orange were the Cultural Centers, the only places where the players can uncover vital clues. What you encountered, also depended on what color space you landed, the Red being the home of the most dangerous encounters. Similar kind of color coding was used in the early Sim City PC game, where the Industrial Zones were Yellow, Commercial Zones were Blue, and Residential Zones were Green.

This was an amazing concept to me, when I figured it out, and when I built my post-apocalyptic fantasy world setting for the Aftermath! rules, there was a vacuum, and I picked up on the concept. A brief digression here. TSR under Gygax came up with a number of pencil and paper role-playing games to cover all movie and literary genres with role playing rule sets. They published Boot Hill for the Wild West, Top Secret for espionage, Star Frontiers for space, to compete with Traveler, and Gamma World, for the post nuclear apocalypse. The biggest problem with the TSR brand was that game play was patterned on the D&D model. This may have worked for medieval fantasy setting, but it strained credibility, when applied to modern world. In Top Secret, you had your Thief, your Hit Man, and your Investigator, complete with advancement levels. The game was released at the height of the Cold War, but the authors were woefully ignorant of the real world politics and history to come up with something remotely useful for modeling the cold war. Boot Hill was an awesome game, but it suffered from lack of support and did not have a sourcebook to make the game playable beyond combat. Combat rules were accurate in terms of mortality and chances of survival, if you got hit, but the game was too lethal and characters did not survive long, when it was played as a war game. Traveler was too abstract, but Star Frontiers was just too corny for me, and I never picked it up. By far, Gamma World was TSR's most unique and original offering beside D&D.

I liked Gamma World a lot, but then discovered the Aftermath! and Twilight 2000, when they first came out. These games offered a vision, drastically different from TSR. The Aftermath! let create a post apocalyptic world, like something out of the Dawn of the Dead or Warday! novel of the DefCon4 movie, which I am guessing is the iconic Aftermath! movie the way Sword and the Sorcerer is a truly iconic D&D film, since it features a Lich and a workable concept of an underground labyrinth. Anyway, Aftermath! came out in 1981, and its play foreshadowed the moods of the Walking Dead 30 years before it was released.

And so, I was into Aftermath! Two things that the game forced me to look at were geography and urban design, because I was fascinated by ruins and urban decay, and I needed to be able to read the urban landscape, before I can create a post-apocalyptic sandbox for the players. Escape From New York! fascinated me for the same reasons, and I stumbled on color coding the adventure terrain. My post apocalyptic world had everything and the kitchen sink thrown into it. There was a nuclear war, there was a major pandemic (turned out not far fetched at all, as they were planning to use germ warfare in conjunction with nuking), there was a religious movement, that sparked a post-nuke religious war. On top of it, there was a contact with aliens, alien technological artifacts, and a zombie like apocalypse in the big cities. It was a hell of a place, where humanity was holding on to dear life by the skin of its teeth. My sandbox had seven colors: GREEN was traditional wilderness. WHITE was deserted suburban areas; Roads, motels, convenience stores, suburban developments. RED was urban decay. Ruins of big cities, with tall buildings and multi-story residential houses. ORANGE was cultural centers, communities where survivors lived, traded, etc. YELLOW were uninhabitable areas contaminated with radiation, germs, and chemical weapons. Stuff that could kill you and which required protective clothing. BLUE was water. Some survivors used it as a barrier and lived on large ships and small islands. BLACK were areas of alien contamination. Not so much gamma world style mutants, though there were fields of mutant grass, but the hazards of truly alien technology and pollution, that can both kill, and can be extremely valuable to the military and other scientists. Alien technology mostly smooth, indestructible, and inert, but if activated, extremely dangerous due to things like emitted radiation and gravitational field distortion.


  1. Have you ever heard of Steve Jackson games?

    Some cool games they made:

    Car Wars-- car based table top post apocalyptic war game. It had roll playing but it was more about car battles where you pick Armour, Weapons, Engine...
    GURPS -- Generalized Universal Roll Play System. It was basically a gaming operating system that can be used for all types of games.

    Steve Jackson was smart and didn't make the same mistake Gygax made. He didn't get kicked out of a company that he named after himself.

  2. Hey!

    Thanks for writing! I am familiar with Steve Jackson games! We played Car Wars and Illuminati when I was in college. GURPS evolved out of a system of rules for Steve Jackson's game books and it was revolutionary with its concept, that was later used as a universal core mechanic in the Post-TSR D&D. I am not a fan of it, though. Where Gygax differed from GURPS and WOTC was that GYGAX was creating its own game mechanic for each aspect of the real world that he wanted to model. So, unlike other skill systems, where you had some kind of a formula, and then a skill check, each of Gygax'x so-called Non-Weapon Proficiencies was actually a separate article on the real world skill that he was covering, and skill resolution became in essence its own mini-game with its own game mechanic. It made story-telling that more nuanced and layered. Gygax had the brains to take an idiosyncratic approach to skill outcome resolution, whereas all others fell for the nomothetic one (See Allport and Cattel's trait theories in Psychology), and bogged the game down with skill checks. Gygax's DM's Guide is often faulted for its complexity, but it was not meant to be read from cover to cover, but rather consulted as an engineering handbook is meant to be.

    Steve Jackson did not lose control over his company, true, but just as he made it big, he apparently had to share his wealth with his ex-wife by means of alimony after a bitter divorce. Typically, this means that wifey supported him financially while he was making it big, and once he made it, he decided to dump her. Here we have a pattern - Gygax made it big and then divorced his first wife - Mary Jo Powell. What is it with these guys, anyway, making it big and then dumping their women?