Tuesday, June 30, 2020

RPG Reviews: Neon Lords of the Toxic Wasteland (Playtest Version)

This is a review for a post-apocalyptic tabletop role-playing game. I cover what's included in the game, the gaming style, some cool bits that help it stand out, and pros-and-cons.

BACKGROUND
I know a lot of people dislike Facebook, and there are valid reasons why. On a personal level, I mainly use it for sharing photos of my daughter with a select group of friends and family, and also posting my (not quite) night "cocktail and vinyl" photos. My blog also has a Facebook page. I have noticed, in post Google+ world we live in, that I get a lot more engagement and comments on my RPG Facebook posts than I get on Twitter (which is almost nothing) or MeWe (although that community does seem to be much more focused on old-school RPGs, but it also has a much larger contingent of gamers with viewpoints with whom I fundamentally disagree).

While on Facebook a few months ago, I came across some posts from a self-publisher about a new post-apocalyptic game called Neon Lords of the Toxic Wasteland. I'm a huge fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, as long-term followers of my blog know. The creator asked for opinions on the game he was putting together, and I offered to look it over. It's been so long since he asked for comments, so I decided rather than just write a short paragraph in a Facebook comment, I'd dedicated a more in-depth review here on the blog.

WHAT IT IS
Note that at the time of this review, I am reviewing a PDF playtest copy of the rules, which runs 64 pages long including the OGL. The book is "three color" - mainly black and white, but with two accent colors of a bright neon green and a neon pink.

This is a rulebook with some light setting information for running a post-apocalyptic style game in a "gonzo" (to use a term favored by old-school gamers) futuristic world called Neo-Terraxx. The introductory page indicates that "The Earth [sic] is a desolate wasteland full of Toxic [sic] radiation from a long forgotten war. Now there is nothing but DARKNESS and SLAVERY for Mankind [sic]."

Just to get this first part out of the way, there are typos, random capitalization (as seen in the above quote), and some grammatical errors that do have an impact on reading the text. I mentioned to the author, Brian Shutter, that he could use an editor to give the text a good once-over to correct these errors, and he agreed. I know he's publishing this himself and most likely doesn't have a huge budget, and he does seem to have caught quite a few errors between the initial version of the rules he sent me and this new playtest version, so he's going in the right direction. Note that to avoid the constant use of [sic] to indicate errors, from herein in this review, when quoting from the book, I will replicate the errors contained therein but not acknowledging them.

The premise of the setting indicates that the "Neon Wars" happened in 1992, followed by the first inter-dimensional contact with alien beings (the "Dwarflings") and others in 2000. These were then followed by demonic incursions that introduced magic into the world. In the game's default setting, these event occurred 10 million years ago.

A better explanation of the world, to me, is in the Preface in "Part I Players Section," in which Shutter notes that:

"Neon Lords of the Toxic Wasteland" can be summed up as HE-MAN escaping from New York in a post-apocalyptic vehicle blasting heavy metal while his wizard pal spews the most unholy evil spells out the passenger side window at a horde of mutants. Ultra-violent and style matters rpg set in the far future, after the neon wars of 1992. Half Medieval Fantasy half Sci-Fi, all Gonzo.
 "Neon Lords of the Toxic Wasteland" stemmed out of my love for 80's and 90's action, horror, Sci-Fi, and pop culture. It's a pen and paper rpg mix-tape of all the radness that came out of those decades.  

After that short introduction, the book's contents are revealed, including sections for a basic primer of role-playing games for those new to this type of gaming, character creation, then character options (which are listed separately instead of grouped together under a section on classes), hiring mercenaries, spells (it seems only 1st level spells are included, but that could just be because this is a playtest version), and a few sections on things like fumble tables and "to the max" tables (more on that later).

The second half of the book is devoted to referees (called a "Neon Lord" for this game), including monster and treasure descriptions, a quick reference sheet, a short introductory adventure, and some optional rules.

GAME STYLE
Neon Lords of the Toxic Wasteland is an old-school style game, but it is not a retro-clone and not seeking to emulate or recreate any past games. Characters are created by rolling 3d6 for each ability, in order. The abilities roughly map to the standard old-school D&D style abilities, but they are renamed as Burliness, Prowess, Endurance, Attitude, Brains, and Sleaze. The game interestingly divides Attitude ("...how cool a PC is") versus Sleaze ("...measures your overall like-ability and credibility."). The rules go on to explain that someone with a high attitude and slow sleaze would be trusted in most humanoid civilizations, but not well-liked in the Wastelands, and the opposite would be true for someone with low attitude and high sleaze. I see what Shutter was trying to go for here, but the nuances do get a little muddied, and having two scores that basically measure the same thing gets confusing. It might have been better to simply have a single score with modifiers based on background.

Another character trait that immediately follows these six ability scores is Fortune, but it works differently from the other six ability scores and at first I was confused as to whether it was rolled the same way (it is, I learned afterwards). Each different character class has different things it can do with its fortune points, noted in the class descriptions. In general, this leads me to another item that could be improved in future editions of the book, which is the layout. Again, I understand Shutter is self-publishing and most likely does not have the help of a layout person or designer, but a simple statement upfront of what different traits make up a character and listing those before getting into the details would be helpful, as would be nothing that there are seven ability scores, etc. Given that this is a playtest copy, I would encourage Shutter to look at some other similar style games to get ideas for layout and organization that will help in future editions of Neon Lords.

The game mentions nine classes: Death Bringer (melee combat masters), War Wizard (whose spells are fueled by a demon lord), Night Stalker (a rogue-type), Star Spawn (psychic aliens), Dwarfling (alien immigrants from a destroyed planet), Holy Smiter (a paladin-like class), Cosmic Barbarian (a post-apocalyptic take on the fantasy favorite), Cyberskin (cybernetic characters), and Skull Jammer (hackers of cybernetics). In this playtest version, the section for the Star Spawn says "coming soon" and there are no listings or descriptions or details for the Night Stalker, or Cyberskin classes. The Skull Jammer class is also listed as "coming soon" but for some reason it is listed out of order, following the sections on Equipment, Hirelings, and Mercenaries, instead of with the other classes.

For the classes that are described, they span 10 levels, and include different class-based powers. One of the unique aspects of Neon Lords is that each class has different "class-based ability scores" that they can spend on different actions. Death bringers spend theirs on fury (adding to attack rolls and damage) while war wizards spend theirs on chaos to ensure their spells reach the intended target. Once again, these abilities are rolled using 3d6, but that is only explained in a short side-bar that I almost missed.

The game is a mix of both old and new-school concepts, although it does adhere mainly to an old-school aesthetic by including concepts like hirelings, XP for gold (but the game also includes XP for monster-slaying), rolling attributes in order with a standard 3d6 array, and use of random tables for a wide variety of concepts. Other times, new-school concepts are included, such as ascending AC and noting that class-based ability scores are recovered after a "long rest" (a 5th Edition concept).

Other concepts are new, or are tweaks on mechanics borrowed from a variety of sources, such as the "Neon Blast Roll" which is just a renaming of the exploding dice concept from Savage Worlds (used for damage dice only). There are fumble and critical outcomes on attack rolls. Critical successes are referred to as "To the Max!" and in a fun concept, the game includes a different "To the Max!" table for each character class, so critical hits don't just do additional damage, but instead different effects determined randomly by character class. 

COOL BITS
The art by Mustafa Bekir is fun and evocative of the setting, and his style reminds me a bit of the Russ Nicholson illustrations from the 1st Edition AD&D Fiend Folio. The style is pen-and-ink and is loose and sketch-like, which works perfectly for this type of setting. The art is relatively sparse, being relegated mostly to the section on classes with illustrations for most of the different character classes, with a few other small illustrations in the monsters section.

A lot of the creativity in this book comes from the random tables and in how they are used. It's self-described as a "gonzo" setting, so everything gets "turned up to 11" to showcase that style. The game includes a lot of random tables to determine everything from hairstyle to class-based abilities. One of my favorites is the hairstyle table, just because it is so specific and illustrative of the setting - styles include mullet, skull cap, mushroom cloud, Mohawk, Flock of Seagulls, Ice Ice, and more; the table is set up to simply pick your style, but could easily be made into a random table, which I would encourage for future editions.

The class-based ability tables are also quite descriptive and evocative. They come into play when a character has spent below a certain amount of class-based ability points to modify certain rolls during combat. As an example, Death Bringers have an ability called Fury that they can spend to modify combat-related rolls. However, if their fury drops below 5 before they are able to take a long rest, they need to roll on their Fury Class Points Table for the consequences. The die roll depends on how many points they have left (1d4 for 5 points, 1d6 for 4 points, 1d10 for 3 points, 1d12 for 2 points, 1d20 for 1 point, or 2d20 for 0 points). The consequences range from a minor inconvenience such as -2 on the next roll, to more serious effects such as higher penalties on the next roll, going into shock, or committing suicide at the most extreme. Each class has a very different able of effects, and different actions that trigger needing to roll on their class ability table for consequences. The War Wizard's most extreme consequence is also death, but it comes in the form of its demon lord "wanting payment" and sucking the war wizard's soul away, leaving in its wake a "Neon Death" (a monster) to fight the remaining party members.

There's also a spell misfire table with effects that include effects such as triggering a mutation (determined by, yes, rolling on a random table), toxic fumes engulfing the caster, hitting a random target, or opening a temporal rift, gating in an otherworldly spawn that attacks everyone in sight.

The random table for fumbles in combat applies to every character and includes concepts such as losing fortune points, damaging your weapon, penalties to AC, or having your opponent call reinforcements.

The "To the Max!" tables for critical hits are more creative and descriptive, as each one is tailored specifically to each class. Death Bringers might turn an enemy's weapon to dust, deal additional damage, stun foes, or trigger foes to make a death save. One of the effects calls "Lord Randy" aka "The Savage One" (one of the gods of the setting) to reveal himself and pass judgment on the foe. War Wizards instead might see cold or lightning effects added to their spell's damage, or might gain HP when their foes are damaged. These tables are fun and add a random element to combat, and also help to detail the type of gonzo setting Shutter is striving for in "Neon Lords." In another fun addition, each monster also has its own "To the Max!" table, but with only two different effects (having 20 would be too much for every single monster, so I understand why this choice was made).

Other random tables include Fear Effects, Drug Effects, Looting Bodies, Minor Mutations and an optional rule for Maiming and Dismemberment.

PROS AND CONS
This is a fun book with some really great concepts and a lot of creativity in character descriptions, and a big focus on combat and death effects. The illustrations are quite good for a self-published book of this type, and there are a lot of ideas in here that can easily be taken and modified or included in a variety of post-apocalyptic type games. The random tables, particularly the critical hit "To the Max!" tables, are ripe for borrowing, modifying, or inspiring referees to create similar tables if they're looking for a higher level of lethality in their games, or have players who prefer to focus on combat versus adventuring.

The book is also free in its playtest format right now for download on DriveThruRPG, and has a good social media presence on Facebook providing updates on upcoming releases.

On the downside, this is not a complete game (yet). Several of the classes that are mentioned in the opening chapters aren't included, and the spell descriptions only cover 1st level spells. There is only very light information with regard to running the game or designing scenarios, and only a short list of monsters and treasure. It's clear that more will be added in the future, and a group could start with the information included to run a one-off game (such as the short scenario included in the playtest book), but long-term campaigning isn't really supported yet.

There's also the aforementioned typographical errors, particularly the random capitalization of words, and quite a few incomplete sentences or improper use of punctuation. This does impact the ability to read and comprehend the material, and ideally something that would be improved upon in future editions as more material is completed.

The layout is serviceable, but there are areas for improvement, such as being more consistent with typefaces and style. Some headers are done in color, but others are not, so there's no consistency to know where section breaks are. The tables use all-caps, which is not always the best choice for legibility. In one section, an entire paragraph is written in bold type, which was most likely an accident. In the short adventure that's included, the type faces and sizes vary throughout, making it difficult to read. All of this could be fixed with a standardized layout or a designer to help.

Lastly, there are some organizational issues, such as not having place-holders for the missing classes (I kept searching for them in the book before realizing that they simply were not yet included), or have the Skull Jammer class listed after the Equipment and Hirelings section instead of with the rest of the classes. While this was obviously an unintentional mistake, it did make reading the rules a bit difficult. Some section headers, and ideally more attention paid to simple two-page layouts that don't spill over to the next page, would help a lot in terms of comprehension of the rules.

All that said, those are all issues that could easily be addressed by some tighter editing and layout, and including the missing pieces of the rules which are most likely still in development and will help to fill in the missing pieces.

NEON LORDS OF THE TOXIC WASTELAND

  • Format: 64-page black-and-white with two accent colors PDF
  • Where to Buy: DriveThruRPG
  • Price: Free
  • System: This is an original system; mainly an old-school D&D clone with additional modern rules tacked-on. 
    • This is a relatively rules-light system (no skills or feats) that should be grasped pretty easily by anyone familiar with Original/Basic/1st Edition D&D/AD&D, as well as 3E/3.5/Pathfinder, or 5th Edition. 
  • More Information: There does not appear to be a dedicated website or blog for this product, but the author updates the game's Facebook page pretty regularly. 


Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Dust Bowl Confused Therapist - No Appointment Necessary Imperial India Pale Ale
Listening: "How Long Do I Have to Wait for You?" by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings




2 comments:

  1. Awesome Review! Thanks for the kind words. Just a quick update there has been a editor added to the creative team! Look forward to a better layout and someone able to fix my awful use of the English language.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hope it was helpful - I definitely wanted to make sure that I spent a good amount of time on the review, especially after you kindly sent me a review copy and I kept telling you that I'd get back to you with my thoughts.

      Your English is fine! I suspect, like me, that you might type too fast to try to keep up with your thoughts, and it's very difficult to edit your own work. I make typos and mistakes all the time here on my blog, and I cringe when I see them, but when I'm writing something for "official" publication, I do get someone else to look it over, even if it's just a friend who knows nothing about game mechanics (sometimes that's better, as they tend to read it more in-depth).

      Glad to see you have an editor and are working on the layout - that will make it even better!

      Cheers, and great work!

      Delete

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