Rorschach’s RPG Review – Fallout: Wasteland Warfare

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I have to caveat this right up-front before we go into the Wasteland Warfare RPG – I’ve never played the Fallout video game in any format. I know the general gist of it and the Vault Boy character, since it hit some cultural ubiquity and unavoidability a while back. But I’ve never played that, nor the miniatures wargame this RPG is based on. So if you’re a big fan of either of those, or the franchise, you may react a bit more favorably to it than me  – keep that in mind as you read. This review is from an RPG mechanics perspective, rather than looking at it as an expansion to Modiphius’ Fallout: Wasteland Warfare catalog and your tabletop Fallout experience.

As always with a new RPG, there’s a period where you flip through the book, skim a bit, and get a general impression of what it reminds you of. Perhaps I was expecting a little Gamma World or Mad Max: Fury Road vibe, but instead I got Champions by way of custom dice mechanics. And a dash of Paranoia.

I have to explain the Champions feel – when I think of the old Champions campaigns we had way back, they were largely skirmish games (i.e. fights) with a thin linkage of RPG material. Fallout falls into the same cxategory, and is pretty honest about being derived from a minis wargame, and a video game shooter RPG before that. The roleplay and story aspects are mainly an excuse to build cool fight scenes.

The world of Fallout is immensely appealing and varied. It’s decidedly tongue-in-cheek and fantastical, where radiation is going to make you a cool mutant instead of make you crap out your stomach lining. Don’t expect realism, except maybe to add some apocalypse horror elements. First up, you’ve got the standard nuclear apocalypse. Then the many varieties of survivors and factions. Zombie types? Check. Evil Government remnants? Check. Brutal Mutant marauders? Check. Smart/subtle mutant marauders? Check. Punk Rock marauders? Check. Killer Robots and helpful Robots? Check. Paramilitary groups, high tech and low? Check. Evil Scientist Enclave who seem really cool at first? Check. Giant scorpions and cockroaches? Check. Evil omnipresent and manipulative but helpful Corporation? Check. Pick you cliché or post-apoc movie reference, its probably here. About the only things I didn’t spot was a talking dog, and anything to do with vehicles (more on that later).

Mechanically, there’s a list of stats you’ll easily understand, but the system takes a bit of struggle to get. On the surface it sounds simple – roll a skill check versus a number. But what to roll and what number, that took a few read-throughs, go-backs, and head scratches to figure out. The layout and sequence is not ideal. All of character generation is laid out before anything on how the game actually plays, there is a risk that you might build a whole deep character, only to realize they don’t function well at all.

Still on character creation, it took me three read-throughs to realize there’s no actual system to generate stats. This, I think, is a reflection that the RPG is an addition or expansion to the tabletop miniatures game rather than a true RPG in and of itself. You pick an Archetype card from a list, and get the stats and skills on the card. That’s it – your stats are whats on the card. Tailoring from there feels minimal – pick some advantages and flaws (here called Gifts and Scars). Add a few more custom skill picks, spend a small amount of XP, and you’re done. This makes for a great system for getting playing fast, as if selecting your PC on the opening screen of a PC game, but not so hot if you like some customized variety. But hey, at least you can play Ghouls, or even a Robot!

The resolution system, when it finally showed up, also took me three read throughs to get it. The idea that it’s a target number skill system was easy to get – what was more difficult was realizing that the stat governing a skill is the base target number, full stop. Being trained in a skill negates a -4 penalty for unskilled, and being more highly trained allows use of different and more Effect dice. And circumstance can apply modifiers to a test target. But there’s no separate “skill ranks” per se, just more effect dice.

Now the dice aspects of the game are unique, which indeed means custom dice. I definitely enjoy some custom dice systems, like the current Star Wars. The Effects dice are 4 varying-colored d12’s, and your skill advancements dictate what kind and how many effects dice to roll. These can offer many ways to interpret a skill check, and many symbols to help the GM come up with a vibrant description what works, what doesn’t and what compilations arise.

What I don’t like is the core die and how you roll it for the actual pass-fail skill check. A custom d20 with numbers 2-10 and a couple of symbols, like an automatic fail asterisk. The check itself is a roll-under system.  I admittedly kinda hate roll-under systems; but doubly so when they use a custom d20, but limit the range to 10 max. That means every modifier is a chance change in 10% increments, and the odds granularity is rather coarse as a result. Oh, and why is roll under bad? Well, for starters, low is good which works against instinct. Since the target # is a stat, that still means high stats are good, but high rolls are bad. And bad modifiers are expressed as a negative, but applied not to the roll, but to the Check value, i.e the stat number. It just feels off when trying to learn, and awkward when playing, especially if coming from a different game that’s almost always a roll-over system.

Another annoyance, though not a full sin, is the custom dice themselves. It’s always annoying that the GM and each player has to specifically buy these custom dice, and usually get several sets in case some are lost. And here you have different colored D12s , each with a different set of symbols to learn, and effects to learn how to apply. I think there’s one whole die to specifically negate armor and defenses even. Maybe they’re more fun in extensive practice, but they just feel (again) awkward to use and read, especially compared to the Star Wars special dice system.

The combat system isn’t enormously innovative beyond the custom dice, though I’ll give it one great mechanic – damage effects through the effects dice and some unique and realistic damage results. They even have a “Arm hurt” and Leg hurt” result set, but without resorting to a crit table. This nicely echoes the Fallout video game experience.

So say you get past the action/combat system, figure out how to make it work, and set up some cool scenarios. Then you get to find treasure right? Here, all objects  and “stuff” are run just like video game pick-ups. Very specific benefits, applying mainly to mechanics, but not a lot of flavor for items. They’re just video game inventory, usable only in very specific ways. While this translates the traditional Fallout video game elements nicely, it makes the role-playing feel…flat.

I can easily see this system working for the right group, playing our their favorite apocalypse genre scenarios, and getting some fun moments in while fighting out the skirmish wargame with the GM. But for me, there’s one apocalypse concept I look for in ANY game in the genre, best summarized by the question “Can I use this to play a Fury Road rpg?”.

Maybe with some creativity or a supplement, but otherwise the answer here is no. The Fallout setting and experience doesn’t lend itself to apocalyptic wasteland dieselpunk. There is a special mechanic and page of rules for Chases, but its overall a little thin. But worse, as far as I can tell, there’s no rules for vehicles at all. For me, I don’t see the point of post-apocalypse fun if I can’t have a Mad Max style chase at some point.

On the plus side, if you like FALLOUT especially, the built-in humor is quite fun. The Vault Boy inserts throughout give the feel of the Computer pronouncements from PARANOIA  – frequently that tone alone is enough to make the game work.

The system does feel good for minis, and the minis made for the line are solid.

It’s not the system for me personally, but if you like your RPG to feel like the video game in execution and advancement, etc, you’ll like the system a lot.  If you want to work out our own FALLOUT stories and scenarios, you’ll have fun with it.