Game: Survivor’s Handbook
Series: Darwin’s World 2: d20 Modern
Review Dated: 2nd, September 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 8
Average Score: 8.00
“I do not know what weapons will be used in World War III, but I assure you that World World IV will be fought with stones. “
There. I thought I’d begin with one of my all-time favourite quotes simply because it comes early in the Survivor’s Handbook. This book is the first half of Darwin’s World 2 and the Campaign Guide is the second.
It’s almost poetic. Darwin’s World is heavy on evolution. The world as we know it has been destroyed but mankind struggles on. Mutant kind struggles too The original Darwin’s World came out in PDF.
Since that time we’ve seen revisions, a unified edition and even paperback products. Darwin’s World 2 isn’t just another revision, it takes the game’s core mechanics from D&D d20 to d20 modern. This edition is more than just a translation; the whole game has been restructured.
In keeping with the evolution theme and RPGObject’s impressive record Darwin’s World 2 is being released first in PDF and then on paper, even hardback. The game itself has gone through many evolutionary cycles.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to describe RPGObject‘s record as impressive. They’ve trail-blazed a good deal of the PDF gaming world and were one of the first to make the jump to paper.
Darwin’s World is incredibly well supported on the RPG’s website, in other words; lots of free stuff. The fan support and feedback cycle are great. In fact, check out the competition PDF in the Survivor’s Guide bundle. Send in feedback, typo finds, etc and you might even win a free hardback. Bonus.
The game has benefited hugely from restructuring. Hugely. The original Darwin’s World, for me, was very much about the desperate struggle for survival among the ruins, a struggle hindered by mutants or by the fact that you are a mutant.
Supplements moved quickly to address robots and the inherent super-tech there. The two sub-genres were good individually but disjoint together. Darwin’s World 2 structure provides a tightly focused core – you’re a survivor in the Twisted Earth, and from this stable base the game spreads out with various options.
You can play a Mad Max road warrior style game with deserts and improvised vehicles, an Omega Man game, an Escape from New York-style game, a Zardoz inspired game or even with Morlocks and peaceful homo sapiens ala H.G. Wells. This flexibility doesn’t come at the cost of flavour. Mutants are still crucial to game and so is the legacy of the Ancients.
The d20 modern system is just perfect for Darwin’s World. The basic classes in the system, the fast hero, the tough hero, etc are setting neutral and can be used without fuss. In fact, to be a survivor you’ll need to be smart or strong and probably both.
The Survivor’s Guide introduces the optional post-apocalyptic basic class as one interested in staying alive, finding and working out how to use the stuff the Ancients left. The basic class is added to by picking from a wealth of backgrounds.
Everyone’s human – more or less, often less – but the variety of backgrounds from which survivors can come from is tremendous and has a significant impact on the game. I think the term “survivor” is slightly misleading, it suggests that the apocalypse happened recently, in memory, that these survivors are those who survived the bombs. No. It happened ages ago (hence the term “Ancients”) and these survivors are the distant descendants of those immediate survivors.
Characters could be savages, used to picking through rubble in wasteland cities, they could be from a community trying to live peacefully with nature, from one using the remains of technology, one re-discovering technology and inventing steam engines of their own, from a group of people determined to eradicate technology or even from a sheltered community that’s somehow been protected from the apocalypse’s effects.
There’s more and they combine effectively with a sizable list of occupations. Sample occupations include healer, slaver, slave, military and wanderer. These aren’t perhaps ‘occupations’ in the strictest sense but ways of making do in the Twisted Earth. Combing basic class with this sort of occupation should provide the fundamental mechanics for most post-apocalyptic character concepts.
There are a decent number of advanced classes. These options just about cover the scope of the game but are targeted mainly at the grittier end. You’ve scholars and guardians in addition to your barbarians, road warriors and sisters of the desert. There’s certainly nothing for pilots or engineers.
There might be super-science enclaves in Darwin’s World but even at the advanced character level, the players will be lucky to enjoy them for long.
The WotC official d20 modern Urban Arcana supplement introduced prestige classes to the system. RPGObjects have had a better idea – epic classes.
You can go beyond the advanced class system if you want. It’s here that you’ll find scientists, mutant hunters and warrior monks. That sort of thing. I think the post-apocalyptic genre suits the triple barrel approach very well.
At this point, if we’re reading through the Survivor’s Handbook from start to finish, there’s been no sign of mutants yet. Previously you’d have decided whether you’re playing a vanilla human, a first, second or third generation mutant by now. Fans debated hotly as to whether the generation system worked.
Following the PDF through in its natural flow, we move from epic classes to new and revised skills. As you’d expect Craft and Repair become tremendously important skills in Darwin’s World and so receive a good deal more support.
There’s a new section of Post-Apocalyptic Languages and once more this is an expert touch. Languages are just one of those things some players like to ensure their characters are good at. There’s every reason to avoid “Common” as a handy game affectation in a setting like this one.
Then there were feats – and the people rejoiced. Darwin’s World 2 is not short on feats. There are enough new feats for the RPG to warrant the technologically based ones to be shaved off and put in a section of their own.
Being able to fly a jet fighter in this world isn’t just a set of skills; it’s an impressive feat. Being good at mechanics or medicine is the sort of attribute that warrants feat status too.
It’s here, at the start of chapter two, where the new mutant rules appear. This is a greatly improved system. Mutations are still positive and are still balanced by defects but there’s greater flexibility now. Mutant is a template.
Take it and you have three mutations and three defects. You can take the same mutation twice if you want to be especially “good” at it but that means taking an equally serious double dose of defects. GMs could have players randomly roll up all their mutations and defects, roll from a select list or pick everything by hand.
Choice is always good. The choice isn’t just on how to pick the mutations but in the long list of possible mutations and defects you could have. The styles of the mutations and defects will be familiar to old Darwin’s World players; mutations have that comic book, gamy, feel about them – claws, gamma-ray vision, telepathy, etc. Defects have a pseudo-medical feel – cystic fibrosis, atrophied cerebellum, an undeveloped organ, etc.
Extra wizardly comes into play through the mutation feats. If you want to have fewer defects but still be a mutant – then buy off the differences off with the appropriate feat. If you want to have a whole bunch of extra mutants – buy the feat. If you want to have worked out the best way around a defect or to have worked out a way to benefit even more from your mutation then, yeah, go buy those feats too.
These are the mutation feats. Mutation feats are not to be confused with mutant feats. The latter is a collection of feats that govern those super-normal situations and practises that a mutant might be able to use. A mutant with three arms, for example, might well want to have the mutant multi-weapon fighting feat so she could fight effectively with all three limbs at once. Scary.
I keep on saying that there are “long lists” of occupations, background, classes and feats. Oh, especially feats, lots of feats! But just how long are these lists? By the time you’re finished going through the classes and feats (with just a page or two for skills), you’ve gone through nearly 100 tightly packed PDF pages!
The Survivor’s Guide is just under two-thirds complete at this point. There’s still the Artifacts of the Ancients to come. That’s to say we’ve still got the technology to look at and there’s plenty to see.
The important stuff comes first; observations on the barter economy, how trading works, what sort of thing can be bought and what can’t be. The simplified Wealth system for d20 modern doesn’t really cut it. In Darwin’s World what you have, each individual item, each sharp knife, is really important. Fortunately, Darwin’s World 2 sticks with Corium pieces and doesn’t use Wealth.
What a range of equipment! There’s everything from basic black powder weapons to suits of power armour! Much of the equipment, although individually very rare, really is super-tech; warp-field swords, pain collars and jet packs. In fact, it’s easy to forget you’re reading the -survivor’s- handbook at times and not a sci-fi shopping manual.
It is tempting to print out the PDF and simply not give the players this third of it. I want them to remember it is a game where you hope to find enough food for tomorrow not whether you’ll get your hands on powered assault armour. On the other hand, the chapter serves equally well to remind the players of how far civilization has fallen and what treasures still lurk out there.
GMs won’t be short of interesting items to put into the game.
You wouldn’t want to print the PDF out (let alone letting players see this last third of it) because it would simply destroy your printer. There’s a lower resolution version of the handbook that prints more easily – but even this kinder option is still going to be the toughest task your printer is likely to face.
The PDF publishing industry has grown in leaps and bounds in the last few years. RPGObjects and Darwin’s World have been at the forefront. Darwin’s World 2 is really good.
It isn’t just a really good PDF; it’s a really good RPG. It’s easy to get going with the game and it’s easy to continue through into a campaign and then epic story. There’s just so much choice in the 169-paged product (the detailed appendices in the back are a godsend) that I’m sure anyone remotely interested in the genre will be able to find a character that interests them.
Perhaps the biggest debate for any post-apocalyptic RPG fan is whether to buy this game now or wait for the hardback! It’s fitting that a game with so many choices and options in it that there is even a choice for the format you want to buy it in.
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