Friday, 11 July 2014

A Twilight 2000 retrospective


Twilight 2000 is a game that I don't think I could ever play the way it was written. I simply can't keep the rules in my head, frankly. But it holds a place in my gaming heart simply because of the atmosphere, like nothing else I've ever read.

For those who haven't encountered it before, Twilight 2000 is a (very, very) 1980s RPG set in the closing stages of World War III. The nuclear exchanges happened three years ago, but the war didn't end. Days before the campaign begins, the last major American force-in-being in Europe launched a final offensive into Poland; it failed, and now the team are trapped behind enemy lines in a disintegrating world of marauders, ex-military bandits, Warsaw Pact survivors and worse.

Twilight 2000 is a post apocalyptic game, but it has very little in common with Gamma World or Atomic Highway or my personal favourite Other Dust. There are no mutants, no muscle cars (unless you count Humvees), no monsters that aren't human. In fact, you can't really call it post apocalyptic. The apocalypse is ongoing; it's present apocalyptic. When I first encountered the game I was put off by the procedural setting generation and the procedural encounter systems - now, after exposure to OSR, they fascinate me. 

Twilight 2000 makes Poland into a hex map scattered with villages, each manned by troops or marauders or militia whose attitude to the players might be determined by a dice roll or card draw. People call the game's metaplot implausible - in reality, it's a master-class in creating a sandbox to confront the players with as great a variety of enemies and factions in one place as a "realistic" setting could possibly support. The default campaign assumed the American PCs would be attempting to reach their lines where they might even catch the last ship home. 

There's a kind of drab, dull fading to the setting to the setting which is more apocalyptic than Gamma World, more apocalyptic than Mad Max, ten times more apocalyptic than the heavy metal chainsaw crescendo of Warhammer 40k. The terse tones with which the game describes the collapse of everything creates an atmosphere of inevitability that feels unique to the game. Take this passage from Howling Wilderness, the sourcebook that expanded the game into the USA:

Milgov has managed to retain almost complete control of Oklahoma and its few functional oil fields. The fuel produced by these fields is of major importance to Milgov, and its loss would be catastrophic. By the summer and into the fall of 2001, Milgov troops in Oklahoma will come under increasing pressure from Texan marauders, just as civil unrest over the drought requires the withdrawal of detachments to Colorado for civil control duties. These two factors will combine to destroy the Milgov presence in Oklahoma by December. Because of the importance of the oil fields to Milgov, they cannot be abandoned, the 90th Corps will eventually be destroyed as a fighting unit.

Some would argue this game is depressing. 

My interest in the game was revived by Traveller 2300ad, a game that was technically a sequel. It always bugged me that 2300ad's Earth seems to (mostly) place all the major cities and borders where their pre-war predecessors had been. Howling Wilderness described an ecological situation in which large parts of the North American continent were being denuded of almost all life: there's no way some of those cities are coming back!

That inspired me with a dozen campaign ideas about the rebuilding of the world after the war. Three of them are presented here.

I wrote these campaign ideas before the rest of the post: on reflection they are so different in tone to the usual Twilight 2000 campaign it's almost laughable! (I'm fairly sure the average Twilight 2000 GM in the 1980s would have shot Assata Shakur on sight...)

Twilight 2000 campaigns I will never get to run

Médecins Sans Frontières


The year is 2003. French "peacekeepers" are advancing across the world, remaking fallen nations into new client states and "restoring" the industries of the world by "liberating" remaining industrial equipment for their own factories. As they advance, doctors and medics are following them. All along the Mississippi Delta light float planes deliver doctors into the surviving communities, handing out medicine and seeing to medical emergencies. In many places, these are the first properly equipped, properly trained doctors anyone has seen in years. The players are one of these teams - a motley crew of soldiers, scouts and doctors bringing humanitarian aid to places almost wiped out in the Twilight. A ray of light.

Make no mistake: the French still follow the Trinquier doctrine. Light aircraft fly over unknown communities; if they are shot at, they carry on, marking the target for bombers and covert soldiers in the dark night. If not, they land and deliver guns and medicine to the locals, co-opting them. People want the return of order desperately, they want sane government and trash collection and medicine and soap operas back. Governments who stand against the French and their allies place themselves against civilisation itself.

The team might not be French; they might simply have been equipped by the French to help their communities. They needn't engage with the high politics of soft power projection at all; simply pursuing the adventure of flying a light aircraft into dark places to turn the lights back on. On the other hand, the politics might lay the foundations for high drama: when the team discovers functioning industrial equipment, do they report it to the soldiers following behind? When the local warlord objects to their presence, fearing the vanguard of an advancing Empire here to bring him to justice, how do they respond? 

The Polish Penal Legion

The year is 2003. Poland has been restored. For the marauders and deserters and warlords who tore the country apart for five years, there is one option left: the Auxiliary Legion, where they will survive the worst missions the new order can provide - or die, to the relief of their countrymen and government.

 French "peacekeepers" are pursuing "reconstruction" missions across the world. Resources are being seized. Factories are being rebuilt. Pirate bases and marauder fortresses are being broken asunder in savage assaults by hardbitten Corsican special forces. Les Centurions are restoring the nations of Europe as client states, absorbing the defeated warlord armies in newly established national forces. As they advance, each of the client states has been called upon to provide auxiliary forces for this new "peacemaker's war."

The newly established government of Poland, bloodied in the brutal civil war, isn't especially enthusiastic about sending forces to support distant French operations in Africa, Saudi Arabia, and the east coast of the former United States. On the other hand, it gives them an opportunity to solve another problem...

The war to restore Poland was savage, often fought village by village by small teams of over-armed player characters soldiers little better than marauders themselves. The new government followed the example of Bertrand Du Guesclin back in the 1360s, defeating the numerically superior warlord factions through a combination of trickery, bribery, and the occasional bout of brutal mega-violence. In some cases, they made distasteful deals.

"Baron" Czarny was the worst of the marauders, a blood-drenched maniac who might have seized the nation for himself had he not been repeatedly foiled by inexplicably lucky bands of American soldiers back in 2000. Two years ago, with his back against the wall, he made a deal with the advancing government forces: he'd surrender his command and negotiate with the other warlords in exchange for amnesty and a military position. The government grit their teeth and agreed.

Now he has a colonel's rank and the Polish government has to deal with the thousands of newly unemployed, unemployable former-marauders. When France called for cannon fodder, the problem seemed to solve itself...

Now these former marauders - the detritus of both the Pact and NATO armies, those left behind and those who chose to stay behind when the armies retreated from Poland - are being shipped off to fight new battles. The French are under no illusions about the quality of the soldiers they've been given. These are untrustworthy cannon fodder, fit for the worst, most suicidal missions. In 2000, many of the marauders assumed that their time had come, that the Fimbulwinter had arrived and only the strong would survive. Now they are hated, dispossessed and worst of all, obsolete. Now the soldiers of the Polish Auxiliary Legion's recon section fight to destroy those barbarian dead-enders who don't realise the world has changed, in battles from Quebec to Sarajevo, Jeddah to Jacksonville. Along the way they'll have to survive hardbitten commissars, callous officers, and psychopathic comrades.

Assata's War


The year is 2001. Alarmed by the rise of the New America fascist movement to their north, Cuba equips a force of American exiles and deniable "volunteers" to fight NA at arm's length. The stage is set for a messy guerilla war - can the fighters build the alliances necessary to fight a heavily armed paramilitary army?

Two established canonical facts from Twilight 2000: first, Cuba sat the war out. Second, eugenicist fascists called New America are tearing the former United States asunder. If Cuba survived then so did a number of 1960s radical exiles. If New America are murdering their way through the south, those exiles have every reason to return and lead a resistance. 

Assata Shakur was a Black Panther radical imprisoned after a lethal shoot-out with state troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike. In 1979 she was broken out of prison and escaped to asylum in Cuba; since then New Jersey has issued a $1 million dollar bounty on her head and the State Department has bumped her onto their "most wanted terrorist" list. She also happened to be Tupac's Godmother, named checked in dozens of hip hop tracks. When Cuba covertly arms a force to fight New America, she seems like a natural leader.

Her force of guerrillas will land in Louisiana or Florida and immediately find them in Hobbesean nightmare. NA troops are engaged in mass genocide in communities across the region. Most of the forces available to fight them are poorly armed or disunited. Playing as one of her cadres, the team will travel across the region, training guerillas and building a base of operations. Distasteful alliances and hard compromises will be made. Mao's On Guerilla Warfare, the game...

If she wins and New America are driven out of the south, Shakur will command a new nation. What Milgov and Civgov will think of this new culture, unlike anything else in North America, will likely be determined by the players.