Vs. The Wasteland (VsM Engine)
This massive VsM-Engine based game clocks in at 110 pages,1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC,1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a mighty 105 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreon supporters.
It should be noted that the book does feature a location sheet and a character sheet for you to use.
Like the excellent second season of Vs. Stranger Stuff, this game differentiates between Easy, Normal and Hard mode, allowing for pretty solid customization options to modify the game to suit your respective tastes. Player characters are, aptly, called “Survivors” in this game, and the person doing GM duties is the “Dystopian Master” – DM for short. Clever! The book walks you rather well through the process of creating your character. You begin by selecting a name and writing a short biography (a few sentences, tops). Survivors have 5 Attributes: Offense and Defense are self-explanatory. Mental and Physical are the catch-all Attributes used for non-combat skills. Mutations would be number 5, and it is used to account for a wide variety of strange powers.
When creating a new survivor, you assign fixed scores to these Attributes: 5, 3, 3, 2 and 0. A 0 in Mental means you’re braindead, in Phyiscal, it means you’re paralyzed from the neck down – and as such, the 0 should not go there. The book, in a rather neat gesture, does tell novice players. A 0 in Offense or Defense just makes you terrible at that part of combat, while a 0 in Mutation makes you a normal human. This is surprisingly elegant – you pay for strange powers automatically by the distribution of these Attributes. In case you were wondering: Easy Mode has, well, no surprise there, higher Attribute values to distribute, while Hard Mode makes them lower.
All Survivors start the game with the same Health of 10, unless modified by Gimmicks. There are two types of Gimmicks – Good Gimmicks and Bad Gimmicks. You can choose up to 4 Good Gimmicks – but there’s a catch – for each Good Gimmick you choose, you also have to select a Bad Gimmick. In Easy Mode, you btw. get a free Good Gimmick sans the drawback of a Bad Gimmick.
These Gimmicks include, to give you a general idea, drawing an additional card for melee or ranged attacks, increases of an Attribute by 1, being capable of operating civilian or military aircrafts (reducing the penalties) – you get the idea. Nice here: Not all Gimmicks are based on numerical advantages regarding the drawing of cards – we can, for example, find the means to get a kind of 6th sense that warns you of impending danger, which can be rather fun indeed. Similarly, having a friendly mutant deus ex machina out there to save your behind? That may very well be worth biting the bullet for a Bad Gimmick. It should also be noted that quite a few of these feature the (Reward) tag – this designates Gimmicks you can attain over the course of playing the game. Similarly, there are Gimmicks for NPCs and e.g. being versed in Sumo Style actually manages to be mechanically interesting, in spite of the rules-lite nature of the game, with the distance you can shove foes contingent on the type of card you draw and its suit.
To give you an idea of what you have to pay for these Good Gimmicks, let us talk about the Bad Gimmicks as well: Here, we can find allergies (and rest assured, I can vouch for allergies being a real detriment in and out game…), being plain annoying (one card less in social interactions), being afraid of flight, being a drunk, reductions of Attributes, reduced melee attack damage and the like. Being afraid of mutants, having a nemesis, missing a limb – you get the idea.
Now, while you do have control over your Gimmicks, the same doesn’t hold true for Mutations – here, you’re at the mercy of the cards, which makes sense. You draw a card and then consult one of the 4 tables, each of which is associated with a given suit. Drawing aces nets you two powers – unless you’re playing in Hard Mode, when you instead get to choose a power within the card’s suit. In Easy Mode, you get to redraw any Spades-card. The Hearts suit includes claws, being able to project illusory copies, having a force field, being able to mind control targets – basically a whole smattering of X-men-ish tricks. Diamonds and Clubs net you slightly less pronounced powers, like Attribute increases, being immortal (but NOT invulnerable!), having an extra arm, etc. Spades, as per VsM tradition, is bad news – here, you can end up with an antagonistic arm, being susceptible to certain types of energy, etc. However, not all of these suck – you can end up being an anthropomorphic animal, and in one of the most curious options, there is one entry that allows you to teleport the contents of your bowels into another target. Being capable of removing limbs or levitating similarly does not constitute a drawback, so yeah – if you do draw Spades, don’t be too bummed.
Cool about the Mutations – where applicable, the Mutation score obviously governs the potency of the respective abilities, governing e.g. potency or number of uses of the abilities. The core mechanic of the VsM-engine remains untouched: You draw your relevant Attribute in cards, and compare the value of the highest card drawn with a TV – the Target Value. If greater or equal the TV, the task succeeds. Res suits are generally “good”, black suits are generally “bad” regarding their associations. If you btw. really don’t want to play with cards, you’re in luck – the book does offer information for using the game in conjunction with your polyhedral friends (read: dice). Teamwork is very important in the game: When multiple Survivors cooperate on a given task, they draw the highest applicable card allotment, and add +1 per assisting Survivor. Example actions and associated TVs help the DM keep tabs on what values are sensible for a given task. Should you require a bit more differentiation, optional rules for varying degrees of success can be found. As an aside: This is, in spite of its theme, not a grimdark supplement: While definitely on the serious side, the example of “Parkour through a settlement to avoid your ex” made me chuckle. This is not a dry read.
As per usual for VsM-games, movement is handled in a narrative manner, using Physical and Mental, if in doubt. Melee attacks let you draw Offense, using the target’s Defense as TV. For ranged attacks, you instead compare Offense to either the Defense-based TV, or a TV based on range: Very long distances (25’ +) require Ace to hit. Yes, this focuses on thrown weapons and handguns. And yep, there are long-barreled rules – e.g. a proper sniper rifle will have a massive multiplier to range. Simple, elegant. Like it. In case you prefer using battle maps and the like, the book has you btw. covered as well.
If a Survivor hits a target, they draw one card for each card that beat the Defense attribute. Compare the value of the card with the attack’s damage cap; each card equal or below this cap deals 1 Health damage. For the purpose of damage, Aces are considered to be a 1 here. Armor reduces the damage cap of a weapon, and a reduction to 0 or fewer makes impervious to attacks from said weapon. You probably won’t punch out the guy in power armor. Some weapons have a minimum damage value. As in other iterations of VsM-games, we have pain thresholds, 50%, 20% and 10% of the Health – for most characters, this will mean 5 Health equals minor pain, 2 Health moderate pain, and 0 Health extreme pain. Each step reduces all Attributes by a progressive -1. The Diehard Good Gimmick btw. also modifies these values, as represented in a handy table. -1 Health means you’re knocked out, at -2 you’re dead – unless you have Diehard, obviously. Hard Mode has an interesting mechanical tweak here – Health in this iteration means physical health, while Pain tracks basically non-lethal damage. It should be noted that Health is not as easy to regenerate – and pain killers etc. are all covered. If you do want fast healing and video game logic, you can very well have that! Highly modular in its design, the game does provide rules for more “casual” experiences.
Situational modifiers for TVs, optional rules for critical hits – you guessed it at this point: Pretty much every different component herein can be combined to generate your own customized version of Vs. The Wasteland. Equipment lists for clothing, living space, work space, transportations, etc. are provided. Want to track fuel because you enjoyed a certain biker-game in a post-apocalyptic environment? There are rules for that in here. Similarly, we can find a ton of different weapons with damage caps and special features – enough to allow you to make informed design decisions regarding your own designs, from railguns to Fat Mans…and yep, from forcefields to The Bomb to Palm Computers, pre-cataclysm tech may be found.
All the information so far can be found at the front of the book – which is nice, as it allows you to tell players to read until the Dystopian Master chapters and stop there. You see, the game comes with quite an array of different pieces of advice for the DM, for example on how to handle unique rewards, bonus draws and the like. Really cool: Bonus draws may be traded in Hard Mode into an experience point-like resource that allows you to buy new Gimmicks, buy off Bad Gimmicks, etc. Advancement in VsM doesn’t always necessarily equate improvement – you can also end up gaining new Bad Gimmicks. Downtime rules for self-improvement, and we get quick and easy means to resolve “sidequests” – basically components of the game that can be glossed over and be resolved quickly, allowing you to streamline the narrative experience.
Of course, the wasteland can be a frightful place: As such, there are rules for fear challenges, broken bones, burns, plagues, wasteland madness and a ton of environmental hazards: These rules include e.g. acid rain, endurance over time, falling, and e.g. easy to recall rules for food, water and air consumption. Light and radiation, drowning, weather – pretty much whatever you’d want handled, you can find here.
Vehicle rules work as follows: You have a Crew, a Handling penalty that reduces your number of cards drawn, movement, Health, Armor (which reduces the Damage Cap of weapons), weapons, etc. A smattering of vehicles from standard bicycles to tanks may be found.
As far as locations are concerned, the game encourages you using the new sheet and writing up the basics of a locale. Different locations have costs (to hang out there) and rules (how order is maintained); akin to Survivors, locations have Features – these are basically the location’s Bad and Good Gimmick-equivalent. A bunch of suggested sample places within the respective locale can be found, and the book features quite an impressive array of sample NPCs…did I btw. mention the fact that this has horde rules? We obviously also have rules for mutants, which are presented in a cool manner – the “Shelter 23 Survivor’s Notebook”, which is basically the GM’s little VsM-Engine Mutant engine, featuring a whole array of unique abilities. From filth fungi to glow moths, to mist-bound souls, there are quite a few inside. Did I mention the Giant Space Gerbil? There. If you haven’t been sold before, now you have, right? Come on! Giant Space Gerbil! I want one as a pet! And yes, there are robots, a “nightmarish cross of a wasp nest and a vulture-headed scorpion” – and more!
Don’t want to spend time making your starting village/location? Fret not, for Rustville is provided – a fully-fleshed out sample settlement, including stats for the major NPCs. Yes, these include…*drumroll* Raptor Jesus! Told you that this can be genuinely funny! Need more food for your DM-imagination? There are plenty of adventure hooks included, and the book even includes a simple generator to make your own scenarios!
The final 3 pages are devoted to a standard difficulty mode sample scenario that centers on Gravel Road –a work camp, from which your Survivors hopefully manage to escape! Solid, if very narrative-driven introductory scenario, though having a map, patrol routes or the like would have been nice.
Editing and formatting are top-notch on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to a two-column b/w-standard with a serious array of nice b/w-artworks. A few pieces may be familiar to some, but I found quite a few cool artworks I hadn’t seen before. The book comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
Ben Dowell, based on designs by Lucus Palosaari and Rick Hershey, delivers big time here – the only VsM-game that imho can stand up to this gem is Vs. Stranger Stuff Season 2. This massive book allows you to play anything, from Tank Girl to a gritty “The Rain”-like apocalypse sans superpowers to Fallout-like scenarios. No matter what you want to play, be it something akin to The Walking Dead or something goofy, this delivers. The exceedingly modular engine is at one of its strongest iterations ever, allowing for maximum customization of the playing experience. The book sports some genuinely creative ideas, and whether you want to play it for fun, grimdark, or a mixture thereof, this game delivers. It’s also a really fun reading experience that managed to make me chuckle time and again. The addition of mutations also enhances the longevity of the game. What more can you ask for? This is a great little, rules-lite game that delivers what it promises in spades. 5 stars + seal of approval – highly recommended if you’re looking for an easy to grasp, rules-lite RPG that you can teach in minutes!
You can get this inspired, highly-customizable rules-lite post-apocalypse game here on OBS!
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