Aftermath! has been almost universally panned as a role-playing game that is simply too hard to play. There are too many rules, too many special conditions, and even the most fundamental activity, such has to resolve player hits and damage takes an unwieldy number of roles to resolve. When I was introduced to Aftermath! simple combat between two players and two enemies would take upwards to two hours to resolve. Usually, it consisted of players firing their weapons or swinging weapons a few times and the enemy doing the same. So basically a two-hour movie completely in bullet time, which is as tedious as it sounds.
Player characters were also fairly complex with a skill list of 80 or so skills, 6 attributes that generated 18 different saving throws, seven talents which governed learning and affected skill choices. Characters were also rather squishy. I used to say, "Even a veteran character could be killed by a punk with a lucky shot from a .22". Combine these elements into one game that is difficult to learn with a cliff-like learning curve and very unforgiving of player combat mistakes that play about as fast as a 10 person miniature tank battle. As a whole, if it were not for the positive elements of the game, it wouldn't be worth even looking at.
Aftermath! did introduce some elements that as a Game Master, I had not seen before in any other game. Keep in mind at the time D&D 3rd was just about it. There were a few other games, I had played, but not many and none were as enthralling as D&D. The first element that Aftermath! introduced was a levelless play system where players did not level up with experience points. The revolutionary idea was that players could increase their skills and their attributes over time, but their base 'hit points' and abilities did not go up with levels. Removing experience points from the game meant that players could no longer 'hack-and-slash' their way to new abilities. The Aftermath system that replaced experience was actually straightforward. Players could increase their character's skills by practicing them during 'downtime' between adventures or by using the skills successfully. Attributes could be increased during downtime. A player that used lockpicking skill often in the game would gain skill points in that skill through using it. Skills that were not used didn't go up unless they increased during 'downtime.' Downtime requirements meant that the player had to find and store food, materials, weapons, and ammo to buy downtime between adventures. In practical terms, the Game Master removed food from their inventory, and they designated skills they would increase, giving themselves the proper amount of points based on the time and other factors. This had many advantages, it gave players a reason to be out in the dangerous world of the Aftermath!. They needed to find food, materials, and a safe place for their next downtime. It was a genuine motivation that every player could understand; it was survival at its core.
The second element of the advancement system that Aftermath! introduced was the reputation system. A character gained a reputation based on their actions in the game. Reputation could be positive or negative in any number of free-form areas. For example, if a character was seen shooting in a firefight and hit very often, they may get a positive reputation as a "good shot." However, if the character missed often, they may get a negative reputation as a "good shot." This added another role-playing avenue since the characters actions in the game could be used to develop their reputation. Were they quick tempered? Were they always looking for a bargain when trading? Players had to carefully consider their actions in the game because their actions would be reflected in their reputations. They also had to cultivate their reputation to maximize its effectiveness. If the party were jumped by 3 bandits and killed them quickly in the wilderness without any witnesses, that would have no effect on their reputation because no one knew about it. They would need to either leave one of the bandits alive to tell the story or tell some NPC a believable story when they were in a town. Players needed to both carefully consider their actions and cultivate those actions which they wanted to gain a positive reputation.
This also acted as an excellent feedback system for players. Unlike D&D where a player might be Lawful Good by definition, in the Aftermath! if a player wanted to be considered Good, they would need to cultivate their Good actions and not commit evil acts. When characters had a bad reputation in Aftermath!, NPCs would be unwilling to trade with them, would actively avoid them and live in a difficult game became much more difficult. If a player wanted to play murderhobo style of gameplay, then their reputation would quickly make it impossible to find anyone to help them in 'downtime.' Having teachers in downtime could increase a characters skill gains by a factor of 4! This gave the player a clearly defined reason to be more reasonable in dealing with NPCs. While no player expected to be friendly, they were expected to build alliances with NPCs as part of their role-playing, often by completing quests for the NPC.
The third element that made Aftermath! worth paying was a combination of the skill and reputation system. Because increasing skills and attributes didn't make the characters much more powerful, the only possible way to become more powerful was through gear. A more powerful gun and better armor went a long way to increase a character's survivability. The different been the "hit points" of a veteran character and a new character was at most about 20%. A character would be a better shot, have better armor and medical supplies, but overall, they never moved to a higher class of "monster." The same monsters they fought on day one would be very close to the monsters they fought after many weeks of play. This added an element of danger to the game, since unlike D&D, that monster that took everything they had to kill on day one, takes just about everything they have once they become veterans. Players never felt that they were overpowered for a specific enemy. Superior firepower and combat tactics were the keys to victory each time. This also helped deemphasize combat as a way to advance characters. Since in D&D, it was the almost the sole method of advancement, this was a refreshing change.
This also added another negative element to gameplay. Since characters were never overpowered, there was always a chance that a character would meet an unfortunate accident and die as the result of player or game master actions. It was widespread for a new player to end up with a dead character by the end of their first session. The average D&D player would run their character into combat and hack-and-slash their way to victory, in the Aftermath! that often meant a quick death. Veteran players knew to hide behind objects while shooting, to limit their exposure to different enemies by controlling the lines-of-sight and to limit their targeting to enemies they knew they would have a high chance of success with, it usually took a bit for new players to grasp those ideas after playing other less intense games. The second negative from the player point of view was the time it took to create a well thought out character. On average, it took about 4 hours to create a character for the first time. The enormous amount of skills and the fact that there was very little randomness in the character creation process meant that a new player would have a steep learning curve when creating their first character.
The character process started the allocation of their ability and talent points. With a random addition of up to 5% more points to be allocated. No random roles for attributes meant that characters could be allocated any way the player wanted. Unlike D&D where the ability scores were random, in Aftermath! each was determined by the player. Each attribute has a level called an Attribute Group. This was overly important because an attribute of 24 was significantly less powerful than an attribute of 25 due to 25 being in the next group. Realistically, there was little difference in most attributes between 16 and 24, except for the effect on saving throws, and many attribute saving throws were never used in gameplay. As it turned out, there was a sweet point for speed and dexterity that greatly affected combat effectiveness. If speed were too high in relation to dexterity, a player would be saddled with being able to act first, but each action taking very long in combat. For veteran players, this could mean that one player would be able to do one or even two combat actions in the time it took for a 'faster' player to take one! That meant that while two players opened fire in DAT (Detailed Action Time), very much like bullet time, one player may get one shot, may start a second shot, while the other player stands frozen in time, then suddenly that player would be able to fire three shots very quickly. These types of consideration added to the players need to understand their decisions in character creation, mean that a player arrives at their first session with a character that they have a lot invested in. Since more times than not, that player will watch that character die in that first session, the Aftermath! the learning curve can be crushing. We learned to give new players disposable characters for the first few sessions to avoid the inevitable.
Yet another issue is that the game has six attributes and seven talents, but these are not well distributed through the skill list. Some attributes and some talents are used very often, some are rarely used. Since all characters in Aftermath! need to have some combat abilities, the combative talent becomes the most important along with the two combat-related attributes Wit and Dexterity. Raising Natural talent has minimal effect on the character's skills and almost zero use in the game. However, there are a few Natural talent based skills, that gain greatly from Natural talent, so a player needs to choose attributes and talents based on their skill choices. That often meant going back and adjusting attributes and talents and recalculating skill point. For a new player, this bordered on some sort of mathematical level of hell. Once the new player got past the character creation nightmare, they were introduced to the die rolling nightmare of combat. Each hit resolution could require three or four roles, two chart lookups and a bit of math to determine hits and damage. These roles couldn't just be made, there were several steps in between, often chart lookups and then armor value determinations, which again, weren't the simple addition, there was a formula. The combat hit resolution chart looked like a computer program flowchart and required two pages of if/then determinations and calculations. This chart may be found online as the Aftermath! "Combat Procedure Flowchart." It is almost laughable in its size.
So with all of these negatives, it would seem that Aftermath! was a great idea that simply was an unplayable nightmare. Unfortunately, it had many elements that I felt made it far better than the D&D standard as we knew it in 1982. I was determined to learn how to play this game effectively, and in 1983, the solution presented itself with the invention of the personal computer. I realized that many of the issues with the game were procedural, the activity of rolling hits and damage simply took too long to hold players attention. The personal computer could be used to do much of this number crunching and random rolling making Aftermath! a hybrid computer game and pen-and-paper role-playing game. Once we introduced the Apple ][e computer to the mix, the game picked up speed and became something far better than anyone anticipated. Player was able to create characters in about 20 minutes and was able to tweak those characters any number of times to maximize their skill scores. Hit roles were reduced to one BCS (Base Chance of Success) calculation and roll, having the computer do the remaining calculations. Things that were impossible to roll and calculate because of time constraints, such as spraying a room full of enemies with bullets, were now simple to calculate. Freed from the crushing constraints of the math and multiple roles, table lookups, and such, players found the remaining elements were simply the role-playing elements like building reputation and game master created adventure. Combat could also be resolved very quickly, wasting very little game time. No longer was Aftermath! a three-hour session of two guys fighting two enemies with broken bottles and knives. Combat was greatly deemphasized and no longer hogged the majority of game time.
The result was levelless gameplay that revolved around role-playing. It is possible to play a whole session of Aftermath! and never have the characters get into combat. Due to the violent and often fatal nature of Aftermath! combat, players often opt out of combat if there is a chance they could lose the fight, just like the players would act in real life.
This brings up the NPC types, which are somewhat like enemy levels in other games. In Aftermath!, there are several types of enemy NPCs that a player may encounter. Many characters can 'gauge' enemies to determine their 'level.' At the lowest level, NPC "Extras" are very easy to overcome with inferior equipment and weapons and very low DRT (Damage Resistance Total), basically hit points. These opponents allow the players to fight with a low level of danger. A player can easily overcome Extras, while this might seem like Over Powered players wiping out helpless enemies, even extras require proper tactics and successful skill roles to overwhelm. As I wrote earlier, any player character can be killed by an Extra, given some good luck or bad tactics on the player's part.
The next level is Rabble, they are better armed, often with weapons and armor and have a higher DRT. In small numbers, Rabble is not overly difficult to fight. Above Rabble, are the Average. Average are basically have the same skills, armor, and weapons as a starting player. As can be imagined, fighting Average enemies is far more risky for players since they are in many ways their equals. Expecting to be fighting Extras or Rabble and ending up fighting Average NPCs can be a deadly mistake for a player character. This is where gameplay becomes extremely critical for players. The one area where NPCs are inferior to players is in the gameplay tactics. Where players can employ complex tactics and coordination during attack and defense, Average and below NPCs rarely employ tactical sense. By design, the Game Master plays these NPCs with poor tactics, again allowing the players to overcome these enemies if they use a smart strategy and superior firepower. The top levels of NPC are Superior and Elite. Both have the player quality equipment and arms and often can employ player level tactics in combat. This makes them extremely dangerous for player characters to engage in combat. Players have to learn to evaluate enemies to prevent accidentally engaging Superior or Elite enemies. Of course, with excellent tactics, cover and the element of surprise, even Elite enemies can be dispatched.
The one unrealistic element of Aftermath! and the element that makes fighting these difficult enemies possible is the introduction of healing. Healing drugs that are administered by characters with First Aid or Advanced Medical skill can prevent a character from dying. More advanced drugs administered by doctors can revive some fatally wounded characters if done quickly when wounds are not overwhelming. In Aftermath!, characters wounded fatally in combat don't die right away, it takes some time for that to happen. During that time, it is possible to save them through the use of healing drugs. This element is unrealistic, but how fun would a game be if each time a character was shot, they needed three for four months to recuperate? Using healing in combat is difficult, so often healing a comrade who has fallen isn't often possible, until after the combat since it would require a character to disengage and spent a large amount of combat time moving to and aiding the fallen comrade. It is often better to dispatch the enemy, then heal.
With the assistance of a computer/website, Aftermath! opens up to a role-playing environment that is very heavy into role-playing and character development is almost solely rooted in role-playing where player actions mold the character. Combat isn't a way to advance characters or increase power, so players view it as a risk. Sometimes a risk worth taking if there is some reward involved, such as better gear or achievement some Game Master created quest type goal. Since Aftermath! is an open world, players are free to go in whatever direction they wish with their characters. Role-playing elements are added by the Game Master that the players can utilize in their gameplay, friends or enemies, quests or adventures that allow freedom from the hack-and-slash type adventures that were so common in 1982 when the game was developed.
In games that I have Game Mastered players have gone from extremes of being very feared killers in one game and much-loved world builders in another, depending on the environment and resources available to them in the game. In one extreme example, a player whose character was so feared that merchants often would close up shop if they heard he was coming to town, bars would empty when he walked in, and NPCs came from far and wide to avenge the death of a loved one. The next week, as a new adventure started, his new character was building a reputation as a helpful, kind, world-building character who eventually becomes one of the most respected characters in the area. His character was known for removing bandits, helping towns and setting up a network of trading posts. The player said he found both characters equally rewarding. The Aftermath! environment leads to heavy role-playing opportunities for players and players often consider what effect their actions will have on their character's reputation. New players are often surprised by the reputation their characters develop when the results of their actions in the game start to mold their character's reputation. "Buck is known as a killer?" "So, generally, NPCs think my character can't hit anything right in front of them with a pistol?" "Not fair! My character only fell down a couple of times!"
The program I developed to play Aftermath! is available online at i314.org if anyone is interested, as web-based game aid. This website mimics the original BASIC program I created in 1983-1984 to play Aftermath! with friends. I think it opens Aftermath! up as a viable D20 role-playing game, eliminating much of the time it takes to calculate combat results and roll up characters.
Originally posted on Reddit.