This is the twelfth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the
1704 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,175,279.81 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
a GM-optional tabletop roleplaying game
Ha, take that, GM! How does it feel to be optional?
This is actually the fourth tabletop role-playing game I’ve covered in the Scratching That Itch series. For those keeping track, the others were Black Heart, Visigoths vs. Mall Goths, and The Sword and the Loves, and as was the case with those games, I can’t actually play As the World Ends… because it requires at least three players. I am, lamentably, limited to providing my impressions after reading the book.
Well, I say “book”, but As the World Ends… actually has the most concise set of rules and directions of the lot. It all fits on just two pages. Inspired by the Korean film Train to Busan, which I have not seen but would now like to, As the World Ends… casts players as survivors of some manner of apocalypse, attempting to travel to a location rumored to be safe. All of the details — what the apocalypse is and how it spreads, who the characters are, where they start, where they are trying to go — are determined by the players before play begins. Rules are simple, with the focus very much on acting out scenes together and collectively telling a story. The introductory paragraph warns players that the game probably won’t end well, but that it offers a chance to explore things that we don’t explore often: sadness, regrets, hope, the reasons we keep going. It’s designed to get emotional.
What struck me about the ruleset is its focus on sacrifice. While playing through scenes, any challenges that arise are faced with a roll of two six-sided dice, and the closest thing to traditional role-playing mechanics here are each character’s special skill, which can be used once per scene to provide a +1 bonus to a roll if applicable (being a smooth talker won’t help escape a collapsing building, for example). But that’s not much of a bonus. Each character’s special physical items are more useful. These are unusual items unique to each character, and using them provides a +2 bonus to a roll, but they can only be used once per game. They must be sacrificed. Similarly, each character has a special connection or memory, something with sentimental value to them, which can be used for a +1 bonus each scene or sacrificed for a big +3 bonus, after which point it cannot be used again. Lastly, and most importantly, characters can sacrifice themselves. This is always a character’s choice, letting them narrate their Final Moments as they give their lives to help the others survive. Doing so gives a huge +5 bonus to all other characters, and I got the sense that setting up situations where players could sacrifice their characters in dramatic fashion is one of the points of the game. Do you do it to help your teammates? For someone else, who isn’t here but who may survive thanks to your actions? For redemption, to absolve yourself of some past regret? There’s a reason that self-sacrifice is a common trope. It provides a rich space for storytelling.
As the World Ends… does not give too much guidance for the scenes themselves. The game is spread across five acts, with some notes about what the focus of each act should be, and some prompts to help players set up the background story. But there no instructions for how players should construct and play out scenes. That’s up to the players, and as such I think it would be a tough game for a new and inexperienced group. If players aren’t comfortable coming up with scenes on their own, they may wish to recruit that optional GM to help them out.
The apocalyptic setting of As the World Ends… does seem particularly resonant right now. The world is reeling from a pandemic that most societies were completely unequipped to handle, and for many this has been a revelatory experience as it became clear who these societies actually support (hint: it’s rich people, at the expense of the rest). Then, the brutal structures of centuries-old systemic racism in these same societies were laid bare. For some, that was another ugly revelation, leading to the feeling that the world they knew — that they thought they knew — is gone, replaced by something worse. For others, however, it was no revelation at all, but merely an admission of the injustice that they have had to live with for generations. I’m reminded of a quote I saw somewhere on social media, secondhand, discussing dystopian fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale. It said that the whole genre is essentially white people asking “but what if this stuff happened to us?” The protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale is enslaved and forced to bear children against her will. Black women suffered the same thing in America, for centuries. It’s not fiction unless it’s happening to white people.
But the apocalypse of As the World Ends… is whatever you want it to be. It can reflect your everyday experience in an unjust world, or it can be the sudden and painful realization that the world you used to live in is gone forever. Or it can be something else entirely. Whatever form it takes, the game is about finding a way to persevere, finding hope when all seems hopeless. It’s about getting through, together. That’s where I get my hope from: the belief that people want to help each other, and when faced with true injustice and true calamity they will come together and build a better world.
Not bad, for two pages.
That’s 12 down, and only
1692 1729 to go.