With my study table still cleared off, last night Jennifer sat down with me to play The Road to Ruin, a 1-4 player cooperative scavenger hunt across a zombie-infested cityscape. It’s published by Hero Forge Games.
This little review follows my usual practice of “What’s it about? What’s good about it? What’s bad about it? What’s your recommendation?” learned from Space Gamer magazine in the 80’s.
We have the DriveThruCards version, which comes as a deck of 122 cards; you supply a pawn or other token for each player, and “dice cards” are included. The Hero Forge website lists that version and a Game Crafter one with tokens and dice.
Game prep consists of laying out the 25 location cards facedown in a grid, with a different layout in each of five scenarios. One location card, the “Safe House,” your starting point, is left face up. Then 18 zombie encounter cards and 6 “Supply Items” are shuffled together, with 1 each dealt to the facedown locations. Each player selects one of the Survivors, a few weapons and items are shared among them, and play begins.
Your goal is to find those Supply Items and return them to the Safe House—the Radio Call scenario being an exception, in which you must find the “Lookout” and “Airport” locations, then find and take the “Radio Transceiver” to the first 5 Supply Items to the second. The rest of the zombies go to a facedown encounter deck.
Play time is listed as 30 minutes, though I think Jenny and I took about twice that.
The game marvelously captures the theme of things like, “The Walking Dead”: the desperate search for supplies from locale to locale, encountering zombies, while you’re wounded and low on ammunition. This isn’t a game of heroically killing zombies left and right; it’s about desperate survival.
In part, that ambiance is conveyed by the graphic design and mood text, but the mechanics are what seal the deal.
Items are scarce, and when used, many go out of the game permanently. Hand size is limited. The survivors are fragile. And the zombies don’t go away when defeated. Battle at a locale doesn’t discard the zombie card even if you win, it just means you escaped the fight alive. Losing means you escape wounded. Five wounds and you’re dead.
Moving to a locale takes a turn, battling any zombies there. Scavenging the locale takes another turn, battling those zombies again. And the zombie combat levels range from frightening on some cards to truly brutal on others. There are no easy encounters. Combat is a matter of rolling 2d6 and hoping to match the zombie value, with weapons (if you have one) allowing a die to be rerolled. Sometimes weapons break and go out of the game; some weapons require ammunition. Medical supplies are fleeting.
The rules for all of this are simple enough to fit on 7 playing cards, with 4 of those 14 faces devoted to scenario layouts and conditions.
And to top things off, 2 of the cards are deck organizers, making it easy to keep track of which draw and discard decks are which.
There’s very little to complain about.
I do wish the rules cards were numbered, to keep them organized and easier to reference.
More importantly, I wish the rules were more careful to use capitalized game terms instead of less specific, lowercase one. The most troublesome example being that the term “supply cards” actually refers to “Supply Item” cards. It wasn’t until after playing a scenario and feeling “That was too easy” that I realized the items even had an identifier in the upper right corner, with most of those being merely descriptive, like the game’s flavor text.
And though the two organizer cards are handy, even handier would have been to label the card backs of each deck with its category.
One weirdness about the game is that while it includes a “dice” deck so you don’t need actual dice, it doesn’t seem aware of the strategic way that can change play, if mostly high numbers have been used so far, making it obvious that combat is about to become deadly, or vice versa. A direction to shuffle those cards after each battle would help.
Finally (though it’s hardly worth noting and has no discernable effect), the threat deck actually consists of 26 cards instead of 25.
If you’ve read through this review, it probably means you like zombie games, in which case I predict you’ll enjoy this one a lot.
It’s one of the best I’ve encountered in the genre, fun solo, and even more fun with others.
If you’ve never role-played with a GM oracle, you’re missing out on something. Nothing is quite like a good GM, of course, but neither is a human GM quite like a “solo oracle,” especially when you turn solo into group play.
The trick to oracle play is to ask questions you would of a GM, but mainly in yes/no form.
“Is there a back door to this basement?” Turn a card, “Yes,” or another card might say, “No, but.” Let’s go with the second. “Okay does ‘but’ mean there’s a window?” Turn a card, “Yes, AND.” I’m going to assume “AND” means the window is something I could use as a door, so it must be within reach, and it isn’t locked.
Here’s where the RPG rules kick in. I’ll use my favorite RPG’s Climbing skill to see if I can get up and through that window. Roll the dice, succeed, and now I’m out of the burning building.
But few oracles are just “yes/no.” Most have prompts to answer other questions you might ask a GM. “What do I hear through the door?” Guess I’d better use my rogue’s Listening skill. He succeeds! I turn a couple of cards, pair a couple of random words on them, and decide “faded” and “joyfully” mean some goblin guards are walking away, laughing.
When you’re playing like this in a group of friends, somebody else might have an even more exciting suggestion for what those words mean. The end result is something that feels very much like gaming with an extemporaneous GM. It isn’t open-ended chaos, though, because oracles tend to have mechanisms for generating scenes that follow an unfolding plot to a crescendo just like GM-led play.
Things have come a long way from that AD&D 2e appendix of dungeon mapping I used to use out of desperation when my friends were out of town and I was jonesing to give my wizard PC some play. Check FB for solo role-play groups and you’ll find a wide variety. Or check out professional voice actor Trevor Devall’s YouTube series “Me, Myself, and Die.”
Having played many, many oracles over the past couple of years, the one that edges out the rest for me is GameMaster’s Apprentice. There are simply so many prompts available to choose: from the usual yes/no, to verb/adjective/noun pairings, random character names and virtues/vices, item suggestions, a scatter diagram, sensory snippets like the scent of “hot, melted butter,” and much, much more.
I ain’t gonna lie, other oracles, especially Mythic and Cut Up Solo, have their own uniquenesses that make the choice difficult, but what tipped the scales for me was GMA cards’ random Difficulty number and their “dice wheel” of random dice results.
Pretty much all my solo role-play nowadays, and most of my group play, is with my own Bookmark No HP RPG. And that difficulty number and dice wheel mean I can play in a space too small to roll dice, with just a piece of note paper, or even a text app on my phone (while waiting in the car, or at the doctor’s office).
I like that pairing so much, in fact, that I asked Larcenous Designs, the GMA publisher, if we could offer the two as a bundle on DriveThruRPG. And one of the more awesome things about that it means the Bookmark No HP RPG can be more than just a PDF, it can be a physical playing card. DriveThru can’t print and ship less than a dozen cards at a time, which kept Bookmark from being a physical item. But ordered together as a card with GMA, it works.
To say I’m thrilled is an understatement. ? More news to come.
(Plans change. This post was originally slated as the introduction to a book of The Fantasy Trip essays, now found in issues of Hexagram. Watch for my TFT fencing article in Hexagram #6!)
My game design career started with selling a four-paragraph review to Steve Jackson Games’ Space Gamer magazine. Why Space Gamer instead of TSR’s Dragon? Because I was a Steve Jackson junkie.
In 1981, my game group had dumped AD&D in favor of The Fantasy Trip, at my own instigation. I wanted characters who, no matter how experienced, had good reason to fear wolves in a pack and goblins in a gang, and TFT supplied that. Along with skills instead of classes, and tactics instead of abstract one-minute combat turns. TFT provided a reason to use miniatures for more than just pretty. All that in literally 150 pages instead of literally 472.
I GMed The Fantasy Trip for years to the exclusion of all other RPGs. Our group played TFT long after Metagaming (its publisher) went out of business and TFT went out of print. I scoured hobby stores for supplementary material, photocopied and ringbound every magazine article I could find, bought Gamelords’ The Forest Lords of Dyhad and Warrior-Lords of Darok, and prayed for the two remaining books of that setting to be published. Prayed for anything new to be released.
No exaggeration, I still wake from the occasional nightmare that I’m traveling, stumble across some hobby store in Texas, find an unknown TFT-related title in a bargain bin, and don’t have the cash on me to pay for it.
So when I landed a full-time game design job in my hometown, at Game Designers Workshop (publishers of Traveller), I asked for a special dispensation to launch a non-GDW fanzine, The Fantasy Forum, in my free time.
As I recall, GDW let me run a little ad in their house organ, Challenge magazine, and even let me print out the ’zine on the office copier. And of course I submitted an ad to Space Gamer. Other addicted fans subscribed to this little quarterly. Content submissions soon exceeded the bulk-rate page count. To fit Howard Trump’s solo adventures, I had to print them in 6-point type with 1/8th-inch margins. (In retrospect, I could have published those separately and printed monthly.)
Gen Con 20 in 1987 was my first big convention, and as a brand-new industry pro, I approached Steve Jackson to shake his hand and goob over The Fantasy Trip. When I asked about the prospects of a new printing now that Metagaming was defunct, and Steve told me how much cash Howard Thompson wanted for the title, I gasped, and something inside me died a little bit.
So you can easily imagine my delight when Steve regained the rights in 2017 and launched a Kickstarter shortly thereafter to print a new, deluxe edition. That boxed set now stands in a place of honor on the very top shelf of my RPG collection, right next to the big ringbinder (“liberated” from The Armory) that holds my cherished collection of original TFT material.
And you can imagine my pleasure to be writing this introduction to a collection of essaygs honoring The Fantasy Trip.
Thank you, Steve, for the years of wonderful memories, playing The Fantasy Trip with my friends.