For today’s review, we’re going to bring you another new (to us) publisher. We discovered this product trolling Kickstarter, something that seems to be becoming a habit for us, and looking for games that sounded both different from what we had and like something we would want to play one day (something that would go in our to-play queue – which admittedly at this point, is quite long). As we did so, the premise of this game spoke to Joann:
“End Times is a tabletop RPG. In End Times, you are a Survivor. You can switch consciousness with yourself from ten years into the past or ten years into the future. You are haunted by visions of a coming apocalypse and by desperate warnings from your future self that only you can prevent the apocalypse and save the human race.”End Times Kickstarter Page, Varja Enterprises, Brian St. Claire-King
End Times was published under two rulesets. The first version is Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA), a system originally published with the game Apocalypse World and increased in popularity with titles like Dungeon World, Monster of the Week, City of Mist, and Monsterhearts among MANY others. The second ruleset is Varja Enterprises’ own Organic Rule Components (or ORC). It is worth your time to understand the design philosophy that Varja Enterprises is trying to model with this ruleset. It is, by its own admission, a “crunchy” ruleset, one that is math-heavier in character creation and play than many others. Not necessarily a bad thing but one we’ve found limiting in the past. We try to greet each new game with fresh eyes, however, and this one will be no different.
Manufacturing and Production
End Times was fulfilled as a custom offset print run with Lulu. The ORC edition that we received weighs in at 306 pages with a selection of 14 covers to choose from for either edition (the one we selected is shown at the top of this article). The print is excellent quality, with non-glossy pages, but ink that remains fast with no smearing detectible. The binding is excellent, though, perhaps bound a little large for the page count as the back end slops a bit in one’s hand. Outside of that, however, the presentation is clean. The book itself is laid out to be personal notes, probably of the version of the survivor in our “current” time (ie. not 10 years back or 10 years forward). There are many of what are meant to look like hand-written notes or things this individual wishes to remember. These are clean, and do not particularly detract from the understandability of the presentation while adding somewhat to the mood of the book as a whole.
End Times is a game about the end of the world. It is not a fluffy game. It is meant to be gritty, desperate, and deadly. The very beginning of the book is information that is communicated by the future version of a fictional Survivor named Brittany to her present self, discussing some of the core tenets of the game to help her in the things she will be asked to do and she will ask the younger version of her to do. Versions of each survivor exactly ten years apart can temporarily switch places to do things in the past in order to change events so that (hopefully) the apocalypse they are dealing with in their present doesn’t happen. Naturally, there are some consequences to changing the past, and there are people and beings who, for various reasons, want the apocalypse to occur and will actively oppose the characters.
Character creation in the ORC system is based on a point buy. Prior to the mechanical part, the player should come up with some core concepts surrounding who this character is, and there is some discussion of the thought process behind this along with the step-by-step creation of the example character from the first section, Brittany. There is also a section with Character Templates that illustrate how you might create a character that models a certain concept using the character creation rules (attributes/skills to focus on, suggested equipment, and suggested advantages). There are 10 attributes, each of which starts with a value of 10. These can be adjusted up or down, but the total number of starting attribute points cannot be more than 100 and the score in any one attribute must be between 1 and 20.
Then, characters receive 100 Preparation Points (PPs) that can be spent on attributes, skills, money (to buy gear), or advantages. Additional PPs can be gained by sacrificing attributes or taking disadvantages, though obviously one should consider this carefully. The skill and equipment lists are, in a word, extensive. Much more so than any other game I can think of immediately. In an article on their website, Brian St. Claire-King discusses the reason for this:
“Vajra games have ‘crunchy’ character creation. You have to choose your skills from a list instead of making them up, same with equipment. This does make character creation a little bit longer, but there’s an important benefit to doing so. It lets players know what their character can and can’t do within the confines of the game universe. This wouldn’t be necessary if the setting was pure-generic and everyone already knew what was possible in the game universe, or if the game setting and what’s possible is the product of constant negotiation between players and GM but, as I said before, if you’re doing that you don’t need to buy a book.”“ORC: Why is it Crunchy?”, Brian St. Claire-King
The basic mechanic for ORC is a roll of an attribute + a 1d20 roll + any applicable bonuses or detriments (from equipment or situation) v. a target number (between 0 and 40). The key rule for the system is: “What happens is what the GM thinks should happen”. In other words, the rules are for times when the GM doesn’t trust themselves to be impartial and realistic, or when there ought to be an element of chance or uncertainty. ORC is designed for “realism”. What this means is that characters are not reality-bending superheroes, gravity works the way you think it should all the time, bullet physics is a real thing, etc… Characters are typically low-power, everyday people, stuck in really bad situations and trying to do something about it. They may have some advantages other people don’t, but that’s not really all that different from reality anyway. For the most part, those advantages do not grant them “mystical powers” that they can use to lord over NPCs or other PCs. There are 45 pages of rules, and from the looks of it, they are mostly about combat and those situations where the GM might need to include that element of chance or uncertainty.
After that, the next 144 pages are about GMing the apocalypse, detailing both setting with several potential cities listed with some basic information to choose from (or choose the city you live in now and make it personal), and the actual potential apocalypses you might introduce for your players (there are several and they are, honestly, somewhat disturbing). There are 3 pre-written adventures to get you started either playing or at least thinking about how to design your own in a setting like this. In the appendices, there is advice on how to incorporate this setting into other Varja Enterprises settings in order to tell blended stories (somewhat similar to World of Darkness and the way Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Hunter, and other of their product lines “coexist” in the same universe).
As someone who has been thoroughly enamored with more narrative style games, I will admit that I cringed a little at the character creation portion of this game. 10 attributes seems to me to be zoomed in too much on micro distinction and the amount of skill and advantage choices are somewhat bewildering. Enough that my initial reaction was to suggest that I am not going to be playing this particular ruleset. Now, with that said and out of the way, after pondering it a bit longer, I understand the point of doing so, particularly with the equipment and skills. I understand how that gives a clearer definition for players of what is and is not possible in the world presented. That desire is not necessarily a bad thing, and it softened my outlook somewhat.
I will admit that I have not looked through the PbtA version of this game, and do not know if it shares a similar proclivity. What I will say is that the premise behind this game is interesting enough that it makes overlooking the initial “rules crunch” a little easier. When you get to the rules portion, and read “What happens is what the GM thinks should happen” and if you are a GM like me who is not out to screw their players but to tell as powerful a story as I can, that initial “hump” can even possibly be overlooked. Outside of that, as I read, there seemed to me to be a surprisingly large amount of thought that went into this game and its presentation to the players and GMs who would use it. The sheer effort that went into this product, if nothing else, is to be commended.
Ultimately, I am on the fence about this game. It is, to me, a unique spin on an idea whose theme I’ve seen before in games like Fate of Cthulhu. The hyper-focus on the time travel portion of the premise and the logical way it is presented is, in my opinion, it’s biggest positive. The idea that in addition to all of the “adult” and “nastiness” you have to ask your past self to get up to, there is an equal amount of “self-care” that needs to happen as well so that “present you” isn’t a jaded wreck is an interesting take on character development. For now, this will probably sit on my shelf, but with the right group, I can definitely see this one being a very interesting shorter campaign to play. In the meantime, happy gaming!
- Josh Walles