Name: The Day After Ragnarok (Fate Core Edition)
Publisher: Atomic Overmind Press
Author: Kenneth Hite, Leonard Balsera, Morgan Ellis, Brian Engard, Hal Mangold
Cost: $19.95 USD Print, $12.95 USD PDF, $24.95 USD Print + PDF.
In the interests of full disclosure, let me begin thus: I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. Ever since Craig of the BRC played us a podcast of Kenneth Hite discussing the game, where the aural brainhook phrase ‘Speleo-Herpetology’ climbed inside my ear to nest and lay little idea eggs within its comfortable warmth. Unfortunately we didn’t have easy access to the Savage Worlds system, so we waited for an adaptation. When development of a Fate Core version of the game was added to the Fate Core kickstarter, infamous for its successes and clarity, I was entirely delighted. What I’m reviewing is our PDF copy while we wait for the physical copies to arrive.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What Is The Day After Ragnarok?
The Day After Ragnarok is a pulpy setting that places the apocalypse during World War 2, and then looks at the aftermath. And we’re not talking one of your allegorical apocalypses here: the Nazis summon the Midgard Serpent to trigger the Norse end of the world, following the logic that they would rule the world to come after. America flies a nuke into the gigantic serpent’s eye, killing it – only for the thrashing body, radiation and magical clouds of venom to ruin most of the world. Most of Europe is pulverised beneath the giant body, continental North America is smashed by the tsunami caused by the body landing in the sea and then has to deal with becoming a toxic, mutated wasteland of monsters and horrors. Beyond the so-called Serpent Curtain, Russia expands unchallenged. The Middle East is beneath the snake’s gigantic head and suffers the worst of the changes to come, but all along its length through Europe and Africa venom and horrors leach from the body into the soil. Even so, brave/crazy men and women plumb the depths of the vast corpse for the special properties it contains, assuming they can survive the terrifying alien ecosystems thriving inside the body. (Speleo-Herpetologists: the brave souls who go caving inside a vast snake corpse to see what they can salvage from its ruined remains – and yes, they’re playable characters.)
A central question that the book returns to is: “The world as you know it has ended. What do you do?”
Building Characters for the End of the World and What Happens Next
That question delights me, and I love that the book decides it never needs to settle on one option. Instead, readers are presented with four different campaign types, each of which takes a different angle on that specific theme, along with all of the tools we need to entirely make our own. It’s evocative, focused, and imaginative, including everything from people trying to survive in a new world through to continuing the war as if nothing had happened, or rebuilding a new world from the ashes of the former.
Character Generation is as simple as using the rules from Fate Core (reviewed here) with some new options and variations, including a modified skillset to (mostly) replace ‘Resources’ with ‘Scrounging’ alongside several other new tricks. Day After Ragnarok can live alongside Fate Accelerated Edition (reviewed here) as an example implementation of the Fate Core rules, and it’s clean and clearly explained. (You will need the Fate Core rules to make the Fate version of Day After Ragnarok work, but it’s very affordable at $25 and available pay-what-you want, so that’s hardly a high barrier to entry.)
There are plenty of Extras to reflect a world where magic and mysticism has returned in the wake of the Serpent, along with legends and myths turned flesh and unleashed on creation. PCs can wield magic and miracles, right alongside rogue psionics stolen from the Leningrad Brain Institute, or Ophitech – a field of advanced technology created from studying the weird and fulmsomely dangerous properties of the Midgard Serpent and the things which dwell inside it.
Mechanically speaking these are built the same as superpowers via Stunts from Fate Core (including helpful page reference!) or as Gear via Extras. Gear gets broken up further into Expendable Gear which is single-use until you get an opportunity to restock supplies, or Personalized Gear which modifies a basic piece of equipment with extra tricks, like cars which can trigger James Bond-esque oil slicks.
Weapons are handled in an interesting but succinct fashion: rather than focusing on mechanical differences to do with fiddling bonuses and the like, Day After Ragnarok (Fate Core Edition) plays with the same ‘Aspects Are Always True’ logic of Fate Core. For example, shotguns get a ‘two-invoke advantage’ when used point blank versus any other ranged weapon, and can attack everyone in (small) zones. The entire section on weapons is like that: using Aspects to build a fluid network of contextual advantages.
When we get to Vehicles, we hit some neat implementations of Fate Core rules which could easily propagate back into other settings. It’s really simple: if a target is a bigger Scale than you and/or your weapons, you can’t hurt it. At least, not without creating a relevant Aspect first. Which means your options are to get different gear, or do something exciting like crawling over the wing of the plane bearing Nazis to freedom so you can empty your pistol into the engine. At a bigger scale difference, you’re dealing with targets big enough to have entire scenes set inside – so sabotage schemes practically write themselves.
State of the Ruined World
The setting of Day After Ragnarok manages to be richly detailed and frustratingly shallow in places. The core concept is glorious, and Kenneth Hite does a great job of folding actual people and popular culture of the time into how events play out. Playing ‘spot the reference’ is fantastic fun, such as the internal letter of the British Experimental Ophiurgy Group which makes brief mention of a Wing-Commander Lethbridge-Stewart, and there are many, many others.
The core focus of the setting is to say “What would happen if all the major players in WW2 were eliminated, particularly the Allies?” The UK is buried under a snake and is forced to move the seat of Empire to Australia; America barely survives the toxic tidal wave and the entire eastern half of the continent becomes city-states within monstrous wasteland, if it survives at all. Germany and France are just plain gone. Russia gets picked as the new evil empire, which given the period is hardly out-of-character.
The only issue I have with it is that it provokes questions which are left unanswered because it paints with a very imaginative but also broad brush. Everything east of the Serpent falls to the Soviet Union? Just like that? How can places like Finland have simply fallen, given the history of what happened during the war?
What about the repeated mentions of the Grand Kounty of Birmingham in Alabama, where the Ku Klux Klan has taken full control of the government and is looking to expand its borders?
What about the Speleo-Herpetologists? They’re playable characters, but there’s no exploration of the unique challenges and rewards they face down in the hellish cesspit of the Serpent’s corpse. Given that any right-thinking gamer would jump at the chance to join the brave, lunatic ranks of the snake-spulunkers as soon as they hear about the idea, this seems like a weird gap.
The answer is that the broad brush approach does present generalisations, but they are generalisations which readers are encouraged to explore the depths of in play. This does mean that we need to do the work ourselves. However, I get the impression that the broad brush approach was always intended to go hand-in-hand with “Serpent Scales,” supplemental PDFs released by Atomic Overmind Press to explore and unpack the world.
I guess my angle from the core book is that there’s a lot of richness here to work with, but I was left wanting more. Knowing that the plan is to expand the depth of the available setting information over time does help (“The Lion in Fimbulwinter: Sweden After Ragnarok” was just released this week, and is available in both Savage Worlds and Fate Core flavours), but I think this might have been usefully signposted in the book itself, just to let us know that more was on the way.
Beyond this issue, however, there’s a lot to be pleased with. There’s an approach in the setting information which utterly delights me: the appearance of a series of condensed lists with titles like “Top Five Places To Find a Remote Castle Ruled By a Madman” or “Top Five Places To Be Attacked By Pirates.” It’s an evocative, fun way of getting information across, and provides simple seeds for generating game ideas.
There’s an entire section filled with stats for badguys, citizens and critters of the new world, both normal and strangely changed. Again, this is a great resource for both making Day After Ragnarok games easy to get off the ground, and as something which can be used for other Fate Core games. There are rules for creating Animals Of Unusual Size, and special rules for Swarms which are fantastically elegant and simple enough that I don’t know how to explain them without spoiling them entirely.
The “Adventures in the Serpent’s Shadow” section features an adventure generator designed to make it really easy to get games off the ground. If you want, it’s even possible to use them as a random adventure generator by rolling a d12 for a series of different elements which a GM could then build together into a campaign. Something which pleases me greatly is that the sample campaigns the game provides are explicit examples of this process, so we can see how they were built out of the same elements we’re provided with to work from.
One of the surprises for me was something I’d forgotten was part of the Kickstarter brief: a specific section discussing how to bridge Spirit of the Century and Day After Ragnarok, showing how the old sample heroes from SotC survive (or don’t!) in the days since Serpentfall. It’d be a fantastic and emotionally powerful way of taking anyone’s SotC campaign and reframing it using the new Fate Core rules, and there are great ideas in here which manage to be true to the themes of both games at the same time.
The last section is another collection of random generators for “Encounters in the Poisoned Lands,” this time where players roll varying numbers of Fate dice to see what the players run into in different circumstances. It’s quick, it’s elegant, and again it’d be a great resource for any Fate Core game – particularly when the players have gone somewhere the GM didn’t expect.
This book was worth the wait. It’s punchy and entertaining, and my only complaint is that the book doesn’t explore its own setting as exhaustively as I think it deserves.
If you want to see how the Fate Core rules function as the engine of a full-system adaptation, or just as a way into a fantastic setting all on its own, then check this out.
Setting: A-. Imaginative, complex and interesting, the setting of Day After Ragnarok could keep gaming groups occupied for many years. The only issue I have with it raises so many fascinating questions that the book doesn’t have time to properly answer, making it feel general or shallow in places.
How Easy Is It To Explain The Setting To New Players: A+. Fantastically easy, and the book does a wonderful job of explaining the setting for you, meaning you can print out a few key pages for new players and then everybody is off to the races. Even if the book didn’t do it for you, all you need to do is say “The world ended during the height of World War 2, leaving societies ruined and creatures from legend stalking the world. What are you going to do about it?”
System: A+. If anything, The Day After Ragnarok (Fate Core Edition) helps illustrate how good a system Fate Core already is. The Fate Core book is an engine for making games, and I know some people have trouble in thinking how something so flexible and abstract can work in a specific context. This book is that context, and it really sings.
How Easy Is It To Explain The System To New Players: A+. Brilliant. See the Fate Core review for more detail.
Ease of Character Generation: A. There’s plenty of tools here to go rapidly from concept through execution and into play quickly and interestingly. The sample Extras do a good job of illustrating how they’re going to work in play, so the only possible wrinkle is making sure everyone is on the same page for the kind of game everyone wants to play. Making up new Extras and Gear could also take some dickering, not because of mechanical complexity but precisely because the system for doing so is so open: you’ll need to know what you want as a starting point, just as with Fate Core.
Is Character Generation Safe? : A. There’s a great deal of support for different character types, all of whom have their own contextualised hooks for why they’ll be fun to play. Beyond that, it’s the same process as for Fate Core. As ever, if people want to dig into Gear and Extras, that’s an additional layer of complexity – not because it’s handled in a complex fashion, but because it’s an extra layer of choices to make as part of character generation.
Practicality of Use in Play: NA or A-. I haven’t run a DAR game myself so I can’t speak to it directly. However, the layout and arrangement of information seems on-paper to be clear and intuitive, and the index at the front of the book seems strong and detailed. I’ve only noticed the occasional typo, none of them have been hard to deduce, and where they are present they don’t interfere with critical information. The main area of critique I have is that the book raises a fantastic richness of different styles of game and most are explored brilliantly, but some are left hanging on the vine: speleo-herpetologists being the most obvious example. We can still run those games, but the work – at the moment – will be up to individual GMs.
Ease of Running Sample Adventures: A+. It’s hugely impressive that this book provides so many different engines for creating your own adventures, and I love that the campaigns it provides are illustrations of how to make those engines work. Plus, the world is interesting enough that ideas for adventures are everywhere. (An exploration of one such idea features in Episode 19 of the Big Red Couch: Prior Nerdy Commitments.)
Entertainment Value: A. This is an enjoyable book to read. It has an energetic, interesting voice and is frequently just plain fun.