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I am looking for a game system that will allow me to run a post-apocalyptic setting. I know there are plenty out there, but I'm having a hard time finding the one I want to play. I need a system that is gritty, fast, and simple.

What I'm looking for:

  • Rules-light - I would like a system that can be read in its entirety in one sitting. A system that is more of a skeleton rather than a well-polished machine, and rewards are based off of good role playing rather than who kills the most things. In fact, if the entire core rules for play can be under 50 pages that would be best. This minimal rules excludes equipment and flavor detail.
  • Non-heroic - Players should be mortal. Disease, hunger, blood loss, and bullets stop a person from being useful. Food, medicine, and shelter are scarce - this should be a big deal. I want some sort of foundation for dealing with such situations.
  • Not d20 - I prefer systems that rely on one type of die (i.e. d6 or d10) and have target numbers. I would prefer the system of resolution to be based off of dice.
  • A flexible and fluid combat system - I prefer playing without mats, or having to make precise distance measurements. Sketching out a situation for general understanding is acceptable.
  • Modern setting without anything weird - Weapons, gear, vehicles, etc... would be things we could find in our current and modern era. If there are weird things (such as magic, zombies, and so forth) they should be easily ignored without detriment to the system.

Things that would be a bonus, and greatly appreciated would be a system for customizing gear (such as weapons), and character generation that makes each PC feel unique.

I'm looking to have the PCs working together as a team to survive, find higher ground, and care for one an other. Possibly even establish a new mecca of civilization that works outside the previous forms of society and government. My idea is to have a game where the PCs consist of close friends and family who have survived the initial chaos that would be the result of a global loss of fresh, potable water.

EDIT: A system that is specifically Post-Apocalyptic is not necessary. I am more interested in a system that will allow for the tone and style of play that I am looking for with minimal modifications. If what you are suggesting does not specifically fit with my criteria, please explain how it can be modified to work (either by experience of house rules, or direct links to published modifications).

Something with a narrativist set up that allows for an easy ruling for basically any action or idea that the players come up with is idea. An example of a system that comes very close to what I want is MiniSix, though I am looking for something with a slight bit more structure in regards to how to treat items and equipment, as well as a system for dealing with hunger/dehydration/disease/etc.

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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to the FAQ, the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and our rules for game recommendations. All responses must cite actual experience or reference others' experiences!

    
As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to both the FAQ and the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and on our Meta. In particular, all responses should be based on actual experience or cited references to others' experiences. –  mxyzplk Mar 1 at 12:53
    
What that means, and all the answerers above 200 rep should know this, is that answers below that don't involve someone running an post-apocalyptic game in the mode described are going to get deleted. –  mxyzplk Mar 1 at 12:54
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I have seen some good recommendations, but I feel that I may need to clarify a stronger criteria. Everything that has been suggested up to this point has essentially been 'This would work if you can get over xxx..." and I would rather that not be the case. Look forward to an update on my end soon. –  madrius Mar 2 at 2:18
    
I think the multiple edits of that question make it less clear and invalidate a lof of the answers below, especially especially with post-apo not being the main criteria anymore. –  Cristol.GdM Mar 3 at 21:21

6 Answers 6

up vote 16 down vote accepted

If you're into Narrativist play, you should consider running Apocalypse World or one of its many hacks. It's gritty, fast, simple, sexy, cool, and highly modifiable. Addressing your criteria one by one:

Rules-light - At 300 pages, AW is not in the "short book" category, but the mechanics are extremely simple and most of that text is descriptive (and moody, and highly evocative; it's one of the coolest rulebooks you'll ever read). There are no charts or tables. Instead of Character Sheets, PCs have "Playbooks" (one-page, two-sided, different for each character class). The options and moves for your class are right there in your Playbook. This makes CharGen and action resolution really easy, even for RPG newbies. Most importantly, the MC (that's the GM) is literally instructed NOT TO PREPARE ANYTHING before play. The nature of the world and the characters will all come from creative decisions made by the players and MC during the first session.

Non-heroic - PCs in AW are exceptional, but armed combat is still very deadly (and you can always just beef up your NPCs). AW does not generate mindless zombie-killing adventures; it's a collaborative Storygame with strong emphasis on human relationships and the tenuous nature of social relations in a world of oppressive scarcity. Rather than "hit points", the game uses a "Countdown Clock" metaphor for wounds and healing. This approach allows the MC to be more descriptive than quantitative. The rules also provide for the MC to make her own custom "Countdowns" for things like starvation, diseases, etc.

Not d20 - AW uses 2d6 for all rolls, modified by the relevant Stat. Easy-peasy. A modified roll of 10 or higher represents success, while a roll of 7-9 represents partial success or some sort of complication/blowback/etc. A roll of 6 or lower allows the MC to select a "Hard Move" (which is bad news for the PCs).

A flexible and fluid combat system - Combat, like everything else in AW, is rooted strongly in the group's narrative choices. The game does not require rulers, hex paper, protractors, or charts of any kind. A quick sketch is often useful, but that's as far as you need to go. The basic rule for all sorts of actions in AW is "To do it, do it." This means the player simply describes what they want to do in normal language (not game mechanical terms), the MC decides what stat to use, and a roll of 2d6 (described above) decides the degree of success. The MC then interprets and narrates the fictional result of the roll.

Modern setting without anything weird - As mentioned above, the setting will actually be generated during the first session. Everyone in the group has a chance to create various aspects of the world and what's in it. This is not a sandbox world or a dice-based random encounter system. It is a collaborative exercise in creating a unique fictional narrative, including the setting and the characters who live in it. So there will be no technology in your world that you didn't decide (as a group) to include.

NOTES FROM COMMENTS:

  • The world's psychic maelstrom is a "weird" element, but may be ignored if certain PC classes are excluded, or it could be reskinned as something else such as "the astral plane" or etc.

  • In session one, the group may establish boundaries on contributions, technology, lines/veils, etc. There are many ways to do this, but "consensus with blocking" is the approach I recommend. If anyone blocks an idea, a discussion follows in which the group either modifies that detail until it's no longer problematic, or removes it.

  • AW handles diseases as "countdown clocks" and other types of setbacks would be written as custom moves for Fronts. Example custom rules for dying of thirst: http://apocalypse-world.com/forums/index.php?topic=6718.0

  • Setting up "Fronts" in AW is a sort of "object-oriented" planning. It's building a sandbox without charts and random encounter tables. A Front springs from ideas and themes originally suggested by the players in session one (directly or indirectly). It contains NPCs, locations and all the elements of potential situations, conflicts, logistical problems, moral themes, ethical dilemmas etc. But the MC doesn't plot any particular resolutions for these; they are discovered and resolved in play.

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It is the world's psychic maelstrom that kept me from answering with AW. But how that manifests and how important is is entirely under the control of the group. Excluding the brainer and the hocus, and maybe modifying a few moves for other playbooks could eliminate it almost entirely. Great answer. –  gomad Mar 1 at 10:51
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Yeah, I thought about whether or not I should include a description of the psychic maelstrom. It certainly owns a "weird" tag. But I figured if the players don't want weird stuff in their world, they probably won't be choosing to play Brainers etc anyway. Like you pointed out, it's all up to the group, and the game is super-hackable. In some campaigns the maelstrom is very important, while in others it's hardly ever mentioned at all. –  As If Mar 1 at 11:13
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Apocalypse World is inherently weird; it's not just the psychic maelstrom, but just about any move that requires roll+weird. Stripping the weird out will be unsatisfying. A lot of the weirdness provides information to the players and GM for keeping the game flowing. AW is a fantastic suggestion if you waive the “without anything weird” requirement. –  okeefe Mar 1 at 15:13
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I can't support this answer, and in fact must downvote it (though I love AW), because you can't unilaterally reskin the weirdness out of Apocalypse World without breaking the game's fundamental principles and its GM-Player contract. AW's psychic maelstrom might be non-weird, but no player (including MC) is allowed to determined that beforehand without breaking their role's rules. If you want the engine, recommend the engine, not the game. There is a nice tear-down of the engine for that purpose presented in Simple World by Joe McDaldno. –  SevenSidedDie Mar 1 at 18:59
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Reading through Actual Play reports, AW has a tendency to get weird, because some player will want weird. –  aramis Mar 1 at 19:59

Cyberpunk 2020 came to mind. The setting is 2020 real world. Corporations have more power than states, cyberware is possible. The internet is called "The Matrix". That's it. No freaky magic like ShadowRun. If your setting is post-apocalyptic, pick an apocalypse of your choice to happen.

It's absolutely Rules-light as you can grab the core rulebook and have a go. No need for any extra rules or books. If you house-rule that there is no more internet and no working hospital to be found, you can skip the chapters about Matrix and Cyberware and have about 100 pages.

Even the basic version is Non-heroic Players are regular Joes having a real Job. That's their "starting class" if you want. Originally, they find that doing illegal things net them more than their job, in your scenario they may find that there job is no more. An unarmored person can be killed by a normal pistolshot to the head. Or two to three to the body. Body armour helps. Heavier weapons will counter that. There is no enhanced healing. Taking bullets will send you to intensive care in a hospital for days. Without that... good luck. This does not change by "starting class" as they advance. A pistol shot to the head without wearing a helmet has a good chance to instantly kill anybody no matter how long he played or what job he initially held.

It's not d20, it has it's own system of "Stat + Skill + d10" for checks, where stat and skill each range from 1-10. Most checks are against fixed values, I think only close combat was testing against each other, even shooting was hitting fixed numbers. No dodging bullets or some superhuman feats like that. Don't want to get hit? Don't stand in the open.

It has a flexible and fluid combat system. No grid is neccessary and although we had one from D&D, we never used it. Measurements are rather easy. Most encounters end up inside 20 meters where everything is "normal range". Ranges only come in for snipers or car races.

It's a Modern setting without anything weird if you don't count as weird what the authors in the nineties thought about the 2020s. Cyberware is real, cell phones are not. But only as real as you want it to be as it needs money and a working hospital infrastructure. And if the network is down, there is no use for cellphones anyway.

Cyberpunk 2020 is not an apocalypse game. For example it has no section on radiation, starvation or diseases. But it does have a chapter on drugs and toxins, where you only need to change the names and there is your next worst epidemic. I think it's a very good game to model a post apocalyptic world of today or tomorrow.

Edit:

I have played CB2020 for about 10 years. I have played it normally for example in the middle east, that even by the core rulebook is a radioactive wasteland because they nuked themselves to hell and back in one apocalyptic war and I have played whatever the DMs threw at us. Giant Tsunamis wiping out the west coast, adventures in the desert after the rest of the world restarted their war and got wasted, getting lost in the endless jungles because the big cities went down the drain and poisened themselves with their smog, heck I even played a demon apocalypse campaign because the DM would rather play D&D. Let me say I played my share of "the world went to hell, try to survive" games in this system.

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I use CP2020 in my Post-Apocalyptic world and with minor tweaks it works great. In case someone wants to know more about my setup, houserules etc. get in touch. –  Angelo Fuchs Jul 10 at 8:07

GURPS Lite

Rules-light The entirety of GURPS lite fits on 32 pages. Link to W23 PDF

Non-heroic A typical hit, from a pistol, stands a decent chance of dropping a normal character. Two hits will most probably do so.

Not D20 The only dice needed are D6

Flexible combat setting No battle-maps needed. I don't recall to what extent various combat modifiers from "full GURPS" is available in GURPS Lite, though.

Nothing weird All the weird things would be in add-on books (or in the GURPS Basic books, should you want to go whole hog, probably not needed, though).

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The Basic Roleplaying system (by Chaosium), which is the system that powers Call of Cthulhu.

I've not used it for a post-apoc game myself, but I was about to, had my notes prepped and everything, and several of the published adventures for it and one campaign setting are post-apoc.

Rules-light: Alright, I"ll admit, it is a damn big book. HOWEVER, Most of that book is optional rules you don't need: 3 chapters outlining different optional magic and super power systems, for example. Really, most of what you need, if not all of it, is in the very short quick-start guide. Heck, I'll summarize everything right now; Pick a skill on the players character sheet, assign a penalty or bonus as you see fit, have the player roll d% and try and get under it. Obviously there are also combat rules, but again, they are pretty light if you ignore all the optional tables. If you want a much lighter version of it, go find a pre-5th edition copy of The Call of Cthulhu, the core system hasn't changed since it came out in the 80s.

Non-heroic: You don't get hit points as you get more experienced. In fact, it is unique among games I know in that a) your character grows organically, i.e. the more you use a skill, the more chances it has to get better and b) Characters don't get much better at any one thing as they get more experienced, they get more well rounded. Your chances of increasing a skill are inverse to how good you are at it, so the better you get at any one thing, you just get more well rounded as you do more things. I mean, come on, this is the CALL OF CTHULHU ruleset. Death is damn easy.

Not d20: All checks are d%. The only time you need other dice is damage. Core mechanic is rolling under a skill (i.e. Dodge, Computer Use, Diplomacy, Rifle, Chemistry) or under 5x a stat (i.e. Strength x 5)

A flexible and fluid combat system: It is from the 80s. Guns have ranges at which you get bonuses or penalties, the rest is left for the DM to figure out. There are some 'spot rules' giving guidelines if you are prone and such.

Modern setting without anything weird The core rules book is just rules. It has a range of tech stuff, super powers and such, but these are in optional chapters. The gear section is a bit bare bones, but has clear enough examples that you can make your own things. If you need more gear or such, you can go to the various games based on it (The Call of Cthulhu 1990s setting, Delta Green), but generally I just make stuff up on the fly.

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I think prepping a post-apoc campaign right up to the point of running, even without running, counts as "using" the system enough in the relevant sense. –  SevenSidedDie Mar 27 at 18:23

Twilight 2000 2.2e

While a bit dated, it's still available in PDF on disk from FarFuture.net, or PDF from DTRPG. Not an optimal fit, but pretty good.

Your Checklist:

  • Rules Light - The 283pp rulebook includes a lot of setting material, most of which you probably won't be using. In play, it's medium-light. But it does have wonderful extensions for equipment maintenance and failure.
  • Non-heroic - PC's are typically US Army Soldiers trapped behind the lines at the end of active hostilities... "Good Luck, you're on your own"
  • Not d20 - uses 2 dice types - d6 and d20. Damages in d6's, skill rolls on 1d20.
  • A flexible and fluid combat system - Rules are provided for gridded play, but it can be played more losely.
  • Modern setting without anything weird - the weirdest thing is that you'll need Dark Conspiracy for the broader set of civilian careers.

Some details:

  • Equipment list - well ilustrated, pp 54-131. Most weapons 4 to a page, on photocopiable quarter page "weapon cards" - every one has an illo. Vehicles 2, 3, or 4 to a page, again, on "cards".
    pp 250-253 - price list
    pp 256-261 Weapon reference tables - large, friendly type.
    pp 254-255, 262 - combat reference tables.
  • Time and Travel - 149-155 - includes the maintenance rules.
  • Animal encounters tables include common threat species broken down by continent.
  • "Sample Encounters" - essentially adventure seeds - pp 172-194 - includes about 10 pages of encounter maps at 1/2"=2m grid
  • Combat rules are pages 196-225 - includes rules for vehicle combat, including tanks.

Except for aviation assets and civilian careers, it's got what you're looking for.

Cadillacs and Dinosaurs

The same system, streamlined down, is used for Cadillacs & Dinosaurs, which is about 100 pages, including about 50 pp of setting, but far less gear.

Dark Conspiracy

DC is the same game engine, but adds the funky stuff you don't want. It does, however, include a much wider range of civilian careers, and much less detailed military careers.

And, for what it's worth, The combination of DC & T2K is a pretty solid moderns game.

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I suggest a Cortex system.

  • The basic rules are very simple and flexible. I've seen many a Firefly game run at cons with players who have never seen the Cortex system and the rules do not get in the way.
  • The system doesn't require heroism or superpowers.
  • It uses all types of dice except d20s.
  • I've played multiple campaings in different cortex variants and never felt the need to have a gridded battle mat. On the other hand, all games can benefit from occasional visual aides when things get complicated.
  • The Firefly and BattleStar variants of Cortex are close enough to modern day to fudge. No magic required.
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Per policy, as mentioned under the question, could you please edit this answer to include your experience using Cortex for a gritty post-apocalyptic campaign? This policy is in place to avoiding having everyone weigh in with their favourite games and turning the Q&A process into a popularity contest. –  SevenSidedDie Mar 6 at 17:31

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