STALKER the Scifi Roleplaying Game; a review [long]
This is a review of the STALKER RPG by VILLE VUORELA and published by Burger Games.
I paid for my copy of this game and I have no affiliations with the author or publisher.
STALKER is a game set in our world changed by an alien visitation. They visited here but they didn't visit us. No-one remembers them or even saw them. No-one living. At each site visited a Zone formed, dozens of kilometers across. Within the Zones the commonly accepted rules of physical reality do not apply. They are arbitrary death-zones navigated by trial and error, death or survival. That was thirteen years ago. Walled off and studied from afar by the Institute, conglomerate communities cling to the Zones housing refugees and the changed, tragic human detritus of the brave new world the Zones promise. And each Zone is studded with artifacts. Valuable treasures that navigate a black market from the hand of a Stalker to a corporate research lab, private collector or secret weapons development program. And no STALKER enters the zone alone. They work as teams so they can evade the armed patrols at the border, survive the anomolies that would grind, burn or crush them, retrieve the artifact and reverse the process back to the mundane dangers of exchanging the goods for money.
Have you read `A Roadside Picnic' (ARP) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky? If not, you have missed one of the great works of science fiction. Luckily it can be read online.
It was written 10 years before William Gibson wrote the short stories that lead to Neuromancer, the Sprawl trilogy and the revitalization of science fiction via the future dark of cyberpunk. ARP is on a kind of parallel evolution with the exception that cyberpunk is about the human implications of a world made smaller by information technology and ARP is about a world made bigger by the visitation.
In 1979 the film STALKER was released, screenplay by the brothers Strugatsky. It is somehow very different from ARP whilst perfectly capturing the essence of the zone and the broken desire of those who enter and occasionally escape it.
The game itself has merged into this strangeness. One of the things you will immediately notice on reading ARP is the weird Sovietness of it. It flees recklessly into your brain like a defector across the iron curtain with strange half truths and blatant lies seeking your acceptance and pity. Or like a Stalker into the Zone seeking the impossible discards of fleeting and disinterested Visitors.
The STALKER RPG has an uncanny affinity for this strangeness. It is weird reading. Translated to English from Finnish, it has occasional turns of phrase and sentence structures that seem stifled. Correct but wrong. You will start tabulating them, re-translating parts as they `should have been done' in your mind. Then the hairs will stand on your arms as you realize that you have walked right into the meatgrinder. You are waist deep in the witches jelly and no-one will come for you. The game reads exacly like the book. I am convinced that a STALKER RPG this good could not have been written in English. The strangeness must be subtle to mask great risks because just like the Zone, the game is pocked with exotic treasures that disregard conventions and break common rules if not law.
The greatest flaw in the STALKER RPG is not so much the game but the people who wont play it because it is diceless. Being diceless is one of the aspects of the game that breaks with common rpg convention. The FLOW system lives up to its name giving the gm strong authority to prosecute the Players outcomes. One of the dominant themes of ARP is the human impact of institutional science and engineering. The Zone itself is a treasure trove of artifacts deposited (or disposed of) by a higher intelligence. These artifacts break physical laws by imposing new ones. They don't break science so much as promise a higher science. If you have read Lovecraft and gamed on the fringes of his possibilities, you know one way that this can lead. But ARP and STALKER avoids the entities or gods that disposed of the artifacts and sets its stage in the world that has been changed by their very existence and the implications of removing them from the zone. FLOW is a scientific system in that it has a measurable metric and repeatable method. It is the least arbitrary diceless system I have read whilst reserving the right to be absolute in a way that most dice systems fail. FLOW works for STALKER because it is a surgical tool for a harsh world. The STALKER RPG provides ample information about the Zones. Zone Russia is covered by the film, Zone Canada is covered by the novel so the game focuses on Zone France with Zone Japan lurking in the appendix having infiltrated from the Burger Games website, a worthy resource for anyone interested in the game. It is the better kind of resource because it gives you the tools and structure to do with it whatever you want rather than being a Lonely Planet guide to Zone France.
And this extends into the treatment of the Zone itself. Ample tools for building,locating and populating the zone as you will play it. This part of the book is worth the price for these guides. If you have no interest in this game but want to build better dungeons, magic items, traps, monsters or encounters you can buy a bunch of useless 3 page pdfs or for the same price buy STALKER and start reading at page 112.
Final points on art and flavor text. The art is dark and brooding and completely lacks any heroic depiction. It is perfect for the game. As an aside does anyone think the scientist on p49 looks like the Half Orc in 1st Ed AD&D Players Handbook p18? This is the kind of weirdness that STALKER RPG so casually deploys. The flavor text is evocative and performs the vital role of setting the precedent for why and to a degree how a group of Stalkers will enter the zone and return to the world to peddle their treasures and comprehend the horror of what they have done.
So, in closing, STALKER the film was made just a couple of years before Speilbergs ET and while the second was about experiencing the innocence of the child the first was about experiencing the innocence of the adult. STALKER RPG is a really interesting game. If you dare cross its borders, evade its anomalies and break with convention you will escape with priceless treasure.