Surviving after World War 3 - a Mephisto review
An alternate history: While in the early 1990s the end of the Cold War and a new era of peace seem within reach, history suddenly takes an unexpected course, and on the threshold of the 21st century the world is in ruins. In 1992, a coup in the disintegrating Soviet Union changes the familiar course of history. When hardliners in Moscow come to power and decide to reabsorb the Baltic states, things escalate under U.S. President West. NATO and the Warsaw Pact clash in Europe, and the conflict escalates to the use of nuclear weapons - even though neither side launches its entire arsenal to completely destroy Earth. With the start of the new millennium, a NATO offensive is supposed to turn the tide finally. But the advance stalls, and the troops are stranded on their own in Poland....
While the first edition of Twilight: 2000 from 1984 projected a futuristic scenario, in the current fourth edition this dark future lies already long in the past from the player's perspective.
The basic setting assumes that the player characters are a squad of NATO soldiers and affiliated persons stranded on their own in ruined Poland. Alternatively, there is a setting taking place in Sweden but similar in terms of the initial situation. The central goal of the game depends on the players: Whether the player characters want to somehow get back home, for example, or simply build a safe haven in the chaos is up to the group.
Unlike other games of the genre, Twilight: 2000 presents a more realistic end-time scenario: there are no mutants and robots like in computer games like Fallout and Wasteland, and no other special powers. The player characters are confronted with much simpler, but thus no less haunting threats: the search for food and fuel, the confrontation with animals and scavengers, and also threats like cold, fire or radiation. Civilization has largely collapsed. Major cities have been razed to the ground, starvation and disease have killed large portions of the population that survived the fighting. Even though vehicles can run on alcohol instead of gasoline, food and fuel are scarce. This situation does not necessarily bring out the best in the survivors, especially when it comes to fighting over remaining resources. In areas such as Sweden and Poland, where the two sides of the conflict have clashed, the situation is particularly dire, and the remnants of troops are in some cases still carrying on the lost war. It is a depressingly dark and dangerous world that will challenge the player characters.
Character creation in Twilight: 2000 offers two options. The faster way offers nine archetypes ranging from Child and Civilian to Officer and Spook. Alternatively, there is the possibility to give the characters a background story by rolling dice with the Life Path System and thus develop the characters step by step. Characters are defined by attributes and skills, which are measured on a scale of A to D. There are specializations to the skills. Still, for the characters, the Big Dream and the moral code are also essential aspects - even if they are more relevant for background and motivation than for game statistics.
The dice system is based on rolling one attribute and one skill together for each test. The values from A to D indicate the dice type: A is a d12, while D is a d6. The dice are checked individually, and a result of 6+ is a success. Results of 10+ even count as two successes. Rolled 1s have no effect at first, but a roll can be forced, and then each 1 means damage or stress.
A large part of the rules revolves around combat, which should ideally be fought on tactical battle maps, which are included in the set. Therefore, the combat rules include effects of terrain, cover, barriers, blast radii, chemical weapons, etc. Characters cannot take much damage before they are incapacitated, however. In addition, if injuries are severe enough, critical wounds are the result, which can mean nasty side effects up to instant death.
As expected for a game with a military background, Twilight: 2000 offers a comprehensive arsenal of weapons from knives to battle tanks for all of the primary armies relevant in the setting (USA, Sweden, Poland and Soviet Union), and it is not at all unlikely that a group of player characters will have an armored vehicle or even tank. While this may make survival easier, obtaining fuel and ammunition and maintenance pose unique problems. And, of course, such a vehicle can become a target for other groups.
Another aspect highlighted by the rules is traveling and exploring the environment, as well as building a base. Here, you can find elements from other Fria Ligan games. Exploring the hex map at the initiative of the players is based on Forbidden Lands and deals with practical aspects such as terrain, weather, loot, and procuring food. If players prefer to built a base rather than being constantly on the move, this base can be upgraded - similar to Vaesen - with various features that provide advantages in the game (but may also attract opponents).
While rules and character creation make up the Player's Manual, the Referee's Manual provides the history and background for World War 3. The focus is on the main scenarios of Poland and Sweden and only roughly touches on the rest of the world. The setting focuses on military operations, troops and unit strengths, and the strategic situation. After a chapter on game-playing, the book presents an arsenal of encounters that can also be randomly drawn with appropriate playing cards. This approach also allows solo play, which is already explained as an option in the manual. These random encounters offer small hooks and are easy to use.
Finally, after introducing the various power groups and their goals, several elaborate scenario locations present a location and its inhabitants more comprehensively with relevant conflicts and events to draw the player characters into the plot. There is a former prison where a new religious community has come together; there is an occupied city where a colonel has built the illusion of the American homeland; and there is a cadet school from which children continue to fight the war. These scenarios perfectly set the stage for the game's moral conflicts and gray areas - and will likely soon confront players with tough decisions.
In addition to the rulebooks, the Core Set includes handouts of military documents, overview maps, battle maps, markers, cards for initiative and encounters. In the digital version, however, this means that you have to print them out yourself, so for fans of such game material, the printed edition is undoubtedly the better option.
In the end, it feels difficult to rate Twilight: 2000. The prejudice that I was dealing with an outdated and militaristic setting was invalidated by the way the game world is presented. Of course, the player characters are skilled in combat and ideally have access to an arsenal of cutting-edge weapons - but this hardware and skills can only solve the game's problems and conflicts to a limited extent. And the military terminologies and lists of troop units are sometimes exhausting to read. The war is lost for all sides, and even when it comes to fighting battles against marauders and other enemies, the human aspects of the war are in the foreground, especially in the scenario locations: the struggle for survival, the search for meaning and perspective, and the spark of hope. Also, the freedom for player characters to choose to explore the environment and pursue the leads that interest them, or alternatively trying to build and hold a base, gives players, in particular, an extreme amount of freedom in an open world. This approach, where the players drive the game, is quite successful. Here, the player characters can build something - but how much that will ultimately bring in the destroyed world remains questionable. And that's the downside: the post-WW3 world is a depressing place, and the chance that things will get better later or somewhere else is missing. This point can also definitely demotivate players.
In terms of mechanics, the system of four levels of values linked to different dice is personally not my cup of tea, even if the need to force rolls more often adds a coherent and challenging element to the game. After all, even if a failure only damages equipment, that may be a hard blow in the world of Twilight: 2000.
For those who aren't scared off by the depressing post doomsday setting and are looking for a challenge in a truly open world in form of the dangers of the post-World War 3 world, Twilight: 2000 offers an immersive setting whose strength is shown in the scenario locations that confront the player characters with moral questions. In this respect, the game provides excellent potential for impressive stories.
It is further noteworthy that Fria Ligan has opened Twilight: 2000 to the Free League Workshop, which allows fans to publish their own products on DriveThruRPG, leading to a growing number of various unofficial expansions.