Chapter 1: The Twilight War dives straight in. It's mid-July 2013 and WW3 has been going on for at least three years. Right... and then the explanation of how we got to this point begins. There's a Designer's Note that says the break-point between 'real world' history and theirs is January 2007. While the back history is quite detailed, it is also a deliberately broad story so that individual characters or playing groups can decide which elements are most important for them in shaping their game. However, a recurring theme worldwide is food shortage, mostly caused by political misbehaviour. Mix in natural disasters and logical follow-through from various disputes already smouldering, and it is clear how easy a major war could suck just about everyone in - which, of course, for the purposes of the game it did. There are intriguing sidebars from various observers, including a chilling one from a 'private military contractor,' which add colour to a fairly dry account of the alternate history presented. As the years move on, distrust of foreigners is added to previous rivalries based on ethnicity, religion or political inclination, and several nations descend into chaos, even out-and-out civil war. The flashpoint for outright global conflict comes as France launches a nuclear strike in retaliation for a terrorist attack...
Once you've assimilated all the 'alternate history' backstory - and you need to if you want to understand why the world is in such a mess - Chapter 2: On the Ground 2013 looks at the current situation. While there's been plenty of narrative about who fought whom over what, the detailed orders of battle troop lists and nuclear target designations of previous editions of Twilight: 2000 are nowhere to be found - those who want that kind of detail can make it up for themselves, while it may not be needed at all if the focus of your game will be other than military action conducted almost wargame style. There is, however, a lot of detail about the current state of affairs both political, military and economic, around the world. Including a sidebar on the "English Royal Family" which shows a distinct lack of knowledge of that rather archaic institution! Many nations cease to exist as such, collapsing into a mish-mash of city-states and enclaves, while Switzerland seals itself off completely from everyone else. On 4 July 2013, the President of the United States dissolves the entire framework of Federal government... and this story, your adventures, begin.
While it has taken fully one-fifth of the book to 'set the scene' it is worth it, this is your world but no longer as you know it... while due to the short timescale of the collapse, your characters will be just as aware of the changes, of what's missing, as you are. Now fully briefed on the world your characters are to inhabit, Chapter 3: The Reflex System introduces the rule mechanics that will be used to resolve their stories. The Reflex System is designed for rapid descriptive play, with major number-crunching confined to character creation and maintenance. Depending on the levels of complexity, realism, ease of play and abstraction you prefer, there are three levels of the ruleset for you to choose from, an interesting idea to ensure compatibility between ardent rules-lawyers and those who prefer highly abstracted rules and rarely even roll a die. There's a lot of detail about what is the core of any game mechanic, the task resolution system - pretty straightforwards, but skipping ahead to see how a character is described rules-wise is recommended so you understand the factors that are brought to bear as a task is resolved. Character attributes mostly reflect innate physical and mental abilities, and range from 1-15, allowing a lot of granularity and fine-tuning of a character to suit your concept. To refine these innate abilities, there is also a wide range of skills which a character can acquire, many of which can include specialisations. It's all quite complex, and will require careful study: study that will be rewarded if your aim is to be able to describe an individual very accurately in game terms... there's not much guesswork about what you can and cannot do, it's all clearly laid out for you.
Next, Chapter 4: Survivors actually tackles character creation itself, in a five-stage process that is complex enough that a 'character creation worksheet' is provided to keep everything straight. This is in part due to realistic modelling of how people develop their abilities - you start with a concept, get your starting attributes and skills and then run the character through a 'life path phase' one or more times to reflect his age and experiences in terms of what he knows and can do. This could easily become an absorbing pastime, and it's certainly not the sort of character generation system that allows for quickly knocking out a character and playing him that same evening. It's a nice concept because when you are done you not only know what your character is capable of, you have an outline of his background and maybe even some idea of how events have shaped him into the character he is now. Attribute generation is recommended to be random, with a few added measures should your die rolling be rubbish - this represents the fact that none of us choose what we start with although we get to decide what we make of it... as the character will, with the rest of the process being one of choices rather than randomicity. (A point-build variant is provided for those who prefer more control, however.) Then it's on to the life path phases. There are a vast range of educational, civilian and criminal ones to choose from if you do not fancy the military life, and plenty of those if your character took an active part in the Twilight War (by choice or otherwise) or chose the military as a profession. Phases last for a variable number of years, depending on what you are doing, and as you decide how old your character will be when the game starts, you may undertake as many or as few as you see fit. There is one invariate: your final year is one of the 'Last Year Phases' which reflect what you were doing since the middle of 2012 as the whole world crumbled around your ears. Some optional rules follow, such as hazardous duty rolls if you've been engaging in a risky life path phase, a merits and flaws system and so on. Interestingly, there is much more emphasis on civilian life than previous editions - the survivors are not ALL going to be service personnel after all, and this ruleset allows you to have as detailed - and as capable - a character who never put himself in harm's way on his nation's behalf as you will with a conventional military character. The chapter finishes with some fascinating ideas for fostering teamwork - and giving advantages to those who work well together - in an individualistic bunch like most role-players tend to be.
Chapter 5: Combat doesn't just deal with the mechanics of brawling - most of that's already been covered earlier - it looks at 2 of the most novel attributes I've seen in an RPG: Coolness Under Fire and Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA). Both are a mix of innate ability (bit like real life - I'm sure you know some people who are good in a crisis or emergency and others who are not) and training. OODA is a formalisation of what is a common process not just in combat but in regular life - you see something, work out what is happening, determine an appropriate response and then undertake that action - but it works particularly well in stressful time-limited situations, when you don't have all the time in the world to make up your mind what to do. Hence characters with a good OODA score are going to be more successful in combat. The discussion moves on to look at combat as a process, how it will proceed and how it's modelled using these game mechanics. For those who want precise modelling of combat, extreme realism in terms of sequence and possible actions, there is all the detail that they might possibly want; while it's quite possible to abstract if you would prefer to get through brawls more quickly and concentrate on other events in your game. However, even if you prefer abstracted combat, read this thoroughly as mixed in are all manner of useful points - including a delightful sidebar on how players often claim improbable amounts of cover... get them to show you just how they have taken cover, and use a laser pointer to demonstrate that the cover gives them a lot less protection than they imagine! Passive hazards - things that will harm you but which are not being used with deliberate intent for that purpose - are also covered, and of course, with the chance of injury along come the rules for healing and recovery. Combat in this game is deemed to be most likely conducted with firearms, and the rules are designed so that it comes with a real chance of serious injury if not death - be warned. This is not the system for those who like cinematic gunfights and expect to remain unscathed all the time!
Next is Chapter 6: Maintenance and Survival. This highlights the fact that most of the things we take for granted just are not available any more. Self-reliance is key to ensure survival in this game, weapons or vehicles cannot be sent to a handy repair shop, food is more likely to have been hunted or grown by the characters than bought in a food store. So here are rules governing catching, growing and looting for food, finding water and other basic survival needs which your characters will have to contend with. There's also more extended detail on medical care, infections and disease... along with ways your character might get a disease and some fine symptoms for him to contend with if he does! If that's not enough, there are natural and manmade poisons and radiation around as well. And weather. The chapter rounds off with details of how characters can improve themselves through experience, instruction and self-study.
Chapter 7: Equipment does not just look at what kit is available. By clever use of the Last Year Phase of character generation, each individual can assess what he's likely to have available at the beginning of the game, depending on what he was doing. From this assessment of what he likely had access to, you can then work out what he actually has. It starts off, though, by looking at economic realities of the post-Twilight War world - barter and trade goods will stand you in better stead than the abstract nature of cash. This is followed by a rundown of what is likely to have survived and how it is being used, as well as that thorny problem of encumbrance - characters are likely to need to carry everything that they need themselves, so they must know how much they can carry and how that load affects them. Replete with semi-random tables to pick equipment from and details of what everything is, the chapter ends with sufficient variety in firearms to keep all but the most ardent gun-bunny happy and notes on explosives.
Next Chapter 8: Vehicles and Travel explores the various perils and pitfalls of attempting to get around. There are plenty of hazards, as you'd imagine. Even those who have a vehicle still have to keep it fuelled and working... and will immediately become a target for those envious of their transportation. Everyone else walks, or at best uses animal power to get around. Assuming you are lucky enough to find one, plenty of both civilian and military vehicles are listed, along with comprehensive notes for conducting combat with them. There is a similar wealth of information about beasts of burden, should you be able to obtain a riding or pack animal; this also includes animal training and mounted combat.
Moving on to Chapter 9: Gamemaster's Toolkit. While the whole book is a toolkit for both GM and players, this bit is specifically addressed to the GM. While it is perhaps unlikely that a complete novice to role-playing might pick this up, it certainly might be the first game someone decides to run rather than play, so the chapter opens with some advice aimed at novice GMs... not that more experienced ones will not benefit from the comments herein. Indeed there are many thoughts which, while aimed at a Twilight: 2013 game, are applicable to whatever sort of game you are considering running. Clear evidence of thorough consideration of what makes a role-playing game work well and how to make it happen here, the sort of things any GM or prospective GM will benefit from reading - covering everything from what sort of game to run to how to cope with character death and bringing the replacement in plausibly. Amongst other useful items such as a cut-down generation system for bit-part NPCs, how to run contacts, and a variety of wildlife there is an interesting Renown system to enable characters to develop a reputation - good or bad - and have it work for or against them.
Finally, an Appendix includes a recommended reading list, along with movies, TV and websites; and an assortment of forms and tracking sheets for both players and GMs.
This is a worthy successor to earlier versions of Twilight, keeping the gritty realism and suvival necessities while providing a well-considered ruleset that caters for a variety of play styles, and will accommodate those who are not set upon playing combat veterans as well as those who are!
[5 of 5 Stars!]