Atomic Highway: First Impressions

I had planned on posting session notes from our second Temple of Elemental Evil game tonight, but once again half of my players couldn’t make it so we played a board game instead (Anno 1503, which I recently picked up for $10. I lost.). So instead I thought I would talk about Atomic Highway. I picked a PDF of this game up a couple of weeks ago, mainly because I saw that it is available for free.

As free games go, you can’t go wrong with this one. In fact there is a very good chance that I will try and track down an out-of-print hardcopy of this game if playing it turns out to be as much fun as reading the rules and creating a character. The setting is a sort of post-apocalyptic mash-up, heavily influenced by the Road Warrior movies, with a bit of Fallout sprinkled in for good measure. There are mutants, barter-towns, and a whole host of things to kill or be killed with while travelling through the wasteland.

Character creation is done with a points buy, which I like, with players spending 18 points (at least 1, no more than 5) on 7 attributes: Muscle, Understanding, Tenacity, Appeal, Nimbleness, Toughness, and Senses (MUTANTS, get it?). Health is Muscle + Tenacity + Toughness x 2. All characters start out with a point in some standard skills (Athletics, Brawl, Melee, Notice, Persuade, Shoot, and Stealth). Players then select a rearing and a pursuit for their character. A character’s rearing represents his upbringing and where or under what circumstances he grew up. These are things like Feral, Bartertowner, Tribal, etc.. Pursuits are basically professions, defining what a character does, and are things like Bounty Hunter, Lore Keeper, and Road Warrior. There are seven rearings and seventeen pursuits, allowing for a fairly broad range of character archetypes. There is also a section on creating your own rearings and pursuits if you feel like you need to expand the list. In addition to describing things about your characters background, personality, and motivations, the rearings and pursuits also provide you with some starting equipment options and additional skill points. You also get 4 discretionary skill points with which to flesh out your character. If you decide that you want to be a mutant, you take the “Mutie” flaw and roll a mutation. You can roll more than one mutation if you want, but you have to also roll a random flaw for each additional mutation. If you choose to be a road warrior or one of the other vehicle-centric sort of characters, you are also given an allotment of points with which to build out a starting vehicle for your character.

Making characters was quick and fun; I was really impressed with the elegance and simplicity of the system. The vehicle design is fairly simple as well, with vehicles having their own stats (Muscle, Nimbleness, Toughness, Speed) rated 1 – 5 like characters. Vehicle health is derived from Muscle and Toughness, and there are customization options for armor, weapons, and gear. There are templates for various vehicle types (muscle car, SUV, motorcycle, etc.) that you are then able to customize.

The core mechanic is called the “V-6 Engine,” and it looks nice. The system is D6 based, with characters rolling a pool of dice and each roll of a 6 representing a success. A higher number of successes is necessary the more difficult the task. What sets this system apart from other D6/Dice-Pool systems I’ve seen is the way in which Attributes and Skills interact. A character’s dice pool comes solely from whatever attribute applies to the task, so if you are attempting something requiring agility, you roll a number of dice equal to your Nimbleness attribute. Skill points are then used to modify dice rolls, rather than just adding more dice to the pool. So, for example, if a character is sprinting, he would roll a number of dice equal to his Nimbleness, and then if he has, say, 3 points in athletics, he can add those points to any dice rolls that were not 6s in order to make them 6s, thus generating more successes.

What I really like about this system is that each skill can potentially be paired with different attributes in different situations. For instance, if the character above were involved in a marathon rather than a sprint, where endurance was more of a factor than speed, Toughness would be used with Athletics instead of Nimbleness. This system feels very intuitive and versatile. This system has advantages in combat as well, with some Melee attacks being Muscle based, and others being Nimbleness based, overcoming a complaint that I generally have with Attribute + Skill systems that tend to lump all melee attacks under a Strength type attribute. Also, any skill can be used as a “knowledge” skill by pairing it with an Understanding roll. Keep in mind that I have yet to actually play the game, but the system just feels like it works. Each character also has a pool of “Fortune” that works similar to Plot Points, Fate Points, Karma – basically they allow the character to salvage botched die rolls, change some minor story elements, or pull off really heroic feats. I feel like I’m going to want to tweak the default number of these points, and maybe their refresh rate, depending on how gritty or cinematic I want the game to be, but for now I’m going to just leave it alone and see how it plays.

One more thing I really like about the rulebook: Scavenging Tables. There is a whole section of the rulebook that discusses scavenging in the wasteland, with six pages of tables detailing things you could potentially find in a broad range of ruins. Things ranging from tennis rackets to spark plugs to ammunition to can openers to bottles of shampoo (Seriously, one of my characters had a random roll on these tables as part of his starting gear, and he has 9 bottles of shampoo). This is the sort of thing that fits well in a post-apocalyptic game, and it feels very much like Fallout to me, which isn’t a bad thing. I really like the mix of practical, mundane and (seemingly?) useless items, though for the most part the tables do err on the side of more useful/practical items.

One thing I don’t really care for is the mutations. They feel sort of tacked-on, and don’t really do anything to enhance the flavor that I get from the other sections of the rulebook. There is a whole (also free) supplement, Irradiated Freaks, which is nothing but mutations, so maybe if you wanted to go in that direction with your game you should pick that book up as well. We’re going to use the mutations in our game when it gets underway, just to give the rules a go with their “default settings,” but at this point I don’t feel like they add that much to the system. This is the only bad thing I can see, and it would be incredibly easy to leave the mutations out if you didn’t want them, so it isn’t really that big of a deal. All in all, I’m pretty excited about kicking the tires on this thing soon, and I will let you guys know if barreling down the highway in the last of the V-8 Interceptors is as fun as it looks like it will be.

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