Friday, 1 March 2013

In Praise of... Twilight: 2000

Twilight: 2000 is an RPG born out of the Cold War. I was born in 1969, and the Cold War started to come into focus for me in the late 70s and early 80s – and I didn’t like it at all. The one thing that really terrified me was the threat of nuclear war. I grew up near a major air base (RNAS Yeovilton) and a principal aviation factory (Westland Helicopters), so I knew that I would be vaporised should the Cold War turn hot. Because of this, life did sometimes feel like there was a lid on it – sure, I carried on with things (going to school, playing RPGs, listening to heavy metal, watching a lot of bad straight-to-video movies, etc), but there was always this nagging sense that somewhere in the background things could get nasty very quickly. Various themes from the time fed into that sense – the Falklands War, the Soviet Army fighting in Afghanistan, the Lebanese War and various other conflicts covered by the news on TV. TV also did much to add to my fears by showing programmes such as Threads...

To this day, watching it still makes me uncomfortable. The US attempt at such scariness, The Day After, was (to my mind, then and now) somehow watered down and almost more like sci-fi. British TV was once very good at creating gritty, stark programmes and I don’t think anyone really topped their output.

I remember reading an issue of White Dwarf at school in 1984 and seeing an advert for Twilight: 2000, deciding then and there to buy it whenever I got the chance. I liked the idea of a game where you had to try and survive after World War III. As with my recent Ebay trawling for Car Wars, I’ve just gotten my hands on a pretty decent copy of Twilight: 2000...

I've included the FFE compendium (top right) as I'm a completist. Note the original game dice.

If you’re not familiar with the game’s back story, there’s an overview here. What follows is an overview of the 1st Edition rules that I’ve played the most – I’ll state here and now that this version does a better job than later reworks. Over the years I’ve read various articles slating it as both a game and a system. Some think that nowadays the game seems ‘unrealistic’ (and this is coming from people who probably don’t use the same critiques for D&D etc), because the world it creates no longer seems plausible. Others think that the system is clunky. I don’t share the view of either point. Firstly, I don’t think people are really judging the game for its ‘What if...?’ value. Like all RPGs, the game works from a certain premise. Sure, real world events overtook the premise of Twilight: 2000, but that doesn’t make it defunct. You could still play it for the story it’s trying to tell. Nowadays, it’s simply a fantasy that has links to certain realities.

As for the game system, one of its strengths is the way it tries to model some quite complex concepts (combat, illness, survival, radiation), and I don’t think that any other RPG has topped the way things were done in Twilight: 2000. Skills are easy enough – your character (some form of military personnel) starts with some, and you can buy others on a point for point basis. As these work around percentile values, there’s nothing difficult about it. These percentages affect the outcome of an action or event, and are modified on the basis of whether they are Easy, Average or Difficult to carry out. This covers anything from riding a horse, to making things, to firing weapons. At the same time, even high level skill values don’t make you some sort of god. Your rolls are always modified by the difficulty of the task at hand, so success isn’t necessarily a given. As the game is strongly based around its combat system, some may feel that it’s a bit complicated. On the surface, this is true – especially so of modelling the effects of rounds striking vehicles. However, some basic familiarity with it soon pays off. If anything, things can happen fast and can be resolved quickly, especially as the game seems more geared towards firefights. You just have to take various factors into account – range, whether you can fire before the other guy, etc. At the same time, combat very much has the potential to be lethal and players who understand this have to think and plan what they want to do, certain in the knowledge that resorting to combat has some stark consequences. Death is somewhat likely, and surviving with wounds isn’t a given. The environment is just as likely to finish you off as a bullet if you get things wrong.

To my mind, this forces players to be a bit more cerebral about combat. The same can’t be said for many RPGs. As I was the referee for our Twilight: 2000 sessions, it was always interesting to see my gang of players trying to figure out consequences before the fact. This was especially so because when playing other RPGs they tended to have a much more cavalier, gung-ho approach of the ‘shoot first...’ variety. On top of all of this, the world setting in the game pitched the players against odds which were never in their favour. They were, after all, trying to survive in a (probably) foreign country that had come off the worst for nuclear exchanges and many years of bloody fighting. As soldiers, no-one was telling them what they should do – the last radio message from their HQ was ‘Good luck. You’re on your own, now’. The game, sensibly, provides no moral compass for what they should do. Because of such factors, it was a challenge to play and referee as an RPG.

We played Twilight: 2000 a great deal. As it was a GDW game, it was strongly supported by reference material and scenarios and these did much to add flavour to the experience. My guys managed to survive quite well over the years. Most of them were from the US infantry (i.e. Rasche, a giant Yiddish-speaking Spec 4, and Markowitz the medic), although we had one or two Warsaw Pact deserters - all being led, in a way, by a British combat engineer. Nomadic for most of the time, they teamed up for a while with a NATO-friendly Polish commander who was trying to rebuild his area of control. They finally managed to rejoin a more organised NATO force, only to then be moved to the Middle East in an effort to secure Iranian oil fields...

I decided to get the FFE compendium of the 1st Edition stuff because it seems to have some interesting extras (i.e. details of the games sales figures, various scenarios) and it’s handy for me to have everything bundled together. At the same time, it’s great to have the actual 1984 issue of the game back in my hands again. It’s actual approach to the subject (and I think this was lost in later editions) is sobre and measured. This is particularly true of the interior artwork, as there’s no attempt at going for clich√©d approaches to the subject matter. One other factor of note is that it features women on the box cover who aren’t in silly poses and are depicted as sensibly as the male figures.
Could it still be played today as an RPG? Well, you may have to explain the Cold War to players born after 1990 – or research it yourself if the same time-frame applies to you. Even if you narrow your approach to the way things were in the 1980s, taking some time to research the period would pay off. To be honest, if you’re more familiar with the idea of ‘The War on Terror’, the idea of the Cold War isn’t all that different – it could be said that the latter is just not as nebulous and as open to interpretation as the former. It would also be possible to abandon the idea of playing in the post-apocalyptic world of the original game and instead use the rules to play in some other setting. There are conflicts, old and new, in which the game system would still work.

One thing to always bear in mind, however, is that is first and foremost a game about survival...

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