Southern Reach; Roadside Picnic; Stalker
So I started reading some weird fiction lately – specifically Annihilation and Authority, the first two books of Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy. The Southern Reach is a secret agency that manages expeditions into an area known as Area X. Area X is an uninhabited and abandoned area that nature has begun to reclaim. The third book (Acceptance) doesn’t come out until September, so I’m going to wait until then to review the trilogy.
Some of the features of Area X got me thinking about Tempora Mutantur again, and I started hunting for books with a similar theme. Earlier, I had read about Roadside Picnic, by the Soviet sci-fi authours Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The text of the story is available online, and epub versions are easy to find. I downloaded a copy, and read it through in a day.
I must say I’m still confused about the ending, but the idea of the zones is very compelling. The story inspired the Ukrainian FPS S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and the Finnish diceless RPG Stalker. The latter is of particular interest, as although I’m lukewarm about the whole “diceless” idea, I quickly realized that the minimalist Tempora Mutantur ruleset could be adapted very easily to this setting.
We’ll see if I get inspired enough to do a “Stalker” edit of Tempora Mutantur, but in the meantime I provide the following ratings for Roadside Picnic and the Stalker RPG.
There are better reviews online than what I can write; I will refer you to these for a plot summary. Instead, I will add some of my own observations and thoughts.
The story is very Russian in a way that I can’t quite explain. I easily visualised Red as track-suited Russian thug, and was taken aback when I realised the story was set in Canada. As a Canadian, there was a weird dissonance of not finding any cultural touchpoints to link the story to my own country – it always felt distinctly foreign. In a way, this helped accentuate the strangeness of the Zone. And in the end, the specific location doesn’t matter too much to the story.
Many of the characters and situations are unpleasant. Again; parallels to the russkaya mafiya came to mind. They fit with the overall theme of the story, and aren’t overpoweringly depressing, but caught me off-guard a few times.
I couldn’t figure out the overall message of the book. Since finishing it, I’ve looked up several analyses online, but it’s definitely deeper than it first appears. I suspect I’ll need to come back in a few months and re-read it before I grok it fully.
Although strange, it’s definitely worth your time. In the end, here’s my rating:
Roadside Picnic: ☢☢☢☢◯ (4/5)
Recommendation: Download it, and decide for yourself what you think.
Stalker is an officially-licensed RPG based on Roadside Picnic.
Alright; this RPG is freaking awesome. Originally published in Finnish, the English translation was released in 2012. In some places the translation is uneven; there are strange sentence constructions and unusual turns of phrases. Normally, this would be a detriment – but for some reason I find it really fits the overall strangeness of the zones. (Could still use a final editing pass, though. Spellcheck should have picked up the typos.)
The book is divided into three sections – a Player’s Book, Gamemaster’s Guide, and a sample setting (Zone France). Most of the content is actually setting and background; the game rules are segregated and relatively short. The Stalker RPG uses a diceless system called “Flow”. It comes highly recommended, but I really haven’t read through the details yet. It’s probably great, but not my cup of tea at the moment.
The background really fleshes out the details of the Roadside Picnic world. The in-game conceit is that the “Visitation” occurred thirteen years before now, where “now” is whenever you kick off the game. (As an aside, given that it’s been 13 years it would be interesting to postulate a different timeline where “September 11th” was the Visitation date.) The RPG makes an effort to provide a more realistic framework than the novel of how the Visitation would integrate into the world as we know it. Kind of reminds me of the World of Darkness, in a way.
The Player’s Book is a great resource. To be honest, I’m not going to concentrate on the game rules, so I’ll just say that pages 1 through 46 hit my sweet spot of detail vs. mystery. I have no criticisms whatsoever.
I’m skipping over the rules in the Gamemaster’s section to focus on the genre guide. The only nitpick that I have here is that the charts for anomalies and artefacts might be difficult for a newbie GM to whip up on the fly. I also found the ideas related to stalker mutations to be somewhat weak.
Zone France is a great sandbox setting. Not many complaints here; though a sample introductory adventure would have been nice. The pdf also contains an extra section discussing Zone Japan.
Overall this is an amazing RPG.
Stalker RPG: ☢☢☢☢☢ (5/5)
If I remain inspired, I’d like to make an edit of my Tempora Mutantur rules using this setting.