Level One Wonk: Legacy: Life Among the Ruins

Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. Today, we look at a game that not only had the audacity to be a PbtA post-apocalyptic game, but also provides a way to play a long-running campaign with a PbtA system. Legacy: Life Among the Ruins provides a great twist on the system and the genre, and is Kickstarting a second edition now! Check it out.

It takes a lot of guts to create a post-apocalyptic PbtA game. “Powered by the Apocalypse” is named for Apocalypse World after all, one of the best post-apocalyptic games in years. Despite having a hard act to follow, Legacy: Life Among the Ruins made a name for itself when it came out in 2015. What makes Legacy work is that it takes a completely different approach to the genre, and in doing so offers up a neat solution to one of the limitations of PbtA, the length of character arcs. The design clearly struck a chord, as the second edition of Legacy is being Kickstarted as we speak and has already funded with a comfortable surplus.

What makes Legacy different from Apocalypse World is how it approaches the future. The tagline for Apocalypse World is “something’s wrong with the world and I don’t know what it is.” That game focuses on surviving an unforgiving world and clinging to what makes you human, even while being forced to do inhuman things to get ahead. Legacy, as the name may suggest, focuses on the future and rebuilding the world. The neat trick here is that both games acknowledge the futility of trying to rebuild civilization in one lifetime, as just one person.

In Legacy, the abilities which are derived from your playbook are split into two selections. This is a choice more PbtA games have started to make, and I find it works well when each of the two selections have a point. The two most popular iterations of this are either choosing a character type and a group you’re affiliated with, or a character type and a mechanical component to that character, like a vehicle. Legacy uses the former structure, so in addition to choosing your character type you choose a “family”. The families are groups which all have their own worldviews and opinions about how the world should look, which as you’ll see is quite important. These groups are implied to be influential to other families in the world, which is modeled by “Treaty”, a similar construct to “Debts” in Urban Shadows or “Giri” in The Veil.

Families present a concrete use of Apocalypse World’s “surplus” and “want” tags, much like how The Sprawl presented a concrete use of the clock mechanics. A character’s family surpluses and wants help define who the family is and what they are attempting to gain. While both Legacy and Apocalypse World present the challenges defined by a “want”, Legacy did a bit more with what a “surplus” entails. Both systems use them as descriptive tags, and Legacy also allows you to spend surplus in order to use family moves and abilities. The tags also end up meaning more, as family ends up being as or more important to a player than their character.

What makes Legacy quite different is what happens as characters reach the end of their progression arc. Most PbtA games have a finite number of advances you can take, though some of the high-level advances can be taken multiple times. In Legacy, each character has seven advances, and after that you’re done. Instead of retiring a character or writing a second one, though, the arc typically ends at that point. There is some role-play at the end, but the important part of your character’s life is over. When the arc (or “Age”) ends, though, you roll to see how your family is doing. And then you create new characters for the next generation, often descendants of the first set of characters. All the things the first characters did? Still there. Are there long-term consequences? You bet. Have things been rebuilt yet? Not a chance.

What’s great about this is that it provides an answer to several questions posed by the end-game progression in many PbtA systems. Legacy doesn’t provide the only answer (the “seasons” mechanic in Monsterhearts is another I like), but it does drill down and answer another more philosophical question brought up by the typical PbtA endgame: “why should I make a whole new character?” With the family connection now codified, there is a logical campaign format which still integrates with Apocalypse World’s original paradigm of either changing characters or dramatically altering your character every ten or so sessions. It also provides an interesting answer to the question “what story can I only effectively tell over months or years of play?”

Increasingly, games are codifying a sense of history. One of the strangest things about D&D, going all the way back to the first edition of AD&D at least, was how quickly characters were ostensibly gaining their power. Games like Torchbearer added a bit more calendar awareness, while Legacy has gone an extra step and made the epic tasks that typical adventuring characters are saddled with only doable over literal generations. I personally appreciate this greatly, though it is a different approach to a long-running campaign and one that may not necessarily resonate with everyone. Legacy takes some minor cues from Microscope, a game of building timelines and histories. The, ahem, legacy created in Legacy is one of a long history as opposed to one character. That may not appeal to all gamers. All gamers or no, Legacy has built up a fanbase and the game’s (I’ve got to stop doing this) legacy will continue.

The Kickstarter for Legacy: Life Among the Ruins second edition is going on now, but will end on Thursday, August 24th. If you pledge now you not only can get the base game, but also some really neat alternative settings. I personally have been trying to run a generation ship game for a long time, and this system may be just the one to do it with. You also get copies of the first edition books, so you don’t have to wait until the second edition is delivered to dig into the system a little bit. Legacy took some big risks sitting in the same genre space as Apocalypse World itself, but the innovative mechanics and starkly different scope and themes meant that it worked very well. I’m personally looking forward to the second edition, as it may even fit the bill for one of those long games I keep on trying to run.

Legacy: Life Among the Ruins second edition is on Kickstarter until August 24th.

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