RPG licensing. RPG licensing never changes. In some ways it’s amazing that it took until 2021 to get an honest Fallout tabletop RPG, given the original game’s mechanical dalliance with GURPS and other design elements borrowed heavily from pen and paper games of the time. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until Fallout 4 that the series turned back to its roots and, with the help of Modiphius, got an official licensed port. Fallout the Role-Playing Game leans heavily on the most recent iteration of the video game series; both the mechanics and the setting borrow heavily and almost exclusively from Bethesda’s Fallout 4 for source material. Comparing this game to a Bethesda game ends up being quite apt, though; like most of the modern software titles released by this game’s licensor, Fallout the Role-Playing Game shows a lot of promise and appears at first glance to be ported well into its new mechanics…but in reality it’s hampered by a raft of grave unforced errors in editing and product management. So is it endearingly buggy, or is it hopeless? Let’s take a look.
Fallout, like essentially all of Modiphius’s RPG products, is built around their house system 2d20. 2d20 is at its core quite simple, but that’s what makes it so easy to modify so it feels different for games like Dune or Star Trek Adventures. Fallout is actually the most traditional iteration of 2d20 I’ve read so far; all 2d20 games center around two attributes which have their values combined to produce a target number for the eponymous (though frequently expanded) 2d20 roll, and in Fallout these two attributes are good old stats and skills. There are 7 stats, the SPECIAL stats that all Fallout players know and love (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, Luck) and 17 skills (the 13 skills from Fallout 3 plus Athletics, Survival, Throwing, and Pilot). These are longer lists than most other 2d20 games though in the neighborhood of other traditional RPGs, and of course the relatively close relationship the lists have to the video games does help with mental load.
“Close relationship to the video games” is pretty much the watch-phrase for how tabletop Fallout is built. While there are 2d20-typical traits associated with the Origins you can select in character creation (in addition to a Vault Dweller there are options to play Robots, Ghouls, and Super Mutants, among others), the vast majority of ‘traits’ in the game are in fact Perks, which like in the Fallout games you earn upon levelling up…yes, levelling up has been shoehorned into this game too, but in a typically Fallout way where you gain a perk and some additional hit points and the like, as opposed to the whole D&D rigamarole. There are even rules for magazines, like in the games…while magazines don’t confer permanent bonuses just by reading them, they do give you the option to take the magazine’s special perk as the perk for your next level up. If there’s something else you want more, though, you won’t get another chance to get the magazine perk until you find another magazine.
The mechanical emulation of the video games extends deep into the core gameplay loops of the tabletop version. The typical 2d20 metacurrency pools of Momentum and Threat have been folded down into Action Points, which as you might expect from the video game are used primarily to buy additional actions in combat (though like Momentum and Threat they can be used for a few other things as well). While Action Points are clearly meant to align with the video game I do have to concede that for this game having Momentum and Threat be only one thing is a solid, rather elegant choice; in essence, the difference between Action Points to the player and Action Points to the GM is only which characters get the benefit, so it all balances out quite nicely. Fallout does use the same d6-based combat system that Star Trek Adventures does, with a couple big additions for emulation’s sake. First, in a nod to making the item list as long as the one in the video game, there are three damage types, and each weapon and each piece of armor is rated differently for each one. This is, of course, taken straight from the video game. Then, in the spirit of VATS, there are hit locations. This, too, is taken straight from the video game. The problem here is that I’m not sure either of them are going to work as well on a tabletop as they do in a video game. While I concede I was a fan of hit locations in Cyberpunk 2020, the more I’ve played systems with them, the less I think they’re worth the extra time and extra rules. Still, this will make combat feel more like Fallout, in addition to taking twice as long as it needs to. And, just as a cherry on top of the “I can’t tell if they playtested this” sundae…there are ammo types. Twenty of them. So you too can enjoy the feeling of running around with an empty hunting rifle and seventy-five railroad spikes, thanks to the scavenging rolls you made.
The strongest bits of genre emulation are the inventory mechanics, which arguably drive the game at a lot of levels. The breadth and extent of the item, crafting, and scavenging systems make it clear that the collection of stuff is what drives the game. And I want to say up front: this is not a bad decision. The inventory rules revolve around a set of scavenging rules which defines what you find in a given location, grounded with five attributes: Category, Level, Scale, Degree, and Items. This means that every location comes keyed with information about what items you’re likely to find, whether it’s been searched before, and what sort of enemies will interrupt you, among other things. A lot of these items are ‘junk’, which as any Fallout 4 player will know means that you can use them to craft other, cooler items. Junk is the only part of the inventory system that’s been simplified…you don’t have to worry about running out of adhesive at the tabletop. Still, that does mean that an exhaustive (exhausting) list of items from the game have made it into tables. Blamco Mac and Cheese? Yup. T-51b Power Armor Left Arm? Uh huh. Nuka-Cola? Why, there’s a table just to figure out if it’s Original, Cherry, or Quantum. I’d normally look askance at the huge item tables, but as I said, this is the point of the game. Scavenging, crafting, scavenging some more for missing crafting ingredients, this is clearly the focus of Fallout the Roleplaying Game, and I think that both for broader market alignment as well as fitting in with Fallout, that is broadly a good choice. It does mean this is a game for groups who like keeping track of a lot of inventory items. It does mean that encumbrance jokes will apply on the tabletop as readily as they apply in the video game. Once again, not a bad thing! But be aware that’s what you’re signing up for.
So this all sounds good, right? Doesn’t sound like a game to be sent up as a scathing indictment of the laziness and greed of large publishers, right? Well, strap in. The book is beset by problems, both accidental and intentional. Accidental, like none of the PDF bookmarks work. At all. In 2021 that’s utterly unacceptable. There are references to deleted rules still in the book. There are typos. There are reference errors. These are the sort of things I could mention in a one-man effort (and I have), but when you’re one of the top five largest RPG publishers in the western world…no. You don’t get to release a product like this and have me gloss over it. Modiphius is a seven-figure revenue company, you can afford to either add a full-time editor or pay your freelance one enough to give a damn.
Let’s get to the intentional sins. Those location rules I mentioned above? Sound pretty cool, right? They’re not in the book. I mean, the list of attributes I cited is, but none of the rules or derivations are in the book, nor are there those attributes for any of the canned locations in the setting chapter. They’re coming in something called the Gamemaster’s Kit, which is a $36 pack of pop-out gewgaws and a little booklet that contains, from what I can tell, either 16 or 32 pages of deliberately omitted rules and tables. Why? And the worst part? It isn’t done yet. Now that may not have been intentional, but it was stupid. Once again, top 5 RPG publisher in the western world, arguably the largest producer of licensed RPGs currently operating. Modiphius, what’s your excuse?
So neither the Gamemaster’s Kit nor the Starter Set are finished yet, and both are referenced directly in the core book. The GMing rules necessary to actually run any location in the game rules-as-written are completely missing. Other rules, like promised hit locations for non-humanoids, are absent. In the errata thread, the reason noted for this was page count, which I dismiss as a valid excuse. Even a 600-page hardback still costs less than $33 per copy to produce (way, way less actually if you’re offset printing), which is about the current price premium between the PDF and the hardcopy of the book at present. All I see is a cynical attempt to increase margins, and in doing so make the game worse at every turn. Not to mention the fact that the game was rushed, line management is non-existent, and ultimately the only superlative we get for Fallout the Role-Playing Game is “almost as poorly edited as Shadowrun”. Oof.
My feelings on this game turned from suspicion to excitement to utter disappointment. This has the bones of a great Fallout game, honestly it does. What was published, though, is so far below the level that a commercial game should be at, and it’s on the top seller list anyway. I know every enterprising GM will tell me how easy it is to work around the omissions, errors, and document design flaws, but ultimately that’s not the point. This game isn’t worth the money. Not at $21 for the PDF, and definitely not at $54 for the hardcover book. I know how many fans will make excuses. This game, though, is not editorially fit to print, and yet here it is being sold. And when you’re already one of the top 5 largest RPG publishers, I’m not appreciative of being pissed on and told it’s summer rain. Buy Apocalypse World, or Other Dust, or any post-apocalyptic product on the entire RPG market besides this one. Rush jobs and settling for less don’t deserve to be rewarded, especially from a company which already makes so much money. And to Modiphius: Finish your goddamn game before releasing it.
This review was written using a copy purchased on August 10, 2021, and reflects errors in the text as of that version. While I am aware that future versions may resolve some of the issues noted in the above text, I believe the fact the game was released at all in the sorry state it was in on August 10th is more damning than future corrections can or will forgive.
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