The RPG hobby is driven by remakes and revisions. Fifth Edition this and Seventh Edition that, yes, but entire movements in the hobby are built around hacking and re-hacking D&D’s sub-sub-genre of play, fantasy dungeon crawling. With this perspective, RPGs fit in nicely alongside movie studios who remake Spiderman and Batman decadally, and media companies who continue to make live-action versions of critically acclaimed anime without asking how they’re actually improving things. In a young hobby like RPGs, though, there is still space for remakes to be good. So if you want to make a good remake, why not start with a game that practically screams ‘don’t update me’, the 1984 classic Twilight:2000?
It’s hard to imagine a worse place to start for a modern remake than a game that has already had at least two retcons, one of which was caused by the events of actual history. Originally published by Game Designer’s Workshop (GDW), Twilight:2000 starts in Europe after a limited nuclear exchange between the Soviets and the US. The characters are mostly American soldiers, and their main objective is to get home. Now, the game had a fanciful “day after tomorrow” premise in 1984, but when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 it started looking a little quaint, and GDW stopped toying with the original plotline by 1993. Enter Free League. The afterword of this new edition tells a story that boils down to the design staff at Free League cracking open their old Twilight:2000 1e books and having so much fun (but also making so many house rules) that they just had to have a go at the game. They reached out to the original designers (and also to the guy who had already been contracted to redesign the game, apparently), and the rest is history.
I personally think Free League did a pretty great job remaking Twilight:2000, and as far as the premise goes, time is on their side. One of the only other strictly “military simulation” (or MilSim) RPGs out there, Recon, was set in the Vietnam War, and the Vietnam War was closer to Recon’s publication date than the alternate history war of Twilight:2000 is to now. Ultimately, though, it’s more important to talk about the time that has passed since last publication. Twilight:2000 has been completely rewritten, with all the core mechanics replaced with a version of Free League’s Year Zero Engine that powers games like the eponymous Mutant: Year Zero, but also Forbidden Lands, Vaesen, and the bestselling Alien RPG. Such a conversion is likely to get teeth gnashing, so I think it’s important not only to talk about how well it was done, but also why.
The Year Zero Engine (YZE) is a dice pool system, but Twilight:2000 has simplified that somewhat compared to other games. Now, instead of having attributes and skills with numerical ratings, they get incrementing dice ratings from d6 to d12. This makes some Year Zero mechanics much easier to implement; you may remember from other games that certain rules were impacted by the results of specific dice, which necessitated as many as three different colors of dice to keep track of things. Twilight:2000 makes things easier by keeping the number of dice down to two for essentially everything other than combat, which allows you to throw additional d6s in the mix as ‘ammo dice’ if you have a gun with a suitably high rate of fire.
Ammo dice imply ammo tracking, which lead into the other important point about this game: there’s a lot going on here. You have to track ammo, food, and water, maintain your vehicles, execute combat with hit locations, and travel long distances over a hex map, using terrain types to determine speed of progression. You know what’s weird about this? It doesn’t feel crunchy. Twilight:2000 is a very focused game; the player’s manual is about 150 pages and the referee’s manual about 110, meaning they cut about 70 pages from the first edition of the game. A lot of this is simplification from the core; we’re down two attributes and at least thirty skills. I’d say character generation and the like has been cut down, but Free League included a full update of the original term-based lifepath system as an optional mechanic. While there is clearly a degree of abridgment, visible in the core mechanics and gear lists, a lot of the slimming came from better layout, better writing, and better rules.
YZE is not everyone’s favorite house system; while Alien has sold very well, its critics have pointed out that the feel of the setting and the sorts of scenarios that gamers would want to explore in that setting are not necessarily best served by a system that is almost always balanced around home base mechanics. That said, Free League has done a pretty good job of making its mechanics fit their purposes, even for games which seem like odd matches (like Vaesen as well as Alien). Twilight:2000 is proof that the house system concept can work quite well when the designers put in the work to adapt said system to the job it needs to do. The dice mechanics have been altered, the home base concept has been shifted away from the limelight (though, it should be said, still included in its entirety), and, most importantly, all the key ancillary systems from the original Twilight:2000 have been ported over. This is where the “we played Twilight:2000 and had so much fun we wanted to remake it” story makes so much sense; all these ancillary mechanics and procedures are key to making the game feel like Twilight:2000. I think an armchair reviewer could easily see the total mechanical conversion and dismiss the game, but doing so would be a mistake.
No offense to Frank Chadwick, but the original Twilight:2000, at least from the game design perspective of the 2020s, is not good. The mechanics were overwrought and cumbersome, the book was appallingly laid out (I do have a copy and have had the misfortune of reading it), and the actual mechanics do not pass a modern sniff test for fairness or consistency. Of course, as even the designers of this new edition will tell you, ‘not good’ does not mean ‘not fun’, not by a long shot. Still, it’s not hard to see why the Free League team immediately dumped the original ruleset for something they were more comfortable working with. Even if we assume YZE would have been picked anyway given what company we’re talking about, it is on its face a fairly good match for the gameplay assumptions of Twilight:2000. With Forbidden Lands, Free League proved that YZE could be suitably brutal for a dark fantasy game, and Twilight:2000 pushes that further with even less forgiving dice mechanics. Beyond the core mechanic, though, most of the peripheral procedures from Twilight:2000 were included, and it’s worth noting how much easier they are to deal with when strapped to a less hefty mechanical chassis. Besides the body of procedures over that mechanical chassis, Free League also aimed to preserve most if not all of the original premise.
I do not know if there is an increased or increasing interest in the Cold War. As mentioned above, MilSim RPGs are a very small slice of the market, one indication of many that fantasy fandoms won the battle with wargamers over who would drive the RPG market. Even in its current form Twilight:2000 carries vestiges from wargaming; the maps inside the referee’s manual use symbols most commonly associated with paper chits from old wargames to indicate unit types and strength. In all honesty, though, the angle of the premise that this edition chooses to focus on has shifted, or at least shifted back. Twilight:2000 started as primarily an apocalyptic game (remember the tagline, “You’re On Your Own”), but it leaned more and more heavily into the military aspects of the theme, with the final version 2.2 giving way to Merc:2000 and Twilight:2013, which were still military focused but had completely different plotlines. The first edition, though, was about survival first and foremost. While Free League’s version does keep (and in some places expand) the military set dressing, it is once again about collapse. This assumption of collapse also works into why elements like the home base mechanics still fit into this game; while there’s no assumed plotline per se, the thread of ‘going home’ still runs pretty deep in this edition like it did in earlier ones. The home base mechanics are what get implemented once the characters realize they have no home to go back to.
I’ve also seen a fair amount of hay made about how this edition treated the Soviets, and after reading the rules I can’t help but roll my eyes. People have taken issue with the idea that the game was ‘pro-Soviet’, which is a little ridiculous; ultimately the Soviets are made stronger in the book because we know what happened at the USSR’s actual strength! Yes, the USSR is ‘ratcheted up’ compared to reality, but that’s merely because in reality the USSR collapsed…hardly an interesting post-nuclear stonewall. Beyond that particular whine, the backstory presented in the game is remarkably loyal to the game’s first retcon, which saw the world of the game hinging on an alternate history where the ‘Gang of Eight’ coup against Gorbachev succeeded, instead of failing and ultimately speeding the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is a degree of strength in ‘hinge-point’ alternate history scenarios, but I do think this one also benefits from no longer having a target market which actually remembers the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thirty years is a long time; when you consider that Cyberpunk 2020 came out in 1989, you could be forgiven for thinking that a thirty year timeline seems like a good default for games. With the Cold War finally feeling more like ‘history’ than ‘on the news’, there’s a new chance that Twilight:2000 could appeal to more than just wargamers.
Twilight:2000 is a great conversation piece in discourse around remakes. Free League took something old and legitimately distilled many of the things we liked about it originally, while removing a lot of the cruft that made it a product of the 1980s. I don’t think this edition will satisfy every old grog, in fact I think this game is likely as good as it is because it doesn’t have to. As every extant edition of Twilight:2000 is available for reasonable prices on DriveThruRPG, there’s no need to pretend that fans of the original ‘need’ to pick up this new one.
The question we need to ask, then, is who is Twilight:2000 for? Despite the drastic mechanical changes I think this new game will do all right preaching to the old guard; it’s hard to find a single review of the original Twilight:2000 without disparaging words about the mechanics. Beyond that, there is likely appeal for younger gamers in straddling an interesting line between post-apocalyptic and cyberpunk. The line has more to do with being a product of the 80s, and if we’re talking about products of the 80s then Twilight:2000 is the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay to Cyberpunk’s D&D. Cold War apocalypse as a subject is exploring the same anxieties that cyberpunk was back in the 80s, though obviously with different tools. Beyond that, MilSim is pretty much done and dusted in the RPG world; the last truly breakout MilSim RPG was…Twilight:2000. In a small hobby, sometimes the best thing you can ask for is no competition.
Twilight:2000 came from a place of wanting to make nostalgia match the experience, and that’s likely why it turned out pretty well. The genre it comes from may not be popular, but ultimately that’s why Free League made Twilight:2000 as opposed to any other military RPG. They might have rewritten the core rules, and stuffed a map of Sweden underneath the map of Poland, but I do believe people will still recognize this as Twilight:2000. As far as it being a remake is concerned, there are two stories you can see. First is that remakes sell; in a world where new Batmans and Spidermans are printed as fast as the money they generate, it makes sense to attach yourself to an existing, reliable property. The second is the story in the afterword, of a group of game designers nerding out, enjoying themselves, and just wanting to remake a favorite game. I know it makes a great story for a game’s afterword, reality be damned. But yeah, I’m a bit of an idealist. I want to believe it. And with this game, I think I can.
Twilight:2000 is available now on DriveThruRPG. The boxed version is available from Free League, and will be at retailers soon.
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28 thoughts on “Twilight:2000 Review”
Just a nitpick: Twilight: 2000 1st ed. didn’t have a term-based lifepath system. That’s what Twilight: 2000 2d ed. had.
In Twilight: 2000 1st ed., you rolled attributes, which included EDU representing years of formal education. Then you derived some additional statistics based on those rolls that served to balance characters: if you had better attributes you had less experience and thus fewer points to spend on skills. You then spent those points on skills–several hundred of them but since it’s roll-under percentile system you tended to spend them in big chunks. Midway through the process you rolled your branch and specialty, which directed you on spending some of your skill points. At the end of the process, you had some clues that you could use to put together a story of your character’s life. For example, you knew your character’s age, years of formal education (EDU), months in combat, amount of radiation exposure, rank, MOS, and languages spoken and other skills. So you could come up with a story that tied it all together. But you did not go through a lifepath as in, say, Traveller, and the rules didn’t directly support any kind of guided character generation.
Regarding resurgence in Cold War topics, this is a gigantic emphasis in board wargaming right now. Every wargame publisher seems to be pushing out games on NATO v. Warsaw Pact in the 1980s, be they new games, updates/revisions of old games (in some cases by the original designers, 30-40 years later), or new games that claim to be “retro” in feel. I think there was a big overlap between wargamers and Twilight: 2000 players back in the 1980s and this seems to continue today.
We can point to a few factors that may be driving this. GenXers aka Cold War kids/young adults have a lot of buying power and games about “the war that never was” are powerful nostalgia products. The 1970s-80s, when WWIII was a hot topic, were a previous golden age of board wargaming as well as this generation’s initiation to the hobby. So a game on this old topic recaptures the thrill on multiple levels. Also, the current reorientation of US/NATO around large-scale peer conflict against resurgent Russia instead of Third World counterinsurgency parallels the strategic reorientation that drove the 1970s-80s WWIII game craze.
Thanks for the insights! You’re right that the term-based system was from 2e; the reason to highlight it was that it was recreated for this new edition. As one other note about the earlier games, there are complete conversion notes for both 1e and 2e included in 4e as an appendix.
This was a great review and I think it’s on target I used to run the old Edition when I was on active duty in the Navy and then the second edition and 2.2 after I left the Navy after being injured.
I’ve been running the 4th edition of this game for a week and it’s really fun and it’s great that we have access to all the old modules on drive-thru, plus dozens upon dozens of fan sites for the original editions and most of those guys are happily converting over to the new edition because it’s bringing more story, more flavor and more depressing imagery than ever before the artwork for this Edition is outstanding and I think Free League did a great job. Again great review I think you nailed all the relevant points. It doesn’t play crunchy. The best change here was to go large-scale 10-meter hexes and not worry about increments of a few seconds and fiddly movement. The broad skills are a plus also at lends itself more towards storytelling… Any character can literally try anything, they might not be that good at it but they can try.