I was provided a copy of Barbarians of the Ruined Earth to review, in exchange for my unbiased review. I received no other compensation.
Growing up I was fascinated by the cartoon Thundarr The Barbarian. It takes place thousands of years into the future—after a rogue planet shattered the moon, changed the environment, and led to the collapse of civilization. Thundarr fascinated me, and it was one of the reasons why I was so interested in the Gamma World role playing game. The world of Thundarr is chaotic, filled with bizarre creatures, and powerful magic.
So why do I bring this up in a review of Barbarians of the Ruined Earth? Because it’s as close to a Thundarr RPG that I’ve ever seen. Barbarians of the Ruined Earth, written by Mike Evans, is set thousands of years after an alien planet crashed into the Moon and shattered it. The debris from the collision rained alien elements and genetic material on to the Earth, compounding the ecological destruction and altering the very fabric of nature. Magic entered the world, and powerful sorcerers have formed kingdoms which dominate the population. It’s amazing.
The book is stunning. It boasts comic book style drawings and a high contrast color scheme which should burn my eyes out, but instead draws me in. Each page is adorned with subtle dithering dots, which give them a sense of texture. It’s also printed on flat paper, which cuts down on glare and makes the text much easier to read 1. Matt Hildebrand did the layout, and it’s amazing.
The book weighs in at 168 pages and measures 9.5 x 6 inches. It’s not quite as compact as an A5 digest book, but is still easy to transport and feels great in the hand. It’s a perfect bound, so it won’t lay flat and won’t be as durable as a stitched binding tome, but it gets the job done.
Mike Evans’ publishing logo is not, shall we say, “safe for work” in that it does “we’re number one” with the wrong finger. I thought this was an odd sentiment to point at potential customers, so I reached to out Mike and inquired about the story behind it. It turns out the logo, drawn by Mike’s wife, is a nod to his love of punk. As such, it’s really a reference to what “Nazi Punks” can do, rather than a gesture toward readers. This makes sense, but I also don’t leave the book lying around so my three year old will find it and think it’s a great gesture to learn 2.
Barbarians of the Ruined Earth is game which is elegant in its simplicity. While the six core attributes made famous by Dungeons & Dragons 3 are present, there are no bonuses or penalties to be found. Instead, Barbarians of the Ruined Earth uses a roll under mechanic which utilizes the actual ability scores—and if a 20-side dice roll 4 turns up a 1 or a 20 it will result in a critical success or failure, accordingly. It’s a well-thought out system, and can be picked up in a matter of minutes. The game is built off of The Black Hack, and now I kinda want to check that RPG out as well.
It’s All In Your Head
Barbarians of the Ruined Earth also eschews the hard measurements needed to play a game using miniatures and table maps. Instead, it uses an approximate measurement system, ranging from “close 5” to “way far away 6” Because the game is set up this way it’s well suited to be played “theatre of the mind.” With so many games leaning more toward play with minis, which I admit I’ve much enjoyed using with my virtual table top games, this is a nice change of pace.
All attacks use the roll under mechanic—Strength for melee attacks and Dexterity for ranged attacks. In Barbarians of the Ruined Earth, however, a GM only rolls damage dice. When a GM announces an attack on a player character these same attributes are use by the player to see if they dodge the attack and avoid taking damage. There is no armor class in the game, instead, armor has “reduction points” which are are subtracted to any damage inflicted by an attack. This reminds me of the old structural damage capacity feature in old Palladium games, and a GM can determine if an attack damages or destroys armor. Shields are able to absorb either one or two attacks before they are destroyed. The armor system is, like much of the rest of the game, simple and elegant.
Characters will inevitably come into possession of some technological marvels and want to use them. Rather than messing with old-style resource management, however, Barbarians of the Ruined Earth implements a usage die, a d20 all the way down to a d4. Any time the item is used the appropriate die is rolled, and if the result is a 1 or 2 the item is reduced to the next smaller die. When the usage die is a d4, a 1 or 2 means the device has no more juice and becomes non-functional. It seems to be left up to the GM if an item can be recharged, or how it can be recharged, and I love everything about this system. A lucky roller can keep a powerful device going for a while, but there’s always that sense that the power could drop. And if a long-held beloved item becomes drained a quest to recharge it could be a great adventure hook.
Leveling up is not handled by experience points, but by a milestone system determined by the GM. Once a character levels up, they increase their hit points according to their hit dice, and have a chance to increase of their attributes. For each attribute a d20 is rolled, and if the roll is greater than the current stat it will be increased by 1—to a maximum of 20. This is a fun way to give tangible benefits to leveling up, without being too cumbersome, but it can lead to the game becoming a bit unbalanced. If a character rolled really well on Strength, for example, they could quickly come to almost automatically hit and be next to impossible to be hit. A Strength score of 19 or 20 would mean, for example, that a character only ever had a 5% chance to be hit by a melee attack and a 95% chance of hitting. I asked Mike about this, and asked if he’d considered allowing more powerful creatures to inflict a penalty on both attack and dodge rolls. He said he’d not because he wants the characters to feel powerful. When he wants to impose some difficulty, however, he uses in game features like curses or disease to inflict those types of penalties. This is something any GM running Barbarians of the Ruined Earth should keep in mind, lest the game feel too easy.
There are eight classes in the game, several of which are non-human, and they all offer some wonderful role playing opportunities. Players can opt to play the eponymous barbarian, a mutated beast-man, a scavenger on a fringes of civilization, a robot from the old world, a bizarre death priest, an urchin in some forgotten remnant of civilization, a raptor-humanoid fascinated with old world tech, or a sorcerer who is trying to hide their identity from a distrustful world. Each class is unique, and all possess some cool abilities which would make them interesting to play. My favorite is, perhaps, the “Death Priest,” who draws power from all those who have died since the calamity that ruined the earth. They’re just weird, and the artwork depicting them is beyond strange.
As with many other role playing games, each class has a particular hit die 7. What is unusal is each class also has a damage die, which applies to any weapon they may be using. It’s an interesting take and the game does take into account adjustments to damage when characters are wielding certain powerful artifacts.
Included for each class is a list of starting equipment, a table of trinkets the character may start with, and a life event key to the character’s story. As with the rest of Barbarians of the Ruined Earth, the terse simplicity for this aspect of character building leaves a lot of room for a player’s imagination. I am a big fan.
While there is a list of standard equipment, Barbarians of the Ruined Earth also includes a set of roll-tables to generate randomized equipment for the party to find. This adds to the gonzo nature of the game, and makes exploring really fun. One of the most interesting aspects of the equipment section is, however, is the section on weaponized animals. There is part of me which feels bad about finding this hysterical—I mean, animal cruelty is not something I’m comfortable with. At the same time, the weaponized animals remind me so much of Angry Birds I want to make slingshots required equipment for all party members.
And the Rest
After equipment there is a section on the state of the Ruined Earth, which includes rules for imposing mutations on characters when they come into contact with some of the gonzo things out in the wastelands. This is fun way of bring mutations into the game. Players don’t start as mutants like they do in other post-apocalyptic RPGs and, when a mutation happens, it can actually shatter a character’s mind. I love the idea that mutations are both gonzo and threatening.
Following this a a nice section of GM tools which can help a GM populate the world and set the tone for the game. Beyond this is, perhaps, the most unique and strange bestiaries I’ve ever seen 8. The creatures are wild, and the artwork for them is amazing. My only thought about this section is, “I want a more.”
The book ends with a sample campaign setting, called The Western Lands, which GM’s can choose to use for their game. It’s also is a great launching point for any GM who want’s to set up their own campaign in the Ruined Earth, perhaps set a bit more close to home.
Small critiques aside, Barbarians of the Ruined Earth is a fantastic piece of work. The game is easy to pick up, characters can be built fast, the artwork is beautiful, and the play mechanics are both fast and flexible. If anyone is in the mood for a change of pace from a typical d20 system, where everything is “roll and add your modifiers,” this would be a wonderful game to try out.
Barbarians of the Ruined Earth can be picked up at DriveThruRPG for $15 as a PDF. A print book will set you back $59 for a premium softcover, and $40 for a standard quality standard book—both of which include a PDF copy in the price. My review copy is a standard book, and it’s stunning.
Seriously, why do companies print books on glossy paper? Yes, the art looks great, but reading these books gives me a headache. ↩
Mike thought this was funny. ↩
Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. You are now educated. ↩
0–5 feet. ↩
Beyond 301 feet. ↩
The die it rolls for its hit points, which is the amount of damage something can take before it’s in danger of serious long term effects. You know, like dying. ↩
I am not kidding. When I got to this section my desire to play this game solidified. I want to see these things freak people out. ↩
Thanks so much for the review! I greatly appreciate you taking the time to read it!
It is a cool and fun game.
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