Unpacking After the Bomb
In the 1980’s, underground comics had a bit of a revolution, and one of the lead, definitely not Comics Code Authority friendly, titles was Eastman and Laird’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”. A rough, gritty comic packed with death, violence, and lacking in pizza obsession, it had little resemblance to what it would become as an animated adaptation aimed at kids. This property was picked up by Palladium Books, then an up and comer in the RPG industry, and turned into the now cult TMNT and Other Strangeness RPG (TMNTOS). However, Kevin Siembieda, the head of Palladium Books, had a moment of clarity then. Realizing that licences don’t always last forever, he tasked Erick Wujcik with coming up with an in-house property to use the systems they’d developed for TMNTOS. The result was After the Bomb, a post apocalypse RPG.
After the Bomb (AtB) was originally released as a supplement to the TMNTOS line, in a series of small booklets. Generally well received, this unassuming title would establish much of what was to come at Palladium Books, in particular with its flagship game, Rifts. After the TMNT licence lapsed in 2000, a second edition of AtB was produced, and would be the last book of this property written or released by Palladium Books at the date of this post.
This was the first Earth based post-apocalypse setting that Palladium would develop in house, and was greatly influenced by films like the Mad Max original trilogy, and the ideas of post-atomic war mutations that were popular in science fiction. Set in the eastern/midwestern USA as the default (as most Palladium games are), the core setting pitted mutant animals as the new inheritors of Earth against the surviving human population, the Empire of Humanity. That was pretty much it. This was expanded to include Mexico and Central America (Mutants of the Yucatan), the UK and Europe (Mutants in Avalon), the West Coast (Road Hogs), Australia (Mutants Down Under), and outer space (Mutants in Orbit).
This game wet Palladium Books’ whistle for post-apocalypse RPG settings. However, it also saw the most change between editions as to “what” the apocalypse was, based on the concern of the day.
The original edition was put together in the mid 1980’s, when the Cold War was still on, and nuclear war was a major concern for the general populace. Erick Wujcik was not immune to this, and the original apocalypse was a nuclear war. Known in game as “The Flash”, it was the mother of nuclear wars which somehow did not lead to a nuclear winter. Genetics and genetic engineering were sci-fi handwaved away for the most part, and the game proceeded. It was a very bare-bones background, based pretty much on the GM and players just agreeing it was how it was, and then proceeding.
The second edition was a much more in depth and science-y apocalypse, and was, oddly, more problematic than the original. Without getting into the “what went wrong” section too much, Erick Wujcik got overwhelmed by the advances in genetics in the 15 odd years from the original release and ran hard with a genetically engineered apocalypse called “The Crash”. This one saw the world ravaged by a targeted illness, then a bit of a nuclear exchange.
What Went Well
Palladium Books’ approach to mutant animals was solid. The Bio-Energy (Bio-E in game) system was a good fit to the existing system used by Palladium. There are dozens upon dozens of animals to choose from, and the method of determining Bio-E is good as well. The process is relatively simple (by Palladium standards), and they smoothly integrated both an alternative psychic power system and animal abilities system without developing power creep.
The EGG system. Embryonic Genome Generators were the major problem fixer added in the second edition. These self-contained, self powered little MacGuffins were the key to how mutant animals could reproduce, how the genetic apocalypse happened, and pretty much anything else. While easily dismissed as a treasure to find and use or sell, as a plot device, this was a great creation that simply played the “any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic” card and called it a day.
What Went Okay
Art. The art is, at best, okay. Eastman and Laird had a knack for drawing great mutant animals; Kevin Siembieda and some of the other artists they got in did not have that same knack. The art is a real mixed bag of “man that looks sweet” and “sweet jesus who let this person hold a pencil” throughout not only the main books, but the supplementary ones as well. It leads to a very disjointed feel as you flip though, and, to me, affected the potential of the various animals as being desirable to play by spoiling them visually.
What Went Wrong
Tone. This single issue feeds into much of the rest of this section of the unpacking. Tone in AtB is all over the place, and often disconcertingly so. One minute its a gritty post-apocalypse science fiction game, the next its a lighthearted nerd LOL fest of bad pun and references, and then pages later its a weird sexual enticement for horny teen boys (2nd edition had literal “sex bunnies”, mutant rabbits bred and mutated into sex kittens/bikini babes for sex). This causes a lot of immersion breaking moments even as you just read through the material, never mind in play.
Antagonists, threats, and enemies. To be blunt, this game was very little in the way of threat or menace to the players unless the GM goes out of their way to make something. The human threats are farcical. The human remnant “badguys” of the game, the Empire of Humanity, Jakarta, and SAECSN are non-dangers, so laughably incompetent that it actually makes it painful to read about them. Presented as dangers, they suffer badly by the previously mentioned tonal issue in that their portrayal does not match the buffoonish reality they are. Similarly, there are little in the way of technological, chemical, or biological threats on a world theoretically riven with mutations. This was a big missed opportunity to do, well, anything cool with the setting. Additionally, this makes it a GM headache to prep for sessions, since they have to literally create everything from scratch.
The world. Palladium does not have a good track record with good portrayals of the world outside of the continental USA. In this fashion, AtB acted as a warning sign for things to come from Palladium Books in their Rifts World Book series of supplements. The expansion books that are outside of the USA are typical Palladium extruded gaming product; running with stereotyped, unimaginative, and at times racist depictions of the world. This series set the pattern that Palladium has followed ever since when it comes to problematic ideas about how the world is outside of the American Midwest and USA at large.
Old man learns something and obsesses on it. You know when an older relative learns about some modern scientific breakthrough, then obsesses about it? This happened in the second edition. Erick Wujcik discovered that goats had been genetically modified to produce spider silk protein in their milk. He then lost it, and actually burned several pages in the book ranting about it and then created a bizarre spider-hybrid creature (one of the few pre-generated foes in the book). It was quite bizarre over all and a confusing entry in to the game.
Integration with the larger Megaverse. At the time of its second edition, AtB needed to be added more concretely into the Palladium Megaverse concept that was rapidly taking hold. There was a golden opportunity as well, as several Rifts world books had material that was ideal for AtB, to develop it into an alternate timeline. These were the established link, Mutants in Orbit (1992), and the more (at the time) recent releases of Rifts World Book 6: South America (1994), Rifts World Book 7: Underseas (1995), Rifts World Book 9: South America 2 (1995), and RiftsWold Book 13: Lone Star (1997). In these books were spun a tale of genetic engineering, corporate and government espionage, experimentation on the human genome, massive public scandals, and the sort of technological and scientific hubris that AtB thrived on. Instead, we got a “Oh no, delinquent teenagers destroyed the world!” thing and that was it. In a world of missed opportunities, this was a huge one.
AtB, and by extension, TMNTOS, are arguably the single most influential property Palladium Books produced, for future Palladium Books projects. Their DNA can be found shot through Rifts, Palladium’s most successful game. Post apocalypse leading to a radically different world; a technologically superior human supremacist empire using mutant dogs as allies, incomprehensible super science in the hands of madmen and tyrants, terrible stereotypes of not-America, mutant cat civilization in Central/South America, dimensional travel, it’s all there in Ur form in AtB. The influences are so strong once you become familiar with the material, that it’s quite surprising how much early Rifts owed to this game and how little most commented on it.
AtB was a game that, to be honest, never had a chance at Palladium. The re-orientation of TMNT as a property aimed at adults to one aimed at children in 1987 resulted in a drop off of interest in TMNTOS, and by association, AtB. Rather than salvage the in-house game property, Palladium Books instead cannibalized AtB for use in Rifts. They then ignored the property until 2000, when they allowed their licence for TMNT to lapse. At this point, it was handed over to Erick Wujcik and then they called it a day on it all, which, to me, is an actual shame. As a game, AtB has incredible potential, since there is still a good market for (relatively) hard science fiction games in post apocalyptic settings where you play a mutant of some sort. People still love gritty, hard scrabble worlds. People still love anthropomorphic animals.
In its current form and state, AtB is more of a retro-niche experience than something that is likely to attract long term interest. In part, this is because like so many other properties at Palladium Books, it has effectively been cast aside by Kevin Siembieda, much like Beyond the Supernatural, Ninjas & Superspies, or Recon. the game was never terribly well support in the first place, so it’s also a headache to GM, since your workload is much higher than if you choose to play another Palladium title like Rifts or Robotech. There’s also the issue of Palladium’s clunky and entrenched Megaversal System. It was fun back in the day when compared to its contemporaries, but its age is showing, and not in a pretty way.
However, all of that does leave AtB open to reinterpretation and expansion, which has been something on my mind now for over three years. When I look at AtB, I see the S.D.C. (structural damage capacity) science-fiction setting that Palladium Books is sorely lacking. There’s no magic, no outrageous psychic abilities, just super-science, a broken planet, and a solar system’s worth of exploration.
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