Twilight: 2000 is something of an albatross around my neck. Every 12 months or so I get a crazy-urgent urge to run a Twilight: 2000 campaign – the problem being that the kind of people who enjoy Twilight:2000 are a select (and dwindling) group of gaming grognards. It is, in more ways than one, the Advanced Squad Leader of RPG’s. So it should come as no surprise to you that I also enjoy Advanced Squad Leader…but that’s an entirely different topic of discussion. For now let’s confine our discussion not to the Eastern Front in the 1940’s, but post-apocalyptic Poland in 2000 AD.
[sws_pullquote_left]Run well, and with the right group of players, Twilight 2000 is an incredible sandbox environment where Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs is brought into sharp focus. [/sws_pullquote_left]
Twilight: 2000 was released in 1984 in the last decade of the Cold War. Though the Berlin Wall would collapse a mere six years later, the fall of Soviet Communism seemed to be remote if not impossible. If you need a core sample of the U.S. zeitgest in 1984, you need look no further than John Milius’ supremely paranoid action-thriller Red Dawn…in which a coalition of Cuban and Soviet troops parachute into the American heartland and are terrorized by a ragtag guerilla army of high-school jocks.
It wasn’t Cold War paranoia which spurred development of Twilight: 2000, however. The genesis of Twilight: 2000 actually sprung from a return road trip from the Origins Game Convention in 1983. Reportedly designers Frank Chadwick, Loren Wiseman, Bill Keith, and Andrew Keith struck up a conversation about designing a “modern military role-playing game which concentrated on equipment and realistic military situations.” One of the challenges of such games is Chain of Command. How do you give players autonomy when they’re tethered to a rigid military structure? Or worse, prevent them from barking orders at subordinate fellow players?
The solution was simple: erase the Chain of Command. Or at least make it irrelevant. The basic premise – that of an isolated group of U.S. soldiers stranded in post-apocalyptic Poland – cast the players as members of the doomed U.S. 5th Infantry Divison tasked with defending Western Europe against the Soviet Bloc. I won’t detail the entire Twilight: 2000 timeline, suffice to say limited nuclear exchanges and numerous infantry and armor clashes leave both sides of the conflict broken and unable to wage large scale war. Eastern Europe, and pretty much the rest of the world to boot, descends into anarchy.
The game’s introductory scenario, Escape From Kalisz, drops the players right into the thick of the action. A faux-military handout provides them with some sketchy (and not always reliable) intelligence about enemy troop dispositions in their area to give them some idea of just how screwed they are, while another detailing the events leading to their predicament ends with the company commander radioing the following chilling message: “Good Luck. You’re on your own, now.”
That’s the setup: a handful of highly trained and heavily armed US soldiers adrift deep in enemy territory with poor operational knowledge of the surrounding terrain. What do they do?
[sws_pullquote_right]Twilight: 2000 resembles an old-school hexcrawl, minus the hexes.[/sws_pullquote_right]
‘What do they do’ is the backbone of Twilight: 2000. The way the players answer that question drives the game forward. In many ways, Twilight: 2000 resembles an old-school hexcrawl, minus the hexes. The players are free to do as they wish – will they carry out their orders and harass Soviet troop concentrations? Will they hire themselves out as mercenaries to one or more of the many factions dominating central Poland? Will they turn to banditry and prey on the civilians and other easy targets? Or will they try and make the long, hard slog back to America?
Any of these are possible. No matter what course of action the players pursue, however, it won’t be easy. The Twlight: 2000 rules are nasty-hardcore simulationism. Every round spent must be accounted for, not merely because you need to know when to change mags in combat, but because spent brass cartridges are a form of barter and should be retrieved after each firefight. Also, that sweet-ass M1 Main Battle Tank you scored in character generation? Good luck keeping it running. Fuel is scarce in post-Twilight War Poland. Scrounging up gas to keep that beast rolling will take a lot of time and effort. But there’s good news – most vehicles have been converted to Methanol or Ethanol fuel which can be distilled from harvested grain in the field…but to do so you have to have an alcohol still. You did buy one, right? And someone’s gotta do all that harvesting. And distilling. And after that, alcohol-based fuels don’t give you the same mileage as the legit stuff – so unless you’ve got a fairly decent-sized party to do all that labor you might wish you’d settled for a Hum-Vee. Or a horse. Oh, and did I mention maintenance? Running around the irradiated wasteland shooting stuff up is hard on equipment, and unless you spend time doing plenty of preventative maintenance on your vehicles there’s a good chance they’ll fail you when you need them most.
While this level of detail is a turn-off for many players (and GM’s) it’s also one of the things that keeps a party of Twilight: 2000 players moving forward. Remember that group of Polish refugees you befriended? The ones who told you about the Soviet fuel depot a few klicks north? A few days ago it didn’t seem like a good idea to raid that sucker, but with food and gas getting low it’s starting to look a bit tempting. Or instead of roving the countryside using up all our supplies, maybe what we ought to do is set up camp and raid Soviet convoys moving through the area…build up a surplus before we make a run for the German border. Or head to Krakow, which is some sort of independent city-state…they supposedly pay well for well-armed security. And didn’t we overhear someone say they have a helicopter there?
Run poorly, Twilight: 2000 is a finicky, problematic mess of record-keeping and frustration. Run well, and with the right group of players, it’s an incredible sandbox environment where Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs is brought into sharp focus.
Mechanically? Well, lets just say it’s nothing to write home about. Given the designers focus – and let me reiterate it here – ‘a modern military role-playing game which concentrated on equipment and realistic military situations’ – Twilight: 2000 does exactly what it’s designed to. It’s a percentile-based system, which is every bit as whiffy as you’d expect. The game definitely rewards sound tactical thinking, but many players will be turned off by it’s inherent grittiness. For instance, all characters have a Coolness Under Fire rating which determines how effective they are in combat. Combat is divided in to 5-phase turns, and your CUF rating determines how often you hesitate. A higher CUF means more hesitation actions. It’s readily apparent that whenever the designers were faced with a choice between fun and realism, they took the latter route. Which is not to say Twilight: 2000 is a total killjoy of a game – there’s a certain glee to pulling off a victory against high odds, or seeing a well-orchestrated attack go off as planned. But for every moment of victory, there will be an equal and sometimes very unequal serving of fail heaped upon you. If nothing else the game’s systems handily reinforce what you should – and shouldn’t – do in combat.
Although Twilight: 2000 concerns itself mainly with survival and violence, there is one standout feature of the rules system which I think bears commentary. When PC’s encounter other people, the GM is instructed to draw from a deck of playing cards to determine their Motivation. Each NPC has two motivations – a primary and a secondary – determined by the suit drawn. Clubs = Violence, Diamonds = Wealth, Hearts = Fellowship, and Spades = Power. It’s an interesting system for giving the GM a guiding hand in how NPC’s react when encountered, and one which generates a fair amount of uncertainty among players. Who knows if those bedraggled refugees just need our help or are looking to strip our vehicles when we aren’t looking – or worse, to kill us? Are those Polish infantrymen going to shoot us on sight, or will they be willing to barter or lend a hand?
If there’s any major failing of the combat system it’s the needlessly fiddly rules for vehicle armor penetration. Every vehicle has an armor and components list which tells you what can potentially get hit if an armor piercing round enters the vehicle. To calculate what happens, you have to figure out the kinetic potential of each such round and trace the passage of the round checking to see if each component along its trajectory took damage and how much. You continue to do so until the round’s kinetic energy is spent. A single tank round can take several minutes to figure out depending on the target. It’s here that the game’s roots in hardcore military wargames begins to show….and in fact a later supplement, Last Battle, enabled Twilight: 2000 gamers to play out vehicle combats as a chit-based wargame. Paradoxically it also simplified vehicle combat rules.
One of my favorite things about Twilight: 2000 were the adventure scenarios, particularly the first three – Free City of Krakow, Pirates of the Vistula, and Return to Warsaw – which formed something of a meta-plot. Despite this, each adventure was in fact a highly-detailed sandbox – though they each contained seed content for game sessions, they were largely designed as toyboxes for the players to interact with various factions and locations at their whim. Krakow introduces a Casablanca-like city state where various nationalities intelligence services are working to advance their causes…and to get their hands on something called ‘Operation Reset’, a computer chip which can help rebuild EMP-damaged computer infrastructures. Subsequent adventures spanned the whole of the European theater, and later in the run GDW introduced scenarios which brought the PC’s back the US – only to find that the country is in the midst of a fractious civil war between elements of the military which have seized the reins of government – MilGov – and their civilian oppsition, CivGov.
On the whole, the largest impediment to running Twilight: 2000 these days is this: anyone raised after the Cold War has zero cultural context to parse the game’s setting. I tried running a game of Twilight: 2000 for a few 20-year-olds a few years back and it was disconcerting to me to have to educate them about the basics of the Cold War and why there were American troops stationed in West Germany in the mid-80’s. Twilight: 2000 is very much a product of its time, although subsequent editions attempted to rectify the timeline after the fall of the Berlin Wall and revamp the mechanics. Second Edition, still published by GDW, added a lifepath system which allowed for Civilian characters and made some changes to the combat system. Second Edition also spawned a number of spin-off releases, including Merc: 2000 which provided a less-apocalyptic scenario set in the real world as players filled the role of globetrotting soldiers-of-fortune. Twilight Nightmares introduced occult elements to the game’s hardcore military setting, which might seem weird, but the oddest implementation of the Twilight: 2000 2e ruleset hands down is the licensed Cadillacs and Dinosaurs game based on Mark Schultz’s indie comic Xenozoic Tales.
Perhaps the most interesting extension of the Twilight: 2000 brand is Traveller 2300. Although the game bears the name Traveller, it is entirely unrelated to Marc Miller’s game of the same name. Instead, the designers of Traveller 2300 (which included Miller himself) used an internal worldbuilding exercise they called The Great Game to follow the timeline of Twilight: 2000 for 300 years and see what emerged. The universe of Traveller 2300 (later called simply 2300 AD to avoid confusion with GDW’s other game) portrays the Earth eventually pulling away from the brink of disaster and making furtive attempts to colonize the galaxy – although not without extending national borders into space itself. Eventually mankind encounters a number of alien races, including the hostile, insectlike Kafers whose physiology drives them toward war.
A third edition, dubbed Twilight: 2013, was released in 2008 by now-defunct publisher 93 Games Studio. The third edition once again re-jiggered the timeline to take into account all the events that had taken place since 1984, although it was roundly criticised for less than stellar worldbuilding and production values. Despite this it was actually an interesting step forward, mechanically, featuring a ‘stepped’ mechanics system which allowed you to introduce as much or as little complexity as you desire. One of the more interesting mechanics introduced in 2013 was the idea of lulls in firefights. After a round of gunfire all combatants had to make a blind bid to either continue or cease hostilities – if any one combatant pressed combat, another round would ensue. This would continue until everyone was dead or no longer wishing to fight. Sadly 93 Games Studio folded shortly after the game’s release. Only a handful of .pdf-only supplements, amounting to a few weapon guides and a small adventure locale, were ever issued for this version of this game.
At this point the future of the Twilight: 2000 brand is uncertain. A cryptic post on Mongoose’s message boards in 2010 suggested that they had the rights or were in discussion to acquire them, although little has been said since then. Although the books themselves are long out of print, they are readily available in electronic format on RPGNow and print copies are relatively easy to locate on eBay or alternatively in digest form from Far Future Enterprises.
It’s hard to defend Twilight: 200 from its detractors. Almost all the criticisms levied against it are true – from the fiddly mechanics to the lethality of combat…all true. And yet, it remains one of my most fondly beheld gaming guilty pleasures.