Hellscapes Review

Ryan Chaddock has been a subject on this blog since its very beginning. Mostly of the time that has been because of his Cypher System products, but today I want to talk about his second foray into adapting D&D 5e to a different genre. With his gaming label, Scrivened LLC, Chaddock has taken on cinematic spacetravel with Hyperlanes but now he’s coming out with a new book all about the apocalypse.

Hellscapes is an adaptation of the D&D 5e rules for post-apocalyptic settings, providing rules for capturing the feel of the genre. The book has new mechanics, new classes and backgrounds, and lots of suggestions for how to create and manage a world in ruins.

Chapter 1: Survival

The adaptation from a high fantasy default for D&D to a post-apocalyptic one for Hellscapes is pretty slight, mechanically speaking. Arcana and Nature are replaced with Science (technical and research skills) and Old Ways (knowledge of the world before (respectively). There are different tools (which mechanically includes vehicles) and for the DM there are rules for hazards which are like environmental monster opponents (with CR and experience and everything).

A short discussion of different types of apocalypses has my imagination running: Cold World (everything’s frozen), Hot World (everything’s blasted), Nuclear World (everything’s irradiated), Occupied World (everything’s under the heel of aliens or robots or Cthulhu), Pestilence World (everyone’s dead), and Zombie World (everyone’s undead). These don’t have many mechanics individually but they are referenced throughout the book.

Finally, there are some awesome rules for looting, searching, salvaging, crafting, repairing, founding communities, and those other staples of living in the wasteland. None of these are particularly complicated so they should be a cinch to slot into your other games if you want to borrow them for something else, like having a survival scenario on the Great Glacier or being lost in the wastelands of Athas.

Chapter 2: Origins

While you could port in elves, dwarves, and other races from across the broad spectrum of D&DHellscapes presents four different options that they term “origins.” This is because all four are humans but just slightly altered by the post-apocalyptic world. The first is bog-standard humans from the Player’s Handbook, though these are definitely a rarity in the harsh landscape. The second option is “tribals” which replace the ability score modifiers (and feats if you’re using them) with Ways that represent what your tribe does. You pick three of them so your tribe might Die Honorably, Fight Back, and Hunt Prey while your friend’s tribe might Read Words, Fix Things, and Worship. These have effects to describe the settlement that the tribal characters come from, which makes a wonderful, baked-in method of collaborative world-building.

Hellscapes - Mountain Path
Image © Scrivened, LLC

The final two options are playing humans who have been inextricably altered by the apocalypse (whatever it was): bestials and mutants. Whether you want them to be animals mutated into humanoids or humans crossed with animals, bestials are an atavistic hodge-podge. There are twenty (!) different subraces to pick from depending on what type of animal you want to play, everything from bat-people and fish-people to rabbit-people and octopus-people (they have better names). Mutants are just what they say on the tin, humans genetically altered by the apocalypse to gain strange powers. Mutant characters get three mutations (choosing from choices like pyrokinetic, powerful senses, or hulking) and they can change them when they level up so they keep mutating.

Chapter 3: Class

Like Hyperlanes (which I wrote about previously), the mechanics of spells have been maintained for Hellscapes but the flavor and story have been replaced. Instead of spells, classes gain access to “gimmicks” which represent useful tricks and tactics that keep folks alive in the wilderness. Cantrips are similarly replaced but have different names depending on the class (like orisons for clerics) and they add some spice to the different roles.

  • Marauders are the post-apocalyptic version of barbarians and they seem like they’d be right at home on Fury Road. They get gambits, though, which depend on their primal archetype: Feral (basically Old Man Logan), Myth (billing yourself as some legend reborn like Alexander the Great or David Hasselhoff), or Raider (all spikes, leather, and skull motifs).
  • Nomads are wanderers and traders, using the D&D ranger as a template. They are excellent at exploring and have a wide variety of martial archetypes to pick from: Gearhead (fixer and scavenger), Haggler (the trader with everything), and Survivalist (the last one standing).
  • Outcasts are those who live on the fringes of society with abilities based on the rogue. They have all the stealy-sneaky stuff of rogues but also some ability to connect with “weirdoes” and “misfits.” Their archetypes are the Lone Wolf (just like it sounds), Masked (living behind an iconic mask), and Packrat (combination hoarder and gun-monkey).
  • Scavengers are the most resourceful of the classes; post-apocalyptic sorcerers with tons of gambits. They get Jury-Rig Points instead of Sorcerer Points and Hacks instead of Metamagic but the gist is still there. Their archetypes are the Fetishist (centered on a personalized item, as described below), the Rigger (nothing you can’t fix), and the Sawbones (fixin’ up people too).
  • Throwbacks are those who fight for civilization in a world where that has died. They are based on the paladin and the more mystical aspects of that class (including smiting and laying on hands) really translates well to this game. They have Solemn Oaths which are the Oath of Knowledge (don’t let ignorance win), the Oath of Office (just because the world ends doesn’t mean you stop being a cop… or a firefighter… or whatever), and the Oath of Persistence (“I don’t care what happened, humanity will survive!”).
  • Warriors are, unsurprisingly, based on the fighter and they’re pretty straightforward as well. They’ve got some cool archetypes as well: the Bane (hunting down a particular baddie), the Gladiator (professional fighter), and the Warlord (leading armies).
Hellscapes - Watching the End of the World
Image © Scrivened, LLC

Chapter 4: Options

This chapter starts off with an excellent discussion of alignment in a setting with hard ethical choices, something I remember reading and loving in one of the original Dark Sun books. Harsh settings like a post-apocalyptic hellscape might just be opportunities to punish good and/or lawful people but it doesn’t have to be. The authors do a good job of talking about the unique challenges in this type of setting without actually being discouraging.

Backgrounds are also found in this chapter and they come in a wide variety, from the religious Chosen One to a tribe’s lookout. There are only ten (the PHB has seventeen if you need a reminder) but there are so many 5e backgrounds out there and they are the pillar of character creation that should be easiest to adapt.

The chapter wraps up with eleven new feats meant to complement the ones in the Player’s Handbook (which should be all fair game except for the magical ones). My favorites are Loyal Pet (which gives you an animal friend out in the wastes), One of Them (which lets you masquerade as a zombie or an alien or whatever your setting has), and Supplementary Training (which gives you a 0-level trick your class doesn’t normally access, which is a great tool in a setting where everyone’s a spellcaster).

Chapter 5: Equipment

You can tell an equipment chapter is going to be good when it starts with a discussion of economics. That sounds like something I would say sarcastically but I mean it sincerely this time: the first part of this chapter is about the realities of using bullets as currency or the difficulty of introducing new coinage in a rebuilt society. Combined with a short set of rules on gear conditions, this makes for a really interesting approach to equipment right off the bat.

There are, of course, lots of new bits of equipment and properties to go along with it. Characters might wear hazmat suits or circuit boards as armor, they can have shotguns or greatswords to fight with, and carry old canned goods that risk botulism. In addition to all the Mad Max equipment, Hellscapes has “personalized items” which replace magic items in core D&D 5e. Like magic items, personalized items need to be attuned to (to personalize them) and then they have useful properties known as “mods” which can be flame-proof armor, dead aim rifles, or a sawed-off shotgun.

It’s a really easy system that mimics the sort of personalized items seen in post-apocalyptic films. You have to be alright with a little less realism in the mechanics. In the end you can have your wasteland raider with a massive blade that everyone has heard of and an former U.S. marshal with his trusted revolver that’s been with him through thick and thin. It’s a strong use of the magic item mechanics that, honestly, work a lot better than I expected.

Hellscapes - Blasted Landscape
Image © Scrivened, LLC

Chapter 6: Vehicles

The chapter on vehicles gets pretty technical and I don’t expect it to make or break anyone’s opinion of this book. As such, I’m not going to try to go through it in exhaustive detail but let me just say that it’s well-written and focused on how to use vehicles dynamically in awesome scenes. No one’s concerned about driving your jeep through the desert; it’s when you’re driving it to chase down fleeing slavers that you want some direction. There are rules, of course, and they’re pretty straightforward but you’ve only got two pages to get through before you’re off to the races. (See what I did there?)

Chapter 7: Gambits

Like I’ve said, gambits take the place of spells in Hellscapes and every character class has at least a few. They’re tricks and tactics that survivors in the wasteland use to keep ahead of whatever has shattered the world and they come in a variety of different styles. Like spells, gambits have schools: Civilization (using the community), Daredevil (cutting it close), Foresight (planning ahead), Instinct (living by your wits), Old Ways (mostly tech stuff), Patching (fixing stuff), Scrounge (finding stuff), Slaying (killing stuff), and Wilderness (being freakin’ Bear Grylls). Your class and archetype decide what you have access to, further differentiating the characters’ various strengths.

You can probably picture how all of these work and function, but let me put in one more detail that I think is really awesome. A number of these gambits (particularly the ones from the Foresight school) have the tag “Retroactive,” which means they are intended to be non-linear. In other words, when you use the gambit treatment (for example) your armor gains resistance to a type of damage of your choice. This isn’t because you miraculously change your armor, but rather that it gets retconned that you put a special coating on your armor a few hours ago. This is the approach taken by other survival-oriented games like Night’s Black Agents and Red Markets and I’m all for its inclusion in a 5e ruleset.

Chapter 8: Monsters

The monster section is, by necessity, more of a list of bits and bobs than a true monster resource. There are generic creatures like acid-blooded aliens, fish-men, tentacle bears, hunter-killer robots, and barenaked brutes. The chapter starts, though, with templates, vulnerabilities and a huge table for scaling up or down Challenge Ratings. You can use these tools to create something unique to throw against your players with a little pre-planning.

Start with the deer woman, for instance, and then add the template for mobile and you have some memorable hit-and-run raiders to strike at the player character’s settlement. Double the CR and add the deadly to make a leader for the deer women as a boss fight for when the characters storm the enemy camp to put an end to their attacks. It’s definitely not an on-the-fly system and it probably deserves some trial-and-error before you really feel comfortable but it’s solid and flexible.

Hellscapes - Firelight Horde
Image © Scrivened, LLC

Conclusion

Listen, nothing is perfect. Are there problems with Hellscapes that will disappoint purchasers? Sure… I mean there has to be, right? I’m just not seeing them. This book has an ambitious premise: to take a game about graceful elves and sneaky little halflings and change that game into a nerve-wracking survivalist game in a blasted landscape. But it does it, and it does it with some clever developments and interesting twists.

The only possible reasons not to get this book are that you have other books you’re already excited about (always a possibility) or that you don’t like D&D 5e (which necessarily means you’d be out for this version too). If you like the system, though, and you have any interest in running post-apocalyptic games with it then Hellscapes is a must-buy. Seriously, go buy it now.

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