Few game systems match the apathy and brutality of Dead Earth. If you're a fan of Fallout, Rage, Mad Max, and all things post-apocalyptic, this game is one you must try.
And I do mean try, because surviving Dead Earth is by no means guaranteed. Dead Earth is just that cruel. As the game intro states: "Only one will mourn for your death, and that is you. Take heed."
Dead Earth is out of print and has been for nearly 20 years now, but it was released for posterity under the GNU Free Documentation license. It is, therefore, free to re-distribute.
Sadly, the copies you find floating around the Internet are often missing one thing or another. All the GFDL versions I could locate had no artwork whatsoever, which makes sense for a document for which the text and not the art has been licensed freely, but they're also missing damage die for weaponry, weight and height effect charts, and other important pieces of mechanics.
Compounding the issue is that the writing of the rulebook, at its best, was arguably inelegant. Part of that is its natural style. Dead Earth makes no pretense: you are the scum of the [dead] Earth and deserve to be talked down to, taunted, ridiculed, and generally prepared for a quick and miserable death. That attitude sometimes extended from tone to grammar and spell checking, possibly not intentionally. Then again, the authors of Dead Earth had a lot more planned than they were able to accomplish in the end, so maybe the writing would have gotten polished eventually.
The game is an amazing and unique experience, though, and so Mixed Signals is hosting copies of the Dead Earth GFDL bundle, complete with the critical updates to the PDF you need to actually play. This includes restored table layout so that the charts are readable (some of the PDF formatting had decayed over the years due to, presumably, changes in fonts and general shifts in the PDF format) and restored charts that were previously missing entirely. There are also clarifications on some of the rules, and bookmarks for easier navigation.
In one case, a new rule has been provided alongside the old "traditional" method. In the original game, you were told to roll 2d6 for each skill on the character sheet. If you rolled a critical success (12), then you gained some special benefits to rolls on that skill, but if you rolled a critical failure (2), then you got some special disadvantages to rolls on that skill. The problem is, there are one hundred skills on the character sheet, so you were expected to roll 2d6 100 times in a row, recording only a 2 or a 12.
There's no way to make that entertaining, so this free revision offers an alternative: roll a d100 to get a random a skill, and then a d% to decide whether you're good at it (51-100) or bad at it (1-50). You repeat this process for a total of 6 times, and you have the average number of skills that probably would have been affected by rolling 100 times, with some randomness thrown in to determine whether you had a net gain or loss. It's not an exact simulation of the original process but in practise I find that it achieves a close-enough approximation. And close-enough is the key phrase; Dead Earth is brutal by default, so it's not entirely unintended that this alternative leans toward more success than failure.
Also included is a digital version of the character sheet. It's compatible with the free and open source Libre Office and Open Office suites, which are both available for all platforms, and it may even run on online spreadsheet apps (although this is untested, because I store my data locally). Dead Earth is pretty easy to manage on paper, so the digital version isn't really necessary, but it's a nice option to have, and there are some pleasant features, such as colour-coded skills (green for a natural ability, red for an inability), auto-calculation of maximum load, and a few other conveniences.
And yes, you can download the whole bundle for free from Mixed Signals!
To extract the bundle, you may need to download and install the free and open source 7-zip archive tool (that's
p7zip for Linux users, available from your software repository). And yes, it really is legal! Just click the icon below:
Now that you know how to obtain the game, here's an overview.
Dead Earth uses two kinds of die: a d6 for skill and damage rolls, and a percentile die (d% and a d10, or just 2d10).
The difficulty of tasks not specifically based on a skill is set by the GM, in anticipation of a percentile roll. There are 6 shades of difficulty but generally you succeed by rolling below 15, with 24 being difficult, 36 improbable, and 51 being impossible.Skill rolls are contested rolls, usually against an enemy. For skill-based rolls, you roll as many d6 dice as you have levels in the skill you're rolling for. If you're level 3 in a skill, you roll 3d6, and so on. For instance, if a player is attempting to pick a lock whilst a guard is running toward them, I have the player roll their jimmy lock die against a running roll of the guard. The highest roll wins.
In cases where a task is obviously related to a skill, but there is no one to roll against (for instance, when a player attempts to shoot a power switch from far away, the DMG and PHB are vague on how to set difficulty. In these cases, I invent a difficulty level for the task in terms of die, and then the player makes a contested roll against me. For instance, if a player has 3d6 in weapon specialty rifle, and they're attempting to shoot a power switch from 400 meters away, then I set the difficulty to 4d6 (4 die per 100 meters seems fair to me). Highest roll wins.
You get skill points at the start of the game when building your character (mostly determined by your character's age). You use those points to gain levels in skills. You can spend 10 skill points to gain an additional die in any skill. Of course, some skills have prerequisite skills, so getting even 1 die in a skill could have a greater effective cost than just 10 skill points. Still, it's not uncommon to start with a few hundred skill points, so you must decide early on whether your character specialises in one area, or whether you want to play a generalist with a few die in many different skills.
Instead of gaining experience points as you play, you are rewarded with skill points, which you can use to improve your character.
The combat system in Dead Earth is precise and lovingly laborious. It seems complex at first, but once you get the hang of it, it's a lot of fun.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, the initiative roll (the roll to see who goes first) is better when you roll high. It makes sense if you think about it: the lowest roll goes first, and making the first move in combat necessarily betrays your tactics and gives your opponent the opportunity to counter your move. So you want to roll high when going into combat.
A combat round is variable, depending entirely on your character's unique abilities. Some characters have only 2 moves in combat, others have 6, another might have 10. It all depends on your character build and progression. At the start of a combat round, the person with the lowest initiative roll declares all of their intended moves during that round. Then the next lower roll does the same. Some actions take multiple moves, so strategy is a combination of good attacks balanced with freedom of movement. All actions and their move costs and effects are on the back of the character sheet, so there's nothing to remember: it's spelled out for you.
Players who rolled higher than their opponent can adapt their actions to defend against attacks. Your actions are never locked in until you've actually taken them (again, the higher your initiative compared to your enemy, the better).
There are skills for attacks, defense, and evasion, so you can work your way up to being a better fighter by adding new tricks to your arsenal.
Combat systems usually make more sense if you experience it, or at least observe it, so follow along with this brief demonstration. Assume Alice has 4 moves, Bob has 2. They're fighting a large brute mutant who has 4 moves.
Selecting moves from the character sheet, the GM has the brute, who rolled lowest initiative, attack first. He decides to have the brute do a hammerfist on Alice (costs 3 moves), and then take a jab (1 move) at Bob.
Unlike in D&D and similar, combat doesn't happen in 6 second rounds [game world time]. Everything is declared by each player as an overview of their turn, and this is why going first is a disadvantage. Alice knows that her assailant is going to try a hammerfist move on her. It costs him 3 moves to try that, so she uses the special defend move from her combat sheet: it costs whatever number of moves the attack that you're dodging costs, but she decides it's worth it. She still has one move left after that, though, so she decides to do a turn (1 move) in an attempt to get behind her enemy.
Bob has 2 moves. He decides to take his chances with the jab from his foe, and to spend his own moves on a balance check, in an attempt to trip up his enemy.
And that's a round of combat. Once all actions are resolved, damage is dealt, and a new round begins.
It can get more complex from the player's perspective, sometimes, when they're declared their action but then get thwarted by an enemy who rolled a higher initiative than they did. For instance, if you declared that you were going to jump kick and then come down for a pile driver, but your kick didn't meet its mark because your enemy defended, then your turn necessarily has to change to adapt to the new reality of what actually happened.
But the adaptation is part of the fun. It's a nice, hyper-tactical big-picture view of a fight, with grand schemes falling apart and daring actions taking everyone by surprise.
First of all, the player's handbook encourages you to gather friends and build characters together. This is something I've never done in any RPG system I've played (even Dead Earth; I only noticed this "rule" when re-reading the player's handbook for this article), but the idea of making character creation a group quest appeals to me. My first experience with RPG consisted entirely of building AD&D characters with friends during school lunch breaks, so I like the idea of a session spent building characters and maybe a quick intro adventure.
The process is clear and simple: you roll the number of d6 proscribed in the player's handbook for each attribute, consult the tables, and calculate the results. The player's handbook steps through the whole process without too much prose to distract or confuse you. It's not as clear as, say, an old-school RPG like Dungeon Raiders, but it's a lot clearer than D&D or Pathfinder (partly because there are no races or classes in Dead Earth).
Skill points and renown are the main currency for players in Dead Earth. Renown are a sort of hybrid of D&D's Inspiration points and Experience points, while skill points are like Pathfinder's skill ranks. Both help you level up your character, and probably most importantly, they can help you stay alive.
Radiation in Dead Earth is like a metaphorical big black cloud looming overhead, or (to keep in the style of Dead Earth) like the stench of your own body odour: ever-present, inescapable, and so bad that you might start to find it comforting given enough exposure.
Your first roll against the radiation table is during character creation. The number of times you have to roll is determined by your character's age (which itself is determined by a percentile roll). The older you are, the more radiation you've likely encountered in your lifetime.
As you adventure, you must roll against the radiation table depending on where you are in the Dead Earth world. Coastal regions and lowlands tend to have more residual radiation, so you may have to roll once a week. Other areas are less affected, making radiation rolls rare.
Radiation effects vary from literal death sentences (020. Decapitation. Radiation blows your head right off. 10d10 to your head.) to major upgrades (011. Crafty. Add a d6 to your jury-rig skill). And there are a staggering number of effects, especially if you get or create a supplemental radiation table.
Is it fun?
Radiation in Dead Earth is harsh, unforgiving, detrimental, powerful, and insanely fun. Everybody likes to roll die, and the process of discovering just what radiation can do always makes for a memorable game night.
Make no mistake: it's made very clear in the player's handbook that you adventurers are anything but normal. You venture into unknown territory, you brave radiation, you're mutated and feared. Radiation isn't just a game mechanic, it has in-game social repercussions.
It does take some getting used to, though, especially if you're used to building characters with complex back-stories, and with high hopes for character development. Characters in Dead Earth are disposable. They're simultaneously the heroes of the story and the meaningless NPCs meandering in somebody else's background. They will die, sometimes without the chance to fight back. There's a realism to it; death can take you by surprise, and often times it does.
Dead Earth itself notes in the Player's Handbook that you are playing a game, so if instant permadeath doesn't appeal to you, then you can and should change the rule! If your character would have died during character creation, and that's not your style, then just re-roll. It's acceptable to do that. I've done it, myself and I didn't regret it once. If your character dies during the game, and that's not your style, then make a new rule; you can impose a penalty, like losing all of your possessions, or losing a rank in a skill, or a limb. This is one of the inherent advantages of tabletop games: they're easy to reprogram, so take advantage of the flexibility if you need to.
There's a little bit of world history provided in the book, but all in all there's not much detail about the setting in the Dead Earth player's handbook or GM's guide. The beautiful thing is that there doesn't need to be. Like vampire lore and zombie apocalypses, we're all basically on the same page when it comes to post-nuclear wasteland. If you're sitting down to play Dead Earth, you probably have played Fallout or Wasteland, or you've read Vonnegut or Philip K. Dick or Jack Vance, or you've seen Mad Max or 12 Monkeys. And if nothing else, you've lived on Earth your entire life so you understand the basic premise.
As much as I dislike the collaborative storytelling style of RPG game play, like the way FATE and Powered By the Apocalypse seems to encourage, I don't tend to mind it so much in Dead Earth (not that Dead Earth imposes it, but familiarity with a setting enables it). No matter what your character is doing, you can usually make safe assumptions about the state of your environment without stepping on the GM's toes. If a player's trying to get someplace whilst being hunted by the local population for being a radiation mutant, and suddenly decides to take to the abandoned subway tunnels in a location the GM had never imagined there being subway tunnels, it's easy to adjust. The only mechanic-specific in-game systems that must remain mostly untouched is radiation.
In addition to being a player in a Dead Earth adventure, I've also been GM for one or two adventures, and even with my heavy modifications to the default post-apocalyptic setting that we all culturally share, my players were always able to make assumptions about the world around them, adding events and details to the setting without risking poking plot holes into my carefully constructed world.
Look, you learn really quickly to view life in Dead Earth as cheap, so a dead character just isn't that big of a deal. By contrast, though, a character with 25 renown really means something! Such a character has survived, such a character is truly and literally legendary. I haven't put in enough Dead Earth hours to have ever seen a legendary character, much less play one, and that makes it feel special.
Surviving Dead Earth is a big deal. It feels good not to die.
Photo by Natalya Letunova. Unsplash License.