Damnation Decade
Developer's Journal

by Robert J. Toth

Green Ronin's Bicentennial Minute

Welcome to 1976.

The nation's finest and foxiest are shimmying into discos and singles bars, snorting powder off mirrors, and bumping their booties to earthshaking basslines. Turtlenecked suburbanites spend their afternoons in Group and their evenings with the spouse next door—sometimes both of them. You'll find a lava lamp on every desk, a muscle car in every garage, and a pet rock in every pocket.

But don't let the funky facade fool you. This isn't the year you remember. While the United States of Americo gets its bicentennial groove on, the foundations of the world are starting to crack—and unearthly forces are slipping in through the fissures.

The temperature is soaring. The ice caps are shearing apart, flooding the coastlines and wrecking the weather. Droughts and acid rain are turning farmland to ashes, leaving millions hungry and restless. The oil wells are down to their last drop. Even the bees are getting angry—and organized.

And that's just the respectable bad news. Tabloids and trashy television shows are filled with off-the-wall stories that get more plausible each passing day. Saucers swooping out of the midnight sky to snatch people from their beds. Hulking man-apes stomping through the deep forests on outsized feet. Dinosaurs haunting the nation's lakes. Devils forcing their way into people's heads.

What the hell happened? Nobody who knows the truth is telling. But it all seemed to start two years ago—on August 9th, 1974.

President Stanton Spobeck's dirty tricks had finally caught up with him, and he was about to resign before he could get booted from office in disgrace. Then a once-in-an-epoch earthquake snapped off the West Coast of Americo and plunged it into the ocean. Spobeck stayed in office in the interest of national stability, promising to face the music once the crisis was over (wink wink).

But things just kept getting worse. The environment tanked. The monsters (or whatever they are) came out of the closet. And Spobeck put the entire Southwest of Americo under martial law. He claimed the area had been contaminated and was facing dangerous aftershocks from the quake. But everybody knows he's trying to keep something trapped in there. You can't turn on the news without seeing elliptical reports of massacres and riots across the farm belt. Something big and hungry is on the hunt. But what woke it up? And what does it want?

Nobody is taking this well. Americo's Cold War enemies are striking while the country is distracted, gobbling up huge chunks of the free world. And of course, back at home, the nation is partying in deep denial, shaking their money-makers in BootyDome dancehalls or cheering along to Omegaball, the blood sport that has become the fastest-growing pastime in the world. Others have taken refuge in secular cults promising everything from a peek at your past lives to a ticket on an ancient astronaut's saucer.

Just about the only people who aren't raving up a storm or making a power grab are you and your team of adventurous friends. Why? You know something everybody else doesn't. According to the prophecies of an obscure 16th-century mystic named Abednego Trestle, the world as we know it is going to end at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, 1979—unless someone does something to stop it.

That's your job. Welcome to Damnation Decade.

The Road to Damnation.

Hi! I'm Rob Toth. What you've just read is the introduction to Damnation Decade, a Mythic Vistas campaign setting for the d20 Modern Roleplaying Game and True20 Adventure Roleplaying—not to mention my home away from home for the past two and a half years. The folks at Green Ronin have asked me to get you acquainted with Damnation Decade and give you a look behind the scenes: Where did the idea come from? How did it develop into a fully-fledged world? What fabulous new crunch can you expect?

This first Designer's Journal will cover the "pre-history" of DD. Between the first flash of inspiration and the summary you saw above, the game took some huge evolutionary twists—and ended up looking nothing like the original idea.

It all started at Gen Con 2003. Three friends and I had just turned in the manuscript for Black Sails Over Freeport, and I was itching to try something on my own. Stopping by the Green Ronin booth, I picked up a copy of Testament, one of the original Mythic Vistas campaign settings—and it completely blew me away. I loved the idea of taking a setting that had been more or less ignored by role-playing games and mining every corner of it for tonally perfect rules. Meanwhile, the level of historical detail was just astonishing. Scott Bennie clearly knew his stuff, and made the book a pleasure to read.

I kicked around ideas with some friends, but none of them really worked. So I went back to basics. I asked myself: What subject do I know inside and out that hasn't been tackled as an RPG? The answer: the apocalyptic sci-fi movies of the 1970s. (Hey, we can't all be bible scholars.)

For the uninitiated, the movies came in two flavors. One, the Soylent Green/Rollerball axis, took place in a world choking on pollution and people, needing just one more nudge to send it plummeting to oblivion. The other, the foxy and fabulous Logan's Run continuum, showed a world after the long slide into nowhere. The past had been obliterated by the new Powers That Be, and the future looked a lot like a Fort Worth-area shopping mall.

I got my pitch in good working order, cleared it with my expert friends and crossed my fingers. To my immense surprise, and lasting gratitude, Chris Pramas and Co. loved it. I got down to business.

The game world was a cross between Logan's Run and Rollerball. The Earth had been devastated by wars and environmental catastrophes, and most of the remaining population was clustered into large domed cities. In the nation of AmeriCo, where the game largely took place, the domes were controlled by mega-corporations that kept everybody healthy and fed—but with a tremendous catch. People had to surrender every last aspect of their lives to corporate control. History and tradition had been erased, and a bunch of mind-fogging beliefs put in their place, centered on sex, drugs and disco.

At that stage, the big challenge seemed to be figuring out how the corporations got control of the planet. Who would let a company take over his country, let alone his life, no matter how desperate he was? None of the original sci-fi flicks came close to a plausible answer.

So I decided that some otherworldly force backed each of the corporations: UFO-nauts, demons, sentient androids. Back in the 1970s, these secret masters had created a worldwide environmental and social crisis as part of a complex plan to bring their corporate cats'-paws to power. (The big upheaval, happily enough, also locked the world into a 1970s level of technology and aesthetics.)

As I wrote, I showed sections of the book to a few pals, who kept me on track and helped me shape the details of the game. One buddy, my Freeport co-author Rob Lawson, was especially helpful with the world guide. He directed me toward Feng Shui as an example of a game with a well-presented "secret history"; he also passed along Big Eyes, Small Mouth, which managed to describe an entire world with concise but evocative blurbs.

When it came time to turn the manuscript in for editing, I asked Chris if I could work with Todd Miller—creator of Ork!, frequent contributor to the Freeport books and one of my best pals. Outside of gaming, Todd is an accomplished playwright with the best editorial eyes around. Anytime I write something, he reads it first—and inevitably helps me make it better, even if that means scrapping the first draft and starting from scratch.

Remember that last bit.

Living in the Past

As the months went on, Todd shot me questions, prompting lots of rewrites and additions. In September 2004, when my wife called me at the office to say she had gone into labor, I was trying to figure out skill points for a 10th-level multiclass NPC.

At long last, Todd called me around Christmas to tell me he was done with his end of things. But he wanted to give me the verdict in person. I was already nervous; the rules editor—a serious major leaguer when it came to d20 Modern—had weighed in not long before, and he had big problems with some of the stuff I'd cooked up. What else could be coming?

A couple of days later, with my three-month-old son snoozing in my lap, Todd dropped the bomb. The game didn't work.

He made a lot of excellent arguments, but one point really hit home. The two main inspirations for the game—Rollerball and Logan's Run—were completely at odds with each other. Essentially, I was trying to have things both ways. The game was set in a vacuum-packed, ahistorical future—but everywhere you looked, the grit and grime of the real 1970s kept seeping in.

The problem worked its way into every facet of the system. For instance, the game was littered with 1970s artifacts, something like the pre-atomic leftovers in Gamma World. You could dig up guns and mood rings and Pintos, and track down people who remembered the Old Days. Todd didn't buy it. You've got all-powerful villains that control every aspect of life, he argued. Why didn't they simply destroy all the artifacts way back when, and kill everybody who remembered what life was like before the takeover? For that matter, why couldn't they just do whatever they want to stop the heroes? Why wasn't their grasp on power complete?

I put up a decent defense, but it began to dawn on me that Todd was right. There were two strains in the game that just weren't compatible. Much as I loved the campy, goofball Logan's Run world, not least for the iconography of its domes, I liked the hard-as-nails naturalism of Rollerball more.

Which made Todd's suggested compromise that much harder to swallow. He thought the game should be set hundreds of years in the future—not thirty, as I originally wrote—with the corporations firmly in charge and no trace of the 1970s at all. A definitive apocalypse had wiped out the past and the players were starting from scratch. Logan's Run—not Rollerball.

I had just resigned myself to axing some of my favorite parts of the game when Todd said he had another proposal—one that was really off the wall but just might work.

Set the game in the 1970s—before the big bad guys came to power. It would be much more tense and believable for the players to try to beat the clock and foil the villains' plans at the start—rather than try to take down an entire society that's already in place. As Todd pointed out, the back story of these sinister corporations—how they came to power, and who was pulling their strings—was some of the most compelling material in the book. It's not a good sign when the most exciting stuff happened thirty years before the players show up!

It would be a ludicrous amount of work: an entirely new book in six months' time. My son would probably be walking before the whole project was ready to go to print. But the solution was so elegant I knew I'd never forgive myself if I let it go. I agreed; and Chris, once again to my surprise and lasting gratitude, gave the OK to remake the world.

Next time, I'll talk about the design choices that went into the final version of the game—from the skills, feats and character classes all the way down to the choice of names.