This RPG review is based on a topic I posted on Dragonsfoot.org some time ago. My thanks to everyone over at Dragonsfoot for their input.
A while back I was in Panama City Beach, FL on a family vacation and decided to check out the local bookshops – this is something I always do when I’m visiting another town for any lengthy period of time. After checking out the Local Friendly and a few small used bookstores we hit upon The Book Bin – a literary bastion among the big-box stores, cheap fast food restaurants and rundown motels of Panama City.
Therein, mixed among the comic books and an old filing cabinet that hid the pornography, was a literal plethora of gaming material spanning several shelves. I was in nerd heaven! There was so much stuff, I had to concentrate on the weird things. One of my (many) finds that day was a little A4-foldie-pamphlet-style book called Simian Conquest (by Marshall Rose and Norman Knight, Avant-Garde Simulations Perspectives, 1978) – an entire RPG encapsulated in just under 30, 5″x 11″ pages!
The sweet old lady who ran the shop (in business for 45 years, she claimed) looked at the pamphlet’s price ($2.95 in 1978 dollars) and halved it to an even $1.50 (2016 USD).
First Impression: The cover art (which depicts a loincloth-clad man filling a large, leather-clad mutant-ape-man with pistol rounds) is charmingly “amateurish. ” It has that primitive-yet-evocative feel reminiscent of the interior art of the OD&D “Little Brown Books.” The thing just screams old school.
The subtitle: “Rules for Ape Fantasy Combat and Adventure,” does little to convey what this booklet really is: a direct appropriation of the Planet of the Apes franchise, right down to the ape-species social order of orangutans being the elder statesmen/administrators, chimps being the middle class and gorillas the military/labor class. Of course, humans are below the apes and are regarded as non-sentient (to be treated as chattel and used as subjects in copious, seemingly cruel-for-cruel’s-sake experiments). There are two special classes of humans: mutants and astronauts – but more on that later.
What strikes me most about this game is the brevity of the whole thing. The text claims the game is “designed to be learned in one evening,” and I believe it. This is the best example of clear and succinct writing in RPGs I’ve seen in a while. Of course, it helps that the POTA universe cannot be addressed directly (for obvious copyright/legal reasons) and so the text does not deal with specific characters or situations, but it does a great job of describing the milieu. For example, here is the entire entry under the subheading character type “Apes:”
“Apes are now the rulers of the Earth. There are three separate species of apes, and they work together with amazing cohesion. Apes have the ability to speak, and use it to communicate. Apes live in adobe-brick cities and have developed a city-state government with strong trends towards a theocracy. The Ape religion is based on ape superiority and the evil of man. The Primary law of Ape-kind is that apes do not kill other apes.”
And that’s it. It goes on to distinguish the three “Ape Species” and their roles in ape society and physical characteristics in three short paragraphs. There are four possible character types in the game: ape, human, mutant and astronaut. The mutants are a subterranean race with psionic-like abilities, hidden from the surface world, who worship the atomic bomb (sound familiar?). These psionic-like abilities (called “Mental Abilities”) include: Telepathy, Pain Giving, Sentient Control, Illusion and Telekinesis. The game puts no restrictions on what type of character the players can be, but it assumes that most player groups will be astronauts. The introduction states:
“Picture this environment. Somewhere from deep in the past, a spaceship carrying astronauts travels through a warp in time, and crash lands on this backwards planet. The astronauts have advance skills, but no advanced machinery to use them. They are experts in combat, but suffer heavily from being outnumbered. Could they restore humans to their rightful(?) place back on Earth? Could they survive?”
The intro goes on to explain how the astronauts don’t know that the planet is indeed Earth…it also states:
“The rules have been made as simple as possible in order to reflect such a backwards time. The combat system is likewise simple to provide fast moving combat scenes.”
“Could you change future history? Could you just survive? Only your skills and luck will be the determiner. GOOD LUCK, you’ll need it.”
The game primarily uses six-sided dice and one twenty-sided die. The six-sided dice are used to determine ability scores (Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity, Endurance). The number of six-sided dice for each ability is determined by character type/species. For example, male gorillas (the strongest) would roll 4d6 for Strength. Male humans roll 3d6. Normal humans only get to roll 1d6 for intelligence (like the chimps and orangutans, the human astronauts get 3d6 Intelligence).
A d20 (plus applicable attribute, range or expertise modifier) is used for combat determination. There is an “effects” chart for each weapon type versus character type. This is reminiscent of many Avalon Hill-style wargames (except those tend to use six sided dice). For example:
So, an attacker with a knife (or spear) needs a 17 or greater (after mods) to kill an astronaut. The ability modifiers are much like Classic D&D: a score of 15-17 Strength will give you +2 with a melee weapon. A score of 24 Strength (a possible for gorillas) will give you +5! Characters are expected to have an expertise “level” of at least 1 in order to use a particular weapon. Each character type starts out with a fixed number (or range) of expertise levels for various weapons (i.e. gorillas start with a level 1 expertise in knives and 1d6 levels of expertise in handguns).
Mental Abilities are handled as such: the defender/victim must make a savings throw (d20, modified by intelligence) . The saves table shows “Mutant Expertise” on the X axis and “Mental Power Type” on the Y axis. According to the chart, a victim-character must roll 20 or greater to resist the Sentient Control of a Expertise level 7 mutant … 14 or greater against a Expertise level 4 mutant, and so on … Pain Giving, for example, causes loss of 1 endurance point per mutant expertise level…
Combat is very abstract. Combat rounds are measured in seconds (approx 15 seconds per round) and in each round there is a movement phase (simultaneous using secret written orders, if necessary), initiative phase (1d6, individual, in order of highest to lowest), attack roll phase (to determine what happens) and a hit results phase (where a table is consulted to determine what a “Stun” or “Wound H” does, etc.). Results are immediate. Initiative is re-rolled each round. When a character is wounded, depending on the severity, they may lose up to 5 endurance points and lose their attack that round. Endurance acts as a “hit point system” although a character can be killed outright during a melee with the right roll. There is even a “death’s door, unconscious” rule where a character can drop to -10 endurance before death! Interesting considering this is 1978!
There are also rules for mounted combat and nets. Possible weapons include, knives, spears, clubs, gangi stick and various firearms. Here is an sample combat from the book:
I believe the character sheet says a lot about a game’s design. So here’s the character sheet (and example character) included in the game:
Characters advance by by making kills with their weapons of choice – every five kills gains them one level of expertise (to a max of 7). There is also a rule for natural healing (one endurance point per day of rest).
Under the heading “Campaign” some advice on how to run the game is given. The book advises the “campaign moderator” to design a map of the campaign area (about 5 miles to the hex) although, interestingly, a campaign map is already provided on the inside back cover. The section provides a very exploration-based, “sandbox-style” sequence of play:
“The moderator gives the players a blank hexagonal grid that they can use as a map. He orients them as to what direction is which, and as they traverse the terrain, he will tell them what it is, and they can record it. Much adventure can take place in one day, and it is up to the moderator and players to make the most of it … Each game day, the player indicates to the campaign moderator what his character will do that day, i.e. move, go about his business, etc. The moderator then tells the player what happened and so on.”
The moderator is then instructed to make random encounter determinations (1 on a 1d6 per day) and various movement costs and possible encounter types are given on tables that follow. There are two main encounter tables: Civilized Area and Wilderness Area. Examples of encounters in wilderness areas include things like, 1-6 human warriors, wild horses, gorilla patrol, mutant outpost, chimp expedition, underground labyrinth. Encounter reaction tables (much in the vain of Classic D&D) are also given. This seems like the de rigueur of fantasy RPGs in the 1970’s – no fancy linear plot lines required!
All in all a fascinating look at “how things were done” back in the day! Simian Conquest as a beautiful example of no-frills, bare bones Old School goodness!