Game Review: Death is the New Pink
|Cover, Death is the New Pink, by Angie Groves|
© 2017 DIY RPG Productions
Publisher: DIY RPG Productions
Game Engine: Into the Odd
Marketplace: Swordfish Islands
Death is the New Pink is a role-playing game based on the Into the Odd Engine, which is D&D stripped down for fast play and maximum Lethality. Other examples of Into the Odd, aside from ItO itself, include Super Blood Harvest by Dirk and Silent Titans by Patrick Stuart.
It is a minimalistic D&D-based system where characters have three stats: Strength, Dexterity, and Will ranging from 3-18, along with Hit Points. Almost all rolls are 1d20 trying to roll under an appropriate stat like in Basic/Expert and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. In DitNP, these stats are renamed to the more Apropos Badassery, Dodging some Shit, and Moxy.
What I love about Into the Odd is that attacks in combat automatically hit, characters have piteously few hit points, and overflow damage goes to your STR stat... the same stat you then have to roll to not die. It makes combat beyond lethal. Generally, if you go toe-to-toe in combat, the first one to attack wins. Which means only an idiot goes into a straight-up fight. PCs who want to live ambush, sneak, sabotage, or do just about anything to turn the odds in their favour. In true OSR style, PCs win by thinking things through, stacking advantages, and treating direct combat as a last resort. There are no heroes in Into the Odd.
And that is what makes it the perfect engine for this particular game. Death is the New Pink is a post apocalyptic survival game inspired by such gloriously loud and blood-drenched titles as Borderlands, Fallout, Tank Girl, and Mad Max, as well as the music of KMFDM and White Zombie.
(Confession: Aside from Death Trash, I could pull the entire Ludography off of my media centre or stream it from my library in about 5 seconds.)
Death is the New Pink is also what I would call a true Punk RPG: it throws away needless niceties like the drab "What is Role-Playing" or "How to Play" sections and dives straight in assuming you know what you are doing an will play your own damn way. It keeps a rough, DIY aesthetic in its writing style and design, echoing the 80s and 90s punk 'zines I grew up on (God, I'm old!) The manual is full of humour often aimed at thumbing its nose at mainstream role-playing culture, Corporate America™, and the players themselves. It has no illusions about role-playing games as being anything other than silly stories with excessive Blood and Death -- and aims to deliver.
In fact, DitNP is such a prime example of Punk RPGs that I considered doing a compare and contrast review with the granddaddy of Punk RPGs : HõL (Human Occupied Landfill) by Dirt Merchant Games. I decided that I had enough to say about DitNP on its own that so would reserve that for a separate essay.
Over all, Death is the New Pink is a fun read, and promises a fast, furious, and delightfully dark experience.
Cohesive ExperienceThe fusion of the Punk aesthetic, the post-apocalyptic setting, and the stripped-down and lethal engine work incredibly well together. It is rare that a role playing game does such a great job of making the medium so perfectly reflect the content of the game.
With DitNP, the Punk 'zine manual and spray-style art feel as cobbled-together as the armour and junk cars the characters are using to stay alive. The rough writing style is like the trash the NPCs are likely to talk, and the system's brutality mirrors the fast-paced bloody action from the source material that you will want to emulate.
Often the inspirations for the game, such as Fallout - with its cumbersome menus - or Borderlands - with its jarring loot-grinding and undrivable vehicles - fail to keep you immersed because of the way those games' design fails to mesh with the game concept. DitNP here far exceeds the source material. The game's design choices suggest and reward the kind of play that will keep the game feeling like a battle for survival.
This coherent experience does more for immersion than the most advanced A/V presentation on Roll20 could ever hope to do.
IrreverentDungeons and Dragons in particular, and the idea of RPGs as a sophisticated storytelling medium in general are sacred cows that DitNP gleefully tips. It delights in offering scenarios and design choices that remind us that role-playing games should be fun first. And that they are rarely going to be high literature... And that they are probably better off aspiring to be good pulp.
More importantly, DitNP does this without piling on specific, easily dated pop cultural refrences and parodies as many Punk RPGs are prone to do.
Businesses and War-BandsOne of the modes of play that we have lost as role-playing games have changed their focus is the dominion phase of gameplay. This is a phase of a campaign where PCs take on apprentices, carve out territory, and begin making a living as guildmasters, mobsters, abbots, or defenders. BECMI Dungeons and Dragons in particular had a refined system for conquering land, leading followers, and commanding groups. I believe that this mode of play takes engagement with the campaign world to a whole new level, and ought to be a natural part of the evolution of many campaigns.
Unfortunately, the rules in the BECMI- and A- D&D eras were bulky and jarring, and the optional Leadership rules of D&D 3e and the Downtime options in Xanathar's Guide to Everything and the Faction rules in D&D5e are anemic by comparison.
DitNP reintroduced the idea of running organizations and commanding bands of followers in an innovative, lightweight set of mechanics. More importantly, the game makes it a part of character advancement not as a reward, but as a criterion.
AdvancementCharacter advancement is tied to broad achievements that the PC has made. At low levels just surviving one, then three, more and then a further five adventures is enough to level up. Higher levels, however come from taking proteges, guiding them through adventures, leading warbands, etc. The only way to reach the highest level is when a character attains a personally defined achievement that reshapes the setting, like founding a settlement, destroying a faction, finding a legendary item, etc.
In DitNP, you advance be engaging with, exploring, and changing the world. Not by racking up arbitrary points.
Character DeathOne of the things that has always bothered me about role-playing games is that they often do not provide guidance on how a new character should be integrated into the game when an old one dies. Others are punitive; forcing players to start from scratch regardless of the level of attainment of the past character.
DitNP resolves this two ways. First, as higher-level characters progress, they have a secondary character two or three levels lower that can replace thier main PC in the likely event of their death.
If a character is lower level, the PC is instead replaced by a level 1 PC with a Luck Point that grants that character one non-renewable guaranteed success. This helps guarantee the next character last a little longer, and gives them a boost towards levelling up.
ArtArt is subjective, of course, what one player loves, another might hate. Whether I like the art or not, is immaterial. (I do, btw.) What is more important and interesting as a question is: "Is this art apropos to the style, genre, and setting of the game?" Or "Does the art in this game manual enhance the experience of reading the book and inspire the GM's creativity?"
I have found many role-playing manuals of late have made a poor showing in this department; the current style focuses on elaborately stylized portraits of characters doing nothing - or nothing of interest.
The art in DitNP is a blast of fresh air. The style is a frenetic mix of characters you might see in elaborate 90s sprays (artistic graffiti), underground comics, and the art of Tank Girl or a Trigger Manga. It is raw, intense, and most importantly, it enhances the setting. The art style is deliberately rough and raw to evoke a violent, thuggish future.
Better yet, a lot of the art is of intense action scenes, post-apocalyptic ruins, and mutant horrors. When we see a monster we don't just see what it looks like, we see what it does.
|"Dual Wield" by Jeremy Duncan, © 2017 DIY RPG Productions|
Underdeveloped SettingThe default setting of DitNP is Scratchtown, a ragged colony built in the skeletal ruins of a pre-apocalyptic city. It is a places where most people struggle to survive, gangs of violent urchins run the streets, and mutant nightmares roam the catacombs below. It is a trade hub for several smaller colonies in a Ttoxic wasteland beyond the ancient city limits.
Numerous interesting hints are dropped about Scratchtown... about breeding plants that unleash hordes of children onto the streets regularly, gang boss leaders, warring merchant factions, etc. There is a mountain of tantalizing possibility, but aside from an evocative set of adventure and NPC generating tables, little in payoff.
A few more paragraphs might have given us so much more to work with.
Missed Opportunity for a Toxic Wasteland
The DitNP manual includes two adventures: one an adventure through the catacombs beneath Scratchtown, and the other into the nearby wasteland. There are plenty of evocative locations and creatures here, like mastiff-sized glowing maggots that explode when injured, acid pits, villages of mutant outcasts, etc.
However, the rules for radiation, face-melting goo, and mutation earlier in the book aren't implemented in the setting at all, nor are used particularly well by the monsters. It seems like these hazards deserved a little more love both in the adventures and in the monster section to really increase the ick factor.
Businesses Could Use some Levelling Up, TooThe rules for running war bands and businesses are designed to show an ebb and flow, with losses, breakdowns in discipline, etc. being not only possible, but often likely. Every month your character rolls for both profits for doing business, and losses due to robbery, theft, property damage, mayhem, etc. Running a business in the wasteland is a complete crapshoot whether you will earn, lose, or break even.
What strikes me is that your character is trying their damnededst to be the nastiest piece of work around in order to survive. Why don't we have mechanics for taking measures to make sure people don't mess with our business? Like having a collection of the shrunken heads of the last raiders who messed with our caravan in the front office?
Having a way for your character to regularly go on adventures to scare off the scumbags and burn down the competition to raise the profit die or lower the losses die would make for an excellent self-perpetuating play cycle.
I already have some house rules in mind...
ConclusionsDeath is the New Pink is a fast, simple, and often gonzo game about hacking and slashing your way into a better life across a nightmare landscape of toxic wastelands and ruined cities. It can be picked up and leaned to Game Mastering levels of comprehension in a couple of hours. Players can have characters in hand in a couple of minutes.
Unlike a lot of fast and light games, DitNP has long-term campaign play baked into the design. Characters advance by engaging with the world, making connections, and trying to change things. Character advancement and the rules for creating businesses, mentoring others, and leading organizations are all interconnected.
Overall the experience is very coherent; the rules, play style, manual, art, and settings complement each other in a way that makes immersion easy. The game focuses on being fun and includes a lot of humour, over-the-top action, and weirdness, rather than buying into the pretentiousness a lot of modern story-oriented games fall into.
Where it falls flat is in a core assumption that the GM will absorb a lot of ideas, pick them up, and run with them without any additional assistance:
- Mutations, radiation, toxic goo, etc., are all included, but nowhere implemented in the included hex crawl and dungeon adventures.
- Likewise, we have a system for creating businesses and groups that are designed to decay, break down, and be targeted without mechanics or suggestions on how we can use role-playing to protect them and make them better.
- The home base of the setting has a few interesting ideas, but they are offered as throw-away lines without any attempt at development.
Even that flaw is consistent with the DIY Punk RPG aesthetic, but it represents a weakness in Punk RPGs in general. They hand us a bunch of cool stuff, but don't help us use it.
Overall, this game looks like a hell of a lot of fun. It is by far the best way I have seen yet to scratch that Mad Max game itch. That it requires a little extra improv and forethought to get the full post-nuclear nightmare I want is a minor gripe.
I suspect that we will see a re-release of DitNP from Mike Evans in the near future using his upcoming open source RPG engine Powered by the Middle Finger in the near future as well; he has already stayed his intention to re-release his HUBRIS setting (currently for Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG) using that engine on episode 92 of the Spellburn Podcast.