Twilight: 2000 Fourth Edition – Tabletop role-playing in the WW3 that never was

THEY say war never changes.

It does, though. It is hard for younger generations to appreciate the idea of a nuclear war aftermath wasn’t always synonymous with the Fallout games, and the Cold War was a real thing that could very easily have gone hot with devastating consequences.

But that was decades ago, and several of the countries involved in the conflict no longer exist, so global nuclear war is no longer the apocalypse du jour of today’s discerning young person.

Sure, we get some fun ironic throwbacks to the Cold War era in the form of whatever the hell was happening in Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, or even a really good spy thriller like The Americans, but for several decades between the 1960s and 1991, large chunks of Europe were living with the very real possibility that someone would press The Button and there would be an all-out war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

Twilight 2000: Fourth Edition combines post-apocalyptic table-top role-playing with tactical combat gaming. (Picture courtesy Free League Publishing)

Twilight: 2000 was one of the first RPG games to seriously look at what nuclear war would be like.

The first edition of the game was designed by Frank Chadwick, the author of my favourite RPG that no-one else has ever heard of (Space: 1889), and was followed a few years later by a revised second edition from Games Development Workshop which proved extremely popular in the 1990s and early 2000s – for a while there in the 1990s it was up there with Dungeons & Dragons, Shadowrun and Call of Cthulhu as one of the “Big” pen-and-paper RPGs of the era, and scenarios/adventures for it were regular features in RPG magazines of the time.

I first encountered Twilight: 2000 when I was in high school (not all that long after the Soviet Union had collapsed in real life, not that anyone in New Zealand was worried about Moscow raining A-Bombs on us) when it was up to its second edition, which had been retconned to create an alternate history where the 1991 coup attempt against Boris Yeltsin had succeeded.

Basically, Twilight: 2000 was set a few years in the future (from when I was reading it) but had already been changed to become a “future history”, because otherwise a game about the Soviet Union initiating World War III wasn’t viable anymore.

After becoming somewhat moribund from the early 2000s, the game been revived by the team at Free League Publishing (who also do the outstanding Alien RPG and Mutant: Year Zero, the latter of which was turned into a solid turn-based computer game) – and they have created something remarkable in the process.

In a shotgun shell, Twilight 2000: Fourth Edition (Tagline: “Role-playing in the World War III that never was”) is a hybrid between a post-apocalyptic survival game and a military tactics RPG – and it handles both aspects very well.

Set in Poland and Sweden in the year 2000, Twilight 2000: Fourth Edition casts players as members of a military unit (generally US, but Russian and Swedish are also practical options too) stranded in what’s left of Poland following a failed offensive “Big Push” against what remains of the Soviet forces in the aftermath of a nuclear war between the two superpowers.

The players are members of a military unit (or similar) trying to survive in the aftermath of World War III in Poland and/or Sweden. (Picture courtesy Free League Publishing)

The last transmission received from HQ by your unit was “Good luck, you’re on your own now”, which pretty well sums up the point of the game.

From there, players are able to take things in whatever direction they like. Are they trying to get home (wherever home is)? Are they going to set themselves up somewhere and try to create an oasis of civilisation? Are they going to become warlords? Fight to right wrongs? Continue their mission? The rulebook and materials are set up to allow for it all.

The whole vibe of Twilight 2000: Fourth Edition really captures the grim nature of what a post-WWIII world would be like. No glowing ghouls shambling around, no super-mutants, no sentient robots with circular saw arm attachments – just surviving and dealing with other people (as well as some unpleasant and possibly radiation-effected wild animals).

Further getting into that gritty nature of it all, Twilight: 2000 Fourth Edition also takes into account diseases like cholera and typhoid, the effects of radiation, as well as having rules about how to run an armoured fighting vehicle on ethanol, work out the range on a Soviet portable radio transmitter, or even going fishing for food.

The physical edition of the game comes with manuals, character sheets, colour maps, initiative and encounter cards, dice, and map tokens. Fortunately everything except the dice is available as a .pdf, because postage from Scandinavia isn’t cheap. (Picture courtesy Free League Publishing)

The base set contains the Player’s Manual, Referee’s Manual, colour maps, character sheets, handouts, initiative and encounter cards, and game-customised dice.

The whole thing, with the exception of the dice (most which are just D6s) is available in .pdf form, which is a godsend for those of us Down Under who know that it’s probably cheaper to mail something to Mars than it is to get it posted here from overseas.

Gameplay-wise, the mixture of hex-based tabletop wargame and an old school pen-and-paper RPG comes together really well and the focus can easily be shifted in one direction or the other. If, for example, you want to do something like a realistic Fallout or Wasteland, with the focus on scavenging a living in a harsh and unforgiving world, then you absolutely can – just as you can try and run something like a militaristic Mad Max scenario with vehicle combat and tank battles, and that will work too.

The Free League team have really done their homework on late Cold War/Gulf War-era weapons and equipment and even the unit orders of battle and the like are well researched. There’s a good balance between going full on military history nerd (don’t make me come over there and tell you about the difference between the RPD and RPK light machine-guns) and keeping things playable.

Vehicles are highly desirable equipment in the world of Twilight: 2000, and especially so if they’re armoured military vehicles. (Picture courtesy Free League Publishing)

Combat uses a modified version on Free League’s Year Zero engine (also used in Mutant: Year Zero and the Alien RPG), with what I thought was mostly the right amount of crunchiness; the mechanics around burst fire, ammunition and jams/malfunctions are well handled and the presence of stress mechanics is a boon to the experience too.

Battles can be quite mobile affairs (it’s not like everyone is just standing in one place casting spells or hitting an ogre with a sword, after all), with different terrain and line of sight playing a part in the proceedings – and this comes across quite well in the rules too, although you’ll need miniatures or tokens (such as those included in the set) to get the proper effect.

Interestingly, initiative is handled by drawing cards (either the included ones in the set, or playing cards), as are random encounters (the Referee’s Manual helpfully has the suit/number of regular playing cards listed next to the random encounter entries to help with this).

Initially I was thinking “What’s wrong with rolling a 1d10 or 1d20 for initiative?” but the cards also allow for tracking how many ‘actions’ the player has taken in that turn – by rotating the card, players can keep track of their available actions, and in that context they’re actually quite a neat idea.

Despite the somewhat bleak nature of the Twilight 2000 setting, one of the key themes of the game is hope and the Referee’s Guide explicitly says it’s important to keep those rays present in the game – whether it’s the long-term hope of getting home, or the benefits of enjoying an in-game respite from the general unpleasantness of post-apocalyptic conflict, or even being able to help a group of villagers repair their water pump and wind turbine.

Uniforms aren’t a good way to tell who is friend or foe in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where necessity and pragmatism are stronger drivers than patriotism. (Picture courtesy Free League Publishing)

The two “official” settings of the game at present are Poland (where the original game was set and a likely flashpoint for the real NATO vs ComBloc World War III if it ever kicked off) and Sweden, which is there because Free League are based in Stockholm and rightly figured ‘We’re literally next to Poland over the Baltic and there’s no way Poland getting nuked back to the Dark Ages wouldn’t affect our country, so let’s put Sweden in the game too’.

And you know what? It makes sense, and it works. What is interesting is that the writing team have deliberately been a bit vague about the state of the rest of the world – there’s a chapter with a brief outline of how things are in Germany (mostly OKish but not great; still better than Poland), France (more or less fine), the UK (Looks like it does in 28 Weeks Later, but without zombies) and America (A basket case), but otherwise referees and players are left to fill in the blanks. This is a conscious design decision by the development team, aimed at giving them the ability to write more modules down the track, give players the freedom to adapt the setting for anywhere they like (including their home country) without tripping over in-game canon, and also because – as the Manuals note – soldiers and civilians ekeing their way in the remnants of Central Europe after WWIII really don’t have especially reliable methods of finding out what’s happening elsewhere in the world.

As with the Alien RPG (also published by Free League), the artwork in Twilight 2000: Fourth Edition is superb and absolutely nails the tone of the game. Drawing inspiration from military field and technical manuals, and has a muted, earth-tone heavy style that fits the setting and the vibe perfectly, to the credit of lead artist Niklas Brandt.

The art style throughout the game materials captures the zeitgeist of the whole thing really well. (Picture courtesy Free League Publishing)

There’s an incredible amount of role-playing potential here if you can find a good squad, which is likely to be a challenge for Australians (the TTRPG playerbase here isn’t large and most people are playing Dungeons & Dragons or Call of Cthulhu), but fortunately platforms like Roll20 can alleviate that. Just to be extra sure you don’t miss out just because you haven’t got anyone to play with, the game also includes solo play rules, however – a nice touch and very much appreciated.

The development team, led by game director and lead designer Tomas Härenstam, have done a fantastic job bringing what could have been a dated and even cliched theme to a 21st century audience while making it seem fresh – and most importantly, not derivative. Fans or players of the earlier editions haven’t been left out of the fallout shelter either; there are rules for converting content and characters from earlier editions of the game to this one.

My recurring feeling while reviewing Twilight 2000: Fourth Edition has been “This would be an incredible video game” – imagine Wasteland, but with less sci-fi, and even grittier – and there is so much potential in the world and setting I am really looking forward to seeing what additional content gets released for it in future as well.

It might be the end of the world as we know it, but there are still rays of hope to found in the world of Twilight: 2000 Fourth Edition. (Picture courtesy Free League Publishing)

While it doesn’t have the same canonincal expansion/information appeal of the Alien RPG (which I think is worth buying purely to learn more about the Alien universe), there is still a lot of appeal in Twilight 2000 Fourth Edition, and it presents probably the most ‘realistic’ (and I use that term loosely, given how devastating an actual nuclear war would be) take on the post-nuclear apocalypse genre I’ve encountered in a long time.

Where the first and second editions of the game were essentially a form of speculative future history, Twilight: 2000 Fourth Edition is a superbly crafted, detailed and believable piece of alternate history that offers some extremely involved and rewarding roleplaying opportunities for players willing to step into its world.

If you want a post-nuclear roleplaying game that’s somewhat grounded in reality, then Twilight 2000: Fourth Edition is well worth making an expedition out of the bunker for.

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