British publisher Modiphius Entertainment is putting a more optimistic spin on the post-apocalypse with Dreams & Machines, a new tabletop role-playing game. Pre-orders for the starter set begin today ahead of its official release at Gen Con this August.
“I wanted to create something that’s feel-good because the world’s a grim place and there are enough grim games out there,” Modiphius founder and CEO Chris Birch said.
Birch is no stranger to subverting genres, having brought pulpy World War II action to Lovecraftian horror with Achtung! Cthulhu, a game inspired in part by the Great Patriotic War Museum in Minsk and the stories it tells about heroes who saw the war against the Nazis as nearly impossible but still wanted to go down fighting. Dreams & Machines is set hundreds of years after a war against a rogue AI known as the Builder devastated the futuristic society of Evera Prime. It explores how humanity has found ways to survive and thrive despite the ongoing threat of mutated wildlife, techno-cultists, and long-dormant mechs reawakened.
Modiphius recruited a diverse group of freelance writers including Logan Boese, Mari Tokuda, and Jen Kretchmer to work on the book’s playable factions. The Dreamers are inspired in part by the cliff-dwellings of the ancestral Pueblo people in Mesa Verde, Colorado, and avoid using electricity and mechanical engineering in favor of focusing on biology and chemistry.
“They’re like Ewoks on acid,” Birch said. “They know how to build traps for mechs. They’re really good at non-advanced technology.”
Rivers — people who use their boats to bring supplies and news to isolated settlements — draw on modern-day truckers, Louisiana Bayou culture, and Western naval hierarchy. Spears pass on their titular weapons from generation to generation and never leave anyone behind, developing complex prosthetics to help those who were affected by growing up in radioactive zones.
Players can use the starter set to build a character by choosing cards representing their origin in one of these groups along with an archetype (a job like mediator or guardian) and their temperament, like circumspect or manipulative. Put together, they provide everything needed to navigate the simplified version of Modiphius’ 2d20 system, including starting gear and a tech level, which limits what type of equipment the character can use.
Like in other Modiphius games, players and the game master trade off between using momentum and threat to change the circumstances of a scene, introducing new truths or complications that suit the narrative. But rather than each character having separate tracks for stress and fortune, the two are merged into spirit, which serves as both a resource players can use to pursue their goals and what they must draw on to prevent injuries or being knocked out of the fight. The starter set contains tokens that can be used to represent all of the game’s resources as well as cards for gear the players find.
A character’s temperament doesn’t just provide role-playing tips but determines how they regain spirit and what happens to them if they run out. The exhausted character will automatically fail checks related to one of the four key attributes because they’re physically weary or have given in to despair.
The box also contains a rules reference book plus cards for the players and game master, a quick tutorial scenario to introduce the mechanics, and a larger adventure book. It shows off the novel setting, with players visiting New Mossgrove, a settlement built near a buried mech whose head is used as a scenic point for courting couples. Handouts, maps, and location cards provide a way to immerse players further in the game’s world. Some of these represent bits of knowledge that can also provide in-game rewards if taken to the right non-player character.
“If you put 50 pages in the book, people aren’t going to read it, but we break it into fragments,” Birch said. “Archivists will pay a lot for knowledge about the old world.”
If players can save New Mossgrove from its troubles, a conflict that involves dealing with giant centipedes and a nanotech dragon, they’ll be offered a ramshackle home to serve as a base of operations. There are plenty of plot hooks presented at the end of the adventure booklet, but future Dreams & Machines releases will also continue the story.
Additional products are planned for Dreams & Machines, including a player guide, game master’s guide, campaign guide, and game master’s toolkit. The game will support long-running tales where characters can achieve their goals and retire, paving the way for players to try a new character concept while still enjoying some benefits from the old one.
“If you’re the first person to give up their character to death or retirement, you get to unlock all the shiny stuff,” Birch said. “I tried to build in this concept that people moving on through death and retirement isn’t a bad thing. We want people to evolve their story.”
All of the books are filled with sketches, notes, and even images of pressed flowers or bird feathers. Those are meant to be from Kari, a young girl who found a mech that doesn’t seem to want to hurt anyone. She drew a smiley face on the machine and dubbed him Abe. Their adventures will be detailed in a pending novel and woven throughout the game’s lore.
“Imagine a 12-year-old girl got ahold of our rule book and is commenting,” Birch said. “It’s this scary, dangerous future with these machines who are trying to kill everyone and wrecked cities, yet it has a delightful childlike approach to it.”
The Dreams & Machines Starter Set is available for pre-order on the Modiphius webstore for $35, with initial shipments heading out in August. A quantity will also be available for purchase at Gen Con.