Thursday, June 22, 2023

Morrow Project - Damocles, Review #2

Damocles, The Morrow Project.jpg

Onto module two! The first post of this series can be found here.


This module takes place once again in Michigan, this time eschewing the warmer southern portion of the state for the pine forests and rugged hills of the Upper Peninsula. Again players take charge of a Recon Team, the most basic Morrow Project player unit, this time with a slightly different cold-weather adapted load-out.

As is typical, players awaken in their bolthole (slavishly described with technical detail as to its functioning, despite this being unlikely to factor into play of the module) with little information to guide them beside outdated maps. Presumably motivated by exploration, or seeking some of the project caches listed on the map, they will leave and wander out into the harsh winter of the new world.

The module bills itself as a sandbox, and as such loosely describes the region of the Upper Peninsula the players will find themselves within. Features of note are the harshness of the terrain, massive wolf packs, gangs of brigands descended from "cons" escaped from a penitentiary during the War, a nearby outpost of lake-going shipmen, a distant off-map university town with steam engine level technology, and of course the Damocles compound.

The compound and its titular inhabitant, a military AI named Damocles, take up about half the module's description after the broad strokes of the region and the loosely keyed town of Wittsend (plus inhabitants). It is, in all respects, the intended locus of play.


Very basic, very homemade, 1980s chic. Two columns black and white. Minimum illustrations or maps. Some odd placement of sections, but for overall coherent and functional.

The supply caches are a good start to the sandbox, giving players immediate goals, and potential additional resources. Although, fascinatingly, the actual contents of the supply caches is left entirely up to the Referee. They are labelled on the player's outdated maps.

The module, in usually Morrow Project fashion, slavishly describes each and every component of the players kit, armament, and vehicles down to how many ounces of sunscreen the players have. While being a tad irksome to my usual tastes, this extreme detail isn't entirely without merit. The core premise of the game is that players are some of the last vestiges of the modern (at the time of writing) day now stranded in an alien world. What is in their kits is quite literally all they have of the old world (ignoring supply caches and such). As such it makes the play experience more visceral, particularly since the modules hold an unspoken but obvious expectation that players will leverage their detailed gear list in trade with the locals. And to this end the Recon Team’s detailed kit is actually quite useful.

The module opens up in the depths of winter, January to be precise, and this specific choice of season does well to lend the environment a distinct character of its own. The sketch of local terrain and clime makes sure to describe plenty of hazards and challenges for players to confront.

The real good stuff comes in the sketch of the region, which unlike the previous module Riverton with its isolated impoverished farmers, has far more ties to a wider world as well as a unique aesthetic to the region.

Notable details include a university city-state in Marquette to the northwest which is said to have steam engines and has attempted to introduce coinage to the region (with limited success). Details about schooling are given, including the note that local villages and woodsmen send their most promising youths on pilgrimage to the Northern Michigan University in Marquette to study (with notes on the particular subjects most valued and how the University has would-be scholars help maintain its fields, all very fun lil ways-of-life details). There is a widespread usage of flintlock rifles and muskets for hunting and a cottage industry maintaining them. A sketch of local governmental structures (or rather the lack of) is made with an emphasis on informal laws and appointed mediator-judges. Books are said to be valued, but rare, and apparently Shakespeare, Nietzsche and other classics are very popularly known and discussed. Delightfully it seems Ojibwa has made a comeback, intermingling with English and Finnish as the local dialect of choice.
One faction (though I hesitate to call them such, as they are not fleshed out enough to be a real faction, but they are certainly an implied faction) is the “cons” who are roving bandit bands formed from exiles and descendants of convicts who broke out of the state penitentiary. They are described as having "no society to speak of" and "initiation rituals" which, yeah, pretty typical 1980s attitudes towards imprisoned populations. Interestingly however, and in contradiction to the previous, it is briefly noted that the “cons” keep families in their camps and that books and horses are said to be the items most commonly traded for by these brigand bands, which has some delightfully implications. Another good detail is that there's a common belief in the brigand-gangs having a big conspiratorial alliance, which is said to be untrue. A good touch.
The social effects of prolonged raiding and low level warfare between the brigand gangs and settlements is also a good addition, as it further characterizes the settlement pattern of the region and its people. A lack of isolated farmsteads, walled towns, people going out to farm in groups and returning at dusk. These are all useful details for a Referee attempting to portray this post-apocalyptic society. And offer up some potential hooks.
There are also the Lakers, a group of nomadic ship-people who get a little mini-section. They’re wintering on a nearby island (connected by lake ice to the mainland), are suspicious and armed, but potentially hold large amounts of information concerning the broader world as well as connections to it for players.

The village of Wittsend (the only described settlement sadly) is presented well, in terms of what the players from the past will notice: lack of power lines and such (being stripped for metal), more barns. And has a complement of colorful npcs organized into lil factions with their own wants.

And lastly, there is the titular Damocles. An ancient military AI busy squatting in its old compound fulfilling ancient directives while sending out strange robotic scouts to plunder metal for repairs from the surrounding area. Damocles's compound forms an open ended mini-dungeon for players to deal with. It is heavily (and I mean heavily) armed and there are extensive notes about the history of the compound, its fancy tech, and features and some neat (if clumsy) storytelling via the various corpses of the long dead base personnel and the commander’s journal.

Damocles bills itself as a sandbox, a space for Referee to build a campaign off of. And it almost, almost gets there. Yet I find it to have fallen short, lacking a robust framework of factions or points of interest or intersecting motivations or anything to really sustain long term play. It alludes to these things, yes, and sketches out a potential sandbox. But the actual work of filling it is left, in a very early roleplaying game fashion, to the Referee.

In truth there is just Wittsend, Damocles, and some threads leading off the edge of the map which is otherwise empty.

I would probably need to be more familiar with the cultural milieu of the 80s in order to understand some of the stuff going on with the module's treatment of Amerindians and such. I've mostly glossed over that, and the bits with the Finns as well, but the way the Morrow Project approaches ethnicity will come up again in later modules and while not egregiously bad it's certainly... interesting. Depictions are very stereotypical even if intended as friendly.


The Morrow Project is different from most other post-apocalyptic media, particularly in the RPG-o-sphere, where most works tend to run either gonzo (Gamma World, Mad Max) or at least cinematic (Powered by the Apocalypse, Walking Dead). Morrow Project meanwhile engages with realism on an interesting level, being concerned with such details as farming and clothing and infrastructure. This often generates tension however, with the other half of the game, which is very much about heavily armed players blowing and shooting shit up. Nominally however, the game is about “rebuilding civilization” and as such is concerned with infrastructure, hygiene, farming, and other such features of the apocalypse.

It’s what has made me so fixated on the game and its modules and often what frustrates me with it, because I don’t want another several pages of statted up guns I want more ethnographic sketches about these post-apocalyptic societies!

Overall, despite its flaws, the Damocles module sparked my imagination. With a bit of work it can be expanded into an actual sandbox worth running and most of the ideas it does present are interesting and fun, there simply is a need for more of them in order to flesh out the environs. Having read it, I am enticed to find out how players would interact with the contents, and in that regard it is a success.


I really like how the Lakers exist in this module, and particularly how they tie in with the local glassblower, it's an actual proper seed for sandbox intrigue and offers a way to draw players into the wider setting. And it does this through a criminally underused historical industry, that being the production and trade of glassware.


The map for this module places it firmly in the region east of Marquette, just below grand island and just south of Munising, Mi (the rough location of which is marked as 'ruins' on the map). Continuing the Morrow Project tradition of loosely copying real world locations. The module even recommends purchasing a copy of USGS MAP NL 16-5 for Marquette, which is a charming little detail.


It's nice to see Michigan’s wolf population has returned after the nuclear war. Personally I would have gone with some mixture of feral dogs interbred with coyotes and wolves.


For some reason the module uses “upanite” which is an odd exonym, given that “yooper” is the commonly accepted term for the Upper Peninsula's inhabitants since the 70’s at least and sounds much better to the ear.


Damocles is, for its flaws, much better tied into a region than Riverton which mostly just nebulously existed all on its lonesome. With Wittsend there is a sense of being placed in a broader world, and I’d love to expand the Upper Peninsula as a setting using this module as a base.


It's strange to read about harsh, all consuming winters and omnipresent cold when the Upper Peninsula of my lifetime has gotten warmer and wetter even in deep winter due to climate change.This cold will actually come up in future modules, as it ties into a bit of a cross-module theme of an oncoming ice-age triggered by the nuclear war.


While mostly a sandbox, the module has some odd bits of railroading, or rather not so much a railroad as an expected unfolding of events it presents to the Referee.


The encounter with the local boy, in buckskins, busy cursing, shooting, reloading, and shooting his flintlock at the tank with robotic arms currently dissembling his snowmobile is a fantastic introduction to the new world for the players and makes me want to run the module for just that bit alone.


I enjoy  the sense of growth and rebuilding in the module. People are hoping for things, have dreams, the townsfolk want a school, the glassblowers are hoping to make a trade deal that will get their glassware traded all across the lakes. It fits well with the player's presumed mission goals of helping rebuild civilization.