After having done a few reviews of various Post Apocalyptic Role Playing Games (PARPGs), I figured I keep repeating the same basic likes and dislikes about the games. I thought I should probably codify my basic list of features that I'm looking for in order to save having to rephrase the same things over and over again. I've also been debating including a rating system (probably a 1-20 scale so I can use an illustration of D20 with the rating number) for the games, based on how many like points vs dislike points the game accrues. I'm iffy on this because these reviews are mostly about what I like or dislike about the games, so it would really be a subjective rating.
For me, the artwork, good or bad, has to support the setting and spark the imagination. A good cover is a great reason for me to even look at them game, whereas a minimalist cover is off-setting. I'm not going to hold it against an indie game that has to use cheap or no artwork because $, but no real bonus points either. Excessive artwork that starts to intrude on the page layout (or jack up the price of the product) is worse than no artwork. I don't mind big illustrations, even full page spreads, but fancy border art, background images, and other flourishes that detract from usage are a no-go.
This boils down to what kind of post apocalyptic game the setting is. I prefer a more Fallout/Mad Max/After the Bomb approach than the fantasy after an apocalypse, with technological items instead of magic items approach.
Not Race-as-Class, but completely independent classes/occupations. Background systems are good options instead, but make a better bonus to the class options.
I prefer a good, post apocalyptic variant system of currency in my games. Fallout's Bottlecaps, Rad-Hack's Slugs, or Umerica's currency system are all good in my opinion. From there we get to a graded system of currencies that I prefer: Abstract < Barter < Credits < Gold/Silver Coinage < Made Up Currencies (Darwin World's Corium Pieces, Gamma World's Domars, etc.) < PA Currency
Got to have equipment tables with a decent amount of options (and prices). Random Starting Equipment tables are a bonus on top of that. For real bonus points there are two things: Improvised scavenged weapons, armor, and equipment, and equipment breakdown rules.
These could be enemies, encounters, adversaries, etc. I want two things, a good post-apocalyptic feel (poorly done fantasy rip-offs need not apply), and there has to be a decent selection. 100 monsters is a fair offering, 200 is a good offering, more than 500 might be a bit too much. On including basic animals, I have to admit that I'm on the fence. As a base for mutated versions, they should probably be included. For basic monsters, I'd rather see that post-apocalyptic feel. I also like a good selection (more than half a dozen; 20-100 would be best) of robot enemies and plant enemies. There are also certain basic post apocalyptic monsters that I like to see, things like morlocks, unusually sized rodents, jackalopes, spidergoats, radioactive scorpions, mutant (or robotic) riding beasts, psychic masterminds, and even techno-undead (think the Y-17 Trauma Harness or Ghouls from Fallout).
Not all powers have to be mutations; psychic powers, cyborg implants, robot features, etc. However, I like to have a good selection of what is offered. 20-30 or so offerings is really low end for these. 100 mutations is much better. 100 or more of each type of power is bonus points.
I like a nice spread on what I call the HAVM Option. Human, Animal, Vegetable, and Mechanical. A good PARPG should have pure humans, mutant humans, mutant animals, mutant plants, and robots/androids/cyborgs. There are some additional bonus point races that I would consider, such as clones, holograms, "ghost" mutants (creatures with hidden mutations...usually psychic powers), mutants that pass as pure humans (or try to), trans-humans, and possibly aliens.
Random Junk Tables
At least 100 entries is cool. Multiple tables, especially if they're broken down in some useful way (i.e. by location or by equipment type) is bonus points.
I like having skill systems in my games.
Starvation, Dehydration, Radiation Poisoning (or mutating), Fatigue, Encumbrance, Healing, Poison, and Disease are pretty much my minimal requirements for survival rules. Sleep, Suffocation/Drowning, Heat & Cold, Insanity, and Environmental Effects add bonus points. Technically, I should include drugs/chems and intoxication rules, but I generally leave those in with the equipment/treasure section of the game.
Cool Character Sheet
There are a lot of great designs for character sheets out there. Then there are some that don't quite hit the mark.
Domain Level Play
Maybe this is just settlement survival/improvement, or maybe it's actual rules for controlling territory, but rules for this stuff is serious bonus points. Sure a good PARPG should start at the survival level, but from there it should move into exploration and domain level play.
Factions (Cryptic Alliances)
Probably the best thing from Gamma World was the inclusion of different factions with different goals, membership, and features. This helps cement the setting and makes for more play-ability. I also like wacky post apocalyptic cults and strange religions.
These can be anything from random tables to useful advice, but more is better.
Hirelings & Henchmen
While I've never really used these in my games, I'm trying to include them more.
Languages and Setting Terminology
Having a list (even a small one) of different languages for the game is another thing that helps cement the setting. Setting jargon or slang does even more to help this along (though I'd suggest limiting the list of terms to two pages max in order not to bog down play-ability).
Leveling System and Experience Points
I like good leveling systems that make the characters seem better able to survive the post apocalyptic world as they increase their abilities.
Map and Setting Information
I love maps. The old idiom about a picture being worth a thousand words is multiplied ten-fold for maps. As far as setting goes, I may or may not use the game's setting, but it's nice to have a least a little idea of what the game designers' are trying to get you to play.
Monster Creation Rules
Another area of bonus points, *IF* included on top of a decent bestiary.
Mutant Animal and Mutant Plant Basics
I like having a lot of options, so having a huge selection of different basic animals and plants to mutate from is a good bonus.
Rules that you can use or discard as you desire means I have more options for game play. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you can always use or discard whatever rules you want, but some games have a ton of rules for every conceivable thing (like FGU's Aftermath) to the point where you might get bogged down in knowing how things work, and other games are so rules light as to be almost unplayable. Having designated optional rules makes it easier to pick and choose what you want to do.
Random Ruin Generation
Hearkening back to Dungeons & Dragons, random dungeon creation material is always a bonus.
Settlement Rules and/or Random Generation
Any tools in this department help out the prospective game master.
Vehicles & Vehicle Combat Rules
Go all Mad Max. Though I have to admit to having difficulty picking a vehicle combat system that I really like. I kind of envision a system that's a cross between Mille Bornes (the classic racing game) and Twisted Metal combat. Of course you also have to have vehicle modifications.
NEUTRAL BY PREFERENCE
I can take it or leave it. But I would give bonus points for representing some sort of technological magic system.
Player handouts, character sheets, hex/graph paper you can copy, paper dice forms, and other goodies that are included with the game are awesome (even if you may not use them). Having to shell out extra bucks for card expansions, special dice, splat books (because the core book is missing a bunch of things needed to play it), etc. are lame. I don't mind if there's a miniatures line or you want to bust out the diecast cars (and modify them) to help aid play, but I don't want to need some basic thing to play the game that I have to pay extra for.
I know a lot of people have different preferences for their game mechanics so I don't tend to focus on a game's mechanics unless it is either a simple, elegantly awesome way to handle something (or a good optional rule) or if I find it to be profanity-inducing stupid.
This is surprisingly a fairly big deal for me. Sure good information and/or artwork is a good thing. Wasted page space leading to page count bloat is a very bad thing. I also have to admit I prefer a two-column text layout to other layouts (even if it's a main text column and a sidebar column). I do give a pass to tables and lists that break away from the two column layout, sometimes you just need a full page for the table, or four columns for a list of things; I recommend breaking your table or lists down into sub-categories if more than one page of coverage is needed though.
Table of Contents
Chapter/Section Listings are NOT a good TOC. Show me the major sections of each chapter as well. I also want to see the full list of monsters in the TOC.