I recently had the opportunity to interview David J. Rodger, author of the Yellow Dawn Role-Playing Game. These days I get many review products, but David’s game is one of the few I purchased simply because I love the setting. I caught up with David to learn more about the man behind the setting and what’s in store for Yellow Dawn.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself: your gaming experience, what games you enjoy most.
David J. Rodger: I was born in 1970 which means I’m halfway to being an old fart. Although my girlfriend would probably tell you I’m there already.
1981, I’m 11 years old I’m sitting on the train one afternoon, coming back from school, and I saw this kid sitting there with a pad of graph paper, weird dice and really cool monster figures. “What’s that?” I asked him. Later, after my encounter with the train kid, I found my father at the bottom of the garden on a cold, damp Autumn evening and asked him for some money to buy a game. He wanted to know why he should give it to me. I had to convince him. Luckily I did. I rushed into town and purchased the Rulebook (which came with a scenario), dice, a crayon to fill in the grooves that formed the numbers on the dice, and some skeleton lead figures.
Welcome to Dungeons & Dragons. It blew my mind.
Skip to the school summer holidays of 1984; I spent every day for six weeks, playing Gamma World with my friend down the road. We lived, breathed and slept Gamma World – and this definitely had a major influence on my creativity later in life.
1984 I got in Call of Cthulhu, only because the box set had a spooky cover and I was deeply into black & white horror films with Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. Through the game I discovered H.P.Lovecraft and once again had my brain blown beyond previous boundaries.
Then I was introduced to Runequest, Shadowrun and Cyberpunk; but each time, the GM was running Call of Cthulhu scenarios. Blended genres. The notion lodged deep in my brain and has never gone away.
I love the Lovecraftian universe as represented through Chaosium products, but also Pagan Publishing and others. I also enjoy the cold aggression and cynical nature of Cyberpunk. These are the foundations of my fictional world, both in my novels, and in the RPG I wrote.
Since 1996 I’ve used my own systems, running a variety of scenarios taken out of their native genre.
Q: How did you launch Yellow Dawn? Was it your campaign setting?
DJR: The original system has developed since 1996, when I wanted to find my own way of running CoC and Cyberpunk scenarios. This system was geared around creating mechanics to govern interpersonal interaction between characters and NPCs. I always disliked the way a game session could be dominated by the strong personality of players – who may not be representing the true attributes of their character(s). Visa versa, less confident players can struggle with big characters in big / complex social interactions. I wrote quick to use systems that allowed a character’s traits to come through. Then I wanted a different combat system. Then I wanted to reconcile the two diverse schools of Magic… Occult and Cthulhu Mythos. And so on.
At the same time, a common world view or setting began to take shape, one that was based on the evolving universe my novels are set within.
I merely called this set of rules, Game, and used it religiously for running RPG sessions here in Bristol – regardless of the native genre of the scenarios I was playing, be it 1920’s CoC or 2020’s cyberpunk, I was able to fit each story into the not-to-distant future of “my world”.
Come 2006 I decided to refresh the whole thing. This led to me coming up with the Yellow Dawn, post-apocalyptic setting, primarily as I’d been having nostalgic flashbacks to those teenage years in the 1980’s playing Gamma World. But I wanted to pull in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, which is a common element to most of my novels. So I came up with Yellow Dawn – the Age of Hastur.
Q: Tell us a little about the Yellow Dawn setting.
DJR: At some point in the not-too-distant future, a corporate cargo hauler, called the Calisto and owned by Soyar Corporation, is heading back from Choma Lab Habitat en-route to Earth. It suffers a critical systems failure resulting in it ploughing into Earth’s atmosphere; breaking up as it fireballs across the sky, it showers debris across Southern Europe and North Africa. Within a week seventy percent of the human population on Earth is dead: victims of a swift and fatal pathogen. Over the next few months, a large proportion of the survivors have succumbed to a second pathogen, the second wave or “zed wave”. Zombies begin to take over whole cities – forcing survivors to either fight it out, creating protected zones, or flee into the wilderness leaving behind Dead Cities.
The story of Yellow Dawn – of the characters getting involved – starts ten years later.
There are three separate settings within the terrestrial world of Yellow Dawn. Living Cities – where life continues with urban complexity. Rural Support Zones – where life is a blend of city technology and sustainable development; artisans rub shoulders with farmers and wealthy survivors who want to breathe good air with their toes in the soil. And the New Wilderness – the vast majority of what was once the world; lawless, dangerous, intriguing, littered with small survivor settlements and packed with adventure.
There are also Dead Cities and Dead Zones. Domain of the teeming undead, and treasure troves of resources to be scavenged by those foolish or brave enough to risk infection to reclaim them.
Interweaving all this is a rich tapestry of political, corporate and militant entities, fighting it out for influence or outright control.
Q: Yellow Dawn also has zombies. I love zombies. Lay some zombie goodness on us — how do they work in Yellow Dawn and what rules support their existence?
DJR: I also love zombies. I find them terrifying, and Yellow Dawn is no exception.
I stated earlier that Hastur’s presence within the world is primarily through the zombies. How is Hastur associated with zombies?
The term zombies is actually a misnomer, created by the survivors and emerging popular media after Yellow Dawn happened. At first the 2nd wave infection was believed to be a military-engineered virus that had been released when the Soyar Corporation’s vessel, Calisto, crashed into Earth’s atmosphere. This infection attacks the cognitive and personality centres of the brain and induces a frenzied and aggressive compulsion to spread the infection through biting. The popular media, typically those in the unaffected orbital colonies spinning high overhead, drew parallels with the fictional entities from such movies as 28 Days later, and dubbed the victims as “Zombies”. This term grew when it was discovered the victims of the 2nd wave were not deteriorating, or decaying and do not die without extreme violence. The term Zombie was the easiest parallel for a population unsure what they were being confronted by.
The truth is. Well, the truth is revealed in the campaign book “Shadows of the Quantinex”, but the over-arching principle is that the essence of Hastur has infected these people. They’re lost in a never-ending existence of horror and rage. Their existential reality now overlaps with a slithering, confusing, non-Euclidean, ever-shifting meta-reality where they are in thrall to the entity / concept / meme that is the King in Yellow.
If I was to criticise Yellow Dawn rulebook, it is that I fundamentally failed to explain this very well. I aim to rectify this in the next release of YD rulebook (2.5)
As to what rules exist to support the zombies existence in YD. If you encounter an individual zombie, it’s tough to kill and you risk getting infected through a bite or blood splatter striking your eyes or mouth. However, the best resources to be found for scavenging are in Dead Cities, and here you have hundreds if not thousands of these so-called zombies – and they operate as one organism. So if you’re stupid or unlucky, and make too much noise whilst sneaking around, you can create what’s called a zombie-surge. The only way to escape this is to outrun the surge, or duck into a building, secure the perimeters and hope your defences hold long enough for them to forget what the heck they were shrieking about and go away.
All the players who’ve gotten into YD state that Dead City runs, and the risk of Zombies, is one of the most nerve-wracking game experiences they’ve ever endured. One guy even started smoking again. Quite a compliment.
However, I’m wary of sticking to a formulae that players get smart enough to exploit or simply bored with. So I designed a narrative background to the zombies existence that enables them – the risk – to evolve. And evolve in many ways. One way, for example, is Bile Weed. A free to download bolt-on rule system I wrote to demonstrate this. The GM starts to introduce changes to the zombie threat that confuse and worry players – because they actually think these things are zombies. They’re not. The changes continue, accelerate and become… something else. In this case, Bile Weed, pods formed from now rotting zombie cadavers, that slither and crawl very slowly, releasing spores that can carry the infection. But really, GM’s can create any variation of the theme and populate those treasure troves – the Dead Cities – with new and exiting horrors. And hopefully share them with the growing Yellow Dawn community to enjoy.
Q: Yellow Dawn has orcs, which may surprise some folks. They’re not the traditional orc though…
Orcs. Again a misnomer used by an “ignorant” population and a lazy media within the world of Yellow Dawn. Victims of the first or second pathogen, nobody’s really sure. Their mutated flesh, heightened strength, and feral behaviour lends themselves to be pointed at with disdain by “pure humans”, ostracised, and punished for being walking /talking reminders of the catastrophe that has fallen across the Earth. The majority of them are good people. A new strain of humanity. However, there’s a small proportion of them who experience a “calling”, an inner desire to commune with others like themselves and some higher-power. Called Star Whisperers, these creatures devolve (or evolve) into Mythos entities who are not afraid to go after vulnerable humans in the Wilderness….earning themselves the label of Warrior Orcs.
They’re a bit of a meta class. They’re also the product of an idea I’ve been carrying for a couple decades: what if the world of D&D isn’t some parallel universe from the far-flung past? What if it’s our own far flung future? I wanted to drop Orcs in there as a seed for a new strain of humanoids. They’re certainly not fully-fleshed as a character class concept but I’m glad they’re in there.
Q: How do the Mythos manifest in Yellow Dawn?
DJR: The Mythos. The Mythos. I feel like using the same tone as Joseph Conrad’s protagonist character in Heart of Darkness.
I adore H.P.Lovecraft’s body of work and all the ideas that had been bolted onto it by other writers during the last (almost) one hundred years.
Most of my stories include a deep undercurrent of Mythos machinations, either direct involvement, such as Ramun Sada in God Seed or the YD campaign Shadows of the Quantinex, or the or my Great Old One “Kzuryu-gawa” in Edge, or indirectly through the actions of the humans that worship them.
Kzuryu-gawa: Also known as “Dragon Flower” in English speaking cults (a connection between the dragon references in the name and the association of cherry blossom with the Kuzuryu-river) Cherry blossom is altered by the imminent arrival or presence of this Great Old One. The connection to it being a many headed dragon fits because it can reach out and burn its victims.
My personal take on the Mythos is that the human plane of existence was wrapped in a protective boundary – for whatever reason- which Magi and adepts of the Outer Chaos have called the Quantisphere.
Outer Gods and Great Old Ones must spend vast amounts of energy to penetrate this boundary for short periods of time; so it only tends to happen through human or non-human agents generating this energy with blood-sacrifice or magical- artefacts.
Why they would want to is down to individual GM’s and the scenarios they choose to run.
For me, I see the death of billions caused by Yellow Dawn as creating a vast emptiness on earth, a space where the non-human entities can creep in, to perform their hideous rites and ceremonies. Travel far enough in the New Wilderness and you’ll encounter the Mythos.
Q: Yellow Dawn seems to have a connection to Hastur and the King in Yellow. Is there any?
DJR: In Yellow Dawn – the Cthulhu Mythos has delivered a hammer blow to Humanity.
Or have they?
If you play Yellow Dawn you’ll see very little that describes where Hastur holds sway on Earth.
The answer is, it doesn’t.
Shadows of the Quantinex is a major campaign I wrote for YD; it reveals the machinations of human worshippers who believe their actions would grant them [something]. Their actions brought about Yellow Dawn. These same worshippers are also under the sway of the grand manipulator and deceiver Nyarlathotep – a character who appears in the human guise of Ramun Sada in the campaign, and also in my novel God Seed.
Hastur is present within Yellow Dawn through the zombies that dominate the Dead Cities and Dead Zones.
Q: Cthulhu-future-style games are becoming common but yours was way ahead of the pack. Have you seen a renewed interest in your setting as a result?
DJR: Hey, wow, thanks for that massive compliment. Yes, definitely, which was surprising (to me) and a little unnerving. I’m hoping to leverage that interest in the game world to drive sales of the books that will be set within in. I’m also keen to start collaborating with other authors and game-designers who want to insert their creative output within the Yellow Dawn world; either through rule systems; scenarios or stories.
Q: Where can we buy Yellow Dawn?
DJR: At the moment, only through LULU.
Q: What’s next for Yellow Dawn?
DJR: I’m currently scoping and planning to write a free-to-download “lite” version of the primary rulebook. Should be out late 2011. The scoping process has highlighted a need to fix a few things. For example, I wanted people to be able to use Yellow Dawn as a setting for their existing game system, without needing to learn a whole new (YD) system… but at the moment, the setting is too enmeshed in the rules, making this aim difficult to deliver. So I’m going to write a whole “setting the scene” chapter.
I also want to reinforce the Hastur influence within the world – through richer detailing of the “zombie” phenomenon.
This will all become part of the updated primary rulebook (version 2.5) that I’ll produce in tandem with the free-to-download “lite” version.
Q: Where can we learn more (website, twitter, facebook)?
DJR: There’s the Official Yellow Dawn webpage. You can follow me on Twitter @davidjrodger. And you can join the Official Facebook Fan Page.
Q: Anything you’d like to add?
DJR: I’ve just launched the first novel to take place within the world of Yellow Dawn: Dog Eag Dog. A gripping criminal thriller that charts on the collision course between two survivors – a renegade intelligence agent and a cold-blooded thug-for-hire – as they become tangled in a wider political plot for influence and control. It showcases key features of the Yellow Dawn world – the disparity between the wilderness and the Living Cities; the bleak desolation of the Dead Cities and the screaming terror of a zombie surge. If you’re into the setting of Yellow Dawn you should definitely read the book. You can preview or buy it through Lulu.