Author: Michael T. Desing
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2000-03-01
Army Ants qualifies as an indie role-playing game because it is owned by its author, who also writes, draws, and self-publishes a comic book of the same name. I don't know Desing, but he seems to be one of these "one-man army" type guys who writes, draws, games, and God-knows-what-else out of some hellacious internal engine of productivity. These individuals are unfortunately between a rock and a hard place in the gaming industry: they scare distributors, who want to rely on a never-ending line of expensive supplements, and they scare retailers, who haven't seen any advertising about the game. Publishing a book is expensive, and it's time to give these authors a fair shake from us, the customers, who actually play the games.
So how about the game? First of all, it's got a great premise! You take your own back yard, or any actual plot of land near you, and map it out as the "game world" for your characters, who are all about 6 mm high insect-like humanoids, battling and adventuring across this (to them) huge landscape. It's funny, inspiring, and charming to players, who start raving about characters and possible scenarios as soon as they grasp the concept.
Again, the characters aren't real ants or beetles or whatever; they are these little humanoid cartoon type guys, loosely based on the corresponding insects. They really have little machine guns, little helicopters, little tanks, (very) little combat boots, and so on. Character "races" are ants, beetles, crickets, and ladybugs, with the enemies being the nefarious bees, wasps, spiders, stinkbugs, and other nasties.
The rules are well-written, well-edited, and refreshingly clean of any padding or price-boosting trimmings. It's easy to find what you want, and what's there is very evidently the result of Desing actually playing Army Ants with actual players and working out all the - pardon - bugs before committing it to paper.
Character creation requires dice-rolling, accounting for level, and allocating points. It's quite involved, which is not a problem for making PCs. However, it was quite a lot of work to generate usable NPCs, rolling, adding and subtracting, flipping pages, etc. It reminded me of the old RuneQuest days when every skill had to be figured from its relevant attributes.
The resolution system follows the traditional late 80s Fortune method, comparing the results of a roll based on your attribute and skill values to a target number. For such a system, it's extremely painless during play compared to similar systems like Rolemaster or Cyberpunk, because you simply add or subtract dice as modifiers. The damage mechanic is extremely good and altogether avoids counting hit poits or anything similar.
Much of the book reveals a Simulationist element, being quite concerned with how much a concrete wall would be weakened by a fragmentation grenade exploding this-many feet away, with the precise differences between ammunition types, or with how many dice you get for a bonus with one type of repair kit compared with another, and what machines can be fixed by them. Compared to GURPS, for example, Army Ants is easier to resolve how physical events take place, but the two games do share the concept of carefully working out these events moment by moment during play.
In some ways, Army Ants also has a strong Gamist element. The expected, explicitly stated goal of a player is simply to survive missions and gain lots of experience, which is expressed in traditional RPG levels, military rank in the Ant Alliance, and a nifty character mechanic called "Clout" (which serves both as general reputation and money at the equipment depot). The GM provides a mission or a crisis, the player swings into action to survive battles, gain rep, and increase in efffectiveness. One way this element manifests is that a starting character may only begin with skills of his military career (covert op, grunt, etc) and only adds new skills through play. [In my game, I granted them a small pool of experience points so they could begin at 2nd or 3rd level, which meant they could personalize their PCs with some more skills of their choice.]
Narrativism runs a distant third, at least in terms of how the game is written and presented. "Story" as a role-playing objective is minimized in the comics example included in the book, in favor of enjoying good combat rolls when they come your way and gaining levels and rep. From the player's point of view, character creation is evidently expected to be fairly two-dimensional, you play a "cricket commando," for example, and any characterization or depth is strictly up to you, without using the system at all.
If, like me, you have more of a Narrativist bent, Army Ants is still a good buy. The setting is so rich in potential that coming up with good story notions isn't hard at all. My players and I wandered around the back yard for a while, just to point out details and come up with ideas (I still regret never getting to use the storm drain in the story). I found the best bet was the "war story" with a light touch, sometimes using insectoid details, such as:
(Gasp) "Buzzie got me, Steve," (Gasp) "Tell Doris I love herrrr...." "Freddie! Nooooooo!!" [I made up "Buzzie" as a racist epithet for bees.]
"Great. I get heli-dropped into the rosebush and have to fight potato bugs, I slog through dog crap, and I steal this wasp princess larva like I'm supposed to. Now I'm pinned down behind the edge of the stone step, my ammo's running low, and the little twit decides to go into pupal stage."
Another indirect method for emphasizing a Narrativist goal, especially for players, comes from Desing's illustrations, which are too cute and funny for words - he gets a lot of mileage out of stark, cartoony black-and-white. Just flipping through the book looking at the pictures got my players eagerly exclaiming about what sort of character they wanted to play.
If you want a copy of Army Ants, check out Desing's website at www.friedalive.com/tbpress to get a look at the comic book and some character examples. He sells the book direct, just mail $10 (plus $2.50 S&H) to:
Michael T. Desing
PO Box 866
West Seneca, NY 14224-0866
One of my players did write to him and did get a copy, so we know the game is still "out there." If your retailer says otherwise, he's lying. (As of May 21, 2002, you can also order the game from Desing's website.)