Anya Ow’s 2020 Cradle and Grave is a stand-alone post-apocalyptic dungeon-crawl adventure.
Even after an apocalypse, people still need to work. Dar Lien needs to work. She’s a scout, an experienced guide to the wastelands. Wastelands into which no sensible person would venture, had they a choice.
Servetu and Yusef (a halfer, his man’s torso grafted onto a horse’s body) want a guide to take them into and out of the Scab. Dar Lien hesitates. She’d be willing to do this with folks she knows and trusts, but not with two complete strangers. What tips the scale is the fact she is terminally ill. Her would-be employers are offering her fifteen thousand taels, which would pay for a treatment that could save her life.
Desperation trumps caution.
The Scab is a vast decaying wasteland that exposes travelers to mutagenic Change. It also exposes them to the mutants who have settled permanently in the Scab: Crows, ghulkins, and other creatures, creatures who are monstrous, hungry, relentless, and hard to kill.
Dar Lien would prefer to venture into the Scab as part of a large, well-armed group. Unfortunately her ally of choice, Raahi, is not available and would not work with a bioengineered halfer like Yusef if he were available. Having little choice in the matter, Dar Lien leads her employers into the wastelands without any backup.
Two factors work in the expedition’s favour. First: Servetu has the means to protect himself, Yusef, and Dar Lien from the Change. Second: Raahi is not available because he is part of a large, well-armed group that is already on its way towards the heart of the Scab. Raahi is unintentionally clearing a route for Dar Lien’s party to follow.
What she doesn’t know is that there’s a reason that Servertu and Yusef recruited here, something that they didn’t tell her. She may or may not survive learning what that something is.
This had serious Mutant: Year Zero energy. Both settings involve body horror, characters subject to relentless, accumulating mutation (which ends in death or worse), and an endless struggle for survival. Both are set in worlds ruined by terrible decisions in the past, decisions that may be made in what would be our near future.
Precisely what led to the Change is a spoiler. I can share the logic that led to it. It was the same logic that led Jason Mendoza to proclaim that “anytime I had a problem and I threw a Molotov cocktail, boom! Right away, I had a different problem.” Causing the Change definitely presented the handful of people who lived through it an entirely new set of problems. You might say that the scheme was successful in a Mendoza sort of way.
Author Ow has a nice sense of how much story her premise can support. The tale that follows is, despite numerous encounters, short and to the point. The trio at the center of the narrative are deftly outlined and unlike some other author’s characters I could mention, experience considerable character growth over the course of the story.