The post-apocalyptic genre has been steadily gaining popularity in recent years. It was a huge thing during the cold war and about 30 years before that, but waned for a while. Now it’s back and in full measure in pop culture. TV shows like Adventure Time, Revolution, The 100, The Walking Dead (and this summer, Fear the Walking Dead), and Falling Skies have resonated with viewers in a way few other things have. (I suppose we could throw Game of Thrones up there, because, let’s face it, it’s “pre-Apocalypse.” On a personal note, I think they canceled Revolution way too early, there was something there worth saving.) Video games like Fallout, Bio-Shock, The Last of Us, etc. have also made a lot of headway into pop culture. I won’t even get started on the movies – that list is exhaustive.
But what is it about the apocalypse that fascinates us? It’s kind of morbid if you think about it. We’re quite literally rooting for the end times/end of our species. All that aside it is fun and makes for pretty awesome game material. So what does a good post-apocalypse campaign look like?
- The Reason: That’s it. Game Over, man! GAME OVER! The world has effectively ended as we know it and has been replaced by something new and probably terrible. This can be due to a specific problem tied to the Threat (see below) or can be something that happened, changed everything, and then moved on or left. For example, a plague might have wiped out the population of the planet except for a few folks who were immune. The plague itself is no longer a threat because everyone is immune.
- The Threat: Zombies, your fellow man, meteors, super-flu, the Devil, or dogs and cats living together (mass hysteria!), whatever it is it’s dangerous and continues to be dangerous. It’s the impetus for survival of the protagonists. Whatever it is it needs to be at least two of the following: 1) deadly; 2) common, persistent, or ever-present; 3) requires knowledge to combat or handle. The caveat here is that it can’t be too much of any of the above or it becomes impossible to survive against. Like porridge, it has to be juuuusssst right.
- The Complication: Now that we have our Reason and our Threat we gotta do a change up to make things interesting. If the orbiting space debris that crashes regularly on the planet has a definite pattern, every once and a while change it. If zombies are slow and stupid, make every 10th one slow and not so stupid. You have to introduce the rules before you can change them. You have to make your players feel safe before you show them how safe they aren’t.
That’s pretty much it. You create the world (the Reason), you give your players a viable danger (the Threat), and then after you’ve set everything up you switch it up a little (the Complication). That simple formula can create any number of campaign settings. I’ve used it in the past before and it works.
Using the above formula here a few campaign starters:
- Everworld: Half the population of the world dies in the span of several weeks in what appears to be a some sort of “super virus.” (the Reason) The survivors appear to be immune to its effects and life goes on until a year passes and no one in the entire world dies. Experiments are done and its found that human beings – all human beings – have ceased to age at all. But they also appear to be able to heal rapidly and are immune to all the weaknesses that flesh is heir to. What’s more, birth rates have dropped so drastically as to be nonsexist. People begin to organize alone tribal lines and wars break out among them. (the Threat) That’s when some among them realize they are truly immortal. They cannot die except through total bodily destruction (e.g., cremation). Unable to die, these immortal men and women begin to steer the course of human events…
- Green Hell: In the near future humanity makes contact with an alien race. Inside of a year all human woes are solved: disease is eradicated, aging is retarded, methods for unlimited clean energy are discovered, ways to multiply crops a hundredfold are discovered, and the environment is quickly terraformed back to pristine conditions. After these miracles are bestows, the aliens leave never to be seen again. In short, humanity is living in a paradise (the Reason) But what did the aliens want? Why give man all these gifts and then leave? Was it a “last wish” or some form of bequeathal? The last things the aliens asked was for humanity to “do its best.” But what does that mean? When a country weaponizes the terraforming technology all of the other nations follow suit and a new era of terrifying war is born. (the Threat) A decade later, the planet is a verdant paradise and humanity exists only in pockets of civilization as the terraforming weaponry run rampant worldwide. That’s when the aliens come back to colonize the planet. It had all been a ruse, a way for the species of an entire planet to destroy themselves and leave the aliens a new world to inhabit – their conscious clear. (the Complication)
- Lazarites: The dead have begun to rise because there is no more room in Hell. The Rapture never happened for unknown reasons, but Armageddon did. (the Reason) Now rogue angels roam the landscape tormenting humans alongside demons from Hell itself. What’s more, the dead continue to rise if they have a soul laden with sin (confession, absolution, baptism, etc. makes it so the dead will not rise). Meanwhile, the living must contend with the End Times and all that that entails making survival difficult to impossible. (the Threat) But somethings happening. things are changing. People seem to be disappearing completely and men on horses have been spotted worldwide. Was the Rapture late? Why are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse coming now? (the Complication)
Picking Over the Bones
I’m sure there are things I’ve forgotten here, but that sums up just about every post-apocalyptic story I can think of. What sort of post-apocalyptic games have you ran? How did they turn out? Anything you did that was special? Some sage advice you’ve found?
As a MIB I tend to run quite a few one-shot demo adventures as well as campaigns, and I have a fondness for transformational moments: the point at which the zombies start to rise, for example. This doesn't work as well in a campaign because, as you say, you need complications to keep it interesting.
In the longer format I've run a fair bit of Reign of Steel, but my emphasis is more on the rebuilding and the continuing threat than on what was lost.
I have an idea for a post-apocalyptic game based on the format of Ars Magica, where PCs are scientists and their bodyguards going off to acquire knowledge from the Times Before.