Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Thinking About the End of the World

Another season of The Walking Dead is in the books.  Many zombies died and people were mean to each other.  By the end of the season, Rick has abandoned the law of the jungle for democracy rule; The Governor massacred a bunch of people; Rick's son, Carl, appears to be heading down the kill-or-be-killed path that has created men like The Governor in the post-apocalypse.  I'm still enjoying the show, but it feels like it's drifted from gritty survival horror into character-driven drama, with traditional dramatic character arcs.  Even Mearle had a change of heart this season, before becoming zombie-Mearle and having one of the best death sequences on the show.  Or maybe the show was always this way and I'm only noticing.

Near-term apocalypses are well-represented in popular culture.  World War Z will be coming to theaters this summer, adapted from the best-selling book from a few years back.  In recent years, we've had TV shows like Jericho (nuclear apocalypse),  Falling Skies (alien apocalypse), The Terminator franchise (machine apocalypse), I Am Legend (vampire apocalypse), Revolution (the no-electricity apocalypse), and the aforementioned zombie apocalypses.  Stephen King's The Stand is an old favorite (plague apocalypse).

I have to wonder why there hasn't been a dominant RPG that has enabled tabletop play in such a target rich environment.  Just about the only game I can remember getting a lot of traction when it came out was Twilight 2000, which spawned a host of setting books and even the Dark Conspiracy spin-off.  Lets not forget everyone's favorite tentacle monstrosity, Great Cthulhu himself.  Pelgrane Press had released a Cthulhu Apocalypse adventure a few years ago, The Dead White World, and I noticed they've been trying to revive the series and continue the story.  If you want the world destroyed right, dial up the Elder Gods.

It seems to me the tools and techniques of old school gaming - hex crawls and resource management - could play well in a near-term apocalypse game, but getting away from elves and magic and amazing psychic powers is a big leap.  We get to be ordinary folks every day and want to be somewhere else during game time.  Gamers are quick to say they don't play for power-fantasy escapist reasons, but the fantasy gaming has been king of the mountain for a long time.  Just saying.

For similar reasons, it's not surprising the post apocalyptic game with the most name recognition is still Gamma World, a game set hundreds of years after a far future apocalypse, creating so much distance between us and that future world that it's fantasy all over again.  There certainly is a dearth of media based in far future post apocalyptic settings - I can think of Thundarr, The Planet of the Apes, and Stephen King's Dark Tower series.  Maybe The Matrix trilogy would qualify, tangentially.

I'm still on the lookout for that lightweight system that lets you play your own range of near-term apocalyptic gaming - or even better, combine your own destructions!  The aliens arrived, bringing a virus that turned the dead into zombies, which triggered the defense computers to take over and evolve into artificial life forms that nuked the major cities and started making humanoid robots to fight the aliens.  Wahoo.

In the meantime, I'll keep hoping WOTC reprints the 1st Edition of Gamma World.


  1. You've never heard of Apocalypse World?

    1. I don't know that one - heard of it yes, but haven't read it. Worth checking out?

    2. If you want to get a sense of AW to see if it is something that you might be interested in, check out this:


      And the other AW posts on that blog:


      It tends to engender strong feelings within our community. I like it, but it is also quite far afield from D&D mechanically. My regard for the game doesn't have much to do with its apocalyptic setting though.

      Also, contra:


  2. I think the dearth of far future apocalypses is that it just feels like "the future" and teh apocalyptic feel gets lost. Certainly, there is a far amount of science fantasy is really far future post-apocalypse (though sometime a looonnng time post).

    Terra Primate is an rpg that does the PotA thing.

    1. Either like "the future", or like a more typical medieval fantasy game where the stray high-tech relic is indistinguishable from magic.

      I think FGU's Aftermath is about the oldest "straight" post-apocalyptic RPG there is (TSR's Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World both being of the "far future" school).


  3. How about All Flesh Must Be Eaten? It's a survival horror game based on, as you'd expect, a zombie apocalypse -- or rather, multiple possible apocalypses.

    Apocalypse world feels very high-concept? It's got a lot of interesting ideas and a novel approach, so I'd say it's worth a look.

  4. There was also à D20-system french setting called Plagues

  5. I think the lightweight system you are looking for is B/X. Take Greyhawk, for example. You have several choices of apocalypse:
    1. The humanoid apocalypse in Pomarj.
    2. The demon apocalypse of anything involving Iuz.
    3. The state-spondored apocalypse of the insane ruling class of the Great Kingdom.

    All of the various apocalypse scenarios you and I both describe are all really just fantasy and science fiction expressions of real events that have happened throughout history. There is the barbarian apocalypse that destroyed both Romes. There is the plague apocalypse coupled with war during the 13th century 100 Years War that coincided with the Black Plague. There is the state-sponsored apocalypse carried out by various governments in the 20th century.

    B/X is a great system for dealing with all of these. If you don't want elves, dwarves and magic just reduce the available classes to fighter and thief. If you want more of a normal-joy feel, start everybody out as 0-level humans and require 1000xp to get to first level.

    Another option is to port the classes and skill system from Starships & Spacemen 2e. That allows you to have a variety of mundane classes without the magic or the demi-humans.

  6. Has no one mentioned Dark Sun? I think fantasy apocalypse if rife with possibilities. Low level B/X play certainly feels like some sort of kill or be killed world where life is very cheap.

    Start with zero level play, add some guns with exploding damage and give each player a funnel worth of terrified suburbanites or their fantasy equivalents - when 2 or 3 hardened 1st level wasteland predators stumble out of the blast zone a session later it'll feel apocalypse enough I bet.

    I think what I'm saying is apocalypse is a play style maybe more than a game system or system that supports an erratic life is cheap play style perhaps?

  7. You and FrDave are onto something - simple BX rules would be fine for a post-apoc game, as it's more of a state of mind - more about setting than rules.

    Setting is our final frontier; I'm glad for the mad home brewers that are retro cloning like mad, but I'd rather squeeze more out of the rules I have and focus on setting ideas.

    1. I won't say rules aren't important, but less than one thinks. In a sense to me it's that forbidden word "balance" - in a post-apoc game balance should be skewed against the player. No neat humanoid ladder to hack one's way up. Gnoll strength monsters to begin with or zombie with weapon immunities to start. Players gotta to learn to scavange and be tricky.

      Yet rules help - OD&D low hp & limited AC take the punch out of advancement and xp rules or mutilation based damage table can discourage cokbat.

  8. I have always felt BRP makes characters feel more normal and less heroic, which seems more appropriate for near term games.

  9. Cormac McCarthy's The Road features a (very) near-future apocalypse without zombies, laser mutations, or other veiled-fantasy jibber-jabber. Just cannibals, catamites, and misery.

  10. The Dead White World was a great reading!

  11. Beedo, you find that game and I'll crown you king myself.