Friday, January 29, 2010

The Eras of the Apocalypse

There’s nothing quite cut-n-dry about apocalyptic fiction in any media. It probably stems from the fact that most people use the term “Apocalypse” incorrectly (including myself). The Apocalypse is the last book of the Bible…i.e. the Book of Revelation. “Apocalypse” is the English translation of the Greek word that means “revelation” (in other words saying the Book of Apocalypse is the same as saying the Book of Revelation); however, because of the general belief that the Book of Revelation provides a prophecy of the “End Times” for humanity, we have allowed the term “Apocalypse” to become synonymous with the End of the World.

Or as I would call it, “the end of civilization as we know it.”

[by the way, in case anyone cares I don’t believe that what St. John describes is a Doomsday scenario but rather a symbolic blueprint of the path to enlightenment based on tearing down one’s selfish separate self / “ego” and re-building the psyche in terms of being a tool for following the divine will, the Seven Seals being the seven chakras that need to be activated through meditation and right-mindedness. Not that humans don’t run the risk of destroying themselves or anything, but I don’t think John’s revelation was anything about some extra-dimensional divine being saving us from THAT…accepting and following the teachings of the enlightened masters, like Jesus, WILL save your soul from the cycle of death and rebirth, but taking Communion isn’t going to give you a chair in some Astral Plane. Read your Edgar Cayce, folks!]

ANYWAY…so when I write “post-apocalypse” (or “PA”) keep in mind that I’m using the common, slangish parlance of “After the Doom of Mankind” not “post-revelation.” The latter phrase would be mean a state of enlightenment (I guess), while the former means a miserable pile of rubble that used to be society as we know it.

SO there are many shades to PA fiction; it ain’t all Gamma World and Mutant Future, that much is for sure. And part of writing a PA game is considering which SUB-GENRE of PA we’re deciding on. ‘Cause, after all, we can’t use every sub-genre at once, can we?

[that’s semi-rhetorical: my original idea DID try to include all sub-genres in one book, hopelessly overwhelming me and being a decided FAIL]

To my mind there are four or five PA sub-genres based on proximity to The End (proximity time-wise, that is):

#1 PRE-APOCALYPSE: Society hasn’t quite broken down, but it’s at the breaking point. Things are pretty frigging bad all over, the end is nigh, and there’s little to nothing anyone can do about it. Possible examples of this in fiction/RPGs include: Blade Runner, Mad Max, Cyberpunk, Car Wars.

#2 IMMEDIATE POST-APOCALYPSE: The end has come and gone and we are left to pick up the pieces. Society has been shattered and will probably never be what it once was, but it’s still within memory of those who lived through the apocalypse. Those who live weep for what they lost and try to maintain normalcy, even as they make do and attempt to survive. After effects of the Cataclysm (nuclear winter, radiation, disease) are as dangerous as the break-down in law and order and starvation (as a society not used to rustic life gets used to a lack of electricity, plumbing, and supermarkets). Examples of this genre are many: The Stand, The Day After, Dies the Fire (and Ariel), Reign of Fire, Damnation Alley, The Postman, Deathlands, The Road Warrior/Beyond Thunderdome. RPG examples are actually few but include the Rifts supplement Chaos Earth and Twilight 2000. Shadow Run could be a fairly wimpy entry into this category.

#3 MULTI-GENERATION POST-APOCALYPSE: The End occurred generations before living memory. People have learned to survive in the wilderness that is the new world, and have rebuilt some semblances of civilization. The wonders of the pre-apocalypse world are rarely understood entirely correctly but here and there people remember and pass things down. Working artifacts from the pre-cataclysm days are scarce except for well-preserved fortifications that have gone un-looted or ruins long abandoned due to multiple dangers. In some of the farther fetched genres helpful/beneficial mutations have become common, as have giant mutant monsters. Examples include Planet of the Apes, A Boy and His Dog, Water World, Logan’s Run, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Battlefield Earth. RPGs in this category are numerous: Gamma World, Mutant Future, Cadillacs & Dinosaurs, Paranoia, and Rifts to name a few.

#4 ANCIENT APOCALYPSE: The Cataclysm occurred so far in the past that is understood only as a legend, like we might think of Noah’s Ark and the Antediluvian Age. Humans know almost nothing of the pre-apocalypse Earth, having long histories of their own new societies and civilizations and any ancient technology that has survived is more akin to “magic” than anything properly understood or even legendary. Mutant people and monsters are simply part of the local fauna and peoples of this new land. Examples in fiction include Thundarr the Barbarian (yes!) and the Storm Lands, the Dying Earth, maybe Bakshi's Wizards, and possibly some of the darker sword & sorcery pulp like Karl Vagner’s Kane series. Besides RPGs based on the mentioned fiction (Thundarr and DE both having games), Ron Edwards's “Sorcerer and Sword” supplement works, as does most any fantasy RPG you choose to adapt to this…Arneson’s Blackmoore campaign setting falls into this category which means OD&D works just fine.

#5 SPACE EXODUS: The Apocalypse destroyed the Earth and the only survivors of human society have been forced to make a new home…off world! The state of civilization may be any of the types #2 through #4, and may even be close to #1 (the Mutant Chronicles is an example). An example of #2 in space would include Battlestar Galactica or Titan A.E. An example of #3 in space would be Firefly/Serenity or Metamorphosis Alpha. An example of #4 might be McCaffrey’s Pern series, MZB’s Darkover series, or M.A.R. Barker’s Tekumel: Empire of the Petal Throne.

Now in one of my original PA posts I talked about what I found LACKING in the PA RPGs out there, namely the grim struggle for survival and the re-building of community/society. However, after writing up my list of PA sub-genres, I can see that these two “integral” parts of PA fiction don’t always apply…or don’t always apply the same.

#1: In this sub-genre, there is a grim struggle to HOLD IT TOGETHER. Society hasn’t collapsed yet, and things may be dangerous, but the main thing is holding on to what one has and knows and trying to keep from bottoming out.

#2: Both integrals apply, but SURVIVAL is emphasized.

#3: Both integrals apply, but COMMUNITY BUILDING is emphasized (for example, in Gamma World it is assumed your village has learned how to acquire food and shelter, etc. already).

#4: Neither "integral" is integral; at this point you’re simply playing a standard fantasy game.

#5: The integrals emphasized depend on which sub-genre of the sub-genre applies.

Now scoping all that out, the next question is: which game do I particularly want to design? Granted, one of the harder game concepts I’ll need to work out are rules to integrate the grim struggle for survival and community re-building into the game system, but before I get to THAT I need to figure out the setting for the game. I’m kind of thinking the #2 category (Immediate PA) is the less saturated category of RPG, but besides being awfully depressing (rape, looting, cannibalism, radiation sickness) it’s…well, too much firearms and not enough homemade spears. Unless, of course, I go the “Change” route (aka the Steve Boyett/S.M. Stirling “all-technology-just-stopped-working-for-no-good-reason” plot)

Nah, if I do #2, I’m most likely to set it in space (the #5 qualifier), kind of based on Titan A.E.: humanity has got to learn to come together in a hostile universe if they’re going to survive and rebuild themselves. Earth’s been wiped out to make way for a new hyperspace bypass; hopefully the survivors remembered their towels. ; )

I think #3 holds a lot of potential (probably so many of the RPG entries already out there fall into this category). I’d prefer something less whimsical than Gamma World, much more like A Canticle for Leibowitz (I love that book…it’s similar to a PA version of Asimov’s Foundation series). However, I’m not above adding some psionic mutations to the mix…the mutants Beneath the Planet of the Apes and those found in DC’s Kamandi comics being bizarre enough without throwing in talking animals.

'Course in the words of one PA film: nothing is certain, the future is NOT set.

More later...


  1. Great post. Nice, thoughtful overview.

    On KEW's Kane series, though, while there apparently a great civilization ("pre-human elder races") in Kane's world that early human civilization (Carsultyal) cannibalized, the's in our pre-history--he is the Biblical Kane, after all. The latter Kane stories actually take place in the current era.

  2. @ Trey: Thanks!

    In all honesty, I've only read Wagner's book "Bloodstone" so I'm not sure of the entire backstory, etc. of the protagonist. In that particular book it felt like the present civs had been built on the ruins of ancient one. I'll have to read more...when I get the chance!

  3. How does the Morrow Project RPG fit in? It's both a "civilization rebuild" game as well as a "it all happened a long, long time ago" game. Otherwise, very thought out post!

  4. I personally wouldn't classify the Dying Earth as post-apocalyptic. Yes, there have most likely been several ends of times between our time and that distant aeon, but there is nothing to suggest that OUR civilisation as we know it ended in fire and brimstone. The whole idea behind the Dying Earth is that, well, the Earth is Dying. The world is On The Brink. It's signing the divorce papers. "Any second now, I'm sure, the sun will go out and we'll have to grope around in the dark along with the grues," that sort of thing. It's immensely fatalistic. It might have the trappings of Gamma World, but it's got the feel of Mad Max.

  5. @ Sniderman: Hmm...I've never seen/owned the Morrow Project before. After reading the wikipedia entry, it certainly sounds like an interesting premise...similar in some ways perhaps to the ultra-action adventures of the Deathlands novels. It would seem to incorporate PCs from #2 into a #3 world setting...I'd guess I'd define it as #3 but the PCs would have distinct tech advantages (being cryo-frozen and well-outfitted) instead of "mutationally powered." AND if they lost their tech, they'd be down to the spear-chucking.

    @ Maroon: you're right that DE isn't truly PA, but it has a feeling that "organized civilization" has ended (there are ruins and weirdness all over and the civ is on its last legs). It's definitely a fantasy game with a real nihilistic feeling to it, not present in other fantasy RPGs...but that's what makes it fun and different from other fantasy games on the market! : )