Monday, January 25, 2010

Post-Apocalyptic Fantasies

The sun was shining today…I mean REALLY shining after weeks of grey, wet misery (that January-February kind of Seattle weather that will eventually beat down even diehard rain lovers like myself…too much mud and sickness) and even though we haven’t even got to Groundhog’s Day it feels a tiny bit like the beginning of Spring…I mean you can feel we are on the upside of days getting longer and such.

And so I find myself thinking of the Apocalypse.

I don’t know why…the last couple-four plus years that’s just what Spring and Summer start doing to me. Thinking about The End of the World is hard to do when in the midst of the happy holiday season…or is perhaps too depressing to take out and look at period during the grey, wet winter days. But Spring time…the Easter season, a time of renewal, etc…makes me think about the death of our world and the rebirth of the next.

Not to be morbid or anything…I don’t clean out the bomb shelter or re-stock the canned goods and ammo or anything. Me…I start getting in the mood for post-apocalyptic fiction and role-playing.

Post-apocalyptic fiction/lore (I’ll just call it PA for short from now on, or this post will get waaay too long) is something that’s held great interest for me for a looong time…so long I’m not sure when it started. It’s like my interest in astrology or fencing…from the moment I discovered such a concept existed it has held a great and terrible fascination for me (not that astrology or fencing are “terrible,” but they would draw my interest to the point of distraction even years..decades!...before I started practicing either).

Using Wikipedia to see the release dates of the earliest pieces of PA fiction I remember might give me a clue to when I first started dwelling on the subject. The Day After (1983) was a horrific made-for-TV movie that I remember watching as a 9 or 10 year old…though I also recall falling asleep before the end and having to ask my folks what happened (spoiler: everybody dies). Thundarr the Barbarian I watched religiously on Saturday Mornings and it aired from 1980-81 (age 7 to 8). Sometime around the same period I recall watching George Peppard in Damnation Alley on television and wow, did that one haunt my nightmares as a kid…but it was released in the theaters in 1977 so it was probably not broadcast on television for at least 5 years (’82 or so). Definitely I saw Planet of the Apes early-early in life, and found that pretty horrific…though I’m sure I didn’t see that until the 5-7 year old range (again on TV). My aunt and her friend almost took me to see the Road Warrior in the theater (US Release circa 1982), but at the last minute ended up taking my brother and I to see The Secret of NIMH instead…and I can recall vividly having a long conversation about the Apes movies on that summer day in Montana, so I must have already seen a couple of the films (possibly more than once).

But the earliest PA fiction I can recall is watching the Logan’s Run television series on TV (broadcast 9/77-1/78…’round about the age of 3-4!!). While not dealing with the horror of nuclear holocaust (or did it? Was that the one where there were these crazy scarred mutants wearing gold masks and black cowls to hide their disfigurement?), it certainly involved dystopian societies and bubble cities.

Hmm…I wonder if I can get that one on Netflix. I might need to re-watch it.

Anyway, I’m sure growing up in the Reagan "2nd Cold War" 1980s helped fuel the paranoia/fascination with the coming apocalypse and “what happens thereafter.”

[Hmmm…just remembered that I also saw the 1978 version of the Time Machine on television when I was 5 years old, and the whole Morlocks/Eloi-cannibalism depiction of THAT film had more impact on my young psyche than any other version of the Time Machine I’ve seen since…this might even have something to do with my whole squeamishness regarding cannibalism]

Yes, long before I ever picked up a copy of Gamma World (2nd edition, found used in the usual Montana bookstore) I was watching and reading tales that would depict (either in plot or background) the End of Civilization as We Know It. Hell, what 13 year old spends his own money to pick up a paperback of After the Bomb? Probably the same kind of kid that grows up watching Buck Rogers (with the nuked Earth surrounding “New Los Angeles”) and videotaping Chuck Heston in The Omega Man to watch multiple times. Yes…I am weird.

So it might strike some as odd that I’m kind of indifferent about most PA RPGs on the market.

But allow me to clarify: I love-love-LOVE the IDEA of the PA RPG. When I first started designing RPGs myself (as a hobby…my B/X Companion is going to be the first thing I actually publish, folks), I had a half-dozen fairly different RPGs all of the PA variety. I even figured I would call my “company” (whoa! Delusions of grandeur!) something like “Post-Apocalyptic Games.” I just felt there was such a dearth of material out there…and I wanted MORE.

Here’s the short-list of published PA RPGswith which I’m familiar:

Gamma World (1st through 3rd editions)

Rifts (and After the Bomb, etc.)

Twilight 2000 (and Cadillacs & Dinosaurs)

Deadlands: Hell on Earth

Car Wars (post-peak oil)

Mutant Chronicles (more Cyberpunk than PA)

Shadow Run (more Cyberpunk than PA)

Cyberpunk (see above)


And of course other assorted weirdness that can be categorized as PA: Obsidian, HOL, World of Synnibarr, some versions of Terra Primate (of course) and AFMBE (zombie apocalypse!), etc. And of course there’s Mutant Future, the OSR’s current darling of whimsical PA mutation & exploration.

The problem for me is: none of these games really satisfy my itch for PA role-playing.

I suppose I should look for a copy of Aftermath! (which I’ve never owned, nor read). But the reputation for being especially fiddly is off-putting to me, even as I like the idea of a grim survival based game.

'Cause that’s 50% of the problem…”grim survival” is the thing that is really missing from all the RPGs I listed above. Gamma World has the potential to be an excellent metaphor for man and his relationship with technology (especially the 1st edition with some minor 2nd edition tweaks), but usually gets bogged down in silliness like fish that turn people to stone and rabbits that turn guns to rubber (not to mention all the rest of the well-known gonzo mutants). Rifts and DL:HOE are waaaay too over-the-top to ever be considered grim in a semi-realistic way...and most of the other games don’t even come close.

I’ve never owned Twilight 2000. My friend Jocelyn DID, but we never played it…and her descriptions of the game to me did nothing to entice me to play (she made it appear to be a WWIII simulation fought with conventional weapons only, rather than a broken military in a PA world which might have been intriguing). I DO own Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, a true PA meets Lost World type pulp game that uses the same system as Twilight 2000. Unfortunately, I find the system to be incredibly BORING. I’m not sure exactly why (I’d have to pull it out and read it again), but after picking it up (recently…within the last 12-18 months), I was left feeling like I REALLY wanted to read the Xenozoic Tales comics instead of playing the RPG.

Grim survival ain’t present in these games, system-wise…and that’s something I’d want to see (yes, yes, a GM or referee can certainly tailor events to be “grim” but I want it INHERENT, dammit!) for a real PA game no matter WHAT the nature of the apocalypse. I mean, look at Reign of Fire (the film). Here’s a world that’s been burned to a near-cinder by DRAGONS but (as with all the best PA stories) still there is the over-reaching story of the GRIM STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL. Not, oh dragons exist maybe we should study magic. Not whimsical stories of captured maidens or bad guys allying themselves with the beasts. This is HIDE OR BE EATEN. Which is a common theme in many types of PA fiction (even without dragons).

But as I said “grim survival” (or lack thereof) is only 50% of my dissatisfaction with PA RPGs. The other 50% of my dissatisfaction comes from the other missing integral part of the genre: COMMUNITY BUILDING. The PA story is NOT simply concerned with 'O woe is us we don’t have electricity/plumbing anymore.' Most PA stories involve some sort of rebuilding/rebirth…a rise from the ashes and possibly a redefining of what community and “civilization” means to those left behind.

Now maybe this is just the Plutonic/Scorpio part of me (Pluto, ruler of Scorpio, is greatly concerned with volcanic upheaval that leads to karmic transformation within our lives) but that shit fascinates me. Surviving the apocalypse? That’s tough enough. But re-building the world from the rubble up? Now THAT’s a heroic task.

And again, while this can be simply “injected” by the GM of the game, I’d prefer it to be a real and integral part of the rules, hopefully directly linked to the “reward/advancement” system in the RPG. Reward systems based on behavior encourage that behavior that engenders rewards. Call that Axiom #3 of RPG design. If characters are only rewarded for killing monsters and getting treasure, guess what: that’s what they’re going to do (unless they wander off on a tangential Creative Agenda like, say, Story Now…hello Trollsmyth and Oddysey!). If characters are rewarded for “good role-playing” (whatever the F THAT means) then you’re going to get some hammy play-acting from your players (or you’re going to get players leaving the group disgruntled ‘cause they’re not into being judged on their improv abilities).

Now again, Gamma World (2nd edition) comes O So Close to establishing this in its Status/Rank reward system…after all, what is being measured in GW appears to be characters value TO their particular community (or Cryptic Alliance, should they join one). Defeating mutants raises their “standing” in the eyes of their people, as does turning in valuable (and working) artifacts with the instruction book attached.

However, while community is INVOLVED in the advancement process, it is not being directly BUILT (perhaps INdirectly, depending on how many mutant monsters get killed and how many tribesmen the PCs arm with Tech III weapons). And community building is the main component of the PA genre…after the grim struggle for survival of course.

[as for the non-Gamma World games, they don’t even come frigging close to addressing this]

Community building or defining: you see it in the Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome. You see it in A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Postman. You see it in The Stand, The White Plague, and even Battlefield Earth and the Matrix films. In all these stories, the grim survivors of the Apocalypse (no matter what form the Apocalypse takes) must come together and redefine what their community is, what it stands for, what they’re all about and how they are going to relate to each other in this changed world. Heck…even those little rag dolls in 9 do this!

Yep, there is the ever-so-faint smell of Spring in the air and I’m itching for some Post-Apocalyptic action. I’ve yet to see The Road or The Book of Eli but I fully intend to see both if possible at my earliest opportunity (watched It’s Complicated on Friday which was very good but certainly not “apocalyptic” in subject matter). I’ve also been meaning to check out S.M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire, which seems to be a rip-off of Steven Boyett’s 1983 book Ariel (though without the unicorns). I just discovered Stirling in the last year with his throwback planetary romances (Mars and Venus) and Marching Through Georgia, but his PA series has gotten some of his ravest reviews and I’ve yet to peruse any of ‘em. As I finish up work on the B/X Companion and its companion adventure module, I find myself more and more enticed with doing a new 64 page RPG…and I wonder if I have enough junk material (and new ideas) to distill some sort of Post Apocalyptic goulash that will meet MY particular needs of gaming in a world gone mad.

; )


  1. Funny, I have been seized by the dame dark muse on my blog...

  2. I must be as strange as you because I love anything PA too. Video games (Wasteland, Fallout), Movies (Road Warrior, The Road, The Day After), Books (The Stand, Lucifer's Hammer, Earth Abides) and Games (Aftermath!, Gamma World, Wasteland).

    Aftermath! is HYPER-realistic which means they have a rule and mathematical formula for everything, but that doesn't always lead to good game play.

    Twilight 2000 (Not related to sparkly vampires) is more like a modern combat game than a survival game AFTER the war.

    Gamma World is great, but it almost feels like D&D with modern weapons and lasers. Too many fantastical creatures and wacky mutations.

    I, like you, need some survival in my PA gaming. I like to have a weird menagerie of items in my backpack for bartering or "just in case". I like worrying about how the party is going to get food and water as much as how I'm going to defeat a band of mutated bikers. Unfortunately, you need a GM with a similar mindset to create that scenario for you to play in...and that's harder to find than finding 3 Atomic Energy Cells for your Powered Assault Armor.

  3. BTW, if you haven't already, pick up Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. It's a long book (around 700 pages) and the first 200 pages are a little tedious, but once the action kicks in you will NOT be able to put it down. It's all about how people directly after an apocalypse try to survive and rebuild society and fend off marauders.

  4. @ Fenway: Hey-hey-hey! Haven't seen your blog before...maybe we need to collaborate? Even a 64 page book, when written solo, can lead to a little burn-out, let me tell ya'!

    @ Brian: A man after my own heart. I'll pick up Lucifer's Hammer..I HAVE heard of it over the years, but just haven't gotten around to picking it up (on the other hand I've read at least half of one of those atrocious "Deathlands" books so it's about time I put in some quality reading). I've had a couple issues with Nivens in the past, but LH is so highly acclaimed, I'm willing to give it a shot.

    Finding atomic energy cells AND power armor? That's like looking for the Eye and Hand of Vecna!
    : )

  5. I have been intrigued by what I've heard a about Darwin's World by RPGObjects, but I've just never gotten around to buying it.

  6. Again messign with very old posts...

    But reading this I thought of a game that probably could scratch all your itches of PA. It's also a free game, so no spent money.

    But it has a problem: It's in Spanish. I don't know about your knowledge in the language but, just in case you understand enough (or don't mind using a translator), maybe you'd like to check this game.

    It's called Last War, and is VERY centered in survival. The link to its web site is:

    And here is the link to the actual PDF manual:

    It uses FATE as the base system.

  7. @ Wachinayn: Thanks man! My command of the Spanish language could certainly use improvement, but if I had more books in Spanish to read (especially poat-apocalyptic RPGs!) it would probably get better faster!
    : )