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In Genre

In Genre: POST-APOCAPLYPTIC NIGHTMARE

by RJ Grady
Jan 27,2004

 

In Genre: POST-APOCALYPTIC NIGHTMARE

by RJ Grady

What Genre Are We In?

Post-Apocalyptic Nightmare is an exploration-driven, character-driven genre characterized by a battle for civilization, or just survival, on a devastated Earth. The genre has its origins in the days of "Duck and cover!", in the era of race riots, a time of worldwide apprehension and social strife. The seminal media are B-grade atomic horror flicks and the ground-breaking Night of the Living Dead. Atomic devastation and dangerous mutants provided the means, apocalyptic horror provided the melody. In the Atomic Age, society recoiled for a moment from technology and its terrifying power. Many of the genre tropes, such as lone warriors, isolated tribes, and battles against banditry come from the pulps, especially westerns and swords & sorcery. Our ignorance of atomic power made it seem capable of anything, from vast destruction to awesome mutation. We also indulged in pure fantasy, from undead zombies to semi-magical psychics. Atomic horror met in the middle ground between science-fiction and fantasy, where science created murderous monsters that turned on their guilty, accidental creators. Post-apocalyptic nightmare stories are the "end result" stories. What happens if Earth is over-run by zombies... and we can't stop them? What happens if our atomic weapons destroy Earth's cities... and some kind of life survives in the shadow of mutation and destruction? The unifying theme of all post-apocalyptic settings is the lawlessness and isolation of a barbaric time, perhaps mirroring our inner dissatisfaction with the settled world of today. The genre concerns the struggle of small groups, even handfuls of individuals. Something has happened to the world, something terrible, whether it be an alien radiation that causes the dead to rise from their graves, nuclear war, or a breakdown in civilization caused by a failure of vital infrastructure.

Character competence tends to be high. The heroes of these stories tend to be gritty, and if they aren't military figures, are at least capable of surviving in a rough world through their resources. The morality varies, but tends to devolve the idea that tyranny is the same moral state as anarchy, and that civilization is preferable to both, but easily subverted. Thus, free-thinking, cooperation, toughness, and a grim practicality are the virtues of this genre.

The Dark Ages

One recurring theme is the idea of the State of Nature. Without the bounds of civilization, life, as Hobbes put it, is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Post-apocalyptic worlds are often dominated by roving gangs of brigands or rising fascists. Deviants haunt the fringes of settlements. Predators roam the vast distances between villages. Characters often adopt S&M gear or attitudes to express the truth that in a brutal world, relatinships are based on power. Another theme is the Mythic Past. To the youngest, civilization is a story of the past, a Camelot or some Golden Age. In some settings, it may have been long enough ago that only storytellers and dreamers believe there was ever a time before the brutal present. Simple artifacts like music boxes or lawnmowers may be mysterious in purpose and operation. Some individuals may specialize in analyzing and rebuilding technology of the past. After more recent apocalypses, they could be handymen, tryinng to make do with half the tools to do twice the work. For the distant future, these tinkerers are effectively wizards. Besides the technology of the past, post-apocalyptic communities revere the social order of the past. Security, social justice, and basic prosperity of life are fruits of a lost Golden Age. The society and technology we take for granted are examined through a lense of wonder and skepticism. The payoff is both a sense of irony, as well as a new way of looking at the benefits and costs of our civilization. Phrases like "Innocent until proven guilty" or "Call anywhere in the US!" may take on a mythic quality, for poetic or comic effect. From the ashes, something new must grow, so the re-building of civilization is another important theme. Just as the Middles Ages arose from the Dark Ages, some groups and individuals are trying to bring order to a world of darkness. One of the biggest obstacles is a stark fear of technological weaponry. Guns may be blasphemous relics, or eagerly hoarded tools. Any sort of science can be seen as encouraging the hubris that led disaster in the first place. Some people want to pursue a new tribalism, while others look to the governments of the past as a blueprint to building a better future. Civilization depends on security. If a village can be fortified, it can become a community. If a community can grow in strength, it can suppress banditry. If it can form alliances, civilization can be rebuilt, one barony, tribe, or collective at a time. While communities firm first for safety and companionship, they also provide a nest for education and hope. But to achieve security, societies must depend on violence, and must often look to the weapons that destroyed humanity's last flowering for protection. That is the paradox of civilization: how to halt violence and order society, without creating an uncontrollable reservoir of power in the hands of an unenlightened few. Some settings exist in the middle of a long night, while others offer a chance to salvage civilization as the old nations crumble, and others offer a far-future where a truly new society is rising on the ruins of the old.

Post-apocalyptic settings tend to be soft-science. Even settings that portray the "realistic" effects of nuclear contamination rarely pay much heed to how quickly unattended technology breaks down. Vehicles and weapons are often functioning decades or centuries after they were last serviced. Nevertheless, some settings can be described as "not so much funny stuff." On the other hand, if the collapse of civilization was caused by a zombie virus, or if the new age is characterized by armies of psychic mutants running around, the genre becomes more explict science-fantasy. Supernatural apocalypses, or "alien Earth" settings tend to split the difference, defined as they are as much by moral theme as scientific outlook.

How strange is the Earth? If a deadly plague wipes out 3/4 of humanity six months before the start date of the campaign, the left-behind Earth is going to be very recognizable. If humanity melted its cities into glass 5,000 years ago, and society is ruled by giant telepathic aardvarks, Earth is essentially an alien planet, so changed that any resemblances to our world exist more for the benefit of the reader than provide any meaningful link to the past for the characters in the story. Most Post-Apocalyptic settings tend to fall somewhere in the middle. That is, our Earth and its civilization are forever gone, but the new inheritors have a chance of learning something from our mistakes.

What caused the Great Disaster? Nuclear war? Alien invasion? World war? Plague? A revolt of robots, clones, or genetic experiments? The instability of capitalism? The hand of God? Zombies? The answer is important in defining the moral rules of the setting. If, for instance, humanity was flattened by an alien invasion, then human solidarity is important. If the end was caused by nuclear war, perhaps nationalism is the enemy, and our heroes embrace a self-sufficient frontier lifestyle. However, it may not have much effect on day to day survival after a few decades, assuming a good deal of Earth is still inhabitable. People tend to stick to areas they know, don't move around at night a lot, and keep weapons handy.

A New Dawn, or, Where Did I Put That Chainsaw?

Who are the heroes? Common protagonists include wandering mercenaries; washed-out soldiers or lawmen; idealistic politicians; outcasts; criminals; teenage runaways; scouts; scholars of the past; tinkerers; armourers; escaped slaves; messengers; tribal protectors; and religious visionaries. The villains are often despots; warlords; gang leaders; outcasts; criminals; power-hungry mad scientists; armourers; slavers; cult leaders; and greedy settlers. In some cities, the characters will be human. Others will throw in a few viable mutations, cyborgs, and genetic experiments. Some settings are filled with as many creatures as the Mos Eisley Cantina, everything from androids to human mutants to bipedal dogs to unrecognizable aberrations.

There are two basic types of stories. The first is the Wandering Survivors story. The heroes travel from place to place, living on salvage, trade, and perhaps banditry. As time goes on, they may become hired guns for a group of villagers, or they may face a threat from slavers or authoritarians. More intellectual, inquisitive, or visionary characters may adventure deep into forbidden territory, seeking treasures and secrets of the past.

The second main type of story is the Brave Villagers story. The characters are custodians, leaders, or knights of a fledgling community. Typically the village has special access to something precious, such as an oil pump, a power plant, medicine, fresh water, or simply good crops. Then bandits strike. A struggle ensues between predator and free farmer.

Stories can alternate between the two types. A band of wanderers may join a village for a time as protectors, or a village may be uprooted and forced to survive on the road until they can re-settle. Longer campaigns can feature the characters building, protecting, losing, moving on, and beginning again, searching for their Zion.

Post-apocalyptic settings are well-suited for RPGs. Useful features include valuable, often unique, treasures and equipment; an endless supply of sociopathic villains; a lack of a power structure to bail the PCs out of trouble; many open-ended choices; and a hard life of adventure. The main issues to iron out are: uniting characters of different motivations; providing a clear sense of progress or tragedy; and sustaining a suspension of disbelief. Let's say the characters encouter a cult, living out of a Burger King and saying blessings over the creative meals they prepare. There is a thin, surreal line between this enlivening the story and spoiling the mood.

The players responsibilities in a Post-Apocalyptic setting include: posting a watch every night; never giving up; and portraying either hardened idealism or stubborn survivalism in a world that would happily swallow and forget them. Since this suits the inclinations of many gamers already, Post-Apocalytic Settings are often player-friendly. However, players should make an effort to assign their characters meaningful motivations. Even something as simple as "to become the best warrior in order to show everyone in my tribe who's boss" is better than "to fight," because it gives the character a past, present, and future. Without meaningful emotional connections, PCs are no different than the empty-eyed NPCs they meet along the way.

Bibliography

Adams, Robert. The Coming of the Horseclans.
One of many books in the series. A swords-and-sorcery adventure set in a post-collapse of civilization Earth. The horseclans learn to hunt and survive under the leadership of the immortal Michael Morai. Telepathic cats, religious visions, cannibalism, and big axes.

Anthony, Piers. Battle Circle.
Essential omnibus volume containing three novels of a new Hyperborean Age. Strong men fight for beautiful women, mysterious savants control the last of the world's firearms, and a minotaur lurks at the heart of the Labyrinth. A must read.

Jenkins, Jerry and Tim Lahaye. Left Behind.
The Rapture has occured, and the faithful have been called up to Heaven. The rest of humanity must decide whether to side with the Antichrist or seek redemption.

King, Stephen. The Stand.
The Antichrist unleashes a plague invented by the US military. A handful of survivors gather for a battle with the most ancient evil. Top notch supernatural epic.

Tepper, Sherri S. A Plague of Angels.
Surreal, fantastic tale of sexually-transmitted Apocalypse. The story leads the reader to wonder at what man does to man, man to nature, and nature to man. A dark fairy tale.

Watt-Evans, Lawrence. The Cyborg and the Sorcerer.
A cyborg travels the stars in an artificially intelligent ship, fighting a war that ended centuries ago. Things become difficult when the ship demands the cyborg capture the "enemy's secret weapon," seemingly magical abilities possessed by some of the natives. The cyborg just wants to live, while the ship is only looking for an excuse to activate its self-destruct sequence, destroying the world.

Zelazny, Roger. Damnation Alley.
Bleak short novel about the open highway. The protagonist is a remorseless survivor in the world's most badass truck.

Filmography

Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worry and Love the Bomb (1964)
Irresistible comedy about man's folly and the end of the world. Every apocalyptic tale must begin with an apocalypse. Starring Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers, and Peter Sellers.

Shape of Things to Come (1936)
Early science-fiction film chronicles the dark night of war and a re-emergence from the ashes. Based on the H.G. Wells novel.

Teenage Caveman (1958)
B-grade film about an inquisitive cave, er, teenager, and his quest to learn more about the world he lives in, which turns out to be a far-future Earth.

The Time Machine (1960)
Based on the Wells story. A man explores the possibility of time travel, and finds himself in a far future where the leisure class have degenerated into despirited children, and the working class transformed into subterranean monsters. Remade several times.

Planet of the Apes (1968)
Biting satire that just bites on many levels. Nevertheless, pretty essential cinema, and it did cause something of an unproar when it first came out. I hope I didn't spoil the ending for you by including it in this list. It has a sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which includes a chilling cult of bomb-worshippers living, uh, beneath the planet of the apes.

Zardoz (1974)
Weird far future fantasy about a barbaric Earth. A mysterious character named Zardoz poses as a god, but turns out to be both mortal and fallible.

A Boy and His Dog (1975)
A cynical sideshow of humanity's folly. A boy and his telepathic dog traverse a post-nuclear-apocalyptic world.

Wizards (1977)
Weird fantasy film by Ralph Bakshi about a Post-Apocalytptic world of elves, goblins, mutants, and soldiers. The wizard Avatar must somehow find a way to defeat his brother, Blackwolf, and his army of Nazi-inspired monsters. Not to everyone's taste.

Mad Max (1979)
Low-budget Mel Gibson film about a good cop in a bad place. Lunatic raiders prowl the highways in broad daylight. In the sequel, The Road Warrior, Max becomes a hired gun for a small community defending their precious fuel supply from The Humongous. In the third move, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Max has a run in with a would-be queen of the new era, the vicious and charismatic Auntie. Max also encounters a lost tribe of children, whose parents went for help long ago and never returned.

Tank Girl (1995)
Hip post-apocalyptic adventures of a freedom fighter, her robot tank, her steadfast companion Jet Girl, and a small army of mystic kangaroos, against the forces of evil, in the form of a mercantalist who controls the precious water supply.

Waterworld (1995)
The waters have risen, covering the Earth. Ship-bound survivors search for land. Kevin Costner is a mutant with gills. An evil despot seeks to control precious resources.

The Postman (1997)
A traveling actor and vagabond impersonates a postal carrier in order to get a meal, claiming there is a new President and Congress. People want to believe, and he finds himself in the unlikely position of delivering mail for a government that doesn't exist, spreading hope and news, and making up lots of stuff he really shouldn't have ought to. He becomes an outlaw of a rising dictactorship, as well as a very reluctant hero. Sort ot The Music Man meets Return of the King. The film tells the lessons that civilization exists because of faith in civilization, only brutal strength can defeat brutal strength, and only kindness can breed kindness.

28 Days Later (2002)
A deadly virus escapes from a research facility, turning upstanding British citizens into homicidal monsters. A small group struggles to survive and find hope in a world of suspicion, infection, and dreadful isolation.

Thundarr the Barbarian (TV)
Class cartoon of a post-apocalyptic future of "sorcery and super-science." The Conan-like Thundarr adventures with his friends Ariel the Sorceress and Ookla the Mok. Thundarr possesses a delightful mix of disinterest and skepticism toward the fallen Earth civilization.

Robotech: Invid Invasion (TV)
The third in the Robotech series for American television, adapted from anime. Humans struggle to survive in a far future where the alien Invid rule the ruined Earth, and every drop of protoculture is a precious, probably unrenewable resource desired by both sides.

Gameography

Gamma World (TSR/Wizards of the Coast/Swords & Sorcery)
Now in its sixth version. The original green-glowing, post-apocalyptic setting. Earlier editions took their inspiration primarily from B-grade cinema. The latest owes more to Sherri S. Tepper and Neal Stephenson. The 1st edition was based heavily on AD&D; it was actually a spinoff of Meteamorphosis Alpha. The 2nd edition was a refinement. The 3rd edition used a radically different system, relying on an attractive chart system. It also introduced a lot more elements, such as general rules for mutant plant characters and more alien technology. The 4th edition was a return to D&D style mechanics, and could be considered a proto-d20 game. The 5th version was Gamma World as an Alternity setting. The 6th was produced under license by Swords & Sorcery Studios. The 1st through 4th editions are all strong standalone products. 5th edition requires the Alternity rulebooks plus the setting book, and is often considered the blandest interpretation of the setting. The 6th edition requires the Gamma World Player's Handbook, as well as a d20 core rulebook. The first supplement, Mutants & Machines, vastly expands on characters and monsters, especially Chucky/Christine style robots/androids gone berserk.

After the Bomb (Palladium)
Originally a supplement for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Roleplaying Game. As such, it focused on various anthropomorphic mutant animals in a future in which humanity has blasted itself back into the Dark Ages. The new edition is a standalone game using the Rifts-compatible version of the Palladium system. The presence of Spider-Goats, mutant, sapient descendents of the real-life silk-producing goats created in California, makes this a strong contender in the wacky category, especially with Gamma World putting on a more serious face. Requires the core rulebook.

Talislanta (Bard Games/Wizards of the Coast/Shooting Iron)
Now in its 4th edition. Imaginative swords-and-sorcery setting, set in the new dawn following the Great Disaster that turned Talislanta's ancient civilizations into ruins and transformed the sky and land unrecognizably. To buy in, you require the 4th edition rulebook. Some products of previous editions may be of interest, primarily The Chronicles of Talislanta.

All Flesh Must Be Eaten (Eden Studios)
The generic, universal flesh-eating zombies roleplaying game. Several sample settings focus on post-zombie apocalyptic worlds. Requires the core rulebook.

GURPS Y2K (Steve Jackson Games)
Several takes on post-disaster adventures. Requires the GURPS third edition rules, or GURPS Lite, and this sourcebook. Many GURPS supplements would come in handy, depending on the campaign focus. GURPS Lite is available for free at http://www.sjgames.com

Rifts (Palladium)
The "all the switches" post-apocalyptic setting. Magic, high-tech, demons, undead, psychics, mutants, dimensional travel, you name it. Notable for its strong thematic focus: uplifting humanity and its allies from darkness. Suffers from dated mechanics and a lack of consistency. Buying in requires only the core rulebook, but by doing so, you are taking the first steps down a path of unimaginable sourcebook buying. Picking and choosing is not allowed; various OCCs and monsters are only printed once, in whatever book they first appear. Maybe twice. At the least, plan on picking up the Conversions Book, Atlantis, England, The New German Republic, Vampire Kingdoms, and Africa.

Hero System (Hero Games/DOJ)
This versatile toolkit gives you a lot of options. Requires the fifth edition rulebook. Helpful supplements include The Hero System Bestiary, The Ultimate Vehicle, and even Star Hero. Very little setting support, but extremely handy for providing stats for everything from a chainsaw to a telepathic pterodactyl to a flesh-eating zombie. Well-supported by the legions of fans at http://www.herogames.com

The Bits Box
Precious water supplies, precious fuel supplies, wandering ronin, being banished for questioning the old ways, mad old tinkerers, tricked out cars and vehicles, telepathic tyrants, mutants, genetic experiments gone haywire, robots and machines endlessly working at futile tasks, radiation, giant predators, slavery and freedom, militaristic despots, muscled warlords, reluctant anti-heroes, useless hangers-on that eventually prove to have great worth as human beings, unscrupulous traders, ambitious community leaders, religious zealots, con artists, roving bands of lunatic raiders, scavenged technology, hidebound farmers, selfish rovers, bounties and ultimatums, shoot-outs, mercenaries, mysterious ruins, magic-like technology, flesh-eating zombies, humanity's destiny (or ruin), the Disaster, deadly plagues, mutagenic weapons, Things Meant For God (Not Men), hollowed-out skyscrapers, trying to restore water (or power) to a community, hubris, "I shoot him with my gamma ray mutation," might makes right, rape, parent and child wandering together in search of sanctuary, "they come at night," and chainsaws. Lots of chainsaws.

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