In Genre: POST-APOCAPLYPTIC NIGHTMAREby RJ Grady
In Genre: POST-APOCAPLYPTIC NIGHTMAREby RJ Grady
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.
Adams, Robert. The Coming of the Horseclans.
Anthony, Piers. Battle Circle.
Jenkins, Jerry and Tim Lahaye. Left Behind.
King, Stephen. The Stand.
Tepper, Sherri S. A Plague of Angels.
Watt-Evans, Lawrence. The Cyborg and the Sorcerer.
Zelazny, Roger. Damnation Alley.
Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worry and Love the Bomb (1964)
Shape of Things to Come (1936)
Teenage Caveman (1958)
The Time Machine (1960)
Planet of the Apes (1968)
A Boy and His Dog (1975)
Mad Max (1979)
Tank Girl (1995)
The Postman (1997)
28 Days Later (2002)
Thundarr the Barbarian (TV)
Robotech: Invid Invasion (TV)
Gamma World (TSR/Wizards of the Coast/Swords & Sorcery)
After the Bomb (Palladium)
Talislanta (Bard Games/Wizards of the Coast/Shooting Iron)
All Flesh Must Be Eaten (Eden Studios)
GURPS Y2K (Steve Jackson Games)
Hero System (Hero Games/DOJ)
The Bits Box