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Apocalypse Never


Well, your humble SF columnist has been a real slug for the last few months. In theory, I've been working on my dissertation (and somewhat in fact), which has taken time away from the Only Really Important Thing in Life™ –– gaming. Naturally, working on my philosophy thesis has got my mind to thinking about The End of the World.

Seriously, though, I realize that I've ticked off a lot of cyberpunk fans over the last few months with my continual belittling of that tired genre. So, I thought it was about time to that I picked on a different group that seems not to realize that the '80's are over –– post-holocaust roleplayers. Strange as it is, this Reagan-era genre isn't quite dead yet. You need look no further than Pinnacle Entertainment's unfortunate sequel to its brilliant Deadlands game to find the proof of that. But why, you ask? A good question and one without an easy answer. Now, I'll admit that I enjoyed Gamma World as much as the next guy when I was in the 9th grade in 1983, but I eventually got better (well, mostly so). Obviously there are game designers who didn't. Either that or they've never quite come to terms with the fact that we didn't destroy ourselves in a nuclear war when all right-thinking people know we should have. Heck, even Star Trek continues to belittle us with talk of how humanity was once so stupid that we used nukes to settle our problems, but now we're all so much better and self-actualized and don't need to worry about that sort of thing anymore. Spare me.

Honestly, I have a hard time understanding the post-holocaust genre. As I see it, the "pleasure" in playing in such a setting should stem from an interest in rebuilding a new world, in picking up the pieces that have been scattered by Man's arrogance (or [insert trendy vice here]). Believe me, I see some value in that kind of setting. I doubt any thoughtful gamemaster hasn't considered wrecking his game world as a prelude to rebuilding it in a new and hopefully better way. Unfortunately, there are very few (if any) post-holocaust games that actually presented themselves in this fashion.

Gamma World, in as much as it was about anything, was a game of goofily implausible mutants trekking about a still-glowing earth in search of "ancient artifacts" that usually turned out to be pathetic in-jokes perpetrated on them by their soon-to-be-pummeled GM ("What?! You mean to tell me the "Black Sphere of Lanes" is a bowling ball?"). On the contrary, Aftermath, in the fine tradition of all FGU games, was about everything in the genre that its designers couldn't pry loose with a crowbar. Twilight: 2000 was about employing a nuclear war as an excuse to use your US Army training for fun and profit ("It's been months since we've received orders from home. I guess this means the M1A1 is ours now.").

Then there was The Morrow Project (TMP), a game that continues to exert a baleful influence over gamers even now (trust me on this one –– a member of my gaming group still threatens us with it every so many months). TMP was a little different from the games I've already mentioned in that it was explicitly about rebuilding civilization in the aftermath of a nuclear war (which occurred in 1989 –– boy, don't you feel lucky?). The characters were members of teams placed in cryogenic suspension, scheduled to awaken several months after the bombs had stopped falling. They would then use their cool high-tech toys and American know-how to reconstruct civilization. Unfortunately, things go wrong and they wake up over a hundred years later without any of the back-up (from other cells) they had been trained to expect.

The basic conception isn't a bad one, but TMP relied on too much silliness to be taken seriously. First, there's the fact that the eponymous Bruce Edward Morrow was a psychic with the ability to travel through time. That's why he knew the world was going to end and was able to provide his teams with cool tech that didn't exist at the time to Project was conceived. Yet, if that's true, why didn't he also see that the Project would be seriously hampered when it finally sprang into action? Then there's all the mutants and other typical nonsense that really takes the shine off of any scientific plausibility. My favorite are the "Blue Undead," animated radioactive corpses that glow. Ooh, scary.

Strangely enough, Traveller: The New Era could be considered a post-holocaust game. I know that its line manager at the late GDW, Dave Nilsen, rejected that characterization. I admire him for his efforts to make the game more than that, but I think, in the end, he failed. I know whereof I speak on this matter. I wrote a cute little adventure in the TNE rulebook called "The Once and Future Emperor." Its published form was a hatchet job of editing that gave Frank Chadwick co-authorship and goes down in history as the only Traveller adventure to include the word "butthead." (thanks to Mr. Chadwick's unsolicited additions to my text). But I'm not bitter.

Despite his inability to change the course of TNE's future, I think that Dave Nilsen was on to something. He worried that TNE might, as a setting, wallow in darkness and glory in destruction. That's something that all post-holocaust games suffer from to some degree. I think Twilight: 2000 is one of the worst offenders in this regard, but the others are guilty of it as well. The point is that, to be worthwhile, games set after the fall of a civilization should use that fall to good dramatic effect. They should take the Fall as their starting point, not their raison d'tre. Theoretically, both TNE and The Morrow Project did just that. Both games were set after the Fall as way to involve players in the grandest adventure of them all: rebuilding society from the ashes.

Even assuming that a post-holocaust game manages to avoid this first pitfall of the genre, there is a second even more dire one: suspension of disbelief. None of the games I've mentioned included a plausible end for civilization. Twilight: 2000 and The Morrow Project had nuclear wars (in 1996 and 1989 respectively), Gamma World had. . . something. I think it was social unrest and terrorists with really, really powerful weapons. Of course, you shouldn't think too deeply about Gamma World; it'll only give you headaches, not to mention visions of mutant bears in Napoleonic garb. TNE had the artificially intelligent computer Virus. Aftermath had no one set disaster, allowing the GM to choose, which is one of the few things in the game's favor. This also meant that it was very hard for FGU to support the game, as each campaign might have very different basic conceptions.

I've been accused by one of my friends of being a Pollyanna, since I don't buy into most doomsday scenarios. In my brief lifetime, there have been a few too many predictions for the end of the world. Let's see, there was the so-called Energy Crisis (remember Road Warrior anyone?), the Jupiter Effect, nuclear war (don't forget Sagan's nuclear winter), global warming, AIDS, reborn tuberculosis, the ebola virus, asteroid strikes, and now Y2K. There are also others (like my friend) who believe in the vague doomsday called "ecological collapse." I'm sure what this means and I wonder whether he does either. So far as I can tell, it's a conveniently malleable notion that can continue to transmogrify over time to assimilate new doomsday scenarios without having to make its adherents look like they're jumping on the latest bandwagon.        

Needless to say, it takes a lot to get me to buy into an apocalyptic scenario enough to want to play a game set in its aftermath. That's not the only hurdle. There really isn't a lot of good (let me stress this word) literary or cinematic antecedents for this whole scenario. I mean, there are stories about avoiding a civilization-shattering disaster than you can shake a stick at. After all, that's dramatically interesting. There's tension and really bad consequences for failure. That's why I suspect that last summer's movie Armageddon was a bigger success than Deep Impact. Watching smarmy, wise-cracking oil riggers led by Bruce Willis kick asteroid butt is much more inspiring than seeing lots of people die nobly in the face of a threat we cannot overcome. Which one would make a better roleplaying game? Hey, I'm no fan of Bruce Willis, but he and his cronies are the perfect adventuring party. No one wants to play Hapless Innocent #10532 in a game based on Deep Impact. Yet, I don't doubt that Deep Impact was more scientifically accurate and a truer representation of what an asteroid strike on the Earth would be like. It just doesn't possess the stuff of good gaming.

The same is true of so much post-holocaust materials. The cool stuff, the stuff that gets you thinking "I want to play that" is usually about overcoming or defeating the horrible thing that could bring the world crashing down on you. No one wants to live among the ruins for its own sake. And no one, I think, but a wannabe homilist has much use for stories of apocalypses that we can't prevent. The '80's, which were the heyday of this genre, heard lots of voices saying "Nuclear war is bad. We shouldn't engage in a foolish arms race." Whatever the wisdom of that sermon at the time, no one really cares anymore. It's old; it's been done and it's boring. Nowadays, we have similar (or the same –– some of these guys need to move on) prophets of doom saying things like "Global warming is bad. We shouldn't use so many CFCs." Again, that may be true, but it's just not interesting as the basis for a roleplaying game. If you're gonna destroy the world, you better have a darn good reason for doing so. Anything less shows a lack of imagination.

Once more, I predict that the new century will see a rise in goofy optimism and other such feel-good nonsense. When you're living on the high of a big round number with a lot of zeroes, you don't think much about the End of Things. Just watch.

James M.

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