The PA Genre
This is a pretty long page; read it if you’re interested in why I like the Post-Apocalyptic (PA) genre of gaming.
The first section of this page has been adapted from the introduction to Dominic Covey’s ‘Darwin’s World‘. The second section has been plagiarized from R. J. Grady’s article ‘Post-Apocalyptic Nightmare‘ from the In Genre column on RPGnet. I liked them enough that I decided to adapt them for this site. All I’ve done is reformatted the text, altered the wording, and cut some sections out.
What is different about post-apocalyptic RPGs than any other form of role-playing? For most RPG players, the genre brings to mind mutants, monsters, and survival. There are certainly some other important distinctions unique to post-apocalyptic games as well: a world of almost total desolation, a poisoned environment that can be as big a threat as any monster, and usually a lost era of technology and former greatness, an understanding of which forever remains just beyond the grasp of the game’s characters.
The post-apocalyptic genre itself is something of a combination between science fiction and horror; set in a world similar (if not identical) to our own, most post-apocalyptic books and movies play upon real-life events, fears, and nightmare possibilities, and postulate their ultimate (and universally catastrophic) conclusions. It is appealing for many to simply imagine such worlds, and as a result it is an almost seamless step from imagining to role-playing.
Most traditional game settings already have an established sense of the apocalypse, making it an easy transition for those unfamiliar with the core ‘feel’ of the post-apocalyptic genre. The idea of uncovering secrets among the ruins of a lost ancient civilization is a common theme in science fiction or fantasy, whether in terms of discovering a lost city of aliens, or the crumbling remains of a magical culture long gone.
In post-apocalyptic games, the entire world is a widespread ruin, not only among the great cities that stand as a silent testament to the greatness of those who came before, but also in the wilderness itself. Ravaged by war, or by pollution, or by the withering effect of some massive plague, most sources of post-apocalyptic literature (such as movies, books, and games) extend the theme of total devastation to the outside as well, turning the entire world into a place destitute or devoid of hope. This grim atmosphere is an excellent primer for weaving horrific, desperate, and exciting adventures.
(Check out the Darwin’s World website for more from Dominic Covey, and his Twisted Earth campaign setting.)
The post-apocalyptic genre features exploration-driven, character-driven stories 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 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, relationships 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, trying 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 lens 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 now for free delivery’ 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 Middle 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 explicit 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.
(The Expedition campaign fits into the more ‘wahoo’ end of this spectrum.)
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; slavers; cult leaders; and greedy settlers. In some settings, 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 encounter 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.