Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Post-Apocalyptic Roleplaying Games

So it was that, after the [Flame] Deluge, the Fallout, the plagues, the madness, the confusion of tongues, the rage, there began the bloodletting of the Simplification, when remnants of mankind had torn other remnants limb from limb, killing rulers, scientists, leaders, technicians, teachers, and whatever persons the leaders of the maddened mobs said deserved death for having helped to make the Earth what it had become.”
A Canticle for Leibowitz

I’ve never really immersed myself in the handful of post-apocalyptic roleplaying games released over the years. Sure, I own some, acquired more out of curiosity and an interest in dabbling, but even the few I’ve played never really struck a chord. Perhaps it’s because I grew up with a sheen of anxiety about nuclear war. Maybe it’s because – for the first time in more than 25 years – the threat of nuclear war on even a small scale seems frighteningly possible. Yet I still look fondly at my small collection of post-apocalyptic roleplaying games, day-dreaming of a time when it was considered escapist “fun” to indulge in settings ranging from gritty reality to gonzo fantasy.

Many who came of age during the “Golden Age of Roleplaying Games” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”) lived in a world where nuclear holocaust was still lurking in the back of the American collective subconscious, fueled by apocalyptic fare such as the television “event” “The Day After” and the Communist fear-mongering (yet entirely entertaining) Red Dawn, with a heavy dose of Reagan-era saber-rattling, bravado, and gaffes (“We begin bombing in five minutes.”). Add science fiction literature of the genre – A Canticle for Liebowitz comes to the forefront – and one finds a ready audience for survivalist, exploration-themed roleplaying games set in a grim post-apocalyptic future. The genre has all the allure of pulp-era “lost civilizations” themes with a haunting familiarity and some science-fiction technology. Post-apocalyptic roleplaying games balance these elements to varying degrees along with gritty survivalist reality to produce enjoyable gaming experiences.

Unfortunately my own interest in post-apocalyptic roleplaying games rarely found a player audience; at the time my friends were more interested in more mainstream fare like Dungeons & Dragons, the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, and Shadowrun. We tried a few Gamma World scenarios, though I think we spent more time rolling up characters than actually playing. One summer between college semesters I tried running a Morrow Project adventure, but it was quite clear it was more to indulge my interest rather than engage my bored players, who were used to more cinematic fare. After that I held off pursuing the genre in gaming, though I often noticed new post-apocalyptic games reaching the market. As the world seems to careen toward apocalypse – from nuclear war, global warming, cyber-hacking infrastructure crash, near-miss asteroids, zombies (okay, maybe not zombies...yet) – I can’t help thinking about past roleplaying game forays into the post-apocalypse.

Gamma World (1983): When I first started roleplaying in the early 1980s Gamma World was one of a handful of games that caught our attention (primarily from TSR). Our loose association of friends gamed infrequently, and tried the game in between sessions of Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons. The local hobby store – which primarily carried TSR games and a smattering of other products – offered the second edition Gamma World game in a specially priced promotion, shrink-wrapped with a slew of first-edition supplements, including GW1 Legion of Gold, GW2 Famine in Far-Go, and the Referee’s Screen (if memory serves me correctly). Obviously a marketing strategy by TSR to support the release of the second edition rules with material in the warehouse left over from first edition, it worked for those of us looking to dive into a game at a bargain price. Our gaming group didn’t get much farther than creating a few characters and stumbling through some of the early encounters in the adventure modules, but we enjoyed it as a diversion from our usual dungeon delving action. I don’t recall the overall setting being too compelling; overall it seemed like a somewhat gonzo but fun version of a post-apocalyptic world, much like the popular Thundarr the Barbarian cartoon airing on television Saturday mornings.

The Morrow Project (1980): I can’t remember where I picked up The Morrow Project, but I’d heard about it as one of the earlier post-apocalyptic games and embarked on a quest to acquire it for my collection. I probably found the rulebook and The Starnaman Incident game scenario in one of the old-school game stores that used to abound in my region of Connecticut. I’d probably read about the game and was intrigued by its premise: caches of equipment and cryogenically preserved specialists wakening after World War III (which started on Nov. 18, 1989) to bring civilization to the ruins of society. Much of the rulebook was a dry catalog of equipment, lists of survivors and creatures (not as gonzo as Gamma World), and endless rules for specific tactical situations without a whole lot of inspiration for missions (one of the cases where a lengthy solitaire tutorial adventure might have helped readers learn the game system as well as familiarize themselves with core themes of the setting). I read the background about “the war” with a morbid curiosity, looking over the targets listed by state, city and type of missile that hit them (something folks can now play with online at numerous sites like Nukemap). My rulebook still has some notes for revising the skill system, some non-player characters, notes for a rather bland scenario I ran, and a character or two.

Twilight 2000 (1984): I never had a copy of Twilight 2000, but became entranced by its many ads in gaming magazines and enticed by scenarios and other material in GDW’s late, great Challenge Magazine. It seemed like a more gritty, realistic environment where scavenging for supplies seemed to play just an integral role as adventuring in the setting, with the attention to practical, logistical details frequently seen in GDW’s games (possibly bordering on the level of detail seen in The Morrow Project). Part of the draw for me was the proximity to the real-world situation at the time, where other games seemed to distance themselves from the apocalypse-causing holocaust. I was also intrigued by the campaign potential the game offered, with disparate bands of American soldiers making their way through war-ravaged Europe to link up with other allies, discover pockets of civilization, and head toward a seemingly stable objective, all while struggling to find necessary survival supplies (and gas, I always figured they’d be perpetually desperate for gas to fuel their vehicles). One day I might try acquiring a copy of Twilight 2000 to give it a fair shake by reading it and adding it to my shelf as one of those classic GDW games I missed.

Of course I’m missing a host of post-apocalyptic roleplaying games released over the years, some during the “Golden Age of Roleplaying Games” I missed out on and some published more recently. I frequently saw advertisements for Aftermath in the pages of Dragon Magazine but never really pursued it. I’ve heard of Apocalypse World more through the numerous thematic derivations it inspired, though perhaps that’s the reason I have a greater impression of its game mechanics than its setting. I know Fantasy Flight Games released The End of the World roleplaying game line (which conveniently avoids the nuclear holocaust theme), but having an entirely separate game book for zombies, alien invasion, AI takeover, and end days religious calamity never really appealed to me (though it gets credit for enabling players to play themselves in the game). I backed the Numenera Kickstarter and enjoyed reading the book – and absorbing its fantastic artwork – and, though it contains a good deal of “technology as magic” in its mechanics and setting, it seems so far removed from its world-altering holocaust that it seems more tech-fantasy than anything else. I consider “post-apocalyptic” as a rather rigidly interpreted genre separate from those that use a post-holocaust premise but heavily flavored with other elements like Paranoia, Deadlands: Hell on Earth, Metamorphosis Alpha, Numenera, or Cadillacs & Dinosaurs. This is not to say those don’t possess any merit – in fact, many remain quite appealing and satisfyingly entertaining – but in most cases they emphasize other, original genre elements with a hint of the post apocalyptic. (Oddly enough, in his magnum opus Heroic Worlds, Lawrence Schick lists Gamma World under the “Science Fantasy” label, with Twilight 2000 and The Morrow Project as “Military” and and only Aftermath as “Science Fiction: Dark Future,” leaving out any “post-apocalypse” label altogether.)

I’ll admit the post-apocalypse genre isn’t really one that engages me; I dabble now and then because it has some interesting aspects, but unfortunately nothing to really sustain interest above the other roleplaying game genres that engage me. Part of this stems from the very real threat of planetary apocalypse that continues to haunt my latent anxieties. Perhaps I’m averse because the genre isn’t usually distanced enough from reality to serve as fulfilling escapist entertainment. Yet it offers several aspects that appeal to me as an “outsider” reading the game and not necessarily as someone playing a character in the setting. I have a morbid curiosity how different game designers interpret details of a specific apocalypse, a historical overview often denied folks who live through momentous, world-changing events. I’m further intrigued by the implications of a particular apocalypse, how it shapes the remnants of the world and the survivors forced to live in its harsh social-geographical environment. I also enjoy looking through the game material to find how game designers interpret different locations from our own world in the post-apocalyptic setting (assuming they survive in some form). Yet I view the genre as a whole as “too soon,” too close to reality to provide entertainment (except, perhaps, for Gamma World and it’s often gonzo setting elements). I can see the appeal from other aspects: to gain a sense of control over an uncontrollable situation; a means of dealing with a lurking global fear by turning it into a game; by shaping that world – as a player or gamemaster – to make something more palatable than the grim reality.

I’m not sure how popular the post-apocalyptic genre is among roleplaying gamers. Without conducting a scientific, statistically-backed study, I’d venture to say it’s an extremely niche genre, better represented by games that incorporate such tropes in their settings but rely on wholly original developments like Numenera and Paranoia. Certainly each of the purely post-apocalyptic games mentioned above have their devoted followers even as they languish in the graveyard of out-of-print games (though occasionally a new edition or Kickstarter version rises from the radioactive ashes). It’s not a genre I as an author or game designer would choose to pursue, though I’ve considered using post-apocalyptic elements or themes in games, but not solely on their own or in our reality. Despite my past dabblings in the genre, the anxiety remains all too real to me, something to force into the background as I enjoy playing other games as diversions.