Happy New Year’s Eve Eve, everybody! Just think: this rancid trashfire of a year is nearly done, and a whole new one is sparking up on the horizon. So let’s forget all that for a moment and talk gaming!
And by “forget all that,” I mean “let’s talk running post-apocalyptic games.” I am so, so sorry.
My first exposure to gaming was the world of Athas from Dark Sun, so naturally post-apoc settings for tabletop are near and dear to my heart. That said, there’s a wide range of tone available for life after the apocalypse, and it’s important to know which you’re looking to establish when you start running in anything from Gamma World to Numenera to the aptly named Apocalypse World.
Post-apoc can be a wild action thriller where survival comes down to quick reflexes and sick explosions, or it can be a somber struggle to retain some spark of humanity while dealing with the far edge of scarcity in a ruthless world. It can also “full Bethesda” and become a parade of black comedy mocking modern extravagance under a harsh, burnt-out lens. Post-apoc settings can even be about a semi-stable new world order, with hints of the world that was obscured by time and a whole new one sprung up and thriving, perhaps on its way to repeating the unknown mistakes that led the earlier civilization to ruin.
Since visual media remains a good gauge for tone, consider what you and your players want the game to resemble most of the time: Mad Max, The Road, Fallout, or Defiance. Naturally there are blends of the above, but once you can agree on a primary tone, you’ll have a better sense of how the other pieces fit.
Now let’s talk themes. In an alarming number of tabletop games, the point of the game is to avert an apocalypse. “Save the world” is a trope for a reason: there is no greater impact a group of PCs can have than that, even if “the world” in this case is just a town, region, or one planet in a galaxy of inhabited worlds.
So what do you do when you’re already too late? While you can do a save-the-world plot in a post-apoc setting, it tends to have far less emotional impact. In most cases, the world your PCs live in is either already destroyed or on the verge of it any given day, so adding a new antagonist who threatens to wipe them out feels like a drop of water in the ocean.
Often, the better approach is the search for a new home. The quest is no longer saving the world from an impending threat, it’s finding a piece of earth untouched by the ravages of whatever ended the world in the first place, or finding a way to restore something of what was lost to put a stopper in the erosion of what’s left. The new home might be a myth (and including a few mirages along the way to this promised oasis is a standard approach), but the hope the promise of it brings can motivate players in a dark post-apoc setting, especially if they have other survivors they care for.
Another prevalent theme in post-apoc games is the changing nature of humanity. Depending on the nature of the apocalypse, humans, strictly speaking, may no longer be the dominant life form on the planet. Everything from mutants to zombies to aggressive wildlife now hold at least an equal share at the top of the proverbial food chain, and what humans remain have been left with such a shattered social environment that all the old rules are changing. PCs fighting to retain some sense of the humanity that was in a world that does everything possible to encourage them otherwise can be a potent hook for a number of players.
Of course, if you’re tone is more lighthearted or the world is less shattered, themes from classic games are still perfectly serviceable in your post-apoc world, although finding ways to shine new light on them by sharply contrasting expectations with how differently they play out in the new setting helps maintain your game’s unique feel compared to more familiar settings.
Last let’s talk challenges. We’ve covered the humanity piece – if you plan to use that as a theme and your system doesn’t already have a mechanic to track it, I highly recommend adding one. White Wolf’s Vampire has a solid model for starters, and Call of Cthulhu’s semi-problematic Sanity system isn’t a bad fallback. If you don’t have access to either, simply developing a 1-10 scale and setting points where humanity is lost or gained, and details of what happens as it’s lost, can make that slide into darkness all the more real to your players.
One big challenge that’s ripe for post-apoc worlds is scarcity. Some things just are not as available any more: shops, currency, a way to power electronic devices, simple supplies, food, protection from the elements, long-distance communication, weather services, the list goes on forever. Things PCs assume they’ll have access to suddenly become a whole new antagonist to play with, weakening them and sometimes bolstering more material threats in the world. Look for ways to make scarcity the sole difference between a simple task and a difficult challenge to drive home the setting’s reality.
That said, you still want your players to have fun and be able to succeed with some regularity – actually living in a post-apoc world is often less entertaining to imagine than it sounds. The PCs may still find a working gun or crossbow, but now it only has a few shots instead of the infinite they might be used to, encouraging them to avoid or talk their way around trouble they would otherwise just blast their way through. Crafting suddenly becomes extremely valuable since materials are often freely available. Knowledge skills like geography now reveal secrets that characters would normally just Google or Scry.
Naturally you can use just about any system for your post-apoc setting, but there are a few things to keep in mind if you’re borrowing mechanics from systems designed for more plentiful and thriving environments. Give crafting mechanics a buff in terms of shortening the time it takes to create items, assuming this is something PCs will have to do often. Give items a break chance on use to reinforce the scarcity and need for crafting throughout the game. Read up on rules for Fatigue that come with shorter sleep cycles, lack of food and exposure – use them to balance otherwise powerful PC numbers to create a survivalist feel against enemies they might otherwise carve through without fear.
And finally look for ways to keep them hungry in a literal and figurative sense. Bandits, the elements, bad luck – all can carve into gathered supplies, weapons, spell books, even information like maps or instructions they need when they reach wherever they’re going. All can turn a simple task – reactivating the radio dish just outside town – into a legitimate story arc lasting several sessions.