Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Riding Out Armageddon: Post-Apocalyptic RPGs

I’m pretty sure Gamma World introduced me to post-apocalyptic stories. I loved the gonzo of it and how it sort-of used the same system as D&D. Post-apocalyptic games generally revel in a brutality, a lesson I learned from Gamma World. It was the first game I ever got bullied in by other players. When I got to the table at the game store with my new character the other players told me I had to play an unpowered human. I thought they were kidding; I’d rolled up a cool raccoon mutant. They weren’t. They blasted me the moment the GM introduced my character. I had to walk a half-hour home and explain to my mom why I was back early.

That was a weird conversation.

This week Play on Target looks at Post-Apocalyptic games. It’s a richer genre than I expected. It’s also a risky one. The breakdown of society implies a breakdown in laws, encouraging a kind of sociopathy which might not work for some groups. It’s a genre where you can showcase hopelessness. Or you can demonstrate real hope and change in the face of inhumanity. Anyway, check out the episode if the topic appeals to you.

Below are a few things we didn’t get to in the episode or came to me afterwards.

1. Forgotten Devastations: In the show we inventory Post-Apocalyptic games we’ve played. I managed to forget a couple. In high school our group tried out Paranoia a few times, but never well. Each session started with laughter and ended up with furious players furious. That then bled into the next several non-Paranoia games. So despite cool stuff, Paranoia dropped out of the rotation. I also forgot a more important and recent one. That’s the Fallout campaign Dave ran using our Action Cards homebrew. He knew the setting back and forth. I didn’t, but I still enjoyed playing. His enthusiasm for the background details and general vibe carried me through. It was a rough game, with horrible mutations, addiction, and casual violence. Even when we won at the end, our success only protected a threadbare existence. I’m still not a fan of the Fallout video game, but I’d play a tabletop campaign of it again.

2. Flow Charting: Early Gamma World had a flow-chart mechanic for figuring out how to use ancient relics and technologies. You rolled and moved through the chart until you figured it out, broke it, or blew yourself up. I don’t remember what impact your character’s abilities or choices had. It’s a cool mechanic I’ve only rarely seen duplicated. More games could use that-especially where there’s some control mixed with randomness. (note: there’s a Space Medicine rpg that uses this, but I can’t find the name of it right now. Anyone know?).

3. My Wastelands: As I work post-apocalyptic rpg lists, I found a few I dug and think I could actually run. Rotted Capes offers supers vs. zombies ala the Ex-Heroes series of novels. I like the premise and how it undercuts the heroes’ powers. Those abilities allow them to protect their fragmentary community. At the same time some of their powers work against them in the face of a zombie uprising (like increased metabolism from super-speed). I’d have to use another system to run this. I’m not taken with the Arcanis mechanics. That, however, would require significant retooling, especially if I used something more abstract. Rotted Capes has crunchy mechanics for equipment, rations, breakdown, and survival. They support the tone, so I’d want to adapt those. I also think you could do some interesting stuff with Midnight’s “Sauron Won” premise. I’d want it to feel like a Black Company novel. Midnight’s problem is too much backstory and history. I’d need to craft a consolidated version. Motobushido swings the other direction, with a deliberately open world. I like the idea of samurai-style biker gangs in the wasteland, but I don’t know how that’d go over with my group. It might be fun to run online. Finally Summerland has one of my favorite tropes: an unfathomable event warps the world with strangeness and fantasy. I’m not sure I’d take anything from Summerland beyond the pitch line. Because I’ve avoided reading deeper, I have a bunch of scenarios in my head about how that happened and what that means.

4. CHTORR: But the post-apocalyptic setting I love but couldn’t actually run is War Against the Chtorr. That’s based on an unfinished sci-fi series by Star Trek novelist David Gerrold. I read the series in high school and college. War Against the Chtorr describe an alien invasion terraforming Earth. And we’re clearly losing. It’s a place that feels terrifying and dangerous. Just simple travel across the US becomes a perilouos undertaking. I love the ideas there, though I don’t know how well the novels would stand up to re-reading. Part of the problem lies in having waited twenty years for Gerrold to release the next book. We heard last year volume 5(?) would finally come out, but now it’s been withdrawn. The setting’s stark and deadly and I don’t know if I could pull that off at the table. I’m not sure I could sustain it.

5. Hope. Hope. Hope: You’ll probably have a conversation about tone before beginning a Post-Apocalyptic game. You may even decide On “grimdark.” But even if my group made that pick, I’d have to have some hope front & center. We need some possibility for success or improvement, if only to make failures more bitter. It shouldn’t be false hope; that’s a good way to burn out PCs. The worst games I’ve played in have been built on quicksand, where everything we construct isn’t just vulnerable, it’s inevitable it will be brought down. What’s the point of trying then? I’m not looking for the negadungeon version of a post-apocalyptic game, though I’m sure some would dig that..

6. Behold My Final Form: Some of these post-apocalyptic rpgs have a crazy number of edition and reframings. For example Paranoia has a convoluted publication and it has one editions struck from the rolls for being truly terrible. We’re supposed to see a new edition of Paranoia taken in a radically new direction soon. Mutant’s another rpg which has shift from goofy-gonzo to cyberpunk PA to war-torn worlds to a harder-edge survival. Metamorphosis Alpha, Twilight 2000, the Morrow Project also spring to mind. But the grand-daddy off edition explosion is Gamma World, with (I think) seven editions. They swing wildly from backstory to backstory, system to system, premise to premise. More than any other rpg with multiple editions, Gamma World mutates into a completely new version each time.

7. Take Your Stinking Paws Off Me You Damn Dirty Banana: I mentioned Adventure Time as a not so hidden Post-Apocalyptic setting. I’m a fan of that kind of slow-burn reveal. I still remember losing my mind the first time I saw the ending of Planet of the Apes. Because of that I subscribe to the post-apocalyptic interpretation of Pokémon. I also strongly believe another theory I just heard on the How Did This Get Made podcast. Pixar’s Cars is a sequel to the seminal Steven King horror classic Maximum Overdrive. In the latter, machines come to life. So the former presents the world generations after that. There’s also a more all-encompassing apocalypse theory for Pixar.

8. Days After Tomorrow: You may have seen these before, you may have not. Here are my Histories of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs:

9. PvP: Post-apocalyptic stories often involve unity and betrayal. People become terrible. It makes sense for players to distrust anyone and everyone they meet. But these stories often include inter-party betrayal, breakdown of trust, and abandonment. That’s harder to do at the table without generating non-game tension (see my comments about Paranoia above). On the other hand Apocalypse World wrestles with those issues. We don’t actually get PvP but we do get systems for bonds, debts, and obligations. I’d be curious about how strong that inter-group tension tends to be in AW actual play.

10. I Found a Bullet: Theoretically I like the idea of tracking resources: people, ammo, food, water, etc. Mutant: Year Zero builds that in. But I know in practice I burn out on those systems. Does that mean I need to focus & make those systems better for myself or just give up on them?One approach I’ve used has been a revolving emphasis. I ran a VtM campaign where a niche apocalypse had happened, killing off most of the supernatural factions. The players existed in a dangerous world with all old rules gone. When I wanted to stress resource scarcity, instead of tracking tics I’d bring it up as an issue for a few sessions until they dealt with it. That these issues didn’t wear the players down and they remained an arrow in my quiver for later use. It reminds me of players’ excitement for the settlement system in Fallout 4. While they liked it at first, it became drudgery for many in my group.

11. Kaiju World: I don’t think we’ve seen a post-Kaiju apocalypse setting, but I may be wrong. In this world giant monsters roam the land and humanity desperately hides. As in Cloverfield there’s a whole associated ecosystem of smaller creatures to fear. PCs would undertake the usual scouting and resources hunting. It’s a little like Attack on Titan, but less organized. Actually it might be close to Reign of Fire. You’d have to have some interesting scale mechanics in case players want to bring down a behemoth. Something like Mouse Guard, with the mice trying to fell a bear.

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