Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Dreaming of Armageddon

Somewhere on this blog -- possibly several somewheres, but I can't seem to find any of them right now -- I opined that most pulp fantasy settings are post-apocalyptic, occurring in the aftermath, whether immediate or distant, of some great societal catastrophe that brought an end to the Golden Age of Yore and ushered in the Dark Age of Now. On reflection, I think the converse is also true: most post-apocalyptic settings are pulp fantasies, which is to say, excuses to upend civilization in order to provide a broader canvas on which to paint Adventure. Certainly there are plenty of post-apocalyptic stories and films with deeper goals than this, but, worthy though they may be as meditations on the human condition, I doubt I'd much want to set a roleplaying game campaign in them.

Post-apocalyptic Gamma World's setting may be, but, in the final analysis, the game itself is a pulp fantasy in the vein of D & D, right down to there being "dungeons" to explore and "dragons" to slay. Like D&D, Gamma World can certainly be more than that, if one wishes it to be. However, I think the fact that it works as a game without any other considerations is a big part of its appeal to me, especially nowadays. As a younger person, I can't say I gave a whole lot of thought to what life might really be like in the aftermath of a civilization-destroying apocalypse and, to the extent I did, I didn't expect it to be anything like what's depicted in Gamma World. But I did then, as I sometimes do now, chafe at the structure and strictures of contemporary society and idly wished for the "freedom" I uncritically thought exists beyond them. That's the urge to which many post-apocalyptic settings appeals -- the gameable ones anyway.

20 comments:

  1. As a younger person, I can't say I gave a whole lot of thought to what life might really be like in the aftermath of a civilization-destroying apocalypse and, to the extent I did, I didn't expect it to be anything like what's depicted in Gamma World. But I did then, as I sometimes do now, chafe at the structure and strictures of contemporary society and idly wished for the "freedom" I uncritically thought exists beyond them. That's the urge to which many post-apocalyptic settings appeals -- the gameable ones anyway.

    Right on the nose.

    Unfortunately, the real post-apocalypse would probably be a whole lot like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a great book but not one to make you yearn for freedom from society's strictures (although also a book every father should read). "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose..."

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  2. Twillight 2000/2013 wouldn't be what I'd call pulp fantasies. But then again, those games are set just after/during the apocalypse, so they might not count as genuine post-apocalyptic games.

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  3. On reflection, I think the converse is also true: most post-apocalyptic settings are pulp fantasies, which is to say, excuses to upend civilization in order to provide a broader canvas on which to paint Adventure.

    This is certainly true -- just look at the "zombie apocalypse" genre and the way it provides an easy excuse to turn ordinary people into warriors fighting for their lives against hordes of enemies. But then, as I think I said in response to your last post on this theme, it's also the case that medieval Europe actually was post-apocalyptic, and most of the staples of "fantasy" art and literature -- mysterious ancient lore written in lost tongues, ancient ruins of vast civilizations, and so on -- are at best thinly-veiled references to the lost classical civilizations of Rome, Greece, Persia, Egypt, and so on. Post-apocalypse is as central to the European (and English-language) "fantasy" tradition as white people, beards, and swords.

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  4. @The Rubberduck: I don't know Twilight 2013, but I know Twilight 2000 and I'd say it is very much a pulp game. It is in that same genre as The Destroyer, Able Team, and Phoenix Force. They all trace their linage back to men's adventure stories popular in the post-war period.

    The fantastic espionage like happenings (getting nukes in Warsaw, finding an artistic treasure, being recruited to defeat White Supremacists after returning home) would fit in any of the above novel series or their 50s magazine counter-parts.

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  5. I think that wish for freedom was the number one impulse behind our enjoyment of Gamma World in High School... we wanted to see all the power structures come tumbling down. Anarchy in the streets. Probably helps that I was just getting into Punk music at the time as well.
    I still lapse into that fantasy once in a while... recently discovering that old BBC show 'Survivors' hit me where my Punk and hippy sensibilities collide... 'the King is dead! Let's start a commune!'
    Also, that moment in The Stand where the characters spot a young guy sunbathing on top of a sea of abandoned cars choking up the streets of NYC.
    As big a nightmare as such disasters would be there would be people who would rejoice, at least initially.

    I wonder if anyone has attempted to play out a game in the Gamma World setting BEFORE the fall?

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  6. I'm just nodding in agreement to what has already been said. Much of the fiction 'source material' from which D&D sprang seems to have a 'post apocalypse' or 'fallen empire' edge to it. Lieber's Lankhmar Empire is in decline, as are Moorcock's Melniboneans. The Barsoom of John Carter is filled with crumbling ruins. Perhaps adventyuring in a 'fallen empire' or 'post apocalypse' works because there are fewer restraints on the player's actions --- in the 'frontier' situation, the only place players can appeal to someone else for protection is probably right in town --- once you step outside the town walls (whether it's Gamma World or Greyhawk), you are kind of on your own. Plus, fallen empires leave behind all of those ruins and dungeons to explore... if you tried to 'explore' the dungeons beneath the castle before the castle was a forgotten ruin, the occupants would either kill the PCs outright or clap them in irons. Having the dungeon be a 'ruin' allows a variety of encounters (i.e.: presumably the castle's original occupants would prevent goblins from 'moving in' to the cellar.

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  7. Where's that picture from? I used to live not far from the Sears Tower, and worked in the CBOT for a year, and near that red crumbled building on the right.

    Kinda eerie seeing it all blasted.

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  8. Certainly there are plenty of post-apocalyptic stories and films with deeper goals than this, but, worthy though they may be as meditations on the human condition, I doubt I'd much want to set a roleplaying game campaign in them.

    I'm about 2/3 of the way through Riddley Walker which is a Literary work (in the pompous sense) but would make a good post-apocalyptic setting. It doesn't all have to be pulp to be good gaming material!

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  9. I disagree with the idea that *standard* D&D is post-apocalyptic (as I'm sure you remember,) but I do agree that post-apocalyptic settings are basically pulp fantasy, because of the whole "I'm free to do what I want" thing. Where stuff like Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser or Conan diverge from post-apoc is that civilization is usually alive and well, although it might be decadent (to the point of being pre-apocalyptic in Elric stories) and there might have been fallen empires, remembered wistfully by a few, but otherwise irrelevant except as a source of wonders. Pulp heroes willfully turn their backs on civilization to seek adventure.

    In post-apoc, on the other hand, civilization is entirely missing, or some people are just now starting to rebuild. It creates a different set of tensions. Post-apoc heroes get to start with total freedom without having to make a moral decision about civilization, although they may have to later.

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  10. A few of the more popular campaigns at university were a set of near future post-apocalyptic campaigns where you got to play yourself immediately after whatever event had caused the disaster (there were three separate campaigns, each with a different reason for the apocalypse, but all starting out with a plague to take out most of the population). Whilst you almost always had to deal with the brigands,* looters, and just plain crazies, there was often a deeper reason for the plague (the two I remember were an alien invasion and a New World Order™ cabal). These were big games, with over twenty people playing in semi-independent groups (but usually having the advantage of having known each other [naturally] before the apocalypse).

    It was also interesting to see the player response to the disaster. The experienced gamers tended to treat it as any other game, setting up a secure location, food, and supplies for the long haul. Others were probably more true to themselves and broke into the luxury car dealerships, raided the best cellars, grabbed all the toys, and didn't worry about tomorrow a great deal. [It often reminded me of a scene in The Quiet Earth, where the engineer sees a model train set in a store with a "Do Not Touch" sign and guiltily plays with it. The film then cuts to him driving a real diesel-electric locomotive hand having fun with a different scale of "Do Not Touch."]

    Anyway, they did tend to show the problems that are faced when our increasingly specialised society collapses (and it gets worse as we embed more technology into our devices and make them less repairable and more replaceable). Although the country folk from farms (and with experience with the inevitable farm shed), usually faired better.

    [* SPI's old After the Apocalypse was a serious simulation of life after the apocalypse, and thus totally unplayable. Even if you managed to grow enough food to last the first winter, it was more than likely that you'd just be attracting even more hungry brigands and looters who want to take your stuff. And if you had enough soldiers to deal with the brigands, you almost certainly didn't have enough farmers and labourers to grow the food and do the work that was needed.]

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  11. Reverence Pavane: Thank you for mentioning After the Holocaust. It's an SPI game I had never heard of before, and along with Invasion: America might be the only two wargames I will ever again need.

    I exaggerate, of course, but it looks amazing.

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  12. I think civilization collapsing is just one way to get the PCs into a situation where they're both free to act, and in danger.

    Other ways are having them on some kind of frontier (or a war), or in a sub-culture that's outside of society (be it criminals or vampires).

    Firefly actually uses all three: everyone left Earth because of what's implied to be environmental ruin, and the main characters are criminals in the 'outer worlds'.

    What I find surprising is that there seem to be very few RPGs which use the device of having the PCs transported against their will to another world - given the popularity of this in fiction, for example John Carter and Narnia, I'd expect to see more.

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  13. It's actually the layout of the Nentir Vale setting, existing in the Dark Ages of many crumbled civilizations, surrounded by the encroaching darkness of monsters, that has gotten me interested in 4e D&D. It is also a theme I am interested in pursuing with LotFP sometime.

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  14. @ anarchist: That's usually the way I start a Planescape campaign. The players get shunted to Sigil by accident and need to find a way out.

    Although, I think the reason why "transported against your will" games might not go over so well is that it's a bit jarring. If there's no prelude, and you jump right into it, there's not a lot of difference. And if there is a prelude, then you design a character with one set of assumptions, and then everything changes, like transporting a modern day desk jockey (like me) into a fantasy world. Old hat in fantasy fiction, but possibly more than a little culture shock for a game.

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  15. Where's that picture from?

    It's a still from Life After People.

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  16. What I find surprising is that there seem to be very few RPGs which use the device of having the PCs transported against their will to another world

    I actually started working on a game based around this premise years ago. I called it Stranger, but eventually gave up because I realized that I'd either have to create a single setting as the "other world," which would limit its replayability, or I'd have to go for something very toolkit-like, which would like limit its appeal. I still think it's a good idea, though.

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  17. Anarchy: It looked great on paper.

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  18. @James and Steelcaress:

    Maybe Ravenloft would worked better if the player characters were meant to be taken from the real world, instead of being from a fantasy world which is largely influenced by horror anyway.

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  19. @James and Steelcaress:

    There was a long discussion on rpg.net about a setting for D&D called The Long Stair, the central idea of which was portals to mythical underworlds appearing in the real world.

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  20. [quote]Post-apocalyptic Gamma World's setting may be, but, in the final analysis, the game itself is a pulp fantasy in the vein of D & D, right down to there being "dungeons" to explore and "dragons" to slay. [/quote]

    Truer words have never been spoken about Gamma World which is why I gravitated toward Traveller. I think it was Buzz Aldrin who said the history of the 20 century is a dialogue between the image of the Earth from the Moon and the Atomic Bomb.

    As Gygax and co wanted to do an Alternative Earth - remember, Greyhawk used to be Chicago and GW is certainly our Earth gone mad. It is very much in the pulp tradition of the 1970s to believe in other possibilities. This I actually subscribe to distillation of much of the fantasy literature of the time - Hyberonia was in our Earth just before our time or even Middle Earth - the Hobbit presumes that it is connected with our Earth.

    Only through the advent of RPGs did we begin to conceive fantasy worlds as worlds or monads onto themselves. So, one can thank RPGs for a Copernican revolution in literature that displaced our Earth from the centre and introducing thousands of worlds.

    So GW is just one more possibility of what could go wrong...if we don't eat our vegatables - they may come back and eat us...

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