Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Settings with a difference: Post-Apocalyptic D&D

Post-apocalyptic settings are more commonly associated with science fiction than fantasy. Whether nuclear holocaust, biological warfare, or some other horror, we keep imagining ways we will destroy ourselves in the future.  Nevertheless, there is no reason why your Dungeons & Dragons campaign can’t use the trappings of a post-apocalyptic world as well.

The first thing you need to decide when creating a post-apocalyptic campaign is what the world was like prior to the devastation, and perhaps just as importantly, what caused it to be destroyed. There are infinite possibilities for what the world used to be like, but the most common choices are fantastical or technological.

Starting with a standard fantasy world pre-apocalypse will probably save you a lot of work. The cause for the devastation should be equally fantastic. Perhaps the world was collateral in a war between the gods. Maybe creatures from the far realm broke through and have claimed vast swaths of the changed and twisted landscape. Perhaps, like Dark Sun, sorcerer kings drained the land of its life.

Another possibility is a formerly technological world which has taken on fantasy elements after an apocalypse. Magic may be real, it may be misunderstood super-science, or a mixture of the two. The cause of the apocalypse may be anything from the standard nuclear holocaust to something more unusual, like the development of portal technology breaching the walls between dimensions and allowing all manner of horrors in.

Using post-technological fantasy worlds in D&D does require a lot more work on the part of the DM though. The DM will need to figure out how technology works and how it interacts with magic. Is use of technology forbidden due to its association with the holocaust? Is it just another power source, right next to martial, divine, and arcane? Is all “magic” simply misunderstood science? The DM needs to answer all of these questions prior to the beginning of the game.

After determining what the world was like, the next thing to decide is how badly the world is damaged. The worse off the world is, the further from standard D&D it is, and thus more work has to be to put into it. However, the more extreme worlds tend to be the most memorable as well. I tend to split my post-apocalyptic settings into three broad categories: Ruined Earth., Extreme Points of Light, and Recovered Earth.

In a ruined earth setting, civilization is still decimated by whatever destroyed the world. While some outposts of “civilization” may exist, these are usually brutal enclaves, like those found in the Dark Sun setting or the Mad Max movies. Normally, the strong rule the weak, and no true justice can be found. Often, some form of gladiatorial entertainment is the closest thing that passes for the courts. In a ruined earth setting, the characters probably have banded together for survival, rather than a desire to acquire riches.

As you may already be aware, the so-called “Points of Light” setting assumes a dangerous world with occasional bastions of civilization. The “Extreme Points of Light” assumes a world in even more dire straights, but with some form of civilized society still in existence. Usually, there is some insulating factor that kept civilization extant while the rest of the world burned.

One example I can think of is the comic book Meridian. In that world, the surface of the planet had been devastated, but civilizations still exists far above the surface on floating islands. The islands were interconnected by a fleet of airships, and few people born in the clouds ever traveled to the dangerous surface below. Meanwhile, life on the surface is much like the ruined earth setting described above.

The closest to the traditional D&D campaign is the recovered earth. In this setting, some time has passed since the cataclysm and the world has had some time to recover. Despite this recovery, some areas of the world are still marked and some creatures still changed by the events. Sword & Sorceries Scarred Lands is a good example of this setting. Even the post-Spellplague Forgotten Realms has some aspects of this, with unpredictable Changelands and creatures sporting Spellscars.

Any of these settings can offer a change of pace from your typical D&D campaign. Hopefully, the tips above will help, but if you need additional inspiration there are several pre-made settings with apocalyptic themes to check out. Dark Sun (AD&D 2E) and Desolation (Ubiquity) are definitely good places to start.

Or I suppose you could just watch a Thundarr the Barbarian marathon on Boomerang.


In the far future of 1994!


Anonymous said...

As you mentioned, Dark Sun is an excellent example of a post-apocalyptic setting that isn't the classic Gamma World or Mad Max environment (not that I don't love those environments madly - I run an awesome bi-weekly Gamma World game).

Another example, in 3.x D&D, is the Sword & Sorcery Studios / White Wolf Scarred Lands setting.

BlUsKrEEm said...

I recently ended my Pre-apocalypse Sci-fantasy Mutant Future / Labyrinth Lord campaign.

The game was set in a world where the use of sensory spells and divination lead to an advanced understanding of genetics. The combination of gene tech and sorcery has lead to a world with out hunger, or disease, but one that is no more advanced than the bronze age in it's understanding of metallurgy, ship building or other sciences. Custom ordered children, drones, and symbiotic tools are readily available to the average person.

The characters took the roll of an elite police force that was set up to investigate a rash of Spontaneous Phenotype Degradation (cancers and unwanted mutations) that were associated with an urban legend about mysterious glow, and hunt down "primitive" terrorists, and aberrant experiments and mutants.

As the story progressed the threat of the glow grew, eventually leading to the revelation that the living metropolises themselves were the cause of the glow (which had been concentraiting a toxic cancer causing material that occurred in trace amounts in the earth, the player's dubbed "cancer stone".) When the characters decided to go public,the government covers it up and declares the PC's terrorists, forcing them to go underground with the very "primitives" they had been chasing (as their civilization crumbled.)

It was a great campaign, with a very film-noir feel. One day I hope to revisit the world after the fall out.

BlUsKrEEm said...

I rambled on a tad more than i had intended, sorry about that.

Scafloc said...

Meridian sounds a lot like what I was planning to do with Maran, the poisoned moon of Tyr.

I would also like to add in the main setting of Rifts RPG. It is post apocalyptic on many levels, including potential nuclear devastation, ancient magics (Including the return of Atlantis believe it or not), and Cthulian monsters. If only it were a little more self consistet. :D

I can't delete this said...

I can not stongly enough suggest the following PC video games..

The whole engine is based on RPG rules, the stories were engaging, I cared about the NPC's, the music rocked...

They even released RPG rules based on the game engine back when they were released..

Scafloc said...

You know, I have seen Tony play fallout (not sure which one), and I was not overly impressed. Normally I like mad max style things, and this one was certainly funny in places, but I just couldn't see myself devoting that much time to it, and I usually like exploration games.