Thursday, April 21, 2011

150 Years is a LONG Time

One of the intriguing commonalities between Gamma World and The Morrow Project is that they're both set about 150 years after the collapse of human civilization. Likewise, in both cases, that collapse is the result of a destructive, global war, using (in the case of TMP) nuclear weapons or (in the case of GW) even more devastating weaponry. Furthermore, both games postulate settings in which there are ruined cities dotting the landscape -- futuristic "dungeons" for the player characters to explore and to loot, such as the one depicted in Dave Trampier's cover to the first edition of Gamma World, pictured to the left.

Now, I'm far from an expert in such matters, but it seems to me that, given both the destruction wrought by nuclear warfare (or worse) and 150 years without human habitation, power supplies, or regular maintenance, there wouldn't be many ruined cities left for the PCs to explore. There are plenty of examples in the real world of cities that were simply abandoned by human beings and, within fairly short order -- we're talking mere decades -- they've literally fallen to pieces. Add a century or two of neglect into the equation and it seems likely to me that Gamma World or The Morrow Project characters aren't likely to find the recognizable ruins of many cities.

That's not to say that some structures won't survive. I have little doubt that the comments to this post will soon include many examples of buildings whose unusual construction might allow them to withstand a century and a half of the elements without maintenance. But I'd hazard a guess that there won't be many such examples. We tend to forget just how much work is necessary to keep most large cities not merely operating but holding off the relentless march of Nature. New York City, as I understand it, pumps millions of gallons of water out of its subway every day. Without power, it'd rapidly fill completely with water, flooding the city's streets, not to mention the basements and lower levels of buildings, none of which would contribute to the continued stability of tall structures. Think what the city would be like after more than a century of that, plus the effects of nuclear and other weapons.

I don't fault anyone for wanting to ignore stuff like this. I don't think it's necessary that post-apocalyptic games should be any more "realistic" with regards to ecology than fantasy games, though I do think there's something to be said giving more thought to such questions. Back when I used to play Gamma World regularly, I very much liked to portray the post-fall society as a "clean slate." Sure, there were some remnants of the Old Days kicking around, mostly heavily-protected subterranean vaults, but most of the surface of North America had reverted to Nature, albeit a radiation-fueled Mutant Nature. That gave me a lot of freedom to create new settlements, societies, and cultures without worrying too much about how -- or if -- they mapped on to what had been extant 150 years previously.

Of course, the real reason so many post-apocalyptic settings, including those in RPGs, don't pay much heed to the effects of time and tide on the works of Man is that a big part of the appeal of these games are their references to contemporary people, places, and events. Moreso than most science fiction, post-apocalyptic tales are ready-made to comment on the present, particularly its foibles and vices. To present a post-apocalyptic world where one's character is not only ignorant of the past -- our world -- but likely to see very little evidence of its existence takes some of the fun out of the genre for a lot of people.

Besides, it's not as if having famous landmarks survive Armageddon is any less plausible than intelligent ape-men and most of us scarcely raise an eyebrow over their existence, right?
You maniacs! You blew it up!

46 comments:

  1. Alan Weisman's The World Without Us takes as its premise that all humans vanish tomorrow, and looks at how long it takes for our works to collapse and disappear. Very interesting.

    I don't remember any specifics, and my copy is at home, but I'll see if I can rustle it up this evening (if nobody else posts first).

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  2. Three particular things I do recall: wood-frame houses disappear pretty quickly (a few decades), and the Statue of Liberty is mentioned as lasting more or less indefinitely (until scraped off its pedestal by a glacier), and the Panama Canal closes up within a few years or so.

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  3. The ruins of Detroit and Chernobyl give one a good idea how things will look in 25-35 years after abandonment.

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  4. There has been a few great documentaries that look at how our civilization and the monuments it achieved would crumble once we were all gone. I don't have cable but I watched one a couple years ago on a work trip and seen clips on youtube.com. It was fun to see what would in theory last the longest and what would not. I must admit I found it a rich soil for gaming ideas.

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  5. I think I read something (perhaps discussing Weisman's book) saying that, if Man vanished, NYC would collapse and revert to nature in less than 50 years, mostly from the undermining caused by the underground water flow.

    One thing to consider in a "Man vanishes" scenario would be highly radioactive zones around nuclear power plants that failed in the aftermath.

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  6. Gamma World posits a pretty technologically-advanced civilization *before* the apocalypse. Lots of high tech robotics and crazy stuff. So I'm not sure the complaint applies there -- although having the world be transformed by technology before the apocalypse kind of ruins the "it's our world, but fallen apart and abandoned for years" theme that's so much fun.

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  7. Gamma World posits a pretty technologically-advanced civilization *before* the apocalypse. Lots of high tech robotics and crazy stuff. So I'm not sure the complaint applies there

    Oh, very true! GW is a very weird game in this respect, since its apocalypse occurs several hundred years into our future, despite the fact that, based on its treasure tables, there's still lots of junk from the 20th century kicking around. It's possible that such high technology might better maintain buildings and structures that survive, but, of course, the weapons used are also more high tech -- and probably more devastating too.

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  8. New York City, as I understand it, pumps millions of gallons of water out of its subway every day. Without power, it'd rapidly fill completely with water, flooding the city's streets, not to mention the basements and lower levels of buildings, none of which would contribute to the continued stability of tall structures. Think what the city would be like after more than a century of that, plus the effects of nuclear and other weapons.

    Also, NYC is completely submerged, as is my own current home :(, Delaware, by the time of the Black Years... Most coastal cities, where this type of flooding would be a problem, are completely gone. Though underwater adventures might be an interesting idea...

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  9. The History Channel airs a series called "Life after People" which shows how fast things would fall apart (and other interesting things that would develop) if humanity simply vanished tomorrow...and that doesn't even take into account the devastation of war. It does, however, address the sump pumps of the NYC subway system in one episode.

    It first aired as a 2-hour special, then as a series that's run for (I think) two seasons so far, each episode more focused on a specific set of landmarks or societal elements. I'd consider it required viewing for anyone who wants to run a post-apocalyptic game. Great series.

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  10. From my cursory reading of the 'Tribe 8' setting it seems like there isn't a whole lot of infrastructure left... nothing that looks like cities, just big piles of junk. Maybe I missed something though.

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  11. Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_town

    I've been to a few ghost towns over the years and have always been surprised at how well they have weathered the years...though, admittedly, they have all been in desert regions.

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  12. @Jason beat me to it - I was going to mention "Life After People." It's an interesting show in its own right, but definitely helpful for anyone running a post-apocalyptic game. It's really fascinating and the computer animation they do to show how things fall apart and are taken over by vegetation over time is amazing.

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  13. This viewpoint (that the majority of ruin sites would be swallowed up by natural processes 150 years post-apocalypse) pretty much jibes with my vision of the Gamma World landscape... and not necessarily because it is more realistic. (Although I do make an attempt at least at "comic-book" realism in my games.) Mostly, I just don't have the time and energy as a GM to design and populate huge devastated metropolises, such as depicted by Trampier, dotting the landscape. Each one would be a megadungeon! Better to make such Ancient relics few and far between.

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  14. There are some human made artifacts that have survived many years without maintenance. Off the top of my head: the pyramids of Gaza, Machu Pichu, abandoned train tracks anywhere in the world, and Nazca Lines. Of course and even the ones that have survived are maintained in same way today and originally did need at least some excavation.

    Our modern society has a few things that past ones did not have that would last longer than anything created before, things like plastics and skyscrapers would certainly last thousands of years if not more before disintegrating or being buried. If we walked way from the Empire State building today I don't think it would fall over and disappear in 150 years.

    As far as nuclear (or even biological) warfare goes this would have a much greater impact on people than on the buildings they inhabit. I would posit that a nuclear war, while it would certainly have great blasted cities, it would mainly leave many areas intact just devoid of people due to the impact on the biosphere.

    This reminds me of the movie "Cloverfield". You know why it was called that? Because in the NE US (where the movie took place) when you level a developed area and leave it alone to let nature take its course the first flowers that naturally grow back are clovers.

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  15. I always imagined that the materials engineering of the future/past of Gamma World would be sufficiently advanced to retard the effects of weather and plant life. In a world that the 1st edition posits before the apocalypse it makes sense that freeing people from nearly constant mantainence of buildings/infrastructure seems to fit the idea of a pampered society beginning to argue over trivial things. Such a setup to me seems to let it be believable that although 150 years have passed the deteriation would be inconsistent. If one posits the idea of nanotech as well some building or historic monuments would show strangely little wear at all perhaps. Or maybe the nanites would reprogram themselves and the ruins themselves would start to look "mutated". Ahh gotta love Gamma World.

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  16. In my opinion, this is the important thing about 150 years After the Fall:

    * Everyone who remembers life before the Fall is dead.

    * Everyone who remembers meeting anyone who remembers life before the Fall is most-probably dead.

    So any account is at least third-hand. There's no one around to say "Oh yeah, I remember when I was a young boy, talking to an old man about cellphones and airplanes."

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  17. @cibet: skyscrapers like the Empire State Building would at best be twisted, rusting superstructures and nothing more by the time 150 years had passed. You aren't accounting for the DAILY maintenance and THOUSANDS of man-hours put into maintaining our buildings, bridges, and infrastructure. Nothing we build in our society is made to last on its own anymore. Indeed, nowadays we're creating things specifically so they DON'T leave a footprint behind. The pyramids were made to endure for thousands of years on their own. Modern cities are not.

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  18. Speaking of pyramids, if one goes to the Monte Alban hisorical site outside of Oaxaca City, Mexico, one can see strangly perfectly shaped hills surrounding the ruins. These hills are actually pyramids which still need funding in order to excavate properly.

    It took more than 150 years but still, it's really impressive to see how the earth can reclaim a structure, even one meant to last.

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  19. @Jason: Yes the skyscrapers would be twisted and rusted and at least partially collapsed but there would still be a large structure present for others to observe in 150 years. The entire structure would not disintegrate and leave no trace behind.

    I don't necessarily agree the pyramids were designed to "endure for thousands of years", ancient Egyptians simply used the material and knowledge at hand. This combined with the arid climate preserved the pyramids, not some grand engineering scheme to last for eons. The pyramids still needed to be excavated after all and the condition we seem them in today (maintained and refurbished) is not the condition they were originally found in.

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  20. I was going to mention "Life After People" as well. A terrific documentary, and makes me immediately think of things like Gamma World, Morrow Project (which I've never actually read, alas), Logan's Run, The Ultimate Warrior, and Planet of the Apes.

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  21. I grew up in Las Vegas and remember being excited when I watched Damnation Alley and they showed Vegas half-buried in the sand.

    I'd expect New York to be a big tangled/flooded mess... from sinking, towers toppling into each other and storms coming in from the Atlantic... but I'd expect someplace like Dallas to still have a recognizable skyline.

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  22. I have a soft spot for "Life After People" since they were kind enough to demonstrate the collapse of Trinity Dam, near where I grew up in Northern California. :-)

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  23. I wouldn't be surprised if many of our cities were basically eradicated by firestorms, hurricanes, tornadoes, or earthquakes. After 150 years, I would expect very little to remain that would have any value or utility.

    And another vote for Life After People. Pretty cool.

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  24. The whole thing reminds me of a scene in Thundarr the Barbarian, where Ookla the Mok found a 1,000 year old comic book lying in the streets of an old ruined city. Dose it make sense in real life: hell no! Dose it make sense for the show: hell yeah, cuz it %&$#ing Thundarr!!! I see Gamma World in the same regards, and Jim Ward even notes that decay is relative to the desires of the Ref.

    Plus, the 20th century items found in the Treasure Charts seems to be a parody of the times, as I found a few movies references and some other unusual items in the list (the flattened tuba and "pleasure orb" are two recognizable items, if you seen the movies they came from).

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  25. Any show with a Mok in it should be given as much latitude as it wants. ;)

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  26. One of my favorite examples for both Gamma World and Morrow Project was Gene Roddenberry's TV pilots for Planet Earth and Strange New World.

    Both are set in Post-Apocalyptic North America, where an advanced science team is trying to rebuild society.

    Planet Earth
    Planet Earth TV Pilot

    Strange New World
    Strange New World

    Also, Starman's Son and 2441 A.D. from Andre Norton. These were and remain strong influences for my post-apocalyptic games.

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  27. This type of thing actually bugged me a TONNE in fallout 3.

    Here it is, 200 years after a civilization that only lasted 300 years itself (moving from muskets and sword to atomic AI and lasers in that time)..and DC looks like it was bombed out 10 years ago.

    200 years, and no real rebuilding work. 200 years and people are eating canned goods and using ammunition from before the war. 200 years and cars still have fuel cells to explode (no one salvaged them 150 years ago?)

    Fallout New Vegas set in the same time period was much better. A new republic with its own centenary on its way, produces its own goods, its own food and ammunition.


    Because really, 200 years is enough time for another world civilization to emerge, nuke itself in another war, and start fresh a THIRD time.

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  28. Let's not forget that part of the reason buildings and infrastructure need to be constantly maintained is due to the fact that they are in constant use; 150 years of weathering, will indeed result in damage but will not be the same as 150 years of constant use. If anything, were a disaster to occur today, the only things remaining in realitivly good condition (natural disasters notwithstanding) would be things built in the later 19th/early 20th century.
    I think part of the appeal of the ruined metropolises is that while they serve as 'dungeons' of a sort, they also serve to evoke the roman ruins which dotted Europe and the near east in the dark ages/early medieval period and this is itself the inspiration of much fantasy gaming (the fallen empire trope found in so much fantasy).
    @rcarbol - i think the process is even faster than several generations - look at Earth Abides where before the narrator is even dead the post-apocolyptic surviors are mythologizing the pre-lapsidarian Americans

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  29. You should read the Aussie Scifi 'out of the Silence' (1919). In it we find a Civilization 75 million years gone...and what they did to safeguard the remnants of their civilization.

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  30. Reading this post and the comments, I immediately thought of Ray Bradbury's short story, "There Will Come Soft Rains." Y'all all need to read it.

    And J.J. Abrams came up with the name Cloverfield because he needed to call the movie something, and that was the name on the exit sign he saw each day on his commute.

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  31. It's a tricky thing. You want enough time to pass so population is back up a bit and those pesky mutants have time to multiply, but not so much as to completely lose the past. One thing that might help is that perhaps future building materials are even more resistant to the elements. Something to consider.

    Lazarus Lupin
    http://strangespanner.blogspot.com/
    art and review

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  32. Duralloy, you damned dirty apes! DURALLOY!!

    Word verification: ovater - Darth Vader's constantly pregnant sister...

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  33. @Nilonim

    "Let's not forget that part of the reason buildings and infrastructure need to be constantly maintained is due to the fact that they are in constant use; 150 years of weathering, will indeed result in damage but will not be the same as 150 years of constant use..."

    Sorry to disagree, but I think your reasoning is flawed here. Sure, stuff gets used and that requires some upkeep, but thats considerably different from the sorts of things that happen when mother nature is allowed to take over the situation. Once a few windows in buildings get broken and rain water starts to get in it doesn't take very long at all for things to start rusting and cracking. If it happens to be in an area subject to freezing and thawing (winter) its even worse. Here in winnipeg we pretty much have to rebuild our road system every year...

    And when it come to big structures/buildings, they require a solid foundation to remain upright. If the structure near the bottom gets weak, the whole thing comes down.

    Life After Man is a great show...

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  34. On the flip side, Troy, Machu Picchu et al provided interesting research possibilities hundreds and thousands of years after they were abandoned (to say nothing of the Roman catacombs and the like).

    Would these dead/abandoned cities resemble anything like a real city?

    No way.

    But there would be nooks, crannies, passages, tunnels, basements, and so on. It would be an interesting, albeit dangerous, place to explore.

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  35. When I played Rifts as a teen, I always thought how much cooler the game would be without all the fantasy and dimensional elements to the game. Just the Coalition States.

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  36. Exactly -Duralloy

    One of the things that do need to be considered when thinking about GW vs MP is that the GW world was ultra futuristic.

    Remember the premise for the Shadow Years in GW were the case of dangerous idle hands which hit humanity. Everything was (mostly) automated and I could easily see some aspects of civil infrastructure still being maintained after the war - until of course the machines start to break down/go insane, etc.

    The way I have run my GW game over the last (gasp!) 30 years is that most of the outskirts of the cities have been overgrown by forest, breached ag domes, and nature but as you start to hit the city centers there tends to me more ruins. I have a system for generating ideas on why a city fell, what weapons may have been used, where it was situated: these all factor into the final condition of the ruins, if they even exists at all.

    Factors to consider
    1) Weapons used or reason city fell. Deathlands would be devoid of most organic life but some disaster/emergency civil machines and AI may still be functioning.

    2) Original environment/biosphere, ex: orig. temperate forested areas would be more quickly reclaimed than one that was built in an arid area

    3) Status of AI/TT/CI and functioning infrastructural system or broadcast power. Are they still working, partially or if not when did it collapse, etc.

    Anyway that's my two domars on the subject

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  37. At least the first edition of The Morrow Project (TMP) had a table in the back describing survival of buidlings depending on age, construction, maintenance, and of course nuclear explosions. I don't have a copy handy for examples.

    As I recall the various TMP published adventures, almost all of had very few ruins to explore (Ruins of Chicago and Prime Base excepted). Those that did, only actively maintained installations (The Starnaman Incident and Damocles) were in good working order. Otherwise, I only remember post-War construction with good buildings.

    Overall, I don't think TMP generally strains suspension of disbelief by having ruins or a very few surviving constructions. Even so, the dramatic potential of an "Ozymandias moment" is too good to ignore, as you point out above.

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  38. Entirely tangentially, there are a couple of really useful tools for people making post-nuclear settings:

    http://www.carloslabs.com/node/20

    http://www.nucleardarkness.org/nuclear/nuclearexplosionsimulator/

    Each implements a method of determining the blast radius, fallout, and such for nuclear strikes at any point that you can find on Google Maps.

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  39. Eeeesh, anytime stuff like this comes up I think of "Earth Abides" which is possibly the most stick-with-me terrifying book I ever read. Really bothered me (in its fairly straightforward naturalism).

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  40. Pekka said: "The ruins of Detroit..."

    And that photo of the abandoned library DID NOT HELP!!

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  42. http://www.japanprobe.com/2006/03/20/nagasakis-battleship-island/

    Hashima Island off Nagasaki. Abandoned in 1974, people have been prohibited from setting foot on the island since.

    Lots of crumbling concrete buildings.

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  43. I think people are over thinking the issue. Of course when GW first came out, no one really thought about the amount of work needed ongoing to keep cities and towns in order. Since the destruction in GW takes place in the future, better infrastructures and building supplies would keep things around a lot longer than 20th century material.

    But overall, have fun with it. If you can accept a two brained mutant bison, accept that the Empire State building may still be standing after a century or more of neglect.

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  44. What fascinates me is our continual obsession with Armageddon or Rupture in our times? I understood it when the threat of atomic warfare between the major powers was real - but even then I gravitated toward the light of Twilight 2000 - That we will survive and prosper. I think that was killed TNE more than anything else - the prospect of the Shining Future ending up in ashes.

    It is ironic how our culture is littered with counterposing the heroics of a space age and Armageddon. True, the same technology is used to achieve the same results but one is a symbol of hope and the other symbol of negation. I think RPGs inherently reflect this tension and since the 1970s we seem to marching down this road more and more.

    But, what is it about Armageddon? That is so appealing in the mindset? Is it the Christian End Times and hope for salvation as part of the elect. Or is it the nihilistic tendency triumphant? Lots of questions - few answers.

    I know that I am resurrecting a dead thread but only came back to your site after a sabbatical in which it caused me to do some more thinking of about the influence of mainstream culture into RPGs and other forms of popular entertainment.

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  45. Referee: I think it has a lot to do with remaking the world in our own image. When we're born, the world is given to us as a work of art provided by people who have gone before. With apocalypse, that world is set aside and we are given a tabula rasa on which to create our own vision. Certainly, that was the thinking behind TNE's "Virus" background event.

    Of course, it isn't quite that simple, but nothing ever is simple. Even when the old world is wiped away, there are still other people, each with their own vision, and all of our visions are derived from the things which have gone before. To me, that's actually a great deal of the interesting portion of postapocalyptic literature and gaming, the tension between what we think of as our selves, inviolate, and what we have developed from our past and from our present environment.

    Plus, we get to blow stuff up.

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