Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Speaking of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs ...

In the midst of laying out the principles behind a new campaign setting he's working on, Jeff Rients offers up this assertion:
Default D&D is post-apocalyptic in nature. Full stop. No qualifiers. I support this bald assertion with the fact that most campaign worlds I've seen aren't Eberron-style magic-as-tech affairs. Furthermore, most versions of the game support the existence of artifact and relics as examples of uber-awesome magic items that no PC can make. And where do you think all those monsters got all those gold coins? I submit that they are from some long lost (read: Roman) empire that came crashing down on everyone's head. D&D as Tolkien Plus Howard Plus Swiss Pikemen Versus The Dragon At The End Of Beowulf just doesn't make any friggin' sense without Númenor/Atlantis/Rome lurking in the background.
I've had similar thoughts in the past (I'm too lazy to find the links right now), but, as usual, Jeff cuts to the chase in memorable fashion. Needless to say, I agree wholeheartedly with his assertion and consider it an important key to understanding D&D as it was at the beginning.


  1. Oh. See, when I hear apocalypse, I think modern day nuclear war type stuff. I think there is a big difference between that and dead civilizations from the distant past.

    I think a distinction needs to be made, because there are a lot of folk out there who consider their game world to come about after some futuristic type world ending, like Sword of Shannara where you might encounter some ancient killbot or something.

  2. I suppose you could consider the 1e Greyhawk setting apocalyptic, what with the Invoked Devastation and Rain of Colorless Fire having destroyed the two previous cultures of high magic.

    I am curious if any of this is suggested in the OD&D version of Greyhawk.

  3. The OD&D supplement called Greyhawk has no information about the world of Greyhawk, so no, none of that is suggested :).

  4. Both the RPGs Desolation and Earthdawn deal with a fantasy world that has suffered from an apocalyptic event. Earthdawn is set centuries after the event, while Desolation is set in the immediate aftermath. One of the things that can be done with Desolation is apply it to the fantasy world of your choice.

  5. As you are fond of pointing out: Vance, Dying Earth. Enough said.

  6. Actually, even Eberron with its "Magic as Tech" is post-apocalyptic. The magictech is low powered and amounts to modes of transportation and communication. The great wonders of technology are in the past. Some are trying to recreate them, with possible horrible consequences like the destruction of entire kingdoms.

    But that is another story.

  7. While Mr. Rients' point is certainly well-taken, there is a big difference to me between post-apocalyptic and something I might call "post decline." The former implies a sharp break with all that went before, for some reason, "A Canticle for Liebowitz" is the archetype in my mind. I think of standard D&D as being "post decline." More like, as intimated, the aftermath of the Roman Empire. There was no sharp demarcation; people at the time would not have been aware that Rome "fell" in 476 or whichever date you choose. Rather it was a much more gradual process, and not marked by such a sharp break. Post-apocalypse brings with it for me an automatic sort of survivalist mentality, whereas post decline can be quite mundane. Either way, I don't mean to quibble, and think everyone is quite right on this aspect. Thank you.

  8. Greyhawk is pretty undeniably post-apocalyptic, which I think is a point William Silvey made over at The Delver's Dungeon a few months ago, where he was comparing it with Battle Tech (perhaps less arguably post-apocolyptic).

  9. WFRP is post-apocalyptic - the ancient Slann warpgates at the poles of the planet imploded showering warpdust over everything, causing their highly advanced civilization to collapse (at least on this planet) and unleashing the cancer of Chaos into the world.

    Actually so is Tekemel and with the fall of Numenor and destruction of Beleriand at the end of Quenta Silmarillion so is Tolkien's legendarium.

    Dragonlance too.

    Never contemplated it before but Jeff is right - there's a lot of this stuff about.

  10. It always bugged me that there wasn't a formal structure to creating magic items in the 1E era. I consider its inclusion in 3E to be a major step forward.

    For true fantasy post-apocalyptic wonder I like Earthdawn and Everstone.

  11. On the SJ Games MOO many moons ago, there was talk of how the (then brand-new) System Reference Document should be translated into Latin and marketed as a Roman RPG about a post-apocalyptic future.

    Now, we were treating magic as the equivalent of Gamma World mutations, instead of the remnants of an old high-magic empire, but . . .

  12. I agree completely with Jeff. As to weather or not there is a difference between the nuclear type apocalypse or the slow Roman style decline is all in the how the aftermath/ end product is portrayed.

  13. What's the quote from "In ancient days, when mystical shit was BIG and IN YOUR FACE, somebody F*CKED UP and BROKE EVERYTHING and now THINGS SUCK" :)

    On a more serious note, I think one can argue that most game settings are rooted in "living in the shadow of an earlier Golden Age" and/or "living on the frontier". The main reason for this is to provide an explaination why roving gangs of armed adventurer/mercenaries/troubleshooters can move through relatively lawless areas in search of power/wealth/loot/etc.

    From my POV, game worlds where this isn't true (like adventuring in a fifth wave nation in Transhuman Space or Silver Age superheroes) seem to be more of an oddity when compared to other RPGs.

    Whether it's a western mining town plagued by bandits, a treasure-filled tomb filled with undead, a group of wizards who have to prevent the mundanes and the more powerful evil wizards from noticing them, or a sci-fi game with remote goverments and uncaring megacorps, it's always the same. Strap on a weapon, because you and your fellow ethically-challenged buddies are the closest thing to the law out here...

  14. Post-Eden, it's all downhill for a long time. :)

  15. D&D? Not so much post-apocalyptic as antediluvian? ;)
    There is no "default" setting implied other than generic "fantasy", IMO: /that/ was one key reason why it took off as rapidly as it did; because it wasn't slavishly tied into a given milieu.

    > Needless to say, I agree wholeheartedly with his assertion and consider it an important key to understanding D&D as it was at the beginning.

    Lake Geneva or otherwise?

    D&D megadungeons never did /require/ such a framework as far as I can tell; not least that the process of world-creation rarely sprung fully-fledged from the mind of the DM.

    Setting != system in this context and the process of uncovering hidden depths and greater, unknown powers can just as easily be "golden age" especially from the perspective of the character's personal goals.
    In later versions of D&D, the default is clearly /far/ more than a tiny PMP niched game-world: how can a game with a presumption of Immortals be post-apocalyptic by "default" when the game influences clearly extend beyond one world right from the start?

    And where does cosmic horror fit into post-apocalyptic, anyhow? :)

    > coopdevil wrote:
    > Actually so is Tekemel

    As eventually presented in RPG form, yes; deliberately selecting some of those elements and embedding them within the EPT RPG in a manner that D&D does not do. Limiting game play to a single world in a far stronger manner helps, too: it /is/ "post-apocalyptic in nature" and you start right here...

  16. (*g* two minutes too late :p )

  17. Of course, there's always the post-Monster Age model, which a lot of ancient mythology works off of. Middle Eastern mythology, Greek mythology, most American Indian tribes....

    "There used to be a lot of Really Horrible Monsters and Demon Gods, but now they're dead or imprisoned or co-opted to the current gods' service. So only now is it safe for men to live on Earth and go about their business, but only as long as they never release any of the monsters, demon gods, or terrible magical items of mass destruction."

    That's not so much post-holocaust or post-Golden Age as post-successful campaign of taming the world.

  18. I've got a piece that'll be in Tuesday's Escapist called "D&D is the Apocalypse." It might not be embedded in the rules until AD&D's Imprisonment spell hardwires the ancientness of Vance's Dying Earth into the game mechanics, but every one of the original campaign worlds I looked into - Blackmoor, Greyhawk, Tekumel, the Wilderlands - is set after the destruction of a previous, more-advanced civilization. (As to whether that's true of OD&D Greyhawk, the Sea of Dust is mentioned in Andre Norton's 1878 _Quag Keep_ but it's not explicitly stated to be the remnants of the Suel Empire).

    Many of the Appendix N literary sources are post-apocalyptic in the usual after-the-bomb sense (Hawkmoon, Hiero's Journey, Sign of the Labrys, Changeling Earth), and a war that brings about the end of an era or a disaster that leads to the fall of civilization is a major theme not only in Tolkien but in all the big names; Conan's dark ages follow the sinking of Kull's Atlantis, and both Cthulu's R'yleh and Fafhrd's visits to Simorgya are riffs on that legend.

    But I agree with Rev. Keith that D&D is post-apocalyptic mainly because that's a great source of anarchy & to a lesser degree the other four criteria S. John Ross identified as elements of commercially successful RPGs.
    - Tavis

  19. What Rev. Keith said. Except I think it's worth emphasizing: the whole trope is right there in the word "medieval." Lost forebears are structural in D&D. Who builds megadungeons? Who digs them out and peoples them with monsters? Where does the idea come from, to loot smelted gold from holes in the ground (and not from city vaults or merchant ships)? What is it in our psyche that puts dragons and magic in those holes?

    I'd be very interested to see how Rients' plan works out: the main prior art I can think of for what he's proposing are dreamtime and Marxian production, and I've never seen either treated in D&D before.

  20. more question: does anyone know why D&D parties should be stuck between A-Team and platoon size? It seems to be a genre convention, but it's not very Conan/Elric and it has ramifications for the world setting. Babur rode around on his own for years before he managed to snowball up an army and social standing enough to have a go at India. What would a Babur game look like? Imagine how epic the megadungeons could get if the players had 10,000 men at their disposal, and their own nobles to manage.

  21. "Imagine how epic the megadungeons could get if the players had 10,000 men at their disposal, and their own nobles to manage."

    I think you have to admit that the origin of D&D comes down to this: (1) First there was wargaming where players controlled whole armies; (2) Later there was role-playing where players controlled individual heroes, and this was found to be a generally deeper, more electric experience for most people.

    Even though I'm an enormous proponent of the D&D "endgame" and army-interaction, I have to admit that both ways have been tried, and one is clearly proven to be more popular.

  22. The difference between Post-Apocalyptic and Fallen Empires is a matter of scale. Fallen Empire applies to civilizations and is a staple of fantasy. Apocalypse occurs to the whole world, nature as well as man-made.

    Some fantasy worlds are post-apocalyptic of course. But Numenor and Atlantis don't count - the natural world continued unchanged around them.

  23. (1) First there was wargaming... (2) Later there was role-playing where players controlled individual heroes... one is clearly proven to be more popular.

    Bah! Chasing popularity isn't the brief of this blog and should never be on your mind when you're dreaming, and anyway, in the early days RPGs had to work hard to distinguish themselves from wargames. Nearly 40 years on, I think we can afford to mix it up a little.

  24. This dug memories up and out of the "ruined pile". Thanks.

  25. IIRC, the 2E DMG stated this explicitly in the "Planning a Campaign" section.

  26. This is certainly the assumption for the default 4e campaign world (Nentir Vale and so forth). Lots of old empires now gone.

  27. I'm certain that someone has mentioned this already (in which case read this as a "me too"); I just can't wade through 27 responses.... The D&D magic system is clearly based on the Dying Earth books, most especially the first one. The spell names and memorization system come right out of Dying Earth. And as we all know, Dying Earth was a post-apocalyptic setting. It's the end, not of civilization, but the entire planet. Countless empires have risen and fallen, such that no one knows much of anything about what went before. They squat under a sun a whisper away from going out. They prowl ruins of unimaginable age from millennia ago.

    And what about all those magic monsters in D&D? The ones that are clearly failed (or even successful) experiments in magic or genetic engineering.

    Dying Earth is a post-apocalyptic setting. So's D&D. It's so obvious that perhaps it needed to be said.

  28. There was actually a very good discussion a few years ago on the 1e forum on DF about the assumptions that underlie the AD&D rules. I definitely think the world-as-fallen-off-from-some-more-perfect-realm-of-power idea is central to the structure of AD&D. And actually, a good aprt of the evidence for it (aside even from the Vancian magic, which I bet was inspiration for the rest) is in direct refutation of this comment:

    "It always bugged me that there wasn't a formal structure to creating magic items in the 1E era."

    Bur? There most certainly is. And it is expensive, difficult, dangerous, and personally costly. Note that it takes a point of CON to cast permanence! The amount of magic items in the game, though, suggests that it was not always so hard, that at some point +1 swords and feather tokens were relatively simple to make--and the fact that now they are not is why they are so valuable.

    And I think this very nicely ties the rules together. This is a great way to show that setting, really, does not have to be important at all. Structure is what counts. The nature of the falling off from this other state can be whatever you want it to be. But the structure of the game itself and the cohesion of the rules imply that it's a fact nonetheless.

  29. What with the mournlands and everything, and post-Last War tensions running high, you could argue that Eberron still fits, if not quite the post-apocalyptic bill, an immediately pre-apocalyptic one.

  30. So true James!

    I think D&D gets this from Conan in some ways, which is most definitely a post-apocalyptic world.

    I also think this is why the Post Apocalypse genre is so good for gaming.

    It's so similar to D&D in the way it plays that GMs don't need to shift gears mentally, as they often do for a supers campaign.

    Players need to go into the unknown and explore the ruins of a lost civilization. This is the most important game element in PA games, as well as fantasy games and it makes them the best gaming genres.

  31. Found the DF discussion. From 2006!

  32. "America may not have been dotted with the ruined monasteries, castles, stone circles, dolmens, and hill forts that attracted treasure legends across Europe," Davies writes, "but this did not prevent settlers from creating a new geography of treasure—one based on buried pirate booty supposedly secreted by the notorious William Kidd and Jean Lafitte, lost Spanish gold mines, and ancient Indian treasure."
    bldgblog, today. It's a powerful trope.
    veriword: nessi. Now it's just playing with me.

  33. > And as we all know, Dying Earth was a post-apocalyptic setting.

    Nope; wrong genre. As even Wikipedia knows. :)

  34. Greyhawk's seminal event was the Twin Cataclysms & the Greyhawk Wars which lead to Greyhawk 2e - From the Ashes...

    Yes, D&D has always had a quality of tetering on the apocalypse. But, it is has been more about feudal decay rather than one big apocalypse which is why I never got the purpose of the The Apocalypse Stone adventure.

    In my Greyhawk thoughts, I thought there ought to be different ages to demark different epochs each one "destroying" the world but giving way to a New Age...much like Tolkien.

    So, there was an Age of Heroes - which Mortals ascended to the Gods of Greyhawk but first fought their battles as mortals.

    The Age of Magic - this was the Solese-Blankish (sp) conflict.

    Finally, the End of Ages, out of which I saw the end of the current Greyhawk to pave the way for a more steampunkish fantasy.

  35. > Greyhawk's seminal event was the Twin Cataclysms & the Greyhawk Wars which lead to Greyhawk 2e - From the Ashes...

    *nods* But what relationship does that bear to "understanding D&D as it was at the beginning" or "Default D&D is post-apocalyptic in nature. Full stop. No qualifiers"?