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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Welcome to the Post-Apocalypse

A couple people have been posting about Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World, and post-apocalyptic gaming in general. Notably, James Maliszewski has done a couple posts on Grognardia about Gamma World mutants. The genre is loosely connected to atomic-age horror; the Daleks (from the early '60s) are mutants from a post-apocalyptic world, for example, and the Corman films The Day the World Ended and [SPOILER ALERT! Title at very bottom of post]* are set on post-apoc Earth. So's Planet of the Apes (that shouldn't be a spoiler for anyone by now.) So I have a few thoughts about the genre I'd like to share.

The essence of the post-apocalyptic genre is that civilization has lost in a big way. It's also a contrast between two pairs of ideas:
  • freedom vs. community
  • simplicity vs. technology
In other words, it's about savage loners in the wasteland who blame science for the end of the world, but then the events of the story call into question the values of being a loner, living like a primitive, or both, possibly even reversing opinion on one or both.

This means there has to be a pre-apocalyptic civilization, usually our own, that is a well-defined group with a pro-science attitude as a contrast. There must be a sense of exactly what is lost, so that you can wonder whether it was worth it, or if things could have been different. There's two approaches to this:
  • early post-apocalyptic: several survivors of the apocalypse, usually including the main character, remember the Before Times.
  • late post-apocalyptic: no one remembers the Before Times, but there's plenty of evidence left.
The difference isn't just one of time. In late post-apoc, the characters have lost knowledge of the way things were, but the reader or audience is aware; we are thus more knowledgeable about the post-apoc world than the characters in it. In some cases, we don't become aware until the end (Planet of the Apes); in others, there are constant in-jokes between the writer and the audience, objects and places we recognize but the characters never notice or never fully figure out (Thundarr.)

Post-apoc RPGs are usually of the "late" variety. Gamma World is built on the disconnect between character knowledge and player knowledge. Although Gamma World is meant to be taken seriously (as James suggests,) there's a lot of intentional humor derived from the players knowing about the pre-apocalyptic world. Hoops are not inherently funny; they're funny because we know they're really rabbits.

I can't think of many early post-apoc RPGs. If any exist, they'd probably seem grimmer than Gamma World; they'd play more like a horror RPG.

* The other Corman film I'm referring to is Teenage Caveman. It's presented as a story about cavemen frightened of a beast in the forbidden lands, but the end of the film reveals that these cavemen live in our future.


  1. Short list:
    0: Twilight 2000
    1: Twilight 2013
    2: AfterMath
    3: Morrow Project

    I'm sure there's another one or two, but they were popular in the 80's.

  2. My favorite, unspeakably bittersweet transition from Early to Late post-Apocalypse happens throughout the second half of Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart. It's the best thing in the genre I've ever read.

  3. Atomic Highway allows you to play in an early post apocalyptic setting if you wish. But outside of Derek's list I think it's one of the few.

    - Neil.

  4. My favorite aftermath RPG was .. Aftermath. It was a little heavy on game mechanics but it kept the interest.


  5. I haven't played/read any of the games mentioned, so I'm wondering: do they fit my guess that "early post-apoc" tends to be grimmer than "late post-apoc"?