Greetings, wastelanders! I’m the Level One Wonk, and today it’s the end of the world as we know it. The end of the world has captivated authors for centuries, and also left a strong mark on film. Whether it’s anxieties about where society is going or fantasizing about being a sole survivor, post-apocalyptic novels, movies, and games have been popular for quite some time. The post-apocalyptic genre works very well for tabletop RPGs, too: an unexplored world full of dangers, potential treasures and traps existing from the old world, and driving motivations that are simple and strong make for a huge palette of potential games. A post-apocalyptic setting conceit can be layered on top of many other genres, and the resulting games can range from a brutal struggle for survival to a gonzo trip down Fury Road. What’s important is not the particulars of any given game, but rather how to choose and write those particulars to best serve your desired play experience.
The structure of post-apocalyptic settings only relies on one key assumption: the world as characters know it was created by a cataclysmic event that irrevocably changed the world that existed before. What then makes a setting feel post-apocalyptic is the use of a few core themes: the characters in the setting struggle with scarcity, there is an established contrast between the “old world” that once existed and the “new world” that exists now, and the power structures of the aforementioned “old world” have been erased, leading to struggle and opportunity in equal measures.
Scarcity ends up being the central conceit of many, many stories. Fallout began when Vault 13 could no longer produce its own clean water, and The Road is a story of a father struggling to care for his son in a world where food, water, and shelter are not readily available and may never be again. In games, scarcity is often the first conflict that players grapple with; the ability to limit a starting character’s possessions is an easy way to force tough decisions at the outset. The easiest way to keep a game feeling apocalyptic is to keep this scarcity on players’ minds throughout the entire game. A post-apocalyptic game where characters have everything they need ends up feeling more gonzo than anything else; this is why Survival Mode in digital games like Fallout can often dramatically change the feel of the game for the better. Employing scarcity in a game does not require that you make your characters track food, water, and bullets, only that the things they need are hard to find and can be threatened. Making scarcity a theme in a game is not only about characters running out of things, but also about rewarding ingenuity and planning which allows characters to work around things they don’t have.
Old and New
The contrast between the “old world” and the “new world” is one of the most potent world-building elements in a post-apocalyptic setting. A classic method to show this contrast is “ruinporn”, the use of abandoned buildings, wrecked cars, and other detritus to imply that the old world is gone. Other settings, especially fantasy apocalypse settings, dot the world with fantastical architecture or technology . . . Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a great recent example of using the technology of the past as a contrast to the present. Within a tabletop campaign, both of these elements can drive home the existence of the old world. I ran an Apocalypse World game that made use of the (perhaps cliched) trope of places being named after old world signs that had letters missing, an easy callback to an “Old World” that players are familiar with. There are also many games where the technology of the past is the magic of the future; Numenera is entirely built around this concept. Contrasting the old world and new world is also what drives narratives around rebuilding; depending on what the old world looked like, characters may want to rebuild society in the image of the old world or to look nothing like the old world, and some may clash over their differing visions.
The core escapist element in a post-apocalyptic setting is that traditional power structures have all been destroyed. When there is no longer a ruling class nor a class that holds economic power, it is easier to imagine a setting where characters have a large amount of upward mobility. Apocalypse World throws this to the characters immediately: The Hardholder is basically at the highest level of power and leadership responsibility that exists within the game’s setting, and it is a playbook for any player to choose. On the other hand, power without legitimacy or underlying authority makes for a very different game in terms of how players explore ethics and their actions. There may be no laws to answer to, but what that means is in the hands of the characters. Relationships with existing institutions and power structures also help bring up these questions; the power of existing institutions was a central theme in David Brin’s novel The Postman. On the other hand, the Enclave from the Fallout games was built around attempting to rebuild the existing institution of the United States government, but in a very sinister light. For good or for ill, power structures in a post-apocalyptic setting are mutable, which gives characters more license to mess with them.
While the themes of a post-apocalyptic story are important to get the feel of the genre as most understand it, the setting itself can be much broader. Any setting you think of can be blown up and used as a starting point for something that feels apocalyptic. There are two elements you need to establish, which will inform writing of both the setting and the games that take place in that setting. First there’s that old world you’re going to blow up, and then there’s how you blow it up.
The Old World
What the world looked like before it was destroyed or otherwise changed is essential to how your players view the world they exist in. What makes this part of creating your setting difficult is that you’re not necessarily writing things in full view of your players…you’re peppering the world and your NPCs with references to how things were. It is generally assumed that the existence of a cataclysm is known to characters, and that information about the old world exists somewhere, able to be found. These things are key in driving the contrast between old and new, thematically speaking, and you may find that not showing how the current setting came to be will mean that your game doesn’t necessarily feel apocalyptic. While it’s up to the GM to determine how much the existence of the old world is broadcast, elements should be in place. A game may start feeling like a fantasy campaign…but when the characters find out that the spires to the west of the village are old radio towers, that changes things. The Old World is also a primary place to look for plot and conflict MacGuffins, be they old technology, hidden knowledge, or a hidden slice of the Old World that has remained untouched.
When the world ends, whatever’s left afterward is changed forever. Whether it’s radiation, wandering nanobots, mana storms, or the Psychic Maelstrom, an event large enough to destroy everything often leaves ripples with profound effects. While your Cataclysm need not leave the world filled with dangers or bizarre phenomena, knowing what caused the Cataclysm is still important. An absence of aftereffects is as deliberate a decision as a preponderance of them, and even if there’s nothing extra in your environment to put players on edge, there are still going to be noticeable effects from whatever created the apocalypse. A world laid low by runaway climate change may not leave obvious dangers, but the characters may still find themselves sailing over a city sunken into the ocean, or walking through riverbeds run dry. Whatever the cataclysm is also shapes how the survivors respond to it. Fallout’s nuclear holocaust left a number of radiation-shielded robots and power armor, while Apocalypse World’s psychic maelstrom leaves all survivors with the ability to open their brain to it.
So what does one do in a post-apocalyptic game? How would a GM create driving motivations for characters to follow? I believe that a post-apocalyptic setting can be both very easy and very difficult for a GM to write. On the easy side, it’s assumed from the word go that characters in a post-apocalyptic setting are fighting for survival. A starting goal can be incredibly simple: Find food. Find water. Find shelter. This will not drive a long campaign, necessarily, but it will absolutely work to start one. On the hard side, in any game where you get beyond mere survival there ends up being many more difficult decisions to make, both for players and for the GM writing the game; flexibility ends up working both for and against you in this case. Start with survival, though. Once it’s clear that the party is now dependent on each other to stay alive, getting them to stick together becomes an afterthought and then things can get more interesting. Structurally, I’d see two ways to make a post-apocalyptic game really pop, and make good use of the genre’s implied rules and conventions. First, you could write a sandbox. Give the characters a swathe of unexplored territory, and leave them to their devices as far as surviving and then thriving. For this to work you will need to populate your sandbox with more than just resources and threats. Old tech, friendly settlements, weird creatures, and unexplored ruins can all help motivations arise organically. It does help to have a starting scenario where the characters have at least some form of motivation, but with a large enough world those motivations will evolve as you continue playing.
The other game structure I’d write would involve a central quest or mission. Now, what makes this different from, say, a fantasy game is that this quest or mission would be a direct bridge between the old world and new world. Maybe the characters need to find or repair a piece of old-world tech, like in Fallout. Maybe the characters are refugees from the old world, awoken from cryo-sleep with a military loadout and cryptic orders, like in The Morrow Project. Having a central quest allows for more structure than a sandbox, and will generally lead to twists, turns, and complications. The awakened military unit may find their centuries-old orders are impossible to execute, but are the most powerful organization around by virtue of the tech they were sent to sleep with. The old-world tech the characters need may be repairable, but only by a shadowy group who seem to be hoarding tech for their own purposes. The possibilities are endless, and players can be driven by a number of in-setting motivations around power, knowledge, and the desire to rebuild.
Post-apocalyptic settings are popular because of the rich opportunities they provide. There are opportunities to explore, rebuild, gain power, and more. The harshness of the world and the need to survive is coupled with a setting that’s newly wiped clean and ripe for exploitation, both in good ways and bad. To make good use of a post-apocalyptic setting, a GM has to come into their game armed with information about what the old world was like, and how and why it was destroyed. They and their players have to portray characters who struggle to survive, but who also have great opportunity in a world with few or no existing power structures of any consequence. And when these characters fight for what they have or what they believe in, it’s up to them to make consequential ethical decisions. Post-apocalyptic games combine a dangerous struggle to survive with the promise of the ability to rebuild the world in your own image. At this intersection, it is possible to run some truly amazing games.
Want to know more about specific Post-Apocalyptic games that are out there? There are a bunch of them, and there already exists a catalog much better than any I could write. Check out the History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs, a 20-entry series done by Lowell Francis of the Gauntlet at his Age of Ravens blog.