The 100 is a post-apocalyptic TV show with an intriguing premise: Survivors of a global nuclear apocalypse have stayed alive in a space station for generations. They believe the planet below them to be uninhabitable until they send group of 100 juvenile delinquents to ground, who discover that they’re not alone.
The 100 invites criticism. Somehow humans stayed alive in space for generations without any muscle degradation or loss of bone mass. Finicky technology keeps working for decades without fail. Almost everyone is hawt. You get the idea.
But it’s also a show that provides lessons for running a campaign in a setting where scarcity pushes factions and individuals into repeated conflict. Five seasons in, here are a few of the things about the show that fascinate and inspire me as a GM:
Nothing stays static in The 100 for long. Character relationships change, factional alliances shift, understanding of history is affected by new events, and even the physical landscape changes radically. Not only does this keep things from getting boring, it makes the world seem more real because just like in our own world, change is the only constant.
Characters Are Intertwined
In any drama featuring a stable of core characters, their stories will intersect. But The 100 is particularly effective at tying the fates of these characters together. The decisions made by a primary character can affect the arc of a minor character, and vice versa. Characters who might not otherwise form relationships do so because circumstances force them to interact and create story. And this welter of connections creates tension when characters who have found common cause in the past find each other on opposite sides of new conflicts. Complex character interactions give the world an emotional core and take the story beyond simple survival.
Individuals Make Things Happen
The 100 rapidly establishes multiple factions, then adds more as the series progresses. Some of these factions are quite large, but it’s always the key characters (read: player characters) who drive the interactions between these factions. Yes, there are NPCs who provoke conflict, but it is always the main characters who make the vital decisions that determine outcomes. In game terms this ensures that the player characters are almost always the stars, rather than the supporting actors, which keeps payers engaged.
Factions Are Families
What binds people together in The 100 isn’t anything abstract like ideology; it’s tradition, shared history, and love. Characters make huge sacrifices for their factions, and the show examines what it means to be part of a group. Leaving one faction for another is not just an embrace of the new, it can be seen as a repudiation of the old. Bridging the gaps between factions is hard; fear and mistrust are powerful forces, and they are never put completely to rest. Making factions the center of a campaign gives characters something to fight for, something to protect, something to care about beyond themselves.
Factions Aren’t Homogeneous
While individuals bend the trajectories of factions, the factions themselves are not always subservient to their leaders. There are internal tensions, fights over the best path to take, challenges to the rulers. Antagonistic characters are often distilled representation of the sub-factions within a group. This keeps the emphasis on individuals while allowing for intra-factional intrigue. Change one person’s mind, and the rest of her sub-faction will follow too.
Nobody Wants to Die
Many post-apocalypse tropes are built around the notion that since everything is blasted ruin and there’s nothing to live for, there are plenty of people in the prime of their lives who are willing to die for no discernible reason. This makes for great action scenes, but flies against everything we know of human nature. People have to be compelled to put their lives in danger, and in The 100 there are frequently situations where the only way to avoid death is to make an alliance with a hated enemy. This not only makes the world feel more real, it also complicates relationships between individuals and factions, providing grist for further conflict down the road.
But Sometimes They Do
This isn’t like Westeros; people aren’t being picked off one at a time until only a handful remain. But key characters do die in The 100. It’s a dangerous world, and even though the primary characters are at times ludicrously lucky, every once in a while an important character goes down for good. This reinforces the feeling that the world of The 100 is not to be taken lightly, but these deaths are also never truly random. When a major character dies it’s because they sacrificed themselves to save others, or they were taken over by an implacable foe, or they were a side-effect of a decision made by another key character. Knowing that a player character’s decisions can result in the death of important NPCs makes those decisions all the more meaningful.
Tabletop RPGs Ain’t TV Shows
I’m a firm believer, through hard-won experience, that as a GM you shouldn’t try to drive plot. Your job is to keep the game world in motion and put player characters into challenging situations. So it’s neither possible nor useful to attempt to shoehorn deep plot lines into a campaign. That said, you can still incorporate many of the elements I mention above.
Establishing factional conflicts and modes of conflict resolution is very important. American history includes the eradication of native tribes, total war against far-flung adversaries, and prolonged nuclear showdown. But throughout human history most conflict has been smaller-scale and far less ideological. When scarcity is king, survival is less about wiping out your enemy and more about adapting to change. Establish up front that obliteration is nobody’s goal, and you open the door to shifting alliances, small conflicts, and constant jockeying for position.
Similarly through most of human history leadership has been conferred not by election or primogeniture, but through competence. Those who can, lead. And sometimes leadership changes based on the needs of the group. This again provides fertile ground for growing dynamic relationships between player characters and important NPCs.
Finally, The 100 has taught me it’s OK to bend realism a bit in order to provide more interesting challenges for players. A flimsy explanation will often work if it helps create a more interesting story. That said, in my 97-years-after-a-nuclear-war campaign you’ll get a lot more misfires from ancient ammunition than we see on The 100.