I’ve been running post-apocalypse campaigns since the 1980s, using a wide variety of game systems. Why so much love for these games, when he idea of the world undergoing a cataclysm that wipes out most of humanity is so utterly horrifying?
I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. But there is something compelling about imagining yourself trying to survive and find hope in a world at once familiar and radically different from our own.
Many post-apocalypse games have made their mark on the RPG world. Powered-armor-wearing-mutated-jackrabbit heroic explorers represents one pole, and count-your-shotgun-shells Mad Max-style survival represents another. But some of the most interesting and unique post-apocalypse games are those that put a whole new spin on the genre.
Apocalypse World — This is a hugely influential game. In fact, dozens of Powered by the Apocalypse games have been created using the game’s underpinnings, which sometimes obscures the importance of AW itself. The setting is purposely left to the GM and players, because the setting isn’t what drives the game. AW is really a game about human relationships and how important they are when everyone is just trying to survive. It’s also fast-paced and highly-collaborative, so GM and players can shape the world together with minimal prep. This is one of those polarizing games – some people really don‘t like it. But if you do, there’s a lot you can learn from Apocalypse World and apply to other games.
Degenesis: Rebirth — Setting, setting, setting. Built by a design studio that does a lot of work for the video game industry, Degenesis provides a deep, multi-layered setting full of opportunities for a GM who wants to take full advantage of a complex game world. Players also have to invest time in learning about the world because it really is unique. It’s centered in Europe and North Africa, there are no radioactive mutants but plenty of deadly inhuman adversaries, and politics and intrigue are ever-present. The game materials are also gorgeously designed and full of stunningly evocative art and dense with lore.
Paranoia — Humor is often found at the gaming table, but it almost always comes from players. That botched roll that leads to an awkward result, that ridiculous bard’s tale at the inn. But building humor into game rules is truly difficult. Many designers have tried, and most have failed. Paranoia succeeds, though. It delivers a special flavor of dark humor that derives from the setting. In the post-apocalypse of Paranoia, survivors of a nuclear armageddon live in a vast underground city under the watchful, ever-helpful, unerring eye of The Computer. When things go wrong The Computer dispatches teams of Troubleshooters, cloned humans who attempt to do the right thing even when there is no clearly correct course of action. Oh, and there are traitors within every party. What could possibly go wrong?