Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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This is how the world ends: A bunch of post-apocalyptic game setting variants

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 22, 2013

I’m a fan of “post-apocalyptic” settings in fiction and computer games, though I realize it’s as hard a term to define as “role-playing games” (or “indie games”, for that matter). Over the years, we’ve had tons of video games taking place in a post-apocalyptic setting. And, happy me, we’ve got several new games coming soon that explore survival in a heavily depopulated world.

Post-apocalyptic settings are ripe for role-playing games, in particular, because they do mimic the ultimate test of survival that’s hardwired into every human being’s brain. When we no longer have the ‘safety net’ of civilization and modern convenience to rely upon, could we survive? Can we test certain traits experimentally and safely to see how well they’d perform under certain scenarios? Can we do more than survive, and actually thrive? Post-apocalyptic stories and games do exactly that.

While there have been many interesting variants on the theme, and some games that incorporate tons of concepts into a single setting (Fallout, in particular), I thought I’d point a bunch of them out today as sort of a reminder to aspiring game developers that there are a lot more ways to end the world than zombies or nukes.  Here are a bunch of ideas ready to be mixed and matched.


The Pandemic: Most of the human race dies of a disease, leaving only those with an immunity. Stephen King’s book (and excellent miniseries) The Stand explores some of the potential for this setting. For games, this is most often used as more of a background for a zombie apocalypse, but a very interesting part of it for me is how it leaves the remnants and memories of civilization fully intact, but lacks a civilization and population size necessary to sustain it.

halflife2The Monsters Invade: Horrible monsters invade from outer space (most alien-invasion stories), or from another dimension (Half-Life), or our robot servants turn on their creators (Battlestar Galactica, The Matrix). How does humanity survive?

The Ecological Disaster: Through nuclear war, global warming, a new ice age, an asteroid smashing into the earth, or some other natural or man-made disaster, the surface of the world is no longer capable of sustaining human life on a large scale. Humans are forced underground, or into space, or into pockets of the world where they are able to eke out a survival.

Post-Post Apocalypse: This setting explores how society re-forms long after disaster has struck. It’s really the setting of the Fallout series, and can be fun to explore a new culture that develops after a painful reset button is pressed. In particular, it can be interesting to see how a sheltered new society encounters and is affected by remnants of the past, or re-encounters other human societies separated by generations and independently evolving cultures.

Technological Breakdown: In this variant, the technology we’ve all become dependent upon suddenly ceases to function, forcing a breakdown of society built upon that expectation – and the appropriate violence and death that comes with this kind of transition. This could be from some bizarre phenomenon suspending (or augmenting) the known laws of physics, such as in the TV series Revolution. In Pat Cadigan’s cyberpunk novel Synners, it’s a far more believable breakdown: A society dependent upon a future version of The Internet – including the ability to interface directly through their brains – collapses when a massive viral attack makes the ‘Net unusable (and kills those connected to it via their brains).

Sudden Evolution / Devolution: While evolution is a process that is normally so slow it would not qualify as an “apocalypse” (the transition is so slow as to be imperceptable), a sudden change – as in the zombie apocalypse variant – would not. Eloi vs. Morlocks vs. pure strain humans, anybody?

roadwarriorThe Civil Breakdown: This is the sort of apocalypse originally envisioned by the movies Mad Max and The Road Warrior, although the third movie retconned it into a plain ol’ nuclear apocalypse. In this case, external wars and internal breakdown of law results in humanity pretty much preying upon itself. Without a massive external pressure forcing the issue, this is generally anticipated as a short-lived transitional period, where some new social order will eventually rise from the ashes, probably in less than a generation.

The Fantasy Apocalypse: What if Sauron had re-obtained the ring and won, the elves had (mostly) fled, and most humans, hobbits, and dwarves were dead, in chains, or completely thrown in with the Dark Lord? The plague of Mordor was spreading over much of Middle Earth, and only a few survivors were left trying to evade the Eye by whatever skills and magic remained to them? (As I understand it, the upcoming crowdfunded RPG The Banner Saga suggests this kind of setting… post-Ragnarok… but I don’t know if they are really embracing it as a post-apocalyptic story)

Zombie Apocalypse: The zombie apocalypse thing seems (to me) to be mainly played out. But there are some unexplored variants. What if the zombies weren’t actually inhuman bloodthirsty walkers, but instead were still just changed people? Perhaps thinking and rational, a la the movie Omega Man, or the book it was based on, I Am Legend, or some of the ghouls in Fallout. Or perhaps their intellectual functions had degraded to the level of basic instincts and little else, not necessarily bloodthirsty but lacking any moral compunction against cannibalism.  Or perhaps they are just inflicted with an insanity that can be controlled with drugs? This would rob many action games of the moral excuse for blowing away human-like foes by the thousands. But for a role-playing game, these could be pretty rich setting, with lots of tough moral decisions.

The Body Snatchers: This is really another zombie apocalypse variant (in my mind), where the horror comes from something alien inhabiting the physical form of a once trusted / loved individual. But in this case, the change is made more terrible in that it’s subtle. The person once there is gone, and something else has taken over, yet it is still able to pretend to function normally. Once this threat is discovered, it could lead to widespread panic and paranoia – as in the Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.”

WarOfTheWorldsOther eras:  How about a post-apocalyptic Star Trek? The Borg really were – effectively – a threat of Space Zombies. What if they had won? The Battlestar Galactica remake took this thought and played with it, but there’s a lot more that could be done. What about the earth as we knew it being destroyed during the late 1800s, as in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds? Or the medieval era? I mean, the Black Plague was pretty much a real-world apocalypse. I understand something similar happened to the Native Americans, allowing European colonists to move in.

Sudden Disappearance: By alien abduction, the Rapture, a dimensional shift, or who knows what else (perhaps the very mystery the plot involves solving), a large number of people suddenly disappear from the world. They leave confusion and a (temporary?) breakdown in civilization in their wake.

A Strange New World: As a result of whatever kind of apocalypse destroys civilization, survivors might take to populating a remote island, another planet, or even another dimension far from home. They take a few modern conveniences with them, and a memory of their former home, but otherwise must struggle to deal with an entirely alien, possibly hostile environment. This variant is a little different in that the characters are no longer surrounded by the remnants of civilization, but rather are themselves the only (available) remnant. For whatever reason, there’s no going back, and no expectation of anything or anybody else arriving from “back home.”

An Evil Overlord: In this setting, the invading monster is a human, and he (or she, or they) culls the population by violence to maintain control. Once again, civilization as we know it has been replaced by an external force, remaking it in their image. Or it could be a dystopian society that has inflicted some kind of unnatural state upon humanity.

The Cozy Catastrophe: In spite of disaster wiping out most of the human race, the survivors are able to maintain a comfortable existence.  At least until somebody breaks their eyeglasses or something.

LARP and the Real GirlThe Monsters Return: Similar to The Monsters Invade, but this is more of a massive return of ancient legends, from Elder Gods of Lovecraftian proportions, to the legendary supernatural horrors like vampires and demons (the TV series Supernatural explores this kind of apocalypse averted or happening in ‘slow motion’), to a return of beasts (and magic) of ancient myth – dragons, faeries, goblins, and even a return of magical power to the world. Whatever the case, humanity is often decimated, or at least has to radically change to adapt. Whether it realizes it is changing or not…

A Technological Revolution: Some new technology has had a massive, transformative effect on civilization – maybe even for the better (at least on the surface) – but has had side-effects similar to an apocalypse. For example – a drug that eliminates aging. What does that do to the population, when the older generation no longer dies to make way for a younger? How much violence and civil breakdown would result?

The Slow Decline: In this setting, civilization goes into decline subtly, and the story may take place somewhere in the midpoint or late stage of such a decline. It could be dramatic – such as a world where there are suddenly no children being born. Or it could be subtle – a slow civil breakdown, or a slow plague, or a devolution of most of the human race over successive generations.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    A game for your “sudden disappearance” category: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/07/31/dear-succesther-everybodys-gone-to-the-rapture/

    I’d also like to put “Day of the Triffids” into the “zombie” category (or technology I guess, since in the book they produce a substitute for crude oil). A lot of what we consider “zombie” tropes appear to be taken wholesale from the Triffids book.

    Chryssalids (also by John Wyndham) is also post-apocalyptic, and very good. Basically, I’d recommend reading his books! Especially since I haven’t seen a decent film/tv show based on them.

  • Flux said,

    The DC comics mini-series ‘Kingdom Come’, while mostly not post-apocalyptic, illustrates what could be a superhero version of the theme.

    Traveller is a sci-fi post-apocalyptic RPG – an AI (dubbed Virus) is let loose and quickly mutates into several variants, most of which are homicidal. Space travel has been almost completely abandoned for several generations, effectively isolating numerous worlds.

    Dark Conspiracy is another RPG where the world is quickly heading in that direction. Its sort of an X-Files meets Supernatural, but with the types of events appearing in those shows to be much, much more overt.

    The much-feared future of the Terminator movies is also apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic.

  • Felix said,

    The “sudden disappearance” scenario is very tempting, apparently. It forms the premise of Singularity Sky, for example, and I tried writing a novella based on the same idea too (but abandoned it).

    Several of the above scenarios are utterly unrealistic however. Zombies, no matter how they work, would be trivially contained. Socio-economic breakdown would have no discernible effect on the vast majority of the world’s population, i.e. those living in remote villages and favellas, and the rest would quickly form new social structures. The pandemic scenario is equivalent to the sudden disappearance scenario… except it would also be easily contained. As for a robot revolution, remember that once you have genuine, “hard” AI, it will have all the traits of human intelligence, including diverging purposes, so at most there would be some conventional wars… just like we have all the time in the real world. Which is unfortunate, but never led to general breakdown. Even Somalia, if I understand correctly, has grown a new government after about ten years of anarchy, and the situation has been improving ever since.

    Ultimately, the most plausible scenario is that of a technological revolution (also explored in Singularity Sky), and I say that because we’re going through one right now! But as you can see, not much has happened in the way of actual breakdown, except for isolated instances such as Detroit, and even that city has been recovering nicely the way I hear.

  • rioka said,

    Love this list! I’ve always wondered about various types of post-apocalyptic scenarios as well and this has really got the ol’ creativity juices going.

    Regarding the bit about technological revolution, there’s this manga I read called Battle Angel Alita: The Last Order where it answers that question. Humans basically found the fountain of youth which they called “methusalization”. The value of life is so low that there are cases where people from orphan children to adults with no future are forced into real life battle; there are two squads going at each other in a closed area; for entertainment.

    There a bunch of other things going on in the world; humans have a chip for a brain, cyborgs are all metal except for their brain which is alive, aliens from other planets are accepted and known, cloning, Mars has been colonized, etc. I highly suggest you check out the series if you can.

  • Maklak said,

    I see it as more complex than that. Apocalypse how has several dimensions:

    * How long before / after the catastrophe? Is is happening before our eyes? Did it happen recently? Did it happen years ago?
    * How many (relatively speaking) survivors are there? Are they mostly just killing each other over resources? Are there survivalist communities? Or maybe the group of protagonists barely meets anyone else? Or maybe there is just a lone survivor?
    * How wide-spread is it? Is it global? On a continental scale? On regional scale? Local (one town or island, but it is hard or impossible to get out). This question is often left unanswered and we can only assume a disaster is wide-spread.
    * What kind of disaster is it? Well, you’ve already given some great examples here.

    By some standards Hurricanes on the US eastern coast created several apocalypses already. There was water everywhere, no electricity and water, some looters/bandits, military and other government agencies trying to make things more orderly and failing and so on.
    I’ve also seen several movies about hurricanes on an island with luxury hotel, or sinking ships and planes. Those are apocalypses in micro-scale and can make for great stories or games too.

  • Noumenon said,

    You forgot one:

    Rifts: All of the above.

  • CdrJameson said,

    Economic Apocalypse

    Abandoned mining and gold-rush towns. Settlements left because it just wasn’t worth moving them away. Disused factories or docks. The old brickworks in Porthgain harbour always remind me of Ico. The coasts of Wales and Moors of South West england are dotted with abandoned pump houses, slate workings, snatches of abandoned and inclined railways.

    Also, you can do lots of lovely architecture and environmental storytelling without any of those hard-to-simulate-convincingly people.

  • Xenovore said,

    Great list!

    Apocalypses in micro-scale . . . can make for great stories or games too.

    I’ll agree that a disaster can provide a basis for an interesting story; but a “micro-scale apocalypse” is just not an apocalypse. Although a localized event, such as Hurricane Katrina, may indeed seem like an apocalypse to those involved, “apocalypse” is generally defined as being a global event, affecting the majority of the world population.