4 Tips for Post Apocalypse Game Masters
From Kate Manchester
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #445
- 4 Tips for Post Apocalypse Game Masters
- A Brief Word from Johnn
- Readers Recommend: The Best Post Apoc Fiction
- Tips from Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
The future is a bleak place. Society, as we currently know it, has ended, thanks to some sort of apocalypse.
Since there are very few post-apocalyptic gaming systems, how do you create a setting? How do you deal with weaponry when resources are seemingly limited? And most importantly, how do you dream up scenarios?
To create a post-apocalyptic setting, the first consideration is the cause of society’s demise.
Sadly, there are many possibilities:
- Nuclear war (a very real fear during the Cold War)
- Global pandemic (the Black Death wiped out about a thirdof the world’s population)
- Electromagnetic pulse
- Global warming
- Alien invasion
- Terrorism (a plan that goes horribly awry)
- An asteroid or comet colliding with the Earth
- Orbital shift (remember what happened to Seti Alpha V?)
- Solar flare or solar death
- Continental shift / massive earthquake
- Biological warfare or disaster
- Artificial intelligence targets humanity
- Plant life dies
- Food chain disrupted (i.e. all bees die)
- Mega volcano
- Atmosphere burns off
Another consideration is how much time has passed since the event. A very recent change means dealing with the aftermath, establishing a new order, and struggling to survive while coping with a major upheaval. Other hazards include lack of long distance communication, a sudden or gradual end to electricity, limited access to modern transportation and lots of casualties.
A fairly recent past event features people who may remember the old society, or have entirely forgotten it as a means of coping. There are areas still suffering from the effects of the event, creatures or people affected by the event, and access to a fair amount of pre-apocalypse technology and resources. There could possibly be adaptation to the circumstances, and citizens that either accept or rebel against the current society.
Events that took place in the distant past means there are few (if any) still alive to remember the past. Artifacts from the previous society are likely scarce and possibly highly prized items. These potentially could serve an unknown or unorthodox purpose, like the Little Mermaid combing her hair with a fork.
In any case, in this future the modern society typically regresses to one ruled by a person or persons who are strongest (whether physically or in numbers), most ambitious and best armed.
Survival means staying out of their way or paying protection. In many cases, the ruins of the old society likely offer shelter, food and items for the survivors, as well as despair or even hope.
People will likely band together in small or large groups, and will find ways to adapt to their circumstances.
The genre of science fiction film and literature has a whole sub-class dedicated to tales of a post-apocalyptic future.
These include (but are not limited to) the following films:
- The History Channel’s series “Life After People”
- Mad Max series of films
- Terminator series of films
- The Postman
- Water World
- The Day After Tomorrow
- Escape from New York
- The Omega Man
- 12 Monkeys
- Steel Dawn
- Quiet Earth
- 28 Days Later
- I am Legend
The genre of post-apocalyptic fiction includes:
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding
- The Stand by Stephen King
- Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
- Lucifer’s Hammer by Jerry Pournelle and David Niven
- Cell by Stephen King
- The White Plague by Frank Herbert
- Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
- Deus X by Norman Spinrad
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Now that you have an idea for the setting, you probably need adventures for your PCs.
Potential scenarios for this setting include a search for an ancient artifact, attaining revenge against a group or individual, and surviving the onslaught of a predator – human, mutant or otherwise.
Another possibility is the rise of a savior, be it human, artifact, or creature, with the PCs either working with it (or possibly being it), or stubbornly resisting it.
If there is a clearly defined leader, then PCs can potentially work for, struggle against, or try not to run afoul of this person or group.
A search for food or shelter is likely a scenario in itself, along with a search for an artifact, cure, or location that would improve the PCs’ or society’s standard of living.
You could make getting the party together a scenario in itself, especially if you opt for a very recent event. Stephen King’s books Cell and The Stand offer ideas to this effect.
A post-apocalyptic setting often calls for low tech weaponry as survivors have to scavenge or cobble together something that will provide protection.
Here are a few possible suggestions:
- Rubble: This is probably not a scarce resource. Small chunks can be slipped inside fabric or perhaps a sock to form a club-like weapon. Medium or large chunks can be thrown, or used as a club.
- Metal: Sharpened bits of metal can be used as bladed weapons like swords or spears. Pipes can be used as clubs.
Barbed wire (or any sort of metal cable or wiring) can be used as a whip, garrote or lasso (if flexible enough).
- Glass: Broken glass is probably readily available. Though brittle, it could be used as a weapon enhancement by imbedding the shards into a surface. Large pieces can serve as blades that are good for about one use. Smaller shards could potentially be used as part of a ranged weapon, or possibly dumped onto an unsuspecting person.
- Plastic: If sharpened to a point, plastic can be used as a stabbing weapon. For examples, prison inmates sometimes sharpen the end of a toothbrush to create a shank.
- Ranged Weapons: Arrows would certainly be easy to create, along with a zip gun using metal pipes and small projectiles.
- Explosive Devices/Bombs: Molotov cocktails are relatively easy to make, as they require only a flammable agent, a wick, and a breakable container. PCs could probably also manufacture a sort of pipe bomb. Someone suggested to me the Anarchist’s Cookbook might be a good resource for this.
- Weapons of the Past: It is certainly not outside the realm of possibility that the PCs (or the antagonists) have access to modern weapons. A police building would have a cache of weapons, as would most pawn shops, and a private residence might have one or more guns. This could be even more likely if the event was an expected one: threatened nuclear war or terrorist act, impending asteroid strike, etc.
- Surroundings: In this dark future, there are likely areas known to be off limits because they’re unsafe for one reason or another – known zombie hive, large fissure in the earth, acid pool, etc. Clever PCs could lure an enemy into such a place. Another possibility would be to create a lethal or non-lethal trap using readily found materials. For example, pit traps and snares are relatively easy to make.
Nearly anything can be used as a weapon if the need is great enough. Reward your players for creativity, and if the weapon isn’t covered in the system’s rulebook, either use the closest item (with or without modifications), or come up with your own.
In conclusion, lack of source material should not limit your choice of game setting. The future is what you, the GM, decide it will be.
A Brief Word from Johnn
How much can you game in a week?
Meet Logan Horsford. He’s a contributor to the e-zine and a big RPG fan. In a recent e-mail exchange I learned he games a lot, as both a player and a GM. He games so much, as I discovered, that he logs more hours each week at the game table than many people do at their full-time job! Intrigued, I asked Logan if he’d tell us a bit more about his enviable gaming lifestyle.
Read the interview at the website:
Interview with a full-time gamer
NPC Essentials in Print Again
Thanks to print on demand, you can buy NPC Essentials in print format again.
You can get it at RPGObjects.com:
GM Mastery: NPC Essentials
You can also buy it on Amazon:
If you haven’t heard about NPC Essentials before, check out the table of contents and two excerpts.
Introducing NPCs and Power Bases:
Have a game-full week!
Readers Recommend: The Best Post Apoc Fiction
Several issues ago I asked for good post-apocalyptic books to read. Thanks to everyone who submitted their favorites. I’ve been reading a few of your suggestions.
In case you are interested in this genre, below is a list of what your fellow readers recommend for good bedtime reading. This list complements (with only a couple of duplicates) Kate’s list in this issue’s feature article.
The bit.ly links are all shortcuts to Amazon pages so you can check out ratings, description, and more info. I wish Amazon made shorter links.
A Canticle for Leibowitz
I saw your request for post-apocalyptic book recommendations. Last night I finished reading A Canticle for Leibowitz. It was written in ’59, so I partially appreciated it as a cultural artifact, but it was also a pretty interesting read. Basically, the nuclear war comes and it’s up to the only surviving cultural institution to preserve some vestige of science. Kind of Foundation-y, but the institution in question is the Catholic Church. Would be a fun RPG setting as well.
The Death Lands Series
I just thought I’d pass along my favorite post apocalypse fiction suggestion to you. The Death Lands Series, by James Axler. It chronicles the adventures of a band of survivors about 100 years after “sky dar” – the nuclear war that almost wiped out humanity. The series is well over 50 novels long and includes some surprising plot twists and a bunch of memorable characters that can make for great NPCs for any game. (I once ran a post apocalypse campaign based on the novels and it was a huge success that ran for over a year.)
The writing is easy to read, and keeps fresh paced all the way up through the 50 plus novels, and is perhaps the best post apocalypse series ever written.
There’s also a second series call Out Lands that takes place many years after the events in the Death Lands series have come to pass.
Wolf and Iron by Gordon R. Dickson – America after a total collapse of the world’s economy.
Mortal Engines Quartet by Philip Reeve – a steampunkish post-apocalyptic series where towns are built over steam-driven tracked platforms and attack each other for resources
Malevil by Robert Merle – a group of people survive a nuclear war in a medieval castle in France
The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – y1966 (various deadly changes to Earth’s climate or the Very Laws of Physics)
Book of the New Sun/Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe – (gigantic monsters in the Earth, and holes in the sun)
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – y1895 (class struggle, and the death of the sun)
Thanks to Jenette Downing, Lup Alb, David Reese, Warwick Brown, and Graham Darling and others for their recommendations.
Tips from Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Do you have a game mastering tip to share? Perhaps related to something you read in this issue? Or a tip on how to game master better, be more organized, plan better, improve roleplaying, run fun combats, or be a better storyteller?
E-mail your tips to [email protected] – thanks for sharing!
From Mike Evans
I just wanted to share a puzzle I put my players through that had a good effect. The party walked into a room and the doors shut. They hear a voice echoing through the room:
Warriors six come into my hall,
Warriors six, five chained to a wall.
Warriors six, to you, you must be true.
Proclaim to me why thy valor is best, why thy strength and honor is pure.
Show me your heart, and I shall let you pass.”
Each of the party members had to say why they were the best. This led to some interesting role-playing because now it became a competition.
One player would say I slew this or I outsmarted that, then another player would chime in saying only because you had a powerful magical artifact, or we did most of the fighting, you just got a lucky shot in, etc.
Eventually, I just chose randomly by rolling a die while they were arguing (this was in good fun, not serious). Suddenly, the other five members vanished and could be seen in an almost ethereal state chained to the wall and the one left in the room had a doppelganger of himself appear with all his equipment and abilities.
He had to fight himself and do it in a hurry, because for every round, the characters chained to the wall had the life sucked out of them. Damage was appropriate to their level.
When the party member killed his doppelganger he needed to cut out its heart and hold it high. This freed the other characters and allowed them to continue on, albeit with lower HP and slightly bruised egos at not being chosen as the best in the group.
Maps with Excel
In the GM Tips section of your latest issue, Shammancer says to use MS Excel to draw maps with. I too have used this program.
On the plus side, it’s relatively easy to use graphics and special characters from other programs, insert them into the page, and drag them to where you need.
On the negative side, it isn’t quick. I’ve found it a slow and laborious process to trace out the set of squares and then choose the lines that need to be applied, and so on.
Here’s an example of mine: Map Template
More Excel Maps
From Loz Newman
I’ve tried Excel maps in the past. It’s okay for square and rectangular feature maps, and great for cut and-paste of repetitive elements, but it does take time.
I’ve also done (and occasionally still do) a few maps with PowerPoint for the round and oval feature maps, such as volcanoes, lakes, etc. Theoretically, you can paste one into the other. (Tip: save the PowerPoint as a jpg file first!) Playing with the textures of boxes and circles allows some interesting visual effects, too.
I ended up using free maps found on the internet, as they are generally better quality than my work and save time, except for specific rooms I want to zoom in on for special tactical encounters. You can spray around lots of visual clues (both real and fake) if you want to take the time.
Here are some maps I did up with Excel that some might find useful/inspiring: Excel Maps
Stat Card Tool
From Jeff Kessler
I would like to tell you about a tool I developed to make the D&D games I play in a bit easier.
When WotC released their line of painted miniatures, I liked the stat cards. I decided to create my own for use in my campaigns and the ones I play in. It started as an Excel spreadsheet, but evolved into a C# program that can create, maintain, and print them.
It used the print preview, and since it prints them in initiative order, I found that view useful for the order the players and monsters would act in during encounters. The cards themselves are saved as an XML file.
To find this, you can go to CodePlex and search for “stat card”. First is the name of the program, and second is my user name on the site.
Here’s the direct download link:
And the direct info link:
The application is currently being rewritten. I have discovered better ways of doing some things and would like to add some more features as well.
I would like some honest feedback on the application as it stands and suggestions as to how I can make it better in the next version.