Gnome-AsteroidMany games revolve around the idea of the heroes preventing an end of the world scenario, but I’ve often found the "end of the world" feel missing when hearing about, or playing, these types of games.  I’d like to see it included more. How could an apocalypse affect the game you are currently running? Whether it is a looming disaster that the party is attempting to deter, a previous event that the world is slowly recovering from, or a moment far back in the landscape of time, an apocalypse has world shaking consequences that can greatly change the feel of your game.

Apocalypse SOON! 
A lot of adventures and campaigns have an end of the world element incorporated into them, but I’ve never found it all that prevalent. It is often overshadowed by the adventurers and what they must do to prevent it. Somewhere in our gamer minds, we know the party will win. If they don’t, even if it ends in a TPK, we rarely think beyond our characters’ failure. But what will their failure mean to the world?

If a game has a "Succeed or its curtains for the world" feel, there should be no reason not to make the consequences of failure relevant. If the party is defeated, or fails to stop the BBEG, have a narrative session where you describe the carnage that occurs because of their failure. If party members are still alive, let them narrate their own actions and roles in the final days. A player might want his paladin to fight on to the bitter end against the armies of the damned while a cyber-hacker might spend his final days spending all his ill gotten loot on physical pleasures. Even if you intend to give the party (or a the player’s new characters) another chance at it, knowing how bad it might get can incredibly alter the feel and immersion of the game.

The Final Days
One of my friends, a great Game Master named Edward Yarrus, ran a World of Darkness Gehenna game. Using a modified story out of the Vampire Gehenna book, and incorporating elements from the other W.o.D. games, he took the world from a healthy normal status quo to shattered and destroyed husk.  One of the moments I will always remember from that game was thinking how awesome it was to see the world fall to pieces around our characters. It struck me that the dying world feel was absent from a lot of other games I had played in, or run, that had world-ending scenarios. It need not have been. Having it there would have made for a much more awesome game experience.

Even if the PCs were on their way to prevent it, how would the normal people react to the first tremors of an apocalyptic event? If armies of skeletons or Orcs appeared suddenly throughout the world, would the flood of refugees make the other nations take notice and try to rally against the common threat? If the sky turned purple as the dragons returned from their millennia long sleep, what would the reaction of people be? What new monsters and threats might be present in a modern or fantasy world during the final days? Are the very forces of nature a threat to the people during the end times? These kinds of factors will all depend on the reason and forces of a world ending event, but one thing is sure: The end of the world can be a reason to  up the ante on a lot of standard gaming tropes.

Apocalypse NOW! 
The line between apocalypse soon and apocalypse now might be a very thing one, only visible once it has been crossed. The feel of an Apocalypse NOW! event has an element that an apocalypse soon event doesn’t:

imageThere is no option to prevent the apocalypse – personal survival is the only concern.


An currently occurring apocalyptic event will certainly change the feel of a game. No matter what the source of the ending (Zombies, evil mage, religious, upheaval of the land, asteroid, nuclear, alien attack, misused science, Cthulu, etc.) things have changed for everyone. An apocalyptic event, by its nature, affects everyone in the world with maybe a few isolated exceptions. Will the people turn bloodthirsty to protect sources of food and shelter? How many sacrifices will people be forced to make to survive? A lot of these questions can be answered by a stroll through the Disaster movie section of your local video store. Disaster movies can give you great inspiration to include in an apocalypse themed game, even one set in a fantasy or sci-fi setting.

Apocalypse THEN!
So the apocalypse has come and gone, and there were survivors. What a great place to set a game!  For modern settings there are many options to look to for inspiration (The Fallout games, A Boy and his Dog, Mad Max, Mutant Chronicles, Brave New World, etc.)  so I’m not going to go into this genre too deeply. Instead, I’m going to focus on what interesting things a post apocalyptic fantasy setting could yield.

A post-apocalyptic fantasy world might turn a lot of gaming tropes on their head. What parts of civilization are left? Would a fantasy setting merely regress to aConan The Barbarian type of world with more savagery and less civilization? Would any remnants of the old countries or civilizations remain? If magic was a big part of the world ending event then monsters may have mutated into strange unknowable configurations, or maybe magic doesn’t have the same effect it previously had. Who in the new world will be considered the strongest – those who can fight or those who know how to survive off the new land?

While not strictly an apocalypse, the great war in the world of Eberron is a great example of world changing events. A whole section of the world was destroyed and healing no longer works there. For an actual apocalypse the changes that might occur in the lands and the people could be massive. Doing this to a world can be great fun. Take the map from a published setting and redraw it for post-apocalyptic times. Think about what organizations might have been winnowed down and had to merge to survive. A recent apocalypse can give you a reason to rewrite any and every thing about a world setting.

Apocalypse A LONG TIME AGO!  
image So maybe an apocalyptic event happened, but it was so long ago that none in the current age remember it. This can provide a lot of interesting options for your game. Ancient magic and technology might be available for those who raid dungeons. The gods that are worshipped today may be the remembered names of leaders and fictional heroes of the previous age. You can even build a current fantasy setting overtop of the bones of earth that was and have a lot of interesting reactions from the players when they encounter a subway tunnel or find vine-covered skyscrapers in the jungle.

Many sci-fi properties have elements of an apocalypse as part of their backgrounds. The world of Firefly has the earth as a lost homeland, Krypton was destroyed so that earth could have superman, and the events in both Battlestar Galacticas are set into motion because the worlds of man are destroyed.

These are just a few ideas about how apocalyptic events can affect a game. There are a lot of ways that an apocalyptic event can be implemented into an already running game or be an element for a new campaign. There are also a lot of great resources out there to look at for more ideas. Here is a quick list:

So, what do you think about apocalyptic events in RPGs? Have you ever run something with an actual apocalyptic element or feel? What are some of your favorite apocalyptic games or movies to draw inspiration from? I’m a huge fan of all things post-apocalyptic, so feel free to share anything PA, I’m always looking for new movies, books, and games.

(Gnome Asteroid Image: Modified from this image. -  / CC BY 2.0)
(Scared Child image – here: CC BY 2.0)
(Overgrown Subway image – here: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
17 replies
  1. outrider11
    outrider11 says:

    I did it for my fantasy game. I had a meteor strike and cause changes in how magic was cast. The arcanosphere(part of this was taken from the Malhavoc press when the sky falls) was changed. Arcane casters now cast as a level lower then they are. Divine casters, their spells are now full round actions.

    The undead were also strengthened by the release of other gases from the meteor. The undead now control significant sections of the planet.

    This has caused some significant changes in the tenor of the game.

  2. drow
    drow says:

    every world i’ve run seems to have an apocalypse somewhere. i’m an optimist, honest.

    the world of ancalak (AD&D 2e) was built upon the ruins of a technological civilization, which had collapsed in warfare thousands of years before. little remained of it except some buried complexes, a microscopic black hole oscillating through the planet, a cybernetic dragon who became a recurring NPC and patron of the PCs, and one nuclear assault mech which the party used to attack a githyanki fortress.

    the worlds of debris (D&D 3.0) were the shattered remnants of the cosmos, fragments of worlds adrift in the astral sea, following a cataclysmic war of the gods.

    eberron (D&D 3.5) saw further cataclysms in the course of my campaign. a second day of mourning which destroyed thrane, the destruction of the great crag in droaam, which in turn freed the tarrasque which had lain imprisoned beneath it, and the breaking of argonnesen from the world come immediately to mind.

    my next campaign is either going to be set in an ecumenopolis (D&D 4e), built by the gods in memorial of the final, bloody war against asmodeus, or a serenity/BSG crossover, with all the post-apocalyptic angst that brings.

  3. callin
    callin says:

    One thing I’ve done for Apocalypse Soon(AS) is to show the players what the world will be like if they fail to stop the oncoming doom. A simple, one-shot time travel adventure into Apocalypse Now/After (allowing the characters to come back to the “current” time immediately after) can help alot and make AS seem more immediate and relevant.
    There are also ways to show the impact of Apocalypse without using it in full force. If a major meteor is about to hit the planet, which will alter the world forever, you can have a minor meteor strike sooner causing destruction in a small area. The characters can see how bad things will be once the full Apocalypse strikes.

    My Blog-

  4. David Reese
    David Reese says:

    I’m currently reading (and really digging) Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. It’s a great world, set 3600 years after an apocalypse. Geometry-monks preserve world culture but are kept strictly segregated from the outside world, until…

    Lovely stuff.

  5. Bercilac
    Bercilac says:

    One thing to consider is what an apocalypse has stood for historically. The Book of Revelations had been interpreted as an oppressed group’s hope for the fall of the Roman Empire. So you can have an apocalypse which is the end of the world… as we know it (but will you feel fine?)

    The other thing I’d say, and this is true of the fall of Rome, is that end-of-the-world scenarios seem to be rather conducive to the rise of military strong-arms. As powerful institutions collapse, ruthless individuals quickly start arguing over the pieces. This is something I’ve noticed in almost every zombie film. In some, you have the odd “raiders,” like the biker gang in Dawn of the Dead. In others, rule by force is more explicit. Consider the last scene of Night of the Living Dead, and all of the social implications it has (for NotLD fans, think about what the scene means must have been going on in urban areas for the entire film…). 28 Weeks Later is all about living under a military dictatorship that justifies itself as necessary for protecting people from the nightmare “outside.”

  6. Hunaahi
    Hunaahi says:

    One of my favorite games was a Zombie Game (I honestly forget the flavor of RPG it was now… ) But it was Origins 2008 and we ended up causing the zombie apocalypse and saw the world start to collapse around us. And we did have a choice, we could have prevented it… its just that we didn’t know what “it” really was going to do.

    I seem to rarely play games that have that immediate/near threat, i think it would be thrilling to play games like that more often.

  7. drummy
    drummy says:

    @Scott Martin – I think one of the most fun ways to handle these apocalyptic scenarios is to follow the “NOW!” approach and let the world change around the party before they have a sense of what’s going on and how severe it is.

    Sudden — and ominous — changes in the sky or the wind or the earth itself (tremors) might be the first distant signs of trouble, especially if the party is far off from the epicenter of the “disaster”. Rumors of war or of destruction could reach the party well before they have a chance to do anything to help, and probably during a quest that may quickly seem unimportant if what they’re hearing is true…

    Part of the adventure, therefore, is how the party finds answers to what’s really going on behind the rumors and panic. As they move toward the epicenter, things get wilder and weirder as they discover what they think is the problem is actually something quite different, perhaps on a scope they can’t even imagine at first. Makes for an intense scenario!

    I should therefore probably try it sometime…

    Dan 🙂

  8. taotad
    taotad says:

    I’m actually in the middle of an apocalypse in my homebrew setting now. The heroes is low-level and have no chance of preventing the worlds’ end, but they will have the opportunity to end it in a better fashion if they manage it right.
    It revolves around the 4th edition D&D conflict between the primordials and gods. The gods being willing to sacrifice the heroes’ planet to chain Codruchun to the abyss for all times and thus no longer being a problem for the prime material plane. The primal spirits are the main antagonists for the plot as they want to save the planet.

    Its quite fun to end a creation. Strange I haven’t done so before.

  9. BryanB
    BryanB says:

    My favorite D&D 3.x setting is post-apocalyptic: The Scarred Lands. The Titans and the Gods had a great big globe-spanning war for supremacy and the planet and the little people lost. 😀

    The usual start for a campaign is around 150 years since this event. This event changed the landscape in a literal way and kingdoms vanished, were altered, or blossomed during these apocalyptic events.

    Since the Titans (Parents of the Gods)lost, they were chained up, buried, or dismembered and scattered across the continents. There are druidic cults that venerate the great titans and seek to usher in their return. It is beleived that some of the Titans will regenerate if their scattered parts were brought together in a secret ritual.

    One of the main adventure tracks revolves around the followers of the Serpent Queen seeking to bring her back to her rightful status as a ruler over Scarn (the name of the world). The setting has a greek mythology feel to it and has a lot of fun locations and NPCs. It is a shame that I haven’t used this setting in campaign play.

  10. Foolster41
    Foolster41 says:

    Actually, playing “stalker: Shadow over Chernobyl” has made me think about doing some kind of post-nuclear setting. Stalker is a kind of “Apacolyse that could have been”, since it seems to be set shortly after the Chernobyl incident (I could be wrong).

    Maybe one day I’ll run that campaign.

  11. lampropeltis
    lampropeltis says:

    I’ve always loved the post-apocalyptic theme. Back in the late 90’s, the Y2K scare and certain religious predictions made me start thinking of running a game that used current events (modified for setting, of course) to bring real world tension and urgency into the game. Alas, I was busy with career-type interests and the campaign never got off the ground.
    Fast forward to 2010. People are beginning to get uneasy about the 2012 prophesies and Mayan calendar, terror, epidemics, the environment and so on. Maybe it’s not too late to run this after all.

  12. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @callin – Time travel is a nifty idea for showing the results of not stopping the apocalypse. Nice one!

    @David Reese – I’m a fan of his work and am working on the last book in the Baroque cycle right now. Anathem is a book for down the road or Audio book. Too involved in other projects to devote my reading time to that heavy of material.

    @Hunaahi – Infectious Zombie Apocalypse games are always fun. I like to run them in fantasy settings for the added feel of hopelessness. At least in the modern world we have a bit of hope that the government/army will be able to contain something for a while at least. Magic (and the gods who help turn undead) might give hope that the apocalypse could be averted.

    @Scott Martin – Actually I hadn’t even thought about the fact that this (and the regular comic that was supposed to be up at Dinosaur Comics) was at all in conjunction. I hadn’t even heard about the earthquake until later last evening.

    @taotad – “The gods being willing to sacrifice the heroes’ planet to chain Codruchun to the abyss for all times and thus no longer being a problem for the prime material plane.”

    That is a nifty concept. So are the heroes unwitting pawns, or are they ok with their planet’s sacrifice?

    @BryanB – That setting sounds nifty. Who put it out?

    @lampropeltis – I hope you do run this. I hadn’t really thought about that (not buying into the hype around the Mayan Calendar), but it is a good time to run an Apocalypse game.

  13. BryanB
    BryanB says:

    @John Arcadian

    The Scarred Lands was written by the Sword and Sorcery Studios team and published by White Wolf. Most fans agree that the earlier supplements are generally better than the later half of the line, though there are some good ones in the second half. There is some content that can be potentially unbalancing but a GM has to use his judgement with that stuff, just like most campaign settings.

    You might have seen a series of books called the Creature Collection (I, II, III). These books were original monsters for the setting and very nice work I must say. There has been a Creature book for 4e under the GSL, but I think Fiery Dragon is now the publisher for that as White Wolf retired the line long before 4e came out.

  14. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    Oddly enough, my current campaign is a reverse-apocalypse… After nearly 400 years, the gods have returned, but the BBEG hasn’t quite left.

    Can’t say too much more, except that the world is a very different (and in most ways, better) place than it was last month…

  15. taotad
    taotad says:

    @John Arcadian – That is a nifty concept. So are the heroes unwitting pawns, or are they ok with their planet’s sacrifice?

    I play the Points of Lights idea where the world is overrun by evil. The good gods has basically lost already and sees they have nothing to lose by letting their last believers sacrifice themselves for the better of all living things. The neutral gods have provided an incentive by forcing the moon to crash into the earth. The tsunamis destroying all the naval cities because of the tidal forces.
    The heroes, specifically the divine ones, have some serious qualms about what to do. Since they can’t stop the apocalypse because of their low power, they have to choose between saving thousands of believers or imprison the primordial. Should be interesting.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] It’s The End of the World Charlie Brown – Gaming With The Apocalypse In Mind There certainly different phases to the end of the world, and I hadn’t thought them all through. However, John over at Gnome Stew has thought things through quite well. If you’re planning on ending (or drastically changing) your gaming world, then I would highly suggest reading his post to see what he has to say on the matter. It may change how you approach things. […]

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