It’s the End of the World: Running Post-Apocalyptic Adventures
The bombs all dropped a long time ago and it’s time to finally crawl out of the fallout shelters and into the glaring light of the post-apocalypse. There are some glowing radioactive problems though that you’ll need to survive if you want to keep all your parts intact and mutation free. By following just a few of these tips your campaign can strive for a better tomorrow instead of exploding in an atomic blast.
What Wasteland to Explore?
Dark sun is a D&D setting beloved by countless veterans of the game. Dark sun places the PCs in an inhospitable future, a desert wasteland scoured by the hubris of long dead wizards who scoured the world with magic gone wrong. Dark sun is a very “fantasy” post-apocalyptic setting. All the traditional fantasy elements are here, just blasted and weary from magical fallout. If you’re looking for a post-apocalyptic fantasy world, this is where you want to be. Sadly, we’re still waiting on a 5e version of Dark Sun, but they’ve confirmed that an official release is on its way though we don’t know how long we’ll have to wait for the grimdark dying world. Currently your only options are some homebrew conversions or reverting back to older editions. If that’s not a problem, then this world of psionics and dark fantasy may be the perfect fit.
If Dark Sun is the grimdark serious fantasy post-apocalyptic setting, gamma world its over-the-top crazy fun counterpart. Gamma World doesn’t take itself all that seriously, and with that being said, expect players to die... a lot. Characters have a strong random element that is one of the highlights of the system, you randomly combine two mutant qualities to create the basis of your character. You get results like “telekinetic octopus” or “radioactive swarm of intelligent rats”. You can’t get too attached though, as Gamma World always sets the stakes high and it’s rare to get through a session or two without some player deaths. There are 8 editions of Gamma World and they’re all kind of like that to varying degrees. I recommend Gamma World for short or 1-shot campaigns, but not really for extended campaigns.
Mutant: Year Zero
M: YZ is a survival setting, first and foremost. You play as a mutant citizen of the “ARK” and must leave its relative safety to explore the dangerous surrounding wasteland to desperately search for supplies to keep the “ARK” and its residents going. The gameplay is divided cleanly between the exploration and the political maneuvering back home. I really appreciate the gameplay loop with both halves of the game effecting and cycling into the other. It also has very similar randomized elements like Gamma World, in that your character starts with random mutations. M: YZ shines in its world exploration, which feels very intuitive and like your players are really exploring a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Where it fails is in its character creation and advancement. Some of the mutant powers are just bad, or just good, and the random power discrepancy between players can be troublesome. Characters just pick a talent when they advance, and your players don’t really get to “grow” much as the campaign advances. Overall, it’s a pretty good pick if you want a more “real world” post-apocalyptic setting, I’d fudge the character creation though and allow your players to pick their mutations.
The Wasteland Sandbox
I fully believe that exploration and discovery are the strongest draw of the post-apocalyptic setting. The world isn’t empty, sure it’s a destroyed wasteland, but it’s filled with the untold remnants of cataclysms, places brimming with melancholy regrets and treasures of the past. To do a post-apocalyptic setting justice, you’re going to need a good exploration system and let your players really explore the wasteland.
Sandbox games are always a bit trickier than you think they’ll be. Letting your players go and do whatever they want doesn’t mean you don’t have to plan anything out, it means you have to do SOME planning for any number of directions and outcomes. Let’s take a look at some of the methods most people employ:
The Fake Sandbox
This is a particularly fine line to run, but every GM is “guilty” of this from time-to-time. Say you’ve gotten a dungeon crawl all planned out; dozens of robots guard a high-tech research facility filled with priceless technological treasures awaiting discovery by your brave PCs. You put a lot of work into this adventure, and you can’t wait for them to find it when they travel north along the river. The session starts and out of nowhere the PCs decide to head south. Rather than get upset and have a boring session with some uninspired random encounters, voila! The PCs discover your painstakingly designed adventure awaiting to the south. This isn’t exactly railroading, and it isn’t exactly a sandbox either, the important thing is that your players got to experience the fun adventure you had waiting for them, and they felt like they stumbled upon it naturally and randomly. If the PCs run into your pre-planned encounters literally EVERY way they turn, you’ll likely lose that feeling of freedom and exploration, so make sure not to choke up too tightly on that leash.
This is the sandbox style that requires possibly the most planning. You have your encounters and locations, you know where they can happen and your players have access to a map, no fudging allowed. Now obviously you can still surprise players with encounters and events, but it gets a bit harder to pop a city or settlement in out of nowhere. I find this method works best for the more linear campaigns that have a direct goal but a lot of travel time. If players pretty much know what’s out there, they’re much less likely to explore.
Fog of War
With this method, you have the most major landmarks locked in ahead of time, and at least a general plan of the major locations in the area. Several exploration systems exist like this, even randomized ones, where areas are divided into zones that can be randomly slotted in. This method gives you a strong compromise between purely random exploration (or whatever you as the GM want to be there) and the hard work of a fully mapped out area. If you decide your players are due a big adventure, bam, that mutant-filled dilapidated zoo is right in the next zone. But the ability to see major landmarks in the distance gives your players a solid reference, and good hooks to any through-plot you may be running.
Finally, you’ll need to decide whether you want to run a True Sandbox, or a Side-quest Box. Either of these can be variations on the other techniques I’ve mentioned, and they really boil down to what you’re doing for a main quest.
In a True Sandbox, the players might not have any real motivation besides survival. Sure, they might run into minor plotlines here and there, but there’s no major overarching plot that drives the players forward. Go with a true sandbox when you have several small adventure ideas, but no real BBEG or big campaign planned. This lets your players just explore and have fun, though you can always add a larger plot in later.
Then you have what I like to call a Side-quest Box. This is where you have some mystery you’re trying to solve or somebody you’re trying to find, but there’s very little or no pressure to finish the main plot quickly. This is your fallout and skyrim (or any Bethesda game really), the world is filled with side-quests waiting to be discovered and there’s an overarching assumption that you’ll grab the main plot thread eventually. I highly recommend this method for sandbox adventures, just make sure not to make your main plot too pressing or too forgettable, it’s a balance.
Nitty Gritty Survival
Beyond exploration, the thing that defines a post-apocalyptic world more than anything is scarcity. Counting out the last few roasted cockroaches and bottles of water can really invest your players into the world at large.
The problem with this is that managing supplies can be incredibly boring and tedious if done improperly. It’s a balance you’ll need to fine-tune, and it will vary greatly depending on the system you’re using.
Players Make Decisions, You Do Bookkeeping
While this doesn’t work for every system, my solution to the pain and boredom of bookkeeping is to take the responsibility out of the player’s hands. Make a list of the “Survivor Supplies” that compiles all their food, water, and any other needed daily supplies (anti-radiation meds and similar). Quietly check off what they’d use to survive each day during their rests and generally you only bring it up when it matters. You keep this list public (players can check it whenever they want) but you typically just keep it with your notes. Whenever something’s getting low, you let them know so that they can hunt down those extra cans of food or bottles of water. Try to keep supplies important and your players happy when they find them, but don’t bog them down with the bookkeeping.
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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