Monday, 28 January 2013

anatomy of an apocalypse, part one

Apocalypse World.  Helluva game, as has been remarked by various people.  Having recently run a six-session game for new players, here are some setup experiences and points on the learning curve from the group (myself included).  I prefer recaps and summaries to actual play reports, some play decisions will creep in here as they reflect learning points.  The nature of the apocalypse is open-ended and this is one of the first decisions an MC needs to consider.

The rules imply certain common elements.  It's fifty or so years after the event.  Burned-out cities, a night sky of murky twilight, scarce food and water, fear and ignorance as the norm.   Society is broken down gangs cleave to personalities or holdings.  No Internet, working electronics are precious, bullets and fuel are still plentiful.  Cultural identity is annihilated, names have lost meaning.  In the ruins gifted individuals survive and bond.  The psychic maelstrom whispers secrets and lies to the strange and desperate.  High technology enhances psychic abilities yet little working infrastructure remains.

Choose your own damn catastrophe

The book refers to burn-flats, suggesting to me nuclear exchange.  You may prefer asteroid strikes, runaway virus, esoteric rapture or alien invasion.  Knowing how things got so bad means backtracking to identify the nature of the catastrophe.  The vast majority of characters won't have been around when it happened.  And if someone wants to play a grizzled bad ass, one question you must ask is "How did you escape the apocalypse?"  Open questions are key to a good game.

The footprints of the disaster are useful.  They help identify threats, give context to fronts and flavour for moves against the player characters.  Crossing a burn-flat, irradiated water, decontamination rituals by cultists and packs of mutants are fair game.  Fleshing everything out isn't desirable but a cheat sheet of ideas will help with session prep.  As MC, you'll have questions to answer yourself.  In the first session (and after), players will provide plenty of ideas.  Incorporating them into the game makes for a better game and gives them investment into the game too.

Deciding what the hell happened. 

I thought about The World Before.  Like our world but with brainers armed with high-tech - a setting worth investigation.  With the number of cities and megacities, the body count would be immense, a cull of humanity.  Research on this topic and sites mapping a nuclear explosion on Google Maps gives you a point of reference.  To reduce the population to those levels might need a nuke in every city with a population over, say, 1 million... roughly 500 cities.  So where do you find 500 nukes?  Not as hard as it sounds.

A simultaneous nuclear strike in every major city would shake the pillars of civilisation without worldwide annihilation of life.  These surgical strikes would prevent other nations taking control until nuclear winter sets in. The initial destruction and the following consequences are sobering reading.  Reading around the TTAPS study and supplementary research, I chose 340 kiloton devices.  Seeing the words cull of humanity in my notes, suddenly a conspiracy trying to control world population who get it horribly wrong appears - motive and method.  Now to work out the opportunity and events from The World Before to The World After...

Introducing The Cull

On the 5th November, 500 simultaneous nuclear strikes rip out the heart of every major city.  Millions die instantly, world stock markets shatter with telecoms and media hubs gutted by EMP, firestorms and gamma radiation.  Plumes of smoke, irradiated dust and carbon are borne aloft.  Some falls as black rain.  Some enters the stratosphere, sowing seeds of nuclear winter.  Fallout scourges metropolitan areas and nearby cities driven by prevailing weather.  Civic infrastructure screams, buckles and shatters.

Civilian complacency is rewarded by rolling blackouts and hastily-invoked contingencies.  Those who can flee, those who can't either barricade themselves in or riot in the streets.  Governments reassert control despite collapsed markets, catastrophic damage to population centers and crippled infrastructure.  Rural communities face a 'golden horde' of looters and refugees, military units are mobilised to keep order.  In some countries, martial law is imposed.  In others there is insurrection.  Political instability, aggressive stockpiling and public dissent increases.

A manifesto is released via multiple channels, justifying the strikes as preventing an overpopulation crisis.
The conspiracy is swiftly hunted down and dismantled.  Interrogation combining conventional and psychic means reveal extensive conditioning.  Copies are adopted by fanatics and demagogues.  As the month comes to an end, radiation poisoning claims more lives.  Economic negotiations are convened and fail to rebuild the markets desperately needed to supply food to the cities.

The Decade Without Summer

Then winter bites down hard.  Stratospheric dust opaque to infra-red but not harmful ultraviolet radiation shades the Earth from sunlight.  With targets near the equator, both Northern and Southern hemispheres experience chilling weather, spoiling harvests.  Black snow and ice storms wreak havoc.  The Northern hemisphere loses sunlight through the first winter, the Southern hemisphere has overcast days with searing ultraviolet light which blinds and burns unprotected animals and humans alike.

Multiple bombs detonated in Brazil, Africa and South East Asia punch holes in the ozone layer and chill the oceans further.  Hemispheric separation of wind currents means the Northern hemisphere bears the brunt of the winter.  Spring, such as it is, is worse.  Ozone depletion increases due to reflected sunlight heating stratospheric nitrates.  Agriculture is decimated, lack of sunlight and cooler temperatures leads to widespread famine.  Deaths follow after, stories of food riots and cannibalism are suppressed by remaining governments.  The next five years, global rainfall decreases by 10%.  The winter lasts for ten long years.

After a decade, enough dust has fallen out the sky for the worst to dissipate.  Lasting temperature drops of a few degrees centigrade worldwide remain by the time the players play.  The ozone layer is damaged so UV exposure is a threat.  Food and water are scarce now and millions have died of famine.  We have another forty years to work out.  Questions about the psychic maelstrom, whether civilisation would survive the decade without summer, how things got from here to The World After still remain...


  1. Interesting solutions. I've never played AW, but I've heard good things.

  2. The good things are justified, it's a system with hidden depths and which challenges some long-cherished assumptions about GMing. This is just one example, there are others depending on the game you choose. You can run games varied in tone as 'Afro Samurai' to 'The Road' without too much angst.


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