What makes an apocalyptic world?

By definition, apocalyptic refers to a sudden and abrupt end. The mechanism from which the event emerges becomes part of surviving lore of the world while the survivors are left struggling with the remnants of the old way of life. 

As a writer, this simple description provides a tremendous amount of material to craft a story. With the placement of a specific moment of the apocalypse, three-time frames emerge: Before, During, and After the apocalypse. Each time frame creates a powerful setting from which character development may be facilitated. 

Before. In the events before the apocalypse, the world operates pretty much as normal. Animals are tended, fields plowed, people go to work, and all the things we attribute with normalcy predictably occur. With the simple introduction of unusual or out-of-place elements, tension can build. Depending on the writer's intent, this segment may last a moment or for several series. In terms of story building for a roleplaying game, this time frame can last for an entire campaign or simply be mentioned as an afterthought. Regardless of intent, these story segments always end with the visualization of the apocalypse.

During. Despite the actual apocalyptic event, these stories always open with the apocalyptic event and detail the struggles of average people trying to adapt to the new circumstances presented by the change. During the heart of the Cold War, I remember classroom drills as to what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Tons of stories centered on the inevitable nuclear war. Each of these stories opened with the mushroom clouds spreading over cities and the populations running amok trying to escape the fallout. These types of stories usually focus on the restoration of a new normal.

After. These usually depict a world in ruin, a world struggling to restore itself, or the rediscovery of the old world. When most of us think of apocalyptic stories, this is the time frame we go to. Civilization is in ruins, people struggle with not only diseases but with social structure. The infrastructure used to support a functional civilization is little more than hearsay. In these stories, what is normal in our time is either misunderstood, misused, or simply perverted in their character's world: Butcher shops used as hospitals, religions used as control mechanisms, churches used as auction houses, etc. 

Also, the story can be set in a far future in which the apocalyptic aftermath is faded, but fragments of the original civilization are evident: repurposed buildings, automobile parts in construction, new technology set against the ruins of much older structures. 

As a game designer, my interest is at the core of apocalyptic roleplay. I am interested in how can I make an apocalyptic story in any setting. While constructing items and settings, I find I envision these items in the peak of their life and ready to use. Fresh out of the packaging, so to speak. Somewhere on my pile of a desk, I've got sticky notes and loose pages of printer paper with notes on each item and building in my world setting. Glancing at the notes, it's easy to tell I'm describing the building or item as it is meant to be used. A space ship with 4 main thrusters, two lateral warp coils on either side of the fuselage. An 80-story building with rounded walls and composed of white ceramic panels. Each is described as the actual item in full operation and capacities detailed.

This is not apocalyptic. To convert it into an apocalyptic setting I first need to age it a bit. Give it a little neglect and treat it with some disrespect. One of the main thrusters has fallen to the ground. Tubing has been bent and folded to prevent some type of fluid from leaking out. Someone has turned the thruster upward, filled it with dirt, and converted it into a manageable garden. This starts the apocalyptic imagery. An item having a noble purpose (thruster) is now being used in a capacity it is not normally associated with (gardening). A little polish can be added to the imagery by having a clothesline stretched between the forward plasma cannons with birds fluttering in and out of the devices.

Science fiction and contemporary settings lend well to apocalyptic conversions. This is mainly because both represent the hope of the people participating in those civilizations. Having identified elements or technological advancements only dreamed of by modern minds perverted and misused in such a manner quickly sets the tone of a storyboard.

This is not to say medieval settings cannot be converted into an apocalyptic setting. The best example to date is the Lord of the Rings series. The entire story was set in the ruins of a former elven civilization. In fact, The Two Towers was set in the ruins of a former civilization. The entire story is an apocalyptic story in which Sauron's war split the races into separate nations. The story of Frodo takes place centuries after the fall and the characters find themselves moving through the ruins of this former civilization. 

A similar story set in the runes of this world is the Sword of Shannara series. Allanon navigates the main characters through the ruins of the American west after an apocalyptic event. Most interesting in the Shannara series is the history Terry Brooks builds as he develops his series. 

Although this is excellent information, how does it affect the story-building process? Turns out knowing the time frame you wish to place the story is essential for the description you will use when laying out the base descriptions of your game environment. As a writer, I know what the buildings should look like, their original intention, and their primary function. Altering their description to fit a specific time period after an event is an easy task once I have developed the history of the community. In some cases, a building may have been re-used several times over the time span since the apocalypse. 

Under these conditions, each group attempting to occupy the structure will repair it to make it functional and leave their personal mark on the building. Each occupation will leave artifacts and residual traces of their passing. This can mean a public building with an eagle relief may have been altered to change the eagles to dragons. Another occupation may have repaired the brick and mortar walls with wooden walls. Yet another time period may have changed the fluted columns in front to have vines wrapping around each column.

Although these alterations may not seem significant on the surface, the writer can breathe history into the building without ever stating 'this building has been occupied several times through history'. From a GM perspective, the description gives the building a presence not otherwise available with a basic description.

Another good application of descriptions is the misuse of modern items. In medieval times, walls surrounding communities were quite popular. These gave a sense of safety and normalcy to the population residing behind those walls. Now imagine in the heart of your fantasy campaign, you are hired by the City Guard to assist on a night watch. As a City Guard, you get to go behind the scenes and see the solid brick-and-mortar wall from the inside. Within, integrated as part of the main support structure, is the original city wall of the original settlement - a wall composed of old automobiles and busses and pipe welded together. It's a lovely way to throw your players into a state of chaos.

This same concept can easily be applied to androids, guns, airplanes,  and pretty much any other modern device taken out of context and placed in unlikely circumstances. Imagine a group of fantasy characters finding a pack of glowsticks in the original packaging. 

To minimize the size of these blogs, I'll address the social issues a GM or writer can play on to add dynamics to an apocalyptic setting.

Thanks for reading! 

K. B. Kidder


If you are checking out this blog for the first time, you may access our website by clicking here: Tortured Earth

Character Species released for review: AllornDwarfElfEoceph, and Goblin.

Combat Creatures released for review: BraunachFaedaFetid HoundMinotaur, and Wolf.

If you are interested in the creature development process, you may submit your own creatures by filling out the following form. We will review the forms before publishing the creatures to the website. Creature Creation Form

If you would like to see what Tortured Earth looks like, the GM portion of the rule book is available as a free download on the Tortured Earth Home Page. Tortured Earth Beta GM Guide  

And finally, I have created a Tavern Generator and Loot Generator. Both are free downloads and can be adapted to a wide range of story settings. Both are written in Excel. If you are using a tablet, you can download a free version of Excel and operate it live at the game table.


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