This week on the Campaign Trail I’m back looking at campaign settings that go beyond the typical fantasy world. Past articles in this series have provided notes on running a campaign (or adventure) in a setting such as prehistoric/lost world, steampunk, fairy tales and more. Mad Max, The Hunger Games, 28 Days, Snowpiercer, The Walking Dead and countless others provide us with tons of ideas for post apocalyptic settings, but they are missing one ingredient… magic.
This week we’ll look at Ideas for a Post-Apocalyptic Campaign in a Fantasy Setting such as Dark Sun, The Sword of Shannara, Earthdawn or Adventure Time… where a pinch of magic is added to the post-apocalyptic stew. Whether you want to run an existing setting or take a crack at creating your own fantasy post-apocalyptic play-land, this article is a great place to start.
What Does Post Apocalyptic Mean?
A Post-Apocalyptic setting finds itself in a time time following a nuclear war, alien invasion, zombie plague, destruction by the gods or other catastrophic event. This genre is often not primarily concerned with the actual catastrophe and it might even obscure details about the event. The focus is generally on the survivors and the shattered world they inhabit. Unlike many campaigns that end with saving the world and a parade, a fantasy post-apocalyptic campaign is set in a world where civilization was destroyed but magic is discovered, reemerges or survives. Once we live in the world for a bit, looking at cause of the apocalyptic event might become important to a plot, even providing a villain.
A post-apocalyptic world is often bleak where daily survival is a challenge, but it can also be just a new place to explore with signs of the world that existed before, such as rusty cars or overgrown cities. Make sure the tone of your world matches the type of play you and your players will enjoy. Don’t have your players gathering resources and looking for a place to survive the night if they want to lead a resistance against giant alien robots using magical alien tech.
You also will need to decide how long it has been since the event. 5 years, 50 years, 5000 years or any number of years can make an interesting campaign. How has the world changed in that time? My current campaign is set nearly 1000 years after the destruction of a continent left scattered islands, but the the people have surpassed their previous early medieval society, reaching renaissance level technology after surviving years of barbarism.
You might even want to only have your world greatly suffer and not go full apocalypse, such as in Dragonlance. The catalysm has Krynn rocked as a fiery mountain was thrown down by the gods into its most arrogant city. The Tales of the Lance take place over 300 years after this event in a broken land where coastlines have changed drastically.
A crew of shadowrunners are in trouble again on their latest job.
RULES & SETTINGS
There are tons of great post-apocalyptic settings for us to borrow from, but the following provide us with actual rules to use for our tabletop RPG games.
This brutal and oppressive D&D setting finds players on a dying planet called Athas, where arcane magic is drawn from nature, psionic power is common and metal is scarce. Dark Sun has been around since 1991 and has a ton of materials to draw from in 2nd, 3rd and 4th edition.
After an era of peace and harmony for humanity, an nuclear war cascades into tremendous destruction when a huge amount of mystic energy is released. Lines of magic energy, criss-cross the earth forming supernatural geographic areas such as the Bermuda Triangle and intersections of powerful magic, such as the Pyramids of Giza. The energy has also caused rifts to open both on Earth and throughout the Megaverse, resulting in untold numbers of alien beings being pulled from their worlds and great powers becoming aware of a new and valuable planet to conquer.
These rules were released by Wizards of the Coast in 2002 while they were revamping the Star Wars RPG. This isn’t a setting as much as rules you can use for your own fantasy post-apocalyptic campaign in a modern world. Support is provided for D20 and there has been some support created for D&D 5th edition too.
This Cartoon Network show is set in Earth’s future about a thousand years after the Great Mushroom War, where magic has come back into the world. Series creator Pendleton Ward described the setting as “candyland on the surface and dark underneath” and he recently was at Wizards of the Coast working with Chris Perkins working on “something”. This setting can provide a way to get fans of the show to try out tabletop RPGs.
In Barsaive, magic, like many things in nature, goes through cycles. In this setting (which is canonically the historical basis for the Shadowrun universe) at regular intervals magical catastrophes/incursions happen, so that people must take shelter in elaborate underground complexes. The PCs are generally people recently emerged from their shelter, exploring a remade world and perhaps discovering what’s happened with the other shelters.
Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana – ADDED
Titansgrave is best known for being the setting of Wil Wheaton’s tabletop RPG show on Geek and Sundry and is run using Fantasy AGE rules. This original science fantasy setting mixes high magic and hi-tech, throwing players into Valkana, decades after the Chaos War. If you want to run Fantasy AGE in a post-apocalyptic world that mixes magic with cyberpunk, check this out.
Shadowrun takes place in a corporate controlled world, set in the the mid to late 21st century. It incorporates elements of both cyberpunk and urban fantasy where magic exists and has “worked” since 2011. In this setting, humans have split into metatypes/metahumans. Shadowrun is not exactly a post-apocalyptic setting but the emergence of magic had a world-changing impact.
Set in a far, far distant future, Numenera puts a new spin on traditional fantasy. The name “Numenera” is a reference to the bits of advanced technology, that are indistinguishable from magic, leftover from past civilizations. There’s lots of leftovers in the “The Ninth World”, approximately one billion years in the future of Earth that has seen the rise and fall of eight previous civilizations.
Gamma World is a science fantasy RPG, first published by TSR in 1978 which has been updated to match up with each release of D&D and D20 Modern. The world is Earth in the mid-25th century, more than a century after a second nuclear war had destroyed human civilization. The game’s designers took inspiration from the post-apocalyptic novels and movies of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Gamma World is almost unrecognizable from pre-apocalyptic Earth, with altered coastlines, leveled cities and left large areas of land lethally radioactive. The future weapons used in the war bathed the survivors in radiation and biochemical agents, resulting in fantastic mutations such as multiple limbs, super strength, and psychic powers.
Mystara & Blackmoor – ADDED
I’ve been told that I missed Mystara and I was originally going to include it. So here it is.
Mystara is the default setting for “Basic” D&D and was popular through the 1980s. Mystara is a hollow planet and it’s outer surface resembles that of the earth approximately 135 million years ago. Source material focuses on the area called the Known World.
Blackmoor was the personal setting of Dave Arneson (co-creator of D&D). This world evolved from feudal to high tech, leading to an apocalyptic explosion so devastating that it changed the climate and geography of the planet as a whole. Mystara is actually a post-apocalyptic setting, as it placed Blackmoor in the world’s distant past, making Mystara the changed world.
For a detailed look at more post-apocalyptic tabletop RPGs, read J.M Perkins’ 5 Post-Apocalyptic Tabletop RPGs.
A guitarist rallies the gang in Mad Max
The easiest way to get the classes right is to play a setting that has its own support for player options such as Dark Sun, Shadowrun or any of the worlds in the section above.
If you are creating your own world…
- Make sure classes fit your world’s technology level. Even if you have guns and technical weapons, they could be more trouble than they are worth with jamming and lack of ammo or really just another type of magic. The important thing is to make sure no class is bringing a knife to a laser gun fight.
- Help your players understand the setting they are going to be playing in. Someone who likes to play a ranger created for a woodland forest is going to have a tough time in a scorched desert or cyberpunk distopia.
- With some creative thinking and re-skinning any class can fit well in any time, but you might want to look at substitutions such as Technologists/Hackers or reflavoring existing classes such as a cleric to a be a medic.
- A little creativity can make an existing class feel all new. Just look at how excited we all were for the post-apocalyptic bard in Mad Max.
- You might want to look at adding in some new backgrounds, archetypes and skills that will help classes fit the setting too.
An elf sprinting across the wastes (Dark Sun)
The important thing to consider when adding races to a post apocalyptic campaign is how to make them fit this new fantasy setting.
- Humans. You could go all human for this setting, or have them be endangered or extinct. In Adventure Time, Finn is the last human and having a world where humans are few in number could create a unique feel for your world. Generally humans are very good at adapting and should be able to survive in any environment that supports life.
- Elves. This race is generally lithe, with pointed ears, live a long time and like nature and magic. Putting a new spin on elves can really change things up. In Dark Sun, elves are nomadic long limbed sprinters.
- Halflings. Take your Hobbits out of the Shire. While not a post-apocalyptic setting, Eberron’s halflings vary from nomadic dinosaur riding barbarians to wily urban residents. In Dark Sun, they are now known for being savage, often cannibalistic, tribal people of the jungle.
- Gnomes: In Adventure Time, gnomes live underground and create great technological machines and abduct surface dwellers to run them using their kinetic energy.
- Dwarves: In Shadowrun Unexplained Genetic Expression (UGE) sees humans start to have children born as dwarves and elves.
- Other Races. Dark Sun has Muls (a tough crossbreed of human and dwarf), insect-like Thri-Kreen and bird-like Aarakocra. Shadowrun includes goblinized humans that become orks and trolls and metavariants such as giants and minotaurs. Races like Tieflings, Goliaths and Dragonborn can be added in as new types of people that arrive with magic.
Horizon Zero Dawn
The most dangerous monsters in a post-apocalyptic campaign are often people. In your typical zombie set-up the monsters are dangerous, but over time they turn more into a force of nature. Look to people for your villains with motivations that oppose your survivors in this setting. Show humanity at its best with survivors working together to create family like groups. Show humanity at its worst with roving bandits, cannibals, slavers and warlords taking control in a lawless world.
- Angels & Demons
Angels (and other celestials) and demons can provide a variety of monsters in a setting where the gods decide toend the world. If you want to focus on the survivors, then skip forward to see how the survivors have rebuilt and handle fighting any remaining visitors from heaven and hell.
Imagine the movie Independence Day (1996) where the aliens won. Tough luck, humanity. The resistance is strong and your heroes are part of it. These enemies provide both new monsters to encounter and new technology to take advantage of. Look to the classic Expedition to the Barrier Peaks adventure for ideas.
In Reign of Fire (2002), dragons rise up from the London underground and destroy nearly all life, leaving scattered humans to join together for survival in castles.
The classic robot apocalypse is a good one. Whether they look like us or they are nano sized, the important thing is they won and humans make up a small number of survivors. What do the robots want from the survivors? Are we just batteries to them like in the Matrix (1999)? Are we stuck in the middle of a war of living machines like in Transformers (2007)? Are they trying to completely cleanse the planet like in the Terminator (1984)? Or go a completely different way like in the the upcoming video game Horizon Zero Dawn, which pits tribal humans against huge beast-like robots.
- Mind Flayers, Cthulu and Horror
Psychic powered monsters such as Mind Flayers or even full Lovecraftian horrors can add a level of dread to your world. A world where the majority go about their business while controlled by another mind. Destruction could have come from the sea and your players are the few survivors who lived or are free to think for themselves.
What created the “walkers” in your campaign? You can go traditional zombies created by a virus, have a cult of necromancers creating countless zombies or even have another kind of infestation such as the fungus of the Last of Us. Do your players even know what the cause of the plague is and is there a cure?
- Vampires and Lycans
A modern world of darkness where vampires and lycans fight for control, while the few remaining humans fight for survival. Daybreakers (2009) is set in the near future where a plague has transformed nearly every human into a vampire, leaving the human survivors to fight for survival.
Still from the Last of Us
Sources for More Post Apocalyptic Inspired Ideas
- TV. The Walking Dead, Falling Skies and The 100, Revolution, Adventure Time
- Movies. Mad Max, 28 Days Later, The Matrix, The Hunger Games, The Road, City of Ember, The Book of Eli, 12 Monkeys, The Stand, I Am Legend, Zombieland, Waterworld and Reign of Fire
- Video Games. The Last of Us, Fallout, Gears of War, Half-Life, Borderlands, Wasteland
- Books. The Hunger Games, The Road, City of Ember, The Sword of Shannara