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Apocalypse Month—Week One
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Apocalypse Month—Week One

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Week 1 - Apocalypse Month

Just because your world ends, shouldn't mean the fun does!

This month the Four Horsemen are discussing a topic near and dear to our black shriveled hearts… the apocalypse! Every world ends sooner or later, but usually that sort of business is what the PCs end up thwarting rather than witnessing. This month the Horsemen plan to provide advice on how to actually bring about Armageddon in your game!

Usually an apocalypse is more of an abstract threat. The baseline assumption is that the PCs are going to defeat the badguy before he sets the wheels in motion. Failure isn't really expected or planned for, especially if the world-ending revolves around the climax of a campaign. So, in general, there are three primary ways an apocalypse can occur. It can be the result of the PC's failure at that climax, part of the setting's backstory, or something the campaign revolves around during play.

Apocalyptic Failure

The most common apocalyptic threat is the one that is meant to fail from the beginning. Oh sure, there is always an existential risk of failure, but you and the PCs don't consider it the most likely outcome. The deck might be secretly stacked toward victory, you might fudge a few pivotal rolls, or even in failure there might be a way to immediately bounce back.

But… what if they really lose?

Actual potential for failure adds spice and energy to any game. However, the players must truly believe that you'll pull the trigger. That means you have to earnestly be willing to kill every single one of them, and let the badguys win. Unfortunately, this sort of commitment is rough, because that ending is usually pretty sucky for everyone involved. Especially if a telling loss comes down to bad luck. The players have maybe invested years into their characters, and to lose everything when it matters most can be soul-crushing. Let it be for a minute, but don't let it end there.   

There are all sorts of ways to recover after a TPK. Maybe a god or high-cleric NPC drops a bunch of true resurrection spells to bring back the best chance for thwarting the apocalypse. Perhaps the PCs end up in some afterlife, and have to crawl their way through the Abyss to a half-ended world just in time to save it. They might even be raised as undead by the forces they oppose, and forced to fight against unholy natures to turn when ordered to oppose former allies.

In this sort of situation, there always needs to be a chance of fixing everything that's gone wrong. The PCs are probably going to be laser-focused on making that happen, and far more emotionally invested because of the previous failure. This allows the introduction of all the cool apocalyptic themes, but gives the PCs an avenue for redeeming their loss.

It also makes it darn clear that you don't pull punches… (even if you do sometimes).

Post-Apocalyptic

The second most common timing for an apocalypse is before the game even starts. The collapse of civilization, infrastructure, and the desperation of survivors is glorious story-fuel. Whether you are creating a home-brew setting, using any of the many beautifully detailed post-apocalyptic games, or seeking to take a radioactive blowtorch to a mainstream world, the themes of apocalyptic adventuring are not to be disregarded. The Four Horsemen will be offering more in-depth advice on running a post-Apocalyptic game later this month, but so I'm going to concentrate on how the groundwork for such a game can be laid out.

The first and biggest question to ask when setting up to run a game of this nature is how long ago the "event" happened? Whether it is the Elder God's waking up, an unstoppable living plague, or a demilich infesting every undead in the cosmos, it is the pivotal moment that shapes everything that comes afterward. Figuring out when the event occurred is even arguably more important than knowing what the event was in the first place (although next week we'll be talking about a bunch of ways to bring it all crashing down).

If the cataclysm was long ago, then it is more an excuse to have a blasted wasteland of a setting or merely a potentially foreshadowing footnote in a long history. Barbaric tribes might fight desperate bloody battles over the bones of a once-great civilization, or the PCs could be on the cusp of a rebuilt civilization The PCs could actively work to reclaim lost knowledge and power. They might even attempt to arise from the ashes stronger than before… provided they can keep it from all tumbling down again. This sort of story is either purposed with painting a bleak picture for a grimdark campaign, serves as a starting point for the PCs to lead a grand redemption, or acts as an excuse to have all sorts of weird pseudo-Atlantean magictech lying around everywhere.

If the event was relatively recent, then the world might still be in the midst of ending. This becomes less a story of reclamation and discovery, and more one of survival. Depending on your world-ending event, it might even be so protracted that it takes decades or centuries for things to settle into a new status quo.  The PCs might be forced to sacrifice everything to keep a spark of hope alive. They could work to slow the inexorable tide of the apocalypse to save even a handful of lives. This sort of story is almost always pretty dark, since the world hasn't yet "bottomed out". Deciding how long ago the event occurred gives you a good idea on how far things still can fall.

Pre-Apocalyptic

So, most campaigns have an apocalypse at the beginning or end. It forms the foundation for the story, or else is the climax the story builds to. A potentially far more rewarding location… is more in the middle.

If an apocalyptic event happens before the game starts, it is already pretty much accepted. PCs build it into their backstories, quickly adjust because it is just the baseline assumption, or glaze over it when reading the world's timeline. This can rob the situation of impact, and the aftermath of gravitas, since there is no established emotional investment in the world as it used to be. Conversely, if it is toward the end of the campaign, expecting the PCs to do a complete tonal shift is an inappropriate expectation. They are going to be more focused on fixing things, and likely unwilling to accept that they can't.

Instead, plan for it to happen from the beginning. Shape the whole tone of the campaign in this direction, so that while it is shocking, it is not so jarring that the players can't adapt. Try to keep the following in mind while working toward an apocalypse.

1) Foreshadowing is key. There should be hints of an apocalypse seeded throughout the world's history. Maybe it is something that has happened before, and could happen again. Perhaps there have been crazy fringe cults preaching about it for centuries, but nobody takes them seriously. There can even be the subtle hints of the beginnings all over the place, like the first rumblings of an earthquake. Try to carefully tie in the PC's adventures to the upcoming apocalypse, but never directly. Like, possibly some terrible force arising from deep within the earth is causing dark creatures to flee to the surface. The PCs don't deal with the terrible force, yet, only the underground denizens running away from it. Alternately, you can place ongoing reminders of that terrible event in the past, allowing the PCs to potentially see the signs of some oncoming terror.

2) Let the PCs have fairly ordinary adventuring careers while you establish the world, the NPCs, and get them invested in the benefits of civilization. The value in this sort of story is the PCs care about it before you set it on fire. Involve them in politics, mercantilism, and deep social situations. Give them memorable NPCs, particularly those they have some close personal connection to. Be patient about establishing the world, but don't get too invested in it yourself. You are creating something beautiful, only to destroy it.

3) Have the apocalypse be grand enough it cannot be opposed. If it is a single monster, it needs to be epically terrifying. If it is a natural disaster, the scale must be massive. It is not a force or thing the PCs can oppose directly, so much so, the idea of doing as much doesn't enter their minds. They can only react, be shaped by it, and try to mitigate the damage as much as possible. Perhaps, maybe, at some point in the far future, they might stand a chance against it. That then becomes the climax. Alternately, the event is over, and the story is all about simple survival. They can't go back in time to fix it, but they can try to make it better for the people they care about.

Thanks for reading! Next week Famine will talk more about how you can specifically end the world in your game!

 
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Jeffrey K November 19, 2017 7:58 pm UTC
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The description says "Watermarked PDF", but there is no file to download. Is that an oversight?
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