D&D as a Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
So this thread idea builds on a post by @Nagol in a different thread ...
(also h/t @Elfcrusher and @Tony Vargas )

Specifically, the concept of D&D as post-apocalyptic wasteland.

MAX MAD FOR THE WIN! THUNDERDOME!

ahem.

So, the original snipped that prompted this thread was an explanation for what Nagol wants when they are deciding to play D&D, and they responded with:

I want a game world that is effectively post-apocalyptic -- where the best things need to be recovered, not constructed.

This concept resonated with many of us; Elfcrusher chimed in with:

I was even just thinking more generally that worlds in which nobody in the present can replicate the mysterious (magical?) achievements of the past...are appealing to me. Whether that's the Third Age of Middle Earth, or post-Roman Britain in Bernard Cornwell's novels, or the lost glory of the Jedi order.

And Tony Vargas added:

May be referring to the earlier takes on settings, and on the nature of items? I'm not sure when - it already seemed to be happening a lot when I started - we got this idea that today's magic-users need to be able to make any magic item, when, in genre, the distant past was often a pinnacle of magical power or a golden age. The genre's full of stuff like that: Tolkien's Ring and named glowing swords and Palantirs are essentially artifacts of the ancients. Artifacts/Relics were always part of the game. Greyhawk had empires destroyed by war or disaster in the past. Heck, even PoL fits that kind of theme, right up to (to my personal annoyance) the domains of the gods.

So I am throwing this out for general conversation, since this is an idea I've kind of thought about before, but never in a truly systemic way.

Do you view D&D play (or at least the way you play D&D) as similar to many of the tropes and themes that you associate with typical post-apocalyptic settings?


How do you feel that the concepts of scarcity and post-apocalyptic settings, in general, have been incorporated into the general D&D mythos?
 
D&D got it's start in the 70s, and apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction was definitely out there. 70s sci-fi (50s-70s, really), until Star Wars changed the game, just loved dystopias, nuclear wars, environmental catastrophes, and, when the production wasn't too expensive, their aftermaths. Damnation Alley, Deathsport, Logan's Run, Planet of the Apes, A Boy & His Dog, and many others... back to On the Beach, I suppose. The pulp fiction that in part inspired D&D, like Lovecraft, also had an affection for lost civilizations and the like.

And, it's not uncommon, in genre, for magic to have been greatest some time in the past. (Tolkien's Palantiers, et al, above). Myth/legend also tends to credit the past with mystical secrets and golden ages.

In early D&D, that vein is very evident both in the emblematic dungeon-crawling (exploring ancient ruins expecting to find /better/ stuff than you could get at the surface), and in the most powerful items being Artifacts & Relics. D&D doesn't lack for good candidates for Lovecraftian remnant elder races, either: Mind Flayers, Kuo-toa, Drow, Spellweavers, even elves if you're feelling a little suspicious of them. ;)

One difference between the typical sci-fi Mad Max post-apocalyptic setting and the presence of the theme in D&D is that D&D tended to have perfectly functional societies built over the ruins - the apocalypse having happened long ago.
 
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This is the default D&D setting.

"Books (including tomes, librams and manuals), artifacts, and relics are of ancient manufacture, possibly from superior human or demi-human technology, perhaps of divine origin" - 1e AD&D DMG​

"The misty past holds many secrets. Great wizards and powerful clerics, not to mention the deities themselves, have used spells and created items that are beyond the ken of present-day knowledge. These items survive as artifacts, but their means of creation are long gone." - 3.5e D&D DMG​

"Wild regions abound. City-states, confederacies, and kingdoms of various sizes dot the Iandscape, but beyond their borders the wilds crowd in... War, time, and natural forces eventually claim the mortal world, leaving it rich with places of adventure and mystery. Ancient civilizations and their knowledge survive in legends, magic items, and their ruins. Chaos and evil often follow an empire's collapse." - 5e D&D DMG​
 

Cap'n Kobold

Adventurer
You have shades of that in Eberron, particularly with the continent of Xen'drick, which is a literal post-apocalyptic setting in which lie the magical secrets of an age more advanced than that known by almost all current cultures.
 
Both Howard and Tolkien, powerful influences on the formation of D&D's milieu, used post apocalyptic worlds as their basis. Middle Earth is a crumbling shadow of a former Golden Age, with wilderness and darkness slowly consuming civilization. Hyboria is the remnants of its own Golden Age, although that age itself was already corrupt and full of terrors. And we should not forget that in comparison to the Glory of Rome (or its propaganda anyway) the Dark Age of Western Europe was itself a post apocalyptic time.
 

Jer

Adventurer
Do you view D&D play (or at least the way you play D&D) as similar to many of the tropes and themes that you associate with typical post-apocalyptic settings?
Sometimes. But not always. And it's not really my favorite setting style (though we did enjoy using that style for our 4e "points of light" campaign). And I think that's probably because the D&D "Known World" was much more my jam back in the day than other settings were. The Known World was more about the unexplored frontier than the remnants of civilization left behind from a fallen empire. My games were maybe flavored a bit more with Renaissance tropes and fairy tale bits and bobs and Greek/Roman myth than with "Dark Ages" post-apocalyptic "Fall of Rome" tropes that so much of D&D is influenced by.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
Sometimes. But not always. And it's not really my favorite setting style (though we did enjoy using that style for our 4e "points of light" campaign). And I think that's probably because the D&D "Known World" was much more my jam back in the day than other settings were. The Known World was more about the unexplored frontier than the remnants of civilization left behind from a fallen empire. My games were maybe flavored a bit more with Renaissance tropes and fairy tale bits and bobs and Greek/Roman myth than with "Dark Ages" post-apocalyptic "Fall of Rome" tropes that so much of D&D is influenced by.
Oh, I agree with you- it's not always like that.

But I thought that this was a very good way of presenting what is, at least, a common way of playing. And it resonates with me because I'm fairly certain that all of my D&D games have some variation of this.

(In fact, I'm pretty sure that most of my RPGing may have some of this. I blame society. Society, the Cold War, Blade Runner, and Tom Petty's video for You Got Lucky)
 

Nagol

Unimportant
I tend to run D&D as a society escaping a Dark Age. Civilization has returned. The core is safe; the frontiers are large. Much that was known is lost and the landscape changed. Challenge and opportunity abound along the frontier as people push against the wild and the wild pushes back.

The most alluring targets are those fragments that predate the fall for who knows what wonders and terrors they contain?

My most commonly used setting relies on Darlene's Greyhawk maps with a different territorial descriptions. The history includes at least 3 known falls of civilization and ruins from each age have differing themes and probable contents.
 

aco175

Adventurer
We played a campaign where the PCs were exploring a new area not settled in the past. It quickly became boring since there was no ruins to explore or dungeons to find anything in. There quickly came in a old dwarven kingdom that had ruins.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
So this thread idea builds on a post by @Nagol in a different thread ...
(also h/t @Elfcrusher and @Tony Vargas )

Specifically, the concept of D&D as post-apocalyptic wasteland.

MAX MAD FOR THE WIN! THUNDERDOME!

ahem.

So, the original snipped that prompted this thread was an explanation for what Nagol wants when they are deciding to play D&D, and they responded with:

I want a game world that is effectively post-apocalyptic -- where the best things need to be recovered, not constructed.

This concept resonated with many of us; Elfcrusher chimed in with:

I was even just thinking more generally that worlds in which nobody in the present can replicate the mysterious (magical?) achievements of the past...are appealing to me. Whether that's the Third Age of Middle Earth, or post-Roman Britain in Bernard Cornwell's novels, or the lost glory of the Jedi order.

And Tony Vargas added:

May be referring to the earlier takes on settings, and on the nature of items? I'm not sure when - it already seemed to be happening a lot when I started - we got this idea that today's magic-users need to be able to make any magic item, when, in genre, the distant past was often a pinnacle of magical power or a golden age. The genre's full of stuff like that: Tolkien's Ring and named glowing swords and Palantirs are essentially artifacts of the ancients. Artifacts/Relics were always part of the game. Greyhawk had empires destroyed by war or disaster in the past. Heck, even PoL fits that kind of theme, right up to (to my personal annoyance) the domains of the gods.

So I am throwing this out for general conversation, since this is an idea I've kind of thought about before, but never in a truly systemic way.

Do you view D&D play (or at least the way you play D&D) as similar to many of the tropes and themes that you associate with typical post-apocalyptic settings?


How do you feel that the concepts of scarcity and post-apocalyptic settings, in general, have been incorporated into the general D&D mythos?
Thundarr the Barbarian an company
 

jayoungr

Adventurer
This is the default D&D setting.

"Books (including tomes, librams and manuals), artifacts, and relics are of ancient manufacture, possibly from superior human or demi-human technology, perhaps of divine origin" - 1e AD&D DMG​

"The misty past holds many secrets. Great wizards and powerful clerics, not to mention the deities themselves, have used spells and created items that are beyond the ken of present-day knowledge. These items survive as artifacts, but their means of creation are long gone." - 3.5e D&D DMG​

"Wild regions abound. City-states, confederacies, and kingdoms of various sizes dot the Iandscape, but beyond their borders the wilds crowd in... War, time, and natural forces eventually claim the mortal world, leaving it rich with places of adventure and mystery. Ancient civilizations and their knowledge survive in legends, magic items, and their ruins. Chaos and evil often follow an empire's collapse." - 5e D&D DMG​
I think you can have lost knowledge and lost civilizations without being post-apocalyptic.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
I think you can have lost knowledge and lost civilizations without being post-apocalyptic.
Aren't there commonalities, though? I mean, you can have the "directly post-apocalypse" which is its own thing, but as a general rule, the idea of "things were great in the past, and we don't have that now and have lost that knowledge to time" applies equally to fantasy genres (we have lost the magic to forge the MacGuffin!) and sci-fi (we have lost the knowledge to work the old ones' tech!).
 

Nagol

Unimportant
You can have a slow incremental loss where society slowly withdraws and crumbles bit by bit over the generations possibly slow enough to be effectively invisible to humans. No disaster people can point to as the start, but if people head out into the wilderness around their point of light, they'll quickly find the ruins of their forebears swallowed by the forests. THe further out they travel, the older they get.

Think Gondor from the movie version of LotR.

You can have the lost civilization found on a separate frontier. Think Mayan ruins found in South America.

I prefer the knowledge and fall to be closer to the current civilization. It makes it more legendary and gives easier ways to introduce how the PCs discover bits and pieces "by accident".
 
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jayoungr

Adventurer
Aren't there commonalities, though?
I would say that the post-apocalyptic trope is a subset of the "lost knowledge" trope. In other words, all post-apocalyptic situations are lost-knowledge situations, but not all lost-knowledge situations are post-apocalyptic.

I mean, you can have the "directly post-apocalypse" which is its own thing, but as a general rule, the idea of "things were great in the past, and we don't have that now and have lost that knowledge to time" applies equally to fantasy genres (we have lost the magic to forge the MacGuffin!) and sci-fi (we have lost the knowledge to work the old ones' tech!).
I'm trying to think of how to articulate this, but not all settings with lost knowledge and ancient mcguffins also have the sense of loss that strikes me as necessary for a true post-apocalyptic flavor. It's the difference between "Things were great in the past and we don't have that now" (your phrasing) and "This is an interesting old artifact and we don't know how it works." If that makes any sense.
 

JeffB

Adventurer
Sword & Sorcery and it's PA style worlds- the Literary roots of D&D, have long been abandoned (other than Vancian magic). D&D has become it's own brand of fantasy where the fiction of the Cosmos is re-written every time an edition changes in order to compensate for new gameplay additions. At least with 4E they gave us a new setting to use based on it, and not just rewrites.

That said, it's easy enough to modify any edition to suit the S&S genre, but D&D fans may not like the nerfs and deletions of their favorite race/class/feat/spell.

Though I rarely use it these days, my old setting from BITD is a PA type setting. The main play area is "newly discovered", across the sea after a Cataclysm mostly destroys the large island domains of mankind. Survivors migrated to a massive Pangea like main continent about 100 years ago and are finding that a millenia old catastrophe is likely the reason mankind ended up on the island nations in the first place. Far more advanced civilizations lived on the main continent. "Our Islands sunk and we found "ATLANTIS" on this huge land mass"

These days I'd rather just play a different game that embraces the S&S tropes, or that more easily adapts to them anyway- OSR hacks, DW, T&T, AS&SoH, DCC RPG- rather than trying to dismantle a modern version of D&D to fit. Though, as someone mentioned above Xen'Drik is a great example.

Also see- Tekumel.
 

Dausuul

Legend
Do you view D&D play (or at least the way you play D&D) as similar to many of the tropes and themes that you associate with typical post-apocalyptic settings?

How do you feel that the concepts of scarcity and post-apocalyptic settings, in general, have been incorporated into the general D&D mythos?
There is, of course, the Dark Sun setting, which is as post-apocalyptic as they come. I mean, swap out "life-energy" for "gasoline" and it pretty much is Mad Max.

In general, though, I feel like D&D builds more on the themes of classic fantasy: A world with a long, deep history, where islands of civilization are surrounded by dangerous wilderness. Central to that theme is the sense that those who came before were better and stronger and wiser and more powerful; that the world we live in has declined from its days of glory.

There are similarities between classic fantasy and post-apocalyptic fiction--a world built on the ruins of a greater world that came before--but there are also some crucial differences. A post-apocalyptic setting is defined by the apocalypse. All of society is directly and visibly shaped by it. The struggle to survive is universal and experienced by everyone daily. In classic fantasy, people are mostly living their lives in peaceful ignorance. The past is buried and forgotten, and in fact that is often a key plot point: When the forces that destroyed the old world rise again to threaten the new, no one is prepared to deal with them.

As far as scarcity goes, I find that is something D&D adventures and settings rarely explore (with, again, the obvious exception of Dark Sun). It's not a big part of classic fantasy. The protagonists are usually nobility or close to it, and while they may occasionally have to worry about running out of food on a quest, it isn't a pervasive element of the story--it's a plot obstacle to overcome.

And on top of that is a problem specific to D&D: When you try to enforce scarcity or create a pervasive threat, the PC power curve will destroy you. I tried it not too long ago with a world ravaged by a zombie apocalypse. At first, it was fine. Then the PCs got a few levels under their belts, and zombies just... stopped working. It took so many zombies to pose a threat that it would have bogged down combat to a crawl and made everyone miserable, and the PCs were mobile enough that they could usually just walk away. Likewise, tracking food and water in the wilderness became pointless when the cleric hit 5th, and the rules didn't offer much support for it to begin with.

For a post-apocalypse setting in D&D to work, I think it would either have to use an E6-style rules variant which caps PC advancement early in tier 2, or include a system for gaining followers and dominions, so that the problems of scarcity scale with level--sure, you can feed yourself with magic, but can you feed a thousand hungry followers? Either one sounds pretty cool and I'd love to try it. But the rules as written are just not a good fit.
 
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Parmandur

Legend
I think this is generational, to a large extent. I have no memory of the Soviet Union existing, though I know from books that it existed in my lifetime. The whole Cold War mentality is somewhat exotic to me, and Post-Apoctalyptic more of a flavorful affectation rather than a major part of my subconscious world. I wouldn't say Post-Apoctalyptic is a big part of my experience of D&D.
 

Nagol

Unimportant
Depends on how recent the apocalypse is.

During the apocalypse: 0 - 1 generations: primary consideration: living until tomorrow
Recent post apocalypse: 1 - 5 generations: primary consideration: scrabbling for necessities to rebuild; scrapping with next village
Old apocalypse: 4 - 10 generations: primary consideration: rebuild, reclaim, scrapping with next county
Very old apocalypse 10+ generations: primary consideration: find opportunities, scrapping with other nascent states

In Greyhawk, for example, it's been about 50 generations since the Invoked Devastation. Long enough that people have been told of it, but no one really understands what went on, critical infrastructure has been built, new cities founded, wealth and populations rebounded.

It's not post-apocalyptic in genre, but it uses the tropes to provide ancient ruins to explore -- those created during the devastation and other created by other powers in the interregnum and treasures to find -- things that can't be reconstructed or whose cost would be more too prohibitive to comtemplate.
 

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