My friend Ken has started running a post-apocalypse game based in our immediate area. One of his favorite touches when devising a scenario is to take something familiar — in this case geography — and shade it differently. What will our world look like in a 100 years or so after our government collapses?
The campus of Bradley University certainly gives off a creepier vibe when post-apocalyptic bad guys have the run of the place (instead of the usual liberal arts majors).
As a good GM, he has the ability to take something we consider commonplace — even mundane — and twist it enough to put the players on their toes. I remember a few years ago he did something similar with a d20 Urban Arcana scenario that cast modern-day Springfield, Illinois, in an entirely different light.
The “same but different” approach is a good one for GMs to emulate, especially if they wish to introduce horror or suspense into their games. It works because players can easily imagine themselves in a spot, but lose their comfort level because not everything is as it seems.
Back to the future
A key feature of post-apocalyptic games is having player characters that 1) either have to adjust to their new circumstances or 2) were born to thrive in a future where things are most definitely not bright and shiny. This goes for players and their PCs or GMs and their NPCs.
One of the lessons I learned from writing for Masks was that characters designed for post-apocalyptic settings were, in fact, actually two different people. There was the character as they existed before the fall, and the one that emerged afterward.
For example: Haysen, King of Waverly Drive (No. 567) , was a garbage collector in the old world, but a despot and (human garbage) in the new. Kitty (622) was a suburban homemaker before she lost her family, and in the aftermath she’s a hell-on-wheels motorcycle riding bounty hunter. And Creeger (460) was a grocery store delivery person who finds himself on a self-destructive quest at the head of army of survivors.
I love to build backstories for my own characters. But that’s not for everyone, I understand. But in a post-apocalyptic game, it’s almost a given. For GMs who have players who are reluctant to provide them, I suggest asking the following two questions to at least lay a foundation of character background.
1. What was your character’s occupation before civilization fell?
2. What was the name of one person you cared for or loved that did not survive, and their relationship to you?
Nothing elaborate there. But by touching on the PC’s past, you might get the people around the table thinking about how their characters relate to this brave new world you are presenting to them.
What are your suggestions for creating memorable characters in a post-apocalyptic setting? What approaches have worked for you in gaining buy-in from the players in your unique vision of the future? I’d love to hear what you think.