Roleplaying in a Ruined World

How to Create a Good Post-Apocalyptic Campaign

"I do not know what weapons will be used in World War III, but I assure you that World War IV will be fought with stones."
(Albert Einstein)

I have a vague memory from the time I used to play with building blocks of my mother telling me it's much easier to wreck something than to build it. Like all mothers, my mom also had the superforce that made her right all the time (or more accurately, made reality around her change so that she'd always be right), but that doesn't mean than ruining something is that easy. At least not if it's done with style.
In this article I'll try to review some of the conventions of the post-apocalyptic genre, and to guide you through creating a campaign world of that genre, with no specific mention of any game mechanics.

Unsurprisingly, the best place to start is at the beginning. In other words, how did the world get to the shocking situation it is now in?
Usually, it would be the fault of the third most intelligent species on Earth (at least according to Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) - man. Did his greed exhaust the planet's natural resources? Did his shortsight destroy the eco-system with pollution? Did a third world war turn the past's centers of civilization to lifeless radioactive wastelands? Or did the hubris of genetically engineering a new species of super-predator spell the beginning of the end?
Another option, albeit less common in the genre's literature is that a vast natural disaster ended the world as we know it. If you wish to limit the scope of the campaign to a single country of even city, a standard disaster such as an earthquake, a flood, a hurricane or a volcanic eruption, coupled with useless local authorities and a complete disregard of the neighboring nations might be enough, but it is ill-advised. The existence of neighboring countries that were not affected by the disaster will diminish it's totality, and hinder the apocalyptic atmosphere you were trying to create. If you want to create a campaign in an apocalypse brought on by a natural disaster, you should look for a disaster of a much bigger scale, such as a meteor hitting the Earth or a second ice age.
Although the exact nature of the disaster that shaped the world to it's current state may seem unimportant at first glance, they are crucial to the design of your campaign setting. Not only will it fashion the barren wastelands between the scattered strongholds of mankind, it will define many aspects of the survivors' culture and taboos.
When designing the world's history, another aspect that should be taken into consideration is the timeline. Did those grim events that shaped life as we know it occur only a few years ago, making the characters survivors who still remember a time when the houses were big, the cities were clean and the expected lifespan was closer to a hundred years than to twenty? Or did they occur several generations ago, making the characters ignorant savages who laugh about the tales of the ancients and their flying machines?

As I suggested in the previous paragraph, the post-apocalyptic world is quite different from the world as we know it. First of all, it no longer belongs to the human race. The campaign world is a dangerous place for the unprepared traveler. The reasons can range from harsh environmental conditions (radiation, extreme temperatures, lack of food sources or poisonous gasses in the atmosphere) to mutated flora and fauna, but in the end, it doesn't really matter. In such conditions, people tend to gather round those who can shelter and protect them. In a world of limited resources, those in power wouldn't hesitate to turn their people to surfs and form a regime where might is right, much like the nobles of the dark ages. In such a world, terms like equality, compassion and even morality have become distant memories from a world long gone, and maybe, just maybe, a hope for a better future in the hearts of a certain group of heroes.
But what should trouble the players the most aren't the differences between the post-apocalyptic campaign world and our own world, but rather the similarities. The post-apocalyptic campaign world isn't just a medieval campaign world with remnants of technology, but, like the name suggests, our own world that has undergone some catastrophe. Throughout the campaign, the characters will constantly encounter relics from the old world, which would remind their players, if not themselves, the world that no longer is. These relics should be used not only to demonstrate the glory of the past long gone (e.g., medical equipment that no doctor alive knows how to use, or vehicles that have become useless without refineries to make their fuel), but also the stupidity of the human race that created this apocalypse (e.g., a warlord finding a bunker full of automatic weapons who goes on to murder the inhabitants of village that won't surrender to him) and the distance between the enlightened world to the campaign world (e.g., a community that worships Bill Gates' biography as a holy text, since it is the only printed book they have ever seen).

Another point to take into consideration is the technology of the campaign setting, and it's effect on the society in our post-apocalyptic world.
One the the assumptions this genre makes is that most of the technology we know from our everyday life is no longer available. There are many reasons to justify this genre convention, from the exhaustion of the natural resources needed to produce those gadgets, through the loss of knowledge over the years, the social taboo on using such technology ("The ancients brought upon us this ice age, since the sun envied their false light!") to the simple fact that in a harsh world of kill or be killed, not many have any interest in technology that does not directly relate to their survival.
In such a world, the few that have preserved the old knowledge (or perhaps just some common sense and some uncommon curiosity) and can still operate the machines of the old world would be treated as kings. Obviously, there are also downsides in the lives of such geniuses, as they are the natural target of power-hungry warlords and various religious fanatics.
Moreover, you should remember the the spirit of innovation never stands still. The post-apocalyptic world resembles the stone age in many aspects, but it's inhabitants have a great advantage over those ancient cavemen - the bits of knowledge and the pieces of technology from an earlier civilization. Those post-apocalyptic people may not be able to build a new car, but they could certainly melt down the remains of the old cars they've found and make arrow-heads our mammoth-hunting forefathers could only dream about. In addition, it is quite likely that they would find new ways to use old bits of technology. For instance, the violent winds of the ruined eco-system could turn an old skateboard and a bit of plastic cloth to an excellent means of transportation for a lonely traveler.

The last genre convention worth mentioning here is the hope that defines the desperation. Almost every book or movie made in the genre features the last stronghold of the old world, where a group of scientists blessed with foresight have been hiding and preserving the technology that had been lost to the rest of the world (and for some reason, it's name almost always contains the word "Eden" in some way or another).
The uses such a place can have in a campaign are numerous, from a secret desire that motivates and guides the characters, through a deus-ex-machina angle that could allow the GM to inserts pieces of futuristic technology and unexplainable events into his campaign, to a never ending source of antagonists, conspiracies and white lab coats.

This article first appeared in issue #27 of The Orc.