more apocalyptica

Last entry I wrote about the impact of living on the brink of apocalypse though, in keeping with the theme here, mostly about how it impacted my gaming. My gaming was atypical even in the apocalyptic crowd though, it seems.

metamorphosis alpha coverFrom a young age I cared inordinately about science. My first “mutants” game was Metamorphosis Alpha and it was silly. I recognized it as silly. I knew mutation didn’t work that way. But it was also encapsulated — the story was that this was a kind of radiation in a particular place (maybe a particular universe) where this kind of mutation happened. That was fine by me. Internally consistent. There’s a vast generation ship (based at least in part on the classic SF novel Orphans of the Sky by Heinlein, but there were other similar novels and short stories) and it goes through some kind of radiation event and thousands of years later you are a possibly mutated person on this ship but with no idea that it’s a ship. It’s a whole game with one built-in wonder gag (WE LIVE ON A SPACE SHIP?!) that only pays off once, really. It’s a cool concept, a classic game, very familiar mechanisms mostly about how mutation affects combat, and an opportunity to draw space ship floor plans. Fun stuff. It’s also, at its heart, comedy.

mad maxBut my apocalypse was fucking serious. It was the real thing and I pretty much knew, if not what that would mean, at least what the plausible parameters were. And so my apocalypse in gaming never had mutants. I never even bought Gamma World — it held zero interest for me. In fact I was kind of offended by its frivolity (as 14 year old no less): I was facing extinction here. My apocalypse looked like something between Threads and Mad Max, using a sliding scale depending upon my mood (we called depression a “mood” back then).

And I think that this is why my apocalyptic gaming became community-oriented. I never once bought into it as an adventure playground, a fantasy of a future with irradiated others to dominate. If there was violence or even plunder, it was because of scarcity and because our heroes had to choose to favour their community. They were protecting and preserving something and in so doing also had to recognize that so was the other side. We could certainly invent villains, people that were making immoral choices in order to survive, but also that they were dealing with a very bad fucking day as well.

I just wasn’t going to get onside with anything that made my apocalypse a sweeter pill to swallow: part of the horror I wanted to confront (that I was confronting, in some ways, already with the perfect certainty of impending disaster) was that everyone was going to be desperate. This is probably the origin of my interest in the moral quandry of everyone in a conflict having some kind of moral position to defend. Evil was not interesting. Desperation was interesting and to be desperate you must be trying to preserve something. So in my apocalypse the predominant theme was trying to claw back enough society to feel safe again (because I felt profoundly unsafe). And that makes arch moustache-twirling villains unappealing. And it makes the reconstruction of other survivors as monsters (mutants) whose needs can be ignored especially disgusting. My reaction was very visceral. Gamma World was off the table.

So I think that’s the path I travelled in that period, the reason why we wound up doing little desperate violent community studies. And also why we had Asskickers — the only way I was interested in violent dispatch of monsters was as comedy. And my apocalypse wasn’t comedic, so I invented something for the comedy.

I’ll talk about my Traveller games another time because they are something else entirely.

6 thoughts on “more apocalyptica

  1. I think this sums up my own feelings and experiences with apocalyptic games more succinctly than I could have. I think, perhaps because of my own exposure to more solitary fiction – I read an anthology called “The Last Man on Earth” pretty young – I didn’t feel the pull toward the community aspects as strong, but they were definitely there. I just tended to lean toward the survival of modern communities – the continuation of the world I knew. So I had settings predicated on government or private plans to revive civilization; people getting put into suspended animation; things going awry with the survivors getting woken up too early or too late; and conflicts arising from the continuation of pre-apocalypse politics as well as their butting into whatever situation exists when they emerge from whatever bunker. Ironically, I never got into The Morrow Project and didn’t learn about it until later. Instead I retrofitted After the Bomb as well as Twilight 2000 and Living Steel (which had an extremely crunchy subsystem for building). A lot of my old ideas seem to rehash things that are out there now, but maybe one day I’ll resurrect one of them.

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  2. I hate to be the one defending Gamma World. But while it is unflinching gonzo, I wouldn’t call it frivolous. We treated it just as serious as we did Morrow Project and Aftermath. There were no tongue-in-cheek moments. A walking bunny will shoot a character dead as quickly as biker gang baddie.

    On a side note….

About 8 years ago I decided to run a 1st ed Gamma World as a one shot. (I think I even got a newspaper write-up [strange]). I had all the players roll their characters. One person decided to be a mutated plant….Luckly the character got arms but didn’t have legs and had to be drug around. More unfortunate was the plant had a defect that made it go unconscious during the day.


Also in the party was a 6 inch fellow who would be narcoleptic during the night making it impossible for him and the plant to be conscious at the same time.


Another notable character as 12’ tall and couldn’t fit in many of the passages for the adventure.

    One player rolled a character who was very powerful and had no defects. 

    This is a game that left many characters partially (or almost completely) broken and it required a great amount of ingenuity on the players’ part to work around some severe handicaps in order to have a cohesive team . 

That being said…..the game is a terrible mess and only the blind youthful exuberance of a teenager can make this work long term. I will probably never run it again….ever.

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    1. I think when I say “frivolous” here I don’t really mean light hearted or even funny, so maybe it’s the wrong word. Rather it’s the way that adding mutants both undermines any science and at the same time fabricated an un-nuanced “other” that exists only for players to murder. It’s not a projection of our world but rather a playground in which to murder other survivors.


  3. Actually the modules were tied into helping communities and that was an angle to the game. The vibe was very much like one would find in a typical ADnD adventure. I am not auguing that it was a nuanced game, because it wasn’t…but it wasn’t an implied murder hobo setting either.

    I think what makes this game so odd, is that character could basically be super heroes…Ice powers, invisibility, chameleon abilities, etc. That definitely could make for some dissonance with the post apocalypse vibe. I think the greatest failing is that it doesn’t seem like a post apocalypse earth setting….it is more like a strange extra dimensional world and characters are some comic book-y creatures. Other than putting in familiar locations, this game world just seems too alien to believe in. I think you were more mature in what you wanted out of your games at that age than I was. You were too mature to enjoy it then. I am just too mature to enjoy in now.

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