Thursday, June 17, 2010

Against Apocalypse

The meme currently running through the blogoshpere is that all D&D is apocaplyptic; we're all playing Gamma World with fantasy dressing, essentially. While there is some truth to that, and it is can be very useful for play, as usual it works best if you focus on roleplaying's swords and sorcery roots and squint away everything else.

So, just to be a contra voice and say D&D doesn't have to be apocalyptic, I give you a one word rebuttal:


If there is anywhere on earth today that you might come close to simulating D&D in real life it's a place like the Valley of the Kings in Egypt: find an un-looted tomb, break in, and gather the glittering treasures. And this is because the pyramids, the Valley of the Kings, and the rest of the sites in Egypt are the remnants of an invoked devastation . . . umm, nope.

D&D doesn't have to be about Atlantis, or Lemuria, or the Suel Empire. D&D is as much about history as it is about fantasy and has to be apocalyptic only in the sense that time is apocalyptic, that all history, with its genocides, wars, and plagues is apocalyptic. The long forgotten empires of Medieval Europe, those that provided it its scholarly language, its texts, its science, and myth, were not sunk into the sea, but declined over centuries.

Maybe this is more apparent to me living on the West Coast of America, where 100 year old buildings are ancient wonders, but the world is littered with the remnants of past peoples and they weren't all nuked.

So, history . . . but empires fallen in apocalypse is actually useful in a game setting because it can provide both powerful artifacts and the reasons they can't be created anymore making them rare and desirable. But let me go back to another source of D&D's inspiration and give you an alternative:

Fairy tales.

I would say that Jack the Giant Killer is as much an inspiration for D&D as Elric or Conan ever were. And where did Jack get those beans? Not Lemurian super science. How about the mill that grinds out what you wish, the seven league boots, the tinder box that summons magical dogs?

Where did they come from? To know would be to lose some of the wonder. So, in the end why make this post at all? Because, while it can work and work well, if you think of all D&D as apocalyptic, it seems you are pushed as DM to explain the apocalypse and know the origin of each relic. But I don't think this is necessary; below lies the mythic underworld and the items there can give you your heart's desire if you are cautious and not greedy. That's enough.


  1. valid arguments.

    living in europe with castles all around this seems quite obvious actually (but pyramids work even better to prove this point, i guess). i have been to quite a few "dungeons" that have never seen an apocalypse. :)

  2. Cool post. I've been thinking along similar lines, myself. According to some sources, most of the Pyramids might have been looted not long after they were built, but I've never gotten that reliably verified, yet. I like the notion of going in and looting these places right after they close the doors--why wait? And who better to do such things than defrocked or rebel priests, and disgruntled members of displaced administrations? The politics alone could provide a fun game...

    And your point about Fairy Tales is spot-on. They are an amazingly under-utilized resource for adventuring. Especially the older ones, and not the Disney-fied stuff.

  3. History is replete with apocalypses. A post apocalyptic setting needn't involve any post-nuclear roots. The arrival of Europeans was pretty apocalyptic to the native populations of the Americas and left plenty of ruins behind to discover in later generations.

    Fairy tales are often involve cultural memories of the people before that were overwhelmed, driven off and conquered and how they remain in our cultural psychologies. Dwarves, elves, trolls are often drawn from memories of the previous occupants that are romanticized and turned into non-humans to make them easier to deal with and reveal root fears. Fairy folk are often depicted as a people in serious decline where men are ever encroaching quite, an apocalyptic situation for a people unwilling or unable to adapt.

    That said, you certainly don't need an apocalypse in the background to have a D&D campaign make sense. "The other" can always remain beyond detailed description and mysterious and keep the mythic a realm of fears and wonders.

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  5. I, too am fond of fighting against the power.

    I think the argument going around is that D&D was based on fiction that was post-apocalyptic. It's hard to deny, when you consider Appendix N.

    No contest, you can use the rules to emulate any setting you want.

    Word Ver: derwayst - where der weinershnitzel ends up.

  6. I'll drink to that.

    My D&D games usually have a fallen empire or two, if only to explain the piles of money and the Common tongue, but it's usually not post-apocalyptic as it is the natural tendencies of societies to decline and fade into history. It is made less apocalyptic by the fact that some elves and/or dwarves are sometimes old enough to remember said fallen empire.

    Granted, I did send my AD&D group to a world straight out of Mutant Future, but that was temporary, and that world was still very much in the "Mad Max" state of things. :)

  7. Thanks for all the comments folks. I was thinking after I wrote the post that it may just be a matter of scale. What happened to the Aztecs was certainly apocalyptic to them, but certainly didn't have the same effect in Europe.

    In my mind a true apocalypse would level civilization far and wide. The closest you come in our history might be the plague, but for a true apocalypse, yeah, I turn to Fallout and Mad Max.

  8. Great post & comments. I think you're ultimately right -- one man's apocalypse is another's teardrop lost in the rain, or something like that.

    I think the more "advanced", technologically, a civilization is, the more dramatic its inevitable fall is.

  9. I never took an "apocalypse" as being central to apocalyptic settings. To me it's more about rummaging around the ruins of a fallen civilization. One that was (much) more advanced than current ones. Whether that "more advanced" is in magic, science, culture or more than one of those is side issue. And whether that civilization(s) fell gradually, naturally, or in epic apocalypse is immaterial.

    Jeff Rients is doing a fantasy setting not based on fallen cultures.

  10. Thanks Norman, I see what was meant by apocalyptic now. Probably not the best choice of words; it means something much more dire for this child of the 80s.

    I'd probably say Jeff is making an rpg in a world with no history.

    But you gave me an idea for a post about what my apocalyptic D&D would be like.