Fantasy Apocalypse 4 : The Impotent Heroes

Saving the world from a mythical doom is a staple of Tabletop RPGs. Apocalyptic scenarios where the characters shape events and prevent a doom falling on their lands but what happens if the doom is unstoppable? How do adventures continue in a world that won’t?

Fantasy Apocalypse

The fourth in our series of articles looking at real-world disasters applied to a fantasy tabletop RPG.

Adventures In A Doomed World

The lava never stops. Rivers of thick, sticky, liquid rock stretch out for hundreds of miles from the Rift. The great forest of Salidour has been burned and the cities of men obliterated. As the land burns, the ash rises high into the sky and obscures the sun. Watercourses are polluted, everywhere temperatures are dropping and crops failing. No wizard can stop it and the gods refuse to help. It does not matter if the rift is a natural event or if it was collateral damage from an unseen divine war because the forces unleashed when a planet’s surface splits open are unstoppable. This world is doomed. Everyone will die.

No More Heroes

Running adventures in a genuinely doomed world may not be everyone’s idea of fun but it opens a range of possibilities for fantasy games. However it is important that the world is genuinely doomed for this to work. There can be no great quest for the heroes to save the world. Everyone must know they are going to die and to die soon for the setting to acquire a suitably nihilistic tone.

Out of this doomed world emerge great role playing opportunities. What does it mean to be hero when saving someone today just means they die tomorrow instead? What good is the paladin’s sword when what the world needs is a clear sky? Can a cleric maintain faith in their god when that god is unable to save the faithful? A doomed world is a setting where all the certainties of the character’s lives, and all the tropes of fantasy gaming, have been rendered meaningless.

Beyond Mad Max

Adventures in a doomed world is not post-apocalyptic role-playing. In those settings, the characters are building a new world by picking over the bones of the old and fighting a battle between anarchy and order or civilisation versus barbarism. But a doomed world is not post-apocalyptic gaming, it is apocalypse gaming. There is no future for anyone and no point to building a new civilization. There are plenty of opportunities to battle roving gangs of marauders and the usual post-apocalyptic tropes but they are incidental to the theme.

In apocalypse gaming, the usual fantasy tropes are reversed. Rather than a quest to a lonely mountain for gold the characters embark on a quest to reach home so they may die with their family. Along the way they trade powerful magic items for bread or a passage on a boat. Gold is simply dead weight and an enemy is anyone (or anything) standing between the character and their home.

No More Quests

Doomed worlds lend themselves to more of a story-gaming than traditional games as the inevitability of death removes a lot of the motivation behind the hunt for treasure. Having a definitive end to the world also fits well with the single session /  short-campaign format of story-gaming.

Isolated communities are a rich backdrop for story games in a doomed world. Imagine a remote village which can see death slowly approaching. Between the arrival of the first refugees bringing news of the world’s fate until the wildfires burn everyone and everything, the characters must make their peace with their neighbours and their own life or as dark passions are unleashed and secrets revealed things can end very badly. A small community allows the exploration of big issues but on a very personal scale.

Life Boats

The world might be doomed but maybe not everyone will die. A magical world offers a variety of ways off-planet for a handful of selected individuals. To the characters, the offer of transport to another plane if they can fetch a vital magical component will be very tempting. For the GM, this format allows for the traditional fantasy quest plus, if anyone finds out what the characters are up to, the party will find themselves with some stiff competition. Every adventurer and person-of-power will want to be the one who returns the vital magical item and book their passage off the doomed planet.

Seeking their magical McGuffin and a proverbial seat on the lifeboat the characters will travel across a terrible landscape of desolation and suffering. Often they will be just ahead of the oncoming lava, desperating searching deserted cities before they are buried in molten rock. Yet the real meat of the adventure is playing with the ethics and psychology of those desperate to survive.

On a doomed world there will be plenty of mad-people / charltons selling their own lifeboats to the desperate. Promises of divine salvation for those to who join cults, magical trinket’s guaranteeing protection from lava or even legitimate passage on boats to another land in an attempt to outrun the inevitable. Will the lawful good character be able to ignore those who exploit the poor? When the quest is complete and it is time to leave, can a Paladin simply go or will they give up their place to save a child’s live? The smart GM can work a lot moral and alignment problems into quest like this.

The Deep And The Dead

Safety Below?Lava may obliterate cities and ash-clouds kill every living thing on the surface but this is a magical world. There are deep-dwelling races who may not even notice the fate of the surface world. What happens to those races when tens of thousands of humans and elves seek shelter deep underground? Turning the party into refugees who must lead survivors to shelter offers many possibility for both traditional dungeon exploration and role-playing opportunities as they struggle to negotiate with the races already below the surface.

One demographic who will be untroubled by the end of the world will be the undead. The lack of an eco-system is not a concern to them and as long as they stay clear of the lava, the end of the world will make no difference to your average lich. In the face of impending death, a lot of wizards and priests may find the idea of being a lich or mummy quite appealing. Vampires however the need to feed but the thick ash-clouds mean daylight is a lot less of an issue. It may be possible for a vampire cleric to keep a breeding population of humans alive though the apocalypse and there are plenty of humans who will volunteer to be cattle for vampires instead of dying. This throws up interesting possibilities for GMs and players. Starting as desperate cattle, can the characters survive long enough to become full vampires and take control?

Definitive Endings

At it’s heart, the doomed world offers GMs and players something rare in RPGs – a definitive and predictable end. These are adventures which won’t run out of steam when the character’s reach a certain level or people become bored with their characters. Everyone is going to die, all that matters is what the players do with that time that remains.