The World is a Phoenix: The Post-Post Apocalypse

phoenix-fabelwesen

I love the Post Apocalypse. I love mutant bears with lasers coming out of their eyes. I love libidinous frog men trying to keep Rowdy Roddy Pipe down. I love spike covered muscle cars and psychic dogs and cross country treks in tricked out APCs and the rockabilly battles of Old Vegas. But as much as I love the post apocalypse, it is really all prelude, because what I really love is the post-post apocalypse: when civilization rises from the ashes like the titular mythical bird of this post.

 

Stories about the end of civilization are fun. Characters are given permission to go native and lose their inhibitions, and in the context of games (both tabletop and electronic) you are too. It’s cathartic, blasting mutants and zombies and cyborgs and mutant-zombie-cyborgs. But it is also ultimately limited: the world is dying and man is fading and no amount of weird super-science or gritty survivalism can change that. But when the spark of renewed hope appears, when it looks like the world might just crawl out of the crater, that is when things get interesting. I would contend that much of the best post apocalyptic fiction is actually post-post apocalyptic, because it is not about the End, but the New Beginning.

 

Let’s take for example a pinnacle of the genre: Fallout. Across many games and some tie-in media, the world of Fallout is celebrated as a perfect post apocalyptic story. Except it isn’t. From the very first Fallout game, it is a story about hope: can you find the water purifier chip and save your people. Along the way, it turns into a story about how new powers are trying to control the new world and usher it into a new age. That doesn’t sound like a whimper or a bang. Fallout 2 is more explicit in its metaphor, casting the player as an uncivilized tribal that enters and embraces the new civilization. By the most recent Fallout 4 you actually create, manage and preserve civilization in the form of settlements.

 

When post apocalyptic stories center around creating a new world order, abolishing the monstrosities of the past, reclaiming lost knowledge or otherwise building something new, they transform into post-post apocalyptic ones. Now, sometimes it is a bit of a bait and switch: The Walking Dead, both on the small screen and on the page, is a post apocalyptic story. it flirts with hope but ultimately smashes it with a baseball bat or devours it with a horde of the cannibal dead. The original Mad Max qualifies as well: there is no real sense that things are going to get better by the end of that film; they gangs will just keep fighting one another until all the gas is gone. Interestingly, The Road Warrior transforms into a post post apocalyptic tale just at the very end when we hear the narration of the feral boy grown into an aged storyteller: there is hope and a world beyond Max’s diesel powered Hell. Both Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road are, like the later Fallout games, more explicit in their embracing of the post-post apocalypse. Each of those films promises a future.

 

Narratives more easily recognizable as post-post apocalyptic are often set much longer after The End. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a recognizable example of this, if a bit less fantastical and weird science than much else in the genre. The tabletop role-playing game Numenera from Monte Cook qualifies, too, along with the upcoming (and awesome looking) Horizon: Zero Dawn Playstation game. In each of these examples, enough time has passed that the world is on its way to healing (although usually things are still much more primitive than they were prior to the apocalypse). Here the events of the apocalypse and subsequent rebirth serve as a stage for whatever drama is to follow, rather than the plot itself. The slate has not only been wiped clean but new social, political, religious and cultural structures have been built and these worlds often have similar features to second world fantasies. My own upcoming novel Elger and the Moon fits into this category.

 

There is an optimism in the post-post apocalyptic genre that makes me happy. I like to think that however badly we screw it up, humans are just smart, tenacious and lucky enough to avoid completely destroying ourselves. The struggle to survive is interesting but it is also exhausting, and with all the things in the real world that seem so hopeless sometimes, a dash of hope in my leisure-time adventures is much appreciated.

Advertisements

Carnage on the Isle of Dread

This past weekend marked another successful 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons ongoing hexploration adventure at Carnage Con in Killington, Vermont. This year, given the “Lost World” theme of the Con, I chose to have the players explore the  Isle of Dread. As usual, I used new school rules to run a game with old school sensibilities and more than a dash of weirdness. This post is simply a collection of thoughts on the game and how it might change (hopefully for the better) before TotalCon.

 

Don’t worry, TotalCon attendees, I will be speaking in generalities so no worries about spoilers.

 

  1. Everyone Love Riding Dinosaurs:  As much as folks love hunting dinosaurs, killing them and making steaks of them, the truest pleasure possible for the sword and sorcery hero is to tame such a mighty beast — or at least hold on for as long as possible. One of the “side quests” I provided was a T-Rex hunt. See, the terrible lizards (see what I did there?) have a penchant for devouring herds, guides and paying customers, so the lord of Gate Town (the only purpose of which is to operate the huge Skull Island style wooden gates) offered 500 gold pieces for the head of a tyrannosaur. Of course the party took the bait. But it was not the slaying of the mighty beast (“beasts” actually, as they were a mated pair) that was the highlight, but rather the riding of the monsters by first the gnomish eldricht knight and then the bard. Pay no heed to the fact that the gnome had an advantage to getting atop the thing by being so close, clamped between its jaws and all. She certainly didn’t.
  2. When in doubt, zombies — and if that doesn’t do it, tentacles: It is a well known fact that the weird fantasy from which D&D takes much of its inspiration is closely tied to horror. And if two things speak “horror” then those are the shambling hungry dead and amorphous horrors that seek to propagate by way of infection of one’s innards. It turns out that these two things are two great tastes that go great together. If you want to recreate this most compelling adversary in your home campaign, do thus: start with a zombie and upon its death have it explode into a swarm of maggots, which in turn coalesce in to a medium sized tentacled ooze that suffocates its victims by crawling into their lungs. Now, count them by the score. It certainly worked upon the Return to the Isle of Dread.
  3. Never discard a random encounter; use it in a new way: Much of how I prepare for these long hexploration adventures amounts to finding the right random charts: names, weather, treasures and, of course, encounters. I run D&D well on my feet, responding to both the players and the dice. I have tried the other way, with all the writing and the plotting, and it simply does not work for me. So, there were many random encounters rolled during the course of the adventurers wanderings, but two really stand out in my memory. In the first, which followed fast apace a troublesome combat encounter, I rolled two revenants. I wanted to give the PCs an opportunity to avoid trouble, and it occurred during one of the late watches. I decided on a whim that the spirits were lovers (people of the antediluvian culture that once ruled the Isle) who, star crossed perhaps, decided to be together forever in death. The revenants walked through the party camp and the party chose to follow them, all through the night to a high cliff on the shore of the Dread Sea and just as dawn broke one spirit put a ring upon the finger of the other and they threw themselves off the cliff to their eternal, nightly repeated dooms. So the party set about finding the ring, which was still on the finger of the hand of one of the lovers while held in the skeletal grasp of the other. They performed the right rituals and waited the night and were able to put the revenants to rest with nary a shot fired — and for their effort they were rewarded with a magic ring. It was touching and warm and a nice break from the usual combat. In the other example, a unicorn ran swiftly by the party, chased by sprites. The ranger decided to “defend” the unicorn and fire upon a sprite. It exploded in a cloud of glitter and two gossamer wings spinning sadly earthward. Then, the rest of the party opened fire and it was glitter and doom everywhere. The unicorn returned to collect the surviving playmates and glower at the ranger. I guess not every encounter can be non-combat. On the upside, the party did not decide to find out if unicorn meat really did sparkle.
  4. Greed is the DM’s Best Friend: When in doubt, dangle something shiny in front of the party. Gauranteed, at least one of them will take a grab at it. Amazingly, I managed to get a player with the old “illusory floor” trick. Big statue. Heaps of gold. No ten foot pole. You know the story. The splat was very satisfying, but then a quick fly spell followed by revivify and my work was undone. I still count it as a kill, of course. Better was what I like to call the Test of Wizardly Greed and Instant Death. You see, The Isle of Dread is a weird place, influenced by many worlds, and in one spot a machine made for nothing but destruction — a death machine from Gamma World for those keeping score — was found in a crater. It patrolled the crater and killed anyone that touched the ground within with a ray of pure death. Those that were merely killed and not disintegrated were picked apart by circling pteranodons. Over the centuries since its appearance on the Isle, wizards in particular have been interested in discovering its secrets, perhaps even mastering it, and their bones litter the crater — along with their magic staves, rings and spellbooks. It is a vast collection of wealth, free for the taking for anyone capable of out witting the death machine. I won’t wore you with the details, but a new wizard’s corpse decorates the crater (while the paladin’s ash pile has probably blown away by now).

I was very lucky this Carnage. Of five sessions I ran, the first four were full with other folk waiting around to get a seat (I learned after last year’s TotalCon to limit my players to 8 — my last game had 13 players!). The final Sunday afternoon game was only 5, but that was okay since it tends to be a bit of a slower day (aka hangover city). I had great fun running the game — and will so again at TotalCon 2016 under the Dark Phoenix Events banner — and got to play with lots of friends, old and new. Running games is a treat for me and while I of course believe I am completely awesome at it, I would not be near so awesome without great players in the seats.

 

Some Housekeeping

 

I have been posting rarely these days, due in no small part to time constraints from school and work and family life. Now, I am working on  novel which will eat even more of my creative time and energy. But, I will endeavor to do more blogging as the year draws to a close and hopefully 2016 will see a return to form for this space. Thanks you for sticking with me.