Today, I’ll discuss the opposition players face in apocalyptic games, and why GMs shouldn’t give in to just gleefully flinging handfuls of weird and freakish monstrosities at the group (most of the time, anyhow).
Opposition is an important part of any tabletop game; without some form of it, you’re not really telling a story, you’re talking about what a wonderful world your characters live in and how blessed their lives are. While that kind of thing might be a nice and relaxing wish-fulfillment exercise, it isn’t what we’re talking about this week.
There may be an impulse, particularly for post-apocalyptic games, to make the opposition weird and freakish, plain evidence of the disaster that ruined the world. Whether it’s mutants, zombies, cybernetic horrors, or alien war machines, it doesn’t really matter. It’s an understandable impulse; for most of us, there’s a natural desire to fight an enemy that’s Other than us, and in most games we get to indulge that to our hearts’ content.
Aside from a few specific scenarios, however, apocalypse games shouldn’t give in to this urge. Sure, sprinkle some in to make things exciting and memorable, but even in a zombie apocalypse the biggest threat shouldn’t be the zombies. The biggest threat will always be other humans (or other members of the playable races, when nonhuman races can be played) because we’re so very capable of turning on one another in stressful situations.
This is important because of the scope it adds to what we can do with these games; instead of seeing every encounter that starts off hostile as a combat in the offing, we get the chance to explore other routes with human nature. There’s a strength and safety in numbers that a band of only a few people simply lacks. Being able to have several sets of eyes available at all times makes it harder for any menace to surprise the group, and more labor means safe places get put together faster. On the other hand, more people means more interpersonal friction, more chance of being betrayed, and more chance of someone stealing vital supplies and fleeing. It can make for some intense debates among players, and some powerful roleplaying.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t use the threats that are big and scary and strange; a zombie apocalypse with no zombies would be strange, to say the least, and no Armageddon story is complete without supernatural threats to face off against. In most campaigns, however, you should use them sparingly; a group of zombies chasing a group of survivors presents a dilemma to the party – do they act to save the other survivors, or wait to see if the zombies kill them, then kill the zombies and take whatever supplies they have? A few angels guarding places where the Faithful are permitted but the rest of humanity isn’t, a few demons rampaging in the downtown, and so on can drive the point home that the world is ending without having every other encounter be with a pack of hellhounds or a gaggle of imps.
The one caveat to this is the Invasion game style. By definition, a key component is the fight against the invading force, be it extraterrestrial or extradimensional in nature. Een here, however, you can use humans as a primary foe; quislings who join the enemy in hopes of currying favor can form the shock forces your players are up against, while other human groups will be trying to get their hands on alien technology and resources for their own purposes even if it harms everyone else to do so. You can be certain that in the X-Com universe, there’s at least one toy company trying to sell action figures of X-Com soldiers and aliens to the public even when it means X-Com getting bad press for shoddy manufacturing injuring kids.
So when you do an apocalyptic game, don’t stint on the human factor – that’s a key part of what makes these games so very different from others.