Today I’ll be wrapping up Apocalypse Week with a bit about plot in apocalyptic games and why a pure sandbox isn’t the best of ideas for playing such games.
Post-apocalyptic games seem like a natural fit for a sandbox game style; the world is there, emptied and open to explore, with only the dangers the GM decides to have lying in wait. To a certain extent, this is a good fit, but even so there should be elements of a plot woven into it. Attempting to run a straight sandbox game – or letting apocalypse games run wherever the players want to go with nothing to structure them other than enemies suddenly popping out of a nearby building – is a recipe for a game that simply drags on until interest peters out.
A post-apocalyptic game can begin sandbox-style and stay that way, but you should be sliding in elements of a story from the beginning; tie elements to specific characters and ntroduce them here and there to give the players reasons to do more than simply hole up and hoard supplies. Have a few ‘big bad’ elements in mind, and work to get the players interested in seeking them out and thwarting them. Perhaps a warlord seeks to conquer their region, and they start off by meeting new refugees fleeing from the conquered areas with tales of brutality and suffering beyond what can be tolerated. Perhaps whatever caused the zombie plague has mutated and produced a ‘zombie lord’ that’s smarter and can command them.
Weave threads of this in with the sandbox play; stragglers fleeing from the warlord, a few groups of shambling zombies that act as a group, squads of alien soldiers marching through the ruined area the players are hiding out in, whatever works to give them a sense of direction and purpose so that they don’t just sit around without a plan. Give them something to fear and hate, and they’ll make the plot happen.
By the same token, apocalyptic games need direction. Even if the goal is something as vague as ‘find a safe place’, you need to have plans for what they can do, otherwise they’ll find a gun store and fortify inside it to wait for the apocalypse to end. Have real threats and dangers – others fleeing the apocalypse or acting out as the world collapses, environmental risks like raging fires cutting off paths as time progresses in the game, routes that they ‘leave for later’ getting taken by other survivors, and so on. Give them a reason to keep moving forward, and don’t give them time for analysis paralysis to set in.
It’s important to avoid the sense of railroading in both styles of game; make sure that the choices the players make matter, and don’t burn all the options they don’t pick. Let them backtrack on occasion, or hit dead ends when their plan turns out to not have accounted for some relatively obvious problem (such as taking a car out of the city during a disaster; the routes out are quite likely to be jammed by others with the same idea, and panic will result in accidents that clog the entire thing up to the point that pedestrian travel is faster).
Always have an endgame in mind; adjust it if you need to in reaction to player actions, and don’t get tied to any steps between the two, but having a rough shell of a plan to move the players from the game opening to the endpoint will help you keep things moving, even in wide-open sandbox games. All games benefit from a strong conclusion, but apocalyptic gameplay benefits even more; either you hit the end and find safety/victory in apocalyptic games, or you hit the end and make the area safe for nascent civilizations to rebuild from the ashes in post-apocalyptic games.
And that’s it for this week! I’ll be back for next week with some new posts. Until then, do keep gaming.