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Apocalypse Month—Week Two
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Apocalypse Month—Week Two

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How to Destroy the World

Welcome back to Apocalypse Month! Last week my friend Pestilence gave fantastic advice for how to make apocalypse the theme of a roleplaying campaign. I especially appreciate his comments about making the end of civilization an event without robbing players of the chance to develop or play a role. I want to expand on that idea by talking about the advent of apocalypse. I think you’ll agree that the act of ending the world as player characters know it affords unlimited potential for very exciting adventures.

First, I want to make sure you know about a certain apocalypse coming to Gen Con 2016. We’re having the second annual Four Horsemen Open, a team-advance tournament for the Pathfinder game. Last year’s event, A Date With Death, sold out and our players gained fantastic prize support, as well as sitting before designers, publishers, and other RPG luminaries. This year we expanded in size and are ready to rock your team in A War to Remember. Five vagabonds conscripted on a series of errands on the promise of glory or vindication. Sign up with your friends for RPG 1687968 and advance to our final round where a Horseman and another celebrity will be your GM!

Death

Dan is fond of reminding us that in all ways we really serve him. Ultimately conflict, deprivation, and disease culminate in death, and the more the better. But Death as an office is about old age, about the finality of life at its ultimate conclusion. I want to focus on stories that end the world using death that is unrelated to the other usual offices of apocalypse. There’s room for very dark and moving apocalyptic themes here. In the film Children of Men. humanity continues to age, but mysteriously can no longer conceive children, threatening a slow, bleak extinction. In other stories, massive numbers could be killed when a giant meteor or solar flare looms in the future. Giving that trope an apocalyptic fantasy spin, suppose that meteor or flare, or disturbing an ancient tomb begins to erode the life force of mortals in massive numbers, creating a supernatural force of undead bent on spreading their condition to the rest of the world. As a mysterious apocalyptic force, death should raise questions about mortality and survival. Remember that the advent of massive, unavoidable death should cause NPCs and player to raise important questions about how the living spend their days, and what costs they are willing to pay to continue their way of life.

Famine

Just take my word for this, Famine is the very best way to apocalypse. All those needs. Food, water, shelter, the security of having them tomorrow. Disrupt those needs and mortal races will tear themselves apart. Famine starts wars, gives purpose to pestilence, and results in spiritual and physical death on a massive scale. Not a single culture has ever approached the idea of lasting famine without attaching religious or supernatural significance. In the blockbuster film Interstellar, Cooper is a near-total scientific rationalist (he does takes risks at the end when all seems lost). But even then he waxes philosophically about how “this planet has been telling us to leave for a while now”. When civilization crumbles under the weight of poverty and starvation, the soul of a culture crumbles. People turn to theft, greed, smuggling. This even happens when mortals are starving for something other than the basic necessities of life. Consider organized crime during prohibition or the impact of a highly addictive drug. Humans have shown conclusively they will starve themselves and let things crumble around them in exchange for a less healthy need, like addiction or romantic acceptance. In your campaign, Famine can oversee any form of physical or spiritual deprivation. To be sure, when an entire continent loses its ability to provide food and water and there are no answers in sight, you’re also starving them of hope. That’s where the heroes come in. You know....if they have to.

Four Horsemen Present: Heralds of the Apocalypse

I’ve always maintained that the best weapon in Famine’s arsenal is economics. Without engaging in any discussion or real-world economic models, there are still a number of principles you can use to drop a mean famine on the land and proceed to annihilate all comers. Sparse resources, theft and irresponsible imperialism, slavery, even government-mandated rationing of resources can create mass suffering. Famine doesn’t just utilize natural disaster, it employs despots, disease, poor decisions, and the supernatural.

Pestilence

Pestilence is maybe the most versatile form of apocalypse in that it can be natural, magical, divine, or scientific. With war it is perhaps the cataclysmic trope that best applies across multiple genres. A virus that creates zombies? Eradication of a continent’s population from poor use of antibiotics? Divine punishment of heathen cultures? Perhaps the invention of a pathogen that only targets a given creature type? All of these spell doom in historical, fantasy, or syfy stories. This allows an enterprising storyteller to modify the nature of a plague to challenge his players. If they possess significant divine magic, maybe the strain of ghoul fever working its way across the land is actually nonmagical in nature. Or maybe it’s a curse that manifests as a disease and the usual magic doesn’t alleviate the symptoms or prevent humans from carrying the disease to dwarves and elves, etc.

Fantasy RPGs are rife with creatures and encounters that spread disease rapidly, but diseases are magically curable with little trouble. Perhaps the greatest problem with destroying the world through plague is that rules mechanics allow for fairly easy early identification. A PC injured by a ghoul or dire rat has to make a Fortitude save against disease, and if she fails, she’s treated with magic at fairly low levels. To combat this, use magical diseases and attack populations with a sufficiently high save DC. A divine caster’s compliment of cure disease spells matters less when an entire city comes down with a disease in a short amount of time. In this way, Pestilence is a cruel villain. Capable heroes combat the agents of apocalypse, but can’t normally outpace the disease. They maintain resistance or the ability to heal one another, but they have to watch as the world crumbles under a mass of failed saving throws every single day. Trust me when I tell you, my friend Pestilence enjoys it immensely.

War

To answer Edwin Starr’s question, war is great for a lot of things. Spiking commerce, identifying  your true allies, getting rid of gnomes, and much much more. We would argue that the longer and messier the war, the greater and deeper the following peace. When Fox Mulder selflessly wishes for world peace in an episode of the X-Files, the genie he consults can only do it by removing all human life from earth besides Fox. No disagreements, no conflict.

It’s a funny scene, but it’s not that far from the truth. Mortal races go to war over resources, political disagreements, religion, or for fun and profit (and let’s not forget, over which side of the egg you crack at breakfast). In a fantasy setting, mercenary warbands might pick fights just to gain employment. A god of battle might make war simply because that’s his celestial role. His followers likely see war as the true measure of courage, prowess, and wisdom.

Of course, the threat of war is as useful to my friend Tim as the actual violence of war. In both literary and real-world analogs, rival nations have used fear of war as reason to stockpile increasingly powerful weapons. Their plan is to threaten mutually assured destruction should the “evil guys” unleash their dragons or missiles first. As a game master stoking the fires of apocalypse, your plan is...the same plan. As long as someone eventually pulls the trigger. When that happens, it’s time for the heroes to spend session after session fighting one part of the war while it spreads like wildfire to other parts of the world. The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game has good rules for armies in mass combat. Be sure to learn those and put them to use.

Once apocalyptic war begins, it must be both costly and lasting. Bitter rivals might vow to burn their own homes to the ground before they make peace with their enemies. A third agent (possibly a daemon but that’s not important right now) might stoke the fires of aggression between two opponents, making sure they fight with resolve and crush anything between their armies. When powerful heroes seek to end war, you’re going to need hard hearts and a mutually unacceptable list of demands. Throw in a few self-absorbed agents who profit from the war and whose trajectory relies on juuuust a few more battles before they have a secure position. Be sure that the list of agents with something to gain from perpetual warfare changes periodically, so that the list of agendas being served by apocalypse is difficult to sort through. Again, the longer and bloodier the war, the longer the subsequent golden age. We promise you that, and we are totally trustworthy.

You Can’t Have Just One

As is the case in our writing, we Horsemen are at our very best when working together. Sure a given daemonic deacon can wreak havoc on a nation, a race, even an entire world. But there are few adventures more epic than those taken up against the influence of combined apocalyptic concerns. Perhaps a nation under siege or dying of drought or ravaged by illness begs for divine intervention no matter the cost. As one, they offer their souls in exchange for a solution that ensures their survival, but then their bargain comes due and they begin to age rapidly, killing one generation after another until only a few points of youth and light remain to stop Death and forge a new bargain. The film It Follows is an unusual ghost story, cataloguing a sexually transmitted haunt that seeks to murder its most recent carrier, combining supernatural death with a transmission vector that modern players will identify as a disease. In a libertine, polyamorous society, such a concept could result in a global horror story.

Such combinations happen naturally, too. Famine and starvation lead to war for resources. War leads to disease-ridden corpses. In a science fiction story, war might lead to experimentation that creates contagions like an airborn disease or zombie apocalypse. Using successive catastrophes as the predictable result of a starting calamity is crucial in maintaining a sense of doom and urgency in an apocalyptic story. A fantasy game should have some element of supernatural horror, to be sure. But the natural implications of apocalyptic evil make the terror more real and give the players more ways to be involved.

It’s okay to be insidious (really..that’s always okay!), too. Maybe combatting one threat gives rise to another. Once the world is marked for apocalypse, the Horsemen or other agents of evil don’t give up easy. A cure for a broad category of lethal diseases might result in rapid overpopulation, leading to resource shortages, overfarming, and perpetual famine. Global war might finally smolder and die, but in the aftermath does the world have enough water? Can the land sustain them? What about mass graves spawning vengeful zombies or aggressive viruses?

There you have it. I’ve offered a dozen examples of ways to kill your entire game setting while your PCs desperately adventure in search of means to prevent them. Next week Death will focus on how to tell a good story wherein the PCs prevent the horrible things I’ve described from ending all life. I strongly encourage you to not read it!

 
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