There’s a scene at the end of the movie Threads where a teen girl gives birth to a stillborn baby in makeshift hospital a little over a decade after a nuclear war has ravaged Britain. It’s a heartbreaking ending to an extremely grim and graphic movie about nuclear war. It’s also the type of thing that’s unlikely to be roleplayed by your group.
Like a lot of Gen Xers I have vivid memories of the tail end of the Cold War. I had an obsessive fear of nuclear war and I thought about it the same way toddlers fear the monster under their bed – it probably wasn’t a threat, but maybe it was, and the more I thought about it, the more real it became. And like a small child who looks under their bed every night as a precaution, I began to plan what I’d do during the End of the World.
My conclusion: I was going to die, probably on fire.
I’m in my 40s now, and that same hopeless fear has remerged, except this time it’s climate change that keeps me awake. So, I spend a portion of my days wondering what it’s going to be like when the road in front of my house is a river and I have to figure out which of the neighbours’ pets I need to eat so I don’t starve in the rain.
Which brings us to the queasy appeal of post-apocalyptic RPGs. From the slapstick gonzo of Mutant Crawl Classics to the weirdly sexy freestyle of Apocalypse World, this genre has been with us since the first edition of Gamma World – and probably before – I guarantee some 70s burnout and his friends were converting OD&D into a pot resin stained version of Planet of the Apes and Omega Man the day it was released in 1974. The genre’s tropes: mutants, weird tech, Mad Max leather, shattered ruins, are a pulp paperback version of Life After the End of the World. No one wants to play a Starving Orphan with Radiation Sickness in a Post-Apoc RPG any more than someone wants to play Porridge Eating Peasant with God Issues in a fantasy RPG. This makes sense of course, an RPG, no matter how dark, is supposed to be entertainment, not a suicide trigger.
Still, my stomach twists whenever I think of diving into a post-apocalyptic game. I can look out my window and see climate change in action. It’s not just a threat, it’s a slow-motion disaster that’s starting to accelerate. The idea of indulging in freaky power fantasies seems at best silly and at worst its own form of denial.
And yet, the scorched black sense of humour snickering at the core of most of these games is a kind of medicine. Just like the paranoia and satire of Dr. Strangelove it provides a way of engaging with something that’s so horrible jokes are the only way to process it. It’s not a solution, and it’s not a substitute for taking action, but these games provide a way to engage with the End of the World without crawling into a corner and whimpering at the cosmic horror if it all.
And maybe that’s the only comfort we deserve.