Ground Rules For The Apocalypse

by mshrm

I’ve been pondering on the ground rules for the post-apocalyptic game for a long time, just kicking different things around. Here’s what I’m thinking, at this point. Some of it’s old news, some of it’s new thoughts, and a lot of it is just a gelling of vague ideas into solid decisions.

The general vision of the game is, it’s the end of the world as we know it (or, TEOTWAWKI, because it gets repetitive typing “apocalypse” over and over). We’ll pick up some time before The Last Good Day Ever, do some “day in the life” stuff so everybody gets a feel for what civilized life felt like. Some number of characters will live through The Really Really Bad Day. Survivors make their way in an uncivilized world that’s been radically altered by events.

My vague hope is that they would start trying to kick-start the human race again, maybe plant some crops and so forth, but I’m not too worried about it. I figure that’s such a long-term goal, we might never even get there. Still, I would be tickled all the way down to the ground if they were to, say, end up weighing the relative merits of pickling the okra for the winter versus trading it, fresh, for homebrew beer made by the settlement down the river.

The nature of the Bad Day should be a surprise, so I’m going to try really, really hard not to give it away. I might not decide until the time comes, just to be sure. I have previously sworn, though: I shall not run a Zombie Apocalypse. There you go. Big shades-of-green rainbow and everything, “I establish my covenant, never again will I run a game where the human race gets wiped out by the risen dead. Not even those 28 Days Later scalawags.” Stuff that’s similar to zombies is still on the table. Hypnotized crowds, shell-shocked victims, things of that nature, all possibilities. Just no zombies. So, having promised that, rather than give away any secrets, I’ll use the zombies in any examples.

PCs start with 50 points, no more than 5 quirks, and unlimited Disadvantages.

Unlimited Disadvantages?!?  Yup, I’m not putting any particular cap on how many Disads a PCs can have. If you want to play the blind monk from World War Z (the book, not that other thing), or the hapless pater familias herding around a bunch of screaming, sniffling potential hostages, or a clumsy, under-educated, socially-awkward heroin addict with a bad knee… well, more power to ya. I wish you all the luck. I reckon these things are self-correcting.

Now, this specifically doesn’t mean, take a long list of pointless 5-point disads hoping they’ll never come up. I’ve already sworn, the next time someone brings me a character with “Phobia (Sex)”, I’ll throw ’em out of the game, just on general principles. You can take any Disadvantage you want, but I aim to enforce those Disadvantages ruthlessly. To kinda riff off Steven Wright for a moment, if you’re bold enough to bring me a character sheet with “Intolerance (Jewish cowboys)”, then you can be sure that your character’s very life will depend on working closely with a guy named Bucky Goldstein.

(Me, I just don’t get the list of 5-point disads that come up once, maybe. When I build a character, I want a big, splashy Disadvantage, something I can chew on as a role-player. In fiction, you get the best scenes when the disads kick in. The defining moments, really. Bob, from Walking Dead, trying to decide if he should reach for the bottle or not. Bullseye, dangling over the abyss, choosing between self-preservation and his hatred for Daredevil. Two out of three heroes of ancient Greek myth, and that time they were too proud for their own good…)

I’m skeptical of claims that one can role-play 100 points worth of “color and personality”. The goal isn’t to open the floodgates of goofy comedy characters, it’s to allow enough latitude for some character concepts that might otherwise get overlooked. Like, normal slobs, folks who want to get out and exercise more but never do, the people with glasses and bad knees. Not the usual Hollywood heroes.

Acceptable, even likely, PC. May not put points into Engineer (Spaceship).

Speaking of comedy characters… Look, I live in Portland. (Even worse, I plan to locate the game here in town, at least to start with.) I’m thoroughly aware that the world is full of interesting characters.  If you bring me the character sheet of a tall-bike-riding mountain-climbing luchador who raises chickens in his backyard, participates avidly in roller derby, and makes specialty cheese for a living, well, I can’t very well say anything other than “Howdy, neighbor, did they put my bills in your mailbox again?” And admire the useful post-apocalyptic skill set, of course. But, I can say that the game world won’t appreciate your special, unique snowflake any more than it will a more restrained character. A unicycle will not magically outrun the zombie horde just because it’s an amusing visual. That luchador mask will not be taken as a charming affectation, but as a sign of mental instability; it will provide no armor, but might just obscure one’s vision at an inopportune moment. So it goes.

Just like the Space Cowboys game, the assumption is that a baseline character will have Reluctant Killer. A character with Combat Reflexes will need an explanation for how it was earned. I intend to fully embrace all the “killing changes a person” tropes. (Note to self:  figure out what’s being rolled when one movie character has another at gunpoint, and the target looks deep into the gunman’s eyes, and says something along the lines of “You ain’t got it in you, I can see it in your eyes.”  I wonder if it’s not simply a case of noticing Callous.)

Supernatural traits of all kinds are forbidden. No vampires (but there’s this Delusion…). No ghosts. No aliens. Alien abductees are fine, let me show you this nice Delusion with optional Odious Personal Habit. No psychic powers. Fortune-telling is fine, but it’s the “cold reading” sort, not the spooky precognition. No cinematic action hero Perks. No Gunslinger, nor Trained By A Master, nor Weapon Master.

Luck isn’t supernatural. Ridiculous Luck is.

I’ve already promised one player that he can play two dogs, a big one and a little one. I’m open to the possibility of offbeat-but-not-unnatural characters. If we end up with a party made up of three dogs, two cats, an elk, and that Elvis impersonator, I’ll hang it up and we’ll play Car Wars for a while. 😉

Actual PC prototype.

Did you notice how it’s “two dogs”? That’s consecutively, not concurrently. The hope is that this campaign will have a high “life is cheap” factor. Yeah, yeah, Gabby’s been walking around Tembladera muttering about how there can be only one, but cast your mind back:  remember how Rho died from falling down a hole?  The post-apoc characters aren’t going to be 250+ points, they won’t have access to magical healing, they likely won’t have a bunch of armor, and they live in a world with ready access to firearms. (Unless the zombies eat all the guns, anyway.) We’ll start with a three-character minimum. That’s one to play, and two backups, to be brought in as soon as is practical after the first one dies horribly. Those hoping to game the system are welcome to lead with their sacrificial mook of choice.

We’ll take a page from Dungeon Fantasy, and skip most of GURPS Martial Arts, as far as character creation. No points in Techniques, no Styles, no Style Familiarity perks. If you want to play a master of some particular martial art, take Karate and/or Judo and give it a name. This isn’t going to be the kind of apocalypse that has kung fu warriors wandering the land, righting wrongs and borrowing couch space in the dojo from each other. Though that does sound pretty cool. Maybe next time.

For that matter, all the other traits that would short-circuit the apocalypse are at least closely-scrutinized, if not outright forbidden, as well.  No Claim to Hospitality. No Signature Gear, no Gizmos, no Doodads. I’m not entirely certain how we’ll be handling Wealth, but at this point, I’m leaning towards “it only affects Starting Wealth” and “when I say ‘Starting’, I mean ‘right after TEOTWAWKI’, and when I say ‘Wealth’, I mean ‘whatever you’ve gots in your nasty pocketses’.” That could lead to a person of high pre-TEOTWAWKI Status being build with a low Wealth, if all that person has is a suit of attractive, and impractical, clothes, while a Boy Scout with a packed knapsack might need to buy up Wealth. It might also require the invisible, but heavy, hand of fate making some economic readjustments, but I’m comfortable with that.

The genre leans towards guns, weapons of opportunity, and boards-with-nails-in. We’ll be heavily using both GURPS High-Tech and GURPS Low-Tech, when it comes to equipment. Of particular interest is the “Improvised Weapons” sidebar on pg 63 of Low-Tech. If anybody starts improvising armor out of salvaged phone books or anything like that, we’ll dig out LT’s make-your-own armor rules. That should cover just about anything anyone might want in the way of available gear.

In stark contrast to previous games, I will not be allowing quirks to be filled in after the points are awarded.  It’s a pay-as-you-go world. You get a point for a Quirk when you’ve recorded it on the character sheet, not before. Way too many character sheets have ended campaigns with “Unused quirk #1-5” still listed. Furthermore, I’m going with the definitions listed in GURPS Power-Ups: Quirks on page 4:  if it’s not a tiny disad, or some active bit of roleplaying characterization, it’s not a Quirk. No more “always well-dressed” or “says ‘Giggity’ a lot” for free points.

It’s hard times all over.

Tell ’em, Dusty!