I promised that I would go back and fill in some of the blanks from the apocalypse game (see session 1, session 2, session 3, and session 4). There are lingering questions, like, “What the heck was going on there?” and “You said there were no zombies! You’re a liar!”
Since the campaign started before the GURPS After Thed End series began, I never wrote up a formal description, but here’s how it would look in hindsight:
Primary Cause: X-Factor (ATE2 pg 7)
- Bombs Away (ATE2 pg 4)
- Mega-Virus (ATE2 pg 5)
- Things Fall Apart (ATE2 pg 6)
Appropriate Hazards: Chemicals and Munitions, Disease, Gangs, Paramilitaries, conceivably Radiation
Max TL Reached: TL 8
How long ago: GM looks meaningfully at watch
Location/Setting: The ruins of Portland and surrounding areas
Campaign Style and Morality: Depressingly gritty and shades-of-grey
But what does all that mean, really?
Well, it was aliens.
During the first few minutes of (I think) the second session, one of the players proudly announced his bet for the ultimate source of the trouble: “Panspermia!” I was startled, because… he was basically correct. The aliens were “reverse terraforming” Earth.
About the only plot-twist I had planned for the aliens was that they weren’t coming from the skies. These aliens had been on the planet for a long time. They were going to come out of the oceans. My vague intention was to tie them to the Cthulhu Mythos somehow, probably playing off the “dead Cthulhu waits dreaming” angle. The plan was to associate the falling stars from session 1 with “when the stars are right”. They came to the planet centuries (at least) ago, concealed themselves at the deepest parts of the oceans, and gathered their strength for a brutal takeover.
The pink snow was a product of the aliens. It was a biological weapon, a pollen that caused a terrible disease in those who came in contact with it. (Not the stuff to stick in one’s mouth.) The disease would cause bleeding, mental confusion, restlessness, aimless wandering, and eventual death. Those who didn’t die from it could end up with long-term brain damage.
Incidentally, I based the disease’s writeup off several of the sample diseases from GURPS After the End 2: The New World. When I first read the sample world-killer diseases, I was skeptical. They seemed like serious problems, sure, but enough to destroy civilization? Does “HT-4 to resist” really equate to a 90+% fatality rate? … and then we rolled all the resistance rolls for Cypys’ agonizing night of quarantine. Turns out, any disease that inflicts a HT penalty as one of its effects is going to be startlingly effective.
Which brings us directly to the “zombies”. The crowds of moaning, shambling folks who were bleeding from the eyes — they weren’t zombies, they were victims. They were the walking wounded, not the walking dead. They were people who had failed enough HT checks to start suffering the obvious effects of the pink snow disease. Yes, every time a PC poked one of these guys with a stick until they fell down, they were tripping a sick person. Don’t think it wasn’t still a good idea, though. I was watching for the first time one of the “zombies” managed to make physical contact with a PC, causing all manner of exposure to infectious bodily fluids.
If you’re reviewing the material looking for zombies, there’s one other candidate that I can think of: Al, the would-be looter who got picked up by a tripod. When he emerged, he was wearing a wire skullcap and seemed to have had some personality changes. In time, more of these capped individuals would have turned up. Of course, the caps were a way for the aliens to control the humans who resisted the pink snow disease.
I stole the “aliens in tripods using caps to control the minds of humans” idea from the Tripods books, by John Christopher. (And at least one person called me on it.) I’ve always wanted to use those tripods in a game. I’ve been a big fan since I was a kid. I remember being fascinated by the BBC series on TV, and then by the comic strip adaptation in Boys’ Life. The comic prompted me to search for the books, back then. Not too long ago, one of my kids reminded me of the books when he picked up the first one. For the apocalypse game, I changed the aliens’ methods and motivations, but kept the iconic visuals.
That wasn’t the big literary theft, though. The original core idea for the campaign — that an alien race might try to adjust the ecology of our planet for their own purposes — came from David Gerrold’s War Against The Chtorr. (Good luck finding all the books. There was a GURPS book for 3rd Edition, now out of print, and likely to stay that way, from what I understand of how licensing rights go.) Those books were also the source for the visuals, if not the effects, of the pink snow. The worms came from there, as well, but they never got enough game time to grow to their full “Greyhound bus” size.
Really, the underlying themes of the apocalypse game came from the Chtorr books, too. The main character in the books is a scientist who is working against the “chtorraforming” of Earth. (Massive over-simplification, but whatever.) A lot of the story is spent just trying to figure out what’s going on. At one point, it is observed that the end of the human race might already be inevitable, no matter how hard or effectively they fight back. Nobody knows for sure. When the worms first appear, humanity is too busy fighting the plagues to take notice. They don’t even think about the possibility that the plagues are alien until long after they’re over, when the worms and other extraterrestrial plants and animals start showing up. There’s a lot of talk about how there are no truly sane people among the survivors. How bad is the survivors’ guilt when an entire world dies? How does PTSD manifest when the trauma was the death of an entire civilization?
My take-aways, from the Chtorr books especially, but also from nearly every other good end-of-the-world story that I read:
- Nobody’s sane and stable, after the end.
- Nobody really knows what the heck happened.
Let’s see, are there any other lingering questions?
The glow to the north in session 1 was, indeed, Seattle being nuked. I hadn’t entirely decided if it was aliens destroying a human city, or humans pursuing a desperate “scorched earth” strategy, but I was leaning towards blaming the aliens. That would fit with the repeated rumors that coastal cities around the world were being destroyed.
There was some resistance to the aliens, which explains the plane crash from session 1. Portland has an Air National Guard base, with the 142nd Fighter Wing stationed there. What the PCs saw during the first few minutes of session 1 was those pilots putting up a doomed defense of Portland.
Judith chose to do what she did because of a series of bad reaction rolls. She started off feeling some gratitude for her rescue from the burning house, but her harsh reception afterwards put a bad taste in her mouth. When she heard about the grocery store gang, she figured she could do worse than to switch from the scruffy-and-sorta-hostile group to the well-armed and well-fed group.