Thursday, June 10, 2010

Thoughts on Post-Apocalyptic RPGs

Both Jeff and James have brought up the point that D&D assumes a post-apocalyptic world with lost civilizations that have left behind wondrous and strange things to find and explore (read: dungeons). This observation has gotten a lot of us to re-examine our own campaigns and the popular campaigns of D&D past and present. What I find interesting is the way we bandy about the word apocalypse without really understanding what it means.

It is actually a Greek word — Ἀποκάλυψις — which literally means lifting of the veil. A more familiar translation is revelation. This, most probably, brings to mind the book from the Bible of the same name. Indeed, the name of the book in the original Greek is Ἀποκάλυψις. Since it deals with the end times, the modern world has come to associate the word apocalypse with a word-ending disaster.

What gets lost in this understanding is that the Bible doesn't just have one apocalypse. It has a plethora. Here are three:
  • the burning bush is an apocalypse of the name of God as I AM
  • the Incarnation is an apocalypse of God become man
  • the baptism of Christ is an apocalypse of God as Trinity

Thus, the term post-apocalypse has a nuance to it that is lost when it is merely understood to refer to what is left after a world-devastating disaster. A post-apocalyptic world is one where God has revealed Himself. This understanding of the word apocalypse can add another a level of richness of any post-apocalyptic D&D world (or any RPG that uses the same sort of end-of- the-world model).

From a Judeo-Christian world-view, the world-shattering event is the Fall. This is then expressed every time humanity turns its collective back on God. The Tower of Babel and the collapse of both the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah) are examples of this. The apocalypse always takes the form of God steadfastly waiting with open arms for humanity to realize that it cannot find what it most desires without God. He has shown the depth with which He loves us and wants us to be with Him by His willingness to not only become Incarnate, but to go to the cross and tomb.

Thus, a D&D campaign can not only be about trying to rise up out of the ashes of what came before by recovering the treasures of lost civilizations, but a recovery of the apocalypse itself.


  1. Good etymological work.

    I might also add that a secular "apocalypse" is also often used as a polemical revelation of human nature by authors - be it the Rousseauian views of George R. Stewart Earth Abides, the more Hobbesian views of the Road Warrior genre or the technology-as-religion sci-fi underpinnings of Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz.

  2. Now I suddenly have this picture in my head of a setting where there was no god, but it has suddenly been revealed, like the apocalypse of the Incarnation you mention above.

    Hmm. I wonder how that would work in a game, where there have never been such a thing as clerical magic, and now it just works?

  3. My interpretation of the PA genre is that when humanity's expectations, dreams, works and understanding of destiny are swept away what is revealed is God's absence.

    Revelation of absence... a spiritual desolation matched to the physical one.

    One might wonder if the arrow of causality points from the spiritual to the physical rather than the reverse.

  4. Victor,

    From personal experience, I have found that it is in the most dire of circumstances (especially human folly) that we are actually able to open our eyes and see the light of God within ourselves. Personally, it took a civil war in Yugoslavia with all of its horrific consequences and the shock waves of bombs being dropped during a major land battle mere miles away from where I was standing to get me to come face-to-face with my own personal Tower of Babel. When I opened my eyes, God was waiting with open arms despite the bile I had sent his way for much of my life.

    St. Gregory Palamas has observed that God shines His light upon His entire creation; but we have to open our eyes in order to see it. One way God turns disaster into a blessing is giving us the wherewithal to open our eyes and see.

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  8. Just wondered if you knew about this other blog. They seem to be into the same kinds of things. They recently did an article about the same subject, but from a very different angle.

  9. ugh, sorry about the double post. I hate it when people do that.