Monday, May 21, 2012

FtA: Apocalyptic Nihilism

I was discussing my idea for From the Ashes with a friend, specifically the idea that once you reach Level 9, your powers have reached their peak, but they destroy you in the process.  Chewing on a pen, he replied, "That's pretty nihilistic, man."

I started to argue with him, but what's the point (heh).

It did get me thinking, though.  Every once in awhile, I look around at our society, and think to myself, "We're never going to make it."  The impulses which drive our species are as contradictory as they are destructive, we strive to discover truths that undermine the very same things we build, we prod, blindly, at forces well beyond our control, and we do it all with a pride, a hubris which causes the beast within me to howl with desire to see us fall, to finally receive our comeuppance, at last.

So as you can imagine, reading books like Adam Parfrey's Apocalypse Culture is not very good for me.  It contains essays, written by those who promote extreme philosophies, each representative of the decline of some facet of modern society.  Whether it's making a case against art, or a meditation of the ascension of the atom bomb in the superpsyche of our species, it is 362 pages on why we should just cease to exist.  Some of the stuff included within I don't even want to print, considering the number of people who leapt upon this blog at the mere mention of "porn".  I shudder to think of the type of attention this blog would draw, were I to mention some of the things contained within the book.  I'm relatively jaded, but even I put the book down several times, exclaiming, "Oh come ON..."

Interestingly enough, in the introduction to the Revised Edition, Parfrey states that he simply revised the 1st edition, because he didn't feel as though a book entitled "Apocalypse Culture" should have a sequel.  Of course, having made that statement, he did exactly that 13 years later, when he published Apocalypse Culture II.  No doubt he chuckled ironically and twirled his moustache as he did so.  I haven't read it yet.  It surfaced on my "to read" pile, but after glancing over my shoulder to make sure noone was looking, I moved it down a few books.  I guess I have to be in the mood.

I am a fan of comic books, and while my interest has been waning in recent years, I still manage to pick up anything that Garth Ennis writes.  His books tend to have a very distinct "style" to them - they very often involve hard men living dangerous lives that get by with the help of good mates, who drink heavily and swear profusely, but at the end of the day can be counted on to get the job done.  In 2000, he was given free reign to pretty much do whatever he liked with the Punisher, a title that hand been mismanaged and was currently languishing in obscurity.  His first stab at it was absurdist and over the top, a dark comedic romp more than anything else.  In 2004, though, things got serious.  The title was relaunched in Marvel's MAX imprint, which was basically an R-Rated Imprint, and things got ugly.  White slavers, IRA bombers, the war in Afghanistan, the Punisher took them all on.  His run peaked, however with the release of the one-shot, "The Punisher: The End"

With gritty art by comics legend Richard Corben, this was the Ultimate Punisher tale, with the character taken to it's natural conclusion.  Emerging from a fallout shelter in the remains of a prison, he finds himself in a post apocalyptic wasteland.  Not the fun kind, there are no biker gangs or mutants, just death and destruction.  He journeys through Upstate New York to a last holdout of mankind in the ruins of the former site of the Twin Towers in NYC, where he finds the last holdouts of humanity, the powerbrokers, the wheelers and the dealers who drove humanity to it's current state. 

The story is as bleak as it comes, and the statement it makes about humanity is dark, but it's worth the read. 


Nihilism is tough to pull off in an RPG.  RPGs, and games in general, are typically purpose based, making nihilism difficult to portray in any sort of meaningful sense.  How do you build a system around a lack of purpose?  The two concepts seem fundamentally at odds.  To a certain extent, you can put Call of Cthulhu in the category, where "victory" means surviving without going insance, but the "Game" aspect creeps in, meaning you have to give them some sort of satisfaction, some closure.  Even so, it's tough to take CoC seriously in a nihilistic sense, when there are tentacled monsters popping out of cupboards and such.  Lovecraft's nihilims was all about subtext and that's nigh impossible to allow to shine through in an RPG. 

Twilight 2000, though.  Now that was a Nihilistic RPG.  You play a soldier, stuck in Europe as a war nobody cares about anymore slowly grinds to a halt, not because of a lack of will, but merely a lack of supplies.  I played this a couple of times in High School, and haven't played since, so I'm not sure if the impact this game had on my design of From the Ashes was based more on GDW's design or my GM's own nihilistic tendancies.  We played for several months, as our party first tried simply to survive, until we were able to find some measure of safety with a group of people, and we fought off intruders, scavenged for supplies and tried to rebuild society, at least within our own little part of the earth.

And then we died of radiation poisoning.

Seriously, that was it.  We turned right when we should have turned left, and stumbled into a hot zone, and three sessions later, we were all dead. 

I don't think From the Ashes is a fundamentally nihilistic game.  Or at least, it doesn't have to be - it's not designed to be.  Are you going to die?  Yes.  Absolutely.  There is no retirement for these characters.  They are agents of change, as society digs itself out of the rubble, and they burn themselves out affecting that change.  They flare brightly and then they burn out.  The idea is to shape the world around them before they go, and that, I think, gives more purpose to a game than a hundred plundered dungeons, or a thousand slain dragons.




1 comment:

  1. I've been thinking about your idea for a PC burn out (10th level = death) rule ever since you first mentioned it.

    I can see how some players might find it irksome to have their character run into a brick wall of death at the end of their career. I'd rather they had feelings of resignation as opposed to hopelessness. Instead of a wall of death, maybe an ever increasing chance of death would be easier to swallow. So I started mulling over different tweaks to the rule and the flavor text that describes how it ties into the apocalyptic setting.

    These are the two that I like best. Not sure if you'll be interested, but I thought I'd share.

    1. Roll percentage dice (or something) at the end of each session. If you roll a number at or below your level, then your character is wasting away and will die at some point next session. Roll on the "Tragic Death Chart" to see how it happens. Radiation poisoning, mutant virus, the bacteria in your gut mutate and become flesh eating, severe allergic reaction to mutant pollen, mutant parasites increase the pressure in your head until it pops, ect.

    Pretty bleak, but you have that last session where you can try to go out in a blaze of glory before the illness gets you.


    2. PCs are the warrior class of their tribe. They are selected or volunteer at a certain age to bond with a certain parasite/symbiont. At certain times in it's life cycle the creature forces mutations upon it's host (level up). The "Wave of Mutatilation" has an ever increasing chance of killing the host each time, but if they survive they grow in power and gain status within the tribe. Instead of certain death after level 9 there is only an extremely high chance of death, and those who survive to level 10 are taken over puppet-like by the creature and become NPCs.

    Who knows what their agenda is, or how long they have before the host body expires?

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