When designing a world as a setting for replaying and storytelling, condensing your concept down to an elevator pitch is a great exercise. Not that you’re likely to corner a venture capitalist and a Hollywood producer in an elevator and pump them to invest money in your idea, but because you are going to corner friends, players, and readers and ask them to invest something even more precious than cash in your creation—their leisure time.
Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you that I’m definitely not a reactionary type. I consider myself to be progressive about most things. But in some regards, I’m an unapologetic originalist. I almost always prefer the first recording of a song to the cover version, the original version of a movie to the remake, authentic ethnic food to an anglicized, family restaurant dish, and charcoal over propane. Knowing that, it should come as no surprise that I’m not entirely sold on the whole theory of progress idea. Looking at the ancient world, one has to wonder whether we’ve really come as far as we like to think we have. Sure, modern medicine with penicillin and vaccinations is great, and it’s tough to imagine life without the Internet anymore even though it’s been around for less than half of my lifetime.
“The unknown” has a hypnotic lure. If you’re anything like me, then you started exploring the dark recesses of the closet the moment you were old enough to switch on a flashlight. After the closet came the basement, the attic, the garage, neighbors’ yards, the woods down the hill, and eventually the storm drains that carry runoff hundreds of yards beneath the streets through pitch black, echoing concrete pipes the perfect size for a 10-year-old to crouch in.
When designing a fictional world, you’re actually aiming for the opposite reaction: “It’s a terrible place to visit, but I’d love to live there.”
Your world is a terrible place to visit because it’s falling apart at the seams. It might be threatened with conquest by a godlike necromancer and his undead legions; it could be undergoing some sort of magical catastrophe; it might be in the final throes of social collapse, overrun by zombies, engulfed in war, split into dozens of squabbling city-states ruled by iron-fisted, would-be emperors, or at the beginning stages of rebuilding from the ashes in the wake of any of the above.
Is that a surprise? Take a moment to think about it.
The most obvious footprint of the apocalypse is the ruins it left behind. When was the last time you saw an RPG campaign map that didn’t have a symbol for ruins in its key?
Somewhere in the Gazetteer there will be a discussion of the empires that rose and fell in the centuries leading up to the current era. The causes for their downfalls always involve megawar, anger of the gods, or techno/magical calamity on an unimaginable scale—assuming the place wasn’t just overrun by zombies.
The fact is, an apocalypse has much to offer a world of adventure.