I've run many post-apocalypse campaigns over the years, using games ranging from Aftermath! to Apocalypse World. Survival is the underpinning for most post-apocalypse settings, but survival alone isn't usually a very satisfying motivation for players.

There are other common themes in post-apocalypse settings, such as:

  • Rebuilding civilization
  • Accumulating individual and group power
  • Exploring the world
  • Uncovering secrets of the ancients

I've run campaign with the above themes, and I don't want to make my next campaign a rehash. Within the frame of a non-magical, non-mutant world, how can I make a post-apocalypse campaign that isn't just a mix of genre tropes? Based on your GMing experiences, how can I make it feel fresh and different?

  • \$\begingroup\$ To clarify, I'm not looking to remove existing genre tropes. I'm looking for suggestions based on actual play for ways to remix and build atop those tropes in new and interesting ways. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 9, 2016 at 16:30

6 Answers 6


There is flavor, and then there is substance. You can change the flavor (essentially placing your survivors in a different context to survive in) or you can change the substance (use a post-apocalyptic world but use the nuts and bolts from a different genre.


Plenty of civilizations have fallen. You could play a game as fictional Romans, during the destruction of the Roman empire. Or Atlanteans escaping a cataclysmic flooding. Or futuristic settlers on an asteroid in the Kuiper belt.

Once I was captured by the allure of Pathfinder's Skull & Shackles adventures. To keep it from being too "piraty", I reframed it as a steampunk adventure using Greek mythology as the cultural stock. Although it was still essentially a game about pirates, the steampunk and mythological aesthetic made it feel fresh and new.

Play it as a Different Genre

The opposite strategy works too: keep the post apocalyptic setting, but create an adventure of an entirely different genre. How about a serious political drama in a colony of survivors? Or a man versus nature survival game with almost no civilization? Or a murder mystery, or.....

Changing up the elements underneath the setting will often remove the very reasons you fall into those tropes to begin with.

Other Ideas

Play the Other Side

If a trope is going to come up, put the players on the opposite side they would usually be. For example, instead of rebuilding civilization, create villains who work as part of whatever civilization remains. This will put players on the side of impeding civilization rather than saving it. You can do the same with basically any trope.

Don't Say Apocalypse

It's a well-known mystery that players approach the same challenge differently depending on how their GM describes it. A common example from D&D or pathfinder are things like zombies: If I tell a player they are fighting a zombie, you can bet they will approach it like a zombie in other movies and games they have seen. It's boring.

But if you describe an encounter with "a person, with flesh hanging off their bones and with a strange, stolid aspect" players will often disregard everything they know about "undead" and do something more novel.


Well, you have to ask yourself why you're running a post-apocalypse setting.

You could run any kind of story or theme - a romance! Courtly intrigue! Mystery! Horror! in any setting. But why are you picking that setting, what does it reinforce?

Post-apocalyptic settings are about survival, demonstrating the folly of humanity, etc. Those are the tropes that kind of setting evokes. So choosing a theme not aligned with that setting begs the question of why you'd choose that setting as opposed to another. Trying to fit random themes into arbitrary settings can be fun I guess, but in general I'd start with the story and then choose a setting that actually supports it with its tropes.

To me it's like asking "how come whenever I play World of Darkness games we end up covering a lot of the same ground?" Well... Of course you do. That setting is superheroes + angst so stories you set there are going to rehash superheroes + angst at some level, unless you put in a lot of work to stay away from it. "Let's all play happy kids on a playground in Vampire! But no one will be a vampire and we won't meet any vampires." "...What?"

As such I'm not sure there's a meaningful answer to the question. You can:

  1. Not run a post-apoc setting
  2. Run some very different story type in a post-apoc setting, and go against the grain
  3. "Hide" the post-apoc so much that it's not post-apoc any more (most lands had some previous civilization there that fell, but a game set in WWII Italy is not "Roman post-apocalyptic" in any meaningful sense).
  4. Pick a setting to suit your story

If it's your players requesting post-apocalyptic... Isn't it likely that they are making that request specifically to experience those tropes? If you file the post-apoc off the post-apoc, does that meet their expectations?


The first thing that came to mind is Breath of Fire 3. You dont even realize the game is set post some apocalyptic time-frame because everything is a normal Board and Sword RPG you start to get hints half way though the game. (you get a party member that uses a bazooka and ammo, you are on a rocket, you see a steam ship) it's not till your at the last 10-20% of the game when you realize that some kind of huge global war had happened because technology is set way way back than it used to be.

Look at something like, AFTER everything has been rebuilt. Then slowly introduce hints of some kind of "big war" no big clues just little things like a religious sect that worships a god that saved the people from the big cleansing war.

Then as they progress have them encounter lost tech or lost machines or something where they slowly piece together that "a long time ago technology is way more advanced but now we are set back" This hasnt been done as often I only can think of 1 game and 1 tv show like this. And 1 movie.

  • \$\begingroup\$ In re your last paragraph ... and Empire of the Petal Throne. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 19:53

I can think of four specific and very different "post-apocalypse" (PA) settings that show differences in how one could approach the genre.

The Morrow Project is a straight-up PA setting. Except the PCs aren't from that setting. They were put in stasis before the fall. The idea is they are a well-trained, well equipped team that's supposed to help rebuild things immediately after the collapse. Only… they don't wake up for 150 years. This is closer to what you are saying you don't want. This is kind of what I consider a "baseline" for PA.

Deadlands is a setting that sort of resembled wild west fiction, except with magic. Technically, it isn't considered a (PA) setting. But if you look at the game's timeline, magic is introduced. Chaos ensued. Now you have magic-users and gunslingers and shaman and… Yeah. It is a PA world. Or it would be to anyone who lived through the introduction of magic. The idea here would be to explore not the PA aspects, but how life differs in the 1800s of this world with the 1800s of real history.

ShadowRun like Deadlands, introduces magic to a futuristic sci-fi world in a big cataclysmic event. Again not technically a PA RPG, but given how dark the world is in SR, I think the label fits. By shifting from the out-of-box timeline to one right after the introduction of magic into the world, it would be hard to argue against it as a PA setting. I mean, nations collapsed, entire regions of the world became uninhabitable… So again we could use this as a way to explore how the mega-corps rose to power over nations, and how the fantasy elements vied for power with existing entities.

Another take is Numenera. This is closer to a true fantasy world, except that artifacts are everywhere from a previous, high-tech, age. That age left behind things like nanobots and other technobabbly-goodness that now acts like magic, since no one can really understand it anymore. Again, though, it isn't technically presented as a PA setting. It was more of a "high fantasy RPGs are quirky because they introduce so many historic anachronisms. So solved that by…" But given that the previous ages were high-science and this age is basically not, it can be considered in the PA realm.

I think the above advice, "Don't say apocalypse", is key, no matter what. Sure, you need to keep at least some tropes, like the difficulties in acquiring high-end goods without a global economy, or the lack of high quality medicines, or the reduction in personal safety… But if you just set the game in a smallish town, with no mention of an apocalypse, then the players will explore that world without acting out the tropes. Eventually, they'll figure it out if they explore well enough and you describe it right. But they won't know at first.

Another idea that may help you is to look at the key, obvious, tropes from the PA worlds, then decide how to subvert those tropes. Especially the ones that don't make sense to you. Like "Mad Max" has muscle cars that get like 5 miles to the gallon, and everyone has one and everyone guns their engines constantly like gas is essentially free. So how does that work? What's the trick here? How can you use that to mess with the heads of anyone trying to understand the PA genre you're using?


One thing that you could do to change things around - it may or may not give you the exact themes you are looking for but that is the exact point - is to game out the apocalypse itself, either with your regular players or with a different group. A game like Microscope or Questlandia allows you to set up a world for your game taking ideas from everyone in the group you are playing it with. The outcome of that is unlikely to be what you expect and that can be a big help when it comes to breaking out of the tropes that you would naturally expect to fall into. It also makes the worldbuilding for your setting fun and interesting in its own right.

The other thing that you can take from Apocalypse World in particular is that you play to find out what happens - so rather than having an idea of where your campaign is going, allow your world to react to the players. Of course, you can't entirely stop it from falling into traditional tropes ( although if you feel that a certain move or action leads somewhere dull you might mention it and see whether there might not be something more interesting that could happen ) but it will make for a game where characters have a lot of agency. As a GM it takes a lot of thinking on your feet, but because you are discovering everything together, you don't have that feeling of constraint that can come of knowing everything about the world and just revealing it to players in small increments. The more ideas you are taking from the rest of the group, the more likely you are to be able to bump yourself out of any narrative ruts that you may find along the way.


As Mxyzplk's answer says, if you aren't interested in the basic and major tropes of the genre, you should ask why you're playing that genre. But let's assume you have a reason to do so, such as the insistence of your players.

Then, the best you can probably do is to change the obstacles to those basic goals.

What makes rebuilding civilization difficult? Was it a crippling lack of resources reducing everyone to sticks and stones, or swords and boards? Then change that: Litter the landscape with powerful weapons keeping destruction far easier than creation. Or perhaps civilization is being rebuilt just over the northern mountains and it sucks-- lousy with slavers preying on mutants like your players. Or perhaps the mutants are from animal stock and...


  • \$\begingroup\$ Of course if the players are insisting, I'd bet they are looking to experience some of those common post-apocalypse tropes... \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 2:22

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