Mostly thanks to Hillfolk and the enabling influence of Kickstarter, I’ve wound up with a number of decks of playing cards. As one does. In a feeble but well-meaning attempt to justify the trickle of ten buck pledge levels, I’m going to write up some quick little DramaSystem series pitches based on said decks.
I am not committing to running a DramaSystem game based on each deck. Primus, the system works better when it’s in campaign mode. Secundus, not insane.
This is the Urban Punk Bicycle Deck from UncommonBeat. (Click to enlarge, cause they’re better-looking full sized.) I am not sure if they’re still available or not; the Web site says Coming Soon. Email ’em and find out! It is not my favorite deck or even in the top half. The backs are really garish without being graffiti-inspired, while the court cards are oddly 80s-flavored. I still love the concept and the spray painted outlines on the pips.
OK, so what can we do with this?
Ten years after the Global Financial Crisis was not averted, all politics are local. All governments are local, for that matter: it takes too much energy and too much effort to worry about what’s happening fifty miles away. The clock is ticking, as the storehouses of resources dwindle away, but it’s hard to care much about that.
We’re hypothesizing a very quick decline and fall, here. If you’ve read Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence you know the kind of thing I mean. The assumption is that the American lifestyle is supported by a hugely complex web of high technology and when society breaks down, it’s going down fast. Ten years gives us enough time for shipping networks to fall apart. Power generation is problematic. The Internet is a memory — you’d be shocked at how much energy it takes to run all those data centers. For this series pitch, we’ll pretend that most people aren’t living in the past, which doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch. Take it as the necessary leap of faith if you like, though.
The player characters are members of a tribe similar to the one postulated in Hillfolk itself. There may be electricity available; if so, it’s a single generator or two that isn’t running all the time. It certainly isn’t widely available: it’s the kind of resource you fight over. Water is another great limited resources, unless you’re on the Great Lakes. Maybe even then, if the death of society poisoned the waters. There’s a leader, of course, and there are enemy groups, and both internal and external power struggles.
If you live in a city, use that city as your base. I live in San Francisco, so I’d make up a bunch of power centers amusingly based on local folkways. For example, the Sundowners are the biggest tribe in the city, ruling the lands on the Western coast with conservative demeanors. The Presiders are regimented ex-military, or so they claim, although the Islanders who live in the shelter of the great Triple Spans say they’re the legitimate military heirs. And so on and so forth.
If you don’t live in a city, use the nearest one or default to New York. There are a million or so folk myths about New York, so it’s pretty easy to work with.
Sources: The aforementioned Random Acts of Senseless Violence is really great for urban post-apocalypse flavor without the macho. Obviously, Escape from New York brings the post-apocalypse and the macho. Brian Wood’s DMZ is also a canonical text. Finally, come on, Tony Dowler’s Seattle map is the best.
- Ambitious Tribe/Clade/Gang Leader
- Aging Sage
- Competent Veterinarian
- Restless Nomad
- Scornful Youth
- Pacifist Shaman
- Renowned Blacksmith
- Crafty Scrounger
- Last Electrician
- Book Hoarder
- Untrained Doctor
- Sewer Runner
- Boat Builder
- Urban Gardener
- Apocalyptic Preacher
- Former Recreationist
It’s your favorite city, with crows nesting in the vacant windows of the skyscrapers. Players will be a tribe in the wreckage, trying to stay alive and hold territory. Look for opportunities to play up the conflict between rebuilding society and surviving: this is not an alien invasion or zombie apocalypse, so there’s no reason society couldn’t be restored other than the overriding priority of staying alive in a hostile world. That’s a pretty good reason! Great inspiration for dramatic poles, there.
The players are not the only group in the city. In contrast to the stock Hillfolk tribe, relationships with the other groups is more likely to be cordial. In particular, by default it’s reasonable to play an emissary of another group. In the post-crash world, no single group is going to be self-sustaining, so trade is mandatory sooner or later.
I am explicitly not postulating a crash generated by outside forces, as seen in John Barnes’ Daybreak books or S. M. Stirling’s Emberverse. Similarly, I’m not getting at all mystical, also as compared to the Emberverse. You can do that, of course, but I think you lose something if there’s anything other than human nature preventing the world from recovering from the crash.
- How much do you know about the state of the rest of the world?
- Are there larger enclaves of civilization, or is everything this fragmented?
- What’s the water source for your local political unit? How about the rest of the city?
- What doesn’t your city provide that people really miss?
- What are the big social events of the calendar? Do people come together across the city for these?
- Has the sea risen?
- What’s the thing that keeps people from deciding to forget about the world that was?
- How do people worship, now? Is it like it was before, or mutated, or did people reject the God that failed in favor of a new one?
- What do people do for art?
The overarching theme is Contrast, and I would use that theme to start a series. This series pitch is distinguished from any other tribal society game by the shadows of the past. Past heights can be a source of bitterness or a source of inspiration. Either way they’re always present.
Other useful themes:
- Scarcity, and the things that weren’t always scarce
- Nostalgia, and the dangers of living in memory
- Hunger, and ways to prevent it
- Warfare, redefined in this simpler age
- Discovery, both of things thought lost and new ways to live
- Betrayal, which is inevitable
- Alliances, which are necessary
- Artistry, as a way to define a new society
- Frontiers, now much closer than they used to be
Tightening The Screws
Tune your screw-tightening to the goals the players develop, and to the dramatic poles they neglect.
If they’re getting together behind the idea of bringing civilization back, ramp up the daily problems. What happens when the water supply runs unexpectedly short? What are they going to do about the typhoid epidemic, especially if they wanted those medical supplies to seal the alliance with the powerful military base? How do they keep their fractious tribe together behind the lofty goals that won’t be reached for years?
If they’re wallowing in the glory of feudalism, present them with opportunities to reach higher: the roving trader with a store of knowledge; rumors of a functioning nuclear power plant; a religious man with stories of hope. They may decide to make sure these distractions don’t distract people, which is also an interesting story.
In general, use the contrast between what was and what is as a source of plot cattle prods. You can destabilize any situation by putting a newly discovered cache of pre-crash technology into the right hands.
Got a phone book? Crank up the descent from the peaks of societal wealth by excising first or last names, to accentuate what’s been lost. Bring it another step into apocalypse by swapping in functional nicknames: Smith, Doc, Cutter, Rat, Wrench.