Social Science and Fiction Part 7: Fissiparous Eschatology
Run any campaign long enough, and you’re bound to confront a world-ending scenario. Unless stopped, the lich queen will empty the graveyards to rain hell upon the honest yeomen. Tombworlds awaken, loosing the Necron threat upon the Immaterium. The sun is growing cold and we need to jumpstart the core with nukes.
Escalation of stakes is part of the appeal of doomsday end-game modules, but I have a hunch there’s more to it than the natural progression from local to regional to national to global threats. I suspect that apocalyptic stories draw from some dark universal well abiding in the human heart. Or maybe it’s that engine from Event Horizon.
It’s a deep well, too. Angels breaking seals to herald the arrival of The Beast, Kefka giggling as he sunders the overworld map, and Grand Moff Tarkin suppressing an icy smirk as he obliterates Alderaan all share the same pedigree. Anxiety over our own mortality writ unto our line of descent grips attention. Modern folklore tells tales of men who stand on the beach facing the surf as a killer tsunami rolls in. Voters cheer as bloodthirsty tyrants win elections. Remember all those global disaster movies from the early 2000s?
What would you do if you knew that a planet-crushing asteroid were on an imminent collision course with Earth?
Mature fictional worlds have faced numerous calamitous incidents. Krynn had its Cataclysm. Faerun undergoes times of travail that seem uncannily to coincide with rules changes to an obscure game in an alternate universe. The Star Ocean franchise squares off against reality-scouring threats almost as afterthoughts in the third act. Some of these are homage to the Revelation of St. John the Divine or to the Ragnarok fable or the Rampage of Kali, but others bear scarcely even cosmetic resemblance to folklore representations of the End of the World.
It’s almost as if they aren’t descended from real-world myths, but rather they share a common ancestor.
I urge you to harness this enduring appeal. I also urge you to avoid undue temptation. Nobody likes a dang cliche, and nothing wears thin faster than having to defeat Generic World-Smashing Baddie #17 in yet another high-stakes contest for the Fate of the World. You’ve seen One Punch Man, haven’t you? If you haven’t seen One Punch Man, stop reading and go watch One Punch Man.
It isn’t like this is news to anyone. Trope subversions here are common enough to have exhausted the easy-to-reach veins in the ol’ cliché mine long ago. Post-apocalyptic game settings are hoary enough to evoke nostalgia in even veterans with more white in their beard than I. Ditto time-travel-to-slay-worse-than-Hitler. Ditto pretty much every Doctor Who season-long story arc since whats-his-face with the stripey scarf.
Something I find interesting to consider is a world with active, interventionist gods. Would we find here a shared doomsday mythos akin to what we see in the birth-life-death cycles of real-world religions? Would we see fissiparousness between disparate pantheons? How about within a pantheon?
The most unsettling in-game belief system I can imagine would be one with disparate gods who cannot or do not communicate with each other, yet who each provide their followers with the same Apocalyptic prophesies. Your players’ characters start as parochial bumpkins whose insular society believes the End Times are nigh. A few heretical thinkers suggest sending a small team of pilgrims into the wild to discover more about the ancient prophesy. Everywhere they go, they find societies like theirs: isolated (as discussed in last week’s installment), yet bearing the same forthcoming prediction of doom. The more they learn, the more unsettling the whole affair becomes. Directly communicating with gods reveals that even they had no idea they shared a common Doomsday lore.
Maybe you even end up piquing the gods’ interest enough that they send along emissaries. Before long, you’re a wandering band of a few mortals attended by a mighty angelic host.
Maybe one of the settlements you visit sees the lot of you coming, and preemptively attacks, thinking an invasion is at hand. You have to defend yourself, and naturally in all the noise and confusion, innocents die.
Survivors flee, ragged refugees of a conflict they don’t understand. They are reluctantly received by neighbors, who hear tales of savage conquest and dominion and take the only sensible precautions they can imagine: fortification and attempts at defensive coalitions with long-shunned rivals.
The consequences are predictable, and before long, the entire world is plunged into nightmarish war, thus fulfilling the terms of the prophesy.
Now, that might be too cliché for a book or a movie, but as a tabletop RPG, I think it could be fun to explore.