After the End (2013)

Overview

What it is, where it came from, and what I was smoking at the time :)

The group was dealing with some GM-burnout issues all-around, and there was slack that needed picking up; we needed something fast, to run as long as it took for the other GMs to get a proper break. I had been watching The Walking Dead as it aired in those days, and had been wanting to do something more “modern” (allowing the use of Google Earth, and the Lego minifigs and weapons I had accumulated for use as GURPS miniatures), plus the post-apocalypse genre was one that the group had rarely visited over the years. I didn’t have much of a plan, except for one detail: it was to be a total sandbox, hex-crawl, something I hadn’t tried at the time, as I have long-standing problems with good improvisation, an absolute necessity for sandbox play. The idea was that with the proper tools, the workload, and associated stress that comes with heavy pre-preparation would not be a factor. So I pitched the PA campaign idea, and collaborated on the details of the setting, intending to allow the players to drive the story as much as possible. What I wanted to end up with was a collaborative campaign setting, with events to be driven by the players (more than the GM), that could be continued indefinitely (as I had yet to GM a campaign that was continued, as-is, for a second run)—plus I would have no idea how it would end, something I’ve never been able to achieve with the usual “linear,” story-based style.

As a result of the player collaboration, along with some arbitration on my part, I ended up with the following campaign details:

  • A survival-horror/action theme (to be more “action” than “horror”)
  • A low-level (150CP) start with “Average Joe” characters, who were participants in a reality show called After the End, and were sequestered from the apocalypse by way of being stuck in an previously-abandoned missile silo for around a month after the Event
  • An eschatological apocalypse (a “what if Supernatural/Constantine/The Prophecy/Legion went horribly wrong” scenario) that featured “slow” zombies
  • A realistic (that is, not “cinematic”), procedural campaign (my call, for my own GMing comfort), with no guarantees of success or survival

I decided to let everyone know, up front, how the Event went down:

It starts with the appearance of some sort of structure (Ref: Conquest Icons from Chronicles of Riddick) in the middle of major cities (as it turns out, worldwide). Shortly after, a disturbing, loud “horn” is heard (Ref: Tripods’ “horn blast”-War of the Worlds), repeated seven times. Then everyone on the planet “blacked out” for what would be determined (on analogue clocks) to be 11 hours, 38 minutes; also, any electronic device with a circuit board was fried. Every city wherein the Icon appeared bore evidence of a massive nuclear explosion. Within 24 hours of the Event, the recently dead are seen coming back to life, seeking human victims; they spread infection to other humans, and wither plant-life, and those infected exhibited signs of increased paranoia and aggression, resulting in widespread rioting and small-scale warfare. By the end of 4 weeks, world population is down ~60%, as a result of war, death, plague and famine; nobody has a clue why any of it happened, but the running theory is that “our time was up.”

It’s noteworthy that this is the first appearance in the Daniverse of the Hosts of Heaven™ and Hell™. They would be depicted in a more-traditional “mythological” role (as typically depicted in modern cinema), with a bit of a mix of (movie) Thor’s “extradimensional advanced aliens” and Babylon 5's Vorlon/Shadow war—but that’s really irrelevant for the time being, as what’s happened has happened, and humanity is just trying to move on in the aftermath (though they would undoubtedly become involved later).

Campaign Tropes

After the End, Crapsack world, Zombie Apocalypse, Slept Through the Apocalypse, Late to the Tragedy, Action Survivor

Dramatis Personæ

Who played who, who they met there, and who tried to kill them

Player Characters

Player: Shelley (Lab_Rat)
Liz Cavalier

Player: Phil (Rigil Kent)
Garrett Dillahunt

Player: Nate (WxMan)
Jamie Hyneman

Player: Chris (DefiantBudah)
James Storm

Player: Mike (Mike E)
Bob Stephenson

Execution

What I planned to do, and how I planned to do it

Regarding my usual struggle with improvisation, I was encouraged by several online articles on the subject (this one, this one, and this one), I decided that, with judicious use of random table systems, a sandbox campaign might be feasible. I had access to some All Flesh Must Be Eaten material, and the core Twilight 2000 books, which were combined into a single web-based random generator (here), combined with the use of Google Earth, and other online resources. For inspiration, I watched a lot of post-apocalypse movies and TV series, some of which are really bad (*coughrevolution* :P ), but I forced myself to persevere, for the sake of the art. In fact, the little planning I had in mind for the future was to take scenes and elements from the shows I’d watched and play them out for the PCs, to see what manner of choices they might make in the place of the usual protagonists. Another result of the sandbox-nature of the campaign was the requirement for the players to communicate what they intended to do in the next session and beyond after a given session had ended, which we did via the message boards, as usual. I have always encouraged “player agency” in my games, but I wanted to take it a step further in this case, and involve the players in generating as many of the details as suitable opportunities presented.

Conceptually, the plan was to start with the run-of-the-mill “zombie apocalypse” stuff, and start to slowly fold in the “Angels v Demons” stuff as it went on. The campaign as a whole, as is usual for me, was going to be a mash-up of all the post-apocalyptic shows/games I could squeeze in. For example, the nuked cities were ripped from Jericho, and the post-nuke world was a merging of Jericho and Revolution—additionally, I ripped the “Blackout” concept from Flashforward and mixed in a Revolution-like disabling of electronics (which would normally be interpreted as EMP); after-effects of the blackout would serve as my absent-player mitigator. As the collaboration process resulted in the reality-show schtick, it was logical to base the details of the show on the real post-apocalypse reality show, The Colony. For the missile silo, I ended up looking for silos for sale online, and randomly determining which one we would use, ended up in Bushong, Kansas (the Atlas-E coffin-launch site wasn’t the “kind” I wanted, but it really didn’t matter, since I didn’t expect them to spend that much time there). I expected the early sessions to cover a rather short period of game-time, that would gradually spread out as it got further along.

  • We had invited a new guy, Adam, to join the group, just as this campaign was about to start, but life took him another direction before the official kickoff that resulted in his never showing up; so, I took advantage of the situation and repurposed his character
  • Inspired by the myriad game-blogs, GURPS or otherwise, that I had encountered prior to this campaign, I decided to start a game-blog for the Daniverse, and keep a full log of the in-game events, for the benefit of the gaming community
  • This was the first of my campaigns to feature use of the tarot as a primary content-generation method, for NPC personalities and events, condition of found items and buildings, conversation topics, etc. I had a site bookmarked that had some helpful interpretations of the cards that I kept for reference; as of this writing, I’m still not to the point of being able to interpret the cards without help, but I have been improving in that regard
  • Along with the tools for generating the random elements of the game, this campaign featured my work on some quite-complex spreadsheets, courtesy of Google Docs, as I have continued to become more proficient in their use. One such spreadsheet was generate a more realistic-feeling list of items found by scavenging abandoned buildings. Another was designed to track Fatigue loss based on hunger and exertion from the alternate rules in GURPS WWII-Red Tide, p. 96 (such that the players never need bother with it). I love playing with spreadsheets, for reasons I could not begin to fathom
  • Rather than generating random weather, I used real, web-available, archived weather data for the region, from 2003
  • I used the zombie stats from Horror/Monster Hunters 3, slightly modified (after the start, due to some in-game incidents that highlighted some issues): I added Supernatural Durability (B89); Skinny (B18); Reduced HP (using HP given minus a d6). I also ended up reducing their Move from 4 to 3, as they seemed a little too fast (to the players) for “slow” zombies. My plan was to keep the zombies around for a while, and then remove them (possibly due to PC actions) later
  • As part of my usual bevy of GMing experiments, I intended to use a modified form of the “Relationships” mechanic from Cortex’s Smallville RPG. The purpose: to provide attachment-points for potential “drama” and encourage interaction with close NPCs
  • Another GMing experiment was the “Humanity” mechanic, inspired by my previous conversion of the so-named WoD mechanic, combined with the “Power Corrupts” mechanic from Horror, p.146. In short, I would be keeping a tally of zombie kills, and other non-mundane actions taken by the PCs, and as they accumulated, the players would make Will checks to prevent converting them into Disadvantages and such that represent their loss of humanity. The purpose: to represent the slow slide into callous indifference that typifies apocalypse survivors in cinema
  • Worth mentioning is an older idea I had, that is, putting the Battlestar Galactica (new) cast in place of a small post-apocalypse town. I had planned to use it in a couple of campaigns that didn’t see production, so I was looking forward to getting the chance here (though I wanted to take plenty of time before getting there…see below)

Synopsis

Where the Players went, who they saw, and what they conquered

What follows here is a brief breakdown of in-game events as they occurred. Click here for the complete session logs.
Session 101
  • Pregame: PCs were in the middle of filming the series, when due to happenstance, the six of them ended up stuck in the silo. The show’s crew tried to free them, but after 24 hours or so, nothing more was heard from the crew
  • PCs had been stuck in the silo for 28 days when an earthquake woke them in the early-morning darkness. They found Kesler unconscious, and had to rig a harness to carry him out of the overhead escape hatch
  • Spotted a shadowy figure in a long coat walking down the road away from the site, but decided to wait for the sun to rise before moving out
  • Made their way to the production camp, carrying Kesler on a jury-rigged stretcher. Streets were empty. At the camp, spotted listless-folk wandering about (thinking them zombie actors for a show “twist”), discovered their true zombie nature upon closer inspection and ended up running frantically away, toward the town of Bushong across the road
  • Found more zombies wandering around town, and avoided them
  • Encountered the Bushong Church surrounded by zombies trying to get in; PCs assumed someone alive was in there, and a couple circled around back to try to gain entrance. A brief zombie beat-down later, the back door was opened by a survivor who beckoned them all inside—the Nurse from the show
Session 102
  • The Nurse, Matthew West, pronounced Kesler dead, caught them up on the 28 missing days, including the blackout; rise of zombies; nuked Lawrence, KS; bands of gunslinging crazies, etc.
  • Ann collapsed to unconcsiousness; Matthew diagnosed as blackout “aftershock”
  • Korbin and Nicholas went out to the water tower to get a bird’s-eye view of the town, looking for a potential vehicle; spotted a suitable truck
  • Kesler left in the basement of the church as the rest went out to get to the truck; Ann brought along on a stretched provided by Matthew; avoided zombies on the road across town
  • Korbin and Wes got the truck started while the others pilfered the house to which it belonged. Truck started fine, and they headed out of town
  • Passed the production camp on the way out; thought about going in, but it was overrun with zombies
  • Turned left on US56, away from Lawrence
  • Entered Council Grove about 15min away; stopped at a Napa Auto Parts store, w/ a liquor store across from it
Session 103
  • Wes & Korbin scoured the auto-parts store for stuff to keep the truck going, while Nick & John checked across the street for some booze. Matthew kept watch over Ann, in the truck bed
  • Handful of armed, hispanic gangbangers jumped out of hiding in the liquor store, demanded the truck; John convinced them it was crap, & led them out to have a look at it; Ann had awakened
  • Wes & Korbin hear the commotion, look for weapons in the store; Wes finds a sawed-off shotgun under the counter
  • Korbin brings tools, emerges from the store, leads some of the gangers down the road a bit, to see about getting another vehicle working for them
  • Zombies showed up; gangbangers spray & pray, hitting little, but Nick & John use some of their spare weapons to take the zombies down, with eventual help from the others. Gangbangers scattered to the wind, leaving all their stuff behind; loot includes food & weapons, believed stolen from other survivors
  • Piled back into the truck and moved West, stopping to siphon fuel off the truck Korbin was going to fix up for the gangbangers, and to loot some maps from a gas station on the way
  • Crossed the river mid-town and ducked into a nearby garage to avoid the oncoming rain-storm
Session 104
  • PCs waited out the storm in the garage; sorted through the loot, distributed weapons, ate
  • Nick wanted to find a radio station or something; found a candidate in a phone book. The group also wanted to find a police station; located on map
  • Headed out after storm slacked off, toward County Complex; stopped at Ace Hardware to loot—made off with some flashlights
  • At County Complex, found sherriff’s station boarded up & fortified, w/ no sign of life and zombies incoming, so they decided to move on, to the telecommunications company
  • Found telecomm co. at the edge of town. Offices surrounded by scattered zombies, some trying to get into an office building—assume survivor(s) inside. John & Nick try to sneak in, while the others draw zombies away with the truck. John & Nick end up breaking a side window to gain entrance, find carnage, but quiet. Nick yells, “Marco!” and is answered with, “Go away!” Nick occupies a zombie attracted to the yelling while John talks the survivor into leaving with them. The survivor, Rush Renner, an admin at the company, offers to help with getting a radio working
  • Group heads over to the utility shack next to the antenna behind the complex, gets the generator working; Korbin starts messing with the radio, trying to find signs of life
Session 105
  • Korbin scans the radio while the others watch for zombies; Rush fills the group in on his post-Event story, reveals rumour of some who “dreamed” during the Blackout, other nuked cities, other rumours
  • John & Wes look around the complex for a vehicles, find a usable trailer
  • Hum of the generator had attracted zombie attention over time; Team decides to leave in a hurry. Truck is driven around and hooked up to trailer in the nick of time
  • Head West on US56; when stopped to move cargo around, Korbin blacks out
  • Moving slowly, looking for life-signs, they spot movement at a farmhouse, decide to approach with caution
  • Meet scruffy-looking, ill-equipped (but armed) band, led by Jack “Jackal” Elliot, part of an organized patrol from Harveyville that got separated and lost—John deduced they had been left intentionally. Look over maps & determine it’s 40 miles back to the East. John offers to take them back to Harveyville; Jackal reluctantly agrees
  • Long, boring drive back East
  • Arrive at Harveyville to find them prepping for a mass-exodus
Session 106
  • PCs welcomed by Harveyville as Samaritans; Jackals not-so-much. Jack sucker-punches Saul Tyson for leaving his crew behind. Some townsfolk suffering from an illness; Matthew diagnoses as a virulent strain of flu, warns everyone to stay away. Local police chief, Bill Adams, tells about plans to leave to find safety at a rumoured haven in Oregon, offers to put PCs up for the night at the empty church. Some townies convinced the flu is the onset of zombification, and want the sick put down
  • PCs visited in a dream by Kesler, tells them they were “saved” to gather the “untainted” somewhere safe
  • Awakened in the middle of the night by the dream, Ann and Korbin decide to patrol a bit, find the bus where the sick were quarantined on fire; immediately set about pulling out survivors and avoiding/killing zombies inside. Other PCs follow after hearing the commotion. In the end, a handful of sick escaped, some bitten (counted as “goners”); bus is a total loss
  • Evidence found of arson, but none to indicate a suspect
  • After sunup, town meeting is called to deal with the situation; Jackals accused of torching the bus, and have no real alibi. John observed Jack and decided he was probably innocent (of this), and spoke up for him before the townies, managing to convince the tribunal to drop the matter for lack of proof
  • Exodus gets under way, as the entire town loads up what can be onto their few vehicles, and start the long march to Oregon. PCs volunteer to help, and are tasked with scouting ahead in their truck
Session 107
  • Bill Adams advises PCs to head North for Wamego for medical supplies, and to be back with the convoy by dark. Matthew makes a list of drugs to look for, remains behind to tend the sick & injured. Rush remains behind, keeps their portable radio to scan when he can. Wes remains to look after the vehicles. Ann remains behind to help old folks keep moving. John, Korbin and Nick set out, headed North, as instructed
  • PCs stop at Alma to see what could be looted.
  • Find a small clinic mid-town, but find little there but a stripped truck of similar make as theirs; try to strip the wheels before a large gaggle of zombies reaches them.
  • Shot at by residents(?) on the way out of town; PCs decide it isn’t worth the trouble, and move on
  • Back on the highway, headed North, PCs encounter an abandoned Winnebago off the road. As they inspect it, the owner steps out of the woodline: a Catholic priest who has lost his faith and gone wandering. John talks him into waiting for their return from Wamego, to join the convoy
  • PCs cross the river into Wamego, find the town apparently deserted and in bad repair, with some fires and such in the distance. They follow the street-signs to the hopsital
Session 108
  • Back at the convoy, Wes is guarding the sick when one of them asks to speak to Bill Adams; Leonard informs Bill that he wants to be put down, and wants Bill to do it—Wes is taken along as a witness. In a nearby barn, Leonard is revealed to be possessed by a demon, and responsible for the bus fire. Bill shoots him when he lunges forward, at which point, the demon leaves Leonard, dead. Bill, now framed for murder of the sick Leonard, goes out to try to keep the matter quiet
  • Outside the barn, Kesler(?) takes Wes aside and tells him he is in danger, and “teleports” him to the Wamego hospital without warning, just as the truck is pulling up to the emergency entrance. John, Nick and Korbin aren’t sure what to make of Wes’ sudden appearance, but decide to table it for later
  • PCs start looting hospital, find quite a bit of stuff. Korbin accidentally causes some helicopter wreckage to fall, making a lot of noise, but revealing a fully stocked (but eletrically dead) ambulance; they start attempting to free the ambulance, intending to tow it, avoiding the zombies that start showing up
  • John & Nick find a survivor and bring him out to the ambulance. The survivor recognizes Wes, reveals he is the same demon that possessed Leonard, and the PCs are being used as bait to draw him out. Another man(?), Pyriel, “appears” and engages the demon, Abaddon, in a duel of words, ignoring the PCs presence except to tell them to run; PCs pile into the truck and flee, as a blinding light and rush of wind erupts behind them
  • PCs come to a stop at a safe distance away, and sort themselves out, before returning after the light dies down. Find a crater where the two had been standing. The ambulance is damaged, but still useful; they hook it up to the truck, and tow it out
  • PCs head back to the convoy, and find the priest at his Winnebago, surrounded by fallen zombies
Session 109
  • PCs lead the priest back to the convoy’s destination for the day, a high school
  • High school has been burned, with signs of arson; convoy moves in for the night anyway
  • Zombies show up in the middle of the night

Aftermath

What went right, what went wrong, and lessons learned

This campaign was a dichotomy: in some ways, a rousing success, and in others, a dismal failure.

The Good:

On the GM’s side of the screen, it worked out really well, overall. The workload was easy, enough so that I don’t expect that I will ever return to the old connect-the-dots story method unless I have to, and I really felt like I could sustain it indefinitely, as it was intended. The content-generation tools that I had available were either working well, or were improving; I was having a lot of fun with the tarot-based content, and was getting better at using it. As a result, the usual pre-game GMing “dread” wasn’t present. Keeping up the blog was more work than I expected, but I am satisfied with how it turned out, though only the gaming community (that have seen it) can say how useful/successful it truly is.

The Bad:

The players got bored, so much so that in the last session, so little was accomplished that we were forced to re-evaluate the situation. In hindsight, a number of factors were identified as contributing to the malaise. Most importantly, miscommunication about expectations all-around resulted in pregame choices that didn’t quite mesh with the intended theme of the campaign, and frustration at the way the game was being run/played, without which, the other bothersome details might have been less so.

  • I decided to use zombies out of convenience, but it turned out that everyone disliked them enough to be a drag on overall enjoyment—not to mention that “slow” zombies aren’t really enough of a true threat to make things exciting, in this setting, at least
  • Though the tools I had at my disposal made improvisation possible, it still required a bit too much “processing time” on my part
  • “Player Agency” can also take some getting used to on the player’s parts, and not everyone takes to it, odd as that sounds
  • The experiments I included never saw any use, so nothing was learned or imporoved; the purpose of those mechanics was to add more opportunities for roleplaying and “drama” that might have helped the overall situation, had they been used
  • My old nemesis, “Attendance,” was back in force; fewer than half the sessions were played with a full table, and there were multiple sessions delayed for lack of players
  • A number of my decisions regarding the setting kept giving me grief; specifically, the loss of 60% of the world’s population sounds like a lot until you do the “local” math, and a town with a pre-disaster population of 1000 now has 400 remining, which is quite a bit more than the typical apparent post-apocalypse survivor population, and messes with the “feel”

The Ugly:

Then the tarot had me introducing the “Convoy” far earlier in the process than I intended. PCs involved in an NPC group with a strong leadership tend to “follow,” rather than act on their own, in my experience—the opposite of what I wanted to encourage—and I wanted to delay that element until the characters had been better established. The Battlestar Galactica homage/ripoff didn’t come across to the group the way I intended, either—it was supposed to be amusing, but ended up looking like “lazy” GMing. It also ends up being more difficult to keep a PC group together in a large community like that, though it is easier to explain-away absent players.

The Result:

In the end, there was enough bad feelings toward the way it all turned out that I couldn’t justify picking it up again later without major changes to both the setting and the PCs. It’s more likely that it will not return. And that’s too bad, because it still has a great deal of potential. If I had to do it over again:

  • I would push a 250CP Action-standard for starting characters, to make sure everyone’s sufficiently competent
  • I would use “fast” zombies, like 28 Days Later or (movie) World War Z—much more of a threat
  • I would use the GURPS “generic” weaponry—not enough gun nuts in this group, plus it’s faster
  • I would have a much lower survivor population, at least around the start point, and a much higher (possibly unrealistic) zombie population
  • I would not hold back the meat-grinder, from the start

GMs Only

Downloads forthcoming.

Player Comments

Critical acclaim, heckling, and other comments from the Peanut Gallery

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