From the beginnings of human civilization, we have imagined our civilization’s end. The deluge story—common to many religious traditions—is one example of a catastrophe that threatens life on Earth. A final, cataclysmic battle like Armageddon or Ragnarök is another. And over the course of history, countless books, films, and tales in other media have explored myriad other scenarios.
So why do we choose to imagine such things?
There are many answers to this question, from human fascination with the sublime to Freud’s notion of the death drive. One of the most practical rationales is that fixating on danger grants a survival advantage; violent or hazardous events capture our attention because, by attending to them, we learn how to avoid harm.
As regular readers will know, I believe RPGs are tools for abstracting complex, large-scale concepts and making them accessible on the human scale. By engaging their challenges, we develop problem-solving skills that we can apply to real-world issues.
Obviously, global catastrophe is one of those issues, and current events continue to emphasize that it is not merely a flight of grim fancy; it is a very real, pressing problem, and every passing day brings us closer to confronting that reality, one way or another.
The way we engage with disaster is, to an extent, conditioned by how we engage it in our games. Here, I discuss a few games that center on apocalyptic scenarios and the revelations they deliver to players.
The centerpiece of Momatoes’ ARC is its Doomsday Clock. Depending on the desired length of the game—from one session to a longer campaign—the clock will count down at different speeds. But it will always count down in real time, creating genuine pressure on players to devise solutions and take action.
Alongside the quantitative countdown, ARC also features qualitative narrative progression through Omens, which mark major plot points leading up to the apocalyptic climax. The more Omens that are yet unfulfilled, the greater the Doomsday Clock’s likelihood of advancing further and faster.
ARC’s premise is that the PCs can counteract the imminent threat. If they fail, they have the option of turning back the clock and trying a different solution. Or even in defeat, they may still outlive the catastrophe, rebuild their world, and work to prevent further disasters.
In Pelle Nilsson and Johan Nohr’s Mörk Borg, the apocalypse is also on a countdown timer: the Calendar of Nechrubel. Each in-game day, the GM rolls a die; on a 1, a Misery befalls the Dying Land. When the seventh Misery occurs, the world ends along with the game.
The Calendar mechanic offers choices to GMs. Rolling a d100 will allow for very long games. Using a d6 will inevitably result in much shorter, more brutal experiences.
Some third-party content offer ways to accelerate, prevent, or even undo Miseries. Others exacerbate and facilitate Miseries.
Regardless of which die size and content you choose to incorporate into Mörk Borg, one thing remains certain: the end of the world isn’t a choice. It’s a way of life. The best the PCs can do is try to cope and take advantage of whatever time they have left.
Whereas ARC and Mörk Borg focus on the short-term buildup to cataclysm, Sophia Tinney’s Kingdoms initially situates players near the beginning of history. The game’s course will chronicle the rise and fall of their dynasties.
Like ARC, Kingdoms gives the DM options for how those civilizations end. They may fall to ravening hordes of undead or aberrations, the whims of a capricious deity, or a monstrous force of (un)nature.
Some of these can conceivably be fought and conquered. Or, at the GM’s discretion, there may be no single, spectacular event that calls doom down onto the world. Players are nominally cooperating, but their characters are in direct competition for rulership; in the end, the greatest threat to civilization’s continuity may not be an external aggressor but the internal antagonism of the characters themselves.
The World Is Ending and We Are Very Large Dogs
ARC, Mörk Borg, and Kingdoms are all narrative games, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t include at least one lyric game here. That lyric game is The World Is Ending and We Are Very Large Dogs by Eden.
The title tells you everything you need to know: the world is ending, and the player characters are all very large dogs. Together, they will create narratives, but the focus is sentimental; dogs don’t even have thumbs, let alone a way of overcoming the central, cataclysmic conflict.
Instead, the players narrate how they and their best friends are surviving in the build-up to the end. They devise ways the PCs can bring joy amidst utter despair. And they tell the story of how the dogs, at great risk to themselves, find ways to provide comfort to humans while a world not of their own making finally crumbles around them.
Making Sense of the End
In ARC, the point of the game is to fight against the end. In this sense, ARC is optimistic; it gives players the agency necessary to save the world if they are dedicated and clever enough. And even after failure, it provides options for continuing onward, holding out hope in any case.
For Mörk Borg players, though, there is no fighting the end—only waiting around for it. Whether clinging to false idealism or succumbing to nihilism, the characters have freedom to spend their time as they please. That time, however, is finite and inexorably fleeting.
Kingdoms is indifferent. An apocalyptic event is strongly encouraged but not mandated, and if it occurs, it can come in many forms. In short, the game doesn’t really care what happens to the characters. (The text itself sometimes directly condescends toward them.) No matter what, they are going to die, and the details are ultimately of little consequence.
The World Is Ending and We Are Very Large Dogs is resigned. Disaster looms, and there is—in the words of Samuel Beckett—“nothing to be done.” But there is, at least, still something we can do for other people as individuals, if not for society at large.
These games model very different attitudes toward global catastrophe. And even though we can tell ourselves “It’s just a game,” those models affect our cognition and will influence the way we treat real events. They’re training grounds for thought and action.
The games we play, and how we play them, are defining features of ourselves and our societies for as long as they last. Their value is, I think, analogous to what Christian Wiman finds in poetry: “…that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.”
This post was inspired by Kevin Rahman. Apologies for any errors or typos it contains. I wrote it very quickly. Who knows how much time we’ve got left?
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