Apocalyptic settings were one of many topics at Convergence. Randall made the comment that every post-apocalypse game we’ve played are essentially the same. As usual, he’s correct and made me consider the topic. Every PA game we’ve played with the exception of Cyberpunk have been temporally set directly at or right after the apocalypse.
Fixing a game at the outset of civilizations downfall forces the similarity of the games. No matter if it is a military invasion, a nuclear war, aliens or zombies, at the outset everyone is focused on immediate survival. Additionally, every game master has chosen to make the players play themselves as characters. Except the player’s families have been expunged from the game to lessen obvious choice to go save each family.
The time frame of the setting is a primary contributor to similarity. Doing so forces an immediacy of action onto the players. Failure to act results in an increment to the casualty counter. The downside is that the world around the players is complete chaos. Loot to survive, make questionable moral choices, and repeat. The availability of actions is quite constrained.
Playing yourself is an old idea. I pulled that card at least a half dozen times in the past. Cool to do a few times but grows tiresome quickly. We don’t play games to play ourselves. Players want to be something different. Not necessarily larger than life at all times but creating a persona is key to role playing. Self-play is definitely #2 on similarity contributor list. Expunging history is only meaningful if you want to eliminate the obvious. Allowing players to play something other than themselves reopens the history space without the detriment of the widely known player actions.
Shifting the time frame would encourage a different style game. Letting the dust settle on the PA environment would allow a new sense of ‘normalcy’ to settle in. Characters wouldn’t have to worry about the immediacy of surviving but would already know how to acquire food, water, and shelter. The focal point of the game could then shift from survival to other topics. Perhaps eradicating the source of the zombie infection; leading a tipping-point revolt against the invading army; re-establishing the rule of man in a mutant future or many other ideas.
Over arching play is hard to achieve in PA settings. The ideas are too easily imagined. Realism has its limits when you cannot decouple entirely. There are games to play in the PA realm but mostly I think they are a few sessions at best. Fillers. Nothing wrong with that.