When I first saw The Road Warrior, I was too young, and it blew my mind. The idea of the present world being cast down, all of its conventions and culture swept away, only a stout or fortunate few remaining, and a new world blooming from the carcass of the old was beyond compelling. Not to mention the jury-rigged cars and leather jackets.
I saw this in the late 1980’s. Nuclear war was in the air. Its post-apocalyptic outcomes were a palpable threat. I was too young to feel the brunt of this anxiety—I could only comprehend bits and pieces—but I latched hard onto the post-apocalyptic mythos through movies, stories, and whatever I could find. Roleplaying games were my preeminent pastime though, so I longed for a way to explore these evocative settings in the same way. Unfortunately, Gamma World wasn’t available. I couldn’t get a hold of Twilight 2000 or any other suitable rpg in that vein, so I did what any enterprising and naïve young man in my situation would: I decided to make my own.
Now this was years after The Road Warrior and all of that. The nuclear threat had eased as the Cold War winded down. It was firmly the 1990’s, at least 1991, and I’d been happily immersed in fantasy games for most of that; but those post-apocalyptic dreams still stirred, and D&D couldn’t bring them to life. So Wasteworld was born. I filled at least one notebook with lore, maps, npcs, and even a module.
I remember being very proud of how “professional” it seemed. It felt like I was crafting something real, something special—and it was special in that no other 8th grader in my school was creating a role playing game (that I knew of). I had only seen under the hoods of a few rpgs at that point, but Wasteworld didn’t use a typical d20 system. I seem to remember it using something with percentile dice, but I might be imagining that. I’m sure whatever youthful engine I’d created wouldn’t have passed muster with any serious system today, however, it worked well enough that my friends and I played several times through the summer leading up to high school.
I can’t remember much of the lore other than it was a generic wasteland type world, but I do remember a good deal about the “starter” module. It involved a smallish city, destroyed by whatever apocalypse had taken place, the PC’s were there and had to survive. A warlord named Degrassio had arisen. He’d gathered a small army and barricaded some type of fortress out of the surrounding chaos—maybe an old high school, prison, or military base. They called it the Degrassio Dictatorship. They had electricity from generators, food, water, medicine, and lots of patrols combing the ruin outside of the compound, looking for pesky survivors who would either be killed or used as forced labor to further Degrassio’s malevolent aims. PC’s could either try to join up with Degrassio (bad) or make an enemy out of him (worse).
One PC had a base inside a wrecked car with it’s tail-end sticking out of a junk heap. He could get in and out through the trunk which led to a cave-like inner sanctum where he stashed his gear and could dodge the Degrassio patrols. Another PC lived in the safe corner of the collapsing and therefore ignored upper floor of a ruined 10 story building. I seem to remember a car chase/fight similar to something from a Mad Max movie occurring at least once.
The PC’s eventually overthrew Degrassio by breaking into the compound, picking off the guards and taking him out (or chasing him off).
Thinking back, the module seemed to be a pastiche of Beyond Thunderdome, Defcon 4 (a lesser-known entry in the genre), and Terminator futurism. In retrospect, it was all very grimdark, though probably not outside the bounds of a 13 year-old’s imagination.
I continued to tinker with Wasteworld until my 9th grade year, but I eventually tucked it away and moved on to other dreams.
As I was thinking back on this long ago endeavor, I began to wonder what it was I found so appealing about the genre, other than the aforementioned things, which are arguably surface deep. I think it was because it was something I felt I could understand. I was leaving the invisibility of childhood and being clothed with a distinct personality. Soon there would be an expectation to deliver on all of my potential. It was terrifying. I didn’t understand how the world worked or how I fit in to it. The thought that all of that fear and confusion could be extinguished and replaced with a new situation? I was sold. Of course, my friends and family would have been of the stout or fortunate ones.
It wasn’t until I’d aged a few more years, built my own things, invested in communities and poured into the lives of others that I finally understood. Someone faraway could end it all with the push of a button. That was the true terror.
Upon that realization, I lost interest in Wasteworld and the places like it.
But that’s too apocalyptic of an ending; let’s land somewhere else.
I think those dark dreams served a better purpose. They were dark, but hopeful. Yes, maybe the world would disappear, but it might appear again as something new. Some of us thought it was better to explore this new world than lament the old one for too long. Maybe all of those dreams had a positive effect? I don’t know, but the more I think about it, it might not be a bad idea to visit those places again.
Adam Glass is Head of Operations at Seven Day Games, which is a fancy way of saying he writes emails all day and plans meetings in his spare time. The resident rpg historian, he has a long past with Dungeons & Dragons and has been playing various rpgs since his childhood in the 1980s.