“The world blew up in a thousand atomic fireballs.” – Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards (1977)
“Books (including tomes, librams and manuals), artifacts, and relics are of ancient manufacture, possibly from superior human or demi-human technology, perhaps of divine origin; thus books, artifacts, and relics cannot be made by players and come only from the Dungeon Master.” – Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979)
“Two thousand years later, Earth is reborn. A strange new world rises from the old: a world of savagery, super-science, and sorcery!” – Thundarr the Barbarian (1980)
There’s a campaign I’d love to run someday that dives joyfully into the implications of an idea that’s been around since the beginning of the tabletop fantasy roleplaying hobby: that the characters explore and have adventures in a post-apocalyptic world built atop the ruins of long dead, highly advanced civilizations. The idea originated long before Gary Gygax, of course—his inspirations included M.A.R Barker’s world of Tékumel and Jack Vance’s Dying Earth—and is expressed today in RPGs such as Numenera from Monte Cook Games.
Post-apocalyptic adventure is already baked into 13th Age: the default setting has 12 previous ages, after all. But the default vibe is fantasy with bits of science fiction here and there, rather than the science fantasy campaign I’m imagining. So, how would I give 13th Age a strong “swords, super-science, and sorcery” feeling?
Here’s how I’d think about a post-apocalyptic science fantasy campaign, one that I’ll refer to in this post as Gamma Draconis.
- The world is old, and haunted by the ruins, relics, and memory of long-dead “Ancients”.
- Many of the civilizations of the Ancients were incredibly advanced technologically, even by our standards.
- The people of this world live amid the devastation of a global catastrophe that ended the most recent of the great civilizations hundreds or thousands of years ago.
- The world feels weird: the sky is a strange color, the weather is dangerous and wildly unpredictable, and a lot of things are trying to kill you.
- Monsters and humanoids are the result of genetic engineering, interplanetary travel, mutation, and extraterrestrial invasion.
- The player characters are heroes who represent hope amid the tragedy and horror of this world.
- Technology ranges from Stone Age (isolated wildlands dwellers, nomads of the irradiated wastes) to Iron Age (the largest and most prosperous cities).
- People also make use of technology and magic which was created long ago, but which they no longer understand.
- No distinction is made between science and magic; the two are ultimately indistinguishable.
There are many options for icons in my imagined Gamma Draconis campaign. I’m drawn to the idea of using the icons in the 7 Icon Campaign from 13th Age Monthly adjusted to reflect a post-apocalyptic tone, and the mix of magic and far-future technology:
The Deathless Queen: A combination of the Diabolist and the Lich King, she rules a subterranean realm of the undead: once-living humanoids animated by technology and dark wizardry She has allied herself with malevolent beings known as demons, whose catastrophic arrival via portals (“hellholes”) from the dimension known as the Abyss destroyed the last great human civilization. The living in her realm endure her reign in terror and numb despair, or hope for the immortality that she alone can grant.
The Engineer: A combination of the Dwarf King and the Crusader, the Engineer sends his people out all over the world to slay demons and undead, and bring the ancient technology they guard back to the citadel of Forge to be studied and mastered.
I might give dwarf PCs, and/or PCs who have a relationship with the Engineer, the option to spend Background points on “Engineer”. This Background adds a bonus to figuring out relics, and a 5-point Engineer can try to repair or recharge broken or depleted relics.
The Invincible Emperor: A villainous merger of the Emperor and the Great Gold Wyrm, this cruel, decadent tyrant—an immortal being once human, now almost completely dragonic—rules the Dragon Empire from his throne in the Golden Citadel. His dragon-riding paladins enforce his will and crush his enemies.
The Hierophant: A combination of the Priestess and the Archmage, she is actually an ancient artificial intelligence that resides within the Cathedral—a massive structure that towers over Horizon, City of Wonders—where she is tended by her arcanite servants. She grants heroic clerics and wizards a portion of her power to help aid and protect the helpless. Her wards prevent demons and undead from ravaging across the land, for now.
The Three in Shadow: The slithering reptilian powers known as the Sorcerer Queen (the Blue), the Prince of Shadows (the Black), and the Great Beast (the Red) each prey on civilization in their own way, but are united in a powerful bond. For the desperate and downtrodden, their aid can be welcome—though it always comes with a hidden agenda.
The Warlord: Replacing the Orc Lord, the Warlord unites the creatures of the savage wastelands under his banner, and dreams of sitting on the Emperor’s golden throne. He might be a heroic rebel, or a Mad Max: Fury Road style villain—or something more abbiguous.
The Wild Queen: This combination of the Elf Queen and the High Druid is the soul of those wild, green places where beasts, trees, and elves dwell. Her elves embody three sorts of wild things: wildlife (wood elves), the wild cosmos (high elves), and the inner wild (drow).
Available PC Races
Any race could be in this campaign, either explained as mutations or genetic engineering, or simply allowed to be with no reason given—like everything else in this world they began sometime in the distant and mysterious past, and survive into the present. But here are the ones that feel right to me:
Arcanite: Taken from the Book of Ages, these post-human servants of the Hierophant have been transformed by ongoing exposure to her arcane power. They look mostly human, but have odd cosmetic changes that mark them as something unusual—skin like polished silver, gemstones embedded in the face, glowing runes instead of eyes, and so on.
Beastblooded: Also from the Book of Ages, this race fills the role of part-human, part-beast people found in so many works of this genre.
Dwarf: The Engineer’s people. They might have originated in a long-ago age as an offshoot of humanity genetically engineered to operate in harsh environmental conditions.
Elf: Make them strange, and a little scary.
Forgeborn: The dwarves have figured out how to cobble together and reactivate ancient constructs from the parts they’ve found. Some are mindless machines; but others turn out to be, well, people.
Half-Elf: I might call them “elf-touched” or “Wild-touched” and have them be born to human parents in proximity to the Wild.
Lizardman: From Book of Ages. Monstrous characters who are extremely good at fighting are an excellent fit for this campaign! Dragonics and half-orcs definitely work, but I see a lot of potential in lizardfolk as the descendants of reptilian alien conquerors. Plus, I like their frenzy power—and the Epic tier feat that lets them move across water, up walls, and on ceilings makes them extra weird.
Space Fleet Explorer: From Book of Ages, these are stranded travelers from another universe who live in the hidden village of Commandule near Stardock. I would permit them as PCs very, very rarely because they actually understand the world they’re trapped in, and the items they encounter. I can see how it could be fun to have a character in the group who can say, “I think this is some kind of supercomputer,” but you miss out on the fun of Iron Age heroes trying to figure out a teleporter through trial and error.
Available PC Classes
I see no problem with including all of the classes from the 13th Age books published by Pelgrane Press, with any magic powers being the result of incredibly advanced technology or mutation (see below). I’m sure a lot of third-party classes also fit—some maybe exceptionally well.
Magic Items: Relics of the Forgotten Past
Long, long ago, the Ancients created wondrous items that can still be scavenged from ruins and wastelands. The knowledge of how to create these items—or even maintain and repair those that survived—is now lost, perhaps forever. It’s possible that people today use them in ways they were never intended: maybe the metal staff that fires a beam of killing light was originally some kind of cutting tool.
True Magic Items
In Gamma Draconis, “true magic items” are incredibly sophisticated relics that are virtually indestructible, and house powerful AIs capable of interfacing telepathically with those who are attuned to them. These relics form a network with other relics attuned to the same person. Perhaps the Ancients knew how to wield an unlimited number of relics, but in this post-apocalyptic world PCs are limited to a number of relics equal to their level. Go above that number and the telepathic AI network becomes so powerful they override the wielder’s own will and take control. Once a sufficient number of relics have been disconnected from the network, the user returns to normal. (Yes, this is identical to the game’s chakra system, just worded differently!)
Other relics of past ages can only be used once, whether by design, degradation, or because nobody really understands how to properly use them. Potions, oils, and runes become wholly mysterious substances that take effect when ingested or applied to armor or weapons. Items such as the Mask of Face-swapping, Lighting Quagmire, and Featherlight Skirt become ancient devices activated by voice or touch. I would take a lot of these from the lists of consumable items in Book of Loot and Loot Harder for these relics.
Depending on the kind of campaign you want to run, there could be a third type of relic between the (almost) indestructible true magic items, and one-use consumables. These relics degrade with use until they become junk—though the heroes might be able to find a powerful wizard/technologist who’s capable of repairing or recharging them, or scavenge a new power source from a ruin.
Here are three options to handle relic degradation mechanically:
Charges: When the heroes find a relic, a player rolls to see how many uses it has left. The GM assigns a die to the relic based on how well it’s been preserved, from 1d4 to 1d20. The relic has a number of uses equal to the result of the roll, and the player using it keeps track.
Escalation Roll: The method comes from the Book of Ages for 13th Age. After each battle, roll a d20; if the result is equal to or lower than the value of the escalation die at the end of the battle, the relic is broken, burned out, or otherwise permanently rendered useless.
Durability Roll: This method is adapted from Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells, published by Gallant Knight Games. The GM assigns the relic a Durability score from 1 to 5, with 5 representing a fully charged and functional relic. When the GM calls for a Durability Roll, the player rolls a d6 and compares the result to that score. On a result of less than or equal to that number, the item doesn’t deteriorate with use. A result higher than the Durability score means the relic’s Durability is reduced by 1. Once a relic’s Durability score reaches zero, it is unusable. How often the GM calls for Durability Rolls depends on how unforgiving they want their setting to be, ranging from once per use to once per adventure.
If “magic” items are actually advanced technology, how do you account for spellcasting? Any or all of these might be sources of spellcasting power in a science fantasy campaign:
Icons: Elevate the icons to near-godlike beings enhanced by ancient technology, mutation, or both, and have them bestow a portion of their power on certain followers, allies, and agents.
Alien gods and demons: Spellcasters are in contact with immensely powerful, inscrutable being from other dimensions of reality, which this benighted age calls gods and demons. Invoking the names of these beings enables you to wrap reality to your will.
Mutation: Some are born with special abilities which they can learn to channel to wondrous and devastating effect. There might be remote villages that consist entirely of such people, or they might be born seemingly at random from otherwise unremarkable parents.
Technology: The ancients left behind relics that can permanently change those who use them: substances that rewrite DNA, scrolls that reconfigure the brain, and microscopic nanotechnology that can be controlled and commanded by those who have learned the secret.
Invisible servitors: “Spells” are effects produced by near-omnipotent invisible beings whom the caster has learned to command or persuade. They could be other-dimensional creatures, energy constructs created by the ancients, powerful machines buried deep within the earth that can turn thought into reality (see the machines of the Krell in the movie Forbidden Planet), or something entirely different and surprising.
Honestly, pretty much anything goes here. I would probably reskin monsters from mythology to feel more alien—reptilian centaurs, redcaps that are murderous psionic mutants, ogre magi reinterpreted as other-dimensional aliens (which they pretty much already are), and so on.
If you’ve run anything like this, or have other ideas, I hope you’ll share them in the 13th Age Facebook group or on the Pelgrane Press Discord. (If you aren’t on the Discord, you can get an Invite link by dropping us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and asking for one.)
“Wade Says” designer symbol by Regina Legaspi
Art from The Dying Earth Revivification Folio by Ralph Horsley and Jérôme Huguenin
13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.