Recently I leafed through an odd disaster novel from the early 1950s: John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes. Its scenario:
Mysterious extraterrestrials touch down into the oceans and settle in their abysses, in locations where no man can go. Apparently they need to live under great pressure. They then start to “terraform” the earth to suit their interests, which causes severe climate change and rising sea levels. The novel spans about ten years in an early Cold War political situation. The paranoid distrust between the Soviet bloc and the West harms all attempts to joint countermeasures against the invaders. Nuclear weapons, jet aircraft and submarines, cutting-edge technologies of that era, play important roles.
The author uses several smart literary techniques.
I. The humans never come to understand what or who the invaders are. There is no communication, no encounters. The alien are only observed through their actions, possibly carried out by biological machinery that can withstand the low-pressure conditions at the ocean surface.
II. The protagonists are a married couple, two British journalists that monitor the developments for their employer during the ten years. Their profession gives them a plausible reason for witnessing so many of the horrifying events that occur in widely separated places across the globe.
III. Mankind is the underdog and our scientists have a hard time investigating what is going on in the black abysses. The invaders have of course a similar problem in monitoring land and air developments, but they possess a notable technological upper hand. After all, they travelled through space to reach Earth. The in-story scientist speculate that they are from the interior of Uranus or Neptune.
IV. The story ends in a question mark. The slow-motion disaster reaches an end: the Earth’s face has changed significantly while a large percentage of the global population has perished through hunger and disease. It is not clear what kind of future will come, though the protagonists harbour a quiet hope of some sort of reconstruction of a human civilization.
The book’s scenario has good potential for a bleak long-term role-playing campaign. Most civilization-shattering disasters in films and books are high-speed events: the meteor in Deep Impact; the geological calamity in the 2012 movie; the sudden ice age in The Day After Tomorrow; the plague in the Earth Abides novel. Most post-disaster role-playing games use similar concepts, i.e. Twilight 2000 and Aftermath. Their campaigns therefore usually emphasize surviving in the low-tech aftermath, rather than handling the disaster itself.
In this scenario, the main characters instead face a slow-moving multifaceted catastrophe during which they have time to think, to plan, to counter-act and to rebuild. Even though the Earth as a whole perhaps cannot be saved, parts of the world may be spared serious devastation through the characters’ cleverness and competence*.
It may be an advantageous move to limit the campaign to a regional scope, rather than giving it a global one. The player characters would be a part of public or corporate organization trying to understand what is going on and what to do about it. The characters face alien phenomena, a deteriorating climate and hostile political adversaries beyond the Iron Curtain. If you look back at the early 1950s, Stalinist Russia was a state characterized by paranoia, extreme secrecy, ruthlessness and opportunism. Outsiders would have had a very hard time to predict what action the men in the Kremlin would take to secure their position.
The game master therefore has great opportunities to create challenging scenarios of many different kinds. Any low-key skill-oriented game system that handles modern technology is useful.
*See my thoughts on “Verne-ian” protagonists in the “The World Is Not Enough” post.