Stephen Lee’s 7 of the Best: Inspirational Post-Apocalyptic Films and Television Shows for Tabletop RPG Adventures and Campaigns
Written by Stephen Lee
Welcome to a plethora of key films and television shows from across the ages that I found inspirational, in an Appendix-N sort of way. Are these good movies and television shows? Perhaps. It really depends on what you hope to get out of them. Here follows a different perspective, from the vantage point of one who designs post-apocalyptic games (and not simply that of one who patronizes their local theater.) I hope you enjoy the read. If many of you find this interesting or of value, I may do a few more on Artificial Intelligence, sentient machines, redoubts, Androids, or space installations.
Denoting or relating to the time following a nuclear war or other catastrophic event.
Slipstream/Slipstream Bounty Hunter (1989, 2000)
The 1989 film stars Bill Paxton who has appeared in many apocalyptic and/or post-apocalyptic movies. Mark Hamill appears in it too (yes, that Mark Hamill,) along with Bob Peck and Kitty Aldridge (in what was a great role for her.) Together they take us into a post-apocalyptic world where the surface is destroyed and deadly to most life. Survivors exist in a river valley of sorts, in the cliffs above a winding river, below the slipstream (a river of wind that runs just above the canyon valley.)
In this world, we see numerous types of societies and survivors ranging greatly in technology level from stone age, to communities with flight, to Android enclaves, to wind-worshiping cults. A government (of sorts) exists somewhere upstream where Tasker (Mark Hamill) and Belitski (Kitty Aldridge) come from as “law enforcement” seeking to capture an android (Bob Peck) on the run. The android was captured by bounty hunter Matt Owens (Bill Paxton) who hopes to cash in on the bounty to fund his dream of going down the slipstream. Every aspect of this movie lends itself well to most post-apocalyptic games from Mutazoids to Gamma World to fallen colony worlds out on the fringe.
Android Apocalypse (2006)
In this brutal future, the surface of the world is a vast desert ruled by a handful of ruthless people. Machines have risen higher than humans as they are the force keeping the human population in line.
The story follows a human and an android: the human sentenced to prison for ‘killing’ an android, and the android sentenced for deactivation/reprogramming for caring about humans. The film is basically a survival movie that shows the uprising against the oppressors. Interesting robots and technology. One of the few post-apocalyptic worlds where robots herd humans rather than hunt them to extinction. If you want a gritty survival world where danger lurks around every bend in the road, this movie has a lot that may inspire you.
Logan’s Run (1976) Movie and Series
For those who love post-apocalyptic movies where a select group lives in luxury while the outside world burns, Logan’s Run is for you.
The film shows the typical enforcers (sandmen) and the rebels (runners,) with the latter seeking a mythical paradise. The television series which followed the film shows a wonderful array of post-apocalyptic sites along the road, populated with humans, mutants and androids. Each place has its own unique issues and the characters are often able to improve the lot of those they encounter before moving on down the road. All of these serve as fine examples of a good post-apocalyptic adventure (and having a pursuing force like the sandmen can keep a group moving further into the badlands.)
Damnation Alley (1977)
This film presents a solid “post-nuclear war” Earth. The opening is in modern-day, so you’ll see both the beginning and the end of it all. The characters’ interaction with their world demonstrates how different character types can pull together to leverage each other’s skills and talents to overcome the things they encounter. Other inspirational aspects of the film include mutant insects, apocalyptic weather events, road agents, and a great post-apocalyptic vehicle. Locations of their encounter demonstrate one way to present adventures in post-apocalyptic areas like Las Vegas, ruined cities, junk yards, and other fun places along the apocalyptic road.
[Editor’s Note: American viewers (of a certain age) are likely to recognize both Jan-Michael Vincent and George Peppard in this film. Observant viewers will also spot a young Jackie Earle Haley. – TC]
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
The films and the television series were quite good and certainly groundbreaking for their day. This 1970 offering presented viewers with a conflict between genocidal apes bent on destroying all of humanity set against mutant humans who live below the ground. The mutant humans have a range of mental powers and worship the holy nuke. All of this makes for wild post-apocalyptic campaign inspiration. The story itself has great potential as a game setting actually, with endless post-apocalyptic encounters beyond Ape City and the Forbidden Zone.
[Editor’s Note: The set designs in this film were astounding; especially that of the New York City subway system. – TC]
Screamers I, II, III (1995, 2009, TBD)
On a distant world ravaged by a decade of war, scientists create the ultimate weapon, the autonomous mobile sword (AMS). Self-evolved artificially intelligent self-replicating machines are out to kill every living thing without a tab. They seek to kill all the humans on Serius 6b and then make their way to Earth. Two small opposing groups, survivors of the decade long war between their people, join forces for survival against the machines.
The second film takes the story 13 years into the future where a new team lands on Serius 6b and the fun begins again. Using this as a starting point, a campaign setting wherein the group must battle invasions of these machines on various worlds provides a memorable backdrop for an ongoing campaign.
Shadows of this type of machine evolution is seen in The Lost 77 Worlds RPG source book: Apocalyptic Mars. One of the things I like about Screamers, other than the AMS, is the setting of the poorly-resupplied team hanging on for a cause, facing the fact they were betrayed, and setting out to end the war on their little planet only to find a bigger enemy.
Genesis II (1973)
Long after Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry did a series of three post-apocalyptic movies. Technically, Star Trek is a post-apocalyptic show that takes place well after the recovery of the nuclear war on Earth.
Planet Earth and the better movie Strange New World are variants along with Genesis II of the same general story line. Genesis II shows a vast world subway system that takes the characters to different places where they deal with post-apocalyptic societies and issues. Like many films and television shows from this era, they show future human society as having lost some vital element that makes life worth living. In some respects, they may be right. Rather than a stargate taking one around the universe, Genesis II does a great job putting the characters into places scattered around the planet using the world subway system. As such, it’s a worthwhile addition to any post-apocalyptic campaign world.
The Starlost (1973)
A great example of a post-apocalyptic space setting. The ship is damaged and heading for destruction. The crew is dead. The systems are beginning to break down in different ways. Humanity has been divided into domes to represent every facet of society on old Earth. Most have long forgotten they are on a spacecraft. They either fear anything beyond their domes or are simply ignorant of anything outside. The Starlost follows an exile and his two reluctant companions on a journey through the ship, in an effort to correct its course and save the human race. Dominating computers, violent society leaders, mildly insane individuals in the tubes, many technological and society dangers to overcome along the journey and, yes, even aliens played by Walter Koenig of Star Trek and Babylon 5. The Starlost has a few good examples of how to build isolated societies and handle rogue technology in a post-apocalyptic game.
This short-run television series is worthy of a mention, not for the overall background, but for the various alien worlds they visit. Like in Star Trek, these worlds are all unique and most are in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event. These apocalyptic events range from infected societies capturing travelers for scientific experiments to long dead societies still plagued by that which ended them. Charters happening on such worlds end up having to deal with the cause of the apocalypse rather than just looting a world. I enjoyed this series a lot. For apocalyptic space adventures, Crusade provides a lot of good ideas. Besides, everyone loves a well-played Techno-Mage.
Firefly (2002) & Serenity (2005)
This visionary story sets a stage for an apocalyptic space campaign. Serenity is an expanded story for Firefly. The first 15 minutes occurs before the television series starts and the rest of the film occurs years after the point in the story where the television series left off.
Reavers (a cannibalistic space-faring cult) and an overly brutal progressive government overshadow the universe while the dark heroes move from planet to planet, dealing with issues at each planet along the way and trying to make enough profit on their smuggling operations to just keep flying. Excellent unique character types and a mix of societies at different technology levels makes for an entertaining journey down their particular apocalyptic road. This show demonstrates high technology is not even necessary for a good adventure.