Right, no fretting over the imperfections of last week’s post or missing my self-appointed Monday date with blogging. I may be a day (or two) late, but I’m here. Let’s get on with it, shall we?
For a very long time, I’ve had a vague idea about writing (or “telling”) a sort of apocalypse story. Not post-apocalyptic, but of an apocalypse, a story about the world directly before and during its end. But I also say “sort of” because—I suppose like many post-apocalyptic narratives—the world doesn’t actually end. The world as we know it ends; the world and its inhabitants undergo dramatic change, and the rules change (this is the important bit, to which I’ll return later). So to be more precise, I want to tell a story about the events leading up to the world-as-we-know-it falling apart, then paint the epic beauty that is that falling apart. I know, it’s been done, almost as often as all the stories about “the world after the fall”. What do I have new to offer, especially if my idea is only vague? Well, that’s a very important question that I’m going to set aside for a moment. Don’t worry, I don’t want to tell another zombie story. But I first want to dig into my current creative process here.
My vague ideas have followed numerous paths, often stopping before they start, so that despite reoccurring themes and concepts, I’ve never followed any one idea to its conclusive apocalypse. In fact, I often find myself more caught up in what happens before the end. Perhaps my wanting to tell this story is a bit like the millenarian Christian prophesies of Armageddon with which I grew up as a child; although ever present in my mind, just ahead in the near future, it never actually comes to fruition. Or perhaps I’m caught up in a particular zeitgeist—that portion of human civilization that seems hellbent on (the idea of) its own destruction.
I’ve also long been fascinated by dystopian sci-fi, a close cousin to apocalyptica. Dystopian visions of our near future portray civilization held in that transfixed horror of what could be (with the rules changed), and the only way out is to topple the world-as-we-know-it, to bring it all crumbling down. Dystopian and apocalyptic fiction both demand a struggle for survival in a world gone mad, but in dystopian visions of our future, an apocalypse brings hope.
A few years ago, my reoccurring desire to tell my own apocalypse story began to again take shape, in conjunction with desires to launch a new role-playing game campaign. Creative threads began to weave together, although the full vision remained unclear. But I knew I wanted to explore a superhero element in an X-Men meets X-Files story about uncovering the secrets of an inescapable “end times”, involving aliens, the supernatural, government and corporate conspiracy, and heroes who have to make tough moral decisions in the face of horrible truths. Sounds good, right?
So what did I do? Well, after a few false starts and distractions—including a year running a Mutant: Year Zero campaign (which I highly recommend, by the way)—I started to organize and fit my ideas into an existing game system. Mind you, the year before I started M:YZ, I’d been running a homebrew fantasy campaign, and I lost steam for the campaign in part because my adapted game mechanics were underdeveloped. Few things do I find more frustrating than constantly tripping over game mechanics when trying to make a story come to life. And tripping over game mechanics is inevitable if they’re unfinished.
So I decided, after some deliberation, to explore my new apocalypse story utilizing the Mutants & Masterminds 3rd Edition game system, rather than develop my own. Although M&M tends to be a little more tongue-in-cheek “flying men in capes” than my personal taste (my first visual of Storm included a mohawk and tight black leather pants), I fell in love with the rules because of their flexibility and focus on words rather than numbers. Also, wanting to relieve earlier pressure I experienced, constantly generating all my own content, I decided to explore and utilize some of the M&M companion materials such as the Emerald City Campaign Setting.
Green Ronin does an excellent job of creating tools for GMs to to tell their own superhero stories. The Emerald City book offers a wealth of potential plots, places, and characters for players to encounter. But in retrospect, I think I made the mistake of trying to fit together three fundamentally incongruent worlds: (1) the world presented in M&M publications, (2) the world I wanted to create, and (3) the real world that I wanted to closely mirror. M&M taps into the occasional moral ambiguity of the superhero mythos, but ultimately, it’s still a setting in which “good guys fight bad guys”. I knew I wanted to create a more realistic, nuanced, layered setting that would slowly unravel for the players with secrets, intrigue, and the horror of a coming apocalypse. (By the way, the Supernatural Handbook is an excellent guide for GMs to create horror campaigns using M&M; in retrospect, I wonder if I should have focused on its tips for creating a horror campaign, rather than on the people, places, and plots presented in Emerald City).
But the challenge of meshing my “coming apocalypse” story with published RPG materials paled in comparison to the greater challenge. I wanted (or thought I wanted) to create a creepingly horrifying fictional world that resembles our own contemporary reality, and incidentally, scheduled the launch of my “subtle horror” during the 2016 U.S. presidential race. As November approached, I realized that very real and not-so-subtle horrors were happening right now. The reality in which we’ve been living, ever since a wealthy egomaniac secured the Republican nomination, has been more unreal and horrifying than any superhero comic book portrayal of U.S. politics I’ve ever read. Granted, I haven’t read many Superman comics, but I’m honestly not sure which I find more terrifying, Lex Luthor as POTUS, or Donald Trump.
I need to restrain myself before I go off on everything that’s terrifyingly wrong with Trump and the billionaire cronies who make up his administration, but never before in my life have I been so genuinely and profoundly afraid for the future of the U.S. and our planet, and the unspeakable horrors we face in the years to come. I really do feel an impending dramatic change, changes that may be irreversible, and it haunts me daily.
I’ve realized, I can take nothing about the so-called “real world” for granted, and it now feels senseless to paint horror beneath an all-too-comfortable veneer of contemporary American life. How does one create a subtle contemporary horror, when the horrors of current events are anything but subtle?
This is why I’m writing here. This blog post has gone a very different direction than what I intended for this week—and I’m realizing how forced and irrelevant it would now seem to reveal what I thought would be my next steps in the creative process. Yes, I need to generate content. But what good is content if the intent and strategy are all wrong? I think my greatest downfall has been my adherence to reality, to history, to believability. Fiction always provides a better mirror to reality than does an actual mirror, and when we avoid the unbelievable, we find the reality we want to mirror even more unbelievable.