Post-apocalypse fantasy

One of the unwritten assumptions of a lot of early gaming campaigns was that they were post-apocalyptic in some fashion. Greyhawk had the Baklunish-Suloise Wars, which led to the Invoked Destruction and the Rain of Colorless Fire. The Known World had the Blackmoor explosion. Spelljammer had the Unhuman Wars. Dark Sun...well, that entire setting was a world stumbling from one apocalypse to another. Even third party works, like the Wilderlands, had a high civilization that fell apart and decayed to become warring factions.

There are time periods on Earth that would make for great apocalyptic settings. The most obvious is probably the fall of the Roman Empire, but there are plenty of others:

China, second and third century CE: the Three Kingdoms era. A peasant rebellion in 184 leads to the rise of warlords, the murder of the emperor in 185, and wars between successor states that last until 280. While there are great warriors in Lu Bu and Guan Yu, there are also crafty generals known for their strategems rather than their physical prowess, such as Sima Yi and Zhuge Liang. Estimates are that the population of China declined by roughly one-third during this time period, primarily from famine caused by the disruption of farming and trade networks.

Japan, fifteenth to seventeeth century CE: the Sengoku Jidai. In 1464, Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who has no heir, persuades his brother to leave monastery to become his heir. In 1465, Yoshimasa's wife gives birth to a son. Two officials who dislike each other end up supporting the two heirs, leading to a 10-year civil war that initiates a period of over a hundred years of sporadic fighting, assassination, and betrayal. It wasn't until 1615 that unification was truly achieved.


North America, sixteenth century CE: the colonization of America. Up to 90% of the native population died, primarily from disease. Their shaping of the land aided European settlers, since many food trees had been left standing when others were cut down for use as wood, along with promotion of useful plants that survived for the gap of years between the deaths of the natives and the arrival of the Europeans. While relatively little is known about pre-Colombian civilizations, the fantastic ideas held by the new arrivals could be the basis of a fantasy campaign.


England, fifteenth and sixteenth century CE: A disease-ravaged land, struck by plague ten times between 1348 and 1485. From 1300 to 1450, the population declined by two-thirds, with all of Wales having a population of perhaps 300,000 (its current population is 3 million). The Hundred Years' War is an on-again, off-again attempt by the Plantagenets of England to overthrow the Valois of France. Rebellions occur in 1381 and 1403. Starting in the 1450s, the Wars of the Roses pit various noble families against each other, with a feeble king (possibly afflicted by schizophrenia) unable to respond effectively to challenges. The last Plantagenet king dies in 1485, replaced by Henry VII. The Lancastrian Henry marries the Yorkist Elizabeth, and the Tudors become the ruling family for a brief century, during which there's a peasant rebellion in 1487, war on the Continent and against Scotland in 1513, rising religious tension as a tyrant king tries to have his every whim, and conspiracy (or the fear of conspiracy) everywhere.


Where else could adventurers be placed in a setting where things are falling apart (or have fallen apart), and they could explore areas that were tamed but are returning to the wild?

Because ACKS lends itself so well to post-apocalyptic settings (which came up during the chat of kings, actually), it’s one of the things a lot of people seem to think about.

I hadn’t considered how many post-apocalyptic periods there were in actual history, that’s pretty neat. The campaign setting I’m working on is post-apocalyptic, I should look more into some of these time periods to get a better idea of what things would look and feel like.

France in the 14th-15th centuries also works, mostly for the same reasons your England example does. The classic source to learn about that is Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, which is probably the history book I have most enjoyed of any I have read.


The recent film The Revenant is quite good, and it is interesting because it does depict the 19th century American West as this deserted wasteland bereft of social structure like you suggest.


Regarding Rome, it's interesting to read some of the more recentish books that try to argue that the "fall" of the empire was more of a "continuity" than a "catastrophe", to bring up the standard lingo. I think some of it can be explained as academic revisionism for the sake of having a dissertation topic, and it is doubtlessly heresy to a strict Gibbonian like Alex. But it can suggest novel ways to present "barbarian" tribes in D&Dlikes.

For what it's worth, the advances in archeological and historical scholarship in recent years have persuaded me that the most-correct thesis is that of Henri Pirenne -- the dark age was caused by the Islamic conquest of Middle East, North Africa, Spain, and Anatolia, rather than the barbarian invasion of Western Europe.  



I've started to swing towards a theory mentioned (but not particularly fleshed out) in G. J. Meyer's The Tudors. That is that the effect of the Dark Ages is exaggerated in the English-speaking world for a few reasons:

First, England was hit particularly hard, having been at an edge of the Empire, far away from other major powers, and abandoned early in the decline of the Empire. It then suffered through multiple invasions that continued to cause a decline that was not entirely representative of what happened elsewhere.

Second, the period when the Renaissance took effect in England was also when a dynastic change occurred, meaning that there was a clear socio-political change that fixed the idea of a drastic change in the public mind.

Third, that was also the time period when England and Scotland joined in union and Ireland was (mostly) conquered, plus the colonization of the New World began, which had the effect of changing the Kingdom to an Empire and raising it from a backwater hicksville of a realm (albeit one that had been involved in Continental affairs through the Catholic Church) to a major global power, which (again) exaggerated the change between eras. Essentially, the belief that the Romans were so great meant that even as England grew, so did the perception of the accomplishments of the Romans (because nobody modern was as great as they were), which made the fall seem that much larger.

Pirenne is definitely worth reading and considering, but the more recent archeological evidence has actually pushed me away from being a Pirennist. These are things such as 8th century papyrus in Gaul, or the analysis of pottery that shows trade was becoming more regional before the Islamic conquests, or the steady decline in infrastructure starting in the fifth century. Pirenne had documentary evidence of people still considering themselves Roman, but to an extent that would be like a 30th century archeologist analyzing North Korea by what their government produced as documentation. He also didn't fully account (or didn't have the evidence to account) for how the internal divisions of the Empire damaged their ability to trade (such as the Merovingians having no standardized coinage); it is one thing to note that trade declines, but Pirenne was swift to assign causation simply due to temporal correlation, when it appears more probable that Western Europe lost the sophistication to engage in long-distance trade. It would be fair to say that the conquests and prohibitions on trade with Islamic nations by Charlemagne and Leo III (by contrast, Umar II explicitly prohibited government interference in trade and required all ports to be open to Christians and Jews) finished the decline of the Empire, but they were not the cause of the decline. Pirenne's thesis relies on the Arabs prohibiting trade with Western Europe even as they happily traded with steppe nomads, Indian Hindus, and their on-again off-again nemesis in the Eastern Roman Empire. To ACKSify it, it's more a case of the Western European cities shrinking to smaller market sizes (and thus causing trade routes to break) and nobody taking the Venturer class than it is a case of the Caliphate deciding not to trade. Where Pirenne was indisputably ground-breaking and valuable was in looking for an economic cause for the decline of the Empire, rather than simply a social or ethnic cause.

Another interesting theory, although one I haven't read into heavily, is Wickham's view that the turning point was the Vandal conquests in Africa in 439, which took over the richest farmlands in the Empire, severely damaging the economic base of Western Europe. This would also tie into the decline of trade; with the loss of the grain fields, specialized laborers in the Empire would be replaced by subsistence farmers, reducing the surpluses of goods that Western Europe had used to trade with the Middle and Far East.

tl;dr version - Dark Ages were bad, but probably not quite as bad as popular opinion holds, and there are lots of arguments about what caused them.

This thread on everyone's favorite historical subreddit echoes a lot of what you suggest:

I have been meaning to take a whack at Wickham's book for a bit now. I suspect I am still a bit underleveled for it at the moment, though.

That thread was one of my sources. A historian friend directed me to it soon after it was written, and I kept it bookmarked. I remembered the generalities of the argument, but not specifics, so I referred back to it when writing my response.

I'm just glad I have friends who are almost as weird as I am who guide me to neat stuff.