|Isaac Yeram Kim|
Limited ScopeA typical post-apocalyptic story is intensely personal, focusing on just a handful of people, their interactions, and their struggles. Time progresses at a steady, slow, hour-by-hour pace; no jumps of years or decades.
Limited ResourcesEver scrap of food, every can of water, every bullet, bandage, and bottle cap is important. Or at least, some of them are; the world might be filled with heaps of mostly useless garbage, but someone's still digging through them looking for tinned Spam. Commerce is rudimentary, mostly barter or straight-up theft. Banking is non-existent. Almost nothing new is being produced.
Limited Long-Term PlanningPeople with schemes are usually the bad guys. Anyone with a plan for the future, a grand vision, a dream for a new society, is more than likely the sort of person who also chews scenery and has a henchman named "Morg the Skullcrusha". Sure, sometimes, the good guys have a dream for a better world, but it's usually vague: overthrow the tyrant, liberate the camp, find a new land, etc. Plans with flowcharts and clear objectives are for villains.
Pragmatic ViewsEveryone is practical; impractical people tend to die quickly. You might still get the odd poet, but almost everyone is too busy surviving to dream. The world is disillusioned; old ideas, old religions, old codes and morals have faded away, replaced by echoes or simply abandoned to time. Nobody really understands how things worked and nobody's trying to find out. Everyone is fairly sure they saw the apocalypse coming, or at least have a vague idea of what happened.
The Aesthetics of Ruin
Over and over again, these writers cast the PCs as tiny figures wandering a world of dead and dying titans, stumbling amidst the wreckage of mighty forces they do not understand.... But this is almost never because they're going up against a superior force operating at its full potential; instead, they're usually picking their way through the ruins of something so vast and powerful that even the random flailings of its last malfunctioning machines (or the dwarfish and degenerate descendants of its guard beasts, or the fragmentary and corrupted remnants of its arcane lore) are quite capable of smashing them to bits.
Side Note: Apocalyptic literature - specifically, the prophetic biblical books - were, ironically, written for effectively post-apocalyptic people. They were written for people living under oppression, at the low point of power, growth, and ability. "Things will be better", the books say (through many layers of allusions). "This too shall pass. Evil will be cast down and good will triumph, and here's how."
So, in a pre-apocalyptic setting, the prophets aren't standing on street corners holdings "The End Is Nigh" placards. The prophets are out in the wilderness, in the slums, in the colonies, in the world disrupted and trampled by the pre-apocalyptic culture. "It'll pass," they say to people the pre-apocalyptic culture barely cares about, "and here's how."
So, inverting the aspects above, a pre-apocalyptic setting could be said to have:
Wide ScopeThe story deals with masses of people: cities, nations, civilizations. At a bare minimum, mobs and fashions should be involved somehow. The world should feel connected, large, confusing; things happen over the horizon.
Abundant ResourcesLuxuries and innovations. Decadence. Maybe not for everyone, but compared to a post-apocalyptic world people have it pretty good. Large-scale food production, transportation, and distribution. Infra-structure, like infra-red, is too big to be seen with the naked eye. New technologies and new variations spring up like weeds.
Rampant Long-Term PlanningEveryone has a political stance, a plan for the future, a dream for how the world will work in a few years or decades or centuries. Abolish property. Abolish the French. Freedom, Justice, Liberty, Bread, and other Capital Letter Things are on everyone's lips. Society's heroes have grand plans, and people are generally excited to see how they turn out... or violently opposed, because they have plans of their own.
Impractical ViewsPeople are much more willing to spend time, blood, and treasure on things that can't possibly work, are self-defeating, or are purely ornamental. In the pre-apocalyptic world, the frontiers of knowledge are constantly being explored. New theories and new systems constantly enter the public consciousness, possibly in a distorted form, but everyone can still blather on about them if they need to feel superior. Nobody can see the apocalypse coming; the very idea is unthinkable.
The Aesthetics of TriumphStand those pillars back up. Un-bury those ancient machines. Wind the clock back to a civilization at its height, at the peak of its powers. There might be ruinous bits - slums, chemical waste dumps, wilderness areas - but the core is bright, shining, and new.
This is a bit of a problem for old-school D&D-type games. The tools given to a player are mostly suitable for getting loot from ruined areas, fighting monsters, and generally exploring an uncivilized and wild region. They're great post-apocalyptic tools but, as Joseph says, they aren't useful for fighting a civilization head-on and winning.
So don't fight it head-on. Don't fight it all. In a pre-apocalyptic game, the goal is to move with the current, keep your boat off the rocks, and, if possible, push your competitors into the rapids.
Instead of dungeons, you're raiding the laboratories and warehouses of inventors, or the vaults of banks, or the records of an enemy political faction.
Instead of monsters squatting in the ruins, you're fighting guards, side-effects, specially created tools, and fruits of new and terrible sciences.
Instead of arcane lore and ancient tomes, you're studying periodicals and newspapers and attending lectures.
Instead of preventing the apocalyptic schemes of mad cultists or evil villains, you're preventing the apocalyptic consequences of well-meaning but short-sighted allies, usually by crashing another apocalypse into the first to cancel them out.
And instead of spending your hard-earned money on wine, pleasurable company, powerful drugs, and fancy hats, you're spending it on... well, wine, pleasurable company, powerful drugs, and fancy hats.
Not everything has to be inverted, I guess.
The Pace of LifeOk, ignore all of that. The difference between a pre-apocalyptic setting and a post-apocalpytic one is how people experience fear.
In a post-apocalyptic world, the pace of fear is slow. It's horror, the long game. Running out of food. A noise in the dark signaling invasion and death. Becoming a different person. Bleak caution.
In a pre-apocalyptic game, the pace of fear is fast. It's terror, the short jump scare, except it's a never-ending stream of new sudden shocks. The world is constantly changing and you're being drawn along with it. There are no stable points, no centre, no immutable law or ancient tradition. Excited colourful turbulence and folly.
The pre-apocalypse is the wild night before the post-apocalyptic hangover.
Gamifying the WhirlwindSo how do you do any of that in an RPG? The human brain can only hold three or four things in focus at once. Just the basic processes of running a game takes up two of those slots. How can I make tools that require minimum brainpower, page-flipping, cross-referencing, and prep, while still providing a wonderful chaotic pre-apocalyptic result?
1. Tools for describing chaos.
Really good encounter tables. High quality, immediately evocative, immediately applicable to the players.
2. Tracking Change
The various inventions and innovations in the book will progress through several stages, from dreams to prototypes to ubiquitous to very dangerous. The book will provide GMs with tools to manage a city changing from horse-drawn carriages to leaping magi-cars, and/or from ineffective police work to constant universal scrying.
3. Pre-Session Checklists
A tool to orient the GM. Where are things at? What's going on in the background? What new innovation is sweeping the city? Basically, while everyone's showing up and taking off their coats, go through a list really quickly.