Tips for Running an Apocalytic Campaign in D&D 5e

The apocalypse genre is one of the most popular in modern sci-fi and fantasy media. So popular, in fact, that it’s become a frequently asked for campaign scenario for Dungeons and Dragons fans! While there are many systems built on that idea (Cyberpunk is perhaps the most well-known of these), you definitely don’t have to switch systems. 

Here are a few things to consider when building your apocalyptic Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition campaign. 

Choosing an Apocalypse Scenario

An important basis for an apocalyptic campaign is its setting. There are a number of ways to cause an apocalypse, and each one presents a different set of rules and expectations for your players:

  • Disease. Your campaign’s world was beset by a terrible plague or super-bug, and as a result, is sparse and empty except for a few weary survivors pitted against each other for unsullied resources. This campaign setting lends itself well to zombies and mutants as potential enemies.
  • Disaster. A supermassive storm destroyed a huge portion of your campaign’s world, leaving everything flooded and torn to shreds. A massive earthquake rent a hole through an entire nation in your campaign’s world, separating them by an impassable gulf and leaving tremors and aftershocks in its wake. A nuclear facility had a horrible meltdown, and now your campaign’s world is toxic. Major natural and manmade disasters make for an excellent in-progress apocalypse storyline.
  • War. The nations of your campaign’s world are locked in global combat over a cause that’s slowly fading from the minds of its everyday citizens. Your party might be an elite group of special operations soldiers on an espionage mission, or a ragtag group of everyday citizens trying to navigate no man’s land.
  • Invasion. Someone, or something, has arrived on your campaign’s world and taken over, changing the very basis of society as they know it. This can be an obvious enslaving of the native people or a subtle takeover that your party is fighting against as a small rebel sect.

Choosing a Campaign Setting

Once you’ve decided how your apocalypse started, it’s time to decide where your adventurers’ story starts. There are several good options for apocalyptic settings

  • Open Wasteland. If your characters’ world was destroyed by bombs or beset by asteroids, and now there’s nothing left on the surface. Perhaps it’s even irradiated. This means that your characters will have to have found a way to survive on the surface or tunnel below it. 
  • Empty Cityscape. A maze of streets full of cars that will never start again and skyscrapers set at dizzying angles on unstable foundations. Cities somehow look wrong when they’ve been emptied by the end of the world. This is the perfect setting for a post-apocalypse dungeon crawler! Abandoned or evacuated cities have millions of perfect hiding places for loot, allies, enemies, and lore drops.
  • Returned-to-nature settlements. Maybe your apocalypse was a long time ago, and the remnants of the old societies are being swallowed up by nature. Maybe your characters can’t understand some of the strange shapes under the trees that might have been houses once. This kind of setting is wonderful for an invasion campaign, especially if you’re playing a party of invaders!

Building an Apocalypse Party

Here’s where an apocalypse setting gets tricky: who is your party, and how did they get together? You’ll want to make sure you have a variety of backgrounds and character types; if you have an entire party of bitter, morose characters that saw the end of the world and decided there was nothing good left, they won’t exactly be open to sticking together long enough to go on an exciting adventure. Talk to your players and make sure everyone’s got a backstory that makes sense with the lore of the world, and you have a balanced enough party to get things done. 

In an apocalyptic setting specifically, you’ll want at least one healer, one survival expert, one historian or lore specialist, one defense specialist, and one offense specialist. The specifics of class and race are up to the players, as well as any other essentials built into your setting specifically (for instance, an interpreter for an alien invader society where your goal will be infiltration, or a cleric to appease angry gods in a world destroyed by them), but these are generally a good basis to start a party on.

Setting a Difficulty Level

Okay, you’ve decided where you are and how you got there. Now it’s time for you to start working out the specific details, starting with the difficulty level of your campaign. As with any other campaign, it’s important to gauge your player’s experience alongside your own as a DM to know where to set the level of challenge. It’s worth talking it out as a group and deciding what your goals are.

If your goals for the campaign are to use it as a sandbox for exploring fun character concepts and battle scenarios, then a basic setting built around familiar tropes can make for an easy but fun campaign. On the other hand, if the point of the campaign is to explore the world and its lore, you can build your setting to be more nuanced and complex right from the start with its own established and explored societies and history.

You can always change this challenge level mid-campaign if you find that it isn’t working for you down the road. You can control the difficulty by adding or removing political intrigue, introducing or eliminating party secrets and hidden motivations, or changing or swapping out the mini-bosses and dungeons. Your world should be flexible and easy to adapt to your needs.

The Problem of Magic Users in The Apocalypse

A huge part of what makes D&D fun is the magic system, and the classes that tap into it. It’s a major part of the basic function of the game, but it does present a serious issue to the apocalyptic scenario: why wasn’t magic used to stop it? When you have characters who can shape earth to stop that massive quake or calm emotions to lull the war to a standstill until negotiations can take place, why would it get that bad in the first place?

Typically, this can be resolved in one of two ways. 

The first option is to completely eliminate magic from your campaign’s world. This requires a lot of homebrewing and reworking of the mechanics but completely eliminates this dilemma. A Reddit user offered the advice of replacing the magic classes with scientific equivalents. It won’t be a perfect match, but it will make the story make a bit more sense.

The second option is to incorporate magic into the cause of the apocalypse. Perhaps the invaders were the ones that brought the magic, or the nuclear meltdown woke old gods and forces of nature very suddenly. Maybe the wars were fought with corrupted magic users on both sides. If magic is brought in after the inciting incident, then it couldn’t have been a preventative measure, and if it was a part of the problem in the first place, then it can cause tension because it wasn’t used to stop this from happening.

You’re Ready for Session One

Once you’ve built your world, established how it got to where it is now, and who put it there, it’s time to start your campaign. An apocalyptic game offers many exciting options for your first session, from starting with the actual apocalyptic event to starting with a fight over scarce resources. You could even begin with the stereotypical tavern meetup, with the twist of it being in the last functional tavern in the world.

From there, it’s time to go out and explore this fantastic setting you’ve created and hope that your players don’t derail your story too badly. May you have lucky dice and interesting encounters. Now get out there and run the ruined world. You’ve got an adventure to go on!

Until next time, my friends,

May your game have advantage!

-Halfling Hannah

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