Home in the Apocalypse

As I’m writing this, my home of Massachusetts in the United States is just beginning to slowly restart its economies. Tomorrow, restaurants will be able to begin serving patrons for outdoor dining and nonessential businesses can start reopening. Like in most places, it’s been a brutal few months. As of this writing, there have been over a hundred thousand deaths from COVID-19, with over seven thousand here in Massachusetts. The economic costs have been brutal. My job, at a company that supported the restaurant industry, came to an end, as did the jobs of half the people at my company (I am thankfully working again). People in the public sector face uncertain prospects with tax revenues plummeting, states unable to run deficits, and a federal government that is not particularly inclined to bail them out.

The early days of the pandemic had the feeling of the opening scenes of a movie or show about an apocalypse. I’m particularly struck by a trip I made to Boston in April to pick up equipment for my new job (which will be remote for the foreseeable future). The streets of Boston, while not fully empty, felt wrong – I was there on a Wednesday afternoon just before rush hour and it felt more like 7 AM on a Sunday.

One thing which has stuck with me is how important community has been during this pandemic. At both my previous job and the new one we’d often do happy hours or morning coffees together (I’m aware what a place of privilege that puts me in not needing to go to physically to work). I had a doctor’s appointment remotely. My daughter’s high school went nuts for her to have a real high school graduation, breaking the seniors into groups of approximately 20 and performing 10 separate ceremonies. Even in our rage at the killing of men and women of color by police, people have come together, braving the pandemic to rally and protest.

There’s an archetype of the rugged loner surviving in a hostile wilderness. I have an image of Charlton Heston playing Robert Neville in The Omega Man, a loner against mutant hordes. It’s a fantastic film based on the classic book I Am Legend. However, the film becomes far more engaging as he comes to have a purpose, finding other survivors and the possibility for a cure to the plague that has wiped out humanity.

I’d like to believe that what makes us human is our coming together into societies. You’ve likely heard the story anthropologist Margaret Mead told her students (for which I can’t find the original source) – that the first sign of human civilization was the discovery of a healed broken leg. Mead explained that in the animal world, a broken femur is a death sentence. You can’t forage. You can’t hunt. You can’t run from danger. If a femur is healed it’s because someone helped that person.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.

That’s been our way throughout history. To combat Viking raids, King Alfred the Great set up a series of roads and burhs to protect England.

One of my favorite series of post-apocalyptic fiction, Justin Cronin’s Passage trilogy, deals with society trying to survive and rebuild after a vampire virus nearly wipes out – and continues to threaten – humanity. The characters in the trilogy belong to various communities. They begin in the tiny First Colony, a small walled settlement that endures for decades after the virus. They find other settlements and join with those settlements. The entire series has a framing narrative from a new society over a thousand years after the virus. 

Other near-extinction pandemics have seen people brought together in the aftermath. Stephen King’s The Stand has people in the United States gathering into two communities, in Las Vegas and Boulder. George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides has various small communities slowly transform themselves into tribes.

The 2000’s Battlestar Galactica remake deals with the last survivors of humanity, in a ragtag fugitive fleet. Some of the best parts of the series are about their attempts to rebuild their society – the importance of civilian oversight of the military, reestablishing the legal system, the need to separate the police from the military, etc.

I’ve seen a number of RPGs cover the importance of the home of characters in postapocalyptic games. For example, Apocalypse World has a section on the holdings and settlements characters can have – each with their own sets of advantages and problems. Though not a post-apocalypse game, No Country for Old Kobolds makes the characters’ home community a character unto itself.  The LARP-based Dystopia Rising: Evolution RPG assumes a society that is crawling out of the ruins and rebuilding – with settlements, factions, religions, etc. all vitally important. Going back to the dawn of the RPG hobby, D&D’s The Keep on the Borderlands has that perfect vibe of a settlement all alone against the night.

Why make settlements and communities so important? Whether in a post-apocalyptic setting or otherwise, they’re something that endures. Something that can last beyond the characters. They can be a place to return to. A place to mourn if lost. One of my favorite scenes in HBO’s Game of Thrones was when Tyrion Lannister rallies the men of King’s Landing to defend their city, masterfully delivered by Peter Dinklage.

Don’t fight for a king. Don’t fight for his kingdoms. Don’t fight for honor, don’t fight for glory, don’t fight for riches, because you won’t get any. This is your city Stannis means to sack. That’s your gate he’s ramming. If he gets in it will be your house that burns. Your gold he steals, your women he rapes. Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!


The loner in the savage wild is a powerful archetype – and it has its uses in both fiction and in game. In a longer-term story, a home can become an essential component. The toughest survivalist is going to reach a point when they need someone else – a burst appendix, a hydroelectric dam that needs repair or just needing to hear a song to make one feel human.

~ Daniel Stack

Follow Daniel on Twitter at @DStack1776
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