There was, about a decade ago, a discussion between various old school blogs about the implied setting of original Dungeons & Dragons. Many good points were made that the implied setting of OD&D was fantasy post-apocalyptic.
I’m going to argue that the implied setting of OD&D isn’t post-apocalypse but post collapse.
A distinction without a difference?
The argument for post-apocalypse usually includes the population density suggested in the three little brown books, the Outdoor Survival board game, the rarity of large cities and so forth. While a de-population by, war, famine, disease in which the great architecture of the past falls into crumbling ruins is a bleak situation, it implies collapse and not apocalypse.
Collapse and apocalypse are fundamentally different in an important way.
A collapse is the destruction of a society or culture but not all of civilization.
An apocalypse is the end of civilization. Perhaps the end of all sentient life.
Fundamentally optimistic and heroic.
The difference between post apocalyptic and post collapse is that there is no coming back from the apocalypse. The apocalypse is game over, man. There is no recovery possible. It is the end. All you can do in an apocalypse is survive, in misery and despair, a little longer. There is no hope of return.
Post collapse has plenty of savagery, barbarism, suffering and despair to go around but it is also a little bit optimistic. Life can get better. Post collapse means that the the fall was temporary. It might be that civilization takes a long time to recover or never recovers the incredible heights it once achieved.
That there is a collapse and not apocalypse implies hope.
Where is that hope?
Many of the heroic stories in the tradition of Western Civilization were created in the wake of collapsing empires and societies.
The epic poetry of Homer, (The Iliad and The Odyssey) and of Hesiod (Shield of Heracles) were produced in the Greek Archaic age. This period was preceded by the Bronze Age collapse and several hundred years of the Greek Dark Age.
The collapse of the western Roman empire came in the 5th century. On its heels was the disaster of 536, possibly the worst moment to be alive in the last 2000 years. It took centuries for Europe to rebuild and recover. As that recovery occurred, much of the heroic poetry of Migration Age was formed. The stories of Beowulf, Sigurd the dragonslayer and the Gothic kings Ermanaric and Theodoric were conceived in this time.
I find it interesting that some of the most formative heroic epics of western culture were created during the period of recovery after a cataclysmic failure of civilization. While the rebuilding of western civilization was primarily achieved by the peasantry, the artisans and merchants of the high middle ages, much of the surviving literature from the period is of the heroic sort. Heroic stories give us hope.
There are dragons, but they can be slain.
The tradition of heroic stories are the fountainhead of sword and sorcery fiction. The modern tales of heros, anti-heros and scoundrels deal with many of the same themes and have similar protagonists as the ancient epics.
They are also part of what inspired Gary and Dave as can be seen by the inclusion of the deities and heroes in one of the earliest supplements for the game.
Many of the major literary influences cited by Gary Gygax in Appendix N of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide have this post-collapse characteristic. Conan finds himself in the ruins of ancient civilizations in stories like Queen of the Black Coast. Collapse has clearly occurred but not apocalypse because there are functioning, though decadent and degenerate, cities and civilizations in the Hyborian Age.
Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories also take place in many ancient ruins. The scoundrels fight ancient horrors, recover lost treasures and bring them back to civilisation.
While not readily apparent, there is an undercurrent of optimism. Humans might be down, but they aren’t out.
There are some stories from Appendix N that have apocalyptic themes such as Jack Vance’s Dying Earth and Moorcock’s Elric stories. These are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the stories and writers in Appendix N are in the heroic fiction category.
The original game featured ancient ruins that contained dangerous dungeons full of traps, monsters, and treasures.
In order for there to be ruins, dungeons, crumbling wizard towers, ancient cults and treasures, there must have been a collapse.
The fact that there are adventurers to explore dungeons and slay monsters is an indication that there was not an apocalypse but a collapse. It was terrible but someone survived and rebuilt.
Eventually, brave descendants of those survivors gird themselves for heroic deeds or mere selfish gain. They explore those ancient ruins where mortals once lived and built wonderous civilizations of wealth and grandeur. Through bravery, luck, and cleverness, they kill monsters and recover some of the knowledge of the ancients and bring them back to civilization, such as it is.
If Original D&D was a post-apocalyptic game then the structure of those adventures would be different. Player characters would be searching ruins not to recover the valuable knowledge and creations of ancient genius but merely to survive another day or perhaps relieve their suffering for a little while. Since civilization is gone, there is no place to bring the treasures recovered.
Original Dungeons & Dragons is perhaps a violent dystopia from a certain point of view but it isn’t a nihilistic apocalyptic scene like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
We can use this understanding that Original Dungeons & Dragons is about post-collapse optimism and not post apocalyptic pessimism as a framework to build campaigns and adventure scenarios.
We do that through the setting, the gods, the monsters, and non-player characters that populate our campaigns. There was a great collapse that left mortals stunned and scrambling for survival. They regained their foothold, however tenuous. Now they are reclaiming lost knowledge and lost treasures from the monstrosities that plague them.