The Fifth Season and a perpetual apocalypse

I’m currently reading NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season – winner of last year’s Hugo Award – and it’s excellent if exceptionally grim. The basic gist is that it takes place in a land constantly wracked with extreme geological turmoil. Society has been shaped by the constant pressure to survive, such that people count the regular eruptions that make the world uninhabitable for months or years at a time as a fifth season that just happens a bit less regularly than the other four.

Every bit of civilisation is geared towards preparing for the next Season, from constant maintenance of food stocks and fallow land within a settlement’s walls to strict organisation of the population into castes so that everyone knows and is prepared for their role. Inexplicable artefacts from long-gone DeadCivs scatter the landscape, underlying how long this turmoil had been going on for.

Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of Legacy. It wouldn’t take many edits to replicate this setting in-game: the main thing that would need to change is the idea that each turning of age represents another step towards building a new civilisation. In a Fifth Season-inspired game, each Turning of Ages would instead be a Season of turmoil and danger in which each family has to retreat to safety and trust in their supplies, and there would be no question of escape from the Fall.

There’s another thing the book does structurally that for me really underlines the constant danger of this world. Its story jumps between three different time periods, and in each you know that the safety and community the characters find won’t last as you’ve seen that it’s gone in the later periods. I’m still tossing around ideas for how you’d create a similar effect in-game, but you could maybe jump around at each turning of age rather than progressing linearly forward. After one age you might look a few centuries back, after the next age a couple of generations later.

Now this does cause issues for things like homeland map keeping and a sense of achievement/advancement, but there are some ways around that:

  1. Start with the assumption that the map will be wiped clean after every Age, except for the artefacts of the Before that you uncover.
  2. Assume that knowledge gained can be lost, and knowledge lost can be retained. That way you can advance your family and take those stats into the next age even if it was chronologically far in the past – it’s simply that your family in the present is rediscovering old glories.
  3. If the Apocalypse is ever-present, I’d give everyone a new basic move based on sensing its movements to demonstrate that awareness of disaster is a constant part of their mindset. For example, people in the Fifth Season have sensing organs in the brain that let them detect tremors in the earth and incoming eruptions before they happen (with the implication these were engineered in when things had only just started going south). You could add something like a hyper-awareness of astronomy if your problem was solar flares, or the ability to, say, read the psychic maelstrom that occasionally ramps up and drives outsiders to madness. In The Fifth Season some people can use the sensing organs to manipulate the earth and shape volcanic activity – maybe rewrite some moves of the Remnant in your game to fit the tone of the apocalypse.
  4. Focus your play agenda on either experiencing all the different ways communities have tried to survive or coming to an understanding as a group on the cause of the Apocalypse and a way of fixing it. This may help provide some direction, even as you jump around the timeline.
  5. Maybe don’t decide when you start an age where it falls in the timeline – let that grow organically as you pick through the ruins of prior ages and create the things later generations will find only fragments of.