In 1956, the English writer Colin Wilson released the book The Outsider. It was sort a cultural and literary analysis of so-called “outsider” figures, and served as an early introduction to existentialism. The book received a lot of early acclaim from critics, and Wilson was as feted one of the “angry young men” of his generation. His reputation didn’t last, and though he never really gave up on his philosophy, the subject matter of his later books moved in the direction of psychic powers, serial killers, and the occult.
Wilson seemed to have a genuine belief in the supernatural & occult, and insisted that humanity had untapped psychic powers that he called Faculty X. He also wrote the occasional sci-fi book, one of which was The Space Vampires, which was adapted into the ludicrous 1980s movie Lifeforce. He never regained his critical status, and died in 2013. I may be unfairly generalizing a man’s entire artistic life and output, but as I see it, Wilson started as a wunderkind, but turned out to be a bit of a nutjob.
What does any of this have to do with RPGs?
One of the many potboilers he wrote was a science fiction novel series called Spider World. It’s set on a post-apocalyptic Earth where the dominant lifeforms on Earth are giant mutated bugs and insects. The primitive humans still alive are either slaves to various insectoid beings, or live as savages in the wild. The plot is about a young savage named Niall, who, over the series of novels, learns about the history of Man’s fall, and how he can develop his own innate psychic powers to fight back against the arachnid overlords.
The books start out as simple, pulpy fun, but later novels descend into a lot of Wilson’s own personal philosophy, and are a bit drier.
The books are long-out-of print, and there’s no eBook versions that I can find, so I wouldn’t suggest making a huge effort to find these. I do think they’d make an excellent setting for a RPG campaign.
What’s Cool about the Setting?
- Death spiders piloting balloons across the deserts, constantly scanning the land with their psychic powers to search for humans.
- The ruins of human cities, covered in cobwebs, serving as the new capitals of an arachnid empire.
- Trained giant wasps that can be used like hunting falcons.
- Killer squid fungi
- Intelligent Bombardier beetles obsessed with explosions.
- Ancient caches of high-tech weapons from the human age.
What Would the Campaign Be Like?
The books mostly involved Niall traveling across the land and discovering new places and things wherever he went. It felt like, and could easily be adapted into, a hex crawl or point crawl campaign.
I’m imagining the players starting off as savages living in a small tribe. Pressure to find food and water drives them to start exploring outside of their own local area. They would inevitably come into conflict with the spiders.
I could also run it as a Dark Sun-style game, where the players are escaped slaves from the spider cities.
Alternately, the players could be a team of astronauts returning to Earth, Planet of the Apes style.
However the game starts, the campaign mostly likely would involve the players gradually gaining allies, honing their psychic powers, and discovering old technology to free humanity from the spiders.
What system should I use?
Some kind of OSR system might make sense here. The main character grows in power and ability as the novels go on, so that’d map nicely to the level system. I’m not so certain about classes – all the humans seem to be wild savages or enslaved servants of the spiders. There don’t seem to be a lot of specialized professions to map onto classes.
Also, psionic powers are a big part of the series, so you’d need a system that handled them. D&D does, of course, but I’m not sure about all of the other OSR games.
GURPS would certainly work; you’d just need a copy of GURPS Psionics. I’m honestly surprised SJG never put out a GURPS: Spider World, considering all of the other obscure properties they got the rights for.
Savage Worlds might also do, but I think it’s a touch too pulpy for this setting.
Currently I’m leaning towards one of my current favorite systems: the Cepheus Engine, the open source Traveller retroclone. I’d probably base it on the Cepheus Quantum Engine from Stellagama Games. It’s a simplified variety of Cepheus, the one they use for Barbaric! and Cepheus Atom. I’d pull the psionic rules directly from the regular Cepheus Engine.
This shouldn’t involve too much prep. I’ll need to make a hex map of the immediate area, and come up for stats for the various insectoid monsters. I’m also thinking about hacking together some kind of faction system, to keep track of how powerful the insect and human tribes are at any given time.
I’ll post anything I come up with here.