Campaigning in the World
of Atlas Shrugged


Essay by
William H. Stoddard


December 2001

A role-playing campaign
in the world of
Atlas Shrugged
by Ayn Rand
  1. Playing with Rand's roles
  2. The world after the collapse
  3. A disintegrated United States
  4. Characters and rationality
  5. The plot and the bridge
  6. Sex, love, and resolution
We assume here that you have read Atlas Shrugged, the huge and complex 1957 novel by Ayn Rand. If you haven't, there is quite an experience awaiting you in that book. Major plot spoilers below. — The Editor

1. Playing with Rand's roles

Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand (3d) Some years before I started writing GURPS Steampunk, I ran a somewhat unusual GURPS campaign that may be of interest. It started out when I mentioned to a few of my regular players that Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged might offer an interesting setting for a series of role-playing games. The response was unexpectedly enthusiastic, so I included a serious proposal in my next list of possible campaigns, and then put together an actual group of players for whom I ran two years' worth of monthly sessions, with successful results. Here is an account of the whole project.

For those who haven't done it, role-playing — at least my approach to role-playing — is best described as participatory fiction. There are game aspects, including the use of dice or other random mechanisms to determine the outcomes of characters' actions; but the core of the process is that a group of people make up fictional characters and tell about their actions for each other's entertainment. Ideally, each player's improvisations suggest further improvisations to other players, in the manner of jazz musicians jamming after hours; that's the "participatory" aspect.

But human actions don't take place in a vacuum; they're set in a world, where they find goals for their actions to attain, and which resists their actions in various ways. In role-playing, the world is supplied by the game master.

It might seem that using the world of Atlas Shrugged as a setting would be an easy task, demanding very little creativity. After all, Rand already did the hard work of imagining it; all that's necessary is to remember how she portrayed it, right? Not necessarily. In the first place, the questions readers ask of novelists are not the same as the questions role-players ask of game masters; the game master needs to think much more closely about "how things work." In the second place, setting the campaign too close to the actual plot of Atlas Shrugged would have lessened the players' enjoyment. After all, that story has already taken place, and its outcome is known to anyone who's read the book.

But role-players want their characters to have freedom of action; and more, they want to believe that what their characters do can make a difference to the outcome. So I looked for a way to develop a different narrative in the same setting. There were various possibilities — the historical past of Atlas Shrugged, or the early course of the Strike, or elsewhere in the United States during the events of the novel — but I decided to address a question many people find interesting: the course of the reconstruction of civilization. I chose a starting date for my campaign ten years after the first page of Atlas Shrugged.

2. The world after the collapse

To describe that setting, I needed to work out the history of the intervening years, at least in outline. But that raised a larger question: what had been happening in the rest of the world? Even after economic and political collapse, the United States would still have been much wealthier than the rest of the world; would any of the various People's States have taken advantage of the collapse to loot the survivors? The answer to that demanded a more detailed picture of world political history before the events of Atlas Shrugged, and working out that history turned out to involve a different but equally important question: defining the technological aspects of Rand's fictional world.

The world of Atlas Shrugged looks like the world of the Cold War after the continued advance of communism. People's States are everywhere; only the United States pays lip service to private property. But technologically, the United States is more like the world of the 1930s. There are no atomic bombs and no computers. Aircraft have propellers rather than jets, and land transport is by rail, not by interstate highway. The crucial industries are steel and the railroads. And economically, the entire world is bitterly poor, except for the United States.

The most economical immediate explanation for all this was that the United States had not become involved in World War II. This accounted for the lack of technological spinoffs from the war. Without the wartime inflation, the aftereffects of the Great Depression could still be lingering on. And without American military forces, the war could have gone on until all combatants were exhausted, with ruined economies that would easily fall victim to Marxist revolution. In the present-day world, the American economy has about 25% of the world's output; immediately after World War II, the figure was closer to 50%; but in the world of Atlas Shrugged, it might be 75%.

At a deeper level, why didn't the combatant powers develop atomic weapons? Note that Rand portrays government-funded scientific research as ineffective; all the vast budget of the State Science Institute cannot duplicate to work of Hank Rearden's private metallurgy lab. It seems to be either a law of nature, or a stylization of reality, that rational minds cannot function under compulsion. So I was free to assume that the rest of the world lacked the technology and the industrial base for full-scale conquest.

The GURPS rules system includes a system of technical levels, or TLs, in which the post-World War II era is TL7, while stone age tribes are TL0. I decided that the residents of Galt's Gulch were at a variant TL7, which lacked computers and nuclear reactors but had Rearden Metal and Galt motors. Enclaves of civilization elsewhere were at TL6, roughly pre-World War II; blighted areas had fallen back to TL4, Renaissance / Colonial; and the barbaric People's States were generally at TL3, Medieval.

3. A Disintegrated United States

With this framework, I needed to decide what had happened to the various areas of North America. I started out by assuming that the impact of the Strike had hit the industrial eastern states hardest; they had the largest urban populations, the least favorable agricultural conditions, and the worst weather. I assumed that roughly 10% of their population was lost, most of it in the cities. As a result, the reestablishment of the old industrial heartland was more delayed than Rand hinted in her final pages.

Rather, a new Industrial Revolution took place in Colorado and the states close to it. California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and Kansas formed a new United States. Elsewhere, several other enclaves of civilization still held out: Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire, in a loose confederation; West Virginia, with a few coal mines supporting small-scale industry; Quebec, seceded from a socialist Canada to form a nation of small proprietors; and the mining camps of the Yukon, starting to work toward self-government under mining law.

One question that arose from this was the nature of the new American Constitution. Rand showed Judge Narragansett adding the clause "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of trade and production"; I maintained this and added two others. One repealed Amendment XVI (income tax) and Amendment XVII (direct popular election of senators). The other provided legal formulas for the readmission of former states, the admission of new states (in case any Canadian provinces wanted in), and the effect of political collapse on Congressional representation.

Following Rand's statements, I assumed that the new United States would still have constitutional government; in fact, I assumed that it still charged some taxes — excise taxes at the national level (and customs duties, if trade ever revived) and property taxes at the local level.

Other areas survived with less advanced political systems, though often their governments were still twisted variants on American traditions. A group of southern states formed a new Confederacy, with an agrarian economy where black sharecroppers were at the edge of outright slavery. An industrial feudalist Texas had an aggressive military that had fought wars with both the Confederacy, in Louisiana, and the United States, in New Mexico, as well as turning much of northern Mexico into a colonial empire. New Orleans maintained independence as a buffer state; Chicago was ruled by a coalition of gangsters and federal bureaucrats and raided northern Illinois farms for food. Hawaii, once again independent, had restored the native monarchy.

Finally, the northern plains areas of the United States and the adjacent Canadian provinces were controlled by Indians — with some tribes accepting white men who proved their courage, others demanding actual Indian ancestry. And Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia had been seized by Japan, where a bizarre mixture of old-style imperialism and communism still supported a large military. The Japanese also were at war with the Yukon and were eyeing Hawaii.

I offered my players freedom to choose what sort of ambitions their characters would pursue; we ended up focusing on Illinois, with Taggart Transcontinental building a new bridge across the Mississippi River.

This led me to define the local political situation more closely. The Xylophone disaster near the end of Atlas Shrugged had devastated a large part of Iowa and some of Illinois, including the old Taggart bridge; I decided that the now empty land had been taken over by new farmers, including many blacks, some refugees from the Confederacy and others colonists from Chicago. The rest of Iowa was under a socialist regime set up by the state board of agriculture, one that deliberately aimed at subsistence agriculture because producing for the market had led to economic collapse. Minnesota was negotiating for readmission to the United States, giving an immediate payoff to the restoration of rail service, though the long-run goal was to reopen the old industrial states.

4. Characters and rationality

Then I invited my players to create characters for this setting. I provided a series of options for degrees of rationality and irrationality, based on Rand's ideas, with rational characters having superior technological and scientific skills, while irrational characters were better at manipulative social skills such as Fast-Talk. The highest level of rationality called for explicit adherence to a rational philosophy.

I specified that what counted as a rational philosophy was any system of beliefs that included an objective reality independent of the human mind; thus, a Thomist Catholic, a Lockean, or a adherent of the scientific method could be counted as rational, while a fideist Christian or a logical positivist would be irrational. To add nuances, I allowed a basically rational character to have a False Premise, such as belief in God or duty to one's family. Three of the five player characters had such beliefs.

I actually allowed each player to create two different possible characters; then I chose the character for each player whom I could best fit into a story line. The characters I chose were:

Roberta Beauchamp, a woman living elsewhere in northern Illinois who had been a medical intern when the collapse hit, and had then helped keep her community alive and healthy. This character had self-aware rationality but was an adherent of the Gaea Hypothesis and an environmentalist.

Rosa Cavalieri, a woman pilot with combat experience in the New Mexico border clash, who had spent her bounty money on buying a highly advanced aircraft with Galt motor engines. This character had common sense rationality but no explicit philosophical views.

Lindsay Eden, a woman railroad executive of partially Japanese ancestry, working in Taggart Transcontinental's engineering department, who was entrusted with the job of building the new bridge. This character was completely rational.

Patrick Michael Kennealy, a former Chicago district attorney, now living on a farm in northern Illinois, with the ambition of reuniting the state. This character had self-aware rationality but was also a Roman Catholic and a womanizer in the Kennedy idiom.

Xenophon Stark, a former army officer who had become a mercenary soldier. This character had self-aware rationality but also a false premise, belief in "might makes right."

I surrounded these characters with a variety of supporting characters ("non-player characters"), many of them drawn from classic adventure fiction or film noir: a Chicago newspaperman, a Chicago prostitute, a black woman in Chicago who funded many of the new farms in Iowa, a Texan pilot / inventor, and the commander of the Missouri National Guard, among others. Ayn Rand said that the goal of her writing was to portray an ideal man. Our goal, somewhat less lofty, was to portray larger-than-life, dramatically interesting characters and to give the players the pleasure of assuming their personae. On that count, this campaign was a success, and Rand's setting and narrative idiom helped make it so. And conversely, running this series of games not only let us cast light into how things worked in Rand's world, but made doing so a necessity.

5. The Plot and the bridge

The storyline that emerged was somewhat unusual for a role-playing game, in that the characters actually didn't all meet and work together until the very last episodes. Rather, the "camera" would focus on one or two characters at a time. Cavalieri started out with a contract working for Eden, providing transportation and surveying the countryside; Eden fairly quickly made contact with Kennealy, who thought trade with the United States would be a great opportunity to make Illinois more prosperous. Stark encountered Beauchamp on his way north to Chicago, where he intended to look for work, and over the course of the campaign the two became lovers.

The first half of the storyline alternated between the building of the bridge and the war with the Chicago regime. Both Kennealy and Stark went into Chicago and made contact with various of its residents. Stark and Beauchamp also set up a factory to make ammunition and arm the farm communities, which began refusing to submit to food raids from Chicago. Eventually this led to an uprising in Chicago, the overthrow of its regime, and the arrest of the survivors.

In the meantime, Cavalieri and Eden found evidence of the socialist regime in Iowa and of the remnants of a National Guard unit in Missouri, whose commanding officer considered the new United States an outlaw regime founded by traitors and aspired to capture and try most of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged. Eden recommended building the line through Iowa, largely because the farm colony in the southeast was strongly supportive of the railroad and provided a labor pool.

After the track was laid through Iowa, as the new bridge was nearing completion, I introduced the second major plot element: The government of Texas, seeing that the bridge would give the United States a major strategic advantage, started moving an army up to seize control of it, with the support of the Missouri National Guard forces. They sent along an experimental invention, a prototype jet, whose pilot tried to force Cavalieri down, but without success, owing to the incredible maneuverability her plane derived from its Rearden metal structure.

Instead she captured him and took him back for interrogation, though he managed to escape before long. Cavalieri went south again to try to salvage the wreck of his plane, but was captured by the Texas army. In the climactic sequence, Stark showed up with a small cavalry force and rescued her, and the two rode north, following the Missouri forces on the west bank of the Mississippi, while the other three led the resistance to the Texas forces on the east bank, and Eden made sure the bridge was wired with explosives so she could destroy it rather than let it be captured. As it turned out, the Illinoisan forces held out and the campaign ended in victory.

6. Sex, love, and resolution

Ayn Rand wrote [in The Art of Fiction] about the difference between melodrama, which is about conflict between a man and other men, and drama, which is about a man's conflict with himself. I think it's clear that this campaign was largely melodrama, and thus wasn't a perfect re-creation of Rand's fictional idiom. On the other hand, it re-created one aspect of Rand's idiom. Atlas Shrugged has many sources, but one of them was the pulp fiction of the era between the World Wars; it follows their conventions remarkably closely, even to the speeches where the villain explains his plan and his motives to the hero — except that in Atlas Shrugged, the "villains" are John Galt, Francisco d'Anconia, and Ragnar Danneskjold, and the story ends with the heroes deciding that the villains were right. (Nietzsche's phrase about the transvaluation of values comes to mind, despite Rand's disavowal of Nietzsche's influence.)

My players wanted a game devoted to larger-than life characters and exciting action; Rand's setting certainly gave them that. And I wanted to look at the process of reconstruction after the fall of the United States; running this series of games made that possible. The new Taggart bridge not only tied the former United States together again; it tied the campaign together, as a focus for all the characters' actions and a target for their adversaries.

Rand was also known for intense sexual scenes, though this was by the standards of the 1940s and 1950s — current fiction tends to be more explicit. Sexual and romantic attractions were a part of this series of games also. I specified that the actual physical acts would not be described, following the idiom of classic Hollywood films; in fact, I thought that explicit description would tend to lessen the intensity of such scenes.

As it worked out, the various characters became involved in a variety of sexual encounters. Beauchamp and Stark had an intense affair, broke up, and then reunited when Beauchamp discovered that she was pregnant (this was the player's choice, not the result of a dice roll). Eden ended up accepting a proposal from her administrative assistant, after the final battle, when the prospect of her dying made him decide to tell her of his feelings. Cavalieri didn't fall in love with anyone, but became strongly attracted to her Texan rival. Kennealy was already married and had children, but in the Kennedy idiom, he was an active womanizer; both Kennealy and Stark met the Chicago woman whom I portrayed as an example of prostitution "as it might be and ought to be". In this, as everything else, Kennealy was the most ambiguous of the characters.

Ayn Rand said that the goal of her writing was to portray an ideal man. Our goal, somewhat less lofty, was to portray larger-than-life, dramatically interesting characters and to give the players the pleasure of assuming their personae. On that count, this campaign was a success, and Rand's setting and narrative idiom helped make it so. And conversely, running this series of games not only let us cast light into how things worked in Rand's world, but made doing so a necessity.


© 2001 William H. Stoddard

W.H. Stoddard's essay
Participatory Fiction

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