Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Retrospective: Famine in Far-Go

Once you move beyond the trinity of RPGs I adored in my youth -- D&D, Traveller, and Call of Cthulhu -- there are only a handful of games I played with any great regularity. One of them was Gamma World, which I originally picked up based on its mention in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide and because of my longstanding obsession with Metamorphosis Alpha. Gamma World was probably the first RPG I played after D&D and, though a favorite, I have long had a tempestuous relationship with it. That's because, while I love the post-apocalyptic genre and I regularly get an itch for a game that's a little less staid than my natural inclinations, Gamma World has always walked a line between "gonzo" and "ridiculous" that makes it -- then and now -- difficult for me to love unreservedly.

A good illustration of this can be seen in the second module ever produced for the game, 1982's Famine in Far-Go by Michael Price. I'm on record as being very fond of its predecessor, in part because I think Legion of Gold is a nice mini-sandbox setting, giving the referee a lot of locations, NPCs, and situations to play with as he sees fit, with only the thinnest outline of a plot. That's less true in Famine in Far-Go, whose scope is more limited and whose structure is a bit more constrained.

But only a bit. The basic set-up of the adventure is that the characters -- newly created for the adventure -- are youths in the agricultural community of Far-Go, preparing to embark on the Rite of Adulthood. The Rite consists of traveling far from the community to find the Forest of Knowledge, where they must eat from berries growing around a certain tree that will enable them to experience the One Truth that will guide their destinies. Thus, a lot of the module consists of a wilderness trek across the ravaged landscape of the Gamma World, encountering NPCs, mutant creatures, ruins, and radiation zones. This year, though, an additional task has been added to the Rite. Some weeks prior to the start of the adventure, a meteor fell from the sky and its debris destroyed local crops and animals, leaving Far-Go without much food. The characters are thus supposed instructed to scout the surrounding countryside for a potential new home for the inhabitants of Far-Go, one where food is plentiful enough to support the mixed community of pure strain and mutant humans.

Naturally, as the adventure proceeds, the characters discover that they can do more than that: they can, through their discoveries, ensure the continued survival of Far-Go for years to come. That's because, among the places the characters visit is a La Prix Industries Automated Chicken Processing Factory -- inhabited by giant mutant chickens, of course! If the characters can defeat the mutants and communicate with the factory's computer, they can make an arrangement to get many months' worth of processed chicken patties to feed Far-Go and save the day.

It's a tidy little ending to the whole adventure that depends, in my opinion, on one too many coincidences to be believed, but then this is Gamma World, right? If you can accept the existence mutant gun-toting chickens, why not believe that the meteor that fell just happens to be useful as fuel for the factory's nuclear reactor? Of course, you might not be able to accept the existence of mutant gun-toting chickens and, if so, this module is definitely not for you, but then neither probably is Gamma World, whose tendency to skirt the edge of ridiculousness is on fine display in module GW2.

None of this is to say that Famine in Far-Go is a bad module; it's not. In fact, I always found it kind of fun, especially as an introductory adventure. It's got enough structure to help referees and players both, but it's also freeform enough that there's room to wander a bit and take in the weird sights of the area (such a colony of badders who worship an image of Bucky Badger) at their own pace. There are also some new mutations, creatures, and equipment, not to mention improved rules for playing pure strain humans that presage what was to come in the 2nd edition of Gamma World. It's also attractively illustrated by Jeff Easley, Tim Truman, Darlene, and Larry Elmore, which gives it a unique and varied look. It's not perfect by any means but it does what it does well and that's probably good enough for most gamers.

15 comments:

  1. "The Rite consists of traveling far from the community to find the Forest of Knowledge, where they must eat from berries growing around a certain tree that will enable them to experience the One Truth that will guide their destinies."

    A plot point borrowed for Fallout 3's "Point Lookout" add-on.

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  2. James have you read [i]Hothouse[/i] and/or [i]Non-stop[/i] (US title [i]Starship[/i]) by Brian Aldiss? These are novels that had a huge impact on both Gamma World and MA. I've just recently read them both and i think they provide the same sort of insight into these games as reading Lieber and Howard does for D&D. While they both have all kinds of crazy stuff going on in them the rather somber tone of the narrative and the sheer lethality of the strangeness damps down the "gonzo" feel quite a bit.
    I highly recommend them both.

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  3. I didn't get into GW until 3rd edition, but I had a friend with some of the earlier adventures and I can swear I played in this one. Damn, James, you need to stop posting this sort of thing; now I wanna dig out my 3rd edition GW and figure out what I'm missing.

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  4. I can believe gun toting chickens.

    Poultry is basically evil...

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  5. Also: Gotta love the Jim Holloway cover. Extra radioactive bonus points for the "No Nukes" t-shirt and the classic stop sign shield (which is de rigueur for the discerning mutant).

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  6. It's actually possible to run Gamma World as a serious SF setting. One friend has done so for over 25 years now.

    For example the major "mutated animal" races are actually genetically engineered; further mutations are the results of escaped retroviruses rather than "radiation" (which just makes you ill in his game, as it should). Before The Crash they were experimenting with the artificial enhancement of psychic potential (again, using retroviruses to rewrite genetic coding). They had terraformed Venus and Mars. They even had starships and had emerged onto the galactic scene (although why Earth was subsequently quarantined was one of the Big Mysteries of the game.

    I don't think anyone in his game has ever actually worked out why The Crash occurred, or what society was like beforehand, but considering the large number of military grade weapons found in hardened bunkers it was obviously a time of great tensions. Most of the remaining computers are insane and their data corrupted by infowar and cyberviruses. It definitely wasn't Transcendance though - the existing tech is too primitive for that.

    It was a really fun set of campaigns.

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  7. Chickens are nasty critters So I can buy the mutant armed chickens, unfortunately when I ran this back in the day my players found it a little too silly but still managed to play the adventure and get the processing plant to deliver the goods.

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  8. I'f I'm not mistaken, this is one of the modules that is going to be redone as part of the 4E-style Gamma World that's coming out later this year or early 2011...

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  9. I used to love playing Gamma World back-in-the-day, but oddly enough, we never actually used the modules. We had them all, but they never seemed quite "right" to us. We mostly just made up our adventures and our campaign world, as a mish-mosh of Hiero's Journey, Thundarr, the Horseclans series, and this obscure old movie we saw on TV called "The Ravagers."

    So funny about the whole chicken processing plant in this particular module - I had totally forgotten about that.

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  10. I love 1st edition Gamma World, but I've never played it in a humorous or gonzo style. Post-apocalyptic (IMO) should be nothing if not grim.

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  11. James, when's the last time you've actually played this adventure? I'm currently running Famine in Far-Go in a weekly game right now, and I'm boggling how you could call it anything other than a railroad which the players go from one scene to the next.


    "[Famine in Far-Go's] scope is more limited and whose structure is a bit more constrained. But only a bit."

    I boggled after reading this. That was an understatement of biblical proportions.

    The plot is this: Follow the Great Oad to the south. Eat magic berries and get vision of the plot. Wake up from vision in Badder warren and escape. Go follow vision to Chicken factory and don't get killed by mutated chickens. Strike deal with factory computer to recover radioactivity. Factory gets power and village saved. The end.

    If you deviate from the above path, I wish your players luck figuring out how to save Far-Go.

    Worse, the above items (like the Badder warren) doesn't occur because your PCs stumble on it or could drift into the wrong hex. They automatically capture you after you finish the previous berry vision quest. There is no die rolling or decisions here. PCs are told to do one thing, they do it, next scene automatically occurs afterwards.

    That's a railroad.


    "Thus, a lot of the module consists of a wilderness trek across the ravaged landscape of the Gamma World"

    In a straight line. Down the Great Oad. This isn't a open sandbox-esque "go find location X to the south." It's literally, "Walk down this one road, enduring random encounters until you find the next stop on your railroaded quest."

    This scenario *could* be run as an open exploration campaign, but Famine in Far-Go provides virtually no details for items not on the plot railroad. The Far-Go's neighboring towns are a great example of a lack of detail, which is handwaved by the Artax Skystone (the town Priest who sends the PCs on the quest) to not contact other communities. If your PCs do so, get ready to improvise.


    "None of this is to say that Famine in Far-Go is a bad module; it's not."

    It's not bad, but it definitely requires a GM to adapt the scenario for when (and not if) your players decide to deviate from the path because they aren't automatons. Not to mention if you wish to run the scenario with a situation other than youngsters going through a rite of passage. I mean, the premise is pretty cool (and I like the detail about life in Far-Go), but if you want to use this in an existing Gamma World game (where perhaps the PCs aren't youngsters from Far-Go) then you'll need to do some work under the hood to explain how it all makes sense.

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  12. I liked the gonzo nature of the Gamma World setting. It set it apart from other post-apocalyptic games like Aftermath, and as gallows humor seemed appropriate for the era.

    Ironically, at the GenCon Gamma World panel, there were members of the audience accusing the new designers of not taking the setting seriously.

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  13. The thing that is a bit too far for me is the nuclear-powered poultry plant. That could be changed, though, so that the plant runs on methane from vast quantities of chicken waste. Perhaps the machinery needs repair. The fumes would be a pretty good hazard for players.

    Mutant giant chickens with guns works for me, after all, that'd basically make them velociraptor-like. With guns.

    Perhaps put some giant mutant ravens in charge, since ravens are much smarter than chickens, and would be quite happy to take advantage of a poultry processing factory as a food source.

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  14. @Jon Hendry; the premise of the chicken factory is that it's completely automated with robots running the place before, during, and after the apocalypse. Only very recently has a mutated variety of chicken been able to revolt and take control of part of the compound. By an amazing coincidence, the PCs stumble right into the middle of this conflict when they enter the factory. What timing! ;)

    What amazed me about the factory wasn't this coincidence, but the impact dropping a huge functional pre-apocalypse chunk of technology into your game. I mean, after decades of collapse, here is a fully operational building with a nuclear power plant, robots, food and guns all being managed by a non-homocidal computer you can negotiate with. Add in the fact that your PCs have literally saved the plant from destruction, you can see how it can impact the setting and should be taken into consideration if you plan on playing more games around Far-Go after the adventure is over. If anything, it sounds like great fodder for basing a campaign around it. Neighboring communities, cryptic alliances, and wanna-be dictators will be doing whatever they can do to get control of the La Prix Industries Automated Chicken Processing Factory.

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  15. James, when's the last time you've actually played this adventure? I'm currently running Famine in Far-Go in a weekly game right now, and I'm boggling how you could call it anything other than a railroad which the players go from one scene to the next.

    It's been years since I played it, so I'll defer to you on this score. I re-read my copy last night and didn't find it quite as objectionable as you describe, but I'll admit that I'm probably looking at it through the eyes of nostalgia. When I ran it long ago, I didn't follow its outline too closely, instead using it as a springboard for letting the players wander about. The hex map included in the thing was what really excited me, along with the maps of the factory, the badder lair, and so on. I just ran with them and that likely colors my impression of the module.

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