Friday, November 12, 2010

Open Friday: Unfairly Maligned

Reader Michael Anderson sent me a link yesterday to an interview with James M. Ward, creator of Gamma World. Since it's at the WotC site, I'd never have seen it otherwise, but it's well worth a read. In it, Ward briefly touches on the "wackiness" of Gamma World and how, in retrospect, he wishes he'd applied "editorial breaks" to certain contributions of others that have led gamers to see Gamma World as a "humorous" RPG, when that was never his intention.

I really feel for Ward on this point, because, while it's true that Gamma World does have the capacity to be quite humorous at times, I never saw it as inherently any more humorous than, say, Dungeons & Dragons, where low humor is often an unexpected counterpart to high adventure. Yet, for a lot of gamers, Gamma World is synonymous with "goofy," making it impossible to experience the game as I did back in the early 80s. Gamma World certainly isn't what I'd call "hard science fiction" by any means, but neither is a joke RPG and I think viewing it in that mistaken light robs it of its potential for the strangely transcendent moments I had while playing it in my youth.

Of course, Gamma World's not the only RPG that suffers such a misperception, even among game designers, who ought to know better. So here's today's question: what game(s) do you think are unfairly caricatured within the hobby, by which I mean that the common stereotype of what the game is like is very far removed from the way it is written? I'm sure all RPGs suffer from this to an extent, but I'm equally sure that there are some games that suffer from it far more often than others. I'd like to hear about those.

I'll be spending a good part of today wading through the Petty Gods entries and contacting artists about illustrations. If you've submitted something or offered assistance with artwork and haven't heard from me by Sunday, please drop me another note to check in. I'm pretty well organized on this project, but, given the phenomenal response to it, I'm sure something has slipped through the cracks at some point.

42 comments:

  1. Tunnels & Trolls is the obvious one.

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  2. I tend to agree with you here Mr. M. Gamma World has always been my favorite game and I hate to see it relegated to the ash heap of "wackyness" like that. As you say, it can be humerous, but... Perhaps it was not all that wacky back then because he still had Mutual Assured Destruction hanging over our heads like the Sword of Damocles. I dunno.

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  3. It's an interesting topic, because I think, that humor comes from the participants, and not from the game... But I have an actual example for your question: Marvel Super Heroes. I always felt that this game is viewed not as humorous, but as something not really serious. We were teenagers when we played it, and we were reading Spiderman, X-men and Avangers comics, and we thought of them as something really serious literature... Really. And we, while we were laughing through the game as any other rpg like D&D, or even Call of Cthulhu, tried to be serius too. Serious characters, seriuos adventures. And I still think, that the Marvel universe is a really gameable and really epic "fantasy world".

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  4. Call of Cthulhu, as a game where everyone dies and goes insane all the time. This is nonsense; a player character can potentially survive for a very long time in CoC without going permanently insane or dying. But it does require you to be clever, and it can also require restraint on the part of the GM.

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  5. WFRPG and Call of Cthulhu spring to mind.

    Warhammer FRPG, as written, is not nearly as grim and gritty as some people will have you believe.

    Call of Cthulhu sessions don't HAVE to end in insanity and death.

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  6. When it first came out, my playing group thought VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE was a pretty decent game. Then, the LARPers got ahold of it's reputation, and the rest is history....

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  7. Hackmaster got a bad rap for the same thing: is no to be taken "Seriously". It's not a "real" game, etc.

    Bullsh*t.

    I've played and DMed Hackmaster since '02, and quite frankly, I've had some of the best gaming experiences ever.

    Same goes for games like Paranoia, Toon, Tunnel & Trolls, and Call of Cthulhu.

    C'mon folks, their GAMES for crying out loud.

    The one that stated it all has fairies, dragons, and orcs.

    How in the hell can anyone take it seriously?

    So, I'm directing this at all the people who criticize certain RPGs not being "serious" games:

    get over yourselves and get a life.

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  8. Tunnels & Trolls is treated unfairly as a joke game, IME. Also, I think Rolemaster and its derivatives has an undeserved reputation for complexity.

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  9. I think Ingmar hit it spot on. Especially once you add in fate points, the chances that a character is actually going to die are quite slim. Call of Cthulhu also is much less deadly than its reputation.

    I'll also preach to the choir here and say Old School D&D. Recently on Penny-Arcade, one of the writers commented that it was "byzantine," which may be true of AD&D, but it certainly doesn't match up with B/X D&D.

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  10. I've never understood the "Gamma World is Humorous" opinion quite a few gamers share - it must all depend on group dynamic & play style. We preferred our Gamma World to be not so much a "far-future" post-apocalyptic game, but something more along the lines of the old 80's EA computer game "Wasteland" - full of psychotic, bloodthirsty desperadoes & plenty of gritty adventure.

    I personally believe that AD&D2E is also unfairly characterized as well. Sure, the whole mess of "splatbooks" & campaign settings got overwhelming (& expensive) real quick, but the core game itself is both solid & flexible. As I run 2E with only the core rules (PH, DMG, MC) - while ignoring the "optional rules" included within, I find the game flows as quickly (from both a "rules-lite" & game mechanic standpoint) as any incarnation of "Classic" D&D.

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  11. I'll throw out there another post-apoc game: After the Bomb, which began as a setting supplement to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The title sort of gives away the "why"--especially with older gamers at the time who couldn't be bothered with playing a "cartoon".

    But the TMNT/ATB books were immensely fun to read and did a wonderful job portraying mutation/genetics and advanced tech. While it was easy to see how it could played for laughs, it was bursting with imagination (much like GW and MA).

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  12. I've never understood why Gamma World is considered humorous. How funny can the destruction of humanity be? The 1st edition rulebook has very dark implications.

    Amongst some people my own Carcosa is misunderstood. It is 96 pages long, and has a grand total of 4 SENTENCES mentioning ritual rape. Yet, from some of the comments I read, you'd think the whole book was about it.

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  13. One that comes to mind for me is Palladium's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other strangeness. Before the cartoon made me hate the turtles, it was a pretty cool setting. Almost any of the super hero games seem to suffer from the same dismissive attitude.
    To be honest the whole industry is ignored by most outside of it, and when attention is brought it is rarely positive.
    “Amy Bishop Anderson played D & D.” And so. . . ? Now if she would have gone crazy violent with a sword while donned in armor I might think her playing D & D had something to do with her mental unhinging.

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  14. I’m going to second Masque on Rolemaster being completely misperceived. The core mechanics are dead simple percentile. Lots of skills? Yes, there are a lot of skills presented in the companions and RMSS. What people miss is that you don’t have to (nor should you) use all of them. Lots of charts? Yes, when you include weapon charts, RM has a lot of charts. But seriously, how frickin hard is it to cross index two numbers on a chart? A little organization on the part of the GM and players makes this a moot issue. As long as everyone has a copy of their own weapon chart, combat flows very smoothly. Lots of math? Yes, you have to add and subtract double digit numbers, sometimes triple digit. I believe this is a skill we all should have picked up in second grade. There are also these wonders of technology known as “calculators” that will assist those with learning disabilities. Tons of extra rules in companion books? Heck yeah! This is one of RM’s features – it’s a very easily adaptable toolbox system. If you actually read any of the companions, you will also see a paragraph on the first page of each and every one that explains how everything in the book is OPTIONAL. You should not, and could not, use every rule in every companion.

    Nevertheless, I will agree that the Rolemaster Standard System has some time consuming character generation that results in character sheets of several pages in length. This is not so much the case in early or later iterations of RM. However, this issue has been addressed since around 2002 or so, when a free character generation spread sheet became available (all hail John Dale!).

    Enough of my Rolemaster rant. In addition, I will add that all older versions of D&D/AD&D suffer from the old = no longer any good mentality of many gamers. B/X and BXCMI also suffer(ed) from the “kiddie D&D” misperception that was extremely prevalent in the ‘80s.

    Finally, I didn’t have any idea that Gamma Wolrd was perceived as a joke game. We always played as seriously as we did any other rpg.

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  15. I’m going to second Masque on Rolemaster being completely misperceived. The core mechanics are dead simple percentile. Lots of skills? Yes, there are a lot of skills presented in the companions and RMSS. What people miss is that you don’t have to (nor should you) use all of them. Lots of charts? Yes, when you include weapon charts, RM has a lot of charts. But seriously, how frickin hard is it to cross index two numbers on a chart? A little organization on the part of the GM and players makes this a moot issue. As long as everyone has a copy of their own weapon chart, combat flows very smoothly. Lots of math? Yes, you have to add and subtract double digit numbers, sometimes triple digit. I believe this is a skill we all should have picked up in second grade. There are also these wonders of technology known as “calculators” that will assist those with learning disabilities. Tons of extra rules in companion books? Heck yeah! This is one of RM’s features – it’s a very easily adaptable toolbox system. If you actually read any of the companions, you will also see a paragraph on the first page of each and every one that explains how everything in the book is OPTIONAL. You should not, and could not, use every rule in every companion.

    Nevertheless, I will agree that the Rolemaster Standard System has some time consuming character generation that results in character sheets of several pages in length. This is not so much the case in early or later iterations of RM. However, this issue has been addressed since around 2002 or so, when a free character generation spread sheet became available (all hail John Dale!).

    Enough of my Rolemaster rant. In addition, I will add that all older versions of D&D/AD&D suffer from the old = no longer any good mentality of many gamers. B/X and BXCMI also suffer(ed) from the “kiddie D&D” misperception that was extremely prevalent in the ‘80s.

    Finally, I didn’t have any idea that Gamma Wolrd was perceived as a joke game. We always played as seriously as we did any other rpg.

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  16. Ingmar said...
    Call of Cthulhu sessions don't HAVE to end in insanity and death.

    But half the fun and giggles is getting there! ;)

    I GM'd my Gamma World campaign in a serious light. It actually made a cool alternate future to my Marvel Super Heroes games.

    I've been tempted to try out the new one, but I'm afraid it would disappoint me.

    Ciao!
    GW

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  17. Another vote for Tunnels & Trolls.

    As for Gamma World, I think the 1st Edition was more gritty then the later ones. At least,that's my perception.

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  18. I'd say Tunnels and Trolls, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and Call of Cthulhu. T&T isn't nearly the joke game it's made out to be (or, at least, it doesn't have to be played that way). While WFRP is set in a "grim and gritty world" (at least in 1E and 2E), it's not a setting in which one's character is likely to get raped. (Yes, I met someone who actually believed that.) And CoC, because the "go insane and die" bit is overdone by its detractors.

    Oh, one other. Hero System, which does have a steep learning curve, but isn't nearly as complicated as it's reputed to be.

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  19. Call of Cthulhu doesn't always end in the gruesome demise of your character. Nor is it a game where failing an investigation roll breaks the adventure.

    In direct opposition to Gamma World, WFRP is, in fact, supposed to be funny.

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  20. 1st Ed Gamma World is the best. But truthfully, I always thought they should of emphasize more the dangers of mutations then making them a "must have" ability for every PC, so I reworked the tables where if you survived any exposure to radiation you would probably end up horribly mutated or turned into some creature( just like in a 50's sci-fi/horror films).

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  21. Unfortunately I can identify with the idea that Gamma World is a humorous RPG - one of my favorite characters was a two-headed mutant chicken names Cluck - and that was about as serious as it got. I think part of the problem we had with the setting is that the post-apocalyptic future was set wayyyy to far into the future. It was hard to imagine the Gamma World setting as a gritty, Mad Max or 80s nuclear war Day After Tomorrow scenario. When our group wanted some serious, gritty 20-minutes into the future post-apocalyptic role-playing we'd turn to TW:2000 or Car Wars (not much of an RPG despite attempts to make it so, but the setting is appropriate).

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  22. We always played our Gamma World seriously, so never ever thought of it as wacky or gonzo. Even with the mutant powers.

    Almost any FGU game (except Villians & Vigilantes) for being overly complex (although Lee Gold's Lands of Adventure probably wins the acronym soup and equation excellence awards). However this is mostly because of the wargaming heritage these early games shared. It was just more familiar to write rules in that manner. And it definitely made it easier to locate specific rules.

    To which can be added Rolemaster, at least in it's first edition, due to the profusion of expansions. Mostly because it was easy to call it "rollmaster" methinks. [Later editions started to integrate everything, but the early stuff was Arms Law looking for a game system of its own.]

    The various Phoenix Command games (including Dracula) also fit the mould for excessive detail, but were playable if you "ignored" the combat system.

    Tunnels & Trolls was unjustly considered unworthy of serious play. Probably because of the silly spell names like "Take That You Fiend."

    For some reason most "furry" RPGs are initially met with great disdain by the regular gaming community. Personally, Furry Pirates, Ironclaw,* Lace & Steel, and Albedo are all excellent game systems (whether or not you use them for anthropomorphic games).

    In reverse, Once Upon A Time In The West must be mentioned. It's my favourite Western RPG. Pity it was actually written as a set of tabletop wargaming rules. The conversion was trivial, and the later supplement codified it, with the author commenting that he never meant for that to happen, nut if it made people swap their +1 swords for a Colt Peacemaker...

    [* The original. The second edition did for the game what 4th Ed did to D&D. Which speaking of unfairly maligned... (at least if you consider it on its own merits rather than the inheritor of a previous legacy).]

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  23. Would you say the same about Metamorphosis: Alpha?

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  24. Paranoia. At least, Paranoia as intended by the original designers, if not Paranoia as written. Unlike Jim Ward, in the later editions they got the chance to explicitly identify different styles of play to show that playing with Warner Brother's style wackiness was only one choice among many. And not necessarily the one the designers intended.

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  25. GURPS has a really bad reputation around here. Most gamers I know seem to think that Trigonometry and Calculus are intregal parts of GURPS, no matter what I do to try to get them to give GURPS a shot. Honestly I do not know where GURPS gets this reputation. It might be more complex then say BX, but when compared to most RPGs I'd say GURPS is down right simplistic.

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  26. Gamma World was never considered wacky in my neck of the woods. Paranoia is funny, but only in the way that laughs at how continually messed up the world is, and how doomed you are.

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  27. Yes, Rolemaster is "simple basic system, complicated as hell add-ons." But so is 3e D&D.

    3e back-engineered to the simplicity of a retro-clone would really appeal to me.

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  28. @roger the GS:

    Actually, that sounds like an interesting project...hmmm, I think my Saturday just got a bit fuller.

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  29. How can goofy be a bad thing? I'm a big fan of Tunnels & Trolls, and I think that it's maligned because of it's humor. But that's what I like most about T&T!

    Who criticizes Terry Pratchet for not being serious?

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  30. I never bought into the idea that Gamma World was inherently wacky either. I was a big fan of Sterling Lanier's Heiro's Journey and tended to see it through the lens of that novel. I'd be interested to know if anybody else's approach to the game was strongly influenced by that novel. Of course, my approach to post-apocalyptic roleplaying was also informed by more serious works like Walter M. Miller's "A Canticle for Leibowitz", George R. Stewart's "Earth Abides", and John Wyndam's "The Crysalids". Heck...movies such as 'Logan's Run' and 'The Planet of the Apes' also influenced my own take on Gamma World back in the day.

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  31. I have to agree with previous posters, Rolemaster and Hero are not nearly as complicated as people make them out to be.

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  32. I think the humorous tone of Gamma World is much like "whistling past the graveyard". With the fear of nuclear war still palpable in the 80's, the giant mutant chickens were a much-needed tonic to relieve the grim implications of the post-nuke setting.

    Of course, the Trampier drawings in the original edition rulebook went a long way towards setting this tone. He channeled Albrecht Dürer for his AD&D work, and R. Crumb for his Gamma World illustrations.

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  33. "I never bought into the idea that Gamma World was inherently wacky either. I was a big fan of Sterling Lanier's Heiro's Journey and tended to see it through the lens of that novel. I'd be interested to know if anybody else's approach to the game was strongly influenced by that novel."

    This is also where I am in terms of Gamma World. I'll also add Andre Norton's Daybreak: 2250 AD! as a major influence in my own perception of GW. I've never seen it as 'wacky' til Omega World was written in Dragon a few years ago.

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  34. @Ian: Yup, the believe Heiro's Journey and The Unforsaken Hiero are big influences on Gamma World in general.

    I have been running a 1E campaign through Legion of Gold now for about a year and a half and it's a pretty grim and strange landscape. Naturally, as the GM I set the tone, but I find the basic rule system is pretty ruthless and the PC's are constantly struggling just to survive the wildlands. There is a steady supply of black humor that runs around the table as another PC succumbs to an awful death, but I would say that is more of a natural outgrowth of friends hanging out playing a RPG than something designed into the rules of Gamma World.

    By the way, anyone interested in a fine novel for mining a cool Gamma World atmosphere should check out Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky. (I have actually only just started, but so far it is diamonds!)

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  35. I never thought of GW as a "wacky" setting until TSR started doing treating it like a joke with products like GammaRauders.

    And I'll chime in on Tunnels & Trolls. It's rules system is actual a a step forward from OD&D and aside from it's spell names it takes its self just as seriously as OD&D.

    Bunnies & Burrows. Not actually a "joke" game at all. Is Watership Down a "joke" novel? The original rules had some interesting points (like the circle of professions) and, for an FGU game, were quite straight forward and playable.

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  36. @Duglas: I have been running a 1E campaign through Legion of Gold now for about a year and a half and it's a pretty grim and strange landscape.

    In my opinion, Legion of Gold is a forgotten masterpiece. If it was a D&D module rather than a Gamma World one, people would speak of it in the same breath as Keep on the Borderlands and Village of Hommlet. It still stands up well as a model of a sandbox campaign setting. Interestingly, it contains numerous small adventure sites developed in detail rather than a single mega-dungeon around which the action revolves. I've always had a fondness for that approach.

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  37. I am another that viewed GW through the lens of Norton and Lanier.
    A later book by A.A. Attanasio, Radix was also a huge influence. I highly recommend it.

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  38. Spawn of Fashan. Say no more.

    Wait, that WAS supposed to be a parody game.

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  39. Would you say the same about Metamorphosis: Alpha?

    I'd say that MA isn't well known enough to be maligned, unfairly or otherwise. :)

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  40. In my opinion, Legion of Gold is a forgotten masterpiece.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, I feel the same way.

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