Tuesday, April 26, 2011

On Being a Mutant (Part II)

Ultimately, I think it is Gamma World's full-throated embrace of randomness that is the biggest source of its mischaracterization as "not serious." Mutations are one of the cornerstones of its rules, filling roughly the same role as spells in Dungeons & Dragons. Unlike spells, mutations are not only (generally) apportioned randomly, there's no guarantee that the mutations one winds up with will have any rhyme or reason to them. A Gamma World mutant could possess a remarkably wide range of abilities, none of them tying in to an obvious "theme" that a player or referee can easily latch on to and say, "Oh, so that's what these guys are like."

What's amusing is that the rulebook actually offers plenty of helpful advice in how to "make sense" of random mutations, if only one is willing to look. No, the rulebook doesn't have a section specifically dedicated to this topic, but the creature descriptions can serve much the same purpose. Take, for example, arks, who are intelligent dog men. Their mutations include telekinesis, weather manipulation, and life leech. None of those mutations really "go together" nor do any of them suggest that arks would "fear large winged creatures" or "consider human hands a great delicacy." What Ward and co-author Gary Jaquet did was treat the mutations as "add-ons" to the basic idea of vicious humanoid dogs. Rather than trying to use the mutations as explanatory of the creatures that possessed them, they were descriptive. Of course, for this to work, one already has to have a basic idea to which the mutations can be added. The random tables don't replace imagination but rather serve as an aid to it.

What I've discovered, though, is that players frequently dislike random tables for one of two contradictory reasons. The first and most prevalent is that randomization takes power out of their hands by giving them something they didn't expect. "I wanted to play a magic-user but I rolled an 8 for Intelligence." "I wanted a mutant with mental blast but I got hostility field instead." The second reason is that random tables don't do enough creative heavy lifting, forcing the player to try and make sense of a mutant that has plant control, precognition, telepathy, and total healing without any help or hints on how to do so. Games that make regular use of random tables for key elements are thus viewed with some suspicion, even before the appearance of Hoops make it even easier to dismiss it as "silly."

As I've now said at some length over the course of many posts, I don't think Gamma World is any more inherently silly than any other RPG. What it is, however, is fairly demanding on the imaginations of referees and players alike. I think Gamma World is so often treated as a joke because it's so much easier to do so than it is to try and make some sense of the often-bizarre elements it generates through the use of random tables (not to mention the equally bizarre elements it simply presents straightforwardly). Looked at this way, I feel a lot less annoyed at the subsequent history of the game than I originally had, but I'm more ... disappointed? ... that so few gamers have seen Gamma World for what it can be: a real workout for the imagination -- not to mention a lot of fun.

28 comments:

  1. I couldn't agree more. Even the jokey aspects (dog-men "biting the hands that fed them", the irony of prey animals like rabbits becoming very dangerous predators) are simultaneously sinister, and it's a failure of the imagination IMO to see it all as gonzo silliness.

    I've really like these GW posts. By all means keep it up if you've got more thoughts! It's a nice break from all the D&Dity.

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  2. The randomness is really the fun part of character generation for me. I never even considered (even to this day) playing a pure strain human in GW, or MF for that matter. What's the point.

    And its just that randomness that makes you flex your muscles on character creation. That's why I love the character generation of original Villains and Vigilantes, and not of Mutants and Masterminds. Random=fun to me. And you never know how much fun you can have trying to connect the random dots during game play.

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  3. Your comments about making "descriptive" sense of the creature powers in GW rings quite true to me. I try to not read too far ahead in my campaign by reading all the creature descriptions in detail... I wait until the players actually encounter a particular creature before studying its powers (I like to be surprised myself as the GM).
    Like your example of arks... I had no real idea that they could do weather manipulation until a random forest encounter turned up. I have to admit, at first the power didn't really jibe with my "image" of what I thought arks were all about, but I thought on it a bit and decided that arks manifested their weather manipulation usually as a fog to shroud their movements and attacks. Next thing I know arks have this witchy vibe to their style that translates into them being considered almost supernatural by the average local populations and greatly feared. (The fog combo with life leech and telepathy lends an element of werewolf-meets-vampire.)
    I like it... and all from a simple odd power listing with no description!

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  4. I certainly don't disagree that GW shouldn't only be seen as a joke but I think it's a bit unfair to lump the large share of responsibility on the players' dislike of tables when there is so much self-referencial breaking of the 4th wall going on with many of the creatures and situations in the published materials.

    The dog 'biting the hand that feeds' above is a perfect example.

    By creating a being that engages in such text-book, almost quintessential, post-modern meta-humor (repeated many times in the published books such as the chickens in "Famine at Far-Go" and even the Hoops/Floppsies) is indicating to the audience that this is meant to be satirical.

    If that wasn't, at least partly, the intended response then the authors were sending quite the mixed message.

    Literary analysts sometimes hold authors to task when such self-referentialism turns a piece of fiction into meta-fiction instead of a story.

    At times I think the Gamma World authors are guilty of the same crime.

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  5. I completely agree that bizarre randomness might make one view Gamma World (and Mutant Future alike) a silly game. Of course I consider humour an important part of the game, but with much more satire and cynism in it (i.e. predator-prey changes as dhowarth333 mentioned, anti-utopias, failed civilization-rebuilding attempts and references to our modern or historical reality and culture).

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  6. I've really like these GW posts. By all means keep it up if you've got more thoughts!

    There are definitely more on the way; have no fear!

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  7. One approach I've always found useful for games with random power generation is that put forward in Golden Heroes: If you can't justify it, you lose it!

    You'd be surprised how fast players come up with rationales behind random collections of powers once this is enforced.

    @Duglas: I like your interpretation of arks. It makes them more like barghests in terms of what to do with them. It also serves as a reminder that just because a power description says the user can do something, it is perfectly alright to limit what a power can do if it makes more sense. A number of superhero games would be improved if the referees remembered this.

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  8. there is so much self-referencial breaking of the 4th wall going on with many of the creatures and situations in the published materials.

    I think what happened is that the rulebook had a few examples of such meta-humor, but subsequent adventures and rulebooks multiplied them, their authors no doubt thinking that doing so was "in the spirit" of the original. Over time, these piled up and became, rather than a sub-text of the game, the game itself.

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  9. @John: Thanks... and I agree with you. I like to use the GW powers as listed as a base starting point and then interpret from there. Sometimes I tone them down, sometimes I ramp them up. It's no fun when everybody who has, say, telepathy, also has a specific range of 30 meters... all the time. It's more interesting when things are varied and somewhat unpredictable.

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  10. I hope you eventually address what -- in your opinion -- the players are supposed to do in GW. My issue with the game is not the gonzo approach or random tables, but my sense of "what now?" D&D is pretty upfront with it: explore dungeons/lairs, to accumulate gold, to gain XP, and level up. Who knows... maybe one day you'll get that tower or keep. Even if the text does not clearly say it, the mechanics pretty much do. I don't get any of that with GW.

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  11. I think you're on to something with that last paragraph. I know I often have a problem conceptualizing Gamma World in a serious manner, and I recognize it's due to the constraints of my own imagination. Silly Gamma World is pretty easy to picture.

    I suppose I think it should be like the old Thundarr cartoon, which mostly played it's silliness straight if you get my meaning.

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  12. My issue with the game is not the gonzo approach or random tables, but my sense of "what now?" D&D is pretty upfront with it: explore dungeons/lairs, to accumulate gold, to gain XP, and level up. Who knows... maybe one day you'll get that tower or keep.

    If you want to play GW as D&D it's done easily enough. Explore ancient ruins/installations, accumulate technology, know-how, and knowledge of the world, gain XP, get a few bonuses, and who knows, maybe one day you'll be the head of a small army of post-apocalyptic freakazoids and have your own burnt-out shopping mall as a stronghold :).

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  13. 1978 is when Planet of the Apes(TV), Sony & Cher and Bionic Man/Women was just ending. BSG, Mork & Mindy and Incredible Hulk were beginning ... The minds of boys(& girls) were pretty flexible and use to wonky, pop culture & crazy humour(SNL, Carol Burnnet, Quark ...etc )

    I think humour was a way of dealing with the scary reality of nukes, aftermath of Vietnam war and continuing cold war. All of this must of weighed heavily on the subconcious minds working on an Apocalyptical themed roleplaying game for kids & young adults.

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  14. Your GW posts - and especially the accompanying Trampier art - really shakes up some buried memories in me.

    I played in one session of GW back around '84; and though I don't remember much about the system, the Trampier artwork takes me back.

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  15. Just as a side note, I was led to check out the first episode Thundarr the Barbarian by some of the comments here. I was surprised I hadn't heard of it, being a Saturday morning cartoon watching son of the '80s, but to my surprise and delight as soon as it started rolling I remembered... I remembered. Pretty terrible stuff, but it's nice to be taken back to a place you had forgotten you'd been :).

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  16. Excellent post, James. I love randomization in RPGs. Much enjoyment and creativity lie in the roll of the dice.

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  17. I always liked the randomization of the GW mutations because to me, the way that they explained how radiation worked and created the mutations in the first place, it wouldn't make sense that a person would develop mutations along a "theme."

    Two different people being exposed to the same radiation danger area would end up with completely different mutations, and that's how it should be, I felt, to work within the context of the game.

    That's actually a reason why I tended not to use too many of the "monsters" in the GW book except as solo encounters, because it seemed odd to me that a "race" would have the exact same mutations generation after generation, when there was still background radiation in the atmosphere that could affect them. In the case of the arks that you point out, for example, when I used them I would roll up some different mutations to mix it up so a group of characters facing a pack of arks wouldn't know exactly what to expect in terms of their powers.

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  18. To me the randomness is very much a feature. Seems like it fits what philosophical fabric the game has very well--with Civilization utterly destroyed, Order has failed and Chaos reigns...and so really, what better way than random generation to work out the inhabitants of a world like that...?

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  19. The value of randomization can be the subject of many posts on its own. I think RPGs that remove all randomness from character creation lose something valuable in the process. Randomness forces players to be creative about the result that pure selection can't.

    Steve

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  20. Ahh, Thundarr. I was a huge fan at the time; Thundarr's world of 3994 was Gamma World, as far as I was concerned. It's distressing how bad they are in hindsight, yet they still got that GW mojo working.

    Steve

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  21. "Acquiring" mutations after birth is such a ridiculous premise (don't get me wrong, I have no problem with that at all) from a real-world biological science perspective that one must just throw any sort of attempted rationalization of anything in the game out the window. Randomization rocks, and is central to what makes 1st ed. GW great.

    If one needs a more coherent set of background assumptions, one of the other post-apocalyptic games, such as Morrow Project or Jorune, is probably the place one wants to be.

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  22. It's worth noting, too, that not all GW products took the low road, comedy-wise. The adventures written by Kim Eastland and Bruce Nesmith for the 3rd and 4th TSR editions of GW were pretty much entirely straight-faced.

    Steve

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  23. "I think what happened is that the rulebook had a few examples of such meta-humor, but subsequent adventures and rulebooks multiplied them, their authors no doubt thinking that doing so was "in the spirit" of the original. Over time, these piled up and became, rather than a sub-text of the game, the game itself."

    That sums it up really well I think.

    These posts of yours have made me think that I'd love to play, at least a limited, GW campaign again with some friends who understand mythic metaphor and cultural context and therefore could transfer that same attitude to GW.

    It would almost be a consciousness altering experience I think... with at least a couple dashes of Thundarr spice... just to invoke the good old days.

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  24. @Osskorrei:

    "I'd love to play, at least a limited, GW campaign again with some friends who understand mythic metaphor and cultural context and therefore could transfer that same attitude to GW."

    What does that even mean, and how does it apply to GW over other RPGs specifically? (If you'd said "I'd like to get together with friends to blow up mutants and loot," then I'd understand completely.)

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  25. I think that random tables are out of fashion with the modern narrative gamer because they think that things should be in a game for a purpose. What they don't realise is that a lot of the fun involved in the use of random tables is working out the reason why whatever random thing the table says happened, and then incorporating that into the narrative.* Of course, sometimes this means that the narrative diverges from what was planned, but that is why we are role-playing rather than simply telling a story.

    With randomness you are shifting the emphasis back on the players and gamemaster rather than the rules or the adventure. So there has been an increasing tendency to avoid invoking randomness so that the game hews closer to that which was envisaged by the designers. Because it's easier.

    Interestingly enough I have no problem with random power generation in Gamma World, but I've got a dislike for it in superhero games (such as Villains & Vigilantes, Super Squadron, Marvel Super Heroes, and Icons). Probably because most of these random generation systems concentrate on granting powers rather than themes. Or maybe it's just bad experiences. <shrug>

    [* Of course, sometimes things happen for no discernible reason. That's fun too, provided the players are capable of shrugging and getting on with stuff (one random encounter I rolled "children," so I had the children dress up a cactus in old armour, from a dead orc that had been killed by the party earlier, which they then proceeded to hit with sticks until dinner time. However when the players later returned to town, they kind of got overly distracted by whatever secret/message was concealed/meant by the armoured cactus they then encountered...)]

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  26. @Justin, I didn't mean playing another RPG or RPG genre, just that the people I know could get understand the self-referential nature of GW and approach it the same way they understand mythic elements within the cultural contexts of the host cultures in question.

    Applying that same attitude to GW (similar to an Anthropologst who approaches a culture on its *own* terms instead of forcing it through a Western filter) might allow for full GW experience without having to struggle with the question of is it silly or serious.

    In this way, the 'biting the hand that feeds' example above becomes less of a self-referential joke and more of another expression of the game world's ontology itself.

    Which might just mean that it took me a few days but I now am on the same page with James about GW (light slowly dawns and I go....."ooooh, I get it.")

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  27. @dhowarth333, I don't deny one can play GW like D&D, but then that's all one is doing: transplanting mechanics from one game to another and carrying along with it its themes. GW, as written, does not offer any kind of direction to the players (GM included) unless it is so subtle I missed it entirely (certainly possible.)

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