Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Stone-Cold Killers

In his comment to another post, Jeff Quick mentions that the picture I've reproduced above, a Dave Trampier piece illustrating a war party of Hoops, represented the deadly seriousness of Gamma World, while, to many other game designers, it represented the inherent silliness of the game. I really appreciated his comment, because, in addition to giving some insight into why the later editions of Gamma World are the way they are, it provided me with a useful litmus test for determining how one feels about the game. If there is simply no way you can imagine taking Hoops seriously, chances are you won't be able to enjoy Gamma World.

Now, when I say "take Hoops seriously," I'm most emphatically not suggesting that anyone treat them as something scientifically plausible, let alone as vehicles for meaning of any kind. Intelligent anthropomorphic rabbits with the ability to turn metal to rubber by their touch is something I feel pretty safe in saying is impossible, even with lots of mutagenic and "reality-warp" weapons being tossed around. Likewise, I'm not sure there's much depth -- philosophical or dramatic -- that can be wrung out of these guys. What I mean is that they be treated, in their own context, as something more than walking jokes. Again, note that I am also not saying there's not something humorous about Hoops, because of course there is. Nor am I saying that Hoops should never be used humorously, as anyone who remembers my story of The Colonel should recall. All I am saying is that, if you can't treat these mutants as more than silly monsters, Gamma World probably isn't for you.

Or perhaps more accurately: I wouldn't want to play Gamma World with you. For me, the brilliance of Gamma World is similar to the brilliance of D&D: even though many of its elements are faintly ridiculous in isolation, taken together, they provide superb building blocks for a wide variety of adventures. Best of all, they can be used in a variety of ways, not just a single publisher-approved one. I think that's the big reason why the "Gamma World is a silly RPG" meme bugs the heck out of me: it implies that there's no way the game can played as anything other than as a joke, which I can tell you is simply untrue -- quite the opposite in fact!

I'll readily concede that Gamma World might reasonably be called "gonzo" in its approach, if by that one means that it's a wild and woolly "kitchen sink" science fantasy that includes many different elements, some of which could be viewed as humorous. But I think that's a far cry from be able to call Gamma World in its entirety a humorous RPG, because, if it is, almost any RPG could be called such -- at least any that I'd want to play.

37 comments:

  1. While not a humourous RPG in the vein of Toon or Teenagers from Outer Space, it can't honestly be called deadly serious either.

    Something I've never been able to comprehend is how people can view it as one or the other. It's very obviously both and a well done Gamma World game should make you laugh about as often if perhaps slightly less often than it makes you go "Yikes!"

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  2. A game can only ever be as serious as the people playing it are willing to make. Gamma World is just at a disadvantage as compared to other games because various parts of it are generally connected to humor. As an example of this when I think of anthropomorphic rabbits, the first thing that comes to mind is Bugs Bunny and he is not conducive to a serious atmosphere.

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  3. I bought Gamma World the same day I bought Holmes, mostly to get the dice. However, those first few weeks I was more interested in it, I suspect because my reading background was much more sci-fi than fantasy. Now, admittedly I was in the fifth grade but I never saw it as a joke game back then.

    To be me it was out of half the movies I was watching on the late night horror/sci-fi b-movie shows on the one independent TV station in town. Perhaps it has become more of a joke game over time because that kind of source material is now only enjoyed in an ironic MST3K sense and not in the "oh, what the hell" fun way it was back in the day.

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  4. Thanks for posting your latest round of posts on Gamma World, I really enjoy reading them and look forward to more. Speaking for my playing group (which always possessed a leaning towards post-apocalyptic RPGs), we always felt that Gamma World (and one of its successors Mutant Future) can always be approached from a gritty and deadly angle. Ultimately, I feel that this has to do with player attitude. I recall looking over the hoop war party picture of Trampier with some of my players sometime ago. Although the image of a group of furry rabbitoids did seem cute at first glance, the potential deadliness of an encounter with them became apparent after one of my players pointed out how the hoops were armed and kitted out. A group of wasteland adventurers armed with melee weapons and muscle-powered missle throwers would do well to think twice before tangling with enemies toting 30-06 hunting rifles and what looks like a luger.

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  5. Never played much Gamma World, but did enjoy Metamorphosis Alpha (and it's later cousin Alpha to Omega). There was always a bit of conflict between seriousness and goofiness in our adventures.

    Sometimes, it could ruin an adventure completely; other times, the tension could really work, as a light-hearted/comedy situation could be interrupted by some new, horrifying mutant or robot bearing down on us. That or simply the nearest tree trying to kill us...

    Finally, out of curiosity, are Hoops really any less ridiculous than the "green anthropomorphic rabbit man", Jaxxon from the Star Wars comics?

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  6. That 2nd illustration is by Larry Elmore from the 2nd edition. You've railed against Elmore's work here several times, but I think his pen & ink drawings for Gamma World were excellent, some of his best stuff. He actually managed to make a Hoop look somewhat cool and "badass" here.

    Oh, and I agree with almost everything you've written about Gamma World. I have NEVER seen it as a humorous RPG. Yes, it had some elements that were light and fun, but I always took it quite seriously. So to speak. Perhaps it is because I experienced GW after having read and enjoyed some good Andre Norton books that were set in a post-apocalyptic era.

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  7. "If there is simply no way you can imagine taking Hoops seriously, chances are you won't be able to enjoy Gamma World."

    I must be one of those, then. It's funny, I could take Ducks in Glorantha quite seriously, but the idea of giant bunnies with assault rifles makes me snicker uncontrollably. I'd probably drive the GM nuts. :)

    (I'd swear I owned a very early GW boxed set, but I'll be darned if I know what happened to it.)

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  8. I've never played Gamma World, and I'm really not into the anthropomorphic animal thing, but the gun bunnies are fine by me, as are RuneQuest's Ducks, that green rabbit guy in Star Wars, and Rocket Raccoon. Especially Rocket Raccoon.

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  9. a Dave Trampier piece illustrating a war party of Hoops, represented the deadly seriousness of Gamma World, while, to many other game designers, it represented the inherent silliness of the game.

    doesn't it do both? (and isn't that what makes it a good piece?)

    i have a hard time imagining someone who sees "only" either seriousness or silliness here.

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  10. I agree with Shlominus. Sure, I can see that they're serious, and a threat, but I'd probably start laughing for a bit upon hearing "You see a line of giant rabbits ahead, all of whom are armed with hunting rifles, or carry pistols.".

    Of course, in game, I'd have grown up with these things, and not see anything weird about them, but that's my character, not me.

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  11. I remember when TMNT first came out (and it was my first exposure to the whole TMNT concept) I read a review that said, simply, despite the crazy premise it's meant to be played straight. And that was enough to make me interested. I never saw anyone apply that statement to GW, but it seems like it could've saved a lot of trouble.

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  12. TMNT & Other Strangeness was what got a wee little me into this hobby.

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  13. Finally, out of curiosity, are Hoops really any less ridiculous than the "green anthropomorphic rabbit man", Jaxxon from the Star Wars comics?

    Context is everything and, in context, I think Jaxxon is far more out of place in Star Wars -- even the very loose, undefined SW of the late 70s -- than Hoops are in Gamma World.

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  14. You've railed against Elmore's work here several times, but I think his pen & ink drawings for Gamma World were excellent, some of his best stuff.

    Despite my general dislike of Elmore's artwork, I think he's quite good as a SF artist, as I said in this post about a year ago.

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  15. The Trampier piece strikes me as awful frankly. He's just taken a bunch of cute bunnies and given them some guns. I'd have a hard time taking that image seriously in any way. Otoh, the Elmore version works fine for me. I could take those Hoops seriously in the game.

    The same thing goes for mutant plant characters in Mutant Future. When I envision a mutant plant PC, I'm thinking Swamp Thing, not a walking rododendron.

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  16. > Especially Rocket Raccoon.

    And he didn't even get around to pictures of the humanoid raccoons: dabbers. (In a recent Gamma World con game, I used HeroClix Rocket Raccoon for miniatures.)

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  17. James, this is an excellent post. I think you manage to capture what both attracts me and repels me from Gamma World and Mutant Future.

    On the one hand I find Gamma World's premise amazingly evocative, but on the other hand the bizarreness of it causes both me and my players to view it as an inherently comical exercise.

    The tension between the two makes me enthused on a good day and flat out baffled on a bad one.
    Still I'm very interested in the game and would desperately like to run a short campaign of it -- if I could get over this mental hurdle.

    because that kind of source material is now only enjoyed in an ironic MST3K sense and not in the "oh, what the hell" fun way it was back in the day.

    I don't know about that. I find MST3k works best when they're mocking a movie I would watch on my own anyway. If it's too terrible I couldn't watch it at all.

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  18. For those of you interested, I have written and posted a "serious" adventure for the new Gamma World (so it is possible with the new edition)...
    Quest of the One-Armed Robot
    https://docs.google.com/leaf?id=0BwSEGjOnxAb0NTc4Yzg1OTEtNzc1NC00NWQ0LTg5NmEtODBkZTNiZjg3ODU3&hl=en

    And since Metamorphosis Alpha has been mentioned (which it *should* be in any Gamma World conversation), you may want to check out an adventure I wrote for the 1st edition of that system as well...
    Dire Straits (check Files section of entry)
    http://rpggeek.com/rpg/769/metamorphosis-alpha-1st-edition

    Oh, and there is a new edition of Metamorphosis Alpha in the works over at Signal Fire Studios. It will be based on the Dungeons & Dragons 4e engine.

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  19. That first illustration of the Hoopps is the best. Is there any deep philosphical meaning in the Hoops? You bet! Qute and cuddly rabbits have the power to transform metal to rubber? As in transforming swords into rubber bands? And all the same armed to he teeth? Rabbits are generally symbolic of something that is harmless and cute. And how about Nazi war criinals, leaders of Cambodian Khmer Rouge and Psychos from Serbian etnic militias viewing themslves as furry white rabbits of sorts. Half in jest, but also half in full seriousness as they goof and be cute wit their wives and chidren, or worse, peple slaughtering civilians thinking themselves great warriors? And how about furry white rabbits brainwashed with a supremacist and an intolerant ideology. That can't happen with the Zoopremacist "cryptic alliance" in any of the Gamma World settings? And you say there can be no philosophical or any other kind of seriousness associated with that illustration of the 1st Ed Gamma World Hoops?

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  20. The armed bunnies are a nod to Bunnies and Burrows - an entire RPG based on playing a rabbit in a militaristic society. Bunnies and Burrows was based off of the book Watership Down, by Richard Adams. From Wikipedia: Watership Down is a heroic fantasy novel about a small group of rabbits, written by English author Richard Adams. Although the animals in the story live in their natural environment, they are anthropomorphised, possessing their own culture, language (Lapine), proverbs, poetry, and mythology. Evoking epic themes, the novel recounts the rabbits' odyssey as they escape the destruction of their warren to seek a place in which to establish a new home, encountering perils and temptations along the way.

    There is a cartoon adaptation that was released in 1978. Though it was a cartoon, it was extremely graphic and violent. After watching the movie, you will have no problem taking the Hoops seriously.

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  21. Horror movies frequently have comedic elements in them. Fear and humour are actually closely linked emotions. There's also different types of funny. I'll include things I find amusing in my games, but that doesn't mean the tone of the game automatically becomes silly. In fact I kind of enjoy taking "silly" things and making them scary (eg. Flumph, Flail Snail, Kung-Fu Cowboys, etc)

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  22. That Dave Trampier piece is also one of my favourite pieces, and very evocative of Gamma World for me. They are armed. They are following good trail discipline (walking single file to confuse their numbers and keeping watch to the sides as well as front). You can readily imagine meeting them. The picture has context.

    On the other hand I find the other portrayals are too cartoony. They are making a mockery of the idea of an anthropomorphic rabbit, essentially trying to conjure images of a feral bugs bunny. Which just doesn't work as well for me. And they lack context (even if you include the cropped out part of the 5th Ed piece).

    I think Hoops tended to be the archetypical villains in most of the Gamma World games I've been involved with. There is just something about them that encourages this, methinks.

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  23. I hate that drawing, along with all the other cutesy drawings in the 1st edition book. It is my opinion that these drawings bear the primary responsibility for Gamma World attaining the status of a goof-ball game. :(

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  24. I think I was 13 when I first encountered Gamma World (that age where it's cool to laugh at anything except yourself) and that combined with the fact that the first adventure I played in was "The Famine At Far-Go" pretty much cemented the spoof-like nature of our Gamma World campaigns.

    "Far-Go" was a great adventure (if I remember right... it's been years) but it's also one big in-joke (or at least we perceived it that way - especially the chickens and their backstory). It set the template of us always having little nods to modern day things or pop-culture references.

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  25. I don't know about that. I find MST3k works best when they're mocking a movie I would watch on my own anyway. If it's too terrible I couldn't watch it at all.

    I think you missed my point. I said the only way they're enjoyed, not one way. Many, many people anymore can only find enjoyment in such material in that ironic manner (I actually had a player say as much at my table a few weeks ago). I'm not a fan of MST3K in general, never have been, but as a long time Rocky Horror fan I enjoy the movie in and of itself which makes the mocking all that much more fun.

    If you can operate on both levels then Hoops are something you can react to as a threat. If you only operate on the ironic level then they're the bunny from Monty Python.

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  26. @ Herb

    I was more having a knee-jerk reaction to defend MST3k, the last few seasons of which I deeply love. However, I do think you have a point on their detrimental effect on liking those old sorts of movies. I've come to think of them as more mean spirited than I used to.

    As a fellow Rocky Horror fan (in the sense of actually liking the movie) I completely see your point, and in ruminating on it I think I understand Gamma World much better now.

    Weird huh?

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  27. James, do you know if anyone has done a conversion for doing the classic Gamma World beasties for Mutant Future?

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  28. I grew up watching Hammer Horror & 50's Rubber-Monster Movies so at 15, I was primed to get the duelity of the Hoops as dangerous joke. you laugh and then look again at their stats & blurp; Eh! they are really a threat 15HD in squads of 1 to 20, telepathy/mass mind and turn metal to rubber! Oh and they like Tech, Guns & Artifacts. This was gold for the Gamemaster!

    I can understand people not getting then & now.

    It doesn't help that in later vesions they refer to Hoops as 'Floppsies'

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  29. It doesn't help that in later vesions they refer to Hoops as 'Floppsies'

    Really? Um... really? I'm so glad I've never ventured beyond 1st ed., then.

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  30. GW 1e was not he first game I played, but it was the first game I purchased. I did so not long after reading Watership Down for the first time. I had no problem taking the hoops seriously, and my longest running character in GW was a giant black mutated rabbit.

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  31. Anthony mocks the idea of giant bunnies with assault rifles, but I think Specters of the Dawn, by S. Andrew Swan, is an excellent example of a hard science fiction book where giant bunnies with assault rifles (designed to fight in South American civil wars) is put forth successfully entirely seriously without a shade of humor.

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  32. The picture is funny with some very dark undertones which is prevalent in all of Trampiers work. Case in point the Hoop with the carbine who's looking at the viewer as if he's going to fire a round into you at any moment. But even more brilliant is how Trampier drew an image that predates a good twenty five years the idea of using cute animal like humanoids in a gritty war setting like they're doing with the magna series Cat Shit One. Take a look..

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wncS6tO59M

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  33. I read Watership Down for the first time just a few months ago. As others have said above, it's a transformative book: you will never look at rabbits the same way again, and indeed, it filled me with the desire to be able to explore the world sketched so vividly in the book.

    I really do now understand why so many early fantasy RPGs featured at least a nod to the novel (Bunnies and Burrows, obviously, but also the "Bunrab" race from Swordbearer and the Hoops from GW). It's one of a few English novels from the mid-20th century (e.g. Once and Future King, The Hobbit) that manages to vividly create a fantastic version of pastoral England that has (for better or worse) come to serve as the baseline setting for "vanilla fantasy".

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  34. Despite my general dislike of Elmore's artwork, I think he's quite good as a SF artist, as I said in this post about a year ago.

    Gamma World really straddles the line between fantasy and sci-fi, but I get your point.

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  35. Hoops always scared the crap out of our group, and I admit that the Trampier drawing had something to do with it. I look at those Hoops and I just know that they are going to emotionlessly f*** you up. The fact that they were damn tough only made things worse. In fact, later edition's attempts to make them look more 'badass' only served to make them more ridiculous, in my opinion.

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  36. "Trampier drew an image that predates a good twenty five years the idea of using cute animal like humanoids in a gritty war setting like they're doing with the magna series Cat Shit One."--crowking

    I was wondering if anybody would mention Cat Shit One. It certainly demonstrates how armed, militaristic, anthropomorphic rabbits can be taken very seriously.

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