Sunday, May 1, 2011

Gamma World, Cover to Cover (Part I)

I'm not entirely sure when I acquired a copy of the first edition of Gamma World, but it was likely within a year or so of my first having entered the hobby, so that places it somewhere around 1980, though it could have been as late as 1981, since my memories of the game almost always include the module Legion of Gold, published in that year. At any rate, Gamma World is, along with D&D and Traveller, one of the games I feel as if I've been playing forever. Of course, that's not literally true at all; in fact it's been quite some time since I've actually played Gamma World in any form, let alone in its first edition. Consequently, delving back into the game through this series could be potentially as eye-opening for me as for anyone reading what I write.

The first thing I notice about the first edition rulebook is its cover, which is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, Dave Trampier's illustration depicts a bunch of ordinary -- pure strain, in Gamma World's terms -- humans in what appears to be fairly high-tech gear preparing to explore a ruined city. As a kid, I found the image very powerful, but, at the same time, it's also an odd one, since the game, as written, doesn't really provide any option for beginning a campaign with the PCs as anything other than primitives with little or no knowledge of the pre-apocalyptic world. That's not to say you couldn't run a Gamma World campaign on that basis, but it isn't one the game natively supports. Second, we forget that Gamma World was the work of two authors. In addition to the more well known James M. Ward, there's also Gary Jaquet, whose name is not widely known. I certainly know nothing of the man beyond his involvement in this one TSR product and a handful of articles in the early days of Dragon.

Before getting into the text of the game itself, I think it's important to note (once again) that Gamma World self-identifies as a "science fantasy role-playing game." I think that's important to bear in mind, because, too often, Gamma World gets lambasted for not being "realistic" enough. I think such criticism misses the mark by a wide margin, or at least reveals that the critic is holding Gamma World to a standard to which it never aspired. Gamma World is a flight of fancy; it's not a scientific speculation into what the world after the Bomb might be like. Rather, it's using the collapse of human civilization as an occasion to imagine a purely fantastical world of adventure. The funny thing is that, back in the day, this wasn't a point that needed to be explained to anyone, because, frankly, most of us didn't care about "realism" -- we just wanted to blast mutants as we explored the ruins of DC. I'm not sure exactly when things changed and gamers began to need detailed explanations of what a RPG was about and how the game mechanically supported its "themes," but, at some point, it happened and games like Gamma World were among the hobby's casualties.

I find this especially frustrating because the rulebook to the game begins with a foreword by editors Tom Wham and Timothy Jones that explicitly mention the inspirations of Gamma World: Brian Aldiss's The Long Afternoon of Earth, Andre Norton's Starman's Son, Sterling Lanier's Hiero's Journey, and Ralph Bakshi's movie, Wizards. Now, if you've read any of the aforementioned books or seen Bakshi's film, you'd be hard pressed expect that Gamma World was meant to be a wholly realistic speculation about the future of mankind in a post-apocalyptic world. Even so, the foreword acknowledges that "The rules are flexible enough to allow for a variety of approaches to the game - anything from a strictly “hard” science-fiction attention to physical probabilities to a free-flowing Bakshian combination of science-fiction and fantasy," so perhaps some of the disappointment with Gamma World's approach came from the unfulfilled expectation that it provided more explicit support for a realistic take on post-apocalypse gaming. My friends and I, though, found Gamma World exactly to our liking, since it gave us a terrific springboard for wild and woolly adventures in the ruin's of Man's civilization.

(As an aside, let me note with amusement that the foreword, written in 1977, justifies the rulebook's use of the metric system, first, because it's already broadly familiar to SF fans and, second, because the United States was preparing to make the shift to it in the near future. Given that the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 declared the metric system "the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce," this undoubtedly seemed reasonable. I can attest that as, attending elementary school in the mid to late 1970s, I was taught to measure primarily according to the metric system and so shared the expectation of Gamma World's foreword. By the time I picked up the game, though, that expectation had proven misplaced, but, as an artifact of mid-70s American Zeitgeist, it's quite fascinating. And FYI: this aside is not an invitation to comment on "how stupid" it is that the US retains its customary system of measurements in 2011. I think I'd rather allow my comments to be used by advocates of ascending AC ...)

20 comments:

  1. I often describe the US's attempt at the metric system as "Waiting for Godot".

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  2. Will you be covering any of the GW 3rd addition débâcle.
    I remember finally getting a copy of this much hyped Gamma World game only to find that the game was missing a number of pieces. In fact it felt like a whole book was missing.
    I tried to return it to my local stores (probably Waldens back then) but since I had broken the shrinkwrap I was SOL.
    This greatly soured me on both GW & trying new games.

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  3. I wish that all schools had taught measurements in metric. The school I went to taught conversion, which was a pain in the fundament.

    I believe that the reason the metric system wasn't widely adopted was because they kept shoving conversion down our throats, instead of just starting with measurement and actually showing the advantages the metric system has (i.e.; being entirely decimal).

    But enough ranting.

    Thank you, James, for doing this cover to cover. While I've enjoyed the other cover to covers I've read, none of them have gotten me to dig out the book and actually read along. Yours has.

    Keep up the good work!

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  4. "back in the day, this wasn't a point that needed to be explained to anyone, because, frankly, most of us didn't care about 'realism' -- we just wanted to blast mutants as we explored the ruins of DC."

    From memory, during the 80s people did care about something called 'realism', but it meant a combination of "racial classes suck" and "more rules are better".

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  5. Actually you raise an interesting point for OSR cloners of Gamma World: How much flexibility should character creation offer? Is handwaving enough or should there be more solid rules? For Gaia Gamma I am going to offer a quick point system in order to customize characters a bit more... even if this probably slows down character creation. Some early ideas are available at http://www.gaiagamma.com/2011/05/elaborating-pc-backgrounds-in-gaia.html and I am looking for more input on that.

    BTW, still clinging to something else than the metric system really is... weird :-) At least from the viewpoint of someone who loves being to do precise calculations without a calculator.

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  6. For antipodean readers - was GW ever popular in Australia/New Zealand? I'd only ever seen reference to it in the DMG.

    The mutant game that went the rounds when I was young was TMNT: Mutants Down Under. The depictions of mutant kangaroos and frill-neck lizards really struck a chord in us Aussie kids.

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  7. You're all crazy, Metric AC is the way to go.

    Wait, hold on, are we talking about Gamma World? Okay, that's a way better idea than this. Your last cover to cover was one of my favourite features on the blog, James, looking forward to this!

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  8. There's a breakdown of Gary Jaquet's work here- it does look like primarily Gamma Word and Dragon Magazine.

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  9. Very interesting post and I am quite curious to see where this goes.

    While not a major Gamma World or Post-Apocalypse fan per se, my friends and I did enjoy Gamma World quite a bit in our early days.

    Part of the reason, I've always felt, was because we were actually waiting for a Superhero or Science Fiction/Space Opera game to come along. Also, as a big comic book and movie fan, Gamma World fit right in with my understanding of what the aftermath of Humanity's collapse would be like...mostly Kamandi and Planet of the Apes.

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  10. Ark ark ark one of the pleasures of ascending AC is that you get to answer the question "His AC is 15. What do I need to hit him?" with "15!" Ark ark ark

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  11. In college, I used to have arguments with my roommates over the metric system. I had one roommate who swore the US would never go metric because you cannot evenly divide any metric unit into thirds.

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  12. Ah, Gamma World and the metric system. The first good rpg campaign I was ever a player in used both. Thankfully most measurements are in meters and that's easy enough for me to conceptualize as a yard. However the Mark V and Mark VII Blaster leave a 10 cm diameter hole in whatever they hit. I mean like, how big is that? Is that a small hole or is that a honkin' big hole? Even though I've checked it on metric ruler I still couldn't tell you if that's a 2 inch hole or 6 inch hole.

    As an aside, I remember hearing a news report at the time where a government official sited the cost of conversion to government and industry as the reason the metric initiative failed.

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  13. Interesting, I never knew the US actually had a comepletely failed conversion to the metric system. In the UK we had a kind of half-hearted semi-effective conversion, with the result that now most Brits who were born in the 70s or later are conversant in both the metric & imperial systems. It's a bit of a mess, but at least we're kind of bi-lingual in that respect!

    I do remember being shocked though, on visiting the US some years back, that people really use the imperial system for serious work like engineering! Haha. :)

    Anyway, looking forward to the continuation of this series of posts.

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  14. I mean like, how big is that? Is that a small hole or is that a honkin' big hole? Even though I've checked it on metric ruler I still couldn't tell you if that's a 2 inch hole or 6 inch hole.

    Neither. It's four inches.

    I'll be watching this series with interest -- not just to provide on the spot conversions -- but because I don't think I've ever run into a copy of Gamma World, let alone played it. The closest I've come was an above-ground Paranoia game.

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  15. Will you be covering any of the GW 3rd addition débâcle.

    Not in this series, no, but I will touch on it in other posts most likely.

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  16. Interesting, I never knew the US actually had a comepletely failed conversion to the metric system. In the UK we had a kind of half-hearted semi-effective conversion, with the result that now most Brits who were born in the 70s or later are conversant in both the metric & imperial systems. It's a bit of a mess, but at least we're kind of bi-lingual in that respect!

    The situation isn't that different in the US, truth be told. The biggest difference, I think, is that there's a lot less mandatory use of metric in many areas than there is in the UK, so, for example, road signs (generally) list only feet and miles. On the other hand, metric measurements are widely used in many fields and almost anyone who's either in, been in, or worked with the military is quite conversant in the system.

    What I've also discovered, living in Canada, which is officially metric, is that most people generally lapse into some version of English measurements when talking about their height or weight, even if their driver's licenses list both these things in metric units. Likewise, when I was in the UK, back in the late 80s admittedly, was that weather reports always listed temperatures in Celsius on the map but the weathermen would "translate" those numbers as they spoke: "It's going to be 60 degrees in London tomorrow," as they pointed to a map that had a big "15" over the city. That may have changed in the two decades since, I don't know, but I remember finding it charming at the time.

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  17. Guys,

    I noted in my original post that I did not want the comments to start filling up with rants about the US and the metric system. I tolerated the posts that have appeared thus far because they were (largely) innocuous and more about the history of the subject rather than the politics. Alas, politics has now started to creep into the comments in a way I find uncongenial to discussion, so I'm making it even clearer: make a post that's primarily political in nature and I will delete it. This is a blog about old school gaming; there are plenty of other blogs and forums you can go to if you want to talk politics.

    Thanks.

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  18. A useful rules of thumb I used for traveller, gamma world and other games that use metric, are

    25 mm = 1 inch
    1 m = 1.1 yds
    1 kg = 2.2 lbs
    1 gal = 4 liters

    These are not exact but they allowed me to quickly assess the bigness or smallness of metric objects.

    Note also in most countries that use metric, at least in the metalworking industry use mils as the customary unit of length for objects. For example "James, get that 200 by 200 piece of steel tube and cut it to 1220 mils." vs "James, get that 4 by 4 piece of steel tube and cut it to 48 inches."

    Just piece of trivia to go along with the more commonly known klicks (kilometers).

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  19. I went to a British school up to the 4th grade where I first learned about the metric system. My father tells a story about asking me how big my class room was an me giving the answer in meters; I really was "thinking metric". We came back to the US for the 5th grade and taught us inches and all that other stuff. Then they got all metric, telling us all that Imperial stuff was going to be replaced. My brother and I were a bit befuddled. (Sorry, James)

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