Thursday, May 5, 2011

Gamma World, Cover to Cover (Part III)

A "how to use this book" section appears right after the game's introduction and explains what a roleplaying game is and how it is played:
GAMMA WORLD is a role-playing campaign game. One (or more) of the participants acts as referee, creating a world in which the players act out parts as in a book or play, parts scripted by the referee but formed and finalized by all participants. The referee presents the situations in which the players are to adventure. In each adventure, the players gain experience, and hopefully, valuable artifacts, which increase their chances of survival (they are occasionally killed) in GAMMA WORLD. An interconnected series of such adventures is called a campaign.
I'm willing to forgive the phrase "act[ing] out parts as in a book or play," because it's clearly just a convenient reference to explain roleplaying to someone who isn't already familiar with the concept. It's needed because it's later stated that "Much of the material [in this book] ... is for the benefit of players seeking their first experience in a role-playing game." So Gamma World was conceived, at least partially, of as an introductory RPG, something I can believe, given its relative simplicity. The section also discusses the qualities that make a good referee -- "imagination, creativity, and a sense of fair play" -- and, amusingly, given James Ward's reputation as a referee himself, it's also stated that "Too many rewards given at too little risk is sure to create a boring game." Take that, Monty Haul!

Next up is a section of "Suggested Additional Equipment," which, while probably unnecessary, is one that I find charming nonetheless. It's a hallmark of many early RPGs, particularly those produced by TSR. Among the items listed as useful are: graph paper, hexagon paper, sheet protectors, notebooks, pencils and paper, imagination, players, and one very patient referee. As I said, the section is largely unnecessary but there's something delightful about its inclusion. I should add, by the way, that, following this list, I used a spiral notebook to keep all my Gamma World notes in one place. Likewise, I stuck my wilderness and other maps in sheet protectors to preserve them. One day, I should dig around to see if any of them still survive, though I shudder to think of how awful they probably look to my aged eyes.

There's also a lengthy -- well, a half-column anyway -- of discussion about dice. For the most part, the discussion centers on two topics: first, how to read polyhedral dice and second, the probabilities associated with dice. I find the latter topic an odd one, but it's an oddity that many early RPGs share. I remember well, for example, the bell curve chart in the Dungeon Masters Guide, as well as many Dragon articles on this and related topics. I've never found the topic of particular interest to me, but then I am a singular un-mathematical person. More intriguing to me was a brief aside at the end of this section, which suggests that "To create a mystique and an heroic aura, the dice can be regarded as arcane and mysterious." I like that myself, but then I would.

The last of the general sections of the rulebook before actual rules appear is entitled "Designing Gamma World," which is an overview of how to design the setting for use in one's own campaign. It's actually a very interesting section and probably contains more insight into how its designers viewed Gamma World then almost anything else in the entire rulebook. For example:

There should be a minimal number of cities in GAMMA WORLD, as there are simply too few survivors, and there hasn’t been time enough, since the Shadow Years, for any great new cities to have grown. All of the old cities either lie in radioactive ruin, or have been completely obliterated or swallowed up by the rising seas. What cities there are will generally be situated on a coast or river, and are near the few remaining robot farms (explained later). City populations should range between 5,000 to 50,000 humans, mutants, intelligent plants, etc.
That single paragraph is pure gold in my opinion, for it makes clear that most of the inhabitants of North America live in small settlements of less than 5000 people and, likewise, very few of the great metropolises of the past are still extant, with the vast majority of ruins of the Ancients being subterranean or "special" in nature rather than a collection of commercial and residential buildings. This is confirmed later when the text states:
To remain after the devastation of 2322, a single building must be made of tough stuff! This type of building would be either a military installation of some sort, a structure built to withstand earthquake forces, or a scientific research building. If it is a military installation, it invariably has 1-10 security robots, a 25% chance of 1-4 defense/attack borgs, and a 50% chance of having electronic security equipment still in operation. Earthquake-proof buildings usually have important government records inside. The scientific research buildings were always guarded electronically and there will be a 75% chance that this powerful security system is still functioning.
Of course, there are provisions for some Ancient cities to survive, though this section suggests that such locales would be rare and unusual. Far more common were "fortification" of various sorts.
Ancient military complexes, special scientific research stations, and law enforcement headquarters and records areas were commonly heavily fortified to resist terrorist attacks. These fortifications were designed with extreme care to keep out all unauthorized personnel. This included physical barriers such as resilient steel and concrete walls, electric fences coupled to sophisticated electronic security systems, patrolling robotic units, and any other referee-designed protective measures.
In short, the vast majority of adventuring locales in "by the book" Gamma World would be, for lack of a better word, "dungeons." This, I think, lends a very different character to the game world than is suggested by its box cover art, though I suppose that city may well be one of those unusual cities I noted above. The text also notes that
Most roads, railroads, and other avenues of transportation have been destroyed. However, some portions of a vast highway system for air-cushioned vehicles (similar to our interstate system) remain, due to the incredibly tough duralloy metal from which it was constructed. The underground mass transit systems in the ancient Metropolises may also remain in varying states of disrepair.
It's a small thing, but I an important one, since it provides a justification for why roads might still exist 150 years after the End. More interesting to me is that this section specifically mentions spaceports (and starships) and robot farms as examples of locations adventurers might encounter. I think it was important that the game do this, because it helps to reinforce the fact that Gamma World is a post-apocalyptic future rather than a post-apocalyptic present. That's a point that often gets forgotten and is, I think, a big part of why the game is so often misunderstood (even by the people writing it).

17 comments:

  1. I think the emphasis on post-apoc-future vs. post-apoc-present gets rather muddled throughout the text of 1E (at least). For one, the Treasure List has items more associated with the "present" (specifically, late 70s 'present). Manual typewriters, swiss army sabres, stamp machines. Then, throughout various editions of GW, there's always the visual representations of such things as "present" street signs (used as armor).

    GW may be intended as future-post-apoc, but it seems to intentionally mix the familiar (present) with the unfamiliar (future).

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  2. GW may be intended as future-post-apoc, but it seems to intentionally mix the familiar (present) with the unfamiliar (future).

    Absolutely! I personally think the idea of a post-apocalyptic future is far more fascinating and much more ripe with gaming possibilities myself, but, apparently, a lot of people disagreed -- even GW writers.

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  3. Where is all this electricity coming from that keeps all these security systems running so long after the apocalypse? It's nitpicking, I know, but it does bother me a little.

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  4. Where is all this electricity coming from that keeps all these security systems running so long after the apocalypse?

    That's a perfectly valid question. I don't believe it's ever directly addressed in the rulebook, but the implication is that many underground facilities still have functioning fusion power plants. Likewise, there are lots of battery types, some of which store a great deal of power in them.

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  5. In reading those sections on surviving buildings, I'm reminded of Earthdawn, which explained dungeons away as the bunkers in which the populace hid from the setting's (magical) apocalypse.

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  6. ...and of course the post-apoc future concept would allow for the possibility that "alternate energy sources" had been discovered in the time between now and the apocalypse.

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  7. @Brandon: In addition to the fusion power plants that James addresses, there is mention in the rulebook of a Tesla-style energy broadcast system that is still functioning in some isolated places.

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  8. City populations should range between 5,000 to 50,000 humans, mutants, intelligent plants, etc.

    I like this- a major population center with a majority "floral" population could very well be indistinguisable from a forest.

    Also, the possibility that one's herbivorous mount could devour the entire city council would be an interesting adventure "hook".

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  9. @Brandon (and Duglas):

    Pages 36 and 37 of the 1e book discuss Broadcast Power:
    "In the period just before the Shadow Years, power was no longer transmitted through wires but broadcast through the air like radio or television signals."

    It goes on to say what was powered, the range, etc and includes the caveat:
    "Few of these stations survived destruction, as they were prime military targets. The referee will want to place these carefully..."

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  10. "I'm willing to forgive the phrase "act[ing] out parts as in a book or play," because it's clearly just a convenient reference to explain roleplaying to someone who isn't already familiar with the concept."

    I find it funny not only that you 'forgive it' but feel it needs to be forgiven. It is interesting to me to consider that I and those I game with read the same words by the same writers all those years ago, took different elements to heart and ended up with a very different style of play that was nonetheless implied all along.

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  11. The nice thing about the Gamma World universe is that the Shadow Years encouraged the building of these dungeons. You automatically have a selection filter for "interesting" places where you are likely to find useful things, as you can pretty much assume that anything else didn't actually survive the Apocalypse or the Dark Years. You can rightfully assume that everything else collapsed into overgrown rubble (through weather, earthquakes, fire, flood, or simply time).

    [Speaking of the evolution of immediate post-apocalypse architecture, I particularly liked the story told in pictures at the bottom of BTRC's original Warp World of a street scape after the return of the Gods (the EABA version has some of the pictures, but inexplicably misses some of the intermediary ones, making the storyline rather fragmentary and not as powerful).]

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  12. Yes, the EABA version is not very good and "loses" many of the good ideas of the original, IMHO.

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  13. And the "future" that it postulates was very much a 1930s-60s style of future. There's more "The Shape of Things to Come" and "Magnus, Robot Fighter" in it than "Bladerunner." Which only make it cooler, IMO.

    Steve

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  14. @KP: re the problem of presenting the familiar present beside the unfamiliar future in a post-apocalyptic setting:

    Or you can simply take the approach of the Fallout series of video games, and assume that the pre-war society of the future had embraced a retro aesthetic, hence all the "familiar" bits mixed in with the high tech SF bits.

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  15. A neat way to get a glimpse into what Gamma World may look like is the DVD series "Life After People". Particularly with regards to nature reclaiming the earth.

    It's cool to see what an area looks like after several years or several 100 years as the show simulates this reclamation.

    Cool stuff!

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  16. I'm reminded of Roddenberry's "Genesis II/Planet Earth" pilots with that ancient highway system.

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  17. In short, the vast majority of adventuring locales in "by the book" Gamma World would be, for lack of a better word, "dungeons." This, I think, lends a very different character to the game world than is suggested by its box cover art, though I suppose that city may well be one of those unusual cities I noted above.

    For whatever reason, I always thought that city on the cover was something like a Soviet Science-City rather than any kind of regular town.

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