Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Retrospective: The Mind Masters

Published in 1983, The Mind Masters is the second (and last) module published for the second edition of Gamma World. Its author is Phil Taterczynski, whose only other game writing credit I remember is Operation: Fastpass for Top Secret, published in the same year. The would make 1983 a banner year for Gamma World; never before had it received so much official support in the span of so short a time. (I have some thoughts on that score that I'll save for a later post).

Unfortunately, The Mind Masters isn't a particularly good module. Set in southern Illinois and surrounds, the adventure starts out promisingly but quickly degenerates into cliche. The PCs are members of a community called Iac South, which, unlike most archetypal Gamma World communities is not wholly primitive and superstitious. Indeed, the community is governed by a group of scholars called the Collegians, whose leader is known as the Dean. As part of a coming-of-age ceremony -- alas, some things never change in Gamma World adventures -- the PCs are ordered by the Dean to journey into the wilderness to find a reputed storehouse of Ancient artifacts. Accompanying them is a NPC mutant named Rath Travenix, a more experienced explorer who treats the PCs with some contempt.

The first part of the module consists of a series of wilderness encounters, as the PCs wander about, looking for clues to the location of this reputed Ancient installation. Along the way, Travenix is killed by fiat -- the text simply states that he dies in an attack, with no option to save him -- which I suspect was intended to be a traumatic event, but, since Travenix is portrayed so negatively, I have a hard time imagining his death will be met with any tears. Likewise, Travenix's whole purpose in the scenario is to lead the PCs by the nose through the wilderness so that they can reach the "right" place the module intends them to be. Furthermore, that right place is the site of a no-win encounter, where the PCs are captured. Again, there is no option for escape and the text even includes the dreaded phrase "no matter what the PCs do." Yes, The Mind Masters is a railroad.

Two days after their capture, the PCs awaken to find themselves inside a strange, high-tech place, which, conveniently, turns out to be the very place they were seeking. Of course, the inhabitants of this place are themselves strange, consisting largely of what appear to be pure strain humans who ask the PCs bizarre questions and subject them to a variety of tests of their mental and emotional capacities. I don't think I'm giving anything away if I reveal here that the place to which the PCs were taken is a pre-apocalyptic mental health facility under the direction of an artificial intelligence that, despite being super-intelligent, is nevertheless clueless about how much the world has changed. Consequently, he finds the PCs' belief in mutant powers and the like to be signs of mental illness and is taking steps to "cure" the PCs. Somehow the PCs must prove both their sanity and the nature of the world outside the facility or suffer the consequences.

I really can't tell you how much I dislike The Mind Masters. When I bought this module, I was initially quite excited about it, as I was glad to see that TSR was continuing to support one of my favorite games. But The Mind Masters is so heavy-handed in its presentation and its central concept, while certainly workable within the context of Gamma World, so poorly executed that I never even tried to run it. I felt that I had wasted my money in buying this, because, aside from some maps and some new mutants and technology, there really isn't much to recommend The Mind Masters and even those things aren't unique enough to alter my opinion of the module. Even after all these years, I consider it a low point for the Gamma World line and, alas, an omen for what was to come in the years ahead.

18 comments:

  1. GW is one of those games I never got to play and didn't know much about, bitd. I actually had the idea that it was much more a Science Fiction thing, as opposed to Science Fantasy and while I enjoyed the little bit of Star Frontiers I played back then, I never really became enamored with SF gaming. After receiving a healthy dose of post-apoc goodness, thanks to the OSR, I really, really want to run Mutant Future.

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  3. I'm not familiar with the adventure but from what you've described it seems to me that the core idea is solid enough to be mined for pretty solid adventure. The whole having to prove both their sanity and the nature of the world outside to the facility seems like fun night of adventure to me and one very in keeping with that whole post-apocalyptic vibe. Maybe not worth cover price, true, but thanks to you that isn't necessary, and after sweeping away the chaff one is certainly left with a promising enough adventure seed for enterprising GM.

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  4. "The Mind Masters is a railroad."

    Sounds like a bad tournament or RPGA adventure.

    The idea of being trapped in an asylum run by an (effectively) insane robot-psych actually has a lot of appeal as a horror adventure; I can see doing this as a Cthulhu story, for example. As Gray Pumpkin says above, the idea really fits in a post-apocalyptic setting.

    But the author should have written it to allow for more player choice, or at least created multiple paths that, even if they lead to the same place, would maintain the illusion of player choice.

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  5. This is another old module I found used recently and was planning on possibly using, in whole or partially, for my campaign. I haven't actually read it yet, but your words give me pause.

    I have to agree with the above comments, though, it sounds like a decent enough premise with a fair amount of tweaking involved. My first instinct is to incorporate some kind of Logan's Run vibe to the whole affair... perhaps have a clan of ignorant, inbred, but highly socialized pure strain humans living trapped under the thrall of the psycho computer that have never seen the outside. There could be a lot of fun with the PCs interacting with those weirdos and maybe even leading a minor rebellion against the computer overlord and its robots.

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  6. I want to run this module (or at least the "idea" of this module), only the part of the insane robot is played by GlaDOS from the video game Portal. XD

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  7. I picked this one up in a lot of other GW modules. After reading through it, I agree there are some ideas to plumb. But my initial thoughts were that this was some sort of psionic robot caper involving the Fantastic 4 and Rocket Raccoon. Sometimes judging a book by the cover leads to better ideas!

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  8. One thing I'll say is that I really liked the graphic design & artwork on the covers of this line of modules. It almost made me want to pick up GW just on the strength of that alone (but I never did).

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  9. I have very similar feelings to this module. I feel that there's an interesting kernel of an idea (the mental health facility), but the execution, as you say, is so poor that in the end it just falls flat.

    I have each of the first four GW modules, but I stopped collecting Gamma World stuff after this particular module came out. It kind of soured me on the experience.

    If I remember correctly, the next edition of Gamma World to come out after this module used very different game mechanics, so I never bought it since I felt that I wouldn't be able to use my old game materials with it. I stayed away from Gamma World for a long time after that, until I picked up the PDF of the d20 version a few years ago.

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  10. Given the interesting premise, once the railroad has reached the station, how would you change the module to make it work better for you?

    What recommendations would you have that would get the PCs into the same kerfuffle, but without the need to "force the issue?"

    Is railroading always bad? Have you ever had good gaming experiences with railroad adventures?

    These are the questions sparked by this post. I get that you don't like to have the PCs railroaded, and the "death that can't be stopped" is a pretty heinous example, but most adventures are -- in some small way -- a kind of railroad.

    Very few adventures are as openly sandbox as Keep on the Borderlands, so give us time strapped GMs some advice on how to convert this sucker.

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  11. @Christian Lindke:

    I think a Railroad can be good, if the GM and all the player's are up for it. Sometimes people just want to experience a story, rather than exploring a world, so I can see that as workable. I have never really tried it though, and I think most experience people have had with Railroads is their GM drowning them with fiat without any prior notice that they were even on rails. Thus the bad rap for railroad games.

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  12. @Christian: It's not that hard. Just drop all the prefab story stuff at the beginning about the PCs being from a specific town with a specific job to do. Plop the Ancient dome complex on your campaign map and set your players loose. If they find the complex, maybe they are able to sneak in, maybe they get captured by robots... whatever... just play it as a straight dungeon and see what happens. That's the "story".

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  13. Yeah, I can remember reading this module after I bought it and thinking, "I will never run this." And I never did. It's still part of my collection of course. But I won't ever use it.

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  14. ...or you could just play "Paranoia" :D

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  15. It sounds like there is a decent nugget of an idea wrapped up in a lackluster package. Probably best to rebuild on it from scratch.

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  16. I have to add my voice to the chorus--I had no idea what to do with the module.

    I was conditioned for the the "grubbier" aspects of Gamma World, thanks to Famine In Far-Go and ...Garik Blackhand. The pristine facility was too alien to me.

    I also remember feeling a little yanked out of the material due to its "1970s-ness". I got vibes of Logan's Run and Rollerball (thanks to the drawing of the high-velocity ball-launching sport-suit) and Westworld.

    Man. Typing that above makes the module sound far more awesome than it was.

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  17. I wonder if the unstoppable slaying of the mandatory NPC douchebag was intended for purposes of sardonic amusement?

    "Man, I'm sick of that guy.... ...what's happening? ....Hohohoho!!!"

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  18. Funny you mention Operation:Fastpass. I'm a 1ed Top Secret guy, and I think that Operation:Rapidstrike is the quintessential TS module (not that others were that bad). Are you planning on doing a TS retrospective some day? I hope so... it's pure gold.

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