Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Gamma World, Cover to Cover (Part XII)

The main text of Gamma World concludes with an example of play -- one of my favorite parts of the rulebook. This example starts with world design, following a hypothetical referee (named Omar, which I thought odd at the time) as he prepares his campaign map. I've reproduced it below, because I think the map is quite interesting.
I can't tell you how influential this map was on my young imagination. I made many such maps (right down to the 1 hex = 1 kilometer scale) in imitation of this one and, even now, I find it hard not to think of such maps whenever I think of Gamma World. Dungeons & Dragons always conjures up images of graph paper in my imagination, but Gamma World I associate with hex paper.

The rulebook stresses that the referee should not only know in advance just what might be found in all the important hexes but that he should also, when necessary, have sub-maps pertaining to them. The military base in the northwest quadrant of the map, for example, is given a map in the rulebook, since it's likely to be an early site for exploration by the PCs. Areas farther afield can be mapper and detailed later, but they should be detailed, since a key feature of a Gamma World campaign is its wide open nature. The PCs can, literally, go wherever they want across the ruined continent of North America, so the referee needs to be ready for every contingency.

A section on "Starting the Campaign" firmly establishes the idea that the PCs are inexperienced youths hoping to earn recognition as adults by leaving their primitive village to explore a nearby ruin of the Ancients. I won't say that every Gamma World campaign I've ever seen has used this set-up, but a great many of them have. In my experience, this is the default position that most players have come to expect, much in the same way that the default position of a beginning D&D campaign is that the PCs are inexperienced would-be adventurers seeking to prove their mettle by exploring a nearby underworld. I've often toyed with other starts to a Gamma World campaign, such as the PCs being part of a society that's managed to retain some higher technology, but I've never actually done so.

Like many old school rulebooks, Gamma World provides us with a transcript of play involving five PCs and the referee. That in itself is noteworthy, since it suggests that, even by 1978, the typical number of players had shrunk considerably since the early days of the hobby. Nevertheless, that party of five still has a "caller" who acts as the go-between for the players as they interact with the referee. There is no separate "mapper," this being part of the caller's job, though it's noted that the two roles could have been split. Precise mapping of the adventure locale seems important, with some of the initial dialog spent on getting the measurements of the rooms and corridors correct. Likewise, the players are paranoid, posting guards outside rooms and making clear to the referee that they're merely looking at but not touching things that they find.

The remainder of the dialog consists of the players discovering and learning how to operate a laser pistol and accidentally setting off an alarm that has alerted the robotoids of the ruin that someone has breached its defenses. There is no combat or use of mutations; indeed, it's unclear how many, if any, of the PCs are mutants of any sort. Compared to the examples of play shown in, say, the Holmes or Moldvay rulebooks, it's fairly unexciting, though it does teach the need for care when exploring a ruin of the Ancients.

9 comments:

  1. The hypothetical game referee is 'Omar'. That's got to be a first!

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  2. I really like those old example-of-plays. When you do find them in newer books, they are usually full of game notes on who the rules work - e.g. "Mandrake swings is sword at the Orc (needs a 14 or more to hit), and his hit was true (rolled a 17, plus 2 for Strength)! The Orc fell over, dead! (he rolled an 8 for damage)"

    What I like about the older example-of-plays, is how they deal with situations where a PC dies outright - usually from the carelessness of the player. It was a powerful message: You are playing in a world where death can come out any corner, and the gods-of-the-machine have no particular sympathy towards anyone, so dont dick around!

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  3. "I can't tell you how influential this map was on my young imagination."

    I agree wholeheartedly, you can't imagine how elated I was when I found a hobby shop that had a gum bound pad of hex paper.

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  4. This reminds me a lot of the style & scale of the outdoors map for Boot Hill.

    I'll be a bit critical: I prefer the more game-able maps I connote with BXCMI (a la Hexmapper, etc.) This early style of map has trails & rivers you have to really closely investigate to trace what hexes you move through. The big expanses of trees hide the hexes and likewise require judgment calls at the edges. The scale isn't set usefully as a reflection of sight or movement rates. The later stuff -- or earlier like Outdoor Survival -- was a much choice for game utility, IMO.

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  5. The later stuff -- or earlier like Outdoor Survival -- was a much choice for game utility, IMO.

    I agree completely. Nowadays, I'd never draw a map like the one presented here. I much prefer the kind of stuff I've been doing with Hexographer, but, back then, I imitated the heck out of this GW map.

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  6. "the PCs are inexperienced youths hoping to earn recognition as adults by leaving their primitive village to explore a nearby ruin of the Ancients" - I'm not quite certain why, but I find this a big turn-off. I want my post-apocalypse hero PC to be like Den, Taarna, Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes, and such - beginning as a peasant on a coming of age quest really doesn't do it for me, even if the peasant is a mutant racoon who can shoot laser beams from his nostrils.

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  7. Delta:
    "I'll be a bit critical: I prefer the more game-able maps I connote with BXCMI (a la Hexmapper, etc.) This early style of map has trails & rivers you have to really closely investigate to trace what hexes you move through. The big expanses of trees hide the hexes and likewise require judgment calls at the edges. The scale isn't set usefully as a reflection of sight or movement rates. The later stuff -- or earlier like Outdoor Survival -- was a much choice for game utility, IMO."

    Good point - there are definitely good and bad hex scales, and 1 km/hex is not a very good scale. I find that 5 miles/hex tends to produce the best results in play.

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  8. In my recent GW games, I've started the characters as members of Dr. Simian's #1 Fetch-it Squad. They get decent gear and some handy tech backup courtesy of Dr. Simian. I find that it's much more enjoyable to begin with useful weaponry and armor and get right to the exciting stuff.

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  9. @Steven: Finding useful weaponry and armor in the first place is the exciting stuff!

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