Thursday, June 21, 2012
Of course, being a kid, I nevertheless bought a lot of referee's screens; I just rarely used them. Mostly, they sat folded amidst my books and notes. Occasionally, I might crack one open to look at a table I hadn't memorized, but that was rare. I bought them out of a combination of obligation and a desire for whatever additional goodies came packaged with them. I say "obligation" because, as a younger person, I took it as my "responsibility" to have a referee's screen, even if I rarely used it. After all, I was the referee. Silly, I know, but there it is.
On the other hand, the goodies makes more sense, especially in the case of the Gamma World Referee's Screen, which was released in 1981. The screen had two things going for it that make it memorable even today. First is the glorious cover art by Erol Otus, which, to my mind, is an iconic image of what Gamma World is all about: a Mohawked techno-barbarian and her mutant sidekick watching a trio of freakish enemies make use of an ancient highway, while a weird creature flies overhead and a ruined installation can be seen in the distance. I've said before that Gamma World suffers a lot in people's imaginations because it was often illustrated in a way that reduced it either to banality or (worse) comedy. Otus's cover didn't do that, instead giving the setting a queer majesty that overflows with possibilities. I adore it.
The second thing that makes this screen memorable is the 6-page "mini-module" included with it. Entitled "The Albuquerque Starport" and written by Paul Reiche III, it's also an example of something that gives Gamma World its due. One of the things that's often misunderstood is that Gamma World's apocalypse happens in the 24th century, not the 20th. That's why there are blaster pistols, robots, and other examples of space opera tech littering the ruins of North America. That's also why so many of buildings and other structures from the past still exist more than a century later -- they're made from high-tech materials that could withstand both the weapons of the Apocalypse and the effects of time and tide. Consequently, the post-holocaust world Gamma World depicts isn't bizarre, not just to the characters but to the players. I think that adds a lot to the game's appeal and sets it apart from (and above) most other RPGs in the same genre.
"The Albuquerque Starport" provides an example of what I mean. As its name suggests, it takes place at an old starport buried under the New Mexico desert, complete with a working space shuttle. Exploring the starport, players find all sorts of funky stuff that serves as a reminder that the pre-disaster world was not our own. More importantly, there's that space shuttle that can rocket the PCs away to an orbiting space station infested with "plague zombies." These unfortunate creatures are all the remains of the visitors and crew of the station after they contracted the interstellar Canopus Plague and exist only to infect more living beings with their deadly malady.
The space station is thus, for all intents and purposes, a haunted house and I've found it a surprisingly effective locale, especially as the characters likely have no concept of "space," let alone space travel. I also like the way that it expands the Gamma World setting by implying that, before the End, mankind had expanded beyond the Earth to other worlds and encountered who knows what. In my own campaign back in the day, I used this thin suggestion to introduce some surviving interplanetary colonies that were beginning to take an interest in Earth once more, much to the chagrin and delight of the planet's battered inhabitants. This was also totally unexpected by my players, which is as it should be.