Thursday, June 21, 2012

Retrospective: Gamma World Referee's Screen

I've never been a big fan and, therefore, user of referee's screens. Part of this is practical and part of it is philosophical. On the practical side of things, it's rare that I have a space at the gaming table large enough to accommodate a referee's screen, something that's been true most of my gaming career, with the exception of the days when we used some friends' ping-pong table in their basement. Even then, I wasn't particularly fond of the screen because it reminded me too much of the worst kinds of referees I'd seen. These were the confrontational, us-vs-them guys who took pleasure in killing PCs left and right. And while their use of referee's screens was neither a cause nor likely even a symptom of their unpleasant ways, I nevertheless came to associate the two.

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.

22 comments:

  1. It always meant a lot to me that Otus had seen fit to put a Dead Kennedys logo on the barbarian's medallion. That little nod had a huge influence on how I viewed the setting.

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  2. Great retrospective for a great little module. This adventure taught me how to spell Albuquerque. I forgot it came bundled with the screen, no wonder I haven't been able to find a copy.

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  3. I know I bought Gamma World back in the day, as well as Star Frontiers and maybe a few others. I don't have them anymore, and don't recall what happened to them. I always wanted to play Gamma World, but never had the opportunity. Still have my AD&D books, though.

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  4. Oh. My. God. I love Gamma World, Erol Otus's art, and the Dead Kennedys even harder now.


    "It's time to face
    What you must fear
    Right Guard will
    Not help you here!"

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  5. That has long been one of my favorite Otus paintings and the minimodule made a helluva Encounter Critical adventure.

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  6. Though it appeared long before the Ares section series on Gamma Luna and the Polyhedron articles on Gamma Mars, were I running a GW campaign now, I'd use this mini as the vehicle to get the characters to those new locations.

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  7. Can't believe I missed the Dead Kennedy's logo! So awesome :-)

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  8. Later editions of GW seemed to have a more polished look, but I can't think of a single memorable image from them.

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  9. I never really liked Referee screens until I used 4e's landscape screen. Landscape over Portraits makes all the difference as far as utility. The landscape puts it low enough so it isn't the barrier the portraits screen yet still serves as a effective backdrop for charts and hidden rolls.

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  10. I seem to recall an article in some magazine (Ares?) that was set in something similar to Gamma World but involved an organic "tree" to the Moon? I could be mis-remembering but that had an impact on me.

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  11. I used to read that mini-module and the Ares section GW timeline by Jim Ward repeatedly for clues/inspiration about the non-terrestrial bits of GW to include in my games.

    Good memories.

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  12. Good point about Gamma World being post apocalyptic space opera. It made me a bit sad when bolt action rifles and pump shotguns appeared. One of the cool bits was that the tech was beyond not just the characters but the players. I understood it in light of the Road Warrior type direction PA gamers were interested in, but the setting lost a bit of wonder for me when you could figure out your character found a .45 pistol just from the description given.

    Another iconic bit of GW setting IMO, it's one of the few games I remember that featured robots with tentacles.

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  13. Albuquerque Starport is a truly kickass little adventure -- I remember playing this one like it was last week. A lost gem if you ask me, and a concept that deserved -- and deserves -- expansion to a full-length module.

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  14. James, my Google-fu is failing me. What is on the exterior "wings" of the GW screen? Are they tables or more art?

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  15. From the mini-module intro: "The characters are searching the lands northeast of their home, Tempesa, for the fabled land of Aksarben." Though I ran this module in 1984 I just figured out Aksarben was Nebraska spelled backwards a couple of years ago. Duh!

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  16. This is one of my all-time favorite vintage RPG publications as well, James. My teenage friends and I played Gamma World back in 1981-1982, using the 1st edition boxed set. At that time, this was one of a mere handful of supplements published for the game, and so it's cover art had a substantial influence on how we perceived the game world, too. Though for us, the stark, serious cover art to the 1e boxed set was by far the biggest influence.

    I had stopped playing the game by the time 2e was published in 1983. But I remember seeing the painted cover art to the 2e and 3e boxed sets in my local game store in the mid1980s and not recognizing that as the same game world in which we played 1e "Gamma World" ourselves.

    If I have any criticism about the Erol Otus artwork on this GM's screen (my childhood copy of which I hold in my hands as I write this), it's that it seems, on hindsight, to be the 'canary in the coal mine' that signaled a shift in emphasis in the game world toward the 'fantastic,' even the cartoonishly fantastic. The interior artwork in the mini-module is closer in tone to how we played.

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  17. One of the things I found rather disappointing about the 4E version of Gamma World is that they've apparently gotten rid of the apocalypse (and shifted it closer to modern times). According to Red Sails in the Sunset the Big Whoops (as it is called) is connected to the Large Hadron Collider and takes the form of colliding parallel realities with different levels of technological development. Making it all much more gonzo, far less apocalyptic, game.

    It does have the side-effect that the found rubbish table (from modern times) can now make sense. Still, I much prefer the campaigns where people are actively rebuilding after the apocalypse (and not just parties of adventurers exploring old ruins).

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  18. TheDisgruntledPoetJune 23, 2012 at 1:36 AM

    I was quite amused when I bought this a few years back on Ebay and saw the DK logo. At the time, I was just starting a DK tribute band (Suede Denim Secret Police-Minneapolis!) When I met Otus at GenCon later that year, I asked him about the logo and he said that (duh), DK was just one of the bands that he and Jeff Dee and the other guy were listening to in the studio at the time. So it's almost a little pictorial-audio time capsule!

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  19. I wholeheartedly concur. The 4E referee screen is a gem. The landscape design allows me to see the game table. Also the information on the screen gives page numbers of where to find more information in the player's handbook. I wish more screens were produced for other game systems in the same format.

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  20. Thanks! I just stumbled across your comment and it made my day.

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