Saturday, April 30, 2011

Gamma World Module Types

The idea of adventure modules "codes" -- D1, G2, Q1, etc. -- is well established in the history of TSR era D&D, so much so in fact that a lot of latter day old school publishers continue the practice. Gamma World adopted this practice (as did, I think, all of TSR's RPGs), but it also introduced, at least in its first two modules, a further identifier for its modules. Take a look at this section of the cover of 1981's Legion of Gold:
Now, take a look at what's on the cover of 1982's Famine in Far-Go:
"Exploration Module" and "Survival Module." I honestly wonder what TSR thought these terms meant and whether there were any rules determining why a module would be labeled one or the other -- and whether they might have been other "types" beyond these two. Interestingly, later Gamma World modules continued the code numbers, but dropped any reference to type. So, modules written and published during the second and third edition era of the game were identified as "GW3" or "GW9," suggesting continuity with earlier editions (which is an intriguing topic in its own right).

I don't know what to make of this. My guess is that, even in 1981 and 1982, TSR was still struggling to make sense of both their own success and this hobby they'd helped to launch. They were trying to find ways to market their products and ensure their utility to consumers. So, codes and types experiments of sorts, only one of which continued to be used in the long term. I imagine, if we were to look closely at the adventure modules published for other TSR games, we might find similar experiments in labeling and identification that didn't stand the test of time.

Z is for Zodiac

Given the large number of visitors from the physical heavens, it's little wonder then that much attention is paid to the stars and planets, with many fields of lore and magic associated with them. One such field, astrology, attempts to divine future events by observing the movements of the planets through the twelve constellations of the zodiac. These constellations are (in order):
  • Sun
  • Moon
  • Star
  • Jester
  • Rogue
  • Cataphract
  • Throne
  • Flames
  • Key
  • Skull
  • Euryale
  • Ruin
There is also a thirteenth "constellation," known as "the Void," occupying an area in the sky where there are in fact no stars whatsoever. Ancient legends claim that, in primordial ages, the gods warred against demons and so great was their struggle that the light of some stars was extinguished forever.

Each constellation, including the Void, is associated with one of the calendar's 28-day months. Once, astrologers believed that under born in a particular month fell under the influence of the stars making up the constellation associated with it, but that belief fell out of disfavor long ago and is accepted by only the most superstitious. Of course, some astrologers instead theorize that it is not the stars of one's birth month that matter but those of nine other "greater constellations" whose locations in the heavens envelope several of the "lesser" thirteen. This theory has not found widespread acceptance, but many, in their zeal to find an explanation for the path of their lives other than their own decisions, have embraced it as the truth.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Harry Quinn

Does anyone out there know much about Harry Quinn, who produced a number of illustrations for TSR between 1981 and 1983, including this one from the Gamma World mini-module, The Albuquerque Starport?

I've always found this piece particularly evocative, both for what it illustrates but also for its Virgil Finlay-esque style. So I started to wonder about Harry Quinn and what became of him. If you have any tidbits of information about the guy, I'd love to hear them. He seems to be a forgotten TSR artist, producing stuff for a number of products over a couple of years and then vanishing from the scene. It's puzzling.


Earlier today, I was looking through my Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary -- which, I am sorry to say, I now cannot read without actually using a magnifying glass -- and I came across a most bizarre word: "leucrocutanized," which means, "uttered as by a leucrotta." What a delightful word! Of course, it's also a rather specific word and not one I'm likely to be able to use in almost any normal context.

Afterward, two thoughts occurred to me. First, unless I am mistaken, there are no OGC game stats for the leucrotta anywhere. If correct, I may have to correct that, as I've always been fond of these weirdo beasts. Second, the leucrotta, as you probably know, is based on distorted tales of hyenas. This made me wonder why it is that D&D included stats for both "normal" and "mythical" versions of so many animals. In a world with leucrottas, do you need hyenas too? I suppose it's to provide options and that's fair enough, but, having pondered it now, I realize that, if I do include leucrottas (or any other mythical animal-type monster), I won't also be including the real world animal on which they're based.

Saying No

I'm not usually one to make a post whose sole purpose is to point you to someone else's blog, but in this case I'm going to make an exception, because Michael Shorten has been posting some really excellent stuff lately about the care and feeding of a sandbox campaign. Today's post is terrific and it deserves to be read widely. Go check it out.

Y is for Yethlyreom

Called "the City of the Necromancers," Yethlyreom is a city-state that rose to power in the wake of Thule's imperial collapse. Originally a pilgrimage site dedicated to Donn, god of the dead, Yethlyreom was swamped with migrants, refugees, and other displaced persons seeking safety and stability, causing its population to swell beyond what its walls -- or its government -- could comfortably handle. The clerics of Donn attempted to make the best of the situation by instituting taxes and fees designed to eject the lowest orders from inside the walls of the city. The clerics' plan worked and soon a sizable shanty town grow up around Yethlyreom, inhabited by those unable to pay the levies.

Events took a turn for the worse when an army of bandits made of former Thulian legionaries appeared in the countryside, bound for Yethlyreom. Those outside the walls begged to be allowed inside to protect themselves, but the clerics of Donn did not hear their pleas. It was then that a magic-user by the name of Bion appeared, along with a small band of comrades and apprentices. These magicians promised to protect not just Yethlyreom but also the shanty town outside it and did so -- by calling up an army of the dead. Skeletons, zombies, and other types of undead were brought forth from the vast necropolises surrounding Yethlyreom. Under the command of the necromancers, these creatures drove off the bandits and saved the city.

It was then that Bion and his companions, at the head of an army of both undead and peasants, stormed the walls of Yethlyreom and cast down the clerics of Donn, claiming the city for themselves. Under Bion, all clerics of any sort were banished from inside the city's walls -- an ironic turnabout considering recent history. Necromancy was practiced openly and anyone, regardless of social status, who demonstrated the ability to work magic would be taught to do so in return for service to the city-state. Since that time, Yethlyreom has grown powerful and influential, rivaling even Adamas. It is now one of the major power centers of the post-Thulian world.

Death and Decay

Yes, yes, I know: I usually take Friday's off. I'm making an exception today, because I have lots of stuff to do, including several posts that have been percolating in the back of my brain since yesterday's afternoon. And when I came across Scott Taylor's retrospective on the illustration of Orcus in D&D over the years at Black Gate, I had to bring it to everyone's attention -- and not just because he more or less echoes what I wrote on this topic nearly three years ago.

Here's a particularly amusing excerpt:
So in twenty years Orcus has gone from a fat goat with a simplistic wand to a rampaging minotaur wielding a gladiatorial-inspired mace. In some ways, that’s a reflection of our society, the subdued and dreamy 70s where we saw shiny epics like Star Wars as our inspiration giving way to the corporate glam of reality TV and video games that contain more sex and blood than Caligula’s court.

Open Friday: Favorite Quirky Rules

I've already made it clear that I actually like a lot of the rules in D&D that others single out for opprobrium, but D&D's not the only RPG with quirky rules that I love. For example, I adore Traveller's experience rules, which, among other things, limit a PC to increasing a single skill by one level for every four years he dedicates to that purpose. It's in fact one of my favorite experience systems in any game, but I know it's loathed by a lot of gamers, who seem to think it removes character growth from the game entirely, when, in point of fact, it rather elegantly decouples such growth from mere mechanical improvement.

So what are your favorite quirky rules from a roleplaying game?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Honest Truth

I was thinking the other day about a lot of the rules-related fault lines of D&D and I realized that, if I'm honest, I don't really care (all that much) about arguing in favor of, for example, descending armor class vs. ascending armor class or demihuman level limits. In truth, my defense of these things stems to a great degree from a sense that they need to be defended in the face of a lot of disinformation and occasional dishonesty about them. That is, while I personally prefer descending AC over ascending, I don't think one's preferences matters all that much, but I do think it matters whether the respective vices and virtues of each system are being exaggerated.

I readily admit that I'm both a traditionalist and a contrarian -- the two personality traits often feed off one another, especially when confronted with neophiliac iconoclasm, of which there is much in our hobby (and always has been, lest anyone foolishly think I'm singling out "kids today" as the source of this trend). So, it raises my hackles to hear someone suggest that level limits "make no sense" or alignment is "stupid" or ascending AC is "easier to use" or any one of dozens of other claims about the supposed superiority of later edition rules mechanics of D&D over those of the past. I won't for a second deny that, for some gamers, such things may be true, but I do deny -- vociferously so -- that it's true for all gamers, because I did and do use most of these "bad" rules in my campaigns and somehow manage to have a great deal of fun.

Want to drop alignment from your campaign? Go for it. Find that you need some kind of skill system to differentiate two 5th-level fighters from one another? More power to you. Think 1-minute combat rounds are too abstract for your tastes? Gotcha. You don't need anyone's permission to make these changes, least of all mine, and I don't necessarily think any particular change to D&D's original rules takes one outside the bounds of "old school" -- and, even if I do, so what? Grab a copy of The Arduin Grimoire and you'll probably find that Dave Hargrave disagreed with me, just as Gary Gygax disagreed with him. Believe it or not, I'm cool with that.

Just, please, don't make the mistake of implying that your preference for some later mechanical innovation is anything more than that -- a preference. Many of the rules you deride as "bad," "broken," "wrong," "stupid," "embarrassing" or any number of other unpleasant adjectives aren't so in any objective sense and neither an appeal to "I've always thought so and I've been playing since 1978" nor the tendentious metaphor of game mechanics as technology will make them otherwise. And, again, that's just fine. Speaking only for myself, if I felt more people actually got this, I'd probably be a lot less defensive about many of the traditional rules of D&D than I typically am (though you're still never going to get me to say much nice about Dragolance).

Since this is clearly a rant, in accordance with the Joesky Protocol -- and my own addendum to it -- I offer the following. The text in the quote box below is hereby designated Open Game Content via the Open Game License.
Dwimmersmite: Named both for its purpose and its place of origin, this sword +1, +2 versus spellcasters is a sapient weapon, Lawful in alignment and having INT 12 and Psyche 12. Dwimmersmite can speak and it understands both Common and Elvish, in addition to its alignment tongue and being able to read magic. The sword's motivation is to destroy magic-users and elves, which grants it the ability to paralyze such foes with a successful hit (save vs. spells to resist). In addition, Dwimmersmite can detect evil (20' range), invisible or hidden objects and creatures (20' range), and secret doors (10' range, usable thrice per day). The sword also grants its wielder clairvoyance, as per the magic-user spell of the same name, usable three times per day.

Given its high intelligence and psyche, Dwimmersmite is a very willful weapon, often overpowering its wielder, which it then uses as its "body" to achieve its singular goal of eliminating elves and magic-users from the world. Once, the sword distinguished between Chaotic and other types of spellcasters, but, in the centuries since its forging, it has been hardened in its views and no longer makes such distinctions. In Dwimmersmite's mind, all elves and magic-users are suspect and thus its foes -- the consequences be damned. Needless to say, the weapon frequently gets its wielder into much trouble and it has been many years since it was last seen in the hands of anyone in civilized lands.

X is for Xaranes

Apologies to Virgil Finlay
In addition to the Octad revered by the Great Church, there have always been "interloper" deities also given homage in Thulian society. One of the most successful was, of course, Turms Termax, but the role Turms played in Thulian religious is unusual. More typical is Xaranes, better known as "the Iron God."

Xaranes first appeared in Thulian history not long after the foundation of the Thulian Empire. Originally, his cult was small and obscure, limited primarily to hardened demon hunters. It is through these demon hunters that the cult infiltrated the faith of Typhon, becoming a secret society within the much larger religion. Xaranes -- called the Iron God, because his strange armor and his implacable determination to destroy demons -- offered an alternative to the stiff-necked, rule-bound, and frankly cruel doctrine of Typhon. He also taught mysterious doctrines about "the Makers" and "the Great Maker," who had supposedly sent him into the world to battle against "the seeds of evil." Such doctrines tied into existing Thulian beliefs about Anyastos, an aloof ninth deity reputed to be the source of all Divinity.

Needless to say, the church of Typhon persecuted followers of Xaranes and did its best to root out cells of the cult within its midst. The Typhonists gained unexpected allies in the servants of Donn, god of the dead, when it was revealed that the Iron God's followers had infiltrated that religion as well, for Xaranes took a great interest in the proper disposition of the dead, a task he claimed that Donn's worshipers had neglected. Together, the clerics of Typhon and Donn drove the Iron God's cult further underground, so much so that, by the time of the Thulian Empire's fall, it was all but extinct. Since the opening of Dwimmermount, though, Xaranes has once again reappeared and there are stories of a small but influential cell of his cult springing up in the very stronghold of Typhon -- the city-state of Adamas.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Look What Came in the Mail Today

I spent the better part of this afternoon poring over the "Grindhouse Edition" of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing and Zak Smith's Vornheim, both of which I was quite happy to receive. I'll have lengthy and detailed reviews of later, but my initial reaction, based on an admittedly cursory reading, is very positive. While I still retain a number of reservations about the tack Jim Raggi has taken with this second edition of LotFP WFRPG, I also can't deny that it represents a clear improvement over what was already a very good game. Vornheim, meanwhile, demonstrates quite handily that innovation in presentation is probably worth more than almost any other type of innovation trotted out to "fix" some perceived flaw in our games. Vornheim isn't at all what I was expecting, which makes its virtues all the more noteworthy.

Expect more on both these releases once I've had the time to read them more carefully.

Dreaming of Armageddon

Somewhere on this blog -- possibly several somewheres, but I can't seem to find any of them right now -- I opined that most pulp fantasy settings are post-apocalyptic, occurring in the aftermath, whether immediate or distant, of some great societal catastrophe that brought an end to the Golden Age of Yore and ushered in the Dark Age of Now. On reflection, I think the converse is also true: most post-apocalyptic settings are pulp fantasies, which is to say, excuses to upend civilization in order to provide a broader canvas on which to paint Adventure. Certainly there are plenty of post-apocalyptic stories and films with deeper goals than this, but, worthy though they may be as meditations on the human condition, I doubt I'd much want to set a roleplaying game campaign in them.

Post-apocalyptic Gamma World's setting may be, but, in the final analysis, the game itself is a pulp fantasy in the vein of D & D, right down to there being "dungeons" to explore and "dragons" to slay. Like D&D, Gamma World can certainly be more than that, if one wishes it to be. However, I think the fact that it works as a game without any other considerations is a big part of its appeal to me, especially nowadays. As a younger person, I can't say I gave a whole lot of thought to what life might really be like in the aftermath of a civilization-destroying apocalypse and, to the extent I did, I didn't expect it to be anything like what's depicted in Gamma World. But I did then, as I sometimes do now, chafe at the structure and strictures of contemporary society and idly wished for the "freedom" I uncritically thought exists beyond them. That's the urge to which many post-apocalyptic settings appeals -- the gameable ones anyway.

Retrospective: The Cleansing War of Garik Blackhand

The first edition of Gamma World had only two adventure modules, Legion of Gold and Famine in Far-Go, ever published for it and I would argue that their strengths and weaknesses are reflective of the times in which they were produced. The same can, I think, be said of the first of the two adventures published for the second edition of Gamma World. Entitled The Cleansing War of Garik Blackhand, module GW3 was written by Michael Price and Garry Spiegle and appeared in 1983.

Price was also the author of Famine in Far-Go, and one can see a number of connections between his two scenarios, starting with the fact that, in both adventures, the PCs are members of a primitive tribe beset by hard times. That in itself means little, as one might well consider it the default starting point of any Gamma World campaign, one enshrined in the first edition rulebook's example of play. The characters' tribe, the White Feathers, is in the midst of peace negotiations with a rival tribe, the Gray Rocks, which is disrupted by a faction of the racist Knights of Genetic Purity led by the titular Garik Blackhand. The Gray Rocks believe the White Feathers to have been in league with Blackhand and so turn on them, preparing to launch an all-out attack against their rivals. To prevent this, the PCs are instructed by their tribal religious leader to seek out proof of the White Feathers' innocence among the Knights. Time, of course, is of the essence and there will no doubt by many who seek to stop them in their quest.

What then follows are a number of "scenarios," each of which is either keyed to a location or triggered by actions or time. Together, these scenarios provide the skeleton of a mini-campaign within the Yel'Stone Park area, with the PCs racing to save their tribe from the machinations of the Knights of Genetic Purity (who, needless to say, framed the White Feathers in order to encourage strife amongst the non-pure peoples of the area). The scenarios vary in detail and length, with some consisting of a single encounter or event, while others describe a large locale or series of events. In general, I'd say that these scenarios are far less scripted than were many of those in Famine in Far-Go, but moreso than those in Legion of Gold. The Cleansing War of Garik Blackhand thus occupies a middle ground between the two approaches. As a product, it might be called a sandbox with a strong narrative backbone.

Back in 1983, I really liked this module a great deal. I found it struck a nice balance between the extremes of presentation offered by its two predecessors (both of which I also liked, I should add). More important, though, was the vision of Gamma World it offered. GW3 doesn't include a single example of silly meta-humor or sly satire that I can recall. Instead, it presents a coherent -- dare I say "naturalistic?" -- post-apocalyptic world that operates in accord with its own rules. In addition, the plot itself is a "serious" one, as it touches on real world issues of prejudice and hypocrisy. This isn't to suggest it's very deep or insightful, let alone that the world it describes is "realistic," but, as Gamma World modules go, The Cleansing War of Garik Blackhand plays it all very straight.

Looking back on it now, I'm undecided as to whether this straightness is a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, I rather suspect that this module played a huge role in not only my crystallizing my interpretation of Gamma World as something other than a joke game but also in my particular fondness for its second edition. On the other hand, GW3 does feel a little self-serious at times, even stodgy. Now, such terms are hardly insults in my book, but there's no denying that, even if one does take Gamma World seriously, there's an expectation of a certain amount of over-the-top "wahoo!" content in its adventures. The Cleansing War of Garik Blackhand doesn't really deliver that, instead opting for a stiff but nevertheless well-done narrative framework that casts young, inexperienced PCs into the role of saviors of their people. As campaign starters go, there are definitely worse ways to go.

W is for Warrior Traditions

While, to the uninitiated, one fighting man appears little different than another, the fact of the matter is that, even within a single culture, there are usually multiple "warrior traditions," each reflective of a unique martial philosophy. Take, for example, the Thulians.
  • Bear-shirts: The bear-shirts were an ancient warrior tradition among the Hyperborean peoples, with the Thulians being perhaps their greatest exemplars. Bear-shirts were frenzied warriors dedicated to the god Mavors. They clothed themselves in bear skins -- hence their name -- and eschewed any other form of protection, believing that Mavors protected them, in addition to granting them superhuman strength and ferocity in battle. The Thulian emperor maintained a company of these warriors as his personal guard and was often inducted their brotherhood. The tradition declined after the rise of the cult of Turms Termax, which viewed it as an unseemly vestige of the Empire's barbarian past. Since the fall of the Empire, the tradition has been revived, with the Despot of Adamas employing bear-shirts in imitation of the Thulian emperor -- a practice the city-state's neighbors consider ominous.
  • Cataphracts: With the growth of the Thulian Empire came new warrior traditions, one of which was that of the cataphracts. Heavily armored, mounted soldiers, the cataphracts were the elite of the Empire's cavalry forces, striking terror into the hearts of enemies across the continent with their skill and tactics. Though the emperor wished to employ cataphracts more widely, the expense of both their training and their upkeep prevented this from becoming a reality. After the collapse of the Empire, the cataphract tradition survived, although it came to be even more strongly associated with elite soldiers, typically being reserved to those of high birth and/or material wealth. 
These are but two Thulian warrior traditions. Many others existed during the Empire, most of which survived its fall and continue to be practiced by fighting men of many regions. Likewise, cultures other than the Thulians have their own traditions, such as the two-weapon style favored in the West or the lightly-armored duelists of the South. And then there are non-humans like elves, dwarves, and goblins, all of whom have their own traditions as well. These and many other traditions ensure that there are as many different ways of fighting as there are fighting men. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Ads of Dragon: Aftermath

I've been meaning to inaugurate a new, regular series of posts and finally decided today was as good a day to do so as any. I'm calling it "The Ads of Dragon" and it will focus on, as its name implies, advertisements I found particularly evocative in issues of Dragon I owned in my younger days. To kick things off, I'm beginning with this ad, from the very first issue of Dragon I ever purchased, #56 (December 1981).

Given my recent re-examination of Gamma World, this ad has some topicality. As I've noted before, I was never a big Aftermath player. But, like all of FGU's output, I was at once fascinated and repulsed by it -- with this ad being a big part of my fascination with it. It's funny that something as simple as this would have such an effect on me as a younger person, yet it did. There was something about that silhouetted figure, combined with melodramatic text above him that just fired my imagination and made me want to buy Aftermath.

The fact that I never actually says nothing about how powerfully this ad once affected me. As I recall, FGU produced a number of really evocative ads back in the day. They almost all made me want to rush out and buy them immediately. A big part of why is that they generally stuck to a single iconic image to sum up the game and paired it up with some really straightforward information about what the boxed set in question contained. It was "meat and potatoes" advertising at its finest -- nothing fancy, just the facts and a potent illustration to reel you in. I've got to say that I miss ads like that.

On Being a Mutant (Part II)

Ultimately, I think it is Gamma World's full-throated embrace of randomness that is the biggest source of its mischaracterization as "not serious." Mutations are one of the cornerstones of its rules, filling roughly the same role as spells in Dungeons & Dragons. Unlike spells, mutations are not only (generally) apportioned randomly, there's no guarantee that the mutations one winds up with will have any rhyme or reason to them. A Gamma World mutant could possess a remarkably wide range of abilities, none of them tying in to an obvious "theme" that a player or referee can easily latch on to and say, "Oh, so that's what these guys are like."

What's amusing is that the rulebook actually offers plenty of helpful advice in how to "make sense" of random mutations, if only one is willing to look. No, the rulebook doesn't have a section specifically dedicated to this topic, but the creature descriptions can serve much the same purpose. Take, for example, arks, who are intelligent dog men. Their mutations include telekinesis, weather manipulation, and life leech. None of those mutations really "go together" nor do any of them suggest that arks would "fear large winged creatures" or "consider human hands a great delicacy." What Ward and co-author Gary Jaquet did was treat the mutations as "add-ons" to the basic idea of vicious humanoid dogs. Rather than trying to use the mutations as explanatory of the creatures that possessed them, they were descriptive. Of course, for this to work, one already has to have a basic idea to which the mutations can be added. The random tables don't replace imagination but rather serve as an aid to it.

What I've discovered, though, is that players frequently dislike random tables for one of two contradictory reasons. The first and most prevalent is that randomization takes power out of their hands by giving them something they didn't expect. "I wanted to play a magic-user but I rolled an 8 for Intelligence." "I wanted a mutant with mental blast but I got hostility field instead." The second reason is that random tables don't do enough creative heavy lifting, forcing the player to try and make sense of a mutant that has plant control, precognition, telepathy, and total healing without any help or hints on how to do so. Games that make regular use of random tables for key elements are thus viewed with some suspicion, even before the appearance of Hoops make it even easier to dismiss it as "silly."

As I've now said at some length over the course of many posts, I don't think Gamma World is any more inherently silly than any other RPG. What it is, however, is fairly demanding on the imaginations of referees and players alike. I think Gamma World is so often treated as a joke because it's so much easier to do so than it is to try and make some sense of the often-bizarre elements it generates through the use of random tables (not to mention the equally bizarre elements it simply presents straightforwardly). Looked at this way, I feel a lot less annoyed at the subsequent history of the game than I originally had, but I'm more ... disappointed? ... that so few gamers have seen Gamma World for what it can be: a real workout for the imagination -- not to mention a lot of fun.

V is for Vampire

Of all the types of undead, it is the vampire that is probably the most terrifying. Part of it the terror it generates is simple revulsion at the vampire's physical form -- an emaciated, almost rodent-like mockery of the human countenance -- but there is more to it than that, as there are many monsters whose appearance is as hideous, if not moreso, than that of the vampire. Equally terrifying is the vampire's mockery of both mortality and  immortality, its cruel reminder that all existence depends upon sucking the life out of other beings.

There are three known ways to become a vampire. The first is to voluntarily seek out this undead state through the use of Chaotic rituals. Comparatively few vampires are created this way any longer. The second is to be drained of one's life by a vampire and then chosen by the creature to be one of his thralls. This is the most common way that vampires are created in the present age. The third is is a variation on the first, in that Chaotic rituals are employed but the vampire is forcibly created against the wishes of the person affected by those rituals. And, just like the first method, this one is quite rare at present, as the rituals needed are possessed only by a few secretive cults.

Like liches, vampires frequently become leaders among the undead, cowing lesser types into their service. After the fall of the Thulian Empire, a number of vampires associated with the cult of Turms Termax took advantage of the ensuing disorder to establish themselves as warlords in several locations, most notably the military base then known as Fort Adamantas. Over time, most of these vampire lords were overthrown, but some survived, either fleeing into hiding or continuing to rule from their strongholds. With the opening of Dwimmermount, there are stories of yet more Termaxian vampires appearing in the world -- which does not bode well for the future.

Stone-Cold Killers

In his comment to another post, Jeff Quick mentions that the picture I've reproduced above, a Dave Trampier piece illustrating a war party of Hoops, represented the deadly seriousness of Gamma World, while, to many other game designers, it represented the inherent silliness of the game. I really appreciated his comment, because, in addition to giving some insight into why the later editions of Gamma World are the way they are, it provided me with a useful litmus test for determining how one feels about the game. If there is simply no way you can imagine taking Hoops seriously, chances are you won't be able to enjoy Gamma World.

Now, when I say "take Hoops seriously," I'm most emphatically not suggesting that anyone treat them as something scientifically plausible, let alone as vehicles for meaning of any kind. Intelligent anthropomorphic rabbits with the ability to turn metal to rubber by their touch is something I feel pretty safe in saying is impossible, even with lots of mutagenic and "reality-warp" weapons being tossed around. Likewise, I'm not sure there's much depth -- philosophical or dramatic -- that can be wrung out of these guys. What I mean is that they be treated, in their own context, as something more than walking jokes. Again, note that I am also not saying there's not something humorous about Hoops, because of course there is. Nor am I saying that Hoops should never be used humorously, as anyone who remembers my story of The Colonel should recall. All I am saying is that, if you can't treat these mutants as more than silly monsters, Gamma World probably isn't for you.

Or perhaps more accurately: I wouldn't want to play Gamma World with you. For me, the brilliance of Gamma World is similar to the brilliance of D&D: even though many of its elements are faintly ridiculous in isolation, taken together, they provide superb building blocks for a wide variety of adventures. Best of all, they can be used in a variety of ways, not just a single publisher-approved one. I think that's the big reason why the "Gamma World is a silly RPG" meme bugs the heck out of me: it implies that there's no way the game can played as anything other than as a joke, which I can tell you is simply untrue -- quite the opposite in fact!

I'll readily concede that Gamma World might reasonably be called "gonzo" in its approach, if by that one means that it's a wild and woolly "kitchen sink" science fantasy that includes many different elements, some of which could be viewed as humorous. But I think that's a far cry from be able to call Gamma World in its entirety a humorous RPG, because, if it is, almost any RPG could be called such -- at least any that I'd want to play.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Mystery Dice

A reader asks help in identifying these dice. Does anyone know where they come from? The one on the left looks like one of the Dikesha dice from the AD&D 2e Ravenloft boxed set, Forbidden Lore, but the other two I cannot place. Any help in doing so would be appreciated.

On Being a Mutant (Part I)

I can only assume that, unlike my youthful self, most gamers interested in old school RPGs today realize that Gamma World sprang out of the earlier Metamorphosis Alpha. Given that, it only makes sense to compare the two games to see how they handle common rules elements. A particularly intriguing comparison is the generation of physical and mental mutations for PC mutants.

Everyone knows that Gamma World demanded the random rolling of mutations through the use of a percentile table, but what about Metamorphosis Alpha. Here's what its rulebook says on the topic:
A player character choosing to be a mutation, whether humanoid or monster-like, has ... physical and mental mutations. These last two abilities are determined by rolling a four-sided die once for physical mutations and once for mental mutations and allowing the player to pick from one to four powers, with the only limiting factor being the number of powers given by the die roll.
Now, that passage alone is quite interesting, but it gets better:
The referee must make sure that the monster mutations taken by players when choosing are consistent. Thus, if a player chooses to have wings, then he or she cannot also expect to be taller (and thus heavier). The referee should, as always, use his judgment and discretion in such matters. 
I should briefly note here that each character has one or more defects as well and these are randomly determined by the referee in secret beforehand, but, otherwise, Metamorphosis Alpha provides no mechanism for randomly rolling mutations. In fact, there are no tables of mutations in the book at all, only a list. It's also worth noting that the descriptions of some mutations include "limitations." For example, a mutant who is "gills" cannot have any sonic abilities, while one who has "wings" cannot be taller or have a total carapace. Of course, the rulebook goes on to explain that. although PC mutants may not have such forbidden combinations of mutations, NPC species may. No explanation for why this should be the case is offered beyond the obvious inference.

As noted already, everyone knows that, in Gamma World, mutations are rolled randomly. But here's what the text of the first edition rulebook actually says:
After determining the relative strengths of all characters’ basic attributes, players electing to play humanoid or mutated animal characters must determine their characters’ mutations. This process can be done in one of two ways. The first way is for the character to roll a single four-sided die twice to determine the number of physical and mental mutations (one roll for each). The number of mutations having been determined, the player then rolls a pair of percentile dice for each mutation, consulting the appropriate chart for results. Using this method, the character may or may not have mutational defects, depending upon the dice roll. The second method of determining a character's mutations is to determine the number of mutations in the same manner as described above, but then to allow the player to pick the mutations he wishes his character to receive. After the player has selected the proper number of mutations, the referee then selects one or more mutational defects in the following manner: a roll of three or four when determining the number of mutations (either physical or mental) indicates one physical or mental mutational defect, as the case may be (or both, if both dice rolls were either three or four). Two rolls of two indicate either one physical or one mental mutational defect (referee’s discretion). Rolls totaling three or less mutations receive no mutational defects. Mutational defects may be found on the same chart as "normal" mutations, and are indicated by the letter “D”.
As you can see, even Gamma World retains the possibility of the player's choosing his character's mutations rather than rolling for them by a percentile roll on a table. Granted, that option is listed second in the above paragraph and was not one I think I ever encountered in actual play back in the day, but it's a perfectly legal, by the book option.

The similarities and differences between Metamorphosis Alpha and the first edition of Gamma World got me to thinking about how subsequent editions of Gamma World handled the generation of mutations. The 1983 second edition continues to give each mutant character 1d4 physical and 1d4 mental mutations, determined randomly from a table. However, the rolls on the table are weighted, with the player being able to add his character's Constitution and Intelligence scores respectively to his d100 result for physical and mental mutations respectively. Naturally, defects are at the lower range of results while the best -- such as "Pick Any Good Mutation" -- are at the higher end of the table. Second edition does suggest allowing a player to pick his character's mutations as a safeguard against "hopeless characters," but this suggestion is not presented as a default one, unlike in either Metamorphosis Alpha or first edition.

Gamma World's third edition in 1986 states that all mutants have 1-4 physical and 1-4 mental mutations. Each mutation is rolled randomly on a percentile table, with low scores being less good (and particularly low scores requiring a second roll on the defects table) and high scores being the best (including "Pick Any Mutation"). What's interesting to me is that the third edition specifically states that "In some cases, a character may gain mutations with conflicting results." This possibility is largely (and explicitly) impossible in Metamorphosis Alpha and not discussed in either the first or the second edition of Gamma World.

The 1992 fourth edition gives all mutants 5 mutations to start, the exact ratio of physical to mental determined by rolling 1d6 and comparing it to a table. Players are given the option of having fewer than the rolled number of mutations, if desired. Mutations are themselves generated on a percentile table, where there is no relationship between the number rolled and whether it's a beneficial mutation or a defect (just as in first edition).

The fifth edition in 2000 was a supplement for Alternity. Alternity largely eschewed random rolls for anything pertaining to character creation. However, this version of Gamma World does provide an option for "pure" randomization of physical and mental mutations, as well as defects (here called "drawbacks"). However, the default assumption is that mutations are chosen. Fifth edition introduces the concept of weighted values for each mutation, with some mutations costing more of a character's pool of "mutation points" than others. Defects provide addition points to the pool.

The fifth edition was the last edition to carry a TSR product number (even though it was published by Wizards of the Coast), so it seems a convenient cut-off point for the present discussion. However, I will, in future discussions of Gamma World, talk at greater length about the infamous sixth edition published in 2003 by White Wolf's "Swords & Sorcery" D20 imprint, both for completeness and because I had a small hand in the line and so can offer some insights into it and relationship to what went before. I do not own the seventh edition of the game, published in 2010 and have no intention to purchase it, so I'm afraid I won't have anything to say about it in future posts.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Hothouse

Hothouse by Brian Aldiss is a science fantasy "fixup" -- a novel constructed out of several previously published short stories -- that first appeared in 1962. I call it a "science fantasy" because it contains too many absurd and bizarre speculations (of which I'll speak shortly) to be called "science fiction," but, since Aldiss never once suggests anything supernatural or magical about the setting of Hothouse, I'm not sure I can call it an outright "fantasy." Admittedly, such fine distinctions weren't always made in the era in which Aldiss wrote the five short stories that make up this novel, but it's worth noting nonetheless.

For Hothouse could certainly be considered part of the "Dying Earth" sub-genre made famous by authors like Clark Ashton Smith and, of course, Jack Vance. The tale it tells takes place in the impossibly far future, when the sun has grown large and is on the verge of going supernova. Likewise, the Earth and Moon have become locked in their orbits, so that each continuously offers one face to the Sun. As if that weren't odd -- and implausible -- enough, consider this passage where Aldiss first presents the idea:
Throughout the eons, the pull of this moon had gradually slowed the axial revolution of its parent planet to a standstill, until day and night slowed, becoming fixed forever: one on one side of the planet, one on the other. At the same time, a reciprocal braking effect had checked the moon's apparent flight. Drifting farther from Earth, it had shed its role as satellite and rode along in a Trojan position, an independent planet in its own right hugging one angle of a vast equilateral triangle which held the Earth and the sun at its other angles. Now Earth and Moon, for what was left of the afternoon of eternity, faced each other in the same relative position. They were locked face to face, and so would be, until the sands of time ceased to run, or the sun ceased to shine.

And the multitudinous strands of cable floated across the gap between them, uniting the worlds. Back and forth the traversers could shuttle at will, vegetable astronauts huge and insensible, with Earth and Luna both enmeshed in their indifferent net.

With surprising suitability, the old age of the Earth was snared about with cobwebs.
It's a truly evocative image, I can't deny it -- the Earth and the Moon joined to one another by cobwebs spun by spider-like plants, but, without magic or something similarly reality-shattering, I found it impossible to accept it, especially when human beings actually use these webs travel to Moon! Ultimately, I think how one reacts to such ideas will determine a lot about how one views Hothouse as a whole.

The novel tells the story of a tribe of human beings who in a vast banyan tree located within the jungle that occupies Earth's sunward face. These humans are among the few surviving animal species left on the planet, the world's ecosystem having long ago come to be dominated by plants of all sorts, many of which possess mobility, such as the aforementioned spider-like "traversers." These humans are extremely primitive, having almost no technology and similarly little knowledge of the world beyond their jungle home. Naturally, the story is about what happens when young members of the tribe are thrown on their own resources and must explore their world to survive.

Hothouse had no influence on Dungeons & Dragons so far as I can tell and understandably not. However, when the book was published in the United States, it originally carried the title The Long Afternoon of Earth, which is cited by James Ward in his introduction to the first edition of Gamma World as being a significant influence on the game. This is quite interesting on a number of levels, chiefly that Ward might have imagined the post-apocalyptic world of his RPG as being a "Dying Earth." Furthermore, I think it also shores up the notion that Ward didn't see Gamma World as hard science fiction, a notion that needs little corroboration, since the game's TSR editions always self-identified as "science fantasy." And, finally, the plot of Hothouse is about a bunch of primitive, ignorant youths (one of whom is named Gren, a name used in Gamma World itself for a species of forest-dwelling humanoid mutants) whose journeys of discovery uncover some remarkable secrets about the world they thought they inhabited. Sound familiar?

All that said, Hothouse is a very strange book, filled with some truly improbable but nevertheless imaginatively alien vistas. I'm not sure I can recommend the book on the basis of its story, let alone its science, but its imagery is often topnotch and equally useful to players and referees of "straight" fantasy as to those of science fantasy. It's not a "must read" by any measure, though it is worth looking at as an idea mine if nothing else.

U is for The Undead

Despite folk tales about ghosts, wraiths, and spectres, there is no evidence that these legendary spirits of the dead actually exist. Consequently, when sages speak of "the undead," they mean corporeal beings whose bodies continue to exist and, in some cases, house a human intelligence long after they ceased any sort of biological functioning. Undeath is thus the only reliable form of immortality, though it carries with it the stench of Chaos, for demons are said to have first taught men the methods of creating -- and joining -- the ranks of the undead.

Because of their demonic pedigree, all human religions consider the undead their special foes, which is why traveling clerics are taught magical rituals for banishing or "turning" these foul creatures. Experienced clerics, infused with the power of Law, can even learn to destroy undead utterly, reducing their bodily vessels to dust and sending the human souls encased within to final judgment before the gods. This is why most undead hide themselves far from civilization, in areas where Law holds little sway.

While many intelligent undead choose their state by recourse to various evil rituals, not all do. Some become so as a result of transferring their Chaotic taint to their victims, who rise as undead of the same sort as their destroyer. These unfortunate individuals find their minds as well as their bodies twisted by the curse of undeath, becoming little different than those who sought to become undead in order to escape death. Precisely why this happens -- and why the gods allow it -- is a mystery that has baffled theologians and scholars alike since time immemorial.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Plants vs. Macrobes

I hope no one misunderstands me: I think Gamma World is plenty weird. I also think there's a great deal of scope within that weirdness for humor, even of a very low sort. In that respect, I firmly believe that it's no different than Dungeons & Dragons, which I have long characterized as being a "pulp fantasy roleplaying game of high adventure and low comedy." What I have grown to greatly dislike, though, is the deliberate emphasis on and encouragement of low comedy in Gamma World to the detriment (or even exclusion) of its potential for high adventure. Mind you, I think the reverse is also an error in judgment too, but then I feel the same way about D&D.

I was thinking about this topic in reference to another couple of articles I loved from Dragon back in the day. Issues 86 and 87 (June and July 1984, respectively) described the Moon in Gamma World, as part of an excellent ongoing series detailing Earth's only natural satellite in a variety of SF RPGs. The Gamma World articles were written by James Ward and thus carried an imprimatur of official-dome about them. Even if I hadn't loved what they described -- which I did -- my teenage self would have dutifully accepted their contents regardless, since they came from the pen of the Creator.

As detailed in that pair of articles, the Moon of the 25th century was utterly devoid of human life, which was wiped out by a plague not long after the destruction of civilization on Earth. In the absence of humans, Tycho Base's cybernetic installation kept it running as before, right down to allowing existing experiments to proceed unhindered -- such as the genetic manipulation and irradiation of plants and single-celled organisms. Left unchecked, both experiments eventually resulted in various mutant strains, some of them intelligent, which before long initiated a war on the other to gain full control of the cybernetic installation and, with it, Tycho Base. Thus, the Moon of Gamma World consists of a base once large enough to support 50,000 human beings but now inhabited by colonies of mutant plants and huge microbes locked in a death struggle against each other. A world gone mad indeed!

I really like the idea of a Moon base filled with warring mutant plants and giant microbes, because it's unexpectedly alien. But, let's face it, the idea is pretty ridiculous taken out of context. Even in context it's peculiar. That's OK in my book, though, since this situation isn't unique to Gamma World but in fact a facet of all but the most self-serious RPGs. If I am belaboring this point, I apologize. It galls me that Gamma World has for so long been relegated to the "joke RPG" category, all the moreso when I read these articles about the Moon and realize that, rather than dispelling such notions, they'll probably only confirm them in the minds of many gamers.

So, yeah, I admit that I've probably been thinking too much about this topic, but that's what I do: think too much about roleplaying games. After Easter, I'll have some more to say about this, I am certain. It's my hope that, even if I start to sound like a broken record, I'll at least play an interesting tune.

Before the Dark Years

While the way that TSR looted the corpse of SPI was shameful (and likely had a deleterious effect on the wider hobby), it had one positive effect from the perspective of my youth: the advent of the "Ares Section" of Dragon. I've always been more of a sci-fi fan than a fantasy one, so knowing that every issue of Dragon would devote two or three articles devoted to the genre each month was a good thing in my view. (This also probably explains why the issues of Dragon I was most fond of ran from 80s to the early 100s -- corresponding very closely to the lifespan of the Ares Section).

Gamma World was well represented in the Ares Section, frequently presenting articles penned by creator James Ward, which I appreciated, given my obsession with official-dom. One of my favorite articles from Ward was published in issue 88 (August 1984), called "Before the Dark Years." It presents a historical timeline of the Gamma World setting, beginning (as all post-apocalyptic timelines do) in 1945 with the first use of nuclear weapons and ending in 2450, which was the approximate start of the 2nd edition of the game (1st edition began later, in 2471 -- why the change, I wonder?).

It's true that the article appealed to me back then because it scratched a completist urge to know it all, an urge I have long since -- and happily -- abandoned. But back then it was simply awesome to know, for example, that the starship Warden was launched in 2290. Re-reading the article, I still love it, but for rather different reasons. I like it for entries like this one:
2322 – Procesed-iced asteroid (guidance circuits damaged by terrorists) strikes Mars; eight-year duststorm and climatic disruption result. All colonies on planet isolated; Federation charter suspended for the duration.
Or this one:
2331 – Trans-Plutonian Shipywards assume control of their own programs and generate robotic "life."
The reason I love entries like these is that they hit home that Gamma World's apocalypse doesn't happen in the here and now but in a science fictional future. That ought to be obvious, given the presence Mark VII blasters and black ray guns and so forth, but, somehow, it's easy to forget, perhaps because, in the 70s and 80s, worrying about the End of All Things focused on the present, not the future. Indeed, lots of people didn't think there would be a future, thanks to the Damoclean threat of Armageddon.

Gamma World didn't take that approach. Instead, it's set in the future and the weapons that usher in the Dark Years include not just nuclear missiles but also "dimension-warp" devices and other weaponry undreamed of in our age. I think that set Gamma World apart from other post-apocalyptic games, imbuing it with a more "wondrous" quality and also, if I may wax sociological for a moment, making it a little less frightening to kids like me. The Morrow Project, to cite one example, postulates that the End would come in 1989 as a consequence of Cold War foolishness and, however absurd its specifics, that was a scenario many people genuinely believed might occur in their lifetimes. But a 24th century terrorist group called the Apocalypse? Using dimension-warp weapons and striking at not just Earth but space colonies as far away as the Oort Cloud? That's clearly fantasy and a lot less terrifying.

As I noted recently, my preferred way to play Gamma World is to treat the post-apocalyptic world as largely a blank slate, one utterly unfamiliar to the characters, who not only grew up generations removed form the Fall, but are played by people for whom even the pre-Fall world is alien. That pre-Fall world included settlements on the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere, is supported by robots, cyborgs, and A.I.s, and is launching extra-solar colonization efforts. That creates a lot of scope for terrific adventures and campaigns; I might even go so far as to say that, as developed in this and other articles, Gamma World provides a canvas every bit as large as that offered by Dungeons & Dragons. Sadly, the game has largely been treated as a joke by its custodians over the years, its full potential never quite realized and that's too bad.

More Gamma Thoughts

Needless to say, I'm on a bit of a Gamma World kick at the moment, occasioned perhaps by a more general rising tide of interest in science fiction gaming, since I started my Thousand Suns campaign a couple of weekends ago. Even though I'm actually quite fond of the second edition of the game (Elmore art and all), I can't deny that the first edition, illustrated mostly by Dave Trampier, with some help from David Sutherland, has a raw power to it that no subsequent edition of Gamma World has ever come close to matching.

A big part of that power is similar to the power of the LBBs: the first edition rulebook is only 56 pages long and is filled with lots of lacunae, to put it charitably. Actually playing the game demands a fair degree of filling in by the referee and without much explicit guidance from the rulebook. Likewise, the rulebook is frustratingly inconsistent in its presentation of the world of A.D. 2471 -- equal parts retro-future (like the illustration above), glib social commentary, dark apocalypticism, and general weirdness. It's a potent melange of elements and any referee running Gamma World is free to decide how to present and combine these elements in his own campaign.

Precisely why so many referees chose to suffuse Gamma World with an atmosphere of glib weirdness, if not outright humor, is an interesting question that I may return to in a future post. Suffice it to say that I don't think there's anything inherently superficial or jokey about Gamma World and, while I think it'd be a mistake to treat the game any more seriously than, say, D&D (or indeed any other RPG), I nevertheless think it's possible to run it "straight," provided one keeps in mind the lesson learned from Detective Chimp. In any event, as the month of May dawns on us, I'll be devoting a lot more attention to Gamma World (and its sorta-clone Mutant Future). It's a game of which I am very fond and that I think deserves some more love in the old school community these days.

T is for Tyche

Tyche is the goddess of fortune, prosperity, and destiny revered by the Thulian Great Church, but her cult was well known for centuries beforehand. Called by her followers "Lady Luck" or simply "the Lady," Tyche is one of the more unusual deities venerated by the Thulian Empire. Although her patronage of prosperity and even destiny might be said to support the civilization of Man, the same cannot be said of fortune -- at least unequivocally. Tyche is a whimsical and occasionally capricious mistress; beseeching her aid is no guarantee of good fortune, only that the Lady will provide an unexpected outcome.

True devotees of Tyche accept this reality and, indeed, see it as instructive. For there are no certainties in life and to assume otherwise is a recipe for, at best, regular disappointment and, at worst, madness and despair. Consequently, Tyche worshipers see themselves as offering a counterbalance to Man's tendency to view himself as divinely gifted and, therefore, destined for victory in all his endeavors. Some servants of the Lady enjoy this role greatly, which does little to endear their faith to others, particularly the temples of other gods, some of whom see Tyche as tainted by Chaos and even whisper that Lady Luck is not a true deity at all.

Intriguingly, the church of Tyche evinces little interest in dispelling such notions. Some of its clerics even suggest, if only implicitly, that there is some truth to these charges. Though described in feminine terms and depicted as a woman in art, there are no myths or legends associated with Tyche's activities in the material world. She is not associated with any historical events or personages and her followers are adamant about the fact that her influence over mortal affairs is never direct. A few devotees come close to stating outright that "Tyche" is not a divine being at all but rather the personification of a concept, a notion that does nothing to undermine their faith in the slightest. Unsurprisingly, other temples are not so broad-minded and fear that ideas such as this encourage skepticism and even atheism -- two of the demons' greatest tools in spreading Chaos among Men.

Friday, April 22, 2011

S is for Spells

The term "spell" refers to a magical formula, whether written or mental, that enables a spellcaster to alter reality in accordance with the parameters of that formula. In its written form, a spell is expressed by a complex, non-representational cipher that is completely unintelligible to anyone whose mind has not been prepared to do so. Such preparation is a significant part of a spellcaster's apprenticeship, with years spent in exercises intended to open the mind to the non-physical "impressions" of spells. These impressions are the mental form of a spell and translating them between their written and mental forms is another important part of a spellcatser's apprenticeship.

Though commonly spoken of as existing in the "memory" of the spellcaster before they are activated, this isn't quite accurate. Rather, a spell exists in the mind as an "image" or "symbol" that corresponds to a known effect in the real world. Becoming a spellcaster is, in part, learning the ability to associate these symbols with specific effects and do so in such a way as to bring them about outside the mind. This process is difficult and mentally taxing and, initially, most spellcasters are unable to retain a small number of minor symbols in their minds at once. It is only with time and experience that they expand their minds sufficiently to be able to retain more -- and more potent -- symbols.

The discovery of the correspondences between these mental symbols and non-mental effects occurred in the distant past, likely in the time of the mysterious Ancients. So obscure are these correspondences that, even after untold millennia of research, the number of spells has not expanded much beyond the 100 or so spells that are taught in magical academies today. This has led some to suggest that all possible correspondences have already been discovered, an opinion some sages scoff at, for both history and legend speak of spells whose effects are unlike any seen in the present era.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

150 Years is a LONG Time

One of the intriguing commonalities between Gamma World and The Morrow Project is that they're both set about 150 years after the collapse of human civilization. Likewise, in both cases, that collapse is the result of a destructive, global war, using (in the case of TMP) nuclear weapons or (in the case of GW) even more devastating weaponry. Furthermore, both games postulate settings in which there are ruined cities dotting the landscape -- futuristic "dungeons" for the player characters to explore and to loot, such as the one depicted in Dave Trampier's cover to the first edition of Gamma World, pictured to the left.

Now, I'm far from an expert in such matters, but it seems to me that, given both the destruction wrought by nuclear warfare (or worse) and 150 years without human habitation, power supplies, or regular maintenance, there wouldn't be many ruined cities left for the PCs to explore. There are plenty of examples in the real world of cities that were simply abandoned by human beings and, within fairly short order -- we're talking mere decades -- they've literally fallen to pieces. Add a century or two of neglect into the equation and it seems likely to me that Gamma World or The Morrow Project characters aren't likely to find the recognizable ruins of many cities.

That's not to say that some structures won't survive. I have little doubt that the comments to this post will soon include many examples of buildings whose unusual construction might allow them to withstand a century and a half of the elements without maintenance. But I'd hazard a guess that there won't be many such examples. We tend to forget just how much work is necessary to keep most large cities not merely operating but holding off the relentless march of Nature. New York City, as I understand it, pumps millions of gallons of water out of its subway every day. Without power, it'd rapidly fill completely with water, flooding the city's streets, not to mention the basements and lower levels of buildings, none of which would contribute to the continued stability of tall structures. Think what the city would be like after more than a century of that, plus the effects of nuclear and other weapons.

I don't fault anyone for wanting to ignore stuff like this. I don't think it's necessary that post-apocalyptic games should be any more "realistic" with regards to ecology than fantasy games, though I do think there's something to be said giving more thought to such questions. Back when I used to play Gamma World regularly, I very much liked to portray the post-fall society as a "clean slate." Sure, there were some remnants of the Old Days kicking around, mostly heavily-protected subterranean vaults, but most of the surface of North America had reverted to Nature, albeit a radiation-fueled Mutant Nature. That gave me a lot of freedom to create new settlements, societies, and cultures without worrying too much about how -- or if -- they mapped on to what had been extant 150 years previously.

Of course, the real reason so many post-apocalyptic settings, including those in RPGs, don't pay much heed to the effects of time and tide on the works of Man is that a big part of the appeal of these games are their references to contemporary people, places, and events. Moreso than most science fiction, post-apocalyptic tales are ready-made to comment on the present, particularly its foibles and vices. To present a post-apocalyptic world where one's character is not only ignorant of the past -- our world -- but likely to see very little evidence of its existence takes some of the fun out of the genre for a lot of people.

Besides, it's not as if having famous landmarks survive Armageddon is any less plausible than intelligent ape-men and most of us scarcely raise an eyebrow over their existence, right?
You maniacs! You blew it up!

Some Observations on Skill Systems

For as long as I've been aware of the existence of games other than Dungeons & Dragons, I've also been aware that there are "class gamers" and "skill gamers" -- the "dog people" and "cat people" of our hobby. I suppose, if push came to shove, I'd classify myself as a "class gamer," since I've spent so much time playing D&D and gamers similar to it, but I've also clocked a lot of hours playing games like Traveller and Call of Cthulhu too. The main reason I'd say I'm not a "skill gamer" is that, in my experience anyway, true devotees of skill systems are vociferous in how much they don't like class-based games, deriding them as "limited" and even "primitive" compared to their preferred approach.

Me, I don't really care one way or the other and will happily play either type of game without much fuss. It's rare that I dislike a game based on whether it uses classes or skills as opposed to the alternative. In playing skill-based games, I have noticed a couple of interesting things, though, both in myself and even in those who are strong advocates of the "superiority" of skill-based over class-based systems. First, I don't demand rolls for trivial uses of a skill, unless they're done under extreme or challenging circumstances. This is, of course, standard procedure and has been for a long time. For example, there's this passage from Chaosium's Basic Role-Playing:
This term [automatic actions] describes activities which are always successful under normal circumstances. There is no need to roll any dice for these. They are assumed 100% successful. These include walking, running, talking, seeing, hearing, and any other normal basic function.

Attempting to do these things under extraordinary conditions, or trying to do them with close scrutiny, requires a die roll, as outlined in the next section.
Of course, we all remember referees -- we may have even been them ourselves -- who didn't abide by this advice and required skill rolls for everything: "I ride to the next town." "Make a skill roll." "I fail." "Oops, you fall off your horse and take 1D6 damage." "But I'm a knight; I've been riding a horse since I was a boy." "Too bad, you failed your skill roll." That rather narrow-minded interpretation of skill use doesn't long survive contact with actual play, so the advice quoted above only makes sense. In these circumstances, there is no actual difference between a class-based or a skill-based game, except that a character sheet in the latter lists a level or percentage associated with riding horses, while in the former it's just assumed.

The second interesting thing I've noticed about skill-based gameplay is a consequence of the first one already discussed. If we accept that skill rolls ought not to be demanded under "normal circumstances," it follows, then, that, as BRP suggests, "extraordinary circumstances" are when a skill system is actually needed. What I've found, though, is that, in such extraordinary circumstances, referees are often quite prone to fudging the results of a skill roll; I know I used to do this unashamedly and I was not the only one to do so. Part of the reason, I think, is that it seems wrong to many gamers to have the outcome of some extraordinary circumstance hang on a single dice roll. "You have to defuse the bomb quickly or everyone will die. What's your Demolitions skill?" "35%" "Make a roll." "Uh, 74." "Boom!" The situation is even more common when the skill rolls in question pertain to finding hidden or unusual things, like secret doors or clues. "I search the room." "Make an Observe check." "I fail." "You don't find anything out of the ordinary." And so we see elaborate rationalizations as to why the skill roll didn't really fail or even a further narrowing of the definition of "extraordinary circumstances," all in the name of seeing a character succeed at something the rules otherwise say he'd failed.

None of the foregoing is meant to suggest there's anything wrong, let alone bad, about skill systems in RPGs. I mention this simply because I've noticed that, in practice, skill systems are rarely used much differently than the non-quantified skills assumed to exist in class-based games. The primary difference between the two approaches is esthetic and, believe me, I'm not one to knock esthetics. When I designed Thousand Suns, for example, I didn't hesitate to use a skill system, because, as a sci-fi game, it seemed to make more sense to have characters defined by their areas of training and knowledge rather than by an archetype-based class. It's the same reason why the game uses the metric system -- it feels right in a science fiction game, even though the game would have worked just as well if I'd have adopted US standard measurements. It's the feel of a skill system that appeals to a lot of people, not its actual mechanics. It's the sense that skills are somehow more "realistic" or better reflect reality, and I can raise no objection to such subjective notions. But they are subjective and that needs to be borne in mind in discussing the merits of skill vs. class systems.

This brings me to a broader, final point. I don't think we can underestimate the impact that conceptualizing "adventures" as "stories" has had on RPGs and how they're played. If we see an adventure as having a definite, specific end before play even begins, it seems inevitable that, rather than being an aid to play, a skill system, with its quantification of many activities and areas of knowledge, is an impediment to it. On the other hand, if we see an adventure as simply being a situation into which the PCs are thrown, whose ultimate outcome depends on a combination of choice and luck, a skill system -- or, indeed, any random element -- is a contributing factor to that ultimate outcome.

In my second Thousand Suns session last weekend (which I'll post about eventually), a character failed an important skill roll and I let it stand without any fudging. As a result, the PCs could not achieve their current objective and were forced to move on. Had I conceived the "climax" of that adventure as depending on the success of that skill roll, I'd have been disappointed and might well have succumbed to the urge to fudge its result. But the adventure was just a situation in which the PCs found themselves at that moment. Failure meant only that one particular outcome to the adventure was closed off, but there were other possible outcomes, not to mention other adventures/situations. Rather than being an obstacle to our fun, the failed skill roll enabled it, pushing the characters and thus the campaign in a direction the players might not have chosen if they'd had the choice. Speaking only for myself, that's what all the best game systems do, regardless of whether they use classes or skills as their foundation.

R is for Raise Dead

Restoring the dead to life is almost certainly one of the most impressive miracles any cleric might work. It is also one of the rarest of all such miracles, for only a handful of clerics in the world are capable of it. Even then, there are a couple of impediments to raise dead that make it much less useful than folklore and rumor would suggest.

First, there is a hard limit on how long Men -- and only Men, for the gods seem to favor no other race in this regard -- may be dead before raise dead proves ineffective. Theologians and metaphysicians disagree on the reasons for this limit, but they both agree that, after 30 days, no cleric, regardless of his power, can restore life to the deceased. Second, the deceased's own ability to withstand adversity comes into play, with some Men being constitutionally less able to survive the magical rigors raise dead demands of their bodies. Thus, this spell often has no effect on the aged or infirm, particularly the former, for raise dead can do nothing to restore life to those who died simply of old age. As the saying goes, "Even the gods bow to the authority of Time." Third, those whom raise dead does restore are often shattered by the experience, both physically and spiritually. They are weaker of body and prone to gloominess; some even claim that they can see the souls of the recently dead abroad in the world.

As noted above, raise dead is only effective on Men. Dwarves, being artificial constructs of living stone, may be returned to life by a magic-user using a stone to flesh spell. Elves, despite their immortality, cannot be returned to life by any known means; should their bodies die, they are truly dead. Goblins are also unaffected by raise dead, but their culture believes in metempsychosis and expects goblin souls to return to the material world in another form. They look upon the use of raise dead as further evidence of Man's cowardice and immaturity.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Retrospective: Star Sector Atlas I

When I entered the hobby, if you played a science fiction game, you either played Traveller or Space Opera. I was a Traveller man back then, so Space Opera was one of those games I noticed on game store shelves and whose ads and articles I saw in the pages of Dragon but which I never actually played. Like most FGU games, it had the reputation of being "unplayable," or at least unnecessarily complex to the point of incoherence without heavy house ruling by the referee. It was thus light years away from the elegant, minimalist approach that Traveller had adopted in terms of content and presentation.

And, yet, even then, there was something strangely attractive about the game, particularly compared to Traveller. Space Opera was a "lumpy" game, which is to say, you could still easily recognize the undigested hunks it had chewed off its many inspirations, which simultaneously made Space Opera feel less "refined" and more "open" than Traveller. Traveller, on the other hand, had a stronger, more consistent esthetic and more "serious" tone to it that, while very evocative, sometimes felt constraining. You'd never randomly drop a Jedi or a Cylon into Traveller, but I always got the impression no one would have batted an eye if you did that in Space Opera.

Paradoxically, Traveller's ready-made star sector books, like The Spinward Marches, weren't very evocative. They consisted primarily of simple maps and alphanumeric strings of statistics without any details, leaving those up to the referee to decide. This approach is great if you're a do-it-yourself kind of referee who prefers only the most minimal hand-holding, but it doesn't do much for you if you're ever at a loss for ideas. By contrast, Space Opera's sector books, like Star Sector Atlas I: The Terran Sector, are dripping with details. Though larger in both size and length than their Traveller counterparts, they describe fewer worlds in their pages. However, these worlds are all usually given at least a half-page of information, including an overview of their histories, societies, and cultures.

Star Sector Atlas I details 66 worlds from the heart of human space, including Terra itself, as well as plotting the locations of 22 other planets and leaving their details up to the referee. Furthermore, the Terran Sector is noted as occupying a volume of space 8 million cubic light years in size, holding approximately 32,000 stars, thereby making it effectively endless in its expansion, should the referee desire to do so. Useful though that is, it is ultimately the 66 worlds described in Star Sector Atlas I that made this product so attractive. With it, a Space Opera referee could easily run a sandbox-style campaign at the center of the United Federation of Planets -- I told you the game didn't make any pretense of hiding its inspirations -- for years without exhausting this single sector.

When I wrote my retrospective post about The Spinward Marches last summer, I think I overstated how useful its minimalist approach was in play. I know I enjoyed there not being much detail in the book, because it gave me a lot of freedom. Yet, there were also moments in my old Traveller campaigns when I would have liked some more details -- or any details really -- about the world the PCs decided to visit in their merchant ship without any prior warning. I've always been good at thinking on my feet, so I made do with the bare bones GDW provided me, but I also know I'd have appreciated a product like Star Sector Atlas I: The Terran Sector. I'm beginning to think that something like it might better serve a lot of referees than did The Spinward Marches, since the details it offers are more than enough to kickstart one's imagination without being onerous or limiting.

Just goes to show that, even after all these years, I can still learn a thing or two from these old games.