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.


  1. I honestly would have loved it if they had fleshed out this line of thinking. Certainly when I have designed adventures, I think of them in different categories such as exploration, siege (the party is given time to prepare against attack waves), or infiltration (stealth & scrying heavy; my particular favorite).

    And then there are the story-driven adventures that rose with the popularity of Ravenloft. I know you aren't a fan of the story-driven movement James, but the hobby might have evolved a little differently if there was an acknowledgement that modules supported many different types of gameplay and to categorize them as such.

  2. I will also add that when you look at computer games (particularly computer RPG) these days, these are exactly the type of categories that people use to describe the experience.

  3. I think it is there largely because they wanted a substitute for the phrase "Dungeon Module __."

    It's possible that they aren't supposed to be two distinct types of modules, but rather than "Survival Module" was the new and improved term compared to Exploration Module.

  4. It was always weird when professional products used a type of amateur terminology for game concepts. Like GM working on his own thing thinking "should I have more exploring, role playing, or combat?"

    Any fun GW, or D&D session for that matter,that you pay for should be a combination. A truly excellent scenario should have appeal no matter the players taste.

  5. So odd - I own both of those modules and have had them for close to 25 years or more, and I never noticed those labels at the bottom before.

    I suspect you're right, James - it was an amateurish attempt at "marketing" done by someone in-house at TSR who undoubtedly had no marketing training and thought they could do it themselves.

  6. I can guarantee that no high-level, big-picture planning went into those tags. What appeared on the cover in those days was largely whatever the editor and author chose to put there, especially on a secondary line like GW. It didn't even rise to the level of "an amateurish attempt at marketing." It was more like an amateurish attempt at dressing up the cover.

    Steve, who wrote more than his share of these covers, but not this one specifically

  7. In terms of design, wasn't Legion of Gold an exploration adventure (what's over there) while Famine in Far Go was a survival adventure (your people will die if you fail)? I seem to remember that the Legion of Gold part in the adventure was only something like 4 pages long while the rest was composed of a few mini-adventures and set wilderness encounters.

    In other words, perhaps the terms "survival" and "exploration" were only be used to describe the content of the module rather than to categorize. Perhaps they were dropped because finding an apt single word to describe a module's contents can be difficult for more complex adventures?

  8. Any fun GW, or D&D session for that matter,that you pay for should be a combination. A truly excellent scenario should have appeal no matter the players taste.

    Except that is not how I remember modules at the time. The all around modules were uniformly mediocre experiences that came across as "meh". When a module was designed to support something rare, like a natural ambush spot/opportunity for a boss fight, it was a big deal. And sometimes your party is designed for a specific type of adventure. The best campaign I have had was a no-fighter, no-healer infiltration party that was more about infiltrating unseen than entering fights.

    Furthermore, the vast majority of commercial modules were simply episodic encounters with little thought to the connecting glue in-between. Many times I felt like I was adventuring in a zoo, where I fight a random creature after entering its "cage".

  9. "Exploration Module" seems appropriate for Legion of Gold, as it was a sandbox adventure, akin to Keep on the Borderlands.

    On the other hand, "Survival Module" don't sound right for Famine in Far Go, as it suffered from the sort of "railroading" that plagued the D&D lines at that time... Hell, "survival" becomes twisted when the book tells the Ref that the players MUST be knocked-out and captured by the next scene, even if the Ref have to say "F**k it! I'm going to have it rain coconuts, to knockout you derailing bastards!". 9_9

    What is a good term for an adventure that plays like a linear flowchart, that on a marketing level, don't sound like something that would only attract train enthusiasts? :P

  10. I remember a GW "survival" module, where players get trapped in an automated psychiatric hopspital, that thinks the players to be delusional patients and tries to cure them.

    On the philosophical level, I think that different forms (not content, or theme or subject) of narrative will produce diferent role playing gaming experiences for the GM and the players. I have a nagging feeling that not only the setting of the advebnture - whether dungeon or wilderness, but the theme - exploration, survival, tactical, as well the setting - underground, forest, plains or the mountains, all have implications for the narrative and the gaming experience. In that light, attemots by TSR to categorize GW into survival and exploration adventures makes sense.

  11. If they published enough GW modules to make the types signifigant it might have mattered. With only two modules there isn't much to go by. If there had been "Exploration","Survival","Scavenging"and "Battle" with two or more modules of each type perhaps we could figure out what the deal was.

  12. I can guarantee that no high-level, big-picture planning went into those tags.

    I suppose I should not be surprised to hear this, but somehow I am.