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.


  1. I had fun doing a short Met. Alpha campaign using Mutant Future last year. It had been 20 years Since I did a GW or MA game. I had a tough time, to my suprise, taking it seriously. Even my Champions games had a more serious tone. Next time I do post apoc games, I'll go more for a non-mutant Mad Max thing I think. Mutant apocalypse has just become too much like parody of itself.

  2. James, are you familiar with the "Gamma Mars" article(s) from Polyhedron (from about the same time)?

  3. James, are you familiar with the "Gamma Mars" article(s) from Polyhedron (from about the same time)?

    Oh yes; it's another of my favorites.

  4. I think my feelings are identical to yours. I've always been interested in Gamma World, but never did more than make a character. It seems a perfect game for exploring, especially artifacts, because of the time frame. Players will have no clue what some things are supposed to do, because they're from the far future.

    But there seems to be a matter of tone to balance; if things are all puns and goofy jokes, I doubt I'll remain interested in more than a one-off.

    How serious is serious enough? Well, that's tough. It might not be the content at all, but the attitude of the DM and other players.

  5. @ James: I was reading Ares (and the Tycho moonbase scenario) long before I ever picked up a copy of Gamma World, and I found it incredibly much so that I tried adapting its plant creatures to my D&D game using the GW conversion notes in the DMG.

    This is a nice series of posts, by the way...keep it up!

  6. That scenario actually doesn't seem that ridiculous to me, in the context of science fiction. I can imagine it being the premise of a short story from the 60s or so.

    Of course, like anything else, it could be done with a serious or silly tone. If the king of the plants was called Beau Tanical then yeah, it wouldn't be serious. But you could do that to any premise.

  7. I do not think you sound like a broken record. The musings have been far from dull.

    I'm one of the only people I know who played first edition GAMMA WORLD. We had a blast with it. We were young enough to almost take it seriously... as seriously as you can, when you're playing a mutated human with antlers and a dual brain.

    In my eyes, GAMMA WORLD was nothing more than James Ward's response to Gygax's D&D, period. Gygax threw a bunch of tropes in a blender and poured out a light, frothy, fun fantasy RPG. Tropes used included LOTR, Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and various others discussed to death on this blog and many others.

    When Ward decided to do Gamma World, he did essentially the same thing... with Planet of the Apes, Strange New World, Genesis II, and a peck of other postapocalypse fiction and film and TV of that time frame. Hell, when I rewatch Genesis II these days, it's very easy to think "GAMMA WORLD TV series on a low budget," especially the second one, the one with John Saxon, fur bikini amazons, and warlike mutants with lumpy heads.

    Ward's baby worked out as did original D&D: a light, frothy, fun RPG about the scaaary world of the future. Neat thing is, the walking carnivorous ficus plants in your RPG can be a hell of a lot scarier than the ones that would have been in a TV series.

    There's no budgetary restriction on the imagination.

  8. Upon rereading my post above, it occurs to me that antlers can be taken as silly sure... all the way up until one sees the first "Genesis II" pilot with Mariette "Polaroid One-Step" Hartley and her two bellybuttons...

    Then again, perhaps I would rather look at Hartleys multiple bellybuttons than at your antlers...

  9. My favorite way to play Gamma World is to use only the 1st edition rulebook, and to thoroughly ignore ALL other published Gamma World products.

    And I don't play Gamma World in a goofy manner. Run the numbers and you will see the implications in the rulebook that mankind is probably nearing extinction: Animals and plants are less likely to suffer mutational defects than are humans. Nobody is making new high-tech items. Slowly but surely the mutated plants and animals will inherit the earth.

    If that doesn't justify a grim campaign, what in the world does?

  10. Another of the possible reasons for the difference between GW and D&D in outlook, is that a lot of the gonzoness of GW manifested in D&D in the form of The Adventures of Monty Hall series of stories in The Dragon(not so coincidentally also written by James M Ward). And given the people later decrying that Monty Hall was bad form and bad gaming, it added an extra incentive to take things "realistically." Which, when you think about it, is rather silly.

    Meanwhile some of the most fun D&D games I've played have been "absurdly" high-level high-magic games (such as The Raid on the First National Mana Bank). It's quite possible to balance a high-level game, and you have a lot more options for doing stuff. I still remember my ranger Marxis who had a pet/companion which was a semi-sentient Sphere of Annhilation called Spot (it was good at fetching things, but not so good at vomiting them back up). [For a modern version of this sort of game take a look at the wonderful Lesser Shades of Evil from EOS Press for some excellent ideas, both for high level games and YAAI ("yet another apocalypse idea").]

    But if you consider such games to be poor form (and consistently rubbish them without having tried them), then you are not going to appreciate the sort of low-comedy that allows a player to be an intelligent magic sword. Or a Sphere of Annhilation named Spot. Or a god with a preserved nuclear missile base. And then there is not a lot of room for gratuitous comedy when your characters are constantly in a life-and-death struggle to survive and advance.

    [I actually thought of this because the plants on the Tycho Moonbase reminded me of the Killer Kudzu from Monty Strikes Back (The Dragon #21). I always lamented the disappearance of such stories as The Dragon became Dragon.]

  11. I always envisioned Gamma World as much like the Hiero's Journey and Unforsaken Hiero stories, on which I had felt much of the background in Gamma world was based. Those books are pretty serious, so that was the tone I adopted for the game.

    I'm really not quite sure where the "jokey" thing started, but I find it odd. The background info in the 1st Edition about how the Apocalypse turned every capital city on Earth into radioactive slag doesn't strike me as something funny. It strikes me as something scary and sad.

  12. I grew up playing and loving Gamma World, taking it seriously in every edition. Only when I worked at WotC RPG R&D in the late '90s did I learn that others didn't share my viewpoint. I was genuinely surprised.

    That Trampier picture from first ed? With the mutant rabbits (i.e., Hoops) marching in line with rifles? As an adult, my co-workers pointed to that picture as an example of how silly the game was.

    I can see what they meant now, but as a kid, that picture meant BUSINESS to me. Those humanoid rabbits would shoot holes in you until you were dead. Nearly everything in Gamma World wanted to kill you, down to the purple grass under your feet. That might be weird and absurd, but it was never "wacky."

    Sadly, my opinion didn't resonate with designers doing the various reboots.

    --Jeff Quick

  13. Sadly, my opinion didn't resonate with designers doing the various reboots.

    Thanks for fighting the good fight, though. It's good to know that someone out there on the industry side of things understands and appreciates Gamma World as something more than a joke.

  14. Hoops! gotta love the evil furry buggers(bunnys?).
    We always played it straight, my players would have real fear in there eyes when I told them the Black shiny things commin'(flying) over the dunes were Deathbots! Lol They loved it ... I killed many a character in GW never a complaint ... cause character generation was a Blast! ... oh how I love those tech charts ... many muties(pc's) die holding weapons backwards or overload them ... ahh, the good old days.

  15. I can see what they meant now, but as a kid, that picture meant BUSINESS to me. Those humanoid rabbits would shoot holes in you until you were dead. Nearly everything in Gamma World wanted to kill you, down to the purple grass under your feet. That might be weird and absurd, but it was never "wacky."

    Exactly! Hoops are scary... like Alice in Wonderland meets jack-booted stormtroopers. And believe me, my GW players know and fear the purple grass that teleports its seeds into your body... where it starts to grow...

    I am sorry I never saw this Jim Ward article on the lunar base before, I likely would have used it in my campaign. As it is, I decided to borrow one of Gene Wolfe's SF concepts and make the moon green... from the huge forests that cover its entire surface.

  16. We never considered GW to be comedy, but we definitely considered it to be bizarre. Bizarre can be terrifying, disorienting, surreal, and funny, often all at the same time. That's the appeal of GW.