Wednesday, April 27, 2011

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.


  1. Don't forget about the 1st edtion mini-adventure that came in the GM screen "The Albuquerque Starport".

  2. I recently found a copy of GW3 and read it as a possible continuation adventure after my group was done with Legion of Gold. I have to say that much of the flavor of the plot was not to my taste, although the majority of the encounters I thought were interesting and useful. If I used it in my campaign there would be much tweaking.
    Without giving too much away, I have to say that the whole "Blackhand's diary" MacGuffin seems pretty silly and ridiculous.

  3. Man, I always Legion of Gold was pretty great.

  4. @Vigilance: the entire Legion of Gold?

  5. Meh. I don't own and haven't read GW3 (or any other 2nd ed. GW product), and after your somewhat ambivalent retrospective I'm not chomping at the bit to do so. I firmly believe a balance can (and should) be found between the gonzo and sinister sides of the 1st ed. coin. On the other hand, the milieu loses much of its appeal for me without the 20th century cultural allusions.

    Sounds as if GW3 could just as easily be a Boot Hill adventure with minor modifications, with the U.S. Army (KoGP) or a mining company or some such instigating war between two native American tribes to more easily acquire their territory. I don't like that. Both GW1 and GW2 (especially) could never be anything but GW adventures (all right, maybe you could use GW2 as a Paranoia module with some modifications :).

  6. @amp, sure, I always thought LoG was one of Gygax's better adventures, and certainly the best published GW adventure I ever ran.

    It's been awhile though, is there some part of the module you don't like?

  7. how much is this influenced by, and reflecting on, the politics of America at the time? More than a little, I would say.

    Disaster stories are never about the disaster - they're always about the politics surrounding it.