Monday, May 2, 2011

Gamma World, Cover to Cover (Part II)

One of the standout things about Gamma World compared to other post-apocalyptic RPGs is that it's apocalypse takes place in the future. And by "in the future," I don't mean 30 years hence but more than 300. There are probably a number of reasons why this was done, chief among them being that it gave a wider scope for the inclusion of high-tech artifacts and enemies, like blaster pistols and robots. In addition, by setting it in the future, it also helped place the game more solidly in the "fantasy" category. This had the added benefit of ensuring that the pre-apocalyptic world was almost as alien to the players as it was supposed to be to their characters. The world of the Ancients was a wondrous one, filled with all sorts of "magic items" and this made it much easier to preserve some mystery in the discovery of artifacts from those bygone days.

The game's introduction provides some details about the End of the World. It's a somewhat strange history that pins the specific blame on a terrorist group called "the Apocalypse," but more or less states outright that the Apocalypse was no more than a virulent symptom of a much greater disease:

Having conquered the rigors of simple survival, man was able to turn his energies to more esoteric considerations - theology, political ideology, social and cultural identification, and development of self-awareness. These pursuits were not harmful in themselves, but it soon became fashionable to identify with and support various leagues, organizations, and so-called “special interest groups.” With the passage of time, nearly all the groups became polarized, each expressing and impressing its views to a degree that bordered on fanaticism. Demonstrations, protests, and debates became the order of the day. Gradually enthusiasm changed to mania, then to hatred of those who held opposing views. Outbreaks of violence became more frequent, and terrorists spread their views with guns and bombs.
That's about as philosophically topical as Gamma World gets, which is probably a good thing, but it nevertheless does put the lie to the notion that the game was simply fluff without any substance. Even as a kid, I detected a strand of commentary on the present in these words, a commentary that takes an ironic turn when one considers that the major power groups of Gamma World's present -- the cryptic alliances -- are every bit as polarized and fanatical as the ones that brought down Man's 24th century utopia. I often played this up in my games, suggesting that history might eventually repeat itself, except with cryptic alliances standing in for the special interest groups described above.

As presented in the introduction, the Apocalypse threatened to destroy the capital of every nation in the world if there was not an immediate cessation of all sectarian violence. When their demands were not met, the Apocalypse made good on their threat. This initiated a retaliatory strike against the Apocalypse, who, in turn, unleashed the full fury of the weapons they had at their disposal:
Oceans boiled, continents buckled, the skies blazed with the light of unbelievable energies.

Suddenly it was all over.

The civilization of man had been slashed, burned, crushed, and scattered to the four winds. Whether The Apocalypse had intended to completely destroy all life on the planet and had failed, or if they simply had not had enough power, is debatable. Some scholars contend that The Apocalypse voluntarily stopped their promised destruction when they witnessed the horror they had unleashed and then destroyed themselves. At the time, and even now, the question is moot.
Gamma World doesn't dwell on this history, which occupies less than a page of its 56-page rulebook. Like most old school games, the history is intended to provide a thin context for the destruction of the world, one that the referee should feel free to alter or adapt as he sees fit. Of course, the default start date of the Gamma World campaign is 2471 (changed to 2450 in the second edition, for reasons unknown), which is about 150 years after the events that ended civilization. This ensures that any histories that do exist are likely garbled and incomplete, if not outright mistaken. Furthermore, all intelligent beings except androids, robots, or computers are at several removes from the pre-apocalyptic world, thereby ensuring that it be portrayed as a mythical time -- a Golden Age when the gods walked the earth.

Strange though Gamma World's future history is, especially when compared to other post-apocalyptic RPGs, I actually like it a great deal. On a theoretical level, I simply appreciate that it's a different take on what was, in the 70s and 80s, an often banal genre of science fiction. On a practical level, I think it bears much fruit. Most importantly, it sets the stage for a world that's more than just the 21st century plus mutant bikers. That is, the Gamma World is an alien, fantastical one, filled with wonders and terrors totally unique to itself. In short, it's a fantasy world and players and referees alike ought to treat it as such. I personally find this quite liberating, as it gives me free rein to include all sorts of oddities and weirdness, just as I have in my D&D campaign.


  1. Was perusing a nice compilation of 'Ask Gary' posts from ENworld and saw this on Gamma World:

    Originally Posted by Geoffrey
    Gary, I seem to remember reading that you had a hand in the original Gamma World rulebook. What parts did you write?
    Gamma World was basically an expanded MA game. Jim Ward did not have control over what went into it, Brian Blume did. When I was given the opportunity to read the initial draft, I noted that there were no mounts for the characters to ride, so I supplied the names and stats for all that were in the game--pinetos, podogs, rakoxen, and whatever else...I don't recall now and am too busy to check the rules. I also did a couple of tables of objects to be found at random, but some jerk editor removed much of the interesting items therefrom.


  2. Interesting. According to Jake Jaquet in an interview in Polyhedron, he was the one to write the introductory "history" for GW. He also claimed in the same interview that the original manuscript was generated in-house by person or persons unremembered (presumably inspired by Metamorphosis Alpha and D&D), then went the rounds from Jim Ward to Jaquet (and evidently to EGG) to the editors, and back again.

    Seems like this was quite the group effort. I think the diverse influences show, and give the game some of its (substantial) charm and uniqueness. Evocative background and decent writing from Jaquet, the basic idea of a mutant science fantasy RPG from Ward, pop cultural and other ironic references from Gary (how dare they edit me!) Gygax, and finishing touches from a various and sundry.

  3. Hmm... Highly polarized partisan groups that debate endlessly over minutia and a world rocked by terrorist actions. That could never happen.

  4. I like some of the ideas presented in the pre-history of GW... such as the concept of a far-future society that conquers the needs of survival through technology and so turns to introspection and philosophical debate, and then conflict... but the idea of a single organization called The Apocalypse that somehow has so much more power than everyone else and issues out world-wide ultimatums just strikes me as a touch too simplistic. I prefer to imagine the destruction of the world happened through the escalating conflicts of a multitude of different cabals, all wielding terrifyingly bizarre and ecologically devastating weaponry.

    I also like to believe that Gamma World itself might be the ancient past of Dungeons and Dragons. (Yeah, I've been reading some Jack Vance recently.)

  5. I had some similar thoughts in my post about the 1st Edition Gamma World book a few months ago. But I really loved that initial write-up as a young teen. It was evocative, and really (given the time I was reading it, in the early to mid 1980s when the threat of nuclear annihilation seemed very real) kind of scary. It scared the heck out of me to read how the Apocalypse nuked the capital city of every nation on Earth. That seemed like something that a group of madmen who gained control of nuclear weapons could easily do.

    I'm digging this series of GW posts since it was the second RPG I ever discovered, immediately after D&D, and it's been a favorite of mine ever since.

    Coincidentally enough, I've been doing a series of posts about old GW encounter tables I created WAY back in the 80s because my second-hand rulebook was missing a few pages of the actual encounters.

    You can read the most recent one here , and it has links to the others in the series.

  6. I love the level of irony that was put into the first book. On the other hand, I did not care much for The Apocalypse group, as they seem unnecessary, and the fact they they are used in a stick and carrot approach to get the game started: search for the fabled lost cache of The Apocalypse.

    In my "wide-open sandbox" mindset, such an objective seems unnecessary. The fact that all sorts of ruins could hold the powerful magic-like artifacts is motivation enough to get spelunkin'.

  7. Interesting and while it's fun to speculate on "the end" I think I'd prefer to let the story develop in-game. Who knows, maybe something more diabolical/cooler would emerge.

  8. Based on your description here James, I am struck by how Gamma World reminds me of the Empire of the East series where a futuristic world has been twisted into the realm of fantasy by technology. I am almost surprised that Saberhagen isn't listed as one of the inspirations of the game since that could easily be the case.