Monday, May 23, 2011

Gamma World, Cover to Cover (Part VIII)

Of all the things that Gamma World does right, perhaps the most significant is the addition of cryptic alliances. Described as "secret or semi-secret organizations," cryptic alliances are, I contend, a remarkable design innovation that is generally unsung. For what cryptic alliances do is provide, without the need for game mechanical support, an easy -- and flavorful -- means for players, through their characters, to become actively involved in the development of the game world. All the cryptic alliances have ideologies and agendas and joining one (or more) of them immediately embroils the PCs in their machinations, whether they like it or not.

Now, it's true that the rulebook does not specifically mention the possibility of joining cryptic alliances, so I suppose it's possible that some referees didn't allow for it, but I did. It seemed obvious to me that the joining -- or opposing -- the cryptic alliances was one of the major elements of campaign play in Gamma World, a supposition supported by the second edition of the game, which was very explicit on this point. In my campaigns of yore, I vividly recall characters who joined the Knights of Genetic Purity, the Restorationists, and the Ranks of the Fit, and I'm sure there were others I've since forgotten. In each case, the campaigns quickly acquired a sense of direction and, occasionally, urgency that they'd lacked before, when the PCs were rootless wanderers rooting around in ruins of the Ancients for high-tech artifacts.

I've bemoaned the loss of D&D's endgame previously, but the simple truth is that that loss is self-inflicted to a great extent, because D&D has done a consistently poor job of providing any structure for its endgame. Gamma World is no better when it comes to mechanical support, but it's my contention that the introduction of cryptic alliances does something much more needed by showing not just what high-level characters do but also why. I mean, it's all well and good to say that high-level D&D characters settle down and rule baronies or even -- *shudder* -- become gods, but why?

Cryptic alliances offers answers to such questions. If you're a Knight of Genetic Purity, you've got a long-term goal: to cleanse the world of mutants. If you're a Restorationist, your goal is to rebuild a newer and better society from the ashes of the old. How your character goes about doing that is left wide open, maybe too open for some, but, for my money, the fact that Gamma World provides any structure whatsoever for what a high-level campaign might look like is a point in its favor. For that matter, this structure is equally applicable to low-level campaigns and its open-endedness makes it very easy to use, regardless of who the PCs are.

The legitimate gripe about the cryptic alliances is that, of the thirteen provided, a goodly number of them are either inappropriate or impractical for the characters to join. Likewise, many of those that could be joined are primarily militaristic in their goals, which limits the types of campaigns that could be structured around them. Still, I can't help but be impressed with cryptic alliances as a concept. I think most RPGs would benefit from the existence of in-game organizations that provide the PCs with goals and belief systems to latch on to and they're equally useful to referees. That's why I'm all the more surprised that it wasn't until Paranoia that we really began to see the promise of the cryptic alliance concept fulfilled and it would still be many more years before it became a pillar of roleplaying design.


  1. Hmm! When I was reading this, I was wondering if cryptic alliances ever found its way to Thousand Suns, and if it didn't, whether you'd include it in future editions.

  2. Runequest Cults actually filled the same role as cryptic alliances from early on, at least they did in all the RQ campaigns I was familiar with. But it was actually one of the neatest aspects of Gamma World.

  3. Runequest Cults actually filled the same role as cryptic alliances from early on

    Quite right! This only goes to show how little connection I had to RQ back in the day, as I'd totally forgotten about rune cults. They play a similar role to cryptic alliances and provide clear mechanical benefits, making them an even better example of what I'm talking about.

    Damn my narrow viewpoint. :)

  4. I consider it a positive that there are cryptic alliances that are "impractical or inappropriate for characters to join". Those inappropriate alliances serve as great adversaries for the characters to deal with - 'evil' groups that champion genocide and disorder.

  5. Secret societies were part of WFRP's "Old World" setting, though never fully developed for players in official material. I think they're a great tool for GMs and a hook for players.

  6. Back when I was preparing materials for starting a GW campaign, I noticed the lack of actual religions in the world setting and sat down to hash out what I thought religion would have evolved to by the year 2471. I quickly became bored with the process and decided that the cryptic alliances represent the game function I was looking for much better than any futuristic version of modern religion.

  7. I was wondering if cryptic alliances ever found its way to Thousand Suns, and if it didn't, whether you'd include it in future editions.

    The revised rulebook, which will be out later this summer, doesn't include anything like the alliances, but I do have plans for something akin to them in a supplement, so stay tuned.

  8. I think that 3E D&D tried to work in something like this with prestige classes but the effort was quickly smothered in the focus on mechanics rather than the organizations or beliefs they represented. I used to think the lack of mechanics was a bug but after a decade of seeing it go the other way I've decided it's a feature. I also agree that they provide convenient in-game adversaries as a campaign progresses.

  9. I never understood why some of the CAs are seen as "inappropriate" for gaming. A number of them lend themselves towards genocidal mania, but I never have issue with this, as such scenarios, as evil and degenerate as they are, still make for some good adventures. At least one of them eschews technology, so it is seen as unplayable (at least by GW 4th Ed standards), but I find the inherent limitation to be unique challenges.

    The only thing that felt missing from the list was a hippie tree-huger cult, that consists of mutant plants & animals, along with naked human(oid) primitives, who rejects technology in all its forms (think Gren). Such an inclusion would have round things out, as they would have given intelligent plants a greater prominence in the world. At least the list - like everything else in the game - is far from exhaustive, and open to change and interpretation. Still, plants get no love in this edition.