Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: "A Field Guide to Lunar Mutants"

As I've noted before, I adored "The Ares Section" of Dragon, often finding its contents far more interesting and inspirational to me than the rest of the magazine. That's probably because, deep down, I'm more of a sci-fi gamer than a fantasy one. Nevertheless, I'm not very strict about my definition of "science fiction" and include lots of stuff, like Star Wars for example, that more purist fans would undoubtedly place in the fantasy pile. Consequently, I've always loved Gamma World and have long felt that it's often treated by more "serious" gamers as if it were a joke, an opinion that's sometimes been reinforced by the game's own publishers, which emphasized its "wackiness" over its other elements. Now, there's no denying that Gamma World has a lot of wacky elements, but that's not all the game offers and I think a large number of gamers have come to dismiss Gamma World unduly because all they see -- and all its publishers have promoted -- are giant anthropomorphic rabbits.

"The Ares Section" included a lot of Gamma World articles, many by its creator, James M. Ward. One of my favorites was a follow-up piece to a description of the Moon in the game's setting. Published in issue #87 (July 1984), "A Field Guide to Lunar Mutants" described the weird creatures that inhabited Tycho Center base in Gamma World's 25th century. As detailed by Ward in his earlier article, Tycho Center is devoid of humanoid and animal life. Its inhabitants consist entirely of mutated plants and "macrobes" -- giant single-celled organisms -- that acquired strange abilities and sentience due to scientific experiments allowed to continue unchecked in the absence of human oversight. Two mutually hostile species vie for Tycho Center and any PCs who visit will find themselves thrown into the middle of a warzone.

What I liked most about this article and its predecessor was not just its descriptions of weird mutants, but rather its suggestion -- a suggestion found throughout Gamma World -- that end of human civilization ushered in a new age, an age where potential successors to mankind have risen up and now seek to lay claim to the Earth as their own. It's a setting that's ripe for moody heroism (and bathos), provided the referee is willing to play up the "weird" aspects of the post-apocalyptic world humanity has inadvertently created in its hubris. "A Field Guide to Lunar Mutants," with its coordinating eye macrobes and tech-wielding rosoids really helped bring that home to me as a teenager, which is why I have a particular fondness for this article. One of these days, I need to start up a Gamma World (or Mutant Future!) campaign and see in what ways I'd do things differently as a middle-aged man that I didn't as a younger one.


  1. Having recently revisited both, with an old buddy of mine and now our kids, I can tell you that both have a bit of wackiness and seriousness. which is the fun of the games for me. the random character generation is a must for me. It just reinforces the random nature of post apoc gaming. Having kids that game video games like Fallout, Borderlands, and Rage, I can tell you a little bit of off kilter with some humor goes a long way at the table top instead of the hard edge grit of those video games. Which I like as well.

    We had lots of fun, lots of laughs, and lots of serious gun and powers battles. I think the ludicrous pieces are part and parcel of the game. And important. You can add all the seriousness or humor you want to the sandobox, without breaking down suspension of disbelief. That's refreshing. We don't set the farcical possibilities up, we just let them happen organically. My favorite two rpg's (with LL coming in third, and SF 4th).

  2. For some reason, despite the anthropomorphic rabbits, I've both always been a huge GW fan and never a subscriber to the "GW is wacky" theory. I suspect this is mostly because my own formative introduction to GW was actually through the writings of Sterling Lanier, Starman's Son, and PJF's Dark is the Sun, rather than initially buying the game itself. When I first purchased the game, and later the 2nd ed of said, my reaction wasn't "wacky", rather it was "wow, they've really captured the flavor of some of my favorite sci-fi!"

    In any event, count me as both a huge GW fan, and a fan of this article, which I do remember being published when I was in HS...

  3. That is possibly the greatest article name yet.

  4. We never saw it as wacky back then as it has been made out to be in more recent years. Sure, it wasn't totally serious but it wasn't a character-throwaway joke game like Paranoia either. We played regular campaigns in it, built up bases, lost favorite characters, and generally treated it just as seriously or unseriously as we did our D&D games.

    I think the wackiness has been emphasized more since the end of the cold war and the decine of that apocalyptic threat that gave all of the PA games a little bit of an edge. If you can't sell the post-nuclear aspect, then make it funny and try and squeeze some more out of that IP. I don't see a ton of interest in survival and exploration RPG's and that was a pretty big element of GW too.

    Beyond all that it's a fun game to play, the Ares articles were amazing (Exterminator anyone?) and I'm glad Mutant Future is out there.

  5. My comments would obviously only apply to the First and maybe Second Editions of Gamma World, as I have no experience with any of the later editions (and there have been seven, counting the D&D 4E based boxed set).

    To me, the anthropomorphic rabbits, and some of the other goofy elements of Gamma World were something of a deal breaker. Not what I'm looking for, after reading things like I Am Legend, and some of the other early Post-Apocalyptic novels of the 50's and 60's. Goofiness is fine in small doses (and frankly, can provide a comic relief in what can otherwise be a genre that is actually more depressing than horror), but not to the point that suspension of disbelief is snapped to the breaking point. When we ran it, we always dropped the goofier elements and ran something that had a lot grittier feel.

    IMHO, there's never been a better post-apocalyptic game made than RPG Objects' Darwin's World. It covers the same territory GW did/does, with a whole lot less silliness.

    Obviously, YMMV.