Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: "Of Grizzly Bears and Chimpanzees"

As I've said innumerable times on this blog, in my heart of hearts, I'm really more of a science fiction fan than a fantasy one. That's why, much as I love D&D, I'm perpetually pining for the opportunity to play a sci-fi RPG. In my younger days, I had a slew of SF games I'd pull out to play whenever my friends and I decided we were tired of D&D. One of the most popular was Gamma World, which some would no doubt call a science fantasy game (and, to be fair, that's how its first edition bills itself), but I don't think that alters my essential point, namely that, when I wasn't playing D&D, my first inclination was to pull out a science fiction-y game like Gamma World or Traveller or the FASA version of Star Trek.

Consequently, I loved "The Ares Section" of Dragon, whose articles, even when they weren't of immediate use to me (like the articles on, say, Universe). Among my favorites, though, were the Gamma World articles by John M. Maxstadt, which I often did use in my games. A good example is "Of Grizzly Bears and Chimpanzees," which appeared in issue #89 (September 1984). As its name suggests, the article is devoted to detailing the unique abilities of animals, in this case as stock for mutated animal PCs. Maxstadt provides some basic statistics for a dozen different animal types -- bears, big cats, herbivorous animals, primates, snakes, and birds. These statistics include things like general size, their ability to vocalize and grasp/carry items, in addition to more obvious game stats like armor class and movement rates. The idea behind the article is to rationalize the abilities of mutated animals both from a game mechanical and a logical perspective, thereby making them more attractive to play and easier for the referee to accommodate.

Looking back on the article now, what's fascinating is how simple it really is in the end. There are a couple of pages of game stats, presented as Monster Manual-like entries, followed by a couple of pages of explanation of what the stats mean and how they interact with other aspects of the Gamma World rules. That's probably why I found them so easy to use. At the same time, they carry with them an implicit vision of Gamma World, one that's a bit more limited than the wide open "wahoo!" style usually associated with the game. Maxstadt, for example, doesn't provide stats for insects or amphibians, so the referee is either left to his own devices in coming up with his own or else disallowing such mutated animal types, as Maxstadt apparently did. Now, there's nothing wrong with such a limitation and indeed there's definitely a case to be made for it, but, somehow, the idea of playing Gamma World with any limitations seems to go against its fundamental grain and, were I ever to run a campaign again, I'd probably not use this article's system or else come up with additional stats for other types of animals.


  1. Though D&D was my RPG of choice 96% of the time, I liked Traveler and loved Gamma World. I loved the futuristic version of Earth, playing PC mutants – it was basically enacting films like Road Warrior. I really wish I hadn't discarded it.

  2. I like a more serious Gamma World when I play. Some elements may seem silly to 20th-21st century human players, but imagine how bewildering it would be for the characters to interact with Ancient artifacts and ruins (which are "futuristic" from the players' points-of-view, and thus, still alien). It is definitely a fantasy game, however, which allows you to get away with a lot without having to come up with some pseudo-scientific justification for the way things are.

  3. That was indeed a great article. I know I've mentioned this before, but I was boggled as to how Mutant Animal PCs actually worked, and the article helped navigate the waters a bit.

    Did they have hands? Could they talk? Were they "normal" animals, or anthropomorphic?

    (It never crossed my mind that I could just make it up myself. But, hey...I was 10 at the time.)

  4. Well, it might be that the author simply thought at least insects are already well-represented in the Gamma World bestiary... how many varieties of beetles are in there?

    (And oddly, no cockroaches. In my game I have decided this means that cockroaches, as the the perfect creature and inheritor of the Earth, are immune to mutagenic radiation and stayed exactly the same.)

  5. Would these rules convert easily to D&D?

    1. See for yourself, here's the Bears Entry of that article:

      Length/Height: 2-4 meters tall
      Weight: 150-650 kg
      Lifespan: 35 years
      Diet: Insects, meat, fish, roots, honey, carrion
      Attacks: Claw/claw/bite
      Damage: 1-8/1-8/2-12
      Armor: 8
      Land Speed: 18/1350/27
      Water Speed: 0/225/9
      Sight: normal
      Hearing: good
      Smell: superior
      Manipulation: Grasp and carry
      Vocalization: Grunt, while, bellow
      Special Abilities: climb trees
      Special disabilities: none
      Minimums: Strength 14, Constitution 13
      Maximums: none

  6. While part of Gamma World was always being interesting, fun and gonzo, I've liked this article muchly. Even if only for a convenient base for characters based on certain species types it's just handy to have. Not that anyone in my group ever wants to be mutant animals, mutants yes, but animals, no.

    Nice quick NPC bases too.