Tuesday, April 25, 2023

White Dwarf: Issue #72

Issue #72 of White Dwarf (December 1985) features a cover by Lee Gibbons that's striking not just for its style but also its subject matter. Over the course of its run, the subject of most of WD's covers has been fantasy or science fiction, while this one clearly depicts a horror scene, perhaps even one from the Call of Cthulhu game. In any case, I like this cover quite a bit. It's a reminder to me of all the excellent CoC content that appeared in the pages of White Dwarf over the years and kept me reading it for so long.

"Open Box" kicks off with a review of FASA's Doctor Who Role Playing Game, which the reviewer likes a great deal (8 out of 10). Even more favorably reviewed is Chaosium's Pendragon (9 out of 10) and I find it difficult to argue with such an assessment. The final review is the Pacesetter boardgame, Wabbit Wampage (6 out of 10). I had completely forgotten about the existence of this game, but I now recall seeing many advertisements in Dragon for it (and the Chill-related game, Black Morn Manor) during the mid-1980s. I never played either them, though, from the review, it doesn't seem like I missed much.

I'm going to let Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" pass without comment, because, as is so often the case, none of the books he discusses are ones I've read or about which I have anything to say, good or bad. Far more interesting is Alastair Morrison's "The Jewel in the Crown," which is both an overview of Talisman and an expansion of it. Morrison provides several new spell and adventure cards for use with the game, in addition to a new character – the Samurai. All are given new color cards, complete with (I think) John Blanche illustrations that the reader can either cut out or photocopy from the issue. I've long been a big fan of these kinds of articles. I remember a similar one for Dungeon! that appeared in the first volume of The Best of Dragon of whose rules addition I made use. 

"Fear of Flying" by Marcus L. Rowland – there he is again – is a short Call of Cthulhu scenario that takes place aboard a Tarrant Tabor triplane that can carry twelve passengers at a speed of over 100 miles per hour! Naturally, the presence of a carving of Nyarlathotep on board leads to all sorts of Mythos mayhem as the plane makes it way through the air. What makes the scenario memorable is not so much its Lovecraftian elements as its setting, the remarkable aircraft on which the characters are traveling. In my opinion, it's a good use of the 1920s setting, because it highlights the ways that the world of a century ago was both very much like and very much unlike our own. To my mind, that's the best use of any historical seting and one of which I wish we saw more in RPG adventures.

"Scientific Method" by Phil Masters is a brief but interesting look at super-scientists within a superhero setting. What makes the article useful is that Masters looks at both sides of the equation – super-scientist heroes (and sidekicks) as well as villains. Graeme Drysdale's "The Necklace of Brisingamen" is an AD&D scenario for characters of levels 7–10. As its title suggests, it's inspired by Norse mythology, specifically the necklace of the goddess Freya. The adventure concerns a long ago conflict between Freya, Loki, and their followers and how that conflict continues to color contemporary events in and around the village of Stonehelm. This is a lengthy and compelling scenario, one that provides the referee with a lot of material to use, as well as plenty of challenges for the player characters.

"Origin of the PCs" by Peter Tamlyn looks at the virtues and flaws of character generation systems. The article rambles about a number of related topics before coming to the "conclusion" that "character generation is a complex and wide-ranging activity and that different methods will appear best depending on who is using the system, how much time and effort they want and/or need to put into getting results, and what sort of character is to be created." What insight! Much more fun is "Sleigh Wars" by Chris Elliott and Richard Edwards, a 2–4 player boardgame of "merry Xmas mayhem" in which four "Santas" – Santa Claus himself, Anti-Claus, General Nicholas B. Claus III Jr., and The Ongoing Spirit of Christmas Where It's At At This Moment in Time – compete with another to deliver all their presents before the others. It's a completely ridiculous game, but it looks like fun.

"Recommended Reading" by Marc Gascoigne offers up a couple of new Mythos tomes for use with Call of Cthulhu. "All Part of Life's Rich Pageant," meanwhile, presents a random events table for use with AD&D. The events include such things as "arrested," "conversion attempt," "friendship," and "witness crime," among many others. Each is described, along with ideas on how to implement them in a game. While I could, of course, quibble with some of the entries or with their particular arrangement, it's difficult to find fault with what is essentially an adventure seed generator to aid the referee. As a proponent of the oracular power of dice, I'm largely in favor of tables like this, though one must still be wary of falling prey to randomness fetishism. It's a fine line to walk and each person will draw it in a different place, which is no knock against the general principle.

"Dioramas" is a new series about gaming miniatures by Joe Dever, the first part of which focuses on planning and preparation. Disappointingly, the color photographs that accompany the article aren't of miniature dioramas at all. I hope that future installments might remedy this, since I admire the hard work that goes into the creation of top-notch miniature scenes. The issue also includes more "Thrud the Barbarian," "Gobbledigook," and "The Travellers," the last of which continues its protagonists' playing out of the classic Traveller scenario, Shadows.

As I have written several times previously, this issue is from the period when I was no longer reading White Dwarf regularly but instead only picked up the occasional issue here and there, as I came across them in hobby or book shops. Consequently, my memories of the period are much hazier and I have a lot less affection for these issues. Indeed, it won't be much longer before I'll be in wholly foreign territory: issues I have never seen, let alone read. Once that happens, I'll re-evaluate whether to continue with this series or move on to a different gaming periodical with which I am more familiar, such as Polyhedron.

Monday, April 24, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Dweller in the Temple

A frequent counterfactual thought on this blog concerns the state of literary fantasy (broadly defined to include science fiction and horror, among others) had writers like Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft lived beyond the 1930s. I have no firm opinions on the matter, since there are simply too many variables to consider. Indeed, it's quite possible any resulting alternate history in which, for example, REH lived into old age rather than committing suicide in 1936 might nevertheless not be notably different from our own. 

A point in favor of this conclusion is provided by Manly Wade Wellman, who's probably best known among players of Dungeons & Dragons for his stories of Silver John, the wandering Appalachian singer and battler of the occult. Wellman was born in 1903, just three years before Robert E. Howard, and his professional writing career began three years after Howard's own, making them rough contemporaries of one another. Wellman, however, lived a half-century longer than REH and continued to write almost until his death, though his output certainly slowed after the 1960s. 

Even so, I'm not sure anyone could argue that Wellman is more well known than Howard (or Lovecraft). This is in spite of the fact that Wellman's work appeared in multiple volumes of Andrew J. Offutt's very influential Swords Against Darkness anthologies published in the late 1970s. (The series is important for the history of D&D because its third volume, which included a yarn by Wellman, was listed in Gary Gygax's Appendix N of "inspirational and educational reading.") If anything, I'd say that Wellman is less well known than either of them, suggesting that long years are no guarantee of greater fame than writers who died comparatively young.

That's too bad, because, in addition to his tales of Silver John the balladeer and occult detective John Thunstone, Wellman also penned six stories about Kardios, a survivor of Atlantis, the last of which was published in 1986, just months after the author's death. Though he first appeared in 1977, Wellman had apparently conceived of Kardios sometime during the 1930s, but had trouble selling him because Robert E. Howard had beaten him to the punch with Kull. However, Andrew Offutt (and, later, Gerald W. Page, Hank Reinhardt, and Jessica Amanda Salmonson) recognized the uniqueness of the character and it's through their efforts that we can read about his exploits today.

"The Dweller in the Temple" quickly demonstrates the uniqueness of Kardios by having the Atlantean do something I cannot imagine Conan or most other mighty-thewed barbarian heroes doing: singing. While traveling along the road alone, he "unslung the harp from behind his broad shoulder and smote the strings. He improvised his own words and melody, while his long sword thumped his leg as though joining in." Kardios' impromptu concert meets with the approval of a dozen or so young men, who "thronged around him, smiling and slapping the hafts of their javelins."

"Three times welcome, my lord," said a spokesman. "We'll escort you to your city."

"City?" echoed Kardios, keeping a hand near his sword hilt. "What city? I didn't even know there was one."

"Just over the hill yonder," said the spokesman, pointing. "Your city of Nyanyanya."

"It must be a fine one for you to name it two or three times," said Kardios. "But I never heard of it until this moment."

"Come and reign there, as was foretold.

Though wary, Kardios acquiesces to their offer, especially after the young men "closed around him like an honor guard ... Those sharp-pointed javelins rode at the ready." 

Nyanyanya "was not a large city, but it was beautiful, a grateful refuge for a tired traveler" such as Kardios. He is met there by a crowd of admirers, along with an old man, who identifies himself as Athemar the high priest. Athemar crowns Kardios king by placing a golden circlet on his head, which the wanderer at first takes to be a joke.

"We wouldn't dare joke, Kardios," murmured one of them.

"Never," Athemar assured him. "You see, we have an interesting way of choosing our kings. When one departs, another is mystically brought to us, by decree of the Dweller in the Temple. A committee meets him and brings him to us. It's been like that since Nyanyanya became a city." He stroked his beard. "That was lifetimes ago. But your palace waits for you."

By this point, the Kardios – as well as the reader – is aware that this situation is extremely suspect and indeed probably a trap. Although he recognizes that his life is likely in danger, he does not try to escape. "He would never be happy without knowing the end of this quaint adventure."

Athemar leads Kardios to "a graceful building of the rose-gray stone," where he is shown "a spacious room with a central fountain, chairs and tables and divans, and a red-cushioned throne that seemed chiefly made of emeralds." Before he has a chance to take this all in,

girls entered, spectacularly beautiful girls, gold-haired, jet-haired, jasper-haired, smiling. Their rich, clinging costumes were as brief as the very soul of wit.

"Here are some of your subjects, awaiting your orders," Athemar said to Kardios. "Whatever you may command of them." 

The girls all vie for Kardios' attention, encouraged by Athemar, but, taking a page from Conan, he is most interested in a serving girl named Yola, who alone among them seemed genuinely concerned about him. Kardios is correct in this assessment; it is from her that he first learns something of the mysterious Dweller in the Temple about whom the high priest had spoken earlier.

"What's this Dweller in the Temple you worship here in Nyanyanya?"

"Tongbi," she whispered fearfully.

"Tongbi," he repeated the name. "What sort of god is he?"

"A great god. Great and dreadful."

"Why dreadful? Does he kill your people?"

"No." Her hair tossed as she shook her head. "I don't think he ever killed a single citizen of Nyanyanya."

This piques the interest of Kardios, who asks Athemar for more information about Tongbi. The old man is surprised by this.

Athemar frowned. "The girl told you his name?"

"And said that he was powerful, and has never yet killed a citizen of the town. That's to his credit. How ancient a god is this Tongbi, and how is he served?"

A councilor cleared his throat and tweaked his spear-point beard. "You're our king, mighty Kardios," he said. "The king isn't called on to vex himself with religious matters. Athemar and his junior priests do the worshipping and serving of Tongbi." 

This is all highly suspicious, of course, and Kardios knows it, but his natural curiosity – and sense of adventure – prevent him from fleeing Nyanyanya. He is determined to get to the bottom of whatever is going on here, as well as the nature of the prophecy that supposedly "foretold" his arrival here.

"The Dweller in the Temple" is a charming, enjoyable romp in the best traditions of pulp fantasy. Kardios handily distinguishes himself from the many rootless, wandering protagonists of the genre, demonstrating not just thoughtfulness – a trait he shares with many others – but also kindness and, above all, humor. Kardios regularly cracks wise and makes light of his circumstances. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he reminds a lot of John the Balladeer, Wellman's more famous creation, right down to his propensity to endear himself to others through song. Also, like the tales of Silver John, this one is written in a light, breezy style that sets it apart from the self-seriousness that too often characterizes fantasies of this kind. If you can find a copy, it's well worth a read.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Not Yet Ultimate Campaigns

In yesterday's post, I talked briefly about the concept of an "ultimate campaign," a RPG campaign so good or so exhaustive in its scope and subject matter that it more or less forecloses the possibility of ever again returning to the game and/or game setting with which it was played. I used my ongoing House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign as an example of an ultimate campaign, but I also referenced the D&D 3e Planescape campaign I played from 2000 to 2004 as another. I could probably add a couple more to the list, like the AD&D 2e Forgotten Realms campaign I refereed throughout the 1990s, but, for the moment, I'm more interested in talking about games and game settings where I have not – yet – experienced an ultimate campaign but would very much like to do so:

  • Traveller: You'd have thought, given how often I've played this game and how well I know its rules and official setting, I'd have achieved an ultimate campaign by now and yet I have not. The closest I've ever come was, years ago, when I ran The Traveller Adventure to its conclusion. As satisfying as that experience was, it did not prevent my desire to referee (and play in) other Traveller campaigns. I wonder if, given the vastness of subject matter and setting, Traveller might not be susceptible to the creation of an ultimate campaign.
  • Call of Cthulhu: This is another game that I've played extensively over the decades and yet has never yielded an ultimate campaign. This one makes more sense to me, however. Since the game's release, Chaosium has regularly published extensive campaigns for use with CoC. The conclusion of almost any of them could, I would think, result in an ultimate campaign. In my own case, I've never managed to play any of these campaigns to their end, though I have used bits and pieces of them. I don't know if this is a failing unique to me and my gaming groups or if it's a common problem with Call of Cthulhu. Either way, an ultimate CoC campaign remains out of reach.
  • Pendragon: This one is wholly explicable. Since the game's release in 1985, I have participated in three excellent Pendragon campaigns, twice as referee and once as  player. In every case, the campaign ended before we reached the end of the death of Arthur, thereby depriving us of proper closure. I hope one day to get a fourth try, because Pendragon really deserves it.
  • Twilight: 2000: I'm currently refereeing a T2K campaign and have hopes that it might become an ultimate campaign. We've only been playing since December 2021, so it's too early to say whether we'll be successful. However, the campaign has good forward momentum, a solid collection of characters, and, perhaps most importantly, a dedicated group of players – all the necessary ingredients for an ultimate campaign. If we can keep this up, who knows where it'll lead?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of the games appear on my list of Top 10 non-D&D RPGs. They're the roleplaying games about which I think the most and thus about which I have the most flights of fancy regarding potential future campaigns. There are, of course, many other games with which I'd consider myself fortunate to experience an ultimate campaign – RuneQuest comes immediately to mind – but that I don't expect I ever will. At my age – I turn 54 in October – I no longer have an infinity of time to fill with RPGs, so I need to keep my expectations constrained. Mind you, even non-ultimate campaigns are fun, so it's not as if I'll only play a game I think will lead in that direction, though I try to keep my hopes high.

How about you? Are there any RPGs whose ultimate campaigns have eluded you? Are there any you'd like to get the chance to experience?

Thursday, April 20, 2023

The Ultimate Campaign

The longevity of my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign – eight years and counting, as of this post – often raises questions among those who've never participated in a RPG campaign that's lasted that long. One of the most common, believe it or not, is this: when do you think it will end? My answer is always the same, "I have no idea," which is absolutely true. Why that's the case is a topic deserving of its own post (and maybe I'll even write it), but my answer occasions a thought within myself, namely, whenever House of Worms ends, it'll probably be the last time I ever play Empire of the Petal Throne.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, my thought has nothing to do with the late unpleasantness regarding Tékumel's creator. Rather, I think this way because, whenever and however House of Worms ends, I'm fairly certain that I will have so thoroughly scratched my EPT (and Tékumel) itch that I would find little point in ever returning to it for another campaign. That is, I'll have done everything I'll likely ever want to do with the game and its setting. The conclusion of House of Worms will be – for me anyway – the end of Tékumel as an active RPG setting.

To be clear: I don't see this as a bad thing. Indeed, from my perspective, the idea that I might be "done" with a game or a game setting represents not a lack of interest in them, let alone disappointment or disgust, but rather the opposite: the feeling that I have refereed an "ultimate" campaign. "Ultimate" in this case is simply shorthand for what I already stated above: achieving everything I'll likely ever want to achieve with a given game or game setting. It's the highest compliment I can imagine giving a game or a setting and one I've very rarely bestowed.

Over the years, I've had only a handful of ultimate campaigns, the most recent one prior to House of Worms being early this century, shortly after the release of the Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I refereed a terrific campaign set in the Planescape setting that lasted four years with the same group of five players. At the conclusion of that campaign, I had, in my opinion, so completely made use of the setting, exploring the questions it raised about its idiosyncratic take on AD&D's planar cosmology, not to mention ringing huge changes on it, that I simply cannot conceive of a circumstance where'd want to revisit it, let alone actually do so. What my friends and I did over those four years was, by some definition, perfect and I'd be doing our shared experiences a disservice by going back to it.

I imagine the notion of an "ultimate campaign" might seem strange, even ridiculous, to some readers. One of the promises of the roleplaying medium is that it's infinitely re-usable, which is to say, you can keep playing a given RPG over and over and never exhaust its possibilities. I agree with that and, in fact, consider it one of the greatest virtues of roleplaying games as a form of entertainment. Nevertheless, I also believe that roleplaying can and often does create such singular experiences that they leave those who participate in them unwilling and unable even to contemplate attempting to replicate them. Those experiences engender a recognition that a game or a game setting has now reached its pinnacle for them; it is, for lack of a better word, "done."

Fortunately, there are a more roleplaying games and settings available than any single person could ever use in multiple lifetimes, never mind just one. When House of Worms ends – not if, because nothing lasts forever – that means I'll now have the opportunity to play something else. Whatever it is, I'll make an earnest attempt to play that game through to its end as well, though the likelihood is that I won't quite hit the mark. As I said, ultimate campaigns are few and far between, but I know they exist and I think they are worth aiming for. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2023


From the perspective of the 2020s, it might seem as if the 1970s were another Golden Age of comic books. Certainly, there were a lot of great comic books produced during the decade of my childhood, but it's also the case that the '70s were a period of immense economic decline for comics publishers. Part of the reason that this period might appear, in retrospect, more robust than it actually was is that both DC and Marvel were desperately throwing ideas against the wall in hope that some of them might stick. While some of these attempts were financially successful – Marvel's Conan and Star Wars lines come immediately to mind – most were not.

That's why I'm rarely surprised when I discover the existence of a comic from the 1970s of which I've never heard. Consider, for example, Arrgh!, which ran for five issues between December 1974 and September 1975. Each issue of Arrgh! presented humorous horror stories, often parodies of well-known movies or TV shows. In the case of the penultimate issue of the series, the subject of the parody was none other than my beloved Kolchak: The Night Stalker, here dubbed Karl Coalshaft, "the Night Gawker."

As I said, I had no idea this comic existed until recently, so I never read it. Fortunately, there's an excellent blog devoted to "a historical look at various incarnations of classic TV and movie science fiction/fantasy," Secret Sanctum of Captain Video, that has reproduced the entirety of the Kolchak parody here. The comic's not great literature by any definition, but it made me chuckle a couple of times. Take a look yourself!

Retrospective: Shadows

Late last year, I wrote a post in which I enumerated my top 10 classic Traveller adventures, divided into two parts. Both parts were very well received and generated a lot of excellent discussion in the comments, which pleased me. However, reading issue #71 of White Dwarf reminded me just how few of the adventures included in my top 10 have been the subjects of Retrospective posts (only two as it turns out). This post is the first of several intended to correct this oversight on my part.

Shadows is the first part of a "double adventure" released by GDW in 1980. Double adventures were 48-page books consisting of two scenarios printed in a tête-bêche format in imitation of the Ace Doubles published between 1953 and 1973. You can usually gauge a Traveller player's knowledge of the literary history of science fiction by his reaction to the peculiar formatting of the double adventures. Those who look back fondly on the Ace series immediately understood what GDW was doing here, while those without any experience of them were often baffled. 

In any case, the other scenario included in this double adventure is Annic Nova, which originally appeared in the first issue of The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society. To call it a scenario at all is being generous. Even in its slightly expanded and rewritten format, Annic Nova is little more than the description of an odd starship with an accompanying set of deckplans and some unrelated library data. In all the years I've played Traveller, I've never made any use of Annic Nova, so that's all I say on it in this post.

Shadows, on the other hand, is a scenario I've used multiple times to good effect since I first encountered in 1982, as one of the sample adventures included in The Traveller Book. Like many early RPG adventures, Shadows had its origins in a convention tournament, in this case WinterWar 1980, held at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign between January 18 and 20, 1980. Consequently, it includes eight pregenerated characters, as well as a list of available equipment from which to choose before the start of play. It's also largely self-contained in its content and assumptions and playable within a span of two to four hours, depending on the skill and interests of the players.

The basic premise is that, while in orbit around Yorbund, the sensors of the characters' starship detect a strange structure on the planet's surface. The structure appears to be artificial, consisting of three hollow pyramid-like structures. Since there is no record of these structures – Yorbund is largely unexplored, thanks to its insidious, corrosive atmosphere – the characters have an opportunity to be the first people to visit the structure and learn its secrets. When the characters decide to bring their ship in for a closer look, it is fired upon by an energy weapon from the largest pyramid. The ship's computer estimates that, should the ship attempt to leave the area without first disabling the weapon, there is a high likelihood it could be damaged and/or destroyed by subsequent attacks. The characters are thus left with no option but to land and explore the pyramids in hopes of shutting down the weapon.

The initial situation is a bit heavy-handed, but that's the nature of convention scenarios in my experience. At least the characters don't lose their equipment and can undertake their exploration of the pyramids on their own terms. The pyramids themselves are well imagined and described, with plenty of information about their appearance, atmosphere, and lighting, in addition to many maps to aid the referee in his deliberations. The whole place is mysterious and obviously alien. In addition to technological hazards, such as inoperable doors and inexplicable machinery, the place is now home to several species of animals whose presence might hamper progress within. Yorbund is also prone to seismism and unexpected tremors are a further complication with which the characters must deal.

Shadows is sometimes called a "science fiction dungeon" and, on many levels, it's hard to dispute this. Dungeons & Dragons not only invented the concept of roleplaying games, it established the template for RPGs scenarios, regardless of rules system or genre. Many early Traveller adventures are little more than locales without any "plot." The characters are expected to visit some place on an alien world, poke around, and deal with whatever happens as a result – very similar to many dungeons. Shadows is unquestionably in this tradition. Where it differs, in my opinion, is that, unlike many dungeons, there is both an immediate purpose to the characters' exploration – disabling the energy weapon – and a larger mystery to be resolved – the purpose of the structure and its origins. 

In my experience of refereeing Shadows, it can be a great deal of fun to play, provided the referee makes a point of emphasizing the creepiness of the environment and the lure of hidden knowledge within. That's why I prefer to call it a haunted house rather than a dungeon. Think the derelict spacecraft in Alien rather than the Caves of Chaos and you're closer to the proper perspective on the scenario, I think. That said, Shadows is still an early RPG adventure, with all that entails, including many details undescribed and left entirely to the referee's own imagination. Whether you see that as a feature or a bug will, I suspect, color your feelings about Shadows. Given that I consider it one of my favorite Traveller adventures, you already know where I stand on this question.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

White Dwarf: Issue #71

Issue #71 of White Dwarf (November 1985) boasts an eye-catching Alan Craddock cover, featuring a team-up between a heroic knight and a Conan-esque barbarian, as they face off against a demonic horde. Meanwhile, Ian Livingstone's editorial focuses on the expansion of gaming conventions within the UK, which he suggests will result in "gamers up and down the country ... hav[ing] even greater opportunities to participate in their hobby, and meet famous personalities as well as other players." As someone whose own con experiences are quite limited, I'm fascinated by just how important conventions are, not simply to many gamers, but also to the history of the hobby itself. It's a pity I live in a wasteland when it comes to this sort of thing.

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" kicks off this issue. In addition to his usual reviews of books I've never read and, therefore, don't care about, he spends some time talking about "huge blockbusters arcing down from interliterary space." In reference to Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Footfall, for example, he elucidates the flaws of blockbuster-style fiction, specifically "momentum takes 100 pages to build, several of the teeming characters are dispensable, and megadeaths are glossed over." These remain issues in this style of popular fiction even today, which is why I prefer short stories over 600-page doorstops. 

"Open Box" reviews two gamebooks I've never encountered before: Avenger! and Assassin! (both 8 out of 10). Published by Knight Books, they take place in a world of "Kung Fu meets AD&D," with the viewpoint character being a ninja. The description of the books' unarmed combat system sounds genuinely interesting. Also reviewed is the Paranoia adventure, Vapors Don't Shout Back (7 out of 10), Masks of Nyarlathotep for Call of Cthulhu (9 out of 10), and Thrilling Locations for James Bond 007 (9 out of 10)

"The Face of Chaos" by Peter Vialls is yet another article discussing the contentious topic of alignment in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I must confess this topic bores me to tears, but, judging by the number of articles written about it over the years, I must be in the minority. In any event, Vialls rehearses all the usual beats – What is alignment anyway? How does Chaos differ from Law? Isn't Neutral a cop-out?, etc. – without offering any answers that are new or interesting. That's no knock against him, of course, just an acknowledgment that, after decades of debate, there's not much insight left to be gleaned, so why not write about something else?

"Not Waving But Drowning" by Dave Lucas presents RuneQuest stats for the fossergrim and nereid. "Cults of the Dark Gods" by A J Bradbury provides historical information on the Assassins and Knights Templar for use with Call of Cthulhu. However, Bradbury doesn't give either group any significant connection to the Mythos, which leaves me wondering about the actual purpose of the article. Fortunately, this month's installment of Thrud the Barbarian leaves no doubt as to its purpose, to wit:

"A Box of Old Bones" by Dave Morris is a low-level adventure written for use with both AD&D and Dragon Warriors. Dual-use scenarios of this sort appeared regularly in the pages of White Dwarf and I have long wondered how often anyone made use of the "lesser" of the two game systems for which it was written. In any case, this scenario is a clever and original one that focuses on the theft of a saint's relics, hence its title. There's no magic or miracles here, only human greed, which I found refreshing – an excellent change of pace adventure.

"Avionics Failure" by James Cooke discusses what happens when a Traveller starship suffers damage to its sensors, providing a random failure table to aid the referee in adjudicating the matter. It's not a sexy or groundbreaking article, but it looks useful for ongoing play and that's not nothing. The Travellers comic begins a new storyline, one based on the classic GDW adventure, Shadows. As always, there are lots of fun little bits in the comic. My favorite is the following:
There's yet more Traveller content in this issue, in the form of Marcus L. Rowland's "Tower Trouble." This is a terrific adventure designed for high-skilled criminal characters who are planning a heist on Terra Tower, a beanstalk (as we'd call it today) stretching from Earth's equator to syncrhonous orbit. The scenario is well written, has great maps and referee's advice, and includes pre-generated characters with a lot of individuality. I'm half-tempted to try running sometime as a one-shot, because it looks like fun.

"Monsters Have Feelings Too Two" by Olive MacDonald is a follow-up to an article originally appearing in issue #38. This time, MacDonald wants to emphasize that intelligent monsters shouldn't be one-trick ponies. They can (and should) be used in a variety of different ways within a campaign. This is why MacDonald uses only a sub-set of the monsters available in any given game he referees, since he finds it more interesting to make those he does use multifaceted. I find this hard to argue with and have long argued that games like D&D probably have too many monsters. "Just Good Fiends" by Ian Marsh looks at a related question: what makes a good monster? While Marsh isn't opposed to the idea of introducing new monsters into a game, he does think that every monster should serve a purpose or fill a niche within a game or campaign setting. This is a solid, thoughtful article on a topic that has long been of interest to me.

"Divine Guidance" presents two new oracular magic items for use with Dungeons & Dragons: the Card of Shukeli and Tellstones. The former is a kind of prophetic Tarot card whose face changes based on the imminent fortune of the person who finds it, while latter are paired stones whose temperatures change based on how close they are to one another ("getting warmer ..."). Joe Dever's "Think Ink," in which he talks about a topic of which I knew nothing: the use of drawing inks to tint painted miniatures. Dever's articles never cease to amaze me with the technical knowledge they impart. It's a reminder (yet again) that I know nothing about miniatures painting. Finally, "Gobbledigook" gets a full page to this month's episode, in which we see graphic evidence that "Goblinz never fight fair!" 

Monday, April 17, 2023

The Setting of Gamma World (Conclusion)

Having now spent far too much time delving into my collection of Gamma World rulebooks and supplements – and not even having even read them all – I think I'm now in a better position to offer some conclusions regarding its setting. In the interests of clarity and concision, I'll present these as number points.

  1. It's often overlooked that Gamma World is a sequel of sorts to James M. Ward's first stab at a post-apocalyptic RPG, 1976's Metamorphosis Alpha. Like its descendant, MA is about mutants in a world gone mad after a civilization-ending disaster. The key difference is that the "world" of Metamorphosis Alpha is an interstellar generation ship launched from Earth in the late 23rd century – a setting that is unmistakably in our future.
  2. I mention this because I think it's important to understanding the background to Ward's own conception of the setting of Gamma World, namely that of Metamorphosis Alpha writ large, so as to encompass the entire Earth.
  3. However, it's clear that, from a fairly early stage in its development, Gamma World was never the sole product of James M. Ward. At the very least, Gary Jaquet had an influence over its development, as likely did Tom Wham, Timothy Jones, and even Gary Gygax. Each injected their own ideas into the game, diluting Ward's original vision of a high-tech apocalypse occurring several centuries into our future.
  4. Consequently, the setting of the 1978 Gamma World rulebook is something of a mishmash, consisting of a strongly high-tech science fictional foundation atop of which were added numerous elements that don't quite comport with it.
  5. While the non-Ward elements of Gamma World don't wholly undermine the implication that the setting is a futuristic one, they do muddy the waters quite a bit, thereby lending credence to the common belief that the End comes in the relatively near future rather than the 24th century.
  6. There was never a strong editorial hand on the Gamma World game line, especially in its early years. Therefore, each release for the game is sui generis, reflecting the tastes and ideas of the authors who created them. The fact that Ward himself never wrote a single stand-alone scenario for the game line during its first and second editions did little to clarify the situation.
Ultimately, there is no single Gamma World setting, however much James M. Ward might have intended otherwise. That said, I personally believe that the game makes the most sense – to the extent that that's even possible – as being set in the aftermath of a future apocalypse. That's certainly the frame I'll use, when I finally get around to starting up a Gamma World campaign. Your mileage may vary.

A Delightfully Blank Canvas

William Church's map of Prax from the second edition of Chaosium's RuneQuest remains one of my favorite RPG maps ever. The other day, for reasons that will become clear later, I found myself perusing a different Chaosium RPG, Stormbringer. The game's original 1981 boxed set includes, among its many goodies, a fold-out wall map of the Young Kingdoms that's also the handiwork of Mr Church. 

Please enlarge!
Though the map of the Young Kingdoms lacks the wonderful little details of the Prax map, I nevertheless find it quite compelling. Michael Moorcock and his evocative names – the Sighing Desert, the Weeping Waste, the Silent Lands, among many others – deserve a lot of the credit for that, of course, but Church also did a great job of bringing this classic fantasy setting to life. In fact, I might even argue that, in this case, the sparseness of the map works in its favor, particularly as a map for use with a roleplaying game. The map practically invites players and referees to fill in the blank spaces and make it their own, as any good RPG map should. 

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Mandrakes

Of Clark Ashton Smith's three main cycles of fiction – Zothique, Hyperborea, and Averoigne – I encountered Averoigne first, thanks to the Dungeons & Dragons module, Castle Amber. Consequently, I've retained a great affection for that "sorcery-ridden province" of pre-modern France, even though my estimation of Zothique has since eclipsed it. Averoigne is a place of sinful passions run amok, where pride, envy, wrath, and, above all, lust are given full vent, with frequently horrific results. 

"The Mandrakes," which first appeared in the February 1933 issue of Weird Tales, is a good illustration of prcisely what I mean. The short story tells the tale of a married couple, Gilles Grenier and his wife, Sabine. The pair came "into lower Averoigne from parts unknown or at least unverified" and soon established themselves in a little hut
close to those marshes through which the slackening waters of the river Isoile, after leaving the great fosest, had overflowed in sluggish, reed-clogged channels and sedge-hidden pools mantled with scum like witches' oils. It stood among osiers and alders on a low, mound-shaped elevation; and in front, toward the marshes, there was a loamy meadow-bottom where the short fat stems and tufted leaves of the mandrake grew in lush abundance, being more plentiful and of greater size than elsewhere through all that sorcery-ridden province. The fleshly, bifurcated roots of this plant, held by many to resemble the human body, were used by Gilles and Sabine in the brewing of love-philtres. Their potions, being compounded with much care and cunning, soon acquired a marvelous renown among the peasants and villagers, and were even in request among people of a loftier station, who came privily to the wizard's hut. They would rouse, people said, a kindly warmth in the coldest and most prudent bosom, would melt the armor of the most obdurate virtue. As a result, the demand for these sovereign magistrals became enormous.

Initially, the couple worry that their activities might attract unwelcome attention and, with it, charges of witchcraft. Instead, they find the opposite: they enjoy "a repute by no means ill or unsavory," even among the local clergy, "because of the number of honest marriages promoted by the philtres." 

Ironically, Gilles and Sabine themselves do not seem enjoy such a marriage.

It was rumored by visitors that [Sabine] had oftentimes been overheard in sharp dispute with her husband; and people soon made a jest of this, remarking that the philtres might well be put to a domestic use by those who purveyed them. But aside from such rumors and ribaldries, little was thought of the matter. 

Consequently, when, five years after their arrival in Averoigne, Sabine is no longer seen with her husband, the locals simply accept the explanation of Gilles, namely that " his spouse had departed on a long journey, to visit relatives in a remote province" even though "there had been no eye-witnesses of Sabine's departure." For his part, the sorcerer took to

living tranquilly with his books and cauldrons, and gathering the roots and herbs for his magical medicaments, was well enough pleased to have it taken for granted. He did not believe that Sabine would ever return; and his unbelief, it would seem, was far from irrational. He had killed her one evening in autumn, during a dispute of unbearable acrimony, slitting her soft, pale throat in self-defense with a knife which he had wrested from her fingers when she lifted it against him. Afterward he had buried her by the late rays of a gibbous moon beneath the mandrakes in the meadow-bottom, replacing the leafy sods with much care, so that there was no evidence of their having been disturbed other than by the digging of a few roots in the way of daily business.

Gilles, we soon learn, "was not sorry that he had killed Sabine," as "they had been ill-mated from the beginning" and "it was far pleasanter to be alone." 

The following spring, "there was much demand for his love-philtres among the smitten swains and lasses of the neighborhood" and so Gilles "went forth at midnight beneath the full May moon, to dig the newly grown roots from which he would brew his amatory enchantments." 

Smiling darkly beneath his beard, he began to cull the great, moon-pale plants which flourished on Sabine's grave, digging out the homunculus-like taproots very carefully with a curious trowel made from the femur of a witch.

Though he was well used to the weird and often vaguely human forms assumed by the mandrake, Gilles was somewhat surprized by the appearance of the first root. It seemed inordinately large, unnaturally white; and, eyeing it more closely, he saw that it bore the exact likeness of a woman's body and lower limbs, being cloven to the middle and clearly formed even to the ten toes! These were no arms, however, and the bosom ended in the large tuft of ovate leaves.

Gilles was more than startled by the fashion in which the root seemed to turn and writhe when he lifted it from the ground. He dropped it hastily, and the minikin limbs lay quivering on the grass. But, after a little reflection, he took the prodigy as a possible mark of Satanic favor, and continued his digging. To his amazement, the next root was formed in much the same manner as the first. A half-dozen more, which he proceeded to dig, were shaped in miniature mockery of a woman from breasts to heels; and amid the superstitious awe and wonder with which he regarded them, he became aware of their singularly intimate resemblance to Sabine.

When Gilles digs up another plant "with less than his usual care," he accidentally cuts into "one of the tiny ankles."

At the same instant, a shrill, reproachful cry, like the voice of Sabine herself in mingled pain and anger, seemed to pierce his ears with intolerable acuity, though the volume was strangely lessened, as if the voice had come from a distance. The cry ceased, and was not repeated. Gilles, sorely terrified, found himself staring at the trowel, on which there was a dark, blood-like stain. Trembling, he pulled out the severed root, and saw that it was dripping with a sanguine fluid.

With that, "The Mandrakes" becomes a story of revenge, as the murdered Sabine seemingly seeks satisfaction from beyond the grave. Smith handles this turn effectively in my opinion, as Gilles receives his much deserved comeuppance. "The Mandrakes" is brief and to the point, wasting no verbiage on extraneous details, focusing instead on the crime of Gilles Grenier and the supernatural retribution it brings about. It's an enjoyable little yarn that somewhat reminds me of Poe – a compliment I suspect Smith would have gladly accepted.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

The Setting of Gamma World (Part V)

Before presenting my final thoughts on this topic, I wanted to take a brief look at one other aspect of Gamma World that sheds a little more light on its setting: cryptic alliances. The 1978 rulebook has this to say on the subject:

As if the monsters and creatures of GAMMA WORLD weren't fearsome enough, many of them have banded together into secret or semi-secret organizations called CRYPTIC ALLIANCES. Some are remnants of organizations that existed in the Shadow Years ... some are of very recent origin. 

Very little else is said about cryptic alliances in general. However, the descriptions of several of them include tidbits of information that offer some insight into their origins in the pre-apocalyptic world. For example, the Brotherhood of Thought was "founded by a biochemist who survived the holocaust," while the Healers were "founded by a medical technician during the Shadow Years." The rulebook of the 1983 second edition of the game is even more spare on such historical details (though, to its credit, it includes much more information on the present activities of the various alliances).

Issue #25 of Dragon (May 1979), however, includes an article by the game's creator, James M. Ward, with the rather banal title of "A Part of Gamma World Revisited." The article looks more closely at the cryptic alliances, with an eye toward their use in an ongoing campaign. In several instances, though, Ward also reveals information that grounds them more strongly in the setting. For instance, the Brotherhood of Thought mentioned above is described as having been 

started by a biochemist from the University of California that was putting the finishing touches on an ecological monitoring station in the mountains near the university. The time of the "great destruction" pulverized the campus while Dr. Dotson and two assistants were at the station ... The years went by and that scientist and his assistants had sons and daughters that carried on their work.

The article mentions a leader within the alliance named Elenor, who is called a "5th generation granddaughter to the first biochemist." There is thus a direct, lineal connection between an important figure in the 25th century Brotherhood of Thought and its pre-apocalyptic antecedent. Meanwhile, the article describes the aforementioned Healers as having its origin in

a group near Duluth, Minnesota [begun] by a number of med-technicians that had been working on sleep therapy and accidentally made a vast break through in artificial telepathy through electrode induction. 

This is another case where setting details reveal the wonders of pre-holocaust high technology.  

Prior to the introduction of the Empire of the Sun, the cryptic alliances were among the most cohesive organizations to exist in the setting of Gamma World. Even so, they're stretched thin across North America. Several, as described by Ward in his Dragon article, have a fortified base somewhere on the continent, but, unless your campaign happens to be set in an area close to one of them, the player characters are most likely to encounter the cryptic alliances in small, often secretive groups, hence the adjective "cryptic" used to describe them.

When I played a lot of Gamma World in my youth, the cryptic alliances fascinated me, in large part because they were the only power groups described in the game. Each had an overriding philosophy or worldview, as well as an agenda. The cryptic alliances were working toward – or against – something and that made them very easy to use in a campaign, whether as allies or antagonists. Still, I was frustrated by how little any of them had achieved. Despite their presence, the setting of Gamma World largely remained a shattered wasteland, even more than a century after the End, which seemed unlikely to me. Unfortunately, published materials, as we have seen in previous entries in this series, provided scant – and often contradictory – answers to this and most other questions.

Friday, April 14, 2023


A common criticism against Mörk Borg is that it's all style and no substance. While I can see its critics' point, I also feel it's an unfairly reductive assessment of the 2020 dark fantasy game published by Free League. Certainly, a key element of Mörk Borg's appeal is its extravagant esthetics – a chaotic graphic design accentuated by riotous colors and moody, uneven illustrations. What's overlooked, I think, is that this sensibility is more than a mere artistic affectation but rather a deliberate design choice intended to convey as much to the reader as its text, proof of the old aphorism that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Yet, I must admit that the game's latest release, Ikhon, skirts very close to prioritizing style over substance, especially when compared to its previous releases. Written by the game's creator, Pelle Nilsson, Ikhon comes in a small (6.25" × 4.5") box, inside of which are four, staple-bound 20-page booklets. Each booklet is dedicated to one of the four titular Ikhons, "ancient god-vessels of cured skin and soot-black wood, as rare and as valuable as they are blasphemous." These vessels are reputed to be the handiwork of the dark divinity Nechrubel, who bound within them "the Profane Profound," a quartet of lesser but nevertheless potent supernatural entities: the Bilkherd, the Becklure, the Old Dead, and the Silkfiend.

A character who somehow manages to obtain an Ikhon may call upon the powers of the Profane Profound shackled within. Doing so is not just a blasphemy according to the inquisitors of the Two-Headed Basilisks but also fraught with danger, as the powers of an Ikhon may rebound disastrously upon the wielder and/or his companions. Each booklet contains a brief description of one of the Profane Profound, along with pages numbered from one to "ten+." The pages detail an escalating series of responses to attempts to call upon one of these "age-old and nigh-forgotten folk gods." Which response a character gets is determined by a roll of a d8. The roll can be modified by +1 "for every willing human sacrifice" and "for each significant body part severed from the wielder of the Ikhon," to a maximum of +3. An Ikhon is thus a bit like a deck of many things or a wand of wonder from AD&D, an unpredictable source of power that can harm as well as aid.

The responses vary considerably. All are evocatively described, but many completely lack game mechanics of any kind. Consider, for example, the lowest (1) response in the Bilkherd's booklet:
He summons his Herd. 
To the hateful goats, you are the field-poisoners, earth-salters, torch-wielders and slaughter's heralds. A thousand thousand strong, trampling all in their path and leaving only blood, sorrow and the dust of crushed bones. 
All is obliterated under spiteful, churning hooves.

Meanwhile, the highest (10+) response in the same booklet is the following:

The Lamb from Beneath the Mud: heralded by rotten stench and glistening carmine eyes hanging at its hooves.

It devours one chosen foe, effortlessly masticating and grinding them whole, before sinking into the burbling muck.

Summon the Lamb within the hour – and never speak of it again.

 As I said above, the responses are evocatively described, but, in many cases, I'd trade that for a little clarity. Now, I am not opposed to inspirational vagueness. Indeed, I think a degree of textual indeterminacy is a necessary feature of old school roleplaying games. Such indeterminacy serves to inspire; its an encouragement to make a game one's own by filling in the gaps oneself. Perhaps that's what's being done here, too, but, if so, it eludes me. Rather than inspiring, Ikhon simply feels frustratingly incomplete.

In some respects, Ikhon reminds me of Tékumel's The Book of Ebon Bindings, another RPG product that ostensibly introduces the summoning of powerful supernatural beings into its associated game. While Ebon Bindings is grandiloquent and Ikhon terse, both shed far less light on their subject matter from a gaming perspective than I – and I suspect most gamers – would find immediately useful. In the case of the former, one can at least luxuriate in its overblown language. Ikhon, though, mostly offers Samuel Arraya's gloomy artwork, which is something, I suppose,. Whether that's enough to justify the purchase of this product is an open question.

I wish I liked Ikhon more than I do. The idea behind it is a solid one, very much in keeping with the dark fantasy inspirations of Mörk Borg. As presented, though, I find it inadequate to its intended purpose. Others may feel differently and indeed I can easily imagine that the very things I find wanting, such as its gnomic text and limited game mechanics, might prove attractive to others. Goodness knows I often enjoy game products that others do not. In the end, I suppose my feelings about Ikhon derive from how much I've enjoyed previous Mörk Borg releases. Compared to them, this one fell flat and I am left disappointed.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Interlude II: The Empire of the Sun

In an earlier post, I drew attention to a Gamma World article that appeared in the pages of the Polyhedron RPGA 'zine. The article described an attack against a major Radioactivist base by a giant fighting machine called an "Aquabot." The nature and origin of the Aquabot are left a mystery, though it is heavily implied that its appearance heralds the introduction of something else into the Gamma World setting.

That something else is revealed in issue #101 of Dragon (September 1985), in two connected articles. The first is entitled "Out of the Sun ..." by James M. Ward and Roger Raupp, whose names are also attached to the earlier Polyhedron article. This article details more "man-machines" like the Aquabot, such as the AATAAV (Airborne All-Terrain Armored Attack Vehicle), along with their game statistics. 

The second article, by Roger E. Moore, is entitled "The Empire of the Sun" and is, in my opinion, the more significant of the two, particularly from the point of view of the setting of Gamma World. This article describes the titular Empire of the Sun as "not so much a cryptic alliance as a true nation, one of the few in existence in the Dark Years." The Empire controls the island of Honshu but has bases across the Pacific Ocean and the coasts of eastern Asia and western North America.

Prior to the appearance of this article, the setting of Gamma World was seemingly devoid of large polities or states. There's the Barony of Horn in Legion of Gold, but it's a very small scale, localized thing. Likewise, there are hints here and there that some of the cryptic alliances (about which I'll talk at greater length in another post) maintain large, city-like strongholds, from which they send out their forces. However, none of these could really be called a state or nation. Thus, the Empire of the Sun is a genuinely new thing within the setting, as is the fact that it appears to be engaging in a campaign of conquest across the post-apocalyptic Earth.

Just as interesting is the fact that the Empire owes its existence to pre-apocalypse military personnel of the Asian Coalition, who "were hustled into suspended animation chambers in a major undersea base off the coast of Honshu, and thus survived the cataclysm." These soldiers "were revived in 2431 and since then have slowly spread across the Pacific Ocean, scouting out the remains of the world." Even more interesting is the goals of the Empire: "to bring order out of the chaos of the world, using the most efficient means possible." 

One can quibble about the wisdom of introducing anime-style mecha into the setting of Gamma World. I must confess that, even at the time this article first appeared, I had some qualms about it. Conversely, the idea of pre-apocalypse humans being reawakened a century later and seeking to restore order to a world gone mad is really quite compelling, but then I've I like the idea behind The Morrow Project, so what do I know? Regardless, "The Empire of the Sun" is, I believe, an important and often overlooked addition to Gamma World, one that strongly suggests its setting is potentially much more dynamic and larger in scope than the popular conception of it. 

Retrospective: Gamma World (Second Edition)

This is (I think) a first for Retrospective: a look at a different edition of a game that had already been the subject of an earlier post in this series. In the case of the second edition of Gamma World, I think it's more than justified, though, since the 1983 second edition is a very different beast than its predecessor. It's also quite relevant in light of my ongoing look at the setting of Gamma World as detailed in the products TSR released for it. 

The original 1978 edition of GW has a lot to recommend it, starting with its evocative Dave Trampier cover illustration. However, like both OD&D and its big brother, Metamorphosis Alpha, its rules were more than a little open to interpretation, which is a charitable way of saying unclear, incomplete, and occasionally contradictory. A lot of us view this in a favorable light, seeing these lacunae as opportunities to exercise individual creativity. They're features, not bugs, as we used to say, but, by 1983, that perspective was no longer a popular one. GW 2e was thus an attempt to produce a clearer, complete, and consistent version of Gamma World.

A good example of what I'm talking about can be seen almost immediately, in the descriptions of the game's physical and mental mutations. In the first edition, mutation descriptions had no standard format, usually being described in a few sentences at most. In the second edition, mutations are presented in a fashion similar to spells in Dungeons & Dragons, with range, duration, damage, and other information arranged in an easy-to-read manner. Even more importantly, the effects of each mutation are often laid out with reference to limitations and edge cases, so that there's less ambiguity on how they operate than was true in the original edition. Of course, these descriptions take up about twice as much space in the rulebook as those in the 1978 version.

The same degree of organization is applied elsewhere. It's particularly evident in the entries for the various mutant creatures, which, much like the mutations, seems to look to D&D for inspiration in its format. There are entries for number appearing, armor class, hit dice, morale, speed, attacks, and mutations, as well as details on the creatures' lairs, behaviors, and attitudes. Even more usefully, there are guidelines for determining a creature's ability scores, which is a vital detail that was often missing from the first edition descriptions of these same creatures. Take a look at the descriptions of technological artifacts, robots, and cryptic alliances and you'll see this pattern repeated, resulting in a much clearer and better presented rules in second edition.

Unlike the first edition, 2e includes an adventure booklet. The booklet is basically a short module, which also doubles a gazetteer of the region in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as well as being a short referee's manual. The scenario the booklet includes, "Rite of Passage," is a simple one intended as an introduction to the game and its setting. Perhaps inevitably, it assumes the player characters are members of a primitive tribe making their first foray out into the wider world. The scenario is fine for what it is and benefits from the inclusion of several example PCs to serve as inspiration for new players. The referee's section at the back of the booklet, meanwhile, contains brief but useful guidelines on starting, running, and maintaining a campaign. There's also a new artifact table that consists almost entirely of weird – and unexplained – high-tech devices, like a velkon tube, feldman protector, jalacca keyboard, and articulated relaxer. It's definitely a step up from the equivalent table in the first edition in that it doesn't contain any references to 20th century items.

Gamma World second edition is clearly built on the model of the 1983 Dungeons & Dragons line, where clarity, both in its text and in its presentation, is paramount. This edition also benefits from being amply illustrated, primarily by Larry Elmore, whose technical skill as an artist seems a good fit for a more serious science fictional take on Gamma World. Much as I love Dave Trampier's pieces from the 1978 edition, I've long preferred Elmore's tidy, controlled artwork in the 1983 version, since they're closer to my own personal vision of what the game and its setting ought to be. 

The other way that second edition is built on the model of the '83 D&D line is its accessibility. This is a game that was written with newcomers in mind, since the boxed set includes everything you need to play the game, including a starting adventure. The first edition was written for those who already possess some knowledge and experience of roleplaying, while the second could, in theory anyway, be picked up by someone who'd never played a RPG before. How successful it might have been in this regard, I leave to those whose first roleplaying game was this edition of Gamma World, since, by the time I encountered it, I'd already been involved in the hobby for more than three years. 

I have a lot of affection for the second edition of Gamma World, in part, I think, because its appearance inaugurated a brief renaissance for the game line. Not only did TSR publish a couple more modules for the game in its wake, but there was a lot of support for it in the "Ares Section" of Dragon magazine, along with articles in the pages of Polyhedron. At the same time, I can be reasonably argued that this edition, for all its real virtues, was "domesticated" in the interests of reaching a wider audience than its predecessor. Certainly, 2e is much less weird and dark than 1e and this very real tonal shift may not be to everyone's liking, especially fans of the original. Personally, I welcomed 2e's greater rules clarity and surfeit of illustrations, as well as its greater emphasis on the high-tech nature of the world before the End. It's not a perfect edition by any means – what edition is? – but I had a lot of fun with it. Even now, were I to start up a Gamma World campaign, I'd probably make use of this edition, which is the best compliment I can think of giving any game.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

The Setting of Gamma World (Part IV)

The second – and last – product TSR published for the first edition of Gamma World is 1982's Famine in Far-Go. Written by Michael Price, the module was written "as an introductory adventure" and "to aid the GM in starting an ongoing GAMMA WORLD™ science fantasy game campaign." From that perspective, I'd say it's a qualified success – qualified, because it both leans heavily into the "primitive barbarians roaming the wasteland" version of Gamma World and because it's littered with lots of details that undermine the idea that the game's setting is centuries into our future.

As a brief aside, I wanted to mention that, when I first got this module, I assumed – mistakenly, as it turns out – that the Far-Go of the title was not the most populous city in North Dakota. Having recently looked at a map of the region, it's now clear that it is. In my vague defense, the module's background section that the settlement of Far-Go is so named "in memory of [the] long and dangerous trek" made by its first inhabitants to reach its present location. This is, however, a just-so story and Far-Go really does seem to be Fargo, North Dakota. Go figure.

Now that I mention it, the location of Famine in Far-Go is relevant to the subject at hand. Here's the players' map included in with the module:
I'm not sure that it's easily visible in the image above, but there are three "old high-speed roadways used by the Ancients," called "the Great Oad," "the 10," and "the 94." These are, respectively, Interstate 29, US Route 10, and Interstate 94. As depicted on the map, these roads all look like typical 20th century asphalt-covered highways with painted median strips. They're also (more or less) in the exact same locations that they occupied in the early 1980s. The Gamma World rulebook does state that, while "most roads ... have been destroyed ... some portions of a vast highway system for air-cushioned vehicles (similar to our interstate highway system) remain due to the incredibly tough duralloy metal from which it was constructed." No mention of this construction is mentioned in Famine in Far-Go, but if one is charitable, one could interpret its silence on the matter as consonant with the rulebook's statement. Still, the near-identity of the 20th century arrangement to that of the 24th seems implausible to me.

A bigger issue with the module is the presence of a large number of 20th century in-jokes and meta-humor among the treasures found in it. For example, the very first detailed encountered includes "an old, thin, damaged plastifax book" whose cover is torn so that "the only word that remains of the title is 'GAMMA.'" Moreover, inside the book is "a small plastic card" that "bears the hologram of a bearded man in pre-holocaust clothing. Below the picture is the inscription, 'Executive Pass, E.G.G., Pres.'" There's a GM Note after all of this that says, in relation to the book that "this item can be an amusing one if you have the desire to make it so." In another early encounter, the characters come across "an experimental counter-intelligence mechanism developed by certain Eastern European countries just before the onset of the great holocaust." The item bears three letters on it, "DDR," which I can only assume are the initials of Deutsche Demokratische Republik, which is to say, Communist East Germany. Once again, we have an out of place 20th century reference that makes little sense in Gamma World's future setting.

Then, there's this:
For those of you unfamiliar with American collegiate sports, that's Buckingham "Bucky" Badger, the mascot of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the Timothy Truman illustration above, he's being adored as a deity by Badders, the mutant badgers of the game setting. I must admit that I chuckled when I saw this, but it seems more like something from Jack Kirby's Kamandi comics than the setting described in Gamma World. Mind you, American universities take their sports very seriously, so maybe they'll retain their mascots unchanged hundreds of years into the future. On the other hand, the Badders' warren also includes the wreck of "1995 model Lincoln Continental Mark IX car," which doesn't seem like something that should still be around after centuries.

The central location of Famine in Far-Go is the La Prix Industries Automated Chicken Processing Factory. For the most part, the description of the factory is much more in keeping with the 25th century setting of Gamma World. The facility is filled with computers and a few robots, in addition to a nuclear power station. Now inhabited by mutant chickens descended from those originally housed here for poultry, the place is a decent example of what the GW rulebook calls a "mech-land" or robot farm. Of course, there are still a couple of in-jokes and 20th century references, like the presence of the book Animal Farm and "a magazine called Best of DRAGON™ Vol. 53."

Famine in Far-Go is thus another mixed bag when it comes to fleshing out the setting of Gamma World. The module mostly sticks to the script laid down in the first edition rulebook, but it still contains an inordinate number of references to things from the 20th century that simply don't make sense. My feeling is that this represents less a failure of imagination on the part of the writer – though that likely does play a role – and more a desire to include elements the players will recognize while their characters will not. I'm not at all opposed to that, nor do I think situational humor is necessarily inappropriate in a post-apocalyptic setting. Rather, I simply wish these elements were more clever, or at least less obvious. However, this is a constant issue with Gamma World products and not at all unique to Famine in Far-Go.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Interlude: The Aquabot

Before taking a look at Famine in Far-Go as the fourth part of my ongoing examination of the setting of Gamma World, I wanted to draw attention to another article from Polyhedron. As the official 'zine of the Role Playing Game Association (RPGA), Polyhedron often published some very fascinating articles for TSR's non-D&D RPGs, articles that introduced new rules or setting elements that would never appear elsewhere. This made Polyhedron of great value to me and receiving it was, in fact, the only reason I became a paid member of the RPGA, since I was never much of a convention goer, nor did I ever participate in official RPGA events. 

Issue #20 of the 'zine (1984) presents an "encounter" for use with the just-released second edition of Gamma World, the Aquabot, featured on its cover in an illustration by Roger Raupp.

The article, written by James M. Ward and Roger Raupp gives very little detail on the origins of the Aquabot (this would be rectified in a later Dragon article, which I'll discuss in an upcoming post). The bulk of the article focuses on the Aquabot's game stats, followed by a two-page schematic of the immense machine of unspecified height.
I bring this article to your attention because it introduces the Aquabot as part of a military force attacking a stronghold city of the Radioactivists cryptic alliance on the west coast of North America. The Aquabot had come out of the ocean and it's stated to be part of a larger invasion force with unknown intentions. At the time, I found this interesting, because it was the first hint of an ongoing, unfolding event within the setting of Gamma World, which had previously been presented largely as a traditional sandbox. As we'll see in an upcoming post, the Aquabot would also herald the introduction of something else to the setting of Gamma World.

Friday, April 7, 2023

The Setting of Gamma World (Part III)

I've written before about Legion of Gold and my love for it, so I will do my best to avoid gushing about it in this post. Instead, I want to focus on what the module – the first full-length one to be published for Gamma World and by Gary Gygax no less says about the game's setting and how this information jibes with what is stated or implied elsewhere.

When I talk about Legion of Gold, I sometimes compare it to another Gygax-penned adventure module, The Keep on the Borderlands, even though the comparison is not exact. In both, the player characters have a "home base" – the titular Keep in B2 and the City of Horn in Legion of Gold – from which they can launch their exploration of the surrounding areas. Where they differ is that, while the D&D module is set in a "true" wilderness far from the borders of civilization, its Gamma World equivalent takes place in a region whose relative stability is being disrupted by the incursions of a terrible new enemy.

The very existence of the City of Horn and of more than a dozen other settlements within the larger Barony of Horn shows – quite reasonably in my opinion – that, 150 years after the End, civilization has been re-established, albeit on a quasi-medieval model, both socially and technologically. This is in contrast to the common assumption among many players that the post-apocalyptic Earth of Gamma World is a wasteland peopled entirely by primitive tribes. I can somewhat understand the origins of this assumption. Many GW adventures, like Famine in Far-Go, which I'll discuss in the next post in this series, start off with the characters being members of such a tribe about to embark on their first foray outside their traditional tribal lands. That's a perfect kick-off to a campaign, but it's not the only possible one. One of the many reasons I like Legion of Gold is that it presents another possibility.

Though the Barony of Horn is modeled on a walled medieval city, it's not entirely devoid of Ancient technology. Indeed, Baron Jemmas has a stockpile of high-tech weapons and vehicles in his possession, some of which he gives to his elite soldiers to employ in defense of Horn. This situation makes eminent sense to me, since there are probably a lot of Ancient devices lying around and possession of them would give one a significant advantage over one's enemies. In any case, Legion of Gold makes it very clear that human civilization is already in the process of rebuilding. The characters should thus not be surprised to encounter law and order of a rough sort in many regions, though obviously nothing as sophisticated as what was found prior to the End.

Throughout the module, there are occasionally references to historical events from the past. These events all take place in our own future, but they're consistent with what's implied elsewhere about the game's setting. Thus, we see mention of "a period of cold war between 2150 and 2193," during which time "the rapid advancement of beam and robotic weaponry was constantly shifting the balance of power," as well as an underwater research facility established in 2284 by order of the "Secretary of Technological Advancement" of the United States of America. Furthermore, free willed androids act as antagonists during one portion of the adventure and the Legion of Gold itself is the work of a rogue "control computer" with the ominous name of REAPER. There is thus no mistaking the fact that, as presented by Legion of Gold, Gamma World takes place in a world several centuries hence.

Nevertheless, some of the problems I commented upon on Part I of this series remain in evidence. Included among the new weapons are things like rifled muskets and shotguns that arguably shouldn't have existed into the 24th century. The module's text seems to recognize this issue and attempts to justify them as having "persisted for purposes of target shooting, hunting, and self-protection." Of more concern (to me anyway) are the additional items offered up as random treasure, like plastic cutlery, can openers, telephone books, and even polyhedral dice. As before, they seem to be simply examples of meta-humor by Gygax and his co-authors rather than anything intended to undermine Gamma World's setting, but I dislike them nonetheless. 

Like "The Albuquerque Starport," Legion of Gold largely comports with the idea that the game is set after the fall of a high-tech society several centuries in advance of our own. More important, I think, is that it's the first time we're offered a glimpse of any kind about the setting's "Big Picture." What are the surviving descendants of that high-tech future doing a century and a half later? How have they organized themselves? What do they know about the past and to what extent do they make use of the devices of the Ancients? These are questions that Gamma World had never answered before. Even if you take issue with the answers Gygax and company offered – though I personally like them – I find it difficult not to be pleased that they made an effort at all. Therefore, what Legion of Gold really provides is a sense of what the setting of Gamma World is like (or may be like) in its present, not just its past. That's not nothing and, I would argue, gives prospective players and referees a helpful model to inspire their own campaigns.