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.


  1. Speaking of areas in the adventure modules and their relation to our-world locations, in Legion of Gold Jen City corresponds to Lake Geneva, Horn is Elkhorn, Port Munster is New Munster, Mucktown seems to correspond to the western parts of Milwaukee (perhaps Muskego?), New Edgetown is Edgerton, Esvil is Evansville, Fort Attson is Fort Atkinson, Whitter is Whitewater, Deerld is Deerfield, Devn is Delavan, Shopp is Shopiere, and so on, with all of the locations being in southern Wisconsin.

  2. Regarding roads, most roads, even those build in the far future, will follow the long established routes used by the interstate highway system. The interstate highway system was build atop the old state highways, which were built atop old wagon routes, which were built atop old native paths and trails and in some cases buffalo and deer trails.

    They all follow the easiest paths, and it is far easier to build atop existing roads than to forge new ones. The only reason many bypasses and urban highway routes were easy to build in the 50s to 90s was because they were built atop and through marginalized and poor neighborhoods. Not quite as easy now and hopefully even less so in the future.

    Regarding the road looking like asphalt on the map, who is to say that's not how duralloy roads might look? Dark black with yellow center lines can fit that description as well.

    As for the in-house jesting, yeah, often was a bit much. But those were the days. Regarding the use of Bucky, that's very much in line with both the PA comic book tradition as well as certain series in the PA literary tradition, such as the Horseclans series and A Canticle for St. Liebowitz, in which PA monks keep details of ancient computers by using chip designs as illustrations in their illuminated works (and revere a sainted engineer).

    1. There's a certain pragmatic utility to having a road surface (even for air-cushion vehicles) be a radically different color (black, in this case) than the surrounding land, and some kind of easily-visible lane marking is just common sense. Durraloy might not naturally be black, but if they've got "eternal" paints for the lane lines, why not the road surface itself?

    2. Quite so. There are plenty of Roman roads still around, even here on the edge of the old Empire, and where the original roads are lost, modern roads follow their paths.

  3. Obligatory mention that Interloper Miniatures makes a lovely set of Post-Apoc figs, including a half-dozen mutant chickens who are clearly inspired by this module.


  4. I think there was always a plurality of time frames being juggled in these early RPG. You have plate mail and crossbows from the High Middle Ages co-existing with earlier weapons in D&D, Civil War era cap-and-ball pistols alongside 1880s Peacemakers in Boot Hill, etc.

    With GW, you need future tech and an apocalypse not too final or reminiscent of Cold War politics to create some distance from the present time. It's a fantasy setting, not Twilight 2000. At the same time, you want some familiar elements to ground you in the idea that this was our Earth. It's a compromise, one that never bothered me.

  5. A great summary of what, for me personally as a 12 year-old boy, was a really underwhelming disappointment.

    There were so few 'modules' published for Gamma World at this time, compared to AD&D. So each time I saw one, it was 'an occasion.' While I really liked Tim Truman's artwork (before this publication, and for many years afterward), my lingering memory of Famine in Far-Go was that it leaned way to hard into the 'cute anthropomorphic animal' aspect of Gamma World for my personal taste. And I thought the inside jokes (at least, those that i caught as a 12 year old) were lame.

    While I never actually played this adventure, because published Gamma World adventures were so rare at the time, I must've read through this booklet a dozen times or more. (I wanted to like it, I really did.) In real life as an adult, I also think of this adventure every time there is national news about meat processing plants in the Dakotas.

  6. I feel that I should point out that this is the third and last product for 1e Gamma World: the GM's Screen/Albuquerque Starport and Legion of Gold are, of course, the other two.

  7. Two years after this release, First Comics in Chicago began publishing the adventures of a superhero from Wisconsin called The Badger. Also starting at First that year was an interdimensional sci-fi comic called Grimjack, drawn by...Timothy Truman.

    1. Grimjack remains one of the best things to come out of First - and I read a lot of their line back in the day.

  8. I love that Jim Holloway cover, though.

  9. As someone who had lived in Fargo-Moorhead before getting this module, I was also very confused by the geography — extremely flat prairie is not particularly conducive to forests, this map shows what appears to be farmland *inside* the boundaries of what is today Moorhead, highway 10 and i-94 don’t quite intersect, and the idea that the red river — the river of blood — would still be flowing under the built bridges at the modern locations is silly.

    Aside from it’s source being hundreds of miles to the south of what is on that map, the river is also not (today) to the east of downtown Moorhead, which is sort of where this map has 10 and 94 intersecting.

    It’s just such a weird “sort of inspired by, but getting a lot of the details wrong” map.

    It is interesting that The Meeting Place is roughly where the West Acres Mall is, I suppose. But I don’t remember West Fargo as being particularly marshy.

    I know this is supposed to be the far future, but it just feels subtly wrong to me.

  10. I know this might be heresy, but the stop sign shield on this cover, and the parking meter club/mace on the cover of Legion of Gold really sold those modules to me, howevermuch they contradict the "far future" premise of the game.

  11. I think you have it entirely backwards. Gamma World is not a far future setting despite what the concepts in the rulebook try to layout.

    It seems that in play that version was abandoned in favor of the near post-apocalypse future and the majority of published material bears that out.

    I understand the point of these being to backup the rulebook setting, but TSR settings are not fantastically consistent from author to author anyways.