Saturday, July 3, 2010

My Type of Post-Apocalypse (Part 1)

So yesterday, I made quite a haul from the game shop including two AD&D modules (L1:The Secret of Bone Hill and L2:The Assassin's Knot), the Administrator's screen for my preferred (1st) edition of Top Secret (including Operation: Executive One, Code Name: Uncle Sam) and two oldies but goodies for Gamma World: the original GM screen (with Albuquerque Star Port) and GW2:Famine in Fargo.

I probably haven't blogged enough about Gamma World here. Oh, sure I've written quite a bit about post-apocalyptic gaming in general, my thoughts on Mutant Future, and even posted a new cryptic alliance for 2nd edition GW. But I haven't written too much about my own Gamma World history.

The first time I ever saw GW advertised was in a TSR game catalogue/brochure that was probably included in my original Dungeon! board game box. The first time I saw it played was three or four older kids in middle school sitting in a circle and playing what I believe (in hindsight) was maybe 3rd edition. The first copy of GW I ever owned myself was 2nd edition, and was picked up in my favorite used book store in Missoula, Montana, circa late 1980s.

A few years back (maybe seven or eight), I gave my entire collection of GW stuff (including GW1 and GW2, the GM Screen and the completed 2nd edition) to my buddy Kris, as he loved Gamma World and I hadn't played it in years. Unfortunately, he moved to Oregon and somewhere along the line sold my stuff (doh!). Since then, I have procured .pdf copies of both 1st and 2nd edition GW, but have been unable to recover my old accessories, much to my chagrin. Yesterday's scouring of the game shop helped put a dent in my remorse.

Re-reading Famine in Fargo, I remembered once again how much I love this module.

But before I get to that specifically, let me explain how I let it go the first time around. You see, even though I owned GW for YEARS, I've only played the game a couple times over the stretch...I doubt more than half a dozen game sessions all told, though I could well be forgetting some instances from my youth. As a young GM (let me be perfectly clear, I have never played GW as a player), I found the game fairly frustrating...whereas my players always had a blast with the game.

Why did I find it frustrating? Was it too gung-ho? Not "realistic" or "grim" enough for my tastes? Surprisingly this was NOT a factor (when you're in that 12 to 15 year old range, you like gung ho and in general you're less discriminating anyway). As a youngster, I was a lot less worried about elegance of game design or attention to reality and more interested in playing "a cool game" (ha!).

Instead, GW didn't fulfill my adolescent expectations of role-playing games. Mainly there was no guidance in how to SCALE the game to the players.

Without "hit dice," without "levels," without anything resembling challenge ratings or monetary (point) values for gold and ancient artifacts there was no way to gauge risks and rewards. The random power level of mutations made some individuals over-powered and others fairly worthless...on the other hand, some "monsters" (like death machines and warbots) seemed so crazily over-powered as to be unusable in the game.

At the same time, the "puzzle piece" nature of artifacts (often having to find both the desired piece of equipment AND the correct power source to make it function) made actual "gammarauder" type campaigns unlikely. No one wanted to play a Pure Strain Human when it meant you were usually going to be bringing a sword to a pyrokinetic/life leach/mind blast fight.

At the same time, other little "power combos" would raise their ugly head in game play. In one memorable instance, my brother's "mutant tree frog" with an 18 Constitution (gained from some physical mutation) found a fusion rifle, a weapon that delivers "two Level 18 blasts of radiation" to its target. A mutant with an 18 constitution that gets hit with level 18 radiation suffers no damage, instead gaining a NEW mutation. My brother, predictably, began blasting himself with the fusion rifle over and over again, each time rolling up two new mutations for his character. The only thing that stopped this madness was his eventual roll of the mutation "Immune to Mutations." But at the time, it was still pretty ridiculous the dozen or so powers with which he ended up.

My final issue with the game was the actual adventures available for it. GW2, while a great adventure was essentially another "Rite of Passage" adventure...and the players had already performed their adulthood ritual with the game's introductory adventure. How many damn rites of passage can you do?

Again that's the expectations of a 13 year old kid that was brought up on D&D where the campaign goes on for years with the same players and general cast of characters...we weren't stopping and starting with "all new 1st level characters" every couple months, nor were we introducing new people to our game on a regular basis.

I love this illustration.
Still, it's a shame that I didn't have a little more tolerance/imagination back in those days, because I loved Famine in Far-Go and never ran it. The Gallus Gallus 5/13 are such great villains for the Gamma World setting...certainly both weirder and more mortal than the Legion of Gold (the antagonists of GW1). Their agenda, their cunning, their fallibility even makes them far more interesting, and I totally dig their penchant for human accessories and their bad-ass infrared rifles (a weapon so neat, I included it in my own GW7 rules despite it being non-standard to the original Gamma World).

But reading the module again, as an adult with adult sensibilities, I appreciate the module even more, as it really sets up a real living, breathing campaign could play a whole summer's worth of Gamma World using the GW2 module and the information on the community of Far-Go and its surrounding territory. Yes, it has a couple of major issues as an adventure (for example, its linear nature, the automatic capture of the party by badders, and an unavoidable early encounter with a group of mounted Knights of Genetic Purity, loaded for bear, when the party is limited to a couple spears and a bow). But as a module, it makes a great jump-off point for the start of a new GW saga...gung ho or not.


  1. I am constantly toying with the idea of using toned-down GAMMA WORLD rules (ie. less mutations) to run either a FALLOU campaign, or a Mad Max style campaign. But then I start thinking CP20202 rules would work just as well....

  2. Great post! I cut my teeth on GW 1 & 2, which lead to Aftermath! then Morrow Project. I think GW never worked for me because of the over the top mutation (plant, animal, other) stuff.