Saturday, December 27, 2014

Waste World: a Gamma World Campaign

No two roleplaying campaigns are alike, even when they start out with the same setting.  GAMMA WORLD is different in that setting the tone for a campaign is a lot harder than it is for most other RPGs.  The setting and the game are usually packaged together, and if the former emphasizes the "wild and wahoo" aspects of life after the apocalypse, the latter tends to reflect that bias, too.

Gamma World Through the Years

The first edition of the game gave us The Legion of Gold with its homicidal robots and sinister androids; the second edition gave us Famine in Far-Go and murderous, mutant chickens.  The third edition gave us a game mechanic completely divorced from AD&D and a darker setting and tone; the fourth edition foreshadowed d20, but asserted that Pumping Iron was one of the “holy books” of Bonparr and established the hamlet of Maybury, RFD as a canon part of the setting, complete with all the characters we’ve come to know and love(?) from the television series.

The ALTERNITY edition of GAMMA WORLD was fairly well received in terms of the underlying game mechanic, but panned for its watered-down setting and the conspicuous absence of rules governing the creation of mutant plant and mutant animal characters.  This edition was 100% compatible with all the other ALTERNITY supplements, which would have opened up an enormous amount of potential had Wizards of the Coast not cancelled the ALTERNITY line immediately prior to its release!

After the creation of the Open Gaming License and the successful release of Darwin's World and Jonathan Tweet’s popular OMEGA WORLD came the long-awaited, official d20 edition of GAMMA WORLD.  Big on concept, this version of the game introduced the horrific destructive potential of nanotechnology and biotechnology into the game, and even had its own hardbound PHB and GMG! 

Unfortunately version 6.0 turned out to be mostly hat and very little brutorz; there were only a handful of mutations scattered throughout all six of the books that were eventually published and the game’s innovations (including, unfortunately,  the excellent Community Rules) just didn't resonate with the fan base.

The seventh edition of GAMMA WORLD was marketed as campaign setting of sorts for 4th edition D&D.  I never played it, and heard few good things about it between its dependency on the unpopular 4th edition game mechanics, TORG-like setting, and trading-card based expansion packs that many players criticized as being a "gimmicky" way to get more money from enthusiasts.

Why So (Not) Serious?

In almost every edition of the game, the big question about GAMMA WORLD has been how “wild and wahoo” should it be?  In the fourth edition rulebook, the authors assert that in a wild and wahoo game the characters should experience “all kinds of situations and creatures,” that there should be “lots of artifacts from modern times,” that it’s OK for the characters to be overpowered, and that exploring real world locations like the Sears Tower and the Washington Monument is key to the feel of the game.  Further, adventures should be short and self-contained, with minimal character development.

If all that's true, then conversely a "serious" GAMMA WORLD game should be all about character development and roleplaying with recurring NPCs and at least one major story arc tying just about everything together.  The world should be completely alien, and little if anything from the present should even exist, much less be recognizable to the characters.

I reject this either-or approach as needlessly limiting and contrary to the genre.  Why can’t characters run across the Statue of Liberty in a dark and foreboding campaign?  In the original Planet of the Apes, Charlton Heston’s discovery of Lady Liberty up to her navel in sediment on a beach was the denouement of an eerie story about mankind’s fall from the top of the evolutionary ladder and certainly elicited more gasps than guffaws from the people seeing the film for the first time.

In the Mad Max movies, pop-culture references were about all that was left for society to reshape itself around.  "Break a deal, face the wheel" – it was all fun and games until you ended up bound, gagged, blindfolded, and sent out into the desert without food or water on horseback.  Another example from the same series: would you really want to be the one to explain to Lord Humongous just how ridiculous being introduced to his would-be subjects as the “Ayatollah of Rock-n-Rolla” sounds?

Adventuring in a Wasted World

I believe in trying to embrace both halves of GAMMA WORLD - the horror of life after the apocalypse and the "wild and wahoo" - without allowing the presence of one to diminish the other. There should be talking plants with deadly agendas, secret societies based on obscure 19th and 20th Century works of fiction, and alien vistas punctuated by the ancient ruins of amusement parks, national monuments, and famous civic buildings.  I call my campaign Waste World.

Waste World has a patchwork history and mythology built on the sometimes great, sometimes sinister deeds of beings and groups that may or may not have actually existed.  The fact that they are sometimes more fiction than fact doesn’t diminish the epic stories that have grown from the tall tales, misunderstood histories, and outright lies passed down generation-to-generation by the survivors of the Apocalypse and their descendants to succeeding generations.  Still, most myths have their basis in fact; even the most skeptical sleeth historian can’t completely discount the grandiose claims that every petty tyrant makes about his, her, or its lineage.  

Though much more has been lost than regained, the legacy of the Ancients is more than just the shattered remains of colossal cities and their contents; it is also the knowledge of how these wonders were created in the first place.  The rediscovery of the biodiesel engine by scientists and engineers in Bonparr has resulted in the creation of the first new railroad and assembly lines since the Apocalypse, and its parallel rediscovery (theft?) has allowed Bort Yuron to seize control of the eastern Gray Lakes by motorizing its fleet of privateers.

The State of the World

Earth is still known as “Earth,” but its inhabitants most often call it by other names – not all of which are fit for print.  “Gamma Terra” is common, as is “Omega World,” “Twisted Earth,” and “Waste World.”  These and other terms are used interchangeably.  

This GAMMA WORLD campaign setting is centered on what used to be the Midwest region of the old United States.  Appropriately enough, the people here cynically call the part of the planet they live in The Midwaste.

Despite the horrific weapons used during the Apocalypse much of what the Ancients built still survives, albeit as ruins or in great disrepair.  The great cities of old morphed into massive urban sprawls that spread out over hundreds of square miles before the Apocalypse.  A number of highly fortified, well-built structures still stand amid these ruins, and even now the remains of great skyscrapers stretch – literally – for kilometers into the heavens.  Neutron bombs and electromagnetic pulse weaponry killed-off the human inhabitants and artificial intelligences inside, however, leaving them hollow monuments to futility.  Still, there is life amid the ruins, albeit twisted and mutated beyond description in most cases, or simply too degenerate and barbaric for words in others.

Because of their size and the dangerous nature of their inhabitants, the sprawls are still rich sources of lost knowledge and working technology.  A few of the settlements that have sprung-up since the Fall have been built in their shadow.  These towns and villages are close enough for the occasional scavenging foray into the ruins, but far enough away that – hopefully – anything living there wouldn't find returning the favor worth the effort.

The inhabitants of these settlements consider living within proximity to the ruins to be a risk worth taking.  Some are close enough to the ruined sprawls to benefit from broadcast power, water and sewage services, or even the occasional food synthesizing facility or entertainment complex.  In these areas those with the means – financial or otherwise – are often able to enjoy some of the same conveniences that were commonplace prior to the Fall.  It should be stressed, however, that such settlements are exceedingly rare, the services extremely limited, and their nature very poorly understood.

The great majority of the inhabited towns and villages of the Midwaste have evolved from much smaller settlements that pre-date the Fall or have been built from the ground-up since then.  In any case, most beings prefer to live a healthy distance away from the ruins.  Initially this was necessary to minimize exposure to radiation and fallout and get as far away as possible from the mobs of displaced and homeless.  Of course, as temporary encampments gave way to permanent villages and towns, having access to large areas of undeveloped land was a necessary and relatively safe way of obtaining untainted food and water.

Creature comforts and working technology are much rarer in these settlements than in those that are on the fringes of the sprawls.  Although it took many generations and much hardship, the Fallen eventually rediscovered old survival skills.  Temporary shelters gave way to crude huts, which in turn gave way to buildings made of sod, wood, brick, stone, and scavenged materials.  

There have always been a select few who preserved the ways and knowledge of the Ancients.  Real understanding of computers and electronics, genetics and biotechnology, nanotechnology and robotics was never truly lost.  Instead, it was merely forgotten by all but a select few who didn’t have the luxury of being holed-up in a vault or being “born” an android, pre-programmed with huge chunks of the sum total knowledge of mankind.

While knowledge of this sort is the privilege of a few, many sentient species are making great strides on their own with simpler – but enormously empowering – discoveries.  Carbon fuels and internal combustion engines have been rediscovered, along with gunpowder, the printing press, and even electricity in some places.  Architects and skilled tradesmen routinely design and erect structures that are sound, practical, and even aesthetically pleasing.  The same can also be said of goods produced by tanners, furriers, weavers, blacksmiths, potters, cobblers, butchers, bakers, goldsmiths, silversmiths, jewelers, sculptors, painters, and a hundred other professions that have only recently had reason to come into being again.

The Apocalypse took a terrible toll on the world.  Fission weapons, fusion weapons, nerve gas, plague, genetically engineered viruses, combat robots, and automated laser weapons burned, blasted, and bombarded it into a strange, new shape.  Yet the world survived, and the seeds of civilization that survived with it have begun to take root and grow.  Nations – and heroes – are on the rise.  Will they restore the Gamma Terra to its former glory, or make its destruction complete?

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Great Eastern - the Last Victorian Leviathan

I came across this image (one of many, actually) of the Victorian leviathan steamship Great Eastern on Dark Roasted Blend this evening.  What sets this particular image apart is that it's an actual photograph of the ruined hull of the ship, and not just an illustration of it.

SS Great Eastern (Uncredited)

I don't want to take away from the awesomeness of the article, but apart from the terrific post-apocalyptic vibe of the photo, the ship's specifications are breathtaking, especially considering that it was constructed in 1858 - more than a half century before the Titanic was launched (unlike Titanic, Great Eastern was double-hulled, and survived a collision far worse than that which sunk the famous White Star liner).
  • Length: 207 meters (608 feet)
  • Beam (width): 25 meters (83 feet)
  • Crew: 418
  • Passengers: 4,000
  • Weight: 22,000 tons
Depending on the nature of the setting, a wreck like the Great Eastern could be a museum piece, a liner washed ashore during the cataclysm, a "ship of the damned," or even a long-lost shipwreck exposed due to radical climate and/or geographic upheaval as a result of the apocalypse.  In any case, the "how" isn't nearly as important as the "what."

Adventure Seeds

  • A tribe of water-breathing mutants are using a submerged shipwreck as a base to terrorize nearby settlements, but none of the victims are aware of their attackers' amphibious nature - or of the nearby wreck!
  • A massive storm blows through the area, beaching a long-lost wreck near a peaceful seaside or lakefront community.  The wreck was powered by a nuclear reactor that is now leaking - and various cryptic alliances are maneuvering to secure the wreck and/or its power source!
  • The adventurers stumble across a grounded ancient shipwreck and become trapped inside it with its hungry, mutant denizens!
  • Lost at sea, the adventurers come across a massive, floating wreck of a pleasure cruise ship.  The ship's malfunctioning AI is intent on keeping the party aboard to fulfill its entertainment directives - despite the fact that a massive storm that will sink the vessel is fast approaching!
  • A mysterious derelict vessel floats into view of a waterfront community; over the next several days locals begin to disappear.  A week later a scouting party from the community encounters and kills a hostile cyborg - and find that it's one of the missing townspeople!
  • Records unearthed by the Restorationists tell the tale of a vast trove of ancient weapons aboard the wreck of a great vessel that's fairly easily accessible - except for being several miles inside of hostile Knights of Genetic Purity/Ranks of the Fit/Friends of Entropy territory!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The d20 Toolkit for Post-Apocalyptic Roleplaying

d20 Modern and its supplements are a great tool kit for post-apocalyptic roleplaying.  The best place to start is d20 Apocalypse; all of the rules modules from Chapter 2 of d20 Apocalypse are applicable for a GAMMA WORLD type game.  Here are some other rules that are a good fit for GAMMA WORLD-like post-apocalyptic d20 games:

Cybernetics

The “piece of your soul” rules on p. 9 of d20 Cyberscape.

Magic and FX

Magic generally does not exist in any form in GAMMA WORLD campaigns, though many of the ignorant believe in it anyway.  Of course, there's no rule that it can't; magic is a central part of settings inspired by Thundarr the BarbarianRIFTS, and the like.

Psionic powers do exist in most post-apocalytpic settings, and has always been a part of GAMMA WORLD.  They are generally the result of mutations, rather than an innate ability.  Psionic classes from the d20 MODERN Core Rulebook should be allowed in a GAMMA WORLD campaign, but probably work best when restricted to members of an appropriate cryptic alliance, like the Brotherhood of Thought.  Otherwise psionic powers should be restricted to mutants and/or characters with the Wild Talent Feat, per p. 362 of the d20 MODERN Core Rulebook.

Mutations

Whenever a character takes Con damage from exposure to radiation or mutagens, the GM should follow the procedure for assigning random mutations and drawbacks, per p. 203 of d20 Future.

Constructs and characters with the true creature template are exempt from this rule.

Reality Level

Heroes die quickly and easily in post-apocalyptic roleplaying games – the genre is almost always much more violent than other d20 MODERN settings.  To address this, here's a house rule I use:

     Action Hero Reality Level: Players receive 28 points to buy ability scores for their heroes and have a massive damage threshold equal to their Con score x 1.5.

Wealth

I really like the trade units (TU) rules for bartering and equipping characters per pp. 22 – 29 of d20 Apocalypse, and they can generally be adapted to a GAMMA WORLD campaign (or any other setting with a currency system) with the following modifications:

     Profession skill: For each +1 increase in the character’s Wealth bonus, he or she receives 1d10 +1 TU.  If the character has either the Expert Scrounger or Shrewd Bargainer feats (d20 Apocalypse pp. 59-60), this amount is increased x1.5; if the character has both feats the amount is doubled.  These trade units are the result of the character’s “off-panel” activities (which are also potential plot hooks for the GM).  This budget must be spent immediately; any unspent budget is lost.

     Windfall feat: Each time the Windfall feat is selected, the character receives 4d10x2+6 TU resulting from the character’s “off-panel” activities (which are also potential plot hooks for the GM).  This budget must be spent immediately; any unspent budget is lost.

This Could Be Any Gamma World Campaign

Throughout their history, humanity’s accomplishments came at the expense of the world around them.  The more human beings advanced technologically the more they degraded the life-sustaining environment they depended on.  It became a vicious circle, with mankind managing to stay just one step ahead of complete disaster through its collective creativity and genius.

Earth’s other species weren't so lucky, and their numbers died-out in direct proportion to humanity’s expansion.  Initially, token efforts were made at conservation, habitat restoration, and even the reintroduction of extinct species through genetic engineering, but in the end mankind cared little for the fate of the other forms of life that inhabited “their” world.

As natural resources became more and more scarce, humanity pushed out into the solar system to find more of what they had used-up at home; sometimes this approach worked and sometimes it didn't.  When it didn't, mankind almost always found a way to create a replacement that was just as good, no – even better – than the original article.

In this way humanity began to restore some of what had been lost.  At some point it occurred to someone that restoring the old status quo wasn't good enough; improving upon it would be a better use of time and resources.  Mankind began reshaping its home world and colonies to its whims, and stood astride its dominion like the gods of old.

The problem was that for all the things that Homo sapiens had repaired, replaced, or improved, they themselves hadn't changed much at all.   There were superficial changes to be sure: faster people, stronger people, smarter people, even artificial people, but none of them were better people.  Although they possessed great knowledge, they lacked wisdom; although they believed themselves to be gods, they were still mortal – and fallible.



No one knows exactly how or why humanity fell from the great pedestal it had perched itself upon, but when the Fall came it was a long one.  So long, in fact, that the Fallen are only now – centuries later – beginning to pick ourselves up from it.

– From A History of Gamma Terra, Vol. I: Our Human Heritage by Sazh-lah, sleeth historian

Campaign Traits

Before the Fall, mankind and its moreau and AI companions had achieved a high-PL 6 (Fusion Age) society.  At the start of the campaign, Gamma Terra is emerging from its Dark Ages, as defined by Postapocalypse Eras rules presented in d20 Apocalypse and is a late PL 3 society.  This opens-up a number of roleplaying opportunities and can encompass as much or as little of all the campaign models presented in the d20 MODERN Roleplaying Game core rulebook and its line of supplements as the GM and players are comfortable with.

Representatives of all the Postapocalypse Societies in d20 Apocalypse are assumed to exist, but are described in detail using the terrific community rules presented in Gamma World Player’s Handbook.  
This take on GAMMA WORLD is based on the various incarnations of settings that came before, as well as the following d20 MODERN-related campaign models and/or sourcebooks:
  • d20 MODERN:  Agents of Psi
  • d20 Future:  Genetech, Mecha Crusade, The Wasteland
  • d20 Past:  Age of Adventure (sans magic), Pulp Heroes
  • d20 Apocalypse:  Atomic Sunrise, Plague World (sans aliens)
  • d20 Cyberscape:  CyberRave (emphasizing cybernetics and its variants over the VRNet)
All of the above are by no means required; similarly it’s possible that third-party products might be utilized.  The various Companion supplements put out by The Game Mechanics are highly recommended, as well as Dominic Covey’s Darwin’s World materials.

Progress Level

Unless otherwise noted, consider GAMMA WORLD to be a late PL 3 campaign setting with a scattering of PL 4 - PL 6 and PL 7 (biotech only) technologies whose abundance are inversely proportional to their level of technological sophistication.  The particulars of various categories of technology are detailed below.

Cloning

Cloning was commonplace before the Fall, though the rights of clones and their role is society varied widely from place-to-place and from time-to-time.  Generally, any clone that achieved consciousness – whether on his or her own or as the result of an (incredibly rare and expensive) identity transfer was considered a person.  Most of the time however, clones were created to provide replacement organs for their “parent” and were grown in such a way as to be “asleep” for the entire duration of their existence.  Because cloning was such an essential part of medical science before the Fall, the Ancients were especially adept with so-called “wetware” cybernetics (see Cybernetics, below).  Now there are only a handful of individuals with the skills and equipment necessary to create clones scattered across Gamma Terra.

Gene Therapy

Because of the widespread application of cloning science in medicine and the enormous amount of effort that went into attempts to repair the Earth’s biosphere and restore endangered and extinct species before the Fall, the Ancients excelled at gene therapy and other forms of genetic manipulation.  In game terms this means that PL 7 gene therapies are as common as PL 6 therapies throughout Gamma World – assuming they can be obtained at all (this also goes a long way towards lending plausibility to the wild array of life forms inhabiting it).

     Gene Therapy in Pre-Fall Society: Advanced gene therapies and genetic engineering, including the restoration, “improvement,” and (it’s rumored) creation of species was as controversial as it was commonplace in pre-Fall society.  It is a known fact that the schism between mutants and “true men,” and between both these groups and sentient animals existed prior to the Apocalypse and is widely believed to be one of the main issues that culminated in it.  Historical records indicate that the Ancients never achieved a consensus on how to treat the mutants and non-human sentients in their midst, nor fully control the process of inducing mutation.  That the Ancients were capable of manipulating the very substance of life to the degree that they did despite their own misgivings and fears of doing so is a testimony to their genius – and arrogance.

Cybernetics

The Ancients utilized a great deal of cybernetic technology in their day-to-day lives, though they preferred that it be unobtrusive and look as natural as possible.

     VRNet: Apart from artificial intelligences, vault-dwellers who have one of their own (in itself a rarity), and a handful of extremely learned individuals, the VRNet is all but forgotten by most inhabitants of Gamma Terra.  Rather, it inspires erroneous beliefs about the extent of the Ancients’ abilities to travel great distances in a short amount of time, create and manipulate life and artificial life, and alter their surroundings to their whims through misunderstandings about the differences between actual and virtual reality.

     Wetware: Because of their preference for unobtrusive cybernetics and the widespread use of clones and cloning technology in the day-to-day practice of medicine, the Ancients excelled in the field of cybernetic wetware.  In game terms this means that PL 7 wetware is as common as PL 6 technology throughout Gamma World (keeping in mind that both are exceedingly rare).

Mecha

The battered remains of mecha are as common as scrap metal from any other source; what’s rare is to find one in any kind of working order.  Those lucky few with access to this sort of technology usually hold sway over large swaths of territory and thousands of subjects like the feudal warlords of ancient Japan; long and bloody wars have been fought over the right to own a functional mecha since the Fall.

     Gargantuan, Colossal, and Transforming Mecha: Because of the rarity of actual functioning mecha, their enormous destructive capacity, and the popularity of mecha – both in reality and in entertainment – among the stories and holographic recordings left behind by the Ancients, these types of mecha are widely believed to exist.  So much so in fact that the rare encounter with an actual Large or Huge mecha almost invariably is reported – and accepted – as a run-in with a Colossal mecha of some exotic nature.  In reality, however, the Ancients mass-produced only Large and Huge mecha.

Nanotech

The prevalence of nanotechnology before the Fall has resulted in the technology being somewhat common albeit very poorly understood.  Individuals and/or families known for being unusually strong, fast, or intelligent, or possessing “magical powers” are sometimes the unwitting beneficiaries of an internal nanocolony (which can be passed-on to the offspring of the host at conception).  Similarly, the activities of “live” ambient nanocolonies are often attributed to the supernatural.  The creation of new nanotechnology is an almost-completely lost art among the Fallen; those few who know its secrets and have access to the proper facilities and materials to do so are usually some form of artificial intelligence.

     Gray Goo:  Gray goo was terrifying enough to the Ancients that their fear of it, their words for it, and even a limited understanding of it have been handed down intact to their barbarous descendants.  It occupies the same cultural niche’ in postapocalyptic society that the Devil and evil spirits held in medieval Europe; claims of grey goo sightings can incite a panic in any community where the residents have even the most basic knowledge of pre-Fall history.

Robotics

Armature robots, biomorph robots, and biodroid robots were commonplace prior to the Fall, and they are a regular fixture in old stories and holographic recordings from pre-Fall times.  Why the Ancients chose to create as many robots as they did when there were so many stories that warned of them one day turning on their creators is a mystery, as is the exact role robots played in bringing about the Fall.  In any case, robots are far less-common in post-Fall society and are looked upon with suspicion and fear.  Only the most subservient robots or those with “real” companions who can vouch for their benevolence receive any kind of acceptance among the Fallen, who shun or attack them otherwise.

     Robots in Pre-Fall Society: Unlike clones, robots were never seen as “people;” they had only as much freedom as their owners were willing to give them regardless of how intelligent and “free-willed” they appeared to be (or actually were).  A progressive minority bought robots specifically for the purpose of “emancipating” them; a larger group of owners took great delight in the sadistic manipulation and abuse of their “property” as a form of “entertainment.”  The vast majority of people, however, saw robots as extremely user-friendly tools and treated them accordingly.  There was an almost universal undercurrent of fear among the Ancients, however, that their mechanical offspring would one day rise up in revolt against them, which is a prominent theme in much of the written and holographic fiction now accepted as historical fact by their descendants.

     Bioreplicas: Bioreplicas were considered a class apart from robots by the Ancients, and, like gray goo, their fear of them has been passed down to the Fallen as near-paranoia.  Because they could easily “pass,” bioreplicas - or androids as they were more commonly known - were illegal for private or commercial use.  That did not stop them from being acquired and made use of in large numbers by private citizens and commercial interests as well as various governments, however.  All three groups generally applied their androids towards sinister ends, with assassination, espionage, sabotage, and sexual exploitation being the most common applications.  Some androids must certainly have survived the Fall, but what such a creature would do with its independence is anyone’s guess.

Space Travel

Anyone who looks up into the night sky and witnesses the passage of one of Gamma Terra’s orbital stations in front of the full moon – or more dramatically has one come crashing down onto their village – knows that the Ancients lived among the heavens.  Man-made structures are also on the lunar surface, though only a few can be seen with the naked eye.  How these things were accomplished none can say now.

     Teleportation: Teleportation technology – if it ever actually existed – would have been incredibly rare before the Fall, although its theoretical underpinnings were well known in scientific circles.  The concept was very popular in science fiction stories of the time, and many among the Fallen accept what they see and hear in these holographic recordings as factual.