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?

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