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16 November 2008 @ 10:38 pm
The Hoard Potato: On The Gamma Wavelength  
Last week, I went through the RPG section at work, sorted everything out, and stuck almost anything published before 2004 on the Half Price Rack. One reason I did that was because there was some really intriguing stuff for d20 that had gotten buried amidst the piles of Cheap-Ass Third-Party Powergaming Supplements, and I wanted to get it out and visible. D&D 4th Edition has come along, and disenfranchised a bunch of hard-core 3d-edition players who could make good use of the off-beat material.

Today, after debating it for the last week, I purchased a big bag o' half-price Gamma World d20 stuff. Yes, that's a lot better than my employee discount.

Is there a conflict of interest involved in convincing the manager to let me put the old game stuff on sale, picking out what gets put on the sale rack, and then buying the stuff I really want myself? Maybe, but after speaking to a customer who had owned and played every edition of Gamma World since the first, and spoke highly of the d20 version, I decided to go for it.

First Impressions:
I am a happy serpent indeed.

It's been a long time since I've sat down and read a game book pretty much cover to cover, but I did just that this evening.

The "Sword & Sorcery" team over at White Wolf really had a feel for Gamma World. Sure, they could have thrown in a lot more weird and wild mutations, but a little Tim Truman art goes a long way. Too bad they didn't get Bigfella Machine, as well.

The high point of the book: the Community Development rules. In thirty years, I've only seen two or three other RPGs that even attempted to devise mechanics for social change, and to integrate it as an essential part of gameplay. D&D long ago abandoned the idea that player characters would eventually (and inveitably) build strongholds, gather followers, and gain political as well as personal power, and each subsequent edition has moved further and further from that idea.

Sure, when I was 16, that kind of thing seemed like a nuisance and a burden to my PC's adventuring lifestyle, but, um, I haven't been 16 in a very long time.

The Community rules were, I believe, new to Gamma World, and it's well-suited to the setting. While this is a post-apocalyptic setting, the emphasis has never been on destruction and despair, but on rebuilding from the ashes.

While I rant and grumble about how disconnected Dungeons & Dragons has become from its sword-and-sorcery roots, and how it has, over the years, become its own, inbred genre of Dungeon Fantasy... I didn't read much fantasy at all until after I started playing D&D.

On the contrary: I grew up watching the Planet of the Apes movies, and reading Kamandi: Last Boy On Earth. Thundarr the Barbarian debuted just a couple of years after I got sucked into the role-playing hobby.

The first D&D game that I ran, in fact, was set on a post-apocalyptic Earth -- as was the first one in which I regularly played.

The resurgence of Dungeon Fantasy that accompanied D&D 3.0/3.5 left me cold -- especially when I saw that first wave of offbeat fantasy settings for d20 getting pushed off the market by that flood of poorly-written compilations of cheesy spells, imbalanced prestige classes, and Monty Haul magic items.

I thought that it was because I'd "used up" the Dungeon Fantasy genre, wrung every possible note of interest from the Heroic Fantasy paradigm. I mean, as my major PC, I'd played out the Hero's Journey that Joseph Campbell so lovingly described without my DM or myself really realizing it until years later, when I finally got around to reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Maybe that's not it at all, though.

Maybe it's that my personal paradigm for over-the-top High Adventure doesn't have much at all to do with Elves and Dwarves and Orcs, and everything to do with ancient ruins, bizarre creatures, and (surprise, surprise) anthropomorphic animals.

Who wants to play?

One of my earliest LiveJournal entries, made almost exactly six years ago, was an anecdote about my favorite Gamma World character.
I feel: pleasedpleased
SilverClawbfdragon on November 17th, 2008 08:20 am (UTC)
Is there a conflict of interest involved in convincing the manager to let me put the old game stuff on sale, picking out what gets put on the sale rack, and then buying the stuff I really want myself?

Maybe if you were then turning around and selling it at a profit, but it sounds like your just using your personal knowledge of a price that someone would find fair.. it just so happens that that someone is sometimes yourself }:->

Now, if you were turning around and selling them on ebay for a profit, then I would say that that would be a conflict of interest because then you are trying to get him to sell for less then a fair price. Which if course could even still be ok in my book if you were honest and clear about thats what you would be doing. He might be open to the idea of you making a few bucks for the effort of getting them off his hands, though probably unlikely.
Your Obedient Serpent: happyathelind on November 17th, 2008 03:36 pm (UTC)
By my reckoning, I'm saving the store money by giving it less stuff to dust. =D
Kreggankreggan on November 17th, 2008 08:31 am (UTC)
Mm, I had an anthro bird Gamma World character.. :>
The Red Alchemistjirris_midvale on November 17th, 2008 09:02 am (UTC)
Some of the most fun I've had in a long time has been in a D&D game where there are no elves, orcs, etc. Everyone is one or two flavors of humans, with a few exotics thrown in here and there as backgrounds. Can we run a high fantasy without every third person being Legolas' cousin? Yes, actually! Quite well!

My gaming group is also rather mature folks, so we talk about things like political influence, favors, bloodlines, etc. They PC's are people with a place in (high) society who happen to be off running an errand that got much bigger than anticipated.
"And I realized I did want a drink, after all."circuit_four on November 17th, 2008 09:31 am (UTC)
Oh my god, if I were local, I'd be all over that.

I have mixed feelings about classic Gamma World. I had... 2nd Ed., I think it was. I never got to play it, but the campaign world seemed unappealingly contrived and cartoony to me. The anthropomorphic races in particular had this annoying "Planet of Hats" thing going, even worse than your typical D&D race -- I recall something about a bunch of Napoleonic bears. It just all read as very arbitrary and gamey, not a well-realized world based on any historical cause-and-effect.

On the other hand, I loved rolling up Gamma World characters. For actual gaming, I'd rather have point-based, but I loved rolling up random characters for their own sake. I have fond memories of my mutant non-anthro eagle with four separate brains, INT 25, PK kinesis sufficient to overturn a bus, and massive epilepsy. ^_^ Come to think of it, characters that screwed up were one of the major influences for the FCrash RPG.

And I really, really like the notion of the community rules. I even thought the old D&D stronghold and follower rules sounded pretty cool when I was a clueless teenager, come to think of it. I've always had a real weakness for games, tabletop or software, that blur the line between strategy and RPG. Reminds me pleasantly of Roadwar 2000, too. Now I feel REALLY old. :)
Your Obedient Serpent: weird scienceathelind on November 17th, 2008 03:47 pm (UTC)
If you ever stumble across the d20 book, pick it up. It's a lot less cartoony, contrived and gamey -- which is, of course, what prompted most of the negative reviews.

They even tweaked the random mutations aspect. At character creation, you get to pick your positive mutations, and then roll your single negative one -- with options to take an additional random positive roll for a random negative, and so forth.

After character creation, though, it's all random. Which really gives the setting an unpredictable flavor -- in that Deck Of Many Things way.

I DO wish they'd made an effort to hook the mutations and psi powers more closely into the level-based mechanic, though.
Tombfyretombfyre on November 17th, 2008 01:54 pm (UTC)
'tis always fun to mix in non standard races into your d20 games. ^^ I've had many players join our little flock over the years, but few have decided to venture out of the norm. I have of course always leaned towards dragons, reptiles, and other big fun scaly things. Usually I counted it a success for imagination if everyone else picked something other than an elf. ^^()

I'm almost tempted to give new players the Savage Species book first, then the players guide second. That, or find more furs to come play. ;)
Your Obedient Serpent: clawathelind on November 17th, 2008 03:57 pm (UTC)
'tis always fun to mix in non standard races into your d20 games.

Heh. Preachin' to the choir. That major PC I mentioned above, who ran the Hero's Journey? Intelligent dinosaur wizard, 15 years before Jurassic Park made "raptors" a Stock Furry Race.

I'm almost tempted to give new players the Savage Species book first, then the players guide second. That, or find more furs to come play. ;)

Or you could just play Ironclaw or Jadeclaw, dagnabbit!

Tombfyretombfyre on November 18th, 2008 02:23 am (UTC)
Very cool critter choice there. ^..^ I was amused with one of the little characters put together briefly in the savage species books, namely a raptor with a sword. :3

And yeah, the Claw games would be nice. I'm the only fur in the group though, so I don't know how much it would appeal to everyone else!
one in a billionsiege on November 19th, 2008 05:07 am (UTC)
My sister once devised a setting where dinosaurs evolved intelligence, survived our extinction periods, and mostly kept the mammals down along the way. There were two main bipeds, one herbivorous and one carnivorous. So this meme is well familiar to me. :)
Pyatpyat on November 17th, 2008 02:28 pm (UTC)
I just got 2nd ed. in the mail! We used to play the 3rd edition, during the summer of 1987 or 1988, the one with the slightly broken color chart for resolving tasks. Always wanted to play more of it.

It was the only game I can recall in which my character achieved a real, tangible happy ending, instead of just being abandoned partway through his career cause we got bored and switched to another game.

He bought a farm with the proceeds of one of his adventures, married a local cat-woman, and lived happily ever after.
TheBitterGuythebitterguy on November 17th, 2008 04:39 pm (UTC)
I own the d20 Gamma World books, due entirely to being on WW's comp list at the time.

I found the community rules fascinating, but here's the thing: They were useless. There was nothing in them, for example, to explain how they could be used in the course of a game. How they could be changed, how they affected the game, or even what, for example, skills bonuses for a community MEANT.

They felt like half a rule system. I even asked the developer who'd made them, and he didn't really have an answer for me.
Your Obedient Serpent: damn youathelind on November 17th, 2008 04:56 pm (UTC)
Well, darn.
This is why I labeled those paragraphs "First Impressions", rather than "Review". I thought I'd just skimmed through that section too quickly.
TheBitterGuythebitterguy on November 17th, 2008 05:24 pm (UTC)
Re: Well, darn.
The rest of the books are, IIRC, pretty good. I do remember that I've kept all of them, although that may be because I'm something of a d20 Modern hoarder. They are at least mechanically sound.

It's odd, they even have prestige classes that affect community stats and things.

Maybe I'll give it a dig through again. I was nostalgically reading my TMNT & After The Bomb books last night before bed.

Edited at 2008-11-17 05:27 pm (UTC)
TheBitterGuythebitterguy on November 19th, 2008 05:15 pm (UTC)
Re: Well, darn.
Did you get to give it a bit of a closer look?
Your Obedient Serpent: workathelind on November 19th, 2008 05:34 pm (UTC)
Re: Well, darn.
Not yet. Maybe tonight or tomorrow.
The Weasel Kingtheweaselking on November 17th, 2008 05:25 pm (UTC)
I'd love to play, but
a) I'm not local
b) I'm violently allergic to D20.

Same game with a system that isn't crippled by flat probabilities, classes, and levels? Sure!
Helvetica 'Foofers' Bold: Helvetica foofers on November 17th, 2008 11:40 pm (UTC)
Kingsford has a Santa hat.

They need a promotional Christmas dragon doing walkarounds for the store.

Right? RIGHT?
Your Obedient Serpent: Ommmathelind on November 18th, 2008 08:04 am (UTC)
...for minimum wage?
Helvetica 'Foofers' Boldfoofers on November 18th, 2008 01:23 pm (UTC)
Naw, just for shits and grins. There's no money to be made in rarring. I've tried!
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on November 17th, 2008 11:54 pm (UTC)
For what it's worth, D&D never had a coherent fantasy focus. Coming from its wargaming roots, the "setting" was merely a tacked on addition to justify innumerable interesting tactical situations using a fantasy motif. Though clearly, in part, inspired by sword and sorcery stuff like Howard, you could never actually do the sorts of things with the game that Conan did - you'd get mulched pretty quickly. From the onset, the game used characters as tactical units to be used in concert by people with strong wargaming needs.

And, then, I think it's fair to remember that D&D, itself, broke away from that generic fantasy template thing pretty early on. There are a lot of great D&D settings - Ravenloft, Dark Sun, Planescape - that don't much conform to the standard that people seem to assume that D&D inevitably takes.

So, I sometimes think that our memories of those days - those of us who were gaming in the late seventies - are viewed through a strange lens of projection. I'm not sure that D&D ever was what a lot of people seem to think it inevitably is.
Your Obedient Serpent: hoard potatoathelind on November 18th, 2008 07:49 am (UTC)
Of the many phrases I might use to describe D&D, "coherent focus" has NEVER been on the list!

Those early years were a kludge, trying to slam together a game with multiple conflicting themes and goals, without really understanding that they were in conflict. Picaresque sword and sorcery in the Fritz Leiber mold is NOT the same genre as Tolkien-inspired Quest-Based High Fantasy.

Over the decades, though, those dichotomies and conflicts created their own, bizarre subgenre that doesn't really resemble anything BUT a D&D game.

There are a lot of great D&D settings - Ravenloft, Dark Sun, Planescape - that don't much conform to the standard that people seem to assume that D&D inevitably takes.

But note: those settings had little or no support in Third Edition. Instead, we got Greyhawk (Lankhmar Light), the Forgotten Realms (the quintessential ISO Standard Fantasy Setting), and Eberron ("If it's in D&D, it's in Eberron!"). Ravenloft got a couple of adventures from a licensee (White Wolf again, actually), Planescape was at best obliquely referenced, and Dark Sun*, bupkis.

The promise of the d20/OGL era was that niche games and settings would become more commercially viable, since you could just hook up to the "Industry Standard RPG Rules" rather than have to hammer out an entirely new set of mechanics for every new game. Early d20 releases did just that, exploding out into all manner of exotic and neglected terrain. Later on, though, the bulk of the market was dominated by Yet Another Fucking Book Of Magic Items/Prestige Classes/Spells.

On the other claw, maybe I'm biased, because that's what's LEFT on the shelves. Still, it seems to me as though stuff like Nyambe: African Adventures fell by the wayside early on in the OGL era.

*I could grouse at length about how Dark Sun screwed the pooch by insisting on shoehorning in the Standard Fantasy Races</i>, instead of diving all the way into Barsoomian exotica, but I won't.
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on November 18th, 2008 08:12 am (UTC)
Yeah, I can't dispute that in 3rd edition they did basically ignore all the nifty settings that were developed in the 1st and 2nd edition days.

My own bias is that I basically knew no one who played in 3rd edition who played in FR or even bought a copy of Eberron, tho'! Everyone seemed to either port over their favorite 2nd edition setting (Yona brough over Dark Sun and I am still doing Planescape stuff) or created or ported over their homebrew setting (my own was an Indian and Chinese inspired setting called the Wicked Earth, or a Viking themed thing that a friend did, and some folks even gave a Middle-Earth setting a whirl quite successfully). So, maybe it's just that no one I know is interested in that stuff so I doubt the power of the generic fantasy template over D&D gamers. So, either an insight or a confirmation bias. ;)

And there were a lot of quirkly little d20 setting books. We've got a copy of DragonMech around here, and some fantasy pirates of the Caribbean thing, and a book for a fantasy Western called Spellslinger. A thought Midnight was good, too, though it was basically just Middle Earth if Sauron won, hehe. So they *did* exist.

I think that what happened, though, is that a lot of game stories overbought early on the d20 craze and then got stuck with a lot of stock that they couldn't move and got gunshy about new stuff. And niche stuff is, by its very nature, niche. It *is* a little hard to find but it exists - but none of it was going to overthrow Forgotten Realms as the standard D&D setting, no. D&D's public face is going to remain Forgotten Realms into the foreseeable future because it, and Eberron, are lowest common denominator games. While few people might be utterly thrilled with either setting, few people will flatly refuse to play in an Eberron or FR game if that's what the GM is pitching.

I also largely agree about Dark Sun. If you're going to have shamanistic cannibal halflings . . . uh, why are they halflings at all, again? ;)
Your Obedient Serpent: gamingathelind on November 19th, 2008 03:27 am (UTC)
Of course, as an old, OLD-skool player, MY bias is that published settings are "just a crutch for lazy GMs". That's snobbery that I've largely overcome, but deep down inside, my inner grognard snorts at most "canon settings".

(Ironclaw>/i>'s Calabria is an exception. There are a few others.)

DragonMech and Midnight are among the "really intriguing stuff" that I put up on the upper levels of the racks, where people could SEE them. We've also got Dragonstar, which quite amused me by mashing together Generic Fantasy and Generic Sci Fi, and coming up with a setting that was more interesting and made more sense than the usual stuff you see for either.

Another intriguing one is Oathbound, whose basic premise is that your characters from other settings Got Noticed by Easily Bored Godlike Beings and abducted to their constructed world.

I saw this stuff, and said, "Okay, this needs to do more than just gather dust. Someone needs to USE it. There's someone out there who WANTS it; they just need to SEE it and have the motivation to BUY it. Like, say, a 50% discount kind of motivation."
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on November 19th, 2008 05:50 am (UTC)
My inner grognard agrees about most canon settings, hehe. However, I have of late become that lazy GM and I kinna like the crutch of not having to be cool in a really interesting way all the time - tho' my contempt for the generic fantasy setting is likely as deep as yours. Oh, look, another Aryan superman fantasy. Yawn.

Alas, even if sold, however, most niche pre-published settings won't get used. GMs are not the only lazy people in gaming, players, too. Almost no player is really quick to read a bunch of setting material to "get" something like, say, DragonMech. The beauty of a setting like Forgotten Realms is that, even if the setting doesn't thrill you, you can bring in all your fantasy assumptions and cliches and be right. Even if you don't read the FR setting material, well, you don't need to, do you? If the people are white skinned and live on the surface, they're good. If they're some skin color other than white and (and especially) live underground, they're evil. Elves and dwarves have some vague, unspecified dislike for each other, and short people are comic relief . . . done! It's probably relatively hard for a GM to find a group of players who would be enthusiastic about the setting enough to willingly absorb it, and the same is roughly true for most niche settings (with the few exceptions of some that are high concept - it's easier to pitch "a Western with magic" than something like DragonMech).

The truth is that mostly players like to play in either settings of the GM's creation or least-common denominator settings. Which is why your inbox isn't overflowing with "oh, oh, I wanna play Gamma World". :p
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on November 17th, 2008 11:58 pm (UTC)
And, for what it's worth, just about the only RPG that has meaningful community rules is HeroQuest - not the boardgame, but the game that Runequest eventually turned into. While it is in many ways dated, itself, by now, the game is such a treasure trove of interesting possibilities that I recommend it to just about anyone who games.

I mean, the game treats all contests equally - each an every one. The same mechanical system is used for a chess game between two characters as a battle, and it does so with unusual elegance.

And inside all that are probably the only good community rules made in any RPG out there. ;)
Paka: lavachildpaka on November 18th, 2008 12:12 am (UTC)
I definitely like the exploration angle. I kinda think that, the same way you absorbed Thundarr and Planet of the Apes, I really absorbed vacations where my family went to Virginia (Luray Caverns) or Charleston (USS Yorktown, Ft. Moultrie, Ft. Sumpter, etc). So the reason I go apeshit over dungeons is that they're these mysterious enclosed spaces, and someone made them so you wonder who, and someone else is there so you wonder who and how they got there.

I don't need fighting in games (though I do need action - which I define as a huge class of things, including fighting, chases, negotiation, and even just movement in the right cases) and I don't especially need quasi-Tolkien races (though I like what they are for the most part; "late medieval Burgundian horse-people" or "quasi-Scandinavian, short crafters and miners" are both ideas that really grab me).

New stuff that has a little bit of the old in it is always an exploration of the unknown that I like. So with CoC, it's new monsters and books with a tie in to stuff you already have heard of (like real world fact); with D&D, it's having new critters (are they smart? Are they hostile? Is there a way to talk to 'em?) with some familiar elements; with Star Wars, there should always been new technology showing up, but if you add new Imperial tech, it carries through stuff you kinda know already into the unknown.

I think that's actually part of why Ironclaw and Shadowrun are less appealing to me. They're very urban and known world; there's no frontier where you run into the really weird crap, they're all about working in places you sort of know. I like games like that - it's sort of like my theory about abstract art, where you take one compelling element away, and you can focus on all this other compelling stuff - they just aren't the big favorites.
Your Obedient Serpent: green hills of earthathelind on November 18th, 2008 08:02 am (UTC)
Heh. During those same high school years, we were also travelling around the country in a motor home. My mom liked caves, and my stepdad had a thing for dams, and we ALL had a fascination with the weird and bizarre attractions that dot the country.

It is so utterly surreal for me to casually walk past something like the Winchester Mystery House on a regular basis.

We were also big aficionados of Disaster Novels, and often pointed out landmarks from one book or another.

So, yes, I like "dungeons" -- mysterious, underground complexes full of the exotic, the unknown, the impossible and bizarre. What I callously dismiss as "Dungeon Fantasy" isn't so much the DUNGEON as the peculiar, gameist setting that takes such a fascinating and eccentric concept and renders it routine and banal.

You want a cross between the familiar and the unknown? Oh, BOY, can Gamma World deliver. Imagine walking through a darkened, time-ravaged shopping mall -- from the perspective of a tribal nomad whose most valuable possession is a bronze knife.