Monday, August 3, 2015

Gamma World: the Lands Between

Nature abhors a vacuum.

But a glance at either of the "Cryptic Alliances as States" maps out there shows a large amount of uncontrolled space.

How to explain that?

Here are some ideas.

Populations are Small. Let me repeat this. Populations are small. Big cities in GW (at least as of the early editions) top out around 50,000 or so, probably with a nearby robotic farm (or, heh, Gallus Gallus 5/13 run chicken farm) to support them. In the modern world 50K isn't a city, it's barely a large town. There just isn't a surplus population to fill everything. Plus, the need for security in numbers means that people can't just spread out willy-nilly. What scant population there is clusters together in small groups up to little cities, and few of those. There is a vacuum of controlled area because there isn't enough population to control it all. Better to hold a smaller area security than to spread out beyond your ability to project real control.

Radioactive Badlands. There are a lot of these on the published maps. 170 or so years on from the disaster, there are still places with radiation lethal enough to mutate, or kill. Or both, one after the other. While probably not terribly realistic, that's not an issue in Gamma World. Radiation warps and grants powers good and bad, it doesn't just give you cancer and lesions and death. And it lasts a long time, again, unlike reality. I was at the hypocenter of Nagasaki the other day, my second visit to that atomic blast site, and was granted few if any cool mutations a mere 70 years on.

Yet they are there, and in swaths large and small. They significantly reduce the amount of safe areas to expand into.

Enemy Populations. Plenty of areas will be covered with vegetation that actively wants you dead. Some will be filled with lethal mutant animals. That leaves aside crazed humans and humanoid mutants. A wide area of lethal grass or trees is enough to make a land worth ignoring until everything else is taken.

Lands Gone Bad. Lands turned marshy, turned into crater lakes, strewn with rocks churned up into a rocky non-arable badlands, and so on. Lands gone desert-like thanks to previous chemical, biological, and nuclear weaponry.

Forbidden Zones. These places will be smaller but exist, often as a mix of the other types. They might be places you could go, but the locals, such as they are, don't want you to go there. These are off-limits only if you don't have the might to go there.

Surviving Installations. A few surviving installations are out there. They may be largely intact, partly intact, or mostly trashed. But if the defenses exist - patrolling warbots or death machines, security bots linked together, minefields, and so on - they will be impenetrable. A no-man's-land is likely to emerge around such places where it's too dangerous to live, and thus will lie fallow and unexploited. Few communities want to live just on the edge of a warbot's patrol zone. You are very safe until that day the bot decides you look dangerous and lasers you into an ash pile.

Deliberate Vacuum. Around the Cryptic Alliances, especially, you'd probably have a buffer zone. They leave it to nature to discourage approach without spending resources defending lands they can't fully secure and exploit.

On top of this, the land is essentially still at war at a low level. It's not peaceful - it's a largely uncivilized world. Remaining stocks of nasty, nasty weapons are used to settle conflicts, creating new badlands and new radiation zones. There is not a lot of produced tech (albeit more in a 2nd edition GW game than a 1st - 2nd assumes a lot of trade, linguistic standardization, and re-emerging tech.*) It's hard to fill all of the vacuums with civilization while populations are still recovering (and populations are a mix of mutant humans, humans, and mutant animals who may not be able to freely crossbreed.) Without a lot of tech it's hard to fully exploit what is out there.

So I'd expect a lot of choice lands (and easily exploitable installations) would be taken. The ones that are less than ideal would be left until the choice lands were fully taken, except by the occasional hardy adventurer turned freesteader. The lethality of the world would put paid to a lot of them.

So that's how I'd explain the vacuum. It's there because of the above and the inability to have enough people to exploit it. That's the disorder in this post-apocalypse setting, and it's the seam where adventure can happen.

* Stuff like the lexicon, the starting characters with needle guns with Intensity 17 poison needles, muskets and other black powder weapons in production, etc. are all clues about this. The pictures (especially the cover) for 1st edition imply a tech setting but the rules inside assume dirt-poor tech-ignorant barbarism.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

D&D never went off the rails

At what point did D&D go off the rails?

My opinion?

D&D never went off the rails. It never jumped the shark. No book, no Gygax rules-as-written-or-it's-not-D&D paragraph, no spell, no monster, no module, no edition. Never.

What happened, instead is this. D&D kept growing, evolving, changing, and moving. Books kept getting written, modules kept getting purchased and used, new players kept joining and old players kept dropping off.

At some point, you and D&D grew together. The stuff that was out was magical to you. The new stuff was the kind of new stuff you wanted, generally (and what you didn't was small enough to ignore.) At some point, though, what you wanted from D&D either was in a different direction than what was coming out (your tastes evolved) or you didn't need anything new (your needs basically froze.) Then, suddenly, D&D had gone wrong.

But it didn't. It just went elsewhere. It changed from what you wanted into something else. Or you changed from what you were to what you became. More likely, both.

D&D 4e? That was the game some people wanted. Same with 1st edition AD&D, the Greyhawk supplement, 2nd edition, those splatbooks, Unearthed Arcana, etc. etc. etc. If it was what you wanted, you'd mark the date of the death of D&D later than someone who didn't want that stuff. It feels downright odd to have people explain how the system went from great to suck before you experienced your most magical moments with the game. It's like having someone say a band you like was good up to album X, and you got into them with album Y. It's actually kind of insulting, too - you didn't show up until it sucked, so therefore you like the bad stuff.

Personally, I abandoned AD&D when 2nd edition was starting to come along and I found Rolemaster and GURPS fit better with what I enjoyed. Unearthed Arcana is much derided but it was the basis of the single greatest AD&D campaign I ever ran. Yet for some D&D went off the rails and became something "other" when the thief showed up. When you and what was out for and coming out for D&D overlapped enough, it was fine. When you and it went different directions, you just diverged. It didn't start to suck, and neither did you. You just took a different fork in the road.

And that's pretty much my opinion on the subject. "Not for me" and "bad" are not the same thing. Things that change really go from "for me" to "not for me" or vice-versa. I really only find the badly-done to be bad (error filled, poorly written, etc.) and the rest is just for me or not for me.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Cryptic Alliances - Rise of the Belief State

Over on Greyhawk Grognard there was a thought-provoking post about Gamma World.

Why no nations in Gamma World?

It's a good question, although one James Ward answered in The Dragon #26. Cryptic Alliances are the nations. I always felt that way myself - you'd have villages, small towns, the occasional "free city" (maybe 2-3 of those across the whole campaign area). But no big states outside of the Cryptic Alliances.

Belief State

In a way, modern groups like ISIS/ISIL are a pattern for a Cryptic Alliance. They're a Belief State. The founding principle of the state is a shared ideological view of the world - something that exactly describes groups like the Seekers or the Red Death or the Knights of Genetic Purity. They fill their ranks with true believers and exploit those in their area they can. In areas where the other power structures are stronger than the C.A., they act as small anti-establishment groups working to destabilize the area and gain control or to gain recruits and power for the base area.

I'd call these Belief States, since they aren't Nation-States (no "nation" or shared culture per se) but do share a world outlook.

Cryptic Alliances Acting As States

I think the C.A.s make good states. The big, land-grabby types (Ranks of the Fit, the Zoopremists, the Created, etc.) would have grabbed land. They'd also send out wild-eyed believers to new lands to gather recruits to bring back, to found new lands, or to loot for valuable artifacts.

Some of these states would work in a typical direct land-grabbing fashion. They'd expand their overall borders, pushing out as they had more ability to absorb neighboring populations.

Others would just be nomadic groups, and move as a large group with many affiliated small groups that splinter off or get sent off on their own.

Some of these states would go off of the "ink spot" theory. That is, send out a group to a likely place for a state. With all of the radioactive badlands, scorched lands, areas overgrown with nasty hostile vegetation, still-dangerous military fortifications operating on "kill anything that approaches" mode, wandering warbots, etc. you can't just expand quickly and evenly. You need recruits, you need weapons, you need the ability to colonize or extend supplies across the badlands to rich liveable lands. But you can send out colonies to especially rich or valuable spots and see if they can't make it on their own.

You would still get some non-C.A. states but they would be small and easily taken over by the larger, more organized, and more belief-centered alliances. Hard to run a tiny little democratic state when the Red Death rolls through or a large group of Zoopremists show up and tell you how its going to be.

You'd also get traders willing to go between the alliances and the non-allied (possibly tributary) areas. Some would be C.A. members (openly or secretly), some independents, some part of the minor power structures that are villages and towns.

You'd also get C.A. members all over the place - the self-declared allies, the deliberately sent out colonists, the looters, the recruiters. And the non-landed groups would do the same because they don't have a land to stay in.

Why Cryptic Alliances as States, and not just States?

Part of this is just Gamma World - the basis of the end of the world is a series of belief states fighting each other. The idea that the rise of the next is a warped and irradiated version of the same fits the apocalyptic feel of the setting. The Created and the Ranks of the Fit are not so far from the League of Free Men and the others who started the whole shebang.

You could relegate most Cryptic Alliances to just secret societies that exist within existing secular states. But I think it's a lot more fun to have the lands that belong to the Ranks of the Fit than to have the Kingdom of Loosyanna with some scheming sub-groups in it. It makes the land feel more threatening if there are only a limited amount of places you can go if you aren't part of some group. And it makes either joining a group - or founding your own - a bigger challenge. Most of the Cryptic Alliances just don't accept that other people's beliefs are valid too. That would also make the few free cities worth the name valuable prizes for all sides, dangerous pits of trouble, really interesting places to visit, etc. Being the exception (non-C.A. allied large power structure) not the rule (C.A. controlled) makes them really interesting. Like The Free City of Krakow in T2K.

And that's how I'd run Gamma World.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Gameable bits: Books have assumptions

Fairly often I put books in as loot in my games. Or offer up books as sources of knowledge of sought out.

Recently I have been reading a number of books about English history. Written by English writers. What is striking is how often they assume you are intimately familiar with modern England and its layout and geography. Also, that you are familiar with European power structures, religion, and noted people and books.

In a world with fewer but more widely read books, this will be magnified.

Now imagine the society for which that book was written is gone. The books it references off hand are lost or obscure.

This justifies a lot of vagueness. It explains a lot about why players can't expect a found book to clearly spell out what they need to know. The author always makes assumptions about the background of the reader. If the expected knowledge isn't there, you don't even need a code or deliberate vagueness for the information to be tricky to puzzle out.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Wow, that was fun.

So, the Bones Kickstarter is over. I slept through the last hours because of my current time zone. I didn't miss anything I wanted and I can add on later if I change my mind.

Now I wait a year for the minis and get to painting them.
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