Saturday, May 29, 2010

LeBrun's Animal People c. 1806

Speaking of mutated humanoid animals, you might enjoy these 1806 engravings representing the work of Charles Le Bruns (1619-1690).

L.-J.-M. Morel d'Arleux
Dissertation sur un Traité de Charles Lebrun concernant le Rapport de la Physionomie Humaine avec Celle des Animaux 
Paris, Chalcographie du Musée Napoléon, 1806

Friday, May 28, 2010

Digest Sized Character Sheets for Gamma World

In case anyone might be interested, here is a pdf for some no-frills digest-sized Gamma World character sheets I cooked up. These should work for both first and second edition. There are two character sheets per page. Here's what they look like:

Also, if you're bothering to read this post you might be interested that TOR.COM just posted two separate retrospectives regarding original edition Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World, respectively. I think it's pretty amazing these obsolete games would get mainstream attention like this.

Have a lovely and colorful weekend - hopefully I'll see a couple of you at Gamex on Sunday!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Van Vogtian and Poulandersonian Talking Animals

Gamma World’s reputation as a totally zany game comes partly from its rampant anthropomorphism – namely, animals walking on two feet and speaking English. The official storyline given in the early editions of Gamma World – nuclear holocaust – doesn’t do a great job of explaining how radioactive fallout can result in badgers becoming bipedal, donning medieval armor, and acting like gnolls. While leaving the causation a mystery is fine, it’s certainly fun to think more deeply about specific scientifiction scenarios that might result in hop-scotching, jive talking rabbit people.

Two classic paperbacks I read recently provide some appropriately cyclopeatronic explanations for rapid language acquisition amongst our dear animal friends…

BRAIN WAVE – Poul Anderson

I was living at a tropical field station in Panama for a little while last year and luxuriated in some extra time to read a pile of paperbacks. In the pile was a great little read by Poul Anderson called Brain Wave. This story, one of Anderson’s earliest, was originally serialized in Space Science Fiction in 1953. The basic premise is that all life on earth had evolved while earth was being bathed in a strange type of space radiation that retarded neuronal activity. As the book opens, earth abruptly moves out of the radiation field and the intelligence of all living creatures increases by orders of magnitude. The results of this is that many animals gain a human-level of intelligence (resulting in an awesome scene where African Gorillas go bananas and rebel against the humans!), mentally deficient humans gain “normal” intelligence, and all normal humans become hyper-geniuses. Without going into too much detail, the end product of this could very well be an alternate Gamma World. The cover art for this Ballantine edition is beautiful and eerie; it's by someone named Phil Kirkland, whom I know very little about.


I love Van Vogt and I don’t know why he doesn’t get more attention these days. World of Null-A is one of my favorite 1940s sci-fi classics, and spectacularly presages everything Philip K. Dick became a superstar for. The Battle of Forever, from 1971, is one of Van Vogt’s more far out novels. It is set in the far future after the 1000 remaining humans separated themselves from the rest of the planet and evolved into large floating heads with small limp bodies. These 1000 individuals lived for 3500 years in an isolated hyper-intellectual society and had almost completely forgotten about the earth and the physical lives humans used to lead. The book opens with one of these future-humans emerging to explore the earth, finding a plant populated by talking humanoid animals whose ancestors were genetically engineered by the pre-isolation humans. Ahhhh, I love this kind of stuff! Please admire the wondrous Ace paperback cover art by master illustrator John Schoenherr.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Classic Gamma World Ads and Posters

This material should already be familiar to many of you, but here it is in one place. I especially love the white hot picture of Elise Gygax in the White Dwarf magazine ad! Yeow!


Gamma World: Floating Castle of the Wasp Women

Friday night I ran a group of six friends through a draft of my Gamma World scenario Floating Castle of the Wasp Women in preparation for the Gamex con next weekend. (UPDATE: Read about the con session here!)

The game was pretty much insane… Because I don’t want to reveal too much about the scenario yet, I thought I’d simply describe a few Kodak Moments from the session:

A 15-foot tall humanoid deer was standing on the battlement of a floating castle when he grabbed two 8-foot long human-faced wasps by their necks and fried their brains with electrical shocks emitting from his fingers.

A flying go-kart was careening through space, crashing through a swarm of angry wasp women, while the driver – a gigantic stink beetle – was desperately trying to spray his hymenopteran aggressors with paralyzing flatulence.

A winged woman with radiation-seeking antennae broke down a door to find herself being fired on by a seven-year old boy with a laser blaster. Luckily a flying hedgehog girl was able to wrestle the laser blaster away with her telekinetic powers.

An "average guy" named Bob strolled into a giant wasp brood chamber to find hundreds of tiny maggots with baby faces. Being the average guy that he was, Bob began to mentally leech the life force out of the squirming babies while worker wasps were frantically dog-piling him.

A giant sticky (and delicious smelling) slug with a pulsating Mole of Confusion on his forehead fell from the air and began frantically spitting mucous spit bombs as he was stung to death by the wasp women.

Sadly the slug character was turned into a puddle of mucous during the game. However, Bob The Average ended up with almost 200HP after walking into the middle of the wasp nest and Life Leeching them all. At the last moment, the flatulent beetle character saved the day with one very well placed fart.

A beautiful experience - I can’t wait to again relive the joy and wonder that is Gamma World...!

A few technical comments:

At cons it’s sensible and standard to have pre-generated characters. However, I think one of the most pleasing aspects of Gamma World is the weird and unpredictable mutation combos you get popping up in PCs. In order to keep this fun and unpredictable element in a one-shot game I’m using mutation cards where the players have their mutant abilities printed on little cards in front of them. I achieved this during playtest by photocopying the mutation tables from the first edition rulebook, and having the players excise the bits describing their mutations. This worked great – it sped things up, and no one had to look in the rulebook during play. Before the con next Sunday I hope to make an actual Mutagenesis Deck that players can simply draw cards from. Also, for the session I had players draw lots for their starting weapons and I made up super-simple digest-sized Gamma World character sheets. I’ll post the character sheets for download here in a few days in case anyone’s interested.

A word from James Ward:

Interestingly, after the game the dude who played the mutant slug asked James Ward (the original Gamma World designer) if he thought the Life Leech mutation was too powerful. If you'll recall, Bob the Average's Life Leech played a huge role in the players' victory over the wasps. Here's what Mr. Ward said:
Lifeleech, one of my best inventions.

Over the versions editors (those nasty organizers) have tried to calm down the effects of this mutation. I must admit the ability to keep sucking life points away is powerful. Of course the editors rarely consider that life leechers are the ultimate target of every enemy. Leechers can't take robot hit points. There are really lots of balancing effects to be used on such mutants. I can remember in the games I ran for Gary Gygax and his friends that Gary would kill leechers on sight and not allow them in the village of vigalists. In one group I gamed with they invented anti-life leech paint made from special nanos.

I'm glad you had fun with the game.

James M. Ward
Although right after the game I was having mixed feelings about how powerful Life Leech was, in retrospect the game was hyper-fun and I wouldn't change a thing. Gamma World is not about playing a highly balanced strategy game, after all, it's about mutant insanity! I agree with Mr. Ward - the trend to weaken mutations in later editions was a wimp out...

Friday, May 21, 2010

Naughty Erol Otus - Banned Illustrations

1982 saw the release of a high school-themed RPG called Alma Mater. Many game stores banned this product for its sex, drugs, and violence. Although I've often heard about this game, I've never personally seen a copy of it.

From what I understand, the game is a pretty straight-up old school RPG. The character classes are Loser, Average Kid, Brain, Jock, Cheerleader, Criminal, and Tough. The game takes place over four years, and players score points in categories like Social Success or Academic Success, with the goal of meeting class-specific victory conditions. There is a skill system that includes stuff like Drinking, Cheating, and Studying. There are also simple rules for dealing with various challenges like acne, pregnancy, and dope addiction.

Probably the most remarkable aspect of this game are the zinger illustrations by Erol Otus. Enjoy:


I thank Kellri for posting these scans to The RPG Site a few years back.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Erol Otus' Gamma World

I’m immersing myself in Gamma World in preparation for the con session I’m running during Memorial Day weekend. I played this game back in the early/mid-80s using the second edition set in the burgundy box. I have fond memories of grid crawling through a trashed post-apocalyptic world, munching on Cheez-Its, listening to Iron Maiden cassettes late into the night. Playing Gamma World was pretty weird and cool - mutated humanoids digging through piles of rubbish to find goodies, cults of talking animals hiding in the hills, and secret bunkers hosting fundamentalist pure strain humans.

In reading about other folks’ Gamma World (and Mutant Future) games on blogs and forums these days it’s interesting to note the divergent aesthetic approaches to the game. The aesthetic represented in the official published material is pretty dark, gritty, and Mad Max-like. This approach seemed to become stronger over time through the various editions (at least the ones I have seen, I lost track around edition 4 or 5). More evident in the earlier editions, and in the current retro gaming world, is gonzo zaniness reminiscent of Thundaar the Barbarian and Dave Trampier’s first edition illustrations. I love Thundaar, so of course I'm biased towards this latter vision.

My personal favorite approach to Gamma World, however, is best illustrated by Erol Otus’ illustrations in the first edition supplements. Beautiful technicolor weirdness more along the lines of early Heavy Metal and Epic Illustrated magazines than Saturday Morning cartoons.

In particular, look closely at Otus’ colorful ref screen illustration. The sky is clear and blue – not a dark and gritty scene at all. Green tress, mountains, dragons, mushrooms. I like the punked out warrior babe with the Dead Kennedys amulet and the crazy techno-wand - I want to be her friend. The mutants are really weird and fantastic. Soooooooo awesome! I’ll take Otustown over Bartertown any day!


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dungeon Mistress: Homebrew D&D With Seven Girls

My teenage niece who is running an all-girl homebrew D&D campaign (I wrote about here) has started her own D&D blog called Dungeon Mistress!

I forwarded her the link to the blog post I made about her game, and also to the ensuing discussion at Dragonsfoot, and she was very entertained and encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive reactions. I think her blog will provide a novel perspective on gaming that isn't represented in the usual blogs and forums.

My niece is also intending to make video posts of game sessions in the near future. This should be pretty cool and interesting!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Running Gamma World at Gamex 2010

This is just a little advertisement that I will be running a session of 1st edition Gamma World at Gamex 2010, one of L.A.'s biggest gaming conventions. The con runs over Memorial Day Weekend, May 28-31. My Gamma World session will be Sunday, May 30, 2-6pm. Here's the description for my session (and the image that inspired it):

The Floating Castle of the Wasp Women!

After the apocalypse your village found peace and safety on a sky island floating far above the radiation-soaked world below. No time to relax, though, my mutated friends! Your village is under attack by wasp women seeking to purloin your precious gravitron matrix generator – the ancient device keeping your village afloat! Can you and your small band of mutant warriors fend off the wasps, rescue the gravitron, and save the sky island? This will be a fast-paced session of TSR’s classic 1978 game GAMMA WORLD!

This should be a great con for RPGs! Robert Lionheart is going to be running a bunch of old school games of Traveller and Tunnels and Trolls. Also, the L.A. Dead Gamers Society will be out in force with high-quality World of Darkness weirdness, including some supernatural WWII-themed sessions run by Steve Ramirez!

Friday, May 14, 2010

1978 Greyhawk Homebrew Spells

For my day job as an entomologist I often find myself collecting butterflies in strange and remote places around the world. Unlike most collectors, however, I do not favor fresh and pristine specimens. I prefer ragged individuals whose wear and markings tell a story about how old the butterfly is, if it has been attacked by birds or lizards, or if it's hosting some kind of interesting parasite.

I'm the same way about collecting books and manuscripts, including gaming material. I love finding old modules and rulebooks that have been well used and annotated by previous owners. Old scribblings can tell you a lot about how someone played the game long ago - what kind of narratives they dreamed up, what kind of monsters they contended with, and what kind of riches they enjoyed.

This is why I was very pleased to find some homebrew spells listed in  a copy of OD&D Supplement I: Greyhawk I bought off eBay a while back. Greyhawk was originally published in 1976, and the copy I have is a 9th printing from May 1978. Check out these penciled-in spells appended to the Page 20 magic user spell list:

Of particular interest are the "Noose of Flesh" and "Forlorn Incistment [sic]" spells. Anyone recognize these?

"The Noose of Flesh" is a spell originating from Michael Moorcock's The Vanishing Tower. It's a pretty nasty and powerful piece of magic that causes a circular wall of quivering pink flesh to grow from the ground, eventually folding over the target(s), crushing them. In the original book the sorceress Myshella uses the spell to destroy an entire army.

"The Charm of Forlorn Encystment" is a spell from Jack Vance's Eyes of the Overworld. This spell encapsulates its victims far below the surface of the earth, forever... Or at least until the reverse of the spell is cast. There was a post about homebrew use of this spell in AD&D at Mule Abides, where tavis discussed speculation it may have been the source of Gygax's Imprisonment spell.

So this marked up Greyhawk provides a pretty nice example of a typical player - not an author - exploiting pulp fiction for homebrew D&D in the 70s. This is something a lot of us probably do routinely these days - I certainly do - but it's cool to see direct evidence of Vance and Moorcock influence on a D&D player back in the day.

What I am DYING to know is, what in the world is that 9th level "White Puff Ball Spell"...? It must be pretty damn weird and cool!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Suspended City of Wiggin's Drop

The World Oranj whitebox campaign had a significant change of scenery when the party merged with a Human Door. In addition to finding the wizard Morton's secret workroom and spellbook, they also found their way to a location I Am the Door insisted was a beautiful city called Wiggin's Drop. When transporting to the Wiggin's Drop coordinates the group was surprised to find themselves in a dark and dusty space behind an underground shrine of an unknown race. Exploration eventually brought the group to a crypt where six dessicated corpses of tall gaunt lily-white humanoids were laid out.

At the urging of the magician Scunibro the group moved quickly to find any way DOWN. Eventually they came to a large silver spherical chamber filled with obliviously spinning ghosts. At the bottom of the chamber was a ladder leading down, down, down. The party slid down the side of the sphere, climbed down the ladder, and found themselves on a swaying walkway - The Great Walkwork - suspended high over an underground sea:

The entire cavern was glowing a diffuse amber due to the carpet of phosphorescent fungus covering the ceiling. I Am The Door pointed off into the distance to a gigantic ceramic teardrop-like structure suspended over the sea and said it was Wiggin's Drop City. End of Session.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Women in Gaming

The post yesterday about my niece's all-girl gaming group created a minor nerdstorm, resulting in ~800 page loads in the last 24 hours (a lot for my blog) and a 30+ post thread on the Dragonsfoot forum. While the responses to my post and the Dragonsfoot thread were all completely positive, there were a number of minor comments presenting stereotypes about women in gaming. Mostly along the lines of: why are there so few/none, why do they tend to play elves with cat familiars, and why don't they like killing orcs as much as male players...?

These comments prompt me here to briefly present my own experiences with women in gaming. Basically: The only gender difference I have seen playing RPGs in Southern California is that there are slightly more men than women in the hobby. This includes cons and my local scene in Orange County. This does NOT include game shops or RPGA, which I have little experience with. Pretty much every session I play in - either my own D&D games, Strategicon events, Meetup events, or game parties - includes one or more women. I have seen absolutely no trend in women tending to play different types of characters or in different styles. Interestingly, in both my whitebox and Labyrinth Lord games women play front line brawlers, although we also have clerics and magic users represented. I know several women GMs in Orange County, and at one game party I hosted we had an all-female session of the card-driven Dragonstorm RPG rolling on for many hours. In the last few years I can only recall DMing one game (of Swords & Wizardry) that was all-male. Even back in the early 80s, when I was in junior high, I remember DMing Palace of the Silver Princess and having a girl playing a dwarf with a big axe.

I mean, c'mon dudes, if you want to develop stereotypes, shows like Dungeon Majesty and I Hit It With My Axe would have you believe that ALL D&D players in SoCal are women!

So if this is my experience, why are folks in other areas seeing something different? I don't really know... Maybe it's an urban vs. rural thing, a regional culture thing, or a statistical sampling effect in low-population areas. Or maybe it's just my cyclopeatronic cologne distorting the sex ratios around me...?

 * Dungeon Majesty *

Monday, May 10, 2010

FRANK FRAZETTA (1928-2010)

Word has just come that Frank Frazetta, one of the greatest and most visionary illustrators of all-time, has died of a stroke. This is very sad news, especially given the recent turmoil in the Frazetta clan. There will never be another like Frazetta.

UPDATE: NY Times just posted their official obituary.

My 16 Year Old Niece is a DM!

UPDATE (5/18): My niece set up her own blog called Dungeon Mistress to talk about her D&D campaign. Take a look!

I went to visit my mama yesterday and she passed along these clandestine photos of my 16 year old niece DMing an ALL-FEMALE D&D CAMPAIGN! This is a serious weekly campaign my niece is running, not a singleton pick-up game. My niece created the entire setting they are playing in - a world shattered by an epic historical struggle between factions of wizard-dragons. The players are trying to relearn the forgotten dragon magic to fight a horrifying zombie plague advancing from the northern tundra.

Uncle Cyclopeatron is so proud!

One of the girls in the game is working on a short video documentary about the campaign that will include the players providing in-character interviews. I'm very excited to see how this turns out - hopefully there will be some footage I can post here.

Behold these strange and rare images of high school girls in 2010 playing D&D (posted with permission of my niece):

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Travel Through a Human Door

Our last D&D whitebox session took place on a lovely Sunday morning at a friend's house on Mt. Washington. From the hillside we had a great view of the Los Angeles basin while sitting at the playing table. Coffee and mimosas circulated for the ~4 hour session. In the old ramshackle house next door was an acid damaged squatter who was playing weird and quiet improvisations on his Casio keyboard all day. It was actually kind of a nice atmospheric backdrop for the game. After D&D some of us went on a walk through the hills, grilled up dinner, and played some Dominion.

About halfway through the D&D game the party found themselves in a wooden room. They broke through a wall and found the room was surrounded by a large dark space in every direction. The only feature they could detect in the darkness was a pillar a stone's throw away with a 7' tall, thin, and mustachioed man sitting on a chair. The man said his name was "I Am The Door".

It turns out that he was a rare and ancient Human Door. The characters learned that they could merge into the man's torso and be transported through space to different locations. They also learned that, upon invitation, I Am The Door could merge into himself to travel along with the party. Sadly he had been little used for so long - centuries in fact - that he could only remember two locations: (1) a  wizard's chamber isolated deep inside the planet and (2) the way to a place called Wiggin's Drop City. I Am The Door said he could easily learn new locations when provided with appropriate Door Scrolls containing coordinates, however no one in the group had ever seen such a scroll.

And so, after traversing a rope to the pillar in the darkness, the party merged with I Am The Door...

Friday, May 7, 2010

J. ERIC HOLMES (1930-2010)

J. ERIC HOLMES (1930-2010)

The April issue of Gridley Wave announced that J. Eric Holmes, the author of the the first D&D "blue box" basic set, has passed away at the age of 80. I subsequently found that the Leber Funeral Home, Union City, NJ. reported Holmes' date of death as March 20, 2010.

Holmes was born February 16, 1930. I was always fascinated by the thought of him being perhaps one of the oldest living dungeon masters. Related to this, in his 1981 book "Fantasy Role Playing Games" he made some very touching statements about how he always liked to have kids playing in his games. Holmes was a neurology professor at USC in his late 40s  when he started DMing in the early days of D&D. He was probably one of the oldest guys at the time to take up this new and strange hobby. Holmes has always been interesting to me because he was a research level biology professor, like myself, yet he made time for RPGs and fantastic fiction in his life. I also appreciate how Holmes came to gaming from the fiction side of the hobby rather than the wargaming side, again, like myself. I believe he saw the potential from RPGs to be an exciting and respectable extension of imaginative literature.

I have tried on several occasions to find Holmes' contact information, meeting only with failure. I was just telling my wife last week how much I would like to track him down for an interview or even to coax him into a game. I know in the last 10 years of his life Holmes was mostly active in Edgar Rice Burroughs fandom, and that he had a stroke in 2004 that limited his activities. I am very sorry I will never be able to speak with or meet the man. Again, the gaming community loses one of its most important elder trailblazers.

Jarrah's Cubic Dungeon

Awesome Alert!
Check out this brilliant cubic dungeon from Jarrah's great blog Rocket-Propelled Game:

There's one secret room with the way out!

Given the complexity of each geomorph tile I think my players might get grumpy if I sprung this on them, but maybe something a little simpler and less tortuous could be a lot of fun.

[Note: Norman at Troll and Flame subsequently described a similar project.]