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Science mice and smart specs

It's fun to wreck one's favorite sections of town - a reliable benefit of playing superhero or post-apocalyptic role-playing games. Special points to Ross for looking up things in someone else's town for this purpose.

This post continues the Gamma World game seen in Radioactive Wonderland and So easy to get turned around, driving through downtown. Our characters are well-flexed and motivated, full of ways to agree and disagree with one another, and our naive but winsome little grail is in sight.

A while ago, I mentioned that I liked the presence of satire or dark reflection, or at least a sense of shattering of some kind, that I found or felt in the earliest version of the game. Whether this version could support it, I didn't know, and even mentioning the topic seemed dangerous to me. Such a thing happens if it's real or not at all, and I'd rather see "not at all," e.g., let the game be nothing but a mutant-flavored killfest, than have anyone try to force it.

Well, "it's real." Look at our play concerning the broken model of the Earth, and you'll see what I mean, with no forcing, no preaching, no explaining.

Actual Play


Ron Edwards's picture

Glow-worshipping handsy cultists on the ground floor, then the artistic philosophical arachnid-ish robot upstairs! Have the science mice's footprints led us to nowhere?

Here's the direct link into the playlist.

The dramatic leap toward the end of this session shall bear the weight of a discussion which we all really need to learn how to have: when we all try really hard to apply the rules correctly, but due to multiple minor factors, we don't quite manage it. During play it seemed right, but everyone checked their rules afteward when no longer high on adrenalin and fatigue ... and we didn't. The result is tolerably within what might have been possible in some circumstances, and we did mind the rules for actions within one's turn, but it definitely stepped on a number of constraints based on conditions.

I'll comment here a bit more about the details, but again, my goal here is to develop a method for public discussion for when this happens in play, rather than a wild round of patronizing "well, I would haves," legalistic whatabouts, and excuse-making slogans.

James_Nostack's picture

This is relevant to my interests, as I mistakenly ruled a PC was dead earlier this week.  

It's hard to develop methods without knowing the speaker's goals, but FWIW here are my suggestions:

(1) Figure out some morally-neutral verb for this, which of course is going to vary by language.  In English,  my own suggestions would be: 

"I made a mistake about the rules" isn't exactly neutral, but it's direct and reads easily. 

"We strayed from the rules" is more neutral, but it reads a little strangely.  

(2) Maybe take at most 25 words to describe the fictional or at-table context.

(3) a quotation or summary of the rule as it appears in the text, along with a cite to the page / edition.  This helps anyone else playing the same game recognize a potential tricky place.  It also helps those who don't know the game, to figure out what's supposed to happen.

(4) Describe textual confusion, if any.  Often this stuff boils down to mis-remembering the actual rule, which is probably because the text is less clear than it could be, especially about a subtle point.  This would help any other designers figure out better ways of phrasing things, or at least, develop an "anti-library" of textual approaches that don't work so well.

(5) Maaaybe discus the design implications of the actual rule.  Sometimes a rule is written in a particular way to achieve a specific effect in the game, and understanding that helps to remember the correct rule.  It might also lead to some insight about the rest of the design, though that's probably outside the immediate discussion.

(I would guess that many of these conversations boil down to, "I accidentally interfered with another player's agency."  Because we're all such lovely people, we know that respecting agency is important both in life and in games.  This is an unfortunate event, but also, mistakes happen--and are bound to happen more often when there are lots of formal rules involving abstract concepts.  And it's important to remember that it's just a game: in sports, professional referees make incorrect decisions very often, usually with significant consequences, so why would we be different?)

Ron Edwards's picture

Thanks James! I was hoping to see some self-elected inclusion of other game experiences and thoughts about this topic.

Our attempt at your list of "how to talk" can be seen at the beginning of session 12. We hadn't of course seen your breakdown at the time but I hope we did a tolerable job of hitting your points. Let me know what you think of it.

Ron Edwards's picture

We began with our thoughts on "did we mess up rules" during session 11, and moved into some crazy action. It turned out to be a short session but if we relied on a special effects budget, it would certainly have been blown sky-high.

Here's the link directly into the playlist.

(editing this in later) Helma and I chatted a little bit before the session started, which led to a concept for sharing here. Briefly, one of the strongest features of this game experience is the contrast between our characters' naive and rather hopeful notions about the science mice, and our real-person real-world knowledge that any such vision is probably doomed, that it's all based on a kids' coloring book that Geiger has built up into a fantasy of ancient wisdom. I can't explain precisely why I feel so strongly about Ockmah being willing to adopt this concept and goal as a personal mission (in game terms, choosing to make it a Major Quest), but I do. It obviously has its funny side but I don't see it as played for comedy, or rather, since there's no sang-froid or schadenfreude here all, I don't want to see Geiger and her pals ruined and disillusioned ... and yet it seems so terribly clear that only grief will come of this, like an oncoming freight train.

The world is softly, cartoonishly horrid to the point where you just have to laugh (gravity hammer splat!), but the people in it, our characters, and indeed everyone we've met no matter how venal or fucked-up, do have inner lives about it and those inner lives include hope and a sense of questing, capital-Q.

Whereas our Khaotic game is entirely and totally the opposite, for both variables. Regarding the overall context, the big hope is real: a better world, or rather, two of them, Xenos and Earth. There are a lot of little variables to complicate things, it's really dangerous, but the characters are uniquely situated to do it. The language of doing so is pure action science fiction effort - get in there and make it happen, as best you can.

However, regarding the characters themselves, you are looking at some pretty messed-up, variously alienated including mental disorders, often self-destructive people. They absolutely do not have hope; given the circumstances opening play, their attitudes range from grim resignation to outright panic.

So that's worth some thought regarding other games we play.

Ron Edwards's picture

With great joy for playing with this wonderful group, and great appreciation for Ross' bravura GMing, we have reluctantly concluded our Gamma World game. Is there more to do? Does another quest beckon! Yes to both, but for now, we will merely yearn for "the sequel" as all good audience must.

There is much to learn from these thirteen sessions. Please watch any that you'd like, or all of'em for madpersons, and if you've been following along, here is the final session linked directly into the playlist.

Ross's picture

If people want to follow along with some of the encounters there are scans of some of the maps used here

Ron Edwards's picture

Ah! That reminds me to attach your map of the Visualizer's sanctum, or rather, its messy and unwarranted misuse of the science mice's sanctum, to the main post above.

James_Nostack's picture

Ross, how much work was each session to prep?  Did you find the procedures in the text (if any) to be helpful at all?  How much of the prep process did you have to re-invent on your own?  

(By this I mean, some games have super-clear prep procedures; others have almost no procedures at all; and others have procedures that in practice aren't especially helpful.)

Ross's picture

Hi James, I'm guessing I spent on average maybe 3 hours prepping each session. But that covers a whole range of activities, from idly thinking about the situation and the various factions and their plans, to dreaming up terrible jokes, to doing internet tours of Norrköping and making terrible handout images, to rereading rules that seemed likely to come up in the next session, to more practical encounter creation things like setting and spending XP values on monsters and traps, reskinning and customising monsters, thinking up locations and then drawing maps of them.

As for the games procedures and how helpful I found them, this varies quite a bit at differnet levels. At the top level of creating an adventure I didn't really find any useful advice in the Gamma World books, but that is partly because I didn't follow the linear series of encounters model that seems to be the default. I certainly didn't find a lot to help produce the unstable situation that I wanted, although I suppose I did draw from the Cryptic Alliance write ups in one of the supplements a bit for this.

As far as creating individual encounters, here the procedures are more helpful I think. You can pretty easily set an XP budget, based on number of players and their level, and then spend it to populate an encounter with monsters and traps. If you used the monsters straight out of the Gamma World book and an existing location map you can probably do this in less than 10 minutes, although I think the GW book is a bit lacking in advice on what sorts of monsters to put together and how to play the resulting encounter. I definitely made use of the content in the 4e DMs guide to help with this. I also worried that, with only three players, my XP budget was a bit restricted and so I either went quite over it or had fairly sparse encounters. Looking back I don't think this was as much of a problem as I expected it to be; I think I could have gone a fair bit further over budget, and created maybe more challenging encounters, before they started to get impossibly difficult.  

I don't think it is a critcism but I did find that creating good encounters is a bit of an art and takes time to master. This is especially the case with the interaction between monsters and the battle map and any traps / hazards or special terrain. For example I was really looking forward to the battle on the top of the waterfall, but once it started I realised that, as the sword beetle didn't have any forced movement abilities, there wasn't much chance of having anybody go tumbling over the edge. I also often made a mess of initial positioning of creatures becaue I didn't think about it enough in advance. Certainly some encounters could have been made a lot more challenging with a better starting set-up for the oppostion, although equally sometimes this was a result of the play leading into the encounter which meant logically some monsters would be out of their ideal position. As I said, though there is definitely a learning curve here, I don't think this is a bad thing and the procedures are good, but they can probably only hold your hand so far and getting better at this is probably part of the fun, at least I found it to be so. Also, although I think all the GW 7e adventures I have looked at have been terrible overall, lots of the individual enocunters look quite fun and interestingly designed - looking at these, and thinking about how they are constructed, is probably a good way to learn more about this.

Because I can't do things the easy way I also imported a lot of creatures form D&D 4e rather than use the monsters out of the GW book - partly because I wanted more people-like creatures I could give motivations to rather than big scary monsters that just want to eat you. The procedures for customising monsters from the 4e GMs guide worked well and gave me lots of options and advice. I should probably not have bothered with the rules for lowering a monsters level though, and just used the android as it was in the book. I was particularly pleased with the customised monster I used for the Visualiser AI, that was a lot of fun to make.

Overall I think at this level the games procedures, if you include the core 4e books, provided a lot of help and were fun to play with. Just the stuff in the GW 7e book is maybe a bit brief and doesn't supply the range of options I needed, but could easily work fine for a GM less inclined to make things difficult for themselves.

Such a GM, running a more linear series of encounters, could probably cut their prep down to half an hour or less per session, especially if they didn't insist on badly drawing all their own battlemaps. 

robowist's picture

I enjoyed reading Ross's discussion of some of the aspects of preparing the game (and I'm thankful that James opened the question). I'd love to see more of those types of posts featured here at Adept Play--either in written or in focused video formats.

RPGs are quite uneven in giving useful advice to GMs about how to set up and run the game. Sometimes that information is nonexistent; sometimes it is overly generic, general, and uninspired; sometimes it has kernels of gold which are left rough and undeveloped; . . . and sometimes it can be really useful. I remember when playing in Ross's Legendary Lives run that I was wondering what he had done between sessions, and we got a bit of that information during our debriefing after the game, but I'd like to hear more about how people approach game preparation and GMing experiences that they are having. There's a lot of experimentation that goes on in that arena, but when we hit on some approach or technique that results in valuable experiences in play, I'd love to hear about it. This goes both for preparation before a game as well as for techniques or approaches used during sessions. We can pick up on some of this by watching actual play sessions, but those obviously don't show us some of the key aspects of planning that occurred in the GM's laboratory.

James_Nostack's picture

Ross, that's extremely insightful, thank you!  It matches what I'd generally felt about D&D 4e, so it's not a surprise that something built from the same bones would run into similar issues.

Gamma World seems like a game that ought to be absurd, desperate, and elegiac all at once, and that's a hard tone to nail.  No version of the rules seems to really care about that, which makes me wonder if it's just me having some idiosyncratic demands.  But it sounds like you did a really good job of hitting those notes.

I haven't had time to watch the videos - it's so much slower than reading! - but I'm going to make time to do so, because it sounds like this was a really well done game.

Ross's picture

Hi Robbie, and thanks. I enjoy talking about game prep, I just need a bit of prodding to do so. So if you have any other questions about this game, or my Legendary Lives prep, just ask and I will likely witter on for ages. In fact I had just started a blog for doing this - - mostly as a place to store links to useful websites etc. that I used in my prep. If I write anything interesting there I might cross post or point to it from here too.

Ross's picture

James, I'd certainly be interested to hear what you think if you do watch any of the game sessions. I should say that any success in hitting any tone is as much down to the players as it is me. I mostly just riffed off all the good stuff they thought up and their characters' responses to the world and npcs and stuff were what brought any of it alive.

Also I should probably say about prep that maybe 50% of the time I felt terribly under prepared; you can maybe see me frantically scribbling and scanning maps at the start of some of the sessions. My fault for spending more time thinking up terrible jokes rather than knuckling down to actual prep. So I imagine watching it back some of it will be a little rough, especially the first session or so where we were finding our feet.

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