Friday, January 4, 2013

Gamma World's Appendix N (Part 1 of 2)

Hiero's Journey and Hothouse
What They Indicate About the Implied Gamma World

Unlike AD&D, Gamma World's Appendix N is woefully short, comprised of Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, Starman's Son by Andre Norton, Hiero's Journey by Sterling Lanier, and Ralph Bakshi's Wizards. What we can learn from these sources, however, indicates a unique post-apocalyptic vision encoded within the core book but, sadly, often misrepresented in the later supplements. Today we're going to examine two books on this list: Sterling Lanier's Hiero's Journey and Brian Aldiss' Hothouse.

It's a Jungle out there: In Hothouse, civilization has long since passed and the world has become overrun with creatures they reign much higher than man on the food chain. Those who survive must hide in the shadows of species which have supplanted our own, for they fight battles of survival and propagation beyond our limited scope. Instead, man has become scavengers which must eke out a meager existence. This is not Twilight 2000, where humanity is slowly retaking the world. It is a game pockets of humanity totally isolated from one another, surrounded by a wilderness that can (and will) easily destroy them.

Conspiracies everywhere: Hiero's Journey depicts the struggle between the Metz Republic, a small bastion of humanity, and a creeping wilderness which slowly destroys outlying farmsteads, cuts off trade routes, and murders any explorers who look beyond the boundaries of their homes. Over the course of the novel, however, we learn that these seemingly random attacks come from a conspiracy known as the Unclean, which organizes and coordinates attacks by the monsters of the wildlands. There are two parallel organizations in early TSR publications, one obvious and another less so. The first is the Red Death, and more generally the cryptic alliances of Gamma World in general. In the case of the Red Death (and their inspiration, the Unclean), these organizations are dedicated to destroying the last remnants of human civilization and work through proxies and spies, most notably through monsters which they have bred or subverted to their will.

The second group which fits this description are the priests which pull the strings behind the Caves of Chaos in Keep on the Borderlands. Although not much is revealed about their goals or methods, one can infer certain things. First, they are dedicated to destroying human civilization. Second, they employ monstrous humanoids as their primary agents, and often set these pawns at odds with one another in a Darwinian struggle for supremacy. Third, they stay hidden, preferring to let their attacks to be aggression by savages and monsters. This all perfectly fits the Unclean, and invokes a world where seemingly random violence is in actuality coolly calculated by beings who wish for nothing less than to strike the final blow against mankind.

Beasts are not Men: In both Hiero's Journey and (to a lesser extent) Hothouse we observe a variety of mutated species which have developed from different animals, often with strange and unusual powers. Unlike what may seem implicit in Gamma World's character generation, however, these are not one-of-a-kind critters each with their own unique powers. Instead, they are small tribal groups, usually living within a small territory, which are slowly developing their own cultures. Each have their own understanding of the world around them, and many have radically different viewpoints. Predatory catfolk, dolphin slavers, secretive bear-men, and so forth, each bearing a unique outlook.

This method actually allows for a tremendous amount of setting design by the player during character creation, as the critters they roll up indicate an entirely new species, and the character traits the PCs display indicate species-wide cultural norms. Encourage players to define their people in play, and leave blank spaces on your map for PC species to inhabit.

Gamma World "End Game": Looking at Hothouse and Hiero's Journey, one can see why the setting was so appealing to Ward and "Jaquet", inasmuch as they perfectly emulate the D&D arc of play. Hothouse is a picaresque in the purest sense, where the characters wander from one place to another, in constant peril while fooling (and being fooled by) an absurd cast of strange characters. Hiero's Journey, on the other hand, represents a later stage of play, one of clearing the wilderness and building a new civilization atop the ruins of the old, the "domain game" that Chris Kutalik so perfectly described.

Perhaps what makes Gamma World's domain management unique is that it centers largely around a "gold rush" for technology. The goal is not just to dig up ray guns from the dungeon, but rather to learn how to recreate these resources. As indicated in Hiero's Journey, such a process is slow and painful, although the stakes are extremely high. Such technology is fiercely fought over by the various conspiracies and city-states and must be carefully hidden so as not to attract spies and thieves. If the PCs are to take and hold territory, the secrets of the Ancients must be unlocked.

Part 2 will analyze Ralph Bakshi's Wizards as well as Andre Norton's Starman's Son, just as soon as I've consumed them.
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