Friday, November 12, 2010

Roleplaying On Rails

Having sifted through GWQ1, The Mutant Master, on a scavenger hunt for encounters, plot hooks, and delicious post-apocalyptic flavor, I now feel compelled to write out a few impressions. For those folks playing along at home, The Mutant Master is an adventure module for TSR's Fourth Edition of Gamma World, which was based heavily on AD&D 2nd Edition. Now, I never had an opportunity to play AD&D as a kid, being more of a Palladium fan at the time, and have only the vaguest understanding of its rules (armor class gets better as it gets lower, right?), so my read of this splat was focused less on ways to convert its monster's stat blocks into GSL d20, and more on the progression of the plot and the sort of weirdness it attempts to throw at the players.

The first thing that struck me about this module, and this edition of GW in general, is the use of gibberish words to replace phrases that the players might know, but their characters should/would not. Sometimes, the module pulls this off rather well; the adventure takes place in and around what once was the State of Michigan, though most of its cities and landmarks have been wiped from the map after the apocalypse, and the few surviving locations' names have been severely corrupted through oral tradition and hearsay. This results in the party walking along the shores of Lake Mitchgloom, or exploring the ruins of Sagow. These corruptions are evocative of the "proper" names, but weird and different enough to feel at home in a world where civilization as we know it was swept away several centuries prior. The flipside to this, then, are words which the publishers felt the characters would or should not understand, even though the gamers would. In these cases, nouns and adjectives are replaced with absolute, vaguely foreign sounding rubbish words. "Science" becomes "fleeg," "gravity" turns into "hatwick," and my personal favorite, "laser" is replaced with "mundil," even though characters might be carrying a laser weapon and be well acquainted with its use. It's important to note, these are not words used in any language presented in the setting, they're simply inserted to simulate a character finding a word or phrase he doesn't understand. This lends itself to confusion both in and out of character, as players may have difficulty assigning a sense of tension or urgency to stopping a villain from installing a tooka on the dreaded yurkum torkel.

In addition to ridiculous feats of language manipulation, The Mutant Master whips out some egregious railroading sequences, ensuring the party always runs into certain encounters, and that these encounters always play out in a very specific way. Now, most adventures include a bit of player herding, funneling the party forward into the next band of orcs or ninjas or electrokinetic rat swarms, but this book takes things just a little bit further. As an example, while on their way to the first Plot Point, the characters will always encounter four monsters attacking an unarmed NPC. Regardless of whether or not the characters choose to intervene, the NPC is written such that he will always display a unique and incredibly devastating power that will defeat the entire group of monsters. Indeed, it specifically states that it is impossible for the party to close to combat range before the NPC unleashes his attack, so that the players' interaction with the scene is entirely meaningless. Even more meaningless is a mandatory trap which the party will always be forced to fall into, dumping the characters down a long chute and into a narrow tunnel filled with water, which only one can climb out of per round. This trap has been written so that the last party member in line will almost always drown, forcing the player to roll a new character who appears outside the tunnel and can then reset the trap, allowing the survivors to escape.

I really, honestly wonder how modules like this developed such loyal fan followings. Did we actually find this railroading acceptable? Did we not know any better? Or did we simply not have any other options?

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