Gaming the Post-Apocalypse: ‘Gamma World’ and ‘Paranoia’

Reviews / May 8, 2018

GRASSO: I wanted to talk about two tabletop roleplaying games that explored the aftermath of nuclear apocalypse. At first I was going to venture the thesis that Gamma World, which TSR released in 1978, and Paranoia, developed at West End Games in 1984, are very different visions of a post-apocalyptic future, but now I’m kind of wondering—are they really?

Let’s take a look at Gamma World first. Written by James M. Ward and Gary Jaquet, Gamma World takes as its inspiration any number of Weird fables about the reality of a far future after a nuclear exchange: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. (1960), Planet of the Apes (film, 1968), or A Boy And His Dog (film, 1975), among many others. But for me, growing up, the definitive vision of a far future, populations wildly mutated by radiation, surrounded by the dangerous remnants of the Before Times, really lies entirely with Gamma World. Even surrounded by the tons of post-apocalyptic nuclear war fiction of the 1980s, Gamma World reigned supreme. I picked up one of the boxed sets (likely the 2nd edition) at my local hobby store around 1987 or so and it really got the hooks into me. Never got to play it with my junior high gaming group, though. Rob, when did you first encounter Gamma World?

MACDOUGALL: I think I was aware of Gamma World almost as soon as I started playing Dungeons & Dragons; certainly as soon as I started haunting the RPG rack in the funny-smelling basement of Hobbies, Crafts & Things. And of course the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which I got for Christmas in either 1982 or 1983, had a handy set of tables at the back for converting AD&D characters to Gamma World or Boot Hill. I never bought Gamma World myself, but a friend of a friend did, and I remember a couple of disappointing games that amounted to rolling a half-dozen times on all those random mutation tables, coming up with a wholly non-viable character, and meeting a quick and humiliating death at the hands of some rogue warbot or poisonous fish. I’m pretty sure my first GW character was a super-intelligent carrot with telekinesis and no sensory nerve endings. When they finally coaxed me into playing again, I was a mutated wolf (now we’re getting somewhere, I thought) with hyper fat cell accumulation (hmm) and a crippling fear of the dark (which now I don’t even see in the rulebook, but I remember it, dammit). So I decided pretty quickly that I “hated” Gamma World or, if I was feeling charitable, that it was “too hard.”

But the idea of gaming the post-apocalypse got its hooks in me, just like you. And the irradiated wilderness of our world after nuclear war was no less significant a territory for my young imagination than Middle Earth, Greyhawk, or Vietnam. I know I had more fun a few years later playing a Mad Max-inspired game of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: After the Bomb (1986). (This was during that brief window when Leonardo, Donatello, & Co. were indie comic darlings and not yet a massive kiddie franchise.) Speaking of random tables: character generation in TMNT originally included a big table of mental illnesses and, uh, sexual deviations, which the publisher hastily covered with a plain white sticker after the Turtles hit the big time.

Your list of influences on Gamma World is a good one. I would also have suggested Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, except it turns out that was published in 1980. And it’s not in the PDF that you and I are looking at, but this post by grognard blogger James Maliszewski says the first edition of Gamma World included a foreword by editors Tom Wham and Timothy Jones, which, amusingly, justified the game’s use of the metric system (because of course the U.S.A. will have gone metric by the time the apocalypse comes in 2309) and also listed a few explicit inspirations for the game: Andre Norton’s Starman’s Son (1952), Brian Aldiss’s The Long Afternoon of Earth (1962), Sterling Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey (1973), and Ralph Bakshi’s movie Wizards (1977). The only one of those I know well is Bakshi’s Wizards, but they all confirm that Gamma World was aiming for a science fantasy vibe, even a kind of post-apocalyptic swords and sorcery, far more than any realistic extrapolation of an actual nuclear war. Gamma World also repurposed many creatures and concepts from Metamorphosis Alpha (1976), another game by James Ward, set on an interstellar ark or generation starship. TSR apparently hoped a planet-based setting would offer bigger possibilities for development, though Gary Gygax later said they’d damaged the game by taking it out of its starship setting. Still, the first thing I think of when I remember Gamma World is that hex map of a ruined North America with a sunken coastline and corrupted place names (Tronto, Boztun, Nu Ork City). This is what happens when the bombs fall: mutation, wandering monsters, hex-crawling the wilderness.

GRASSO: Yeah, it’s so hard to pin GW down because, as you note, it was part of an overall zeitgeist of post-apocalyptic media in the late ’70s/early ’80s: Mad Max and The Road Warrior, of course, even the first volume in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger (all five parts of the novel had been serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction between, yes, 1978 and 1981). I think King and other creators of this period saw in the post-apocalypse a chance to tell epic stories, to set up quests, to explore that very “post-apocalyptic swords and sorcery” theme in a way that the modern world doesn’t allow. (King even explicitly said his book The Stand, first published in 1978, was his chance to use the American landscape to tell a story like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.) All I know is, when I first read Part 3 of The Dark Tower, The Waste Lands, in high school in 1991, and the gunslinger’s adventuring party encountered Shardik, the robot bear and guardian of The Beam, built by North Central Positronics, I fairly shouted, “That’s SO Gamma World!”

gamma world referees screen 1980

Cover of Gamma World 1st edition Referee’s Screen, 1980. Art by Erol Otus

But yes, this distant future in Gamma World, full of mutated people and place names, has its own unique flavor. And this landscape was caused by nuclear annihilation. But I’d forgotten it wasn’t the traditional bi-polar US vs. USSR conflict that initiated it! The backstory of the game changes with each edition, but in the 1978 first edition it’s a curiously 1970s kind of escalation to nuclear holocaust. A far-future 24th century finds mankind at peace, having arrested the 20th and 21st century’s “rape of the earth’s beauty and resources.” But humans could not cease their political disputes. A political activist group, in favor of a “united world government,” is vaporized mid-demonstration by a neutron bomb by so-called “Autonomists.” (I guess today we’d call them nationalists, huh?). The terrorist actions accelerate in a game of one-upsmanship that would be familiar to those living in the West in the 1970s, until a mysterious group called the Apocalypse (are they scientists? Religious? Military intelligence? No one, it seems, can say) tells everyone to knock it off, or they’ll unleash nukes and other WMDs on every capital city in the world. The Ultimatum is not met, and the Apocalypse does what they promised. A century and a half later, you have Gamma World.

I find this idea of the apocalypse being triggered by petty political disputes really interesting, especially as we get to talking about Paranoia, because the one thing that unites both settings is the idea of secret societies and organizations that provide support against the vagaries and dangers of each post-apocalyptic setting. The fact that the apocalypse itself was triggered by these groups violently disagreeing with each other is also kind of fascinating as we look at the West in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The idea that the very act of political organization would inevitably lead to conflict, terrorism, and eventually the end of civilization shakes me to my core, knowing what we know now about the decline of political organizing leading to the dominance of capital in all our lives.

MACDOUGALL: Ahem: I think you mean The Apocalypse, Mike, with italics and a capital T. But yeah, how about that road to disaster? Humanity conquers scarcity, lives in harmony with the environment, reaches the stars—but then turns to “theology, political ideology, social and cultural identification, and development of self-awareness.” These things were “not harmful in themselves,” you’ll be glad to know, but “it soon became fashionable to identify with and support various leagues, organizations, and ‘special interest groups’… Demonstrations, protests, and debates became the order of the day.” Horrors! Were The Apocalypse radical centrists, punishing people for holding strong political views? Was 1978 the last year in which Americans could plausibly imagine an apocalypse brought about by too much political engagement?

Those dastardly interest groups resurface in Gamma World‘s post-apocalyptic present, in the form of “cryptic alliances,” a dozen more or less fanatical tribes or factions that fight for supremacy in the ruins of the old world. These include the Friends of Entropy, the Knights of Genetic Purity, and the Ranks of the Fit, this last being a military-religious order led by “an enormous mutated bear” who’s read Animal Farm and Mein Kampf—god help me, I do love this hokey shit. You could see cryptic alliances as Gamma World‘s answer to D&D’s alignment system, but instead of providing any kind of moral code to guide the player characters’ actions, they mainly offer reasons for the characters to turn on one another.

Which brings us, mutatis mutandis, to Paranoia.

paranoia 1st edition player handbook cover 1984

Cover of 1st edition Paranoia Player Handbook, 1984

Now this was my jam. “The roleplaying game of a darkly humorous future,” Paranoia was developed by Greg Costikyan and Eric Goldberg from a home-brew game by Dan Gelber, then written up by Ken Rolston and published in, appropriately enough, 1984. The game is set 200 years after another apocalypse. The surface of the earth looks a lot like Gamma World, but what’s left of humanity lives in an underground warren of tunnels and bunkers called “Alpha Complex,” all watched over by an insane and all-powerful computer. The players take the part of laser-happy “troubleshooters” hunting non-existent “Commies” for The Computer. Life is cheap, trigger-fingers are itchy, and just about every activity you can think of is treason punishable by death.

There’s a lot I could say about Paranoia, but let’s start with its backstory. “1992 Old Reckoning: Following World War III, signature of the World Charter by the surviving nations.” Damn. No centuries-long golden age here: eight years after the game comes out, World War III is already over. A few decades of peace follow, until “a planetoid the size of Sheboygan” strikes the earth. This triggers an obsolete Soviet ICBM, Dead Hand-style, which in turn triggers North America’s computerized air defenses. The massive super-computer under Des Moines (Des Moines, Sheboygan—Paranoia has a Catskill comedian’s love for funny American place names) searches back, back, back through its memory banks until it finds a dusty old file from 1957: America is under attack by the Commies! Which drives the poor computer irrevocably insane.

Okay, so it’s a bit convoluted. In my memory, there was no Russian ICBM; the planetoid was itself misidentified as a missile strike, which seems more elegant to me. But in its janky way, the Paranoia backstory is one of those brilliant gems that junk culture sometimes coughs up, a tossed-off notion with way more metaphorical juice than it has any right to, like lightsabers or Romero-style zombies or Stan Lee’s whole career. See, humanity thought it had escaped the Cold War, but Russia’s dead hand and the ghosts in the NORAD memory banks pull us right back in to the worst nightmares of 1957. It’s positively Freudian: the anxious super-computer regressing to the primal scene of its own electronic infancy, the not-so-secret origin of missile defense systems and the internet and the whole computer age.

GRASSO: So this idea of going underground to escape the nuclear apocalypse obviously has its origins in Cold War-era fallout shelters, both municipal and privately-owned. The idea of an entire society existing underground was explored in more detail in works like Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), the aforementioned A Boy and His Dog, and of course George Lucas’s groundbreaking THX 1138 (1971). (And that’s leaving aside H.G. Wells’s classic and class-based exploration of the theme in The Time Machine in 1895.) I think it’s obvious how much Paranoia owes to THX 1138, from the sterile white (INFRARED?) environments of the underground city, to the mood-controlling drugs, to the citizens’ serial-number-like names (used by Paranoia over its history to slip a pun or two into the proceedings) to the omnipresence of computer technology managing the carefully-balanced ecosystem of the underground complex. What Paranoia did that was novel was to take this, let’s be honest, pretty implausible premise to its ultimate satirical conclusion: if this kind of closed society was managed by computer, why would that computer be inherently helpful? Wouldn’t the Computer be more like HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, since it was programmed by people in the military-intelligence complex and thus prone to developing paranoid tendencies? Of course!

paranoia computer 1984

Three pieces of advice from Friend Computer, from the Paranoia Player Handbook, 1984

I think the other thing that’s interesting about all these fantasias of survival I’ve mentioned is that underground, humanity reverts. Not necessarily in a Devo-style de-evolution to caveman brutality but to the halcyon days of that very 1957 you mention. Whether it’s the machine-like sexlessness of THX 1138, the weird and sexually-fetishized 1950s suburbia of A Boy and His Dog, or the religious fundamentalism of the Bomb-worshipping underground mutants in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, humanity tries to achieve some kind of perfection based on a more conservative, cleaner past. And Alpha Complex has that in spades, whether it’s the Commie-bashing you mention, the superiority of military “Research & Development” and the player characters’ identity as “Troubleshooters,” or the Secret Societies that seek elements of the “Old Reckoning.”

I’m just realizing—the underground survival dream after a nuclear war is a reactionary one, isn’t it? It’s still satirical, because the reason we’re all living underground like post-atomic Ward and June Cleavers is because the madness of mutually assured destruction drove us there, but there’s also a streak of “boy, wouldn’t it be great if we could just escape from the dangerously ‘radioactive’ real world, one made that way by literal Commies, by going underground and re-establishing some lost perfection?” (If Dr. Strangelove’s plan for living in mineshafts, supplied with harems of women “selected for their sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature” wasn’t a huge clue to a desire for a more concentrated patriarchy distilled to its core…) Admittedly, the futures of THX 1138 and Paranoia both are sexless and deny the nuclear family; in THX there are libido-dampening drugs and in Paranoia cloning is the primary method of replenishing the population. And amidst all these post-apocalypses underground you have the spectre of population control, which was on the minds of many in the real world at this time: both designers of ecologically-sustainable communities/environments in the ’70s, and of course the stunned cultural response both to both Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) and the Club of Rome’s controversial 1972 report, The Limits to Growth. As I consider yet another example of underground post-apocalypse, Logan’s Run (book, 1967; film, 1976), its genius is that it locates the reactionary impulse towards population stability in the “youth movement” of the ’60s, as it ossified and got recuperated into the mainstream throughout the ’70s.

I’ve wandered too far afield, of course. The point of what I’m trying to say is that Paranoia‘s take on all this serious, portentous stuff is funny—probably one of the authentically funniest RPGs ever released. That used to turn me off in my dark and serious adolescence, but when I look back at it now, the classic Jim Holloway illustrations (whose cartoonish style turned me off considerably back in junior high/high school) are just perfect complements to the game itself.

MACDOUGALL: Paranoia is funny, and that’s what made me love it. It’s true that later editions and supplements sometimes confused “funny to read” with “funny to play” (and worse, confused “lots of puns and pop culture pastiches” with both), but at the time, it was a blast of fresh oxygen. You have to remember that, despite being marketed to teens and children, most RPG books in 1984 were written in a prose style we might call “technical manual crossed with The Silmarillion.” Paranoia’s dry snark cut through Gygaxian logorrhea like an ULTRAVIOLET laser through RED reflec. (See, because in Alpha Complex everybody has a security clearance, from INFRARED through ULTRAVIOLET, and—you know what, never mind. The people who got that reference got it.)


Gamma World Artifact Use and Operation flowcharts, 1978

(Speaking of technical manuals, how about those “Artifact Use and Operation” flowcharts in Gamma World? Rolling on one of those for hours looks like fun, huh?)

I respect your ambivalence about Jim Holloway’s art. I always thought he was better when he didn’t go too cartoony. For instance, I love the clever triptych on the cover of the three first edition rulebooks. To me it evokes a whole world of video surveillance and counter surveillance and plans gone all to hell; it also makes INFRAREDs (the saboteurs or rebels on the cover of the Player Handbook) look cooler than they ever would again. But the question of tone in Paranoia was always tricky. That’s probably also true of Gamma World, come to think of it.

And speaking of art, we’d be remiss not to salute Erol Otus, surely the definitive Gamma World artist. His art doesn’t actually appear in the first edition rulebook, but he came along soon after, and I agree with James Maliszewski that Otus captured the “queer majesty” the game deserved. Dig that techno-barbarian with the Dead Kennedys necklace on the cover of the Gamma World Referee’s Screen.

Looking back, I believe Paranoia was close to brilliant in two different ways, but those two ways were contradictory, almost cancelling each other out: on the one hand, Paranoia had this ingenious setting: a bleakly satirical synthwave remix of THX 1138, Brave New World, 1984, and all the other dystopias you’ve listed. Alpha Complex was fun to think about, and at least potentially profound. On the other, the game encouraged (or unleashed) a violent, slapstick style of play, with the Game Master abusing their authority and the trigger-happy players gleefully boot-licking, back-stabbing, and murdering each other at every turn. Not for nothing does every character in Paranoia come with six replacement clones. And those two things, the satire and the slapstick, often worked at cross purposes. It’s hard to lay out a trenchant critique of the way late capitalism comes to resemble state socialism when everyone gets lasered before leaving the briefing room.

The designers’ notes at the back of the Adventure Handbook make it clear that Paranoia was designed to capture the frenetic, homicidal way in which Gelber and Goldberg and their buddies were already playing D&D. I’ve been told that this was a recognized “New York style” of roleplaying in the early 1980s, in contrast I guess to “Lawful Midwestern” gaming, where thieves and paladins lay down together and adventurers respected the party caller. I don’t know about that. My central Canadian friends and I sure threw ourselves into the mayhem. Playing Paranoia every six months or so was like a pressure valve that let us get through fourteen Dragonlance modules and five years of high school without killing each other for real. But, like every other Paranoia GM I’ve ever met, I always dreamed of one day playing the game straight, or nearly straight—“like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil,” we’d say—tamping down the mayhem and actually exploring the setting. I don’t know anyone who ever managed it for more than about twenty minutes.

paranoia research and development 1984

Illustration from the Paranoia 1st edition Gamemaster Handbook, 1984

GRASSO: Roleplaying was a fatal business for characters back in the day, and Paranoia definitely amps that up to 11. And that flowchart from Gamma World again echoes all the real-life systems analysis and “research and development” happening in the Cold War in think tanks and defense contractors. (The flowchart, initially developed to quantify industrial processes, found new life in the Cold War as computer technology demanded ways of mapping algorithms; unsurprisingly, pioneering cyberneticist John von Neumann was at the center of this.)

As you mention doing a “straight” game of Paranoia (I found the 2000s reboot, Paranoia XP, and its encouraging of players to explore all kinds of tones—“Zap,” “Classic,” and “Straight”—quite a refreshing official addition to the game), tone does seem to be the key here linking both Gamma World and Paranoia. Both were, yes, quite silly prisms through which to view a really serious topic: the post-nuclear wasteland. I think at a certain point in the Cold War you can’t do anything but laugh at the absurdity of it all. You turned me onto that study of Herman Kahn, The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War by Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi a few years back, and one of the things I took away from that detailed look at the work of one of the many proposed models for Dr. Strangelove is how a grim absurdity purposefully stalked the philosophy of mutually assured destruction from its outset. When Kahn asks how many megadeaths America could survive, how many human resources could be preserved in fallout shelters, how nuclear war is like a poker game, we’re accepting a basically absurd set of premises (okay, lies) in order to position ourselves geopolitically against the Soviets. Ghamari-Tabrizi posits that Kahn was the ultimate postmodernist, “deliberately frank, absurd, and horrific,” provocative in an almost satirical way in his sci-fi like predictions of a post-nuclear war landscape. Paranoia and Gamma World are two sides of the absurdist Kahnian coin: they’re the RPGs that Kahn himself could have written.

And this legacy of absurdity, postmodern pastiche, and nuclear fear sticks with us to this very day: I mean, we wouldn’t have the very popular contemporary Fallout video game series, which places both its 1950s atompunk aesthetic and its world-ending nuclear war in the late 21st century, without games like Gamma World and Paranoia, would we?

MACDOUGALL: I’m so glad you brought up Herman Kahn, and Ghamari-Tabrizi’s wild biography of him. You are exactly right. Kahn, the heavyweight of America’s original thermonuclear strategists, always said that his job was to “think the unthinkable.” And the way he went about doing that was with games and simulations—and also with black comedy. Kahn understood that the very idea of planning “strategy” for a civilization-ending war was absurd, and he embraced it. His cheerful talk of mutation, of society surviving in mineshaft shelters, his infamous chart of “Tragic But Distinguishable Postwar States”—these were simultaneously sick jokes and true statements of American military strategy. The chart, subtitled “Will the survivors envy the dead?” could almost have been a random table in either of our two roleplaying games. So I don’t know enough to say if there’s a lineal descent from Gamma World to Fallout, but there’s absolutely a straight line from Kahn and his provocations to both Gamma World and Paranoia.

You could say that Gamma World is a game in which silly things are taken overly seriously, and Paranoia is a game about deadly serious things played for laughs. But maybe it’s not Paranoia and Gamma World that had a problem with tone. Maybe the actual Cold War had a problem with tone. You had to make a joke of it in order to face it squarely. The absurdity was wired in to the apocalypse from the start.

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