I may be in the minority with this, but I have spent decades of my gaming life in a state of abject fear at the prospects of making up my on rpg campaign setting. I’m just not like Brian Niemeier or Ed Greenwood. I don’t reflexively fill up notebooks of gaming material when I’m prepping for a game. I mostly just panic! Especially when it’s a game I’ve never run before.
The older games from the seventies are especially challenging. There are no standalone “introductory modules” that show you how to run a real game. The rulesets all open up with something like this:
Some assembly required.
This is absolutely a daunting prospect. But let me tell you why the prospects of developing this sort of thing isn’t half as much of the job that you might think it is. If you want to run these old games more or less as they were intended to be played, then you are not on the hook to do anything like the following:
The old role-playing games all opened up with the premise that you would be creating your own campaign world. But they were not predicated on you developing professional-grade products in order to start rolling. In fact, the gameplay that emerges if you attempt to run the old rule sets as written will lead you to a very different type of game altogether.
Games like Gamma World and Traveller especially are completely wide open. Players really can go anywhere and do anything. If you open up the game, there is nothing preventing them from going a completely different direction than what you anticipate. You don’t have the luxury of the old stand by that is the now traditional town and dungeon set up. You don’t have the D&D-style pressure on the players where they start off with hardly any hit points and thus have no choice but to stick close to their “safe” base.
And yet many people managed to run perfectly good campaigns with these old games before there were any significant supplements or modules for them.
How is this possible…?
Traveller has extensive rules for starship travel, passengers, cargos, and combat. Simply treating them like a first class element of the game can account for about a quarter of any given game session. If the players really are in control of the game, then they will at some point make choices that lead to situations that no one could have anticipated and which will require more than one session to resolve. For the average game session, the referee is mainly on the hook to flesh things out only to the point necessary to accommodate whatever that scenario that is.
Gamma World is a wilder, woollier, crazier set up. The players don’t simply have the option to jump to the next star system when things get hairy. Whatever village they hail from is surrounded on all sides by hazards, perils, and competing factions. How do you even get started with something like that…?
Well, tucked in the back is a masterpiece of rpg design that you simply will not find mixed into later editions and variants of these original games. There’s a set of three d100 tables detailing 250 monster encounters drawn from the mutation, creature, and cryptic alliance list. If you’re at a loss for how to stock a campaign map, these tables will provide you with a tremendous number of a monsters and groups wandering the post-apocalyptic wastelands of the Gamma World. Where are they going and what are they doing…? Hey, you’ll think of something when the players start interacting with them. And if they simply kill them on sight and then loot their bodies…? You aren’t on the hook to figure it out at all in that case!
And that big blank hex map on the back cover…? Filling it in just isn’t the chore you’re liable to make it out to be. Leaning on the rules as written combined with whatever choices your players end up making, it will soon become clear where your creative efforts need to be directed when it comes to placing planned encounters. How much detail they ultimately require is entirely up to the players.
And that is the best thing about these old games. You don’t have to be a Brian Niemeier or Ed Greenwood to make them work. And you don’t have to create professional grade modules or campaign settings for them either. The dice, the rules, and the players will give you more than you can keep up with in the course of actual play. And the brain’s capacity to create sense and order where none actually exists can more than compensate for a novice referee’s lack of imagination.