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Apocalypse Now!
Confessions of a Full-Time Wizard
by Shelly Mazzanoble

I’ve been waiting a long time for Gamma World. Five years to be exact. Not as long as some of you, sure, but when I get excited about something, I anticipate it in dog years.

It was sometime in late September when our department began deliberations about what our Halloween 2005 theme should be. You need to understand just how important Halloween is to Wizards of the Coast. It’s like the Super Bowl to football fans, solstice to the druids, white russians to Lebowski Fest. It’s big business around here.

Every year, the departments compete against one another for best decorations. I’m sure there’s a prize but I have no idea what it, is because my department never wins. We never even place. (This may have something to do with the fact we don’t start thinking about a theme until well after Labor Day.) In fact, some years we never decide on a theme and everyone shows up doing their own thing. Your “rejected superheroes” theme loses its impact when two of your team members are dressed as Laverne and Shirley.

Not to be a poor sport, but Halloween isn’t really a fair competition here. One department in particular always upsets the candied apple cart. That would be the Creative Team. Yeah, I know, the name says it all. These are the clever, artistic designers who not only create packaging, products, and all around pretty pictures, they make their own clothes, Christmas cards, and centerpieces just for fun.

“Oh look! It’s Elminster made out of cherry Lifesavers and empty toner cartridges. What a fun way to spend your lunch break.”

One year, the Creative Team dressed as freak show carnies. They had a cotton candy machine, people! Who can compete with that? Another year, they were dead celebrities—dressed how they died. Again, I ask—how do we compete with that? Seriously. Email me your suggestions.

That summer in 2005, we thought we knew exactly how to take down those Martha Stewart disciples: we would reach into the D&D wayback machine and turn our little corner of WotC into a post-apocalyptic warzone wonderland. With the help of Goodwill and some old fashioned dumpster diving, we decked—or rather, trashed—our desks, offices, and conference rooms. My coworkers and I glued googly eyes to our plants, animal tails to our jeans, and, in the case of our then-pregnant director, a giant baby doll head to her protruding belly. Seriously creepy.

With an industrial fan creating an eerie whoosh of white noise and blowing dead leaves and debris into the Finance department’s version of Candy Land, we huffed stale air in our gas masks and waited for the judging committee to come by.

There was no way we couldn’t win this. I had a raccoon face painted on me! With non-hypoallergenic theater make-up. I was that dedicated to the cause.

(We came in third. Robbed!)

That whole day, I kept thinking, wow, this Gamma World is one freaky land. I wish we would re-release an updated version of the game sometime in the Fall of 2010. I might be paraphrasing, but they’re my thoughts so it’s OK.

Imagine my delight a year ago at finding out my paraphrased thoughts would come true. Gamma World was making a repeat performance! Good thing I still had my raccoon tail pinned to my bulletin board.

I finally got my chance to play last month when Bart agreed to run us through a quick encounter. Five of us went into a conference room as brand managers, editors, and product specialists, but we came out as rat swarms, pyrokinetics, even a yeti (until she had to leave for a meeting).

“What in heck is going on here,” Hilary, who was busy rolling up a radioactive cockroach named Sassafrass asked. “I mean seriously? This is what I’m playing?”

We had spent nearly an hour of our two-hour time block laughing at the random combinations people were coming up with. I particularly love the character-building part of Gamma World. Sentient plants? Anthropomorphism? Androids? What’s not to love?

Instead of picking race and class, you get two origins that combine to define your character. Origins are randomly selected by a diee roll and a table from the rulebook. Now, you may get something general like “giant” as I did, but feel free to think outside the beanstalk. A giant can be . . . well, anything.

“You could be a giant fish,” Bart said. “Or a Q-tip. Think of something and then make it gigantic.”

I decided to be a giant teddy bear, which sounded sweet and comforting . . . but just wait.

“I shall name him Pinky Jones.”

My second origin was "mind breaker."

“What’s a mindbreaker?” I asked.

“It means you can pretty much make your opponent’s head explode just by thinking about it,” Bart explained.

See? Not so sweet and cuddly anymore.

“And you’re ginormous thanks to both of your origins,” Chris Youngs noted. “Just like in real life.”

“Har, har.” That’s so not true. Everyone knows I have a freakishly small head. I wouldn’t mind a little of Pinky’s fluff. Maybe then I could wear headbands.

Remember how I said we decorated our department by pulling trash out of dumpsters? Well, that’s not far from how our characters got their equipment. More dice rolls granted my fellow party members gear like generators and fuel, electric blankets, and wristwatches. Pinky got a heavy flashlight and a saxophone.

“Okay, sure,” I said. Tabitha might not be able to work that into her arsenal, but Pinky can make that work. Can’t you just picture him squeezing the stuffing out of his enemies and then unwinding with a little “Careless Whisper” on his sax? Hey! It’s supposed to be bizarre and unsettling!

Because Pinky is a giant, he can obviously handle a huge weapon. No dagger or sling shot here.

“Pinky would like a parking meter,” I said. “Or maybe some building scaffolding?”

“Cannon balls?” Laura suggested.

Hilary proposed an aquarium filled with bricks.

“Are we talking ranged or melee?” Chris, ever pragmatic, wanted to know.

“Does that matter?” I asked. “I mean, I’m seriously considering writing Oscar Meyer Wienermobile on my character sheet.”

“It matters,” Bart said. “Pinky can have one of each.”

I kept the Wienermobile for my ranged weapon (he could toss it at someone and retrieve it later, I supposed) and, considering he was a teddy bear and all, I figure he’d probably be comfortable toting around a pillowcase.

“Filled with buckwheat,” I explain. “And it’s a really big pillowcase.”

It’s hard not to be inspired when the world is your oyster, even if your world is filled with chaos and radiation. The rules say heavy melee. The rest is up to you.

“Newton would like a 2-by-4 for his melee weapon,” Chris said. “With nails in it. Big, rusty nails.”

“Oooh . . . tetanus! Scary!” Hilary said.

“That’s so ghetto,” I told him. “I be looking for Newton spread eagle on the hood of a cop car tonight.”

Just when we thought we couldn’t add any more layers of absurdity to our characters, Bart doled out seven Alpha and Omega cards for each of us. Alpha cards are your mutations and Omega cards are technology-based 'treasure'. You find random items in this game all the time. The Alpha cards offer you the ability to overcharge, meaning if you roll over a ten, something good happens. If you roll under, something bad happens. Usually to you.

“Just like Pandora’s box on Big Brother,” I mused.

“Just like Pandora’s box in real life,” Chris countered.

(I won’t bore you with the details of our twenty-minute debate about Big Brother being real life. Duh, Chris. It’s called reality television.)

When we finally got to the meat of the encounter, we discovered it wa pork. As in pigs.

“Pigs in Space!” we shouted.

“No,” Bart said. “It’s pigs in leather.”

Good, because I couldn’t imagine hitting Miss Piggy upside the head with my seed-stuffed pillowcase.

“Oh, and they have friends.” Bart placed three badders on the playmat. Badders are just what you might assume—mutated, evil badgers.

The badders and the porkers (seriously?) had attacked a convoy and were busy looting the overturned vehicle.

“You suspect the truck is filled, or at least was filled, with loot,” Bart told us.

“Cookies?” Chris asked. Apparently Newton was obsessed with cookies. Likely the result of a mutation.

On Pinky’s turn, he used brickbat, one of his giant novice powers. It’s a close burst. He spun around in a circle with his pillowcase and socked a badder, knocking it prone.

“Nice one, Pinky!” Laura said. Her robotic rat swarm, Nibbles, did a number on one of the porkers. Is it too soon to say we're good at Gamma World? Because I thought we were kicking pork butt.

Like crows, those badders held grudges and didn’t take it well when you hurt one of their own. One of them shot Pinky with a rifle and dealt a whooping twelve points of damage. I only had six left.

“Whoa!” I shouted. “A badger can deal that kind of damage? It’s a small, burrowing mammal. I’m a giant!”

“It’s a badder,” Chris said. “That’s much different from a badger.”

“Or maybe they mean badger, as in a person from Wisconsin,” Hilary said. “Those long winters can get to you.”

Whatever it was, it didn’t back down and neither did those porkers. Hilary used her cockroach novice power, eau du roach, and barfed an acid marinade on one and knocked it back a square. It was a solid move, but poor Hilary looked mortified. I’ve never even heard her sneeze.

Mortification paid off, because Hilary killed the porker and got to loot his possessions. In this case, it was a dog.

“I’ll take it,” she casually said.

Pinky was pissed. He wanted a dog!

Rather than psychically assault Sassafrass, Pinky funneled his anger into the remaining porker and hurled it into a pond of green ooze. He sank like a . . . . well, like an acid-blasted, mutated pig in leather.

“I hope he didn’t have anything of value in that leather suit,” Chris said.

“You want to go after him and check?” I answered, flexing my biceps. Or rather Pinky’s. Or . . . what?

The encounter lasted longer than our allocated time, but nobody cared, so we continued. We eventually killed the badders and the porkers and got some good loot in the process. (Pinky now has a healing potion and a grenade, both of which he’d trade for a dog.)

I swiped Bart’s rulebook and brought it home. That night I created a few more characters. Then a few more in the morning. Then a handful at work the next day. A telekinetic plant. A yeti speedster. A felinoid hawkoid. I can’t stop creating characters! I feel like those batty parents on television with nineteen kids. Maybe someone will give me and my mutant brood a reality TV show.

As I got up from my desk, I heard Laura yelp.

“Oh my god, Shelly!” she screamed. “Is that a raccoon tail on your pants?”

Oh dear. Looks like I need to get back to Gamma Terra immediately.

About the Author

Shelly Mazzanoble dressed up as a mutant raccoon for Halloween 2005. A few hours later in kickboxing class, Bart Carroll kicked her so hard in the face that he wiped her raccoon nose right off.