Saturday, August 1, 2015

Cryptic Alliances - Rise of the Belief State

Over on Greyhawk Grognard there was a thought-provoking post about Gamma World.

Why no nations in Gamma World?

It's a good question, although one James Ward answered in The Dragon #25. Cryptic Alliances are the nations. I always felt that way myself - you'd have villages, small towns, the occasional "free city" (maybe 2-3 of those across the whole campaign area). But no big states outside of the Cryptic Alliances.

Belief State

In a way, modern groups like ISIS/ISIL are a pattern for a Cryptic Alliance. They're a Belief State. The founding principle of the state is a shared ideological view of the world - something that exactly describes groups like the Seekers or the Red Death or the Knights of Genetic Purity. They fill their ranks with true believers and exploit those in their area they can. In areas where the other power structures are stronger than the C.A., they act as small anti-establishment groups working to destabilize the area and gain control or to gain recruits and power for the base area.

I'd call these Belief States, since they aren't Nation-States (no "nation" or shared culture per se) but do share a world outlook.

Cryptic Alliances Acting As States

I think the C.A.s make good states. The big, land-grabby types (Ranks of the Fit, the Zoopremists, the Created, etc.) would have grabbed land. They'd also send out wild-eyed believers to new lands to gather recruits to bring back, to found new lands, or to loot for valuable artifacts.

Some of these states would work in a typical direct land-grabbing fashion. They'd expand their overall borders, pushing out as they had more ability to absorb neighboring populations.

Others would just be nomadic groups, and move as a large group with many affiliated small groups that splinter off or get sent off on their own.

Some of these states would go off of the "ink spot" theory. That is, send out a group to a likely place for a state. With all of the radioactive badlands, scorched lands, areas overgrown with nasty hostile vegetation, still-dangerous military fortifications operating on "kill anything that approaches" mode, wandering warbots, etc. you can't just expand quickly and evenly. You need recruits, you need weapons, you need the ability to colonize or extend supplies across the badlands to rich liveable lands. But you can send out colonies to especially rich or valuable spots and see if they can't make it on their own.

You would still get some non-C.A. states but they would be small and easily taken over by the larger, more organized, and more belief-centered alliances. Hard to run a tiny little democratic state when the Red Death rolls through or a large group of Zoopremists show up and tell you how its going to be.

You'd also get traders willing to go between the alliances and the non-allied (possibly tributary) areas. Some would be C.A. members (openly or secretly), some independents, some part of the minor power structures that are villages and towns.

You'd also get C.A. members all over the place - the self-declared allies, the deliberately sent out colonists, the looters, the recruiters. And the non-landed groups would do the same because they don't have a land to stay in.

Why Cryptic Alliances as States, and not just States?

Part of this is just Gamma World - the basis of the end of the world is a series of belief states fighting each other. The idea that the rise of the next is a warped and irradiated version of the same fits the apocalyptic feel of the setting. The Created and the Ranks of the Fit are not so far from the League of Free Men and the others who started the whole shebang.

You could relegate most Cryptic Alliances to just secret societies that exist within existing secular states. But I think it's a lot more fun to have the lands that belong to the Ranks of the Fit than to have the Kingdom of Loosyanna with some scheming sub-groups in it. It makes the land feel more threatening if there are only a limited amount of places you can go if you aren't part of some group. And it makes either joining a group - or founding your own - a bigger challenge. Most of the Cryptic Alliances just don't accept that other people's beliefs are valid too. That would also make the few free cities worth the name valuable prizes for all sides, dangerous pits of trouble, really interesting places to visit, etc. Being the exception (non-C.A. allied large power structure) not the rule (C.A. controlled) makes them really interesting. Like The Free City of Krakow in T2K.

And that's how I'd run Gamma World.


  1. The big problem I have with this solution (and that goes for Jim Ward's version as well) is that it removes the whole notion of the Cryptic Alliances being, well, cryptic. To extend your analogy, Al Qaeda would be more cryptic than the Islamic State, since it is purely ideologically driven without any large swaths of territory. It is by definition cryptic. It is everywhere, or could be, and that extends its mystique. The same goes for the Knights of Genetic Purity, or the Zoopremists. Any pure strain human you encounter could be a Knight in secret, and any mutated animal could be a Zoopremist operative.

    Just look at page 53 of the second edition rules. The Cryptic Alliances are explicitly said to be secret societies, with secret recognition signals, hidden bases, and so forth. Sure, a few like the Ranks of the Fit have conquered some city-states, but on the whole they're presented as secret underground conspiracies, rather than overt nation-states with set territorial boundaries.

    Personally, I think a Kingdom of Loosiana that is riven with different secret societies, weird cults (something that I think has been somewhat lacking as a source of potentially interesting material), and power-groups is a lot more appealing than saying "The Bonapartists control this area". There's a lot more room for role-playing and juggling of different competing factions (always a favorite theme of mine) when they're somewhat sub rosa.

    1. Cryptic can easily refer to their nature and their opacity to outsiders, not necessarily that they are secret. The 2nd edition definition of them as secret (which I can't check - I'm halfway around the planet from my books at the moment) sounds like a problematic one.

      Most of them make little sense as "secret societies." Secret members of the Healers? They'd keep that secret? Maybe, but I have a hard time believing it. Secretly a member of the Created? The Ranks of the Fit make no sense as a secret group, but a lot of sense as an armed conquering state - and their description makes it clear that they form armed units, not secret handshake subversives. They may have such, but that they wouldn't control territory and run it as a state seems strange.

      You can still easily have secret members - nothing in what I wrote above or in the post is counter to that. In fact, you should - those representatives of truly secretive groups in general, and agents of those more open groups sent into areas they can't control. You don't lose that at all by saying there are no real "states" that aren't also Cryptic Alliances. You gain by doing so, especially the open and sub-rosa operations in areas they can't or don't control - see my "Free Secret of Krakow" reference - without losing anything. You just don't make the default assumption "non-CA power structures" but rather "All-CA power structures" and revel in the exceptions.

      My definition and approach above is that almost all major power structures and all states are Cryptic Alliance controlled, openly. But not that all Cryptic Alliances are states, or that all members of Cryptic Alliances are open member of the same or reside in those states. Far from it . . .

    2. Actually let me add just one more bit:

      I think a states-with-secret-societies thing can work, but I think having the CAs be the major states (such as they are) instead of a states+CAs approach makes for a unique taste for Gamma World. With states and secret societies within them, it just feels tome like a fantasy world rewritten with guns and mutants. With the CAs as the power structure, suddenly all of the big deal power structures have an edge to them that most fantasy kingdoms struggle for. IMO. It's a chance for a unique setting difference for Gamma World.

  2. "I'd call these Belief States, since they aren't Nation-States (no "nation" or shared culture per se) but do share a world outlook."

    Notion States.

    1. Pun aside, yes, basically that.

      It makes joining a power group a different notion than basically allying with or working for a state. You have to accept a worldview, not just a geographical location.

  3. Any mature cult gets schisms and local variations. 75 years is as long as most small cults survive. Some form monolithic temporary states that last the lifespan of a single strong leader mostly. A few created larger longer lasting states but in the gamma age a state is a more loose term. Collecting some tax or tithe is the corner stone of big organised CAs and most groups fail to collect so depend on raiding and looting. Some seasonal nomad factions move or even swap land wit other critters or people.

    I stole from every game and gamma source to get my final list
    even paranoia and aftermath

    cryptic alliances - updated with tables

    1. You have to wonder how mature they are. Some might be really young, some a spinoff of previous groups that died off, etc. It's pretty vague in first edition.

      I love that list though. In my last Gamma World based game, I modified the CAs to make them more of my own creation. That's pretty much the approach I used - mix a lot of sources around the GW base.


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