Map of the Sonoran Desert area 
including Mead Valley
 Mead Valley Introduction
The Hot Desert
Las Vegas Mech Farm
The Morocco Hotel
The High Desert
Notes on the Zona Folk
The Zona Nomads
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Gamma World®
Vegaz - (Las Vegas Area) The Sonoran Desert 2471 A.D.
Campaign Materials & Information

The Southwest may be divided for convenience into two regions - the southern Low Desert, and the northern High Desert.

At first glance, few would attempt to live off the land in the Southwest for a year or even a week, because of its aridity and perceived barrenness.  Yet people have survived and even thrived here for centuries, exploiting the diverse environments of desert, plateau, and mountain, using knowledge accrued over many generations that has allowed them to predict where farming would be successful and when and where wild plants could be gathered or animals hunted.

Of crucial importance are vegetation, rainfall, and temperature.  Natural vegetation includes edible plants ranging from nuts to small seeds to fruits.  These plant foods also sustain animals, and therefore influence the types and densities of fauna that can be hunted.  Temperature and rainfall not only affect natural vegetation, but are also critical in determining the success or failure of farming.  When many people think of the Southwest it is the torrid high summer temperatures that come to mind.  But winters can be equally severe.  These frigid conditions can begin in early fall and linger into late spring.  The growing season over much of the high desert is only long enough to raise one crop.

Many watercourses are ephermal, carrying run-offs only during particular seasons or after heavy rains.  Farmers have often therefore had to depend exclusively on rainfall, and that rainfall has frequently been insufficient.  A small part of the region may average as much as 25-30 inches of precipitation a year, but 5-15 inches is more typical.

 Also significant is the pattern of rainfall through the year.  Particularly critical is the late spring to early summer period when fields are planted.  Throughout the Southwest, that period from April to June is the driest of the year.  If winter rains and snows do not recharge soil moisture sufficiently, germination will be hindered and yields reduced.  July through September is the wettest part of the year, but storms tend to be so localized that rain may fall on one area, while other fields remain bone dry.  Unpredictable temperature and precipitation mean unpredictable farming.

 Altitude is another important environmental factor.  Rainfall increases and temperature and growing season decrease as one climbs to higher elevations.  Given the diversity of topography and elevation in the region - from about 300 feet in some areas to over 12,000 feet in the mountains - we find a wide range of climatic conditions and plant zones.

 Perhaps the most important characteristic of the Southwestern environment, therefore, is its diversity.  Sizzling summer temperatures, mild winters, and rainfall of less than 10 inches a year characterize the low desert (the edges of the Sonoran desert) to the south.  Here the dominant vegetation includes cacti, shrubs, and low trees along drainages.  The ruins of Fenix lie in this zone.
 North of the Sonoran desert run beautiful mountain ranges.  Below the timber line, pine forests or woodlands cover ridges and slopes, with grassy meadows or sagebrush in valley bottoms.  Temperatures may be 10-15 degrees Celsius (18-27 F) lower than in the Sonoran desert, rainfall 2 to 3 times higher.

 Further north is the High Desert.  This features broad areas of mesa and plateau.
 In between are transition zones, often sharing characteristics of both mountain and high desert.  They feature rapid changes in topography.  Such zones vary greatly in both vegetation and environmental conditions.  They present a formidable challenge and opportunity to would-be settlers relying on hunting and gathering or agriculture.

 The rapid changes in elevation in many parts of the Southwest make it possible to travel only 20 or 30 miles and move from the heat and aridity of the desert to the cooler, more luxuriant mountains.  For thousands of years, therefore, people have been able to exploit a variety of environments with minimal movement.  Many groups still take advantage of that opportunity.

adapted from "Indians of the Southwest"

The Hot Desert
At dawn, a blood-red sun hangs sullenly over a burnt and tortured landscape.  Some is nuclear desert, poisoned by the side-effects of attacks on the great coastal cities of the Ancients.  About 150 years of radiation exposure has created new and terrible lifeforms, and played havoc with pre-existing ones.  It is a vast land of living nightmares.

The desert near Vegaz is a simmeringly hot (especially in summer) dust bowl skinned of cacti and even the most hardy vegetation on its surface, where winds shriek and howl as they hurtle over the landscape.  If a storm sweeping in from the ocean drops rain, it is a curse rather than a blessing - the rain is so alkali that it can strip a man to the bone in shrieking agony.

Yet some life survives.  In the nooks and crannies, or in the depths of caves, some familiar living thing may be found.  There are also the types of bacteria that live in sulfur springs and the like, able to neutralize chemicals or use and reshape the molecules to build their own bodies.  These live deep enough in the sand to avoid the rainfall, but shallow enough to tap it as ground moisture.  Other micro-creatures live at the surface because they thrive on the alkali contaminants.  And there are the things that eat microscopia.  And the bugs that eat them.  And the insectivores.  And eventually, at the top of the chain, a few Sep, incredibly rare but almost certainly lethal when they do appear, each one needing a vast territory to keep itself fed.

In the hot desert, the landscape consists mostly of sand and some patches of rock, sticking out like islands in a sea of sand.  The baking sun strips moisture away from the body by day, necessitating travel by night.  This hostile land looks utterly lifeless ... and the PC's, should they choose to enter (or be forced to), should find skeletons and mummies of dead creatures about as often as they find something living.

The desert stretches from the Gulf of California partway up the slopes of the Sierra Occidental.  In Arizona, it extends as far northeast as the ruins of Phoenix and along the mountains of central Arizona.  A small projection crosses the Colorado River and extends westward towards the ruins of San Bernardino.  This northwestern prong is barely habitable.  The desert does not extend as far north as Las Vegas.

There are no peoples living permanently in the main body of the Sonoran Desert.  The peoples around it do not remember its correct name; they believe "Sonora" refers to a destination (a paradise or a city or some sort of mythic land) on the opposite side of this sea of sand.


 Before the Final War, Las Vegas was a city devoted to pleasure and luxury.  Being in the middle of the desert, it was a highly artificial creation.  The first strikes of the War destroyed Hoover Dam and thereby doomed the city; without electricity, nobody wanted to live there, and there was not enough water to supply everybody anyway; later the fear of radiation kept people away.  The nuclear strike on Nellis AFB did not do much physical damage to Las Vegas, but opened leaks and cracks in the outside walls, for years of weather and decay to exploit.

 Indeed, all the Desert Southwest depopulated very rapidly during the Final War, since electricity and clean water - both requirements of Ancient life - were high-priority targets.
 Many buildings in Las Vegas were the size of a city block.  Buildings usually have considerable damage to the roof and north-facing walls; upper floors are often open to the weather.  Any Artifacts found upstairs will be in poor condition due to exposure.  Junk, Baubles, and Curiosities are common.  The lower parts of buildings are usually intact, and the streets can be traveled by foot.

There is a 75% chance that any given street block can be traveled by a wagon.

The Downtown area was a 1900's-style roadgrid under a weather dome.  The dome collapsed and time has reduced the buildings beneath to wreckage.  This area cannot be traversed by any means available to the party (except for flight).

The hotel/casinos along The Strip survived somewhat better than the rest of the city, due mostly to distance from the explosions.  Any PC who enters the derelict buildings will find a substantial haul in (civilian) Artifacts, Gold Pieces, domars, jewelry, and precious gems inside.  The Las Vegas

Mech-Farm has also survived, and is in very good condition (see section below).
(GM note: Explorers in the casinos will also find a number of dangerous creatures, just to keep things interesting.)

Las Vegas Mech-Farm

 This farm produced luxury foods for the hotel/casinos which were Las Vegas' main source of income.  It grows fruits, vegetables, and meat animals.  Butchering facilities are included, as are factories to provide packaging.  The farm has outdoor and indoor components.  It has repair and maintenance facilities for its equipment, making it self-sufficient.  (Which is why it still runs after all these years.)  There is an on-site Cybernetic Installation (CI).  The farm is completely automated; Robots perform all necessary tasks.  There is a sufficient number to adequately cover the grounds.

The CI is in an underground building, which provided just enough radiation shielding when it really mattered.  The computer survived the Final War well enough to keep up with events and handle emergencies as they occurred.  It has lost the ability to "plan ahead" against future problems, though.  Instead, it follows its old programming as best it can.  It has been at minimal production until recently.

This Mech-Farm has its full complement of robots (as discussed in Vol 1 Rule Book).  However, the exact numbers and kinds of robots on the Farm have not yet been revealed by the CI.
 All equipment on the Farm is powered from a solar/nuclear power plant.  The CI prefers to rely on solar power and a set of storage batteries, as nuclear fuel is running low.  Broadcast power equipment exists, but it is all aimed into the Farm.

The Farm has no built-in way to export food (the trucks were cannibalized for spare parts long ago).  A wagon trail has recently been constructed back to Mead Valley.  Farm produce can be sold anywhere in GAMMA WORLD for a very high price.  This is high-quality food, tastes excellent, and will not rot or decay in any fashion until the packaging is opened.

The Farm originally extended well to the south.  The uplift of the mountains south of Vegaz, however, made this land unsuitable for farming - rocky, jumbled, high and dry - and the equipment that was used there has been stored for future cannibalization.  Much equipment has been modified to deal with the new kinds of creatures which constantly try to enter Farmland.  The Farm has a number of Stunray-armed Robots watching the borders of the farm.  They look for wild animals.  (The CI uses these definitions: animal: anything that moves under its own power and does not (A) look like a PSH or (B) wear artificial clothing; wild: any animal not accompanied, or clearly controlled by, a PSH.)  Wild animals are stunned and removed to the desert around the Vegas Basin.

The Mech-Farm was discovered by a Mead Army expedition several years ago.  Since that time, the CI has agreed to work for the Mead Government.  By deliberate choice, Mead has not relied on the Mech-Farm for its food; the old Regent felt that it would be degrading to sentients if they were allowed to eat fine foods without having to work to earn it.  Because of the months of chaos after the assassination of the last Prince, and the subsequent damage and neglect of the Mead Valley irrigation systems, the New Government has modified that policy.  To prevent starvation, the Mech-Farm's bounty was made available.  (Of course the sudden glut of food dropped prices to almost nothing.)

The former surplus has been eaten while the irrigation canals were repaired and new crops planted, so supply and demand balanced out again just before the harvest.  The New Government hails this fortunate outcome as good planning, but everybody knows they are just boasting.

The Mech-Farm has become a base for the New Government in their determination to further explore and understand the Artifacts left in the ruins of Vegaz.

The Morocco Hotel

 Before the War, the Morocco Hotel was one of the dozen great hotel/casinos devoted to its guests' pleasure.  The building stood 10 stories tall, with three towers (for guest rooms) 25 stories tall.  As a result of the Final War attacks near the city, the towers are structurally unsound.  The roof also suffered damage.  The MBC weatherproofed the roof, but could only patchwork the towers; they have been closed off.  All floors in the main building are open, however.  The first floor below ground is a parking garage with openings (locked, at the moment) to Las Vegas Boulevard ("The Strip").  There are a number of busses in one corner of the garage.  Most of the garage is full of "golf carts": open solar/battery vehicles which move at about twice PSH walking speed.

Deeper underground (and not accessible to the PC's) are the service functions of the hotel.  Things like room service, heating and air conditioning machinery, maintenance, repairs, &c were connected to city suppliers by a deep subway system of communications and freight-transport tunnels.  Many of these tunnels have suffered the ravages of time (especially earthquakes associated with the uplift of the mountains to the south) and have collapsed.

Inside the hotel, 3-D holograms cover the walls.  Most floors are made up to look like a Casablanca street scene - narrow, zig-zag corridors.  Most walls have a faint blue (turquoise) tinge.  Doorways are darker blue or indigo.  On the commercial floors, the shops seem to overflow into the street.  The residential floors are less cramped but the streets still wind along.  Simple-minded Household Robots in the open hallways are programmed (and costumed) to act like Arab "natives".  The casino and shopping floors have 2-D holograms.

Outside, the landscaping looks like a small walled town built around an oasis well.  This well, and the fountain built into it, are real.  2-D Holograms extend up the walls to enhance this illusion.  The holograms on the towers are broken, however, so they appear to float in midair!

The guest rooms are built on a standard plan.  A living room is in front of the suite; a simple kitchen is along one wall.  The bathroom faces a closet area further back.  In the rear is a bedroom.  This whole suite is soundproofed.  For suites along the outside walls, glass doors open onto the rather small, screen-enclosed balcony.  These doors have a 2-D hologram display on them, not visible from outside.  Views include: empty Nevada desert; endless sand dunes; Early Las Vegas; 1990's Las Vegas; distant oasis, mirage of water; dancing harem girls; a passing caravan.  Due to a programming glitch, several other views and landscapes (GM's imagination) appear at irregular intervals.

The hotel's MBC had been shut down for years with the broadcast power on "minimum" (this was just enough to run the emergency hall lights and "Exit" signs).  It just recently "woke up" (the main program re-booted) and is now trying to clean up and run as if the Final War never happened.

The High Desert

 At dawn the reddened sun pours heat into a jumbled landscape.  A little of this vast land is nuclear desert; most of it is just bone-dry.  Some of it was resculpted during the devastation.  Many fault lines, similar to the San Andreas fault, were targets.  Most of this land is a place of weird and solitary beauty.  If you know how to look for it (and at it).

 Down south, the Sonoran Desert is simmeringly hot, especially in summer.  Fortunately there are distinct limits - mountain ranges and great cliffsides - to that hellscape.  The High Desert (Nevada/Utah) is not as bad as that, but only the most foolish of men go out there alone.  This was one of the wastelands of the world, and is still recognizable as what it used to be.

 The area is riddled with mountain ranges, each of which functions as a sort of oasis.  The largest of these runs through central Utah.  Western mountainsides collect dew and trace moisture as the air rides up the flank of the mountain, so there may be some green living things to eat at any given time.  The Sierra Nevada are still there, more rugged than before the Cataclysm.  So are the Rocky Mountains.  These two ranges form the western and eastern edges of this region.  To the north the desert fades into prairie by about the line of the Snake River.

 Much of the landscape is stone - huge rock formations such as the mesas with colorful names like Cathedral Rock, boulders, stones, all the way down to pebbles.  The surface is solid and firm, packed down by the after-effects of faint earthquakes.

 There are a few permanent rivers, their course marked with trees and (relatively) lush greenery.  Seasonal rivers can be found because bushes and similar plants grow along their courses.  Of course there are runoff gullies and such-like goings that are wet only when it rains somewhere uphill.  Many river courses have more water underground, percolating slowly through mud and gravel a few feet below the surface.

 It rains here, of course never more than 10 inches a year, in places and patches.  Where it does rain there will be grass and greenery for a season; there will be a border where the rain did not fall, and barren stones or rock beyond that.  Depending on the soil, this border can be wide and gradual or it can be narrow and abrupt.  But always remember that water in this area is like 'feast or famine': you can go months with no rain on a given point and then it pours down or flash floods - and after the water recedes it will be dry again for months or years on end.

 Although nobody has yet done so, you could raise herds of cattle (or something) in this region.  You would have to accept a mobile life, as the beasts will eat everything in any given field and have to move to another before very long.  And the land that is a field one year may be just dry stonescape the next.  The only permanent pastures are along the few rivers.

 The earthquakes and geologic activity has had an unexpected side-effect: the mineral resources of this region have been recharged.  Iron, rubies, gold, copper, silver, uranium, sapphires - any element or stone or ore you care to name - can be found here.  A few (perhaps as many as the fingers on one hand - and not a mutant's hand either!) of the Ancient's mines still exist, but most of these resources will require new diggings.

 During the Final War, the whole Desert Southwest depopulated rapidly; people simply moved away to places where the search for water was not a problem.  There were (and are) few inhabitants in this region.  Mining villages are the most common settlements in the area.  Few people have found a long-term solution to the problem of edibles, so most villages are a temporary affair.  They last only from the time a mineral is found until the supply of food runs out - a year at best.  Then the miners have to leave.  Near Mead Valley, a permanent trade has grown up to meet this need.  As time goes by, more-permanent settlements could develop near there, and spread outward.

 The major Ancient ruins are near Salt Lake City and Reno.  Both of these sites have a radiation field within 10 kilometers of the old city limits.  Unless the GM wishes to place something for purposes of an adventure, the rest of this land is clean.  Occasionally a ghost town, either of the Old West or the Ancients, can be found.  Usually this will be along the old path of interstates and railroads, or near a mineral lode.  But most of the area looks as if it had never felt the hand of Man.

Notes on the Zona folk

The Ancients - an oil-daubed civilization - called a road a long slabs of concrete or black-top.  Today we use dragged and graded thoroughfares full of wheel ruts.  But in Zona, a road is a gently meandering tracery of individual footpaths.  Where the going is good, this collection of paths may spread to a width of 20 or 40 yards, while, where rocky outcroppings must be circumvented or defiles pass through the wandering tendrils, they come into focus and form a single path, only again to spread out when the going improves.

 In the waterless districts, the roads are generally straight, but not in the brutal mathematical meaning of the term.  They are straight only as a man would walk from one point to another.
 In the uplands where there is rain, we have alternative roads.  The principal track follows the ridges and stick to the high ground.  In the dry season, the meanderings of the crest-lined road are short-circuited at times by trails leading across low ground which would be useless in the rainy season.
 In the forest, the roads are even more sinuous.  The people who made them could not see very far, so the trail wanders largely and keeps only a general direction.

 It takes little imagination to translate them into our impoverished struggling forefathers.  This similarity not only applies to their dress but also their whiskers, filth, and probably to their morals; and they are all talking, always talking.  They have no other recourse.  Few can read, there are no books or newspapers.  Only the spoken word, and truly they are "winged words" with a daily rate of from 40 to 60 miles, as we have learned by checking the known origin of a rumor against the time we heard it.
 For a long time I was greatly intrigued by constantly seeing groups squatting in the dust or mud - how they avoid piles is a mystery - gossiping.  Then I got the answer from a chance remark which referred to such a group as "the morning edition of the daily news."

 Their agricultural habits of these people are truly ancient.  Many females cut wheat with a sickle and carefully tie each bundle with a wisp of straw.  The influence of the trail road is apparent because they have never learned to hitch animals abreast; therefore, we see a header being pulled, not by a span or two of loadbeasts, but by four beasts in tandem, each horse personally conducted by an individual, while one (or more often two) handle the machine.  They actually also have gleaners.

 The threshing is done on a dirt floor by loadbeasts walking or trotting in a circle and spreading manure as they go.  Sometimes the animals simply move at liberty.  At other times they pull a small roller.  After some days of this operation, males armed with three-pronged wooden forks throw the chaff in the air and the wind blows it away.  Finally, females, using large tray-like baskets, throw the remaining grain and manure into the air in the final stages of winnowing and get rid of at least half of the droppings and some of the dirt.

 The burial customs too are strange.  In many places, usually on hilltops, there are small square buildings with a dome-shaped roof which contain the remains of a respected individual.  These graves (of "Marabouts") are simply tombs, but it is the custom to place other dead near them without markers or even mounds.  In fact, our people have unwittingly walked on these graves with resulting unpleasantness.

 From the air, the graves can be easily seen clustered around the Marabout tomb or simply grouped on some low hill.  Apparently they are as much afraid of water in death as they are in life.
 One day I saw a funeral which, for its rugged simplicity, was outstanding.  In the leading cart were several elderly men sitting on the floor, while between their feet was the body, wrapped in white cloth, with half its length sticking out of the tail of the cart and dangling in the wind.  Behind this came other carts and one four-wheeled wagon, and then men and women on foot, perhaps 30 in all.
 As summer weather approaches, there is a regular epidemic of sombreros made of particolored straw, exactly like those we know at home.

 The method of castrating herd animals is unspeakably cruel.  I think that the reason that the rakox is not altered is due to their architecture, which forbids the employment of the method.

From the Travel Journal of Anistar, a Restorationist explorer from Mead

The Zona Nomads

 The nomads of the Zona region are much like their distant forebears, the American Indian tribes who were found in this region by the Spanish.  They live a traditional Nomadic lifestyle, moving about from place to place as the fodder and water conditions dictate, seeking the best places for their beasts to graze.

 They have a low population density.  At this time, there are more fields of pasture available in their territory than there are separate groups to occupy it.  They do not live in towns (let alone cities), preferring instead to build temporary hutments when they find a good pasture, and moving on when their beasts have grazed it.

 They do build some permanent buildings at especially good and reliable pasture lands.  It is common that a village-building will be built in proximity to several good winter fields; these buildings are sealed (to keep out wild beasts) when spring comes, and the temporary occupants then move on.  Some other group will move to the building when the next winter comes.  Other buildings, usually made of mud-brick, serve as travel shelters or as ceremonial centers for a group to perform some specific ritual that requires solitude.

 There are various races represented in Zona.  Mutated Animals, Humanoids, and Pure Strain Humans can be found in roughly equal proportions.  These races are better able to make a living off the products of their beasts' bodies (milk, hides, &c) than are Mutated Plants.  Some of the Mutated Animals are carnivorous; they take care not to eat while upwind from their herds, lest the herds spook or stampede.  Most of the Mutated Animals are herbivore-based and actually have a slight advantage over Human-based mutants in determining which are the good-quality fields.  By and large, all the races recognize that they must cooperate to keep the flocks and herds alive and healthy, and do not allow inter-racial competition to exceed recognized bounds.

 The Nomads' language is based on the Ancient language of Anguish, as are most of the languages and dialects to be found in Meriga.  They can speak and understand it as the Common Tongue.  Their dialect has a significant number of words that are of Spanish and Indian (mostly Navaho or Hopi) origin.  This may reflect the origin of their ancestors, the human survivors of the Final War.  Literacy is very low; only leaders will have been able to devote any time to learning to read and write, and they will not be able to do so very well.  As a result, they have come to trust a man's (or whatever's) word as his bond.

 The Zona peoples are rated as Tech Level 1.  They do not have the apparatus to work metal.  This may be simply because they do not want to spend the time and effort to carry it around with them.  Their tools are simple, sturdy, and to-the-point.  Heavy and/or fragile items tend to collect in the ceremonial and winter shelters, mentioned above.  Light, rugged, and easily-replaced items can be found in the hutments or packed in their baggage while moving about.  They have access to the TL 3 items of Mead Valley.  This used to be only via raids, but now there is a scheduled trade convoy to Fenix about 4 times a year.  The Mead Government does not allow the traders to take gunpowder weapons.  There are other restrictions, on a case-by-case basis.  The point is to keep military superiority for Mead, not to impoverish the Zona peoples.

 The nomads are governed by a matriarchy; the women of the household make decisions about what needs to be done, where to move the flocks next, how to handle conflicts, dealing with intruders, &c.  Each group uses a different method to decide who shall be pre-eminent.  Some vote, some defer to the oldest, some allow the position to be inherited, and so on.  In the vast majority of cases, a group will also be an extended family and the leaders will be great-grandparents to the youth of the group.  Most of the groups are racially mixed, so there are actually several families in a group.  However in a social fiction each group is considered as 'one family'.  Each family has relatives (cousins, brothers/sisters) in other groups, thereby creating a network of kin relations that bind the whole people together.  This organization has come about over several generations, and relies on ties of birth and marriage.

 Sometimes conflicts between persons get out of hand (as for instance when two groups want to use the same pasture at the same time).  When it comes to a fight, the nomads form themselves into raiding parties of a dozen members.  These are exclusively males, and usually from the same family or the same hutment.  Usually they prefer to raid or ambush individuals.  But when under duress (for instance, facing an organized army) they have been known to surround the enemy encampment with stealth and then stampede a herd of cattle into it, then pick off the individuals who flee from before the beasts.

 There has grown up the custom of 'counting coup', where two individuals who have a grudge to settle will have a formalized fight at some neutral ground with family of both contestants as witnesses.  If different races are involved (this happens as often as not), some measures will be taken to produce a 'fair fight'.  For example, a physically stronger contestant may have one hand tied behind his back, or a carnivore may have its teeth muzzled.  This fight often is held near the ruins of Fenix, since few want to settle permanently in that barren region.  Besides, sore losers can be forced into the Hot Desert just to the west, to take up a quarrel with Nature instead of bothering other sentients.

 The Zona nomads, like many other nomadic peoples, do not recognize lines-on-a-map boundaries to their territory.  In general, they can be found in the Verde River basin and Colorado Plateau of northern Arizona.  Their boundary to the southwest is the Hot Desert; to the north only a few have crossed the Colorado River.  The limits of their travels to the south and east are not clear.  They have not yet reached the Rio Grande, or discovered the sources of the Yuma River.


copyright © 2000, 2001 by Brian Judt, all rights reserved