Two months ago, about mid-November, I got a funny bug in my brain. See, Held Action has had a Twitter account for a while — @heldaction — which for the most part just relays notifications of when new posts go up here. But ever since I discovered my favorite instant messaging client, Adium, had Twitter functionality, I’ve been much more predisposed to watch the tweets go by. And since most of the people I follow are somehow involved in role-playing games, it’s not surprising one hears about new games and supplements as they hit the market.
What does surprise me is that tweets about playing Gamma World at Labyrinth Games & Puzzles in Washington, D.C. got me to look at some reviews for it, like Dave Chalker’s, which then got me to want to try it. At first this was going to be a private one-shot thing, but with the holiday season underway that seemed infeasible. The next opening was the Winter Weirdness game day in Barre, so I leaped on that as the place to try it. I think this was mostly me trying to justify a purchase of a new shiny with the excuse that it was in the name of a good cause: building the role-playing scene at the Green Mountain Game Days.
As things actually happened, and lucky for me they did, I got in a test run well before Winter Weirdness with a different group of people. We played through the adventure included in the core box set, “Steading of the Iron King.” And that was for the best, because this was my first substantive encounter with the fourth edition rules of Dungeons & Dragons — and that’s an interesting thing about this new version of Gamma World, in full it’s branded as D&D Gamma World Roleplaying Game, the implication to me being it’s positioned as a short-term alternative or supplement for full-bore Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.
What’s in the Box
The gist of Gamma World is after the traditional apocalypse, the world is populated by the remnants of civilization, mutants, robots and all that fun stuff. In this edition of the setting, that apocalypse was a multidimensional disaster, dragging in parallel timelines with advanced technology, alien life forms and still more fun stuff. The intent seems to have been to really play up Gamma World‘s wacky side, resulting in motley, ragtag parties of bizarre beings.
See, every player character in Gamma World is some kind of hybrid. They each have two origins which combine to create a character with a variegated skill set — or a synergistic one, depending on how the dice roll. For instance, out of the twenty origins in the core book, you might get a hawkoid gravity-controller, or a gravity-controlling hawkoid. So you can get some chortles out of mixing and matching origins, not unlike jumbling Munchkin sets together. And origins help give players some starting points off which to build their character’s personality. In the first run-through, Gary took the felinoid origin and a low Wisdom to play a tomcat who was perpetually distracted while licking himself. “Hey, is something going — balls!” was a common refrain. These origins are wonderfully stripped down in comparison to what I’ve seen of fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons characters. At first level, they get one power. A couple levels later, they’ll get another. Critical hits don’t even come into play until second level. It’s stripped down bliss in a lot of way, including that the level progressions only goes to ten. Gamma World is not meant for super long-term play.
In addition to origins, the book includes a potted version of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition combat and an even terser summation of the other rules, like skills. The equipment section is light because most of the emphasis on gear in Gamma World goes to Omega tech, remnants of the civilizations that collided in the Megawhoops. This is a deck of cards character draw from at the end of encounters and covers the gamut from deadly weapons of death to helpful healing gadgets.
But that’s not the only card-based element of the game. Oh no, there are also Alpha mutations. Not only are the player characters weird hybrids, but their mutations change constantly. At the start of every encounter, players draw a card from the mutation deck, either the GM’s or one they made themselves out of booster packs. They have this ability until the end of the combat, which fits with the general push to make use of one’s abilities and for those abilities to be useful.
For clarity’s sake, as I understand this has been misconstrued by some people, the booster packs of mutation and tech cards are completely optional. The cards that come in the GM’s decks are all anyone could need to play Gamma World. The only reason I can see for buying the booster packs is because the player wants a honed deck of mutations that play to their character’s strengths, mutations that utilize Psi over Bio, for instance. And admittedly, that’s a good reason. Being a hulking, not especially intellectual giant who pulls a mental mutation for the encounter kinda sucks. The booster packs are not at all necessary and I doubt the majority of Gamma World games will go on for a length of time that one feels they need to optimize their mutation possibilities.
What bothered me most about the cards is there’s no distinction on the backs from mutations and technology. They all have the same mutagen green color and design. Having to remember which is which during play isn’t problematic, but it is something that made me ask, “Really?” I can only imagine there was some difficulty in having different backs for the cards with the printing process used.
Finally, there are a set of double-sided folded poster maps, used for the included adventure, and sheets of character tokens. The PC tokens have full-health and bloodied sides, while all the monster tokens have a different monster on the obverse side. This is good because it maximizes the number of baddies one gets in the basic set; on the other hand, there’s no convenient way to represent when one becomes bloodied and it makes sorting through them a chore: “Is what I need on the other side of a porker?”
All together, Gamma World‘s a pretty nice package. The box has most of what you need to play. The notable exceptions are dice, pencils and decent character sheets. The half-sheet slips included with the box, while they look nice, just don’t have the space to contain the kind of information a player needs over the course of a session.
How It Played
Gamma World was my first real taste of the rules underlying the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The opportunity just hadn’t arisen before, so all I knew of the game before now came from word of mouth, which as most interested parties are aware, is vehemently split between best and worst thing ever — not that an edition change could be any other thing in the world of role-playing games.
I don’t really want to get into the minutiae of the mechanics. Largely because I’m just not that kind of guy, but also because due to not being that guy, I can’t speak authoritatively. I will say that the rule system reminds me strongly of the dungeon crawl board game Descent, only greatly expanded with many more inter-connected moving parts with which people can play.
Not being a mechanics-oriented GM tripped me up more than a bit. The first, it’s because one of the players was by all appearances a bona fide system monkey who tracks every step, slide and shift. So we butted heads not only at points of applying the rules as written versus rules as the GM happens to remember them, but also over the differences between the rules Gamma World uses and the significantly more complex initial iteration in Dungeons & Dragons. So I found juggling preconceptions about the rules with my own established GM habits frustrating, particularly as the book’s index is laughable, of the caliber one might expect from a White Wolf book. For such a small book, the information packed in there is surprising. I wish there were a stronger index to make it accessible.
Unsurprisingly, the second play-through went much more smoothly. I knew the material better so I didn’t need to look things up as often, I was more familiar with the characters’ abilities and felt more adept at injecting some story and characterization into the bare-bones adventure. The one thing I forgot was the second encounter had a beast that is easily a party-killer. The first time, I held back because I didn’t want the game to end so quickly. The second time, I didn’t; partly because it was really the group’s first encounter, as they cleverly talked their way through the first and it was a game day and we all wanted to go play something different — or so I read the situation.
I think Gamma World is a good buy for someone needing a framework over which to lay some of their own crazy, gonzo post-apocalyptic ideas. The core set by itself is sparse on details about the world, which are probably to be found in the series of box supplements that have appeared in the wake of the line’s revival — I was tempted to acquire Famine in Far-Go as well when I made my purchase, but forbore. In that sparseness, it reminds me of Palladium Books’ After the Bomb books. This is one of those “it’s a feature,” “no, it’s a bug” debates, as those who can readily generate ideas will have no problem using it as that aforementioned framework. Others can, at the very least, pull ideas from the veritable hoard of post-apocalyptic fiction, including older editions of Gamma World.
Overall, though, I don’t think Gamma World is for me. It handles one-shots, certainly, but that’s not my preferred mode of play any more than the hyper-structured rules of Dungeons & Dragons that make up its mechanical foundation.