Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Other RPGs: Gamma World

I’m calling this series of posts “Other RPGs” to basically mean anything other than D&D (any edition), because D&D is really what I grew up on, mostly, and it’s the game that all these years later has kept me involved in the hobby more than any other. 

However, if I had to pick a close second, it would be Gamma World.  I was totally and completely fascinated by this game when I first heard about.  Sadly, I actually don’t remember the first time I encountered the game.  After my friends had taught me about D&D and expanded my fantasy reading horizons beyond The Hobbit, I basically became a sponge and tried to bone up on as many different fantasy and science fiction books, games, comics, and movies as a person living in Utah in 1983 could reasonable do. 

It’s hard to explain my fascination with post-apocalyptic scenarios, but it’s a genre that really appeals to me.  James Maliszewski covers this topic quite well in his retrospective about Gamma World, but in short, I think it’s difficult for “those darn kids today” to understand how deeply the Cold War affected the lives of people my age growing up in the U.S.  It seemed fairly certain to me that there was going to be some sort of nuclear attack at any time, and that’s one thing that I actually liked about living in Utah at the time, because to my 13 year old brain it seemed very unlikely that the Soviets would bother nuking the home of women wearing Little House on the Prairie dresses and state liquor stores.  It seemed much likely that the two coasts would be turned into a radioactive wasteland and American civilization would need to be rebuilt from the interior of the country in places like right where I lived.  One of my friends and I even went so far as to start drafting a new constitution of how we would make a government in a post-apocalyptic America.  We spend a lot of time at the library researching different forms of government and what did or did not make them work. 

We had plenty of time to do this because, oddly, we didn’t have girlfriends at the time. 

But back to Gamma World.  Somehow I stumbled across this game very early on in my RPG career and fell in love with it.  I loved the whimsical, light-hearted view, juxtaposed against some pretty scary imagery in the Introduction:

“The exact identity of The Apocalypse was, and still is, unknown.  Some have theorized that the group was composed of scientists.  Some believe it was a special military group.  Whatever its constituency, few believed the ultimatum when it was issued, and the fighting continued.  Five days later, on April 17, at exactly 1200 GMT, the capital city of every nation in the world was turned into a crater of radioactive slag.”

This wasn’t your typical “a band of orcs is terrorizing the local countryside and the baron has offered to pay you lots of gold to get rid of them” kind of game.  This was a very “real” game in the sense that some of the underlying background information seemed very plausible.  Orcs don’t exist.  Nuclear bombs do. 

We played the heck out of this game back then (I say “heck” because, again, I was living in Utah at the time and nobody swore).  I always played humanoids, because they seemed like the most fun to me.  You got the best of both worlds – opposable thumbs, you could use most technology you came across (including the really cool stuff like Power Armor and all that), but you also got awesome mutations like quills/spines, shape change, or the super cool life leech.  Who cares if you also had to deal with some defects like attraction odor or fear impulse? 

One of the things that I really liked about the game was how open it was.  The descriptions of pretty much everything in the game were so minimal as to be just vague suggestions about what you could do.  Take, for example, this description of the physical mutation defect, Fat Cell Accumulation:

“A mutant with this problem will be fat (twice as large as normal).  The referee will determine how much this impairs the mutant’s movement and fighting ability.  It is possible that only certain body parts, rather than the entire body, might be affected (such as the head, one arm, one thigh).”

That’s it.  Now, about 5-10 years ago, I would have considered that bad game design.  It doesn’t explain how to adjudicate this mutation clearly and definitely.  As a player, I have no idea how my referee is going to figure out “how much this impairs” my abilities.  What if he isn’t fair and I end up sucking compared to the other players?  And, to people who do think this is bad game design, I can totally see your point.  There is some validity to that kind of thinking. 

Nowadays, however, I like this approach.  At this point in our lives, my friends and I have set aside our early D&D 3rd edition need to have memorized every power, spell, feat, class ability, and monster description in order to know whether the DM was “cheating.”  We’re just there to have a good time, and although the DMs constantly rotate depending on which game or campaign we’re playing, we pretty much all have a mutual respect for each other.  So, having a “rules light” description of a mutation like that one above is considered a feature rather than a flaw.  It also makes it easier for both the player and the referee to be creative and imaginative in coming up with how it affects the character during play. 

And that’s really one thing that I love about Gamma World.  Little throw-away lines throughout the rulebook that aren’t explained and don’t provide stats or rules or anything like that.  They’re just mere suggestions of what you can do with the game.  This is another favorite line of mine that I totally remember reading as a kid, in the section on Vehicles:

“8.  OTHER.  Anything the referee desires, such as railroad transports, cargo ships (water), helicopters, police vehicles, and so on may be included in the game where appropriate.”

Once again, you don’t get stats for these vehicles anywhere in the game rules.  You want a helicopter in Gamma World?  Fine!  Have one.  Then figure out how it works within the context of the rules framework.  And, of course, all of this takes place in the future, so it’s probably some kind of weird futuristic Blade Runner-esque helicopter thingey, and you should probably draw a very cool picture of it to show to your friends, because we haven’t drawn it for you. 

In today’s world of creating and selling RPGs, there would be dozens of supplemental books for Gamma World that would describe all of this stuff in painstaking detail.  And back in the day, I would have bought them all (or would have wanted them all, I should say, since I didn’t have an allowance).  But these days?   Nope – I’m content with just giving me some suggestions of things to think about and let me take it from there. 

One of the things I didn’t like about Gamma World, though, was its lack of classes.  I’ve said before that I really like class-based systems, partly because I think it’s what I was first exposed to with the D&D Basic set.  Gamma World had three “races” (pure strain humans, mutated humans, and mutated animals), so why not go the extra step and create classes?  Yes, this would have made the game a little more complicated, which is in direct opposition to my statements above that I liked how it was “rules light.”  But, as a kid, I really wanted classes.  I wanted scientists, scouts, traders, primitive warriors, shamans, and lots more all thrown together into a big melting pot.  I waited so long, and when the 2nd Edition boxed set came out I grabbed it immediately hoping it would have solved the problem, but sadly, it didn’t, so I had to go about creating my own classes.  But that’s a topic for another post. 

Speaking of creating classes, I created a bunch of other stuff for Gamma World as well.  When I acquired my own boxed set, which was actually a used set I bought off a friend for something like $2.50, I didn’t notice for the longest time that several pages where missing, including the descriptions of the Cryptic Alliances and over half of the “Monster & Treasure Listings” found in the back of the book.  When I finally realized that the monster listings were incomplete, I ended up making my own encounter lists to fill in the missing numbers, so when I randomly rolled an encounter, I would have something ready to go.  I’m thinking about posting these old lists of mine because there’s a lot of fun stuff in there.  The stats are pretty non-existent so I might post them “as is”, but I might convert them to Mutant Future just to be safe.  We’ll see.

As so often happens when I grab some of my old RPG stuff off the shelf to leaf through from time-to-time, I came across something today in the rulebook that I’d totally forgotten about.  It’s on the inside front cover of the rulebook, in the Foreward:

“Drawing inspiration from such works as The Long Afternoon of Earth by Brian Aldiss, Starman’s Son by Andre Norton, Hiero’s Journey by Sterling Lanier, and Ralph Bakshi’s animated feature film Wizards, the referee of a GAMMA WORLD campaign fleshes out the game, adding any details he or she deems necessary, and thereby creating a unique world in which day-to-day survival is in doubt.”

Besides noticing that’s one incredibly long sentence, I was a little shocked to discover a reference to Bakshi’s Wizards, since I had just written a post about that a few weeks ago and mentioned how the poster art influenced some of my Gamma World campaigns back in the day.  I have no memory of having read this sentence before today, but as a kid I’m sure I must have because I remember much of the stuff that precedes it in the same paragraph. 

I would love to play a short Gamma World mini-campaign sometime soon if I can find the right group of players.  I’m sure I’d use a bunch of the house rules I created, including my character classes, as well as stuff like the Cyborg rules from Dragon #92 (I think it’s #92 – I’m doing this from memory and I’m frankly too lazy to look it up). 

What cool adventures have you had in Gamma World over the years? 


  1. Way back when, my group created its own Cryptic Alliance, which revolved around wearing Wayfarer Sunglasses. It was the '80s. We had a good time with that game.

  2. World was either my second or third RPG after D&D, and I loved it. Unfortunately, I never got to play it Back in the Day. I'm not really sure why that is, although I think it may be that between D&D and Top Secret (which I purchased around the same time and was my favorite RPG at the time) we just never got the chance to play it.

    I had a few okay games of GW ("Grandma World", as our group came to call it, although I don't recall why) during the early 90's and again a few years ago. But it just didn't have the magical vibe I felt for the game when I devoured the rules in the 80's. I wish I'd gotten a chance to enjoy GW in my formative gaming years, during the Reagan-era of the Cold War. I'm sure it would have been a blast.

  3. BTW, I have no clue why Blogger ate the leading "Gamma" from previous comment. It was there, I swear to it!


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