Gamma World: Gamma Grass

Ever since first edition Gamma World I’ve been fond of this “monster” because it embodies the setting’s ethos of “even the landscape is out to get you”. I’ve updated it for the current edition of the game, with a little added benefit/story hook to encourage characters to actually brave the risks involved, making it a bit more than just a random hazard.

Gamma Grass: Known as “zeeth” in the language of the seer lizards, this purple sward reproduces by teleporting its seeds into the guts of nearby creatures. The seeds release a deadly neurotoxin, killing the host, which decomposes and fertilizes a new patch of gamma grass.

Mature gamma grass is a hazard that attacks any animal creature that begins or ends its turn within 5 squares of the patch. Seed teleports that miss materialize in the air nearby with a sizzling “pop” as they burst harmlessly.

Attack: Ranged 5, +7 vs. Fortitude. Targets protected by force fields are unaffected.

Hit: 2d6 poison damage, plus ongoing 5 (save ends). If target drops to 0 hit points or fewer, it dies and a patch of gamma grass sprouts from the corpse the next day.

If mature gamma grass is harvested, dried, and smoked, it grants a particular type of alpha shift: the smoker may draw the next two Psi mutations from the alpha mutation deck and choose to retain one, gaining a +2 bonus to overcharge that mutation for the next encounter.

Because of its benefits (along with a mild euphoric “high” from smoking it), serfs, sleeth, and some badder tribes use slave labor to harvest patches of gamma grass. Those that do not survive the process simply ensure a bumper crop in the following season.

Gamma World: Medusa Microbes

Torn from the headlines! News about concrete repairing microbes inspired the following Gamma World hazard:

Medusa Microbes: Fast-acting microbes attempt to “repair” their target by replacing organic materials with calcium carbonate. Moderate Perception check to notice minor petrifications of wildlife and smoothing over of stone-like materials in the area. Any creature starting or ending its turn in the area infected with medusa microbes is attacked by them:

Attack: +8 vs. Fortitude

Hit: Target slowed (save ends).

First failed saving throw: Target restrained (save ends).

Second failed saving throw: Target unconscious (but not prone, save ends).

Third failed saving throw: Target dead and permanently petrified.

Gamma World: Alpha and Omega

A particularly interesting element of the Gamma World play experience is the influence of random elements—such as character origin, equipment, alpha mutations, and omega tech—on the overall shape of the story. Both the players and I, as gamemaster, had to adapt not only to the random outcomes of action checks, but also to the random capabilities of the characters; not just whether or not characters could accomplish something with their abilities, but what options they could even attempt at any given time.

Here are some examples that came up during our game:

  • The Lost Bot: When Mike’s hawkoid cyborg bit the dust during the fight with the obbs, he needed to come up with a new character right away. While I was finishing up the fight, I kept an ear out for what Mike was doing with character creation, since I’d have to introduce his new character somehow. As it happened, he generated a giant android with a battlesuit (omega tech) and the intro practically wrote itself: a war-robot, usleless to the obbs because it was non-biological, deactivated and buried under the fungus of their lair. I hadn’t planned for there to be a lost robot there, but circumstances put him there for the heroes to find.
  • Water, Water Everywhere: Sean’s character, Clan McDougal, a hive-mind of mutant bats, drew Aquatic as an alpha mutation. Initially, I’d planned for the whole adventure to take place in a dry Ancient sub-shuttle tunnel. Since I didn’t want to screw Sean with a totally useless ability, I made the tunnel partially flooded for the next encounter. It was no more than a meter or so deep, but enough for the swimming swarm to sneak past the blaash there while scouting ahead, catching them from both sides when the characters attacked.
  • That Healing Touch: The initial fight with the obbs looked bad from the moment Mike’s hawkoid bit the dust (and spawned another obb to fight). The characters took a lot of initial damage before they got the radiation resistant character out front. Fortune favored them, however, in an alpha shift where two of the characters got healing abilities. The sense of relief was palpable, and far more dramatic than a hero simply using an existing healing power. In many ways, the healing “gifts” they got felt more like “miracles” than cleric powers in D&D!
  • Git Yer Gun: I really like the ammo rule in Gamma World, which basically says guns are encounter abilities: you can use them once per encounter, if you are rationing your ammo. You can choose to use your gun as many times as you want during an encounter, but if it’s more than once, you run out of ammo when the encounter is over, and only get more when the GM says so. This offers a tantalizing idea for “hotshotting” encounter or daily abilities in D&D, where you get an additional use (or two) in a pinch at the cost of “crippling” the ability for a length of time greater than the usual recover rate. I especially like the elegance of it being the player’s choice whether to ration or just go in “guns blazing”. Much the same applies to consumable omega tech, which is only good once, or omega tech with salvage value.
  • Psiracy: At one point, Andy (playing the mind coercer) commented how it would have been cool to have a Psi mutation another player drew. “Psi specialists should be able to ‘borrow’ or ‘salvage’ psi powers from other characters” he said. Let’s just say I noted that for future consideration as a special ability.
  • The Power Not Taken: Along the same line, it was interesting to see some of the plot-elements-that-might-have-been in the form of alpha mutations players pulled, but didn’t get to use before there was another alpha shift and they had to discard them. Time Warp and Force Field Generation were two good examples. I would have liked to see them in action, but it didn’t happen. One player even raised the philosophical issue of whether or not those mutations ever “really” happened from the characters’ perspective. If it didn’t come into play, was it ever real?

Gamma World definitely highlighted for me the fun aspects of having some random elements going in during game play beyond just success-failure checks of some sort, things that introduced entirely new things into the environment for the players and I to riff off of in creating the story. In some regards, the alpha and omega tech decks of Gamma World can count things like the Whimsy Cards and Storypath Card decks as their ancestors as much as (if not more than) themed power decks from Magic: The Gathering.

Return to Gamma World

I ran the latest iteration of Gamma World from Wizards of the Coast for my gaming group yesterday, and it was a good time.

I’ve got a long history with Gamma World; the “grey box” first edition was the very first RPG I ever bought (well, okay, my parents bought it for me because I asked them to) and the first one I played with my friends in Middle School. I own every edition of Gamma World since then, and played most of them.

So, right out of the box, the latest edition embraces what some call the “wacky” nature of Gamma World. Funny thing is, in spite of all the mutant freaks and in-jokes and such, I’ve never found GW any wackier than, say, most editions of D&D, which postulate equally implausible combinations of funky races, magical trinkets, and whatnot. For some reason, perhaps the modern/future trappings, when Gamma World does exactly the same tropes, they seem to stand out more.

Character creation is pretty easy: roll two origins, which provide most of your primary abilities, roll up the remaining ability scores, a bonus skill (each of your origins provides one, too), and some random gear. Choose a package of weapons and armor (all simple and generic) and you’re good to go.

Our group ended up with what I suspect is a typical motley crew: a felinoid speedster, a hawkoid swarm, an android hawkoid (andrawkoid?), an enhanced human mental coercer, and a radioactive felinoid. Surprisingly, they gelled just as easily as a group as any party of D&D characters.

The random Ancient Equipment table is a bit limited: just 20 options, combined with each player getting 1d4+1 rolls meant a lot of duplication. I would have liked to see a somewhat larger table there. Also, while the simplification of weapons into light and heavy, one- and two-handed was nice, it was more difficult to tell from a quick glance what abilities applied to what weapons in what way in terms of attack rolls and damage, etc.

It’s good that character creation is quick, because the game is definitely more lethal than D&D 4e. The android hawkoid perished in the very first encounter, but his player had a new character (a giant android) finished by the time the fight with the obbs was over. Several other characters got to 0 hit points during the game, but didn’t die. Healing is massively simplified from D&D: you get a second wind (recovering half your hit points) and between encounters (any time you rest) you regain all of your hit points. This made healing less of a concern.

The real brilliance of the new edition lies in the explanation for the Apocalypse that destroyed civilization: the collapse of multiple, perhaps even infinite, timelines into one. This provides a fantastic excuse for bringing in pretty much anything you want in your Gamma World game. Artifacts and ruins don’t have to have any rhyme or reason to them, since they may come from other timelines or realities where history was quite different, or technology was more or less advanced. The past isn’t something that can be easily untangled and figured out, because you have to ask “which past?”

Likewise, the alpha shift rule, wherein characters get random mutations, was a lot of fun. I can definitely see the appeal of individually-tuned player decks: in a four-and-a-half hour game, we went through the entire alpha mutations deck once (admittedly, there was a run on rolling 1s). I allowed players to self-select by limiting their alpha mutations to particular power sources, if they wanted. Only the coercer took the option, sticking solely to Psi mutations. Everyone else went with whatever they got.

It was cool when another player would get a power someone else had previously and the previous player would be all, “That’s cool, here’s what you can do with it…” There was an interesting element in the group “sharing” a set of randomly distributed powers. There was very little use of overcharging in the game, just one attempt at it pretty late in the session. I suspect players may have been feeling things out and getting comfortable with the system before trying it.

For the adventure, I adapted “Cavern of the Sub-Train” from Dragon magazine #52, although I really just used the idea of the discovery an ancient sub-shuttle tunnel and created all new encounters. I tired to set the tone for the game by doing a short voice-over intro to the closing theme music of Thundarr the Barbarian. It seemed to have the desired effect.

In hindsight, I went a bit too heavy on the radiation-based creatures (given that part of the scenario was that the tunnel had been breached along a radioactive zone). Still, the felinoid speedster with the low Fortitude managed to survive. The final encounter with the badders and hoops also wasn’t nearly as challenging as I’d originally planned, largely because the players plotted an ambush and got the upper hand very quickly.

My biggest difficulty in running the game was that I should have prepared a “cheat-sheet” of key rules in advance. There’s no GM screen (as yet) and the rulebook’s anemic index isn’t worth the page it’s printed on in terms of looking things up quickly during play. (For example, there isn’t even an entry for “Ammo” although there is a key ammo rule in the game.) So sometimes we had to stop the action as we hunted to confirm a particular rule. I’m sure this is something that will decrease with familiarity, but it’s an obstacle for newcomers. That’s unfortunate as, otherwise, Gamma World is a great pick-up game for getting together, quickly rolling-up some mutant survivors, and going to town in the ruins of civilization. I think chances are good that our intrepid heroes will emerge from the Cave of the Ancients and go on to do other things.

New Mutations for Gamma World

The following mutations are based on material from earlier editions of Gamma World, adapted for the Alternity edition. The gamemaster can extend the mutation tables or allow the new mutations to be substituted for some existing mutations, if they are being determined randomly.

Physical Mutations

Burning Hands
Good, Activated, WIL
The mutant can emit heat from his hands (or other appendages), doing additional damage in unarmed combat. The damage is based on the result of a WIL feat check by the mutant: Marginal, d4s; Ordinary, d4+2s; Good d8+2s; Amazing d4+1w (En/0). This damage is in addition to any done by the unarmed attack. Each activation last for 2 full rounds (8 phases), after which the mutant suffers 1 point of fatigue damage.

Poison Attack
Amazing, Activated, STR
This ability (one p. 66 of Gamma World) can also produce caustic agents rather than poisons, allowing some mutants to inflict acid damage to creatures they touch, or breathe an acid cloud or mist.

Sonic Blast
Amazing, Activated, WIL
The mutant can emit a damaging blast of sound, affecting all targets within a 10 meter raidus. The effects of the blast depend on a Constitution feat check by the targets, and each target checks separately: Critical Failure, d6w and target is rendered unconscious for d4 rounds; Failure, d6+2s and target is deafened for d4 rounds; Ordinary, d4s; Good, d4-2s; Amazing: no effect. This mutation can be used once per hour.

Sound Imitiation
Good, Activated, INT
The mutant can perfectly imitate any sound he has heard before, and has the ability to reproduce a sonic blast (as the mutation above) immediately after hearing (and surviving) one. The mutant can only reproduce each sonic blast once after hearing it, and doing so causes 1 point of fatigue damage to the mutant.

Mental Mutations

Mass Mind
Good, Activated, WIL
A mutant with this ability can pool his mental mutations with other mutants with the same ability. The mutants must be within close proximity (about 2 meters) and must concentrate for a full phase. Provided the Mass Mind activation check is successful, the activation check for the affected mutation is based on the highest ability of the mutants in the mass mind, +1 per additional mutant. The mutation’s effect and range are multiplied by the number of minds. After activation, the Mass Mind character suffers 1 fatigue damage per mind in the link. If multiple mutants in the link have Mass Mind, they divide the fatigue damage evenly among them. Mass Mind can be used once per day.

Example: Three thought masters are gathered together. One of them has Mass Mind in addition to his other mutations. He forms a mass mind with the other two to direct a powerful Telepathic Blast. The activation check for Telepathic Blast is based on the highest PER, +2 for two additional minds in the link. The base range (30 meters) is multiplied by three (to 90 meters) and the blast does 3d4+3s damage. Afterward, the thought master with Mass Mind takes 3 fatigue damage. If one of the other thought masters had Mass Mind as well, then one would have taken 2 points of fatigue damage and the other 1 point.

Molecular Disruption
Amazing, Activated, WIL
This powerful mutation allows the character to disrupt the molecular cohesion of an object by touch. The mutant can only affect objects up to (WIL x 10) kilograms in mass and living targets impose their Constiution or Willpower resistance modifier (whichever is greater). The effect depends on the result of the mutant’s Willpower feat check: Ordinary or less, no effect; Good, d6w damage; Amazing, target completely disintegrated. This mutation can only be used once per week.

Amazing, Activated, WIL
The mutant can disappear from one location and instantly reappear in another. The mutant need not see the target location but but know it with at least some familiarity (personal experience, seeing it via clairvoyance, or carefully studying blueprints or maps). Anything the mutant is wearing or carrying (up to mass in kilograms equal to Will) go with him when he teleports. The target location must be within 100 meters (range 25/50/100). At medium range, the feat check carries a +1 step penalty, at long range, the penalty is +3 steps.

The results of the feat check determine how on-target the mutant is. On an Amazing success, the mutant is dead on target. On a Good success, he misses the target by d4 meters in a random direction. On an Ordinary success, he misses the target by d4+2 meters. On a Failure, he misses the target by d4+4 meters. If the character would materialize in a solid object, he is displaced to the nearest open space and suffers damage. Make a Constitution feat check: Critical Failure, d4+2m; Failure, d4m; Ordinary, d4+2w; Good, d4w, Amazing, d4+2s. A second use of this mutation before an hour has passed inflicts 1 point of fatigue damage on the mutant.