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.