Thursday, August 2, 2012

[Design Review] Gamma World

What is Gamma World?

This is a science-fantasy roleplaying game. An experiment in atomic science went wrong, causing many alternate universes to condense into a single reality. The game pits mutant heroes with advanced technology against renegade robots, feral mutants, alien menaces, and other dangerous threats. It is an action-adventure game, but it is meant to be played with a sense of humor. Rules-wise, it is a stripped down version of the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. It features a lot of simplifications though, and is intended for shorter campaigns.

One thing that made Gamma World different from other RPGs, for me, is that it is sold as a series of boxed sets. I understand that at one point boxed sets were a typical marketing plan for RPGs, but when I first got into roleplaying, most games that were available were simply a series of books. What does it being a boxed set mean? Well, the core set comes with not only a rulebook, but also a couple of battle maps, cardboard tokens to represent both heroes and enemies, and game cards. The two expansion boxes each included an additional rulebook, another battle map, more cardboard tokens, and more game cards. This game probably has more physical components than most RPGs. There seems to be trend towards boxed sets and more physical components in RPGs again. I don’t think that every RPG needs to take this route, but I liked how it works for Gamma World.

Let’s talk about some of the basics of this game. The game uses a simple d20 mechanic. This means that, most of the time, when your character attempts something that has a chance for either success or failure, you roll a 20-sided die and add or subtract modifiers based on your character’s statistics and circumstances. Then, you compare the resulting value to a target number based on what they are trying to achieve. If you roll high enough, then your character is successful. That is the core of the game rules right there. I like this because it is relatively simple and easy to learn. In addition to this, a simple rule of thumb is that anything that should help your character succeed gives a +2 bonus on the roll, and anything that might hinder them imposes a -2 penalty. There is a lot more detail to the game than that, but with that little bit of knowledge you can pretty much follow everything that is going on in the game.

Rolling Up a Character

Creating a player character for Gamma World is quite different from how it works in most RPGs, because much of the process is randomized. The first thing you do is determine your characters two origins. Each origin represents half of what your character is. Some examples of origins are Android, Electrokinetic, Giant, Mind Breaker, Radioactive, and so on. There were 21 origins in the initial rulebook, and the expansions added another 28. Each origin gives your character a few special abilities at first level. As your character advances in level they will gain new abilities and powers from both of their origins. All of these abilities and powers represent mutations or technological enhancements tied to the nature of the origins. Since you randomly select two origins for your character, each PC will end up being an amalgam such as: Hawkoid Speedster, Alien Shapeshifter, or Photonic Octopoid. Part of the humor and challenge of creating a character is figuring out how to rectify your two origins. For example, a Hawkoid Rat Swarm may sound impossible at first, but you could choose to interpret it as a sentient flock of crows. You really do have to use your imagination here.

Once you’ve determined your character’s origins, you need to generate your ability scores. Characters have six primary abilities (Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma). The values of these statistics are determined simi-randomly. You automatically get good scores in one or two abilities determined by your characters origins. The rest of your ability scores are determined by the roll of the dice.

Next come skills. Skills represent areas your character is trained in. You get bonuses to some skills based on your character’s origins, and you get another bonus to a single skill that is determined at random.

Choosing gear is the only aspect of character creation that you control. Each character is entitled to a couple of weapons, one piece of armor, and a handful of more petty items. There are really only three types of armor in the game, and twelve different weapons. Fan sites, however, have published some additional options for armor and weapons, which I enjoyed including in my home game.

The last step in pushing your character out through the door and onto the path toward adventure is drawing one card each from the Alpha Mutation deck and the Omega Tech deck. These are the cards that come with the game, and they represent two different things. Alpha Mutations are strange mutations that have as much to do with the unstable nature of reality in this setting as they have to do with genetics. Alpha Mutations are on cards, rather than on your character sheet, because they will come and go throughout the course of the game. One day your character might have an extra arm, and the next day he may have a fiery aura instead. Omega Tech is highly advanced equipment that most people don’t really understand how to maintain. For this reason, Omega Tech is also kept on cards and can prove transient. Every time you make use of a piece of Omega Tech, there is a chance you will have used up its last round of ammunition, or drained the last bit of energy from its battery. If you are a high enough level character, you may be able to salvage the tech and continue to use it in a slightly weaker state. Otherwise, once it is used up you’ll just toss it aside.

The second expansion to the game added another step to character creation. That was choosing a vocation. Vocations represented your character’s occupation, or area of expertise, and they included such options as Beast Rider, Mad Scientist, Soldier of Fortune, and Witch Doctor. Each vocation had three “feats” associated with it. Feats give your character some minor ability or perk. As you level up, you can gain more feats from your chosen vocation, or you can move into a new vocation and gain feats from there.

Playing the Game

I think that the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons is fairly streamlined, even though it is very robust in certain areas. As a stripped down version of that rules system, Gamma World flows very nicely in actual play. Using the core d20 mechanic in conjunction with characters’ ability scores and skill bonuses is an easy way to determine the success or failure of any given action. The first expansion box added a concept called “skill challenges” that is native to 4th edition D&D, but was stripped out of the rules for the core Gamma World product. Skill challenges provide a nice framework for modeling more involved scenes that require the use of multiple skills, but do not involve combat.

Combat in Gamma World takes place on a battle map with a 1-inch grid used to measure distances. As noted before, several such maps are provided in the game’s boxed sets. Using the cardboard tokens that come with the game, you can track where the players’ characters and their opponents are on the map. Characters take turns moving about and attacking each other with weapons and powers. Good tactics are helpful, in that many mutations and technology can grant additional movement, provide a temporary advantage, or inflict various statuses on their targets, in addition or instead of damaging them. Using one of your powers to immobilize an enemy with a short reach, while your buddy uses one of their powers to teleport adjacent to the enemy sniper, could be a good example of how fighting smart can win you the battle.

One thing that separates Gamma World from many RPGs, is that player characters return to full health after every battle. This might make the game less realistic, but realism isn’t really what Gamma World is going for. I find that it makes the pace of the game faster, but I also find that a balanced encounter tends more towards being lethal for the player characters. In most games, combat encounters are meant to gradually wear the PCs down, so that only in an eventual confrontation with a major villain will the players really feel that their characters’ lives are at risk. Since PCs in Gamma World heal completely after each battle, the game is instead designed so that each battle will pose a more serious threat to the player characters.

Running the Game

I believe it is worth discussing how easy it is to GM this game. The setting of Gamma World is pretty much wide open with possibilities. It is a post-apocalyptic wasteland littered with all kinds of dangers. There are the relics and ruins of ancient civilizations buried beneath the ground or in dark twisted forests. Some of these civilizations were more advanced than anything we’ve seen before their native dimension was folded in with our own. In fact, since the very premise of the setting involves a bunch of alternate universes being jumbled into one, you can pretty much include whatever you want. Perhaps in another universe the world was ruled by sentient cockroaches. Perhaps in another it was perpetually fought over by rival nations of elves, dwarves, orcs, and men. In another it was overrun by robots. In yet another it had been conquered by aliens. It really is the kind of setting where you can simply let your imagination run wild, and feel free to include just about any random idea you haven’t found a place for anywhere else.

Besides the freedom inherent to the setting, the rules also provide many useful tools for the GM. Each rulebook provides a gallery of enemy threats you can pitch against the heroes. Each enemy comes with game statistics already prepared. Each enemy has only the data you need to use it in a fight, along with suggestions on the tactics it might employ. While other RPGs have you build NPCs using the same rules for creating PCs, Gamma World cuts to the chase and gives you enemies that simply behave how you want them to in a battle. There are also pretty clear and practical guidelines to help you build a balanced encounter that should challenge your players without being impossible to overcome. Similar guidelines make it very easy to build skill challenges. This approach to providing practical tools and guidance to the GM comes straight from the 4th edition of D&D, and is very well implemented here.

Closing Thoughts
Overall, I think Gamma World is a very well put together game. It is rather simple, mechanically speaking, but it has plenty enough material to make it interesting. The setting is fun, and holds a lot of potential.

Some people will find the very random character creation process to be frustrating. It may prevent some players from making a character their own, and really getting into the role. If this is a problem for your gaming group, I think it would be easy enough to simply let players make their own choices instead of rolling the dice. Personally, I think the randomness could prompt players to try playing character types they wouldn’t normally consider.

I love how easy they make it for the GM to run this game. The prewritten adventures included in the game aren’t half bad for inspiration, even. Though, they do focus a little too much on combat at the exclusion of all else for my tastes. Still, they’re decent examples of how adventures can be structured and balanced.

I sort of like the fact that this game had a limited production run, having only the core box and two expansions. With some RPGs, I feel like I’m getting sucked into purchasing an ever expanding line of products. Even though I don’t need every new book in the line to play a given RPG, I feel like I’m missing part of the experience if I don’t have them. I do wish the game had included certain additional material, such as more options for weapons and such. However, there are a few different fan sites that have published material to fill these voids, and much of there work is of considerable quality.

These are my general thoughts on Gamma World. I’d love to read any observations you may have about the game and its design, or any thoughts you might have on my own observations. Please feel free to leave a comment!


  1. I usually find that unless I'm playing an RPG based on a world or fandom with which I'm closely acquainted I usually don't go into it having any strong ideas about what kind of character I want to make. For this reason I think, I really loved the randomness of the character creation process. I think it made me feel pretty free to add various quirks to her personality as well (such as her sushi obsession or her love of climbing). And at first I was frustrated with the idea of trying to come up with the weapons based on what cards I'd drawn but in the end I ended up VERY pleased. I feel Gamma World was a really fun experience. I had some trouble keeping track of the story-line, I suspect in the future I might start taking notes. LOL

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed playing Gamma World. I had fun running it.

      I can't recall ever having any real difficulty coming up with ideas for characters in an RPG, but then I've usually read the game books and stuff, so I might have a little more grasp of the setting than someone who is just showing up to play. The best RPGs provide enough setting material in the rulebook to inspire character ideas. I can understand that without that background information it might be difficult to know where to begin.

      Even though I usually GM, I still lose track of the storyline sometimes. Not usually the main plot, but sometimes the details escape me after a while. I wish I kept more notes just so I can look back on a campaign with nostalgia, if nothing else. ^_^

    2. Yeah some frame of reference generally helps. I guess once I'm in it, and get immersed I can flow with it and generate ideas that I like on the fly...but to do any actual planning ahead and have a fleshed out idea, I need some familiarity with the setting and so forth. And I bet if I could read some of the gaming books, like I have with the Serenity Role playing book, I'd have a lot more ideas. ^_^