Review: “Gamma World” RPG

While others have been looking forward to the Essentials books, I have been looking forward to getting my hands on the Gamma World RPG since January.

What is the Gamma World RPG? In a nutshell, it’s a standalone post-apocalyptic RPG that uses, almost whole cloth, the 4e D&D rules, with the main differences being in the characters. Instead of having your Elven Fighter or Human Wizard, you play a Half-Yeti Half-Android with a giant nose or a Pyrokinetic Rat Swam hefting a plasma sword. I feel like you could either already be sold on the game or totally turned off, but I’ll continue on.

Treasures of the Ancients

The boxed set comes with a 160 page rulebook, some character sheets, 2 double-sided maps, a set of monster tokens of various Gamma World critters, two decks of cards (for Alpha Mutations and Omega Tech) and a booster pack of random cards to add to the base deck.

The 160 page rulebook contains all the rules for the game, which includes all the basic rules from 4e D&D, everything from basic of roleplaying games, making saving throws, conditions, and so on. The rules (refined over the past few years) are presented very efficiently and clearly, though I’ll admit since I already know them I didn’t go through them that closely.

You’re a Mutated, Sentient Bug

Characters are the biggest divergence from standard D&D. Almost everything is generated randomly- from the origin chart (where you roll what your two halves are), to most of your ability scores (3d6 in order, with one or two scores automatically assigned based on your origin so you’re never disadvantaged in your primary abilities), to your skills, to your mundane equipment, and finally (and most importantly), your always-fluxing Alpha Mutation and cantankerous Omega Tech items.

Your powers, at-will and encounter (no dailies to be seen), are given by your two origins, and they also give you some other characteristics and abilities, the more of which you gain as you level up. Characters only go from levels 1 to 10, and as a result, there’s no “+ half level” stuff, almost everything uses + full level. You don’t ever gain many powers, and you don’t make many choices as far as powers go, so those accustomed to the many options that D&D characters give are likely to be disappointed.

You Grow Enormous Clown Feet

The two card decks have been the subject of much discussions since the game was announced, so let me explain a bit about them.

Alpha Mutations are a big mutation that happens to your character that switch often (between encounters and whenever you roll a 1.) They range from extra arms to mental control over robots to the ability to animate a dead body. Some give a static bonus, while others give an encounter power. They all have an origin (psi, dark, or bio), and most of them have an “overcharge.” An overcharge lets you get something extra out of a mutation, if you roll well, with bonuses from your origin. Roll poorly, and the mutation backfires… which is probably the most entertaining part of the game. Anything where you can roll low and have your arms shrivel into nothing is good in my book.

Omega Tech are kind of like magic items, though they have the feel of bizarre technology from incomprehensible sources. Omega Tech can be depleted and run out of juice, after which you can either salvage it for a lesser version of the item (if you meet the right conditions) or it becomes useless junk.

From a functional standpoint, cards are by far the easiest way to handle them. They’re random, they change frequently, they contain all the information you need in one place and it’s better when they’re not duplicated as much. Perfect situation for cards as opposed to a chart in a book. The boxed set comes with plenty to play with, as well as a booster pack, and you can buy more random booster packs of them.

The book suggests that players can (but are not required to) build their own personal deck of mutations and tech, as long as they have at least 7 cards and no more than 2 of a particular card. Given the packs that I opened, you’d need anywhere from 2-4 packs to accomplish this per person. In some cases, you draw from your personal deck, in others, you draw from the Game Master’s deck. If you don’t have a personal deck, you always draw from the GM deck.

So basically, there’s no requirement at all that you build your own deck or buy the booster packs. They give more variety. You can make your own deck, which you could stock with cards that work especially well for your character (which does make some amount of sense- your psychic character is more likely to manifest psychic mutations.) However, you’re only drawing from your own deck some of the time, and it’s a deck with limitations on duplicates, so you don’t have a lot of control over what’s coming. Plus, the book emphasizes how deadly the world is and how characters are somewhat throwaway… even if you went to all the trouble buying a bunch of cards that worked with your character you could then lose that character to a stray missile.

I love the cards- they are a variety of fun effects, with lots of flavor that is often oh-so-missing from D&D powers, with funny references (there’s a power called LMAO that causes laughing and one card quotes Seinfeld.) However, the whole customizing your personal deck thing is pretty clunky, and clearly, caused a lot of outrage to just the idea of it. If I were running the game, I probably would just say that everybody draws from the GM deck. Much easier in play. I don’t mind the booster pack element at all however- I picked up 5, and I certainly wouldn’t mind if one of the players in my game picked a few up to toss into the pool.

The Year is Six Monkey Slap-Slap

For the rest of the book, after all the character stuff, we get into the GM section. It contains all the basics of GMing with the 4e engine, from making good adventures to spending your XP budget to design an encounter, and so on. Again, good advice that’s been pretty well worked out over these past two and a half years of 4e.

We’re told at the beginning of the book that the world of Gamma Terra takes places 150 years after “The Big Mistake” of 2012, where the Large Hadron Collider collapsed multiple realities into one, and most of them had been ravaged by nuclear war. Thus, not only do you have a ruined post-apocalyptic world, you have one where other realities have made their way in to cause all kinds of strangeness (especially the alpha mutations.)

Unfortunately, we don’t get much beyond that in terms of the world, and the book is worse for it. There are some great tidbits about the world, including some notable sites, secret societies, and how to turn your home town into an irradiated wasteland for adventuring purposes. The sum total of that takes up 2 pages, and mostly we’re on our own. No example settlements, no example adventure arcs, no NPCs. While everything in the book is infused with Gamma Terra flavor, there’s very little to help out a GM who wants to make his own game. While D&D could get away with that because there is so much already out there, there’s not nearly as much for the unique flavor that is the new Gamma World.

What else but violence would you expect from a 5-foot tall, intelligent, mutated badger?

The book has about 30 pages of monsters that showcase the variety of strange things your heroes could run across. There’s mutant pig bikers, irradiated giant insects, killer pigeons of doom, and a variety of robots. They’re built like (MM3-era) D&D monsters, so they’re easy enough to pick up and run if you already know D&D. Other than a few different damage types (like laser and radiation damage), you could drop D&D creatures into your Gamma World game and vice versa, if you really need your Kenku Assassin to fight angry rabbit-people.

The book also contains a few traps, terrain features, and hazards for spicing up your encounters. Laser grids are an important part of your forboding-complex experience.

The final piece is an example adventure, and it’s, well, a generic dungeon crawl. 8 encounters, which take place on the included poster maps, strung together. Almost no roleplaying opportunities or choices to be made. There are some interesting features to some of the encounters, mostly in the form of malfunctioning machines, but ultimately a pretty forgettable and disappointing example first adventure. So much so, since I want to run the game soon, that I don’t think I can run it as is and I’ll have to work on my own intro adventure.

“Sweet dreams, suckers!”

I played an early demo of Gamma World back in January run by Rich Baker, and had a great time. I wanted the game immediately, and with the final product in my hands, I’m still itching to play. Though I’ll probably end up running it mostly, I’d jump at the chance to roll up a mutant and go. The final game delivers on the game that I want to play.

However, it’s really disappointing that they skimped so much on the setting. The authors managed to cram a lot into one small rulebook, and some of the rules for characters are downright inspired. It just seems like such an oversight to not include more about the actual setting, since it’s so unique and so central to the game itself. They do have two more products on the way that are modules that might address that. I just can’t help but shake the feeling that it’s not a complete game in the box for the GM- and it’s not the cards to blame.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.

Comments

  1. Very dissapointing they went so short on the world setting as I’d think thats as if not more important than how to do all the characters. It’ll inevitably be annoying when one comes out later and completely changes the flavor of a campaign one has setup if you want to use it. In a box set no less.

    “Gamma World is available now from Wizards Premiere local gaming stores, and elsewhere October 19th.” Hahah, same release date for Fallout: New Vegas. You can’t tell me that wasn’t coordinated.

  2. The boxed sets they’re coming out with probably will only cover a small amount of area… it would just have been really nice to have some springboard to start with. The tips and tidbits are great but there’s no foundation.

    Hadn’t realized that about Fallout… that’s on my list to get too. You can bet I’ll be stealing from Fallout 3 for my GW game.

  3. Lack of setting details is a feature, not a bug, especially when it comes to GW. Extensive setting defined by the publisher has ruined many and edition of GW.

  4. As someone who has never played any previous edition of Gamma World, I don’t have a good enough springboard to know where to start planning a game. I understand that games can be choked by too much setting, but there’s almost nothing in here to get me started… even a better starter adventure would have helped a lot with that.

  5. TheMainEvent says:

    I’m very curious to try it. I guess the setting would be nice, but it seems madcap and whimsical so detailed setting may be purposely skimpy to try to foster that sense of flexibility?

  6. Can’t wait to give it a try. Sounds a bit over the top for my preferred flavor of game (especially in the post-apoc arena), but then the same could be said of Paranoia, one of my all-time faves. This sounds like the sort of game where just the act of playing is so much fun the adventure is almost secondary.

  7. I had immense fun back in the day playing the first incarnation of Gamma World. But as I recall, the setting was just as skimpy back then, except they had some NPC’s. (Remember that mutated bear who had a Napoleon complex?)

    Finding tech was always the most fun, because of that perilous flow chart that determined whether it worked or just exploded in your face! Once I accidentally turned a cleaning bot into a whirling death machine thanks to a few flow chart tweaks by the dm.

    Too fun.

    So I’ll buy this version too, and hope wotc gives it the support it needs.

  8. TME: That might be true, the tips for mutating your home town (maybe I should just run an adventure in The Monster) seem to reinforce that.

    Charles: It definitely can be compared to Paranoia.

    Boy Genius: I take it back, the Napolean Bear is mentioned in the book under one of the societies, so I guess there is an NPC mentioned in the book 🙂

  9. Saw it last night at a Wizard Premiere Store. Looked pretty sweet. Not having an extensive campaign setting is kind of appealing to me. I wonder how much support this product line will actually get from WotC if these initial three offerings do not sell like gang busters.

  10. I mostly just want it as a campaign setting, even if for D20 Modern or D&D. I prefer long term campaigns.

  11. Do the gamma items have the same feel from the older Gamma World, of misunderstood alien refuse a-la Roadside Picnic?

    If so that’s awesome.

  12. The adventure that ran at PAX was very good. Despite being brief, it was full of RP, flavor, and fun situations. It received rave reviews at the con. As with Dark Sun, somehow they manage to package very plain adventures for sale but have great adventures for conventions – which players and DMs then may not be able to acquire.

    Setting-wise, I think old GW books could really help here, but I suspect the intention behind the 4E version is to give wide freedom to the DM. Choose location, choose factions and wacky changes, then go to it. It isn’t about defining a map of the world and delineating boundaries/factions/etc.

    I own the box set (due to being a judge) and I really like it. I think it is great for short campaigns but may lose staying power as compared to traditional 4E since it lacks some depth and is more built on campy fun than the usual tenets of PC progression/development. Then again, the average D&D campaign doesn’t run for that long… so it may not be an issue.

  13. I also cannot wait to run and play this quite a bit, the whimsical nature of it and hilarity that can ensue just from the characters themselves is what I’m most looking forward to!

  14. Thanks for a very insightful review. I hope they make up for what is missing through the modules or DDI.

  15. Kenneth G says:

    Well, if the close connection to 4e’s MMOffRPG system didn’t kill it for me from the get-go, the ridiculous “not-really-collectible-but-you-need-to-by-booster-packs” card-based mutation mechanic pretty much did. Sounds like TSRWoTCHasbro (The SyFy Channel of gaming, apparently) turned yet another classic RPG into farcical aberration of itself.

    DnD: Now a PnP version of WoW, to make it “Cooler and Hipper”

    Gamma World: Converted to an expensive Mutant-Munchkin (Apologies to Steve Jackson Games) to make it more “Wacky and Spontaneous”

    That makes “Top Secret” next on the shi… err. “hit” list, I suppose. I’m betting some kind of simulated bullet time game mechanic as well as an on-line pay-as-you-play online or iFad component for making secret missions even more “High Tech and Spy-ey”.

    Thank god for them plethora of rising Indy Designers.

  16. Wow! Kennet G, reading you rant is like going back two years in time. Keep going, I have a long night ahead – entertain me. 🙂

  17. Gamma World has been one of my favorites settings since the begining of time. With this review, this edition of GW reminds me more the first edition (wacky mutations, lack of large setting), even with the adition of the random cards, wich I was doubtful about them but seem like fun.
    My conclusion: I want to play this so badly!!

  18. The form factor of the 160 page pamplet is just plain terrible and cheap, the tiny little maps, no dice, and very little information on the setting just plain stinks. I feel like I bought Gamma World “Pocket Edition” I would rather have paid $40 for a single hardcover book – oh and did I mention the 4 pathetic character sheets they ripped off a yahtzee score pad and threw in the box? I love D&D 4E but this release of a game and setting that I have always loved is just crap…with a capital “P”.

  19. Nice review. Having just picked up the box myself, I’ve gotta say, I feel like all that setting stuff you wanted is there, just not in big long chunks of text for the DM to pass on to the players in boring ways. It’s in the art and characters and monsters.

    Just the list of character types tells me a whole lot about the setting, about engineered humans and yetis and plants and androids and all this other stuff. Then I look at the tech and mutations and those give me more setting: power sources, types of devices, tone. Finally the monsters that give me more of an idea what the world is like.

    I guess for me that’s pretty terrific setting: details baked in to the rules, not fluff off to the side, that provides lots of easy inspiration.

  20. Barry Wilson says:

    Overall, I am mostly pretty impressed with it. In many ways, it’s quite faithful to the source material. ( As an example, all monsters save one were in the 2nd edition main rulebook. )

    I am planning on testing out some house rules to reduce the randomness of the mutations. I haven’t fully decided what to do yet, but I really don’t like the constant flux of your powers changing. Hopefully I will get a chance to do some playtesting soon.

  21. I think they should really have more serious races. Half-yeti? Seriously? I was thinking more like Human, Alien, Mutant, things like that 😛

  22. You can be an Engineered Human, but ultimately, everybody’s a mutant. There are suggestions on how to reskin them to fit a bit better, like a Yeti Human isn’t necessarily part Yeti but might just be a powerful wrestler (that shares the same power set and traits.)

    As I say initially though, if you don’t want to be a Radioactive Plant, this isn’t necessarily the game for you.

  23. Hmm… I am intrigued, and this sounds cool, but I wonder if it goes a bit too far into gonzo camp.

    Just like everything else from my childhood era (movies, TV shows, etc) the re-make is being done extra campy…. While Gamma World DID have a lot of downright silly stuff in it, it actually still took itself very seriously… Torn on the cards… Like the mechanic, dislike the CCG nature of boosters.

  24. Steve Russell says:

    Hi
    A good review I no doubt will buy the game as soon as It arrives in my local store and bag a few boosters as well.

    I think its a shame these days that RPGers need to have settings spelled out to them, This I guess is due to the GW generation. I hail from the 70-80s period of D&D where you bought the game and invented the rest.

    Just reading your review and I came up with a load of ideas and settings. That to me is what RPG is about unless your playing Call of Cthulhu or something that relies on a back ground. And its good to keep player guessing. I will no doubt buy the add ons when they appear, but the rest will be my ideas

  25. Jeff Howerton says:

    What garbage is this and that’s exactly what it is….garbage. Lets throw away all of the cool ideas of the former gamma world editions….heaven forbid that WOTC acknowledge anything from TSR even if it was 20 years ago. Nice how Gamma World 4th edition rules became 3rd edition D&D. Look into it before you think I am just bashing. Gamma World got its name because of the radiation….(like Gamma radiation) from the Apocalypse not some Rifts clone that it has become. Sorry I ever bought it so off to Ebay it goes, someone that thinks its great will buy it. Why didn’t you just name it Gamma: The gathering?

  26. So basically the planning for this edition must have went like this “Hmm how can we make even more bank on this Gamma World RPG license we have?” “Why don’t we make it a CCG in all but name, and chop it into little barely usable pieces so the players will have to invest about 200 bucks each just to play it!” “Brilliant! Yay money!”

  27. Thanks for stopping by and not reading my review!

  28. Just steal world-building pieces from the various fan-made Fallout PnP RPG, you can find it all over the internet.

Trackbacks

  1. […] case you missed it, the Gamma World review I stayed up late to write: http://critical-hits.com/2010/10/08/review-gamma-world-rpg/ […]

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  8. […] from being a volunteer DM at the New York Comic Con was a set of Wizards of the Coast’s new Gamma World adventure game.  After reading through the (very familiar) rules, I decided that I wanted to try […]