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.
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.
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.