At some point in my life, I came across a phrase like this: “In every group, there’s at least one jerk, and if you can’t find the jerk in your group, then it’s you.” This worries me, as I participated in the Gamma World Game Day on October 23, and every single person at that table was excellent, marvelous, intelligent, hilarious, brilliant, and wonderful. Maybe this was the group exception that proves the rule. Yeah, I’ll just keep telling myself that.
There was quite a lot to be nervous about with this game. It was a soul-squishing experience of playing with semi- to total strangers, and knowing some of them through reputation, writing, or internet interaction only heightened my anxiety, since I really didn’t want to come across as a colossal doofus.
Also, it was hosted at a non-neutral setting, a game store, which meant some degree of audience, whose walk-by interest could range from casual to avid. It was located in a strange and distant land, so I had to find it, park, and get in, all without dropping all my dice or throwing up on myself.
Finally, this was a game I’d never played before, Gamma World, and I don’t mean I hadn’t played it since way back in the days of Members Only jackets. No, I’ve never played this game before. You could argue, “Well, you’ve played 4e Dungeons & Dragons, and it’s just like that,” and it is, except for being completely different. Sure, some of the bits are the same, like actions being icosahedron-based, and you’ll have a thousand powers and only use about two throughout the adventure, and the only way to really impress the other players at the table is to come up with a character name that is both silly and stupid. Unfortunately, there was enough of a difference that I was never entirely confident on my turns. Can I take an action point? How much does my second wind get me? Hold on, this overcharging, does that go on my credit card?
As it happened, I did have a really good time, and became convinced that I needed to buy this Gamma World game immediately and inflict it on all my family and friends, assuming I have any family or friends. There is a kind of brash funness about it, an in-your-face good time, sort of like a game of Strip Twister, only with dice and hit points and without the awkward apologies afterwards. The loopy joy is built right into the rules of the game, which I can describe it with one simple word I just made up: randomosity.
I’ve played a lot of roleplaying games in my life (maybe eight, which may not seem like a lot but shut up), and all of them incorporate some amount of randomness, but always with a nod and a wink, saying, “These parts you can choose, these parts you must roll, and if your rolls are really bad, why don’t you start again?” In most games, I don’t know that I’d have much fun if my class/role/background/identity was given to me, or several of my ability scores were microscopically terrible, or I couldn’t even pick my gear.
In Gamma World, this is exactly what happened, and I loved it. I rolled my two origins, which are really a combination of race and class, and wound up with a pyrokinetic plant. I don’t know that I would have chosen that, as they seem to be descriptions that are at odds with each other, but some dusty part of my brain kicked on, and I suddenly saw that Ent at the beginning of Return of the King whose crown of branches were ablaze. I knew the character instantly, and quickly wrote down, “Forrest Phyre.” I thought this was a pretty clever name until I heard the name from someone else who had played a pyrotechnic plant: “Burning Bush.” Now that’s genius.
After origins, it was time for scores, and I loved this part too. Your first origin determines your primary ability score, and BAM! You get an 18. No, don’t fuss around with point buys and arrays, just write an 18 and move on. Your second origin determines your secondary ability score, and that one gets a 16. It’s just that simple! Now you’re going to have four other ability scores, and here’s where it gets really fun: three 6-sided dice, roll, add, score. My first roll was a 17. Can you believe it? Ha ha! I was jubilant. Until my next roll was a 5. And then an 11. And then a 3. On three 6-sided dice, I actually managed to roll three 1s.
Here’s the thing about Gamma World and ability scores: this is the first RPG that I have ever played where I wanted to keep my terrible rolls. And why? Because I thought they were hysterical. My great tree-man who was constantly on fire had a Dexterity of 5 and a Charisma of 3. I thought that was excellent.
After determining scores, I selected weapons and armor, which seemed curious considering how much else is randomized. Personally, I think it would be just as funny to roll up my battle equipment too. That aside, I definitely prefer how the weapons and armor are abstracted into simple lists of light melee, heavy melee, light ranged, heavy ranged, and so on, which means you don’t have to wade through page after page of a hundred different types of swords, spears, plate mail, and shields.
Now you do get to roll on additional, non-combat gear, and I wound up with a canoe and a tent. Maybe these would have proven useful in an extended adventure, but they seemed to me to be so much “what did you get” Halloween candy. Maybe this gear is the equivalent of rituals, funny little trinkets that you’ll never use.
The game itself was pure bliss. I got a little tangled up in the rules, made a habit of hitting the ground during our battles, and even completely died in the last combat (failing three consecutive death saves), but still came out of the experience all sorts of happy and pleased. I loved the game. I had a pile of fun. And what was amazing is I was able to love it and have fun in a game with micro-scores and a terminal ending. That says something about the game dynamic, doesn’t it?
Consider this if you want to risk a blown mind and popped eyeballs: In exactly four hours, the DM oversaw 6 players with little to no experience as they created characters from scratch, wallowed through introductions, found the adventure, and drove through four encounters (three combat and one non-combat). That’s a pretty lithe game.
I’ve read that Gamma World is a game built for one-shots, and if you’re taking a break from your ongoing Greybberlancesun campaign (now in its 11th year), it’d be good for a night of giggling. Having now played it, I find myself leaning the other way. I want to play it again longer term, I want to play it as a multi-session adventure to really get a handle on my character, to experience more that the setting has to offer and actually climb up through the levels. Of course, Gamma World is spectacularly lethal (three of our six characters died), so maybe it doesn’t really lend itself to that sort of experience.