Gamma Wild: “Gamma World” Game Day Report

Gamma World CardsAt 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.

Forrest Phyre

Forrest Phyre

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.


  1. I was in Dave’s game for Gamma World Game Day as well and sat right next to Dixon, and I have to say you were neither the jerk of the table nor did you come off as any more inexperienced than the rest of us. It was incredibly fun, and like Dixon my character died in the final battle as well after making a very dramatic moment and completely failing to use his blaster rifle, he was picked off by a stationary laser battery.

    It was very fun playing alongside you Dixon, and I look forward to more games in the future!

  2. My son and I played at our FLGS and had a blast! The owner was a BIG Gamma World fan from way back when and, despite zero 4E experience, he was running the game with ease. This also says something for the game mastering simplicity as well, since it was very obvious that the other non-4E players were able to pick it up as well. I am grabbing a copy of Gamma World for both my family and regular crew, they are going to love it!
    Thanks for the write up!

  3. I am really in agreement with one particular part of the review. The game is positioned perfectly to be that “break” you take from your normal campaign, but the way Gamma World is put together, it makes players want to instead use it as a permanent campaign. As the first real official reskinning of 4E it’s a tremendous success. Now it won’t play this way to everyone. Many people want lots of specific rules or powers, lots of official monsters and encounters, etc. And unless sales on the boxed set are on par with 4E I just don’t see that happening. However, the groundwork for the game makes it flat out entertaining. Coming up with your own monsters, expansion sets for the CCG powers (not my favorite aspect, but probably relatively cheap to develop new sets), personalized scenarios right down to settings and locations. It seems to me that Gamma World is one of the better games in many recent years that lends itself perfectly to “Let the DM do whatever he wants.” It’s nice to see the two expansions coming up for it, but frankly WotC really nailed it with this one. A game which could live the rest of its life without another update and still is just as playable (even more so?) as the monthly updated/errata’ed larger game systems out there. I purchased it on a whim and am now coming up on our third play session in a row with it, and players already talking about plans and strategies for possible encounter styles. Been a while to see people that excited about gaming sessions.

  4. Kathy Keefe says:

    As another person playing at your table, I can say you were the most ‘excellent, marvelous, intelligent, hilarious, brilliant, and wonderful’ plant-that-was-on-fire I’ve ever played with.

    It was a good time.

  5. Dixon Trimline says:

    @Bartoneus: Curse those laser batteries, the bane of trees and giants everywhere. And Grimaces. Honestly, one of my take-aways from the game was amazement that I couldn’t find “that guy.” In all the games I’ve ever played, there’s always at least one, and sometimes more. But not here. Astounding.

    If there’s opportunity for another game, I definitely have interest.

    @Jeff Gupton: How cool, playing with your son. Do you remember your characters? Origins, scores, etc.? I’d love to hear about other experiences with the game.

    @Eric: I sure agree with you about the reskinning, and the uneven appeal. I told a friend who shares my idiot sense of humor and he was instantly interested, and then later I hear on an optimization podcast, “This really isn’t a game for us.” Different mutations, I guess.

    Doesn’t it feel like the laissez-faire attitude in Gamma World could give D&D DMs and players permission to flex their creative muscles a little? I know I started thinking, “Wait, I can do that? But where’s the rule?” It’s my own personal handicap, this inside-the-box thinking.

    Third play session? Lucky players…

    @Kathy Keefe: We plants-on-fire make up a small but vocal demographic, and I feel pretty lucky to be sitting next to the one other person who seemed a little overwhelmed by all the cards and papers and numbers and newness! Everyone else is diligently writing up their characters, and I’m asking, “Hold on, where does Strength go? Where do I put hit points? How does combat work? What’s my Interaction mean?”

  6. Yeah, I had a great time in this game. It was one of my best game day experiences. I’m still a bit sad that The Grimace bit the dust. Level 1 is still really lethal.

  7. @Dixon
    Yes, gaming with my son (he’s 15 now) has always been a blast, I been teaching him since he was 9 so he has some time under his belt. He did have a bit of confusion with the cards and the differences between D&D 4E rules and the slim version for GW. Our characters were as follows:

    My son played a Telekinetic-Plant he named “Semour 2”
    Str 11
    Con 16
    Dex 4
    Int 18
    Wis 15
    Cha 8
    He started with a two-handed board with nails, a roll of duct tape and a wagon (that he chose to be a little red wagon) and ended up dying in the first encounter, along with two others (the Hawkoid and Stone-Plant), damn those birds!

    I played a Doppleganger-Mind Coercer lovingly called Eyem Nothere (pronounce “I am not here”) and had in mind The Observer from Fringe. My stats were:
    Str 11
    Con 16
    Dex 14
    Int 18
    Wis 12
    Cha 16
    I started with a shield that was a blue trashcan lid with the words “Please Recycle” on it, a replica sword from Lord of the Rings trilogy as a light weapon, binoculars and night vision goggles. I managed to barely survive the first encounter along with the Empath-Cockroach and the Mind Breaker-Telekinetic.
    Sadly, by the time we got through character creation and the hour and a half first encounter, it was too close to family dinner time to stay further so we had to leave. I am, however, borrowing the store’s copy of the adventure this weekend to run my family through it.

  8. Dixon Trimline says:

    @Mike: As my first introduction to a Game Day, it was pretty excellent. And your interpretation of an Android Mindbreaker as “The Grimace” wasn’t just thinking outside the box, it was blowing the box up and jumping up and down on the pieces.

    @Jeff Gupton: Too magnificent, I love the two characters. And praise be for the 4 Dexterity. 🙂 There does seem to be a certain inevitability about getting my own hands on this game, so I might as well stop dithering and just lay down the cash. No question, it’s a game that’s built for me.

  9. @Dixon

    All my local stores were out of stock and I was rather upset (the FLGS got early copies, but I had to wait until payday, but by then, they were out of stock!) but my wife surprised me by getting a copy online and having it shipped to my office. Now I am impatiently waiting for the expansions in Dec and Feb! Hope you manage to get a copy, it will be worth it!

  10. Glad to hear you enjoyed your experience with it. For me, I’m in the “it’d make a decent break from the regular game” group. I think it would be fun for a 1 or 2-shot, but I just don’t see myself playing out a full campaign with it. Of course, that’s going to be true with almost any game. Some will love it and want to play it constantly while others will hate it or only want to play it occasionally. Just look at people’s thoughts on the different campaign settings. “I hate FR!”, “I love FR!”, etc.

    My main problem is simply that I don’t see me dropping the $40 to only occasionally play the game. Now should one of my friends want to drop the $40 . . . 😛

  11. @Gargs454

    Although I heavily support my FLGS, there are less expensive places to obtain a copy for sure. Also, if you have a regular gaming group, $8.50 a piece for a group of 5 should cover it and tax and then you can take turns being GM.