Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Retrospective: Gamma World

Some might argue that Gamma World, written by James M. Ward and Gary Jaquet and first published in 1978, is unintelligible outside the context of the Cold War. There's unquestionably some truth to that. Gamma World's inclusion of mutants and radioactive wastelands is definitely a reflection of Western fears of an apocalyptic World War III that would usher in a new dark age more horrific than any we could imagine. Goodness knows that, as a kid, I more or less expected there to be some final reckoning between the nuclear powers in my lifetime.

But I'm pretty sure that's not why Gamma World appealed to me back then. The mutants and the radiation were just window dressing for me, a convenient way to frame what is, I think, a much more primal fascination with the End of the World in a broader sense. Pretty much every human culture that's ever existed has considered itself to be the last one, teetering on the brink of collapse and whose passing will herald the destruction of all that is good and beautiful in the world.

It's a peculiar kind of hubris and I don't deny that, for much of my life, I've convinced myself to varying degrees that the End was just around the corner. Morbid though that conviction may be, there's profit in it nonetheless, at least if it makes one consider what's truly significant about one's culture and what bits of it are hardy enough to survive the collapse of its supporting structures. If this all sounds a bit pretentious and highfalutin, perhaps it is, but the Gamma World games I ran as a younger person were filled with moments when the player characters encountered some vestige of The World That Was, resulting in comedy, darkness, and occasionally awe -- far headier stuff than ever occurred in most of my D&D games.

That's the power of the post-apocalyptic genre, I think: approaching the present day as if it were a lost civilization whose culture and values are utterly alien to us. I've said before that, in a sense, most pulp fantasies are post-apocalyptic fantasies. Many take place in a fallen world after the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities. Not only does this set-up lend the weight of history to a setting, it also provides an excuse for ruins to be explored and plundered. As a D&D player, I found Gamma World all too easy to wrap my head around. It's a game that's ready-made for sandbox play and where rootless adventurers moving from one pocket of civilization to another makes perfect sense. In some respects, the implied setting of Gamma World makes a fair bit more sense than does that of D&D and it's eminently gameable.

I played a lot of Gamma World once upon a time and have many fond memories of those long-gone campaigns. I still remember a mutant rat PC who died, in a moment I could not have scripted with a straight face, when he ate a container full of Intensity 18 rat poison I rolled up as random treasure from a table in the book. I will also never forget the would-be Knight of Genetic Purity who suffered mutations as a result of exposure to radiation or Davion, the mutant frog, who wore a football helmet and used a shield with arcane word "Yield" emblazoned on it.

Despite my musings up above, Gamma World certainly wasn't a deadly serious game, but I think that was part of its charm. Unlike D&D, I was rarely tempted to run Gamma World completely humorlessly. My campaigns tended to careen wildly between low comedy and high adventure, spiced up by dark meditations on the downfall of our world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I think very highly of Mutant Future and regularly consider running it as a break from the Dwimmermount campaign. I still might one day.

58 comments:

  1. I love 1st edition Gamma World. It's arguably the best version of D&D ever made.

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  2. Gamma World has always appealed to me as I am a huge fan of the post-apocalyptic genre. I even like watching cheesy movies like The Omega Man. But I did check it (Gamma World 1st Ed) out on Scribd.com and I wasn't impressed by the rules at at all.

    I am hoping for q 4th Edition version, or what I am most looking forward to is a 4E version of Dark Sun.

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  3. I use to scoff at (1st edition) Gamma World because of the campy art and sci-fi elements that felt dated, but I use to take myself way too seriously. But I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb! ;) I now really enjoy the camp, as its a good contrast to the starkness of the setting. I dont think I had ever seen a setting that blends gritty 80s post-apoc, with 80s cartoons so well, without looking stupid or silly. I dont know if all the "wahoo" was intentional, but it real worked well!

    By to way, you should read the Treasure List - its full of neat little Easter Eggs!

    I have a Gamma Wold group on scribd, but the punks at Wizbro ate most of my stash - the offense shall not be forgiven!!!

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  4. I always preferred 2nd edition, just the timeframe, really. Mutant Future is the best way to get back there now and a fine game in its own right.

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  5. The first edition of Gamma World will always have a special place in my heart because it was the first RPG I owned and played. My friends and I in middle school used to play it after school and during recess, rolling up mutant heroes, and it was the dimensional travel powers of a mutant that sent those characters into our first D&D campaign, even before we ready the DMG advice on crossing over the two games.

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  6. I love Mutant Future, because it finally made D&D and Gamma World fully compatible.

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  7. MF is the only retro-clone I actually bought in hard copy.

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  8. I still think - the best way to run a game like GW is the way it was originally recommended to run its older brother "Metamorphosis: Alpha". Not just the PCs but the players themselves would have no idea this was a post-apocalypse world; they'd think it was merely a barbarian pseudo-D&D until they started running into... stuff. Stuff like the mysterious talking boxes, or small rooms with doors that close and open on totally different scenes, or "magically" animated suits of metal armor, or strange cursed stones that caused horrible burns.

    I know a lot of people really love the "camp" aspect, but there's just something about the concept of playing it totally straight that appeals to me.

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  9. I have never played any of these post-apocalyptic games (aside from Wasteland on the C64, which probably doesn't count), but I often feel the urge to do so. One day, perhaps.

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  10. I have little exposure to post-apoc games. The only one I have is RIFTS, and that's really a creature all it's own with its over the top, kitchen-sink, actioner aesthetic. Otherwise I have browsed through Mutant Future, and I'm still not sure it's grabbed me enought to give it a try.

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  11. GW 1e was always that perfect "take break form the main campaign" game, and still is IMO. I've never run a campaign, just had lots of fun, goofy one-shots. GW 1e is my 2nd favorite RPG of all time.

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  12. It's arguably the best version of D&D ever made.

    And a very good argument one could make, I think.

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  13. But I did check it (Gamma World 1st Ed) out on Scribd.com and I wasn't impressed by the rules at at all.

    1e GW has the same kind of minimalist elegance you find in OD&D. It's a tool kit for building your own post-apocalyptic RPG rather than a polished ready-to-use product.

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  14. You're entry is timely, James. Apparently 1 out of 3 children (in a survey of 500 American preteens) still fear the end of the world, albeit due to natural disaster. Different than those of us who grew up in the shadow of "The Day After" and "Threads", but I'm surprised that this generation has similar fears. Of course, they get "The Day After Tomorrow" and "The Happening", and perhaps the game Summerland is their GW and Morrow Project.

    I never played GW in the day, but your post is a reminder that I really need to look at MF. But I think I'd want to play it so seriously that it wouldn't be fun.

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  15. As I mentioned in my recent post on this topic, I didn't get to play Gamma World "back in the day" - it wasn't "Road Warrior" enough for my teen sensibilities anyway. :P (That didn't stop me from loving the game, though.) When I finally did run some games in the mid-90's, they were "straight" games - disregarding the sillier aspects of the game. (Inspired greatly by one of the few computer games I ever completed: Wasteland.) Lately, though, I find myself enamored with the concept of running a gonzo Gamma World game, with all the crazy bells and whistles. (Imagine an episode of Thundarr the Barbarian as written by Conan O'Brien and Hunter S. Thompson and that's probably the game I want to run.)

    Ah, so little time, so many cool games that need playing...

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  16. I know a lot of people really love the "camp" aspect, but there's just something about the concept of playing it totally straight that appeals to me.

    I love the idea of a straight GW game, just as I love the idea behind MA. Cruel experience has taught me, though, that it's very hard to maintain that level of seriousness for long. I don't think it has to degenerate into camp (and I personally dislike that take on the game), but it's very hard to maintain a consistent seriousness when many of the game's central conceits are so implausible.

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  17. (Imagine an episode of Thundarr the Barbarian as written by Conan O'Brien and Hunter S. Thompson and that's probably the game I want to run.)

    That sounds terrific.

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  18. The only thing I don't like about Gamma World are most of the "monsters." Essentially, they are nothing more than mutated animals, and I don't find them particularly imaginative. Personally, I think a lot more thought could have been put into the types of monsters that would emerge in that type of setting, rather than simply slapping on some mutations to regular animals. Boring!

    If I were to run a Gamma World, I'd have to lean heavily on Thundaar the Barbarian, pulp scifi and fantasy, and other sources for more interesting critters.

    Although I do like the robots and other machines in Gamma World. Death Machines were great.

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  19. I ran Gary's Legion of Gold (well, part of it) using 1st ed. GW at an ENWorld Gameday about a year ago. I modeled the PCs after an artists rendering I found which depicted a post-apocalyptic WIzard of Oz.

    Our group had a lot of fun, but we honestly found the game itself pretty unplayable. (The technology flowcharts were a source of great hilarity.) I better understand the whole Old School ethos now, but even with that new-found perspective, GW 1st is really a mess, IMO.

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  20. There's actually a Gygax-written sandbox module for GW called Legion of Gold. It's sorta the Keep on the Borderlands for GW. It reads pretty well, although I've no idea how it is in play.

    I've used a few MF monsters in my LL game with success. Any day now, deep in a dungeon, my players will find a portal that leads info... a Mutant Future!

    Bwa-ha-ha-haaa!

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  21. You too fast, Buzz. You too fast!

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  22. I found Legion of Gold to be kinda all over the place. Gary also throws in some AD&D rules that didn't exist in GW 1e, which added to my confusion during prep.

    As an introductory adventure, it's pretty killer, far more so than KotB. Our 4-5 hour session ended in a TPK, and we only went through about 1/3 of the module. :)

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  23. Always loved GW 2nd edition, however I'm not very favorably impressed by Mutant future.

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  24. Ah. Sweet, sweet Gamma World, one of my great loves in gaming! I think the comment about 1st. and 2nd. edition being root stock for your own homebrew is spot on. (That's what I did, mixing in a huge doses of Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns and Akira into the mix.)I've always wanted to get something like that going again. If anybody's interested I've still got my GW campaign site up here: http://bigfella.com/newwest.dir/newwest.html and I'd be right honored if folks took a look.

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  25. Ironically, GW never had a "Russians drop the bomb" explanation for its apocalypse, did it?

    If anything, it's way less dated than other 80s games like Morrow Project.

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  26. (Imagine an episode of Thundarr the Barbarian as written by Conan O'Brien and Hunter S. Thompson and that's probably the game I want to run.)

    I've been sitting on a Thundarr via 1e GW adventure for years, and I'm finally going to run it at gencon this year as a pickup game. I'm also sitting on a "Get Korgoth!" adventure, where the party plays the henchmen sent to find, then set out with Korgoth, as in the pilot that Cartoon Network never picked up. (If you don't know what Korgoth is, go to youtube and dig it up.) The fun in the Korgoth game would be the ridiculous ways the players would die, always coming back after "the commercial". :-) GW 1e is perfect for such one shots. It might be one of the better "anything" systems around.

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  27. @BigFella: "I'd be right honored if folks took a look."

    "Took a look?" I've been fawning over your site for years! I go back and read through each page every few months or so. You have no idea how inspirational the New West and the New South have been to me. Thanks!

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  28. I'm probably going to bring down a heap of wrath upon my head, but I really adored GW 3e and its version of the Universal Table. (These days I'd say that finessing the results out into so many levels was only torturing designers and referees.)

    On the other hand, the follow-on module series definitely showed a post-Dragonlance attitude and didn't do much for me at all.

    VerWord: mated

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  29. I loved post-apoc stuff (which includes Lovecraft), but though fascinated I always had a bright view of the future. I felt the nuke future was about as likely as the Cthulhoid future. Still - veeery cool genre.

    The random artifacts/treasures was a bunch of fun. I'm pretty sure a character in one of my games ate something radioactive from that list. I think someobody sat for an extended time on the radioactive chair as well.

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  30. I recently downloaded Mutant Future and have been seriously considering buying the hard copy and running a campaign after my current one comes to its conclusion, I loved the mutation charts and the rules seem very solid, totally playable without being overwhelming in detail. I would probably add a fair number of alien creatures to spice up the monster offerings, perhaps even blaming the apocalypse and strange mutagenic radiation on alien weaponry rather than nuclear, which would also go a long way towards eliminating one of my bigger bones of contention with the concept; radiation just doesn't result in the kinds of mutations that comic book writers and sci-fi authors so dearly wish it does. Alien weapons, on the other hand... I have it on good authority that they make extra heads sprout out like hair from a mole and make goats grow 8 legs like crazy! I missed out on the original versions of gamma world however, so I guess I should check those out before I decide to dive into Mutant Future head first.

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  31. I'm probably going to bring down a heap of wrath upon my head, but I really adored GW 3eWe'll split the Grog-wrath between us - although I was introduced to GW through the 1st ed box set back in the day, mechanically I think the 4e GW rulebook is far superior.

    Word verification: 'conab' - Conan's lesser known little brother

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  32. GW 1st is really a mess, IMO

    Organizationally, I agree, but its core is still very solid and playable. Anything that didn't make sense or that didn't work as well it ought to have, we simply house ruled. That's the advantage of a 48-page rulebook.

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  33. Always loved GW 2nd edition, however I'm not very favorably impressed by Mutant future.

    GW 2e was indeed awesome, but I wonder why you dislike Mutant Future. For my money, it's as close as we'll ever get to a GW clone and it's completely compatible with Labyrinth Lord, which is a huge plus.

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  34. Ironically, GW never had a "Russians drop the bomb" explanation for its apocalypse, did it?

    Nope, it was high-tech terrorism by a nihilistic group called the Apocalypse that lit the spark that destroyed humanity.

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  35. "Took a look?" I've been fawning over your site for years! I go back and read through each page every few months or so. You have no idea how inspirational the New West and the New South have been to me. Thanks!

    Indeed. Your site is simply terrific -- one of the most original implementations of Gamma World I've ever seen. Take a bow.

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  36. We'll split the Grog-wrath between us - although I was introduced to GW through the 1st ed box set back in the day, mechanically I think the 4e GW rulebook is far superior.

    4e is a good all-in-one book and much better than either of the editions that followed it, both of which seemed to lose the whole point of the setting. I have very mixed feelings about 3e. It's not my favorite edition mechanically, but there's lot of really crazy stuff in it that I just love.

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  37. radiation just doesn't result in the kinds of mutations that comic book writers and sci-fi authors so dearly wish it doesAh, but you're looking at it all backwards. Gamma World and its ilk are great because in that genre, radiation works just like comic book writers and sci-fi authors say it does!

    I'll take giant ants and dog-faced men over Threads: The Roleplaying Game any day. The latter is a bit too Forge-y for my liking. ;)

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  38. One of the top 5 RPGs.

    Easily one of the most influential upon me in my youth.

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  39. Regarding Legion of Gold, it's one of my favorite adventure modules because it takes such a direct spin on the foundations of TSR and Gary himself in southeastern Wisconsin. If you review the maps in the module they directly correspond to modern day southeastern Wisconsin, Lake Geneva where Gary and TSR were located, and best of all Elkhorn (about 5 miles from down town Lake Geneva) where I personally lived and grew up. Though I was too young at the time the module was published to have known, when I found the book recently it immediately became clear to me the connection between the module and where I lived lived (and where Gary worked and lived). Hard to beat that kind of connection!

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  40. Keep in mind that 1st edition GW does not claim that all those weird mutations were caused by radiation from run-of-the-mill nuclear weapons. Rather, the mutations are caused by the UNKNOWN radiations of the bizarre energies unleashed by the group known as the Apocalypse.

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  41. Thank you most kindly for the kudos, James & Christopher B. The red on my cheeks isn't a result of mutation...

    Regarding Jason Pipes' comment, one of the real awesome strengths of GW is taking your local area and "Gamma Worlding" it up. I've got a good friend who was in my original New West campaign who's still running a campaign with my GW house rules and he's based it all on the area of Ohio he lives in. He found out about all kinds of interesting features of his local community, which turned into grist for the mill. If you dig a little into what's up in your local area, you find a lot of really weird stuff that you can twist into gonzo, mutational fun.

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  42. Responding to myself, sorry. My prior comment is why 2nd. Edition GW was a hoot for me, 'cos it came with the module set in my home town of Pittsburgh, PA. I'm in Boston, MA. right now, and would love to eventually get around to doing a GW sandbox in this area.

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  43. "Keep in mind that 1st edition GW does not claim that all those weird mutations were caused by radiation from run-of-the-mill nuclear weapons. Rather, the mutations are caused by the UNKNOWN radiations of the bizarre energies unleashed by the group known as the Apocalypse."
    Cool, I will definitely have to check out 1st edition GW. That seems pretty close to the alien weaponry cause of the mutations that I was thinking about using.

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  44. Gamma WEorld is simply the greatest RPG ever invented. And yes, that is another self-evident *fact* : )

    It was the first one I ever played and it'll probably be the last.

    I've had a look at the 1e rules but 2e is still my baby.

    Also the Rite of Passage module that came with 2e is just the best Sandbox I've read there in those 20 odd pages are the seeds of many an adventure - esp. now that I actually understand what a sandbox game is (thank you, bloggers!). And this is coming from someone whose been going through all my old RPG modules with a newly critical eye. (thanks, again!).

    Having said that though that module needs to be interpreted and could do with some reorganizing to make some of the detail clearer such as extra smaller b&w maps of the political regions. But I guess that's part of a GM's prep.

    Bob, you're totally right about the 3e module series being a Dragonlance style rail-road and the plot arcs feel a bit artificial. I've put them back on the shelf. Note to module designers: we don't want to read out anything from the book to the players - that's an easy way to bore your players. For that reason I've put Famine in Far-Go aside: one page is almost full of read-out loud player info dump... :S

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  45. As for gritty vs gonzo/camp, well that really is up to the GM to moderate the tone of the game. You have to balance the surreal with the absurd, just as in any good narrative. Throw in plenty of danger and tension, some unexpected plot turns etc. I'm sure you guys know how to do that better than me.

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  46. Bronomac:
    I think someobody sat for an extended time on the radioactive chair as well.heh

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  47. Nope, it was high-tech terrorism by a nihilistic group called the Apocalypse that lit the spark that destroyed humanity.As much as I like 1st ed GW, I never really cared for the Apocalypse group, as their placement feels more like a built-in plot-device to get thing going - a treasure hunt for the long lost Apocalypse base - and it somehow takes away from the hubris of a great high-tech utopia that was destroyed by fanatical special interest groups - I find it a funny and ironic, and somehow I find it reflective of our own world, with modern politics (which is why I stay so politically neutral). The greatest irony of it all, is how no one really learned from having strong political views, as Cryptic Alliances are as fanatical and dangerous as the special interest groups that came before them.

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  48. Oh, Gamma World. The best game I ever played without ever playing it!

    The Swedish post-apocalyptic game Mutant was strongly influenced by the concepts of Gamma World. Me and my friends we played it a lot and had maximum fun. I think for those of us who grew up with the threat of nuclear annihilation, the gonzo game where you played mutant moose and kangaroo were a vent for that fear.

    It had to be played with less than a straight face, since the concept of the apocalypse was, and is, too terrible.

    I find it very telling that Mutant came to be one of the most popular games back in the late eighties in Sweden, and that the game took on some political qualities. The best way to be quite serious was to be over the top gonzo. I still love it.

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  49. @ bigfella:
    wow, I really like your campaign page. Some of the illustrations in the gallery are worthy of publsihing, and all are very inspiring. I also really like the backstory of the collapse of civilization, it takes care of the mutation problem that I mentioned above (I have always had a hard time suspending disbelief when it comes to crediting radiation with strange mutations; I think all the images stamped into my mind of Japanese radiation burn victims may be to blame) in a much more elegant way than the method I was planning on using (the aliens did it!). I think I will use the virus backstory if/when I finally get around to running a Mutant Future campaign. I forwarded a link to your page to another friend of mine who is just starting up a Gamma World campaign. You rock!

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  50. My favorite RPG, not that my handle wasn't a clue to this! ; )

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  51. After D&D, GW is my favorite RPG of all time. I own every edition. Though the 4th is my personal favorite. I ran a 3rd edition campaign for 3+ years. I collect PA RPGs as well. After the Bomb has the best mutant animal creation rules I've ever seen.

    I even own extra copies of two editions of GW just to give them a decent home. :)

    Mutants unite!

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  52. I love Legion of Gold. It's hands down my favorite GW module.

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  53. While I probably ran more 1st Ed Gamma World (and have very fond memories of it), I'll toss in my thumbs up for the 3rd (Armored Badger) edition. But then I always enjoyed the gonzo elements of GW the most, and I think 3rd is the edition that most embraced that gonzo.

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  54. @ Carl
    Thank you kindly. If you're gettin' ideas from the site, it's doin' it's job. Gamma World is just such rich soil to plant your creative cactisaurus' in.

    Coincidentally, "Smart Patrol" by Devo just came on my iPod. Very apropos to the discussion here.
    "Mr. Kamikaze! Mr. DNA!"

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  55. @Andreas Davour

    I think one of the alluring things about gonzo, three fisted action games like Gamma World is that the horror of the apocalypse was tempered by themes of rebirth and rebuilding. The bomb craters have long since cooled, the bodies have returned to the soil, and scrappy new life, perhaps freakish compared to what came before, picks up a crowbar and straps a stop sign to their appendage of choice and goes out to win the day. It's about flowers sprouting after the forest fire.

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  56. Hey, let's not sleep on Famine in Far-Go! That's a masterpiece. Both it and Legion of Gold are wrapped up in a railroad, but it's easy to rip the tracks off and suddenly you have an abandoned chicken production plant where the chickens have run wild and the robots are still trying to run the place. The art is amazing.

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  57. Whoohoo! I still have 1st, 2nd and 3rd edition! That's a big deal for me, as the only original stuff I still have was what had been stored in a friend's attic. The rest I've had to re-purchase here and there, and there's a lot of stuff I'll never see again. Anyway, I just took the box out, and found a stash of old character sheets. Memories of gangs of mutant rabbits (!), bullying badders, and local witchdoctors ("I'll apply a poultice to your wounded hand for free -- as long as I can have it, if it falls off")! We played it pretty over-the-top, with no apologies. I felt free to make up my own monsters, so not everything had to be animal-based. And robots are always fun. 1st ed was wide open. 2nd was fun too, more concrete examples of what you could try. I never actually ran 3rd. Seemed too crunchy for me to get into. I like the idea of starting up a game without revealing that you're running GW, or MA. Maybe I'll give that a try soon. Anyway, GW was always one of my favorite games. I never had MA back in the day, but picked it up in subsequent years and will give it a try some day.

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  58. I love the TSR Gamma World Module GW2, Famine in Far-Go. Why? I live in Fargo, North Dakota (small frozen hand-claps).

    I love Gamma World because it always gave you the option of running a serious nuclear-ravaged campaign, or No.

    I have always opted for the Mutations Chart, the Artifacts Chart, and my faith in my Players to know that a toaster will have to be figured out. It's all in your players.

    Have fun. Peace.

    Scott

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