Thursday, March 11, 2010

Gamma World Oddities

In the course of my re-reading of Gamma World, I was reminded of something besides the appropriateness of Larry Elmore's art, namely how little characters improve mechanically over time. First edition, unlike second, does include an experience system (2e has a status system, which is a bit different, as I'll discuss shortly). Characters gained XP equal to the hit points of foes defeated, the value of artifacts discovered, and for "outstanding actions," as determined by the referee. Under this system, advancement is slow, slower than in OD&D, even after the Supplement I XP rules were introduced. There are no levels as such, although there are XP thresholds that grant a random 1D10 roll on the "experience bonus matrix," resulting in either a +1 increase to an ability score or bonuses to hit or damage in combat.

Since the benefits of gaining XP are random and small, Gamma World characters, much like Traveller characters, don't really change all that much after initial generation. This is because, with a few exceptions, ability scores have only small mechanical effect, so increasing them won't have a huge impact on gameplay. Interestingly, the game's second edition made "experience" even less important, eliminating the bonus matrix and adopting a system of "status points." Status points were awarded for roughly the same actions as XP under 1e -- the thresholds are even similar -- but each threshold grants status ranks that modify one's Charisma when dealing with NPCs. High status characters got better reactions from others and could attract a larger and more loyal body of followers. Interestingly, even 1e includes lots (in a relative sense) of rules relating to Charisma, making it far from a dump stat in Gamma World.

Related to all of this is the fact that combat success in Gamma World was governed by "weapon classes" rather than character levels. Each weapon had a weapon class that reflected, I suppose, the ease with which one could score a hit with it in combat. Consequently, high tech weapons had better weapon classes than more primitive arms. One's ability to hit an opponent was almost entirely determined by the weapon class of the weapon one wielded and, with some small exceptions, it didn't improve much. Thus, most characters were as good at hitting an opponent with a Mark V Blaster at the start of their adventuring career as they were many sessions later. It's a system that seems to have its origins in Chainmail, although others can correct me if I'm mistaken on this score.

In any case, it's fascinating to look back on Gamma World and see a game that, for all the obvious influence of Dungeons & Dragons upon it, opted to make experience of comparatively small importance. Character "improvement" in the game is not measured primarily by increased combat effectiveness or the acquisition of new abilities but by greater engagement with and influence on the game's setting. This is made even more explicit in the second edition, which, intriguingly, elevates "status" to a much higher degree of importance. Both first and second edition make much of reaction rolls and NPC retainers. To my mind, this suggests that the "goal" of these games, to the extent there is one, is tied up in an endgame about which neither the rules nor the referee's advice says much: the establishment of a stronghold/power center, complete with followers.

It's something my friends and I must have picked up on back in the day, because I distinctly recall two different Gamma World campaigns that became increasingly involved in "power politics." In the first, a pure strain human PC joined the Knights of Genetic Purity and used his personal charisma and stocks of Ancient artifacts to claw his way up to heights of power within the cryptic alliance -- until an unfortunate encounter with high intensity radiation resulted in his becoming a mutant (this was under the 1e rules before PSHs were explicitly ruled immune to radiation) and thus falling from grace. In the second, a mutant animal (a frog, as I recall) created a rival power structure to the Ranks of the Fit, attracting many to his banner, under which he hoped to unite the region and establish an empire.

I'm going to continue re-reading Gamma World closely to see what other oddities I notice. I'd forgotten more of it than I'd realized and the process of rediscovery is enlightening.

23 comments:

  1. I always had the impression that Gamma World wanted to be more like D&D but the powers that be, for whatever reason, weren't comfortable with that.

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  2. I would postulate that the implicit endgame of a Gamma World campaign would be some sort of restoration of civil society, with the different Cryptic Alliances offering templates for such a task.

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  3. IMO, post-apoc roleplaying inevitably results in the players attempting to rebuild at least a small portion of civilization.

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  4. Agreed. If rebuilding isn't a plausible goal, PA games are depressing as hell.

    I always had hope as a major theme of my games.

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  5. I vaguely remember in the first module 'Legion of Gold' the low level PCs ended up accessing some mega powerful technology (a fully equipped army base or something like that) - which would seem to make them major players on the world scene almost immediately.
    Definitely not the gradual progression you saw in D&D.

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  6. Perhaps the character improvement via "levels" is a phenomenon unique to D&D and not the rule? Gygax was a military buff and based his level advancement on the real world civil service and military hierarchies, which have their own ways to document experience with point systems, which determine one's eligibility rank for a promotion. Incidentally, "skill systems" also ave their origins in the real world armies. To those interested in skill systems, inspirational reading would be Allport and Cattell, just substitute word "trait" for "skill". One key to understanding Gygax and HIS 1st Ed AD&D is that he took a phenomenological approach to DMG writing. His DMG is a collection of essays which describe game mechanics for different aspects of the game. The articles themselves are not bound under an overarching "Core Game Mechanic" of the WoTC editions. This is what makes his version of the game superior, since you can write a section of rules to describe any aspect of fantasy role plaing, and not be bound by any pre-existing game mechanic or a process. This is the key to understanding Gygax Non-Weapon Proficiencies as opposed to other skill systems. Gygax was not seekingto describe every skill in the universe, only some non-combat related skills to further fresh out the player characters. The NWP descriptions in Gygax's case are actually articles describing how to run "mini games" open to the players who pick that particular proficiency for their chafacter. Gygax's AD&D can be best viewed as a palette of mini-games dfrom which the DM can craft his or her campaign, unlike the WoTC version and other role playing games, which are built up around a aprticular core game mechanic, which of necessity must sacrifice realism to make everything fit uner that one game mechanic. With Gygaxian approach, you make the game mechanic fit the reality instead to the best of the DMs ability.

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  7. Gamma World noticed a trade-off that is still fought to this day:

    To you improve a character with innate abilities, or do you improve them with items?

    One of the reasons many of the old guard felt that 3e was too overpowered was that much more power was placed in character abilities than in older versions. Technically, you were supposed to counter-act this with severe item restrictions -- restrictions that prevented you from holding a +1 weapon until about 5th level. In practice (like much of 3e) this did not happen.

    Power growth through items was crucial in AD&D once you hit 8th level or so. At that point, the experience level increments were were still growing substantially, but the monster XP hit a wall. Unless you literally interpreted Gygax's rule of 1 GP = 1 XP, it was impossible to go up levels without large discretionary XP awards.

    You even see this today in World of Warcraft (heresy!). The game has a level cap. After that point, it is about doing specific raids to get very specific item drops, as that is how you can continue to go up in power.

    As a mechanic, relying on items has a lot going for it.

    * The was the original "respecing". Outgrown a power? Drop that item and get rid of it.

    * It generalizes the tactical features of Vance-memorization to arbitrary powers. This battle, you can only use the items that you had out and ready ahead of time.

    * If an item power is overpowered, steal or destroy the item.

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  8. The Gamma World Weapon Class vs. Armor Class interaction is something I always liked. It's not just about the WC of the weapon - there's a table that indexes the WC vs. the different AC's so that you can see the effectiveness of This Weapon vs. This Armor, specifically. It adds an interesting dynamic to item selection that is often missed. As you might expect Vibro weapons (basically lightsabers) are very effective against all AC's except force fields. Lasers work differently than bullet type weapons, and maces work a little differently than swords. It's a neat little subsystem that eliminates all the headaches of the weapons vs armor types of 1st ed AD&D by integrating into the to-hit tables.

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  9. In my GW campaign, in the unthinkably distant year of 1980, experience points didn't matter because your average mutant didn't live to gain a level, what with the torc grenades and black rays and radioactive flying fungi and such. It was a good thing, liberating the players to not worry about their characters lives. I like to think it made for more reckless abandon, and as such more fun, as the players engaged in their nihilistic pursuits across the blasted, hallucinogenic landscape.

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  10. My old GW games never got far enough for civ rebuilding. We'd do several games over a couple months, then go back to our faves D&D, Champions, and Cthulhu. Those genres seemed to have lasting power. My attempts at recapturing a bit of the old GW and Metamporphosis Alpha magic using Mutant Future recently have been fun, but a little bit more silly than I was hoping. I fear it's going to have even less lasting power than our GW games of yore.

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  11. I like to think it made for more reckless abandon, and as such more fun, as the players engaged in their nihilistic pursuits across the blasted, hallucinogenic landscape<

    And Dave, that may be my problem. I'm trying to use Mutant Future for Met. Alpha, and it is a bit constraining trying to have some story and quest situations. I really should have went with a nihilistic, earthbound thing you describe, which is actually how I think most people ran it when I was a kid and it's the way I did it back then. Just have a map, get the PC,s together, and let them run wild.

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  12. Weapon Class versus Armor Class is accurate historically, espcially when it comes to tanks versus guns (cannons) esp in WW2, where stats like caliber and muzzle velocity dominated the field and led to the little known tank design race beteen Nazi Germany and Allies to one up each other to put a bigger and longer (for muzzle velocity) caliber gun on a thicker armored tank. In the end a natural limit was reached, where nce a certain power of impact was reached, any tank would be disabled due to the break in the power-drive train no matter how thick the armor, and regrdless of whether tank was actually damaged or not.

    I like the AD&D 1 Ed weapon versus armor chart! It adds variety and realism to the AD&D Combat, and if it were done more historically, these "weapon versus medieval armor" modifiers would be even larger!

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  13. The personal reward for a character in Gamma World is really greater engagement with the world itself. This can be as simple as acquiring a really cool Old World artifacts, or becoming a mover and shaker in the politics of the world. Or escaping the controls of others.

    A think a friend's Gamma World campaign has reached it's 30th year of active play, stretching from a battered Earth to a terraformed Venus and out to the Galactic Federation that has quarantined the solar system for some reason only known to a few players. [I suspect it was the overt use of extremely unstable designer retroviruses to induce psionic abilities, myself, although it might also be that humanity and it's uplifted animals were about to burst onto the galactic stage and certain galactic interests didn't want that. After all, Earth makes a useful laboratory.] So far, no one has worked out the reason for the Fall either. People have resurrected a lot of the old infrastructure, but it still remains extremely dangerous. Morse so now that it's back in the hands of people.

    Fun times.

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  14. I ran a Gamma World campaign for about a year with some good friends of mine and we never advanced in levels. We just never took the time to learn about that portion of the rules For us it was all about what items we could find and what our characters did in the game world itself. Character level advancement was just never an issue.

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  15. Gamma World was my first game, way back on Christmas 1981. I threw a quick game together and had my cousins running around killing things and raising all kinds of hell on the 26th of December!

    Ah, those were the days!

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  16. One of the cool things about Gamma World was the overlap between the folks who worked on that game and the people who worked on Fallout. When I played Fallout the first time, I just knew it was GW inspired! What a great game.

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  17. One of the cool things about Gamma World was the overlap between the folks who worked on that game and the people who worked on Fallout.

    What? Really? Who? That's awesome. Two of my favorite games of all time. No wonder. Same people.

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  18. I always had the impression that Gamma World wanted to be more like D&D but the powers that be, for whatever reason, weren't comfortable with that.

    GW (and MA) have gone through so many permutations over the years, both rules and concept-wise, it's possible that almost anything was true about it at some point. In the beginning, though, it's connection to D&D, at least mechanically, is pretty clear and it's one that got played up a lot in early issues of Dragon and in things like the DMG.

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  19. I vaguely remember in the first module 'Legion of Gold' the low level PCs ended up accessing some mega powerful technology (a fully equipped army base or something like that) - which would seem to make them major players on the world scene almost immediately.

    Legion of Gold does include several semi-functional Ancient bases to which the characters could potentially gain access, but, as I said, they're not fully operational and the module notes that they won't remain even semi-operational for long without lots of hard to find tech. Certainly these things could make the PCs important people in the setting, but they come with a lot of baggage and might wind up pretty difficult to maintain.

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  20. Gamma World was one of those games that I remember having so much fun with back in the day -- perhaps because after a lot of D&D (where the progress of characters could become quite predictable), it added an element of chaos... you might find an incredibly powerful ray gun, but then manage just to shoot yourself in the head with it. Plus the exploding fish and flying fungus always gave the game a 'gonzo' quality that was lacking in D&D. But I think what I loved most of all is having our primitive mutants and humans digging through the rubble of the past and not knowing the difference between a vaccuum cleaner and a double barreled shotgun.
    By coincidence, the above illustrations is one of my favorites from Gamma World... I even used the 'Wonder Warthog' mutant in one of my illustrations for one of my own projects (hope the link works):
    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_h1P2CBt9PX4/S5rNcgozbjI/AAAAAAAAALA/L-vVBKZjfy4/s1600-h/p16_72dpi.JPG

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  21. A think a friend's Gamma World campaign has reached it's 30th year of active play, stretching from a battered Earth to a terraformed Venus and out to the Galactic Federation that has quarantined the solar system for some reason only known to a few players. [I suspect it was the overt use of extremely unstable designer retroviruses to induce psionic abilities, myself, although it might also be that humanity and it's uplifted animals were about to burst onto the galactic stage and certain galactic interests didn't want that. After all, Earth makes a useful laboratory.] So far, no one has worked out the reason for the Fall either. People have resurrected a lot of the old infrastructure, but it still remains extremely dangerous. Morse so now that it's back in the hands of people.

    That's just awesome.

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  22. One of the cool things about Gamma World was the overlap between the folks who worked on that game and the people who worked on Fallout.

    This is the first I've ever heard this. Which Gamma World designers/writers worked on Fallout? As I recall, the game was originally supposed to use GURPS and there was to be a concurrently released GURPS sourcebook, but I never heard anything about a GW connection.

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  23. I love Fallout. I am sorry it degenrated into a Bethesda first person shooter. Even Fallout Tactics had a unique feel to it. I don't know about GW influencing Fallout, but what blew me away was that artist who wrote and drew fallout, really knew California well! Fallout 1 was Southern California in a funhouse mirror, fallout 2 did the same for the Northern California. The only other game that comes close to it is Planescape:Torment.

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