GAMMA WORLD is a role-playing campaign game. One (or more) of the participants acts as referee, creating a world in which the players act out parts as in a book or play, parts scripted by the referee but formed and finalized by all participants. The referee presents the situations in which the players are to adventure. In each adventure, the players gain experience, and hopefully, valuable artifacts, which increase their chances of survival (they are occasionally killed) in GAMMA WORLD. An interconnected series of such adventures is called a campaign.I'm willing to forgive the phrase "act[ing] out parts as in a book or play," because it's clearly just a convenient reference to explain roleplaying to someone who isn't already familiar with the concept. It's needed because it's later stated that "Much of the material [in this book] ... is for the benefit of players seeking their first experience in a role-playing game." So Gamma World was conceived, at least partially, of as an introductory RPG, something I can believe, given its relative simplicity. The section also discusses the qualities that make a good referee -- "imagination, creativity, and a sense of fair play" -- and, amusingly, given James Ward's reputation as a referee himself, it's also stated that "Too many rewards given at too little risk is sure to create a boring game." Take that, Monty Haul!
Next up is a section of "Suggested Additional Equipment," which, while probably unnecessary, is one that I find charming nonetheless. It's a hallmark of many early RPGs, particularly those produced by TSR. Among the items listed as useful are: graph paper, hexagon paper, sheet protectors, notebooks, pencils and paper, imagination, players, and one very patient referee. As I said, the section is largely unnecessary but there's something delightful about its inclusion. I should add, by the way, that, following this list, I used a spiral notebook to keep all my Gamma World notes in one place. Likewise, I stuck my wilderness and other maps in sheet protectors to preserve them. One day, I should dig around to see if any of them still survive, though I shudder to think of how awful they probably look to my aged eyes.
There's also a lengthy -- well, a half-column anyway -- of discussion about dice. For the most part, the discussion centers on two topics: first, how to read polyhedral dice and second, the probabilities associated with dice. I find the latter topic an odd one, but it's an oddity that many early RPGs share. I remember well, for example, the bell curve chart in the Dungeon Masters Guide, as well as many Dragon articles on this and related topics. I've never found the topic of particular interest to me, but then I am a singular un-mathematical person. More intriguing to me was a brief aside at the end of this section, which suggests that "To create a mystique and an heroic aura, the dice can be regarded as arcane and mysterious." I like that myself, but then I would.
The last of the general sections of the rulebook before actual rules appear is entitled "Designing Gamma World," which is an overview of how to design the setting for use in one's own campaign. It's actually a very interesting section and probably contains more insight into how its designers viewed Gamma World then almost anything else in the entire rulebook. For example:
There should be a minimal number of cities in GAMMA WORLD, as there are simply too few survivors, and there hasn’t been time enough, since the Shadow Years, for any great new cities to have grown. All of the old cities either lie in radioactive ruin, or have been completely obliterated or swallowed up by the rising seas. What cities there are will generally be situated on a coast or river, and are near the few remaining robot farms (explained later). City populations should range between 5,000 to 50,000 humans, mutants, intelligent plants, etc.That single paragraph is pure gold in my opinion, for it makes clear that most of the inhabitants of North America live in small settlements of less than 5000 people and, likewise, very few of the great metropolises of the past are still extant, with the vast majority of ruins of the Ancients being subterranean or "special" in nature rather than a collection of commercial and residential buildings. This is confirmed later when the text states:
To remain after the devastation of 2322, a single building must be made of tough stuff! This type of building would be either a military installation of some sort, a structure built to withstand earthquake forces, or a scientific research building. If it is a military installation, it invariably has 1-10 security robots, a 25% chance of 1-4 defense/attack borgs, and a 50% chance of having electronic security equipment still in operation. Earthquake-proof buildings usually have important government records inside. The scientific research buildings were always guarded electronically and there will be a 75% chance that this powerful security system is still functioning.Of course, there are provisions for some Ancient cities to survive, though this section suggests that such locales would be rare and unusual. Far more common were "fortification" of various sorts.
Ancient military complexes, special scientific research stations, and law enforcement headquarters and records areas were commonly heavily fortified to resist terrorist attacks. These fortifications were designed with extreme care to keep out all unauthorized personnel. This included physical barriers such as resilient steel and concrete walls, electric fences coupled to sophisticated electronic security systems, patrolling robotic units, and any other referee-designed protective measures.In short, the vast majority of adventuring locales in "by the book" Gamma World would be, for lack of a better word, "dungeons." This, I think, lends a very different character to the game world than is suggested by its box cover art, though I suppose that city may well be one of those unusual cities I noted above. The text also notes that
Most roads, railroads, and other avenues of transportation have been destroyed. However, some portions of a vast highway system for air-cushioned vehicles (similar to our interstate system) remain, due to the incredibly tough duralloy metal from which it was constructed. The underground mass transit systems in the ancient Metropolises may also remain in varying states of disrepair.It's a small thing, but I an important one, since it provides a justification for why roads might still exist 150 years after the End. More interesting to me is that this section specifically mentions spaceports (and starships) and robot farms as examples of locations adventurers might encounter. I think it was important that the game do this, because it helps to reinforce the fact that Gamma World is a post-apocalyptic future rather than a post-apocalyptic present. That's a point that often gets forgotten and is, I think, a big part of why the game is so often misunderstood (even by the people writing it).