Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Gamma World, Cover to Cover (Part VIII)

(It's always fascinating to notice that huge drop-off in interest whenever I do posts focused on a specific game that isn't Dungeons & Dragons. That's about as clear an indicator as any that, when it comes to this hobby, there's D&D and there's everything else.)

Gamma World does not use a saving throw system. Instead, its two most common hazards, poison and radiation, are handled through the use of matrices very similar to the one used for determining the success of mental combat. Poison and radiation are rated from 3 to 18 and compared against a character's Constitution score. This yields one of three results: "-," which indicates no effect; a number, which indicates the number of D6 in damage the character takes, or "D," which indicates death. In the case of radiation, there's a 20% chance that "D" indicates not death but a mutational defect that manifests one week later.

There are antidotes for poison but none for radiation. Antidotes are rated from 3 to 18 and is only 100% effective against poison of the same rating. There's a base 50% chance of effectiveness for other ratings, plus or minus 10%, depending on whether the antidote you're using is above or below (respectively) the rating of the poison you're trying to cure. Intriguingly, the rules state that
Because of the large number of poisonous creatures in GAMMA WORLD, most inhabitants will wear light body armor of some sort
This suggests that armor prevents, or at least impedes, poisoning, but, if so, there are no specific rules in the game to reflect this.

A common -- and cogent -- criticism of Gamma World is that, for a game set in the 25th century, there sure are a lot of 20th century items lying around. The game does address this criticism somewhat. In the beginning of the section on "artifacts and equipment," it's stated that, in addition to many military items, the PCs should also encounter
a healthy mix of 24th century [sic] version of such items as: toasters, typewriters, lawn mowers, powered hand tools, erector sets, portable radios and TVs, smoke detectors, hair dryers, eyeglasses, cigarette lighters, and so on.
I give credit to the designers for providing an explanation, even if it's not a particularly good one. I suppose, in charity, one can only reiterate that Gamma World is not only a product of its time but also a product of the time before it was written. The future it postulates is the kind that might have been envisaged in a sci-fi pulp back in the 40s or 50s and would likely have seemed implausible even in 1978. There's a retro quality to the entire game that, while not to everyone's taste, seems to have been deliberate. That said, I never cared for it much as a kid and I suspect it's this quality, as much as anything else, that contributes strongly to the sense many gamers have that Gamma World is not a "serious" RPG. It's worth noting that this quality was toned down somewhat in the second edition.

There's a random table to determine what artifacts are found by the characters. Fully 60% of them are military in nature and, of those, more than 80% are weapons of one sort or another (the rest being armor). The remaining 40% consist of vehicles, robots, medical equipment, and miscellaneous devices. I'll discuss specific artifacts and pieces of equipment in my next post, since they deserve some closer scrutiny. For now, I want to focus on the rules for artifact use and operation. First, every artifact's condition must be determined, with a range from "obviously broken" to "perfect." 75% of all artifacts found have a less than 50% chance to function, while fully one-third of all artifacts belong to the "obviously broken" category and do not work at all. This suggests that functioning artifacts were, according to the rules, intended to be rare, which is a perfectly valid perspective. Unfortunately, most modules written for the game did not support this perspective and were instead filled with a great many, perfectly usable artifacts. Indeed, it was unusual to see an artifact's condition even noted in most modules.

Determining the operation of new artifacts required the use of one of three complexity charts that consisted of a series of circles, squares, and arrows to indicate how difficult it was to figure out an artifact's use. A D10 was rolled, modified by Intelligence and certain mutations, to track a character's progress in ascertaining an artifact's operation, with the goal of reaching the square marked "S" (presumably for "success") and avoiding the skull and crossbones symbol, which meant the character had accidentally harmed himself or one of his comrades. Each roll of the dice represented 10 minutes of puzzling out an artifact, so 6 such rolls took 1 hour. Consequently, unless a character was very lucky or smart (or both), it would take some time to be able to use a new artifact. It was nearly impossible, for example, to learn how to use even a simple high-tech weapon in less than an hour and odds were it would take even longer. A character certainly couldn't just pick up a Mark V Blaster, for instance, and start using it against rampaging mutants.

I always liked the artifact complexity charts in principle, but their use was somewhat tedious, because of the timeframe involved and because they lacked much in the way of color or flavor. Except for success or harm to oneself, it was just a series of dice rolls. Now, maybe that's just a failing on my part and, in the hands of a more talented referee, these charts could be made more exciting, I don't know. I can only note that the second edition did away with the tables entirely, although I didn't find its system much more interesting. This is one of those areas where I fear that the theory behind the mechanics seems more clever than it actually is and, while I very much like the idea that artifacts should be difficult to operate and potentially dangerous, Gamma World never really delivered on that idea. Of course, this may simply be one of those areas where it's best that each referee come up with his own method of handling it rather than resorting to these charts. Were I ever to run Gamma World again, that's probably what I'd do.

35 comments:

  1. I personally enjoy your posts on other games qutie a bit. However, EIGHT parts (and still not done) on GW is a bit of overkill.

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  2. "It's always fascinating to notice that huge drop-off in interest whenever I do posts focused on a specific game that isn't Dungeons & Dragons."

    At least in my case that's not true--I find these posts fascinating. My GW experience is extremely limited so I don't have much on which to comment. Sometimes silence is an indication of listening! :)

    And as far as "overkill" goes, I'd disagree. It's a cover-to-cover series and the point is to finish out to the end. You do PLENTY of other D&D only related posts to more than make up for it!

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  3. "It's always fascinating to notice that huge drop-off in interest whenever I do posts focused on a specific game that isn't Dungeons & Dragons."

    A statement I have empirical proof of myself especially if it goes over one post--doubly so if I mention the game in the header.

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  4. "It's always fascinating to notice that huge drop-off in interest whenever I do posts focused on a specific game that isn't Dungeons & Dragons."

    Gamma World's never been to my taste, so, while I follow the discussion, I haven't much reason to jump in.

    "That's about as clear an indicator as any that, when it comes to this hobby, there's D&D and there's everything else."

    Mmmm... Perhaps, certainly in most cases. I suspect, however, if you did a Call of Cthulhu "cover to cover," the activity of the thread would be somewhat greater.

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  5. If you judge interest solely by comments, then clearly when it comes to this hobby there's 4e flame wars, and there's everything else.

    Me, I like the Gamma World posts, but I never play Gamma World so I have no anecdotes to share, and you're not gearing up for a campaign, so you're not asking questions that might prompt responses.

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  6. If you judge interest solely by comments, then clearly when it comes to this hobby there's 4e flame wars, and there's everything else.

    True, but I'm looking at page hits, both individual pages and the blog as a whole on days when I post a lot about games other than D&D.

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  7. "Because of the large number of poisonous creatures in GAMMA WORLD, most inhabitants will wear light body armor of some sort"

    ""This suggests that armor prevents, or at least impedes, poisoning, but, if so, there are no specific rules in the game to reflect this.""

    -----

    There are specific rules in this regard: the combat system. Not getting wounded by creatures with poisonous fangs , claws and stings is one reason why one would wear armor and how armor protects one from poison.

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  8. There are specific rules in this regard: the combat system. Not getting wounded by creatures with poisonous fangs , claws and stings is one reason why one would wear armor and how armor protects one from poison.

    I think I'll just go hide in a hole in the ground now ... :)

    Yes, you're absolutely correct. Shows how poorly my brain is functioning this morning, I guess.

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  9. "Determining the operation of new artifacts required the use of one of three complexity charts that consisted of a series of circles, squares, and arrows to indicate how difficult it was to figure out an artifact's use."

    And, having said Gamma World wasn't much to my tastes, this portion does remind me that I had sometimes thought of adapting the artifact flow chart to D&D for figuring out what a magic item does.

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  10. When we played this, I was sold on charts. I loved the random mutation charts, but the artifact charts we something which I absolutely loved. They were strange and completely different from anything else out there.

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  11. I agree with you about the artifact complexity charts... I want to like them, but in practice they somehow have a missing element. In truth, I have been vacillating between the 1E charts and the 2E system for a while now and can't seem to decide which, if either, I like better. I have a copy of the "new" unified chart that Gary Jaquet released in Dragon magazine, but haven't given that one a trial run yet.

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  12. "Intriguingly, the rules state that
    Because of the large number of poisonous creatures in GAMMA WORLD, most inhabitants will wear light body armor of some sort
    This suggests that armor prevents, or at least impedes, poisoning, but, if so, there are no specific rules in the game to reflect this."

    Well, if one doesn't get hit, then poison does not apply. This does not help against gas, of course. But that they might be what they meant.

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  13. Here's an interesting idea: Grab a SkyMall magazine (those free mags you get on airplanes that advertise all sorts of semi-useless and marketed items) and randomly flip to a page and select an item as an artifact.

    GM: Okay, you defeated a squad of mutated bunnies. Let's see what treasure they were guarding. Some form of high-tech container (7 quart electric wok - excellent condition) and a robot (voice activated R2-D2 - no batteries, does not respond to vocal commands).

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  14. "a healthy mix of 24th century [sic] version of such items..."

    You know, I'm not clear on what fix you think the [sic] represents. Can you elaborate?

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  15. You know, I'm not clear on what fix you think the [sic] represents. Can you elaborate?

    Another error on my part. I forgot that the End occurred in the 24th century, even though the game is set in the 25th. This just isn't my day for clear thinking ...

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  16. I have to say that I'm always more interested in the non-D&D pieces as I've always very much been in the "everything else" camp, so please do keep doing them.

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  17. That "D" result in the radiation effects column is a pretty major mechanical flaw in Gamma World. It means that a high Constitution is far more important than any other ability score. Also, because radiation is an environmental effect there will be places that characters with a lower CON will never be able to go. As a GM you're forced to eliminate high radiation from your campaign setting or all of your players must have boosted CON scores. Either way, it defeats the purpose of multiple radiation levels. Thankfully, Mutant Future has much more playable rules that involve varying damage levels from radiation without a game ending "D".

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  18. I'm fond of the Gamma World posts. Thanks for doing them.

    (In fact, I'd love to see cover each and every version....)

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  19. (In fact, I'd love to see cover each and every version....)

    Well, I down all of them except the D&D IV-related one ... :)

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  20. I've never read nor played Gamma World, in any incarnation; which is odd, as I've always liked post-apocalyptic settings. I find these posts interesting, as it shows me something I don't know much of. So thanks for sharing.

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  21. You may be interested to note that the artifact complexity charts don't actually originate with Gamma World. They are actually the technology research charts for Star Empires, a set of strategic space campaign rules published by TSR.

    Well to be precise, charts A, B, & C in Gamma World are Research Flow Charts 1, 3, & 4 from Star Empires. The only difference is with Chart A, which returns to the first square after the start instead of the start. Oh, and Gamma World characters don't have to pay a financial penalty (ranging from 50 to 300 Megarons) when they reach a "Return to" square.

    If you think the charts are clumsy when evaluating GW tech, try thinking about a game where all research uses these charts, from general TSL (Techno-Social Level), to special projects (such as developing a Nova Device, or a Hyperspace 24 Field Projector, which "alters the natural laws of the system, causing science to be an uncertain art and the magic arts to be reliable*"), is done using these charts. And with most empires funding as many research teams as they can afford. And before computers were generally available to most people to comfortably automate the process.

    [* They do go on to suggest using Dungeons & Dragons for adjudicating the use of magic in the system.]

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  22. My favor quirk about the GW Radiation system involved a butterfly like monster called the Blaash that emitted level 18 radiation in a 5 meter radius.
    A giant bug that can kill the whole party but by fluttering into the room!

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  23. The system for learning new artifacts is interesting, but I agree that it seems to be missing something. If there were more player choices involved, it might work better.

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  24. "I always liked the artifact complexity charts in principle, but their use was somewhat tedious, because of the timeframe involved and because they lacked much in the way of color or flavor."

    I totally agree with you, on this. It would have been nice to have some of the boxes trigger other effects ("something snapped off", "power-supply fell out", and such) or to allow success in stages ("you found the on/off switch", "you figured out how to reload/recharge it", "you figured-out the settings"). I generally like to have the players figure things out through role-playing (at least with basic functions), and use the charts for more complex items, like computers. I find both methods - roll-playing and role-playing - to be somewhat tedious, as I tend to pile junk (damaged artifacts, and sorted treasure) around working artifacts (and ), and players have to figure EVERYTHING out, even if it obviously broken beyond recognition (then again, you have to be really thorough in my games XP).

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  25. Ah, once again I'm late to the party and this discussion is stone cold dead by the time I get here. None the less I feel obliged to point out that by lumping the Poison and Radiation charts together, James, you left out the most interesting and problematic result on the radiation chart, the "M" result which "...indicates the mutant has received a new mutation..."
    This is interesting because it is always exciting and one of the few ways to become more mechanically powerful. My GM would give us a stapled slip of orange paper that read "Open in 1 game week", the suspense always killed me.
    This is also problematic because a given intensity radiation would always result in a mutation. The rules don't specify anything else about this, like how many times can I do that? Now granted you could roll a defect, but players will abuse this sort of thing if you let them. I took to assigning random intensity to poison and radiation, expressing it as a range like "Intensity 3d6" or "Intensity 10+1d8" and rolling randomly for each exposure. Ah well, enough of that. I'm starting a new GW 3rd edition game next week and there's still much to do. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

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  26. I haven't commented the Gamma World posts even as little as I comment other posts, because I haven't played Gamma World in over 20 years.

    It sure sounds like an interesting game, but I don't feel like playing postapocalyptic games that much. I'd probably play the Stalker RPG for that (for which there will be an English PDF at some point). It's also fun to read these as we did play the game in the end of the 1980s, and I don't remember that much about it.

    I think my character was a large mutant, and that the game (I *think* it was the 2nd edition) wasn't completely clear on how the mutations worked, really. My character had a size mutation and it increased "size ranks" or something, and we never really understood how it should properly work.

    We didn't play the game much, moving on to RQ, Star Frontiers, Shadowrun, MERP and other stuff, including AD&D. (I played some (Cyclopedia) D&D about ten years ago for nostaly, might pick up some new rewrite, probably Flame Princess some time).

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  27. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  28. just wanted to add some support for the Gamma World coverage. my earliest gaming memories involve GW 1st and i always look to it as a sentimental favorite.

    thanks again for the coverage :)

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  29. You may be interested to note that the artifact complexity charts don't actually originate with Gamma World. They are actually the technology research charts for Star Empires, a set of strategic space campaign rules published by TSR.

    I did not know this, but then I've never actually seen Star Empires, despite my desire to do so. It seems a very rare and difficult to obtain game.

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  30. James, you left out the most interesting and problematic result on the radiation chart

    Indeed I did, once again proving that I was very tired and not at all on my game yesterday :)

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  31. I don't often comment on them, but I enjoy reading all your non-D&D posts.

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  32. I'm delighted you're spending this much time on Gamma World. I only ever played 1st edition, but I reread the book so many times as a child I think it's practically a part of my body.

    So two things. One, the artifact flowchart things. I like the idea in some vague general way, but I think the problem with them is that it's not especially fun to work through them--contrast with Traveller character creation, which has a kind of similarity to it but is exciting and enjoyable at every step. You could compute the overall probabilities of the end results of those charts and do the whole thing with one die roll with no loss of entertainment. If the individual steps were somehow bulked out, or if there were intermediate decisions to make, the artifact charts would work much better--as is, they're a complicated way of getting to a result you could achieve more simply.

    Two, the 20th century stuff. There are about a thousand things to hate about the new edition of Gamma World, and the whole dimensional-mashup thing is, in the end, one of them. But one thing I like about it is that it makes a kind of sense out of the coexistence of 20th century toasters and 25th century sentinel robots. For all that I dislike about the new edition, I keep finding things that strike me as responses to something half-cool and half-stupid in the original game, attempts to make them 100% cool--much as it's not my kind of thing, I can't dislike it.

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  33. "Of course, this may simply be one of those areas where it's best that
    each referee come up with his own method of handling it rather than
    resorting to these charts."

    Sorry about commenting in a long cold post, but I couldn't help it this time.

    I never played Gamma World (I prefer Cadillacs & Dinosaurs for my post-apocalyptic); but reading about how the characters have to determine what the artifacts do, made me remember how Paranoia characters have to deal with the experimental equipment they receive from Research and Development. No hard rule that I remember, they just describe what they do to try and make the piece of equipment work, and the GM explains what happens. Explosions, maiming and hilarity ensues.

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