Saturday, April 23, 2011

More Gamma Thoughts

Needless to say, I'm on a bit of a Gamma World kick at the moment, occasioned perhaps by a more general rising tide of interest in science fiction gaming, since I started my Thousand Suns campaign a couple of weekends ago. Even though I'm actually quite fond of the second edition of the game (Elmore art and all), I can't deny that the first edition, illustrated mostly by Dave Trampier, with some help from David Sutherland, has a raw power to it that no subsequent edition of Gamma World has ever come close to matching.

A big part of that power is similar to the power of the LBBs: the first edition rulebook is only 56 pages long and is filled with lots of lacunae, to put it charitably. Actually playing the game demands a fair degree of filling in by the referee and without much explicit guidance from the rulebook. Likewise, the rulebook is frustratingly inconsistent in its presentation of the world of A.D. 2471 -- equal parts retro-future (like the illustration above), glib social commentary, dark apocalypticism, and general weirdness. It's a potent melange of elements and any referee running Gamma World is free to decide how to present and combine these elements in his own campaign.

Precisely why so many referees chose to suffuse Gamma World with an atmosphere of glib weirdness, if not outright humor, is an interesting question that I may return to in a future post. Suffice it to say that I don't think there's anything inherently superficial or jokey about Gamma World and, while I think it'd be a mistake to treat the game any more seriously than, say, D&D (or indeed any other RPG), I nevertheless think it's possible to run it "straight," provided one keeps in mind the lesson learned from Detective Chimp. In any event, as the month of May dawns on us, I'll be devoting a lot more attention to Gamma World (and its sorta-clone Mutant Future). It's a game of which I am very fond and that I think deserves some more love in the old school community these days.


  1. Part of the draw of 1st edition Gamma World art is in the era it was put to pen: it was pre-Road Warrior. For a generation afterward Post Apocalyptic film and gaming would be dominated by the influence of imagery from that one film. That imagery is happily absent in the 1st GW book.

  2. It's definitely possible to run it straight. A friend's Gamma World campaign (which lasted well over a decade), was a great hard science realpolitik game.

    The major races were actually bioengineered creations of before the Fall. As were the experimental retroviruses and nanotech that caused further mutations. Especially in the already not-so-stable animal lines, but there was also large amounts of evidence that a lot of the human gene structure had been modified (apart from religious enclaves that believed that such modifications were anathema). Some of these modifications were purposeful attempts to inculcate usable psionic powers in people. Meanwhile, all that radiation would do was make you sick.

    The other thing is that knowledge wasn't as lost to as great a degree as in the standard game. Whilst the knowledge of how the devices worked and were made might have been lost, much of the knowledge of how they were used, wasn't.

    Due to a great profusion of cyber-viruses and counter-viruses most computers and robots were relatively insane, unless they were extremely isolated. Knowledge and basic operating parameters couldn't be trusted. Especially since a lot of the virus rewrote data banks.

    Anyway the campaign (actually a number of different campaigns set in the same universe), eventually expanded to a terraformed Venus and out to the wider Galactic Federation (which had a highly efficient interdiction and quarantine around Sol). In fact there was good evidence that one of the so-called standard strains of mutant animal was actually an alien race (with full access to high tech) looking for something in the ruins of Earth. And perhaps* they had a hand in the Fall (they definitely had a hand in the quarantine).

    Excellent fun. Had about 30 active players (in different parties) at it's height.

    [* Just because we were players didn't give us any special privilege when it came to finding out the deeper mysteries of the campaign universe. We had to work for the answers we did get.]

  3. I cut my teeth on 2nd edition GW. Loved it (and it was played straight.) These days, our group is playing Dark Sun (heavier stuff), so every once in a while, we'll play a bit of Gamma World (not straight) to loosen up.

    I agree though, Gamma World can easily be played "straight," and be a very enjoyable experience.


  4. I ran 1st Ed GW campaign as a straight Sci Fi game when I was in High School using the "example of play" as a starting point for my campaign. Essentially it was an alien wilderness with technology as miracle, thundersticks of the gods, for the players, who were esentially pre-colombian native americans from up north exploring the unknown. Didn't get very far beyond a few excusrsions. Later on I re-visited the same setting, with a more prominent shamanistic mystical angle, (as opposed to the mysterious and alien) angle, but I had too many notions of the post apocalypic a la Mad max and Escape From New York, and it fizzled.

    Word Verification: Blyimmed = Reduced to a Dwarf-size because a giant boulder drops on yer head protected by a great helm.

  5. First Edition Gamma World was the first RPG that I ever GM'ed, love it to this day!

  6. First Edition Gamma World was the first RPG that I ever played! Needless to say, although I will say it anyway, I have a fond spot for the idiosyncrasies of that particular incarnation.

    Bad guys called 'The Apocalypse' started the apocalypse? OK, no problem here. Its story, goofy as it was, had some pizazz compared the regular old apocalypses of Morrow Project and later Twilight 2000 (I don't know how it went down in Aftermath as I never saw a copy let alone played). Those scenarios seemed all to possible and depressing in the early and mid 80s.

  7. Gamma World rules! I look forward to your comments on that game as well as Goblinoid's Mutant Future, a game I also enjoy and admire.

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  9. I have often wondered about the usefulness of the Gamma World ruleset to create a FALL-OUT 3-style universe...

  10. My D&D group recently played a game of 1st ed. GW, and the referee was nearly in tears because we wouldn't take it seriously. The goofiness seems to arise spontaneously, perhaps because of two factors, which I think may have some historical basis.

    The first is we came out of a by-the-book, very grim, very deadly D&D game where doing 1-6 damage made you tough, and meant you could kill any normal human. In GW, things are a little more wild and wooly--some characters can survive nuclear blasts, and some can do so much damage with a single attack that everyone else can just stand back and wait for the encounter to be over. If you don't see how that can lead to silliness, you've apparently never played an RPG.

    The other factor was the mutation tables. RPGs are aspirational games--"I wanna play Conan! I'm gonna be Gandalf!", indeed. Even "realistic" games where such characters are impossible still allow players to dream of leveling up and becoming more powerful.

    In GW, experience points are a vague and cryptic affair, barely worth counting up. You start out as a winged mutant with an elephant trunk and a death field, well, there's no place to go from there--except to figure out all the crazy things your character can do.

    Can GW be played straight? Apparently--but most players in my experience get one look at the rules and just want to go nuts. And in my opinion, that's a glorious thing.

  11. I have 1st edition GW. Love it. Especially the great variation in races, powers, technology, and especially the cryptic alliances (which add an excellent roleplay element).

    I haven't played GW in years, but if I were to start up a GW campaign, I would probably convert it to the GURPS rule set.

  12. What about Gamma world as 1950's and 1960's atomic fantastic fantasy? where WW3 vs. the soviets happened and only small populations of 1950's era hard drinking wilderness men and equally sloshed scientists survived. Lots of giant bugs, giant pre-historic plants, pre-historic mutants and superhumans evolved in the glow of day-glow radiation?

    To my mind the biggest obstacle in running classic radiation==super-evolution style games is that we've had years of seeing the real effects of radioactive fallout. I think a large part about getting people to put themselves into the right frame of mind to take such things seriously hinges on atmosphere. Serve Highballs (especially if one of the players has bar skills) have them gather up their vintage adventure novels and scatter them about the place, hang a few propaganda posters and maybe watch some old sci-fi pre-game.

  13. Every time I pass that illustration in the book, I always always expect that tree to somehow eat the guy in the helmet.

  14. Reading through this I'm just now realizing that my current homebrew fantasy setting evolved out of my High School Gamma World campaign... which was played straight, but very weird.
    We loved Gamma World... our games were infused with a LOT of stuff out of Heavy Metal and other comics... by the end we were playing Rifts... though Rifts wasn't written yet.

  15. I've been running Legion of Gold as a 1E Gamma World campaign now for just about two years. Nothing in the rules strikes me as any more or less silly than D&D. I play both games as gritty survival situations where running out of water can be just as dangerous as a random encounter with a monster. This doesn't mean we don't have plenty of laughs around the table! In my estimation it is the friends hanging out and having a good time that brings the humor to the game, not the other way around.

  16. I loved the illos in 1E Gamma World (I don't think I bought the later TSR editions; will have to take a look at the newest edition). I remember enjoying the rulebook and wanting to run a Gamma World campaign BITD but could never bring my players round to it.

    I don't think it ever occurred to me that you could run a "serious" post-Apocalypse game until I read the first couple of adventures for The Morrow Project.

  17. When Ward decided to do Gamma World, he did essentially the same thing... with Planet of the Apes, Strange New World, Genesis II, and a peck of other postapocalypse fiction and film and TV of that time frame. Hell, when I rewatch Genesis II these days, it's very easy to think "GAMMA WORLD TV series on a low budget," especially the second one, the one with John Saxon, fur bikini amazons, and warlike mutants with lumpy heads.

    Very well said.