Sunday, May 8, 2011

Gamma World, Cover to Cover (Part IV)

So we come to character creation. After briefly noting that a PC be a pure strain human, "humanoid" -- mutated human -- or mutated animal, the text notes that characters have six ability scores generated by rolling 3D6 for each. The six ability scores are, in order: mental strength, intelligence, dexterity, charisma, constitution, and physical strength. As a kid, I remember finding the order of the abilities rather odd and wondered why they didn't follow D&D, with mental strength substituting for wisdom. The rulebook goes on to states that "a roll of 3-8 for a given attribute indicates a weak trait, 9-12 is average, and 13-18 is above average."

That last statement soon becomes important, because the rulebook also states:
It is desirable that few, if any, of a player character’s basic attributes be below average. Player characters represent an elite with the desire, the initiative, and the ability to venture outside the boundaries of the village, town, or tribal lands. They are the pioneers, explorers, and tamers of the vast wilderness. It is they who will eventually bring order to the chaos of GAMMA WORLD and an end to the Black Years.
 The foregoing is interesting for a couple of reasons, first of all because it strongly suggests that an assumed goal of a Gamma World campaign in bringing order to the chaos of the post-apocalyptic world and "an end to the Black Years." The second point of interest is that Gamma World, unlike OD&D, assumes that characters are members of "an elite." Remember that this is 1978, a mere four years after the release of OD&D -- clearly the desire to play exceptional characters was already well established by this point. I do remember, as a younger man, that many gamers felt that you needed characters who were well above average in Gamma World, because it was "so deadly." I actually thought it was less deadly than D&D, given the starting power of a Gamma World character but what did I know?

After that bit of gaming philosophy, the rulebook then offers a solution to the problem of below average characters:
To increase the player's chances of rolling up an exceptional character, the referee will find it advisable to use the following method: for each basic attribute, the player rolls four dice (4d6) but totals only the highest three. If, for example, the player rolled 4, 3, 5, 1 on the four dice, he would add together 4+3+5=12 and leave out the 1. It he rolled 4, 3, 2, 2 he would add 4 + 3 + 2 = 9 and leave out the second 2. While it is still possible to roll very low numbers (3, 2, 2, 1), the player's chances of rolling an average to above average character are greatly increased.
I won't say for certain that this is the first instance of 4D6 drop the lowest in the history of gaming, but it's the earliest example I know of. Metamorphosis Alpha does not adopt this approach and AD&D won't canonize it until the release of the Dungeon Masters Guide in 1979. First or not, it's worth noting its appearance here, since it firmly establishes that the primacy of 3D6-in-order was challenged -- and with official sanction -- quite early.

I've discussed the system for determining how many mutations a character receives here, so I won't repeat myself in this post. Next up are overviews of the three character "types," starting with pure strain humans, which are regularly referred to as "PSH" in the text. This calls to mind the ubiquitous abbreviation "EHP" in early D&D products. Pure strain humans are described as the "weakest" character type, having only two advantages. First, they are held in awe as descendants of the Ancients and thus gain a +3 Charisma bonus. Second, with proper identification, most robots and computers will respond positively toward them. "Humanoids," as mutant humans are called, are described as the "strongest" PC type, as they have mutations and may, if their physical mutations aren't noticeable, able to pass themselves off as pure strain humans. Mutated animals are assumed to be of human intelligence to start, but "whether the mutated animal character is capable of speech, the use of paws/hooves/fins as hands, and so forth, should be made as logically and reasonably as possible before the start of the game." There are, of course, no rules or even guidelines for such determinations in the rulebook.

Intelligence has only one mechanical purpose in the game and only for scores above 15 or below 7: aiding or hindering the process of understanding the workings of an artifact. Dexterity is used for determining attack order within a combat round (as well as granting a bonus when determining initiative). Likewise, scores above 15 and below 6 provide bonuses or penalties to physical attack rolls (both melee and missile). As in OD&D, charisma receives the lengthiest treatment of all ability scores, as it affects reaction rolls, the maximum number of followers a character can have, and the morale of those followers. It's here that we get Gamma World's reaction table, as well as a brief discussion of followers vs. henchmen/hirelings. We also get a modifiers based on the type of the character, so that a PSH character gets penalties when dealing with other types but not as great as a mutant animal might.

Constitution is a vital ability in Gamma World. For every point, the player rolls 1D6 to determine starting hit points. Since hit points don't automatically increase with experience, as they do in D&D, having a high constitution is important. Likewise, constitution functions as a resistance factor against poison and radiation, as we'll see in a future post. Mental strength serves a similar function, being used solely in mental combat to determine the number needed "to hit" an opponent with a mental mutation. Physical strength, meanwhile, affects damage done by physical weapons. Having a score higher than 15 or below 6 grants a bonus or penalty to damage, respectively.

This section of the rulebook ends with a brief discussion of non-player characters and creatures. The section emphasizes two points. First, the reaction table and charisma modifiers should be used to determine the initial disposition of NPCs, with events played out from there. Second, followers and henchmen can be found in many places and are of great assistance to the PCs. In these areas, Gamma World clearly follows in the tradition laid down by OD&D.


  1. Pure Strain Human is always a hard sell to a Gamma World player and never more so than in 1st edition. The best RPG campaign I've ever played in was a first ed game circa 1980. The other players thought I was nuts for playing a PSH. I enjoyed the challenge of having to rely on brain power versus mutations. I named my character Paladin for his sole advantage of a 17 Charisma.
    He ended up with followers (the Merry Mutants) and several robots, eventually becoming lord of our village. As mutants and animals came and went he ended up owning all the artifacts in the campaign.
    Weak character type indeed.

  2. The lack of a clear deliniation on the shortcomings of mutant animals in terms of hands, biped ability, and vocal chords made me hijack the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness" system of uplifts and work them into a secondary random table when I cobbled together my houseruled gamma world campaign from 1st. and 2nd. edition.

    Worked pretty good, overall. I gave mutant animals potential for a couple more rolls on the mutation tables so that they could choose between my uplifts chart and the traditional physical mutations table.

    I've got it here if any readers might be interested:

  3. Great observation on the early appearance of the 4d6-drop-low method.

    So an average character (Con 10) would roll 10d6 for hit points? Holy moly!!

  4. Wouldn't this huge range make Constitution not so much 'very important' as 'more important than every other attribute put together'?

  5. Not really. When a black ray gun can kill you dead no matter how many hit points you have, and other energy weapons do massive amounts of damage, one could argue intelligence is just as important (to figure out how to use them), dexterity (to aim true), or charisma (to talk the person aiming the black ray gun out of firing it).

  6. Now that you mention it, James, the 4d6 drop method HAD to come from this. I remember using this in GW and naturally using it in Holmes/Cook, then carrying it over into AD&D. I was therefore not surprised to see it as a method in the 1ed DMG. Good catch!

    As for PSH's, while they may seem weak on paper, they do encourage creative play and are immune to developing those damnable mutational defects...

  7. Intelligence has more than one use... If a player tried to determine something like make an educated guess on how is foe would organize his forces, or figure out how a trap was rigged he/she/it would make a d20 or 3d6 roll vs. intelligence

  8. @toddroe As for PSH's, while they may seem weak on paper, they do encourage creative play and are immune to developing those damnable mutational defects...

    Not in 1st edition. PSH's can "catch" mutations by being exposed to radiation.

    @D Collins If a player tried to determine something like make an educated guess on how is foe would organize his forces, or figure out how a trap was rigged he/she/it would make a d20 or 3d6 roll vs. intelligence

    Wow, real old school there...

  9. "It is desirable that few, if any, of a player character’s basic attributes be below average."

    I've said this before, but since players compare their characters to other player characters, player characters' attributes tend to be average no matter how high you make them.

  10. "They are the pioneers, explorers, and tamers of the vast wilderness."

    This sounds very much like a Western to me.

  11. The perception of danger and death in Gamma World was fostered by D&D in some ways for me and my friends back in the day. Because of the ways that the Basic and Expert sets described wilderness adventures in presentation. In a dungeon we were given a rate of risk equal to the depth of the dungeon in terms of random encounters and monster levels. While wilderness rules were given in context of advanced adventurers taking the next big step in their careers with the progression of box sets. In a dungeon you control your rate of descent and the levels of monsters you were likely to encounter. But, in the wilderness the encounter tables could flux greatly in monster difficulty and number appearing. So Gamma World just looked like you were being thrown in the fire with your club and crappy armor. Not to mention one Badger with a high tech weapon could really mess up your day. And gods forbid you survived figuring out how it worked once actually pried it out of his cold dead paws.

    I recall a Dragon article later in the 80’s called Sticks and Stones and Death Machines, which attempted to offer reasonable balance to the wildly differing encounters you could roll up on the charts of Gamma World. It centered on not changing the results but offering the characters rare glimpses of great beasts hunting or Death Machines setting in inactive rusted heaps on the plains.

    But, the mutations you could encounter in the simple creatures are enough to give any hardened adventurer pause. There was no surprise that some mutations countered some of the more deadly ones. We played Gamma World a lot and enjoyed our many deaths. And no manner of power gaming saved us.

  12. Dexterity is also used to determine initiative in combat - although only on the first round of combat (pg 7). After the first round, a d6 (+1 for Dex 17 or 18) determines first strike option; ties indicate simultaneous combat (pg 18). Metamorphosis Alpha simply used highest dexterity (pre-dating Holmes in this regard) for first strike throughout combat, with a die only for ties.

  13. @dhowarth333: It depends on how one interprets the 1ed rules. While the explanation for the radiation matrix is not specific about who it does/doesn't affect, the PSH entry is specific about the lack of mutations (and not specific about it being an "at character generation only" sort of rule).

  14. @toddroe - I suppose you could interpret the rules that way, but I don't think that's the intention. Nowhere does it say in the radiation section that PSHs are immune to acquiring mutations or defects per the table. I (and I think most GW GMs) always took the definition of the PSH type in the character generation section to mean that they don't start with any mutations. Plus, what could be more fun and ironic than having a PC or NPC Knight of Genetic Purity get kicked out of the order for becoming a mutie :)?

  15. I suppose you could interpret the rules that way, but I don't think that's the intention. Nowhere does it say in the radiation section that PSHs are immune to acquiring mutations or defects per the table.

    External evidence suggests that the idea that PSH characters were immune to mutations did not arise until fairly late in the process that led to GW 2e. Famine in Far-Go presents several changes to the way PSH characters work, including increased CON, INT, and CHA, as well as 8-sided hit dice, but there's no mention of immunity to radiation.

    Speaking only for myself, I always assumed PSHs could become mutants with exposure to sufficiently high radiation. That happened several times in my old campaigns, including one where, as suggested above, a Knight of Genetic Purity PC became a mutant and thus a hated enemy of his former comrades.

  16. Zarcanthropus's example is why one should NEVER underestimate the power of Charisma, nor relegate it to a "dump stat". Great yearn!

    About PSH and mutations: I have not seen anything about mutation immunity with PSH in 1st edition, and the Legion of Gold module even notes a NPC of a PSH family, who became a mutant form radiation exposure.

    By the way, I really like the DIY approach they took with this game. It leaves a lot of room for revision and interpretation.

  17. Well, I stand corrected (WRT the Legion of Gold reference). I never had that module in my youth, and that is always the way we interpreted the "rules". For us, it was always the offspring of PSH's that suffered from mutation.

    FWIW (and I hate to do it), in "real life", radiation can't cause mutation in a current generation, only in subsequent generations.