Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Gamma World, Cover to Cover (Part V)

At last, we come to mutations. In Gamma World, there are three types of mutations: physical, mental, and plant. Let's start with the physical ones, of which there are 49 examples. Two things are immediately obvious looking at the physical mutations chart. First, defects are interspersed throughout the list, which is arranged alphabetically, so rolling high is not necessarily better than rolling low. Second, the percentile distribution isn't even, so, for example, there's a 5% chance to get Heightened Strength but only a 1% chance to get Light Generation. Of course, the distribution also varies between humanoids and animals, for reasons that aren't quite clear to me.

These 49 physical mutations are each described briefly, after the fashion of OD&D's spell descriptions. Together, they take up slightly less than two pages of double-column text. What's particularly noteworthy is how often phrases like "left to the referee to determine," "the referee may," and "referee's discretion" turn up in these descriptions, which I think speaks volumes about the gaming culture -- or, at least, the game design culture -- of 1978. Equally interesting, too, I think is the lack of interest in mechanical specificity in many of the entries, again, much like the OD&D spell descriptions.

Rather than go over every entry, I've chosen a few I find interesting to give a taste of how the rulebook treats physical mutations:
  • BODY STRUCTURE CHANGE (D): Much latitude is left to the referee on this defect. Generally, this involves the replacement of essential elements, such as calcium in bones, with some other damaging substance that will lower the body's resistance to outside force. Possible changes might include: lack of calcium in bones - they break easily; no body hairs - anywhere - beware of dust; only one eye in center of head - no depth perception; and so on.
  • INFRAVISION: This power allows the mutant to see any heat-producing body. At night, everything will seem like day to this mutant. Flashes of heat, such as laser blasts, explosions, raging fires, or even torches at close range, will blind this being for a short period of time. The full light of day will also be painful if endured for any length of time.
  • NEW BODY PARTS: Add one or more parts, not usually found on the being in question, such as: third eye (back of head), feelers (radiation sensitive), antennae (light sensitive), pincers, fur coat, feathers, radiation absorbing organ, and so on.
In each case, there are questions either left to the referee to answer or completely unasked (like how long a mutant with infravision is blinded by flashes of heat). The funny things is that, at the time I played Gamma World, I don't think I even noticed this aspect of the game and I honestly can't recall any significant cases where much hinged on the rulebook's lack of specificity. Now, maybe it's because we were just stupid kids who didn't understand how vital it was to have built-in subsystems for determining when the bones of a mutant with body structure change would break, I don't know. But, looking back on the game now, I can't help but feel we weren't really missing out on anything by just making stuff up on the fly as it was needed.

There are also 49 mental mutations and their random table and descriptions share all the characteristics of the physical mutations mentioned above. I was also a much bigger fan of this table than of the physical list, because I found these mutations much more fun in play, even the defects. Here are a few good examples:
  • DE-EVOLUTION: This is the power to strip abilities from a mutant opponent by regressing it along its ancestral lines. If this power works (treat as a mental attack), it begins by taking away, permanently, the opponent’s greatest special ability (referee's choice). On every subsequent melee turn, another special ability is thus removed, until the mutant's opponent is returned to its original stock. This power lasts for the duration of one combat situation, however long that may take, has a range of up to 30 meters, and may be used once per week.
  • PLANAR TRAVEL: This is the ability to open doors to alternate planes of existence. The mutation manifests itself as a 3 x 3 meter opening lasting up to 3 full melee turns at the discretion of the mutant. These planes of existence may or may not be populated (with referee-inspired creatures), but once entered, there is no way to leave them (unless the mutant re-opens the door), so they make perfect places of exile. Only one such door may be opened per week.
  • POOR DUAL BRAIN (D): This is a second brain which handicaps the function of the primary brain. It may take over the body at strange times, have several defects, or even counteract a mental power of the good brain in difficult situations. The extent and effects of this mutation should be determined by the referee and may be kept a secret from the mutant until the moment of truth.
The section on plant mutations (of which there are 42) is preceded by this text:
The following plant and vegetable mutations are to be used by the referee when creating non-player plant mutations with which to populate GAMMA WORLD. It is recommended that the referee not allow the players to become mutated plants. Most of them do not have the intelligence or life span necessary to successfully interact with other player-character types.
Subsequent editions of Gamma World eliminated this restriction and made plant mutants a baseline option for player characters, which, I think, was a good move. I find the caution against them in the first edition interesting, as it suggests to me that, for all the oddities and weirdnesses of the game setting, it was still viewed as operating according to certain "laws," one of which was that plants, even mutant ones, are generally unintelligent. In retrospect, it seems a bizarre thing to say, but it implies (to me anyway) that Ward and/or Jaquet had a particular vision for the game and the game setting, one that didn't jibe with the players taking on the roles of plants.

The section on mutations ends with a short discussion of how to "non-player creature mutations," which is to say, monsters. Here are the steps it suggests:
1. Choose a basic animal or plant type.

2. The creature will mutate from 1-10 generations.

3. For each generation of an animal mutant, roll once on this percentile table:

01- 50%    Roll one physical mutation
51- 80%    Roll one mental mutation
81- 85%    Roll one physical and one mental mutation
86-00%    Heightened Intelligence

4. For each generation that a plant mutates, simply roll one mutation on the PLANT/VEGETABLE MUTATIONS TABLE.

5. It the creature mutates in a defective manner for the first two or three generations, it will not be able to survive, so choose another creature and start over.
I reproduced it in its entirety above, because I think it dovetails with my point above about mutant plants. Take note particularly of steps 2 and 5. The process presented here is a naturalistic one. It most emphatically is not an "anything goes" approach to designing mutants. Though certainly laughable according to anything we'd today call "scientific," it's nonetheless an attempt to ground Gamma World in a consistent, even logical (within the bounds of its own principles), reality. Gamma World may not accurately represent our world, but that doesn't mean it's intended as a pure flight of fancy without a rationale behind it. That's a point that comes up again and again, albeit obliquely, in the first edition and that somehow many gamers (and designers) seem to have missed.


        1. I just ignored the playable Mutant Plant restriction. I just treated their design as a Mutant Animal, but with 1d10 Plant Mutations, and a slightly less favorable reaction on the Charisma Table Modifiers (page 8).

          Naturally, they have a normal range of intelligence, and mobility - although, I noted that the redundant "Mobility" mutation (renamed "Immobility"), as one that would restrict the mutant to a pot of soil (or a human/animal host, with Parasitic Attachment), thus necessitating the need to be carried. It can be quite a hindrance - more so, when the character becomes too burdensome by it's handler - but its kind of amusing to see someone like Mad Max running around with an intelligent potted ficus under his arm, like it was a football.

          Fun times! =D

        2. Interesting text about Mutant Plants being less intelligent or having shorter lifespans compared to other character types. I'd always assumed that the restriction was due to the Plants taking the role of antagonistic flora in a dangerous environment.

          Frankly, I like the restriction. Partly because I like using them as 'monsters', and partly because PC-controlled Plants pushes the silliness quotient a little far for me.

        3. I had blogged about the "vague" nature of some of the mutation descriptions a few months ago when I talked about my memories of Gamma World. I basically have the same reaction as you.

          About 10 years ago, I would have thought the descriptions like the ones you posted above "bad game design" because it doesn't specifically state what happens. Flash-forward to today, and I think it's actually quite fun. It leaves the door open for more imagination in designing the effects of the mutations, rather than "boxing you in."

          I know for myself whenever I rolled the "New Body Parts" mutation, I would go wild inventing new things like new organs that absorbed radiation, spiky spine growths, tentacles... it was so much more fun than if it had been a prescribed list that never changed.

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        5. There was a cool article in the Ares section of a Dragon Magazine (the issue number of which I can't call to mind right now) that had a randomized chart with more specific instances of "New Body Parts". Perhaps someone out there can help jog my memory.

          I ended up folding most of its contents into the Physical Mutations table for my New West homebrew, replacing some of the more "super heroic" (in my own personal purveiw) type physical mutations.

        6. One thing that bothers me about the bone mutation is that it's the exact sort of thing that would slip past me and my players. The attack routine is pretty built in and runs past before you even think about it. Every time we've had something nonspecific (not "-1 CON" or whatnot, which is easily noted on a character sheet) that influences damage, it tends to get lost in the scuffle. That's our own fault, though.

        7. Frankly, I like the restriction. Partly because I like using them as 'monsters', and partly because PC-controlled Plants pushes the silliness quotient a little far for me.

          I actually agree with you, for what it's worth.

        8. Prior to Part V, I always prepared to believe that Gamma World wasn't the silly RPG I thought it was. Now, I'm fairly certain I was right all along...

          Care to elaborate?

        9. I decided to keep the restriction of no plant PCs for my game, at least for the time being. All my players were essentially new to Gamma World (even though they are all long-time RPGers) and I wanted everything about the experience to be mysterious and strange to them. Keeping mutant plants "monsters-only" was an aspect of that. It left me, as the GM, an area of dangerous weirdness in the game that the players were always investigating from the outside.

        10. "It the creature mutates in a defective manner for the first two or three generations, it will not be able to survive, so choose another creature and start over."

          Interesting to note that Traveler isn't the only game where it's possible to die during character creation!

        11. I think we can find another reason for the "no PC plants" rule in the list of fictional inspirations for Gamma World. The Long Afternoon of Earth is full of mutant plant antagonists, and I think that book shaped the designers' view of mutant plants more than anything else. (I'm not sure there would even be mutant plants in the game if not for The Long Afternoon of Earth.) If I ever run a GW game again, I'd like to use the morel as an NPC (read the book to find out what I'm talking about).

        12. Ah, "De-evolution". What a wicked mutation. I recall a Sage Advice or Dispel Confusion column back in the early 1980s where someone asked what effect the de-evolution attack would have on AD&D characters. The answer, certified "official" by Jim Ward and/or EGG, was that it would level drain targets by one level per segment (!!!). Anyone else remember this one?

        13. I do remember that; I also remember thinking that it was a really bad idea.

        14. James wrote:"The funny things is that, at the time I played Gamma World, I don't think I even noticed this aspect of the game and I honestly can't recall any significant cases where much hinged on the rulebook's lack of specificity."

          And that, sir, is the crux of why we extol the virtues of the "old days". ;)