Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Retrospective: Gamma World (Second Edition)

This is (I think) a first for Retrospective: a look at a different edition of a game that had already been the subject of an earlier post in this series. In the case of the second edition of Gamma World, I think it's more than justified, though, since the 1983 second edition is a very different beast than its predecessor. It's also quite relevant in light of my ongoing look at the setting of Gamma World as detailed in the products TSR released for it. 

The original 1978 edition of GW has a lot to recommend it, starting with its evocative Dave Trampier cover illustration. However, like both OD&D and its big brother, Metamorphosis Alpha, its rules were more than a little open to interpretation, which is a charitable way of saying unclear, incomplete, and occasionally contradictory. A lot of us view this in a favorable light, seeing these lacunae as opportunities to exercise individual creativity. They're features, not bugs, as we used to say, but, by 1983, that perspective was no longer a popular one. GW 2e was thus an attempt to produce a clearer, complete, and consistent version of Gamma World.

A good example of what I'm talking about can be seen almost immediately, in the descriptions of the game's physical and mental mutations. In the first edition, mutation descriptions had no standard format, usually being described in a few sentences at most. In the second edition, mutations are presented in a fashion similar to spells in Dungeons & Dragons, with range, duration, damage, and other information arranged in an easy-to-read manner. Even more importantly, the effects of each mutation are often laid out with reference to limitations and edge cases, so that there's less ambiguity on how they operate than was true in the original edition. Of course, these descriptions take up about twice as much space in the rulebook as those in the 1978 version.

The same degree of organization is applied elsewhere. It's particularly evident in the entries for the various mutant creatures, which, much like the mutations, seems to look to D&D for inspiration in its format. There are entries for number appearing, armor class, hit dice, morale, speed, attacks, and mutations, as well as details on the creatures' lairs, behaviors, and attitudes. Even more usefully, there are guidelines for determining a creature's ability scores, which is a vital detail that was often missing from the first edition descriptions of these same creatures. Take a look at the descriptions of technological artifacts, robots, and cryptic alliances and you'll see this pattern repeated, resulting in a much clearer and better presented rules in second edition.

Unlike the first edition, 2e includes an adventure booklet. The booklet is basically a short module, which also doubles a gazetteer of the region in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as well as being a short referee's manual. The scenario the booklet includes, "Rite of Passage," is a simple one intended as an introduction to the game and its setting. Perhaps inevitably, it assumes the player characters are members of a primitive tribe making their first foray out into the wider world. The scenario is fine for what it is and benefits from the inclusion of several example PCs to serve as inspiration for new players. The referee's section at the back of the booklet, meanwhile, contains brief but useful guidelines on starting, running, and maintaining a campaign. There's also a new artifact table that consists almost entirely of weird – and unexplained – high-tech devices, like a velkon tube, feldman protector, jalacca keyboard, and articulated relaxer. It's definitely a step up from the equivalent table in the first edition in that it doesn't contain any references to 20th century items.

Gamma World second edition is clearly built on the model of the 1983 Dungeons & Dragons line, where clarity, both in its text and in its presentation, is paramount. This edition also benefits from being amply illustrated, primarily by Larry Elmore, whose technical skill as an artist seems a good fit for a more serious science fictional take on Gamma World. Much as I love Dave Trampier's pieces from the 1978 edition, I've long preferred Elmore's tidy, controlled artwork in the 1983 version, since they're closer to my own personal vision of what the game and its setting ought to be. 

The other way that second edition is built on the model of the '83 D&D line is its accessibility. This is a game that was written with newcomers in mind, since the boxed set includes everything you need to play the game, including a starting adventure. The first edition was written for those who already possess some knowledge and experience of roleplaying, while the second could, in theory anyway, be picked up by someone who'd never played a RPG before. How successful it might have been in this regard, I leave to those whose first roleplaying game was this edition of Gamma World, since, by the time I encountered it, I'd already been involved in the hobby for more than three years. 

I have a lot of affection for the second edition of Gamma World, in part, I think, because its appearance inaugurated a brief renaissance for the game line. Not only did TSR publish a couple more modules for the game in its wake, but there was a lot of support for it in the "Ares Section" of Dragon magazine, along with articles in the pages of Polyhedron. At the same time, I can be reasonably argued that this edition, for all its real virtues, was "domesticated" in the interests of reaching a wider audience than its predecessor. Certainly, 2e is much less weird and dark than 1e and this very real tonal shift may not be to everyone's liking, especially fans of the original. Personally, I welcomed 2e's greater rules clarity and surfeit of illustrations, as well as its greater emphasis on the high-tech nature of the world before the End. It's not a perfect edition by any means – what edition is? – but I had a lot of fun with it. Even now, were I to start up a Gamma World campaign, I'd probably make use of this edition, which is the best compliment I can think of giving any game.


  1. Glad to see this post. My friends and I had a blast with this edition the summer after my 7th grade year. I remember battling giant vultures among the scaffolds of abandoned sky scrapers. Love the city maps. We felt like this edition fixed much of what was wrong with the first.

  2. For me, this is the definitive edition of Gamma World. I love everything about it - design, presentation, and great feel for what a post-apocalyptic America might be like.

  3. I like to imagine the conversation between the two dudes in the picture.

    "Bro I got a shovel on a stick and you have a laser arm. I think it's your turn to lead the charge."

    Still it's a fun cover.

  4. This is by far my favorite edition and one of those games I consider "Perfect"

  5. Yeah..."less dark"? I would've said "less goofy".
    This is my favorite edition of GW, too.

  6. Played every edition of the game and this is by far my favorite.

  7. This cover suggests something like a Japanese giant robot rpg.