Monday, April 17, 2023

The Setting of Gamma World (Conclusion)

Having now spent far too much time delving into my collection of Gamma World rulebooks and supplements – and not even having even read them all – I think I'm now in a better position to offer some conclusions regarding its setting. In the interests of clarity and concision, I'll present these as number points.

  1. It's often overlooked that Gamma World is a sequel of sorts to James M. Ward's first stab at a post-apocalyptic RPG, 1976's Metamorphosis Alpha. Like its descendant, MA is about mutants in a world gone mad after a civilization-ending disaster. The key difference is that the "world" of Metamorphosis Alpha is an interstellar generation ship launched from Earth in the late 23rd century – a setting that is unmistakably in our future.
  2. I mention this because I think it's important to understanding the background to Ward's own conception of the setting of Gamma World, namely that of Metamorphosis Alpha writ large, so as to encompass the entire Earth.
  3. However, it's clear that, from a fairly early stage in its development, Gamma World was never the sole product of James M. Ward. At the very least, Gary Jaquet had an influence over its development, as likely did Tom Wham, Timothy Jones, and even Gary Gygax. Each injected their own ideas into the game, diluting Ward's original vision of a high-tech apocalypse occurring several centuries into our future.
  4. Consequently, the setting of the 1978 Gamma World rulebook is something of a mishmash, consisting of a strongly high-tech science fictional foundation atop of which were added numerous elements that don't quite comport with it.
  5. While the non-Ward elements of Gamma World don't wholly undermine the implication that the setting is a futuristic one, they do muddy the waters quite a bit, thereby lending credence to the common belief that the End comes in the relatively near future rather than the 24th century.
  6. There was never a strong editorial hand on the Gamma World game line, especially in its early years. Therefore, each release for the game is sui generis, reflecting the tastes and ideas of the authors who created them. The fact that Ward himself never wrote a single stand-alone scenario for the game line during its first and second editions did little to clarify the situation.
Ultimately, there is no single Gamma World setting, however much James M. Ward might have intended otherwise. That said, I personally believe that the game makes the most sense – to the extent that that's even possible – as being set in the aftermath of a future apocalypse. That's certainly the frame I'll use, when I finally get around to starting up a Gamma World campaign. Your mileage may vary.


  1. I've long been a fan of Gamma World, ever since I picked up a used copy of the 1st edition in a comic store for something like $6.00, back in the early-mid 80's. I eventually picked up almost everything from 1st-3rd edition, but never actually managed to run a short campaign until a few years ago, and let me tell you, it was a blast! Also, the exact thing that confused/eluded me as a younger man was the fact that it was a FUTURE post-apocalyptic setting. I mean, on one hand I knew this, then I would look at the random "treasure" tables, and it was a bit confusing, at least to a young teenage mind. I don't know exactly when, but suddenly one day it clicked for me.

  2. "Ultimately, there is no single Gamma World setting..." and, in fact, when you really think about it, GW has more settings than D&D if you count every edition as a unique setting, include every MA incarnation (including M Alpha to Omega) and think about every adaptation of other media like Thundarr and Mad Max in the lands of Homebrew.

  3. solid points. thank you for the retrospectives

  4. Thanks for this interesting, clarifying series.

  5. What weirded me out about Gamma World was how close TSR came to making a superhero game with it. The system was just about workable for a V&V style game.

    I had fun playing Gamma World but running it was a chore due to stupid game mechanics. Scores of HPs being assigned to all starting characters, so 1d8 swords took ages to hurt even an ordinary man; bad level-up mechanics; huge numbers of instant death attacks; power levels for mutants being front loaded, so there was little reason to advance. The cryptic alliance factions were great, well ahead of the time (*why* weren't they added to AD&D?), the art oozed atmosphere, and the game was the first to add "disadvantage" type traits, but despite superior presentation and rules to Metamorphosis Alpha, the setting, without the "dungeon in space aspect" of Starship Warden, was harder to run.

    1. My childhood group went back and forth between V&V and GW for a couple of summers running, they definitely appealed to us in similar ways.

      Used to think GW was too generous with the hp myself, then we realized the game didn't intend you to be using vanilla d8 swords and similar crap except as a last resort or as a very new PSH character. Average character has about 11d6 hp, so ~39 hp. Really tough one might get 18d8, so ~81 hp for a lucky PSH. Unmodified d8s will take nine hits to kill average guy, but ideally you've got damage bonuses from stats or mutations if you're relying on unpowered melee weapons. Those hp go away a lot faster when you're getting hit with tech weapons that deal 3d6, 5d6, even 10d6 damage at a go though, and a fair number of mutations deal 3-5d6 as well. Radiation hits like a truck too.

      And unlike D&D your hp really don't go up much, if at all. You're about as tough as starting PC as you will be as a vet, but you'll be facing (and dealing) a lot more damage.

  6. Throughout this series, the description of the setting as post-apocalyptic in the distant future with remnants of high technology that we would find bizarre kept bringing to mind the third planet of Sinistra during the Time of Darkness. No mutants but there would be psionics I suppose and lots of strange organisms, plus bastions of ultra-high tech. I wonder if anyone has run a campaign of this sort.

  7. Have you seen the Appendix N for Metamorphosis Alpha? I am curious how that differs from Gamma World’s. When I first saw the rules to MA I was struck by the rather blatant “theft” of temporal fugue from Zelazny’s “Creatures of Light and Darkness”.