Until recently, when I heard the phrase “The Big Mistake” in reference to gaming, my first thought was of the release of 4E, which I dislike intensely. But when I heard they were going to use the same system as a framework for a new edition of Gamma World, I decided it would be worth a try. After all, a lot of what irritates me about 4E — characters are a random bunch of powers that don’t really make any sense, storytelling has been systemically shoved aside in favor of a series of pumped-up encounters that may or may not be related to each other, and so on — are actually core conceits of Gamma World and have been since 1978. And though I’ve been a gamer since the Reagan administration, I’ve never actually played Gamma World before, so it seemed like a good time.
The premise of Gamma World, for those who don’t know, is that reality broke a long time ago (nuclear war in previous editions, a “Big Mistake” with the Large Hadron Collider in this one), and your characters live in the crazy post-apocalyptic world that arose from it, encountering mutants, monsters, and wacky high-tech stuff in the ruins of Ancient cities and installations. And of course, reality is still a bit wonky, causing you to mutate randomly during the course of play. It’s two parts Logan’s Run, two parts Escape From New York, and one part The Muppet Show, although you could also think of it as Fluxx: The Roleplaying Game.
The new boxed set includes a smallish (and a bit flimsy) rules booklet, a deck of Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech cards, a sealed booster deck of same (more on that below), a pair of battle maps showing several encounter locations in the starter scenario, two sheets of heavy cardstock character/monster counters, and some (smallish) character sheets. Aside from the usual selection of gaming dice, the box contains all you technically need to play, although I recommend you download the character sheet and print it at full page size. A 4E D&D GM screen might also be handy, and as I have a wide variety of miniatures, I used those instead of the counters, but that’s a personal preference.
Character generation, at least if you do it “right,” is completely random. (The game allows for you to have some choice, if you really insist on it, but has no qualms about calling you a big baby if you do.) Thus, my players ended up with:
- Lee: A gravity-controlling android with a high Charisma and a Dexterity of 4, named Downshift.
- Jamie: A permanently-on-fire cat-anthro, sort of a furry version of The Human Torch, named Blaze.
- Josh: A radioactive swarm of rats who share a hive mind, named Mick.
- Laurie: A huge human with telekinesis, named Gina.
- Me (NPC): A superfast human who can create duplicates of himself from alternate realities, named Buzz.
Due to the random generation of gear, almost everyone in the party ended up owning 5 gallons of fuel — but nobody had a vehicle aside from a couple of horses. Mick (the rat swarm) did have a canoe, which I thought would make a cool chariot pulled by the horses, but he traded it in for two rolls on the Ancient Junk table, ending up with a boardgame and a string of Christmas lights, which he actually liked much better. (“I can make them light up, see!” *bzzt*)
Unfortunately, one big problem Gamma World shares with 4E is a philosophy that “roleplaying is that boring stuff that happens between encounters,” and this is reflected in the starter scenario. A paragraph informs you that robots have been randomly bothering “the village” and so your characters are on the first encounter map because they’ve tracked the robots up here.
Um, what village would that be? Why should the characters give a flap about that? What is the world like when there are no dice involved? The game doesn’t care. Heck, they didn’t even bother to give the main “boss” of the starter scenario a name. That annoys the heck out of me, because I care a lot more about that stuff than I do about whether combat is balanced or not. So, in the two hours or so of prep time I had, I whipped up the village of Dozer Hole, including a saloon called “Let ‘er Rip” and its hawkoid owner, and even (*gasp*) came up with a working name and backstory for the baddies.
With the help of the randomly-determined gear the party was carrying, we worked out that they were a traveling band of adventurers who used to have a car, but that it underwent some sort of catastrophic existence failure. So they scavenged the fuel and are now looking for another car, which is what brought them to Dozer Hole. However, Dozer Hole operates almost entirely on a local currency called “bucks,” which the party naturally had none of. Fortunately, Kaziza (the owner of Let ‘er Rip) would extend them 500 bucks worth of credit if they’d take care of the problem of robots trundling down out of the hills and blowing up at their town.
A couple of skill checks in the book provide a little more information, but not much. There are raiders in the hills; the robots are products of “Stupendico” (Kid-Tested, Mom-Approved!). A while back some people came around Nameless Village asking about robots and were rebuffed. If I’d had more time to flesh out this part, there could have been a lot of wacky fun interacting with the colorful postapocalyticish eccentrics of Dozer Hole — but the book didn’t provide any and I didn’t have time to come up with ‘em. So we breezed over this bit and went right to the first encounter (and by extension, right to the first fight).
I won’t detail what they found in the mountains to avoid spoilers, but Gamma World is powered by the 4E engine, so combat, apart from being just a hair sillier, felt pretty much the same. Lots of random shifting, lots of trying to figure out some kind of power to bring to bear instead of doing a “basic attack,” and so on. Although one improvement here is that doing a basic attack feels less like “a turn wasted” in this version; I think this may be because there are fewer powers generally (and no feats at all).
There is also a lot less fluctuation in hit points; although you can still take a Second Wind, there are no Healing Surges — and no cleric — so for the most part hit points go in only one direction: down. This means you have to be a lot more careful about surviving any given encounter (and take your second wind as soon as you’re bloodied), because there’s no healer to pull your bacon out of the fire. On the other hand, you regain all of your hit points whenever you take a short rest, so assuming you stay up longer than the bad guys do, you’ll be fine at the beginning of your next encounter.
“Treasure” is awarded in the form of draws from the Omega Tech deck, representing high tech stuff you find either on your dead foes or lying in the corner of the room ignored. Omega Tech tends to be stuff that alternates between being very useful, or blowing up in your face, such as the little buddy robot Downshift found, which follows him around and shoots at his foes, but if it misses his foe shoots at him instead. (I used a miniature of K-9 from Doctor Who for that — it seemed appropriate.) At the end of an encounter, any piece of Omega Tech you’ve used has a certain chance of breaking, although some of them are salvageable as less-powerful permanent versions of themselves. The idea is that you will gain and lose and gain and lose Omega Tech cards a lot over the course of the game.
Similarly, Alpha Mutations (powers which are things like growing an extra pair of limbs, or suddenly developing laser beam eyes) change at the start of every game session, during every extended rest, and can theoretically change during the course of the game if there’s some triggering event (referred to as “Alpha Flux”). The powers are on cards, and whenever Alpha Flux occurs, you discard your current one and draw a new one.
Players can (and the WotC marketing department hopes they will) create their own personal deck of Alpha Mutations or Omega Tech by buying booster decks — and is anybody surprised by this? There are rules as to how a personal deck must be built, so you don’t just build yourself a deck of nothing but Fusion Rifles over and over, but it does allow you to create a themed deck that will work with your character. If you’re a psychic, for instance, you might build a deck heavy on psionic mutations. Of course, if your character croaks and you then roll up a timeshifted seismic, all those psi cards are going to be less useful. But given that it would probably take three or four booster packs to build a workable deck, you’ve probably got spares to reconfigure with.
So! What’s the overall impression?
If you’re an old-school gamer, you are probably already familiar with Gamma World, or at least familiar enough to know if you’ll like it or not. Jamie, who is an old-school GW player, says that it works much better with “a more modern rule system,” and certainly the inherent weirdness of the setting is the only thing that can make 4E work for me. The fact that the critters are on-level compatible with those from D&D is a big plus — all you need to do to create a funky new mutant for your characters to face (since there are only two modules announced and they won’t be out for months) is pull something out of a 4E adventure and re-skin it with more psychotropia added.
The starter scenario included is, in a word, weak. It’s a super-linear dungeon crawl designed to escort players from fight to fight with no background to speak of and almost no flavor at all. Considering how wild, crazy, and awesome the world is described as being, this is a very lackluster way to introduce people to it. The rules are 4E nonsense, but the world is also nonsense, so it fits. I will say that although the idea of booster decks of cards is a very blatant “Actual Game Sold Separately” mechanic, it doesn’t bother me because the game is perfectly playable without it and the constant fluctuation of powers and gadgets is part of the world. I can also see how, if you’ve been playing a while, seeing the same cards over and over would quickly get tiresome. Whole splatbooks full of nothing but new origins for players who don’t want to be another mind-reading hawk-man would not be out of line for a hardcore group.
The stat blocks for several monsters are wonky at best — I was transcribing foes from the adventure into WordPerfect so I could have a print-out handy instead of having to flip pages during the course of the game and I encountered badly-calculated ability score bonuses so many times that I had to double-check they hadn’t changed how those were figured. Who knows what other, less-obvious problems there were! I didn’t have time to refigure stat blocks, so I don’t know how off the numbers actually were. (The good news is, at first level at least, +1/-1 either way is probably the largest variation, so it wasn’t really an issue.) Also, the main book is small (5″ x 7″ -ish) but was clearly laid out for full 8.5″ x 11″ size — so the type is tiny and can be hard to read. On top of that, the binding is cheapy … one read-through and the spine was already broken.
It’s OTT, silly fun, and is worth rotating in to your game schedule. However, at least until the modules come out, you’ll have to do a lot of the heavy lifting of making a viable campaign out of it, and if the starter scenario is any indication, you’ll still have to do a lot of the heavy lifting then. On the other hand, character development tops out at 10th level (no Paragon or Epic Gamma World, it seems), so campaigns will tend to be short and sweet, which is probably for the best. Like the MST3K mantra says, “Just repeat to yourself, it’s just a game, I should really just relax.”
PS: Josh’s mini-review. Same conclusions, many fewer words.