Gamma World: First Impressions

So, like every other gaming fan-boy, I grabbed my copy of Gamma World on Friday night. Not only am I running the Gamma World Game Day on October 23 at Imagine Games and Hobbies, but the Storm Point campaign is looking at taking a short D&D hiatus to play a little Gamma World. I’ve spent some time over the weekend reading through the game and generating some characters, just to try things out, and I’ve got some initial thoughts on the game.

It looks like a lot of fun, but it is pretty fine-tuned for a very specific kind of play experience. The game is designed to be rather crazy, with strange mutations, bizarre landscapes and situations, weird tech, and high mortality rates among PCs. The mechanics are based on D&D 4e, with things tweaked a little bit for the new style of play. The healing rules, the level-based bonuses, and a few other things have been altered to reinforce the free-wheeling, beer-and-pretzels, absurd style of play that the game fosters.

Like pretty much all Gamma World editions, character creation is random ((Admittedly, it may be a little more random in this version than in some others.)), and you can wind up with some very strange characters to play. When you factor in the idea of Alpha Flux, and the changing mutations reflected in the Alpha Mutation cards, characters can – and do – change from one encounter to another. The random rolls can create some very strange origin combinations, and the Alpha Mutation deck adds another layer of weirdness as you try to figure out how your gravity-bending android suddenly has the power to read minds or grow tentacles ((The baseline explanation, of course, is provided by the explanation of the Big Mistake, with the mixing and merging of alternate universes still ongoing, re-editing the characters from time to time.)).

Most powers and weapons ((Especially Omega Tech items.)) do pretty impressive amounts of damage, and hit points are about on a par with 4e. This means that characters are not as durable as you might expect them to be, especially as healing is pretty thin on the ground. No more healing surges – instead, everyone can take a second wind action once per encounter and heal up to full after each encounter for free. Second wind has been beefed up, healing half your hit points, instead of a quarter, and it’s only a minor action. On the down side, there are fewer powers and items that I’ve seen that offer healing. This can lead to a pretty high mortality rate during play.

The game touts this as – well, if not actually a feature, per se, at least a design goal. Characters are pretty quick to generate, so dying means you’re out of play for maybe fifteen minutes as you whip up your new mutant to wander by and join the fun. Because so much of the game is focused on the experience of playing your character changing so often, this is less jarring than it might be in a more… serious, I guess… game.

I have to admit that I was a little leery about the use of cards and deckbuilding in the game. It struck me as injecting a lot of what I don’t like about CCGs into my RPG fix – you need to buy more and more cards for your character to be viable. After reading the game, I am less troubled by it. The game comes with enough cards that you won’t ever need to buy a booster pack. They are completely superfluous to play. Having said that, they do add some real coolness to the game, with neat new powers and toys to make the game even crazier than before. The guides to deckbuilding are very loose and, while they can let you tailor your mutations to fit a little more with your character concept, I can actually see a carefully constructed deck removing a lot of the weird, unexpected awesome that the cards can contribute. If you’re always pulling the same four Psi mutations and Xi items, you’ll never have the wild, giddy joy that comes of suddenly growing mandibles for no readily apparent reason and going to town with your newly discovered force pike ((In addition to this, Gabe over at Penny Arcade makes a very telling point: “If you decide that you would like to build your own decks to draw from then yes, you can go and purchase booster packs. You are not at a disadvantage if you don’t though because this is not a competitive game. In MTG you are pitting your deck against your opponents. If you don’t buy booster packs you don’t have a deck and that will making winning very difficult. In Gamma World you are playing with your friends and against the DM who does not get to draw any cards. The cards are just for fun and to help you kick the shit out of whatever the DM throws at you.” Thanks, Gabe!)).

So. As I said, the game is very focused on a certain kind of loose, rollicking, wahoo style of play by default. In doing some thinking, there are a couple of things that I think you could tweak with house rules to turn it into something better able to sustain long-term campaigns, or turn it into a more serious type of game.

Less Random Characters

If you’re not a fan of the very, very random character generation, it’s pretty easy to change it to allow for more designed characters. Allowing players to pick and choose their origins – even if you only let them choose one of their two origins – can go a long way toward letting people play the kind of character they want. And you can bypass the random roll of attributes for those not set by origins, allowing players to use an array, similar to in D&D. Easy.

Now, I found the random character generation I tried this weekend produced some interesting and very playable characters. The three I rolled up include a robot powered by a contained quantum singularity (Android/Gravity Manipulator), a colony of psychic Moebius Newts (Mind Breaker/Rat Swarm), and a Mi-Go (Plant/Cockroach). I think the random elements can really spark creativity, especially when you’re trying to reconcile two apparently contradictory origins.

This will also lead to a longer character creation time, so if you’re going to do this, you need to also address the next issue.

Lower Character Mortality ((I almost typed “Lower Character Morality,” which is a completely different kind of game.))

Allowing characters to take a third wind in combat might be all that’s required to balance this. That and maybe making some healing potion analogue readily available during play. If you’re looking for something more complex, you can revamp the damage of the various weapons and attacks so that they’re more in line with 4e values.

Stable Mutations

First off, everyone gets a couple of powers based on their origins that are consistent no matter what happens with the Alpha Mutations cards, so it’s not like everything about your character changes when you draw new mutations. But some of the weird things that happen with Alpha Mutation cards kind of strain credulity when they come up outta nowhere ((“What do you mean, now I’m aquatic? When the hell have we been near any water? This is a desert!”)). Allowing characters to build their own Alpha Mutation deck is one answer – they can pick options that fit their character concepts a little better, and focus on certain types of powers. Another option is to give each character a permanent card (or two, or more, if they’re of sufficient level) that they don’t have to discard after use. You can then decide if they get to pick the card or if it’s random. You can even do a combination – they get three random cards, and have to pick one to keep.

Those are just some thoughts after reading the game. Having looked at some of the buzz online, though, I’m going to encourage the Storm Point geeks to play it as written, at least for our first game.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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2 Responses to Gamma World: First Impressions

  1. Michael says:

    Sounds like a game I came across called Untold []. Everything is card based. Quick 5-10 min character build really versatile, lots of game play. I’ll have to try this one out. I tossed just about all my old D20 books after playing Untold. I’m always looking for “outside the normal” type games.

  2. Erik says:

    I admit I was *heavily* cynical about the whole “booster card” thing, but I have since come around. Gabe is half right, imo — you’re not competing with other players, sure, but you ARE competing with the game itself, the designed monsters, challenges, etc. So what I was worried about was that the design of the game (what the company *can* control) was slanted such that you needed the boosters to play effectively, or to use new content down the road (release a setting book or sourcebook, release a new booster set alongside it) — the simplest example of this would be to introduce a creature type immune to everything save for some damage type in the new crop of boosters, or what have you. Basically, introducing [some challenge] for players to overcome that can *only* be addressed by [some booster card or cards]. At the heart of my cynicism is the fear that the game would be driven by a desire to maximise profit using this “card-needing engine” over, well, fun.


    I am very, very, very pleased to say that does NOT appear to be the case. I am seriously relieved.

    So far as I can tell, at this point the reason, driver, or incentive to buy boosters is sheer, pure FUN. You don’t *need* them, but they’re fun! They do crazy stuff! Mandibles out of nowhere! Tentacles for all! If you want to, you can deckbuild, but if you don’t there’s no negative consequence if you don’t, and the game is *still* fun either way.

    I can’t believe it, and I love it. In this bleak, cynical, exploitative day and age, a game from a major company that may just really actually be driven by fun. I feared it, and now it looks pretty damn sweet.

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