Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Green Box Fever

Has Wizards of the Coast lost its ways with the regards to the future of its RPG properties? It seems that of late the publisher has done an about face in delving back into the back catalogue and history of those properties, and that after years of all but ignoring them. Thus we have seen the release of the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line and the Castle Ravenloft Board Game within the last year, and these have been followed by the D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game, the very title of which begs at least two questions. The first of which being, “Gamma World, really?” After all, Gamma World as a game is over thirty years old, the First Edition having been published in 1978, and that ignoring the publication of its antecedent, Metamorphosis Alpha, two years before. Plus this makes for a second stab at the Gamma World setting after the release of the very modern 2004 take upon the setting from Sword & Sorcery. Well, this new version, the Seventh Edition, is Wizards of the Coast’s first attempt at the setting and describes itself as “A Wacky, Wiley Game of Postapocalyptic Peril;” the clue in the description being the word, “Wacky.” So this is a return to the goofy craziness of editions long past. Second, what is the “D & D” appellation doing in front of the game’s title? What it indicates is that the game uses the same mechanics as Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, although a much more streamlined version. Not so streamlined as to no longer require maps and counters, but still streamlined all the same. Which is just the first of many changes to Gamma World in its Seventh Edition.

The second of those changes is the setting. Previous versions of Gamma World have been set centuries after a nuclear, biological, and chemical exchange – add to that nanotechnology warfare in more recent editions, leaving a world barely recognisable from our own, populated by strange mutated animals, humans, and plants, with Cryptic Alliances warring still for the future of this new Earth. In D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game, the Big Mistake lies one hundred and fifty years in the past. In 2012, an experiment by the Big Hadron Collider causes the collapse of universe after universe upon one another to create the world of Gamma Terra and instil this future post-apocalypse with strange energies that fuel the Alpha Flux that randomises mutations and leaves this nu-Earth littered with Omega Tech sourced from untold collapsed other Earths. Welcome to the year 2162 or as some call it, “Six Monkey Slap Slap.”

Character generation is also a bit different over previous editions. Rather than selecting from a race or class such as Mutant, Mutated Plant or Animal, or Pure Strain Human, a player rolls randomly for everything because essentially, every character is a Mutant. This starts a character’s two Origins, such as Giant and Rat Swarm, or Mind Controller and Yeti. The combination of the two provides a character’s primary and secondary ability scores – the rest being rolled as per normal, various Traits, and his basic At-Will Powers. In addition, each receives a randomly determined skill bonus and randomly determined equipment beyond the basics. The process is meant to be quick – and it is, but what takes the time is noting everything down again, because there are still lots of little details that a player has to note down. It is intended to be quick because to an extent, characters are meant to be disposable. The interesting aspect is that a player is meant to reconcile his two Origins for his Mutant. So for the Giant Rat Swarm, our Mutant is exactly that, while the Yeti Mind Controller is actually a bio-engineered pet bear who wants you to love him.

Vern; Giant Rat Swarm
Level 1
Str: 18 Con: 6 Dex: 16
Wis: 7 Int: 16 Chr: 10
Hit Points: 10
Fortitude: 17 Reflex: 14 Will: 11
Armour Class: 21 Speed: 5 Initiative: +4
Powers: Brickbat (Close Burst Attack), Swarm
Giant Traits: Just Tough (+2 Fortitude), Encumbered Speed
Rat Swarm Traits: Swarm Defense (Resist 5 versus melee/ranged attacks; Vulnerable 5 to area attacks); Crawling Mass (Cannot be knocked prone)
Skills: Athletics +9, Mechanics +8, Stealth +8
Equipment: Heavy Armour (Riot Gear), Heavy Weapon (Parking Meter, Attack: +7, Damage: 2d8+5), Explorer’s Kit, Tent, Wagon, Heavy Flashlight, Riding Horse

Apart from his intrinsic Traits, what the character obvious lacks are his Mutations. In previous editions of Gamma World, a character with mutations began the game with a mix of the good and the bad. He could gain more later on, perhaps if he was exposed to a Mutagen. In this edition of Gamma World, a character’s Alpha Mutations are represented by individual cards that will change between encounters, which means that a player character’s Mutations will rarely stay the same. Each individual Alpha Mutation on a card lists its source – Bio, Dark, or Psi, these sources being tied into a character’s Origins, and what it can do. They range from Accelerated Reflexes and Empathic Healing to Shaggy Pelt and Venomous Spurs. As each Mutation can only be used once per Encounter – unless a character manages to Overcharge the Mutation, which also has a 50% chance of having a temporary deleterious effect, what the Alpha Mutations are providing is the game’s equivalent to Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition’s Encounter abilities.

At Encounter’s end, a player’s current Alpha Mutation is discarded and he draws a new one at the start of the next Encounter. These come from the GM’s Deck and there are just forty of these in the core box for the D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game. So a scenario such as the one included in the Rule Book, which is designed for five players and has eight Encounters, will exhaust the GM’s Deck through a single play through. A group will go through the GM’s deck even faster when the characters’ have more Alpha Mutation cards at fourth and eighth levels. Wizards of the Coast’s intention is that the GM purchase D & D Gamma World Booster Packs to supplement his Alpha Mutation deck, and that each player purchase them too so that he can create a Player’s Deck of his own and draw from that during the game instead of the GM’s Deck.

What is interesting in the creation of a Player’s Deck is that because it has to have a minimum of seven cards and cannot contain more than two cards of the same name, a player can effectively tailor his deck as is his wont. All it takes is four cards that a player likes and he has a good chance of drawing the Alpha Mutation cards that he wants at the beginning of each Encounter. Thus he has negated the random mutation effect at the heart of Gamma Terra, and thus Gamma World. Conversely, a GM can create miniature decks of his own to simulate the effects of certain areas, and thus add flavour and effect to his game.

The counterpart to the Alpha Mutations are the Omega Tech cards, which serve as the main means of reward for the player characters. In other words, not magic, but tech. Each Omega Tech card represents pieces of super-science that come from the Alien Grays’ technology held in vaults at Area 52, the photonic devices of the Empire of Ishtar, and the nano-tech of the machine-like Xi. The items range from Unstable Vibroblades and Flash Neurojacks to Dim Photonic Spears and Headmounted Lasers. A character can have as many Omega Tech cards in play as he wants, and just like the Alpha Mutation cards, each can only be used the once during an Encounter. After an Omega Tech card has been used, there is a chance that its power source or Omega Charge will be depleted and it be rendered useless. If not, it can be used again in a later Encounter. Depending upon the Omega Tech card, once a character reaches a certain level, he scavenge it and turn it into a weapon that is not as good as the Encounter Power given by the Omega Tech card, but is better than the basic melee and missile weapons given in the Rule Book.

Just like the Alpha Mutation cards, there are forty Omega Tech cards in the D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game boxed set and more are available in the D & D Gamma World Booster Packs. So both core aspects of the game are, to put it simply, collectible. In truth, there is no need for either the GM or a player to purchase extra cards, but without them, the game play is to a certain extent, limited. Further, without them, a design element cannot be brought into the game, that of creating GM’s Decks for certain situations and of creating Player’s Deck tailored to their characters. In truth, while the cards themselves might not be collectible, the means of buying them is. There is no way of obtaining them otherwise, and with eight cards per pack, and another forty cards beyond those in the core set, at $5 per pack or so, fulfilling either design aspect could get expensive very quickly. Especially since you are not guaranteed to get the cards that you want.

If you have played Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, then playing D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game will be very familiar. To achieve anything, a player rolls a twenty-sided die, adds any bonuses, and tries to beat a target set by the GM. The game is played in the same style as Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, with encounters intended to be run on maps marked with grids and a character’s powers to be using during these encounters. The focus of the game, as evidenced by the scenario included in the Rule Book is on combat, as much as it is exploration, if not more.

The advice for the GM is kept fairly light, as is the background for Gamma Terra itself. Various locations are described that can be added to a GM’s campaign, their descriptions quite lengthy compared to those given to Gamma World’s classic Cryptic Alliances. The best advice is to keep it fun and to keep it wacky, as well as for the GM to base his home campaign his home town, now altered by the effects of the Big Mistake. Unsurprisingly, a large chunk of the GM’s section in the Rule Book is devoted to describing the creatures to be found abroad Gamma Terra. Many of Gamma World’s classic creatures make a return, including the badger-like Badders, mutated leptoid Hoops, and the infamous Sep, or Land Shark. Every creature has been given a new illustration, some of which feel more cartoon-like in style, and also a piece of text that can be read out to the players when their characters encounter it for the first time.

The adventure given in the book, “Steading of the Iron King,” is to blunt, terrible. It amounts to an eight Encounter slog through a post-apocalyptic dungeon that has the player mutants investigating the source of a number of robots that have rolled down out of the hills and blown themselves up on the outskirts of the village. The adventure makes full use of the maps and the counters included in the box, but none of the advice on “Good Adventure Design” given in the section on Creating Adventures. In particular, that an adventure should “Provide Multiple Paths to Success,” give “Clear, Limited Choices,” and “Embrace the Weirdness.” “Steading of the Iron King” certainly does not do the first, the adventure being absolutely linear; nor does it do the second, the choice only being forwards; and as to the third, that is debatable. Lastly, for a piece of writing designed for a roleplaying game, why is there so little roleplaying involved in “Steading of the Iron King”?

Given all that the D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game consists of, it comes in a surprisingly empty box and feels very over packaged. What accounts for the size of the large square box that the game comes in are the two sheets of counters for use with the maps. Not the maps themselves, which are simple posters folded down to a size much smaller than digest size. Had the maps been mounted or done in a heavy cardstock, or there been some miniatures included, then the size of the box would have been warranted, but the box could have been half the size it is. Plus, why not include some dice in the box too? After all, there is bags of room.

The contents of the box also vary in quality. The Rulebook, roughly the same size as one of the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials, is bright, breezy, and colourful, whereas the Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech cards are bland by comparison. Why were these not illustrated in some way, especially given their supposed collectable factor? And if they are meant to be collectable to help play the game, why not go that extra and make them also “cool” too? Plus, if you design the cards as two separate decks, then go the effort of making the backs different. Otherwise, it is difficult to tell which from which. The maps are serviceable, as the counters, but why not go that extra step and provide terrain counters too, so that the maps can be modified and their usefulness extended so that the GM can use them with the scenarios of his own design? Oh, and putting in just four character sheets for a game that contains a scenario designed for five players…?

As to the Rule Book itself, it would have been nice if it had included better examples. The play example is far too short, and there is no example of either character generation or of combat. It certainly would have been good to see the game’s random elements in play rather than merely be told about them in the rules. Also missing from the Rule Book is much of the background from previous editions, and if the GM wants to create more interesting adventures than that provided, then more background should have been provided. Another aspect is that it really is aimed at those who have already played Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, yet still contains explanations aimed at the neophyte role-player. So if it is designed for them too, why is it not with them in mind throughout, such as having those examples, I mentioned?

So the question is, where does the wackiness of the D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game come from? Obviously from the combination of character Origins, from the constant flow Alpha Mutations that pass through the players’ hands as a scenario progresses, and from the weirdness of the monsters that this Seventh Edition has inherited from the First Edition onwards. It also comes from the weirdness of the different types of technology to be found in the game, but not from actually discovering the technology of the Ancients and determining how it works. That element has been lost from earlier Editions of Gamma World, because if a piece of technology has a direct in-game effect, such as those given on the Omega Tech cards, then a player character automatically knows how to use them.

It is difficult to really damn the D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game. The game captures much of the feeling of its forebears, yet keeps everything light and fast when with the use of the Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition core mechanics, it could have a whole lot more cumbersome. There is no denying that Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech rules as implemented through the cards a is clever way of handling their impact on characters in the Gamma Terra setting, but even putting aside the collectible aspect of their purchase, denying both GM and players an aspect of the game without further purchase, is at the very least, anything other than endearing. Ultimately, for all the cleverness of the design, D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game falls down on supporting the design with the lack of background material and a scenario that is shallow and unimaginative. Had there been more background detail and a better scenario, D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game would be a better package and provide more of a pull towards purchasing the D & D Gamma World Booster Packs that Wizards of the Coast want you to.