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Sunday, 2 September 2018

1978: Gamma World

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


If Metamorphosis Alpha is the progenitor of the post-Apocalypse genre in roleplaying, then Gamma World is the father of the genre. For from its set-up—inspired by the fears of nuclear confrontation between the USA and USSR during the Cold War—would come not only another six editions of the venerable roleplaying game, but great many imitators. These range from FGU’s Aftermath and Palladium’s After the Bomb for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Fria Ligan’s Mutant: Year Zero and arguably, Numenera from Monte Cook Games as well as oddities such as SkyRealms of Jorune, originally published by SkyRealms Publishing. For all that history, there is still Gamma World, published in August of 1978, which makes it forty years old in 2018.

Like games of its vintage, Gamma World—a ‘Science Fantasy Role-Playing Game’—comes in a box. Notably marked with an asterisk and the note, ‘T.M. Reg. app. For’, the box contains a fifty-six page black and white rulebook, a large hex map of North America post the apocalypse, and a set of polyhedral dice. The map only shows the physical geography—coast, hills, mountains, rivers, and lakes—of the continent and is really awaiting the Referee to add to it with the details of her campaign. The rulebook is decently written and illustrated, many of the images having having achieved iconic status in the years since the first publication of Gamma World. For example, the image of the bewinged mutant hippo, leaping or flying over a wall, anthropomorphic rabbits armed with a rifle and a Luger pistol, and so on. One issue with the illustrations is that they are used to illustrate the book rather the monsters that the book lists, so the Referee will need to entirely rely upon their descriptions to get an idea of what they look like. (It should be noted that Gamma World, Third Edition and later versions illustrated each and every monster entry.)

Gamma World opens with a foreword by designer Tom Wham. After a quotation from Revelations, he notes that the advent of the atomic bomb has made possible the apocalypse mankind has so long been fascinated by and that in this world a few survivors cling precariously to life in this newly spartan world. Of the rules, he states that they flexible enough to do hard Science Fiction as well as Science Fantasy and simple enough to integrate with both Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Metamorphosis Alpha. Perhaps the most important point made here is that, “The rules are designed to provide a skeleton of a game campaign.” This approach is typical of early game design and it effect can be seen throughout the pages of the roleplaying game.

The past of Gamma World’s future begins in the early twenty-fourth Century. By then mankind had repaired the damage done to the planet during the twentieth century and advanced technologically enough to colonise other star system. Yet over self-identification with ‘special interest groups’ led to friction, entrenched opinions, violence, and finally war using weapons of mass destruction. Despite multiple  governments declaring martial law, the conflict escalated and oceans boiled, continents buckled, the sky burned with unnatural colours, and man, animal, and plant poisoned for generations. Some decades—perhaps centuries—later and humanity survives. Some remain intact, their genome unaffected by The Apocalypse, other exhibit curious mutations—beneficial and detrimental, whilst various animal strains have also mutated, gaining intelligence and mutations too. Many survive in tribes, eeking out a rough existence, knowing that perhaps the means for their survival, if not their survival, might lie in the ‘Deathlands’, the the remains left behind by Ancients ready to be scavenged. That is if the tombs and buildings of the ancients have survived intact, if the radiation and other mutagens have declined enough for the areas to be safe, and if the current inhabitants are not too hostile… Meanwhile, Cryptic Alliances—from the Brotherhood of Thought and the Knights of Genetic Purity to the Restorationists and the Zoopremisists—have their own concerns and objectives and they are unlikely to align with those of the tribe.

This is the default set-up for Gamma World, set during a period known as the ‘Black Years’. It is one familiar to each of the following editions of the roleplaying game and to a great many of its imitators. It casts the player characters as Pure Strain Humans, Humanoids (or Mutants), and Mutated Animals, members of a tribe, going out, exploring, scavenging, and working make their future secure. (Unlike in Metamorphosis Alpha, Mutated Plants are not available as player characters in Gamma World, although they can appear as NPCs or monsters.) Pure Strain Humans are more likely to recognised by, and thus can use, the technology of the past and held in a certain awe because of it. In game terms, they have a bonus to their Charisma to reflect this. Humanoids may well be recognised by the technology of the past to a degree, whereas Mutated Animals are unable to command the technology of the past, though they may still use some of it. Both Humanoids and Mutant Animals possess a certain number of mental and physical mutations. 

Each character type has the same six basic attributes—Mental Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity, Charisma, Constitution, and Physical Strength. These are rolled on four six-sided dice with the highest three added together to give a result for each. Most of these provide various bonuses or penalties, depending upon the roll. Notably, a high Intelligence provides a bonus for working out how an artefact works, a high Dexterity a bonus to hit in combat, a high Physical Strength a bonus to damage in melee combat, and Constitution determines a player character’s Hit Points—a six-sided die’s worth for each point of Constitution. If a character is a Humanoid or a Mutated Animal, then a player rolls a four-sided die twice to determine how many mental and physical mutations his character has.

Quink – Pure Strain Human
Mental Strength 13
Intelligence 16 (-1 to Artefact Use)
Dexterity 15
Charisma 18 (Max. Followers 15; Morale/Reaction Adj. +3)
Constitution 11
Physical Strength 13

Hit Points 32

Ree’dily – Humanoid
Mental Strength 11
Intelligence 14
Dexterity 15
Charisma 13 (Max. Followers 5; Morale/Reaction Adj. 0/+1)
Constitution 10
Physical Strength 11

Hit Points 36

Mental Mutations: Force Field Generation (Once per day, 5d6 points of protection for one hour), Telekinesis
Physical Mutations: Attraction Odor (Defect – Attracts carnivores), Weight Decrease (Defect – Slowed by a quarter) , Heightened Smell (Cannot be ambushed from upwind, follow day old trails, distinguish odors at 60 ft.),  Taller (7 metres tall, -5 to hit/+5 damage in physical combat)

Porkus – Mutated Animal
Mental Strength 14
Intelligence 12
Dexterity 06
Charisma 11 (Max. Followers 4; Morale/Reaction Adj. 0)
Constitution 17
Physical Strength 18 (+3 Damage Bonus)

Hit Points 70

Mental Mutations: Planar Travel (Open a door to other plane once per week), Epilepsy (Defect – 25% chance of paralysis before combat), Life Leech (Drain 6 HP from all in a 6 meter radius)
Physical Mutations: Heightened Strength (+3 dice of damage to physical attacks), Regeneration (+20 Hit Points/Day), Body Structure Change (Defect – Completely Hairless)

Just generating three sample characters showcases the main problem with post-apocalypse set roleplaying games—humans are boring to play. In comparison, the mutant character types get powers and defects that make them special from the moment a player rolls the dice. He will always have these or similar powers, so there is always something amazing or interesting to do. Now humans—in the form of the Pure Strain Human—have an advantage in the setting in that they are recognised by the technology of the Ancients and so can gain access to it and use it more readily than the other character types. Gaining access to and using technology is not an intrinsic power though, and a player character Pure Strain Human has to go adventure to find that technology and the likelihood is that the technology will use a power cell and run out and… Plus this is exactly what the other character types will be doing, although not as handily as the Pure Strain Human. 

In the write-up of the Pure Strain Human the designers state that, “The PSH character could be considered the “weakest” character type in GAMMA WORLD.” The problem is, that until such times as a Pure Strain Human can gain access to advanced technology, he is the ‘weakest’ character type. Arguably, this is a problem that very few post-apocalypse set roleplaying games manage to solve. In the meantime, the mutants get to play with wacky powers and defects…

One notable change from Metamorphosis Alpha is that in Gamma World characters can acquire Experience Points and so can grow and improve. Experience Points are awarded for killing enemies, for discovering and working out the functions of artefacts, and for outstanding actions. Gamma World is not a Class and Level game, but instead offers a universal Experience Point table with thresholds which double each time, starting at three thousand points. Each time a character earns enough Experience Points to pass a threshold, his player rolls a ten-sided die and is awarded a random bonus, either an attribute increase or a combat bonus increase. It is pretty basic, but it works.

Mechanically, Gamma World focuses on combat, hazards, and artefacts. Combat in Gamma World takes its cue from the earlier Metamorphosis Alpha in that every weapon falls into a category or a Weapon Class. The Weapon Class is cross referenced with the target’s Armour Class to determine the ‘to hit’ roll needed. Armour Class is descending, starting at AC 10 for no protection and dropping to AC 1 for powered attack and assault armours. Weapon Class 1 weapons includes clubs, hammers, lances, maces, and spears, Weapon Class 7 weapons are robotic tentacles, and Weapon Class 16 weapons are fusion rifles, micro-missiles, and mini-missiles. Most basic combat situations are covered, including combat against aggressive plants and robots. Mental attacks are handled by comparing the Mental Strengths of both attacker and defender to determine a target roll and success. Surprisingly, there are rules for fatigue for long fights—wield a physical weapon for too long and a combatant tires and the comparative Weapon Class of the weapon drops.

The mechanics for handling poison and radiation use matrices or resistance tables, comparing a character’s Constitution with the strength of the poison or radiation intensity respectively. The effect of a poison ranges includes nothing, damage dice rolls, or death (or paralysis), whilst the effects of radiation includes nothing, damage dice rolls, a mutation, or a chance of a defect or death.

As with Metamorphosis Alpha, the setting for Gamma World includes lots and lots of artefacts. These range from stun rays and laser pistols to energy maces and fusion rifles, from photon grenades and concussion bombs to mutation bombs and negation missiles, from plastic armour and powered attack armour to turbine cars and bubble cars, from energy cloaks and anti-grav sleds to atomic energy cells to pain reducer drugs and life rays, from light cargo lifter and ecology bots to security robotoids to warbots. There is a distinct emphasis on weapons and armour to the equipment, all of which the player characters can find in various conditions and use—if they can work out how each device operates. Where Metamorphosis Alpha had the players describe and roleplay what their characters were doing to work out what a device does, in Gamma World there are ‘flow’ charts. There are three of these, one covering the discovery of operation of pistols, grenades, UV goggles, and so on, the next offensive armour, robots, and rejuv-chambers, and the third, environmental cars, think tanks, broadcast power stations, and so on. Here the Referee places a marker at the start of the flowchart, rolls a die in response to whatever the character is doing to determine how the device works, and moves along the flowchart according to the die roll, narrating the results as necessary. A character might find himself going round in circles or hurting himself or a companion, or he might work it out with a few rolls and some good descriptions. The charts are fairly simple, but their like would appear in future editions of Gamma World as well as most famously, in S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, the Science Fiction/Fantasy crossover module for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Gamma World includes some forty-five monsters, a mix of mutated animals, such as the empathic, but evil Badders and the leaping Hoops who can turn metal into rubber; mutated plants, like the crep plant with its death field generation amongst other mutations and the horl choo with its poisonous spines it can shoot out; and the simply weird, such as the sep, a burrowing land shark, and the yexil, a large flying creature with a lionesque head and orange furry wings and a love of eating manufactured clothing! All of these creatures are tough, for even the single creature with a Hit Dice of one appears in groups and the lowest single Hit Dice for any monster is three. Most have many more. None of these creatures are specifically illustrated, but some of the illustrations will be familiar from later editions of the roleplaying game.

At the start of the game, combat is particularly deadly. This is because they are armed with melee and missile weaponry a la Dungeons & Dragons that inflict relatively little damage and are likely to face foes with lots of Hit Points. Of course, this is slightly offset by the fact that the characters also have plenty of Hit Points and that some characters—Humanoids and Mutated Animals—may have dangerous and deadly mutant powers. Over time, this power balance will change as the player characters acquire working technology and keep hunting for energy cells needed to power it. In the long term, this power balance has to change as the Pure Strain Human very much needs the technological edge to compete alongside the Humanoids and Mutated Animals against the deadly flora and fauna of the Black Years.

In terms of setting, the ‘Black Years’ of Gamma World are lightly drawn. There is an explanation of the events which led up to the apocalypse given in the introduction and a short description of each of the thirteen Cryptic Alliances that have arisen since. These provide possible motivations for NPCs—and in some cases, the player characters—and potential elements around which a Referee can build a plot. The various types of terrain to be found across the radically changed world of Gamma World are examined and a sample region, a hexcrawl, is provided to show the Referee how to set up a campaign and a campaign starter is a given as a hook. This is the classic coming of age scenario in which the player characters are sent out to explore the nearby region and hopefully return with an artefact as part of their ‘Trials’ for adulthood, which has since appeared in many subsequent editions of the roleplaying game.

Physically, Gamma World is cleanly presented and much better presented than Metamorphosis Alpha, which in comparison felt cramped and difficult to use. That said, the contents Gamma World could have been better organised so that background elements could be together, the rules together, and so on. Thankfully, many of the roleplaying game’s tables are reprinted at the back of the book for easy reference as they are otherwise slightly awkward to find. Included alongside these reference tables is a set of monster and treasure listings. The latter is particularly useful since it lists ordinary artefacts to be found in the Tombs of the Ancients. 

Gamma World does not have the feel of a roleplaying game designed for the beginning player or Referee. It feels like a roleplaying game designed for those already familiar with other titles like Dungeons & Dragons or Metamorphosis Alpha, as the advice is fairly light and the Referee is very much expected to create and set-up a region, or hexcrawl for her players to explore. This only serves to bring home the doom integral to the genre, for what better place to base that hexcrawl on than the region or city where the Referee and her players live? The advice for doing so is perhaps a bit light by modern standards, but later editions of the roleplaying game would address this by providing more background and an actual scenario.

Gamma World does have an odd tone to it. On the one hand, it is quite gritty and deadly, but on the other it can be quite gonzo with its weird creatures and the bizarre combinations of mutations and defects a character can have (see the earlier characters for their combination of mutations as an example). The weirdness quotient also goes up as characters suffer from radiation and undergo new mutations and defects and then throw in a lot of big, often lethal weapons and you have a swirling melting pot of weirdness… Of course, those big, often lethal weapons and the armour to protect against them are absolutely necessary because Pure Strain Humans need them to counter the power imbalance between them and the Humanoid and Mutated Animal character types.

Overall, Gamma World feels a bit threadbare, as if there should be more to the world than is given. That though would come in later editions of Gamma World. Yet, all of the elements are present to play the game—and all the Referee has to do is create a region of her own and let her players go roleplay… Gamma World has all of the irradiated bones upon which a Referee can flesh out a campaign of her own and it is upon those bones upon which later editions of Gamma World would go on to add flesh of their own.