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Sunday 24 December 2023

1983: Gamma World, Second Edition

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. 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.


Published in 1978 in TSR, Inc., Gamma World introduced the roleplaying hobby to the post-apocalypse genre of surviving after the bomb and the fall of civilisation, although its progenitor, Metamorphosis Alpha had explored similar ideas, but set on a giant generation starship rather than the Earth. Gamma World, Second Edition was published five years later in 1983 and shifted the setting to a different part of the USA, inheriting and developing some of the mechanics, embracing the gonzo aspects of the setting even further, and presenting a new scenario.
Gamma World, Second Edition is also a boxed set, containing the sixty-four-page ‘Basic Rules Booklet’ and the thirty-two-page ‘Adventure Booklet’, as well as dice and a large poster map. Gamma World, Second Edition was designed to be accessible and serve as an introduction to roleplaying taking as its model, Dungeons & Dragons Set 1: Basic Rules, the famous ‘red box’ edition designed by Frank Mentzer which began what is known as the ‘BECMI’ line. This consisted of Dungeons & Dragons Set 1: Basic Rules, Dungeons & Dragons Set 2: Expert Rules, Dungeons & Dragons Set 3: Companion Rules, Dungeons & Dragons Set 4: Master Rules, and Dungeons & Dragons Set 5: Immortals Rules. Yet Gamma World, Second Edition would not fully achieve its intended accessibility and introductory aims, primarily because of an organisation that although better than Gamma World, First Edition, was still not perfect, and because its rules, also inspired by Gamma World, First Edition, are not as easy and as easily presented as they should have been.

Gamma World, Second Edition, as described in the ‘Adventure Booklet’ takes place in a savage wasteland ravaged by radiation, biological agents, and chemical agents used in the ‘Social Wars’ of the early twenty-fourth century. The conflict bent and broke the very land itself, shattering parts of it and sending it into seas as less than one in five thousand of Humanity’s teeming billions survived and the mutagenic cocktail left behind twisted the genetics of every form of life on the planet—including man. Mutated men, animals, and plants twisted into new forms and gained wondrous new powers, both mental and physical. So now humanoid raccoons capable of generating illusions and repulsion fields and of telekinesis and telepathy scavenge for the advanced technology and weapons left behind by the Ancients, three-metre-high jack rabbits with chameleon powers and antlers serve as herd animals or mounts, and land sharks literately swim under the ground of deserts or deep snow using telekinesis, hunting prey. In the century-and-a-half since the conflict, societies have organised into tribal clans and feudal states, varying in their technology use, with highly technological enclaves rare. Found across these blasted landscapes, there are those that seek to forge a better world, though not always for the better… For example, the Knights of the Genetic Purity want to preserve the ‘purity’ of Humanity by wiping out Humanoids, The Iron Society wants to destroy all Pure Strain Humans, the Zoopremisists would stamp out all Humanoids and Pure Strain Humans in favour of Mutated Animals, and the Friends of Entropy would smash all life and mechanical activity! Others, like the Brotherhood of Thought, which fosters a sense of benevolence in all and the semi-monastic Healers who tend to the sick and the injured, seek a more positive future…

A Player Character in
Gamma World, Second Edition can either be a Pure Strain Human, a Humanoid with mutant powers, or a Mutated Animal. He cannot be a Mutated Plant—unless allowed by the Game Master. He has six attributes—Mental Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity, Charisma, Constitution, and Physical Strength—which range in value between three and eighteen. A Pure Strain Human does not suffer mutations of any kind, will find it easier to work out how artefacts operate, and be recognised by robots, security systems, and A.I.s as such, which sometimes means the Pure Strain Human will not be attacked by them or can even give them orders. He also has better stats and more Hit Points. A Humanoid can look like a Pure Strain Human, but if he has any physical Mutations that make him look different, he will not be recognised as a Pure Strain Human by robots, security systems, or A.I.s, which will thus not obey his orders and may even attack him. A Mutated Animal can never pass a security check and be recognised by robots, security systems, or A.I.s. He will probably have claws or a similar feature meaning he is better in unarmed combat, and like the Humanoid, will have a number of Mutations and may gain more if exposed to anything mutagentic.

To create a character, the player rolls four six-sided dice and discards the lowest for all six attributes. If the Player Character is a Pure Strain Human, the lowest die is not discarded for Intelligence, Charisma, or Constitution. However, the maximum that a Pure Strain Human can have for Intelligence and Charisma is a twenty-one, and eighteen for his Constitution. To determine the number of Hit Points for a Humanoid or Mutated Animal, the player rolls a number of six-sided dice equal to the character’s Constitution, whereas eight-sided dice are rolled for the Pure Strain Human. A four-sided die is rolled to determine the number of Physical Mutations a Humanoid or Mutated Animal has, and then again for Mental Mutations, both types of mutation being rolled for randomly.

Name: Gronson
Type: Pure Strain Human
Mental Strength 14 Intelligence 14 Dexterity 08
Charisma 18 Constitution 18 Physical Strength 16
Hit Points: 78

Name: Neek
Type: Humanoid
Mental Strength 17 Intelligence 13 Dexterity 11
Charisma 10 Constitution 10 Physical Strength 15
Hit Points: 32

Mental Mutations: Dual Brain – Brain #1: Fear Generation, Heightened Intelligence, Will Force; Brain #2: Genius Capability (Mechanical), Telekinetic Arm, Teleportation
Physical Mutations: Regeneration, Vision Defect (Tunnel Vision)

It is clear that going from Gamma World, First Edition to
Gamma World, Second Edition, the designers have not entirely solved the problem of a Pure Strain Human not actually being very interesting to play. It is a problem which besets post-apocalypse roleplaying games. Although Pure Strain Human has higher stats, more Hit Points, and can better interact with technology, both the Humanoid and the Mutated Animal receive mutations which make them different, sometimes difficult to play, but obviously more powerful and more fun. Some powers are limited by the number of times a day they can be used, but others are permanent, but they can be very powerful. It is also possible to roll for defect mutations, both physical and mental. Consequently, it is possible to create a Player Character with more defect mutations useful ones. In the long term though, the Pure Strain Human can find, identify, and use the artefacts of the Ancients. 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. So, until such times as a Pure Strain Human can gain access to advanced technology, he is the ‘weakest’ character type.

The mutations can be what you expect and weird and wacky. So, a defect could be Attraction Odour, meaning the Mutated Animal or Humanoid exudes a fragrance that attracts carnivores, but he could have Death Field Generation which means he drains every living being within range of all but a single Hit Point, before dropping unconscious, antlers or horns that inflict damage, or Radiation Eyes that emit blasts of deadly radiation. In general, the more powerful a mutation, the more the roleplaying game places a limit on its use. Some do require further explanation or are super powerful, like Time Manipulation, which has the possibility of sending either the user or a target decades into the past or future, or Planar Travel, which opens a temporal portal to another plane. Its use is never fully explained.

Gamma World, Second Edition is quite simple. To have his character undertake an action, a player multiplies the appropriate attribute for the action by the difficulty factor, typically between one and five, set by the Game Master, and attempts to roll equal to or under it on percentile dice. That essentially is it and the rules do not go into any more detail than that. Combat is different though and works much like it did in Gamma World, First Edition and Metamorphosis Alpha. It uses three ‘Attack Matrixes’, one for physical combat, one for ranged combat, and one for mental combat. Each weapon has a Weapon Class, such as nine for a blowgun and fifteen for a Black Ray Pistol. The Weapon Class—the higher the better—is cross-referenced against the target’s Armour Class—the lower the better—and this gives a target to roll equal to or greater on a twenty-sided die. Armour Class represents the armour worn only as there is no Dexterity bonus to Armour Class. There are, however, modifiers from high and low Dexterity to attack a target, and from high and low Strength when determining damage for physical attacks. Many advanced weapons can be deadly. The Black Ray Pistol instantly kills an organic target!

The rules also cover Tech Level—either Tech Level I, Tech Level II, or Tech Level III, indicating a tribal, feudal/pre-industrial, or industrial society, respectively; movement and time; encounters and searching—the Player Characters will likely end up doing this a lot; and interacting with NPCs and recruiting NPCs. In general, the rules are straightforward, though they do feel influenced by Basic Dungeons & Dragons in places. The rules also cover the discover and use of artefacts.

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. Robots, bots, and borgs get their own section, and there are even some useful descriptions and details given of fixed machinery like broadcast power stations, rejuv chambers, and think tanks. There is, though, 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, First Edition there were ‘flow’ charts. In
Gamma World, Second Edition, there is a simple matrix for this. Each artefact has a complexity number and for every ten minutes a Player Character spends examining an artefact, both he and the Game Master roll a die. The Game Master adds her result to the complexity number, whilst the player’s result reduces the complexity number. Essentially, the player and Game Master are attempting to out roll each other, but the result is time consuming both in and out of the game.

Gamma World, Second Edition describes some sixty monsters of the post-apocalyptic future. From Androids (Thinkers, Workers, and Warriors), Arks (Hound Folk), and Arns (Dragon Bugs) to Yexils (Orange Scarfers), Zarns (Borer Beetles), and Zeeth (Gamma Grass), there are some entertaining creations and some favourites of the genre. For example, Badders or Digger Folk are anthropomorphic badgers with an evil disposition, the power of Empathy, and a penchant for raiding; Hoops or Floppsies are mutant rabbitoids who have the Mass Mind and Telepathy Mutations and the ability to change metal into rubber; and Perths or Gamma Bushes, whose flowers can emit deadly blasts of light or radiation. Plus, some thirteen Cryptic Alliances are detailed, including their Tech Levels, membership, numbers encountered, and secret sign along with their descriptions. These provide a ready source of potential allies and enemies for a campaign.

One thing missing from the ‘Basic Rules Booklet’ are the roleplaying game’s tables. It turns out that these are given at the end of the ‘Adventure Booklet’. So, the table for rolling for Mutations, matrixes for attacks, poison, and radiation, encounters, weapons, and more, are all in the ‘Adventure Booklet’. These are designed to be separated from the booklet, but it is odd to have the rules necessary for character creation in a separate book well away from where they are actually needed.

The primary content in the ‘Adventure Booklet’ is the adventure ‘Rite of Passage’. It sets up the Player Characters as inhabitants of the small village of Grover, a Tech Level I settlement part of Clan Cambol in the remains of western Pennsylvania. To become adults, they must undergo a rite of passage in which they travel to the dead city of Pitz Burke and return with an item which will become their personal totem. In addition to the rite of passage, the Player Characters are assigned a special mission. This is to rescue three fellow clan members held hostage by a band of Carrin and Bloodbird brigands in the city. The Player Characters must cross part of Allegheny—which is nicely detailed in the descriptions of the region—and have encounters and make contacts along the way, including with the Lil, small, graceful humanoids with fairy wings. The Lil actually want the help of the Player Characters as they have a similar situation with their own also being held hostage. The Lil hideout—or Bramble—feels not dissimilar to that of James M. Ward’s ‘Paths of the Lil’, which originally appeared in White Dwarf Issue No. 16 and was then reprinted in The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios. The ruins of Pitz Burke are nicely detailed with particular attention paid to the locations that feature in the hostage plot ‘Rite of Passage’. It is a fairly tough adventure overall, and the Player Characters will want to find and determine how to use some arms and armour above the very basic they begin with to give themselves more of an edge. The Lil will help with this, which will go some way to addressing the initial powerlessness of the Pure Strain Human versus the Humanoid and Mutated Animal Player Characters.

The ‘Adventure Booklet’ also includes advice on running and creating Gamma World campaigns, which emphasises the need to have the Player Characters act with both societies and the Cryptic Alliances. The standing of a Player Character with a particular society or Cryptic Alliance is measured by his Rank with it. Rank affects a Player Character’s Charisma when interacting with the society or Cryptic Alliance and his chancing of obtaining or borrowing an artefact from the society or Cryptic Alliance. In order to increase a Player Character’s Rank with any one society or Cryptic Alliance, he must spend Status Points. These are earned for defeating NPCs, donating artefacts, successfully completing missions, and so on. Basically, what a Player Character would do on an adventure. They are the equivalent of Experience Points in another roleplaying game, but spent to acquire Ranks with a society or Cryptic Alliance. Indeed,
Gamma World, Second Edition does not actually have Experience Points, it is not a Class and Level roleplaying game, and there is no way for a player to improve his character except through discovering better and better equipment and potentially, improving the equivalent of his social standing.

Gamma World, Second Edition is well presented, but not necessarily well organised. Everything feels just a little bit too crammed in, especially in the ‘Basic Rules Booklet’, so that finding particular rules is not easy and that is not helped by having the rules for the roleplaying game and explanations of how its tables are intended to work and the tables needed to run the game in a separate book. The artwork is all very good and the cartography, whether of the locations in Pitz Burke, or Pitz Burke itself, the Allegheny region, and the remains of North America on the roleplaying game’s double-sided poster map, are excellent and colourful.

Chris Baylis reviewed Gamma World, Second Edition in ‘Game Reviews’ in Imagine No. 7 (October 1983) and was positive throughout. “For a post nuclear holocaust role-playing game, GAMMA WORLD game has just about all the right ingredients, in the correct proportions. It is a very good introduction into the fantasy world of role-playing, and should seriously rival all other RPGs.”

Dana Lombardy reviewed
Gamma World, Second Edition in ‘Gaming’ in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Vol. 8, No. 8. (August 1984), describing its redesign as being, “[S]o extensive it should be considered a new game ... Gamma World offers one of the more bizarre and hostile environments to role-play in.” and highlighted how, “[T]he technology is disjointed. You can have a dog-man with a spear fighting alongside a robot with a laser, allied against humanoids with pistols and swords.” Her conclusion was measured, stating that, “If you prefer more straightforward science fiction with known and approximately equal abilities and weapons, then Gamma World may not be for you. It’s a topsy-turvy world, where the average pure-strain human is hard-pressed to exist among plants and animals mutated by humanity’s wars. But if you like a challenge, and want to role-play something really different — Gamma World could be it.”

What stands out with
Gamma World, Second Edition in comparison with Gamma World, First Edition is the effort to reorganise, codify, and clarify the rules and the setting and bring its presentation more in line with Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Star Frontiers. For the most part, the designers succeeded, although the ‘Basic Rules Booklet’ is just a bit too busy to be fully successful. Nevertheless, it is a far more accessible and easier to understand edition of the roleplaying game than its predecessor, all done with an eye by TSR, Inc. to make it appeal to a wider and more commercial audience. However, with that eye to commercialism, there is a corresponding reining in of the setting’s weirder, wackier elements, that though still there, are kept very much in the background. They would only creep forward and be embraced by later editions, most notably in the D&D Gamma World Roleplaying Game (or Gamma World, Seventh Edition) and arguably in what is its spiritual successor, Goodman Games’ Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic.

Often regarded as the definitive version of the roleplaying game,
Gamma World, Second Edition is definitely the classic version and the version that introduced its post-apocalyptic setting and the post-apocalyptic genre to a wider audience.

1 comment:

  1. It's funny how the internet works. I just did another post about Gamma World et al a few days ago –


    My friends and I had no trouble running 1e GW just from the rule book. We did for five years, until 2e came out. Granted, that’s anecdotal, but I never thought 2e looked like it corresponded to the Basic Box. In fact, after dabbling with the 2e contents we shrugged it off for its lack of organization and felt like it caused more confusion than anything else. The map sheet was nice though.