Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Review: Gamma World

Pity poor Gamma World. Its spiritual brother, Dungeons & Dragons, has always been its parents' favorite. With each change and edition, the developers have lavished upon D&D the best system revisions, press, and organizational support. Gamma World, hobbling along behind its more successful and revered brother, has had to make due with the cast-offs from its cousins to limited effect.

Well, once again Gamma World has been lavished with a little bit of attention and a few gifts. It's gotten some much fresher, cleaner hand-me-downs from D&D 4th Ed., tailored simply but quite colorfully, as well as a box, maps, counters, and one or two surprises which aren't hand-me-downs from anybody.

This time, will it finally break out of D&D's shadow and find a niche of its own where it can strut its stuff? No, almost certainly not. But let's open the box, look inside, and see if it should at least try.


Since its first edition, the general premise has been pretty much the same: there's been some global catastrophe, genelines have been contaminated and polluted to bloody blue blazes, and everything's basically gone to crap. In the latest installment, how it's been destroyed is unimportant because all ways are possible at the same time (see "Variations?" below). The only thing that matters in this case is the destination, and that destination must be crap.

The survivors have to make a living in that world, fighting for resources and whatnot. It's technically possible, but it's not going to be easy. If it was, it wouldn't be a very exciting game.


In theory, it can be summed up by the blurb on the back:

A Wacky, Wily Game of Postapocalyptic Peril

Postapocalyptic. Wacky. Yeah, riiiiiiight.

On the one hand, I get the psychology: it's the end of the world as we know it, so the tendency is to make it light and laughable so it can be accepted as a setting. I get that.

What I don't get is why so many games feel the need to make the end of the world light and laughable. octaNe did that. Tank Girl (a Masterbook supplement) did that. GURPS Atomic Horror was written with a B-movie sensibility so it had to provide the option to play it straight. Paranoia really did that in all editions and all three play styles in the current edition... And so on. A full accounting would likely show the humorous ones outnumbered the serious ones, and even some of the serious ones have an extra twist that breaks the genre (I'm looking at you, Deadlands: Hell on Earth).

But there's another problem: sure the game pretty much guarantees a weird character with a random power and random tech to start with, but the game itself... well, I'm not sure. There's a certain something, either a gravitas that doesn't belong there or a wry, barely smirking deadpan which I'm not sure is there at all but should be. It could be my expectations have been punched up by the presence of the word "wacky" on the back cover, which would be more the fault of the guy who wrote the back cover blurb.

This is also a game which feels like it's geared for beginners. The beginner's introduction runs pp. 7–13, which seems a lot for a late-edition release of a cult classic. Fortunately, the segue into the rules for more experienced players is smooth and painless, meaning you can start reading anywhere and you can start reading where it first looks unfamiliar.


The two names credited on the front of the book are Richard Baker and Bruce R. Cordell. Richard Baker is a frequent contributor, columnist, designer, and worker at Wizards of the Coast, and a New York Times bestselling author. Bruce Cordell has worked with WotC since 2002 on many supplements for D&D 3.5e and 4e, and probably a bit of 2e when nobody was looking. And author. Apparently, literacy is in demand at WotC. Otherwise, yeah, I admit I don't know much about 'em.

The game itself should be available in quantity at your Friendly Neighborhood Game Store if they carry any d20 products at all.


Gamma World comes in a fairly large square box, and contains:

  • A rulebook, rather smaller than its box
  • A deck of 80 cards, containing 40 Alpha Power cards and 40 Omega Tech cards
  • Four double-sided character sheets, ...sort of
  • Three sheets of rounded markers suitable for play
  • Two double-sided maps suitable for playing the scenario inside the book
  • One free "booster pack" containing eight additional Alpha Power and Omega Tech cards, random distribution

First, I wish to address those "character sheets." They're good for taking certain notes about your character's abilities, but make no mistake: they are not proper character sheets. I either overheard or read someone complaining that the sheets included feel more like worksheets, some place to fill in the basics before transferring that information to a complete character sheet. And the complaint is valid; if you have only that sheet to work with, you'll need to refer to the book frequently.

And then there's that booster pack. Yes, kid, the first one's free. Up in the corner of each of those cards is some number over 120 and a symbol which is different from that used on the game's original deck. This means there are 120 cards in this collectible set, and the way to get them is to buy booster packs, at 50¢ a card. Oh how I railed against this scheme before I even had the game in my hands, and here is my fear realized.

(Interestingly, I even guessed the price per card. I'd said $5 for a pack of 10 cards rather than $4 for a pack of 8 cards, but the money/card ratio was spot on.)

But more on that later. I'll beat this horse to death over in the Mechanics section below.

Other than the obvious problem of a collectible card game-based power and tech system, everything does feel smooth and professional. The rulebook and counters are all in vivid colors, the maps a bit dark and subdued but still usable, and the cards a polished texture that you'd expect from a company that makes playing cards, which technically WotC is these days.

Unlike Freemarket's box, Gamma World's box is both a little bit too big and a little bit too small. The maps and counters will just rattle around everywhichway in the bottom of the box. And while the cut-and-folded separator holds the rulebook like a prize jewel, the cutout in the bottom is the perfect size to hold the basic, unboosted deck. If you even add the booster cards you get in the complimentary pack to that deck, they'll spill out the top and that's never good. You'll want to put the cards in a sandwich bag in the bottom of the box to keep them together, unbent, and well cared-for. Or you might want to get rid of the big colorful box entirely.


If you've played D&D 4e., then you've already got a head-start on the system in Gamma World. A lot of similar structures are in place there: the attributes, the figuring of bonuses, the resistance rolls (AC, Fortitude, Will, Reflex), Conditions (blinded, dazed, deafened, etc.), and action sequence are hauntingly familiar. Some things like the short but broad skill list are necessarily different for this world.

Races and character generation are a bit of a mishmash, but I'll cover those in Characters. There is only one class: Adventurer, so everyone with the same level and Constitution will have the same number of hit points—makes math easy. For being in that class, you have one use of an Alpha Power per encounter. Yes, it's drawn at random from the deck meaning you could end up with anything you have a card for already. You might not get the same powers frequently enough with a pack of 80 cards, but you might want boosters to liven things up. Unfortunately.

Why do I hate this scheme? Let's put it this way.

Question: How many booster packs do you have to buy before you have a 50-50 chance of getting your first duplicate card?

Answer: two.

No fooling. You got one pack of eight cards with the game. Of course you opened those. When you bought your first pack of cards, you were still more likely to have no repeats (it's around 57.6%). Then the trouble starts: with 16 unique cards in your collection, you've only got a 31%.8 chance that the second booster pack you buy will be dupe-free.

And this is just the 50-50 chance we're talking about here. If there's a 57.6% of not getting a dupe, that means there's a 42.4% of getting a dupe. You might not even need to buy a second pack to get a dupe, but the condition set in the initial question was a 50% chance.

Omega Technology has pretty much the same problem, since the Alpha and Omega cards (I see what you did there, WotC!) are distributed as part of the same deck.

The booster packs aren't really necessary, but they do add a certain something... what's it called? Oh yeah: replay value. If you play it enough, you'll start reusing powers. This could be fun, stability, or ennui, your choice.


This doesn't use the customary flow you're used to from that other game, oh no. There are similarities, but right off, this character generation system sticks you with a random blend of races. There is a table of 20 possible origin types, ranging from android to yeti. To determine your race, you'll roll twice on that table and combine the results in some novel and humorous way. (Okay, that's "wacky.") If you roll the same number twice, the second result is changed to the special off-table result of "augmented human." Each of these race-rolls will contribute to your character: some special abilities, a high attribute set to either 18 or 16 depending if you rolled it first or second (or 20 if they both bump the same stat). The rest you roll randomly.

Yeah, randomly. How long has it been since you used dice to generate a character? Quite a while, I'll bet. And you remember why, too: half the time, the results are below average. They will be here, too. On every character, you'll have at least four chances to roll a toilet vampire.

Anyway, the two race picks will also give you training in two skills, some extra bonuses when using bio powers, and some additional race-based abilities which you'll get one of at first and more at later levels.

Once that's all in place, you're ready to play. But how long will you last?


Everything has gone to crap. This is a universal constant.

How it's gone to crap is also a constant, but as constants go it's a wide-open door flapping in the breeze. It's described as a quantum event in which the omniverse was blended together into a single massive milkshake of doom. I say "of doom" because five out of six of them had either escalated to apocalypse as a result of the Cold War or Cuban Missile Crisis, or had already been reduced to crap by some other significant event.

This means your world can be destroyed in any of a number of different ways ranging from the merely unfortunate to the "so implausible you can't help but laugh." In fact, given that wide-open doorway to disaster, the way in which the world is destroyed can be changed from session to session, or even within the same sitting.

But all that world-shuffling doesn't change facts: you're playing in crap. It just smells different at various times.

Play This Game If...

  • You wish to play a relatively solid-looking re-imagining of an obscure classic game
  • You like playing or running D&D 4e
  • You're looking for a change from D&D 4e that isn't too different from D&D 4e
  • You like a dry comedic setting, whether or not you want to be able to laugh at it
  • You wish to be challenged by playing characters with strange mixes of backgrounds and powers (this is more of a selling point than you might imagine)
  • You don't need a fancy-shmancy full character sheet to play
  • You like the style of box art, but can live without the box once you get everything out of it (removing the center insert also works)
  • something something something something something something crap
  • You have a lot of friends to trade cards with

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