Initial Shock: Gamma World first impressions

I’m not going to dwell on giving a full review and run down of the Gamma World RPG. Right now, the RPGBN seems to have more than enough reviews and commentary floating around. I recommend checking out Critical Hits for their coverage on the new game. What I will give you, however, is a quick run down of my first impressions on it. Today I managed to finally snag a copy, and spent most of the day reading over it while fighting a 24 hour flu of some kind. I was pretty bitter at first; but running a fever and having time for my brain to let it all sink in via strange hallucinatory dreams from my illness seems to have helped. No, really.

Looking for “classic” Gamma World? Keep looking.

If you’re coming to this expecting a new edition of the original TSR classics, the Alternity version or even the ungodly (in my opinion) Sword & Sorcery d20 version….just don’t. Seriously. I recommend either grabbing yourself a copy of Mutant Future for the “classic” experience and feel, or checking out RPG Objects Darwin’s World setting (available in standard 3.x/ d20, d20 modern, and soon a Savage Worlds flavor.)  Peeps craving Mad Max or Fallout-style Post Apocalypse will be very disappointed in the feel of this title.

When they call this game “Gonzo”, they mean it to the extremes. Dave “The Game” over at Critical-Hits made a comment on Twitter that the mood for this is “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas with Mutants.”  That seems to be a fairly accurate comparison, especially with the random mutations. Alpha Mutations literally change from encounter to encounter….one scene, your character may be using some kind of energy ray blast; the next, you may be making people laugh hysterically. Sure, you have “At-Will” abilities that remain constant….but stuff like “Pure Strain Humans” are gone. Everyone is pretty much a randomly rolled up hybrid of different bizarre things. And I mean everything from half-plant, half-rodent swarm to half-android, half-yeti.

Moral of the story: This aint your father’s Gamma World. While it gives a lot of nods and references to the classics, it’s almost like a parody of the game and the genre. The difference of this game in both mood, feel and rules is very different. Like, more so different than 4th Edition D&D was to its predecessors.  Take that statement how you want.

Looking at the Game on its Own:

Now is the part where I turn off the “past edition” bias and look at the game on its own merits.

First, the product itself: The box set comes with a complete rulebook, a deck of mutant powers and tech cards, cardstock counters for players and monsters, battle maps, character sheets and a “booster pack” of additional cards. My 2 cents? It should have came with dice. I understand that’s just added cost, but the retail for this damn thing is $39.99 and I would’ve given up the booster pack for even the ugly old D&D dice. You know, the orange 20 sider? Surely WoTC still has a bunch of those lying around. Comparing the price of this box set to, say, the Dungeon Master’s Kit which physically comes with the same stuff sans a deck of cards…just seems baffling. Also, Gamma World can make an awesome introductory RPG, and it’s a shame someone who might pick this up in the gaming section of a store like Hastings or Barnes & Noble will then have to tread back and pick up some dice.

Second, the rulebook itself: Looking at it completely as its own beast, I’m going to give some props here: What they did with the 4th Edition D&D rules here is impressive. Even with the deck of all the different mutant powers, I think this may be the easiest RPG to just pick up and run I’ve seen in a long time. Character creation is ordered and quick; granted a lot of it is randomly generated, but following the character sheet it shouldn’t take longer than 5-10 minutes to get rolling. Combat was explained quickly and clearly, and the book is ordered nicely. Looking up conditions and circumstantial stuff should be a breeze. On top of all that, the level of humor written out in the book keeps it fun. It does a great job of not taking itself serious, but keeping focused.  And it still has all the standard “What is Role Playing?” and Game Mastering advice, and all of it is written in a tone that is laid back and fun. I think a complete RPG virgin could pick this title up on a Friday afternoon and run a successful game for his or her friends the next evening.

So how about the game itself?

There’s a lot of strong points to walk away with from Gamma World. I think the part that left the biggest impression on me is the gear. You’re not getting specifics like “Leather Armor”, “Plate Mail”, “Broad Sword” etc. Instead you’re getting “Light Armor”, “Heavy Armor”, “Light Melee Weapon”, “Heavy Ranged Gun” etc.  The players get to fill in the details of what exactly their weapons and armor are…..a shield could be the classic Stop Sign, or an actual shield, a satellite dish or anything else the player could scheme up.  I was shocked to see this in a WoTC product….it seems more like something you’d see in an indie game or something like Savage Worlds. And I’m not bitching about this direction at all….it gives a lot of creative leeway for the player. There’s also the way ranged weapons that require ammo are handled abstractly….you can either “conserve” ammo, and just use your gun as an Encounter power, or go wild and assume you run out of ammo at the end of the fight. While it may be unrealistic, it was still shocking to me to see an abstract mechanic come up in a game with the D&D branding.

In a sick way, I’m hoping that maybe Gamma World is a mechanical experiment like Star Wars: Saga Edition was. I’m not wanting a new edition; but I’d be in favor of a D&D 4E variant that scales back the book keeping, powers and mechanics for a faster paced, high-action game.

What I’m still unsure of is the Alpha Mutation cards. The gear I think is pretty cool, because the way its used makes sense to me mechanically. The mutations changing out every encounter or extended rest, however, may be too weird for my tastes. I’m trying to keep the “It’s never weird enough for me” attitude here, and have yet to see it in play. I’m also not a fan of powers only listed/available on cards…this was a problem I had with the Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play 3rd edition game. I will say, the cards in this game seem more manageable and take less table economy.  Also, about the issue of the “card collecting” aspect:  Yes, the game comes with enough for the GM to run the game with, and buying the boosters of additional powers/gear isn’t necessary. But, I am going to say I still find it annoying.

Why is it annoying? Because several, many times in the book does it like to bring up that players can make their own tailored decks by purchasing booster packs! And then, following the statement, players who don’t have their own cards must use the GM’s deck. And they are CLEVER gits in the marketing here, since the rules as written advise having a Power Deck of no less than 7, no duplicate cards. Since a booster pack comes with only 8 cards, 4 of each type, that means a player wanting to “custom tailor” his power selection needs to buy two packs minimum. Is it required to enjoy the game? No. But it does kinda annoy me that as much as Wizards said this wasn’t a “collectible” game, yet the rulebook seems to push collecting them over and over again, in a manner that feels like “only suckers play with the GM’s cards!”  If the game does become regular in my gaming rotation, I may opt instead to ask players to pitch in towards some cards to go towards the GM collection, and let them build power decks from the GM pool.

Depending on how I’m feeling, I’m hoping to at least get a one-shot in this weekend. Will report back.

2 thoughts on “Initial Shock: Gamma World first impressions”

  1. On the last D&D podcast, Mike Mearls mentioned scaling things back by making Alpha Mutations a per session or even per-campaign setting.

    I think that would be my personal preference, but I’d like to try it gonzo style before making that tweak.

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