The Alexandrian

D&D Gamma World

November 9th, 2011

D&D Gamma WorldD&D 4th Edition Gamma World is neither D&D nor Gamma World nor a 4th Edition.

To boil that down: The newest edition of Gamma World is actually the 7th of that name. It is self-evidently not D&D. It also bears very little in common with previous editions of Gamma World (sharing with them neither setting nor mechanics).

With that being said, of course, one can still judge the newest Gamma World on its own terms. And what are those terms? Providing a “beer-and-pretzel” game that’s not meant to be taken very seriously, featuring fun, rapid-fire character creation plugged into an ultra-light chassis based on a super-streamlined version of the D&D 4th Edition rules.

And on those terms, the game is mostly a success.

CHARACTER CREATION

The core of character creation in Gamma World are the character origins. A random table of twenty different origins – Android, Felinoid, Hypercognitive, Speedster, Yeti, etc. – is provided. You roll twice and you character is the resulting combination of origins: Maybe you’re a Seismic Doppleganger; or a Giant Empath; or a Radioactive Hawkoid.

The origins you roll pre-determine the value of your prime requisites, but then you roll the rest of your attributes 3d6 in order. Your origins also provide you with bonuses to certain skills, and you’ll randomly determine another skill to receive a bonus.

At this point, everything else falls out in a fairly predictable pattern: Hit points. Armor class. Defense scores. Skill bonuses. Yada yada yada.

You get to pick your starting armor and your starting weapon, but everything else (including the rest of your starting gear) is randomly determined. The result is a character creation system which is theoretically very fast. In practice, I found that it bogged down a bit due to the calculations involved in combining two different origins. (Although this may improve as one becomes more familiar with the system.)

(Note, also, that the character sheets included with the game include a step-by-step walk-thru for creating a new character. The result, unfortunately, is a character sheet which is not terribly useful during actual play.)

What the system does succeed brilliantly at, however, is inspiring immense amounts of creativity as players seek to explain unique origin combinations.

When I rolled up a test character in the system, for example, I generated a Giant Hypercognitive. The result? The Jolly Olive Giant, seeking the lost legends of his tribe from before the Fall (when they were apparently provincial farmers) in order to unlock the secrets of greatness which are glimpsed in his furtive dreams of future potential.

My first real PC in the system was an Ectoplasmic Android. HAL Negative 9000 was the ghost of a shipboard AI from an alternate reality that crashed his spaceship into the Large Hadron Collider, triggering the apocalypse. Two arms of ectoplasmic iron have been bolted to his sides. He carries with him at all times an iPad 6 which he’s loaded up with a HAL 9000 soundboard app. He refers to the iPad as “Bob” and frequently has conversations with it.

What I’m basically saying is that this character creation system is fantastic. Flat out amazing. It forces the player to commit an act of creative closure in order to reconcile two disparate origins which have been artificially conflated, and provides enough random chaff (a skill, miscellaneous equipment, secondary ability scores) for inventive frisson. The result immediately catapults the player into their role while getting their creative juices flowing.

The game has received significant accolades and this extremely effective – and extremely exciting – character creation system has a lot to do with it.

ALPHA MUTATIONS

Your character will also possess alpha mutations. These are not, however, permanent features. Instead, you will draw a new alpha mutation card (a) every time you roll a “1” on a d20 or (b) at the end of every encounter.

(The explanation is that reality has been fractured by the Big Mistake that created the apocalypse. As a result, PCs can randomly “draw on alternate worldliness in which they naturally possess” these disparate powers.)

The goal appears to be to provide a constant flux of new tactical options in order to keep the game fresh and interesting.

In practice, however, I found that the churn rate on alpha mutation powers was too high. Because you’ll be forced to exchange your alpha mutation card at the end of every encounter, it creates a sense of urgency to use the power so that they don’t get “wasted”. The result is that the game seems to strongly “play itself” as you maneuver yourself into whatever position is necessary to trigger or use the current alpha mutation.

Perhaps this sense of urgency will be lessened once you’ve seen every power several times. But, if so, this seems equally problematic in other ways (as the game becomes stale).

Furthermore, I suspect that the root of the problem is not the novelty of the alpha mutation cards. Rather, it is the fact that the alpha mutation cards make up a significant portion of your interesting abilities in each encounter.

OMEGA TECH CARDS

You will also receive random Omega Tech cards. These are “artifacts of advanced technology” which each have a single power that can be used once per encounter. (A few exceptions do exist.) After each encounter in which they are used, there’s a 45% chance that they’ll malfunction and stop working.

Mechanically, the Omega Tech cards work just fine. Since they don’t automatically burn up at the end of each encounter, they provide a strategic resource that can be meaningfully managed.

What I don’t like abut the Omega Tech cards, however, is that they’re designed to rewarded randomly at the end of an encounter. Basically, they’ve hard-coded the old silliness of a monster carrying magic items it doesn’t use into the system.

Also: If you have two decks of cards in a game which are never supposed to be inter-mixed with each other, please don’t use the exact same back for both sets of cards.

OTHER SHORTCOMINGS

The streamlining of the 4th Edition ruleset into a simpler version of itself is handled pretty well. Unfortunately, there are numerous places where this streamlining simply takes the form of incomplete rules. One prominent example is the lack of rules for vehicles and mounts, despite the fact that a new character’s random equipment is actually quite likely to include one or the other (or both). But there are also several places where rules will be referenced which don’t actually exist in Gamma World.

One of the effects of streamlining the 4th Edition ruleset, however, is that Gamma World even more heavily emphasizes encounter-based adventure design. For example, there are no daily powers and there are no healing surges. The result is that your character basically resets back to a clean slate at the end of each encounter. There is virtually no strategic component to the game: The game is entirely tactical… and entirely bland.

4th Edition’s penchant for “leveling up the game world” to match the current level of the PCs has also never been more blatant. Tasks throughout the rules are defined only as being “easy”, “moderate”, or “hard”. The DCs associated with each descriptor depends entirely on the current level of the PCs.

Finally, the index is abysmal. I’m assuming they just had someone randomly generate page numbers and then randomly pick words off the pages they generated. After filling half a page with half-hearted page references, they realized the futility of the task and quit.

ACCOUTREMENTS

It should also be briefly mentioned that the Gamma World boxed set includes a couple of poster maps and a decent number of high-quality cardboard counters.

I’m not a huge fan of WotC’s “brown, green, and glowy” style for battlemaps, but these are fairly well done.

The counter selection, however, simply confuses me. The PC counters only account for roughly half the possible origins (which is perhaps understandable), but inexplicably some of the origins represented are duplicated. The monster counters also represent only a subset of the two dozen creatures in the bestiary (which is also understandable), but are not even sufficient for running the encounters from the sample adventure.

FINAL THOUGHTS

There is a little doubt in my mind that character creation in Gamma World is a complete triumph. I could spend an entire afternoon just rolling up characters and spinning tall tales.

Unfortunately, I feel the character creation system is merely the capstone to a fairly lackluster system. The streamlining of the 4th Edition system only places an even greater emphasis on combat encounters. The high-churn of alpha mutation cards appear to fight a largely losing battle against the bland monotony of the combat, but the churn itself becomes a problematic gimmick.

Can a game survive on character creation alone? Maybe.

I haven’t actually given up on this game yet. (I’m hoping to play at least a couple more times, and I’ll probably slide over to the GM’s side of the screen at least once before I’m done.) If it wasn’t for the character creation, that certainly wouldn’t be true.

But while the character creation makes me wish I could give this game a ringing endorsement, the reality of playing it (at least to date) makes that impossible. If it’s caught your attention, I won’t say that you should write it off. But you will want to approach it with a fair bit of caution.

Style: 4
Substance: 3

FURTHER READING

Gamma World – The Sample Adventure

Gamma World – Playtest Report

Gamma World – The Egyptian Incursion

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5 Responses to “D&D Gamma World”

  1. Doresh says:

    “Perhaps this sense of urgency will be lessened once you’ve seen every power several times. But, if so, this seems equally problematic in other ways (as the game becomes stale).”

    Fear not! Unless WotC changed their business plan, they offer overpriced booster packs with new Alpha Mutations!

    (Didn’t they released boosters for 4e, too? They really must think that everything’s better with trading cards…)

  2. Justin Alexander says:

    I talk about D&D Fortune Cards over here. They appear to be part of a wide campaign on WotC’s part to figure out how to make D&D profitable without burning out on the supplement treadmill and forcing a new edition every half decade.

    As far as GW goes, I don’t think the availability of additional cards will alleviate the fundamental problem. There’s an extra 60 alpha mutations that were sold in boosters.

    Assume there’s 5 PCs in the party. Assume each PC will roll a d20 5 times per encounter (that’s almost certainly a low estimate). That means there’ll be an average of 1.25 alpha fluxes due to rolling natural 1’s, for a total of 6.25 new alpha mutations being drawn per encounter.

    Assume 4.5 encounters per level (based on some guesstimation) over the first three levels. That’s 13.5 encounters during which the party will see a total of 84 different alpha mutations (more than totally exhausting the additional stock from the boosters).

    At this point the number of encounters per level looks like it may drop down to 4. But characters now get two alpha mutations every time an encounter ends. Alpha fluxes still only replace one card, so the total per encounter rises to 11.25 per encounter. That’s 45 cards per level.

    So, basically, the novelty of alpha mutations are going to wear off very quickly.

  3. Starfox_SFX says:

    I played Gamma World and I agree, I absolutely loved rolling new characters and coming up with origins. Unfortunately, after playing the game a bit, this was the only thing I loved about it. It actually got to the point where, after a couple of other players died once or twice and rolled up new characters, I was more often than not hoping to die so I could roll up new characters as well. I would really like to see this style of character creation with a better game system.

    One of the biggest things that didn’t sit well with me was the way tech was dealt with. Players pick their own rewards deck and tended to stack them with high end stuff. Although I was tempted to run a game, I never got over the lack of control over the rewards or more importantly the logic behind them. After one encounter with a raiding group of pig men bikers, we discovered that they apparently had a battle tank, power armour and some kind of blaster gun just lying around. While it is possible to try and explain away these oddities, it does get a little tireing when you find the same blaster gun several times in a row.

    We also quickly found that there was some pretty severe imbalances between origins. Especially when you started adding the two expansions.

  4. Justin Alexander says:

    We only played with GM decks (instead of custom-built player decks). I think I’d be interested in experimenting with player-built alpha mutation decks (to narrow the range of powers they’re cycling through), but I think player-built Omega Tech decks would shatter my SOD.

    It might be interesting to try drawing the Omega Tech reward cards before an encounter starts and then letting the NPCs use it. Add a little zany randomness on the GM’s side of the screen. I suspect this will have a fairly wonky effect on game balance, however.

    The imbalances you found between origins is also true. Certain combinations can make it even worse. (For example, we had an Empath Pyrokinetic. They both help people make death saves by standing next to them… but also burn them to death by standing next to them. Not very practical.) The theory seems to be that the high churn rate of PCs makes this okay; but if PCs really churn that fast, they’ll never see some of the interesting origin abilities that only come at higher levels.

    If combat encounters were quicker it might make a difference. But even simple encounters were chewing up a full hour. (By way of contrast, the amount of time it took to resolve a straight-forward GW encounter with 6 monsters was equivalent to the amount of time that it recently took my 3E group to resolve a combat involving two different groups of PCs and a mixed assault group of 20 monsters.)

  5. Quirky DM says:

    Just found this site after Gnome Stew referenced it and I am loving it. I played 2 sessions of Gamma World and had similar thoughts as you did. Plus, I experimented with my own decks, so I’ll add my thoughts on that.

    Your own Alpha deck is a good way to customize your character to add another dimension or specialty. For instance, my hypercognitive stacked his deck with things like super genius, hyper reflexes and robot control to indicate his intelligence and ability to quickly process info. Another character wanted to have a time travel aspect to him, even though it’s not part of his origins, and took powers that dealt with that. Another one took healing and defense powers so he could be a defender. It gives you a way to reduce some randomness and focus your character a little more on what you’d like. Plus, your unfamiliarity with the cards goes away quickly since you made your deck.

    Your own Omega deck is like giving your DM a magic item wishlist. You only get to use your Omega deck 50% of the time, so you don’t always get your wishlist anyway. On the one hand, I don’t like the wishlist. On the other hand, getting random tech all the time had us stack up a lot of useless items that we didn’t want and I sort of wished I had a little more say in it.

    We played level 5 characters for our second session. We had a few more powers and 2 Alpha mutations per encounter. (we chose one random and one from our own decks each time) Combat started to noticeably slow down. Between the glut of Omega Tech and handling even more powers that would swap out, the chaos increased and made things that much harder to handle.

    Last point, Gamma World is tough and it’s fair to warn players about that. But to promote a theme of constant death and the need to have more than one character available in a night- that’s morose. When you’re presented with a ruleset that says you’re probably going to die, you sort of accept it when it’s going to happen instead of looking for ways to prevent it. If one of the characters went down, the rest of the apathetic party just shrugged their shoulders instead of trying to save their friend. It’s this attitude, an attitude they’ve injected straight into rulebook, that makes this a one night beer and pretzels game instead of something that I’d want to play on a regular basis.

    Overall, I did enjoy the game. The character creation and personalized alpha mutation decks are good. But if I want fast character creation AND a good game experience, I think there’s better options. I’m trying Dragon Age next and we’ll see how that goes.

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