The Alexandrian

Gamma World: Playtest Report

November 21st, 2011

D&D Gamma WorldSince writing my review of D&D Gamma World, I have GMed two more sessions of the game while picking up a couple new players. On the basis of these sessions, I offer this random assortment of final thoughts on the game:

(1) The “incompleteness problem” (where powers will reference and use rules which are present in 4th Edition but have been removed from Gamma World) is really huge and glaring. It proved to be far more troublesome than I had anticipated. If I didn’t have previous experience with D&D, I would have quickly found Gamma World completely unplayable.

(2) Encounters in 4th Edition just take too damn long. When I put together The Egyptian Incursion I thought it would be a fun little one-shot: 6-7 modest combat encounters, a light scaffolding of investigative work, and some evocative Egyptian pulp mythos. Instead it took three sessions, with even the simplest combat encounters taking 70-90 minutes to resolve.

(Direct contrast: On Friday, I ran Gamma World. One of the encounters was a big, solo bruiser vs. 5 PCs. It took 70 minutes. On Saturday, I ran my Ptolus campaign. One of the encounters was a big, solo bruiser vs. 6 PCs. It took 15 minutes.)

(3) I made a strategic error in handling the final encounters of the adventure. I momentarily forgot the system I was using and made the mistake of playing the game world: I allowed the surviving monsters outside the tomb to flee into the tomb and seek reinforcements. This completely unbalanced the precarious encounter balance of 4th Edition and resulted in a near-TPK (with only two PCs managing to flee the scene in a badly damaged pickup truck).

(4) This is one of the reasons I really dislike the My Precious Encounters(TM) school of adventure design. Balancing every single encounter on a razor’s edge can make the game very unforgiving. And Gamma World is even less forgiving due to the lack of any characters fitting into the role of Leader and a complete paucity of healing. There’s simply no elasticity in the system for dealing with situations that turn pear-shaped.

(Nor can you simply design encounters using a different methodology, because Gamma World hard-codes My Precious Encounters(TM) into the system.)

FINAL ASSESSMENT: I had a couple of players at my table who had only previously played in my OD&D open table. They preferred the system to OD&D, which is probably a fair assessment. (I noted particularly positive responses to having a skill system, which I hadn’t anticipated but which makes perfect sense in retrospect.)

The character creation system was universally beloved. There was a lot of talk about taking the character creation system and grafting it onto some other system: Legends & Labyrinths, OD&D, Apocalypse World. (I might also take a look at something like Mutant Future or Encounter Critical.) This is something that I think is quite likely to happen in the future. I’m also strongly tempted to start goofing around with how to generally cannibalize the whole “randomly determine two origins and then combine them” thing for all kinds of character generation. It’s very, very effective and evocative as an improv seed.

But unless my perception radically shifts in wrapping up the “Famine in Far-Go” adventure I’m playing in with another group, D&D Gamma World is going to get shelved.

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8 Responses to “Gamma World: Playtest Report”

  1. Granger44 says:

    If you’re looking for a fantasy/medieval version of Gamma World 4E’s char gen, the DCC 0th level/”character funnel” system has a similar random feel. The only downside is that tracking 4 characters is harder for everyone involved.

  2. Auroch says:

    Have you ever looked at Diaspora? (SRD at http://www.vsca.ca/Diaspora/diaspora-srd.html ) It’s a sci-fi RPG where the component parts for every system (cluster generation, character generation, space combat, tactical combat, social combat, personal combat) are stylistically connected but ultimately separate systems.
    Particularly, the cluster (setting, basically) and character generation stand alone and remain an interesting subgame in and of themselves.

  3. Joseph says:

    Long encounters is one of my major pet peeves with 4th edition. It removes fun and makes it an endless (and predictable) series of die rolls.

  4. Zeta Kai says:

    Yeah, I have to agree, 4th Edition combat is deep, tactically rich, & full of useful options. It is also looooong, so much so that it quickly becomes a chore. Two encounters is enough to fill a game night, & they quickly become wearying, especially since the system de-emphasizes combat-avoiding strategies. WotC promised before the system’s release that 4E would have faster-paced combats, but (as with several other things) their mechanics reinforce the opposite result. I have yet to find an RPG that I feel is really perfect for me, but 4E is much farther from that ideal than I had hoped, & so I quickly grew tired of the whole thing.

  5. Sebastien Roblin says:

    It’s somewhat tragic really. Sometimes a long and intricate set-piece (literally!) battle is exactly what you want- something epic and challenging, and 4th edition design is meant to make every combat involved and balanced, and minimizing the possibility of swingy or overly decisive results. (This has the already unpleasant side effect of reducing most abilities to fairly modest proportions- nobody can paralyze people for an hour, only 5-10 seconds at a time etc.) But this means that EVERY combat ends up being a heavy grindfest, whereas sometimes (often even) a simpler or more casual resolution fo the conflict is desirable. (“A regular half orc guards the door.” “I cast charm on him!” Encounter dealt with, resources spent, adventure rolls on…)

  6. Justin Alexander says:

    Absolutely. I’ve got nothing against long combats that deserve to be long (or are enhanced by their length). For example, the session before last in my Ptolus campaign basically boiled down to a single fight that lasted for 4 hours of playing time.

    But that was an epic siege of a cultist stronghold that included six dozen opponents, three major set-pieces, teleporting between multiple fronts, reinforcements, and tactical retreats spread across something in the neighborhood of 50 combat rounds.

  7. S'mon says:

    “6 encounters in a 1-shot” is a particular design paradigm that started with OD&D and went on into subsequent editions, as far as low-level 3e D&D. 4e D&D and Gamma World are different games, though.

    You would not design a Traveller one-shot adventure with 6 combat encounters, unless it were some kind of ‘Full Metal Jacket’ type affair. Likewise with 4e & 4e-GW. The 4e engine works best with rare, significant combat – the ‘routine combat’ paradigm no longer works, there’s no particular reason it should, although the WotC designers themselves seem to have failed to understand this, judging by their published adventures.

    With 4e & 4e-GW, 6 combat encounters is roughly a whole level’s worth of play, which IME does indeed take around 3 3-4 hour sessions to play. A single 3-4 hour session has space for maybe 2 encounters (ca EL +0 to +2), if you want plenty of room for other stuff, or a single big ‘spike’ encounter (ca EL +3 or +4). ‘Routine’ or non-threatening-but-ablative encounters, that are the bread & butter of older D&D editions, are best kept rare in 4e.

    I don’t think there’s anything bad about this different design paradigm. It certainly fits closer to a fantasy novel or movie approach – even 2 fights/chapter is a lot for most books.

  8. Justin Alexander says:

    @S’mon: I’d make several points.

    (1) This just makes WotC’s complete inability to design adventures for their own system more heinous. Look at the introductory scenario in the Gamma World rulebook: 8 combat encounters with absolutely nothing else in the adventure whatsoever.

    (2) Independent of all other considerations, the combats themselves take longer to resolve than the time that they remain interesting for. There’s a reason that action movies don’t spend 45 minutes on a fight between the main character and 5 guys; but you’ll routinely see a fight like that chew up 40-50% of a 4 hour session.

    The inflexibility of the hard-coded My Precious Encounter(TM) school of design only exacerbates this problem.

    (3) No matter how you pace or structure the campaign, the combats are ALWAYS going to take up a disproportionate amount of time compared to their relative importance. This is, again, inherent in a fight with 5 thugs taking more than an hour to resolve.

    (4) The complete lack of variance in a D&D Gamma World encounter is not a feature. Again, if you want to draw comparisons to other media, fights against mooks and fights against major villains take up different amounts of screen time for a reason.

    Ultimately, it’s just a sucky, sucky system that provides mediocre combats that take too damn long to resolve.

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