For a long stretch of my childhood, this was about the only role playing game that I owned that I (a) had everything I needed to run it and (b) actually really intended to do so at some point. Most painfully, it was probably even more impossible for me to run it like I wanted to than even something like Twilight 2000 or GURPS Humanx. It’s pretty obvious to me what this game actually is, but at the time I had no idea: it’s essentially somebody’s commentary on original D&D. The rules themselves take old school precepts for granted… but the adventures that were made for this edition quietly dropped a lot of that stuff. And of course us eighties kids ignored anything that didn’t jive with how we were going to play– we had entirely different assumptions about what this was than the people who put it together.
Third Edition Gamma World® is a deeply old school game that has been bizarrely reworked to incorporate somebody’s idea of a “modern” universal mechanic. This is painfully obvious in the sections we’re looking at today.
Surprise — When do you check for this? Whenever the Gamma Master feels like it! And when you do… be sure to roll against the Intelligence of the character with the highest Dexterity. Oh, and be sure to add in his DEX modifier as a column shift. How do you avoid being surprised? By rolling whatever color result the Gamma Master thinks fits the situation. (Did you think we were lying to you when we said in the errata sheet that this game “provides complete rules capable of dealing with almost any situation”?) Awesomeness: you are surprised for two turns if you get a black result. Even more awesomeness: there is technically no way for player characters to surprise NPC groups under these rules! Ha ha! Eat that, suckers!!!
Reactions — This was a cornerstone of the Moldvay rule set, not that I understood that as a third grader. Unlike the “surprise” section, there is a six point list covering when to check this. (I tell ya, it’s always either too much or too little with these rules!) Now, I’m not sure what you roll against here– it’s either Intelligence or Morale or sometimes even Mental Strength all of them with a crap-ton of modifiers– but most of the time you’re going to be rolling on the Encounter chart. There are several others, each with different results for each color: Impress, Willforce, Charm, Pacify, Parley, Barter, Request, and Command. Awesomeness: your initial reaction color result gives a RESULT SHIFT on these other charts. As wild as these rules really are, there is kind of an innovation here on the social side. (Alas, I doubt that few people gaming in the eighties even noticed, much yet cared.)
Hirelings — These rules are insanely detailed and specific. This is good, because I think that D&D was always a little quiet on this point. I think in Moldvay Basic, it pretty well came down to shares of treasure and experience. Here… hirelings cost money depending on their rank… and you have to pay upkeep for followers whether they adventure with you or not! These rules are elaborate and detailed… while we get a huge stack of potential bonuses, there are no penalties listed. Players are going to want to know the minimum they can offer and still swing the deal, but these rules seem to assume that the players will throw money around by default. Character’s with high charisma won’t have to offer much a deal at all under the rules as they stand. The limits on followers are clear and make game sense. Also, you get a Morale rating in this procedure. Awesomeness: A red result on a recruitment role means you gain a follower. (I think the more usual hireling situation is that they fight for just one adventure? Not sure!)
Morale — An interesting wrinkle here is that there is no morale check for when a side loses its first man in combat as in Moldvay Basic D&D. Another interesting bit as that the these rules are hard wired for handling the NPC hirelings of the party. As with surprise, the rules seem designed to allow the party to have a chance to mess up– there’s not much here to indicate that this is so that their foes can occasionally run away in the middle of a fight. Awesomeness: the Morale rating of an NPC will go up and down over the course of an adventure depending on the players’ behavior.
And so there it is. There’s a lot of cruft here, a half dozen good ideas… but no coherency. While this is clearly somebody’s variant of D&D, the creators of this don’t seem to understand how basic D&D actually works in practice: players want to surprise their foes, cause them to fail a morale check after they drop their first opponent, take the treasure, and get out quickly! And they do not want to have hirelings with them except on scouting runs where they are unlikely to get much loot. There’s no sense that the designers were really going after some other gestalt effect… they just seemed to have started with some D&D concepts and then tried to make them better. And of course, at this stage… “better” meant more complicated and (often) more “real” than D&D.
These rules are just complicated enough to be completely ignored by teenaged gamers that don’t already know exactly what they’re doing. I can’t seem to force myself to use them “straight.” The temptation to actually complete the design process is too great. In the end, a Gamma Master that attempts to run this game faithfully will end up doing a lot of hand waving and making judgement calls on everything. In a sense, he will pretend to run the game… and the charts and rulebooks are merely props for that bit of dissembling.