There is an entire chapter in the third edition Gamma World rule book dedicated to adventure design. The designer acknowledges the importance of a strong introductory module in helping a new Game Master get a game off the ground. Here is what he says:
“The Reference Book contains an entire campaign setting and ruined city of the Ancients to provide you with an example of the background necessary for an adventure. You can set your own adventures around Pitz Burke or you may use this as an example to create your own setting.”
This was not actually the case. While the map of the irradiated continental U.S. and the Pitz Burke area map were included in the set, the campaign setting and ruined city were eliminated. These were replaced with a solitaire adventure that struck me as not quite being in line with how the rules were intended to be used. The later modules for this edition seemed to take a different tack as well. The omission of a “real” Gamma World adventure from this set has haunted me for my entire life. I’ve always wondered just how this game was supposed to work, but it always seemed that the real essence of it was left as an exercise for me to interpolate from a few hints and fragments.
Looking over the steps for designing adventure, I have to admit that they are pretty well in line with what I just did a couple of days ago when I put together a custom adventure for my son. I don’t know why this stymied me for so long. I was utterly confounded by this as a teenager. One thing that made this especially hard is that Gamma World’s rules assume a very elaborate wilderness adventure is what’s being run by default. This is much harder to run than a simple dungeon crawl. The lack of something along the lines of X1 The Isle of Dread demonstrating all of this is a huge disaster for this set.
The suggested scenarios will be familiar to anyone that had a copy of Moldvay’s edit of Basic D&D. It looks like the premise of the adventure I just whipped together is #2 on this list: “Destroying a Terrible Menace.” The suggestions that are casually tossed out at the end are much less generic: “escorting a caravan or important person, retrieving a lost or stolen item, infiltrating a secret society to stop a deadly plot, attempting to unite the tribes of the area, trying to rebuild an Ancient wonder, etc.” These are far more consistent with the implied setting of the rules, though some of these would be a bit more challenging to set up.
Six “popular settings” for adventures are outlined next. The first five are utterly confounding: Mechlands, Ancient Military Installations, Ancient Communities, Spaceports, and Deathlands. Maybe I’m missing something, but I just don’t see enough setting information in this set to allow anyone to really flesh these out in any sort of consistent manner. This is worse than developing a setting from scratch because there’s just enough information here to be confusing. The last one, Enemy Strongholds is far more consistent with what the rules equip the Game Master for– all manner of mutant creatures and cryptic alliances are here for the pillaging. Dropping them into a weird, blasted landscape seems fairly natural. The other ones require you to understand something about what the Ancients actually were, and that is largely left as a mystery in this game.
Another thing that is exasperating is that these instructions emphasize the need for encounter maps, especially for the final battle scene. There is nothing in this game that makes it crystal clear that you either can or should run this game with miniatures on elaborate combat maps. This is typical today, but back in the eighties “theater of the mind” was the default method of running these sorts of games and that’s exactly what people did with this set. I can’t even think of an example of an encounter map being used with this game and yet this topic gets an entire section!
There is a fairly comprehensive list of obstacles you can draw from when you’re fleshing out an adventure. The complete lack of fully fleshed out examples is pretty unusual, though. And while there are some pretty good tips on stocking an area here you don’t find a set of random tables that would make the process easier while getting across an idea of frequency and balance. A “random loot table” is referenced here that isn’t even included with the game.
All that aside, there are a couple of points made in this section that portended of things to come:
“Five well designed encounters can be a lot more fun to play than a poorly thought-out, 100 room ruin, and it certainly will be easier to create when you are just beginning.”
Yes! That is a very good place to point the novice. And that is of course how most people adventure today, though modern rule sets are engineered from top to bottom to be optimized for that style of play. When this piece of advice is combined with his emphasis on using a major villain and his nefarious minions to drive the plot with each encounter leading to a big fight sequence, well… he just laid out the basic design of games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and many other games since then. It’s clear that the term “boss monster” was not yet in common use when James Ward was laying all of this out!
Of course, the rules of Gamma World third edition is designed more with the assumption wide open sandbox style play would be the norm. The rules spend a lot of time explaining how to hex crawl through a hazardous wilderness. This sounds really cool, but I never saw anyone play that way. A novice is not going to figure out how to make it work unless he’s spent a great deal of time running something like Isle of Dread already. The fact that the sample campaign setting and ruined city were cut from this set was a crime against gamerdom. A whole generation of post-apocalyptic role players only had these books to go by and wouldn’t see the previous editions until they grew up. It’s just tragic to have to live without this stuff for so long…!