Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Campaigns in Third Edition Gamma World

Most chapters in the rulebook are a confused hodgepodge of indistinct ideas, incomprehensible rules, and baffling omissions. While the chapter on adventures did sort of give you permission to just sling together a few “well-designed encounters” that culminate into a showdown with a major villain on a map packed with “special terrain features that provide a spectacular and possibly awe-inspiring setting for the climax.” Include some radiation and biogenetic agents somehow and you should a good chunk of the intended flavor of the game. But the chapter on campaigns will tell you what you really need to know in order to truly capture the nuances of the setting. I could not comprehend any of this as a teenager, but reading it now everything begins to make sense. I’ll go section by section to point out the key factors of the default campaign structure which many people probably ignored.

“Selecting the Area” —  Pick a spot of the big Continent Map that is hardly explained at all in this set. Now run with it! Just zoom in somewhere and start making stuff up.

“Selecting the Campaign Goal” — Some of the example goals here derivative of the nearly incomprehensible AD&D domain game and others are unexplained mysteries. (I have no idea who the Ancients were, who created the Tech V artifacts, or even who created the Tech IV stuff!) The module series that came out in support for this edition was centered on building a spaceship, which is one of the sample goals listed here– though those modules do not strike me as being entirely in line with the default campaign of these rules. My inclination would be to punt choosing a primary goal and leave it to the players to decide what to do. Have several different factions working on any number of these and then turn the players loose to either help or hinder them. Definitely figure out the details of all this later instead of up front or you’ll never get a game off the ground.

“Deciding on Major Factions” — Once you place several tribal groups, a couple of nation states, a robot city controlled by a supercomputer, and then turn loose a half dozen cryptic alliances just randomly doing their thing hither and yon… well, you should be able to load up the map if you avoid over-thinking this mess.

“Determining Needs of Campaigns” — There’s a longer list here, but placing some threats, some potential allies, and a couple of dungeon-like locations should get you started. Nailing down a few generic, quintessential obstacles should give you some game session material no matter which way the players go.

“Campaign Play Balance” — This section is the most concentrated section of game master advice in the book. There are scads of tips here that can have huge impacts on how your campaign plays out depending on how you implement them:

  • The default campaign really appears to be starting the players off at a Tech I base and then slowly allowing them to work their way up to higher tech equipment by fighting foes that are equipped with the next level up. To get access to Tech IV equipment, they will probably have to join a Cryptic Alliance.
  • Low level characters are so ineffective, it may be a good idea to start them off with some high tech equipment early on. If they can just get a few ranks built up, they can maybe survive long enough that you can actually have a campaign.
  • Alternately the Game Master can have the players start with several characters and then not replace them as they die off. (A funnel!)
  • There’s one particularly bad suggestion here: alter the rules to make it easier for low rank parties to run away. (I think the rules need to be applied consistently and that it’s up to the players to figure out how to manage risks once they’ve gotten the hang of things.)
  • Another suggestion is to start the campaign with an attack on the players base. This will let non player characters take most of the hits while the player characters get on the fast track to gaining status. This will open the door to their being able to borrow equipment from the community.

“Gaining Information” — There are relatively elaborate rules here for gathering rumors and doing research. The idea is that the players can pay to increase the odds of getting clues about what’s going on in the various regions of their adventure maps. Most of the social rules in the game stand a strong chance of being ignored, but these strike me as being both sensible and playable. This should probably be a regular part of the “town” sequences, with each player spending a day and at least 25 gold to get a chance at pulling more and better adventure hooks for an area or else getting more information about known threats and situations.

“Social Systems” — Based on everything that’s said in this chapter, you’re going to want a very heterogeneous campaign map. You’ll probably want a vast wilderness area full of all kinds of Tech Level I tribes and clans. There will be some Tech Level II feudal societies that have successfully “cleared” areas surrounding their main castles, but they will also have “Keep on the Borderlands” type outposts nearer to the players’ base.  There should be at least one Tech Level III city state on the map edge that could be threatening to expand into the area. Cryptic Alliances will then be leavened throughout all of this and doing who knows what. I know this whole section seemed impossible to play back when I was a kid, but really… what this is describing is not too different from a rough sketch of a Traveller sector map.

One thing that is not touched on here is why the main example monsters tend to all go around in homogenous groups when everything else about the setting indicates a tendency to diversity that rivals the Mos Eisley cantina.

“Economic Systems” — There is actually some direction on implementing credit and inflation, but I sure wouldn’t want to meddle in that stuff. What a headache!

“CHARACTER STATUS” — I really doubt that many people payed much attention to this. It was, however, fairly important to the designers because they dedicated two full pages to this. This is arguably the heart of the game.

  • There are a lot of XP awards that count double if you’re using it to buy status. If the game master wants to see status going up, then he’s going to need to put players in a situation where they get enough XP to go up in rank with enough left over that they can buy status. (Of course, players that invest only in rank will see status become more and more economical. Raising status now for cheap may be a good idea if it’s looking like it’s going to be several sessions before you can make a new attack rank.)
  • There are situations where a character can lose status levels. I would be loathe to hand these out, but if the player is asking for it you should probably be prepared to do this.
  • Status adds directly to Charisma, it increases your chance of finding an item for sale, it sets the limit of the gold value of the equipment you can borrow, it increases your chance of gaining information, and at status level three it gives you the chance to join a Cryptic Alliance.
  • Players are stuck with their initial clan/base/tribe until they join a Cryptic Alliance. Player characters that become outcasts for whatever reason lose the benefits of status altogether.
  • Each Cryptic Alliance has its own special bonuses for acquiring additional status with them.

Bottom line: none of this makes sense if you aren’t making the players roll for new information, making them roll to see if particular items are for sale, and making high status the only sure means of getting a steady stream of high tech equipment for adventuring. Basically, the deal is that at Status Level 10, you’ll be able to “borrow” a Mark VII Rifle from a Cryptic Alliance. That’s huge.

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12 responses to “Campaigns in Third Edition Gamma World

  1. PeterD April 7, 2014 at 8:09 am

    Hmm . . . I actually like the idea of weaker/low level parties getting a bonus to run away. I rarely see people flee encounters, and if they fail to flee and die, the lesson learned usually is “never flee, you’ll die anyway so you may as well fight.” If fleeing is easier when you are weaker, it’s a strong choice to make.

    In fact, it might be fun if you automatically succeed in running away before a certain threshold, if you do it instead of trying to fight. That makes it an even stronger choice – and you really need to decide if you want to try and fight or not, because you are passing up an automatic success in an attempt to get away. I think that would teach you better – you can’t rationalize it with “we had bad odds fighting but we might have died running away, too.” You’d just have made it automatically.

    Hmm…I may need to stick that on my blog eventually. That’s an amusing idea.

    • jeffro April 7, 2014 at 8:18 am

      If I did do it, I would tie the game mechanics to a specific region and/or piece of equipment. The PC’s weak tribe has special jungle camo that gives them this ability, say. There is enough adventure in the jungle that they can get some levels and equipment without taking the risk of getting mauled by a random wilderness encounter. This would allow the rules change to occur “naturally” due to the setting can keep it limited if it turns out not to work in actual play.

      • PeterD April 7, 2014 at 12:58 pm

        Making it a racial thing just means your tribe are Halflings from Munchkin. That’s less fun to me – and has a less interesting impact on the game. Playing a game where you can run a sneaky type who is better at escaping, or who has the Boots of Quick Fleeing or something, isn’t anything different than any other game.

        Playing a game where – barring player abuse – you automatically escape if you want to avoid combat, because starting guys are just lucky that way . . . that interests me. The consequences of that, and how that actually plays out, is interesting. The other thing is just what every game already does – some people are better at some things than others, some equipment lets you do things better than if you didn’t have it. I’m thinking genre scope, here. Like playing in a martial arts game where the bad guys always come at you one at a time – it’s going to have a real impact on the feel of the game.

  2. Jason Packer April 7, 2014 at 10:04 am

    Have you ever read even the Game mastering book from Aftermath! by chance? I think that would help give some perspective on things that they may not have taken the time, or had the space for, in Gamma World. Going back to GW after Aftermath! would be a bit like revisiting Basic after playing AD&D for a while. It’s a simpler game, with a simpler engine, and a number of default assumptions that make it easier on everyone, GM and player alike, to just jump in with both feet.

    Even if you never play it. Even if you ignore the admittedly byzantine but inarguably verisimiltudinous rules. I think you should read Aftermath Book 3: The World of the Aftermath. I think it would inform your GW play in positive ways.

    • jeffro April 7, 2014 at 10:47 am

      I’ve heard rumors about that game.

      • Jason Packer April 7, 2014 at 12:08 pm

        Terrifying ones, I’m sure. It was an ambitious game indeed – the section entitled “This is How the World Ends” breaks down (from a very 80’s focused angle) that ways things went wrong, breaking things down into pre-ruin unrest, primary kill and secondary kill. Then, it goes on to lay out conventional war, biochemical war, or nuclear biochemical, but refuses to stop there, then talking about the other options – the Hammer of Nature, The Aliens, or A Twist In Space (did you know there’s an official magic supplement for Aftermath!?), as well as discussing the differences between recent ruin and ancient ruin. And lays out a brief ancient ruin world that has colored my take on what a post-holocaust game should look like for nearly thirty years – it raised the hair on the back of my neck when I read it then, and still inspires me today on subsequent readings.

        The PDFs are totally worth it for any RPG archaeologist worth his salt.

  3. earlburt April 7, 2014 at 10:48 am

    Are the Ancients not us? Think “Beyond Thunderdome”, “Planet of the Apes”, “Logan’s Run”, or the RPG Paranoia. I haven’t looked at a Gamma World set in forever, but I always thought it was clear that we (more or less contemporary to real life) were the Ancients.

    • jeffro April 7, 2014 at 10:59 am

      The Tech V superscience stuff is a mystery. The Tech IV ancients are human, but we don’t know where or when they are from. You see all this stuff that is from the 20th century– road signs and the like– that wouldn’t be there if the ancients were us.

  4. JSpace April 7, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    My RPG basic training was by-the-book B/X, so what’s apparently now called a “hexcrawl” or whatever, is my default style of play for all RPGs (is there really any other way?). My favorite campaign from back then had no planned encounters of any kind (why bother?). Early on the PC’s encountered some bandits while exploring around their base town. I roll 3d10 for the number appearing and get a 28, there’s no way a party of 6 1st level PC’s stand a chance right? No one’s surprised, so the caller attempted to talk their way out of it (evading would have been easier I believe, especially against a monster group of that size, but the player’s didn’t know that). I roll 11 on the monster reaction chart, +1 for the caller’s charisma and “enthusiastic friendship”. So the bandits end up joining forces with them and they spent most of the remainder of the campaign raiding villages and whatnot. Unfortunately their luck ran out a few weeks later after refusing to pay a toll for passing through a 12th-level Lord’s land. Gamma World seems to made for this kind of fun. I need 10 copies ASAP!

  5. JSpace April 7, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    My brother used to play Aftermath! while he was stationed in Okinawa years ago. I still have his books, notes, etc. in storage, I should take another look at them. I remembered prefering Twilight 2000 over it at the time.

  6. Pingback: Encounters in Third Edition Gamma World | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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