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Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Encounters in Third Edition Gamma World

This is probably the most important chapter in the book as far as game mastering is concerned. In practice, you can get away with allowing the players to declare victory and go home at any point and simply call that an adventure. You can fake the campaign‘s setting until you actually end up running several sessions. But you’re not having any sort of game at all if there are no encounters. And given that Gamma World® does not begin with a simplistic town and dungeon scenario, there’s a bit more of a challenge here for the novice.

There are four pages in the encounters chapter, each one detailing a significant aspect of what makes for a quintessential Gamma World® encounter:

  1. Encounters are primarily about weird creatures, cryptic alliances, and (more rarely) computers and robots. The game master is encouraged to make up new creatures and factions as much as possible– this is the only way to surprise players that are familiar with the game. Additionally, the game master is encouraged allow these creatures and factions to take on a life of their own and to have them respond and adapt to the players actions. An offhand remark indicates the default campaign of the designers: “The major driving force in the heroes’ life is to work with the Restorationists to recover artifacts of the Ancients and rebuild that lost society.” Note that this seems to contradict the information in the chapter on campaigns where it is implied that the characters will begin without any direct ties to the Cryptic Alliances but will then later (perhaps secretly from the other players) attempt to join one once they’ve gained a sufficient amount of status.
  2. The heart of the game is in the incredible amount of diversity in terrain. Each terrain type is coupled with a different ground cover to create a huge number of combinations. Together they yield an intensity level, a base damage amount, and one or two special effects. From these you can derive the base movement rate for that terrain, the chance of hazards and encounters there, and the chance of getting lost. This is the most critical part of the rules, but the chances of the average teenager ignoring this are high because it’s extremely complex while at the same time being spread across several different sections.
  3. From the players’ perspectives, rewards are the entire point of having encounters. The game master is encouraged to come up with appropriate rewards for each encounter– there are no “treasure tables” to provide a baseline, just a lot of advice. Information is actually highlighted as being the more important reward type. It is suggested that valuables taken from creatures defeated in combat be 10 gold per rank or hit die on average. Finally, equipment and artifacts that are found that aren’t being used by NPC’s that are trying to kill the players are liable to be broken or dangerous!
  4. Unlike magic items in D&D, Gamma World® artifacts are something the players have to figure out. There is an insanely complicated flow chart for this with countless modifiers. It’s awesomeness varies indirectly to its chance of actually being used in play. Similar to high level magic research in D&D, this same system can be used to create new equipment, functions, traps, and information. This is unlikely to happen unless the players understand what can be done here. To incorporate this into the game, I’d suggest coming up with mentors and patrons that can point the players in this direction.

By default, then, the game is primarily a bunch of wilderness encounters with weird made up creatures. If you kill them to take their stuff, you won’t necessarily know how to use what you get. Let’s look some some at the context in which all of this stuff takes place: the wilderness travel rules.

Compared to B/X D&D, the “hexcrawling” rules are incredibly refined. The day is broken down into six periods of four hours each. An encounter is checked for in each period, so a lot can happen in a single day. In the Isle of Dread, you checked for encounters once a day. That meant that the players could blow their spells in every single combat without much worry. You can’t pull similar tactics here.

As we said before, these checks are rolled against the terrain’s intensity score. When something occurs, you even pin down the exact hour within the period when it happens. Here are the possible results from the chart on page 11:

  • Red — Catastrophe
  • Orange — Bad Weather
  • Yellow — Suffer from Exposure
  • Green — Natural Obstacle/Hazard
  • Blue — Event/Encounter/Omen
  • Black — Trail is found

As you can see in high intensity terrain the random events are not only more frequent but they are also more interesting. (That’s “interesting” like in that Chinese proverb.) When you flesh out your wilderness areas on your campaign map… your prep should be geared towards aiding improvisations triggered by this chart. It is the most important, and most-used chart in the default game and yet it does not appear anywhere else.

Example weather and hazards are listed on the back of the Reference Book. The rules for these are on page 21 and are easy to miss because they’re called “dangers” there. The intensity determines which column the event is rolling against. Damage is usually half the intensity score, but “exposure” damage is only a quarter. The saving throws against the special effects get a lot of elaboration elsewhere, but here it simply says that “the GM may permit an appropriate ability score to modify the chance of the danger harming the characters.” This seems to imply some sort of column shift on the act chart… and it also seems to indicate that one player is rolling for the entire group. Still, it’s pretty crazy that something so crucial to the default adventuring model is not only spread around on a half dozen pages, but is also slapdash and unclear.

At first glance, the Random Events chart from the reference screen appears to be used for the Event/Encounter/Omen results, but the more I look at it the more I think it is an entirely different encounter system that predates the rainbow chart material. It is built on generic terrain rather than the combinations from the main rule book. Hazards are incorporated into the d20 roll here instead of resulting from the rainbow results chart described above. There are a lot of examples, but you are nearly on your own if you’re going use them. The weather and terrain hazards described on the chart are stat-free and so are either ad libbed or cribbed from the terrain’s intensity rather than coupled to the “dangers” rule. On the other hand, the creature motivations and omens charts are really great and are worth stealing for other games.

What’s needed is a comprehensive example that synthesizes the sort of material on the Random Events tables with the actual rules for hazards and dangers in the context of some playable campaign setting material. That doesn’t exist, but the use of all this stuff is actually illustrated in the example of play section. This confirms the implications from the rules that this is the default mode of play. The GM in the narrative dutifully rolls percentile dice on the rainbow chart for the basic encounter type… and seems to be rolling a D20 on the event-type chart from the reference screen when pinning down whether it’s a creature or an omen. The key thing about the GM’s actions here is that he makes a lot of judgement calls. Instead of rolling a random creature for an encounter, he chooses one from the map key because the players are near something he’d placed previously. When the creatures are encountered, he doesn’t use dice to determine their number, but just picks an amount that would make a good challenge for the player characters that happen to be in the game.

So… to run this system, you will refer to at least four pages in the rule book, the back page of the reference book, and the chart in the gm screen. Except… the chart in the gm screen does not quite match up to the main rule book. You will have to improvise what all of these random results means as you narrate the encounter to the players, you will have to make judgement calls about how exactly the unclear rules are applied, and you will adjust everything on the fly in order to make a satisfying experience for the players. You take a lot on yourself if you want to run this game. The more I try to read it, the less I understand. It’s as if the last 20% of the game design process has been left to the GM as an exercise.

This is really cool stuff and one of my favorite games… but nobody played this.


6 responses to “Encounters in Third Edition Gamma World

  1. MishaBurnett April 15, 2014 at 5:51 am

    Again, I’m not sure which edition our GM used, but I have to agree with your last sentence. I can’t recall any random encounters when we played Gamma World–the GM had stuff made up and we just kind of wandered around until we found it (or it found us.)

    I do remember the tech chart, but I’m not sure how closely he followed it. Tech weapons usually worked like magic wands with limited charges–I don’t think we ever figured out how to reload anything, we just used up whatever ammo was in it and then it turned into a club.

    Non-weapon tech items were just cash rewards. If it was small enough to carry we took it to the Temple Of The Ancient Scientists (which was the main branch of the library) and sold it to them for whatever they offered.

    Then again, we were all in our early teens then, and the basic idea was “find weird stuff, kill it, rinse , repeat.” Lots of carnivorous rose bushes and armored cockroaches, not so much sociology.

  2. noisms April 15, 2014 at 8:24 am

    Nonetheless, your description of the game is utterly compelling, and makes me want to get my hands on it.

  3. Peter Froehlich April 15, 2014 at 7:17 pm

    I loved this edition of Gamma World, even though it was a mess (I remember a long official TSR errata document that I got from who knows where). Sadly I only got my players to try it once or twice, but I might not have done a great job with it. I have Mutant Future on my “to read” stack though and I am hoping it’ll allow me to bring a similar feel to the table with a much simpler system. BTW, I wonder if anyone ever figured out why the Action Table was designed that way. Smarter folks than I have apparently tried but without much success:

    • jeffro April 16, 2014 at 8:54 am

      This is on my short list of favorite games– and it’s a good counterpoint to its stablemate, Mentzer Red Box. I like that it attempted to go its own way with a game mechanic that captures the way Gamma World cranks everything to “11”. The Action Table, too, is underrated. While not quite up to the task of being a universal mechanic, the premise of decreasing chances for fail and crit fail combined with increasing chances at multiple degrees of success… that’s just cool. The designers were really trying to one-up themselves and addressed several things in depth that are often glossed over elsewhere.

      • Radpert April 25, 2014 at 9:46 pm

        I’ve been developing a skill table which has these graduated degrees of success, abysmal failure not so much. To the extent I’ve tested it the greatest difficulty is that the players want to roll a single die & find out what happened. You were there (DnDNext makes it easy to swap out its inbuilt skill system) and witnessed them easily succeeding at most DEX- & WIS-based checks. If they’d been in a situation to attempt knowledge skills, or wearing heavier armor, maybe you wouldn’t have thought I was being too easy on them!

        The percentile dice help, but when it takes more than 2 d10s I struggle with whether to call it paradecile, something else-centile or what. It doesn’t need to be level-dependent in the same way as combat, so I’ll just keep the rest of my pseudo-skill system close to my chest. You know, I always lusted after Gamma World because it had an appealing conversion write-up in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. Same thing with Boot Hill and, even more, Metamorphosis: Alpha to Omega. That was a game which took place on a generational spaceship (a trope of 70’s science fiction), and I think Gary Gygax resurrected it under his Amazing Engine line of roleplaying products, but I never have been able to get a hold of a copy (Jeff & I are from Appalachia, or I don’t know, that expression actually might be a bona fide Southernism).

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