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Category Archives: Gamma World

The Penultimate Men is Here!

I know exactly how you feel.

More than once I’ve caught myself looking out the window to check for roving motorcycle games. Checked the news for the latest updates on the food riots. Wondered just how I would manage to get home in the event of taking a wrong turn.

The future I was weaned on is has arrived. Scenarios I’ve played out countless times at the tabletop routinely show up in my twitter feed as footage from somebody’s phone.

I won’t lie, it’s rather alarming.

If you are reading this blog, then you already know what to do. Shut off the media whose only purpose is to demoralize you and denude you of your culture. Get stronger, get tougher, and become a harder target. And stand with those that will not bend the knee to whatever false god is being peddled this week.

One way you can do the latter is by picking up this latest book put together by my friends at Pilum Press. Experience again the thrill of reading stories by people that share the same ideals and visions as yourself. People able to inspire you, to lift you up. To remind you of what you are and who you are.

And there’s more. It even includes a couple of pieces from myself: a deep dive into the foundations of the Gamma World game, with an eye towards recovering the sort of lost arcana that can propel your campaigns to unparalleled heights.

It’s a fantastic collection that you are sure to revisit time and again. And you will never have more fun re-colonizing your bookshelf.

Get your copy today.

Terminate All Anomalous Organisms Detected With Extreme Prejudice!

I knew Jon Mollison had written a Gamma World style post-apocalyptic story, but I was surprised by just how much his tale tracked with events in my own gaming sessions. Both featured mutant humanoid badgers (aka “badders” in the game), both featured factions demanding tribute from the players, both featured groups of mutants combing the wasteland for “True Men” in order to capture and sell them, and both featured robots saying stuff like, “ANALYSIS COMPLETE. ANOMALIES DETECTED: ZERO.”

But this book also shows things I only tantalized my players with in my campaign. We get an in depth look at not just a surviving off-world colony, but also a brutal mutant humanoid society as well. And as to the stuff I wouldn’t tend to think of dropping into a continuing campaign at all: the steamy pulp romance of A. Merritt and Leigh Brackett and the exploration of contrasting societies that is more typical in classic “hard” style science fiction by guys like Asimov and Heinlein.

The result is something that is anything but derivative or formulaic. In an age that is dominated by remakes, reboots, and prequels, this is a nice change of pace. Try it out for yourself and see. Grab a copy today!


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.

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.

Adventure Design in Third Edition Gamma World

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…!