Taking the Game Seriously

November 6, 2010

Yet Another Gamma World Article

I don’t like my players texting, Tweeting, or otherwise having contact with the outside world during my game sessions. First, I find it distracting. Second, my players are practical jokers. One particularly memorable prank involved a call to the police and the words “hostage situation.” I like a joke as much as the next DM, after a wrongful imprisonment trial has gone on for six months, it’s time to let the gag drop.

My communication ban did not stop one of my players from sending out a few choice Tweets during the second session of our ongoing Gamma World game last weekend. The Tweets involved a pair of out-of-context quotes that may not have painted me in the best light. First, @drumbumrm (Ryan) quoted me as telling another player ‘I hope you die.’ Second, he complained that I “did the crit dance” after rolling a critical hit on an attack against his character.

Now, the first comment is taken completely out of context. It is true; I did tell a player (Chris) that I hoped his character died. But there is more to the story. You see, the character in question had finally succumbed to ongoing radiation damage. He had failed two death saves and had not managed to shake off the ongoing damage. By any measure, the character sheet was inches from the paper shredder. At that point, Chris turned to me and told me his plans for his new character. Specifically, Chris said that he intended to incorporate a particular plot development that had occurred earlier in the session in a way that would create some in-party tension and an interesting moral dilemma. As a DM, I am a sucker for tension, drama, and moral dilemmas and I love it when the players bring those elements into the game. Thus, I said “that’s a great idea, I hope you die.” It was a compliment.

The second Tweet was also technically true. I was standing up to better oversee the combat when I rolled an attack roll against Ryan’s character. When the die landed on a natural 20, I did do a little dance as I announced the crit. But again, that’s taken a little out of context. Ryan didn’t mention that his was a plant-based character and the attack was a high-damage, fire-based attack to which he was vulnerable. So, in addition to maximizing three dice worth of damage, he took extra damage due to the vulnerability. So, of course, a little celebratory dance was in order. The dance was very brief and quite low key and he survived the attack (eventually). It’s not as if I ran victory laps.

Now, I realize that some of you might feel the crit dance might seem a little mean-spiritied, but you can just keep your sissy, player-loving, sunshine and rainbows and bunny farts approach to DMing to yourself. Besides, I am sure that I’ve left a few of you scratching your heads about the previous comment. Moral dilemma? Tension? Plot development? In Gamma World?

I’ve been a bit vocal on Twitter myself lately about my current Gamma World game and a few fellow Twitterers have raised eyebrows at my deadly serious approach to the game.  At least, they have raised eyebrows at the “serious” part. The “deadly” part is pretty much part of the game. Considering a number of bloggers have questioned whether Gamma World could be used as the basis for a serious, ongoing campaign, I thought it was time to discuss it. The answer is yes. Sort of.

Gamma World from Alpha to Omega

Recently, Wizards of the Coast released Gamma World. To be more precise, they actually released the seventh edition of Gamma World which incorporates the basic mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition (D&D 4E).

Originally, created by James M. Ward and Gary Jaquet and first published by TSR in 1978, Gamma World was an RPG set on a post-apocalyptic Earth in the far future. While the evolution of the game and the setting, I’m not going to discuss it here. I strongly recommend you check out Jared von Hindman’s  excellent history: Gamma World: Over 30 Years of I Have No Idea What Is Going On. Its a great read.

Past editions of Gamma World were best known for being incredibly random, brutally deadly, and just plain bizarre. While the latest incarnation is not quite extreme as some of its predecessors, it does remain true to its lineage.

The new Gamma World is set in the year 2,162. 150 years have passed since scientists at the Large Hadron Collider accidentally caused reality to fracture and inadvertantly ended civilization as we know it. As a result of the so called ‘Big Mistake’ numerous alternate realities all came crashing together for a one moment, leaving a twisted, mutated, and ruined Earth in its wake. What remains of the world is blighted with radioactive deserts; strange, alien jungles; ruins of our human civilization; and weird intrusions of other realities and technologies.

Player-characters (PCs) take the forms of mutated humans, humanoids, animal-human hybrids, robots, and the like who are competing against similar beings to survive in this hostile, ravaged, somewhat alien world. And the game is just as hilarious as it sounds from that setup.

Players create characters by mixing and matching different mutations (called origins) at random, two per character. These mutations can take the form of psychic powers, animal mutations, or other strangeness and part of the fun of character creation is reconciling your two different origins into something playable. For example, my first group consisted of a humanoid lava elemental (radioactive and seismic mutations), a hive mind swarm of sentient spiders complete with incredible speed and reaction time (swarm and speedster mutations), a robot designed to infiltrate humanity by using mind-controlling electromagnetic pulses (android and mind-control mutations), and a humanoid cockroach that could be in two places at once by manipulating the fabric of space-time (cockroach and duplicator mutations).

PCs have most of the trappings of D&D 4E PCs. They have powers based on their randomly determined mutant origins, a small number of random trained skills, and the normal slate of ability scores, influenced by mutant origins but otherwise also randomly determined. I am not purposely repeating the word ‘random’ for emphasis, but I might as well.

In addition to the random character generation, further random wackiness comes in the form of Alpha Mutations. The PCs genetic structure is in constant flux due to the merging of numerous alternate realities. During each encounter, these fluctuations manifest as random mutations that provide a single-use power or an encounter-long static bonus. A character might manifest a sudden, armored insect shell, a new psychic power, or a repulsive stink gland. When the encounter ends (and at random moments during the combat), the Alpha Mutations are swapped for new ones.

Finally, the game also boasts an analogue to magic items in the form of alien technology that has appeared on Earth as a result of the various realities crashing together. This Omega Technology, as it’s called, is quite similar to Alpha Mutations in that each piece of technology generally provides an encounter power or a static bonus. However, unlike Alpha Mutations that change constantly, Omega Technology can be hoarded and collected. When Omega Technology is used, there is a, you guessed it: random chance it will break or run out of power or otherwise become useless and have to be discarded, but a player can hold onto their Omega Technology until the right situation comes up. In addition, broken Omega Technology can sometimes be salvaged and turned into useful (but less powerful) equipment.

Aside from the (say it with me) randomness of character generation and Alpha Mutations, the game plays much like a stripped down version of D&D 4E. Of course, that’s to be expected. It is a stripped down version of D&D 4E, except with shape changing, psychic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fighting Mad Max. I’m not kidding.

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5 Responses to Taking the Game Seriously

  1. FlashbackJon on November 7, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    Utterly fantastic article – I’m firmly in the circle of folks who like to combine comedy and drama in their games.

    And this line could not be more true: “A good role-player can find a way to play anything and it is a refreshing challenge to have to create a personality and a back-story for something you didn’t create.”

  2. BeefGriller on November 8, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    I recently bought Gamma World, so haven’t had a chance to dig thoroughly through it yet. However, I am well aware of the deadliness of the setting and the short life expectancy of the PCs. Now, I can see how this can become a problem for any long-term campaign plans. However, it would seem to me that, as long as the players are aware of this fact, there should be no problem with creating a continuous campaign such a setting. I know of several fantasy RPG campaigns in which I have been involved that have had a revolving door for both players and PCs. Why should a futuristic post-apocalyptic campaign be any different? As long as the GM is up-front about this, the players should be more than capable of coming up with a simple, continuity-safe background for a new PC. After all, the setting itself allows for it, right?

  3. Omega on December 23, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    Nice semi-review of the game and some well presented thoughts on how to move the game into a more serious, yet not too serious line that allows for more depth.

    Reading the book, from a game designer viewpoint. What we have is really three or more diffrent games. One is someones idea of kill-em-all slapstick – like Gammarauders did. The other is someones idea of deadly serious, seen allmost entirely in the art direction – which is nigh the diametric opposite of funny. And then there is whoever was writing the the actual rules, which takes the middle ground – neither one nor the other.

    Add to that the budget cuts the game was under and the remnants of some other game concept that linger, and the whole thing becomes a potential mess. Or at the very least a possible problem in getting players to even give it a chance.

  4. grickherd on March 12, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    I’ve been running an ongoing Gamma World campaign since the game came out. We are about half way through. I’m a low prep/high improv DM and let the players largely set the direction of the campaign.

    They ended up choosing to ostensibly join the Iron Society. They’re not actually genocidal mutant-supremacists, but bringing the Iron Society in seemed like the best way to deal with the nearby Knights of Genetic Purity. So the game has a lot of very gritty and morally grey moments where they are basically pointing two genocidal groups at one another and making a few towns into battlefields.

    The PCs are also the victim of their own success. Their heroism in terms of saving a few towns from rampaging AIs and mind controlling aliens has won favor for the Iron Society. So more and more of the locals are polarizing based on how human or mutated they look as these famous heroes seem to be representing a rather racist position.

    So we’ve had the tongue in cheek and the zany, but we’ve also had moral dilemmas about ends justifying the means, civilian casualties, terrorism and racism.

  5. [...] to get a better understanding of the history of Gamma World, I suggest you read Angry DM's post "Taking the Game Seriously" and an analysis that he links to from there: "Gamma World: Over 30 Years of I Have No Idea What Is [...]

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