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Taking the Game Seriously

November 6, 2010

Yet Another Gamma World Article

A Serious Gamma World Campaign

Given that description, it is understandable that some folks are a little skeptical of my talk of things like character development, moral dilemmas, and the plot. I’m sure there are a few people who that even calling it a campaign is a stretch. I’ve seen a few reviews express the sentiment that the game is a fun diversion, useful for one-shot adventures, but that it isn’t really suitable for much beyond that.

Obviously, I disagree. I believe that one can run an ongoing Gamma World and that the game can be taken seriously enough to allow for role-playing, character development, immersion, and all of the other wonderful things that put the RP in RPG. Notice that I don’t say that the game has to be taken seriously. It only has to be taken seriously enough. This is an important distinction that I will discuss in more detail in my next article. For the moment, I’m just going to ask my more skeptical readers to take it as read that a story can be humorous and absurd and still include strong characterization, complex themes, and a well-structured plot.

The question of whether Gamma World is a real RPG or just a fun diversion is complicated to no end by the game itself. I think that the Gamma World product actually has a number of weaknesses, despite being great fun. The most glaring one, the one that leaves folks questioning whether it should be taken seriously as an RPG, is a lack of focus on an intended experience.

Intended Experience

I know that it is considered heresy to suggest that an RPG might have an intended experience. I’ve been lambasted over it in the past. “An RPG has no limits,” I’ve been told. “D&D 4E can be anything that anyone wants it to be.” I don’t want to be confrontational by saying that those people need to remove certain upper extremities from a particular lower orifice, but I will say that there is always an intended experience. Call it a vision. Call it a design statement. Game designers need a destination so that they can decide what to include, what not to include, what works, and what doesn’t. If you don’t believe me, go back and find copies of the D&D 4E preview books Worlds and Monsters and Races and Classes. The vision drives design choices and helps the designers allocate time and resources.

The intended experience shapes how new players experience the game for the first time. It describes what the game feels like out-of-the-box and what specific game activities are encouraged or discouraged by the game system. Experienced gamers may scoff at the idea of considering the intended experienced because they know they can modify the heck out of the game to tailor the experience, but they often don’t realize how much the intended experience has shaped their choices of how to play the game. Certainly, the intended experience determines how much work such gamers will have to do to change the experience to something more to their liking. Beyond that, the plain fact is that the vast majority of gamers (those that don’t spend hours blogging about their games, for example) don’t want to be bothered with modifications and house rules. They simply want to play the game. If it doesn’t give them the experience they want, most gamers will play something else instead.

What is the Intended Gamma World Experience

Gamma World can certainly work as a serious game (because “an RPG can be anything!”). But the question is how much work it will take to get there and whether it can be done without tearing the system completely apart. The first step in answering that question is to try and figure out what the game designers intended. Did they intend this to be a one-shot spoof game or did they intend it to be treated as a serious RPG? Unfortunately, the game seems to work very hard to muddy the waters and hide the answer.

As I’ve noted, the mechanics of the game are almost entirely distilled from D&D 4E. The system has simply been streamlined to play more quickly with less bookkeeping. Healing surges have been removed from the game. Actually, the game seems to lack any daily resources at all. While this certainly implies that the game just wants to gloss over the non-action portions, the heavy reliance on the D&D 4E engine implies that almost anything that can be done in 4E can be done in Gamma World. The Gamma World rulebook even notes that you can easily bring monsters, traps, hazards, and other games from D&D 4E into Gamma World with little to no modification and I can attest to this.

Gamma World also includes a skill system. Again, the system is pared down from D&D 4E, with fewer skills, thematically modified to fit the setting. However, Gamma World covers almost all of the bases that D&D 4E covers, including knowledge skills. This suggests that skill challenges and other sorts of non-combat encounters should be possible in Gamma World. Are they? The answer is “yes and no.” Or more correctly, the answer is “sort of.”

In Gamma World, PCs have an aggressively small number of trained skills. Three is about the maximum, but it is possible to have as few as one as a result of some random die rolls. A radioactive android who rolls a 9 for skill selection is only going to be trained in the Science skill (albeit with a +12 modifier). Just as in D&D 4E, untrained skill checks basically amount to ability checks. Unfortunately, while each character is guaranteed one or two high ability scores, the other four or five are determined by rolling 3d6 in order (harkening back to the days of Basic D&D). This means that untrained skill modifiers can run the gamut from -4 to +4 with the average being +0.

This all paints a very odd picture. On the one hand, the presence of any skill system at all, let alone one that includes knowledge, interaction, and other non-combat-related skills leaves open the possibility for non-combat encounters and skill challenges. On the other hand, skills are limited, randomly determined, and cover a very wide range of modifiers. While the skill system is there, it is difficult for a DM to build much with it and provide a reasonable chance of success.

The game also goes to great pains to tout its lethality. The first heading in the character generation chapter is about PC mortality and tells the players that it’s okay to die a lot because character generation is quick, easy, and fun. Now, this creates a very odd contrast to the two-page spread later in the same chapter about role-playing, personality, mannerisms, and traits. This is, again, an odd juxtaposition. A game cannot encourage both frequent PC turnover and building strong characters for RP. Character development relies on the character surviving long enough to, you know, develop. Go through an arc. Have a heroes journey. That kind of thespian crap.

Much of the book is also played for laughs. The descriptions of the mutant origins is tongue-in-cheek and the flavor text for the various enemies (including humanoid rabbits, road-warrior pig people, and plant lizards who might as well be named Bulbachu) is also written with a very humorous slant. This flavor text is supposed to be read out loud during the game. The Game Master section also reminds the DM that the game is lethal and that its okay for PCs for die. These facts do not paint a picture of a game that is meant to be shelved with my D&D and Pathfinder instead of with my Order of the Stick and Munchkin Quest board games.

But then, the DM section discusses level advancement (ten levels) and using the 4E quest structure to reward additional XP and to drive the story. The example quests include “destroying a crazed robot” and “finding the cause of toxic rainstorms threatening the party’s village.” Adventure and story design is discussed in sidebars and several sample locations and enemy organizations are briefly mentioned as possible story elements. These examples include a dry-docked naval destroyer peopled by cannibals and a group of non-mutated, genetically advanced humans engaging in genocide. These are the trappings I expect from a serious RPG. ¬†They just look a little strange next to joke flavor text and a game that brags about killing PCs almost as much as I do.

And, as I’ve mentioned, the game treats random determination of statistics with such fervor that I’m surprised you don’t have to roll to determine who has to be DM. Combine that with the strange waffling between hints of seriousness and lethal wackiness and you have a very unfocussed game. It is not just that the game is trying to provide options for different styles of play. The game seems to be struggling to offer elements that would allow for serious long term play (engaging story and setting, role-playing and story structure advice, a skill system and a leveling system, and so on) and then throwing obstacles in the way of them (lethality, randomness, frenetically fast leveling, and an unbalanced skill system).

This isn’t to say it’s a bad game, though I think it would have benefitted from a bit more focus. On the contrary, I think it’s a very good game. At least, it’s a very fun game. But it’s also confusing and I think that is why so many people seem to be going with the default opinion that the game is joke intended to fill time between real RPGs. And I think that is going to hurt its staying power and leave it languishing as a passing fad. I don’t think we’ll be hearing a lot of “hey guys, for our next campaign, let’s do a Gamma World campaign.”

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