Taking the Game Seriously

November 6, 2010

Yet Another Gamma World Article

Taking it Seriously

Acknowledging that the necessary elements are there, that Gamma World can be run as an ongoing campaign, the question is how a DM can use those elements without tripping over the obstacles I’ve mentioned. After running a few sessions, I feel comfortable saying that it doesn’t require a lot of heavy modification. A DM merely needs to assume that running a Gamma World campaign is like wandering down the aisles of a liquor store. It’s a fun place to be, but stay just sober enough to watch your step or you’re going to have a lot of broken glass and wasted booze around. Specifically, a DM needs to be careful of the game’s lethality and keep an eye on the skill system. Some DMs might want to slow down level advancement and reduce some of the randomness.


Gamma World actually doesn’t seem to be as lethal as it claims. The game is actually nearly as well-balanced as D&D 4E and the PC’s accuracy and damage are boosted to compensate for a lack of feats and other such boosts and second wind is a minor action and restores half of a character’s maximum hit points rather than a quarter. The reasons for the lethality warnings are that it is difficult to build a well-balanced party, that in-combat healing is almost nonexistent, and because the random element introduced by Alpha Mutations means that the power level of the PCs is always in a state of flux. I actually did have a TPK in my first session that started when the party’s melee defender type (radioactive seismic) developed a stink gland and the rest of the party had to stay away from him, so Alpha Mutation related deaths are possible.

My second session went much better because I scaled down the difficulty of the encounters and limited them to the party’s level or slightly below. For a challenging encounter, I went one level above the party’s level. That’s all it takes. A DM who continues to have problems with lethality even after adjusting encounters could consider adding some form of in-combat healing, such as medical kits or a hovering healer robot that allows a member of the party to heal as a minor action twice per encounter. These are simple fixes but they can make a big difference.

The Skill System

The skill system doesn’t have to be a large problem either. I’ve been using it unmodified and restricting myself to easy and occasionally moderate DCs. For skill challenges, I’ve used low complexity and made sure that there were options for a very broad range of skills. Knowing what skills the party has access to is also helpful. Including several options for bonuses as suggested in the D&D Rules Compendium also helps.

A DM who still finds the skill system problematic for building non-combat encounters might consider two options. First, if a PC ends up with duplicate skills, he can ignore the rule about stacking the modifiers and instead pick a second, related skill. Second, he can allow each character two rolls on the skill chart instead of one and have players reroll all duplications. Again, a simple fix that can make a world of difference.

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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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