Mention Gamma World to an old school gamer and you’re in store for some pretty insane stories. The game, created just a few years after Dungeons & Dragons, was full of madcap adventures through a blasted post-apocalyptic America. Sentient plants, animals, and mutated humans battled it out over the remnants of society. It was science fantasy role-playing that didn’t take itself seriously, and geeks loved it. They still do.
Now, over thirty years and six editions later, Wizards of the Coast has brought Gamma World back to gaming tables everywhere. Much like its predecessors, this updated version of the game is built around the existing D&D ruleset, now in its fourth edition. But Gamma World breaks the mold in a few very special and extremely entertaining ways.
Set in the world of Gamma Terra, essentially Earth after a horrible accident at the Large Hadron Collider somehow combines all multiverses into a single reality, the game is a great playground for adventure, as it opens up the world to the players’ imaginations and ensures that anything is possible.
There’s not a lot of stuff in the box, honestly. It has one of those cardboard frames inside, to make it seem fuller than it really is. Not a big deal, really, because you get what you need to play: a 160 page rulebook, four double sided character sheets, 2 double-sided battle maps, a set of cardboard player and enemy tokens, a deck each of Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech cards and a booster pack containing both types of cards.
Gamma World first diverges from D&D with its character creation. Instead of careful selection and customization, it’s pretty much completely random. You roll some dice, consult a table of origins and, bam, you have your android cockroach or electrokinetic yeti or radioactive felinoid.
My group rolled up an engineered human android, a doppelganger giant and a mind coercer rat swarm. Yes, these character origins are essentially the character classes and races. And coming up with each combination is random, so there’s a lot of fun packed into those dice rolling sessions. There’s wiggle room for intepretation. What kind of rat swarm are you? You don’t have to be rats if you don’t want to. How about a swarm of nanites? Or kittens? It’s totally up to you and your group.
After my players got their assignments, we spent a few minutes discussing what they meant: an enhanced human soldier heavily influenced by the Borg, a massive book-loving giant and a group of leather-armor clad laboratory mice. We were already having a lot of fun and we hadn’t even finished our characters.
Each origin grants various bonuses and powers, and that’s where character creation bogged down a bit. There’s only one rulebook, so we had to pass it around and read a lot of stuff out loud. There aren’t any character power cards in the box to hand out, which would have made the process a lot easier. Next time, I’ll print out my own.
Gear is more abstract than in D&D. There are melee weapons, ranged weapons and guns. Light weapons do less damage than heavy weapons. The rest is up to the players. For instance, our doppelganger giant had heavy gun which she skinned as a book-gun called the “Steve Gutenberg”. It launched rolled up copies of novels at enemies. Pretty sweet, huh?
Characters get a basic adventuring kit with all the necessities, but they can roll to get random stuff like cellphones, flashlights or duct tape.
Once the players get their powers, skills and gear together, you get to pass out the cards. This is where Gamma World starts to get really chaotic.
Alpha Mutation cards detail a weird trait that your character suddenly exhibits. Draw the Footus Ginormicus card and your rat swarm sprout humongous clown feet. These mutations confer bonuses or new powers and are a real hoot to play. Some offer an “overcharge” feature, which lets the player gamble to get something more out of the mutation. If they roll high, awesome things happen. If they roll low… well, awesome things still happen, just not in the character’s favor. These backfires are often the most entertaining part of a Gamma World session.
Then there’s the Omega Tech deck. These are the magic items of Gamma Terra. You can use them in place of your standard gear and they’ll usually fizzle out immediately. Some you can salvage for later, but they’ll lose a lot of their oomph.
The cards are great. They add a level of uncertainty to the game which really makes for interesting encounters. Previous editions used randomized tables, but a deck of shuffled cards is much easier to manage and is more fun for the players.
Players are allowed to buy booster decks of the cards and build their own. In certain situations, they must draw from the gamemaster’s deck, but otherwise they can pull from their own. This allows for some players to customize what their characters are mutating into and picking up along the way.
There has been a bit of an uproar over this “collectible” aspect of the game. Bear in mind that it’s totally optional. You don’t need to buy a booster pack to play the game. If one player builds their own deck, it doesn’t mean that all players have to. Sure, the cards are overpriced ($4 for a pack of 8), but you don’t have to buy them to enjoy the game. You’ll have plenty of fun without them.
Playing the game is easy. If you’ve played fourth edition D&D, then you’re pretty much good to go. There are a few differences—no healing surges, no half-level bonuses and more dangerous encounters—but our group picked it up with no problem.
There are some minor frustrations with gameplay. If you’re planning on running the included adventure, you’ll be doing a lot of flipping back and forth, as the monsters it uses are not statted out in the adventure text. Monster cards would solve this problem easily.
Finally, there’s no indication on the backs of the cards as to whether they’re Alpha Mutations or Omega Tech. Don’t mix them up, otherwise you’ll have to face them all up and re-sort. Not a huge issue, but still something that would’ve given the game a bit more polish.
Others have described Gamma World as Gonzo role-playing and I can’t argue with that. This is a game that doesn’t relent in its extremity. Nothing is static and everything is chaos, and this makes it one of the best frameworks ever for awesome collaborative storytelling. We took a week off our regular D&D campaign, where my wife is currently running us through the Tomb of Horrors, and it’s looking like we might take another week off. The strange radiation and odd denizens of Gamma Terra are calling us back.
If you’re interested in rolling up a crazy Gamma Terran mutant, head to your friendly local gaming store tomorrow for the Gamma World Game Day. They’re requiring people to buy booster decks to participate, but they’re optional to the gameplay, so you could probably talk the gamemasters out of it. You’ll get 2 unique cards just for joining in, so that’s pretty cool.
Wired: Wacky role-playing in a post-apocalyptic setting. Familiar D&D 4E ruleset. Cool random card element.
Tired: Cards aren’t differentiated on the back. Lack of power and monster cards. Game Day requires booster card purchase.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game.