Gamma World has a reputation as a “wild and wahoo” game. To be honest, I’ve never gotten that characterization, at least with regards to the early editions – the later ones embraced a bit of silliness in my opinion. Let’s start with what Gamma World is, to begin with.
My first encounter with Gamma World was in the “Gateway to Adventure” catalog that my D&D Basic Set came with in the early 1980s.
The devastated Earth if the far future is the setting for the GAMMA WORLD Science Fantasy Role Playing Game. Players are thrust into a world gone mad, as barbaric societies and mutated plants and animals threaten survival at every turn.
Born in 1971, I first discovered RPGs in the early 1980s. This was the last flare-up of the Cold War. It was a world where nuclear war seemed quite possible – when I was in 7th grade, ABC aired the movie The Day After, showing the aftermath of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. I remember a children’s news program – possibly CBS’s In the News talking about nuclear war and the recent theory of nuclear winter. Brown University debated making suicide pills available to students in 1984. My point being, a devastated Earth didn’t seem all that unlikely a future.
When I purchased the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide, I was fascinated to discover conversion notes between AD&D and Gamma World. I tried to find a copy of Gamma World, without luck. Unknown to me, it was out of print, though I eventually was able to get the 2nd edition of the game. Like the first edition, it too was a boxed set. This edition had two books, a 64-page basic rules book and 32-page adventure booklet – which included charts and tables and it also included was a double-sided foldout map.
I debated whether to do a huge copy and paste of the background, but for me, the opening text forever defined what Gamma World is, so I hope I can be forgiven the indulgence:
GAMMA WORLD® science fantasy role-playing game is an exciting game of action and adventure set in 25th century America … a savage land of radioactive wastes populated by weird and often powerful mutants. As a single adventure, a game can be played in under an hour. It can also be played as a connected series of adventures played over an extended period of time.
The Gamma World is a terrifying place… . hardly recognizable to those familiar with the America that existed before the”Social Wars” of the early 24th century destroyed world civilization. To the inhabitants of North America in 2450, the time before the “Social Wars” is called the “Shadow Years” since so little is known of it. Even the specific events that destroyed their nation are all but forgotten by these new Americans. Legends persist, of course, but the truth of those legends may never be known. The world-wide holocaust simply wiped out too much. Lasers, atomic warheads, chemical and biological agents and geological weapons all did their terrible work. Oceans boiled. Continents buckled. The skies blazed with the light of unholy energies. By the time the violence subsided, the very face of the earth had changed. Much of North America, including most of Florida and the low-lying Gulf area, California and parts of the Eastern Seaboard were underwater. Mountains had fallen. Rivers that had been tamed for 500 years careened wildly through the ruins of broken dams.Not a single city remained intact. The Black Years descended on the Land of the Free.
Less dramatic but more important than the destruction of the continent was the alteration in its surviving inhabitants. Not 1 in 5000 humans lived through the upheaval. Those who survived witnessed a biogenetic revolution. Animals began to repopulate the earth . . . and what animals! Vast herds of jackrabbits the sizeof horses began to cover the Great Plains. A strain of beetle appeared which grew to a length of 3 meters. A mutated form of shark adapted to life on land began to prowl the desert. But more important than these physical mutations were the mental mutations which began appearing. . . lizards with telepathy and precognition, plants able to disrupt the molecular structure of their victims, a dog-man capable of telekinesis. Nor was man immune to the effects of massive doses of biogenetic chemicals and radiation. All manner of mutations soon entered the gene pool. Most were defects that disappeared. But in the 150 years after the holocaust many became a permanent part of human breeding stock.
This, then, is the Gamma World … successor to planet Earth. It is a land of brooding forests, wild unbroken plains and rugged mountains. In places the wilds give way to man-made deserts where cities once stood. Scattered across the continent are a few settlements where the heirs of America’s industrial barons force a precarious living from the hostile land. In this place nature is merciless, death is quick and strangers are regarded with suspicion. Faced with a harsh environment, the survivors of the holocaust have joined together for protection in tribes, clans and feudal states. Augmenting these social systems are the so-called Cryptic Alliances … secret brotherhoods devoted to the reorganization of society according to their own beliefs.There are many of these, some born long ago in the Shadow Years.
Journey, now, into the far future where life is both dangerous and exciting . . .where those who lived before the 24th century are called “the Ancients” and are regarded with awe for their dimly understood art and science . . . where the wonders of man’s highest technology exist side by side with the stone axe and the coat of chainmail . . . where exotic mutations abound and strange new powers of the mind shape human life. Journey now to the Gamma World.
For me, this is perhaps the most evocative opening text of any RPG. I knew exactly what sort of setting I was dealing with. An important question is how well does the game realize that vision? I’d have to say it comes close to realizing that vision, but it does fall short in some areas. In this review, I’ll give my opinions on what works and doesn’t work – at least for me. Your mileage may vary.
The two books in the boxed set are broken down into a number of parts. Part I is the opening I’ve just quoted, along with discussions as to what is an RPG, how does one win, etc. Let us dive into the remaining parts – at a bit of a brisker pace.
Part II – Creating Characters
The character creation of Gamma World is pretty familiar to those familiar with old versions of D&D. Instead of races, you have character types. These can be:
- Pure Strain Humans – I’d say this is humans like (presumably) you and I, but that’s not quite true. Surviving the holocaust of the future has resulted in a form of humanity immune to mutation, smarter and hardier than other character types, better able to figure out ancient artifacts, and far more likely to be accepted by surviving robots and other artificial intelligences left behind by the ancients.
- Humanoids – They usually look like regular humans, but are subject to mutation – which might render them no longer looking quite human.
- Mutated Animals – Pretty much what it says on the tin. Your opportunity to play a mutated turtle – perhaps a teenage one who has mastered ninjutsu… (Generally speaking, player mutated animals had to be roughly human-sized.)
Beyond these types, there are also Mutated Plants, though this character type is for NPCs only.
Oddly, there is no concept of class or level – your ability to advance is fairly limited in Gamma World (as will be discussed later on). You might improve in status, get more artifacts, and mutate further, but you’ll never see your chances to hit improve. This is actually a difference from 1st edition Gamma World, which did have some fairly basic advancement rules.
You also generate your character’s attributes. They are nearly identical to D&D stats – Mental Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity, Charisma, Constitution, and Physical Strength. You roll 4d6 for each attribute, dropping the lowest die. Pure Strain Humans get a bonus here, simply adding all four dice for Intelligence, Charisma, and Constitution, capping at 18 for Constitution and 21 for Intelligence and Charisma.
Various tasks, outside of combat, can be performed with ability checks. These are percentile rolls vs. the attribute, typically multiplying the attribute by an integer 1 through 5 based on the difficulty of the task.
Characters have a lot of hit points – you roll a number of dice equal to your Constitution to determine hit points – d6 for Humanoids and Mutated Animals, d8 for Pure Strain Humans. Weapons in Gamma World are comparable to D&D weapons for their damage, though artifacts tend to do quite a bit more damage. This leads to characters being somewhat “arrow-proof” – at least in the short-term – clearly, they can be worn down.
Humanoids and Mutated Animals start with 1d4 physical mutations and 1d4 mental ones. To determine specific mutations, you make a d100 roll on a random table, adding your Constitution or Mental Strength. Lower entries in the table are defects, meaning your character can have some bad mutations. It is also possible to gain new mutations through radiation or drugs – this often requires an unmodified roll. Pure Strain Humans are immune to mutations but instead, take damage.
One oddity I found with Gamma World is all the charts and tables are found in Part IX (in the smaller adventure book) so the tables for mutations is nowhere near the actual mutation descriptions. (Ditto for weapons.)
A large portion of Part II is dedicated to mutation descriptions. These are “superpowers” and not at all balanced, ranging from planar travel to heightened senses to sonic blasts. Some of the defective mutations include things like no nerve endings, narcolepsy, poison susceptibility, etc. For Humanoids and Mutated Animals, mutations go a long way to defining your character. My memory as a GM is some mutations were big headbangers when it came to playing the game. For example, planar travel allows you to visit a random other plane – and you can never return. What does one do with that should a player choose to travel through it? The offensive powers do tend to be a bit more balanced – they tend to do a lot of damage but are often limited to being used once or twice a day.
Characters are from bases which have one of three tech levels:
- Tech Level I – Tribal societies one step above hunter-gatherer level. 50% of the population hail from these.
- Tech Level II – Feudal, pre-industrial societies, with their wealth in land, livestock, crops, and slaves. Home to 45% of the population.
- Tech Level III – Industrialized enclaves, often hidden. Characters typically do not start from these.
Characters can easily get equipment from their tech level or below and can attempt to get equipment from higher tech levels.
Part III – The Basic Game
Part III contains the bulk of the rules for action. I’ll not dive into all of it but will cover it at a high level.
The boxed set has a foldout map with three scales. It includes a continental map with 44-kilometer hexes (because even America will use the metric system in the future… sigh…), an area map of the Allegheny County area of Pennsylvania at 2 kilometers per hex and a 60 meter per square map of the ruins of Pitz Burke (Pittsburgh). Indoor adventure maps are at 3 meters per square.
The Allegheny area map is accompanied by descriptions of the settlements in the adventure book, making it a great starting area.
Like a number of older RPGs, time is also broken down into different defined increments. They are:
- The 4-hour March Turn
- The 10-minute Search Turn
- The 10-second Action Turn
Like most RPGs of the era, at the beginning of an encounter surprise is rolled for, followed by initiative for each group. Interestingly, unless I’m reading it wrong, initiative is only rolled once per encounter, not per Action Turn. I think back when we played we were so used to D&D we just rolled initiative every Action Turn.
Before diving into combat rules, the rules spend some time talking about checking for encounters, reaction rolls, and recruiting NPCs.
Combat is pretty familiar to most gamers of the period. It is entirely table-based, with weapons having different weapon classes. You look up your weapon class vs. your foes armor class and try to roll the target number or higher on a d20. Interestingly, the tables are not purely linear – certain weapon classes are more or less effective against certain armor types. It is important to note, armor class solely represents the type of armor (or its equivalent) – Dexterity is not a factor. Higher Dexterity does give a modest bonus to attack rolls and higher Physical Strength gives a small bonus to muscle-powered weapon damage. There is also a hit die-based attack table for “monster” attacks. For those from non-D&D backgrounds, hits dice simply represent the number of dice rolled for hit points.
I’ve shown the attack matrix and an excerpt of weapon damage and armor to give an idea as to the types of numbers we are talking about.
For example, to attack a character wearing Chainmail Armor with a Laser Pistol you would look up the intersection of WC 13 with AC 4, requiring an 8 or higher on a d20.
The chapter ends with an interesting section describing equipment and has rules for figuring out technological artifacts. There’s also a section on ammunition and energy sources – for example. chemical batteries are rechargeable but lose their charges after a few years.
Part IV – Encounters & Hazards
Part IV begins with a “monster manual” of sorts – standardized creatures adventurers can meet. An entire article could be dedicated to just these. I’ll just highlight some favorites –
- Arks – Man-eating bipedal dogs who can control weather, have telekinesis, and leech out life energy. Man’s best friend?
- Badders – Bipedal badgers with empathy who are big fans of wanton destruction.
- Hoops – Telepathic rabbitoids.
- Seps – Land sharks, a true horror to those of us who first saw Jaws.
There’s also Cryptic Alliances – major organizations dedicated to remaking the world in the image they see fit – well except for the Red Death, who wants to kill everyone. Restorationists want to bring back the old world. Knights of Genetic Purity are a bunch of racist Pure Strain Humans and Androids. The Zoopremisists (Animal Liberation Front) are Mutated Animal terrorists. The Bonapartists are a group founded by the mutated bear Emperor Napoleon I whose doctrine is a strange mix of Mein Kampf, Animal Farm, and The Age of Napoleon. The Followers of the Voice worship computers – and have a floppy disk as their symbol – clearly floppy disks will have a resurgence in the next centuries… I found Cryptic Alliances interesting as they gave PCs something to aspire to as well as providing some antagonists for them.
Additionally, robots are detailed here, ranging from cargo lifters to medical robots to warbots. Additionally, some of the more advanced stationary artifacts are detailed – broadcast power stations (capable of powering everything within a 20 km range, stasis chambers, rejuv chambers, etc. – great fodder for adventures or even campaigns.
Finally, hazards like radiation and poison are detailed, though these effects are all determined using tables in the adventure book.
Part V – Example of Play
The main book ends with a one-page example of play – a random encounter with a group of “Badders” – mutant bipedal badgers.
Part VI – Rite of Passage
The adventure book includes an introductory adventure for a group of Tech Level I characters. They need to perform a Rite of Passage to become adults in their tribe – they must journey to the ruins of Pitz Burke and each retrieves an artifact. They are also tasked with rescuing some hostages from their tribe, being held for ransom by a group of Bloodbird brigands in Pitz Burke.
Probably my favorite part of the adventure was the description of locations in Allegheny – healer monasteries, city-states, tribes, etc. I can see running long campaigns armed with the area map and those descriptions.
One weakness I found was the giant ruins of Pitz Burke had only cursory detail, save for a few locations where major events were expected to take place. While a GM can certainly make stuff up, this is a place where, for an introductory adventure, some tables and additional guidance might have proven handy.
Part VII – Conducting Campaigns
Part VII has details on how to run a campaign – generating area maps, languages and social systems of Gamma World, etc. It has a section on how characters can gain Status which can be used to earn Ranks – the closest thing this edition of Gamma World has to advancement. Higher Rank characters have Charisma bonuses, better access to equipment, and better chances to join Cryptic Alliances.
Part VIII – Designing Adventures
Quite similar to adventure design guidance given in the D&D Basic Set, Part VIII features guidance on different types of adventures (exploring the unknown, rescuing prisoners, etc.) and how to create adventures around these ideas.
Part IX – Charts and Tables
The book ends with a perforated section of all the charts and tables – handy, but super-dangerous for middle schoolers prone to misplacing loose sheets…
In middle school, I played a number of Gamma World games – never long campaigns, but often mini-campaign and one-shots. We also crossed over with our AD&D game, having paladins and wizards visit Gamma World.
Rereading the book, I do still find the setting extremely evocative. Having since acquired the 1st edition, I think the 2nd edition does a better job giving a feel to the setting, though I do prefer the advancement system of the 1st edition. The games are very compatible with each other – while there are some differences in character generation and other rules, you can easily use a 1st edition adventure with 2nd edition characters and vice-versa. The 1st edition uses a flowchart for figuring out technological artifacts while this 2nd edition uses a lookup table.
After the 2nd edition, every new adventure introduced a fairly radical change in rules:
- 3rd edition – Table based (like the 1980s Marvel Superheroes RPG)
- 4th edition – AD&D-based
- 5th edition – Alternity-based
- 6th edition – D&D 3.x/d20 Modern-based (published by White Wolf)
- 7th edition – D&D 4e-based, with random cards used for mutations
One unfortunate thing is that while the 2nd edition adventures are available at DrivthruRPG, the 2nd edition boxed set is not. This is a bit disappointing – all the other editions seem to be available. Hopefully, this will be remedied over time – I do see DrivethruRPG periodically adding new material to their Gamma World products, though I believe the 2nd edition boxed set is about it for missing material.
I’d say it’s definitely worth getting your hands on should you be able to find it at a decent price, but I’d be hesitant about the price well in excess of $100 that you’ll often find it going for.