Thursday, September 23, 2010

Countdown to Armageddon: 3rd Edition Gamma World

Or “Things that Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time”

Having decided to run 2nd edition Gamma World next year with some additional bits and pieces bolted to the rule framework, it’s now a matter of going back and re-examining the editions that didn’t make the cut to see what there is to steal from them. In that vein, I sat down to reread the various books included in the 3rd edition Gamma World set published in 1986.

Wow. Who thought this was a good idea?

I had forgotten many of the particulars of 3rd edition despite knowing for a fact that I both played and ran 3rd edition games back in the ‘80s. I fondly remember playing a mutant spider named Boris in several of them. What I cannot remember, however, is how we ever managed to use the rules as written. Re-reading them again, I can’t fathom how this was ever sold as the future of role-playing gaming.

Lest you think I’m coming down on the game solely for its use of the Action Table (abbreviated ACT), one of those multi-colored monstrosities that used a d% roll compared to various sized color bars to determine not only if you succeeded in your action but also the level of your success, let me state that I used a similar table back in those dim-remembered days for Marvel Super Heroes. From what I remember (and that could be the root of my problem), the MSH chart wasn’t as convoluted as the ACT table and modifiers from 3rd edition Gamma World.

I suspect my ever-growing fondness for simplified game rules may also color my reaction, but, even with many years role-playing experience under my belt, being subjected rules that could have one making a roll with a +2 CS and a RF of -1, and needing to meet a DF of yellow or better just seems to be sadistic! My eyes began to tear and a slight whimper escaped my lips as I pined sadly for a “+1 to hit” modifier. I suspect that many of the TSR titles from the mid-to-late ‘80s failed to seduce the number of neonate role-players that their earlier and later relatives did.

Despite my personal belief that the ACT table and its modifiers are overly convoluted for my own sensitive palate, I can see the point: Rather than generating a binary succeed/fail result for a character’s actions, the color table accommodated a broader range of possibilities and therefore facilitated more exacting and realistic game play. But that doesn’t answer the question of who the hell thought a game that featured mutated rabbits that can turn metal into rubber with a touch needed realistic game adjudication!

My friends, one will never see a collection of more exacting rules compiled in a TSR title than in 3rd edition Gamma World. The rule book contains five pages of 9-point font in dual columns dedicated to 76 forms of damage, special effects, and attacks. Covering every possible scenario from alcohol poisoning to weakness, the section actually features the advice, “You need not read this entire section.” However, if you choose to, like I foolishly did, you’ll find yourself slipping into a coma around the entry for “Steam” (yes, there is an entire paragraph covering how to apply damage inflicted by steam). Luckily, comas are also covered in the rules.

Alright, I see your point. It was a different time. Regan was in the White House, Gordon Gekko was telling us “Greed is good,” and more was better. I’ll accept that and let’s just play.

What you mean we’re waiting for the Rules Supplement?

It seems that in their eagerness to cover “sunburn,” TSR either forgot to include or edited out but failed to remove references to some rather useful material (They claim the later. I remain unconvinced). Things like how to create a certain type of mutated plant or the descriptions of 42 plant mutations. It also left out information on all the Cryptic Alliances. Imagine that: Gamma World without Cryptic Alliances. Equipment price lists and descriptions also failed to make it into the box, as did some robots.

This missing data was all compiled in a separate booklet called the "Rules Supplement." I think if you were one of the initial buyers of 3rd edition Gamma World, you actually had to send an S.A.S.E. to Lake Geneva and request one of these from Customer Service. It was so long ago that I can’t remember how I got mine, but I know it wasn’t in the box set I bought.

Most disconcerting though is that the 3rd edition was written with a default victory condition, something that had never appeared in Gamma World before (or since as far as I know). From the intro fiction of the rule book: “We have a second chance to rebuild, to restore the old glory, and to prove ourselves worthy of our heritage. For only then will we at last escape the wilderness and be welcomed back into the Cities of Man!” This follows the mentioning of Man’s travel to the stars and the fact that, after the apocalypse, the survivors cried out to the heavens but were unheeded by their star-faring brethren. In another part of the introduction, it is stated that, “For somewhere, out there in the Great Void, await the brothers of this world. If only the intelligent races can mature from their barbarism, and escape the wilderness, then they may at last be welcomed into those lost Worlds of Man.”

If I am correct, the line of modules produced to accompany the 3rd edition documented a long series of quests that was intended to end in the PCs either finding or building a starship, and thereby “winning” the game of Gamma World according to its stated victory condition above. Now, if this was the way you wanted to run your Gamma World game, I’m supportive. Having it as a built-in goal, however, especially one that flies against most every assumption I have about Gamma World, doesn’t sit right with me. It’s almost as if Jim Ward was purposely trying to come full circle and have the journey that started on a spaceship in Metamorphosis Alpha come full circle and end with a return to space from Gamma World. That 3rd edition also purposely and specifically makes the highest level of technology products of an alien race also rubs me the wrong way. No offense, Mr. Ward. I’m a big fan, but this version just wasn’t to my taste. I assume you had to adhere to certain marching orders from the powers that were.

So is there anything you do like, Mike? Yes. Yes, there is and I will be stealing all of it.

Mutant plants as PCs were introduced in 3rd edition and will be appearing in my game, especially the idea that some mutant plants (grasses, fungi, and mosses) can’t get around on their own and are symbiotic parasites that are attached to an animal servant. Imagine having to go talk to the giant mutant eagle to learn something, only to discover that you really need to talk to the mutant fungus that grows under its feathers. There’s also a cool little rule that gives all mutant plants the possibility of re-sprouting from their roots in the case of their death, making them return to play at (effectively) 1st level and down a point in all attributes.

A few new robots are introduced and I’ll be converting them, as I will be doing with a few new mutations. Also, a handy list of barter and trade goods are provided in the above mentioned "Rules Supplement" and that will be useful. I’m also going to use the third form of currency mentioned in 3rd edition (the all-mighty “dahler”) and—possibly—utilize a modified talent system to give starting characters a minor bonus in some area much as I do in Labyrinth Lord with my quirk and dirty quirks and qualities chart. There are a few minor rules tweaks and suggestions as well that bear further study.

Even if I can’t recommend 3rd edition as the version of Gamma World you simply must play, I can still get a little use out of it by picking its bones before I bury it for good. Next up on the examination table: 4th edition. Look for that autopsy in the weeks to come.

12 comments:

Joseph said...

Funny you should mention Metamorphosis Alpha. I was going to suggest you look through those rules as well for things to include in your GW game. They're really compatible with one another (at least the earlier editions of MA; I haven't seen the newer stuff).

James Maliszewski said...

Gamma 3 really is an abomination, from the rules to the organization to the mood of the whole thing. It's a good example of just how badly the game has been misunderstood in every edition since 2e. Just awful.

JDJarvis said...

GW 3 was just simply incomplete and terribly edited. The only thing I really liked was the big color chart for resolution.

BigFella said...

Ooh. I like the resprout rule for mutant plants. Haveta swipe that one myself someday...

sirlarkins said...

I suspect that many of the TSR titles from the mid-to-late ‘80s failed to seduce the number of neonate role-players that their earlier and later relatives did.

Or just folks like me who were curious about a game they'd heard a lot about.

I missed the boat on the first two editions of Gamma World but knew about the game/setting thanks to old back issues of Dragon magazine and was anxious to give it a try (Death Machines? Mutant crab grass? Too much!). I unwittingly picked up a second-hand copy of 3rd edition sometime in the mid-90s and really couldn't see what all the fuss was about, for pretty much all the reasons you enumerated here. Turned me off of the game for years afterward, and even to this day I have yet to actually run any Gamma World or Mutant Future, despite the fact that my appreciation of the game has finally recovered from that initial 3rd-edition irradiation.

Michael Curtis said...

I was going to suggest you look through those rules as well for things to include in your GW game.

MA is on the scrounging list, as I have both the revised 1st edition PDF and the Fast Foward update. I wanted to get the clunkers out of the way first though.

Michael Curtis said...

It's a good example of just how badly the game has been misunderstood in every edition since 2e. Just awful.

I'm midway through the 4th edition and, as bad as the 3rd was, at least it tried to remain true to the heart of GW. I'm seeing that 4E is where the last vestiges of the original style of play get discarded in favor of the New School. You can bet I'll have a word or two to say about that down the line.

Michael Curtis said...

I unwittingly picked up a second-hand copy of 3rd edition sometime in the mid-90s and really couldn't see what all the fuss was about, for pretty much all the reasons you enumerated here.

I wouldn't wish a fate such as that on my worst foe. The original vintage is the only way to go.

Blair said...

Year after being separated from my childhood RPG collection I found a copy of 3rd edition in a thrift store with some friends who were into RPGs,

Me: "Holy crap, Gamma World! I used to love this game!"

Friends: "Cool, let's play it when we get we get back home!"

Me at Home when I actually perused the contents: :(

Blair said...

...needless to say, there was no playing of Gamma World that day or any of the following...

Aos said...

The main character in Aldiss' "Hothouse" is controlled by a mutant fungus for most of the novel.

rainswept said...
This comment has been removed by the author.