As I stated yesterday, I’m not going to do an official review of the new Gamma World until I’ve had a chance to put the rubber to the road and see how she handles under actual play conditions. What follows are bullet points of the game that I expect the grognard coalition would like to know, regardless of whether or not we’re planning on picking this up for ourselves. I’ve reached the middle of the 160 pp. rule book and have not yet opened the cards and other peripherals. The following is based on the first half of the rules.
* The official name of the game according to the rules is D&D Gamma World.
* Gamma Terra is not the result of a nuclear holocaust, which will no doubt enrage some people. Instead, it is the result of Swiss scientists mucking about at the Large Hadron Collider. Something when wrong and hundreds of possible realities coalesced into a single one—Gamma Terra. Because of this, the game master had carte blanche to throw anything he or she wants into the campaign, no questions asked. The players could be exploring a radioactive desert one week, fighting off dinosaur Nazis the next, and finish things up by pillaging the pyramid of Pharaoh Abraham Lincoln IV.
* The rules engine is 4th edition D&D, which is no surprise. I can’t be sure as this is my first real experience with it, but I suspect it might be a “lite” version of those rules. It could be that I simply remember the unwieldy mess 3.5 was and that has colored my impressions.
* Character generation is completely random. The character creation section features the following quote: “Now that you have your ideal character fixed firmly in your mind, pick up some dice and start rolling to see what sort of bizarre freak you’re ACTUALLY going to play. Sorry, that’s life in Gamma World.”
* Life is hard and then you WILL die. Players are warned that their characters are likely to perish in Gamma Terra and the best way to deal with that is to “raise a glass of Mountain Dew in his or her memory, and then get to work rolling up your next character.”
* There are no classes. At character generation, you roll d20 twice to determine your origin. This leaves you with two templates that you need to reconcile. You might start as a Radioactive Felinoid or an Android Empath. To the game’s credit, it expects you to come up with an explanation justifying some of the really outré combinations. Some suggestions are given, but ultimately it’s left in your hands to figure things out. Template names are more indicative of the powers they possess rather than accurate descriptions of the origin. For example, if your origins were Hawkoid (flight-based powers) and Rat Swarm (swarm-based powers), you could decide that your character is a sentient flock of seagulls or a hyper-intelligent colony of bats. Your Android Yeti could just a well be a cybernetic Bigfoot (all the better to fight Steve Austin) as it could a gorilla with a space helmet. I recommend that WotC hire Jeff Rients to immediately write a supplement that lists every possible rationalization for all the off-the-wall combinations available at character creation.
* Abilities are the standard six and every character begins with (usually) one ability of 18 and another at 16, based upon their origins. The rest of your abilities are determined by rolling 3d6 in order. I’ll repeat that so you know it’s not a typo: 3d6 in order.
* There are ten skills in the game, each covering a broad area such as Science or Mechanics. Every character can attempt any skill, but starts with a +4 bonus to three of them (again, usually).
* Weapons and armor are abstract. You might start the game with Light Armor and a Heavy Two-Handed Melee weapon. Again, it’s left up to you to decide if that means you’re wearing a Kevlar-lined duster or a chainmail shirt made out of pop tops tabs. Your weapon could be a parking meter, a claymore, or a sledgehammer: it doesn’t matter. The mechanics remain the same.
* Starting gear is determined randomly. There is no buying equipment. You start with 1d4+1 things and a basic clothing/equipment package.
* Everyone has mutations, but, unlike previous editions of Gamma World, these mutations are constantly changing. This is where the customizable card element comes in. At the start of every game, you draw a number of mutations based on your level from either your own or the game master’s deck. At the end of an encounter (and sometimes during), you discard that mutation and draw another. You have that power available until after the next encounter. Characters can try to supercharge their mutations by making a die roll and, depending on your origins, you may get a bonus to that roll. The rational for this constant change is that your character isn’t mutated per se, but is really drawing upon alternate realities in which you naturally possessed these ability. This manifestation is a temporary one. Since you can customize your own card deck, you can stack it with mutations that you want to have (within limits) but you can’t control when you have access to them with any certainty. I suspect that this element of the game is going to be the most loathed by traditional roleplaying gamers.
* Like mutations, each character has an artifact deck (called Omega Tech). When you character searches a room or gains a reward, the game master informs you to pull a card from your Omega deck and your character finds the item depicted on the drawn card. When you use this item, there is a chance that it breaks, runs out of power, etc. in which case you discard the card. Some cards can be salvaged, becoming permanent inventory items, but these usually work at reduced efficiency.
* It took me exactly 20 minutes to create a character, and this was because I was unfamiliar with 4th edition mechanics and the index of the rulebook is a poor one. After a few attempts, I could see character generation being a 10-15 minute process. At the end of the character creation process, I had a character with a STR of 6, a CON of 8, a DEX of 11, an INT of 20, a WIS of 10, and a CHA of 5. Being both Telekinetic and an Engineered Human, I decided that, with scores like those, he was Mini-Hitler: a “Boys from Brazil”-type experiment that went horribly askew. This 3’ tall, wizened refugee from the ODESSA Project dreams of finding technology and power so that someday people will take him seriously.
* The game is self-contained. With everything needed to play except for dice, and advancement rules up to Level 10, you could theoretically run a campaign for years using nothing more than the initial purchase. WotC is going to market the hell out of the expansions and the booster card packs but they aren’t actually needed—especially if you’re the creative, home-brewing type.
* The art design leaves something to be desired. The rule book looks like someone melted a roll of Lifesavers candies between the pages.
That’s it for first impressions presented in as neutral a manner as I could.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that D&D Gamma World, as ill-named is it is, actually has a lot of old school sensibilities to it and, while it’s not going to bring peace to the D&D edition arguments, it may serve as a barometer of sorts. Someone who was reared on 3.5 and 4th edition, but yet embraces the random character generation and lethality of Gamma World might get a better idea of what it is we like about our older versions of these games. At the same time, we grognards need to give Richard Baker and Bruce R. Cordell some respect for being aware of the roots of both the hobby and Gamma World and incorporating them into this new version. Perhaps there’s some common ground out there after all.
It’s still too early to form a definite opinion on the game, but I suspect that the 4th edition rules engine and the customizable card element is going to be the deal-breaker for most old gamers. If you’ve tried 4th edition and didn’t find it to your liking, D&D Gamma World isn’t going to change your opinion. If you hate game elements that jar you out of immersion, are too “board gamey,” or despise M:tG with a vengeance, the Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech decks will send you screaming for the radioactive hills.
As for myself, so far D&D Gamma World has made me rethink, but not necessarily revise, my stance and I look forward to reading more and seeing how it all comes together in play. I’ll have more on that in the days to come.