Tuesday, October 26, 2010

D&D Gamma World: The Final Analysis

After Sunday’s Watchfires & Thrones game, a few of the guys hung around to give D&D Gamma World a test drive. After character creation was completed, we only had time to run through one of the eight encounters in the introductory scenario. This final analysis of the latest version of Gamma World is based on that single play session, so take that as you may. But first: an anecdote.

Back in college, some friends and I would take the occasional trip to the Poughkeepsie Galleria mall to visit whichever big toy store was located there. We’d peruse the discount board games’ bin and come home with a cheap game, usually one with a sci-fi or fantasy vibe, to play on those nights when” beer & pretzels” fun was desired. One of the titles we brought home was Dragonstrike.

Some of my readers might recall that game as one of TSR’s many attempts to introduce people to the concept of roleplaying games and thus increase their potential customer base. It’s mostly memorable for the 30-minute introductory video that featured cutting edge CGI and green screen footage. Well, cutting edge for 1993 anyway. The game used an extremely simplified version of the basic D&D rules and included plastic miniature pieces to be moved around one of the two double-sided playing boards. The game came with several prewritten scenarios that required one player to become the “Dragon Master” and run the other players through them. If you’ve ever played HeroQuest, you’ve got the idea of what Dragonstrike was.

Since all of us in that group of friends had at least some roleplaying experience, we bought Dragonstrike with the intention of mocking it fiercely and approached the game as if we had never seen an RPG before. After watching the instructional video (and opening a few beers), we set up the game as instructed, even quoting a few of the choice lines from the video, and sat down to play. And even though we intended to be purely ironical in our playing of the game, we discovered it was a lot of fun.

Dragonstrike wasn’t a roleplaying game, mind you, but it did help scratch that RPG itch without the need to setup a campaign, build a dungeon, and generate characters. We even managed to get a little roleplaying in, but that was more a result of who was playing rather than what we were playing. In time, we came up with a few house rules that allowed the playing pieces to advance in power and retain items from previous scenarios. In the end, we played the hell out of Dragonstrike for a few weeks before moving on to other things. I still have the game in storage somewhere and wouldn’t be adverse to using it as an introduction to roleplaying (although I’d more likely just start with the actual beast).

Looking back on our experience with Dragonstrike, several things become clear. Was it a roleplaying game? No, but some of the mechanics were the same. Would I ever try and use the game to run an ongoing campaign? Not on your life. I suppose I could, but I’d have to make a slew of house rules that went beyond the intent of the game because it simply isn’t designed for that purpose. Was it fun? Oh most certainly, although we didn’t expect it to be when we first sat down to play. As the most keen-witted of you has undoubtedly guessed by now, the reason I mention this anecdote is because, for me, D&D Gamma World was the same experience as Dragonstrike—which might have been exactly what WotC was intending.

Although I went into D&D Gamma World as open-minded as possible, I nevertheless expected to be disappointed if not outright angry with the game. Gamma World was the second RPG I ever owned and is a dearly loved favorite. After what I construed as them pissing in my favorite fantasy swimming hole, I expected WotC to do the same with Gamma World. But an unexpected mixture of elements would prove me wrong and I’m not adverse to admitting when I’ve made a mistake.

As I read the rulebook to D&D Gamma World, I found the game growing on me a little. This was largely due to the previously mentioned old school sensibilities that this version has: the random character generation, the lethality, and the gonzo “anything’s possible” default setting did a lot to soften me up. The 4th edition rules engine, however, did its best to erode this burgeoning good will towards the game and it wasn’t until I stopped looking at D&D Gamma World as a RPG but as a board game with RPG elements that I stopped worrying and started loving the bomb again. Because, as far as I’m concerned, that is what D&D Gamma World is.

The whole “4th edition is nothing but a skirmish miniatures game” has been argued back and forth in many places and mediums, and after finally being exposed to it in detail, I’m apt to agree. Yet you have to admit that by the modern definition of a roleplaying game, neither D&D or D&D Gamma World can be accused of false advertising. RPGs, thanks to computer gaming, are games where a player creates an avatar that he maneuvers through an imaginary world in order to complete quests, collecting treasure and items, and advance in power. WotC’s “pen-and-paper” (and increasingly “and-computer”) versions meet this definition on all counts. So we can indeed consider it a roleplaying game even if most of my readers wouldn’t call it that. Having that mindset in place allowed me to look past my initial distaste for the 4th edition engine and evaluate the game as to whether it accomplished what it set out to do—and I think it does.

I speculate that WotC is trying to grow its customer base in two ways: 1) by attracting lapsed gamers back into the fold (the D&D Starter Set and Essentials line seems geared specifically towards that end), and 2) produce products that appeal to casual gamers, the kind who might be interested in playing short sessions that were heavy on immediate fun with minimal investment of time and energy. D&D Gamma World and the D&D Encounters program appear to be targeting those types of players. You can show up at your local game store with character in hand, play for an hour or three, get some loot and go home. If you want, you can come back next week and do it again.

D&D Gamma World is clearly intended to be played this way, and since it is successful in this endeavor, I can’t fault it for it. The rules all but ensure that the emphasis of the game is on the encounter happening right now and not the long-term. Despite brief attempts to reassure the player and game master that it’s important to think about the character’s personality and to build adventures that include lots of skill checks, role-playing, and problem solving, it’s obvious that these are tertiary concerns at best. Why worry about such ephemeral matters when there are mutants to burn with your laser beam eyes?!

Despite being intended for that style of play, it is not impossible to use the game in a more traditional manner. Unfortunately, it was my impression that to do so would require the judicious use of house rules. From the comments left on my previous posts and on other venues, I see that some people are already planning on implementing wide-reaching changes in the way that mutations, tech, and other aspects of the game are handled. This leads me to conclude that I’m not alone in this impression. But again, one can’t blame the game because this was not what it was designed for.

The game successfully serves as an introduction to 4th edition game mechanics, one that’s both brief and clear. Having never played 4th edition before, after reading the rulebook I was able to run Sunday’s session in a confident manner. I did have to have two of my more experienced 4th edition players clarify a rule or two, but these clarifications matched what I expected the rules’ intentions to be. If need be, I could sit down and play in a 4th edition game without concern…and that’s something that I never expected I’d be able to say. I even made my own house rule for 4th edition, which confirms my suspicion that I just can’t leave well enough alone when it comes to rules.

The result of all this is that I did indeed have a good time playing D&D Gamma World. That enjoyment was the same kind I experienced with Dragonstrike. It was an entertaining, low-investment of time and energy way to scratch the post-apocalyptic roleplaying itch. Would I play it again? Yes, I would, but again with the goal of having a good time without the need to look beyond the fight of the moment. Would I use it to run a campaign? No, not at all. The need to house rule, the overlong combats, and the built-in reliance on additional material for expansion makes it unsuitable for my needs.

In the end, D&D Gamma World is a complete success for what it intends to do. Whether its intentions and your own are compatible will ultimately determine what your own impression of the game is.

That’s it for the D&D Gamma World here at the SoTPR. We will soon be returning you to your regular blog programming. But first, a few last minute bullet points that came up during the game session on Sunday:

* WotC made a huge mistake when designing the Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech cards: they have the same backing, making it impossible to tell at a glance which pile is which. It’s also very easy for one type of card to get mixed in with the others. A seemingly minor quibble, but this was an issue at least twice during the hour-long session of play.

* Lest anyone think I’m fully in the 4th edition camp now, to paraphrase Spider Robinson, “If you can’t have fun with D&D Gamma World, it’s your own damn fault.” The entertainment value of Sunday’s game came just as much from the PCs as it did the rules as written. If the idea of a giant mutated saguaro cactus in a cowboy outfit, a mutant Joan Crawford, a swarm of flaming kittens, and a giant gravity controller swinging a dead midget on a chain as a weapon doesn’t make you grin, I can’t help you.

* Although the mechanics of 4th edition lays out everything you need to know in order to run an encounter, they also don’t lend themselves to making “legal” encounters of your own without the more detailed rulebooks. I tried to reverse engineer some of the mutants in D&D Gamma World to find out why the stats were what they were without success. I suspect things are much clearer in the D&D rule hardbacks.

* Speaking of mechanics, my players were able to confirm that the rules are a bit lighter than normal and some changes have been made to the core rules. The one that caused the biggest reaction was that second-wind now recovers half your total hit points and costs a minor action to perform.

* Although I don’t think it’s on the agenda, I wouldn’t mind seeing a line of pre-painted plastic miniatures for D&D Gamma World. Having a low cost and ready-to-use selection of 28mm minis would be a boon both to my own planned Gamma World campaign and for gonzo referees looking to add weird new critters to their D&D or retroclone campaigns.

* In retrospect, I think I’m growing more tolerant of other editions of my favorite games. I’ve found my preferred versions and am happily playing them with likeminded people. As such, I’m more willing to try new things because I know that, should I not find them to my liking, they’re not the (literally) only game in town.


Bob Reed said...

I wouldn’t mind seeing a line of pre-painted plastic miniatures for D&D Gamma World.

I am so waiting for this!

Thanks for the interesting review. I hope to sit in on a GW/4e game some time, but I probably won't buy a copy.

I used to play tons of boardgames, including mini-oriented Heroquest-type stuff. These games are great fun, but for my precious gaming hours these days I'd prefer to stick with real RPGs.

Marcel Beaudoin said...

There is a reason for the card backs being the same. According to WotC, if they had pushed the manufacturing costs any higher, they game would not have gotten made.

PatrickW said...

Monsters use entirely different creation rules than PCs in 4E, so retro-engineering the monsters trying to use the player creation rules will always fail.

This is something I initially dis-liked, but after running a few sessions, I can see why it was done and it achieves the effect desired - monsters mean something in a fight without being overly complicated to run. One of the hassles as a DM in 3.X is assembling leveled opponents for the PCs, especially in the mid- to upper-levels. It takes a great deal of time I'd rather spend elsewhere. 4E side-steps that supplying monsters at multiple challenge levels using simpler guidelines.

Thank you for your review of D&D Gamma World - it sounds like the quick throwdown game that's fun to play as a one-off or short series of games.

PeelSeel2 said...

Monsters in 4e and hence Gamma World are more akin to monster creation in early editions of D&D. Make a challenging monster. They do not have to follow the same creation rules as pc's. The 4E DMG & DMGII provide guidelines, not rules for monster creation. In making 4E more old school, you have to go away from chits/miniatures. We have always said for abstract combat that the value of a push, pull, or slide can be given to another party member as a bonus to hit, damage, or AC, players choice. Pretty much allows gridless, fast combat in 4E.

Mel said...

Poughkeepsie!? That's my current home town, and I teach at a college here.

Anyway, interesting impressions of Gamma World. I've always felt that love 'em or hate 'em WotC really knows how to present their rule sets. 4e is complex stuff, but the way the rules are presented is really quite impressive.

What bugs me about 4e (and it's an "engine" at this point, not just a rule set for DnD) is that the products are soooo clearly designed from a CCG mentality. Everything is about the latest build possibilities made possible by the latest feats and powers described in the latest book (or latest randomized deck, or latest board game expansion or latest online, subscription-based article). It's like the OS design of the 90's where Microsoft intentionally designed operating systems to be incomplete.

Chris Torrence said...

RPGs, thanks to computer gaming, are games where a player creates an avatar that he maneuvers through an imaginary world in order to complete quests, collecting treasure and items, and advance in power. WotC’s “pen-and-paper” (and increasingly “and-computer”) versions meet this definition on all counts. So we can indeed consider it a roleplaying game even if most of my readers wouldn’t call it that.

Is there a good definition of old-school roleplaying somewhere online?

Telecanter said...

Thanks for this measured review, it was good for me to read.

Jay said...

Excellent wrap up Michael! I blogged about my own experience, but I think that you squarely hit on all the key points of it being a gonzo game in its right mindset.

I appreciate your thoughtful approach. I look forward to hearing about your old school Gamma World campaign when you return to it.