Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Initial Reading of D&D Gamma World Part I

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.


5stonegames said...

Thanks for the mini review!

Having read that I know there is a 0% chance I'll be interested but thats a fine thing to know.

Saves time and money ;)

I hope you enjoy your game though

thekelvingreen said...

I didn't get on with D&D4 in its original form at all, and I really dislike the cynicism of the collectible card mechanic, but I have to admit that this post has me a little interested in this version of the game.

Captain Jack said...

I'm slightly more interested now that I know a bit more about what they are trying to do. It sounds like equal parts Gamma World and TORG of all things.

The "lite"r the better - I got sucked into buying the D&D4 core books by some online shills - and I'd never play the full version D&D4.

Dan said...

This actually sounds better than I expected. As noted already, I wonder if the WotC guys are fans of Torg and Gamma World, and combined them. I also really like the Hadron Collider apocalypse. Better than a nuclear option, IMO.

letsdamage said...

It sounds pretty cool to me. The only thing that has me feeling wary is the collectible card aspect - everything else seems like it'd be up my alley. Hmm.

Unknown said...

Of course WotC want us to buy their booster packs, they are a for profit business, I have no problem with that. The game sounds fun, and if it jumps of the shelf next time I'm in my FLGS I wouldn't be surprised.

BlUsKrEEm said...

That sounds pretty cool actually. Thanks for the min-review.

Odd word verification: Meter

edowar39 said...

Nice mini-review. D&D Gamma World actually sounds much better than I anticipated. I like the gonzo anything-can-happen-and-probably-will nature of the apocalypse. Completely random character generation and the high possiblity of characer death are bonuses, imo, as well.

I like the concept of a deck for mutations and a deck for artifacts. I'm not so hot on the CCG aspect of the cards (especially since they're doing promo-type cards...bleh). Unlike Pokeman, though, I suppose you don't have to collect them all. :)

Hopefully the combat is as tactically intricate as 4E. However, even if it is, it could probably be further simplified with a bit of house-ruling.

I think I'll pick it up and give it a shot.

Ed Green

edowar39 said...

Doh, meant to say hopefully combat is NOT as tactically intricate as 4E.

Zanazaz said...

Wow, it sounds like it just might be fun. i may have to buy it.

anarchist said...

Would the rules work if you turned the card decks into random tables?

Jay said...

Nice teaser review, Michael, thank you! I especially like the explanation for the apocalypse being the LHC and less on the nukes. It's seems much more creative and timely!

Anonymous said...

Your review so far is the first one I've seen that actually described the random elements so well. Based just on that, it sounds quite cool, and really open to allowing imaginative takes on things.

I don't know... we stopped playing 4E because it was so perfectly balanced, predictable and DULL, but this new Gamma World sounds really fun, with all the randomness involved.

Ultimately, I don't care if it is similar to the original GW if the game is fun to play. I'm very curious to hear what you have to say about it once you've tried it out.

Oh, and a CCG aspect is not a problem if you are not required to buy booster packs just to play a decent/functioning game. I'm intrigued now...

kesher said...

Tremendously useful review!

It gets me thinking about what how you might successfully simplify and randomize (and therefore SPEED UP) 4E character generation...

I'm fairly neutral re: the whole card thing, but I bet you could just turn them into randomized tables and be done with it. And, if a player wants to buy a booster pack, fine, they just have to agree to add them into the tables so that everyone has access to them.