This is a brief history of my role-playing experience. You can skip a few paragraphs to get to the beginning of the review, marked in bold.
I was never a big role-playing game player. I dabbled a bit here and there, but I always had a hell of a time getting a reliable group. It isn’t such a bad thing though as my RPG failures eventually led to my table top gaming passion. It was after a D&D group fell apart that the remnants and I started playing Magic: The Gathering & Robo Rally. And now, here I am: A. Lee Martinez, world-famous novelologist and game-playing guru.
I was never much of a D&D player. It always seemed too rules intensive to me, too controlling with a real lack of meaningful choices in character design. And it always bugged me that wizards couldn’t pick up swords. I’m not expecting them to slay a dragon with the thing, but you should be able to pick it up and swing the damn thing. Although I was usually just a dwarf warrior because, push comes to shove, I’d rather just chop the bad guy with an ax than try to micromanage my spell catalogue.
It didn’t help too that I had plenty of bad experience with role-players in general. All it takes is one bad apple to spoil the fun. One guy who thinks it’s funny to kill every peasant he comes across. One weirdo dude who wants to make a female character and then tries to seduce the other guys in the party. One dumbass who finds potty humor and / or lack of teamwork amusing.
I did have some good times role-playing, but it wasn’t ever with D&D.
I liked Vampire in theory, but I could never get enough players. And I wasn’t gothy enough. I’d much rather stalk the night as an anti-hero vampire than deal with politics and angst. I enjoyed the concept of Werewolf a whole hell of a lot. The combination of magic and bloodthirsty werewolves was hard to resist. But, again, no players. Mage was a game of tremendous promise, but nobody I knew was interested.
FUN FACTS: I actually wrote 100 pages of a novel based on the World of Darkness. I guess it was technically fan fiction, but I really did think it was great. Unfortunately, after reading a few of the published White Wolf novels, I realized that I wasn’t the target audience. Again, not gothy enough.
FUN FACT #2: My favorite Mage character was a mad scientist named Dr. Spectre, Man of Science! He was a Doc Savage knockoff, and he was awesome. Shame he never got a chance to see some action.
The game I probably played most reliably was Deadlands, the Weird West RPG. The system was a bit clunky, but cowboys versus monsters is a pretty sweet setting. After Deadlands, the gameI loved the most (and continue to love) is Feng Shui aka Shadowfist. The game was built on Honk Kong action flick rules, and had a terrific, fun setting of kung fu killers and mutant demons from the future. The thing I loved about Feng Shui was that, unlike most RPGs, you started the game as a badass. You were a killer, a powerhouse, a whirlwind of death and destruction. It also had a great, simple system and was one of the easiest RPGs to play or run I’ve ever run across. Just absolute pure fun.
And now, the review:
It’s probably been about 15 years since I picked up a RPG. So no one was as surprised as I was when I decided, on the spur of the moment, to pick up the Gamma World RPG. From what I’ve read, Gamma World is a direct adaptation of the D&D,4th edition rules. I am not familiar with those rules at all, though I know a bit about the controversy. The new D&D is more of a sophisticated boardgame with some RPG elements. And I can see why some might be annoyed by this. When I role-played, I never liked using maps and figures. It takes your attention and puts it on the board, makes everything seem technical and dull. It seems to me, just based on this, that D&D is halfway between a board game and a RPG, and falls short on each.
But what about Gamma World? Is it a good game? Is it worth buying?
I don’t know, but I think it has promise. Let’s start with the setting. Gamma World is a truly unique game in that instead of playing elves and dwarves, fighters and clerics, everyone plays a mutant. There’s some contrived explanation of multiple realities collapsing into a single world. It’s really just an excuse to have mutants and monsters of any conceivable type interacting. Heck, you can even use D&D creatures in the setting. But why would you? Who would want to fight a beholder when you can fight a mutant badger with a rifle or a giant, flying worm that can turn invisible?
Anything goes in Gamma World and nowhere is that more evident than in the character creation rules. There are 20 possible origins for player characters, and everyone gets two. The game recommends picking randomly, which is fine, but I don’t see anything wrong with choosing your origin. I’ve never really understood random character generation as it can saddle a player with a character they don’t like and what good is that?
Gamma World has some basis for random character creation though. In a world where anything is possible, it can be fun to stretch your imagination and play a telekinetic plant or a swarm of time-displacing hornets or a robotic felinoid. Yes, these are entirely possible results of the creation system, and if that doesn’t thrill you, I don’t know what else to say.
ASIDE: I get that a lot of “serious” RPers will turn their nose up at this absurdity, but isn’t all fantasy absurd? Is a telepathic yeti any less believable than a wizard who can shoot fireballs or a warrior with a magic sword? Maybe that’s just me though, as I love the idea of being able to play a humanoid bird with the power to manipulate gravity.
An interesting part of the game is the use of card decks that allow the players to access random mutations and technology. In such an unstable reality, mutants can spontaneously develop and lose strange powers at the drop of a hat. So in addition to your hawkoid’s ability to fly, you might also discover the ability to teleport or grow armor for a few hours. None of these powers are very stable, and they don’t stick around for long. Some might find that annoying, but again, I love this idea. It keeps you guessing and is perfectly suited for the setting.
There are even rules for creating your own custom deck for your character and this can be fun as it’s easy to create a solid theme. You can create a deck of psychic power cards for your telepathic character or a deck of bug-like mutations for your mutant roach. There’s a great variety of mutation cards and all are clearly worded and easy to understand.
There are also a deck of Omega Tech cards that represent cutting edge technology salvaged in the ruins. These devices are completely unreliable, and that fits with the theme just fine. Players can create custom decks for these too, representing pieces of technology in their possession that are powerful, but unpredictable. And it’s a neat way of allowing characters to stumble across tech without having to consult tables and random roll charts. Heck, there’s nothing stopping the GM from sticking a piece of Omega Tech on a group of random monsters to make them more challenging.
Random boosters of cards are available, and I’m sure these could add some fun. But you don’t need them. The Gamma World box comes with plenty. So it’s a cool gimmick that doesn’t require extra investment.
Some might dislike the random card system, but there’s nothing saying they have to be random. It’s a flexible system that works well and is easily adaptable to players’ needs. And that’s true of the entire game.
Aside from the character creation and a healthy selection of monsters to choose from, the book is a little light in the setting department. I don’t know if that’s a negative though as Gamma World is such a flexible setting that players should have no problem coming up with adventures. Want to live out The Seven Samurai but with hordes of cyborg dinosaurs on the attack? No problem. Like the idea of exploring an abandon robot factory in search of astounding technology? Easy to do. Road warriors? Peacekeepers? Marauding no-goodniks? The rule system is easy to adapt, and even if you don’t use the monsters in the game, you can always invent your own pretty easily.
I don’t know if I’ll ever actually have a Gamma World RPG session. It doesn’t seem likely. But as a gonzo game full of possibilities, you could do a lot worse. I could easily see playing the game with or without a map, depending on your preference. And I can see it being a blast with the right group, players who are interested in just sitting down, creating some characters, and seeing where adventure takes them.
As a board game, I actually see a lot of potential here as well. I’m considering creating index cards with various origins and dealing them out to players to create their characters and allowing those characters to duke it out. Or you could even just have battles between monsters if so inclined.
Bottom line: I like Gamma World. I like it a lot. It’s the kind of game I’d love to get together and role-play and it’s been a while since I’ve seen that. And in a world where most RPGs take themselves far too seriously, this is a refreshing change of pace. The game is a solid toolbox for any players looking for something different, and with supplemental material on the way, it could develop into something pretty damn cool.
Recommended from this humble novelologist and former, very casual role-player.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,