Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Review - Gamma World

WotC recently released a brand new version of the venerable Gamma World game. If you played and loved the original, or the prior reboot, it totally doesn't matter. There are some call-outs in the game text for older fans, but there is no real connection.

Here is my ultra-short review: This is probably the best beer-and-pretzels RPG you will ever own. It is super easy, super quick, and yet still gives a robust play experience. It also is easy to just have gut-busting fun with it.

First, posting this review was sparked by the inestimable Fred Hicks getting together a Thursday night game. Unfortunately, it is too far and too late for me to do on a school night. *sigh* But, you should check out his posting on it, because one of his commenters left an awesome list of links to character sheets, play aids, and even a couple nifty character generators.

So, what is Gamma World? It is an RPG, loosely based on fourth edition D&D. However, even if you are a 4e hater, give it a try. They slimmed the system way down. It is quick and clean, and very easy to understand. They did this mostly be removing vast swaths of player options (more on that in a bit), and removing a lot of bits that are really toggles for enabling different campaign options (essentially, hard-coding them for this setting).

The setting is pretty nifty. In 2012, those crazy guys at CERN get drunk and throw a party inside the LHC. No, wait, I think that's a Hitchhiker's incident. Anyway, something goes wrong at the LHC, and the delicate quantum vibrations that keep all of the different parallel universes separate collapse. Thousands of alternate Earths are suddenly overlapping. Unfortunately, in 85% of those timelines, the Earth was devastated by nuclear war, and is an irradiated mess.

It is now somewhere around 2050, and civilization is trying to pick itself back up. In this brave new world, there are also a handful of people who know that even this post-apocalyptic wasteland is an unstable haven. Unless something can be done, and soon, the crashing universes are going to wipe out reality altogether!

You are a member of a rag-tag collection of heroes, hoping to save reality. And when I say "rag-tag", you'd better believe it. All of you are mutants, horribly changed when multiple versions of yourselves overlapped. Go to this character generator and hit "Chaos!" a few times to see some of the different origins you can have. That represents the stable mutations affecting you.

One of the super-nifty things about Gamma World is that, by the book, you determine these origins at random. You start the game by rolling a d20 twice. The first one determines your primary origin, the second your secondary origin. These origins pretty much define the character, including your high stats, powers, and high skills. Roll up your other stats, roll for some random starting gear, pick an armor and a couple weapons, and you are ready to go! With that character generator above, I could probably create a complete, playable character in about five minutes. Ten if I was really having trouble with the name.

In addition to your origins, less likely alternate versions of yourself frequently overlap with you, giving you what are referred to as "alpha" mutations. These are randomly drawn from a deck of cards. When you use a mutation, it goes away, and you get to draw another. Also, any time you roll a 1, on any roll, you exchange your alpha mutation for another. These basically give you one additional simple power, or you can "overcharge" the mutation to get a powerful boost, with a 50% chance of it going horribly (and often comedically) wrong.

In a similar manner, Gamma World is littered with very high-tech items, referred to as "omega tech." Again, when you get one, it is randomly drawn from a deck of cards. All of these tech items are unstable, and become useless once used (going back into the deck).

If you already know 4e, or even the d20 system, you now pretty much know everything you need to play the game. There are a few other details, like movement, actions, and healing that you might want clarified. But I've never played 4e before, and I could keep up just fine without consulting the rules at all. (Admittedly, I have read a number of blogs, so I understand the minor/move/standard action structure and whatnot. Even if you hadn't, though, I could explain it to you in about five minutes. It would take you longer to figure out how to play Monopoly.)

One of the awesome things that Gamma World did carry over from 4e in spades was the concept of re-skinning. For those unfamiliar, this is the concept that the mechanics of a thing and the description of that thing are not necessarily tightly bound together. As an example, the weapons in Gamma World are defined simply by three traits: melee vs. ranged, one-handed vs. two-handed, and light vs. heavy. (Technically, ranged is subdivided into gun vs. other as well.) That's it. If you want a light, two-handed, melee weapon, it can be a claymore. Or a street sign. Or a length of chain. Or the broken top of a desk. It doesn't matter. They all use the same stats. So, you can get super-creative in describing what you look like.

It has occurred to me several times that Gamma World is almost given away for free. I mean, WotC was pretty free with allowing people to publish origin references for the big release a couple weeks ago. But, there's a hitch there. As I mentioned, the alpha mutations and omega tech come from a card deck. That card deck is not available for free. You have to buy the set. Which, IMHO, is pretty nifty. You only need one set of cards to play, but you can download a copy of all the rules for each player. That's a lot of freedom for each play group. But, it also pretty effectively stops pirates in their tracks. Even if someone did post copies of the cards, or their text, would it really be worth it to print out and make your own cards?

Speaking of the cards, one of the quirks of this game has garnered a lot of comment on the interwebs, mostly before the game was actually released. You can buy booster packs of the cards, to supplement the decks included in the basic set. What?!? WotC is trying to bilk us out of our money by forcing us to be Mr. Suitcase with an RPG!! Well, really, that's not the case at all. It became blindingly obvious by the end of our first session that the booster packs are going to be filled with nothing but supplemental awesome. The decks that come in the core game have plenty of awesome baked in to get you through several sessions with no problem. But, if you want to see more wacky stuff, go pick up a few boosters. It really is a purely optional add-on, that doesn't change the gameplay at all.

I will throw out one caveat about Gamma World. It is lethal. You will lose characters along the way. Given how quick and easy it is to create characters, this isn't an issue for a one-shot game. You can generally have a new character ready to go by the time the rest of the group finishes the combat. It is a concern for a campaign, though. You might want to tack on a few optional rules to improve the survivability of the characters, if you want them to last through a story arc.

In summary, this is one of the most fun games I have played in a long, long time. It strongly encourages gonzo sensibilities, where literally anything is possible. It runs very smoothly and very quickly. The re-skinning means that the basic rule-set is infinitely extensible. In our game, one player rolled up "yeti," but decided he didn't like that. So, he made it a giant, intelligent St. Bernard instead. Same mechanical effects all the way around, but a very different character. And, the random elements of the rotating alpha mutations and omega tech added a really interesting texture. We were often sorry to see a really neat power go, but we were always equally eager to see what the next new power would be!

It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.

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