Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Reviewing the New Gamma World -- The Adventures of Gamma Terra's Super Team Go!

This week Wizards of the Coast releases a new edition of the perennial "Gonzo Post-Apocalyptic" Role Playing Game Gamma World.  This edition will mark the seventh incarnation of the game, and the 6th version by TSR/Wizards.  In the 2000s, Wizards of the Coast licensed the game out to White Wolf Publishing who released a number of books that presented the Gamma World setting under the d20 rules set.  The newest edition of Gamma World uses the new 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons as its foundation, and demonstrates the flexibility of that rules set.

Historically, the Gamma World game has fluctuated between editions which have significant similarities to the TSR/Wizards flagship game (D&D) and those that have their own unique system.  The first and second edition of Gamma World were close enough for government work, and the 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide provided conversion rules that would let dungeon masters use Gamma World monster in their D&D games and vice versa.

The 3rd edition of Gamma World featured an Action Table mechanic that was used in a number of non-D&D TSR games at the time -- including Marvel, Indiana Jones, Conan, and Star Frontiers' Zebulon's Guide.  The fourth edition of Gamma World saw a return to D&D based mechanics, but the fifth edition of the game had mechanics based in TSR's Alternity Science Fiction role playing game.  Alternity was a quality game, that had a couple of high quality settings like Dark*Matter and Gamma World, that had the bad fortune of being released during a time when TSR's product lines were so extended that they were cannibalizing TSR's market share -- one of many problems TSR faced at the time.

For the sixth edition Wizards of the Coast licensed the property to White Wolf Publishing's "Sword & Sorcery" studio.  That edition of the game used the d20 Modern mechanics (those rules were an adaptation of the 3rd edition D&D mechanics) and was published under a d20 System license.  The game received some good support and like other editions of the game has its share of fans.

That's enough history for the moment.  I'll be doing a series of posts covering the various editions throughout the month.  That brings us to the newest edition which hits the shelves in its wide release today.

As mentioned earlier, the latest edition of Gamma World uses a stripped down version of the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules.  Gamma World's 160 page rule book provides all of the rules that you need to have an entertaining post-apocalyptic game experience, but this experience can be extended if you supplement the rule book with the 4th Edition Rules Compendium, as will be made clear as we move forward.

First Impression

As soon as I opened the box I new I was going to enjoy this game, but not for the reasons I would have assumed.  As readers of this blog know, I am a sucker for super hero role playing games and have made it my life's work to own a copy of every super hero rpg ever published.  Past editions of Gamma World, like this edition, featured mutations that afflicted the post apocalyptic player characters, but those mutations never quite equated with "super powers" in my mind.  This edition of Gamma World, on the other hand, screams to be played as a post-apocalyptic super hero game. From the character creation systems "origins" mechanic to the incorporation of "Alpha Mutations," this game comes closer than any earlier edition to being a supers game.  This supers connection is enhanced by the "What is Human?" sidebar on page 57 and the discussion of "Reconciling Contrary Origins" on page 35 and the themes of the origins themselves.  For some, that will be a bad thing.  For me, it is a blessing.

Essentials got me to play 4e, but this Gonzo Post-Apocalyptic presentation will likely keep me playing that system.

The Setting

This game has one crazy post-apocalyptic setting.  As their Introduction describes it:

In the fall of 2012, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, embarked on a new series of high-energy experiments.  No one knows exactly what they were attempting to do, but a little after 3 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon came the Big Mistake.  Something unexpected happened, and in the blink of an eye, many possible universes all condensed into a single reality.

In some of these universes, little had changed; it didn't make a difference which team won the 2011 World Series, for example.  In other universes, there were more important divergences:  The Gray Emissary, who was carrying gifts of advanced technology, wasn't shot down over Roswell in 1947, the Black Death didn't devastate the known world in the 14th century, the dinosaurs didn't die out, Nikolai Tesla did conquer the world with a robot army, and so on. The Cold War went nuclear in 83 percent of all of the possible universes, and in 3 percent of the possible universes, the French unloaded their entire nuclear arsenal on the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, because it had to be done.  When reality stabilized again, the familiar Earth of the 21st century was replaced by one formed from many different realities.

The year is now 2162, (or 151, or 32,173, or Six Monkey Slap-Slap, depending on your point of view).  It's been a hundred and fifty years since the Big Mistake, and the earth is a very different place...

This world features mutated Badgers, Giant Cockroach-Yeti Hybrids, Flying Plants, Fusion Guns, Pick Up Trucks, Draft Horses, Alien Technology, Felinoid Rat Swarms, and random holes in reality.

It is desperately in need of heroes.

The Rules

The game uses a pared down version of the 4th Edition D&D game mechanics.  During character creation, players roll on a chart twice to determine their primary and secondary "origins."

The character's origin determines the value of the character's primary and secondary statistics, thus guaranteeing that at least some of the characters statistics and powers will line up with regard to usefulness.  All other statistics are determined by rolling 3d6 like in "old school" D&D.

As might be imagined, the character origins might not always line up with what one first imagines.  What does a Hawkoid/Plant Hybrid look like exactly?  The rules provide some guidelines for reconciling these difference, but the key concept to take away is that what the powers do, and how those relate, is more important when reconciling origins than the origins' names.  Our Hawkoid/Plant hybrid has a sonic screech, the ability to fly, and an ability that damages and slows all opponents within a small radius.  Hmm...that sounds like Banshee of the X-Men.  Players should feel free to redefine the "special effect" of an origins power set to assist in creating a theme for the character.  The power that slows and damages opponents is described as "Lashing Creepers," but there is no reason it couldn't be an alternate scream effect that affects enemies inner ear.

Combat results and Skill use outcomes are determined using the standard 4e mechanic.  A player rolls a d20, adds one or more modifiers, and compares that number to a target number.  If the roll is equal to or higher than the target, then the action succeeds.  Very simple.

Gamma World adds a ripple to the standard 4th Edition mechanical framework with its use of Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech cards.  In the rules as written, these cards add a random element to game that adds to the atmosphere of unpredictability in the setting.  Alpha Fluxes, and encounters with alternate realities, can occur at any moment which can cause new mutations to players' characters.  Omega Technology, devices and weapons left by the "Ancients," are old and neglected tech that is amazingly powerful but isn't very reliable in the long run.

Players can minimize the pure random nature of Alpha Mutations by purchasing booster decks that contain a Alpha and Omega cards.  These cards can be used to build character decks, typically 7 - 10 cards, that are used when the Alpha powers shift or when players discover Omega tech.  This allows players to assign powers that match their early themes and with some minor house rules strengthens possibility of playing Gamma World as a super hero game rather than as a post-apocalyptic game.

Some consumers balk at the collectible nature of the game thinking that the collectible aspect makes the game sillier than it would otherwise be.  The purchase of boosters is not a necessary activity to play a Gamma World game, the game is perfectly playable out of the box.  Contrary to assumptions, the cards lessen the silliness of the game by providing additional stability of powers that are available to characters.  The collectible cards won't be for everyone, some people will play the game and have a great time without them, but I am a big fan.  As a "completist," I would have preferred that Wizards sold the cards in sets rather than in booster packs, but that is a different conversation.

All I can say is that the card mechanic makes this edition of Gamma World a pretty good super hero game.

Game Play Experience

The first session of Gamma World that my group and I played last week was one of the most entertaining gaming sessions we have had.  It ranks up there with our Eberron, Greyhawk, and Necessary Evil experiences.  This game is fun.  It plays quick and is easy to pick up.  The character creation is fast, but inspires the imagination.  The shifting Alpha powers can get a little silly, but as we shift to player built decks this will become mitigated.

Our group decided early on to play the game as a super hero game in a gonzo post-apocalyptic setting.  Yes, civilization is shattered.  Yes, reality fluctuates.  Yes, there are cannibalistic mutant humanoid chickens.

But this is a world in need of heroes, and my players are stepping up to the plate.  The team is named Super Team Go! and is inspired by the heroic visual narrative archives of the ancients -- stories of heroes like Speed Racer, The Stig, and The Super Friends.  They vigilantly defend the residents of Cul Ity in Sou Cal.  Their ongoing battle against tyranny and villainy begins with a foray into the Hollywood Hills where they seek to find the source of the sinister attack robots that siege the fortress gates of Muggem Dios, the Keep of Cul Ity.

Their roster includes the following heroes:

Paul Cano --Pyrokineticist/Mindbreaker.  In his White Alpine Stars armor and wearing his Stig helmet to conceal his features, Paul is the current leader of the team.  His fiery temper in the face of injustice motivates the group.

Harvey Glenn -- Plant/Hawkoid.  Harvey is the team's frontline fighter.  He is agile, tough, and wise.  His deep connection to nature allows him to call upon the spirits of the air and the woods.

Wendel Heckler -- Mindbreaker/Electrokinetic.  Wendel is the cautious type.  When combat begins he fires on the enemy with his trusty mini-autocannon and only after they are softened up does he enter the fray to bludgeon his foes with his trusty "transformer on a stick."  Those who think he is a pure combatant are quickly surprised as they feel the brunt of his psychic assault.

Francis Speed -- Speedster/Seismic.  Francis is the descendant of the famous NASCAR/F1 driver Scott Speed, an Ancient hero from Sou Cal.  He embodies Ancient Sou Cal culture.  He is always on the go, but likes to shake things up every now and then.

I cannot wait to see what this group encounters next, and will blog about their first encounters soon.  Needless to say, their early Alpha powers included Wings, Tentacles, a Proboscis, a Polar Aura, Hyper-Balance, and the ability to speak with dead.

This last power led to their recruiting of their handy "valet" Stiff.  Every super team needs a valet after all.

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