My excitement about Gamma World has been inescapable for Robot Viking readers, the many people who watched the unboxing video, friends and family, random strangers, etc. Maybe I was a little too excited, since I ended up not liking Gamma World as much as I thought. The good news is, there’s a lot of awesomeness in that weird green box, and the stuff I didn’t like is easily fixable.
The first thing that needs addressing is the cards. There’s been a lot of angst about the cards. I hear a lot of snide comments about cards infiltrating RPGs, about being forced to buy the cards to play the game and other typical nerd rage. The thing is, the cards are the best part of Gamma World, but also, people are kind of right about the cards in some ways. Let me explain.
You get two decks of cards: Alpha Mutations and Omega Tech. The decks are kept separate, so why they have identical card backs, I have no idea. It’s definitely a pain when they get mixed up. Each encounter, and whenever you roll a natural 1 on a D20, a player turns in an Alpha Mutation card and draws a new one. At higher levels, you can have more than one at a time, but the important thing is that you’re constantly swapping them out. It’s fun and exciting gaining some kind of ludicrous new power for every battle, seeing how they synergize with the other party members’ powers or your own origin powers.
Omega Tech is handed out pretty liberally, certainly at a higher rate than magic item parcels in D&D. You don’t get to keep Omega Tech (which are awesomely powerful weapons) forever. After each encounter, they have roughly 50/50 chance of burning out, although at higher levels you can salvage them into mundane bits of gear. You’ll get to grab a new piece of insane tech after almost every encounter. That’s fun, just like the Alpha Mutation thing. It’s actually a lot more fun than D&D’s magic item system. Have you ever run into magic item burnout, where you finish a battle and don’t really care what magic items you find because it’s such a pain to write them down, figure out what they do, decide which character can make the best use of each one, how much they’re worth if the party wants to sell it, and on and on? Drawing a card with a sweet new item on it is so much easier, so much more immediately gratifying, and so much more fun.
Now here’s the thing that’s kind of aggravating about the cards. You can easily use just the ones that come in the box, or buy a few booster packs to add some new twists now and then, by simply keeping only two decks (Alpha and Omega), both controlled by the GM. Fine, no problem there. But the rules specifically call for the each player to build his or her own decks of cards, even including rules on deck construction (only three of each card in a deck, for instance). There are times when you get a random draw from the GM’s deck, but other times when you get the presumably better draw from your “tuned” deck. Back at Gen Con, Bill Slavicsek directly stated that the cards were not meant to be “something where you have to go out and collect every rare to build the best deck.” The Gamma World rule book directly contradicts that statement. Bottom line: use the cards as you will. I’ll be keeping randomized GM-only decks. No deck tuning, no separate decks for players. Random and fun is the spirit of this new Gamma World after all.
Character creation is hilariously fun, especially when you have your whole group do it together. It can be a bit of a pain since there’s only one book unless for some reason everyone bought their own boxed set, but taking your time to go through everyone’s origins and powers lets people collaborate on the bizarre stories behind their bizarre characters. Our group had a speedster yeti who carried around another player, a living collection of telekinetic walking stick bugs. We had a hawkman, a levitating magician and a robot.
The one flaw with character creation is the character sheet included with Gamma World. I made a bunch of copies of it for the group, and the thing is borderline useless. It’s cramped, poorly laid out, doesn’t have enough room for certain crucial bits of info, and omits some vital stat categories entirely. I’m sure someone will (or already has) made a better version, and you’d do fine to just jot your character down on a blank sheet of paper. Besides, your psychic plant will probably die pretty soon and you’ll just have to make a new one (rolling up a new character is quick and easy once you’ve done it).
Mechanically, the game is identical to 4E D&D, with a few exceptions. The cards, obviously. Also, line of sight is never blocked by dudes. Friends or enemies, you can shoot through and around them, no problem. There might be a few other minor tweaks to the rules, but I can’t remember them so they probably didn’t have much impact. Sometimes, combat moves along quickly and fluidly, the way 4E combat does. Sometimes it gets bogged down and feels terribly boring, the way 4E combat does.
The biggest letdown for me is Gamma World itself. The world barely exists. There are a few paragraphs explaining how different time streams and alternate realities have merged together, creating a blend of all these different weird technologies and shifting mutations. The book doesn’t include much information on specific locations, NPCs you might meet, storylines or campaign arcs, or any of the stuff that’s made recent 4E books so engrossing and useful. A few places are mentioned, along with a couple of “Cryptic Alliances” and adventure hooks, but it’s seriously skeletal. Surely they plan to flesh out the world in future releases, but it would have been nice to get some more background in the core box. The included 1st level adventure is a perfunctory slog through a bunch of combat encounters with precious little story and no obvious areas to build in some actual role-playing.
There’s also an emphasis on “wacky” fun. That’s fine in certain doses, but it’s not really enough to base a whole post-apocalyptic world on. In fact, as described, Gamma World feels less like a post-apocalypse and more like Loony Tunes. I just didn’t enjoy the flavor of the world. The monsters are the same way – a few cool baddies like Yexils and Gamma Moths, but there’s an awful lot of silliness. Mutant humanoid rabbits, fish, frogs, badgers…badgers?!
So I’m left with a Gamma World that provides a fun framework and takes the 4E rules into a new direction, which I’ve been clamoring for. I like the cards a lot, despite Wizards not being entirely truthful about their “intended use.” I love character creation and the chaotic aspects of it. The things I don’t like? Not really a big deal. I’ll make a better character sheet. I was probably going to design my own world to play in anyway (something similar to the Fallout games has a lot of appeal, and my brother has pointed out how easily it could be adapted to a superhero game, albeit a weird one). The lack of decent monsters is no problem at all, since there are lots and lots of perfectly awesome monsters available in the 4E monster manuals and other sourcebooks. I think my version of the post-apocalyptic world has lots of undead in it, with a few horrific demons (<cough>mutants<cough>) and bizarre beasts like owlbears and even dragons thrown in.
That means that, despite this review being filled with complaints, I highly recommend Gamma World. Your game group will get a lot of fun out of it.