Embracing the Chaos of Gamma World

When I first heard we were going to make a game called Gamma World, I didn’t know what to think. I never played Gamma World in the late 70s when it first appeared (due, in large part, to the fact that I hadn’t been born). Granted, if I could have found a set of polyhedrals in the womb…

I assumed Gamma World fell somewhere between d20 Modern and Spelljammer. And in some ways, it does. The space hamsters of Spelljammer would feel right at home on Gamma Terra, and any d20 Modern character could slip easily into the post-apocalyptic setting of that world.

I kept my distance during the design and playtesting process. I enjoy playtesting elements of D&D, but when it comes to stand-alone games like Gamma World or Castle Ravenloft, I’d rather wait until the finished product is available. Thus, when the final copy of the game was available, I sprung into action to set up a weekly session with members of R&D and the D&D Community team.

The group consisted of Bruce Cordell (one of the game’s designers; @brucecordell), playing an empathic mind breaker named Sir Rolan, Trevor Kidd (community organizer; @WotC_Trevor), playing a plant cockroach named Spew, Chris Tulach (organized play guru; @christulach), playing a seismic speedster named Grizzal, and  Chuck Arnett (assistant organized play dude), playing an android rat swarm named We. The group was later joined by Josh (D&D customer service overlord), playing a plastic manikin possessed by the spirit of a dead barbarian chieftain (using some Famine and Fargo origins—SPOILERS!), and Mike Robles (D&D Community Liason; @michaelrobles), playing an elektrokinetic guy—I can’t remember his character’s name. I guess that makes me a bad DM.

In order to fully embrace the gamma world randomness, I added some random character backgrounds in addition to the normal chaos of character creation. The goal was to create a common thread using the random character backgrounds that would tie all the characters together, even if they ended up dying regularly. And trust me, they did. In Gamma World, part of the fun is rolling up new characters, so it’s only appropriate that I be RUTHLESS. I discovered that running a Gamma World game differed from a D&D game. I felt more like a member of the party, laughing alongside as they took the story in unpredictable and sometimes ridiculous directions. Gone were the hours of world creation and agonizing plot development. In its place was a fly by the seat of your pants experience, in which I prepared  before each game for maybe half an hour. The players understood that Gamma World could be a little more lethal, which left me liberty to kill characters—something I almost never do in a D&D game.

Of course, one doesn’t have to run a Gamma World game this way. I think the game is conducive to this type of play experience, though. If D&D is beef stew, filling and delicious, then Gamma World is Pop Rocks—hilarious, fun, and tasty, but certainly not about to fill you up. In my view, each game occupies a very different space in my gaming schedule. Yes, I have a schedule. My D&D game’s reward long term investment, but my Gamma World games provide a more instantaneous satisfaction. When I ran Gamma World, I spent more time laughing than in any D&D game ever. I’ve had some hilarious moments in my D&D games, ones that have caused tears to run down our cheeks, but when that is all done, it’s back to the game. In Gamma World, the laughing and constant diversions were part of the game, and it was okay that in two hours the characters didn’t make much progress in the “plot,” because we were all having a great time.

I was so entertained by the sessions that I recorded some of them, but unfortunately the…sensitive nature…of the content meant that they would be difficult to post without extensive editing. Maybe I’ll convince Bart Carroll, the guy who manages the D&D content on the website to edit them. More likely, they’ll just sit abandoned on my computer until I find the time and motivation to learn to use garage band more effectively. I could try and summarize the campaign—the characters were searching for the last bastion of the Ancient, a distant utopian city in the West known as Google’s Hope. But I’m afraid the written word couldn’t do it justice. So much of the pleasure of the game came out of the randomness and improvisation. As a DM, I loved to let the dice determine fate. Where in D&D I like to keep some measure of control over the outcome of important moments, in Gamma World it was always: “Roll a d10.” I encourage DMs trying out the game to improvise; get familiar with some of the creatures, pick an area you know well—your home town for example, and then let the characters go wild.

And finally, in case you’re interested, here are some of the original notes from the start of my game, including my system for backgrounds:

The story opens with them in the Free City of Denvar, which lies at the base of the Color Radio Mountains and is sometimes called the Gateway to the West. All the characters have come for a particular piece of information or knowledge. It’s said that a creature calling itself NickelPennyDime rules over a place known as the Exchange (formerly the Denver Mint). This place is heavily guarded, but it is a great place to exchange information and buy gear. While there, the Iron Society attacks the city, seeking information on the refuge of the Ancients (us) known as Google’s Hope.

Rumor has it that somewhere in the West is Google’s Hope, a city or base of untainted Ancients. This pure strain of Ancients is said to possess the knowledge of the past and to represent the hope of the future, for they have somehow managed to avoid mutation.

Each of the factions has an interest in Google’s Hope.

Archivists: This cult collects technological artifacts to worship, rather than to use. : Wish to capture members of Google’s Hope to help them decipher how to use the artifacts of the Ancients.

Bonapartists: This paramilitary group, founded by a mutated bear named Emperor Napoleon, admits only those who have clear animal heritage. (Located in Yellowstone). Fear the threat of the Ancients. Believe that they are developing an inoculation for alpha mutations that will destroy their kind.

Brotherhood of Thought: They’re evangelists who seek to create a world order dedicated to rational cooperation—under their benevolent guidance, of course.

Knights of Genetic Purity: These nonmutated humans seek to eradicate all mutants from Gamma Terra. (Good luck with that.) Founded by a member of Google’s Hope named Jethro. Now is seeking to find the city again to rally them to the cause to destroy mutants.

Radioactivists: This group worships the “Radiant Divine Glory” of atomic power, gathering around sites known for deadly radiation. They’re interested in Google’s Hope because sealed below it is the last remaining nuclear reactor, and they believe if they can capture it and learn how to use it, they will be able to reactivate others throughout the world.

Restorationists: They’re well-meaning folks who want to rebuild civilization using the tech of yesteryear and the mutations of tomorrow . . . if only everyone else would stop getting in their way. They’re seeking to find Google’s Hope for benevolent reasons. The only problem is that they have spies in their midst from the other factions.

Iron Society: A group dedicated only to the use of martial weapons. They’ve been stockpiling swords, crossbows, spears, and anything else they can find. They seek to conquer land. They are expanding their territory, and they fear that the Ancients could interfere.


Your character is searching for Google’s Hope because you… [roll a d20]

Member of a faction

1.  …are a member of the Archivists

2. …are a member of the Bonapartists (if not an animal-kind, reroll)

3. …are a Knight of Genetic Purity (if you’re a mutant, you’re seeking a cure at any cost, including working with mutants).

4. …are a Radioactivist

5. …are a Restorationist

6.+ None (roll on Other Motivation table)

If faction… [roll a d10]

  1. Mercenary (+1 damage with weapons)
  2. Loyalist (+1 to one defense)
  3. Spy (roll again on table to see who you are a spy for; +2 Interaction/Conspiracy with other faction)
  4. Trader (+2 to Interaction)
  5. Assassin (+2 to Stealth)
  6. Scholar (+2 to Conspiracy)
  7. Negotiator (+2 to Insight)
  8. Engineer (+2 to Mechanics)
  9. Scientist (+2 to Science)
  10. Doctor (As a minor action, you can let an adjacent character use second wind)

Other Motivation [d20]

  1. …are dying from an Alpha Mutation (and Google’s Hope is the only people who might be able to help). (After an extended rest, you can reduce your hit points by 5 to gain an extra alpha mutation slot).
  2. …watched one too many of the Ancients’ disaster and alien movies. You now believe Roland Emerich and James Cameron were Ancient prophets, and you are seeking to spread their word as you make your way toward the promise land. (You get a +2 bonus to damage against extraterrestrials)
  3. …woke up a few days ago after being cryogenically frozen for the last several hundred years. You know nothing of this new world. Maybe you were a science experiment or a wealthy Ancient, but now you just want to find refuge. (You have resist 5 cold)
  4. …believe the end of the world is near because you read that the Ishtar calendar says the world will end in 2012 (you don’t know what the current year is, but you’re sure 2012 coming soon). You seek the Ancient to try and learn about this 2012 and find out what the current year is. (You can untap an Ishtar Omega Tech card once per encounter)
  5. …read the last chapter of the Bible (Revelation) and believe that the robot called the G. Zoose 3000 in Salt Lake City is sign that the end times are upon you. To stop it, you must learn of their religion by going to the source. (You gain a +2 damage bonus against robots and a +2 bonus to Conspiracy checks involving religion)
  6. …have discovered that there are many copies of you that have converged in Gamma Terra as a result of the Big Mistake. Maybe you’re trying to kill them to gain power by being the only you, or perhaps you’re trying to make them your allies. You’ve learned that one of you is in Google’s Hope. (You gain a +2 bonus to skill checks involving humanoids; you also gain the knowledge of any of your duplicates whenever you kill one—if you choose).
  7. …have learned that one of your ancestors is cryogenically frozen in a locker beneath Google’s Hope. You have always been fascinated by the Ancients and are interested in learning more about this ancestor. (You gain a +2 check to checks about the Ancients).
  8. …have heard of the great wealth of Omega Tech and guns lies beneath Google’s Hope. You want it for monetary gain. (You are good at scrounging materials, so whenever you roll on the Ancient Junk table, you roll twice.)
  9. …know the location of Google’s Hope and you seek to protect it. You oppose those who would find it for selfish gain. (You gain a +1 bonus to Will).
  10. …are a guide and know your way through the Fractured Lands and the Great Peaks. (+2 to Perception)
  11. …are a traveling entertaining, earning your fortunes on the road and collecting stories. (+2 to Acrobatics)
  12. …are a criminal on the run from just about every one of the Cryptic Alliances. There’s a bounty on your head, and you know the only place you’ll be safe is a place no one can find. (+2 to Athletics)
  13. …believe you had a vision from the Three-Eyed Octopus, harbinger of the New World. It told you that Google’s Hope would be the foundation of the world to come, so you are going there to preach the new faith. (You can untap an Area 51 Omega Tech card once per encounter)
  14. …have another consciousness inside you born of Xi technology. The nanites in your head have convinced you that you must find Google’s Hope to receive an upgrade to their firmware. They speak to you often. (You can untap a Xi Omega Tech card once per encounter)
  15. …are a gladiator and road warrior, looking to test your mettle against the worst the world has to offer. You don’t really care where you go, you’re just happy looking for the biggest, baddest battle you can find.
  16. …are a nomad. You follow the winds and go wherever they take you. (You gain a +1 to all skill checks)
  17. …are seeking vengeance against one of the other factions for a crime against you, such as killing your family, stealing a valuable piece of Omega Tech, leaving you with an injury, etc. You know the faction has trappings on Google’s Hope, so you want to recruit/warn them (roll a d6 to see which faction is your foe). (You gain a +2 bonus to skill checks and damage involving the faction you have sworn vengeance against)
  18. …have long-term or short-term memory loss, and the only thing you can seem to remember is that Google’s Hope is important to you—maybe you were a former resident, or maybe you were a terrorist seeking to destroy it. You’ll never know until you go. (You have knowledge you don’t understand. You reroll 1s on skill checks; you still Alpha Flux if it is during battle).
  19. …are from Google’s Hope, though no one knows that. You are recruiting powerful mutants to your cause, knowing that a great battle is coming as the other factions seek to find and conquer it. (You gain a +2 to check your Omega charge).
  20. …are deeply concerned about this phenomenon you’ve read about called Climate Change. Newspapers and books from the Ancients describe how it will change life as you know it, and you are determined to stop it. You think if there’s a way, you’ll find it in the vast knowledge stores rumored to be in Google’s Hope. (You gain a +2 bonus to Nature)

16 thoughts on “Embracing the Chaos of Gamma World

  1. Wow, this is pretty amazing. Sounds like a little dash of Paranoia in your Gamma World. I’d love to know more about how your campaign went.

  2. I have to say I’m intrigued by Gamma World. Your description of the “looseness” of your game simultaneously excites and frightens me. As a (relatively) new DM, a lack of structure tends to paralyze me, as I prefer things to be laid out ahead of time. But the thought of just going with the flow is very intriguing. Gamma World might be a good way for me to experiment with a less-rigid world/plot as a DM without mucking up my D&D game.

  3. Gamma World definitely sounds as though it would be great fun . . . for a one shot. I’m just not convinced that I would enjoy it for a long run. Campaigns take long enough to develop as it is, that I just think the sillyness of Gamma World (which is what makes it intriguing) would simply get old. Naturally, that’s just my opinion. Certainly though I would not mind doing a one shot or two of it.

  4. Can’t wait to give it a try. I agree with Justin; the new Gamma World definitely seems to have a Paranoia-like element to its style. The game’s going to hand you a lot of crazy stuff; your job is to roll with it, have fun, and don’t be too much of a control freak.

  5. I really like all the references to Paranoia… glad to know I wasn’t the only one out there playing that very very odd RPG.

    As if I wasn’t convinced enough at the Gamma World Seminar at GenCon, Greg, you’ve resold me on picking up a copy for my group. Think I’ll be taking a couple weeks break from my regularly scheduled D&D games to play some GW!

  6. Our group was lacking a couple members, so I decided to prepare a Gamma World adventure for us to try out… with only an hour before people started showing up. I split the seams of the new plastic and jumped right into the rulebook, didn’t have time to admire the maps or tokens. I will say the rulebook is gorgeous with full striking color on every page, and a layout that makes flipping pages a breeze. As an experienced DM I picked up the fundamentals easily enough, spare a few revisions. Really I wanted to see how those 88 cards I got in the box worked… Simple enough, but it was clear to see how much more fun would be had if players each had their own decks. I divided mine into their alpha and omega piles, and moved on.
    Encounter building, challenge ratings, and experience all work the same, so all I needed was monsters and a locale. I went online and downloaded the map of our local mall with store directory. Locale check. I decided a nice minio ns fight would let us quickly learn the ropes, so Shieldbots patrols circled the building at regular intervals, regular enough for Perceptive characters to sneak by. A laser mesh grid blocked all doorways but one, with a conspiracy check to know which one. Inside, the mall was all but deserted, giving the players time to find some Ancient Junk in the stores of their choice. Unfortunately, some Banditos (Animaloids) were also looking for loot, and decided the players were easy pickings. To finish the adventure, they found the Orlen (Ettin) who laid claim to the mall in the Neon Mini-Golf park. I adapted the neon tubing into a terrain feature, able produce extra electrical damage with electrical attacks made adjacent, perfect for more Shieldbot support.
    Building the adventure was a snap. All in all, I still had ten minutes to spare before the players arrived.
    In play, the adventure was nothing short of hysterical. I had tears of laughter streaming down my face on multiple occasions, everyone else did too. The randomness of item selection, alpha mutations, and character origins makes for immediate hilarity. Weapons and armor are broad terms, one character wore a hollowed out car door as heavy armor, another dual wielded a Wii remote as a light weapon.
    One player died instantly with a crit from the Orlen, he was out for three rounds while he made a new character, then jumped right back into play as the Energizer Bunny (what else would a speedster android be).
    I haven’t had Gamma World fun in D&D for a long time. I usually stray from tongue in cheek humor during my games, I want the players to feel fear and tension during combat. Gamma World is the perfect refreshment. It encourages the bizarre, the campy, and the ridiculous… and it delivers ten fold.

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