Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 18: Gamma World

Hello! I can’t believe that July is already upon us. That means GenCon is less than a month away! I will be at the show, spending most of my day around the Sasquatch Game Studio booth. We’ll have copies of Primeval Thule available in all three game systems currently published, plus a few special offerings you can’t find in your FLGS: Posters of the Thule cover art signed by artist Todd Lockwood, Thule GM Screen packs, and a few premium leatherbound copies while supplies last (signed by the Sasquatches, naturally). We will also be offering demos of our upcoming Ultimate Scheme boardgame. Oh, and we’re thinking of hosting a Friday evening Sasquatch meet-up for anyone who wants to socialize a bit, more details to follow.

Drop by and check out our booth if you’re at GenCon—we’d love to meet you and talk games!

#23: Gamma World, Legion of Gold
One fine day in 2009, Bruce Cordell and I were called into Bill Slavicsek’s office. I wondered if I’d done anything that might merit a chewing-out. To my surprise, Bill informed the two of us that, as of immediately, we were now working on a special project: A new edition of the Gamma World game. Bill went on to describe some of his initial thoughts about the project and some of the unusual requirements—for example, designing the game to include a collectible card component, and making sure it was a true stand-alone game, no other purchase needed. Bill also emphasized that he wanted to see a game that lived up to its zany, kitschy roots. He was looking for something more like Paranoia or Ghostbusters, and wanted to make sure that Bruce and I were up to the task of writing for humor. We both agreed, and away we went.

I was pretty stoked about the idea of working on Gamma World. I got the first edition box way back in 1978, and played it alongside old 1e D&D collection. But as Bruce and I sat down to begin brainstorming, I told him I had a confession. “I know it’s supposed to be zany,” I said, “but when I was a kid, I took Gamma World seriously. I played it straight, not for gags.”

“Me too!” Bruce admitted. So, here we were, with marching orders to go build a humor RPG based on a world we took (probably way too) seriously when we were kids.

A brief digression: Writing humor is tougher than you might think. I figured out years ago that there was really no way to judge which gag, wisecrack, or wry observation of mine was funny, and which wasn’t. About 25% of any humor I write is honestly funny and appeals to anybody who reads it. About 50% is situational, and funny to some folks but not others. And 25% is funny *only to me.* Unfortunately, I can’t easily tell which category a gag I write falls into.

Anyway, off we went to create the 5th, 6th, or 7th Edition of Gamma World, depending on how you count ‘em. Bruce and I decided that we needed a new take on how Terra Gamma came to be, preferably one that could easily accommodate your mutant riding around in a ’57 Chevy armed with a fusion rifle. So, like the Alternity version of the game, we assumed that the “base” timeframe of the setting was pretty much our own modern day. Bruce is a big science geek, so he suggested we might use some of the worst-case fears about particle accelerator experiments as a mechanism for destroying the world. That seemed pretty awesome to me, and thus our idea for the Big Mistake was born. And I got to nuke Peshtigo, for no particular reason.

In terms of the Gamma World system, I’m actually really proud of the way the Origins work. Basically, your character powers and stats are determined by two random rolls: For example, you might be half-Yeti, half-Radioactive. In an early playtest, I rolled up a character that was Hawkoid/Seismic, and I spent the whole session trying to work it out in my head as to how my character could be a flying rock. An hour in, it hit me: My dude was a gargoyle! That was when I realized we had something really fun with the Origins. It occurred to me you could do a fun, light version of D&D using the same mechanism that mixed up classes, races, or even signature magic items. We also went on to explore the notion a bit for a potential superhero RPG, but that didn’t go anywhere (too bad).

The Alpha mutations and Omega tech cards weren’t necessarily something that Bruce or I were enthusiastic about including, but our business team really wanted to explore the territory of mixing in a collectible card component with a RPG. We had several competing objectives for the cards: They needed to be integrated into core game play, but we couldn’t assume players would use them. They needed to be good enough that players would want to buy them, but not so good that players could break the game just by spending money. (I suppose it’s better to experiment with different business models in a sideshow product like Gamma World than to try them out with the flagship line.) In retrospect, I wish we’d pushed harder to build a true card-based char gen system. Given the randomness of the dual-origin character creation, there’s no reason that couldn’t have been covered by drawing from a deck.

So far, I’ve been talking about system and components here, not adventures. I actually didn’t have anything to do with the adventure that came in the 2010 box: All my writing was in the rules and overview portion of the boxed set, while Bruce wrote “Steading of the Iron King.” I wasn’t involved in Famine at Far-Go, the follow-up box by Bruce and Rob Schwalb. Instead, I finally got to write a Gamma World adventure in the Legion of Gold box, the third in the release arc. Legion of Gold was my favorite old Gamma World module from back in the day, and I was really looking forward to revisiting it with our new engine. Bruce was again my co-writer for the box, but this time I took the adventure content, while he took on the crunchy stuff.

The really tricky part about the adventure design was that I had to make sure that battle maps existed for each encounter, but I could only ask for two new posters in Legion of Gold. So, I had to create sites and encounters that relied heavily on maps from the Gamma World box and Famine at Far-Go (we figured that most GMs would pick up all three sets). I also wanted to create an adventure that was strongly influenced by the original from thirty years back, but did something new. So, I hit upon the wacky idea of taking the adventure to Gamma Terra’s moon. Bruce was amenable to the suggestion, and that’s how Moon Zone 9 and space eels and all the rest came to be a part of the adventure. It’s like a 1950s SF version of what the moon might be like before people figured out that it was an airless rock.

I’m pretty happy with how Legion of Gold (heck, the whole Gamma World product arc) turned out. The format was a little tough, since tying ourselves down to “all fights on a poster map” and the standard tactical encounter format made it tough to stay away from railroad-ish narratives or cover lots of different approaches to a situation. But you really shouldn’t be playing Gamma World for deep narratives or challenging decision points. You should be playing to blow things up.

Next Week: Dark Legacy of Evard!


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I loved your take on Gamma World.

    And I also noticed that there was a version of 4E-lite that could be written by using race and class, for example, in lieu of GW's origins. I've discussed that in a few places online.

  3. My favorite take on Gamma World. You and Bruce did a great job!

  4. Thanks, Scrivener! And thanks, Mark -- nice to hear from you!

  5. I dunno.

    I run a pretty serious and deep Gamma World campaign thanks to the system you all cooked up. A fantastic game that really excites creativity in players. It did take removing some of the randomness to increase player investment in my game - for instance: randomly pulling Alpha Mutations but making them permanent encounter powers instead of readied cards that might change from session to session - but that was the only homebrew ruling I needed to implement.

    So, thanks for the great approach. :D