First Edition Gamma World Characters

Thursday , 28, September 2017 7 Comments

Gamma World is not D&D.

In the first place, it’s not about reenacting the “zero to hero” character arc. It’s also not a funnel; it’s not about creating a deadly environment and then weeding out the weak, the slow, the lame, and the unlucky. The chaos of the Shadow Years has already accomplished that to a far greater extent than any D&D campaign!

The rule book puts it this way: “Player characters represent an elite with the desire, the initiative, and the ability to venture outside the boundaries of the village, town, or tribal lands. They are the pioneers, explorers, and tamers of the vast wilderness. It is they who will eventually bring order to the chaos of GAMMA WORLD and an end to the Black Years.”

In other words, you are not Merry and Pippin venturing outside of the bounds of the Shire for the first time. You’re Hiero from Sterling Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey. Therefore, rather than rolling 3d6 six times in order to generate your attributes like you would in Basic D&D, you roll 4d6 and drop the lowest. But note that unlike the way that AD&D is typically played you do not get to arrange then as you like. There are no dump stats under the original first edition Gamma World rules.

And unlike D&D characters that start with a single hit die and then play very, very carefully until they can (maybe) graduate to a new level where they might get a precious few additional hit points, Gamma World characters are much, much heartier. They start with a number of d6 hit dice equal to their already larger than average Constitution scores!

The class and level system that is the touchstone of every D&D and D&D-like games is simply obliterated. Your to-hit targets are a function of weapon class versus armor class with levels not really coming into things at all, really. Your saving throws against things like poison and radiation don’t go up according to a schedule based on your level. Your Constitution score determines that– just like your Mental Strength determines how well you’ll fare resisting mental attacks. Finally, there is no outline of what sort of followers and strongholds you’ll establish once you reach “name level” and so forth. You’re going to have to be content with whatever amount of followers your Charisma can pull down for you!

(Evidently the default milieu of the D&D is far more civilized and orderly in comparison.)

Incredibly, you don’t even gain additional hit points when you level up. Instead, you roll on a table of bonuses that result in either +1 to an attribute, +1 to to-hit rolls, or +1 to damage. If this results in your character gaining +1 to an attribute that is already at 18, you don’t gain any new bonuses at all!

Finally, Gamma World annihilates the premise of magic-users starting the game with only one spell and clerics beginning with no spells at all. Mutant characters typically start with several spell-like mutation abilities. Many of them are “always on” or else can be used many times a day.

For people that have spent copious amounts of time playing traditional D&D games, all of this is going to be a tremendous departure from business as usual. You’d almost wonder what the point of a game where you start out so tough and then gain relatively little as you level up. What do you even do?!

Again, I’ll point you back to the to the game’s on description of its player characters: “It is they who will eventually bring order to the chaos of GAMMA WORLD and an end to the Black Years.” Leveling up to gain more abilities and hit points is not what this game is about. Taking initiative to alter the status quo of the overall campaign state is. And that really is a thoroughly un-D&Dish proposition. To tackle that job, you don’t even have the usual benefit of spending 3d6x10 gold pieces on iron spiked, 50′ rope, and a ten foot pole. The equipment, weapons, and armor you’re going to need to tame the wilderness are out there. And figuring out how to use it can kill you!

I gotta say, I’ve seen many games that amount to little more than a straight up re-theming of either Basic D&D or Swords & Wizardry or some other retro-clone. But TSR circa 1978 really didn’t do that sort of thing. This is something that the OSR has lost in a very big way and it’s always struck me as odd. Granted, there is some utility in turning the most played rpg rules into something closer to a generic system covering many genres. But I really would have thought that designers today would take the same sort of risks and make the same sort of sweeping changes that James Ward did back in the day.

Mostly they don’t.

7 Comments
  • Durandel says:

    Jeffro, seeing you are a historian on rpgs and sci-if, was Gamma World in anyway an influence on Interplay’s Wasteland and Fallout IPs? They always mention how they wanted to use GURPS for the stats system, but the setting of Fallout screams Gamma World but I’ve yet to see any acknowledgement on it.

    • Jeffro says:

      My knowledge of video games rapidly drops to nil after the 8-bit era, so I couldn’t say.

      • Ostar says:

        Actually, one of the developers of the original Fallout (Tim Cain) has talked about the sandbox feel of Dungeons and Dragons as another force of inspiration when designing the mechanics of Fallout.

  • Adam Simpson says:

    Thanks for the insight. I’m almost done with the 4 book “Appendix N” of Gamma World. I’m going to try to pick up a box set for 2nd edition and try my hand at it.

  • DanH says:

    I still have the original boxed set.
    I love Gamma World and actually preferred playing it to D&D but I could hardly ever find anyone else to play it with.
    So I just settled for riffing on the post-apocalyptic underpinnings of D&D as much as possible.

  • Rhialto says:

    Check out Mutant Future by Goblinoid Games for an OSR take on GW: it’s been out for almost a decade.

  • Skid says:

    Check out the Morrow Project for a similar setup. Characters start out as pretty much the most powerful people around. The game is not about making the players more powerful, but making whatever changes they can or want to in a post apocalyptic world.

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