This was for many years just about the only complete role-playing game rule set in my collection. I was simultaneously smitten with the very idea of rpg design and mystified by the concept of game mastering. Thus, periodically I would settle down to read my favorite game cover to cover in the hopes that I would be able to grasp these things. Given that there are few games as poorly conceived as this one, this had all the makings of an epic tragedy.
That’s not to say that my friends and I didn’t get a lot of play out of this set. In fact, we ended up playing it more than D&D. I remember one guy that completely blew my mind by demonstrating the wilderness travel component of the game with the freaky color map from the Alpha Factor module. (I don’t recall anyone running anything that wasn’t either a dungeon or a strictly plotted “situation” in all of my youth. It may be hard to relate to, but The Isle of Dread struck me as being supremely daunting module to me at the time.) At another friend’s house, the game came out and a half dozen teen-aged boys rolled up characters and started adventuring. The time it took to do a combat round was oppressive as we dutifully went around the circle on the living room floor, but it didn’t matter. The idea of playing this game sustained us even if we really didn’t know what they heck we were doing.
Trouble was on the horizon for me when I first began to notice that the game master of our big ongoing campaign was discarding entire sections of the rules wholesale. I remember asking him why he didn’t let us use the rules for talents which were emblazoned on the back of the reference booklet. (They were a very rudimentary skill system with tribalistic overtones.) He told me that he didn’t allow those because we would abuse them. There were also these utterly intriguing special effects for each weapon on the reference chart that he’d discarded as well. (I had no idea how they were supposed to work, but the sounded awesome!) And again, after seeing that other guy running a game, I knew he wasn’t running the whole wilderness travel system “by the book”, either.
Now, this guy was one of those aspiring author types. He created loads of his own campaign material. He also had a knack for entertaining us. We were playing the game completely wrong, sure. But for session after session we kept coming back to him and he’d let us bop around killing things a madcap post-apocalyptic future. We had some good times. And I had not one iota of comprehension of how he managed to manage the table, either. All I knew was that he was ignoring the rules. And here is the thing: I somehow got the idea that by playing by the book, I would naturally become a better game master than this guy.
This was utterly disastrous, of course. In fact, what happened next plays out like the classical super-villain origin story. This was my favorite game out of all the games in the world. I read and reread the rule book in order to prepare. My birthday was coming up and this was the game we were all going to play. But then the party rolled around and the guy that I had lined up to game master stood me up. I dutifully took the reigns and tried to run a game session. (The show must go on!) We got through character generation and I rolled up the first encounter. It was Hoops, the iconic rabbitoid critters. We started to run the combat and everyone was rank one: they only hit about thirty percent of the time. The Hoops had armor that blocked a certain amount of hits each round… and after about five combat rounds or so, I realized… this was never going to end. The players just couldn’t kill them. Ever!
I panicked. I was sitting there at the table running my all-time favorite game with my best gaming friends… and it was painfully obvious that no one was having fun. Now they were too nice to say anything, but I could tell. The thing that pushed me over the edge was one guy that was completely new to role playing but that seemed to grasp that you were supposed to be creative with it. He had the worst character stats ever rolled which he’d somehow made awesome anyway: a mutant daddy long-legs with daggers lashed to its appendages. (“Can I lash daggers to my legs?” “Yeah, man.”) But there I was, depending on the rules to make the game… and I was crashing and burning.
Oh the humanity!
Now, I have since gone over nearly every section of this rule set in an attempt to figure out just what in the heck this game really is. And granted, I would have gone a lot further with it had Starman’s Son and Hiero’s Journey been included in the box set. But this rule set has a profoundly discombobulated place in the scheme of gaming history. It inherits the “Outdoor Adventure Map of Pitz Burke” from the second edition of the game, but not the “Adventure Booklet” that would have explained how to use it. It has a dumbed down solitaire adventure that comes off as having been written for some game that doesn’t exist. And the relatively successful module series that came out in support of these rules almost seem to be designed for the system that TSR imagined people to be cobbling together rather than for the actual rules.
And while games like Tunnels & Trolls and Marvel Superheroes and d6 Star Wars all seem to have gotten the living heck played out of the them back in the day by random gaming groups everywhere, this one seems to live on just to occasionally get picked over by someone looking two tweak their OD&D or B/X based home brew variant. (See Mutant Future as an example.) All of that effort that was put into making off the wall, freaky game mechanics especially suited to the subject matter…? It’s all been thrown out in favor of the same old original edition style Dungeons & Dragons that isn’t much different from what people do in their weekly dungeon crawls.
It’s heartbreaking really… because this game had so much potential. On the other hand, this game really seems to emblemize a great many hard truths about role-playing:
Maybe my Gamma World disaster was inevitable then. But the fact is… it takes a great deal of time to get the hang of running a role-playing game. You really need to be able to get something going, then reread rules sections between sessions to see if you can find things you can do better… and you need to be able to do that over and over again until you have the confidence to handle anything the players and the dice can throw at you. It can take countless sessions to really master a game system, especially if you’re just starting out. And it’s not going to happen if you don’t have a group of people that are willing give you the chance to figure it out over the course of a dozen game sessions, really.
I’m not sure how anyone every really gets through all that unless they somehow can keep going in spite of the inevitable gaming disasters… but it’s clear that rules and adventure modules can either make that journey less of a hassle or all but impossible. Gamma World third edition was a true monster of a game, though. With a design ethic that had somehow shambled out of the seventies, a genre that had ceased to exist by the late eighties, and elaborations and developments at every stage that could not possibly cohere in actual play, it is a ugly, beastly, ill-considered mess of a game… and I’ll never stop loving it.