Games That Made Me Cry: Gamma World Third Edition

Monday , 16, November 2015 10 Comments

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:

  • This was far from the only game like this on the market at the time. Its chief competitor was AD&D, which similarly could not be played unless the referee was willing to ignore whichever portions of the game got in his way.
  • Because of this, there’s a whole generation of role-players that assume that role-playing game design isn’t actually a thing. They think that none of them can work without aggressive hacking, and reflexively make radical changes to games without being aware that they might be missing something by trying it “by the book”.
  • Consequently, you could give the perfect rule set with an ideal introductory adventure to people– say, Moldvay Basic D&D with Keep on the Borderlands– and they won’t even try to play it as written.
  • The role-playing game market doesn’t tend to value introductory products to begin with which can be seen in how the learning aids from early editions of GURPS steadily atrophied from the core rules over the course of editions.
  • And then there’s people like Brian Engard, who could design for Fate… but who couldn’t actually run it himself until he was initiated into it by someone that already knew how to do it! (Cool guy, but dude… way to let the cat out of the bag there, man!)

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.

10 Comments
  • Eric Ashley says:

    I remember playing a walking tree.

    I think an online friend of mine played it as a mutant squirrel with his girlfriend, and th y both liked it, and this may have been part of why four decades later they’re still together….

    Gamma World was odd and great.

  • Jack Amok says:

    Odd and great is the perfect description. I never had the 3rd Edition rules – I played the original! Loved it. I remember a campaign I created that started off with the players wandering through an abandoned college campus, complete with underground service tunnels and labs full of interesting gear. They found the football team’s locker room and armored themselves with football pads.

    Speaking of football, I think RPGs and the NFL’s rulebook have gone through a similar progression. The early editions were fun, but left a lot of things up to the referee’s judgment. Newer editions have gotten more detailed and mechanical, trying to cover every corner case. The result isn’t better. Broad definitions and a shared spirit of the game are needed. But some people really like to write rules…

  • David says:

    The Moldvay basic set was fantastic for teaching the game to newbies. The Mentzer set based on Moldvay was good too.

    When you say introductory products aren’t valued by the market, I wonder if that is because they don’t do a good job or because those who know RPGs don’t bother to use them to bring new people up to speed. I know children in the early 1980s Could pick up a Basic set and learn, but there is a lot more stuff competing for that money and attention these days.

    • Jeffro says:

      The Basic Sets from the past ten or fifteen years are barely even good for a session or two. You could play for an entire summer just with Moldvay Basic. It was a tremendous value in comparison.

      Most people that learned to play rpgs by ignoring the rules of incomprehensible and poorly conceived rule sets from the seventies that they lacked even the literary antecedents to even know what they were really looking at. As such, Few people even pick up an rpg with the intent to play it as designed. Rpg products are (at worst) a pile of crap for people that are doing their own thing and that don’t even know what kind of products that they could actually use. The scene has been propped up by selling stuff that is meant to be looked at and not actually played. I am exaggerating some of these factors, the there is not much of a design culture surrounding role-playing games. D&D 3/4/5 and Pathfinder have more in common with Car Wars than traditional role playing games. The dominant rpg culture is just a medium for selling collectible miniatures and battlemats that is predicated on a shameless model of planned obsolescence. Real rpg design is predicated on setting the GM free from being dependent on a stream of product. As such, any well designed rpg design will put its makers out of business. Which means that rpg design is mostly a hobby now unless you’re making something that isn’t really a real rpg.

      • Brett Day says:

        I think you’re mistaken to include 5e in that list. Adventure books aside, we’ve seen one (rather skippable) supplement in the year since the last of the three core books came out.

        • Jeffro says:

          5e is maybe less egregious about it than 3.5/Pathfinder… and yes, quite a few “old school” types have endorsed it. I’m passing on it, though.

  • Damon says:

    I played all sorts of rpgs when I was young – from extremely simple ones to very complex (just d6 on one end to Iron Crown Enterprise’s Rolemaster and Spacemaster with percentile to hit charts for every weapon versus every armor type). We would play either modules that were generated or stuff made up from scratch (yeah, I am the guilty one for the scratch stuff. With a love of history, I’d wrote a loose framework history, drew up a continent map and created regional and local maps from that). We never let rules stand in the way of a good time. Since not everyone would be around each time we played, the rule was that you left your character sheet with the GM. TO illustrate the perils of ignoring this, one time a character I was running had his head bitten off or something (ICE had some pretty colorful crit tables). A character whose sheet wasn’t there (and I found rather irksome the way he was played) was substituted in. Reason? No character sheet and the character spared was one that I felt I could manipulate better for the story than one that was created by someone else and frequently absent. I like to hack and slash as much as most do, but the story was the thing – not just combat.

  • Is the latest edition of Gamma World any better? I was in a group that was heavily into playing D&D 4E and I have considered buying the Gamma World based on that rule set. Have some of the issues with this game carried over?

    I’ve never played earlier editions of D&D but I’ve heard mostly complaints about 4th edition while heaps of praise are showered on 3 and 3.5. I personally loved 4E and thought the flow of the game was perfect…though making your point about the power of the the GM, to what extent our GM (my younger brother) manipulated the rules I have no idea. Whatever he did worked so it may to his credit and not the 4E rule set.

    • Jeffro says:

      I have not looked at the Gamma World variant for 4th Edition D&D. I don’t think it would be my cup of tea.

      If you have an rpg that’s working for you and your group, then you won’t get an argument from me about that. But I have to mention that 4e was so antithetical to the old style of play, it spawned a resurgence in classic style gaming… which actually got me back into game mastering dungeon crawls again. So I am somewhat prejudiced against it.

      A friend of mine running Gamma World ended up going with Mutant Future simply because it’s in print and the old rule sets cost a small fortune. You can check out a no art version for free. I have run the Labyrinth Lord system, but as I’ve said elsewhere I kind of think Gamma World (and Star Frontiers) sort of deserve their own quirky variations and developments of the rules.

  • Glen Hallstrom says:

    Good read. I can empathize as I was in the same boat when I started gaming (AD&D 1E) plus a GM who thought 1E Gamma World was the bee’s knees but never planned anything – kind of like a really boring sandbox (I still have memories of the party just wandering around a desloate landscape, maybe having an occasional random encounter with some beast, not doing anything – yawn).

    Many years (and much fail, uh, practice) later, I get the DIY vibe of the old edition RPGs and am more able to think up, throw out and change things to fit the game. Now, when I run post-apocplyptic it’s usually Mutant Future but I also delve into Gamma World 4th Edtion:

    http://rpggeek.com/rpg/264/gamma-world-4th-edition

    It’ss waaaay better organized and clarified (it came out just before 2E) so it’s an easy read that works with minimal fuss.

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