Gamma World Ex Nihilo

Sunday , 1, October 2017 7 Comments

I may be in the minority with this, but I have spent decades of my gaming life in a state of abject fear at the prospects of making up my on rpg campaign setting. I’m just not like Brian Niemeier or Ed Greenwood. I don’t reflexively fill up notebooks of gaming material when I’m prepping for a game. I mostly just panic! Especially when it’s a game I’ve never run before.

The older games from the seventies are especially challenging. There are no standalone “introductory modules” that show you how to run a real game. The rulesets all open up with something like this:

  • Original D&D (1974): “PREPARATION FOR THE CAMPAIGN: The referee bears the entire burden here, but if care and thought are used, the reward will more than repay him. First, the referee must draw out a minimum of half a dozen maps of the levels of his ‘underworld’, people them with monsters of various horrid aspect, distribute treasures accordingly, and note the location of the latter two on keys, each corresponding to the appropriate level.”
  • Tunnels & Trolls (1975): “In order to play the game, it is necessary to do the following things first: 1) Someone must create (dig) and stock a dungeon with monsters, magic, and treasure. The person who does this has godlike powers over his own dungeon, but is expected to be fair to the other players.”
  • Metamorphosis Alpha (1976): “METAMORPHOSIS ALPHA is a free-form system, giving rules and guidelines for the basics of play and setting up the starship, but allowing the players and referee unlimited use of their imagination to create new problems and methods of solving them. Using the guidelines of the rules, the referee ‘creates’ the starship (beginning a little at a time), sets up social structures for his people, plans the various mutations, places clues about the starship for the players to find, and any other of a multitude of possible happenings.”
  • Traveller (1977): “Traveller is necessarily a framework the barest of essentials for an infinite universe; obviously rules which could cover every aspect of every possible action would be far larger than these three booklets. A group involved in playing a scenario or campaign can make their adventures more elaborate, more detailed, more interesting, with the input of a great deal of imagination. The greatest burden, of course, falls on the referee, who must create entire worlds and societies through which the players will roam.”
  • Gamma World (1978): “The referee is the participant who is willing to provide the mental and physical labor of completing the game within the framework provided. He will also preside over the actual play of the game itself. Instructions detailing the referee’s tasks are given in the material to follow. However, three attributes necessary for a good referee — imagination, creativity, and a sense of fair play — must be provided by the referee himself.”

Some assembly required.

This is absolutely a daunting prospect. But let me tell you why the prospects of developing this sort of thing isn’t half as much of the job that you might think it is. If you want to run these old games more or less as they were intended to be played, then you are not on the hook to do anything like the following:

  • You are not required to develop the equivalent of the 1987 Forgotten Realms Campaign Set before you start playing.
  • You are not required to create a full fledged module series like what you see for Dragonlance or Third Edition Gamma World.
  • You are not required to whip up something like what you see in classic products like The Traveller Adventure.

The old role-playing games all opened up with the premise that you would be creating your own campaign world. But they were not predicated on you developing professional-grade products in order to start rolling. In fact, the gameplay that emerges if you attempt to run the old rule sets as written will lead you to a very different type of game altogether.

Games like Gamma World and Traveller especially are completely wide open. Players really can go anywhere and do anything. If you open up the game, there is nothing preventing them from going a completely different direction than what you anticipate. You don’t have the luxury of the old stand by that is the now traditional town and dungeon set up. You don’t have the D&D-style pressure on the players where they start off with hardly any hit points and thus have no choice but to stick close to their “safe” base.

And yet many people managed to run perfectly good campaigns with these old games before there were any significant supplements or modules for them.

How is this possible…?

Traveller has extensive rules for starship travel, passengers, cargos, and combat. Simply treating them like a first class element of the game can account for about a quarter of any given game session. If the players really are in control of the game, then they will at some point make choices that lead to situations that no one could have anticipated and which will require more than one session to resolve. For the average game session, the referee is mainly on the hook to flesh things out only to the point necessary to accommodate whatever that scenario that is.

Gamma World is a wilder, woollier, crazier set up. The players don’t simply have the option to jump to the next star system when things get hairy. Whatever village they hail from is surrounded on all sides by hazards, perils, and competing factions. How do you even get started with something like that…?

Well, tucked in the back is a masterpiece of rpg design that you simply will not find mixed into later editions and variants of these original games. There’s a set of three d100 tables detailing 250 monster encounters drawn from the mutation, creature, and cryptic alliance list. If you’re at a loss for how to stock a campaign map, these tables will provide you with a tremendous number of a monsters and groups wandering the post-apocalyptic wastelands of the Gamma World. Where are they going and what are they doing…? Hey, you’ll think of something when the players start interacting with them. And if they simply kill them on sight and then loot their bodies…? You aren’t on the hook to figure it out at all in that case!

And that big blank hex map on the back cover…? Filling it in just isn’t the chore you’re liable to make it out to be. Leaning on the rules as written combined with whatever choices your players end up making, it will soon become clear where your creative efforts need to be directed when it comes to placing planned encounters. How much detail they ultimately require is entirely up to the players.

And that is the best thing about these old games. You don’t have to be a Brian Niemeier or Ed Greenwood to make them work. And you don’t have to create professional grade modules or campaign settings for them either. The dice, the rules, and the players will give you more than you can keep up with in the course of actual play. And the brain’s capacity to create sense and order where none actually exists can more than compensate for a novice referee’s lack of imagination.

7 Comments
  • Adam Simpson says:

    Great post. Although reading books like Starman’s Son and Hiero’s Journey help a lot with a campaign setting, the advice here helps people take the initial leap.

  • Ostar says:

    I’ve always found that my players have the most fun when I “wing it”. But I have to be comfortable with the system and setting first, so I can focus on the players and not have to stall the pace by reading up on things in the middle of play.

  • Personally, I would recommend fleshing out the characters’ village some more.

    Post apocalyptic games in general can have a very broad range of surviving civilizations, and it’s important to know what level of technology a character is familiar with.

    I’ve seen Gamma World played on every level from stone knives and bearskins to Mad Max style scavenged vehicles and firearms.

    That, in my opinion, is the main world building necessary to run a GW campaign. Once you have that fleshed out, the characters’ skills and equipment follow naturally.

    • Jeffro says:

      Let’s see… I picture you guys as being spear-toting agrarian types… that trade with a group of Commanche types that live three days march to the northwest. We don’t know much about the people Feric Helstrom was exiled from. They could be something different. Maybe a Starman group…? I dunno.

  • Taarkoth says:

    So these and the last two posts got me interested in looking at 1e Gamma World, only for me to find to my immense frustration that, other than prohibitively expensive physical copies on ebay, the only Gamma World available for legal purchase is the WotC 4e junk.

    To add insult to injury, there aren’t even any shady pdf copies of the 1e rules anywhere I can find them.

    • Jeffro says:

      Mutant Future is the Labyrinth Lord compatible retro-clone of Gamma World. It is not quite as cool… but it’s very close. If you want a legal version of the old style game that is easy to get in PDF and print format, that’s a decent option. (And the ability to combine it with the Advanced Edition Companion is pretty cool.)

      Another option is the original Metamorphosis Alpha game which preceded Gamma World. It has recently been reprinted in a special edition that throws in an interview, history, and all the magazine articles for it. UBER COOL!

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