Venturing Forth Into Wizards of the Coast’s “Gamma World”


Gamma WorldOlder gamers may remember Gamma World: a tongue-in-cheek role-playing game where players assumed the personae of mutants, androids and humans to explore a savage post-nuclear landscape full of dangers like killer mutant rabbits and psychic dogs. As one of the oldest role-playing games around, it’s got quite a legacy, even if that legacy is a bit silly. This week Wizards of the Coast re-launched Gamma World for a new generation, and even it is a bit different from the original title, the essential goofiness remains intact.

The Gamma World game comes with almost everything you need to play: player character and monster tokens, Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech cards (plus a bonus booster pack – more about these later), character sheets and a small book of rules similar in size and lay-out to the D&D Essentials books. Wait, I said almost everything, right? For some reason Wizards neglected to include that most essential of gaming components: dice. Although the back of the box does indicate that dice aren’t included, it’s small enough to be easily overlooked, necessitating a return trip to the hobby store to purchase something that in my opinion probably should have been included with the game to begin with. At a price point of nearly $40, including a set of dice to actually play the game doesn’t seem too unreasonable of an expectation.

The game itself is built upon the chassis of the D&D 4th edition rules, so if you’re familiar with those already then learning to play Gamma World should be an easy matter. There are some variations to suit the new setting, though, and these are largely to be found in character creation. Unlike D&D, in Gamma World there’s only one class – adventurer – and character generation begins with the player rolling twice on a single chart of character origins like “Yeti” or “cockroach.” The player gains benefits and special abilities from both of these origins, as well as the fun and challenge of imagining what a combination like that would look like. The character also begins with one Alpha Mutation, which is dealt randomly from the Mutation deck, and one piece of Omega Technology. Neither will be permanent. In Gamma World, ancient technology isn’t renewable and can only be replaced by adventuring, and mutations are refreshed from encounter to encounter via the Alpha Mutation deck.

In a major departure from the original game’s nuclear-themed setting, the new Gamma World is built upon a reality-warping event called the Big Mistake. Hundreds of years ago an accident at the Large Hadron Collider caused an infinite number of realities to come into being and then collapse. The players now inhabit a world of shifting realities and alien energies. Alpha Mutations are explained as being the result of some characters being able to harness and direct this strange new reality for short durations, hence their inherent unpredictability. Alpha Mutation cards are sold in random booster pack assortments, with the idea being that a player can build his or her own mutation deck, guaranteeing a prime assortment of favorite powers, rather than relying on whatever the gamemaster may have in his or her own deck. Cards are still drawn randomly from the player’s deck, but with an optimized deck this randomness isn’t as much of a risk.

Adventurers are presumed by the rules to be mutants, but the rest of the world – with the exception of monstrous foes – is described as being basically inhabited by humans. The Gamma World rules offer a nice assortment of creatures both hilarious (the killer bunny men from earlier incarnations are back) and horrific (flying tusked giant bat insect thing, anyone?), and the great thing about them is that you can import then directly into your own D&D game with a minimum of effort. Same thing goes for monsters from your D&D world. The older versions of Gamma World were somewhat compatible with D&D, but it was never a very good fit. This version corrects that. The only thing that I noticed as being missing were stats for the regular humans that presumably would make up the majority of non-player characters encountered during a game, but I’m willing to say that I may have overlooked them.

Gamma World combat is deadly and quick healing hard to come by, so players are encouraged not to become too attached to their characters. Fortunately, this is nicely balanced by the quick and easy character generation, making Gamma World perfect for a session of “beer and pretzel” gaming. While I have my doubts that anyone would look to Gamma World as a long-term replacement for their usual role-playing fare, it would be great for a few one-off sessions here and there.