I got Gamma World for Christmas, and at this point I’ve read most of the book and all of the cards. In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t yet read the monsters or the introductory adventure, but I’ve read all of the rules and, as I said, all of the cards that came with the box. Also, this isn’t really going to be a full review. That’s been done a lot already (I am late to the party on this, after all). Instead, I’m going to talk about some of the things within the game book that struck me, and what I think about them. Overall, my impressions of the game are pretty positive.
This is a pretty big departure from D&D, despite being built on the same game system. Virtually every aspect of Gamma World’s character generation system is randomized. You roll two random origins and get powers from those origins. Your origins determine one or two of your ability scores, while you roll randomly for the rest. You get to choose your armor and weaponry, but all of your gear is randomly rolled. You roll a random skill to be trained in (though the concept of skill training, as such, doesn’t exist in the game), and get bonuses to others from your origins. All of this random rolling, combined with the absence of feats, means that character generation is, in theory, very fast.
This is largely because there is little decision making to be done from a mechanical standpoint; your origins determine the powers you get (though you can play around with the order in which you get them), and there are no feats, so you’re not making a lot of decisions like you are in D&D. That said, even though you’re not making a lot of mechanical choices, you still get to do a lot of customization in terms of role-playing choices. You randomly roll two origins; these origins are things like “android”, “seismic”, “telekinetic”, “hawkoid’, or “yeti”. There are twenty-one of these origins and, as you might expect, you can roll up some pretty wacky combinations.
That’s where the fun comes in; you have to try to reconcile these two potentially disparate and possibly contradictory origins (Pyrokinetic plant, anyone? How about a seismic rat swarm?) and come up with a character concept that makes sense within the world. This is an exercise in creativity, and means that your character can look, quite literally, like just about anything. It’s a cool feature that I like quite a bit.
This narrative customization extends to the gear you carry, too. There are three types of armor in the game: light, heavy, and shields. You choose which one you get, and you get to describe what it looks like. Are you wearing a heavy leather duster? An umpire’s padding? A conglomeration of road signs soldered together? Medieval plate mail? It’s really up to you.
Weapons get this treatment, too. There are melee weapons, ranged weapons, and guns, and each comes in a light and heavy flavor and a one-handed and two-handed flavor. If you’re a big tough character with a high Strength, you’ll probably want a heavy melee weapon, and possibly a two-hander if you don’t need a shield. That said, it’s not that interesting to just say “I have a heavy two-handed melee weapon, and I hit the mutant badger with it.” What does that weapon look like? Is it a stop sign? A chain saw? A bastard sword? A cash register? Again, the details are left up to you.
The game lacks any system for money. In the postapocalpytic world, everything operates on a barter economy, so if you need more ammo, you’re going to have to trade something you have for it. This means that the random junk you find can potentially buy you life-saving gear (like food, ammo, water, armor, or gas for your truck), so you’re going to want to scavenge as much as you can. Luckily, there’s a big random table of Ancient Junk in the book that makes generating mundane scavenge pretty easy.
A lot of people have made a lot of noise about Gamma World being a collectible role-playing game because of the included Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech cards, and the fact that you can buy booster packs of them. I can understand where people would get that impression, but having looked at the cards and read the rules, I can tell you this: you don’t need to buy a single booster pack if you don’t want to. The two included decks have plenty of stuff in them, and they give you a booster pack to customize your decks a little bit. I haven’t yet decided whether or not I’ll be buying any boosters, but I can tell you this: if I do, it won’t be for a while; certainly not until I’ve played the game a few times first.
As for the cards themselves, I think they’re great. Alpha mutations are encounter powers or passive abilities that range from extremely situational (like a power that counters life-leeching) to extremely potent (like an attack power that deals 7d8 points of damage). There are no level restrictions on these powers, and they’re randomly drawn, so you can potentially get something really powerful at first level. The catch is, you won’t have it for long. During every short rest, your alpha mutation changes, so you’re going to constantly have new powers to try out and use.
Omega tech is a little more dependable; it’s gear that you find, and you keep it until it dies. Each has a consumable power or an encounter power, and if you use an encounter power, at the end of the encounter you have to roll to see if you’ve used that item’s last charge. Many items can be salvaged if you’re high enough level, and salvaging omega tech gets you some pretty nice swag. Typically these are suits of armor, weapons, or mundane items that are more potent than what you can get otherwise, but they’ll never be as powerful as they were when they were omega tech. Again, there is no level requirement for using these items (though there is for salvaging them), and they’re randomly drawn, so you could wind up with something pretty potent from the get-go.
Lethality and Healing
There is no healing magic in Gamma World. There are no clerics. A couple of the origins have healing powers or powers that grant temporary hit points, and some of the alpha and omega cards do so as well, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll see any of that. This makes for a pretty lethal game. To combat this somewhat, some concessions have been made. Your second wind, for example, now allows you to regain hit points equal to your bloodied value (half your hit points), and costs you a minor action. There are also no healing surges in the game; all healing is effectively free (though uncommon). A short rest heals you completely and refreshes all of your powers (there are no daily powers in the game), making it about as good as an extended rest in most situations. In fact, the only reason to take an extended rest is to level up (you have to take an extended rest to level up), and to shuffle the discard piles back into the alpha and omega decks.
Another note on lethality: your character may very well die (and there is no resurrection in Gamma World, so if you die, you’re gone), but as I mentioned earlier, making a new character is a pretty quick and easy process. This means that your character might be dead, but you’ll probably have a brand new one ready before the next encounter.