Saturday, June 16, 2012

Gamma World—Part I

Original drawing by Jeff Easley / Coloring by Sorvan
Gamma World was a game that had always fascinated me as a kid in the late '70s and early '80s, but somehow we never really got around to playing it back then. It became one of my bucket list games that I would spend free time musing about while busy playing other games for years. It wasn't until after finishing a long, multi-year campaign with 3E D&D that I realized my brain needed a rest from crunchy rules systems and swords and sorcery. I had a captive audience with my new gaming group, so I good-naturedly pressured them into playing Gamma World. Since most of my fellow gaming friends were slightly younger than me, and quite enjoyed modern game design, I wasn't really sure how well GW would go over, so I was pleasantly surprised when the players really dug into the game and we ended up playing a campaign that lasted over two years. (And is still not even close to being completed... we are just currently taking another genre break for a little while.) It was, in truth, the experiences of playing old-school GW that first triggered my interest in starting a gaming blog, although due to my slow-moving nature and general laziness, I didn't actually get around to starting until after putting our GW campaign on hiatus.

There are myriad subjects I wanted to touch upon in regards to playing first edition Gamma World, so I will just chip away at my notes as I feel inspired. One of the most visceral pleasures I had as a GM to a table full of fledgling GW players, was the fact the all the monsters would be new to them and completely mysterious. Hell, after close to thirty years, the monsters were pretty "new" to me as well! Each random encounter on the road would fill the party with dread (as is fit for any D&D-like RPG), but also a sense of wonder because they would be trying to figure out just what the fuck that crazy sounding beast was. The sensation kind of mixes together the two of the primary elements of RPGs... battle and exploration at the same time. I love all the classic D&D monsters, but to a certain extant, everybody at the table knows what you are getting when you encounter a goblin, or ghoul, or dragon. But what the hell are up against when the GM is describing a horl choo, a barl nep, or a yexil? Even the names are completely alien and beyond deciphering. I remember as a kid I was kind of tripped up by those weird names and the fact there were no monster illustrations (for the most part), but these days all that is fundamental to my enjoyment of the game.

I tried to stick to the essential power descriptions as listed in the rulebook (occasionally allowing for some ideas from the second edition rules as well), no matter how strange, and let that flavor my impression of the creature. For example, the arks have the weather control ability that didn't seem to mesh well with their other powers, but after some thought I decided that the arks were these witchy wolf-people that lived on the fringes of civilization, feeding on humans and spoiling the crops unless the humans were able to broker terrible deals with them. I also allowed the arks to summon the occasional lightning bolt with their weather abilities, just to make them more fearful and devastating.

On the other hand, there were some descriptions that proved too tortured (or boring) for my rationalizations as is... mainly with the shapechange ability of a few creatures. For example, the ability of cren tosh to morph into "any lizard" (boring), or the similar ability of fleshin to morph into sleeth. (Why sleeth? The two creatures are not overly similar, and sleeth are much more sophisticated and intelligent than fleshin.) I decided to keep as close to the rules as written as I could while injecting a small dose of rationalization into both those monsters. Basically, I made them the weird juvenile forms of the mature sleeth, the cren tosh being the males and the fleshin being the females. Each has the capacity to mimic the adult sleeth, although at a much diminished capacity... it's more of a disguise than anything else. Who knows what sort of strange and mysterious process finally transforms these adolescent creatures into full-blown sleeth? The cryptic sleeth guard the secrets of their culture well.


  1. Awesome. The tales from the table always sound very evocative and fun. I have to remind myself to not use the common parlance when DMing and say, "You see a troll" but rather "a hulking figure towers above the battlements, easily twice the height of a man, his figure thickly corded with sinewy muscle rippling beneath a scabrous grey skin...." Takes a little more thought, but very worthwhile when I can! Maybe I'll give a second glance to some of the really weird stuff, just to keep the players on their toes. :D

  2. Got a chance to do just that recently a couple times in the current adventure I am running. The party came across a decapus from the old Palace of the Silver Princess module, which almost killed the whole party. I played that one pretty straight because nobody really knew what the hell a decapus was. Pants were pooped.

    Next was an allip encounter that I added to the module. I decided to play her kind of like the creepy ghost from The Ring, giving her some psychokinetic ability and boosting her CR by one. That was a fun and tense encounter, too!