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[WIR] Gamma World, first edition (1978)

DJChallix

Gygaxian Gen-Xer
Validated User
#1
PART ZERO: GENESIS

Long before I became a registered user I would read WIR and Let's Read threads with interest. I find such threads fascinating and decided to try my hand at one, partially because I want to work out some things and bounce some things around in my mind before my next campaign. More on that later.

Gamma World was the first RPG I ever owned. I soon acquired many others, most notably B/X D&D and AD&D but also Traveller, MERP, Man, Myth, & Magic, Top Secret, Star Frontiers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Paranoia, Call of Cthulhu, Star Wars (WEG), Rifts, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. (I’m probably forgetting many others). But Gamma World, even more than (A)D&D, has always held a special place in my heart. The first time I tried to run a game was in 1981. I was 10 years old. I don’t remember anything about the game other than that one of the characters was a small humanoid mutant rabbit (not a hoop) who was hated by hoops because they viewed him as an inferior species (remember that canonical hoops are around eight feet tall, comparable to ogres in sheer size and ferocity). Come to think of it, this was also the time I discovered Watership Down (first the superb film, then the novel itself). That probably explains things a bit.

In recent years I’ve played a lot of D&D (a BX/RC/OD&D/AD&D hybrid which I simply think of as “Gygaxian” D&D) and Gamma World. The longest Gamma World campaign I ran in recent years lasted eight months of real time with weekly sessions. The party ran through Famine in Far Go and most of Legion of Gold (they didn’t get to the legion robot base itself) along with a few referee-designed side-trips, including one in a massive Bio-Dome controlled by a savage tribe of arks.

Anyway, the point of all this ramble is that I know Gamma World 1e fairly well, and I’m slowly gearing up to run a new campaign in the next few months. Since I love to read and write, and since I haven’t actually read the 1e book cover to cover in ages, I thought this would be a really intriguing experiment for me—and maybe for some of you as well.

A few comments about the process itself. I plan to post quite regularly, hopefully 3-4 times per week. I’m not assuming that readers of this thread will have any particular expertise in Gamma World, though I will assume some basic familiarity with OD&D and AD&D, for reasons that will become apparent early on. I’m going to try very hard to restrict myself to the Gamma World 1e rulebook only; the three modules published for 1e (Legion of Gold, Famine in Far Go, and The Albuquerque Starport) and its progenitor, Metamorphosis Alpha, will be mentioned in passing when appropriate but will not receive detailed treatment. The rulebook for Gamma World is very dense. It is 56 pages but a very small font. There are illustrations throughout but few of significant size, and there are many pages of entire text with no illustrations at all. My point is that there is a lot in this small book and I want to keep myself focused on its contents.

I am also not going to discuss subsequent versions of Gamma World (other than briefly, in passing, where relevant or interesting). As we all know, there were many versions of Gamma World after first edition: 2e, 3e, 4e, S&S d20, Polyhedron’s Omega World, Alternity Gamma World, and WotC Gamma World. We can also include retro-clones/re-imaginings such as Mutant Crawl Classics and Mutant Future (and there are others). None of these editions are of particular interest to me in this thread, simply because the topic alone is such a massive one, though a detailed treatment comparing all the editions would be a fascinating topic in its own right.

So here we go: Gamma World, 1978.
 

DJChallix

Gygaxian Gen-Xer
Validated User
#2
PART 1: BOX COVER AND RULEBOOK COVER ART

Released in 1978, Gamma World 1e only came as a boxed set. So before even opening the box, let’s begin with the cover art. I loved (and still love) the evocative piece by Dave Trampier, a piece I have always thought of as “four Buck Rogers guys approaching a ruined city.” It does a wonderful job of portraying not only that Gamma World is a post-apocalyptic game, but also that it is a future-tech post-apocalyptic game. In the trusty “top left corner yellow bar” banner that graced D&D and AD&D books of this era, we are told the game is a “SCIENCE FANTASY ROLE-PLAYING GAME.” Right up front TSR is declaring that this game closer to John Carter than Traveller (though that isn’t strictly correct either; we’ll discuss Gamma World’s influences in a later entry). But as we will see, there is a limit to the meaning of “fantasy” here; there is no magic in Gamma World, nor any trace whatsoever of the supernatural. But as we will see from the rules of the game, the “fantasy” label is an appropriate one.

One limitation of Trampier’s cover art as a game illustration is that it doesn’t really convey a typical Gamma World party; I’m pretty sure that in the entire history of Gamma World there has never been a party of four male Pure Strain Humans in matching pristine body armor. See the cover of Legion of Gold (1981) or Famine in Far Go (1982) or the referee’s screen (which contained the The Albuquerque Starport mini-module) for a more accurate representations of a typical Gamma World adventuring company.

But perhaps this is a sign that here, at the beginning of the game, the designers themselves weren’t completely sure what they had created. Most folks know that Gamma World did not spring from nothing but rather evolved from Metamorphosis Alpha (1976), that doesn’t mean that Gamma World’s creators, James Ward and Gary Jaquet, had decided what tone this new game would take or what tropes it would emphasize (or perhaps create). As we will see in this read-through, some of the content in Gamma World is grim and somber in tone, some is vaguely macabre, even horrifying, some is outright bizarre and psychedelic, and some is simply rather silly, even whimsical. If there is one thing that all the versions of Gamma World throughout the years seem disagree on it is the fundamental tone the game should take. Should it be serious and sinister, like the d20/S&S version? Should it be slapstick comedy like the WotC version? Something in between, like the fourth edition or Jonathan Tweet’s Omega World? Something that emphasizes the bizarre and psychedelic, like Mutant Crawl Classics?

Obviously, there is no such thing as an “incorrect” tone. Pick the game with the tone you prefer, or create the tone you want in whichever game you happen to use. But it’s interesting to me that the cover art for first edition is so very muted and understated—not an eight-foot-tall blue mutant, giant robot, or humanoid badger to be seen. In spite of its (mild) inconsistency with the robot-and-mutant focus of Gamma World (every edition, for that matter), I will always love this cover illustration. I even had it blown up as a poster for my rec room. (Yes, I sort of love first edition).

Oh, and one very minor detail. I was always annoyed as a kid that while the cover art for the box was in color, the cover of the rulebook itself was black and white. In fact, it still bugs me a little bit to this very day. At least a little bit. I can only assume this was for budgetary reasons because it makes no aesthetic sense.

In addition to the black-and-white rulebook we get some crappy dice (the kind we had to color in ourselves with a goddamn crayon, ya spoiled, ungrateful kids!) and a poster map of the United States in the Gamma World era (which we will soon learn is the 25th century). I always found the poster map to be largely useless, since I never played on anything remotely approaching the scale of a full-country map. On the other hand, the map near the back of the book, of a sample outdoor adventure region, was gold. But we’ll talk about that one later.

Flipping quickly through the rulebook we see it is 56 pages, and its back page is a blank hex map, quite useful if you had access to a photocopier. Fortunately for me, my mom was a high school teacher in the late 70s/early 80s and her school had recently made the change from mimeograph to photocopier, and she was more than willing to photocopy game stuff for me on the sly, heh heh. My mom was pretty cool.

Stay tuned until next time when we’ll flip open the front cover and read the foreword. We’ll also briefly discuss authorship and the interior cover illustration.
 

RAM

Registered User
Validated User
#3
GAMMA WORLD 1E was the first rpg I ever ran a campaign for back in college (Legions of Gold actually). I just purchased a POD reprint of the corebook. Thanks for the memories triggered here. I chuckle remembering those gadawful dice.
 

DMH

Master of Mutant Design
Validated User
#4
Cool. I don't love 1e but I found it an amazing read when I finally bought it (started with 4e). It will be fun to see someone else's interpretation of various rules and descriptive elements.
 

tomas

Registered User
Validated User
#5
We started playing GW shortly after it first came out. It's a tossup in my mind as to whether 1st or 2nd edition is better. But both reign supreme over the later iterations.
 

DJChallix

Gygaxian Gen-Xer
Validated User
#6
PART 2: FOREWORD AND INTERIOR COVER ART

The foreword (and thank goodness it is spelled correctly; a depressingly large number of gaming books from the 1970s spell it “forward”, but we won’t dwell on that here) was written by Tom Wham and Timothy Jones, the game’s editors (not its authors). I’m familiar with Tom Wham for his game designs, but I don’t know of Timothy Jones, and Googling “Timothy Jones TSR” doesn’t turn up much beyond the foreword to Gamma World. I will assume he was an intelligent gentleman who worked in editing and perhaps game design at TSR. Although not mentioned in the foreword, the game’s co-authors are James Ward (author of METAMORPHOSIS ALPHA—more on that later) and Gary Jaquet. If you track down a copy of Polyhedron #4 there is a fascinating interview with Gary Jaquet in which he discusses the process of writing Gamma World with Ward. In the interview he credits Ward with most of the game’s mechanics while describing himself as contributing most of the game’s flavor text, though both men worked on both aspects.

Anyway, on to the foreword. It begins with a truncated quotation from the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament (and the Christian, as opposed to the Jewish, Bible). I won’t type the entire quotation here save the final line (ellipses from the foreword): “there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth . . . and the cities of the nations fell.” The authors go on to explain that human beings have been thinking about the concept of global apocalypse for “millennia” but “only with the advent of the atomic bomb has this become a very real possibility.” We are then given the first summation of the premise of Gamma World: “A few manage to cling desperately to life, to eke out a precarious and spartan existence in a vastly changed post-holocaust world—a dangerous world peopled not only by men and animals but by mutated humanoids and mutated intelligent animals. The competition for survival is intense and deadly.”

Whoa. I’m starting to understand why my friends and I always thought of Gamma World as a gritty game of brutality and survival. We took this stuff pretty seriously.

Wham and Jones go on to discuss Gamma World’s influences, which include three novels: Brian Aldiss’s THE LONG AFTERNOON OF EARTH, Andrew Norton’s STARMAN'S SON, and Sterling Lanier’s HIERO'S JOURNEY. They also cite Ralph Bakshi’s 1977 animated film WIZARDS as an influence. Several years ago, I tried reading all three novels, and frankly, didn’t really get into any of them (the only thing I remember is that one of them is about a world infested with intelligent plants, and another one of them—I think HIERO’S JOURNEY—features a religious fanatic as the protagonist, which turned me off). I remember loving WIZARDS as a kid, but haven’t seen it since then.

Interestingly, James Ward’s METAMORPHOSIS ALPHA is not mentioned as an influence. The foreword merely says “It is relatively simple to integrate these rules with ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS and/or METAMORPHOSIS: ALPHA TO OMEGA as they were edited with this in mind.” Let me comment on each of these references briefly. As most readers of this thread probably know, 1978 was an important year of transition from OD&D to AD&D, seeing the release of the PLAYER’S HANDBOOK. The DUNGEON MASTER’S GUIDE, which would be released in 1979, discusses GAMMA WORLD in a brief section on cross-genre gaming.

As for METAMORPHOSIS ALPHA: ALPHA TO OMEGA, there was no such thing yet. There was of course METAMORPHOSIS ALPHA, published in 1976 and by most accounts the first science-fiction RPG. It had as its premise the PCs as lifers on an enormous “Generation class” starship whose systems have long-ago broken down, its present inhabitants unaware that they are on a starship rather than a planet. METAMORPHOSIS: ALPHA TO OMEGA, name-dropped here in the foreword, was a planned supplement converting the setting to GAMMA WORLD that was in fact never released, though fifteen years later, in 1994, it would appear as a supplement to TSR’s AMAZING ENGINE system.

We then have an extensive discussion of the metric system, including a justification for its use (essentially, it is used to make the game feel more scientific and futuristic) along with the assertion that “the U.S. is beginning to make the switch from the English system to the metric system of weights and measures as the latter is used by most of the rest of the world.” As a Canadian, it’s probably not my place to comment on that one. Although I suspect that many Canadians of my generation (I recently turned 48) never fully embraced metric either; my eyes still glaze over when someone describes their weight in “kilos” and if you say this rifle shot a bear at 300 yards, I immediately picture three football fields. But the idea of using metric for SF gaming is a well-developed RPG trope by this point, and this comment by the editors sets the stage.

The foreword ends with this sentence: “The first world is lost in the mythical past, the second was destroyed by apocalyptic energies, and now a whole new world awaits you—GAMMA WORLD!”

On the next page, we have the interior cover illustration, also by Trampier, which seems to continue the “human-centric” theme of the cover art. Another Buck Rogers gentleman is aiming a “ray gun”-type weapon at a humanoid wolf brandishing a gigantic club (perhaps this creature is an ark, the gigantic dog-men who hate all Pure Strain Humans). Not much to say about this picture other than that I love it, although I’ve always thought the dude’s left arm is strangely out of proportion to his body, creating an almost-Escher effect.

Next time, we’ll scan the Table of Contents and read the Introduction.
 

Soylent Green

Polar Blues
Validated User
#7
But perhaps this is a sign that here, at the beginning of the game, the designers themselves weren’t completely sure what they had created. Most folks know that Gamma World did not spring from nothing but rather evolved from Metamorphosis Alpha (1976), that doesn’t mean that Gamma World’s creators, James Ward and Gary Jaquet, had decided what tone this new game would take or what tropes it would emphasize (or perhaps create).
The influence from Metamorphosis Alpha is fundamental to making sense of Gamma World. The emphasis on universal security cards to get access to places, the relationship between robots and pure strain humans (any pure strain human) and presence of a variety of mutated animals with no real connection to where they might have appeared in nature makes so much more sense in the context of generation ship.
 

DJChallix

Gygaxian Gen-Xer
Validated User
#8
The influence from Metamorphosis Alpha is fundamental to making sense of Gamma World. The emphasis on universal security cards to get access to places, the relationship between robots and pure strain humans (any pure strain human) and presence of a variety of mutated animals with no real connection to where they might have appeared in nature makes so much more sense in the context of generation ship.
Yes, definitely. The whole universal security cards thing in particular, but we'll get to that in detail later on. I've always thought of the relationship of Metamorphosis Alpha to Gamma World as analogous to Chainmail and OD&D, but it goes much deeper than that, as you've pointed out.
 

Unka Josh

Social Justice Game Dev
RPGnet Member
Validated User
#9
The rules always struck me as a serious overhaul of the MA system; it cleaned up a lot of editing of those rules, took away the weird inconsistencies (and MA had tons of these) and made it more unified.

But also more brutal. That's going to come up, time and time again. How high is your Con? The answer is "Not high enough; it will not save you."
 

DJChallix

Gygaxian Gen-Xer
Validated User
#10
The rules always struck me as a serious overhaul of the MA system; it cleaned up a lot of editing of those rules, took away the weird inconsistencies (and MA had tons of these) and made it more unified.

But also more brutal. That's going to come up, time and time again. How high is your Con? The answer is "Not high enough; it will not save you."
Yes sir! As we will see, CON is undoubtedly the most important stat in the game. :devilish:
 
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