Gamma World Campaigns Can Work!
by , 01-09-2011 at 11:10 PM (11433 Views)
As many who know me are aware, Iíve been writing a 5-part Gamma World campaign. What many of you donít necessarily know is that, besides enjoying the creative outlet, as well as the game itself, Iím trying to prove to myself that Gamma World can support campaigns. Iím writing my mini-campaign as if itís a series of living campaign modules (like Living Forgotten Realms or Heroes of Rokugan), which facilitates public play (including synDCon) and later publication. Accordingly, I ran parts 1-3 through play-tests (thanks, home group), and yesterday I ran parts 1 and 2 "for real" at Dream Wizards in Rockville, MD.
Everyone seemed to have fun, which is no surprise. I donít see how you could possibly play Gamma World and not have fun, even if youíre not a role-playing gamer. Itís just too goofy not to have fun. In that regard, then, mission accomplished, but I still need to make sure that people can play this game in the context of campaign over at least 10 levels. I made a few observations about how my game seemed both to support and to undermine that process.
As you read through this post, remember that the question here isnít whether you can have fun playing Gamma World, but rather whether Gamma World is suitable for a campaign. Whatever campaign-based weaknesses I point out might actually make the game great for one-shots. Also, some people are just not interested in playing Gamma World at all. More power to them. Play what you like. This post is for the rest of us.
The Good: Story
Gamma World by assumption involves multiple realities crashing in on itself. This opens doors with which other campaign settings canít possibly compete. Living Forgotten Realms has sometimes been criticized as being ďkitchen sink,Ē but I have yet to see a single laser pistol in that campaign. If you can think it, Gamma World can contain it, and without forcing things that donít belong. (See if you can write an arctic adventure for Dark Sun and then with a straight face simultaneously claim Dark Sun has as many options as Gamma World.) That leaves room for you to take inspiration from unlikely sources, as well as stretch the fabric of your own creativity. The resulting twists and turns can make your stories as rich as in any other RPG.
The Bad: Randomness and Goofiness
Randomness can sometimes take away the character from the player that created it. When you build a character, you personalize it with your own choices. Rolling up random characters detaches you from the character. Itís less yours and more like you monopoly token, whoís personality is determined by the rules of the game rather than you. For the reasons stated above, you think less of losing that character, and look forward to replacing it. To make matters worse, even if you take all the randomness out of character creation, youíre still left with Alpha Mutations that change your character from encounter to encounter.
Goofiness can also go overboard. Much of the time, people are goofing off so much that they miss the story. This can have the same distracting effect as constant character creation.
The Ugly: Brutality
Gamma World has some seriously high damage expressions, and sources of healing other than your second wind are few and far between. Characters die left and right unless you, as GM, do something about it. Even when trying to keep characters alive, there will still be character deaths unless you flat out lie about what numbers you rolled. Without a practical way of bringing them back from the dead (pretending he didnít die just doesnít feel right), too much character death sucks. If you invest that much time in creating a rich, interesting character, frequently being forced to completely change gears is asking too much. Once or twice over a 20-level campaign is annoying, but workable. More than that, however, sucks the meaning out of the story, and for some, the fun out of the game.
Itís also impractical. If you constantly have to create a new character on the spot between encounters, youíll have a hard time paying attention to the story, rendering it less important than the dice-rolling. Add to all of this the fact that itís nearly impossible not to have fun creating a new character (which itself is bound to be fun to play), and it would seem that the brutality of Gamma World facilitates a one-shot mentality.
Can It Work?
So, does that mean Gamma World isn't suitable for campaigns? Not at all. The culture is what you make it. With respect to brutality, as a GM, the encounters are as hard as you make them, and as a player or GM, the story is as important as you want it to be. Consider that 4th edition (and from what Iím told, 2nd edition) Dark Sun is just as brutal as Gamma World. Is anyone claiming that Dark Sun isnít good for campaigns? I havenít heard anyone make that argument, and tons of people have enjoyed playing, running, and writing Dark Sun adventures for decades. Why? Because itís what you make of it. Besides, as a GM, you can flat-out lie about what numbers you rolled!
With respect to randomness, with less brutality, you have less character creation. With less character creation, you have less randomness. If thatís not good enough, you can also adopt a house rule that allows players to remove all randomness from the character creation process. That leaves only one persistent random aspect to players: Alpha Mutation cards. Think about it, though. Are Alpha Mutation cards any more damaging to a characterís back-story and personality than the occasional random 20 on a d20 roll? Randomness is of course part of the game, but itís even part of the character's nature during game-play.
With respect to goofiness, I'd say it's unfair to place the blame on Gamma World. Not everyone is a goofball like me, but most people goof off during role-playing games. Depending on the person, it might be because they want a mental break from the seriousness of the game, or it might be because ultimately, RPGs are social games. "Demented and sad, but social." Were there to enjoy each other's company as much as we are the game itself. Otherwise, why aren't we all at home playing WoW? Gamma World simply bows to that irresistible force and makes goofiness part of the game. That has no impact on whether you'll be willing to follow the same story for multiple sessions.
The question, then, isnít whether Gamma World is suitable to a campaign but rather whether the GM and players want a campaign. The group must simply determine where precisely the line is drawn between randomness and choice, and between goofiness and concentration. Those are a matters of personal taste and style. Thatís all.
These are all valid concerns because house rules might be necessary for some groups to truly get into the spirit of a Gamma World campaign, but they can easily be applied. Moreover, no campaign setting Iíve ever personally read, or even heard of, has as many open doors. An infinite number of alternate realities gives you, by definition, and infinite set of creative options. So long as GMs consider these issues and arenít resistant to these concerns from their players, campaigns in Gamma World should work well for everyone that likes the game.
Here are some possible house rules for your consideration:
1. Allow players to eliminate some or all rolls from character creation.
2. Reduce the lethality of the encounters using standard 4e techniques (e.g., lower-level encounters, low damage expressions).
3. Create an item or environmental effect that can serve as a source of healing comparable to a healing novice power. (By itself, this might do it.)
EDIT: BTW, I've implemented a significant house rule to Gamma World. I've applied "heal checks" from 4th Edition D&D to Gamma World. With a DC 10 Science check, you can force the PC to burn his second wind, and with a DC 15 Science check, you can give the PC a save. This, of course, comes at a slight cost. As per D&D 4th Edition, stabilizing a dying PC requires a DC 15 Science check (rather than DC 10). I suggest this rule be in effect even if you're playing 1-shots, unless your players really do enjoy rolling up characters more than they doing playing the game.