There’s no easy way to cover the entirety of Gamma World—and for good reason. It has seen its fair share of versions since its initial 1978 release. But this is D&D Alumni, and our pledge has been to look back at the game’s rich history—and this month, that includes the latest boxed set.
If this is your first foray into Gamma World, we’re here to reveal something of that setting’s strange origins. It’s a wild place certainly, where anything is possible. Animals have evolved; mutants, androids and manic one-eyed chickens run wild; and the French have annihilated Peshtigo, Wisconsin (we’ll explain that one a bit later).
Seemingly the stranger things get, the better.
How does this sound for a premise? A tribal civilization exists in what they consider their world, only one brave explorer among them quests farther out and realizes their world is actually a traveling spaceship. That’s the plot to Brian Aldiss’s debut novel, Non-Stop.
Elements of the novel and the concept of generation ships would influence James M. Ward and his 1976 game, Metamorphosis Alpha (appropriately subtitled a “Fantastic Roleplaying Game of Science-Fiction Adventures on a Lost Starship”). Metamorphosis Alpha, in turn, would later impact game sessions of the creators of Dungeons & Dragons. As Gary Gygax wrote in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide: “Readers of The Dragon might already be familiar with the concept of mixing science fantasy and heroic fantasy from reading my previous article about the adventures of a group of AD&D characters transported via a curse scroll to another continuum and ending up amidst the androids and mutants aboard the Starship Warden of Metamorphosis Alpha.”
We have to go back to Dragon #17 to find that previous article by Gary Gygax, a piece (titled as good as any pulp fiction: “Faceless Men and Clockwork Monster”):
“When last winter’s tedium was broken by the fun and games at Winter Fantasy, I was scheduled for DMing continual adventures in Greyhawk Castle, and that is exactly what they turned out to be: continual. Not having the heart to cut them short, I ended up eating meals while play went on, and the games lasted from morning into the late hours of Saturday night, from early Sunday morning straight through until evening, and fatigue made me a bit silly. When the last party, which included several regulars in the campaign (Mark Ratner and Jim Ward each playing one of their player character henchmen, and Ernie Gygax playing the character another participant had abandoned when he or she had to leave for home), beat up a body of gnolls and slew their master, there was a scroll amidst the heap of booty. It was, of course, a curse scroll, and it was a curse which whisked all creatures off to another world.”
As the article continues, there was a 1 in 10 chance that the other world would turn out to be the Starship Warden—and what should be rolled, but a 1.
“Imagine the surprise which struck my weary countenance with a look of wonder . . . imagine the groans from the regulars! They didn’t want to be stuck aboard Warden, not with precious henchmen, aboard that deathtrap. But all six characters, along with three gnoll prisoners, were, in fact, exactly that. The whole party was gone from the ken of D&D-kind and off amongst the horrors of Metamorphosis Alpha.”
(Remembrances of the original Metamorphosis Alpha can also be found at Tor.com and Grognardia.com. The game itself continues to this day, at metamorphosisalpha.net.)
From Alpha to Gamma
Metamorphosis Alpha would naturally influence the creation of James Ward’s (and Gary Jaquet's) Gamma World. Anyone with passing familiarity knows, Gamma World was originally set on post-apocalyptic Earth (or rather, post-post-apocalyptic Earth, following a second devastating nuclear war) in the year 2471.
“The weapons which had wrought the destruction were many and varied. Targets were seared by lasers, blasted by fusion devices, and razed by new and unfathomable energies developed in the final months of the conflict. Only the most highly fortified areas (military headquarters, spaceports, and the like) remained even partially intact. Neutron bombs, unhindered by most forms of shielding, decimated those who remained within even these strongholds, leaving concrete and metal tombs housing incredibly complex equipment, now stilled for lack of human guidance. Many of the weapons . . . were of a biogenetic nature and nearly all life forms suffered some kind of mutation.”
Gamma World Armor to AD&D Armor Class
AD&D Armor to Gamma World Armor Class
|Furs or skins
||Leather or padded
|Furs or skins & shield/
cured hide armor/
plant fiber armor/
||Leather or padded & shield/
|Cured hide or plant fiber armor & shield
||Studded leather or ring & shield/
scale mail & shield/
piece metal armor/
||Chain mail & shield/
banded or splint mail
piece metal armor & shield/total carapace & shield
||Banded or splint mail & shield/
plate mail & shield
from AC 1 to -2
from AC -3 to -6
from AC -7 to -10
The Gamma World setting has changed slightly in its most recent incarnation—instead of nuclear war, there’s been a “Big Mistake” over at Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider and a multitude of universes have collapsed onto our own. As mentioned, just about anything is possible in this setting: Your character might be a 10-foot tall baby, a hawkman, or a gelatinous mess trapped inside a cockroach-shaped bundt pan (all examples from here around the office). Rich Baker and Bruce Cordell recently chronicled the design of the latest version in Design & Development's "How We Brought Down Civilization."
My own exposure to Gamma World came with those odd mentions in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. In the section “Travel in the Known Planes of Existence,” Gary Gygax wrote:
“For those of you who haven't really thought about it, the so-called planes are your ticket to creativity, and I mean that with a capital C! Everything can be absolutely different, save for those common denominators necessary to the existence of the player characters coming to the plane. Movement and scale can be different; so can combat and morale. . . . If your players wish to spend most of their time visiting other planes (and this could come to pass after a year or more of play) then you will be hard pressed unless you rely upon other game systems to fill the gaps. Herein I have recommended that Boot Hill and Gamma World be used in campaigns.”
Boot Hill, of course, was the Old West-themed setting also being promoted by TSR at the time. The section on Gamma World also provided instructions for D&D/Gamma World character conversion, with a chart for the compelling armor types such characters might possess.
As we’ll see later in Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, finding a nifty suit of armor or weapon in Gamma World didn’t always mean being able to deploy it; a labyrinthine Artifact Use and Operation chart had to be negotiated first, where it was “. . . quite possible that one will fiddle with an artifact for weeks and never determine what it is, or, in the other extreme, detonate a bomb, eliminating everything within 100 meters.”
The risks, however severe, were worth it. The setting offered black ray guns (the ultimate hand-held weapon); police riot armor; matter, negation, and mutation bombs; and, of course, energy weapons such as the vibro blade (a force field in the shape of a sword, which cut anything except another force field), which might have been influenced by Larry Niven’s monofilament blades, but more probably by lightsabers.
And who among us didn’t want one of those?
Further Material and Influences
As mentioned, Gamma World has undergone several versions in the past—including the second, featuring Larry Elmore illustrations; the third, with the iconic cover art of a rider in shiny armor (almost Cylon-esque) atop a podog; and the fifth, published as part of Alternity. (We mention this last for a specific reason. Alternity would later fold into the d20 Modern game, including its Dark Matter setting and Hoffman Institute—a detail that might become apparent during this year’s Gamma World Game Day.)
Dragon Magazine would also supply Gamma World’s initial support material. In issue #19, for example, Gary Gygax provided a new list of “treasures” to be found that still works for a scavenged ancient junk table (a sampling of which appears below). In issue #25, James Ward revealed background material for numerous Cryptic Alliances—the secret organizations throughout the world, several of which are still mentioned within the current setting: the Archivists, Brotherhood of Thought, Knights of Genetic Purity, Radioactivists, and Restorationists, who:
“. . . survived in shelters in Boston and Providence. They crawled out of their areas and tried to pull the pieces together from the rubbled cities around them . . . All of their towns and farms are guarded by robotic units that are programmed to kill humanoids and mutants without warning and conduct humans to the main city. There are 5 town groups that each have an armory manned with men capable of using the powered armor and weapons at hand; a factory unit programmed to manufacture their everyday needs; and a group of robots designed to cannibalize the old cities for materials the smaller groups need.”
||Claw hammer—good condition, but handle broken
||News magazine or comic book—(very) poor condition
||Plastic coat hanger—poor condition (melted)
||Plastic bag of grass seed—fair condition
||Nylon rope—good condition (20. m. coil)
||Entrenching tool—fair condition, sleeve rusted
||Ceramic salt shaker—good condition, full
||Bicycle reflector—good condition (red, yellow, white, or blue color)
||Bicycle—fair condition, seat missing and tires flat
||Pencil—excellent condition, point broken
||Stapler—poor condition, no staples
||Small bottle of insect repellent—fair condition
||Plastic container—excellent condition, full of plant food
||Uctrodynamical potzreibie counter—poor condition, all 6 dials broken
||2-12 aluminum arrows, feathers gone, field heads
||.22 cal. pistol—fair condition, 9 shot
||Book—good condition, reading primer
||Home donut maker—poor condition
||Pair of scissors—fair condition, screw rusted
From Gary’s campaign teleported aboard the Warden to the suggestion of Gamma World’s setting as a plane of existence, science-fiction has crossed several times into the world of Dungeons & Dragons. Perhaps the most notable example came with Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, the adventure module that literally crashed a spaceship into the D&D world. As far as Gamma World’s own adventures, it’s certainly no coincidence that Famine in Far-Go and Legion of Gold are coming out for this latest version. These were also the setting’s original adventure modules. Next month we’ll take a closer look at November’s Famine in Far-Go . . . in particular, its nods to the Barrier Peaks (if it hasn’t been mentioned before, the froghemoth and vegepypmies are both coming back!).
But before we leave, why Peshtigo, Wisconsin? What did they ever do to deserve nuclear annihilation? As Rich Baker explains: “It’s mostly because Peshtigo is just a funny name. I mean, just say it. Pesh-TEE-go. There’s also a bit of historical weirdness associated with Peshtigo going back to a mysterious fire that erupted in the area in 1871, which some people think might have been caused by a comet impact. So, there’s the little element of mystery.
"But, mostly the funny name."
And, folks, that right there sums up Gamma World!
Level 8 Elite Soldier
Large terrestrial beast (aquatic)
HP 178; Bloodied 89 Initiative +8
AC 24, Fortitude 22, Reflex 18, Will 20 Perception +13
Speed 5, swim 7
Resist 5 fire
Saving Throws +2
Enemies cannot gain combat advantage by flanking the froghemoth.
The froghemoth can breathe under water. While underwater, it gains a +2 bonus to attack rolls against creatures without the aquatic trait.
Whenever the froghemoth takes electricity damage, it becomes slowed (save ends).
The froghemoth ignores difficult terrain that is mud or shallow water.
Attack: Melee 2 (one creature); +13 vs. AC
Hit: 1d8 + 3 physical damage, and the target takes 5 physical damage whenever it attacks any creature other than the froghemoth until the end of the froghemoth’s next turn.
Effect: The froghemoth uses tentacle four times. No more than two of the attacks can target the same creature.
Attack: Melee 1 (one creature); +13 vs. AC
Hit: 4d8 + 5 physical damage, and the target is immobilized (save ends). The froghemoth cannot use bite or grasping tongue while the target is immobilized in this way.
Attack: Melee 5 (one creature); +11 vs. Reflex
Hit: The froghemoth pulls the target 5 squares.
Attack: Melee 1 (one Medium or smaller immobilized creature); +11 vs. Fortitude
Hit: The froghemoth swallows the target, and the target is stunned and takes ongoing 10 acid damage (save ends both). Until the target saves against this effect, it has neither line of sight nor line of effect to any creature, and no creature has line of sight or line of effect to it. When the effect ends, the target appears in an unoccupied square of its choice adjacent to the froghemoth.
Requirement: It is the froghemoth’s turn. Effect: The froghemoth takes an extra standard action during that turn.
Trigger: An enemy hits the froghemoth.
Effect (Immediate Reaction): The froghemoth uses tentacle against one creature in range.
Skills Stealth +11 (+21 while underwater)
Str 21 (+9)
Dex 13 (+5)
Wis 16 (+7)
Con 17 (+7)
Int 3 (+0)
Cha 6 (+2)
Bart Carroll has been a part of Wizards of the Coast since 2004, and a D&D player since 1980 (and has fond memories of coloring the illustrations in his 1st Edition Monster Manual). He currently works as producer for the D&D website. You can find him on Twitter (@bart_carroll) and at bartjcarroll.com.