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How We Brought Down Civilization, Part 1
Design & Development
By Richard Baker and Bruce R. Cordell

It’s a hundred years from now, and the world’s gone mad. Our civilization lies in radioactive ruins. Monstrous mutated animals and things dislocated out of time, dimension, and space roam the land. Neo-savage mutant adventurers delve into the ruins in search of priceless technology—weapons and machines left over from our own 21st century, as well as fantastically advanced technology introduced into the world in the instant of the Big Mistake. Welcome to Gamma World!

Rich Baker and Bruce Cordell, designers for the new Dungeons & DragonsGamma World Roleplaying Game, take a few minutes to show you what goes on when we resurrect a classic game world from the radioactive ashes.

What’s the Game About?

Rich: Gamma World is a game where you play mutant heroes armed with a mix of primitive and futuristic tech, taking on the dangers of a radioactive, ruined Earth. Basically, it takes the tropes of classic fantasy roleplaying and recasts them for a postapocalyptic future. Instead of fighters, clerics, or wizards, you’re playing mutants whose random mutations might give them abilities from pyrokinesis to duplication to enormous size. You don’t explore monster-filled dungeons, you explore ancient ruins and installations roamed by vicious mutated beasts and robots run amok. Instead of magical items or holy relics, you find modern firearms or examples of sci-fi weaponry like powered armor or fusion rifles. It’s a dangerous world, and you’re the heroes who are dedicated to protecting what’s left from hordes of savage marauders and rampaging mutant monsters.

Gamma World is light, fast, deadly, and not too serious. You can roll up your characters and get to blasting mutants in 30 minutes or less; if a character is disintegrated by a trek bomb or torn to pieces by mobile flesh-eating mutant cactuses, you get to roll up a new one. You might battle an ancient war machine, or you might battle 6-foot-tall intelligent mutant rabbits with M-16s and dreams of conquest. Bring a sense of humor to the game. And a fusion rifle.

Bruce: This game rocks some serious pro-mutant attitude, plus a hefty helping of super-science for all you nerds who’d feel right at home in the 24th century. And Gamma World offers just the right environment for the gratuitous mix of both. When multiple parallel dimensions come crashing down on each other to form a single unstable consensus reality, the survivors must learn a whole new set of rules to live by in the aftermath.

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A lucky (or sometimes, unlucky) few have just the right genetic or algorithmic predisposition to spontaneously manifest entirely new mutant abilities by drawing upon the fluxing world lines. Sure, at heart you may be a cybernetic yeti escaped from some research facility. On some days, however, you can command machines at your whim, while on others, your fluctuating mutant acumen provides you with a cranked-up sniffer.

Either way, whether your mutation is flashy or slightly dorky, no one’s going to look down on you when you show them the latest piece of super-science you plucked from the ruins of all tomorrow’s hopes: A chainsaw on steroids called a vibro sword!

Where Are the Mutants of Yesteryear?
Gamma World is one of the oldest RPG settings around. The game’s first edition, by James M. Ward and Gary Jaquet, was published by TSR, Inc. in 1978—and it grew out of an even earlier game, Metamorphosis Alpha, which was published in 1976. Updated editions appeared in 1983, 1985, and 1992. In fact, the mechanic of Armor Class scaling up—one of the notable improvements incorporated in D&D 3rd Edition—originated in Gamma World Fourth Edition, designed by Bruce Nesmith. No more AC –3, thank you very much! Gamma World also appeared as a supplement for the Alternity Science Fiction Roleplaying Game in 2000. Noted game designer Jonathan Tweet updated the setting once again with Omega World, a d20 system mini-game for Dungeon magazine published in 2002. This year’s model marks Gamma World’s first appearance in almost ten years. We hope you like it!

The Big Mistake?

Bruce: Most people believe the world was once perfect, but then the Big Mistake wiped it out, leaving behind the blasted landscape and visibly cracked moon of Gamma Terra. Residents of that utopian former world (you and me) are called Ancients, and their ruins and still-functioning super-science artifacts can still be found.

Insofar as it can be determined by people of Gamma Terra, the Big Mistake was a combination of events kicked off by an accident at an Ancient installation called the Large Hadron Collider that was attempting to locate the “God Particle.” Depending on the story, it was one of those tiny things that didn’t seem important at the time: a bird dropped a piece of bread, which precipitated a series of cascading malfunctions culminating in the event that partially collapsed billions of parallel timelines into a single worldtrack! Uncomprehending nations in a large percentage of these parallel Earths mistook the collapse for an attack by enemies and immediately launched their arsenals of nuclear, chemical, biological, and superscience weapons at each other.

That was some years ago. Since then, remnant poisons, fluxing timelines, and transposed creatures and technology of myriad alternate dimensions combined to create a unique tableau that any Ancient would deride as the gibberings of a down-on-her-luck pulp novelist. From where you’re sitting, it’s obviously no fantasy, but sometimes it sure seems crazy.

Rich: One of the grand traditions of Gamma World design is that you get to re-imagine the Cataclysm each time you do a new edition of the game. It’s a game designer rite of passage, really. For a couple of years now we’ve seen the occasional article pointing out that some folks have concern about what will happen when this big particle accelerator or that gravity wave detector is turned on, including the very remote chance that a black hole will consume Earth. (I suppose I can understand that people would want to be very certain that wouldn’t happen.) Bruce and I kicked it around, and we decided that a gang of well-meaning scientists who make a Big Mistake was a fine new spin on the world-ending apocalypse.

However, there’s actually a good reason to play around with Gamma World’s origin story beyond pure designers’ vanity. The best examples of the postapocalyptic genre—say, Road Warrior, Fallout, or The Postman (just kidding)—don’t involve the destruction of a world advanced several centuries from the current day. They blow up the world that we live in right now. The genre is more visceral, more riveting, when the ruins are places you know and the gear consists of things you can get your hands on now. We wanted a setting that could accommodate a Road Warrior-style game but still sprinkle in fantastic SF tech like fusion rifles and vibroblades. That’s why we went with a world origin that drops elements of super-tech into the skeleton of the Earth you know.

Mutant Heroes

Rich: Rolling up Gamma World characters is insanely fun. Bruce and I started our design work on character generation by looking over the long tables of random mutations from previous editions of Gamma World. Rather than trying to provide a single grand table with a hundred entries, we decided to group mutation packages into character components we called themes or origins. So, if you got the seismic package, you got rocky skin and a foot stomp/earthquake power. The real fun is that you begin play with two origins, randomly determined, and they might not go together at all—for example, seismic hawkoid. (Business manager Kieran Chase rolled up that one in a playtest.) So, what are you? Some kind of hawk made from rocks? Somebody like the Fantastic Four’s Thing, except with feathery wings? How does that manage to fly? We were all stumped for a minute or two, but then we figured it out: Kieran’s character was a gargoyle. Hey, that’s kinda cool!

(Of course, you aren't forced to roll your character’s two origins randomly. You can pick off the chart if you really want to. But we think that’s for wimps. Real survivors roll for their mutations!)

At one point, we had another step in character creation where you picked your character role and laid it as a template over your two origins. For example, if you wanted to be a leader, you got X and Y for hit points and surges, and you got the healing word power. The idea worked OK, but it turned out to be an unnecessary step in character creation. We decided that your origins could carry the weight of suiting your character for one role or another. If you have skin made of rock, you’re naturally going to be a good choice to be the party’s tank. If you can shoot laser beams from your eyes, you’re a pretty good ranged striker. Given the fact that powerful high-tech firearms give just about every character the potential to stand back and blast away for respectable damage, we decided that we could live with less emphasis on starkly defined character roles and party composition.

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Bruce: The mutant fun doesn’t stop with your origin. Sure, you may be a gargoyle, an Ancient store mannequin that’s acquired the power of speech, or a swarm of radioactive cockroaches with a hive mind, and that’s a fantastic start. But what about acquiring completely new mutations during the course of play, in the spirit of the original game?

Short answer: yes you can. What to most folks of Gamma Terra is a poisonous mix of mutagens, radiation, and time-space fractures is for you (as a player character) a catalyst that grants access to exciting new mutant abilities every day. These changeable mutations are mediated by the Alpha mutation cards. Alpha cards represent randomly shuffled possibilities that flux into and out of play. You may go into one encounter with, let’s admit it, socially awkward mandibles protruding from your face. But if the worldliness and background radiation levels flux just right, those could melt away and leave you with the ability to control gravity itself! Then it’s payback time for everyone who made fun of your mandibles.

Parking Meters, AK-47s, and Powered Armor

Rich: The classic illustrations of Gamma World characters feature a mishmash of barbarism and super high-tech. You might be walking around with a stop sign for a shield or carrying a parking meter for a club (do you have any idea how heavy those things are, by the way?), you might have a .44-magnum revolver stuck in your waistband, or you might wear powered assault armor and carry a medieval mace for when your plasma gun runs out of juice. In the iconic Gamma World campaign, heroes should begin at 1st level with stone age or medieval tech and slowly progress up through modern firearms to early-SF tech to super-SF tech as they continue their adventures.

When we started working on Gamma World gear, we hit a tricky spot with modern firearms. I just couldn’t bring myself to say that your M-16 is really about as good as a crossbow or thrown spear, because it seems to me there’s a good reason modern soldiers carry rifles instead of bows. So how could we make firearms clearly better without making them the only choice a player would consider? The answer we struck on was the idea of an Ammo weapon quality. Basically, if a weapon has the Ammo quality, you normally use it only once per encounter. You’re assumed to be husbanding your shots, saving those precious cartridges for really important attacks. However, if you decide you just don’t care, you can go ahead and use that weapon for as many attacks as you want during the encounter … but at the end of the fight you’re Out of Ammo, and you can’t use that weapon again until you get your hands on more. Maybe you’ll find some while poking around in the ruins, maybe you’ll take some off your dead enemies, or maybe you’ll be able to barter for a few more cartridges when you reach the next town. It’s not entirely in your hands as a player, so running out of ammo might be a real hardship.

One of the nice side effects of the ammo rule is that we’re never going to make you track exactly how many shots you have left. It’s a little more cinematic than that. You either have ammo, or you don’t. And it's no fair buying six different pistols and shooting each of them once per battle: all of your ammo is a common pool. Since firearms have this special drawback of one shot per encounter, we bumped up their accuracy and damage over medieval-era ranged weapons. If you’re someplace where ammo is plentiful, you’ll happily shoot every round. Otherwise, a bow might be a safer choice. It’s easier to make arrows than it is to find cartridges, after all.

Bruce: Sometimes you find a battered but usable M-16 in the salvage-or-die ruinlands of Gamma Terra. Other times, you find Omega tech in the form of a fusion rifle, or maybe powered armor with onboard weapons! Oh happy day, right?

Of course. But just as Rich described how modern-day firearms should be better than bows, we needed superscience weapons to be better than modern-day fire arms. Our solution was somewhat similar to the ‘husbanding your ammo’ rule, in that you can only fire or use your Omega tech item once per encounter, and each use of that item runs the risk of running down the item’s charge permanently. This was a great solution for play on a couple of different fronts, not only because it helped cap overuse of really powerful technology but because it also increases the variety of Omega tech items that come into play over the course of a game, and in Gamma World, variety equals fun.

On the other hand, this ‘use until discharged’ rule on its own doesn’t provide players with a chance to build up their character identity. For instance, if you see yourself as the cybernetic yeti who’s a master at the vibro sword, you’re going to feel a little foolish when you use up the final charge and your vibro sword becomes an inert piece of jagged metal with a hilt.

Enter the Salvage rules! When your character finds a piece of Omega tech he or she develops a particular attachment to, there’s a good chance that item can be rigged to work permanently. It may not work as well as the original version, but it still works damned well, and you get to cling to that character image where you're a vibro sword master.

Monsters of Terra Gamma

Rich: Gamma World just wouldn’t be Gamma World without badders, hoops, obbs, and sleeths. We picked thirty of our favorites for the Gamma World Roleplaying Game box and created brand-new 4e-style versions of them, including color art for each critter. Previous editions of Gamma World had the unfortunate habit of hiding extremely important information about monsters in very innocuous “Mutation” entries following the basic stats. For example, you might remember that the arks are the dog-people who wear leather armor and carry spiked clubs… but I’ll bet you don’t remember that they had powers of life leech, telekinesis, and weather control! If you got into a tussle with a pack of arks, the GM had to remember to go look up those mutations and use them, which makes for a very different encounter than you might expect from the basic description of the monster. This time around, we can describe crazy mutations like those as monster powers and make sure they’re right where the GM can find them.

One of the big changes in this time Gamma World is that it’s fully compatible with the Dungeons & Dragons game. You can take monsters straight out of the D&D Monster Manual and throw them at your Gamma World heroes with no conversion needed. Everybody has the same ability scores, same defenses, and same action economy. This means that a Gamma World GM has thousands of D&D monsters in print to expand the game’s monster selection. And, let’s face it, there are some D&D monsters that work just fine as inexplicably bizarre mutants you might run into if you poke around on Gamma Terra long enough.

Bruce: Some of my favorite new monsters are actually revised versions of monsters I used in my own high school Gamma World games, such as the gamma moth. What the high-school version of myself failed to appreciate was just how terribly lethal those old gamma moths were. After a 2-hour character roll-up session, I sent my players into an encounter with gamma moths infesting the very first chamber of a pre-catastrophe ruin. I thought I was providing everyone an opportunity to gain new mutations, but thanks to a high roll on the attack dice, what I ended up providing was a highly radioactive mass grave. Oops!

But despite (because of?) that, I have a soft spot in my heart for gamma moths. Yes, they’re still radioactive bastards that you should watch out for. But now when you send your group of level-appropriate adventurers into an encounter that includes them, you shouldn’t discover you’ve unintentionally created a perfect place to end your campaign.

NEXT MONTH: Rich and Steve Schubert (lead developer) talk about the Gamma World Booster Cards!