Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Post-Gamma World

I recently played two sessions of the new Gamma World. You know, the edition to which my kneejerk reaction was pretty unfavorable. A friend of mine ran it at the weekly one-shot group. Let's see if actual play experience improves or worsens my perceptions of it...

One of the first steps in character creation was rolling up what type of character you're playing.
A quick aside: Some folks really don't like random character generation, and I can only conclude that said individuals will hate the new Gamma World. If memory serves correctly, previous editions character creation also had strong random elements as well. So I was okay with it, especially for a one-shot.
To give you an idea what I mean when I say "type of character", in these two sessions I was playing a Felinoid Hawkoid. You roll up two mutant categories, so I got cat-man and bird-man. Which was a little tricky trying to envision, but not too bad.

Overall, I actually really enjoyed this whole concept. You got powers based on your types as I expected, but type also determined your two-thirds of your starting skills and even gave you an automatic high score in your two most important attributes for your types. From a mechanical perspective, this was genius. I was really pleased with how it gave you stats that worked well together, and gave you an instant handle on your character. Especially for a one-shot or other short campaign, this was excellent.

But it didn't feel like Gamma World to me. One of the PCs was a Telekinetic Speedster. One of the other characters was constantly on fire. This sounds and feels like a Super-Hero game. Gamma World is over-the-top Post-Apocalyptic, not super-hero. Stylistically, at least in my opinion, those are worlds apart. I could see this char gen system working great for Supers (you'd have to elminate certain options from the chart, like Rat Swarm and Cockroach), but it failed to capture the Gamma World essence for me. It was too neat and tidy, too prefabricated, and it left the real weird themeless mutations to only appear in the card decks.

So, let's talk about the decks. In my kneejerk post from back in October, I railed against the CCG element even whilst I liked the idea of powers on cards. Mostly the complaint was about cost and the inevitable duplicates from random packs. The idea of having your powers at your fingertips (instead of in a rulebook) appeals to me. I also really like the concept of niche-protection where no two players have the same card / power. Unfortunately, my two sessions of play showed me that the new Gamma World completely failed to capitalize on the aspects I found appealing about the notion of cards.

For starters, things that logically should be on cards, weren't. Those character types, along with their resultant powers, were not on cards. This meant there was no niche preservation. 4 of the 6 members of our party were: a telekinetic speedster, a radioactive speedster,  a radioactive swarm, and a cockroach swarm. This was, of course, just the luck of the dice. But if they'd been on cards there'd be no duplication, our party would have been comprised of 12 of the 20 options (instead of 9 of 20), and each PC would have had their own distinct identity. Also, since the powers associated with the character types weren't on cards, we had to frequently refer to the rulebook. (We could have just written them down ourselves, but the character sheets for the game lack room to do so. That is another fair gripe, but completely beside the point.).

Secondly, the notion of mutations randomly coming and going every twenty minutes is terrible. Even given the "worlds colliding" backstory of the current edition, it was still hard to conceptualize. I'll break this one out into sub-complaints:
  • The notion that at frequent intervals the entire party mutates (or is replaced by the parallel selves) is weird enough.
  • That these mutations always take place right after a combat is a little wonky, but could be tied in to adrenalin wearing off or something, so I can kind of dismiss my disbelief on that.
  • Even stranger is the fact that, despite how I mutate (or however many parallel selves I'm replaced by, if that's how you choose to interpret it), nothing ever impacts or replaces my being a Felinoid Hawkoid. I may be an invisible Felinoid Hawkoid at the moment, and later I'll be a Felinoid Hawkoid that is literally made of steel, and an hour down the road I'm gonna be a Felinoid Hawkoid with really big feet. But my "real" mutations, of being a bird-man and a cat-man simultaneously, that sticks around.
  • The NPCs don't experience any of this. The Badders and Porkers we were fighting back in the first combat of the adventure are identical to the Badders and Porkers we fought in the second, third and fifth encounter. Despite being mutant badger-men and hog-men, they apparently don't mutate hourly like the PCs do.
  • All of this, though, I could perhaps manage to overlook, provided it enhanced the flavor and themes of the game. The rule of cool could win out, if I were immersed enough in the character or setting, (or even the tactical situation) to stay focused. This is where the cards really fail. They are informationally dense.  The main power text of the card is often quite complicated, and gives no clues how to visualize it. Then at the bottom there's the "overcharge" information, which tells you how the power can flare up beneficially if you push your luck, and the side-effects it generates if you get a bad roll. Very crunchy. Instead of everyone around the table describing how they've mutated or changed this time, we all just read our cards to ourselves. There's almost never any flavor text, so you often don't know how to visualize what you must look like now, let alone what anyone else does. Good-bye role-playing.

Those cards would be much better if they had simpler rules (get rid of overcharge) and used that space for more flavor text (or better yet, a picture).

Third, everything I just griped about in regards to the Alpha Mutations can also be said about the Omega Technology cards. When the enemy is blood-sucking birds that don't have a ranged attack, and you loot their body to discover a potent energy rifle on them, all suspension of disbelief goes away. More of the items gave clues to how they'd look than the mutation cards did, but it's still pretty bizarre to discover in the middle of combat that your buddy is wearing suped-up power armor he apparently got off the unarmored muties you wasted in the previous room.

My fourth and final complaint about the cards is just: "both decks have an identical back". Now that would be a minor and petty gripe, if the fronts weren't also extremely similar, and if you didn't have to discard and draw again and again during each session. GM + six players around a long table meant we were passing cards around a lot and you couldn't count on the decks staying put during our two sessions of play. Different color card backs sure would have cut down on the confusion.

Other than those very central complaints, I mostly enjoyed the system. D&D 4th Ed is a very solid tactical combat system, and the rules are themselves pretty straight forward and consistent. Gamma World's only real tweaks on that involve character creation, adding Level to literally every die roll (simple enough) and the ever-so-fiddly cards I just spewed venom about. So for me, once I'd figured out how my latest card worked, the rest of it was familiar and easy.

Some of my fellow players had trouble figuring their actions and powers out.  I think that was a failing of the GM, who didn't explain any of the base combat and skill-resolution rules until we were in the middle of our first real fight, and never really explained any of the keywords of rule system. (Oh well, we all make mistakes. I can certainly forgive this small oversight.)  4th Ed looks more complicated than it actually is, and I'm confident all that confusion would have shaken itself out given another session or two.

Leveling up seemed to come a smidge too quickly. We achieved the XP for second level early in the second session. I was glad to get to see the leveling process, but have some concerns about the game's legs. It only goes to level 10. At the pace we were earning XP, that we'd hit level 10 in 13 or 14 sessions. In retrospect, maybe that's not a problem.

As for the setting, well, the intro adventure from the boxed set (which is what we played) was _not_ a good introduction to it. The adventure plot was linear, felt arbitrarily slapped together, and didn't show off any of the things that made the previous editions so cool. Old-school Gamma World is an esoteric and byzantine take on the typical nuclear Post-Apocalypse setting. It's bizarre on the surface, but has an internal logic that you can eventually figure out and enjoy, and has a lot of depth beneath the surface. Instead, the intro adventure was a random dungeon romp. I know I only played the latest edition for two sessions, but it felt like the depth had been gutted and replaced with random card draws.

I'm glad to have had the opportunity to try it out, but it's definitely not something I'll be rushing out to buy. I'm about where I was in October, I can tell it's not my cup of tea. Just as upset, but the exact nature of my complaints has shifted. The biggest complaint is the way the steady influx of complicated new cards mid-session distracts everyone from the role-playing.

In the end, this version of Gamma World is a lot like recent Hollywood "remakes" of old TV shows from the 70s and 80s.  Instead of updating it to modern sensibilities and lovingly fixing the original's flaws, they aren't taking the subject matter seriously.  The title is the same, but clearly the studio doesn't "get it". They don't seem to understand what made the original so cool despite the bad acting and dated haircuts. They made something that's bordering on parody, but with the same name as the original.

I don't like being that guy who just complains and hates, and never contributes anything useful.   Let's say I got this game, and wanted to get my money's worth out of it, and run it for more than a session or two. How I would fix this?

I'd get rid of the random card draws after every encounter. Instead, I'd have each PC draw two alpha mutations at character creation, and discard the one they were least interested in. Whenever they leveled up, I'd have them draw another mutation, and decide to keep it or the one they already had. That'd be a little more believable then mutating every 20 minutes. Maybe around 5th level or so, I'd have them draw two cards, and keep a total of two mutations. The deck may need some customization as well, removing the most potent cards till later. (Maybe I'd pull out the weakest, too. I'd feel real sorry for a PC having to choose between Anti-Life-Leach and Footus Giganticus at first level.)

Tech cards would no longer be random draws, either. Instead, I'd use them as treasure and plot devices, and sometimes have badguys actually using the treasure until the PCs beat them and took it. The salvage rules might need to be re-written then, too. I didn't see enough of that (nor use enough Tech myself) to say for certain how to proceed in that regards. Guns that do 7d8 damage wouldn't show up until much later in the campaign.

At character creation, I'd either reroll duplicate results, or make a deck of the character types, to preserve character niche and individuality. I'd grudgingly leave in the super-hero flavored stuff like Speedster and (ever-flaming) Pyrokinetic, simply because coming up with my own balanced and in-genre replacements would take a lot more effort than I'm willing to do for this thought experiment.


Deinol said...

The first expansion comes with another 20 origins, so you could likely use that to remove the ones you don't like and still have a good mix.

My main objection to the cards are the random booster expansions. At least the main set comes with a good number, but I refuse to buy random boosters for any game.

Overall I liked the play experience, and would love to see what good adventure writers could do with the system. While it isn't as serious as the original, I think the succeeded at making a fun, light game that works great for short games.

Anonymous said...

They did some things well. I liked that the backgrounds gave characteristics, guaranteeing that everyone had some decent stats and making sure that the accompanying power wasn't based on the character's worst stat. I also liked that most things would work off of one of two stats, like int or dex. Someone was unlikely to have really poor ststs in both of those.
I hated the cards for reasons you mentioned. Also, when we found devices we could just use them. There was no lost technology aspect to it other than we couldn't just go buy the stuff.
The new style also goes against most of the classical post apocalyptic story styles like learning about the past, rediscovering technology, or rebuilding society. It was just too random and technology too easy to emphasize these story styles. Though it would work fine for running around just getting into fights type stories. But most RPGs will.

Shinobicow said...

so far, I run character generation at the game. If an origin gets rolled, I remove that option from play and tell the person to roll again, or they can be the super human one. So far, that has been no problem and it keeps things from overlapping and people from feeling stepped on.

kensan-oni said...

Well, in defense of Gamma World, the new setting really isn't Post Apocalyptic in the traditional sense. Sure, the world is crazy wasteland, but it's only because everything got quantum Randomized. It's less "After the Bomb" and more "Reality Storm gone Bonzo". I like to imagine that if you stand in one spot long enough, you just see everything WARP around you to conform to a new reality.

It's post apocalyptic the way that TORG is post apocalyptic, or how Dreampark's California Voodoo is suppose to be. I know it's not the traditional Gamma World, but I think it works on it's own level.

Peter Darley said...

Sorry that I didn't make the rules clear.

I think the biggest problem with the game is that I don't agree with the design philosophy of the adventure writer, or the game it's self. Since the focus of the game is on fair, balanced and interesting combats, adventure design is all about setting up combats. When I put together a game (meaning scenario, not set of rules) I don't consider the combats that the players may get into. It would certainly be possible to run the game setting up combats as they come up, instead of preplanning, but it does go against the grain of the game.

Another thing that bothered me a lot is the focus on the entirely artificial (and weird) ‘encounter’. It’s artificiality comes into sharp focus in many corner cases. If there are more opponents, but the PCs don’t know about them, the encounter doesn’t end, which makes for a weird situation. If the characters retreat and come back to an ‘encounter’, is it a different encounter? Should the players have new and fresh mutations? If so, that is a very big advantage to the players.

I don’t disagree with your assessment of the cards, tho it doesn’t bug me much. I strongly agree with your assessment of the problems with the setting, but again, it’s basically a scenario design problem, and pretty easily overcome.

In the end, this seems like it would be best (as written) as a campaign of linked board games rather than an RPG, tho it is not perfect at that. The game seems extremely easy for the PCs…

Anyway, I’m glad I got a chance to run it before shelving it, probably for a long time. :)

r_b_bergstrom said...

@ Deinol:
Thanks for pointing out the extra Origins in Famine At Far-Go. I wasn't aware they existed. Not that that would cause me to buy the game, but it's at least nice to know they're out there.

As to random boosters, I can accept and embrace such packaging, if I think it's well suited to the game.

Like, in Magic or other CCGs, deck building from a random pool is an interesting part of the meta-game, and you can use duplicates to make additional decks or trade them to other players.

In Gamma World, though, duplicates just means that mutation or tech comes up more often for no good reason... or you set the duplicate aside and never use it. And there's just not enough Gamma World GM's out there to make trading opportunities come by very often.

r_b_bergstrom said...

@ Erik/Anonymous:
Origins providing fixed Attributes was indeed quite nice. And yes, with four possible attributes determining attack bonuses, every character is bound to be good with at least one weapon type. I definitely appreciated both of those design decisions.

You raise a good point about the tech cards undermining the post-apocalyptic feel by being something everyone is familar enough with to use automatically. Lost tech stuff like that should ideally feel powerful, rare, important, dangerous, and esoteric.

Instead, the system made it feel mundane and readily disposable. I didn't like that at all.

It did frequently hit "powerful" and sometimes "dangerous" (I had two guns that hurt me if I used them, so I never did), but never the other thematic touchstones I was expecting.

r_b_bergstrom said...

@ Shinobicow:
I didn't get to see "the super human one". No one in our group had that Origin. Late in our second session, I noticed that there was some sort of Modified Human in the books, but I didn't have time to look at it. Is it anything like the Pure Strain Humans from old-school Gamma World? Is it on the chart, or only obtained in some special way?

r_b_bergstrom said...

@ kensan-oni:
I agree that the current Gamma World is not very Post-Apocalyptic. However, since the... what, five previous editions all were Post-Apocalyptic, that seems like a big change to me. Radical enough, I'm not sure the game gains anything from using the Gamma World name and identity. Well, other than that it fools people who liked the old Gamma World to drop money on a game that isn't the genre they're interested in.

So while I can see how the current edition might be someone else's cup of tea, I kinda resent that they stole the identity of a game, and nearly sold it to me based on a false promise (of being Post-Apocalyptic, and/or the conceptual descendant of the previous editions).

That sounds a bit more dire than I intend. I'm not like personally angry about it, I just think it's a lame way to do business. Burns the good will of your customers.

r_b_bergstrom said...

@ Peter:
Don't sweat the rules stuff, especially not after the fact. Yes, it would have made things a little easier in the first fight or two of each session, but it still wouldn't have changed the fact the game is just random violent mayhem. That can be fun, and all, but it's not quite my style. Clearly, I like more story and character development than that scenario allowed for.

The "what constitutes an encounter" question is a big one, though. I'm pretty sure you're talking about the battle with the robot reinforcements that didn't show up until well after we destroyed the first wave. If neither the game nor the scenario provides a usable definition, then, yeah, that's a big rules hole.

As for the game being easy for us, was that perhaps a function of how many PCs we had? Did the scenario give any indication what a "typical" party should consist of? Did it offer anything to scale up the encounter if your group is large? Some of those fights were indeed cake walks, but I wonder if that wasn't just because we 50% more players than they wrote it for.

Thanks again for running it. Sure it wasn't my favorite game, but it was nice to get to try it out. Had you not picked it up and run it, I probably would have bought the game a few months down the road. Now I know it's not a good match for me, so you've definitely saved me some cash and regrets. Thank you for that.