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.