Lions & Tigers & Rabbits, Oh My: The Forgotten Gamma World


It's somehow appropriate that a column called Forgotten Games should get forgotten for about a year, but as with many things we can't always get what we want... at least not when we want it. I'm happy to report that I've recently located my stash of old Role-Playing Games, and at the top of the stack was the second game on my list from oh, so long ago - Gamma World, published by "The Game Wizards," TSR.

You really can't blame them for trying. After all, TSR was riding high with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the late '70s, and it seemed plausible that there was room for another game world that could be just as popular. Take a quirky little niche game called Metamorphosis Alpha, add a few more rules and some extra mutations, and voila. This is to say nothing of the fact that theatres and television at that time were full of popular science-fiction films and shows, everything from Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, to Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. There was no better time for such a game to become an instant hit.

But it didn't.

Gamma World had its fair share of devoted fans, which is the only reason it survived through 5 editions (1978, 1981, 1986, 1992 and 2000), but it never achieved the degree of market saturation that Dungeons & Dragons did. So why does Gamma World remain a "third tier" gaming system, forever relegated to the darkest, dustiest shelves of the RPG shop? There are a few reasons, some more obvious than others. In no particular order:

1. The Metric System - TSR's target audience was American, and America loathes the metric system. So what were they thinking? The 1978 forward to Gamma World says that "the U.S. is beginning to make the switch from the English system to the metric system of weights and measures," and it was primarily for this reason that Gamma World's charts were all metric. "We, as editors, advise use of the metric system," they said. Indeed, at the time it probably did seem like a good idea; the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 was enacted "to coordinate and plan the increasing use of the metric system in the United States." In the late '70s, it seemed to be a great idea. But the U.S. Metric Board's efforts was ultimately abandoned in late 1982, largely ignored by a public who had other things to worry about than liters and meters. Which brings us to...

2. Bad Timing - It's the dawn of the 1980s. Terrorists are hijacking planes and killing American hostages. Ronald Reagan is poking the Soviets with a pointy stick, forcing the country ever deeper into a Cold War. Nuclear missile silos are being dropped in your back yard. Everyone is deathly afraid that someone is going to push the button. And you've just published a game that deals with terrorist groups, nuclear and biological annihilation that plunges the world into the dark ages and devastates North America. What do you do, hotshot? What do you do?

Role-playing games are about escapism more than anything, and nobody wants to be reminded about their own harsh reality when they're trying to kick back and have a little fun. D&D works because it's an escape into a world of wizards, dragons and dungeons, things we don't see in the real world every day. Gamma World, for all its mutations and far future setting, was realistic, considering the climate of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and no doubt, it was avoided by many for that reason.

3. Poor Presentation - Let's take a look at the 1st Edition cover, shall we? In muted shades of gray, instead of color, we see a group of helmeted, goggled, anonymous stormtrooper-like men, looking at a ruined building. Yawn. It's like the away team scanning for life signs on Star Trek, except less interesting. The back cover is even worse; who on earth thought that an entire cover of hexes would be seen as either useful or interesting in the least? Inside, you've got 56 pages of two-column text, which was pretty standard back then, but even taking that into consideration the layout is dull and boring, consisting of column after column of charts and text broken by the odd... (getting sleepy)... random graphic... (snore)...

4. General Silliness - Barl Nep. Ber Lep. Ert. Grens. Herkel. Hoop. Kep. Narl Ep. Parn. Sleeth. Terl. Zarn. Zeethh. A clever alien language? No, it's some of the creatures listed in the middle of the book. Can you honestly say that you can charge nobly into battle against a group of Sleeths without cracking up? And what about the intelligent Venus Fly Trap reading a book, or the rabbits with sniper rifles, or the lizard licking the dirt off an electric fan? Or how about that exciting treasure list? How many ball point pens, pencil sharpeners and tubas can you find before you throw the book down and start rolling for +3 2-handed Frostbrand swords? There's fanciful, and then there's just outright silly, and Gamma World crossed the line one too many times. I mean, come on: WTF is "two thirds of a metric ton of Mygnyl Chorts" supposed to accomplish for me?

5. Unachievable Separation from Reality - You know you're in trouble when you come across a sentence like: "It is recommended that the referee not allow the players to become mutated plants." This constant pushing of the boundaries of realism was one side of the "reality" coin that turned people off. It's one thing to talk about mutants; The X-Men were making a big hit in the comic book world at the time, for example. But it's quite another to have giant talking rabbits conversing with intelligent cactuses and flying hippos. I don't care if the game does say it's "Science Fantasy;" the whole thing often resembled a hallucinogen-induced nightmare rather than a plausible game world, being "too unreal" to handle.

At the same time, the "realistic" elements of the game also proved a detriment, for both the referee and the players. Let's say the characters come across a drum of radioactive waste. The referee has to describe a metal drum marked with warning symbols in a way that won't reveal exactly what it is, since the characters aren't supposed to know. And when he finally breaks down and says "It's a big drum with yellow triangles on the side that say Danger," the characters have to pretend like they don't know what it is. So that means opening the drum, and dying, or coming up with some crazy explanation about how they have a bad feeling about opening it. You can imagine the difficulty the referee has when they discover a pencil sharpener, or a stapler, or an electric fan; how do you describe those things in such a way as to preserve the mystery? You can't.

It would be wholly unfair not to talk about the things that Gamma World got right, however, because there are several of them. First of all, there's the concept of rolling on a chart for mutations during character creation. Whether they were all practical or not, the idea of injecting some sort of randomness into the character generation process is something many games lack. A fighter is just a fighter, but a flying, glowing monkey with tentacles is fun.

Secondly, Gamma World managed to cram an entire game system into 56 pages. Granted, it wasn't always pretty, but it was there, and you didn't need to go out and buy three other hardcover books and all their supplements. Player creation, combat rules, adventure concepts, and even creature archetypes, all right there under one cover. At times, the rules got a bit too cluttered, with far too many charts to compare numbers too, but taken as a whole it was nice and simple. This is perhaps most evident in the creature encounters section, which presents each creature type in a single paragraph with Number appearing, Armor Class, Movement and Hit Dice. No sifting through a long column of Initiative, Special Abilities, Saving Throws, Organization, Climate, Social Security Number and Mother's Maiden Name. Do we really need to know all that about a creature we're just going to mash into the ground in the next five minutes? I didn't think so.

Ironically enough, that brings me to the third interesting thing Gamma World presented, which was the concept of non-lethal combat. In D&D, for instance, it's all about swords and axes and blood and death and die die die. But Gamma World had STUN Rifles, and TEAR GAS Grenades, and Slug Throwers that did STUNNING damage. In other words, there was a notion that you didn't have to kill everything you came across. In fact, killing things at random in the Gamma World modules was typically a very bad idea, because those were beings you needed some sort of information from.

The final revolutionary thing that Gamma World featured, way back as early as 1978, was the crazy concept of classless, levelless characters. No 1st level fighters or 5th level wizards, just your character and the ability to take experience points and apply them directly to improving your ability scores. Got 3000 experience? Add +1 to dexterity. In the end, much more simple and useful for your average gamer than spending a half hour leafing through the Feats chart.

Of course, Gamma World has changed a lot since its early days, for better and for worse. As I mentioned earlier, there have been 5 major editions, three of them associated with their own series of adventure modules: 1981's 2nd Edition had classics like Legion of Gold, Famine in Far-Go and The Mind Masters; 1986's 3rd Edition had the Alpha/Beta/Gamma/Delta/Epsilon adventures, and 1992's oft forgotten 4th Edition featured generally silly modules like Mutant Master and All Animals Are Equal. Thankfully, this last was put to rest in 1994.

In 2000, Gamma World was re-released as a campaign setting for the Alternity Science Fiction RPG, retaining the apocalyptic setting and mutation charts, but once again revamping the ruleset and moving them farther away from their humble origins. At 192 pages, it's almost 4 times thicker than the 1st Edition ruleset, and in my opinion it's not really any more interesting or fun than that little black-and-white book from 1978. Whether or not it will be remembered is another story.

Next time (and I promise, it'll be a lot sooner than 11 months from now, I'll jump into the almost entirely forgotten Super Hero genre with 1979's classic Villains & Vigilantes. Up, up and away...

Interesting article...

But you forget Metamorphosis Alpha to Gamma (approximate title) for TSR's Amazing Engine, which took Gamma World back to its root.

Further, without MA, you would have seen the delights of SkyRealms of Jorune which was derived from a homegrown MA campaign.

As an experienced DM, I can recall jostling a few nerves when I inserted a few Gamma world items into a traditional AD&D 1e game.

In one particular game, I allowed some uppity 7th-8th level adventurers to accidentally discover a group of Orcs that had stumbled across some 1911 handguns and a few boxes of ammo...

The look on their faces! When I described the "strange" metal clubs that they were carrying. For ten full minutes, the players sort of just stared at me in shock. It was funny to see them cough up legitimate excuses to backtrack out of that particular ruined keep...

kind of caught them using OOC information. Heh. Once they realized in a roundabout manner that I was describing holstered handguns, everyone got really nervous...and wondered aloud if they should have crossed the Tanakra Wastelands to the Mist Valley after all. For three weeks or so in game time, the party was very careful not to engage anyone, for fear they were packing heat! Not one "shot" was even fired, I had them so skittish. Everyone thought I was on crack! But no one wanted to try their swords out on an Orc armed with a handgun.

I had them so guilt tripped for using Out of Character information! They had this strange notion that I would kill their favorite character with a nice center-mass double tap from an orc!

It was one of the only times I ever fused anything from Boot Hill and/or Gamma World. From then on, after they passed beyond that unusual Valley, the running joke was always to ask the DM:

1> "It's an orc?"
2> "He is strapped?"

*chuckle* I still laugh at that long time in-house joke!


I tried several times to run Gamma World, but could never get myself and my gaming buddies into it. The game sort of had a self-defeating quality about it, didn't it? I still remember the Hopeless Character illustration from (I think) the 4th ed: a goofy-looking koboldish creature with hands for feet and feet for hands. Not that it isn't perhaps good advice to give up on a mutation like that, but the picture sort of tainted the rest of the game for us. :)

Gamma World was a favorite with me and my brother. We enjoyed the just sheer goofiness of discovering these ancient military installations full of radioactive mutants and crazed robots. Of course, nearly every time we played, one of us either pulled the control rods, pushed the "Super-Destruct-Override" button, or wandered into the reaction chamber of a very live 3000 year old nuclear reactor. The resulting explosion usually took out the entire party and the little village from which they had come, but we thought it was hilarious. And of course, nothing thrills like uncovering a functional Black-Ray gun out of an old storm sewer. Ahhhh, memories...

The really fun thing about Gamma World was that it was set in the area of western Pennsylvania where my gaming group and I lived, so our characters had fun trying to rebuild the city of Butler. Of course, one of the US superfund cleanup sites is located in northern Butler County, at the Bruin lagoon....

Wow, this was one of the most misinformed articles I've ever read about GW. First off Aeon, its obvious you're an AD&D fan. Noone cares. That horse beat itself to death a long time ago. You mention the 1st edition cover in "shades of grey"...that's the cover of the MANUAL included in the boxed set, which had the same art, but in COLOR on the cover of the box. The hex grid on the back of the manual is to help GMs make their own hexmaps, which was a big deal back in the late 70's. It's an easy mistake to make, since most 1st ed box sets are long gone, with only the manuals left. However, your next error is inexcusable. The "Famine in Far-Go" and "Legion of Gold" modules were written for 1st edition, NOT 2nd. The "Mind Masters" and "Cleansing War of Garik Blackhand" modules were written for 2nd edition GW. You also forgot a related work, as Pookie tried to point out, the "Metamorphosis Alpha to Omega" book, which was a re-release of Metamorphosis Alpha for the Amazing Engine game system.

A little research goes a long way, Mr. Michaels.

1st edition is a classic. Aeon wonders about the escapism aspect? The fact that you could explore a world so totally removed from our own was what hooked me back in 1978. I'm still hooked. Not bad for a game that supposedly missed its mark.

Aeon's opinions of Gamma World are unfortunate and sadly way off-base. GW was not only my favorite RPG of all time, but the favorite of all my fellow RPG players, and we've played AD&D, Traveller, Bushido Blade, Morrow Project, Star Trek, Dark*Matter, and Star*Drive. It's still one of the most fun RPGs out there. And despite the fact that it was never as popular as D&D (but then what sci-fi based RPG has ever been?) and never rec'd a great deal of support from TSR/WotC, it's the RPG that can't be killed. It was recently voted the 2nd most popular of sci-fi RPG by Gaming Reports and now a 6th ed. d20 Modern based version will be out this Fall by Sword & Sorcery Studios.

My first experience with Gamma World was back in 1983. A friend of mine ran a brief game in the ruins of Pitzburk. I had a blast, even though I didn't undestand the game mechanics very well. I think it's a fantastic game concept and I have been collecting every bit of Gamma Wordl I can get my hands on. I even have my kids playing it and they love it just as much. Conversions are easy when it comes to the modules, I just transfer evrything to 4th edition since it is so much like the old dungeons and dragons. I just want Joel to know a little bit of conversion can create a great campaign. I've managed to link the modules together with few problems. There are also a lot of great supporting web sites out there in cyberspace, so do some surfin' and enjoy.

I have a hard believing anyone remembers this game. I would have to agree with everyone who remembers and enjoyed playing it. Of course it was silly! It was SUPPOSED to be!! I think anyone who claims to not have enjoyed it because of that is missing a spark plug or something. GW ROCKED!! It was the easiest way to have a truly great time, with characters you cared very little for, due to the nature of the game. "I died? Again? Cool!!" Not that I didn't have a favorite character, but hey, everyone in our group did. So fondly do we remember the time we found a radiation rifle, and took turns shooting each other, just to get more mutations. Ahh, the memories...

Hmm.......I think I will have to try and get ahold of this material. I bet it would give me a good lot of writing material....

ME aM BizZaRo!! mE wiN GiNst y'All HAHAHA!

Bookaya! (Use it...join us...join us...)

Weirdly yours,

Yes, the situation for Gamma World was depressing (and that was one reason why it wasn't successful then, and wouldn't be successful now). I really liked the uniqueness of the situation, the odd items of technology you had to figure out how to use, and how PC's were forced to deal with a random set of mutations, over which they had no control.

Not to worry folks, the fine and woderful Gamma World is back in print touting the d20 system.

I havn't actually seen this product and what, if anything, is different about it so it might actually be good. After the wonderful 2nd Ed of the game and then it's Alternity release It can't be that good.


Never got into it. I tend to go for serious stuff. But still, sounds like fun if you want to goof off for a few hours.

::browses BBWs::
Hmmm, so many beutiful choices, so little time!

Ah, yes, Gamma World. I never got into it either, I thought it was convoluted and just plain silly. I'd have to agree with Mo, I prefer more seriousness in my games.

::turns back to the line::
You, you, you, and you. Orgy chamber. Now!
::skips merrily after them::


What Ass? You didn't know there was an orgy chamber here at Gamegrene? It's out back behind the Writers page but you need a personal invite from Morbus to get in.

Jeez, I'm gonna get in trouble again for that one, I know it. I can't even think of anything to say on topic to justify my post.

Ooh! I got it!

For those of you who are intersted you can check out the new Gamma World for d20 here:

For what it's worth, EaterOfTheDead has had his Private Orgy Card taken away. Please return your bath towels and toys whence they came. Gaming-wise, and remotely on topic with "new versions", GURPS Fourth Editoin is coming soon. Apparently, the core book is gonna be split into two, then a GM screen thingy, then a Fantasy update, then a release per month there afterwards.


So I guess I'm gonna have to use my orgy room over at Random And Senseless, that is after I kick Olly out of it, he's the only one in there right now. Oh well.

I saw the new GURPS Fourth Edition at SJ Games. It's quite a bit different than their other versions from what I can tell. This new version will have a revised and signifigantly changed play system. Their other version changes just expanded the info in the basic set but didn't really change anything.

Gamma World (1981) must be one of the worst-designed RPG's of all time. The sample monsters do have ridiculous names and the story premise given for the world's destruction never made much sense. Character creation for humanoids is a pure crapshoot. Much of the game is a poorly done D&D ripoff. I must say however that the back cover hex pattern was useful (we'd sneak into the staff room at the school after hours and snarf photocopies on that old type of squeaky paper).

For my group--teenagers in the last throes of the Cold War in the 1980's--the post-apocalyptic genre itself was so compelling that we played a great deal of Gamma World, and overcame the mutational defects of the game system. It all kind of tied together for us: television documentaries on the effects of nuclear weapons, heavy metal music, The Road Warrior, Dr. Strangelove on video. So creating stuff for a post-apocalyptic world was easy--we already had the proper mindset.

From 1983-85 I ended up GM'ing a sort of Cycle of three campaigns: the first one taking place only a century after the ruination, so most characters were familiar with the old technology, and there were still functioning space colonies and other pockets of intact old civilization, although they were still fighting and eroding. The second campaign took place in the deepest depths of a dark age, when ancient artifacts were extremely rare and societies very primitive, and then a third campaign took place during a time of new civilizations emerging which were recovering knowledge of ancient tech and learning a few new tricks of their own.

We modified and improvised rules extensively. I seldom used any of the sample monsters provided, and few of the artifacts. It was easier and better in most cases to design one's own computers, robots, etc. We added space travel rules for the first campaign. We also incorporated wargames for some of the battles that took place, modifiying PanzerBlitz rules for robot tanks, and using Trireme for a primitive oared naval battle.

Not all of our experiments worked. I remember an unfortunate time when I introduced double damage for to-hit rolls 4 over the required number. Laser rifles could now do up to 12d6 with a good roll. Memorable line from one player: "We lost initiative. Hand me a blank character sheet."

The funny thing is that we were blind to the shortcomings of the game system at the time. It's when I look at the rulebook 20 years later that I realize how badly designed it was, and not in the superficial sense of graphics and layout--I rather like the box cover illustration.

:: looks up whilst squirting oil into pants :: THAT what this stuff is for...?

:: places bottled oil of refined politeness back on table ::

Do we really need all these rules for gaming? Does there HAVE to be a certain system of which to get our gaming-cheese on? Wouldn't it be easier and better to simply apply common sense where the gaming rules do not tread? Must the game authors issue a 200 page revision each time a group stumbles upon a situation NOT covered in the already 500 page rulebook?

:: pondering potential article... but then A.D.D. kicks in ::


:: looks at table...grabs oil ::

Ah yes Gamma World. I used to play 1st ed GW with a group of friends during summer break back in the mid 1980s. The GW gaming system was primitive and in retrospect many aspects were cornball but for some reason it was just *fun* which is what gaming is supposed to be. I remember running a Legion of Gold campaign and desperately trying to herd the players (like cats) through the different areas - buggems nest, subaqan laboratory etc. They actually marched the underwater vehicle onto dry land and terrorized the locals! Good times. The game in spite of its flaws is neither 3rd shelf nor even remotely forgotten.

I had such happy memories of GW that I hit ebay in 2005 and managed to pick up pristine shrink wrapped copies of Legion of Gold, Famine at Fargo and even an original 1st Ed GW box set. The GW box set still had the price sticker on the wrapping - 10 bucks. Mind boggling to think this was sitting on some shelf somewhere for decades gathering dust.

I love Gamma World.

Ive only run one long term campaign with it though, but the PC's managed to take over a mothballed municipal/local government shelter which was never accessed in time before the locals were neutron bombed.

They talked to the Main Building Computer (MBC) and got it to run the stored Household Robotoids and Security Bots, plus added various bots they found in ruins to be re-programmed.

Yes it was a power-game, and they had quite an arsenal of tech in the end, but one raid of Slithers with a couple of judiciously-picked mutations quickly turned the tide :-)
Ive always wanted to run a hybrid of Paranoia with another complex like Alpha Complex, such as 'Pi Complex' or 'Pho Complex' based in Australia (where I live) and make the outside just like Gamma World.

I agree with those people that do mingle and fuse the material from various editions.

I suggest giving that a go - It allows PC's to be ignorant of the outside, the old geography/ruins, and the monsters and cryptic alliances, but with some tech knowledge which they naturally have. Plus there is all the tech they don't know, especially if you run with the Tech-level V option from 3rd ed which is a little more 'extraterrestrial'.

But getting the players is the hard part here.

Cheers guys!

I meant 'Rho complex' - Oops