May 26 2010 11:22am

Re-examining the old-school RPGs: Gamma World

The ink on Metamorphosis Alpha wasn’t even dry before Jim Ward was turning to Gamma World. The Warden was no longer an isolated catastrophe; the canvas had expanded—or rather, shifted—and the Earth that sent that ship forth had collapsed back into the dark ages. Savvy designer that he was, Ward extended our world’s timeline out from the present some two hundred years so as to allow for the wreckage of a shiny futuristic society rather than just some shabby mirror of our own.

Though it seemed familiar enough anyway. For us children of the cold war, nuclear destruction was always just around the corner, and Gamma World was well positioned to tap into a rich vein of cultural anxiety. But whereas books and movies about the apocalypse were a dime a dozen, it took science fiction to envision the aftermath amidst the ruins. Ward had plenty of choices for inspiration here; chief among these were Andre Norton’s enduring classic Star Man's Son and Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse (just as that latter writer’s Nonstop had influenced the predicament of the Warden). From these influences emerged something raw and savage, shot through with the same kind of mad zaniness that had pervaded Metamorphosis Alpha.

As with that prequel, the mutation tables were key to defining one’s own place in this brave new world. There was a certain chic factor in playing a pure strain human (as well as the chance to stuff yourself into one of those suits of powered armor), but the interesting characters tended to be mutated. And the really interesting ones were animals. I have particularly fond memories of a friend’s character—one “Colonel W.E.” Texarkana, a mutated rabbit who managed to be the lone survivor more than once. One of the Colonel’s erstwhile colleagues was the can-you-tell-he’s-been-named-by-a-seventeen-year-old Ganja Weed, who took advantage of a lax gamemaster’s decision to allow mutated plants to be PCs, causing no end of hilarity until Ganja Weed was destroyed by a fusion bomb in the name of overkill. As with Metamorphosis Alpha, life in in Gamma World tended to be exciting and short.

But by no means devoid of larger purpose. One of the more interesting questions in post-apocalyptic milieus is whether or not the cause of the collapse matters. A work like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road would argue that it doesn’t; for those simply seeking to survive, this is undoubtedly true. Yet for those hoping to tap the power and the knowledge of the Ancients, the gestalt of collapse figures hugely—and the first editions of Gamma World were particularly intriguing here, the lore of a lost Apocalypse base giving GMs the option of building a campaign around the search for the HQ of those who had initiated the beginning of Earth’s end.  One even had the potential to get off-planet; the GW timeline referenced an extensive space-based architecture (including the legendary TransPlutonian Shipyards that had launched the Warden), and Ward himself wrote in detail about the Moon’s Tycho Base in Dragon issue #86. (The article doesn’t seem to be online, but you can pick up that particular issue for less than five bucks over at Amazon. And I’m suddenly struck with a wave of nostalgia at the long lost cover, my copy having sheds its own years ago.)

That same off-world direction was continued subsequent to the cancellation of the third edition when another, unofficial module picked up what TSR had given up on. Omega Project was written by a fan, but stacks up pretty well even against professional content. Indeed, Gamma World is notable for inspiring robust creations on the part of its followers. Take a few minutes to click through this campaign setting for the New West/New South to see another of the more impressive efforts....of course, Omega Project would never have been necessary had TSR not pulled the plug, a problem that plagued Gamma World across its iterations. One can only hope that the impending seventh edition doesn’t suffer the fate of its predecessors, but presumably that will be a function of how well it sells and/or corporate politics.

For me, though, that first edition will remain the touchstone, for reasons that pertain less to game design/quality than they do to Peter Graham’s comment about the golden age of science fiction. That cover of a group of adventurers standing on the edge of a ruined city takes me back every time . . a #$#-up future dimly visible at the horizon of my own past—but I suppose that’s only fitting, because ultimately the essence of Gamma World was how it so deftly rendered the familiar alien through the lens of uncertain hindsight. It was, after all, the first RPG that you could literally set in your backyard—many a Gamma World campaign featured the gamers’ local town/environment, a tradition started by Gary Gygax himself when he situated the first GW module, Legion of Gold, in the vicinity of a nuked-out Lake Geneva. And the ingeniously-crafted artifact charts meant that players could spend whole hours trying to get some arcane device to work, only to discover that they’d been wasting their time with a toaster. Or that they’d just blown their heads off with a death-ray....D&D may have outsold Gamma World many times over, but in this sense at least the latter did a better job of making us feel the fear of the unknown. At least with a magic sword you always knew which end you should be holding.

David J. Williams is the author of the Autumn Rain trilogy (The Mirrored Heavens, The Burning Skies, and the just-released The Machinery of Light). More about the world of the early 22nd century at

Matthew B
1. MatthewB
For me, Gamma World and Star Frontiers were always two sides of the same coin - hopeful and pessimistic versions of the future. Since both were totally rad, it alleviated a lot of my nuclear holocaust anxieties.
Marc Rikmenspoel
2. Marc Rikmenspoel
I mentioned last time that I never actually played Gamma World, but I did own some material for it. In particular, I liked the module The Cleansing War of Garik Blackhand. I always wanted to try using that campaign set around Yellowstone National Park. But my friends and I never really got beyond rolling up characters.

One detail about the early era of RPGs stands out in 2010. It's funny now to realize that TSR had (A)D&D with one set of rules, Gamma World with another, and Boot Hill, Top Secret, and Star Frontiers with still different ones. Steve Jackson was really ahead of his time in making GURPS, the Generic Universal Roleplaying System (a game I've never played, though I do own the Horseclans supplement, which seems appropriate in a discussion of post-apocalyptic roleplaying!).

You should really have to learn just one set of rules for a company, with modifications for different genres. Palladium and ICE, and probably others, were on the same path as GURPS, but never caught on to the same degree. Palladium and ICE are still in business, but you can today find GURPS books in chain bookstores across the USA. Sadly, the Horseclans supplement is as out-of-print-and-forgotten as Robert Adams's Horseclans books themselves.
Chuk Goodin
3. Chuk
I loved Gamma World. It was the first RPG I ever bought, except when I opened the box it turned out to only have a map in it, so I had to return it and the store didn't have another copy.

The best parts were the flowchart for figuring out how to use the high-tech artifacts your characters could find, and of course the powered armor.

GURPS Horseclans was pretty good, too. It got me into the books...didn't read them all by any means but they really did feel a lot like Gamma World. So did Sterling E. Lanier's books about Hiero.
Paul Weimer
4. PrinceJvstin
Sadly, the Horseclans supplement is as out-of-print-and-forgotten as Robert Adams's Horseclans books themselves.

Sadly true.

But on a happier note, thanks David for this series so far. I owbed GW but never found a copy of MA...although I read articles with unofficial houserules and character creation generation alternatives in the old zine "The Space Gamer", to make the characters less prone to "die in the first hour".
Jason Henninger
5. jasonhenninger
Man, these posts are giving me a serious gaming jones.

Gamma World is special to me. It's the first game I ever ran, which was a great experience, and the one and only time I coaxed my dad into gaming. He had a 10 foot tall bear with spiky hands or something.

Before Gamma World, I thought D&D was all there was to gaming. Not that I minded; I loved D&D. But with Gamma World, I realized there were infinite directions RPGs could go in.
Marc Rikmenspoel
6. Stefan Jones
I never owned GW*; I did play it a few times (including a convention demo run by Ward himself) but always felt a little cold toward it.

Partially this was due to my dislike for After the Holocaust type settings; that sort of thing seemed too real.

Partially was the feeling that GW stole the thunder from Metamorphosis Alpha, which I thought was a much more fun setting.


* Well, I did get a copy from a cousin, along with a huge pile of other RPG stuff, but sold it all at auction before moving out of my parents' house. I still have a couple of file boxes of RPG stuff, but it is a small fraction of the mighty pile I once owned. I still have my white box D&D set, with Chainmail, signed by Gygax!
Kenn Gentile
7. nachtwulf
Gamma World was my first love. It wasn't the first game I played - that was ODnD - but it was the first game that I bought and GMed. It was a great game, and although it survived several incarnation, the 1st always seemed the best to me.

I fear for the future of the franchise. After the horrid WWP-produced 6th edition and the even bleaker-looking previews of the upcoming TSRWOTCHasbro version of it (come on... decks of collectible cards determining your mutations each day?).... I think we may see it finally succumb to "The Bomb"

But... we'll always have Mutant Future :)
Paul Madison
8. pmadison
I also become nostalgic when I see that cover. I think all but one of the interior art pieces in the 1e Gamma World manual were done by the same artist: David A. Trampier, one of the greatest artists published by TSR in those days. The 1e AD&D Players Handbook bears his iconic imagery; who has seen that cover and not wanted to slaughter an evil lizardman cult and pry the gems from their idol's eyes?

Trampier retired from the art world completely after a disagreement with TSR. A cab company now happily has his services and the world may never know what happened to Wormy, the graphic novel about a wargaming dragon he serialized in Dragon Magazine in the early 1980's but abandoned mid-story :^(

At least Erol Otus is still around and producing great art!
Chris Meadows
9. Robotech_Master
You know, the recent D20 revival of Gamma World was written by occasional blogger Bruce Baugh. Would have made an interesting thing for you to mention in the piece.
Marc Rikmenspoel
10. Les Braun
Dear Mr. Williams,

I am honored that you mentioned the third edition adventure "Orion's Deep" in your article, however as the author of the module, I would like to point out a small correction: the correct title is "Omega Project" (as per your provided link).

I think you may have mistakenly combined/confused part of the title with "Rapture of the Deep" - another Gamma World adventure I contributed to which is included on the same linked download page.

Thank you for your terrific re-examination of Gamma World and, again, thank you for the honor of mentioning "Omega Project" in such amazing company.

-Les Braun
Marc Rikmenspoel
11. Alfvaen
I remember playing 1st and 2nd-edition GW. The second edition cleaned up the mutation charts, and made it more difficult for your mutants to have bad mutations. It's like it was trying to keep your characters alive or something. It was one of those games where I had more fun generating characters than I did actually playing it. Once I made up a group of mutated cats named after characters from "Cats".

The Andre Norton book I most associated with Gamma World was No Night Without Stars, one of my favourites of hers for years.
David Williams
12. DavidJWilliams
@ Les , hey thanks for the heads-up. Not entirely sure how I got "orion" in there....have fixed it now.

@ all -- I should also note that Rapture of the Deep is on the same link as Omega Project above ...well worth checking out.
Marc Rikmenspoel
13. vertigo25
I know it's not technically an RPG (although… it *did* evolve into AFF and eventually GURPS), but could you do a piece on the Fighting Fantasy books by Steve Jackson? I'd especially like to see you cover the Sorcery! series.
Marc Rikmenspoel
14. cyclopeatron
Thanks for giving Gamma World some of the attention it deserves!

I still love running sessions of first edition Gamma World - it's raw and fantastic fun. As the game got "cleaned up" in later editions it became more complex and less flexible, losing some of the wonderful weirdness of the first edition. When we play GW we focus less on the post-apocalypse themes, and more on adventuring in strange, organic, and colorful mutant societies. For me, Gamma World is the best gaming system to invoke the weird fantasy aesthetic of the 70s and 80s Heavy Metal magazines I love.
Marc Rikmenspoel
15. TahasaCelestin
Vertigo25: (#13) The Steve Jackson who wrote the Fighting Fantasy game books is a British author separate from the American Steve Jackson of GURPS and other games.
Marc Rikmenspoel
16. Neoanderthal
Oh god, Gamma World. The Erol Otus GM screen and the Albuquerque Starport mini adventure. The 1st. Ed. GW box is painfully nostalgic for me. I'd played D&D before it, but Gamma World was my first true RPG love.

Curse you, sir! Now I'm going to be looking for an original box set, and then to convince people who've grown accustomed to the current crop of games to give it a whirl.
Marc Rikmenspoel
18. Dustin Catlin
True, the first was D&D but Gamma World became the game of games for me. Able to balance Science Fiction with Apocalyptic horror was expected. What I discovered was that the underlying thread of...Hope, was ever more so clearer in GW than in D&D. The very world fought against you with radiation and entropy. In other RPG's you had to create the feeling of impending loss or suffering for your world. Gamma World had it pre-packaged and waiting for you to inhabit. The mystery of the unknown IS Gamma World. That which you know is wrong, what you feel to be alien is now the norm. And during the 1980's the world WAS on the brink of total destruction for real. Three times we came down to a single button push to start the Gamma World, someone sneezed and mashed the button down. Or maybe the push into the fall was firm, intended, and done with confidence as with so many other domino effects. The whole world let loose to avoid having their weapons destroyed by their enemies, assuring their destruction anyway. That is the Gamma World that gave us the mid eighties Alpha Factor, Beta Principal, Gamma Base, Delta Fragment, and Epsilon Cyborgs. The choking of the line by TSR was for their own reason but the game inspired so many it can't be ignored for long.
Marc Rikmenspoel
19. Kevin Scrivner
I know Hasbro has yet another edition of Gamma World in the works but Goblinoid Games beat them to the punch with Mutant Future, a retro-clone that captures the old 1st edition GW feel.
Marc Rikmenspoel
20. Wayne Gralian
Andre Norton's Starman's Son is also known as Daybreak: 2250 AD.

For those who want to explore Gamma World in its entirety, I'd like to humbly suggest my Gamma World pages:
I've got every supplement photo'd and detailed there, as well as Les Braun's wonderful module additions on the download page.

Gamma World is king, but for those who are interested in GW's relatives, there are:
* Morrow Project
* Aftermath

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