Wednesday, January 01, 2014

TSR's "GAMMA WORLD" - Post Apocalypse Role Playing Game

Growing up in the 1970's was an interesting time ... it was fun mixed with gloom.  The ever present spectre of America and Russia nuking each other back into the Stone Age was a fear that was driven home constantly.  Disaster movies, end of the world movies and a host of other media came at us like a tidal wave but instead of scaring me half to death it only fascinated me.  As I grew up, the post apocalypse scenario became the stuff of day dreams for me, not nightmares.  Somewhere during that time I started to become a loner ... movies like Charlton Heston's "The Omega Man" weren't scary to me ... they were a dream come true if they had been reality and I'd been "The Omega Man."

My early desire for science fiction began with the much celebrated "Planet of the Apes" franchise ... I was a kid and lived through seeing all of the movies on TV, followed by watching the TV series and the animated series.  That was the first of my taste of post apocalypse sci-fi and I craved more.  The more I got a taste of it, the more post apocalyptic science fiction really took hold of my imagination.  Books like "Damnation Alley", "War of the Worlds" and "The Time Machine" only fueled my love of a devastated future and the brave struggles that would be needed to overcome the folly of man.

It was late 1977 when science fiction really just came out of nowhere and seized my imagination.  I was 8 years old, "Star Wars" didn't make it to Hattiesburg, MS until the Fall of 1977 but I finally got to see, on the big screen, what everyone else was raving about.  After months of being teased by pictures and articles in magazines and the occasional rare commercial for that movie, "Star Wars" finally arrived like a tidal wave and it lit a fire in my brain, an out of control science fiction fire that continues to burn hot and bright even today.  

Science fiction had me by the soul and I was hooked and one of the greatest outlets for my imagination in my single digit years was science fiction role playing games and out of those sci-fi role playing games I think that TSR was the main provider of my entertainment for the most years.  From third grade to ninth grade, 1977 to 1983, I was a devout game player.

My first introduction to role playing games was TSR's classic "Dungeons and Dragons", the basic edition boxed set which my best friend bought and we played in the Fall of 1977, probably around the time that "Star Wars" hit the silver screen locally.

This was the first time that I'd ever played a role playing game before and even though my interest was piqued in role playing games that same interest let me know real quick that fantasy (i.e. elves, dwarves, dragons, magic, etc.) just wasn't where my heart lay.  

Everyone back then was playing D&D, from elementary kids to college students but my heart just wasn't into fantasy or sorcery.  A lot of people my age were big into Tolkien but the closest I ever got to Tolkien was the Rankin / Bass animated musical "The Hobbit" and even that couldn't turn my interest in fantasy.  Even Ralph Bakshi's animated "The Lord of the Rings" didn't grab me so while other kids were trying to come to grips with Tolkien's works, the "D&D" craze and then "Star Wars" I was lucky in one respect ... my heart was set on science fiction.

Of this I was sure.

Science fiction.

Just science fiction and TSR answered the desire for both science fiction and role playing with their 1978 post apocalyptic opus ... "Gamma World".

I first saw "Gamma World" advertised in "Boy's Life" magazine, yes, the Boy Scout magazine but then like I said, role playing games, especially "D&D" were really gaining in popularity during this time.  I mean, when Sears put a "D&D" boxed set in their Wishbook catalog and when "Gamma World" (with the illustration shown above) appears on "Boy's Life" then you were dealing with a game, nay, a phenomenon that would make history in its wake.

"Gamma World."

Science fiction role playing set in a post apocalyptic far future.


Robots and mutated animals and Mark V blasters!  Oh my!

"Gamma World" was the product of James M. Ward and Gary Jaquet and was a boxed set, like the "D&D" basic set.  I bought my first edition "Gamma World" boxed set at "Bookland" in the Cloverleaf Mall.  It cost me $10, was shrink wrapped, and displayed proudly in a cardboard display stand near the front of the store.  I rode my 10 speed bike home from the Mall with my pocket ten dollars lighter and the "Gamma World" boxed set in my backpack.

For your money you got a nicely illustrated cardboard box (bookshelf type edition) with a colored front and a black and white back.  Early editions had no rear illustration or description of the game / box contents so a simple sheet was put with the box and then shrink wrapped to the outside / back box bottom.


Inside the box was a nicely illustated black and white (two color) 57 page rulebook ...


 A map of the devastated North American continent ...

I never drew on my map ... I guess I didn't want to ruin it.  Instead, I would put hex paper over an area, trace the outline of any major areas and then fill in the hex paper with the details.  I also guess that is why my original first edition GW map is still pristine even today.

The boxed set came with dice like I'd never seen before.  Mind you, like I said before, my "games" were limited to the offerings from the likes of Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers.  These new games, where you had to use your imagination and you had to make your own maps (game boards) and there were dice in the shape of stuff you learned in math class ... all of this was new and cool and awesome!

"Gamma World" came with six polyhedron dice; a four sided die (d4), a six sided die (d6), an eight sided die (d8), a ten sided die (d10), a twelve sided die (d12) and a twenty sided die (d20).  The dice were different than any dice I'd ever owned as a kid before.

The dice were molded in white plastic, at least the dice that came with my game were.

The game also came with an unbranded, paper wrapped white crayon.  I had no idea what the crayon was for ...  A friend once told me the crayon was for marking on the map but that didn't make sense.  Another friend said it was for coloring in the numbers on the dice so they would be easier to read ... that didn't make much sense either since it was a white crayon and the dice were white.  To this day I still don't know what the damn white crayon was for ...  I just took a Pilot Razorpoint ink pen and used that to fill in the numbers on the dice.  That lasted for a few weeks of constant play and then you had to highlight the numbers again.

Gameplay for GW was heavily based off of the "D&D" game mechanics with stuff like hit points, six attributes ranging from 3 to 18, saving throws, armor class and hit dice.  Combat took the weapon class of whatever you were using, cross referenced that to the armor class of your target and gave you a number to roll equal to or higher in order to succeed in combat.  I liked this because it made it hard for someone with a wooden spear to hurt someone in power armor, all of which just made sense.

"Gamma World" took place on Earth.  A century after a final, cataclysmic global war almost wiped all of life on Earth out the survivors, mutants, humans, animals and plants, all vie for dominion.  Knocked literally almost back to the Stone Age, rites of passage for tribals include journeys or pilgrimages to the ancient ruins where the tribals would face all sorts of dangers ... malfunctioning robots, complex security systems, killer plants, mutants, mutated animals, and even radiation.  If you made it back alive with an artifact or some other proof that you'd been to the ruins ... if ... then you became a member of the tribe.

If you were lucky enough to find an artifact then you had to spend time to figure out how to use that artifact.  Artifacts came in three levels of complexity ... something like a grenade was simple, figuring out how a control panel in an automated factory that built robots was very complex.  Sometimes you figured it out, sometimes you broke it trying to figure it out and sometimes you hurt or killed yourself (or someone else) trying to figure it out.  Figuring an artifact out required time spent and die rolls to be made.  The charts shown below became a familar page to reference to in the rule book.

"Gamma World" grabbed my imagination ... if I was going to role play some character in a primative background that would be swinging a sword and fighting for their life then I'd rather be doing it in a sci-fi post apocalypse seting than in some dungeon.  I preferred mental mutations to magic, any day and robots and carniverous plants to elves and dwarves.

Our GW games were drawn out on sheets of notebook paper clipped into Mead 3 ring binders, our campaigns were sketched out in spiral bound notebooks and our maps were sketched out on sheets of graph paper and hex paper.  Several of our characters were long term characters used over a period of years ... one was a Sleeth that had a sawed off double barrel shotgun.  This character was active so long that when Lou Zochi introduced his 30 sided die that the Sleeth character got to use that to roll to-hit instead of a 20 sided die.  The double barrel sawed off shotgun, as I care to remember, was a favorite weapon of our impressionable youth no doubt brought on by our recent viewing of Mel Gibson's titular character in the movie "Mad Max."

Other fond memories I have of this game include finding a Pure Strain Human in suspended animation in a fallout shelter and reviving them.  That PSH helped our characters understand all the technology that we'd later find.  We also found a non-functioning android in the same shelter and the PSH programmed it to aid us as well ... kind of like "The Questor Tapes".

The first edition of "Gamma World" was the best ... each subsequent edition not only added more useless and needless things to the original edition but each new addition also watered down the vast, rich story included in the original edition and even sometimes made a parody of it.  Over the years less attention of the game was paid to the struggle and more emphasis was spent on who could design the whackiest mutant creature of all.  GW went from being something that was interesting and fun to being something that was a caricature of itself.  The first edition GW game had the richest history, the best equipment, the best monsters, mutations, and robots.  Other editions gutted the rich context of the first generation, all trying to outdo it ... and none succeeded.  


I own just about every edition of GW that's been made but it's still the first edition that I hold in high regard, the later editions not so much if at all.

So many hours of my youth were spent thumbing through the GW rule book, inventing new artifacts and weapons, drawing out characters and equipment.   I haven't played GW in a long, long time.  The last time I played GW was probably 8th grade, make it 1983 or so.  I miss it in the way that you miss things that have passed into memory and GW still holds a special place in my study, the original boxed set that I bought all those many years ago sits on the shelf next to my "D&D" basic set.

I guess, in a way, my boxed sets of old TSR RPGs have become artifacts in and of their selves.  Ironic ... but maybe fitting as well.