The rulebook contains a fully contained game system within its 160 pages. I’ve read as far as the particular origins of the player characters as of this writing (c. page 60). In the rulebook, you’ve got about 70 pages of core player material, including the basics of the game system, use of the cards, tactical movement and actions, character creation, that kind of thing. Then, a bit less than 10 pages about the Gear; a bit more than 20 pages of advice for Game Masters; around 35 pages of creatures; with the rest of the book used for the adventure that goes along with the set, Steading of the Iron King.
The index of the game really doesn't deliver. Only 62 entries total. It only uses about half a page of the digest-sized book. No mention of terms like say Armor Class, or Blasts. The book is relatively thin, and if you’ve read it, chances are, you’ll become accustomed to its contents really fast, but still: a good index goes a long way towards an easy use of the book during actual play. That’s a noticeable, disappointing failing of the game. That shouldn't happen after more than thirty years of game design.
The feel of the implied setting (Gamma Terra) is great. It’s incredibly loose, not detailed very much, which I take as a boon, an opportunity, rather than a failure: you basically try to grasp the basic feel and ambiance of the game, the few elements that give Gamma Terra its color, so to speak (like the mutations, the tech, the colliding realities, the mutagen environment, the silly humour and allusions to the World of the Ancients, aka our own world today, et cetera) and you then create your own sandbox from there.
It really is an old school game in some ways: lots of room left for DM adjudication; a blurry world that is described as it directly relates to the characters but little else, leaving us all the room we need to create that sandbox I was just talking about; player imagination rewarded, like for instance in the way you interpret your results when you roll for the two origins of your characters – heck, you ROLL your origins to begin with. How much more Old School can you get, really?
More broadly, I really get the feel that this game is a tool to have a great time, not an end in and of itself. That’s going to leave people who go for really detailed settings and extremely clear-cut rules-sets wanting. It delights me, personally, because I feel it suits the tone the game designers try to convey for their game really well: a game where you throw crazy, funny, gonzo ideas at the game table and roll with them, basically. A game where you just make some cool reference to iPods the way the Hawkoid NPC is using that piece of trash from the Ancients as a mirror or trinket, and so on, so forth. This type of stimulating game play can only profit from loose game mechanics and setting.
You are taking charge of this game, and the rulebook helps you do that.
Speaking of character origins, I really like the way the particulars are completely left to players’ interpretations. Say you roll Rat Swarm and Hawkoid as your two origins, for instance. You need to reconcile these two seemingly opposite elements into a single character concept. So, are you a swarm of little humanoid birds, for instance, or a swarm of rats coalescing to be able to flap away, or maybe something else entirely? It’s completely up to you.
The use of cards, of course, might completely throw the old-schoolers off, and as a matter of fact, it did, if you check out some vintage gaming boards out there. This is not a problem to me. I remember the cards included with TORG, for instance. The thing is, for me, that the cards must reflect some aspect of the world’s design, and vice versa, for the concept to fly at the game table and not break game immersion when it occurs.
The truth of the matter is: that’s exactly what the cards do in this game. See, Gamma Terra is the result of the Big Mistake, which is basically an event that blended different realities or variations of the Earth with each other for the blink of an eye, which resulted in the end in a completely alternate setting where psychic powers work, animals can talk and so on. In many ways, still today, a hundred-and-fifty years after the Big Mistake, things are still very much in flux. That’s when your body suddenly takes on an Alpha Mutation, for instance, that it adjusts to tiny fluxes in reality.
That’s cool. That makes sense to me.
Now, you might not be satisfied with the way the cards come into play. You basically pick at least one new Alpha Mutation at the beginning of each encounter, discard them at the end of each encounter, and additionally might change mutations each time you roll a 1 on a d20. So you might want to house rule this aspect of the game to make it more consistent with the kind of Gamma Terra you want out of your game. That’s what I’m going to get into with my next entry: a few examples of alternate uses for the cards, with a few thoughts on the way one might adapt them to his or her particular game table.