Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Cards and their Alternate Uses

By now, if you are interested in Gamma World, you must have heard about the cards the game uses. There has been a lot of talk about them during the past few weeks on various gaming message boards: some people welcome them as added value to the game aspect of Gamma World (I am one of them); others think that cards shouldn’t have a place in a tabletop role playing game, or that having booster packs as part of its marketing strategy is anathema to the very idea of a role playing game. I can’t blame them, remembering our worries not so long ago when Wizards of the Coast acquired TSR, and surely won’t be able to change their minds. I won’t even try to get into the debate of whether or not the use of cards or the presence of booster packs to build your own decks is a good or bad thing here.

What I can do, however, is explain what the game’s default use for these cards is supposed to be, hopefully dissipate some of the myths and misunderstandings that have been propagated about it, and how, from there, their use can be tweaked or completely discarded to suit your own game table’s needs. Let’s give it a shot.

The default Omega Tech cards

There are two types of cards in the game: the Alpha Mutation cards, and the Omega Tech cards. The boxed set comes with a default deck selection for both types of cards: 40 Alpha Mutation cards, and 40 Omega Tech cards. At some specific moments of the game, you draw cards from a deck. The Game Master has his own Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech decks. The players may have their own decks as well, if they want to have more specific mutations and items related to their character concept to potentially draw from, and if the GM allows for the players to build them in the first place.

Either the players have their own Alpha/Omega decks, or they don’t. If they have their own, in some circumstances they can make a die roll to determine which deck, their own or the GM’s, they draw this or that card from. If they don’t have their own decks, they always draw from the GM’s deck.

As a GM, you might play your entire campaign, or campaigns, only using the 80 cards included with the boxed set. So by default, nobody needs the booster packs, at all, since they only represent some added value if, as a GM or player, you want to build your own specific deck for your game or character. It’s a possibility, and it might be fun, but it is certainly, emphatically not a requirement.

Sample Omega Tech

Alpha Mutation cards are drawn whenever you start an encounter or roll a 1 on a d20, the latter being called an Alpha Flux in the game’s jargon. You discard them after use, or whenever an encounter ends. Alpha Mutation cards simulate some spontaneous changes in your character’s appearance and abilities. You could be surrounded by a force field absorbing the kinetic force of incoming attacks, or grow patches of beetle carapace, see your reflexes temporarily augmented, and more.

Omega Tech cards are drawn whenever you find caches of such items in the game. You roll a die, and according to the result, you either draw from your own deck or the GM’s. If you don’t have a deck of your own, you always draw from the GM’s. These simulate some wonky items from the Ancients you can use with the risk of depleting their power source, which would render them unusable in the future (discarding it for good). Examples include Force pikes, Envirogloves protecting your hands from any type of environment or Animatronic Toy Bears that could restrain your enemies or tell you some bed-time stories, should you need them.

The thing is, you can use these cards in any number of ways. You could either have the cards come up into play in variant situations, or just use them as equipment and power cards, never drawing from a deck, or even not use the cards at all. Consider the uses presented in the rulebook as default variants, not inviolable rules, and whole worlds of possibilities suddenly will open to your imagination.

Let’s take the Alpha Mutation cards as an example. With the game as written, you draw one card (or more, if you’re 4th or higher level) at the beginning of each encounter, or when you are victim of an Alpha Flux (discarding one of your cards and drawing a new one instantaneously). Now, nothing stops you from house-ruling the moments when you draw cards.

Sample Alpha Mutations

Mutagen Zones: you could instead have players draw cards when they come in contact with a Mutagen or Unstable Zone which would be an area that spawns mutations on the characters’ parts. These could even work like traps with triggers and attacks against some of the players’ defences. Or they could work only if the character mentally surrenders to its Flux effect. They could trigger specific mutations you selected for the Zone, or you could have the players draw cards from the deck, or a selection of cards you made prior to the game, however you want to.

Hulk Angry: or you could watch the players’ role playing of their characters and either have them draw an Alpha Mutation when they are getting angry, or express specific emotions that you think could trigger mutations. You could have them make a saving throw. If they roll 10 or more on a d20, they resist the reality shift. If they roll less than 10, they mutate. Or maybe they could just surrender to the effect and mutate automatically. Or be victims of mutations without any roll being made in the process. You could hand out a specific card to the player, or have them draw from the deck, or a specific selection of cards you prepared before hand.

Reality Storms: A throwback to the good old TORG role playing game, you could have weather effects which trigger mutations on the characters’ part. If they venture outside through the storm, their bodies react to the environment, adapt, and mutate. Hand out a card or make the player draw one. Alternately, you could have some Reality Mists, which would be similar to the Mutagen Zones and trigger the mutations.

Mutagen Agents: Some specific items could trigger mutations: maybe some potions, hypodermic syringes or trinkets, maybe with a number of charges each, and horrible side effects if a save is failed when you use them. Some specific type of concoctions could trigger some specific mutations, or you could have the players draw cards from a deck.

These are just a few ideas off the top of my head. Hopefully they will inspire you to come up with your own uses for your campaign.

Omega Tech cards are even easier to manage. You could just hand out cards as equipment to the players whenever they defeat a specific enemy, or just not use the cards at all, instead using the cards descriptions as special items in your game no different from magic items in a standard D&D game.

A Gamma World booster pack

Let's not forget there is always the possibility for you to build your own cards as well. Have a look at these fantastic card templates on the WotC Community. It shouldn’t be too hard from there to come up with your own fancy Alpha Mutations and weird Omega Tech!

And these are just for starters. My point is that these cards just add to the game dimension of Gamma World. They are not needed, or could be used in any number of ways of your choosing. The only limit here is your own imagination. Make the game your own. Tweak it to your and your players’ own personal needs, and you’ll get the specific experience you want out of it without ever drawing a card from a deck, or building a custom deck out of booster packs, if you so choose.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

GW First Impressions: Read-through

My first impressions are slowly being confirmed: this is a tight game design. A very simple version of the Fourth Edition D&D rules, as it were. Even simpler than D&D Essentials, with the Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech cards plug to it, plus the two origins you roll up for your characters basically replacing races and classes in the game.

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.

This could be your Gamma World

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.

Is that a giant clam or something?

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.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

GW Boxet Set: First Impressions

I just received the Gamma World boxed set yesterday.

My first impressions are positive. The box's contents include the Gamma World digest-sized rule book, a deck of 80 cards for Alpha Mutations and Omega Tech used in the game, two foldout double-sided battle maps, two card stock sheets of character and monster tokens, four character sheets, a bonus "booster pack" of 8 Alpha mutation/Omega Tech cards helping you or your players customize their own decks if you want to, as well as a single double-sized sheet of D&D Essentials advertisement similar to the one included with the new D&D "red box" Starter Set, which basically explains which Essentials products are intended for players and/or DMs.

If the contents of the box may seem sparse and are neatly kept in place by a huge piece of cardboard within, they all represent high production values. The 160-page rulebook is full color, with glossy and thick pages; its binding is loose and does not rely on the spinal glue to hold everything together, but instead seems to use a combination of bound pages and covers to sustain the weight and shape of it all whether it is closed or widely open (it can lay flat on the table from the get-go, which is great); the counters are thick and seem solid enough to survive quite a lot of abuse; the cards look comparable to Magic: the Gathering's, miles away and beyond the poor quality of the punch-out power cards included in the D&D Starter Set; the foldout maps are standard for WotC products.

From a purely economic standpoint, for a current price anywhere between $27 and $40 US depending on the place you get it from, I feel you get good production values. From an ergonomic and design standpoint, this seems to be an excellent game: not too many rules, a nice rulebook that seems designed to be used and abused at an actual game table, neat cards which, along with the maps and tokens, add to the "game" dimension of the whole play experience... this product looks like a winner.

Now I need to start reading, find out what Gamma World is specifically about, and how it ties all these elements together into a role playing game experience my players and I might enjoy over the course of a few one shots or a campaign.

More as I read through the rulebook.