September 21, 2010

Gamma World and the Serious

With all the talk lately about the new Gamma World rule set there was some discussion on the topic over at We were discussing the game in general and I had mentioned how my wife was running two campaigns recently in Gamma World (using the old 3rd Edition rules-not d20). He then asked me “How did you run a serious game?  I am totally intrigued by post apocalyptic settings in novels and movies but this system just seems to cater to mutations and the “silly”. What was your wife’s campaign arc?”

Well, here it is. This is fairly long, but includes an overview of the campaign (which some people might like to steal some ideas from) and then a brief discussion on how and why it is possible to run a “serious” Gamma World game.


The campaign started out fairly simple. We were all 15 years old and had varied backgrounds. Some of us were orphans raised by the militia and some had regular families. We lived in an isolated community, Blackvole, which was inside an old military base. All that was left of the base were the walls and a few buildings, but the walls kept the village safe from marauders.

800 years before, the planet had been bombarded and attacked by the Sky Demons. They had sent huge rocks/meteors to impact the planet and thus the former civilization fell. For some unknown reason the Sky Demons did not finish off the planet. All we knew of the former world was that the Pure Strain Humans had ruled and mutations came soon thereafter. People fell into small communities where they could and they eked out an existence as best they could. Very post-apocalyptic.

Our first mission was to safeguard some sheep. Wandering tribesmen came near our settlement and in exchange for guarding and allowing their sheep to graze while they did business in the village for a week, they would give the village some of the sheep. We were assigned our section of the herd. It was all very simple. We kept an eye on the sheep, protected them from some predators and made sure the few mutated sheep (green ones that were photosynthetic and liked to root themselves) were kept safe. It was all rather mundane, but in that ordinariness it seemed more “real”. Nothing wacky was going on.

Soon after the tribesmen left, our village was beset by a huge mutant wolf that was stealing our livestock outside the village walls. In the end it turned out to be a hoax as some ordinary people were using a fake wolf to scare people off and steal their stuff. Again fairly ordinary. Interrogating the thieves we discovered they knew of an old Pre-Death (the name given to the time period before the Sky Demons came) facility.
Thereafter, we were kicked out of the village. Upon reaching 16 all children had to leave the village for a year’s time. They could come back sooner if they brought back some high-end tech or a mate; both things that would benefit the village.

We set out for the Pre-Death facility. We had a few encounters with mutated wildlife, but eventually reached the facility. We negotiated the place (Skyview) and eventually defeated the mutant fungus that fed on the complex’s electricity (all energy was fed throughout the planet in a grid of energy, so electricity could still be found in places). We also made friends with the local computer systems and even helped a robot awaken as an AI. Here is where the game really ramped up in “seriousness”. We now had access to a working Pre-Death facility. The facility was once a vacation/spa location and could house populations in an advanced technology (than we were used to); there were even food supplies in cryogenic holds. We went back to our original village and offered Skyview as a new home. A bunch of people accepted and soon we found ourselves as major movers in a new home. People to protect and look out for.
We began to rebuild civilization in our little corner of the world.

We soon found out that the world itself was in jeopardy. The planet was an artificial construct built by humans long ago. The atmosphere and climate was regulated by a series of satellites around the planet. However, the system was breaking down (as we discovered when we explored the Fields of Plenty, a former crop field system which was buried under unseasonable snow) and the situation was getting worse. Soon the atmosphere would vent off the planet if no new satellites were put into orbit. This became our driving goal, beyond seeing Skyview grow.

Unfortunately, we were also missing power in certain sections of the planet. We eventually discovered that the planet was basically hollow. Pre-Death, the majority of the population had lived underground and the surface was used for crop growing and vacations. The power for the entire planet came from the core and was fed upwards to blanket the planet. However, over the past 800 years (and the breakdown and non-repair of systems) power conduits from the core to the surface had broken down and needed to be repaired. Thus we began a trek to the core. Thereupon we discovered that while there were humans with some advanced technology at the core, they were locked in a fierce battle with some mutant rats. We found out the rats had once been subjects of genetic manipulation and had gotten out of control. The rats hated all humans (and really all non-rats) and were bent on becoming the only race left on the planet. Unfortunately, the power conduits we had to fix in order to save the planet ran right through the rat’s territory. Thus we found ourselves now in a war with 5 million mutant and intelligent rats.

We spent the next 2 years of real-time (1 year in game-time) gathering things/people/technology that would allow us to save the planet. We had goals and responsibilities beyond the moment. In the end we gathered an army and took the battle to the rats. With their destruction/removal we were able to do what we had to and saved the planet.

While the game setting included mutations and other things that could have degenerated into silliness, my wife ran the game with a serious edge. We took on responsibilities that affected many other people (a whole planet of beings) and that carried the theme to “seriousness”. Gamma World can be considered to be science-fantasy, but my wife runs her games as science-fiction. Everything has a “scientific” basis. Mutations are the results of genetic manipulation. There was no “Big Oops!” but instead attacking aliens. Interactions usually dealt with not only life-and-death struggles but also discrimination because of mutations; “adult” themes and topics.

Also, part of why the game was “serious” was the attitude the players brought to the game. We are a serious bunch, who have been playing RPGs for years. We all did the silly/wacky things when we were 16, but since most of us are at least 2 to 3 decades older we try to avoid the wacky when we play, at least in a long term campaign. Sure, we would get silly at times, but that was us playing our characters as children, not as a result of the world setting. As the game progressed we “grew” out of our childhood as the responsibilities began to mount up and the childishness fell away.

We accepted mutations (likely the silliest aspect of Gamma World) as a natural by-product of the setting/world. There was a logical reason for their existence and by accepting them they did not seem out of the ordinary; i.e. they were accepted as common so required so special reaction from us on an in-character level. We did this much the same as most gamers accept magic or psionics in their games. The mutations were not the focus of the campaign but rather the people who had them were.

The tone of a game always comes down to two factors: the GM and the players. My wife presented us with a “serious” campaign and we went along with it. I would have to say that my greatest character development happened in this game; wherein my character’s outlook on life and how he dealt with it changed during the campaign. He went from a trusting, happy-go-lucky, look on the bright side of things kind of guy (mutant cow) to a bitter, jaded being who would step on everything and anyone to make the world a better place. Betrayed by his friends he went from being their friend to using them to accomplish his goal of keeping the world safe. It was a lot of fun.

Is the new Gamma World rule set going to allow a GM to run a “serious” game? From all accounts thus far, I’m not so sure. It might be baked into the rules that wacky and silly is the way to go. I will be picking the game up when it comes out, partly as curiosity and partly as something to run as a short change of pace. Either way I am looking forward to the new rule set.

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