Return to the Future Past of "Gamma World"

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Gamma World was role-playing game company TSR's attempt at a post-apocalyptic role-playing system. TSR hit the big time with the mega-successful Dungeons and Dragons franchise, but the company's history is littered with non-starters. Still, when it came out, Gamma World felt like a winner - edgy post-apocalypse adventuring humans, robots and mutated bunnies contend in the ruins of a future Earth. The rules themselves are more or less D&D lite - character stats, melee rounds, and randomized combat mechanics. You can play as a Pure Strain Human, of untainted genome, but the fun is in mutated humans, and even mutated animals with human intelligence - if you want to be a panda toting a Mark VII Blaster Rifle, you've got it.

This takes us onto the Physical and Mental Mutation tables, full of exotic adaptations to the new brave new world ("Quills/Spines", "Pyrokinesis" "Multiple Body Parts"), and the occasional dark side of genetic damage ("Hemophilia," say, or "Epilepsy").

When it arrived in stores in the early 1980s, Gamma World was announced like this:

The first world is lost in the mythical past, the second was destroyed by apocalyptic energies, and now a whole new world awaits you - GAMMA WORLD!


Unlike, say, the neo-Ptolemaic D&D supplement Spelljammer, GW had what seemed like a tang of edgy plausibility. In those days, we were made to understand that there was every likelihood that most of us would perish in a nuclear conflict...

...or would we!? Because maybe we'd still be around, and everything would be messed up in a cool way. When I was playing Gamma World in junior high, it seemed vaguely plausible that in a few years we'd have tattoos, and cool rubble to climb around on. There would be tribes!

Gamma World's principal architects were Gary Jaquet and James M. Ward - the latter of whom must be touched by some visionary quality, since his name is on Metamorphosis Alpha and Deities and Demigods. It's patterned more after science fantasy than science fiction proper - the creators cite The Long Afternoon of Earth by Brian Aldiss, Starman's Son by Andre Norton, Hiero's Journey by Sterling Lanier, and Ralph Bakshi's marvelous Wizards, a post-apocalypse subgenre boiled down and codified into 56 pages of narratively generative charts'n'tables.


Players set out into an America remade as a country of mutants, rural communities, and the mystery-shrouded ruins of a prior civilization. Robot farms, nomadic tribes, ancient spaceports, mutated forests and radioactive desert dot the landscape as well as the Cryptic Alliances, crackpot factions contesting for the fragments of what used to be.


As a context for storytelling Gamma World gets full marks. Gamma World's crazy mix of high-tech and ruined-garden aesthetics is still my preferred vision of the post-Reaganite era. In Mad Max, or Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the post-nuclear world is a humorless burned-out husk, but Gamma World is lush and green, a hothouse full of unwholesome life - like dropping the bombs just kicks everything up a notch.

It combines that neo-tribal waste-land adventure with a Riddley Walker, Motel of the Mysteries vibe - familiar artifacts become strange to us, the present day world we walk around in becomes a strange and distant past, a lost technological climax instant for the human race. Poignant and thrilling at the same time.


But Gamma World never caught on in a big way. Some X-factor was missing - maybe it lacked D&D's potent fantasy urtexts. Or maybe it was in the game design? GW's character creation lacks the hard-wired archetypal structure of D&D's class system - sure, mutations are fun, but it doesn't bring the ready-made type-casting of fighter vs magic user vs thief.

And the reward schedule isn't there. You don't go up levels - in Gamma World your base stats go up, and you can find artifacts, and there's a thin chance of further mutation (here I consult the Radiation Matrix), but you don't find that steady treadmill of advancement that keeps D&D and WoW players grinding onward and opening up new areas in the game mechanics.


And of course the nail in the coffin is the post-Reagan New World Order itself, which let the air out of our collective investment in a grim post-nuclear endgame.

But Gamma World keeps being remade, even unto the Sixth Edition. Cormac McCarthy, along with Jericho, Sarah Connor Chronicles, and even Al Gore, show that the devastated future Earth still has a place in the contemporary imagination. I like to think McCarthy would appreciate the final pages of the 1981 manual, a 100-item treasure table full of poignant relics as "57. Jungle gym - fair condition, used," or "1859 Swiss Infantry Sabre - excellent condition, well polished blade." Gamma World is a future with a past that includes the world we see around us, which ought to mean as much as a bunch of halflings.


And, seriously, as futures go, would you rather the boring old Singularity, or Gamma World? Do you really want to float around in space chatting with Farsc4pe_Guy_21 or do you want to explore a secret bunker shattered by nuclear fire, to learn the truth of our elder civilization? Leporinoid art by David Trampier.