Tabletop is like a band: you don’t play unless everyone’s there.
My usual tabletop gaming group just did something unique: we finished a campaign. Coordinating six adults so that we’re consistently able to play for three or four hours every other week is hard! Most campaigns have a rotating cast as people drop out due to real-world commitments, games go on hiatus never to be resumed, life just gets in the way. So as weird as it sounds to a non-gamer, I feel a sense of accomplishment.
We were playing Gamma World, which is basically a simplified Dungeons and Dragons 4.0 in a post-apocalyptic setting. It’s a cool concept: several worlds merged together and the result is a lawless frontier with alien technology and magic. The best part is the tone, tongue-in-cheek silliness played straight. It has a vintage sci-fi/golden age adventure comic sort of flavor, and you can take it as seriously or as lightly as you like and it will still be entertaining. The setting has a history that’s older than I am, but the most recent version is easy to pick up and doesn’t need all that perspective.
In Gamma World, you don’t pick a character concept, it’s determined by luck. You roll dice to figure out your primary and secondary origins. In this case, “origin” is sort of a catch-all for power set and species. In this game I ended up with electrokinetic/pyrokinetic, which meant I was a human who could throw lightning and fire and had a burning aura. Others ended up with things like pyrokinetic/cockroach, empathic/yeti, felinoid/speedster. You’re given a set of cards with different superpowers on them. Not all these powers are useful all the time, but they change with each combat or with unlucky rolls. You also have the opportunity to scavenge technology from different universes, most of which consists of weapons. So your combat strategy can change dramatically between encounters based on luck of the draw.
So many maps!
Some spoilers ahead. Our GM used the campaigns from the book and expansions, with some additions and subtractions. I’ve avoided details, but you might want to be careful anyway.
Our GM ran us from level 1 through 10, which is where Gamma World is capped. We began as humble adventurers hired to sort out some fuckery with robots. We kicked the crap out of the gang who was trying to take over the nearby robot factory. It turned out that the gang were henchpeople of some guy named Alpha, who was trying to “bring some order to Gamma World.”
This is where we started to give the GM headaches. This Alpha guy might have a point, we agreed after some deliberation. After all, Gamma World is a shitty place to live. There’s no rule of law, you live by your fists and laser guns and mandibles. We made the henchmen put us in touch, and forcibly joined the organization. The GM used this as the plot hook for future adventures. Alpha needs us to pacify an area or restore the food supply so the people will be more receptive, pretty straightforward.
That’s when we became travelling corn salesmen.
There was one town, basically the town from Footloose, where we crossed the line from Chaotic Neutral to Neutral Evil. We didn’t like the locals: they were rude and banned fun. We happened to procure a spaceship that wasn’t spaceworthy and couldn’t be made so, but could be piloted a little ways. It had a convenient destruct button. We set it to go off in the middle of Assholetown’s square, where it would destroy the local government but not the majority of its people. We then radioed Alpha’s people to come in with medics and supplies so that they’d be hailed as heroes and the town would go over to Team Lawful Evil without a fuss.
That was around the time we coined our team name, Collateral Damage.
More things happen. People disappear, robots appear, we kill stuff, we kill more things, we fight Reaganomics. It’s all fun. We spend a good portion of a gaming session roleplaying our characters asking a computer about astronomy, as it’s unlikely that anyone on the wrecked Gamma Terra even understands what a planet is. We go to the moon, the source of one of our problems.
Bolivian army ending: When your heroes are surrounded by insurmountable odds and will probably die. Fade to black.
A few sessions back, our GM asks us if we would be okay if he killed off our characters. The general response was “Only if it’s awesome.” My expectation was a Bolivian army ending.
We have a final bossfight, which turns anticlimactic when one player combines weapons in a way that doubles their damage, then rolls two crits in a row that instantly turn the boss into a puddle of goo. This was still awesome, don’t get me wrong, just in a different way than expected.
So our characters are treated as heroes and kind of dig it, but it’s time to go back home. We’re going to be met by Alpha himself as thanks for all the cool shit we’ve done in his name! In an out of character way, yeah, it’s a trap, but metagaming is shitty and you should trust your GM. (So long as your GM is a good storyteller and not just intent on torturing you.) And our characters were riding high on their easy victory and had their guard down.
blah blah blah 35 minutes ago.
We teleport back to base and are greeted by fifty soldiers aiming their weapons at us. One soldier is bigger and more badass than the others. It’s Alpha, and he’s got a fucking monologue for us…naturally. He appreciates our service in expanding his empire, but we’ve grown too popular and too powerful. As he monologues, we find that there’s a forcefield around the teleportation pad. Our powers can’t get through it, overload it, or destroy the pad itself. Dude’s had time to prepare for us.
Alpha thanks us for our service, but it’s time for us to go. We dematerialize with a flurry of curses and rude gestures. I’m actually mad: I didn’t think I’d get attached to a character in a lighthearted campaign like this, but it’s been a long ride. We weren’t even planning to overthrow Alpha! Our motivations were pure-ish! And then, very unexpectedly, we re-materialize.
We’re in a dank cave. There’s an acrid smell and sounds of combat nearby. Our radiation-powered dude notices that the local ambient radiation is less than he’s used to, which is a tipoff that we might not even be on Gamma Terra. That, and there’s a dragon murdering a couple guys. “Welcome to Grayhawk,” says the GM.
The best way to end anything, really.
As a group we decide to sneak away and live. Between our powers, the mountain of Omega tech we’ve accumulated, and even our useful mundane gear, we have a better than fighting chance. If the prospect of building an empire from scratch in order to gather mages from all over in order to figure out how to get home and murder the everloving shit out of somebody doesn’t give you pants-feelings, we can’t be friends.
I’ve never finished a campaign before! It’s always been sort of a Fremen thing. “Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife — chopping off what’s incomplete and saying: ‘Now it’s complete because it’s ended here.’” And that’s what’s happened anyway, because we’re not revisiting our intrepid adventurers, but at least we got a full story arc out of it.
Our GM deserves a trophy! We’re not an easy group, with our tendency to jump the track, destroy what we shouldn’t, roleplay or start combats in situations where we shouldn’t. If you name an NPC and hint that they have a personality, I don’t want to kill them. If an NPC is rude to us, we hold ridiculous long-term grudges. We try to collapse economies and foment revolts. We sold a lot of popcorn and beer. We’re ridiculous assholes, and he put up with us for several months, steering us when need be and letting us have fun rather than just beating on us with monsters.
I really like the Gamma World system. It’s playable right out of the box. You need dice, but you already know that. The rules are simple enough to pick up quickly, and we only had to establish a few house rules to fill in the gaps. The campaign that comes with the game is simple, but the point isn’t fancy storytelling, the point is fun. Laser grenades! Swords! Explody teddy bears! Objective achieved. 9/10.