Roleplaying Artifact Use in Gamma World


Artifact chart

Gamma World artifact chart C


One of the awesome things about the original Gamma World is its system for deciphering the function of technological artifacts. This is a super fun part of play in both Gamma World and Metamorphosis Alpha, although I find the simple percentage chance Ward used in MA much less compelling than the flowcharts Ward & Jaquet provide for GW (and Gygax picks up for the Barrier Peaks AD&D module).

Although the coolness of all these boxes, arrows, and skull and crossbones is self-evident, the first time I used it in play was underwhelming. I love the mini-games within old-school RPGs, but this one is akin to Candyland in its total lack of choice; you’re simply rolling a series of dice with no guidance as to what each die roll means, until eventually you either master the controls of the Ronco Inside-The-Shell Electric Egg Scrambler or accidentally detonate its nuclear power plant.

Candyland is well designed as a boardgame for families with young children because of its competitive aspect. Its reliance on pure chance instead of choice means all players are equally matched, preventing more-skilled players from having to choose whether to handicap themselves and let the kids win, and thus teaching the important lesson that victory and defeat are fun parts of the game for everyone. But the competitive aspect of the Gamma World charts is erratic at best. I didn’t know until reading this pleasingly advanced-math-heavy essay at the Acaeum that you were only allowed to make five rolls on the artifact chart per hour, and I think there’d be a limit on the number of times I could GM-engineer a situation where the players were racing against time to decipher an artifact before something excitingly bad happened.

The first time I used the artifact charts, I laid them out in full view of the players, placed a marker on their starting square, and asked them to roll to see where they went. As their marker traveled to different squares, I’d try to provide some description of what was happening and have them tell me what they were doing to make the next roll, but it wasn’t very convincing; the players could see that it was all just a big abstract mechanistic flowchart, not a complex situation in which their decisions & my responses mattered. Also, no one in this original group had a PC with an Intelligence score or a mutation that would make figuring it out more likely, so there was a lot of going around in circles: 7, you go nowhere; 9, you’re back where you started. This repetition tended to make a further mockery of my descriptions and attempts to make it seem like the PCs had choices.

Here’s what I did in the most recent session of the New York Red Box’s Gamma Jersey campaign that I thought was much more successful in making the process of deciphering a complex artifact (a MAGLEV train) fun and immersive.

I started with a description of the artifact, emphasizing the parts I thought the characters could interact with: “You see a window of transparent glass. Above and below this are two sloping panels of dark glass.” When the players decided to try to figure out how to control the train, I had them describe what their characters were doing – “oh, OK, I guess I’m touching the upper panel.”

So then I wrote upper panel and lower panel on a wipe-erase board. “Go ahead and roll a d10, modified by your Intelligence and mutations.” The result was a 3, so I wrote this next to an arrow leading off of the upper panel. “You find that the upper panel lights up for just a second when you touch it, and then goes dark again.” I wrote this at the end of the arrow from the upper panel.


The final state of the diagram I drew to track the progress of the players' narrative description of figuring out the train controls


“Hmm, what if I try holding my finger on it?”

“It stays lit as long as you’re touching it. You see lots of different-colored boxes with symbols on them.”

Another player: “I’m going to touch the lower panel.” (Rolls dice: 4.)

“It doesn’t do anything on its own, but eventually you figure out that if you’re already touching the upper panel, the lower panel will light up too.” I draw an arrow from the panel to the result of this action, along with the artifact deciphering score – both to show the players that this was the result of a pretty good roll, not a botch, and to help me reconstruct where they were on my Chart C in case my marker got knocked off or something.

At one point the players asked something I didn’t expect: “Are there any controls near the seats in the train cabin?”

“Sure,” I decided, “there are some switches on the base of the seat to the right.”

“Cool, I’ll try those.” (Resulting roll is a 1).

“You find that moving the switch forward moves the seat forward, and visa versa.”

“Awesome, I’ll make some more room for Cosmo.” (Cosmo is a six-meter tall mutant with eleven arms, which was handy for touching both panels at once while also playing with the seat controls.)

Their progress through the Chart C flowchart (shown in yellow) was remarkably direct – these are some smart mutants. I think that making this version visible to the players, as I did in my first Gamma World game as an adult, would have been a lot less interesting than the narrative chart I drew for them in my second.

Here is why I think this worked:

  • It was purely improvised; all I did to get started was to think about what a few possible ways of interacting with a futuristic train might be.
  • It was concrete; the players experienced it as a set of things their characters could interact with, and being able to visualize what they were doing was invaluable in improvising a narrative description of their progress through the abstract flowchart.
  • It had unexpected consequences; the flowchart basically boils down to success or failure, but the way we visualized the situation allowed for lots of other meaningful intermediate results. Activating the train’s recorded public announcement might have attracted a wandering monster, for example, and at one point they were worried that causing the train car doors might sever a limb of the seven-meter-tall mutants they had stuffed back there (as did happen earlier in the session with a less-forgiving shaft access door).
  • It was open to player creativity, as in the case of the seat controls. In an artifact with a less defined use, the decisions the players make as they interact with it might cause them to figure out a use that’s quite different than the one you had in mind: you think it’s a bicycle whose tires have crumbled away, but as they’re asking “can we slot a rope along the front rotating disk?” the results of their successful artifact use rolls might mean they wind up deciding it’s a spinning wheel or a pedal-driven winch.

7 Responses to “Roleplaying Artifact Use in Gamma World”

  1. October 20, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    Great stuff!

    Do you give bonuses for particularly clever efforts, or penalties for seemingly foolish ones? (“I drink from the spigot with the skull and crossbones printed above it.”)

  2. October 20, 2010 at 7:42 pm

    No, because the chart is kind of abtruse – high numbers are bad but not reliably in a “you just drank poison” kind of way. One of the advantages of deciding what kind of concrete things there are to interact with is that you can then adjucate them to handle disastrous results without relying on the chart.

  3. October 24, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    Interesting. So, if understand correctly: you were going by the chart and the die rolls. You had no preconceived notion of how the train worked and had to react to the results of rolls. This allowed character abilities to come into play instead of just relying on player smarts.

    I’d be interested to try something like this with a fantasy artifact. But how were these artifact use charts created? I mean, did they just pepper the page with various probability paths, are there key decision points, or are they designed to make figuring artifacts require a certain amount of time?

  4. October 25, 2010 at 7:05 pm

    I did kind of have a preconceived notion of how the train worked; the player smarts were able to come into play a little bit because they were drawing from the same well of knowledge about what a train dashboard looks like. (For example, if they were looking to stop the train suddenly, they might have looked for things to interact with down near the floor, like an emergency brake.)

    I’m not sure this would work as well with most fantasy artifacts because we don’t have real-world intuitions about what kinds of things might activate the Invulnerable Coat of Arnd. To do so you’d need to think about some potentially-meaningful hooks to throw the players; maybe there are four different colors of buttons on the coat, or embroidered figures that you can touch, that have some suggestive symbology.

    I have no idea how the artifact charts were created, although the linked Acaeum article has some analysis of how the probabilities shake out. You could analyze the examples (Gamma World and Barrier Peaks each have three) if you wanted to make your own, but I would just decide that this is a low, middle, or high complexity situation and select one of the three charts accordingly.

  5. 5 Witness
    October 28, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    I can’t shake the feeling that somewhere in this post there’s a metaphor for skill challenges.

  6. October 28, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    Yes, it’s much like a skill challenge in that it is an abstract way of gaming out the success or failure of a complex process, although as is typical of WotC design skill challenges are meant to be a universal mechanic whereas at least 1E Gamma World is happy to leave this (and many other things) as a particular one-off subsystem. (Neither skill mechanics nor artifact flowcharts are in the 4E D&D Gamma World box set, BTW.)

    The best skill challenges I’ve ever seen – run by Kevin Kulp/Piratecat at Anonycon – were definitely an inspiration for me. Kevin focused on the concrete ways characters could interact with the situation: “you’re clinging to a building, at risk of being swept away and buried in sand, what do you do” not “you need three successes in this enviromental challenge, which skill do you use?” Keeping it concrete led to more player creativity (as opposed to grubbing for justification to re-use your strongest skill) than I’ve seen in other challenges because the ease of visualizing the scene made it easy to see that wrapping yourself in your cloak & using its magic item power could help you survive being encased in sand, for example.

    In running 4E Gamma World, I’d use skill checks to moderate whether one moves forward or back on the flowchart – translating the odds of doing so in the 1E version into the DC of the skill check – but I wouldn’t replace it with a skill challenge altogether. I like the specificity of working with the chart; thinking about successes/failures feels vague to me, while moving a marker across a chart feels satisfyingly dungeony.

  7. 7 Witness
    October 29, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    That makes sense. The artifact charts are really finite state machines, and any skill challenge could be represented the same way. In either case, making them work well in play requires more than just busting out the chart (or complexity) and rolling dice; you need to paint a real picture for the players and have them react to it, with the chart (or complexity) guiding your narration on the way to success or doom.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2010

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