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.
“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.