Mutate Your Game

A lot has been made of the fact that you can “reskin” game elements in the D&D game to make what you want. Reskinning just means taking a mechanical element and changing it cosmetically or in minor mechanical ways, as DM approved, to make it fit your character concept. From James Wyatt’s great sidebar “My Son the Fire Archon” in Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 (page 21) to Jeff Greiner’s and my little bit on The Tome Show 138, reskinning has definitely been in the air.

I have wondered why more people don’t do it. Then I realized that it isn’t all that easy. Experienced players and DMs might think it is, but reskinning is more than just an exercise in creativity and imagination. Required is a willingness to experiment and to face the possibility that your experiment won’t work. It’s reasonable to be uncomfortable with that type of experimentation when you’re just learning a game or you’re unfamiliar with the game’s boundaries.

Examples serve to an extent. James’s sidebar is a fine case in point. Any number of examples are just that, though, until you do it. You have to reskin something to know what it’s like, and then you have to use that element to see how it works for you.

Well, the new D&D Gamma World game is a freaking (emphasis on that) crash course on reskinning. Character creation, from concept to equipment, is a real-world exercise in putting your imagination’s images over a mechanical chassis in a simple game. Sections in the rules cover the process, from the “Reconciling Contrary Origins” segment to the “What Does it Look Like?” sidebar on equipment.

The awesome thing is that so many of these parts are directly interchangeable. Character origins, which every character has two of, combine to make unique mutants and humans that you create from your imagination based on the mechanical information you’re given. Cooler still is that each origin provides features and powers at the same levels, so it’s easy to imagine swapping these mechanical elements between origins to make a character that’s even more customized to your vision.

Ookla, Thundarr, and ArielMutant Child

I was enamored with the D&D game from the first moments I played it. Brave warriors and mighty sorcerers fighting dragons? Yes, please. More, please.

I imagine that a lot of us longtime D&D fans are similar in that our fandom for the game quickly spread to fantasy and sci-fi of other types. I devoured anything I could that seemed even remotely like D&D and stole it for my game.

That’s really another topic, but it brings me to the point that I liked the show Thundarr the Barbarian when I was a kid. It came out before I owned my own D&D set, but not before I played the game. And it was in syndication for a while after that, so you could catch episodes. I hear you still can on Cartoon Network from time to time.

The Thundarr show had the coolest intro for a a 9-year-old D&D-nut kid. In fact, that intro isn’t bad entertainment fiction today:

The year: 1994. From out of space comes a runaway planet, hurtling between the Earth and the Moon, unleashing cosmic destruction! Man’s civilization is cast in ruin! Two thousand years later, Earth is reborn. A strange new world rises from the old: a world of savagery, super science, and sorcery. But one man bursts his bonds to fight for justice! With his companions Ookla the Mok and Princess Ariel, he pits his strength, his courage, and his fabulous Sunsword against the forces of evil. He is Thundarr, the Barbarian!

Back then, this was cool D&D stuff, since it was before I was exposed to the Gamma World game. Today, I catch Thundarr’s similarities to Conan and classic characters such as John Carter of Mars. Thundarr’s was a post-apocalyptic world full of old technology, bizarre creatures, and weird magic. It’s still great D&D stuff, but it’s fantastic D&D Gamma World stuff.

This recently got me thinking that if the current Gamma World is so good for reskinning, I should be able to put it through its paces in reverse. Yeah, it’s not lost on me that I’m imposing something on a system that more freeform. It’s also clear I’m just giving more reskinning examples. Let’s just pretend this is proof of concept rather than me reliving some of my childhood fantasies. When you get your hands on Gamma World, you can tell me how well I did.

Thundarr is clearly human, and he’s an ex-slave warrior with simple drives. See, he is a post-apocalyptic Conan. If I were going to make up Thundarr as a D&D Gamma World character, I’d take the Engineered Human (swap Intelligence for Strength) origin and mix it with Hypercognitive. I’d roleplay Hypercognitive as less psionic “I see the future” and more “I’m so good at combat, I see what’s coming and react instinctively.” Thundarr uses his fists and his fabulous Sunsword, which is clearly a piece of (Ishtar) Omega Tech Thundarr has salvaged, probably with Princess Ariel’s (see below) help.

Ookla the Mok is Thundarr’s buddy, kind of like if Conan had a wookie sidekick. Thundarr and Ookla escaped slavery with the help of their other ally, Princess Ariel. The moks are feline in derivation, and they’re big and strong, so Ookla is easy. He could be Felinoid (if we want Dexterity instead of a focus on Strength) or Yeti for his first origin, then I’d use the Giant origin for Ookla’s immense strength and great size. Ookla opts for nontechnological weapons, such as bows (see, Dexterity), clubs, and whatever he rips out of the ground or off the wall . . . like a lamp post or 400-pound gargoyle.

Princess Ariel, stepdaughter to the evil wizard Sabian who enslaved Thundarr, is harder. She’s a sorceress with great knowledge of Earth’s past. Since Ariel looks human, we could start with Engineered Human. Ariel can do plenty with her magic, though, and she rarely used any weapon. Maybe a better model is Telekenetic plus Mind Breaker. Those origins give Ariel a good potential array of powers and skill bonuses that make sense. To reinforce her human appearance and lack of constant telepathy, I’d swap in the Engineered Human origin’s Tech Affinity in and lose the Mind Breaker’s Group Telepathy feature.

Ariel also got me thinking that one could use a D&D character in Gamma World ala Thundarr. Ariel is likely to be a D&D Essentials mage specializing in evocation. It’d be fairer, though, and maybe more interesting, if the DM and player worked together to give Ariel her sorcery by paring down the evoker into an origin-like format. I haven’t done that . . . yet.

Adult Fallout

As you might know, I really like Fallout 3. How can I think about the D&D Gamma World game without thinking about Fallout 3? You’re right, I can’t. Besides, I’ve thought about using the Fallout setting with Gamma World for a long time, and I’ve read of others having the same thoughts.

Gamma Terra, Gamma World’s setting, and the world of Fallout are very different, but who cares. I say embrace the strengths of both. Steal from Fallout to make your Gamma Terra better. Fallout kind of has the same spirit as Gamma World, anyhow. It’s post-apocalyptic ruination with a dash of the absurd. Gamma World just takes the far-out a little further out, that’s all.

As an aside, I strongly advocate the idea presented in the Gamma World rulebook that you set your first campaign in your home town. The juxtaposition of the familiar with the wonderfully bizarre realities of Gamma Terra is just too priceless an opportunity to pass up. That doesn’t mean you can’t loot Fallout for ideas. You should.

When I was thinking of reskinning plunder from Fallout for Gamma World, my mind went to two races prevalent in the Fallout setting: super mutants and ghouls. I’d want both to be monsters, sure, but I’d also want them available to players. The unusually sane super mutant and nonferal ghoul are great character concepts that Fallout 3 itself uses.

Super mutants are actually easy to model. They’re giant asexual humans with radiation immunity. That means if you mix the Engineered Human (swap Intelligence for Constitution) origin and Giant origin, you arrive at a good base. I’d then lose the human Skill Bonus and Tech Affinity features and replace them with the Radioactive origin’s Skill Bonus and Gamma Tolerance features. I might also replace the human’s expert power with the Seismic origin’s expert power. Done.

Ghouls require a little more tinkering. I’d still start with Engineered Human, then I’d throw in Android, playing on the idea that ghouls are created, not born. Again, I’d replace the Engineered Human Skill Bonus and Tech Affinity features with the Radioactive origin’s Skill Bonus and Gamma Tolerance features. I’d rework the Android origin powers to fit the semiliving ghoul form, and I’d replace the Machine Powered Android feature with Two Possibilities from the Doppelganger origin. It just makes sense to me that Gamma Terra ghouls might have more alpha flux given that they were made “undead” by super doses of radiation.

Go Flux Yourself

Much like I was sold on my first D&D game as a kid, I have been sold on the D&D Gamma World game since my very first playtest. Rich Baker and Bruce Cordell hit one out of the park with this game, and I can only hope future supplements live up to this high standard. The potential for amusement within the book and related cards cannot be described adequately in print. Everyone in the room laughed enough to have tears in their eyes the first time I played, and the laughing started during character creation. It’s not a serious roleplaying venture, but it is fun. Try it at least, since Gamma World Game Day is coming up. I doubt you’ll be sorry, even if your character is eaten by a yexil or dissolved by radioactive slime. If you need some more incentive, Dave the Game has a thing or two to tell you, as does Penny Arcade (click through News for more from Gabe).

13 thoughts on “Mutate Your Game

  1. Back@Chris: I definitely agree on organizing a game sometime. I’m interested in continuing a game after running Trouble in Freesboro, at least in some form, or just starting a campaign of my own. We might lose Craig’s interest, but taking it to an internet game might work out, using Skype and MapTools.

    When the grognard in me was flipping out a bit about Alpha Mutations, and how they changed all the time, Craig and I talked about alternatives to changing mutations. The idea I favored was to eliminate Alpha Flux completely, then using the cards to draw one random mutation at the start of the game only (treating it as an Encounter power). That becomes your one alpha mutation that never changes (unless exposed to radiation or mutagens), and when you reach 4th level, you draw a second alpha mutation, which again never changes (unless due to exposure), and again at 7th for your third alpha. In this case, I would stack the deck towards more powerful mutations, so that characters aren’t jipped on something that will stick with them for a LONG time. I’d be more lenient with Omega tech, but I wouldn’t allow any decks except my own for characters to draw from. So no player decks at all.

    Now, I’m not flipping out anymore. I read the background story for why alpha mutations change, and for alpha flux, and the story makes it more palatable to me. I’ve embraced the idea now.

    I’m also embracing the gonzo for the Game Day event. I’m not sure I would go totally serious (as above) for any regular campaign, but I would consider some house-rules for just-ever-so-slightly more stable characters. Either that, or I would change when and if Alpha Flux occurs, based on the encounter location, and I would stack my alpha deck accordingly to the theme of the area.

    Oh, and I heard that they are coming out with Pure Strain Humans in a future release. Hopefully that’s true. I’d like that to be a character option. The Engineered Human is very close, but you couldn’t have just that background and still have a character that can hold its own alongside the other dual-origin mutants. To go along with the idea of “reskinning”, some of the ideas they have in the rulebook, about combining origins, would make it fairly easy to combine certain origins with Engineered Human to have a Pure Strain Human that is just really good at something specific. Hypercognitive works. Perhaps “Felinoid” could be a skilled martial artist (and just re-skin the powers to be a bit more mundane, so your PSH isn’t biting people).


  2. Reskinning Gamma World is one of the many ways cards are a good idea. You can buy an extra stack of cards, pulling-out silly cards and adding more serious additions. It’s essentially a giant Gygaxian percentile table that you can customize for your game (and stack/rig).


  3. One of the aspects that tends D&D Gamma World toward the sillier is alpha flux (changing out of Alpha Mutations). If you made stricter rules for alpha flux, such as it happening only when exposed to radiation or other mutagens, then you get more seriousness. You could also leave alpha flux out, giving each character one permanent serious mutation or none at all. That does weaken characters, but makes them more stable. You might be able to make up for that by being less strict on Omega Tech.

    For Fallout, you’d probably need an alternative human origin (Vault Dweller? Pure Strain?) to make the really, really human characters. I doubt you’d need to up the lethality, though. You might want to take some times to actually define some weapons and reskin some Omega Tech, too.

    @Scott: I can go with gonzo, or with a tone that’s more serious. A lot of sources for game-content looting are not that great, but they’re still great for looting. That sounds like a blog idea, too. We should organize a game sometime.

    @UHF: Is the effect because of publisher perception or publisher perception because of the effect? Knowing the approximate numbers of users on DDI makes it very hard for me to believe that the character builder kills the market for third-party D&D character options. I could be wrong, though. I could also be biased, because I never use the thing–it doesn’t run on my computer. About half my group uses it regularly, and one of those is a Wizards employee.

    @Bartoneus: For sure. I have a blog coming up (sometime) about looting certain sources for that type of thing.

    @Dave: I dunno about Apocalypse World, although it sounds like a great game, for serious exploration-type gaming emphasized in Fallout or Gamma World. Apocalypse World characters are big players, while that’s not true for Fallout or Gamma World, where characters might become big players but don’t start that way. I’m there with you on Day After Ragnarok. Besides, that’s Ken Hite!


  4. Yeah, you’d definetely have to up the seriousness level of it to make it work for a fallout setting. Perhaps up the lethality as well. Their lack of background is essentially carte blanche to do such with it. The amount of ranged combat might require some system tweaking as well, most of the time in Ad&d it’s shoot until you close and swings swords, not shoot it out OK-corral style.


  5. I’m pretty sure I remember watching Thundarr in 1995 🙂 “Hey, I don’t remember that happening…”

    I think the sillier aspects really make GW (and make it fun as its own game instead of trying to be another post-apocalyptic system.) If I were going more serious, I’d probably run something like Apocalypse World or Day After Ragnarok (Savage Worlds.)


  6. Though Thundarr is something I didn’t experience as a child, I am right there with you on pulling things from the Fallout franchise for Gamma World. Though I have yet to actually play Gamma World, I’m really looking forward to it from talking to Dave and reading a lot about it online, and I fully intend to run several adventures of it with strong Fallout influence. However, I will probably keep the level of silly stuff that is inherent in the game and play up the silly things from Fallout, because the laugh factor is something I’m really looking forward to.


  7. The biggest barrier to reskinning is Character Builder. It is a well known fact that Character Builder is having a peculiar effect on the ability of third party developers to produce material for 4th edition. Goodman has complained about it. The Amethyst developer has begged WOTC.. and been told ‘not now’.

    I think that the that the majority of players are using Character Builder and its a big leap to do it all by hand just for a single character, or to use your imagination and reskin a character.

    In Mearls’ Escapist Interview he says that there is room for campaign settings and adventures from third party developers such as Privateer Press’ Iron Kingdoms.

    The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. No one is able to sell a product based on new character classes and mechanics. So… no Gun Mage’s for Mearls, and no Steam Punk for me because there are no Engineers in D&D. (Note: There are new rules are coming to open up skills.)

    (If you want to reskin, check out Hero Labs by lone wolf. It might do ya. There is also some work in 4e Power Tools to allow you to create your own character classes, and drop them into your own DDI database.)


  8. Last night I had a thought along these lines too. I think the risk of failure is a big reason more people don’t experiment, both in simple reskinning and in more advanced tasks like truly customizing monsters. When I played Gamma World for the first time this weekend, I was so happy. First, the game lends itself towards experimentation. Characters are much easier to create and the mutation factor helps lower the seriousness level (if your table wants it). So if you try something crazy and end up with a TPK, it’s a little less detrimental to the table than in a game with involved back stories and heavy overarching plot. Of course, every table will vary. The alpha cards also force you to look for ways to use the overcharge ability. Hopefully if I get my group comfortable with overcharges, that sort of creativity will bleed over into our D&D game.

    As a side note, I did have a player once tell me that he considered monsters to be “rules as written.” This sort of thinking also hurts creativity and experimentation.


  9. I’ve always been a fan of a slightly more serious game of Gamma World… not quite so “Gonzo”, as Wil Wheaton put it in his blog. Not truly serious, like “Morrow Project” serious, as I think that goes against the feel and intent of Gamma World, but slightly more like Fallout. Put some elements of silly into the game, but still keep the themes a bit more serious. The modules for old editions were like that. The original Famine in Far-Go, for example, was about fighting giant mutant cycloptic chickens, that had taken over the chicken processing plant. (Note: To anyone who may cry “spoiler!”: If that’s what the new one is about, since it does look like the cover art has a cycloptic chicken on it, that’s not really a spoiler, btw, since original FiFG has been available since the ’80s, and info is on the internet about it already. 😉 )

    In any case, though, this article just emphasizes that I really need to organize some kind of game with you, Chris, as we share a lot of the same experiences and thoughts. I’ve long compared Thundarr the Barbarian and Gamma World, and not only do I love the Fallout series (haven’t played 3 yet. Just finished 2 this year!), whenever anyone has asked what to use for a Fallout RPG, I’ve always suggested Gamma World. Before now, I’d have said “not the new 4th edition… but maybe the first 4th edition (heh)”. However, what you say above shows me that I’m wrong in that. This idea of reskinning works very well, and recreating the Fallout world wouldn’t be that difficult with the new rules.

    I’d love to run a regular Gamma World campaign, and if I did so, I likely would try for something ever-so-slightly more serious than the default. I’m not sure I’d change that much about it, though, but I might let people “build” a character that is appropriate, rather than making them roll randomly (unless they really wanted something random).

    I’m in the process of preparing to run Trouble in Freesboro for the Game Day next week. I’m really looking forward to it. 🙂

    Btw, I love that modern update drawing of Thundarr, Ariel and Ookla. I saw the cartoon on tv sometime recenly. I think it might have been just before GenCon. Man, did it make me laugh… and not necessarily in a good way. It brought back a lot of nostalgia for me, but it’s still hilarious, and kind of in a “bad” way. Still great seeing the show again, though. I must say. 🙂


  10. I think that while the Gamma World “default” tone is less than serious, you can, as you imply, fiddle with the “controls” to set the tone right.

    For instance, if you made all PCs into Engineered humans and let each player choose their secondary origins (with proper bio and technological refluffing), you could totally pull the Fallout feel. Hell, I’m convinced I could make the game hyper gritty by merging it relatively easily with Apocalypse world.

    Great treatise on giving oneself permission to reskin. The lesson applies to all RPGs.

    Thanks Chris.


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