Post-apocalyptic and dystopian futures in pop culture were big fascinations of mine as a kid. Planet of the Apes premiered the year I was born, and the movie sequels, live-action TV show, Saturday morning cartoon and toys were a big part of my imagination through the first half of the 1970s. As I grew into a budding sci-fi fan, movies like The Omega Man, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Logan’s Run, as well as television re-runs of The Twilight Zone further filled my brain with visions of future what-ifs and the destruction of the human race.
In 1981, two things happened. Ronald Reagan became President and would go on to occupy the White House for all my teenage years. During this formative period of my life, my waking mind and night time dreams were filled with the ever-looming threat of nuclear war flowing from Reagan’s amped-up rhetoric toward what was then still the Soviet Union. Suddenly, the fictionalized visions of the end of civilization seemed very, very real.
That same year, I saw Mad Max 2, (aka The Road Warrior). Although shot in Australia with an Aussie-accented Mel Gibson in the lead, the movie resonated as very American to me. With it’s high-desert setting, gunfights, chase scenes and a hero with a hidden past, the film struck me very much like Westerns (particularly those of Clint Eastwood) I already loved. Wrapping the Western genre up in a post-apocalyptic story hit all the right notes in my 13-year-old imagination.
Along the way in the late 70s through early 80s, I was spending a lot of time gaming with Dungeons & Dragons. In 1983, I ran across the second edition of Gamma World in the local bookstore where I bought most of my D&D gaming stuff. Originally introduced in 1978 by TSR, the makers of D&D, Gamma World was a role-playing game set in a post-nuclear war 25th-century Earth populated by mutants, cyborgs and remnants of the human race. While D&D drew its influence from various fantasy sword-and-sorcery antecedents, Gamma World’s dystopian setting was rooted in the sci-fi themes of stories and movies I loved. From a game mechanics standpoint, Gamma World had a familiar feel to D&D with character attributes, fantastical equipment and a chart and dice-driven combat and encounters system. The similiarities with D&D made it easy to slide into the entirely different storylines Gamma World offered.
I never took to Gamma World with the same depth of interest as D&D, but playing it was pretty fantastic. The world of the game was occupied by giant rabbits, humanoid lizard people, deadly plantlife, robotic killing machines and all other manner of deadly foes and allies. Weaponry ranged from spears and traffic sign shields to laser rifles and nuclear devices. Maps represented entire crumbling city street grids or hidden underground survivalist bunkers. An adventure could involve a quest for an “ancient” 20th-century manuscript holding the key to human salvation or an infiltration mission to destroy a cyborg factory. To my friends and me, Gamma World allowed us to write the scripts and play through the dozens of unmade post-apocalyptic movies living in our heads and influenced by the films already ingested into our psyches.
Gamma World is still published by Wizards of the Coast today, but the popular trend in zombie-themed games occupies most of today’s gaming interest in post-apocalyptic scenarios. That said, for a purely futuristic, dystopian, sky’s-the-limit role-playing game, fast-wording a few centuries to Gamma World can’t be beaten.
Collector’s Note: Original TSR-published Gamma World boxed sets and expansion modules can be found on eBay. Modules and indivdual rule books can run in the range of $15-75 while original complete boxed sets of early editions can run into the hundreds of dollars.