After five months of distraction with other things, it’s time to turn my attention back to the remaining treasures I obtained at last year’s Dragonmeet.
Goodman Games, as one of the larger OSR publishers out there, occasionally gets to land a grognard’s dream project here and there. Witness Metamorphosis Alpha Collector’s Edition, an expanded reprint of the original 1976 version of Jim Ward’s science fiction RPG. Set on the Starship Warden, the game casts players as mutants and mainstream humans who must explore this vast generation ship – huge enough to contain entire ecosystems whose inhabitants have no idea they’re on a spaceship – and perhaps uncover the mysteries of why its colonisation mission went wrong and how it can be put right again.
Now, Jim Ward had regained the rights to the game and had been selling a facsimile copy of the slim 32-page 1976 booklet via PDF and POD for a while when Goodman proposed this project – but here’s where the “expanded” bit of “expanded reprint” comes in. You see, rather than just reprinting the original text, this edition also comes with a brace of articles covering the history of the game’s development, some errata and new ideas, and perhaps most importantly a clutch of magazine articles from around the time of the game’s original run.
The magazine articles may be the major prize. It’s easy to forget in these Internet days how important magazines were to the RPG scene from the 1970s to early 1990s. Before the Internet became ubiquitous, there were only two ways to keep up with what was going on in the hobby: word of mouth, and reading the gaming magazines of the day (and it was via the magazines that much of the word of mouth was sourced and shaped). Thus, many gamers of the era wouldn’t just have had the single Metamorphosis Alpha booklet to support them – they also would have been able to draw on magazine articles, and it seems like at least some of those articles have proved important enough to Alpha fandom to effectively become canonical parts of the rules. (Jim Ward talks about robot PCs as though they’re an intrinsic part of the game; they’re actually an option only introduced in those magazine articles.)
As for the game itself, it’s both an interesting bit of gaming history and a fun little concept to muck about with in its own right. As well as being the first SF RPG, it was also the first game to market itself as a role-playing game – the term having caught on via the magazines of the era. Alpha had its origins in Jim Ward proposing that TSR produce a science fiction version of D&D, only for Gary Gygax to throw down the gauntlet and challenge Ward to produce that himself. The starship is basically a megadungeon which contains pockets of civilisation, effectively turning the classic D&D conception of the world inside-out, whilst in system terms we are very clearly dealing with an OD&D variant here – “human” and “mutant” being the two character classes.
The most significant deviation from D&D is that Metamorphosis Alpha doesn’t use levels. It’s more generous with starting hit points (you get XD6 hit points, where X is your Constitution score), and weapon type takes the place of level in the combat matrix – emphasising the fact that the only way to get better in Alpha is to obtain superior equipment or other knowledge. In a weird quirk, combat rolls are based off 3D6 against D20 – according to Ward, this was solely because polyhedral dice were thin on the ground at the time, but the attack charts don’t seem to take into account the bell curve and so this would have a bunch of knock-on effects for Metamorphosis Alpha combat, and for Gamma World the game would revert to the use of D20s for this purpose.
Ah yes, Gamma World; as outlined in the interviews and histories here, Gamma World was very much developed as a sequel to Metamorphosis Alpha, only to rapidly become more popular than it. This is most evident in the first two editions of the game, which essentially use an updated version of the Metamorphosis Alpha system with some D&Disms fed back in – largely D20s in combat and the concept of experience points, though these only raise you in Rank, a concept more narrow than D&D levels. (Specifically, levels in D&D have wide-ranging implications for character ability, whereas in 1E Gamma World Rank gives you a single randomised bonus to a stat and that’s it; in 2nd edition, Rank was revised to be a measure of fame and social standing acquired by adventuring.)
Taken together, of course, Gamma World and Metamorphosis Alpha can be rich sources for each other. After all, Metamorphosis Alpha campaigns could end with the PCs steering the ship to an inhabited planet only to find that it’s a Gamma World-esque nuclear wasteland, other human colonists having got there first, established a civilisation, and then blown it up. (Or maybe it’s Earth and the Warden has gone in a big circle.) Alternately, perhaps Gamma World is merely one layer of the Warden. Given how smoothly material from the first two editions of Gamma World can be used in the original Metamorphosis Alpha, the choice is yours…