We recently got more bookshelves installed, which meant that my roleplaying game collection emerged from the closet where it had been piled up for more than a decade, and now stands again in proud alphabetical-by-title ranks, easily accessible. I found some forgotten treasures in there: my original Call of Cthulhu box set, the battered little old black Traveller box, and a lot of GURPS books I had forgotten I had.
Re-shelving also uncovered some obscure games, things I picked up here and there over the past thirty-five years: Mike Pondsmith's Dream Park, Greg Porter's Epiphany, Fading Suns from Holistic Design, Metamorphosis Alpha by James Ward, Tales of Gargentihr from Sanctuary Games, and SPI's Universe. I thought it would be interesting to look into those less-known games and do a series of posts about them. I begin with the oldest, Metamorphosis Alpha.
Metamorphosis Alpha is old. How old? It is copyright 1976; mine is the third printing, from 1978. It's so old the TSR colophon is still a little lizard-man with a halberd, before the company switched to a wimpy-looking wizard. It may be the first science fiction role-playing game ever, depending on whether you think Warriors of Mars was science fiction or swords-and-sorcery.
I have no clear memory of where I got this game. I probably picked it up at Hub Hobbies in New Orleans, but it might have been at a bookstore, or even in the dealer room at Vul-Con, the old New Orleans area Star Trek convention. I do know how much I paid for it: six dollars. I know that because the price sticker is still right there on the cover (that argues in favor of the hobby shop theory).
Physically, it's not very impressive: a stapled 32-page book with cover art of the kind only a pioneering roleplaying game publisher could love. There's also interior illustrations which wouldn't look out of place in the back of my 8th-grade math notebook. The only art credit is to David Sutherland (I should note that Mr. Sutherland's work got much better, and he was a mainstay at TSR for twenty years). But there's a lot packed into those 32 pages, in part thanks to the use of eyestrainingly small type and very narrow margins.
According to the introduction, in the year 2290 the mighty starship Warden was launched on a mission to colonize an Earthlike world many light-years away. As the ship traveled slower than light, the voyage would take decades to finish. The ship had to have a complete biosphere aboard, with thousands of animals, large open decks devoted to forest and grassland, and more than a million colonists living in a great city within the starship.
Disaster struck, in the form of a "cloud of radiation" in space, which damaged the ship's systems, killed off most of the passengers and crew, and created weird mutations in the surviving humans and animals aboard. The survivors regressed to savagery and forgot they were even aboard a ship flying between the stars.
In case you weren't paying attention in Science Fiction class, this scenario is lifted pretty directly from Robert Heinlein's novel Orphans of the Sky. The same idea was used in episodes of Star Trek and Space: 1999. Around the time Metamorphosis Alpha came out there was also Harlan Ellison's abortive TV series project, The Starlost. All involved huge generation starships, crews reverted to savagery, and mutations.
Players take the part of humans, mutant humans, or mutant animals. One starts by rolling up character stats, much as in Dungeons & Dragons, although the stats are a little different. Instead of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, Metamorphosis Alpha characters have a different set. There's Radiation Resistance, Mental Resistance, Dexterity, Strength, Leadership Potential, and Constitution. If you're playing a human, all you need after that is some gear and a name and you're done. But mutants get to roll for the number of physical and mental mutations their characters have, and then select from a list of things like "Taller" or "Multiple Body Parts" or "Wings" or "Telekinesis" or "Dual Brain." The gamemaster (known as the "judge") assigns mutants mental or physical defects to go along with their superpowers.
Naturally there are monsters to fight (or negotiate with) on this derelict starship. Things like Metaled Ones (super-intelligent badgers with armored hides and telekinesis) or Wolfoids (bipedal intelligent wolves with energy-reflecting fur and eyes capable of emitting radiation blasts). The game has no alignment system, so any beings can potentially be hostile, friendly, or maybe willing to negotiate. I think that's a deliberate choice of the designer: this is as much a game of diplomacy as it is of combat. The Leadership Potential attribute gives every character a chance to gain followers at each encounter.
Characters begin with typical low-tech gear like swords, bows, and armor made of plant fiber, but the ship holds all kinds of technological "magic items." Things like laser guns, robots, antigravity sleds, and the valuable "color band" bracelets which allow access to sealed-off compartments. Figuring out how to work their new technological toys is one of the main tasks in the game, and characters risk blowing themselves (or bystanders) up as they tinker. It's not quite as elaborate as Gamma World's flowchart for figuring out unknown devices, but I think part of the fun is supposed to be letting the players figure out what the thing is supposed to be from the gamemaster's disingenuous descriptions. (Perhaps it's no coincidence that these rules are on the facing page from the subhead "Relatives" — which explains how to let players roll up kinsmen to replace characters who die in the course of play.)
I get the impression that Metamorphosis Alpha was created to allow self-contained "miniseries" adventures rather than open-ended campaigns. For one thing, there is no mechanism for character advancement. You don't gain levels in Metamorphosis Alpha. If you wander into radioactive zones you might gain new mutations — but you could also develop new defects as well. As far as I can tell (and keep in mind I don't think I ever played the game — though I did pillage bits for Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller games), the main form of reward for characters and players is increasing knowledge and mastery of the giant starship, a growing band of followers, and more advanced items. The obvious "endgame" is to make contact with the ship's super-intelligent computer and land the starship Warden on a habitable planet somewhere.
It's an interesting hybrid of the game structures we now classify as "sandbox" and "story" games. Initially the Warden is a huge sandbox full of random encounters and perils to overcome, but as the characters discover more about their world it segues neatly into a story structure of unifying the warring tribes and making the starship great again.
Would I play Metamorphosis Alpha now? The game would certainly be fun for a one-shot lasting a few hours. I wouldn't have any trouble improvising an ongoing campaign from the relatively bare-bones material in the sourcebook, but then I am a science fiction writer so that's literally what I do all day. The main obstacle to running a game would be that I would be obsessively protective of my fragile, aging copy of the book. I think I might use it as inspiration for a Pathfinder or Savage Worlds game, and leave my venerable relic on the shelf.
If you want to read more adventures of strange beings and mysterious technology, buy my ebook Outlaws and Aliens!