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Wednesday 23 May 2018

A Captive Apocalypse

Published by TSR, Inc. in 1976, Metamorphosis Alpha: Fantastic Role-Playing Game of Science Fiction Adventures on a Lost Starship has the distinction of being the first Science Fiction roleplaying game to be published, the first Post Apocalypse set roleplaying game to be published, and the first roleplaying game to bear that description. It is a super science, science fantasy setting which takes place aboard the Starship Warden, a generation spaceship which has suffered an unknown catastrophic event which killed the crew and most of the million or so colonists and left the ship irradiated and many of the survivors and the flora and fauna aboard mutated. Now some three centuries later, their descendants must set out to explore their mysterious, if limited world, and discover the truth of their situation. Inspired by the Brian Aldiss novel, Non-Stop, Metamorphosis Alpha would be revisited in another three editions, but more famously, it would go on to influence the roleplaying game, Gamma World and its numerous editions as well as the post apocalypse genre in roleplaying games.

Player characters aboard the Starship Warden—Humans, Mutated Humans, Mutated Animals, and Mutated Plants—begin play as barbarians, knowing nothing of their captive universe, some fifty miles long, twelve miles wide, and eight-and-a-half miles high. They live in villages on broad plains or thick forests and have reasons to explore beyond their limited horizons. Perhaps they are undertaking a coming age of age ceremony, their village is running out of resources, or is under attack by mysterious forces. Either way, just beyond the horizon, the player characters will find mysteries aplenty. Strange structures, spaces between, odd threats and monsters, devices capable of great aid or great danger lie out there, waiting to be discovered, to have their functions worked out, and to be named… Ultimately, the player characters may arm and equip themselves with devices and knowledge enough to work out the truth of their situation and perhaps put their future back on course as their ancestors intended…

Characters in Metamorphosis Alpha are defined by five attributes—Radiation Resistance, Mental Resistance, Dexterity, Constitution, and Strength. The last three are obvious in what they do, but Radiation Resistance represents a character’s ability to withstand the varying levels of radiation which permeate the Starship Warden, whilst Mental Resistance is his capacity to withstand mental attacks. Humans have a sixth attribute, Leadership Potential. This represents the chance that mutated humans and other mutants will follow a non-mutated Human—they do not trust each other, but they might follow an actual Human! The other advantage that Humans have is that they can use the lost technology aboard the Starship Warden, whereas Mutants cannot because their genes have been altered too far from that recognised by the electronics aboard the generation spaceship. Again, Leadership Potential is used for this. Mutants, whether humanoids, animals, or plants, have between one and four physical and one and four mental mutations, as well as at least one defect. The number of mutations is rolled for, but the player chooses the ones he wants for his character. He is free to select those which enable his character to still look human and ordinary, but the powers are not as potent as those possessed by those who are obvious physically mutated. Hit Points are determined by rolling a number of six-sided dice equal to a character’s Constitution.

Lastly, there is one point which sets Metamorphosis Alpha apart from any other roleplaying game—of its time, or since. Metamorphosis Alpha is not a Class and Level roleplaying game. Metamorphosis Alpha is not a roleplaying game with Experience Points. Metamorphosis Alpha is not a roleplaying game with a mechanical means of character improvement in the traditional sense. In Metamorphosis Alpha, player characters get better by acquiring equipment and learning how to use them, by learning more about the world around them, and by making a better, safer world.

Douglas IX
Radiation Resistance 14 Mental Resistance 13
Dexterity 11 Strength 06 (-1 Damage)
Constitution 11 Leadership Potential 15
Hit Points 42
Equipment: Spear (WC2), Dagger (WC3), Light Shield & Skins (AC6)

Radiation Resistance 10 Mental Resistance 11
Dexterity 10 Strength 11 (-0 Damage)
Constitution 09
Hit Points 44
Equipment: Spear (WC2), Light Shield & Skins (AC6)
Physical Mutations: Wings, Sonic abilities
Mental Mutations: Force Field Generation, Telepathy
Defect: Double effect of Physical Forces

Mechanically, Metamorphosis Alpha uses a number of slightly different subsystems. So combat is handled by comparing the Weapon Class of an attacker’s weapon versus the defender’s Armour Class, the resulting number being rolled against on a twenty-sided die as per Dungeons & Dragons. A similar table provides the target number for Mental Resistance versus Mental Resistance checks, but this must rolled over on three six-sided dice. The Radiation Resistance table simply determines how long a character can withstand any particular Radiation Intensity Levels. Too high and eventually a character will either die or possibly suffer mutations. Now given the vintage of Metamorphosis Alpha, it should be no surprise that there is no skill system and no mechanical means of reflecting what a character can really do or knows.

It should also be pointed out how deadly the game is intended to be. Common melee weapons do exactly the same damage as they do in Dungeons & Dragons, so that they are really not all that powerful. The technology aboard the Starship Warden is deadly by comparison, for example, the settings on a Laser Pistol doing five, ten, or fifteen six-sided dice’s worth of damage. This has the potential to seriously injure or kill a character with an average Constitution score and thus average Hit Points. A Mutant’s powers can also be very powerful, for example, the Death Field Generation reducing the Hit Points of anyone within a certain radius to just one! On the downside, as powerful as many mutant abilities are, they take a lot of effort upon the part of their users and so they have to rest or wait until the power is recharged, in the case of Death Field Generation, the Mutant having to rest from between two and twenty combat turns.

To support the Judge, the Starship Warden is described, mapped, and its contents detailed. Each of the ship’s seventeen decks is a given a fairly broad map, whilst Deck 11, a forested series of hills and mountains, and Deck 14, The City, are given more detailed maps. The equipment carried aboard the giant ship, including spacesuits and robots, laser pistols and paralysis rods, medical hand analyser and healers and infrared goggles, and of course, the colour bands, keyed to doors and sections throughout the vessel, which allow access to certain parts of the ship. The animals carried aboard the Starship Warden are listed, but the monsters and creatures that now infest the ship are given stats and full write-ups. Besides all this, there is advice and playing suggestions scattered throughout the book.

Now physically, there is little in the way of art to the layout of Metamorphosis Alpha. It is cramped and tight, and not an easy read given just how much information is packed into its thirty-two pages. It could have been better organised too, but at just thirty-two pages, this is less of an issue. The few illustrations are simply just okay.

There is the innate mystery at the heart of the situation aboard the Starship Warden in which the barbarian player characters find themselves and then everything, from Deck 1 to Deck 17 is both a puzzle and a roleplaying challenge. None of the players and none of their characters know what anything is aboard the Starship Warden and they have to work it out. Even if they have some idea as players, their characters do not and so the players have to roleplay working out what any one thing is… Conversely, the Judge knows what everything is, but has to describe each thing in oblique terms without giving anything away too obviously.

Of course, the other challenge to Metamorphosis Alpha is simply surviving. The player characters are fragile and always will be. They will need to be careful and need to find the right equipment to ensure their survival, but this is not a forgiving roleplaying game and it would be wise for a player to have at least one character to hand should he lose his current one. 

The truth of the matter is that although the book itself might look dated and the mechanics themselves are dated, Metamorphosis Alpha packs a lot of gaming potential into its thirty-two pages. Metamorphosis Alpha might be a captive universe, but there is a big campaign to be had inside.


Except this is not some nostalgia review and this is not where the review of Metamorphosis Alpha ends. For in 2016, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Goodman Games brought the classic Science Fiction roleplaying game back. Not in a new edition, but in a reprint of the First Edition which takes up less than a third of the Metamorphosis Alpha Collector’s Edition and its second chapter. The other two thirds consists of content old and new—interviews, extra rules, designer notes, and a review and a history—the old coming from the first twenty or so issues of Dragon magazine, but the new from an array of authors also old and new.

So the editor Tim Kask provides an introduction; Jon Peterson, author of Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games and a roleplaying historian provides a history of Metamorphosis Alpha; and Michael Curtis, the author of Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls and The Dungeon Alphabet contributes ‘Futures Past: Playing Metamorphosis Alpha in a Traditional Manner, essentially a guide to playing the game for devotees of the Old School Renaissance. In between, there is a lengthy interview with the game’s designer, James Ward, and then lots and lots of rules expansions and ideas. Some are new, but most come from early issues of Dragon magazine. There are new set-ups, including a sequence where the characters awake from hibernation unaware of what has happened to the Starship Warden; new monsters and new mutations; rules for backgrounds and skills; and more. There is even errata and ‘Guidelines for Mixing Campaigns: Androids, Wizards, Several Mutants, Liberal Doses of Imagination, Well Blended’, how to mix Metamorphosis Alpha with different genres. It is a great selection of articles which otherwise would have been almost impossible to track down given their origins.

Physically, the Metamorphosis Alpha Collector’s Edition is a different beast to Metamorphosis Alpha. The layout is clean and simple with lots of entertaining artwork, but perhaps the best piece is the centrepiece, which depicts the length of the Starship Warden’s hull, but with the hull cutaway to reveal the internal decks. It is a terrific piece which captures the rich life and dangers aboard the generation ship.

Being an Old School game, Metamorphosis Alpha is, by modern standards, not an easy game to run, but the content of the Metamorphosis Alpha Collector’s Edition certainly makes it easier to do so. Still difficult because the Judge has to take the new content and work it into a fairly awkward to use rulebook, but still easier because the ideas and help the extra articles and supplementary content provides. There is a great deal to enjoy here, especially if you are a fan of the Old School Renaissance or the roleplaying hobby’s golden age. Packed with gaming history as well as gaming potential, Metamorphosis Alpha Collector’s Edition is the treasury edition that the game deserves.

1 comment:

  1. It’s terrible that no one has commented on your review. It was beautiful, eloquent, and informative. Thank you.