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Friday, 23 April 2021

Tomb of the Warden

Doom on the Warden is a scenario for Metamorphosis Alpha: Fantastic Role-Playing Game of Science Fiction Adventures on a Lost Starship. The first Science Fiction roleplaying game and the first post-apocalypse roleplaying game, Metamorphosis Alpha is set 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. Some three centuries later, as Humans, Mutated Humans, Mutated Animals, and Mutated Plants, the Player Characters, knowing nothing of their captive universe, would leave their village to explore strange realm around them, wielding fantastic mutant powers and discovering how to make use of the fantastic devices of the gods and the ancients that is technology, and ultimately learn of their enclosed world. Originally published in 1976, it would go on to influence a whole genre of roleplaying games, starting with Gamma World, right down to Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic from Goodman Games. And it would be Goodman Games which brought the roleplaying game back with the stunning Metamorphosis Alpha Collector’s Edition in 2016, and support the forty-year old roleplaying game with a number of supplements, many which would be collected in the ‘Metamorphosis Alpha Treasure Chest’.

Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Doom on the Warden is a special scenario. Written by James M. Ward, the designer of Metamorphosis Alpha, it is intended to be played using between six and eight characters with plenty of play experience behind them and plenty of scavenged equipment and artefacts. It can be played as a convention scenario and there are guidelines towards that end, but Doom on the Warden is definitely a scenario which experienced and long-time players of Metamorphosis Alpha will get the most out of. This is primarily for three reasons and why the scenario is so special. First, the scenario takes place on the fabled Level Zero, the equivalent of a lost Xanadu or Atlantis where some, all, or even none of the answers might be found as to exactly what is going on aboard the Starship Warden. Second, in exploring this Level Zero and discovering its secrets, one potential outcome is that Doom on the Warden could set the Game Master’s campaign on an entirely different course—literally and figuratively. Third, Doom on the Warden is inspired by another scenario all together—S1 Tomb of Horrors.

Published in 1978, and more recently in the 2013 Dungeons of Dread and Tales from the Yawning Portal from 2017, S1, Tomb of Horrors was designed by E. Gary Gygax and has always had the reputation of being the ultimate ‘Deathtrap Dungeon’, being filled with puzzles and traps which when combined with a seeming random factor makes it a challenge that is almost impossible to beat. It would be reprinted multiple times, receive a boxed sequel in the form of Return to the Tomb of Horrors, and its legendary status would ensure that it appeared at number three in Dungeon #116’s “30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time” (November, 2004). S1 Tomb of Horrors was always intended to present a challenge to the most experienced of players and James M. Ward has taken the same approach to Doom on the Warden. It is designed to challenge the players of Science Fiction roleplaying games, presenting difficult situations and fearsome opponents, but is different to S1, Tomb of Horrors in a number of ways. Obviously, it is a Science Fiction rather than a fantasy adventure—although buildings and bunkers to be found in the scenario could lend it the description of being a Science Fiction ‘dungeon bash’, but the puzzles and traps to found on Level Zero of the Starship Warden are less random and less arbitrary, and there is not the feeling that there is with S1, Tomb of Horrors that the Game Master—and thus E. Gary Gygax—is trying to kill his players’ characters. Lastly, where the title of S1, Tomb of Horrors suggested that as a scenario it was a combination of horror and fantasy, and was not, the title of Doom on the Warden does not suggest that it is a combination of Science Fiction and horror, but actually is. Doom on the Warden takes its Player Characters from megalophobia to nyctophobia to triskaidekaphobia to phobophobia to simply a sense of quiet dread…

Whether through discovery of their own or learning of it through a myth or legend, perhaps imparted by a tribal shaman, Doom on the Warden begins with the Player Characters at the entrance to ‘heaven’, an engineering hatch through which rises a great chimney, ascending to the home of the Ancients. Inside they discover several bodies of the Ancients—perhaps cast out of Heaven?—and as the chimney turns into a walkway, the Player Characters find themselves seemingly in a land of the giants, a forest of Brobdingnagian proportions, filled with giant trees, hornets the size of fists, and beasts such as rabbits and squirrels large enough to become beasts of burden. As with other levels on the Warden, Level Zero is a large oval shape, approximately eighteen miles across from the bow to the stern and fourteen miles from port to starboard. The level is divided into three concentric ovals or zones, working inward, a forest of giant willows, a berry plantations laid out with patches of mutant berries, and extensive flower gardens full of glens of mutated flowers, each one of different character and invoking a different sense of fear. There are plenty of encounters to be had in each of these zones, depending upon the direction in the Player Characters want to explore. They are free to wander and there is a table of random encounters included for each zone. Most of these encounters will either be dangerous or hostile, but there are plenty which are not and many of these are quite lightly done, adding an element of humour and roleplaying which nicely contrasts with the dangers and hostilities to be found elsewhere. One thing that the Player Characters will discover is that there is something or someone at work on the level—forestry robots work the forests, others work to restore the damage done by the catastrophe centuries ago, and there are transport devices readily and willing to ferry the Player Characters onward.

Ultimately, the Player Characters should make their way to the centre of the level and the island in the centre of Blume Lake—the latter a nod to the brothers who were early investors and co-owners of TSR, Inc. The island is home to a bunker, a place of the Ancients, and clearly an important one. Numerous robots protect it, but whatever intelligence is at work on the Level, it seems to want help… The final scenes of Doom on the Warden will see the Player Characters either save the Starship Warden or…?

Doom on the Warden is a difficult and challenging adventure. There are numerous encounters which will kill the Player Characters, a few simply by design, many through a player’s foolishness, but most through luck and the roll of the dice. As they proceed across this secret level, the players and their characters will be rewarded if their play is both careful and intelligent—and not just in terms of their characters’ survival, for there are plenty of artefacts and equipment to be scavenged too.

There are two ways in which Doom on the Warden can be run. One is as part of an ongoing campaign, the author suggesting that it be run as the midpoint of such a campaign. By that time, the players and their characters should have accumulated plenty of playing experience of Metamorphosis Alpha and the Starship Warden, as well as their characters having collected numerous artefacts, devices, and weapons of the Ancients. Even then, Doom on the Warden may be too challenging a scenario and its degree of lethality too high, such that it may even be a campaign-ending scenario. If so, it might be better off run towards the end of a campaign, or even as the culmination of campaign, more so because if the Player Characters are successful, the scenario sets the campaign and the Starship Warden in a wholly new (old) direction.

The other way of running the Doom on the Warden is as a tournament scenario much as S1 Tomb of Horrors was originally intended. This is run as a more linear scenario, rather than allowing the Player Characters the freedom to roam, the aim being to get them to Blume Lake and the bunker on the island at its centre. As well as advice on running the scenario, the author includes three sets of different pre-generated Player Characters and their motivations for exploring Level Zero aboard the Starship Warden. For the purposes of tournament play, each of the three groups of pre-generated Player Characters begin play with more knowledge about Level Zero than they would if the scenario is being as part of an ongoing campaign. The first group consists of Pure Strain Humans, members of the Vigilist tribe which dates back to the original Metamorphosis Alpha campaign run by James Ward. The Vigilists and their village were created by E. Gary Gygax and their inclusion is a nice tribute to him alongside the author being inspired by S1 Tomb of Horrors. The aim of the Vigilists is to ascend to Heaven and restore the Starship Warden to its original course. The second group consists of Wolfoids from Epsilon City—as detailed in the supplement of the same name—and like the Pure Strain Humans, their aim on Level Zero is to take control of the ship. Lastly, the third group consists of Mutants, drawn from across multiple levels of the Starship Warden, who also want to take control of the ship, primarily to deny control to the Pure Strain Humans. Almost a fifth of Doom on the Warden is dedicated to character sheets for the three different groups. They consist of eight Mutant, one Pure Strain Human, and six Wolfoid pre-generated character sheets, there being just the one Pure Strain Human character sheet because they are easy to roll up in comparison to Mutants and Wolfoids. Lastly, Doom on the Warden includes three pre-generated Player Characters inspired by backers of the Kickstarter.

Physically, at just forty-eight pages, Doom on the Warden is a nicely presented hardback. Both writing and editing are decent and as you would expect from a title from Goodman Games, the range of artwork is excellent. In particular, Peter Mullen’s double-page spreads inside the front and back covers really capture the scope and scale of the Starship Warden. They, like much of the artwork can be used as handouts when running Doom on the Warden.

If there is an issue with Doom on the Warden, it is perhaps that it is difficult to use, that it has the potential to end a campaign. That though is by design and by inspiration, S1 Tomb of Horrors itself suffering from both issues. Fortunately, Doom on the Warden is very much less arbitrary in its play and its design than S1 Tomb of Horrors. If there is anything missing from Doom on the Warden, it is a gallery of its artwork which the Game Master can use as handouts for her players. 

Doom on the Warden is a fantastic scenario. It is big, it is nasty, it is dangerous, and it has the scope to either end a campaign, whether as a Total Party Kill or as the culmination of an ongoing campaign, or set both campaign and the Starship Warden on a wholly new (old) course. It lives up to its inspiration, S1 Tomb of Horrors, but goes beyond it to have the Player Characters’ actions have an effect upon Level Zero of the Starship Warden, on the Starship Warden itself, and on the campaign, and is better for it. Doom on the Warden is deadly and if the Player Characters are not careful or smart, they will get killed, but not necessarily in as arbitrary a fashion as S1 Tomb of Horrors. Which means that if the Player Characters can succeed and overcome the challenges presented in Doom on the Warden, then both they and their players truly have the right to feel a sense of great accomplishment.

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