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[WIR] Metamorphosis Alpha (1976)

DavetheLost

Registered User
Validated User
#1
I have had a long love affair with Metamorphosis Alpha. It took me years to track down a copy of that little booklet, before which I used Gamma World 1e and the articles in Best of Dragon, vol 1 to run a pseudo-MA campaign.

With now 5 editions of MA and the first edition getting a raft of new material recently from Goodman Games I thought it might be interesting to look at where it all began.

Metamorphosis Alpha had its genesis when a young Jim Ward suggested to Gary Gygax that there should be a science fiction version of D&D. Gygax invited Ward to write it. The result was a 32 page booklet in two-column tiny type.

I will be using the Ward Co. 2007 reprint. This runs 36 pages and is available in pdf from DriveThru and in PoD hardcopy from Lulu. It contains a facsimile of the original rules, a two page errata, a single page adventure outline, a page of hex paper, and an inside back cover full page color ad for the 4th edition.

The first edition is also available in a deluxe version from Goodman Games in both coffee tase sized hard cover and letter size paperback. The deluxe version includes in addition to the game itself an adventure, most of the articles expanding the game from Dragon and other early gaming magazines, essays about the game, and some of the original design notes. Very handy to have all of this material together in one place.

Now on to the game:

We start with the cover. This is rather psychedelic. It is a full color wrap around piece painted in watercolor. Both front and back covers are divided diagonally by a yellow lightning slash, featuring the game site in red on the front cover. Above the slash is a starship cruising through space. Tis we can assume is the ship upon which the game is set. below the slash is a scene perhaps taken from an adventure. Both covers feature sci fi interiors with computer consoles. On the front cover what is best described as a fanged furry-headed snake crawls from the faceplate of a fallen robot while a doorway leads to bizarre jungle and a strange spider crawls along the fallen door above a skull. All of this in bright colors. Text informs us that this is a "Fantastic Role-playing Game of Science-Fiction Adventures". The back cover shows the rear half of the ovoid starship, with engine pylons reminiscent of the classic Star Trek Enterprise, above a computer monitor screen displaying white text on a dark background. This text gives us our first detail of what this game is like: "Have you ever encountered a moose with quills? Or a teleporting woodpecker with a double brain and a poison beak? How about a nearly invincible jaguar, complete with the ability to change its body density and emit a sonic shriek, but which fears birds? These are but a small sampling of the many mutations which inhabit the many worlds of METAMORPHOSIS ALPHA." I told you it was psychedelic. The text continues, "A vast starship, a virtual world in itself, carrying colonists, livestock, and the flora and fauna of Terra is struck by a cloud of an unknown form of radiation while enroute to a distant star. Chaos reigns when radiation kills most of the crew, and in the ensuing madness the knowledge of what the ship is and where its destination lies is lost to the survivors -- and there are many survivors. Intelligent mutated animals and plants now populate the vessel, and these compete, or perhaps cooperate with the humans aboard." There is the background. "In METAMORPHOSIS ALPHA, you are aboard the stricken starship and struggling to survive, trying to gain knowledge of the strange devices and mechanical apparatus of the vessel, attempting to learn the secrets of the strange "world" you inhabit. As a player, you may be a human or mutant -- human or otherwise. Your course is up to your skill and imagination."

Over all quite an effective cover. It gives a capsule view of what the game is about, the setting, and the fact that not all characters will be human.

Next time we will look inside.
 

DJChallix

Gygaxian Gen-Xer
Validated User
#3
Awesome idea! Although I own METAMORPHOSIS ALPHA and I've read sections of it, I have never played it nor read it all the way through. I will follow your reading with interest.
 

Strange Visitor

Grumpy Grognard
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#5
Played it a bit back in the day; it was creative but, how to put this, wow was it a primitive game in many ways, even by the standards of the time.
 

DavetheLost

Registered User
Validated User
#7
Inside the front cover is a foreword by Gary Gygax and Brian Bloom dated very precisely to 15 July, 1976. This again tells us that the game is set on a vast, radiation-ridden starship, out of control in deep space, that knowledge of the ship has been lost, and that some characters will be mutated. It also tells us that the GM is expected to design their own world and reveal it to the players bit by bit as they explore. "This is a free-form system." The similarities between this game and D&D are noted, and it is suggested that GMs may wish to run cross over games. The use of imagination by players and GMs is encouraged in designing and overcoming the challenges of the lost starship.

Page one is the title page. Giving author credit to James M. Ward, and copyright TSR Rules 1976, and James M. Ward 2007.

Also featured prominently on page 1 is an evocative illustration of two humans in close fitting uniforms with helmets armed with swords and pistols fighting two catlike (or wolflike) mutants with fins on their backs in a palm tree jungle setting. The definitely says science fiction adventure. There is nothing in the illustration that specifically says "starship", but the uniforms the men are wearing could easily be crew uniforms.
 

DavetheLost

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Validated User
#8
Moving rapidly because I want to get into the meat of the game.

Page 2 brings us the Table of Contents. This is a full page of the tiny type, about a 9 point font. It is very detailed and comprehensive ToC. It not only includes the major headings and sections of the rules but all the subsections as well. It includes the errata, hex sheet, and adventure added for the reprint, which is a nice touch.

It tells us we will start with the starship first, an interesting choice since a big part of the background of the game is that the characters do not realize they are on a starship. This background first may be an indication that it is GMs not players who are expected to be the primary audience for the rulebook. After the general information on the ship and ship devices we get the information on beginning the game and developing characters, starting with abilities followed by mutations. The next section deals with the various mutants, flora and fauna to be found on the ship. Nice that this follows the explanation of the various mutations. After this is weapons and combat, movement, and distribution of monsters and treasures. So some of the basic adventuring rules. Then the order gets a bit arbitrary seeming. Human tribal areas, forested areas, followed immediately by time. Then the main ship's computer, NPCs and relatives. Interesting that relatives get a call out in the ToC. Healing of Body Damage, Languages, surprise and means of exchange follow. All of these need to be in the rules and I'm not sure there is really a logical order to put them in. An example fo a referee moderating an adventure comes next, good to see an example of play. This is followed by example level, modular dwelling drawings, and ship cutaways, so more background details. Why this wasn't grouped with the previous section on the starship I'm not sure. Character sheets, Charts and Tables, the errata, the adventure, and a sheet of hex paper round out the book.

A total of 60 entries, both main sections and subsections, for a 36 page booklet. A very thorough listing, it serves well to quickly find information.
 

DavetheLost

Registered User
Validated User
#9
Now we are on to the Introduction and The Game. This is also where I notice that the page numbering given in the table of contents is out of sync with the page numbering in the book. The ToC lists the introduction and The Game sections as being on page 1, but the page is numbered 3. The next section The Starship appears on page 4 as listed, so perhaps this is just a typo.

First we are told of the construction of the massive colony ship Warden, a process taking 11 years in the Trans-Plutonian Spaceyards. It is no wonder it took so long to build, the ship is massive! An oblate spheroid 50 miles long, 25 miles wide, and 8 1/2 miles thick, with 17 decks and an observation dome. 1 1/2 million colonists, 50,000 crew, and the flora and fauna of Earth aboard. This is no small environment to adventure in. We are told that we can expect an overview of the levels of the ship in a future section.

Next we are told of the disaster that afflicted the ship. A third of the way into its trip to the destination planet the ship passed through the fringes of a mysterious cloud of space radiation of unknown type. OK, this has become a bit of a cliche trope, but it serves to set up the situation and perhaps offer a bit of explanation for the many mutants stalking the ship. The radiation we are told turned most of the humans on board into piles of calcium with no advance symptoms. The plants and animals that survived were subject to mutation. Life in the forested areas and parks aboard the ship survived a bit better than that outside those areas. In the chaos a handful of survivors tried to restore order to the ship and failed. Their descendants regressed into a state of savagery, all memory of the ship’s original mission, and indeed that they were living on a ship at all, lost.

The player characters are tribesmen wandering the ship and slowly gaining knowledge and technological treasures as they explore.

The section entitled The Game starts off with some basic advice to the referee. This includes lots of imagination being required, care being taken not to be too hard on the players and make progress impossible, but also not to be too easy on them and present no challenge. As players become more experienced and adept the level of both challenges and rewards can be increased. Pretty standard stuff these days, but at the time RPGs were in their infancy.

We are informed that game is for adults ages 12 and up, and 1 referee and 2 to 24 players.
We are then given a discussion of equipment useful for play.

Random number generators of some sort, pocket calculators, numbered chits, playing cards, or polyhedral dice are suggested.

Graph paper and hex paper for mapping. Sheet protectors to protect the maps, and colored pencils for marking different areas on the maps. As well as notebooks for organization.

Imagination: Both players and referee will need plenty, but neither would be interested in a game f this sort if they didn’t already posses a high degree of this important commodity.

One Very Patient Referee (I like this one)

Players: the more the merrier

Next up is The Starship. This section describes the Warden in broad brush strokes. We are told again the size of the ship, 50 miles long, 25 miles wide, 8 1/2 miles high, with a 1/2 mile high observation dome on the top of the ship.

The Warden is constructed of 17 decks, varying in size. The outer hull is given as a half-mile thick as a safety factor, but is not solid, being honeycombed with maintenance tunnels, power conduits, access ways, etc. Access is for engineering purposes only and the few access hatches open only for engineering or command color bands. Hmm, we haven’t been told what color bands are yet, but they seem to function as some sort of access key.

The between decks areas are 330 feet thick, again with conduits, access ways, and even subways and transport tubes. Again access is restricted to engineering and command color bands.

Taken together the spaces in the hull and between the decks cry out for dungeon style adventuring.

We are told that a central elevator system runs between the levels of the ship. This is a colossal structure. It comprises four heavy duty cargo elevators, with capacities of 5, 20, 50, and 100 tons. Each of these operates in response to two color bands. Engineering and command, either one of each or two the same. There are 20 personnel elevators, each with a capacity of 30 people. One of these is a top security emergency elevator which operates only in response to a command band. It is noted that some elevators may pass through some levels without exiting there, or may open only on one side of a bulkhead across a particular level, thus granting only partial access to that level. Also certain levels may only be accessed by particular types of color band. We are told that the personal elevators operate with the brown general-purpose bands, though access to certain levels may be restricted. There may also be other secondary elevators located elsewhere connecting various levels depending on “design considerations”. Presumably the design considerations are those of the referee in building adventures, although it could equally be the builders of the starship.

We are now up to three types of color band, command, engineering, and general purpose. We know the color of only the last, brown.

Next follows the description of each of the ship’s levels. With the caveat in bold that the following examples are intended only as examples each referee should design their own ship. This keeps players from reading the rulebook and knowing what is where on the ship.Factors of newness, surprise and the unknown adding to the campaign’s enjoyment.
 

Alter_Boy

Post Anything
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#10
Really enjoying this. I'm currently reading the "Knights of the Dinner Table" storyline where the Knights are playing in a mish-mash of Metamorphosis Alpha and Traveller, so this is timely. I got the huge coffee-table book from Goodman, kind of wish the first kickstarter was for a reasonably-sized book, but oh well. I found myself liking the rules, and wishing that more OSR publishers would draw from this rules set.

It tells us we will start with the starship first, an interesting choice since a big part of the background of the game is that the characters do not realize they are on a starship. This background first may be an indication that it is GMs not players who are expected to be the primary audience for the rulebook.
I wasn't there, but from what I've heard, the set-up for MA could only have happened in the '70s/early '80s. I can't imagine pulling off something like this (getting people to sit down for a Bronze Age RPG, only to shift it to Sci-Fi with the same PCs and have the players maintain kayfabe) without people getting wise or being angry when you reveal the twist. Nowadays, character sheets usually reveal a lot about the setting, based on what skills, items, and currency are. Back then, character sheets were minimalistic, RPG rules were similar enough that MA would look like a houseruled D&D, and Gygax's players were very open to experiencing weird stuff.
 
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