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Metamorphosis Alpha and the Remembrance of RPGs Past

posted Sep 10, 2016, 2:14 AM by Douglas Sun

I came to Game Empire on Labor Day to play wargames. But while up to stretch my legs, I wandered through the store’s RPG section and came across Goodman Games’ new hardcover edition of Metamorphosis Alpha, James Ward’s groundbreaking science fiction roleplaying game.

TSR published the first edition of Metamorphosis Alpha in 1976. It was the very first science fiction-themed RPG, predating even Traveller and Gamma World. It had a fixed and fairly definite setting — its entire world was a giant colony space ship called the Warden, that met with a terrible radiation event in deep space, thus upsetting the apple cart and creating an artificial terra nova adrift in the cosmos.

I freely admit that I’m old enough to have had first-hand experience of Metamorphosis Alpha. It’s the first published setting that I experienced as a player, since the motley group of high school friends with whom I discovered RPGs bypassed Greyhawk. So I can never be quite sure that my judgment of it is not clouded by nostalgia. But on the whols I think that it holds up quite well.

“Yeah, sure,” you say. “Next thing, you’ll be telling us to chuck Eberron and play Empire of the Petal Throne.”

It’s true that, at only 32 pages, Metamorphosis Alpha was skimpy by today’s standards. The mechanics feel a bit thin — if you were to keep the setting but swap in a more recent rules system like Savage Worlds, I wouldn’t blame you.

But I would also argue that, working in the earliest days of the genre and without any precedent to guide him, James Ward did a remarkable job of giving you basically everything you need in an RPG:

A world clearly enough defined so that you can hang your hat on it? The world of Metamorphosis Alpha is the Warden, and Ward gives you its dimensions, its layout from top deck to bottom, the different ecosystems of each deck and sufficient detail about how to move between them.

But you also want the setting to be open enough so that you can tailor it to your own whims? Ward gives you the freedom to reconfigure the ecosystems in the Warden to suit yourself. Also. even though the ship is a self-contained environment, it wouldn’t be hard to introduce outside elements of your own invention — suppose an alien race discovered the Warden and boarded it? Or something like that.

You want character classes other than plain, vanilla humans? Ward gives you something more supple than character classes — a broad range of possible mutations, so that you can change the human formula a little or a lot. Since the Warden got hit by a massive blast of radiation, it makes perfect sense that there would be mutations galore in this world.

By the same token, if you want monsters, you can add mutations as desired to the earth creatures with which the Warden was populated when it set out.

Treasure? Tech and other artifacts from before the catastrophe, of course. More rare and more powerful than anything of contemporary vintage — this goes without saying. Caches of such treasure can exist, but this is not a dungeon-crawling world. Munchkin-ism, level-grinding and other such crude ways of quantifying the experience of adventure do not exist. By the nature of the setting, characters in Metamorphosis Alpha live in a world in which the promise of the past lies all around them, yet it is always just out of their reach, and it is up to the players and GM to find narrative and emotional resonance in important objects. In this sense, Metamorphosis Alpha, it seems to me, actually anticipates the more story-driven RPGs that came along after Dungeons & Dragons.

In short, Metamorphosis Alpha does a pretty good job of giving you everything that you need for a good roleplaying game experience, especially when you consider that the state of the RPG art has moved on. On top of that, Ward’s pioneering work has always held onto a corner of my mind for the doomstruck melancholy that hangs over it, not unlike the the mood that hangs over the fallen world of Fallout, one of my favorite CRPGs. Peel back the charts, tables and rules mechanics, the maps and diagrams, and an affecting picture reveals itself to me, of beings contained within a bubble, but literally adrift in a cold and uncaring Universe, with no God or gods to intervene and give their existences meaning.

So good on Goodman Games for bringing back this classic piece of work and reminding us that even after 40 years, Metamorphosis Alpha still has something to offer to a hobby that has moved on to bigger and shinier things.

Metamorphosis Alpha Collector's Edition on Amazon