Today, I’m looking at Goodman Games’s Metamorphosis Alpha Collector’s Edition reprint. This book collects a scan of the original printing of the first edition of TSR’s first sci-fi RPG (indeed, THE first sci-fi RPG) along with supporting magazine articles, essays and interviews, and an all-new adventure written by the creator of MA, James M. Ward. Through the Kickstarter, consumers could also receive all manner of supplements and adventures, but for the purposes of this post, I’m just looking at the core game book itself.
The game takes place on a generation ship, the starship Warden, centuries after a cataclysm rendered the original mission moot. The ship now continues on its way, cruising/drifting aimlessly, while factions within the ship, from humans, to mutants, to robots, androids, and other odd creatures, all struggle for survival, many of whom having forgotten long ago that the environs in which they live are a ship, rather than the known universe.
Metamorphosis Alpha was the first of Goodman Games’s nostalgia-driven reprints of classic TSR gaming material. Whether or not its success (and subsequent success of the Epsilon City expansion for this 40+ year-old game) was the catalyst for Into the Borderlands and The Isle of Dread is a question you’ll have to ask someone who works for Goodman Games. It seems logical to me.
The book is essentially a coffee table book containing a cleaned-up scan of the original Metamorphosis Alpha game. I believe it’s reproduced at 100% size, even still, the text is quite small. The included essays and interviews shed some light on the game’s history and the magazine articles flesh out MA in ways that expansions would have, had any ever been printed. Back in those days, Dragon magazine was considered official expansion material for TSR’s games, anyway.
Younger readers (i.e. people who weren’t gaming in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s) may be taken aback by the inclusion of rules for Physical and Mental Defects (the game’s terminology, not mine). They make sense in context and once you read it, you know what the author was going for. These days, different terminology would be used, perhaps Advantages and Disadvantages. Just be aware that games this old are a product of their time and people weren’t as “woke” as they are now.
In addition to the magazine articles, we also get official errata and supplemental material, much of which is written by James M. Ward himself, like the new creatures and NPCs, intended to be the “monster manual” of MA that was never published during the game’s heyday. Michael Curtis contributes a section of modern advice for running an MA game. Clearly, they’re aware that these early RPGs suffered from editors’ and companies’ learning curves as far as organization went. It took me three passes to find the single sentence buried in a paragraph that described how to generate ability scores. Nowhere that I could find offered a breakdown of the character creation process. It’s definitely a substantial barrier to entry for these games, though. Granted, someone buying this book from Goodman Games is probably not a neophyte player looking to get started with role-playing games.
As far as the Metamorphosis Alpha gameplay goes, I don’t think I’ve ever actually played the game as written. When I played in an MA game at Gary Con with James M. Ward, I got the sense he was playing very fast and loose with the rules. That’s not uncommon for games at conventions, especially if the GM is providing an “experience” more than a demonstration of a particular game. That’s fine. Based on that, playing MA is like Land of the Lost, only you find out you’re on a spaceship instead of some forgotten prehistoric valley. I suppose, in that sense, it’s not dissimilar from the Star Trek episode “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” (which is explicitly called out as an inspiration for MA).
Having said that, I think the premise for the game is solid. A GM certainly wouldn’t have to stick with primitives vs. robots/mutants. A few forgotten supply caches later and your stone tool-wielding PCs could have lasers and grenades (whether or not they know how to use them safely is a different matter entirely). MA’s premise reminded me of another game, West End Games’s Paranoia. In that, PCs live in a domed city, Alpha Complex) with no solid information of what lies beyond, being so ignorant they can’t even identify trees and common animals (and if they can, such knowledge marks them as a traitor, because how else would they have information so far above what their security clearance has access to?). I used this in the last Paranoia adventure I ran at Gary Con. In it, the PCs discover what is essentially a giant spaceship buried underneath the city. The intelligent roaches working on the ship provide the PCs with a choice: help them launch the ship and escape Alpha Complex or sabotage the ship, destroying it and a substantial portion of the city with it. If they launch the ship, it is revealed that it is, indeed, the Warden. The idea was, I would hang up my Paranoia GM’s hat for a bit and move on to running MA. That was two years ago and life has conspired to keep me from returning to that convention and adding another connection to the loosely-connected series of Paranoia adventures I’d been running for almost seven years.
MA influenced several other TSR products of the day. Gamma World (the first edition, anyway) is basically “MA on a planet,” and S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, an AD&D adventure from the early ‘80s, featured a crashed spaceship in a fantasy world that greatly resembled a scaled-down Warden. TSR clearly had no compunctions about mixing genres. The early days of roleplaying games was a gonzo, anything-goes experience at times and the game was not nearly as “pure” as some players blinded by nostalgia would have you believe. The only wrong way to play is the way in which you and your friends are not having fun.
If you want a more in-depth look at this product, there is currently a “Where-I-Read” thread on RPG.net covering this product.