Random Thoughts

Metamorphosis Alpha

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.

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RPG-a-Day 2018 – Week Five: SHARE… why you take part in RPG-a-Day.

It’s pretty simple, really. I don’t blog as much as I should, especially for an author trying to expand his platform. RPG-a-Day gives me decent writing prompts that usually don’t leave me scratching my head and thinking WTF?

Most blogging prompts delve into topics I’m either not comfortable blogging about (i.e. provide pictures of celebrity crushes — I’m 44 and married, believe it or not, I don’t think about celebrity crushes that much and even when I was single, I didn’t), or I don’t feel are relevant to the topic of my blog (i.e. List three things in your purse). I suppose I could spend a month making fun of a particular set of blogging prompts, but at times, that seems arbitrary and cruel. If I could come up with a month worth of blogging topics to make my own prompt list for fantasy/sci-fi authors, then I wouldn’t need a list of prompts to begin with.

Categories: Random Thoughts

RPG-a-Day 2018 – Week Five: SHARE… something you learned about playing your character

I usually GM for my group, but over the last several years of playing, I have learned a valuable lesson: don’t play talky, charismatic characters. I’m not a good improvisor and I feel neither comfortable nor convincing playing a smooth-talking character. Sauve, slick-talk coming from me sounds about as natural as an oral bowel movement.

From now on, I’m sticking to techs, pilots, and fighters (whether they fight with swords, magic, fists, or guns). No smooth-talking con men, slick politicians, or diplomatic leaders.

I mean, have you heard about the plight of the Duros people?

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RPG-a-Day – Week Five: SHARE… a friendship you have because of RPGs

I could handle this like a Follow Friday on Twitter and just list the social media handles of my friends I met because of RPGs, but that would be a gargantuan list. Since I’ve been playing RPGs since I was eight years old, they’ve been a part of my life for almost as long as I can remember and the vast majority of my friendships can be attributed to RPGs. It would be easier for me to list friends I have that I met because of some other reason. Chief among this non-RPG attributed friendship would be the one I share with my wife. But, she plays RPGs now, too, so there’s hardly a corner of my social life that isn’t touched by RPGs in some way.

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RPG-a-Day 2018 – Week Five: SHARE… whose inspiring gaming excellence you’re grateful for

My answer for this ties in with yesterday’s post. Ironically… paradoxically… strangely? I’m thankful for Critical Role, Wil Wheaton, and others like them who serve as such great ambassadors of the hobby. I may not listen to, watch, or even like actual plays and livestreams of games, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize how important they are to helping millions of people understand this hobby I’ve enjoyed most of my life.

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RPG-a-Day 2018 – Week Five: SHARE… a great stream/actual play

I don’t feel comfortable making recommendations about this, because I don’t watching RPG livestreams or actual plays. Why? Because I don’t particularly like them.

Now, that doesn’t mean they’re not good; it just means they’re not for me. I, personally, don’t find it particularly enjoyable to watch other people play a game. I enjoyed Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop series. I thought it did a good job explaining how the featured board games worked. Critical Role is hugely popular and has made RPG fans of people who don’t actual play the games themselves. They’ve done a great job of bringing awareness of the hobby mainstream. Obviously, a lot of people enjoy watching livestreams or RPG actual plays and/or find something of value in them.

I suppose they could be good at figuring out how a system works, but I think you’d have to either watch a lot of them or you’d have to scour the feeds to find one that actually sets out to explain the system. Maybe that’s easier than I think; I’ve never looked because thus far, it’s not something I’ve needed to do. Perhaps the next time I decide to run a game that I’m not all that familiar with, I’ll look up some actual plays/livestreams of the system and see if I can answer that question for myself.

I still don’t think I’m going to enjoy watching other people play a game as much as many other people do, though. It’s just not my jam.

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RPG-a-Day 2018 – Your gaming ambition for the next year.

Well, that’s pretty easy. Over the next year, I would like to finish our Tomb of Annihilation game and start a new campaign using a system we have not played that extensively. Of course, what that will be will be determined by everyone’s mood, but if, for example, everyone is jonesing for a Star Wars game, I would use WEG D6 system instead of FFG narrative dice system (even though I’ve run multiple Star Wars d6 campaigns, but they were all in the 1990s).

If I had to choose right now, I might go for something like Hollow Earth Expedition, Pulp Cthulhu, Tales from the Loop, or Predation, but by the time we wrap up Tomb of Annihilation, a couple of us will have Flash Gordon, John Carter of Mars, and who knows what else? I’m certain that there will be a multiple session hiatus wherein we will play Blades in the Dark.

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RPG-a-Day 2018 – Week Four: Name a game that had an impact on you in the last year.

One game came to mind immediately: Blades in the Dark. When I needed to put my Tomb of Annihilation game on hold while I finalized preparations to move (i.e. when I disassembled my gaming table and packed up all my stuff), two fellows in my gaming group stepped up to run games for us. One, Starfinder, I was already familiar with. I liked the setting, but ultimately, Pathfinder-style games aren’t my thing (although I maintain I would play the HELL out of the Starfinder setting in D&D 5E). The other game, was one I think I’d heard of, but that’s all: I’d just heard the name. I knew nothing about it.

So, we made a crew of Bravos and played. The setting is a sort of fantasy gothic steampunk Victorian-era world, a world where the sun has gone dark, and you and your companions are the criminal element in this city of canals, corruptions, and vengeful spirits. We called ourselves the Barbican Bastards, and now, after having played it three or four times, we’re still very low on the totem pole and would be comically inept if we didn’t come close to dying so often (or as close to dying as the game allows; generally, your character is only going to die if you really want them to for dramatic purpose. You can, however, be incapacitated for enough game sessions that it’s useful to have a backup character). To me, if feels a lot like a Victorian-era Shadowrun, albeit with a game system that is much easier to grasp.

There’s a sci-fi version now, too: Scum & Villainy. I highly recommend checking them out if you’re burning out on classic fantasy RPGs, but still want to play less-than-moral characters, shall we say.

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RPG-a-Day 2018 – Week Four: WHICH… RPG do you think deserves greater recognition?

Most of my gaming has revolved around fairly “mainstream” RPGs: Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, now Blades in the Dark. I’ve played so many, every time I think of a title I’ve really enjoyed, I can think of people who are big fans or companies that are trying to revive the brand. Others have said we’re enjoying an RPG Renaissance right now, and I wouldn’t argue that. Of course, doing the work I do for the ENnie Awards means I’m exposed to a heck of a lot more RPGs than most people, so I think I’m too close to the question to be able to give a good answer.

Categories: Random Thoughts

RPG-a-Day 2018 – Week Four: WHICH… game do you hope to play again?

I’ve played so many great games, it’s hard to pick just one that I would play again if I could. Actually, it’s not that difficult, since I like pulp and dinosaurs, there’s only one option: Hollow Earth Expedition.

It uses a dice pool system, but to determine success or failure, you only need to count how many dice come up with an even number. It’s a very fast playing system, and while the default setting is the Hollow Earth, the world beneath our world, there are sourcebooks to explore mysteries on the surface world, as well as on Mars. Plus, since it’s pulp and takes place in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the most socially acceptable targets are always there for a good punching, shooting, or dinosaur stampede: Nazis. You can never go wrong fighting Nazis.

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