Metamorphosis Alpha, 25th Anniversary Edition
“Science Fiction Campaign Rules ”

Fast Forward Entertainment , 2002.

MA3rdthumb By James Ward

8.5 x 11.5 inch booklet, 64 pages.

Gift provided to the museum by Eugene Reynolds.

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When we first opened the museum, Metamorphosis Alpha was a rarity: an obscure, yet legendary game from the youth of role playing. Since that time, MA has reappeared in two new editions. The 25th anniversary edition, also known as the 3rd edition, has since gone out of print, but the 4th edition, published by Mudpuppy Games, is still available. (The second edition was briefly released by TSR as a setting for their Amazing Engine game system.) The third edition is strongly reminiscent of the 1st edition, cleaned up and polished. Even the organization of the rule book is similar.

The Setting

The setting in the 3rd edition is slightly different from the original game. In the first edition, the PCs wandered the doomed starship generations after an encounter with a cloud of radiation, with no overall goal beyond survival and possibly understanding their world. In the 3rd edition, the Warden is under attack from alien forces, and the PCs are seeking to throw back the invaders and regain control of their vessel. The game has three different phases, which may be played in sequence for a long campaign. In the first phase, the ship's crew are all dead from alien radiation, and the ship's robots are struggling to clear the radiation and deal with the invaders. In phase two, the robots have called for backup from the ship's androids, who are more creative and able to reach places the robots can't. Some of the radiation has been scrubbed, but the alien menace is increasing. In phase three, the androids have concluded that human combat teams must be awakened from hibernation in a last-ditch attempt to rescue the ship. The hasty awakening process has caused memory loss in the humans, however, and much of the ship and its equipment remains a mystery to them.

Thus, the third edition retains the "wander the ship, figure out the technology, and kill opponents" structure of the original, but has given the PCs a mission and increased their firepower. This edition changed the character types, removing mutants, both human and animal, as suitable for PCs, replacing them with robots and androids.


Creating Characters

The three types of characters—robots, androids, and humans—follow different rules for character creation. All characters have five characteristics (constitution, dexterity, leadership potential, mental resistance, and radiation resistance) generated by d6 rolls, but each character type uses different numbers of dice for their characteristics. Robots tend to be physically tough (3d6+3 for constitution, mental resistance and radiation resistance) but otherwise impaired (1d6+1 for other traits). Humans are virtually the opposite of robots. Androids occupy the middle ground, but with a constitution of only 1d6+1. Unusual for an old-school RPG, the constitution trait includes physical strength as well as hit points and poison resistance, and mental resistance incorporates intelligence.

There is also a Luck score which is derived from all the other characteristics combined. Luck is not a characteristic, but a pool of points that can be spent to add to a die roll or to re-roll a single die out of the three that are generally rolled for task resolution. These points are replenished at the beginning of every session.


Players have the choice of selecting a standard ship's robot (standard general purpose, forest ecology, farming ecology, medical, engineering, and the ever-popular security) or constructing a unique bot. Players choose body types, which tend to be awkward and bulky, power plants and AIs. The power plant determines how many attachments the robot can sustain, as well as how many hours of operation they can run before needing to recharge. In a similar fashion, the AI determines how mentally flexible the robot is, and what additional programs can be run. Curiously, there appears to be no point system or other limit on robot construction: there seems to be no reason to not take the best power plant and AI.

Robot attachments include manipulators, horticultural tools, surgical equipment, weapons, and propulsive systems. Players rank these in order of importance and divide their hit points evenly into all their systems. All damage is applied to the least important system. When this reaches zero, it becomes useless, and the next system is at risk. Robots can be repaired as long as they have any hit points remaining, although finding a safe repair facility in time may be a challenge.

Robot characters are usable in all three phases of the campaign.


For android characters, players select their type: computer, companion, worker, or killer. The android will basically have the characteristics rolled by the player, although each type may have one or two stats set to a particular value, especially hit points. Androids may also choose a few programs to be loaded into their system; these provide bonuses for particular situations, such as combat, repairing equipment, or dealing with the invading aliens. These programs are fixed for the life of the character.

Killer androids have lost their programmed compulsion to protect humans. They may have been altered by damage, or they may have been decanted by a malfunctioning vat. Other androids and robots will attempt to destroy them on sight; this means they can only be characters under unusual circumstances.

Androids are usable in the second and third phase of the campaign.


Humans begin with their rolled characteristics, a light gown, and patchy memories. Due to their hasty reanimation procedure, they have forgotten a lot of what they used to know, so that most of the ship's systems are a mystery to them. They are likely to be awakened near friendly androids or robots who are eager to please, so that non-combat equipment can be easily obtained before venturing into danger. Humans are only permitted in the third phase of the campaign.

Humans and androids may mutate during the course of play as a result of contact with various hazards. The mutation list is far shorter than the first edition, with only a total of thirty six listed (twelve physical, twelve mental, and twelve for plants). As these can only be obtained during play, shorter lists may not matter for the game.


The Game System

The 25th Anniversary edition uses its own game engine called the 3d6 system. Referees set a task difficulty number, ranging from two to twenty-one, with the help of a table of sample values. The type of task determines which characteristic the character uses, and this is cross-indexed with the difficulty number on the "Doing Things Table" to produce the target number. The player rolls 3d6, trying to equal or exceed the target value.


The combat system is a form of the basic task resolution system, and strongly reminiscent of the first edition rules. Combat is fast and simple. Characters go in order of their dexterity, from highest to lowest. Characters are generally allowed to move and make one attack or perform one action in a combat round. Combat round duration was deliberately undefined: Ward says the combat system was supposed to be fast, flexible, and abstract.

Weapons have a class number, from twenty one (hands or claws) to three (self-guided weapons with artificial intelligence). There is actually a weapon class two, but this is a lucky shot, where the character spends all of their luck for the session on one critical shot. Armor is similarly classified, from twenty one (human skin) to two (duralloy armor behind a force field). These are cross indexed on a table to provide a target number, which the player must equal or exceed on 3d6. With a successful hit, the attack does damage based on the type of weapon used.

A character takes no wound penalties until they are at zero or fewer hit points. At this point, to quote Ward, "they are swirling down the drain." Characters have one minute to heal their wounded comrade up to at least one hit point, and if not, they're dead.

Figuring Stuff Out

A major part of the fun of Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World was discovering new technology and trying to figure out how it worked. This process was risky, and usually involved players rolling dice and moving along flowcharts until they figured out the device, broke it, or had something horrible happen to their characters. The 3rd edition carried on this tradition, with a fairly simple flowchart. Technology had an item complexity rating from one (infrared goggles, bow and arrows) to ten (computers, alien devices) Characters rolled 3d6, with a modifier based on their Mental Resistance score. Very low scores sent them to "the dangerous side," and moderately low scores sent them to "the wild side." High scores advanced them to the next complexity level. If this complexity level was the same as the device's, the character had figured it out. If not, another roll would be required, with greater chances of being sent to the wild or dangerous sides. Should a character reach the wild or dangerous side, they got a warning from the device: a light might shine in their eyes, or the device might start humming and vibrating. If the character continued to fiddle with the device, they might get lucky and advance one step further along the complexity track—but it would be far more likely that the device would break or cause them harm. Another advance from earlier games: the character has twenty rolls. If they still haven't figured the device out by then, they never will. In order to try again, they need another copy of the same device.

Ward makes sure that players understand the humor behind this process, with examples to illustrate how failing devices should be funny. We particularly enjoyed this quote: "everything stocked on the Starship Warden has a built-in countdown timer, even if it serves no real purpose."

The rest of the book gives broad descriptions of all of the decks of the ship, provides one level in enough detail for a referee to start play there, and gives some broad advice to the referee.


Comparing the third to the first

We feel the 3rd edition was tighter, cleaner, and probably easier to play than the first edition. There's a bit more help for the referee trying to figure out how to play this odd setting, and by the time readers reach the section on figuring out technology, it's pretty clear that this is intended to be a humorous game, with a high fatality rate and little concern for realism. The 3rd edition puts a great deal of stock in crazy AIs, both as comic foils and deadly threats. Where the first edition was about mutants and mystery, the third edition is about blowing things up, dodging horrible traps, and trying to reach an impossible goal.


Personal Comments

As a fan of Metamorphosis Alpha, I was thrilled to get this for the museum. It's good to see how the game has developed. Not having played this version, I believe I prefer the older setting with mutants and mayhem, but the cleaner mechanics and better GM advice of the 3rd edition make it a better game. I can see a lot of fun playing a military team trying to advance through the ship. I can almost envision the movie in my mind.

December 27 , 2010

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