Metamorphosis Alpha
“Fantastic Role-Playing Game of Science Fiction Adventures On A Lost Starship”

TSR Rules, 1976

Cover Game Design: James Ward
Development: Brian Blume
Editing: Mike Carr and David Sutherland
Artwork: David Sutherland

8.5 x 11.5 inch booklet, 30 pages plus a tear-off sheet with charts and tables.

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Without a doubt, one of the crown jewels of the collection, both because of its former rarity and the unique setting of the game. Metamorphosis Alpha (MA) was the first science fiction role playing game on the market, beating Traveller by a year or so. In reality, MA was a science fantasy game, with mutations and weird science replacing D&D's magic, but let's not quibble over details.

The choice of setting for this first science fiction RPG was a curious one: it was set completely inside the lost starship Warden, the victim of a mysterious accident that killed most of the crew and colonists and left it adrift without destination. The survivors have no idea they are on a ship, and believe it to be the world. There are literary precedents for such a setting, such as Robert Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky, Brian Aldiss's Starship, Gene Wolfe's excellent Book of the Long Sun, and even the short-lived television series The Starlost, but the confined setting of this first SF game is a curious contrast to Traveller's far-spanning galactic Empire. Perhaps MA could be better understood as a private playground for author Jim Ward, author of and probable model for The Dragon magazine's sporadic fictional series starring "Monty Haul," the master of over the top powergaming. MA was a huge dungeon in the sky, with the aforementioned mutations and weird science and technology for players to discover and use. The whole game was predicated on players using and being victimized by devices that dished out huge amounts of damage and rewarded a reckless hack and slash, to heck with the consequences style of gaming. Unfortunately, this style of play rapidly kills off PCs without easily available magical (or weird science) healing, and MA provided for very little of this.

Gamers who had only played D&D or its clones were turned off by a game that had no provision for character development or enhancement and frankly expected PCs to die like flies. They probably also found it difficult to accept that instead of spell casters with dozens or scores of magical spells and abilities, they would be limited to two to eight mutational abilities, and that they would have to suffer mutational defects to obtain these. Players may also have not enjoyed the forced split between player knowledge and character knowledge. Players knew they were aboard a forgotten starship, but PCs were forced to act as primitives, unaware of the possibilities of the technology all around them.

The book starts logically with an introduction to the setting, a description of how the game should be played, and some suggested additional supplies, such as dice, graph paper, and pencils. Then there is a two page description of the Starship Warden, and three and a half pages describing some of the common technology in the ship, such as robots, gravity generators, engineering walk ways, etc., followed by a list of the kinds of animals likely to have been aboard the ship. We begin character generation at the end of page 9.


Character Generation

Players could be a human, a mutated humanoid, or a mutated creature. Humans rolled 3d6 apiece for six characteristics: Radiation Resistance, Mental Resistance, Dexterity, Strength, Leadership Potential, and Constitution. The two mutant character types did not get Leadership Potential at all, and rolled a d4 for the number of physical and mental mutations they possessed. They were allowed to select mutations of their choice from the lists of physical and mental mutations. The referee then rolled a random mutational defect, either physical or mental (or one of each, if the player character had more than four beneficial mutations). All players got 1 hit die per point of constitution (using d6s).

Interspersed with the explanations of rolling up chararacters are three key rules sections. Radiation is described under the Radiation Resistance stat. The referee cross-indexes the intensity of the radiation (1-18) against the character's resistance on a table. The table has a glitch in it, but basically if the defender's resistance is better than the intensity of the radiation, they take no damage. If the two scores are the same, the defender takes one die of damage. If resistance is one point lower, he or she takes two dice, and so forth to eight dice of damage. If the character's resistance is more than 8 points below the radiation intensity, it's instant death. Similarly, poisons are rated from 3 to 18, and are compared to the defender's constitution. If the constitution is the same or worse than the poison's intensity, the character dies. As constitution improves relative to poison intensity, the character takes 3, 2, or 1 die of damage, and then the poison is ineffectual. Mental attacks are explained under Mental Strength. Attacker Mental Strength is cross-indexed against the defender's to provide a to hit number which must be exceeded on a roll of 3d6 by the attacker.

Humans were assumed to come from a tribe, and started with possessions normal to a tribe member. Mutations were assumed to come in from the "wild" and had nothing. Like D&D at this early juncture, there was no provision for modifying the character to be more to the player's desire, although the rules did explicitly state that the referee had the option to allow players to discard a wimpy character that was unlikely to survive. There were 30 physical mutations, 12 physical defects, 37 mental mutations and 8 mental defects. If a player wanted to be a mutated creature, there were an additional four mutations possible: speed increase, symbiotic attachment, fur change, and teeth or fangs. Mutated creatures were not assumed to be capable of either communication or manipulating things unless their base creature type could (such as monkeys) or they chose a mutation that permitted it. The dreaded Life Leech mutation, which allowed a mutant to suck hit points from everything within thirty feet and add it to his own hit points, first appeared in MA, by the way. Referees had a list of mutations for plants to create monsters, but players were not allowed to choose a mutated plant as their character.

Needless to say, mutated humanoids were the most popular characters to play. A non-mutated human would be much like a normal person in a superhero setting: sure, there are probably things for the character to do, but he or she is likely to be overshadowed by the superpowers or mutations of the other players. Metamorphosis Alpha gave humans two obvious advantages over mutants, and one subtle one. The first obvious advantage is the Leadership Potential characteristic and all that implied. Only humans can have followers! The rules explain this by saying “...a feeling of distrust is so developed in nonhumans of any type that it takes a human (and a human's innate desire for control) to be able to command the respect of a nonhuman being.” Having NPC followers allows humans to command mutant powers without actually having any—and followers can be lost without losing the character! The second obvious advantage is that humans come from tribes, and begin the game with some equipment, while mutants presumably do not. The third advantage, obvious to Gamma World players, but understated in the MA rules, is that the original security systems, robots, etc., will assume humans are colonists or crew, while mutants of all types will be considered dangerous animals and treated accordingly.


Combat Rules

The combat rules were slightly modified from D&D, using a simple table to determine a to hit number that the attacker had to equal or beat on a d20. Armor made a target harder to hit. A successful hit was followed by a roll for damage, using a variable number of polyhedral dice, depending on the weapon used.

The armor types available on the Warden were assigned armor class values that were 100% compatible with D&D's. Likewise, melee weapons did about the same type of damage as D&D's weapons, except MA had weapons doing different damage to humans, humanoids, and mutated creatures: for example, a normal sword did 1d8 damage to humans, 1d6 to humanoids, and 1d4 to mutated creatures, whether this was a mutated mouse or polar bear. Weapons were assigned a weapon class number, from 1 to 8 (and later errata added class 9). Weapon class was cross-indexed to defender armor class, to provide the to hit number. Higher class weapons usually, but not always, had a better to hit number.

Missile and projectile weapons used a confusing mix of rules. For “primitive” weapons (bows and crossbows), the normal combat system was used. Although ranges for these weapons are given, there is no information on what effect range had on combat. A second, alternative system for bows and crossbows provides a new to hit score based on range and adjusted by defender armor class, but the attacker rolls 2d6 on this table. Some technological ranged weapons (Protein disruptor and sonic metal disruptor) each have their own to hit tables based on the defender's armor and the range. Laser pistols use the normal combat tables, but damage varies depending on defender armor and whether the defender is hit multiple times with the laser. Other technological weapons, such as the slug projectors, use the regular melee tables.

Monsters and Treasures

After the combat rules, the book describes movement, and how a referee (or Ship Master) should distribute monsters and treasure. There were 41 monsters provided, and the referee was encouraged to make up more. Monsters were simply other mutant creatures. MA assumed some had formed stable species, but of course the referee could make as many individualized mutants as he or she chose.

There are two treasure tables, one with technology, the other with “mutated substances” such as contact poison, or a parasitic fungus that eats metal. One of the more bizarre treasures was a gland that could be eaten by the discoverer to confer new abilities, such as poison resistance. The mind boggles at how exploring PCs would find and utilize such a treasure: was the gland lying on a table with a knife and fork, and a sign saying “eat me?” Or was it functioning inside the defeated monster, and the PC would be expected to cut open the corpse and find that this one had a unique gland that conferred special powers? Don't even ask how the gland could functionally graft itself to a PC after being cut into pieces, chewed up, and digested.

MA had to pioneer the concept of what happens when a primitive, uneducated savage gets hold of sophisticated and dangerous technology. Players could not simply pick up a protein disruptor and start using it! The game system to address this is relatively simple: all technology is rated for complexity, on a scale of 1-10. The referee cross-indexes the item complexity against the Mental Resistance of the character, and the player rolls percentile dice to try to beat the target number. (Note: The original, uncorrected rules used Leadership Potential, which meant that only unmutated humans could learn how to use technology. The errata changed this to Mental Resistance.) Unfortunately, characters could only roll on this table once a week, and if they failed, there was a chance of injury to themselves or others. All items were also ranked for danger, on a scale of 1-4, and a second table gave the chance of injury to self and/or another if the character failed to figure the item out.

After the treasure section is a section on wandering monsters and the encounter table, and brief explanations of what might be found in areas controlled by human tribes and forested areas.

The Rest of the Book

There's a short section on how to run non-player characters (NPCs) and a morale table for them, and like all early TSR role playing games, a section on how to will your belongings to surviving relatives, which would permit a player to roll up a new character and inherit his or her old stuff if they died in play. Healing is mentioned (1 hit point per day of rest), the ship’s common tongue, and the rules for surprise, which really should have been in the combat section. The economics of the Warden are briefly discussed: the unit of currency before the disaster had been the domar, but most trading is now done by barter.

The next three and a half pages are examples: an example of play, a map of a city level (with no real detail), a map of a wilderness level, and an example of a colonist's house on a park level. There is a full-page cut away view of the Warden with no detail other than showing how the decks stack up. Finally, there is a page with character sheets, and a tear off page with the charts and tables reprinted for easy reference. There is an example of play which could have been applied to any game: find the door, open the door, check the room, open the chest—except in this example, one player dies from a radiation leak from the chest without a chance to escape.


Summing it Up

Metamorphosis Alpha was clearly an early effort. Why should melee be rolled on a d20, mental attacks on 3d6, bow and crossbow attacks on 2d6, individual technological weapons use different combat mechanics, with a percentile system for deciphering artifacts? It wouldn't have been difficult to make most or all of them d20-based, an obvious improvement made in Gamma World two years later. The true fault of the game is more a feature of the atmosphere: many ways to die instantly, tons of damage can be dished out quickly, but there are few ways to regain hit points. Players are unlikely to survive a campaign, if the referee isn't extremely careful.

MA had some support in The Dragon in the early years, where Jim Ward introduced us to the broad background plot of the shipwide war between the androids and wolfoids, and tried to create an alternate PC generation system where PCs could start the game knowing a bit about the ship. New creatures, mutations, and treasures were offered. Perhaps one of the most memorable articles was “How Green Is My Mutant,” which included a number of tables for randomly generating mutant appearances.

For beginners struggling with learning how to play D&D effectively, MA was a difficult challenge. In retrospect, it's very clear that MA supported the over-the-top, Monty Haul style of play, but at the time, this wasn't at all obvious to a neophyte, especially given the comtempt heaped on Monty Haul gaming in The Dragon magazine.

MA left a long shadow for such a short-lived game. TSR's Gamma World was the true successor to this game, and it went through four revisions with TSR, plus the abortive Alternity version. MA itself had a short-lived second edition as a setting for TSR's little used Amazing Engine game system. In the past few years, there have been two new editions (the 25th anniversary edition, published by Fast Forward Games and the 4th edition, published by Mudpuppy games). As of fall 2010, Signal Fire studios has announced yet another edition, based on D&D 4th edition. The fourth edition can still be found, along with .PDFs of the original first edition. The third edition is now out of print...and we have it here in the museum.

The original Metamorphosis Alpha enjoyed a close relationship with D&D: the preface emphasizes the compatibility of the two systems, an early article in The Dragon gave advice on combining campaigns, and the AD&D module S3, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, was clearly inspired by it. Outside of TSR, Skyrealm's Jorune was developed from MA, with its primary Iscin races (woffen, crugar, and bronth) being clear descendents of the Warden's wolfoids, cougaroids, and bearoids.

I played MA a few times with my gaming group, but it was never as popular with them as D&D. I was also somewhat boggled as an early referee struggling with the sheer volume of starship that cried out to be filled with obsessive levels of detail. Who the heck wants to map out a starship 50 miles long, 25 miles wide, on a 10 x 10 foot grid system? But my best game of MA was run in the mid 1990's. I gathered some players for Gamma World, but didn't tell them they were actually using Gamma World rules for a MA setting. They never did catch on that they were in an enormous starship, even after encountering the section where the sun was permanently frozen in the sky, and the rain poured constantly in one specific zone. As for all the technological levels, they must have assumed there were enormous cities underground. The cougaroids, wolfoids, and androids of the Warden were all updated and given more detailed backgrounds. The game was a lot of fun, and a new generation may enjoy playing those poor ignorant souls trapped aboard an unthinkably large starship, plunging forever through the void…

Updated March 31, 2011

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