My first role-playing game experience wasn’t Dungeons and Dragons. That opportunity would come a few weeks later. Instead, sometime during the summer of 1979 or 1980 (I really can’t pin the date down) I had begged my parents to drop me off at a gaming group that met in Pensacola, Florida. A few older friends had told me about it and some of the games they were playing there. I guess my story checked out and the parents of the other kids gave their approval because I was dropped off and told I had three hours or so before they’d come and get me. So, in I walked, having no clue what to really expect other than the few vague stories of some really cool game descriptions and these campaigns that were being run. I stress these two words because I really had no clue what they meant. But all that was about to change.
I was introduced to a few other players before being pointed to an open table that had a few spare chairs. I sat down and the leader of this table handed out some dice and pencils and paper and proceeded to explain to me and the four or five others at the table how to roll our characters. Again, no clue what was going on so far but I went along and rolled up some strange character that had hands that lit up and if I remember correctly he had wings to fly but no legs. There were a few other peculiarities about him (I don’t remember the name I selected) but they were just as unusual as the other players’ characters that were made.
The leader (called the referee, I found out) then proceeded to tell us this short story about this ship called The Warden. The Warden was a generation ship, and it was carrying thousands of people in suspended animation for a trip across the galaxy. He explained that no one really remembered the purpose of the ship, where we were going, or why so many of us were waking up with mutations and powers and deformities. We were simply there, and we were trying to survive.
The referee then introduced us to some characters that he was controlling (NPCs — another new term I learned — non-player-characters). I don’t remember the actual mission that our team was assigned, but I do recall that a problem had been found that an insane human had locked himself in a food storage room and was poisoning all the food for our particular location on the ship. He had programmed some robotic defenders to stand outside while he did his work. We were given a mission to locate some weapons to take out the robots and then to try to find a way in to protect the food. I don’t remember any more than that except that my character died a horrible death. Early. I had to re-roll a new character and then run to find the team. And apparently I wasn’t the only one… characters were dying left and right. Apparently this was normal on The Warden. But the funny part was that no one seemed to care… we were having a good time just trying to improvise and stay alive and find some technology on this massive ship so that we could save our food.
I don’t know what happened in the end because I had to leave before the story was resolved. I’d like to think that motley band of mutants somehow found a way to take out the robots, unlock the door, and save the food for the other mutants. A few weeks later I returned and got to play another mission, this one involving a hunt for a strange device that could heal damaged players. Again, my memory is vague, but I do recall having a lot of fun.
That game that started it all for me? Metamorphosis Alpha.
I would only have a few more opportunities to play the game as most of the group was starting to get heavily into various TSR titles. And while I never had the chance to buy my own copy of the game, I still was allowed to glance through the rulebook occasionally when someone brought their copy. What I saw showed me so much more potential for the game… but interest waned and we young players were forced to follow the larger (older) group when they selected the games to play for each gathering.
Now, jump forward 30+ years (wow!) and I’m pleased as can be to learn that a Kickstarter project aims to bring Metamorphosis Alpha back to life. Jamie Chambers and James Ward are hard at work to raise $10,000 to put this game in the hands of old fans… and hopefully new fans. There are various financial levels that backers can choose from, including an option for store owners to purchase packs of games (6) for resale.
What I remember so fondly about Metamorphosis Alpha was how easy it was to get started playing. There was the one rulebook and it appears that this project is attempting to do the same thing — provide players with an all-in-one resource book. And the project creators have promised more resources as they meet different levels of financial backing. I’ve already backed this one, and not just for nostalgia… I really do hope to be able to play it one day, either with my sons (when they’re older) or maybe a group of fellow fans here in Atlanta. (If you’d like some history on the game, be sure to check out metamorphosisalpha.com for some sample campaigns, links to purchase the original manual, and information on the different versions of the game that have been released over the years.)
One other thing the project creators are doing is providing a lot of updates and information — a lot more than you’ll sometimes find with other Kickstarter projects. Be sure to read all of the updates — when done, hopefully you’ll be convinced to get your own copy of the game. For just $10, you can get the eBook (PDF) version of the game — and for $25, you’ll get both the eBook version and the final print version when it’s completed.
I reached out to Jamie Chambers with some questions about Metamorphosis Alpha and his gaming background. I’d like to thank him for taking the time to provide additional information on Metamorphosis Alpha and I wish him luck in raising the funds!
Kelly: Your Kickstarter writeup pretty much explains the reasons behind the choice of the Metamorphosis Alpha re-launch — were there any particular reasons you chose Metamorphosis Alpha over other early RPGs that have gone dormant?
Chambers: It was unique opportunity. There are other fantastic properties once published by TSR back in “the day” that lie dormant and the fans would love to see back. However, those were always owned by the company and one can only assume that they are now owned, ultimately, by Hasbro. The company does not seem interested in working with third-party publishers on licensing their classic properties. But Jim Ward retained the rights to his game when he left the company, and my friendship and working relationship with Jim (starting before and during the days of Fast Forward Entertainment) made it possible to re-launch the very first science-fiction RPG ever published.
Kelly: MA was my first experience with role playing games — I loved the idea of a generation ship (the Warden) having devolved into chaos as mutants and humans struggled to survive. Will you continue with the Warden as the central location of the games or are you adding any new locales?
Chambers: When re-launching a property like this, I think the most important thing is to go back to basics but then execute them extremely well. I looked at the original 1976 version of MA and wanted to capture the elements that made it fun and exciting when it was new. And since so many gamers don’t even know the name Metamorphosis Alpha these days, I’m not trying to sell this as a nostalgia product. It has to stand on its own: Interesting premise, well-presented setting, and a fun and playable set of RPG rules — all contained within an attractive package, reasonably priced. If we do our jobs right and present a kick-ass version of Metamorphosis Alpha without making changes that will anger the existing fans, we know that the old-school players will be not only buying our game but cheering for us and supporting us.
So … to actually answer your question, the starship Warden is the primary setting of the game. It is a Generation Ship gone horribly wrong, and has gone centuries after a disaster filled with mutants and a computer system that’s not quite right. The chapter of referee and campaign advice does offer some alternate suggestions for settings — which include a completely different ship or even a post-apocalyptic world of mutants — but the “default” way to play is action and adventure aboard the Warden.
Kelly: The Kickstarter writeup mentions the possibility of campaigns in the future, sort of like old Dungeons and Dragons modules I’m guessing. You’ve already got some options if you meet certain financial goals, but if the optional values aren’t met will we still get the additional game books in the future? Do you plan on continuing support for the new MA?
Chambers: We will support Metamorphosis Alpha as long as the business model works for us to do so, and I’m hoping we have a strong launch so this will have legs! I’d love nothing more than to get a whole new generation of gamers adventuring aboard the Warden and telling their stories in twenty years. At the very least, it is my hope to have the core book, a campaign book that really maps out the Warden in detail with plenty of adversaries and written up, and a few adventures. I’d like to supplement the in-distribution material with smaller projects that we can sell direct and in digital format.
Kelly: You have a solid background in game development — how do you go about taking an older game like MA and updating it for 2012 and beyond? You mention changes to the dice system, but are there any other modifications that had to be made to make it interesting to a new generation?
Chambers: I think the premise is cool enough that it sells just fine right now. If I ask a gamer, Would you like to play a primitive mutant roaming around a half-ruined spaceship filled with danger and tech artifacts — a huge floating dungeon in space except your adventurer has mutant powers? the answer is very likely to be Hell, yeah! At the very least I think they’d be interested enough to check it out. So instead of trying to change what came before to make it appealing, you should have to give what was cool in the first place a fresh polish and show off why it’s so much fun. Chasing what’s cool is never the way to go, far better to be cool by trying to translate our enthusiasm and passion for the project into the final game. I’m not going to have sparkly vampires shooting enraged birds out of slingshots just because that’s popular these days. I want to hear stories about how a mutant cactus killed a cougaroid by inflicting the world’s sharpest bear-hug on the unfortunate creature.
Kelly: Can you give us a preview or two of some mutant powers or flaws that characters will be able to either choose or roll up? What about technology — any favorite tools or weapons that we’ll see in the game that make you smile?
Chambers: Sure! One of the pre-generated characters in an adventure I wrote has the ability to alter his feline fur to resist different types of energy, useful in battle but also means he’s a mutant cat that’s changing colors whenever he activates his powers. Fun but awkward! I also have a fondness for the cowardly little weasel who can shoot radioactive energy from his eyes. Some example flaws include Attraction Odor (which makes you smell like grandma’s Thanksgiving dinner, attracting predators), Enhanced Pain Receptors (which make you want to pass out from a paper cut, particularly rough when adventuring aboard the Warden), and an uncontrollable Fear Impulse. One of the pre-gens has mutated instinctive fear of tortoises, which makes him even less likely than me to see the new Michael Bay produced Ninja Turtles when it comes out next year.
There is technology of all kinds aboard the Warden for those who can recover it and figure out how to use it without wrecking it or blowing their own heads off. Everything from blaster rifles to power armor to access rings are all there for those who can discover them. One concept I’ve always liked is how the the computer system is damaged and doesn’t interpret what’s going on within the ship correctly and has no clue how to categorize the mutants running amok on all decks. It inspired the adventure I wrote that usually inspires a grin from the title alone: The Petting Zoo of Death.
Kelly: Dungeons and Dragons is getting a new version along and I’m hearing rumors of a new Traveler. Any thoughts on the sudden renewed interest in RPGs in general given today’s obsession with video games?
Chambers: In some ways it’s better than ever to be an RPG gamer, because the low barrier of entry in today’s world of PDF products and print-on-demand technology there are more games out there than every before in the history of the hobby. It’s trickier to be a game publisher, because those trying to run a full-time business are now competing against folks who do this in their spare time, more to get their work in front of an audience more than make a profit. But I think it’s created a ton of fresh ideas and fun options, and I hate that I don’t have enough time to play all the cool stuff I hear about.
While there is a lot of lamenting about video and computer RPGs stealing potential players, I think it’s a great opportunity because huge numbers of young gamers already know the basics concepts of playing a character that has stats and skills and level up. We just have to show them that even the best video and computer games can only offer you so much variety, storytelling, and replayability … while in a tabletop RPG these things are truly limitless. Add in the chance to play with your friends, in person, having a great time and coming away with amazing stories and we’ve won over a new generation to our hobby.
My son plays video games all the time but he loves tabletop every chance he can get. I think this would apply across the board if there was a way to get everyone to give it a try.
Kelly: A lot of Kickstarter projects offer vague updates, but you’re only two updates in and already you’ve provided a ton of information for backers and potential backers. Obviously potential backers can continue to read your writeup, but do you have any words specifically for geek dads looking at MA and wondering if it might be of interest to them?
Chambers: I’m not trying to sell an idea here, but a product that’s being developed and will move forward regardless of whether the Kickstarter campaign is a success. However, successful funding in this way means kicking (pun intended) down the doors and really launching this thing the right away with a bunch of hopefully-happy pre-order customers and an energized fan base, not to mention a product that is operating at profit the moment it goes on sale. To that end, I want to show people what we’re really doing and let them in, at least a little bit, on the process and get just as excited as we are. Informed decisions are always the best kinds, and I want to answer as many questions as I can for potential backers.
I’d say this game is for anyone who wants a game that lets you jump in the action quickly and keeps the pace moving and one that crosses genres — from the dungeon-crawl-esque environs and primitive characters to the mutant superpowers to the robots and lasers — this game is for you!
Kelly: Family gaming nights are popular all over — will MA be something that parents will find “safe” to play with up and coming gamers? Is there a recommended age for MA?
Chambers: MA is not a dark and gritty RPG, despite the dangers and survival issues that come up during the course of the game. At its heart it has always been mystery and discovery, action and adventure, with battles, mutations, and high tech. As long as parents are okay with plenty of danger and combat in the context of the adventure, we’ll leave dark and adult themes to other games. In movie terms, and as a father of three children, I would say what we’re doing is comfortably PG.
Kelly: Can you talk briefly about your own experiences with MA and why you chose it as your Kickstarter project?
Chambers: I started playing D&D in the early ’80s and got into Gamma World for a while a few years later. It wasn’t until later, when I acquired some old magazine issues, that I learned about Metamorphosis Alpha and really regretted not being able to purchase it. I got the one-product relaunch TSR did in the ’90s and it only whet my appetite for more. So I guess you could say that I’m working to present the game I wanted to play but never got to when I was young. Funding through Kickstarter is an amazing way to launch a game product, allowing the fans to vote with their dollars and preorder the game and other cool rewards, and allowing for the up-front costs for producing a high-quality game to be paid up front. This is huge for a small-press publisher, and makes it possible for guys like me to pull off products that would normally only be attempted by bigger companies or by going into significant debt. Technology, the Internet, and social networking truly are changing everything and leveling the playing field. It’s an exciting time to be doing the job I love!
Kelly: Any final comments about the MA re-launch? Is this the start of a possible re-launching of older, dormant gaming platforms?
Chambers: I see this happening all over the place, and just a few days ago I watched Steve Jackson pitch his Kickstarter project for OGRE. I think the ability to easily fan-fund classic games and settings will allow for a Renaissance of nostalgia products. Some of them might suck, and some will be awesome! I’m quite hopeful that our game will be in the Awesome category.