Over thirty years ago, I was dropped off at the Sears in Pensacola along with a friend — we’d been invited by some older kids we knew who were playing some unique games we’d not seen before. Tucked into a back room on the second floor of the department store, there were (if memory serves) maybe 20-30 people divided up over three or four tables. We were spotted, invited to a few open chairs, and handed some paper. One of the people at that table told us we’d had good timing and proceeded to help us create what he called a character. I rolled some dice (all six-sided) and came up with a name, but had no real idea what was going on. The referee provided my character with some mutant abilities and some defects.
The game was Metamorphosis Alpha, created by Jim Ward after being asked by Gary Gygax (co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons) to move forward on creating a game similar to D&D but with a science fiction theme. It would turn out to be the first game to carry the “role playing game” description, and the first sci-fi RPG to boot. The game takes place on the Warden, an interstellar ship (50 miles long, 12 miles wide, and 8.5 miles tall!) that encountered a radioactive cloud that not only caused havoc with critical control and navigation systems, but also with life support… causing widespread mutations among the human and animal passengers traveling in suspended animation. With seventeen levels, players took on the role of survivors inside the Warden, exploring the ship hundreds of years after the accident and often completely oblivious to their situation.
I didn’t play MA much more after that… maybe two or three more times at this same gathering spot before I really fell into D&D. But the game has always held a spot in my heart, and not just because it was the first RPG I’d ever played. I also remember it fondly for requiring me (and the other players) to play dumb, to step into the game and play as someone that didn’t know they were on a starship or, if they did, were unaware of the workings of the technologies (and the dangers) that were frequently encountered or discovered. For many years, I didn’t own a copy of the single book that made up the game — a 32 page manual. I never had access to the behind-the-scenes stuff that the referee did, and it bugged me. I was able to eventually obtain a copy in decent shape — you can see it in the photo below. It’s a 1978 third printing with a $5.00 cover price. Tucked inside the black-and-white printed pages are a number of charts, level diagrams for the Warden, and two blank characters sheets — one for “true humans” and one for mutants.
Unlike D&D, Metamorphosis Alpha didn’t have a system for leveling up characters. You survived or you died — leveling up, in a sense, meant finding special hardware and weapons that would allow you to explore areas inside the Warden further away from your tribe or safe room. There were plenty of dangers on board — radiation, mutated plants and animals, and even other tribes. One nasty mutated group was the Wolfoids, and even 30+ years later I remember a particularly nasty encounter during one game session where the Wolfoids managed to wipe out a few player characters. The referee had warned me (and the other players) to not get attached to our characters. I know I rolled at least four or five over even fewer games. I died… a lot. It wasn’t uncommon for a player to die simply for pushing a button — there were so many things to interact with on a starship, and most of them extremely dangerous. It was almost comical, but it did keep you on your toes. One major cause for celebration was discovering one of the colored bracelets (six in all) that had been used by the crew of the Warden. These could give you access to special areas of the ship — the most valuable was the blue/red bracelet which were worn by command staff. I don’t recall ever finding one of those. Red bands were security, green were horticulture, and brown were general purpose while white was medical and engineering was gray.
While the rules for adventuring and combat were sufficient for running a game, there was a problem — just like the starship Warden and its closed systems, the 32-page booklet was it. Unlike D&D and AD&D, there were no modules and certainly no Mutant Manual. The only additional support for players came in the form of articles in Dragon magazine. These articles offered referees and players new powers, details on robots on the Warden, and more.. But there weren’t many of them… and referees were still forced to create their own adventures.
MA was a game of the 70s and early 80s. This was before desktop publishing and certainly before the Internet that could make finding fellow fans of the game and content easier. The MA book was packed with information, but that content was in very tiny print – 9 point! There were no digital files, either — no such thing as PDF back in 1976! Print volumes weren’t exceedingly large (by today’s standards). While MA is certainly a historic game, worthy of examination and play, the fact is that in its original form MA would be difficult today to introduce to a new and younger audience. Copies are hard to find… and those that are listed on eBay or other sites can be expensive and often in not great shape. It would be so easy to just reference MA in a footnote here and there and mention a few details of its gameplay and then let the game slide into obscurity… but fans of the game made it quite clear in early 2014 that they would not let this game go gently into that good night…
April 2014 — Goodman Games announces a Kickstarter to bring back the original version of MA (there have been new versions since then) but with some improvements:
* Larger printing — the goal was to find as immaculate a copy of the original rulebook and scan it in. Imperfections would be removed digitally and then the entire text would be enlarged 10%.
* Gather as many of the popular Dragon articles as possible.
* Offer up in-depth interviews with James M. Ward, creator of MA, to dig deep into the origins of the game, its inspirations, and as much backstory of the game’s early days of development at TSR.
* New artwork — artwork would be created and added that would match closely to the original themes and style of the MA rulebook.
* Supplemental material — new content would be created to give referees even more mutant powers, creatures, roots, and character modifications. Further, an article would be included for bringing MA into the 21st century and running it in a more traditional RPG manner.
* A special Introductory adventure for referees to introduce new players to MA (as well as a great way to welcome older players back).
* Original document scans — (one of my favorite parts) Goodman Games wanted to scan and make available some of Ward’s original notes as he was creating and testing the game.
* New adventures, supplemental books, and more.
Ultimately, 624 backers pushed the Kickstarter to 278% of its desired funding. In addition to the reprinted rulebook, there were also going to be a LOT of really cool stretch goals. The project closed on April 27 (my birthday — how’s that for a great birthday gift!) and pulled in $83,264. And then the work began…
Fast forward to November 2014. On my doorstep was a large brown box from Goodman Games. The box was wet — thanks USPS for dropping it there on a day when the weather report clearly stated it would be raining ALL DAY — but inside the book was in great shape. Goodman Games had made the Deluxe Collector’s Edition in a variety of formats, including a leather bound edition… but I backed at the standard oversized hard cover with the original rulebook cover on the front. This was boxed in a matching black box that matched the book’s cover. You can see a photo of it below.
As for the book’s contents — here’s a link to it all, including the Table of Contents. Notice that there are 17 reprinted articles in addition to the 32 pages of the original rulebook. There’s a Foreword by James M. Ward, a history of MA by Jon Peterson, and an Introduction by Tim Kask (first full-time employee of TSR and editor for many years of Dragon magazine). And the four-part Interview with James Ward (over pages 16-20) is going to make any MA fan’s day.
The oversized hardback is an amazing collection of both old and new content. (And it’s amazingly heavy — I’ve already started scanning the book with my book scanner so I can have a PDF of this monster on my tablet.) Open the cover and you’re greeted by a two page inside-cover spread by Doug Kovaks and his vision of all 17 levels of the Warden.
Here’s a photo of my copy of the original rulebook’s title page next to the enlarged title page found inside the Collector’s Edition. The next photo shows some comparison of the text of the original rulebook next to its match in the CE — as you can see, the enlarged text definitely makes it easier to read!
In addition to the hardback, one of my favorite stretch goals that Goodman Games added was six d6 in various colors and all with an MA image in place of the 6. They also created a mix of the security bracelets and mailed those out (randomly) to backers. I got a white wristband for the Medical staff, and I certainly envy those few that got the red/blue command bracelet!
I’ve never been a referee for an MA game, but I’m hoping to change that. Thankfully, Goodman Games has made it easy on newbie MA referees by offering up not only the included adventure in the hardback, but a nice collection of adventure and resource booklets that will be available for sale on their website. (Backers receive many of these as stretch goals, but there was also a $30 subscription for three adventures that will be sent out over a short period of time… can’t wait for those! Take a look HERE at all of the amazing supplements that Goodman Games is releasing for MA — unbelievable!
Here’s a link to the original Kickstarter project where you can find even more information. An update just let backers know we can expect all the booklets and other add-ons (GM screen, map of Warden, etc.) in late January 2015. I’m looking forward to it as I finished reading the entire hardback Collector’s Edition in just a few days and am now itching for more.
I don’t know how many hardbacks (standard as well as leather-bound) that Goodman Games printed for sale to non-backers — if you missed this project and want a copy, you’ll probably want to strike fast. Here’s a link to the product page for the hardback.
I’m so happy to see MA reprinted, and I’m hoping Goodman Games is looking at other early RPGs and considering giving them the same treatment. For now, I’m going to be on the lookout for an opportunity to referee a game of MA… or two. Hopefully more. This game will always have a permanent place in my heart — this is where RPGs began for me. A huge thank you to Jim Ward and Gary Gygax and TSR for creating it… and an equal amount of praise and gratitude to Goodman Games for recognizing this great piece of gaming history, giving it the attention it deserves, and hopefully kickstarting a new wave of Metamorphosis Alpha gaming (and gamers).