There’s a warm place in my heart for James M. Ward’s Metamorphosis Alpha, the science-fiction RPG from TSR that is fast approaching its 40th anniversary. It’s the first RPG I ever played, and even though my RPG game playing has gone in many different directions over the decades, I still have fond memories of my first adventure aboard the damaged Starship Warden as it hurtled through the galaxy, its inhabitants mutating and fighting for survival and completely unaware that they were on board a 50 mile long spaceship.
Sitting on my gaming bookshelf is a copy of the original MA rulebook. This little 40-page rulebook makes me smile every time I pull it off the shelf and flip through its pages. Pretty soon, however, a new rulebook will be sitting next to it. Signal Fire Studios (owned by Jamie Chambers, a long-time game developer) has just released a major revision of the game. This version is based on a different game system called System 26 that relies on six-sided dice and allows for faster gameplay and less-complex resolution of rolls. (The original game used 4-, 8-, 12-, and 20-sided dice.)
The 160-page corebook began as a Kickstarter project. The PDF version of the rulebook has been provided to backers while physical copies are being prepared by the printers and soon to be shipped. While I can’t wait to hold this new version in my hands, I have had a chance to read the full digital document and I’m quite impressed. This is the original game’s theme but with less-dated technology references and artwork. Combat rules are more fluid and simplified–there are a total of four (4!) charts related to actions/combat, so it’s obvious that much of the gameplay and conflict resolution will be more narrative and less dependent on lots of dice rolling and chart referencing. Roles of Narrator (GM) and Actor (player) are well defined, and there’s an entire chapter devoted to creating and running an adventure. Tucked into the back of the book is the “Petting Zoo of Death” adventure for new players along with a blank character sheet (that are also available for free download here along with some pre-generated characters ).
Note: I haven’t yet had a chance to play the new version, but I’m heading to GenCon in about a month so I’m hoping to find some fellow fans of MA who might want to give the new version a go–if you’ll be attending GenCon, leave a comment below and let’s see if we can’t find a group to take the new rules for a spin.
I remember years ago enjoying roleplaying a mutant who didn’t have a clue about what was going on–it was very easy to role-play that given that my young self didn’t have a clue about RPGs either! Metamorphosis Alpha may very well be one of the better games for introducing novices to roleplaying games simply because part of the MA setting involves a real lack of information–where are we? What is this strange device? Are they friend or foe? I’m quite pleased with the content found in this new version, and I’d love to visit the Warden again as both player (Actor) or GM (Narrator)… although I’m leaning towards GM. We’ll see…
I reached out to Jamie Chambers with some questions about MA, and I’d like to thank him for his responses below.
The softcover book is available for pre-order (Fall 2015 delivery) but you can purchase the PDF download now from different sources.
GeekDad: Why did you choose to update Metamorphosis Alpha?
Jamie Chambers: I was first inspired when I read Gary Gygax’s article on Metamorphosis Alpha in Hobby Games: The 100 Best from Green Ronin Publishing (which we quote on the back cover of the new book), and then I learned from talking to gamers that Metamorphosis Alpha had somewhat lost its rightful place in gaming history. Lots of gamers knew about Gamma World, but a lot fewer seemed to know anything about MA. To me it was such an interesting mashup–mutant powers from comic books, exploration like a dungeon crawl, and the sci-fi trappings of a spaceship filled with tech–that it could be just as fun today as it was almost 40 years ago.
GD: Did you have any specific goals in mind when considering how you would update this 30+ year old game? I know you had the support of James M. Ward, so did he have any requests or suggestions about updating the game?
JC: I feel truly honored that Jim allowed me to helm a new presentation of a property that is very near and dear to him. He’s had a lot of trust and patience that the final game and book would be worthy of MA‘s legacy. I made sure he wrote a bunch of early chapter material so that he set the tone and standard that we built the rest of the book around.
As for goals, I wanted this to be a relaunch of Metamorphosis Alpha–to present it as if it were a brand new game. I wanted the concept, rules, and presentation to be interesting and engaging to a new audience. Fans of previous editions of MA would either be excited to see our fresh look at the “world” of the Warden or would want to keep playing the original, especially with the fantastic legacy-edition and supplemental material produced by Goodman Games.
GD: With the update now out, what would you say are the biggest changes fans of the original game will see in the new version? Were there any changes that you feared could change (or DID change) the style or feel of the original gameplay?
JC: The mission was to take the original concept, setting, and tone, but to pretend it was a brand-new idea. I incorporated the legacy of previous editions throughout our new version (mutations, tech, and even game terms such as calling the Game Master the Referee), but we didn’t want to present the game in a way that would make a new player feel left out because he wasn’t around in the 1970s.
It’s a completely new game system that you’ll see again from me in the future. It’s called System 26, which hints at the core game mechanic (rolling two six-sided dice if your character is neither good nor bad at a given action). The rules are designed to be easy to learn and jump right into, and the text is meant to convey necessary information but not read like a dry technical manual. Married to these core ideas are the familiar tropes of MA, such as wolfoids and color bands and vibroblades. It’s still a deadly game, and you might not want get too attached to your mutant koala character.
GD: MA has a huge fanbase–were you at all worried that fans might not like a modification to the original game? I know there have been updated versions, but the original seems to be the one that older fans want to return to–what would you say to them to convince them to give the updated version a try?
JC: The dirty secret of RPGs is that no one has to buy updates or expansions of games they enjoy. (I know some people who still play white-box D&D after all these years.) People who play and enjoy older versions of Metamorphosis Alpha still have those versions to provide years of great gaming–and with the Goodman Games products they’ve got the option of getting a really nice edition of the classic. So I wasn’t interested in just cleaning up or nudging a previous edition. I wanted something that was different, streamlined, and more accessible to the many gamers who’ve never experienced action aboard the starship Warden before.
If you’ve enjoyed MA, I hope you’ll download the free preview we made available online to get a feel for how our book reads and check out the core gameplay. We really work to offer inspiration for creativity in character creation and in creating memorable adventures. Plus you might enjoy the starting scenario in the back of the book. The title says it all: “The Petting Zoo of Death.”
GD: You had some troubles getting the game finished, but you DID finish and deliver the product. Are you done with Kickstarter, or were you able to take away any lessons when it comes to crowdsourcing?
JC: I’ve been writing and publishing on RPGs for many years, and this is definitely the project that went through the most changes and challenges along the way. One thing is that now that I’m an Army of One company (working with freelancers) I’ve had to reinvent how I switch gears between management and creative. I’ve built a list of rules that will inform how I handle RPG publishing projects in the future and crowdfunding in particular.
The most important rule is that I will not crowdfund an RPG project until the first draft of the manuscript is already written. That’s the most potentially painful and time-consuming birthing process of a new game, and I’d like to be able offer backers the full, raw text immediately after they back a future crowdfunding campaign. I’m also going to have extra layers of transparency so that anyone who backs our stuff can peel back the curtain and have a better idea of what’s going on in-between updates.
GD: What would you say is the most difficult aspect of updating a classic RPG? Were there any areas of MA that just didn’t stand the test of time and needed heavy reworking?
JC: It’s walking a fine line, because on one hand you need to show your source material some love and respect. On the other you need to make sure a new version stands on its own and doesn’t lean too heavily on what came before. Because the rules are brand new, I didn’t have to worry about updating from a game mechanics point of view. I just wanted to make sure we had as much variety in characters and fun with mutations and figuring out tech as we’ve seen in previous versions. I wanted a visual style that reflected the “trashed technology” of the setting, from Jason Engle’s striking cover to the interior design and art pieces.
One change: I deliberately kept the catastrophe that trashed the Warden completely vague in this edition of Metamorphosis Alpha. The original referred to a radiation cloud, and in the 3rd edition expansion and 4th edition the ship crashed into an asteroid inhabited by an intelligent alien fungus. For the core book I wanted the history of the Warden to exist in the realm of rumor and folklore, which also lets the referee come up with unique explanations in a new campaign.
GD: Where do you go now with the new version of MA? Will there be updates (were they ever called “modules?”) or expansions to your version of MA?
JC: Next on the horizon is a full-length adventure (I still call them “modules,” too) that can either start off a new campaign or continue with a group that played through “The Petting Zoo of Death” and has any characters left alive. The mission is make sure that the three core elements of MA are there–exploration, mutation, sci-fi tech–while also balancing roleplaying, problem solving, and combat.
A really exciting thing is our next big sourcebook: Starship Warden. While the core book pretty much leaves the setting up to the imagination of the referee, the goal is to provide a really solid companion and setting book. We will offer deckplans and maps that cover a lot of the ship, give overviews of different areas and factions, with adventure seeds and ideas sprinkled throughout. In addition we’ll expand player options to include things such as playing androids or human crew awakened from cryo-sleep. It will be a great resource for referees and a grab-bag of ideas.
GD: Are there any conventions or gatherings where your MA will be setup for play by new and old players?
JC: I’ve had multiple people tell me they plan to run at local regional conventions. I’ll be happy to provide eBook versions (and eventually the printed book as well) in convention support and I’ll be looking at my own upcoming schedule so I can run some sessions as well. Both the Signal Fire Studios website and my own personal website–JamieChambers.net–has a list of events I’ll be appearing at and will be running games. I’m hoping to lock in my return to GaryCon next spring, bringing the new version of Metamorphosis Alpha back to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin where it all began. (And I’m excited to return there to my adopted hometown, where I lived for almost ten years!)
GD: What’s next on the agenda for Signal Fire Studios? I’m also a big fan of Top Secret… any chance you might be able to find a way to re-invent that classic RPG? Are you looking at any other RPGs for updating?
JC: I recently compiled a list of projects and many have been simmering in development as I finished up the Metamorphosis Alpha core book. I’ve got four card games, three books, two additional RPGs, and some really fun ideas on how I’d like to explore the System 26 rules. I’ve got one that centers around characters with amnesia who are not created prior to play, but “discovered” after the game begins.
Now that you mention Top Secret, I really enjoyed the movie Kingsman and could easily imagine a fast-and-violent spy RPG with our game engine purring beneath the hood…
GD: Any final words about the new version of MA? What are you most proud of when it comes to the newly released book? Is there any area of the game that you’d like a chance to expand on with future updates?
JC: I want to expand on player options and campaign options. Metamorphosis Alpha enjoys a large but finite setting, but it can be tweaked to keep surprising everyone. More mutations, more crazy tech, more secrets revealed. Basically more.
One convention playtest I ran last year included an old-school D&D player and his son who was about twelve years old and had never played an RPG before. The father enjoyed the action and flavor of the game while the newbie son stopped asking rules questions about twenty minutes into the game. Father and son asked me to sign their character sheets and said they had a great time. It was gratifying reassurance that I had put something together that hit the right buttons for both generations and levels of experience. I’m proud that I’ve at least come close to the mark of honoring the old while ushering in the new.