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Metamorphosis Alpha

Entry updated 5 March 2017. Tagged: Game.

Role Playing Game (1976). Tactical Studies Rules (TSR). Designed by James Ward.

Metamorphosis Alpha was the first science fiction RPG. It is set on a Generation Starship (the "Warden") which has suffered an unspecified disaster many years in the game's past, a concept inspired by Brian Aldiss's novel Non-Stop (1956 Science Fantasy #17; exp 1958; cut vt Starship 1959). The player characters (many of whom have mutated, and possess curious mental and physical powers) could be descendants of the original crew and colonists, or evolved plants and animals. Gameplay generally focused on wandering the remains of the thirty mile long starship, which the survivors have come to think of as their home world, encountering forgotten technologies and hostile mutants. This scenario is very close to that used in many early games of the first true RPG, the fantasy-based Dungeons and Dragons (1974 TSR) designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson; in essence the Warden is a gigantic dungeon in the sky.

Many aspects of the first edition of Metamorphosis Alpha were alien to the expectations of role players used to Dungeons and Dragons. There was no way to advance characters to higher levels of power and prestige, the mortality rate was high, and characters were required to behave as if they were ignorant of much of what the players knew about the game setting. Later versions attempted to address these issues in various ways. The second edition, Metamorphosis Alpha to Omega (1994 TSR) designed by Slade Henson – a supplement for the Amazing Engine (1993) system – added the ability to gain character levels, as well as a great deal of detail to the setting. The third edition (2002 Fast Forward Entertainment) designed by James Ward made the characters explicitly aware that they were on board a disabled starship, and emphasized short duration adventures with multiple characters to make the high death rate less frustrating for players. This edition is very combat-oriented; players successively take on the roles of Robots, Androids and human crew wakened from cryogenic suspension in order to fight off an alien invasion of the Warden. The most recent version, Metamorphosis Alpha 4th Edition (2006 Mudpuppy Games) designed by James Ward and Craig Brain, is similar to the third edition.

Related works: Much of the style and setting of Metamorphosis Alpha is shared by TSR's later game Gamma World (1978); early editions of Gamma World explicitly included the launch of the Warden in their background continuity. [NT]


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