Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Stack of Sandboxes


At what do the Wolfoids howl?

The setting for Metamorphosis Alpha is a colonization starship that encountered “unknown radiation.” Havoc ensued and the inhabitants regressed into primitives, eventually losing the knowledge that they were on a starship. Player characters explore the ship and encounter forgotten technology and mutated creatures.

The starship provided as an example, the Warden, is a huge ellipsoid about fifty miles long, twenty-five miles wide, and nine miles high. (The builders used a futuristic alloy of incredible properties.) The interior of the craft is divided into seventeen horizontal levels. Some levels are devoted to storage and/or the ship's functions. However, many levels are self-contained ecosystems inhabited by a plethora of terrestrial flora and fauna, now altered due to radiation exposure.

Metamorphosis Alpha gives brief descriptions of every level and detailed descriptions of two levels. Yet the rules emphasize (in bold lettering) that the provided descriptions “are intended only as examples...” After all, the focus of the game is exploration and players cannot genuinely 'explore' something with which they are familiar. The rules suggest that the general layout of the Warden should be used, but that the details of the levels should be unique for each referee.

I imagine that a prospective referee in 1976 would find the creation of so much detail to be a daunting task, even if only a small portion of the ship needed to be described for the commencement of play. Another confounding factor for the prospective referee being there was no obvious, introductory motivator for the players – a dungeon (for lack of a better term). In a dungeon, choices are constrained; open the door on the right or continue down the corridor. Relative to the wide open options that Metamorphosis Alpha presents, a 'dungeon' is more easily managed by a referee, but still provides sufficient interest for the players.

Nowadays, 'sandbox' is the term of art for a geographic region with which player characters can interact, pursuing whatever goals they choose. Back in the day, in our ignorance, referees only had maps with keyed encounters (and we were thankful for that much). In essence, the setting of Metamorphosis Alpha is a stack of sandboxes.

If we are going to make each level unique, we should understand the standard features that levels possess.

It seems that each level has artificial gravity, but should that necessarily be the case? Why bother with artificial gravity for a level primarily devoted to storage? Gravity might even be a detriment with regard to certain maintenance areas. According to the description of level 1, “There is a large...hatch...for on-planet removal of supplies.” This means the intent was to land the Warden on the colonization planet! No matter where the Warden sets down, its mass would cause it to sink into the ground, most likely to a depth that would prevent the hatch from opening. Even if the Warden used contra-gravity beams or some other kind of trickery to keep from sinking, there would be a great deal of damage to the 'landing area.' I like to think that the Warden would stay in orbit. Level 9 has “a section housing small space ships for scouting missions.” There's no reason why they couldn't be used as shuttles and 'small' is a relative term compared to the bulk of the Warden.

What about light? The section on 'Forested Areas' makes reference to night cycles and day cycles. Is there a solar disk at the 'center' of the sky for each level? Given the central elevator shaft, I don't think such a thing would be practical. What seems more likely is a 'ceiling' of diffuse luminescence. Along with this luminescence, there would be ultra-violet radiation. This is necessary for many (most?) living things, including humans, and also gives the robots something to do with their ultra-violet lenses. For the night cycles, the luminescence would be diminished significantly. Without a sun, why bother with a moon? Would stars appear on the artificial firmament? I doubt it. Which stars would they be; the stars as seen from Earth? It seems that the voyage of the Warden was to last for several generations. Imagine generations of people who know the sun, moon, and stars only as abstract concepts. Of course, given their lack of knowledge, the player characters and their generation would have no idea of what those terms mean. In Metamorphosis Alpha, poetry takes a backseat to survival.

To replicate the seasons, the length of the day and night cycles would need to change over time. There must also be weather. The description of the Weather Manipulation mutation indicates that “the computer has a 25% possibility of immediately correcting any weather disturbance on the starship.” This means that weather phenomena are somewhat fine-tuned by the computer. Is there a weather schedule? Does it always snow on the 346th day of the year?

P.S. (December 11, 2011)
I am embarrassed that I missed the following item from page 6:

The natural areas have an artificial moon and stars that cast enough light to travel by.

It seems there is the potential for poetry after all!  I assume that the moon goes through its usual phases.  Still, there is no description of an artificial sun, only "diffused [light] throughout the walls."

Now the question is, what stars are they?  The stars as seen from Earth?  Which hemisphere?  Is the pattern static or do they change seasonally?  Perhaps they are the stars as seen from the observation deck of the Warden.  Perhaps they are the stars as seen from the planet to be colonized.

P.P.S. (January 22, 2012)
Tucked away in the description of Small Warriors on page 18 there is the following statement...

Its nests are usually found in areas where the artificial sun does not shine...

I think that my notion of a 'ceiling' of light can properly still be called "artificial sun" and more practical than a solar disk that arcs along the roof of each level.

P.P.P.S.  (January 29, 2012)
Jim Ward's short story, "Footsteps in the Sky," contains some germane information.

First, regularly scheduled weather is confirmed.  "In the morning it rained, as it always did every third day."

Second, the statements "the sun was now out of sight" and "the sun went down," irrefutably indicate the presence of a solar disk.


  1. Nice write-up. I am unable to make any trollish comments.

    We don't get snow on the 346 day of the year, so those pampered no-job mama's boiz on the Warden better not, either.

    Did you pick up a copy of this back in the day?


  2. What's interesting about this sort of setting is one can ponder all the details and implications and get as "realistic" as one might want, or you could just use it as a backdrop for weird, rubber science adventures to happen. It supports several different modes of play.

  3. I think the Warden would be built to try to mimic the natural conditions of Earth as much as possible in the beginning, but then shift slowly to mimic the conditions of the colony planet. The creatures would need to be comfortable at first but become acclimated to the new world. You want to make sure they have naturally selected out the ones that are just gonna die anyway. By the time the PCs begin, the transition is complete - the destination having been passed by centuries ago of course.

    On the other hand, maybe Warden was meant to be a perpetual Ark within which useful species from Earth could survive even if they couldn't on the coloy world, which means the conditions inside should always match Earth conditions.

    Or maybe the Warden's systems were damaged sufficiently that it doesn't present the correct environment anymore.

    So you could have it be anything and come up with some reason for it. I think it would be most interesting if at least some levels or some portions thereof or else the interconnecting areas be "control failure" zones where the natural conditions are hazardous or otherwise against the original plan.

  4. MISTER Anonymous Timothy (bitch)
    -- By the time I started playing RPGs, Gamma World had eclipsed Metamorphosis Alpha. I knew about MA because of the articles in Best of The Dragon (vol. I) and only recently acquired a copy. I suppose this is an appropriate place to let people know that First Edition Metamorphosis Alpha is available for download at RPGNow.

  5. Trey,
    -- Yes, it supports several modes of play. Personally, I need to have all of the details worked out, even if those details never affect the players.

  6. 1d30,
    -- I like the notion of a gradual acclimation to the conditions of the colony world. It provides a reason for not keeping everything in suspended animation.

  7. "First Edition Metamorphosis Alpha is available for download at RPGNow."

    Hey, cool! Thanks for pointing that out. Hope I can afford it...

    Mr. Timothy-ass anon B.

  8. When I ran this BITD, I did make a set of maps similar tothose in the book, but differing to confuse any potential players who'd read it. Personally, I always think of (and describe) the "sun" as moving across the sky(ceiling), but I don't have a reason for it...