Monday, December 5, 2011

Skills in Metamorphosis Alpha

For role-playing games prior to the publication of Traveller in 1977, skills (as opposed to class abilities) were not a significant feature of player characters. An arguable exception is Empire of the Petal Throne (1975), where players had some choice regarding their characters' background skills, some of which were “useful for adventuring.” The rules for Metamorphosis Alpha contain sparse information about character skills. A character's 'skill' derives from what the player discovers about the environment as well as what the character discovers about the function of new items pursuant to the Item Complexity Table on page 22. Regardless, there are hints that skills could play a more prominent part in defining a Metamorphosis Alpha character.

The character sheet (human and mutant) contains a block for “Judge-Given Skills & Items.” Clearly, there was some expectation that the judge would determine which skills each beginning character would have. However, none of the beginning player character examples address this.

There is an interesting statement in the 'Distribution of Monsters (Mutations) and Treasure' section on page 21:

Note: a player cannot shoot a gun on board ship just because he or she can in real life! The player must learn how first. If trial & error is used, this may take up to 6 months time.*

Does this mean “up to six months” after the gun “has been understood by the character” by virtue of the Item Complexity Table? Or is this an assumption of the amount of time that the Item Complexity Table would require? Expertise with a gun suggests a more in-depth aptitude beyond the mere knowledge of how the gun operates. If so, with what 'weapon classes' from page 19 can we assume beginning characters are proficient? Weapon class 3 (swords & daggers & bludgeon types) would seem to be basic knowledge. Would weapon class 1 (bows & blow guns) require a tribal/settlement background? With regard to weapon class 2 (crossbows & spear types), might a character have a working knowledge of spears but not crossbows?

In issue number 14 of The Dragon (May 1978), Ward wrote “The Total Person In Metamorphosis Alpha” which provides (among other things) charts that can be used to define a character's background. Specifically, there are four 'background' charts: (1) environment from the earliest times to the pre-adult years, (2) actions in the pre-adult years, (3) basic interests and/or talents, and (4) special abilities.

The first chart presents twelve possible environments including “Island” and “Fully Operational City.” With regard to the second chart, there is a 25% chance that “time was spent hunting.” Other 'pre-adult years' possibilities include “healing and helping others” and “fighting mutated creatures.” There is a 40% chance that a character will not have any basic interests and/or talents. Otherwise, the third chart lists options such as “collecting domars” and “knowledge of transportation devices of all types.” There is a 60% chance that a character will not have a special ability. For those fortunate enough to have a special ability, the possibilities include “knowing the effects of plants and herbs” and, intriguingly, “communicating with and beguiling creatures of all types.”

The article lacks information about how to implement these background options into game terms; the judge is left to his or her own discretion. Ward does provide an example through which we may gain an idea of what he intended. An “engineering section” environment allows a character “a certain knowledge of metals and the opening and closing of doors.” A “combat of any type” talent provides “a plus to hit and on damage.” Lastly, the “attacking with a sword” special ability grants “another plus.”

* Of course, we understand that 'player' in this context refers to 'player character.' In other words, a player's capabilities are not necessarily shared by that player's character. 'Player' is used for 'character' at other points in the rules. From our perspective, we are able to interpret the distinction; however, it is not surprising that contemporary critics developed incorrect assumptions about how players assumed the roles of their characters.

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