Monday, February 13, 2012

Feigning Ignorance

How many times have you watched your favorite movie? How many times have you read your favorite book? Why bother? You know what's going to happen. Aren't there plenty of movies you haven't watched and books you haven't read?

The reason you watch your favorite movie and read your favorite book again and again is that your enjoyment of these things is not derived from mere novelty. They possess endearing, entertaining qualities that resonate with you. Doubtless there are movies you haven't seen and books you haven't read that you would find enjoyable, but by returning to your favorites you know you won't be disappointed. Revisiting your favorites allows you to recall things you may have forgotten, appreciate different interpretations, and perhaps discover subtle nuances you may have overlooked previously (like how the Mona Lisa doesn't have eyebrows).

Likewise, it is no longer possible for players in Metamorphosis Alpha to experience the epiphany that it all takes place aboard a spaceship, yet the value of the game is not compromised. The setting is sufficiently robust in its potential despite the players being aware of 'the big picture.' It is, of course, a matter of player knowledge versus character knowledge. Players must adopt the pretense of ignorance.1  (Certainly, this is not limited to Metamorphosis Alpha, but it provides a convenient example.)  Part of the challenge (and hence the fun) is feigning ignorance, especially when doing so puts the player's character at risk. Properly done, it can be suspenseful.

In a similar vein – in Metamorphosis Alpha – a player may realize that his character has come across some type of pistol, but since the character doesn't know what it is, the player must play dumb. (The player must play... That is what players are supposed to do, after all.) With the 'Item Complexity' rules, Jim Ward makes it easy for the players to make it difficult for the characters.2 Devices have 'levels' of complexity; the most complex devices have a level of 'one' while the least complex devices have a level of 'ten.' A chart compares complexity level against a character's ability score. (Originally, 'leadership potential' was the ability but with the 2007 errata, it has been officially changed to 'mental resistance.')  The chart shows a percentile value that must be equaled or exceeded on a d100 in order for the character to comprehend the device at issue.  The 2007 errata states, "Human players receive a +1 to any die roll on how to figure out tech items."3  A measly +1 on a percentile scale?  Humans should have +5; give those dudes a break.  The more complex items have a minimum 'mental resistance' threshold; for instance, characters with a 'mental resistance' of seven or less have no chance of comprehending devices of complexity level 1 - 3.

According to page 22, if the item complexity roll is failed, "the item has a chance of harming or killing the handler or somebody...nearby."  Aside from having a complexity level, each item has a danger category.  There are four such categories; 'category one' items present the most danger while 'category four' items are safe.  So, when an item complexity roll is failed for an item of danger category one, two, or three, there are percentile chances of injury to self and/or others.  If an injury is indicated, there is a further chance it will be fatal.  I think there should also be a chance of destroying or ruining an item when the item complexity roll is failed, like there is in Gamma World 1E.

Alan Moore said that there are no tired characters, only tired writers. The same could be said for role-playing games, settings, and even modules; these are not tired. Game masters who do not foster inspiration are tired. Players who do not invest themselves are tired. With apologies to Shakespeare: The not in our sourcebooks, but in ourselves.

1 Alas, some players seem unwilling (or perhaps unable) to partition their knowledge. (Fortunately, your humble host has not encountered such entities in quite some time.)

2  In Gamma World 1E, rather than 'Item Complexity' rules, there are 'Artifact Use and Operation' rules that incorporate three flowcharts: one for simple devices, one for complex devices, and one for very complex devices. I think the flowcharts are a nice sub-system and I prefer the Gamma World rules to the Metamorphosis Alpha rules, especially since Metamorphosis Alpha allows only one roll per week. 

3 I would think that most – if not all – players are human. I guess it could be read to mean “players of humans” but perhaps “human characters” would be a better way of saying it.


  1. Interesting arguement, but I don't quite buy it. Maybe in the context of MA, but certainly not D&D. Were the three little brown books enough to satisfy? Gygax and TSR did not think so. Greyhawk was published a year(ish) afterwards, with significant system expansions.

    Was it a failure on their part to not be satisfied with one-size-fits-all hit dice and damage (d6 for both) and three classes and level 6 spells?

    Now there are certainly some people who think the 3 lbb's were the apex of creation, including a strong set of the dogmatic OSR boys, but most do not.

    I understand what you are saying, and agree to some extent -like with MA - but be careful of applying too broadly.

    Besides, NOTHING is my fault.


    1. You use the word 'satisfy' whereas I use the word 'enjoy.' To me, satisfaction suggests complacency. A person can enjoy something while still acknowledging its imperfection.

      With regard to the little brown books and 'satisfaction,' Greyhawk wasn't exactly the final word on D&D either. There is no final word nor will there be a final word. No game will ever be perfect, at least not for all of the people, all of the time. Metamorphosis Alpha has gone through several editions, nonetheless Ward provided errata for 1E as recently as 2007. Enjoyment does not imply an aversion to improvement; however, there will be dissension as to what constitutes improvement.

      I don't think that your D&D example is fitting. Yes, they were playing a game but – more importantly – they were also developing it. Also, they weren't just developing a game, they were developing the first game of its kind. As such, 'satisfaction' is relative. As you point out, there are players (fatbeard fundamentalists) who enjoy and are evidently satisfied with the LBB dogma.

      You caution me against applying my argument too broadly. This is unwarranted. I merely opine; I make no representations of universal applicability. It's YOUR fault if YOU apply my reasoning too broadly. If you're looking for irrefutable pronouncements, go to Alexis' blog.

    2. Your final sentence sure seemed like you felt it applied universally. Also, the semantics over the word "satisfied" is - to use your word - unwarranted.

      At any rate, I was not trying to be snarky. My apologies, perdustin.


    3. Your apologies are not necessary. It is I who should apologize if my vain attempt at humor was not evident.

      I agree that the last line of my post seems universal; however, I meant for it to be general but not all encompassing. Everything I say can (and should) be questioned.

      I did not find your remarks offensive, I was trying -- with pedantic urgency -- to distinguish why I think developing a game differs from merely playing it, at least with regard to the point of my post.

      Are you still my valentine?

    4. Thanks for the clarification - sometimes I am rather slow on the uptake. I get your point, now, and agree.

      "Are you still my valentine?"

      I don't want the tequila and edible panties to go to waste, so yeah.


  2. Hi!

    It has been a pleasure to see so much renewed (as well as new) interest in Metamorphosis Alpha. I agree, the original game isn't perfect, and there's a lot that could be improved. However, Jim Ward has always encouraged people to modify the rules to suit themselves, and especially change the setting.

    Perhaps the shock of the players being on a ship is impossible to recapture, but where have you (as the Supreme Arbiter/Referee/Game Master) put that ship?

    Is it in orbit around a planet, ready to unload if the long lost command code is ever found, it it doomed and on target for a black hole or star, perhaps it crashed generations ago on it's intended target planet, or it is still in the docks high above a war-ravaged Earth?

    That old book is a starting point and imaginative SA/GM/Ref's ideas are what is going to make the difference between Ho-hum and Wahoo!!!

    1. Craig,

      You anticipate my next MA post wherein I discuss alternative possibilities of the fate of the Warden.