Over three months ago, I expressed my intent to perform a cover-to-cover analysis of Metamorphosis Alpha (First Edition). Rather than going from beginning to end, I skipped around so as to illustrate my points more effectively; nonetheless, while not painstakingly thorough, I feel that I have accomplished my goal. There is little else in Metamorphosis Alpha I can address. This is not to say there is little else in the game, merely there is little else about which I can provide additional insight by virtue of commentary. It is thus that your humble host concludes his scrutiny of James Ward's memorable contribution to the world of role-playing games and peregrinates to other offerings.
It is my sincere hope that readers have found my posts to be of at least meager value and that – perhaps – I have prompted some new degree of interest in this classic game. As a reminder, a print copy of the first edition is available via Lulu. For those that have a preference for new-fangled electronic documents, a PDF of the first edition (including a sheet of trendy hex paper) is available via RPGNow. Ongoing support is available at the official Metamorphosis Alpha forums. Also, generous readers should consider joining the Friends of Starship Warden.
The title of this post is taken directly from the back cover of the first edition. Any given level of the Warden may be considered a 'world' (as I discussed previously); however, I believe Ward intended for referees to create their own 'worlds' of Metamorphosis Alpha and that he described the Starship Warden merely as an example. I am not surprised that many referees latched onto Ward's 'example' as the basis for their campaigns; I can think of two reasons for this. First, the necessary preparations for “moderating” a campaign requires a considerable commitment of time; the less a referee has to do, the better. Second, Ward asked referees to venture forth on the sea of imagination. Yes, many referees entered that sea but, in the early era of role-playing, they were too timid to leave the sight of land. The rulebook represented their safety zone, their anchor (to continue with the nautical analogy). Of course, there were some who did create their own worlds – perhaps to a greater extent than Ward envisioned. Metamorphosis Alpha was certainly the inspiration for Synnibarr and Jorune and (as discussed in the comments of this post) there are many similarities to be found in Paranoia.
Among the 'variants' of Metamorphosis Alpha, there is one presented by Guy McLimore in issue six of (The) Dragon (April 1977). In his article, “Clone Bank Alpha: An Alternate Beginning Sequence for Metamorphosis Alpha,” McLimore posits a different way for player characters to begin the game. 'Clone Bank Alpha' was an emergency protocol for the Warden; however, its execution was delayed due to the disaster. Player characters are clones of the ship's (former) crew. They are 'activated' in order to resolve the predicating emergency. Alas, the 'memory implants' were incomplete; the clones realize they exist to solve a problem, but they lack some of the necessary knowledge to do so. Any given clone may have mutations.
Players may choose from among major and minor skills, but the number of skills is determined randomly. Among the major skills are 'Medical Officer' (“Can heal 1 point of damage per man per day with minimal equipment”) and 'Computer Technician' (which is not described). Among the minor skills are 'Food Service Technician' (“25 per cent chance to identify harmful substances”) and 'Shuttlecraft Pilot' (“Able to fly ship's shuttle vehicles”). There is a 1% chance of a character obtaining a “special skill.” Although the seven special skills are for humans only, the seem much like mutations: Psionic Healer, Machine Talent, Immortal, Probability Shifter, Resurrection Talent, Mental Battery, and Ability Duplicator.
For what they are worth, I provide a few of my own imaginings with regard to Metamorphosis Alpha.
Radiation in Metamorphosis Alpha (“foreign to all previously known radiation types”) functions much like radiation in comic books. To me it seems somewhat silly. What if, instead of a radiation cloud, the Warden encountered a colossal swarm of nanotechnology? This technology could have been created by alien beings eons previous to the disaster. For ages these things could have existed in space replicating themselves over and over. Eventually, minor changes would creep into their programmatic code; they would evolve (or devolve). Upon encountering the Warden, they attempt to 'communicate' by interacting with the genetic code of the inhabitants. Due to the alien nature of the nanotechnology, communication is not feasible; however, they continue with their attempts. The nanotechnology interaction is fatal in a great many cases, but sometimes 'mutations' result.
Well-studied readers may recall that in the “Azathoth” fragment, Lovecraft made reference “to many secret vistas whose existence no common eye suspects” among the voids between the stars. What if the Warden came into the gravitational pull of one of the “dark stars” of the old ones?
Finally, what if the Warden is really a prison (as its name might suggest)? The current inhabitants are descendants of the original prisoners (humans and aliens) and do not realize the nature of their world. Perhaps the civilization that incarcerated the original prisoners has collapsed, yet its efficient construct, the Warden, persists in its ceaseless function.