Sunday, November 13, 2011

Science Fiction Adventures On A Lost Starship

The first remarkable thing about Metamorphosis Alpha is that it is contained within twenty-four pages (not counting character sheets and reference pages). Many 'modern' Role Playing Games devote that much (or more) to fluff. Of course, brevity is the hallmark of 'old school' and the 'rules' are rather loose. In bold lettering on page 26 we have this decree:

Remember, however, that these rules (and specific portions thereof) are only intended as guidelines – and that many details are best described by the individual game judge.

I think that all RPGs subscribe to this concept to some extent; however, there are certain guidelines that have become standard convention, while alternative guidelines fell by the wayside over the years. Later RPGs (and their players and Game Masters) take these surviving guidelines as granted. I don't claim that this is a bad thing, it's just how RPGs developed.

For instance, I think most of today's table-top GMs would agree that – as an unstated guideline – more than six or seven players in a given campaign would be less than optimal. Metamorphosis Alpha puts the 'Number of Participants' at 2-24. While I think it would be rare that two dozen players would be participating in the same adventure, all of their characters would exist in the same, contemporaneous setting. In truly 'old school' campaigns, any given character could be “off stage” for several game months training, recovering from wounds, participating in a mercantile expedition, etc. A campaign was not merely a sequence of adventures for one party of characters, it was a shared environment for many characters engaged in various activities that could affect one another.

Another 'expected' guideline for modern RPGs is the notion of character advancement, typically in the form of a character 'earning' a volume of abstract 'experience points'; with enough experience points, the character's abilities improve. Character advancement in Metamorphosis Alpha, such as it is, does not follow this paradigm.

JDJarvis of Aeons & Augauries mentions six 'methods' of character advancement available in Metamorphosis Alpha. I have shamelessly copied his list from the OD&D Discussion Boards (for educational purposes).

Explore the ship and learn it's secrets.
Acquire technological devices.
Figure out and use those technological devices.
Acquire new occasionally useful mutations.
Survive mental assault and build mental resistance.
Recruit followers.

The first three are 'practical' while the last three are not necessarily practical. Acquiring mutations requires exposure to radiation. There is a 1% chance per die of radiation damage of getting a mutation or a 20% chance of getting a mutation (instead of dying) when the radiation chart indicates death. Also, the mutation so acquired could be a defect.

Increasing Mental Resistance is possible by resisting mental attacks; for every five such attacks a character resists, he or she gains one point of Mental Resistance.

Only humans can recruit followers.

I would generalize character advancement into two categories, 'physical treasure' and 'knowledge.'

Physical treasure includes not only ship technology; it also includes domars and conventional items like furs and tools that the characters can use or trade away. There is an interesting statement on page 3, “[Characters] can also make use of the secretions and liquids produced by the mutated plants and creatures of the forest levels.”

Knowledge includes how to use treasure (or even if something is 'treasure'). Knowledge can regard what abilities different 'monsters' possess. Characters learn about their environment (geographical features, tribal customs, et al.) through exploration and, as JDJarvis said, the ship's secrets.

We can think in terms of character advancement, but Ward also wrote about player advancement. The players learn how to interact with the fictional game environment, how the rules work, and (given the time when the book was originally published) how to role-play. “As players become more adept, [the referee] can then increase the difficulty of the problems they will face...,” is from page 3.


  1. A nice hat tip to a classic game. I never picked it up back in the day. It was one of 20-30 "little brownish books" our hobby/toy store stocked. I picked up En Garde and a few others, but by the time AD&D was rolling I was more committed to it and its more extensive rules.

    The "player skill" vs. "Character skill" debate raged on a bit in the old days, but it is much more intense now. The modern paradigm of what rpg's used to be is that player skill was the premium, like every session was a tournament-style game of Tomb of Horrors, like Jimmy Mal's Dwimmercrap, and the dreary examples of play in Finch's Old School Primer.

    My experience was completely different. We cared about our characters and the world we adventured in. We stayed more in character than using characters as cyphers to deploy our meta-game knowledge. I certainly knew people who fit the modern ideology of what Old School is, but they were rare. They were the "roll players" and most people I knew that played were more interested in Role Playing.

    But this is a big topic, which your final words brought out in me.

    You could do a follow up post on this aspect alone.


  2. This is just the beginning. I'm analyzing Metamorphosis Alpha cover-to-cover.

    Interestingly enough, En Garde is next on my list for the cover-to-cover treatment.

    With the high fatality rate, Metamorphosis Alpha was certainly player-centric as opposed to character-centric. I think the move toward more prevalent character-centric attitudes marked a significant development away from the wargaming origins of RPGs

  3. Damn, perdustin, are you trying to run a legitimate blog, or something?

    The En Garde treatment will be interesting, I lost mine a few decades ago and miss it.

    That last paragraph should be quoted for truth, were I not too lazy. Both of those points are 100% accurate.


  4. This is not a legitimate blog. It is a front for one of Raggi's money laundering operations.

  5. I started an MA game with my kids in the summer of '10. They were originally trained on D&D 3.5, so found the lack of skill rolls to require some adjustment. for my part, though, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to formalize that bit about knowing how to use the properties of the plants and animals on their level, and would implement some sort of more direct knowledge recording system for a future game, which would also probably lead to having some little system for determing how hard it is to find some "blueroot" (or whatever) while wandering about the ship.