Re-examining the old-school RPGs: Metamorphosis Alpha

Thanks to all who responded to my Traveller post—I’m looking forward to some good discussion on all our old RPG faves.  This week it’s time for Metamorphosis Alpha, now almost as steeped in legend as the hapless starship Warden itself. And of course a necessary topic before we can get to Gamma World. References to the Warden’s fate were scattered throughout the later portion of the Gamma World timeline, but me and my fellow gamers were a little too busy playing out Mad Max scenarios in the nuked remnants of the Arizona desert to worry too much about the fate of some spaceship 30 light years off.  

But if we thought we had it rough, it was nothing compared to what was going down on that ship.

Life on the Warden was largely a function of entertaining ways to die, and getting too attached to your character was like looking for emotional commitment in a one-night stand. Perhaps fittingly, the original rulebook clocked in at a mere 32 pages, adorned with some of the most awesomely bad art the 1970s would produce (my personal favorite: those craaazzy cougaroids). But even covered with retro-tech kitsch, that slender book was enough to outline all we needed to know about the world of the Warden, and how to navigate characters within it.

Mutated characters, no less. See, somewhere between Sol and Xi Ursae Majoris, the Warden hit that radiation cloud and . . . and . . . well, who the heck cares about the rationale anyway? Certainly not someone with four arms and the ability to fry opponents with #$# mental blasts. Of course, you could find yourself walking out of the character generation process with arms you couldn’t control and an odor that would attract predators across an entire ship level . . . but that was all part of the fun. In retrospect, we can sheepishly admit that those mutation tables were tantamount to the abandonment of any serious attempt to position Metamorphosis Alpha as a true hard SF universe. Yet they also constituted the core genius of the system, and showcased Jim Ward as having a warped sense of humor eclipsing even that of Gary Gygax. Unveiled to much fanfare at Origins II, Metamorphosis Alpha established Ward as a game designer of the first magnitude, fully vindicating Gygax’s decision to entrust him with their first sci-fi RPG product. Once again, TSR was forging out ahead of the competition.

That the game nonetheless underperformed in the marketplace is difficult to lay at anyone’s door. MA was so groundbreaking that its main weakness is obvious only with hindsight—it made one hell of an adventure, but one lousy campaign. Partially because it’s tough to run one when you’re an hour in and everyone’s already been eaten by giant venus flytraps/irradiated/sucked out of airlocks, etc. But the real shortcoming with Ward’s “dungeon in the sky” was that ultimately all roads that didn’t involve a horrible death tended to lead in the same direction—i.e., realizing that, yes, this is a starship…finding out how to get to the control room, and then . . . what? Later iterations grappled with this problem with limited success; Ward’s 25th year anniversary edition tossed aliens into the mix, while 1994’s Amazing Engine variant fleshed out a lot of cool detail on the starship.

Yet ultimately, it was a ship adrift between the stars—too narrow a scope for the endless modules and spin-offs an RPG needed to maintain economic viability in an increasingly crowded market where everyone was smelling gold in the wake of D&D’s accelerating momentum. And so MA’s limitations led straight to Gamma World’s genesis; as Ward noted, “I knew I needed to do a larger planet-based version of the game, with lots more of everything.” More on that later. . . .

David J. Williams is the author of the Autumn Rain trilogy (The Mirrored Heavens, The Burning Skies, and the forthcoming The Machinery of Light). More about the world of the early 22nd century at


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