May 19 2010 12:57pm

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

Marc Rikmenspoel
1. Marc Rikmenspoel
Thanks for these looks back at old RPGs. I have a wonderful collection of Traveler material that I never played!

And while I never owned or played Metamorphasis Alpha, I did play Gamma World some. And I owned and played plenty of (A)D&D. Part of the latter was a weird little module known as S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Any of you grognards who have seen that module will know why I reference it. You could almost say that the ship from MA passed through Gamma World and ended up in Greyhawk!
David Levinson
2. DemetriosX
This was the first RPG I ever bought, though I can't really remember why or all that much about it. We played a few times, but soon went over to Warlock (a D&D variant created at CalTech) full time. I know I drew up a couple of levels and there were these giant pillbugs that were used as transport (I think that was a homebrew creation), but that's about it.
Church Tucker
3. Church
I remember this as being 'in competition' in some fashion with Gamma World.

Thus, I never bought it.
David Levinson
4. DemetriosX
Church @3

Heh, that's exactly why I never bought Gamma World. I thought it was a rip-off of MA.
Marcus W
5. toryx
Sadly, I've never played it largely for the reason that you listed as a detractor to the game's success: we couldn't run a campaign with it. My friends were always too invested in building a long term campaign to get involved in something with such a short potential.

I wish we'd tried it at least once, though. The character generation sounds like a blast.
Marc Rikmenspoel
6. Stefan Jones
Still have my copy, purchased at Origins in 1977.

As cheesy as the production was, it was still way slicker than the original D&D books.

I played a few games with a cousin. Never found a group to play it with.

I never got into Gamma World much, but I did play a session at a convention, run by Ward himself. All I remember is our group having all of its neat tech turned to foam rubber by racist bunny-oids.
Marc Rikmenspoel
7. Largo Chimp
One of the neat things about games like MA was that you could roll up some characters, throw them into the scenario, and then laugh as you and your buddies died horrible deaths. Maybe there wasn't much actual 'role playing,' but there was a lot of FUN.

I think people are rediscovering this with the recent trend in 'delves' -- short games played more for fun and without consideration for a long campaign.

Long campaigns are great, but when your time is limited and you just want to have some fun...well, bring on the mutants!
Marc Rikmenspoel
8. Saladin Ahmed
I remember my buddy's older brother owning MA but I'm pretty sure this is one that never got played.

I'm digging these articles so far -- and would like to cast my vote for some discussion of Fantasy Games Unlimited titles. Villains and Vigilantes was probably my most-played game of all time, including D&D.
David Williams
9. DavidJWilliams
@Marc: S3 EXPEDITION TO THE BARRIER PEAKS is probably worth a separate post in its own right. The original tournament version was introduced at the same Origins con where Metamorphosis Alpha got launched -- in fact, it was intended to help market MA. And although it's explicitly stated in the module that the spaceship that crashes onto the world of Greyhawk was part of a much larger craft, Gygax asserted in an interview that it wasn't part of the Warden itself. What I love about S3 is how nothing beyond that ever gets revealed. . it's just a dead ship, filled with robots and monsters.
Paul Madison
10. pmadison
James Ward's style is both unique and old school at the same time. I applaud his choice to employ Jim Holloway (who has had a productive career post-TSR) to illustrate the 4th edition of Metamorphosis Alpha. I believe all the original art for the first edition was done by the late great David C. Sutherland III.

James Ward's style of play is definitely inventive of "entertaining ways to die", but Metamorphosis Alpha can also be played as a campaign. There is a story that was published in Dragon Magazine called "Faceless Men and Clockwork Monsters" that transported a party of Dungeons and Dragons characters onto the Warden, which is basically a vast dungeon crawl in space with lasers.
Marc Rikmenspoel
11. Philip Athans
I played this, 30+ years ago, but also ended up playing Gamma World much, much more. Now I get to be part of the new Gamma World here at Wizards of the Coast. I'm in geek heaven.

Here's one you should look back at: Starships & Spacemen.

Oh, how I LOVED that game.
David Williams
12. DavidJWilliams
in fact, here's a link to that Gygax-penned article that Pmadison cites . . . oh, to be a fly on the wall for those old sessions:
Kendall Bullen
13. kendallpb
Yay, Metamorphosis: Alpha! :-) I remember that article; thanks for the link, David.

And module S3--that was great. Total random weirdness on Greyhawk....

BTW you didn't mention anything about what (might have) inspired MA. I always thought MA was inspired by Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky, but I read in that bastion of misleading and incorrect knowledge, Wikipedia, that supposedly Ward was inspired by a similar book (published after Heinlein's, so perhaps inspired by Heinlein anyway), Aldiss's Starship (a.k.a. Non-Stop). I've never heard of it, but this MA nostalgia has me thinking I might track it down (along with Heinlein's book, which I remember fondly).

Thanks to Google, I just ran across a similar concept (searching for what inspired MA)--the old Canadian TV series, "Starlost." ;-) More wackiness; it sounds like it's dated and wasn't great, but I've always loved the MA concept, so I'm tempted.
Marc Rikmenspoel
14. Stefan Jones
@Saladin: Hey, I wrote for V&V!
Marc Rikmenspoel
15. Stefan Jones
@kendallpb: "Starlost" is one of those shows I dug as a kid because it was one of the only SF shows around at the time . . . but really, really doesn't hold up. A brilliant premise (the heroes, from an Amish-like culture, visit a different dome and hermit society each week), but the acting was leaden, the stories mostly dumb, and the production really, really cheap-looking.

MA could be played like that, but with radioactive furries to spice things up!
Kendall Bullen
16. kendallpb
@Stefan Jones: Thanks for the warning. ;-) I saw a few seconds of video at and it reminded me a bit of old Doctor Who....

Hmm, radioactive furries--now you're talking! I do think some people sell MA a bit short. It's good for more than just a couple of uses...I mean, if you don't die quickly. ;-)
David Levinson
17. DemetriosX
Off topic, but Starlost could have been great. It was created by Harlan Ellison, but the final execution was so bad, I think he made them use his Cordwainer Bird pseudonym. The problems were manifold, but mostly stemmed from the show having been sold to Canadian television. As a result, they had to use a certain minimum percentage of Canadian actors, writers, producers, etc., which yanked the whole thing out of Ellison's hands. Then there was a writer's strike. The fail snowballed rapidly.
Marc Rikmenspoel
18. James Davis Nicoll
1: Orphans of the Sky by predated by Leinster's "Proxima Centauri", which is notable not just for being the story that established that all slow interstellar ships eventually have a mission-threatening mutiny but being one of the very few such stories where the mission to reach the target system actually succeeds, although there were one or two difficulties with the natives once they got there.

As it happens, the local video store had Starlost in stock so I rented and reviewed it:
Marc Rikmenspoel
19. Stefan Jones

Metamorphosis Alpha wasn't the first SF roleplaying game, although most of gamerdom would be forgiven for not knowing about Ken St. Andre's Starfaring.

This was, like Tunnels & Trolls, produced by Flying Buffalo Inc.

It was a go-out-and-explore-the-universe game. The fictional background was really odd. I recall the technology was based on crystals -- Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma -- which were tuned and installed in weapons, shield, and power systems.

The design, production, and editing were kind of sketchy.

The artist, Ernest Hogan, went on to become a SF writer.
Marc Rikmenspoel
20. Eugene R.
Those tempted to view The Starlost - and we all know that temptation is a terrible thing ... to waste - should also track down the Ben Bova novel, The Starcrossed, which is a wicked send-up of the TV industry wrapped up with some gentle pokes at Mr. Ellison. Nothing like the scene in which the Harlan lookalike is berating the producers that their scripts look like the results of a contest for high-school students and suddenly noticing that none of them will make eye contact with him ...
Marc Rikmenspoel
21. Saladin Ahmed
@ Stefan: Wow -- a Google search shows me that you were responsible for many happily wasted hours of my youth!

My buddy and his brothers and I played The Pentacle Plot, but I also spent I don't know how much time just poring over Opponents Unlimited. Then I'd sit there and make up villains of my own who never got used in actual games. FWIW, I can draw a straight line from those days w/ sourcebooks to these days publishing fiction. Case in point:

So, twenty-odd years later: thanks for the inspiration!
David Williams
22. DavidJWilliams
Interesting on STARFARING, Stefan. What I can find on the web conflicts....this link says Metamorphosis Alpha beat SF by a few months...

but the RPG encyclopedia agrees with with you.

If you've got more info, I'd be curious.
Marc Rikmenspoel
23. Marv / Finarvyn
I've been a huge METAMORPHOSIS ALPHA fan since the 1970's, and it really is a great game. Jim Ward is very "old school" in his style and it really shows in his game products. A nice review of an old classic!
Marc Rikmenspoel
24. Brian Rogers
I first heard of Metamorphosis Alpha in a book called The 100 Best Hobby Games, where they got 100 game designers to gush about their favorite games. (The rule being they couldn't gush about their own stuff.)
Gary Gygax chose Metamorphosis Alpha as his game to gush about.
Marc Rikmenspoel
25. Stefan Jones
@David: I'm going on 30 year old memories.

BUT . . . could I be remembering that Starfaring came out before Traveller . . . not MA? Those two games are more of a kind than Starfaring and MA.

Early issues of Flying Buffalo's "Supernova" newsletter or "The Space Gamer" might have the answer (as well as lots of other tidbits) but I'm not in the mood to dig through those right now.
Mike Petrucelli
26. mpetruce
Ah, S3 was a favorite of ours, especially since it was another DM who brought it over and we had no idea what was in store until we actually played it.

I am looking forward to when you get to Gamma World (and I am kicking myself for not buying the GW stuff I found on the used shelf at my local game store last year. Oh well, I can always get the kids going on Star Frontiers).
Shelby Michlin
27. BaronGreystone
Thanks for the reviews.

I played and own GW. I wasn't able to come across a copy of MA for many, many years though, and never played it. Not that I wouldn't love to.

At the time though, lots of gamers played "one-shots," rather than full, ongoing campaigns, so I'm not sure I could agree with the postulate that it would somehow doom an rpg to failure.

I own Starship and it's one of my favorite novels.
Marc Rikmenspoel
28. Kurt H.
Bill Armintrout wrote a wonderful article on Metamorphosis Alpha for The Space Gamer back in the day, and you can even read it online, courtesy of and SJG.
Marc Rikmenspoel
29. Craig J. Brain
Metamorphosis Alpha is still being published, these days by WardCo. There are official forums on, and plans to do more with the game involving SignalFire Studios.

Jim Ward has been very sick lately, and WardCo. has released some TIC videos providing updates on his health. (Look for videos entitled Jim Ward I and Jim and the Crop Circles):

BTW I was lucky enough to be given permission by Jim to publish the first official adventure for the game, which was released in October last year.
Marc Rikmenspoel
30. Craig J. Brain
If you are playing in one of Jim Ward’s Metamorphosis Alpha games at GaryCon IV, you might like to use this:
That’s right, the original rules went back into print today!

Little known fact - and an answer to some of the questions above - Metamorphosis Alpha was published on 15 July 1976.
Starfaring was copyrighted in August 1976, and went on sale after that.

Craig J. Brain
Marc Rikmenspoel
31. darjr
Metamorphosis Alpha has a kickstarter to add adventures, a nice big book of the original game with the articles from dragon and other magazines plus now a gm's screen and big poster maps of the warden

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