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David Williams

Reexamining the old-school RPGs: Top Secret

By the end of the seventies, TSR was a juggernaut, riding astride D&D to dominate a proliferating marketplace of RPGs. But while D&D was the 800 pound gorilla in the TSR portfolio, the company experienced mixed success in launching games set in other milieus. Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World have already been discussed, but it wasn’t until 1980 that TSR made the logical next move, unveiling a game set in our own world. Cold War espionage offered a wide purview for world-building and adventures, and thus Top Secret was born.

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Re-examining the old-school RPGs: Module S3, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

Generally I’ll be discussing individual RPGs rather than specific modules, but AD&D module S3 holds such an important position in RPG history that I think an exception is warranted. Particularly as it constitutes the “missing link” behind the two games I’ve discussed most recently, Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World. Ironically, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was originally conceived as a marketing tactic: in the spring of 1976, with TSR putting the finishing touches on Metamorphosis, Gary Gygax was pondering the problem of how best to introduce that science fiction game to the growing legions of D&D fans. MA creator James Ward had already game-mastered scenarios in which D&D parties were swept through rips in the space-time fabric to the world of the starship Warden; Gygax reversed this, conceiving of a tournament adventure in which science fiction came to the world of Greyhawk.

But in so doing, he needed something more accessible than Rob Kunz’ infamous “machine level” in Castle Greyhawk, where high-tech inventions vied with sorcery as part of what’s probably the largest dungeon ever made. Trying to “productize” Greyhawk would have been a titanic undertaking; even now, more than thirty years later, only the merest fragment of Castle Greyhawk has reached the marketplace. Gygax was looking for something more manageable—a single adventure that could be played out in classic tournament fashion.

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Re-examining the old-school RPGs: Gamma World

The ink on Metamorphosis Alpha wasn’t even dry before Jim Ward was turning to Gamma World. The Warden was no longer an isolated catastrophe; the canvas had expanded—or rather, shifted—and the Earth that sent that ship forth had collapsed back into the dark ages. Savvy designer that he was, Ward extended our world’s timeline out from the present some two hundred years so as to allow for the wreckage of a shiny futuristic society rather than just some shabby mirror of our own.

Though it seemed familiar enough anyway. For us children of the cold war, nuclear destruction was always just around the corner, and Gamma World was well positioned to tap into a rich vein of cultural anxiety. But whereas books and movies about the apocalypse were a dime a dozen, it took science fiction to envision the aftermath amidst the ruins. Ward had plenty of choices for inspiration here; chief among these were Andre Norton’s enduring classic Star Man’s Son and Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse (just as that latter writer’s Nonstop had influenced the predicament of the Warden). From these influences emerged something raw and savage, shot through with the same kind of mad zaniness that had pervaded Metamorphosis Alpha.

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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

Traveller: Reexamining the old-school RPGs

This post is the first in a series dedicated to role-playing games. Old-school role-playing games.  Back when you had to, yanno, use pens and pencils.  And dice.

I know better than to start with Dungeons and Dragons. We need to work our way there in easy stages….

So why not kick things off with Traveller? Its 1977 publication established Marc Miller’s Game Designers’ Workshop as a force that even TSR would have to reckon with, particularly as the game quickly outgunned TSR’s own science fiction contender, Gamma World. Turns out that swashbuckling space opera resonated more than a scenario in which Earth had been microwaved and a bunch of mutants were left to fight over the scraps. One can speculate that perhaps in the Cold War throes of the 1970s/1980s, post-apocalyptic environments seemed a little too real. A dose of healthy escapism was in order.

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