Saturday, December 27, 2014

Actual Play: Running Metamorphosis Alpha

Since I have time off over the holidays, I wanted to make sure I got at least one really prime game in, and for months I've been wanting that to be Metamorphosis Alpha. So I finally got that done today, and a game has gone right from my to-play list to the list of games I really enjoy.

I had no idea what MA would actually be like in play, but Tim Kask's introduction to the new Goodman Games edition really defined some of the delightful moments: it gets a bit into cultural anthropologists as you explain high-tech things to players like they're the tribal barbarians their player characters are meant to be.

I loved mixing this with known science, which I think is why so many Gamma World games went into "modern plus apocalypse" rather than the "future plus apocalypse" that it was supposed to. I mean, an iPhone is basically a strange rectangle where one side is glass and the other is metal, and it has one button. (And when a PC pressed the button, an icon displaying no battery power came up. Familiar to anyone?)

The random Round House Modular Dwelling Unit generator in Craig J. Brain's module The House on the Hill helped generate some priceless moments. I think the players really enjoyed the discovery process with a packet of salt & vinegar potato chips that came out of the food machine and were a theme for the rest of the adventure. The RHMDU is a brilliant place to explore; the PCs actually got into the administrative center for a bit because of a laser pistol they had found.

Brian Blume's bionics (reproduced in the Goodman edition) made a really threatening NPC who got offed with the laser pistol - it did him a ton of damage, even more than he did with his bionic arm and vibro-sword. And I wound up using Jim Ward's forest level from Dungeoneer (also in the Goodman tome) when the PCs left the confines of the level I had designed. Both the Goodman book and House on the Hill pulled their weight.

One detail I really enjoyed playing out was that the PCs, in the RHMDU, found "casual clothing" - which I decided had them going around in "Starship Warden" t-shirts. I might need to petition WardCo to actually make some because I'm just so tickled by the idea. I also enjoyed the PCs finding out that the radiation-riddled "Forbidden Zone" was really, well, forbidden and not just somewhere the PCs' parents had warned them against.

The session ended in disaster because the PCs found explosives, which I described pretty clearly as C4. I know, I could've gone with something else, but it's so much more fun to run with something you can really get into describing. Plus, there's electrical effects abound in the game, and given that C4 is activated by electricity it only seemed fitting. This was what did the PCs in, as the electrified shed in the Dungeoneer level and a PC's ability to generate electricity both combined with the C4 and blew the PCs and the shed to kingdom come. (Two PCs technically survived because, as a G+ Hangout game, their players dropped out before the grand finale.)

The ending was appropriate given that it was a one-shot; I see MA as perfect for one-shots, or maybe a "mini-series" planned campaign. It was based on novels which are fairly brief, and relies heavily on the theme of discovery. I could also very much see it blending into D&D as I discussed in my last post. Because it isn't class-and-level based, players can get to the really good stuff right in their first or second adventure, and don't need to go through a grind of level building.

It deserves some mention that the system is more rough hewn than even OD&D. The organization of the rulebook is awful, especially given that the WardCo and Goodman reprints both contain errata-ed versions of most of the essential tables that you use to run the game. (And don't get me started on the fact that the mutations are in basically arbitrary order.) The lacunae don't really matter much, though, because the system is simply so light that an experienced referee can just make a ruling and not change the game at all. The material that is present works quite well, but it's not a game to be run by a neophyte.

One hint for the prospective referee: you should have stats for any NPCs or monsters you're using. The game runs a lot more smoothly when, at a minimum, they have Mental Resistance and Dexterity scores, and at that point you might as well give them Constitution, Strength and Radiation Resistance.

Metamorphosis Alpha is going through the best period of support in its lifetime, thanks to Goodman Games and WardCo.  It's very different from the D&D experience, but it is really worth giving a try in play. MA is really good for gamers who've played a lot of D&D and want the excitement of fresh discovery, really specializing in that aspect of play, and because of how it's structured it doesn't require a commitment of months or years to a campaign.


  1. Thanks for that. Now that it's all there again for anyone to download or buy, we need more analyses and play reports. I have the straight reprint from Lulu. Am I missing anything crucial from the (RPGNow?) version with the Tim Kask introduction that you have?

    1. The Goodman reprint version is not available as a PDF and, for rights issues, probably will not be. They will sell print copies, I think, once the Kickstarter copies are all out. You can buy one at Noble Knight:

      There is a lot of material in that book that is reprinted from early issues of Dragon Magazine and some other . One of the really excellent pieces is from the old Dungeoneer magazine, reproducing a whole level written up by Jim Ward during the '70s.

      Goodman is also going to unleash a tidal wave of new products for MA onto the market. You can see them here:
      I believe all of these will be available for non-backers as well.

  2. And it is a gorgeous book as a physical artifact. It deserves to be held in the hand (well, two hands, because it's so large). You can already find most of the component contents in pdf here and there; the value is in the physical product that brings them all together, and the obvious love that went into producing it.

  3. Great to see an Actual Play for the second or third RPG I ever owned. I've loved generation ships since reading Orphans of the Sky in the late 60s/early 70s (and then fell in love with The Starlost - I admit it!), so this game has always been special for me. Never could get anyone to play it, but that will change soon!

  4. How big is the font in the Goodman Games reprint? I could never play the original Metamorphosis Alpha because of the ridiculously tiny print.

    1. The text is enlarged roughly 10% from the original. It's noticeably bigger but not as large as you'd think given the massive size of the reprint book (which is the size of a coffee table book).

  5. Thank you for the kind review and sharing this with others.


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