Thursday, December 18, 2014

Mashup: Holmes D&D and Metamorphosis Alpha

I love the Holmes rulebook, and I often wonder why I have so much affection for it. Part of it is simply that Dave Sutherland cover; the art is not polished but it is completely evocative, both in color and in the monochrome blue. (I particularly love the blue book look.)

But it's the potential in the incomplete work that draws me in. The Holmes booklet allows the DM to run a few games of D&D, but not a full campaign. Meepo's Companion is an easy fix, and fills out levels 4 through 9 in just four pages. From that basis, unorthodox "supplements" to the Holmes rulebook are one of my favorite thought experiments. It allows you to have a basis that is 100% classic Dungeons & Dragons, but change everything outside that core and create something totally different.

Of course, it helps that TSR published something totally different from D&D just a year before Holmes Basic. Just re-released as a super-deluxe book by Goodman Games, Metamorphosis Alpha is a wild game of exploration in a generation starship that has gone horribly wrong. Radiation killed most of the people on board, and the survivors have reverted to barbarism. There are weird animal mutants, deadly plants and high-tech weapons and gadgets abounding in the setting. It's a decided alternative to the stereotypical post-nuclear apocalypse world that, for instance, appears in Jim Ward's later Gamma World. MA gives nigh-magical powers through mutations, and cares not for hard science.

The games are both focused on exploration, and as such make a natural pairing. The mutants and high technology of MA are excellent variants on the overly-familiar fantasy tropes supported in Dungeons & Dragons, while D&D's framework is fundamentally similar to MA's, to the point where MA has been called a "megadungeon in space." And while MA has some wild and awesome ideas, D&D is more of a sustainable campaign game.

MA's system is very nearly in scale with classic D&D, and uses similar systems of armor, weapon, and hit dice. Its characters don't advance, and get hit points as a direct function of Constitution (1d6 per point). This is similar to an eighth level D&D fighting-man using the Holmes Companion, so it stands to reason that the tougher MA creatures will be at the lower dungeon levels, with only a scattering of mutants in the first levels. Jim Ward's game is notoriously tough, and even with D&D levels and spells it's still not a walk in the park.

Look at the Tom Wham "Skull Mountain" dungeon layout:

This is a perfect fit for a D&D/MA mashup. I picture the early levels being fairly straightforward D&D type affairs, with hints of more – a stray mutant or two, a piece of inexplicable technology here and there. Then level 4A is the first level with serious numbers of Metamorphosis Alpha style mutations as well as D&D monsters, while 4B focuses on some of the tougher "fantasy" baddies. Then the 5th and 6th levels have some serious high-tech artifacts as well as some of the humanoid mutations of MA, and progressively meaner creatures. Finally the 7th level - the "Domed City" - is a high tech city straight out of Metamorphosis Alpha. A twist suggested by Zach H of Zenopus Archives is to have the whole of Skull Mountain be aboard MA's Starship Warden.

I like this setup because it takes TSR's two "lightest" rulesets, and links them together in what I feel is a largely organic way. For instance, it would be perfectly fun to have PCs roll up a Radiation Resistance score the very first time they actually encounter radiation. Mental Resistance can be converted from Wisdom, and Leadership from Charisma. And it merges the "big reveal" style of MA with the "secret at the heart of the dungeon" aspect that D&D always promises but it turns out to be a chute to China.

(If you read that link, or if you know your classic Dragon magazines, you know that Gygax did send PCs to the Warden; here we are talking about the opposite, using MA as the "reveal" at the deeper levels of D&D.)

The mashup has some great potential for chocolate/peanut butter type mixtures. First, factions in a large-scale dungeon transition naturally into some of the classic MA bad guys: wolfoids and androids, particularly, are classic MA villains. Technology, particularly Brian Blume's Bionics table from The Dragon (Jeff Rients reproduced it here) could be a lot of fun when applied to D&D monsters. Imagine a hobgoblin with a bionic arm, or a hyper-intelligent ogre with bionic eyes and brain. Mutations, too – I mean, come on, you can have kobolds that fire frickin' lasers from their eyes. Meanwhile the D&D magic items gain particular effect in MA; after all, think of the power of a single Ring of Animal Control over the mutated beasts of MA. Not to mention the visual of, say, a bearoid wielding a flaming sword.

Part of why I think I'm enjoying this particular blend of sci-fi and fantasy over the more sword and planet ideas I've explored in the past is that it's a very human-centric game, and rooted firmly in RPG history. It also lives up to the sci-fi elements that were present in the original edition of D&D but disappeared shortly thereafter. I like it enough that I think it's worth pursuing further and looking at some of the places where the two games intersect in the most interesting ways.


  1. I was actually kicking around the idea while writing this post of doing it entirely from levels 1-3 in Holmes as written, and giving PCs their CON score as bonus hit points at first level. But I like Meepo's Companion enough and it seems to give the right HP range as PCs go down the dungeon (assuming that dungeon level is similar to PC level).

  2. In case you don't know, there's a brief article by Ward about just this kind of thing in Dragon 18.


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