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Old-school old and old-school new

January 28, 2012

Last week I received a parcel from Lulu. Thanks, Lulu!

Now, although I was certainly aware of Jim Ward’s Metamorphosis Alpha (Gygax mentions it in his DMG and then there was Expedition to the Barrier Peaks), I never read or played it back in the day. I don’t think I ever met anyone who did. Maybe it wasn’t popular (or easily obtained) in the UK. (Please, someone correct me if I’m wrong.) Also, my introduction to RPGs took place in early 1983 and by that time MA was seven years old and we had cool new stuff like Call of Cthulhu to occupy our attention.

We never played Ward’s Gamma World either. Clearly we missed out.

Anyway, fast-forward nearly three decades and suddenly the first edition of Metamorphosis Alpha (including a couple of pages of errata and an adventure outline) is available again in print for under a tenner. I believe this is what they call a no-brainer. (What I call a no-brainer is a zombie made from the reanimated corpse of a mind flayer victim, but that’s not germane to this post.) Furthermore, I understand that Jim Ward has been seriously ill and that his medical expenses are considerable. I don’t know exactly how much WardCo makes from sales of the book on Lulu, but something is better than nothing. So of course I bought it.

I remember reading a music paper in 1982 that contained a review of Peter Gabriel’s then-new single “Shock the Monkey” and the reviewer said something like, “Gabriel walks the fine line between genius and churning out a load of old cobblers.” Some of the best, most hardcore old-school RPGs were like that (I’m looking at you, Arduin!) and Metamorphosis Alpha is clearly among them. I haven’t had time to read the book all the way through, but here are my initial thoughts:

– The starship Warden is a great setting. Enormous decks for city or wilderness adventuring. Labyrinthine tunnel systems between the decks for dungeon delving. Ward provides the necessary background exposition in a few paragraphs of text on the first page. A 50-mile-long colony ship. A cloud of weird space radiation. Disaster. Death. Mutation. It’s all good.

– Damage or system failure aboard an interstellar ark leading to ignorance and barbarism in a high-tech environment is a fertile concept for SF and/or fantasy adventure. I’ve never read Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky but I’ve enjoyed Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop (published as Starship in the US, where they don’t mind spoilers apparently), Harry Harrison’s Captive Universe, and Gene Wolfe’s Long Sun series.

– The description of the environments covering the vast surface area of the Warden’s seventeen levels is two pages long! The typeface is tiny, admittedly, but still, this section is such a masterpiece of concision that it makes your average one-page dungeon look like Dragon Mountain. Moreover, Ward specifically states that the descriptions given are examples only, and encourages the referee to redesign the Warden’s interior  “so that players will be unaware of its layout and will be able to learn its details only by exploration” – old-school mindset ahoy!

– I’m not sure how I’d handle the mental mutation Time Field Manipulation. Time travel is a tricky thing in RPGs.

– The illustrations are all by that stalwart TSR artist/cartographer, Dave C. Sutherland III. I’ve never been a big fan of Sutherland’s style, although it is as old-school as old-school gets. I do like the fact that several pictures depict characters getting into trouble (as they should), and this image in particular looks like a TPK in panicky progress:

– I can’t find Sutherland credited anywhere in the book. (Again, if I’m wrong, let me know.)

– Cougaroids, bearoids, and wolfoids? To a Skyrealms of Jorune fan like myself, those three mutant races seem awfully familiar. James of Grognardia says in his post on Skyrealms of Jorune that its game setting evolved from a heavily hacked Metamorphosis Alpha campaign. I’ll eat my hat if Jorune’s uplifted animals – crugar, bronth, and woffen – aren’t conscious homages to MA. That would answer (at least partly) one of the questions I sometimes asked myself about Skyrealms of Jorune: why did Iscin uplift cougars, bears, and wolves rather than, say, gorillas or chimps? Answer: because Andrew Leker was tipping his hat to Jim Ward.

– Still, cougars to colonise another world? Why? What were they thinking? Every ecologist knows that cougars cause all kinds of bloody nuisance.

Anyway, it’s hugely enjoyable on many levels (if you’ll excuse the pun), and I’m glad to be able to buy it in print form without paying silly money on eBay or the like. As the more eagle-eyed among you will have noticed, I also purchased NOD 12, in which the extraordinarily prolific John M. Stater not only continues his massive hexcrawl of Hell but also provides the inspirational bare bones of a post-apocalyptic truck driver/road warrior campaign called Mutant Truckers. Amazing stuff, and even if you don’t want to send your players to Hell (why would you not?) this book’s 140 pages are chock-full of flavourful ideas and encounters that are easily adaptable to other settings. I’ll leave you with an example (chosen at random):

2.106 Troupe: A troupe consisting of five drow overseers and their master, Qodvigo, and 13 enslaved ophidian dancing girls. The troupe is gradually picking their way through the ooze-filled tunnel using picturesque wagons painted with phosphorescent paint (skeletons, owls, the words “Master Q’s Traveling Show”) and supported on four spindly elephant legs.

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