(x-posted from my journal)
Written by James Ward, Metamorphosis Alpha is the direct ancestor of Gamma World. Radiation, robots, wild mutations, strange lifeforms, it all started here.
"Have you ever encountered a moose with quills? Or a teleporting woodpecker with a double brain and a poison beak? How about a nearly invincible jaguar, complete with the ability to change its body density and emit a sonic shriek, but which fears birds? These are but a small sampling of the mutations which could inhabit the many worlds of METAMORPHOSIS ALPHA.
"A vast starship, a virtual world in itself, carrying colonists, livestock, and the flora and fauna of Terra is struck by a cloud of an unknown form of radiation while enroute to a distant star. Chaos reigns when the radiation kills most of the crew, and in the ensuing madness the knowledge of what the ship is and where its destination lies is lost to the survivors - and there are many survivors. Intelligent mutated animals and plants now populate the vessel, and these compete or perhaps cooperate with the humans aboard.
"In METAMORPHOSIS ALPHA, you are aboard the stricken starship and struggling to survive, trying to gain knowledge of the strange devices and mechanical apparatus of the vessel, attempting to learn the secrets of the strange world you inhabit. As a player, you may be a human or mutant - human or otherwise. Your course is up to your skill and imagination.
"METAMORPHOSIS ALPHA is a role-playing game in the grand tradition of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. If you enjoy the worlds of medieval swords and sorcery, you will love what you find in the fantastic and fascinating worlds of science fiction!"
1976 ... 32 pages ... TSR SF18-R
“MA left a long shadow for such a short-lived game. TSR's Gamma World was the true successor to this game, and it went through four revisions with TSR, plus the abortive Alternity version. MA itself had a short-lived reappearance as a setting for TSR's little used “Amazing Engine” game system. Recently, Jim Ward himself, now working for Fast Forward Games released an updated version of the game, with some new twists on the original material.
“The original Metamorphosis Alpha enjoyed a close relationship with D&D: the preface emphasizes the compatibility of the two systems, an early article in The Dragon gave advice on combining campaigns, and the AD&D module S3, “Expedition to the Barrier Peaks,” was clearly inspired by it.
“The game was a lot of fun, and a new generation may enjoy playing those poor ignorant souls trapped aboard an unthinkably large starship, plunging forever through the void…”
Actually, reading the rules today, it's hard to believe they were written by grown men. Gary Gygax was thirty-eight, James Ward was twenty-five - yet what they created seems not merely marketed to high school kids, but written by them.
You could argue sophistication - that role-playing games were going through their Captain Video phase - but the very next year saw the publication of Traveller, which opened up the entire genre of SF role-playing games as MA never could have.
I think it was more a matter of ignorance - these guys bandied 'radiation' and 'mutation' around like a 1950s drive-in movie because that's what they'd grown up on, that's what they knew - they were not scientists, not biologists or physicists, they were kriegspieleren, game geeks. And the game is interesting, clever; I played it before I played Dungeons & Dragons, and as a fourteen year old, I enjoyed it immensely.
-- Indeed, I confess that it “cast a long shadow” with me also: A story I worked on for a time, and might resume for all I know, involved a band of spacefaring adventurers on an Edgar Rice Burroughs trip, finding a Lost World™ - in the form of a colossal, rotating space structure a hundred and thirty miles across, an artificial world that looks, when they finally get into it, like summer woodlands under a low, heavily overcast sky…