Way back in the day—1976!—a little company recently named TSR Hobbies published a little roleplaying game. It’s not the roleplaying game they’re most famous for—that would be Dungeons & Dragons, mom—but one important for its place as the first science-fiction roleplaying game (and predecessor to the more successful and more popular Gamma World): Metamorphosis Alpha.
The game takes place on a generation starship named Warden, struck by an unknown event that killed most of the colonists and crew, released most of the life-forms it carried, and left them careening about in space. The characters are descendants of the survivors, part of a primitive culture which believes the ship to be their world, unable to comprehend the technology around them. Their “world” is filled with strange plants and mutant animals that rove its metal floors and lurk between its many layers; the characters must progress, finding new and interesting “lost” technological devices and fighting off successively more dangerous mutants and rogue robots. In short: it’s a dungeon crawl on a wasted spaceship.
It’s an interesting idea; at this point, D&D was just a glorified dungeon crawl, and dropping that into a science-fiction milieu was a great take on the dungeon-crawling RPG. The setting, as creator Jim Ward is quick to point it, was heavily influenced by an earlier science fiction novel: the 1958 novel Non-Stop by British writer Brian Aldiss, retitled Starship (idiotic title) when it released in the States.
The similarities are legion. (Spoilers, but the North American title is one of the biggest spoilers here.) The novel takes place on a generation ship that, centuries ago, was struck by cosmic radiation, killing most of the crew; the survivors degenerated into a primitive society living in the growing ‘ponics (hydroponics), beneath constant fluorescent lights and between rusting metal walls and decks. The characters are all from one primitive tribe, led by their local priest on a quest to find the mythical control room (thanks to the priest’s light fingers and questionable morals, he purloined an ancient deck-plan schematic). In many ways, it’s a reaction to Heinlein’s Orphans in the Sky.
As the novel progresses, it introduces some weird-ass elements, such as a race of technologically advanced giants living in secret passageways between the decks (with knockout-gas pellets and future-weapons), or the collective of intelligent rats that have captured some of the more passive animals with psychic talents (rabbits) and attempt to use them to interrogate the protagonist.
Most reviewers comment on the “weird shit” ratio in the book that defies suspension of disbelief; maybe I had Metamorphosis Alpha in mind, but it all made too much sense to me. It’s the calculated weirdness I’d expect in an RPG. Non-Stop hinted at the crazy, where Metamorphosis Alpha went full-bore gonzo with weirdness, introducing things like the ancient robots with corrupted AI systems, and the various plants which have developed sentience and mobility.
The book is eminently readable; it has some stoic and clunky prose at points, but it’s one of the best 1950s SF books money can buy. The plot and characters are well done; the pacing is odd—a large middle section spends time wandering around exploring, then the third act is a rapid-fire finale of unexpected awesomeness—but it’s a book worth tracking down. I read and reviewed it back in January if you’re curious. It’s a win-win on two fronts: excellent reading, and a good look back at RPG history and inspiration.
As for Metamorphosis Alpha? It’s always been one of my favorite ideas, even if its execution and rules were clunky and unexceptional across all four of its editions. (There’s a reason most people don’t remember it.) While its similarities with dungeon-crawling are unmistakable—a mythic underworld of monsters and treasure, but IN SPACE—I prefer Metamorphosis Alpha because its questions and answers run a bit deeper. A dungeon inevitably has players asking what’s in the next room? followed by who put all this stuff here?, and Metamorphosis Alpha one-ups that with why did it get to be in the shape it is? and can we do anything about it?—two questions Non-Stop answers in a hard and unique way. And it’s those layered questions, the players trying to unravel their decayed history and fix their horrible situation, that moves the game from “dungeon in space” to something greater.
When you get to the end of a dungeon, you fight Diablo and either die in a horrible fashion or get a pile of swag for your efforts. I’d like to think there’s a control room at the end of Metamorphosis Alpha. Whether or not the players have figured out a way to use it, of course…