Guest Writer: Kevin Birge
Not Necessarily Beautiful, But Mutated
James M. Ward’s The Mutation Manual supplement for Metamorphosis Alpha
Metamorphosis Alpha was and is my favorite Science Fiction role playing game. This isn’t intended to diminish the quality or reputation of all-time classics like Traveler and Space Opera, which I am also a fan of. Metamorphosis Alpha just suits my temperament better. I love the open-ended premise that allows the GM maximum freedom to expand and create, and I love the lethality of the system. M.A. is not a game you get attached to your characters in. Decades before video games like Dark Souls came along, players including E. Gary Gygax were struggling to get a character to survive long enough to discover the secrets of the Warden. With the exception of Paranoia, where character death is the actual theme of the game, M.A. is very likely the most deadly RPG ever written.
The supremely hilarious irony is that this game is also one of the most fun to create characters for. Character death isn’t really that big a deal because you get to create another character. The key to this is the incredible diversity of possibilities that were jam packed into those rules. Once you get into the Goodman Collector’s Edition that gives you everything that got printed to supplement the original, slender rules set, you really have a deep set of options.
A mutated hedgehog with a genius IQ that send objects back in time and shoot lightning out of his fingers? It can happen. And things can easily get even weirder than that.
You can run a mutated plant. You should run a mutated plant. I’d be trying to convince people to smoke me. What happens? GM choice. Make a luck roll…
And thanks to the good folks at Goodman Games, we have even more. The Mutation Manual is just that, 32 pages of mutations new and old for characters in the Metamorphosis Alpha game. Adding 32 pages of content to a James Ward rules set is like adding five hundred pages with hard covers to anything else. No one does “concise” like Mr. Ward, and what that means to the consumer is value for the dollar. You could spend years gaming this book and not use everything here. As I will note below, this supplement follows a grand and nearly lost tradition.
The book is not entirely comprised of new material, although it has a great deal of it. The book gives you all of the mutations from the rulebook (marked with a black dot in front of them) as well as the new material. This is very good editing, as it eliminates skipping between the rulebook and the Manual in order to see everything. You may want more than one copy for your table, however, to speed things up.
The lists of mutations, when viewed as a whole, reveal that the overall content has more or less tripled from the amount given in the original rulebook. Defects have also been expanded, and if they aren’t designed to make characters more powerful, they do provide some interesting roleplaying possibilities. In a game where your characters chances of survival are rather low, that’s just another source of gusto to go for.
Like the old TSR Rogue’s Gallery and Monster and Treasure Assortments, the Mutation Manual packs a very large amount of useful information into a very small space. This book looks like it could have been released in 1980.
And it should have been.
I’m working from the PDF version for this review, so I can’t comment on the physical quality of the book. I can say that Goodman Games does not print junk. I have a small and growing collection of Goodman product and they are very serious about production values. My assumption is that the printed version is going to survive whatever gaming you throw at it.
The art and design are perfect examples of the old school aesthetic. Mr. Ward and Goodman Games have delivered a perfect simulacrum of a vintage TSR supplement. For those of you who have wondered what might have come had M.A. had not been shelved and allowed to expand, this is a credible and satisfying answer.
The only question now is whether this material will be included in some future revision of the original M.A. rules or remain outside it. Either way, this book is an affordable and essential purchase for anyone who intends to run Metamorphosis Alpha.
And if you haven’t jumped in on this revival of the first edition of the game, you should. Epsilon City is coming as a boxed set, and the bridge of the Warden will be coming out later, as well. The game is actually more vital, alive, and growing than it was in 1980. There has never been a better time to jump aboard the Warden and experience the greatest SF roleplaying game ever written.
Worth noting as a general rule: if it say James M. Ward on the cover it’s a safe purchase. I’ve had decades to test this and the rule has never been wrong.