The original Science Fiction RPG adds an instant classic expansion.
When James Ward designed Metamorphosis Alpha, the only RPG to look to for inspiration was Dungeons&Dragons. Ward’s suggestion to Gary Gygax that there should be a “D&D” in space met with an historic retort. “You should do that.” And Ward did. When I look at Metamorphosis Alpha, what strikes me are not the similarities to what Gygax was doing in his rules, but the radical differences. Different mechanics, a completely different outlook on character creation, the absence of experience points and leveling. The original D&D game was a tough one, MA was tougher. And unfortunately, the first SF RPG was also very short-lived. Before a single module or expansion could be written and published, the game’s core concept was altered from a spaceship to a post-apocalyptic Earth. And thus most of us of a certain age played and loved Gamma World, and never even laid eyes on the original MA.
This is why the revival of the original Metamorphosis Alpha has been so gratifying for me. I loved Gamma World, but I interpreted the setting as a Planet of the Apes/Kamandi experience. (I even had a plan for the characters to find the Batcave in the ruins of Gotham City, but they never made it!) The shift in mechanics was very slight from MA to GW. The shift in setting had huge ramifications for the game. The Starship Warden is one of the great treasures of roleplaying gaming, and the loss of that setting was a rare misstep in the glory days of TSR Games. The Gamma World setting was great, and could have survived on its own. Time has demonstrated that both concepts could have been successfully marketed.
Ward was not attempting to create a rules toolkit to simulate the entire SF genre. He was creating a very specific, unique setting based on SF works that he particularly enjoyed. The deadly, surreal, and ultimately claustrophobic nature of the Warden transferred the feel of the megadungeon setting and turned it into SF. Ward planned on every GM creating his own ship. What he didn’t plan on was his version becoming both iconic and a default. And Epsilon City, the jewel of the Warden became one of the great unseen environments in gaming.
Forty years and change onward, and Ward has picked up where he left off. Rules are back in print, adventures and supplements are available, we have a GM screen. And best of all, we have the Epsilon City box set. You remember those? The RPG hobby used to love boxed sets. I loved boxed sets. The form factor alone is enough to make me stop and look.
The Epsilon City box does not so much recall those sets as resembles my adolescent dreams of them. James Ward and Goodman Games have taken the oldest form factor the hobby has to offer and upped the ante. In terms of physical quality, this is far beyond anything that has been offered before. The box is solid, heavy, thick, and remarkably glossy. When you rap on the box it feels like knocking on a door. This alone is a huge leap forward. Even the old Avalon Hill bookcase games have suffered greatly with time and use, and they were the gold standard for the time. That box is going to last for a long, long time. But what of the contents?
The main book is a spiral bound hardcover. This, too, is new to me. The covers fold out revealing the city map on the front and an illustration on the back. The book lays flat on the table no matter where you have the book open to. The main city map is always easy to access. I found myself wishing in the first thirty seconds that all my old school games had been done in this fashion. The design is both strong and practical. Like the box it is housed in, this is a gaming artifact made for the long haul. We have three 11X17 maps on glossy poster stock, a twenty page supplement containing a new character class (the Cyborg), and a 56 page book of adventures. Both books are black and white, and printed on fairly heavy white paper stock. Picture one of the old TSR modules minus the cover, or the old Judge’s Guild books, and you have got the picture.
And that single, 272 page book is really the heart of the whole set. While the box and the extras are nice, this book could stand alone. (Good thing, since we all know that in the fullness of time these sets wind up in pieces.) So how is the book?
It’s dense. The illustrations are excellent, and in the old traditional style, but the star here is the prose. This is Epsilon City, no details omitted. You have a map. You have a key. You have 272 pages of material that tell you exactly what is within the city, the history you need to know, and what goes on there. It is a thing complete. If you look at the streets as corridors and the buildings as rooms/sub-levels (which they are), what you have is a massive, SF themed dungeon. You could set a whole campaign here, and the players would likely never see everything there is to see here. It’s fun just to read. James Ward, Jobe Bittman, Michael Curtis, Jon Hook, and Jim Wampler deserve a lot of kudos for this massive undertaking. It’s an epic environment. Tales of spectacular and gruesome character triumphs and deaths are lurking around every corner. Right now, the box is available and still fairly obscure outside the OSRIC demographic that knew it years ago. It time, the appeal of this evergreen system will broaden and this set is going to be hard to come by. If you were planning on branching out into a science fiction game, I’d heartily recommend this one. It’s the first. It’s my favorite. It’s awesomely brutal and character death is common. For those of you who are accustomed to character survival as the default, this game will provide a white-knuckle thrill you’ve never had before.
Come on down to Epsilon City, kid. Come on down, and let’s see how long you last.