Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Metamorphosis Alpha Vs. Gamma World - A Lesson in What Creator Ownership Can Do

As part of my recent 50th birthday (wooooo lucky me) I ordered all of the Metamorphosis Alpha stuff on Goodman Games' webstore. This includes a deluxe edition for the aging eyes of the special edition rulebook (still waiting for that to arrive) along with a glorious boxed set for Epsilon City and a medley of interesting mini modules and rules plug ins that were all part of the Kickstarter a few years back.

Unlike Gamma World, the ownership of Metamorphosis Alpha, the world's first SF RPG back in 1976, returned to or was retained by it's creator, James, M. Ward. Over the years Ward has attempted various reboots and reprints of the product line, with the last "official" product from TSR being the Amazing Engine powered Metamorphosis Alpha to Omega, which was also coincidentally the last version of the game I ran. 

Ward's savvy as a businessman to retain the rights to his creation (and TSR's enigmatic failure to go draconian....I guess it was early TSR, so they hadn't yet hit full draconian levels yet) worked out well, in the long run. Although the products of Metamorphosis Alpha have at times been either flawed, niche or hard to find, it's remained its own tiny cottage industry of the OSR before anyone had even coined the term, a game eagerly sought out by those in the know, even if we were few.

Gamma World, by contrast, remained TSR's and then WotC's red headed step child for most of its publishing existence, eventually being handed off under license to White Wolf in the early 00's after being ignominiously morphed into an Alternity product, a magazine back article, and eventually a 4th edition D&D-powered beer & pretzels game where the goal was to make the version of Gamma World that reflected the zeitgeist of design for the time. Unfortunately, even for the first four editions of Gamma World, it has more or less been "the other game system," generally written as closely as possible with D&D compatibility in mind.

Even more interesting is how with each revision Gamma World's underlying thematics changed, sometimes ever so slightly (3rd and 4th editions, laboring under the love of Mad Max tried to get a bit more serious), then more profoundly as we had a brief epoch in SF gaming in which the idea of irradiated mutants being fun was overcast by the need to make it Oh So Serious (White Wolf's D20 edition), and in turn seeing the clock not only reset but break completely with the 4E-powered Gamma World which somehow managed to bring back the zanniness while still refusing to directly acknowledge the bleak but gonzo future of the earlier editions, in favor of something more akin to a hyper-charged anime cartoon's logic as if that was somehow better. Maybe it was? 

The point though is that Gamma World, with each iteration, was forced to change to a combination of external pressures: what edition of D&D was floating around at the moment, what the feeling on gonzo post-apocalyptic science fantasy was at that moment, what the publisher thought they needed the product to do and what marketing thought would sell. Gamma World was tugged in a lot of directions.

Moreover, Gamma World now lingers as an unevolved license in WotC/Hasbro's repertoire, not quite famous enough to be considered for revival, and too different from other D&D properties to be revived in the narrow schedule and hyper-aware marketing driven focus of D&D 5th edition. Sure, it is possible Gamma World could be an amazing product with an 8th edition of the game based on D&D 5E, but to do that WotC would have to have confidence it would sell, and even more confidence it would not anger the fans (and the concerned press that aren't really fans but need outrage clicks).

Metamorphosis Alpha, on the other hand, has none of those worries and effectively managed to Kickstart its way to a reprint of the original in all its glory with a metric ton of welcome support. As recently as this last month it's even released a new module, Doom on the Warden, which acts as a grand "Part II" to the Warden's long journey through space. As a setting and product it manages to retain its own identity and its own consistency, and even the unusual deviations (such as the Amazing Engine edition or Signal Fire Studios' odd duck) are remarkably faithful in intent and design. 

Not only is Metamorphosis Alpha still available and in print to play in its original form from 1976, but its later iterations remain closely faithful to the rules and vision of the original, and this consistency means that while someone who played Gamma World over the years might experiences some version of the game, it may not be terribly close to the experience someone else had with a different edition in a different era. But for MA gamers? Very like the differences in their gaming experiences are due to the quirks of the madman--er, GM behind the screen.

Sometimes a creator doesn't know where to go or what to do with the thing which he or she created, but as often as not, they do. James Ward's achievement with Metamorphosis Alpha is 45 years old this year, and I think his dedication to his creation is both admirable and fruitful. There are even a series of fiction anthologies dedicated to the travails of the denizens on Starship Warden (search Amazon!) and all of it retains a core vision that has stood the test of time. So we have an example of a franchise done right by its creator, and in sharp contrast to the one that was left behind. 

With any luck, maybe in some smoke-filled back room somewhere Goodman Games is hammering out a deal with WotC to do a "Reincarnated" edition of classic Gamma World, and maybe James Ward will get a chance to step in on it. One can only imagine how great a return to the clarity of the original vision would be with Gamma World. Fingers crossed....I wish I had insider info on this, but alas I only have a firm suggestion to those who are keeping the golden age of RPGs alive: the original Gamma World would be a great game to get the licensing for, to bring it back the way the Metamorphosis Alpha and the D&D Reincarnated modules have done. 

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