With D&D Gamma World released in October, we were thrilled to ask a few questions of the game’s original designer, James M. Ward. During his time at TSR, James Ward published the industry’s first science-fiction roleplaying game in 1976, Metamorphosis Alpha. The game in fact continues to this day, hosted at: www.metamorphosisalpha.net.
In 1978, James Ward and co-designer Gary Jaquet went on to create Gamma World—bringing the adventures within Metamorphosis Alpha’s Starship Warden planet-side… specifically, to a post-apocalyptic Earth, where nothing was seemingly out of the ordinary.
Our gratitude goes out to James M. Ward. Without his games, there wouldn’t be a D&D Gamma World for us to enjoy today!
Wizards of the Coast: Can we start with the names? Where did you come up with “Metamorphosis Alpha” and “Gamma World”?
James M Ward: Gary Gygax was always a great fan of Metamorphosis Alpha (before the game even had a name) and he and I were sitting around trying to think of the first name for it. We both agreed that some type of "change" should be in the name because in the way I ran the game there were a lot of characters mutating. He and I traded several ideas back and forth, and as I recall it I came up with “Metamorphosis,” and Gary liked “Alpha,” thus making it: "Changing First."
When it came time to name Gamma World, we continued the Greek and went with the idea that it was on a world and not a ship.
Wizards: Brian Aldiss’s debut novel has been cited as an influence on Metamorphosis Alpha. Were there other cultural influences may have helped drive creation of Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World?
Starship was the name of the Brian Aldiss book I read. But in those days there were lots of different stories from which I drew good ideas: Heinlein had a novel (Orphans in the Sky), for example, and lots of others did as well. I was an avid post-apocalypse reader and read every one of those books I could get. Those novels helped me create Gamma World. I also want to say that I had a lot of great help from the 'then' TSR staff.
Gamma World was described in a Dragon Magazine article as meeting the desire to move from ship to planet. Why the decision to base the planet on a post-apocalyptic Earth, as opposed to a sci-fi world created out of whole cloth? This seemed a much different approach from D&D which—while medieval fantasy—avoided real world references.
Gamma World is a completely different treatment from Metamorphosis Alpha. It was decided, "not by me" that Metamorphosis Alpha was light role-playing and Gamma World was to be a more serious effort. Since I was in the midst of reading lots of post-apocalyptic novels, the ideas from those books flew from my fingers into the Gamma World game.
Gamma World’s wackier tone also set it apart from D&D—with its mutant chickens, rabbits, and the yexil which loved to eat clothes (to name just a few things). What led to designing Gamma World with a more humorous approach, as opposed to straight/hard sci-fi? Was there any resistance from taking this direction?
JMW: Sigh, I'm very glad you asked this question. The idea to make Gamma World wackier was not mine. It came from several designers from the TSR staff. On the other hand, I never considered a 9-foot tall humanoid rabbit that could turn all metal into rubber—wacky. This might be an area where I have blinders. I went along with the wacky material because I had lots of other things to do in those days. In hindsight, I should have used some editorial brakes on some of that material.
(From Steve Winter: One example can be found early in the 1st Edition Gamma World rulebook. For the overland maps: “the scale of the hex is roughly 43.7 kilometers (27.3 miles) from side-to-side.” Where did these bizarrely specific measurements come from? Those were simply the cartographer’s idea of a joke.)
Wizards: What type of gaming experience were you looking for with Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World? If D&D was meant to elicit high heroic fantasy, was there more of a deadlier experience in Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World by design? On your website, it even states that you have an unfair reputation for total party kills!
JMW: Please keep in mind that in 1976 roleplaying was shiny and new. Even the concept of a "gaming experience" wasn't talked about at all. When I designed Metamorphosis Alpha, I wanted a science-fiction version of D&D that was an outer space dungeon. I fully expected people to buy the product and create their own starships. Imagine my complete surprise when almost everyone created their own Starship Warden.
I worked hard to make Metamorphosis Alpha different enough from D&D so that it was its own game. That's why the game uses three 6-sided dice among other things. I have never thought of MA as a deadlier version of D&D because of my players: Gary Gygax and his gaming group rarely had a character die while he was playing the game. I was completely taken aback when convention group after convention group died to a man while playing the game. Roleplaying experience is vital to surviving MA.
Wizards: Gary Gygax once wrote that he teleported his players aboard the Starship Warden, and they were terrified to be there. Do you have any favorite memories of early games, character demise, or outright wonder by players first making their way through these sci-fi gaming experiences?
JMW: I had the great pleasure of gaming with Gary often, and to this day—after playing with literally thousands of DMs—Gary is still by far the best in my mind. One night our group came over to his house to play with our mid-level characters. We were deep in the dungeon when we encountered a new portal to somewhere. Mind you, earlier portals led to King Kong island, and Alice in Wonderland, and even to the dierder fields of a Jack Vance novel. We were all excited by this new portal.
After our clerics determined we wouldn't die instantly if we entered and we took what we thought were proper precautions, we all jumped in. Gary stood up from his DM chair and grabbed an NPC dwarf character that was along with the party and told everyone I would be running the rest of the adventure. In total surprise I asked how I could to that. With a huge grin on his face, Gary announced to us all that the group had been transported to the Starship Warden. With a groan, I went to my car and pulled out my materials and watched as my favorite half elf warrior/mage adventured on the ship, probably never to see Greyhawk again. ::using a hanky, wipes tears from my eyes in memory of that fine character::
Wizards: Some D&D players recall Expedition to the Barrier Peaks as their first experience of science-fiction in their games. How did Barrier Peaks connect with Metamorphosis Alpha? Was the crashed spaceship intended to replicate or introduce Starship Warden to the Dungeons & Dragons?
JMW: Gary was always doing nice things for people. In those early days of roleplaying, I was the first person to suggest that he had to do a science-fiction version of D&D. Gary, not knowing if I had any writing talent at all, said, why don't you give it a try Jim? While I was working on my version of Metamorphosis Alpha, he had been writing Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. I'm sure his idea would have been a fallback position if I had screwed up royally. Lucky for me, he really enjoyed my version of the science-fiction game.
Wizards: Part of the fun in Barrier Peaks came from D&D players finding power armor and laser guns. This is of course a huge element in Gamma World as well—finding powerful weapons (“Artifacts of the Ancients”). Were you ever worried about the damage players could inflict on the world running around with missiles and neutron bombs? As a side note, where did the concept of the black ray gun come from (listed as the “ultimate handheld weapon”)?
JMW: The first question deals with power gaming. I've gone on record as being taught everything I know about gaming from Gary Gygax. There is a huge faction of gamers who believe Gary was a conservative DM. I say, he wasn't. I'm the Monty Haul-style of gamer that loves giving my players everything they can and can't handle. Gary's style was a few levels below that, but he liked giving out stuff, and I'll tell you why. In those infant days of gaming, he had no idea what was too much. Decks of Many Things, Staves of Power, Rings of Three Wishes… these were all new and needed to be tested. If something broke the game, it didn't get used any more. Gary couldn't be miserly in his DMing, because he had to find out what worked and what didn't. In all of my refereeing efforts, I've never seen a character destroy a game by getting too much stuff.
As for the second question: I invented the Gamma World black ray gun as the ultimate weapon. The ray kills any protein material it touches. I just wanted to make something that was far and away the biggest, baddest thing available. Where did I get the idea? It just came to me when I was writing that section. I don't think I've read about it, elsewhere.
Wizards: Alternatively, why did you go with a system in Metamorphosis Alpha that featured few outright lethal weapons?
JMW: I think you will find that the weapon systems of all the versions of Metamorphosis Alpha are pretty tough. The MA style is, however, much more about mutations and their powers, than science-fictiony equipment.
Gamma World character creation also reveled in its random mutations, from quills and spins, to wings, to dual brains. If you happened into this world, is there a favorite mutation you wouldn't mind having yourself?
JMW: I'm sure I would last about 15 minutes no matter what mutations I had in Gamma World. I'm a huge fan of Life Leech. I also like mutations that allow me to absorb energy states.
Metamorphosis Alpha currently exists in its 4th Edition. What’s remained from the first version, and where have you taken the game since? And there are plans for a 5th Edition as well?
JMW: 1st and 4th Editions are online for sale. All of the 1st Edition is in the 4th Edition with lots more detail. There are lots of fun things planned for Metamorphosis Alpha at the present time. I have a producer talking about a television show. (Naturally, I’ll believe that happens when I see the first episode on my own TV.) On our website, we talk up all versions of the MA game and have a free newsletter that comes out a couple times a year. There are groups still making MA figures. We have modules coming out several times a year. Another group I'm talking to is trying to get a comic started up. Plus, I have two different MA novel outlines I'm trying to work on while I also attempt to pay the mortgage and eat on a regular basis!
JMW: I appreciate all the questions and I hope this helped to clear a few things up.
Bart Carroll has been a part of Wizards of the Coast since 2004, and a D&D player since 1980 (and has fond memories of coloring the illustrations in his 1st Edition Monster Manual). He currently works as producer for the D&D website. You can find him on Twitter (@bart_carroll).