Monday, November 26, 2012

The Beanstalk: An Alternate Setting for Metamorphosis Alpha/Gamma World

Much as I love the venerable Metamorphosis Alpha, I was never too taken by the setting of the Starship Warden. The design of the ship (essentially a bunch of large oval decks stacked atop one another) never really called out to me. It's almost... pedestrian... compared to the promise of the game itself.

The Ark
The starship Ark, from the 1973 tv series The Starlost, on the other hand, struck me very much as a fascinating design, and one which would seem custom-built for a game of this sort. There are dozens of self-sufficient domes, each isolated from the others, in which unique cultures have evolved over the years since the fateful accident that wiped out the command crew and set the ship adrift. That always struck me as a better design for the goals of the game. You can see something akin to it in the design of the Valley Forge in the 1972 film Silent Running.

The Valley Forge (and, presumably
the Berkshire in the background)
Now, the similarities between Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World are both obvious and deliberate. Gamma World owes much to its predecessor in terms of theme and mechanics; a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by intelligent mutated creatures that discover fragments of ancient advanced technology as they explore their "world" (whether that be a ship or an actual planet). As such, they are relatively compatible.

Enter "The Beanstalk".

Me, demonstrating conclusively
that I am not an artist
Imagine a space elevator with the counterweight being an enormous orbital habitat composed of nine interconnected domes. Each dome is several kilometers in diameter; large enough not only to support a relatively large population, but to allow for a diverse habitat within the dome itself. When the holocaust struck the Earth, poisoning the biosphere not only with nuclear fallout but with mutagenic bioweapons, the Beanstalk itself was spared destruction, but the inhabitants of the domes were afflicted by the mutagenic properties of the weapons that wreaked such havoc on the surface.

In an attempt to control the rampant infections, the administrators of the Beanstalk sealed off the domes to prevent cross-contamination. In the process, they ended up isolating each dome from the others, as there was no one left alive in the command center to unseal the domes. Over the years, each has developed not only a unique culture, but also a specific palette of mutations that came to be dominant within that particular dome. This allows for a certain amount of theme within each particular dome, and as the player characters move from one dome to the other, presents an opportunity for a unique "adventure of discovery."

Just some ideas for the domes off the top of my head:
  1. Central dome. Contains the mechanism to control access to the Beanstalk itself and thus to the world below. Over the years, people from the other eight domes have come here, and a semi-civilized city has sprung up in the center of the dome, acting as a trading post and center of worship. Two rival cults actually worship the Beanstalk itself, and are engaged in a murderous yet sub rosa campaign to obliterate one another. Access to this dome is difficult without the correct access codes.
  2. Industrial dome. The floor of this dome is dotted with manufacturing facilities, originally used to transform the asteroid ore from the Arid dome into usable goods. Each factory is run by a self-aware computer, now hopelessly insane, but each with a unique personality that makes them completely unpredictable. One might be akin to a "crazy uncle" with some harmless peccadilloes, while the next might lure living creatures inside to be slain in various inventive ways. 
  3. Pelagic dome. Originally the water in this dome was circulated throughout the domes as a way of maintaining stability by shifting mass, but now it is home to a variety of marine-themed creatures. 
  4. Agricultural dome. The floor of this dome is covered with hectare after hectare of rolling farmland. The inhabitants have a ritual where 90% of the produce of their harvest is given as an offering to their deity N'Tayk. It is said that the world will starve if the ritual is not kept up every year. (In reality, they are providing raw materials for the intake system that provides food for the entire structure of the domes.)
  5. Spaceport dome. Several tall towers reach up from the floor to the dome itself, allowing entrance and egress to space beyond. Various spacecraft might be found in the landing bays, in various states of operability. An alien scout craft has penetrated the Beanstalk here, and its crew are presently assessing the state of affairs. 
  6. Arid dome. Windblown sands mark the predominant feature of the floor of this dome, which was originally used for agriculture. The disaster resulted in grievous damage to the dome's environmental systems. The inhabitants are organized along military lines, and are aware of the existence of the other domes. They see it as their mission to conquer the other domes and unify the whole Beanstalk under their rule. 
  7. Warehouse dome. The floor of this dome is covered with large installations designed for the storage and warehousing of cargo and other supplies. An extensive system of monorails still moves along its pre-determined paths, and the natives have come to use its movement as a system not only for telling time, but also as a tool for determining natal destiny. Think of it as trainspotting meets astrology; "when your son was born, cargo pod C-1457 was traveling hubward while maintenance pod T-77 was in the Depot of Green Windows. That bodes very well for him in a career as a blacksmith. Have a care, though; passenger pod B-228 is stopped on the Siding by the Two Trees. That's a sure sign that evil and chaos are upon us."
  8. Forest dome. Originally an agricultural dome, tall forests have come to dominate the floor here, with only isolated patches of large meadows where they have been carved out and maintained by the inhabitants. Various scientific installations can also be found here, dedicated to various specific studies. 
  9. Prarie dome. The floor of this dome is covered almost completely in wide, flat grasslands sectioned out in vast hexagons, which is home to enormous herds of food animals. Warring tribes of mutants (bovoids, caproids, equinoids, and ovisoids) maintain these herds, but are constantly raiding one anothers' herds to liberate their oppressed non-sentient cousins. Thus the bovoids raid the cattle herds of the caproids, who raid the goat herds of the equinoids, and so on. 
Naturally, the interconnecting tunnels between domes can be done as a "dungeon crawl" style adventure, each with their own unique perils, occupants, and opportunities. Perhaps the connective tunnels allow access to the control system of the Beanstalk itself. Perhaps there the mighty Central A.I. for the whole Beanstalk can be awakened from its slumber; but is that a good thing or a bad thing for the PCs?

Now, this sort of setting can be played in one of two ways. The first is to have the PCs start off atop the Beanstalk in one of the domes. They are spurred on by legends of a golden land below, where marvels and riches await those who can find it. This sets them off on a trek, eventually learning not only the true nature of the domes, but also figuring out how to travel down the Beanstalk, thus entering a new phase of their adventuring careers as they explore the post-apocalypse world below.

The second option is to have the PCs start on the ground, seeking the wondrous Sky Palace where the key to the salvation of the planet can be found. Perhaps one of the research institutions in the Forest dome had discovered an anti-mutagenic compound, but too late to be able to utilize it. The Knights of Genetic Purity would doubtless find such an invention of immense interest. A quest must be mounted at once to penetrate the Beanstalk and recover the antigen (or, conversely, a mission sponsored by a rival Cryptic Alliance to stop the knights from pursuing their mad dream of a world where only humans are sentient).

That brings up an interesting question; just how much contact is there between the world below and the domes atop the Beanstalk? Do some of the Cryptic Alliances have agents in the domes? Is there communication through radio or video ("The sacred sky oracle says there is a hurricane coming our way-- we must prepare!"), but no actual travel? Have the rulers of the domes already had reports from the ground? If so, how will they react? Seal off the Beanstalk entirely, to prevent contamination? That might make things difficult for PCs who want to travel to the new world (whether that "new world" is above or below...).

And, of course, on the planet itself there would be immense creatures fitted out with advanced weaponry in endless battles across the plains, smashing villages and each other as they vie for supremacy. Because a setting like this isn't weird enough without a hundred-foot penguin walking around with mounted missile launchers and an umbrella on its head. Time to break out Gammarauders...


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