Keepers of the Flame: The vintage RPGs that still survive and thrive

I’ve been on a bit of a nostalgia kick lately, investigating (and buying) copies and components of those classic pen-and-paper role-playing games that I played or always wanted to play. Along the way, I’ve learned that quite a few of these early RPGs still have dedicated communities and fan followings that keep them alive — “keeping the flame burning,” so to speak.  I thought it would be fun to talk about a few of these in a short post!

Dawn Patrol, aka Fight in the Skies (TSR, 1975).  Fight in the Skies did not start as a role-playing game, and spent years being distributed by its designer, Mike Carr.  Inspired by the 1966 movie The Blue Max, Fight in the Skies is a World War I air combat boardgame, in which players dogfight over the European countryside.  The first professionally published version — the 4th edition already! — game out in a limited run in 1972. But the game had caught the attention of Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, and when he founded his gaming company TSR, he reached a publishing agreement with Carr. This 5th edition came out in 1976.

I was born in 1971, and missed the early history of the game; I personally didn’t come across it until the 7th edition came out in 1982, when it had been renamed Dawn Patrol.  I still have my copy, in excellent condition, with the cover pictured above.

Dawn Patrol isn’t, strictly speaking, a role-playing game, but it has some role-playing elements, such as the ability to use the same pilot in multiple encounters, with that pilot gaining experience and skills with each successful mission.

Dawn Patrol started in wargaming clubs, and it has survived as a dedicated club to this day! The “Fight in the Skies” community started in 1969, along with the society newsletter The Aerodrome. Mike Carr still works with the society online, and he is even producing a new edition of the game — the 8th edition! It is a fun game and one I want to give a try again in the near future.

Metamorphosis Alpha (TSR, 1976).  When I got involved in role-playing games, somewhere in the 1980s, Metamorphosis Alpha was already sort of a legend.  It is the very first science fiction role-playing game, and one with a rather mind-boggling premise. It is set on a massive colony ship called the Warden — fifty miles long, 25 miles wide, and seventeen levels high — which left Earth in 2277 with a million and a half colonists, bound for a distant planet. Along the way, however, the Warden encountered an unknown cloud of radiation that killed most of the population, damaged the ship’s systems, and mutated many of the people, plants, and animals that remained. Some 300 years later, the surviving inhabitants have regressed to a primitive tribal state, completely unaware that they are on a spaceship and not even knowing what a spaceship, or any technology, is.  The player characters set out from their tribal homelands to explore their “world,” encountering dangers, mysteries, and great treasures along the way.

The game is often said to be “Dungeons & Dragons in space,” and this is rather appropriate.  It was created by James M. Ward, a science fiction fan who, through a chance meeting, earned a place at Gary Gygax’s D&D gaming table. Ward saw the possibilities of expanding role-playing to a science fiction setting, and early in 1976 showed Gygax early note for the game that would become Metamorphosis Alpha.  That same year, Gygax built on those notes to create a tournament Dungeons & Dragons adventure that would introduce the players to the idea of mixing fantasy and sci-fi; that adventure was later published as the famous Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, in which a group of magic-users, clerics, fighters, and thieves get kicked around by inexplicable high technology while exploring a crashed spaceship.

Metamorphosis Alpha makes one radical departure from Dungeons & Dragons in terms of gameplay: characters do not improve in physical abilities or “levels” like in D&D; as Ward conceived it, they become more powerful through the acquisition of more powerful technology and knowledge of the ship they live on.  This same principle would be carried on in the post-apocalyptic RPG Gamma World, which was co-designed by Ward, as well, in 1978.

Ward was inspired in creating Metamorphosis Alpha by the 1958 novel Non-Stop by Brian Aldis (one I need to read), which also features a colony ship degraded to primitive society. And it may have inspired others in turn — though I have not seen it stated explicitly, one wonders if the great videogame Horizon: Zero Dawn was inspired by Metamorphosis Alpha.

James Ward has kept Metamorphosis Alpha alive throughout the decades, with the help of a very devoted fan base.  Several editions have appeared through the years, with a fourth edition appearing in 2006, and in 2014 a successful kickstarter led to the original first edition being reprinted in a collector’s edition with a lot of supplementary material. Ward himself has continued to run the game for players and has an official website for the game.  New material is still being released: a collection of short stories set in the world of Metamorphosis Alpha was published earlier this year!

I have yet to play Metamorphosis Alpha, but I picked up the collector’s edition and am hoping to scare up a group in the near future…

Empire of the Petal Throne (TSR, 1975). I owned a copy of Dawn Patrol as a kid; I had heard of Metamorphosis Alpha. But Empire of the Petal Throne? I had never even heard of it until reading through my new copy of MA.

Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker (1929-2012) developed a love of fantasy worlds from an early age. Possibly influenced by Tolkien, in the 1940s Barker started developing his own detailed fantasy world called Tékumel. He continued this project for decades, even while pursuing a graduate degree on native American languages and culture.  In 1974, while working as a professor at the University of Minnesota, he was exposed to Dungeons & Dragons through the local wargaming club; he was then inspired to create his own fantasy role-playing game based on his own invented world.  Empire of the Petal Throne was first self-published in 1974, but quickly came to the attention of Gary Gygax and was printed by TSR in 1975.

Similar to Tolkien, Barker used his academic background to create an incredibly detailed fantasy world, with thousands of years of history and its own languages.  Without having played, it is hard to pin down the nature and atmosphere of the setting.  My impression is that it is inspired by both Southeast Asian and well as Mesoamerican cultures and a mixture of science fiction and fantasy.  Editions of it have not lasted long: the first edition only lasted a couple of years before going out of print.  A new edition which would appear in 3 volumes was begun in 1987, but it was canceled before the 3rd volume was released. In 2005, a new game edition, Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, was released.  It is now hard to find and used copies run for $100 or more!

The world of Tékumel still has an incredible fanbase, however, and a vibrant online communityReprints of the original game and many of the supplements — including languages! — are available for purchase online in print and pdf form.

I am really intrigued. It has been argued that Tékumel is the first detailed RPG campaign world ever published. I will be picking up a copy of the original game when I have a chance.

Barker published a number of novels set in his fantasy world; the first of these, The Man of Gold, was reprinted a couple of years ago.

I’m really happy to see these classic games live on! Have I missed any? Let me know in the comments.

This entry was posted in Entertainment, Fantasy fiction, role-playing games, Science fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Keepers of the Flame: The vintage RPGs that still survive and thrive

  1. BBBB says:

    Your timing is impeccable, Steve Jackson has recently regained his rights to The Fantasy Trip, which started out as a one-to-one skirmish game called ‘Melee’ and ended up being a precursuror to GURPS.

  2. Jeff Dee says:

    You forgot to mention Bethorm: the Plane of Tekumel, the latest game which continues the setting from Empire of the Petal Throne.

    Good article!

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