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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Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

10 thoughts on “The Beanstalk: An Alternate Setting for Metamorphosis Alpha/Gamma World

  1. Silent Running is one of my all time favourite films of all time. Heuy, Dewey and Louis (cheating at cards!)…the squalor of the ships must have influenced Ridley Scott when directing Alien. Must find this on DVD somewhere.

  2. The domes wouldn't mass enough to act as a beanstalk counterweight. However in that nitpick there is the seed for a even more interesting environment.

    You still have your domes. However beyond geosynchronous orbit lies a asteroid that is the counterweight.

    You several option with this asteroid. You can opt to populate it with levels creating a mega dungeon that you climb UP to. A crazy dungeon in the spirit of Barrier Peaks or Anomalous Subsurface Environment

    Or you can have it essentially hollow with a hollow world environment.

    You can have more domes spaced along the beanstalk each with their own levels of gravity until you reach zero G at geosynchronous orbit.

    As for the counterweight asteroid note the "deeper/higher" you go the heavier the gravity becomes to add to the other craziness.

    Lots of fun can be had with a beanstalk

  3. Howabout a few more domes for entertainment resorts? Westworld, Prehistoric World, Arctic World, Lovecraft World, etc. Plenty of room for robots, mutants, etc.

    You can even include a variation of the ol' extradimensional threat invading into the world. What if one dome has begun invading others for total control?

    For that matter, throw in a Matrix element where characters are advanced holograms/robots/? and live out there mental lives in there "world" until their body expires. When they "died" in one world, they'd get brainwashed and reprogrammed into another world. However, something has corrupted the Matrix programmer and some people aren't being reprogrammed. They simply wake up in a new world every time they "die". Will they do something to find their "real bodies" in order to be free? Should they? You may get some who realize the truth and want it kept that way to keep the status quo, others are rebelling to be free…

    There can be many, many domes… a historical "ark" heading to a new world for colonization and was waylaid by alien beasties that use the bodies as batteries.

  4. Seems like a neat idea. The Manga Battle Angel Alita also features a beanstalk/Jacob's Ladder and a culture living in the garbage dump beneath it.

  5. Third option – have the players be the aliens who have landed on the derelict Beanstalk. Their jump drive failed catastrophically, looking need parts to repair it, they followed the automated beacon and docking system. Now they want to escape before they too mutate into strange and terrible forms. It's amazing how many charges the laser pistol goes through fighting 100' tall penguins with missile launchers.

  6. I can't tell you how much I love this idea.

    I think you could even do sort of a science fantasy with it, and have the members completely forget the origin of where they were from. Heck, call it the Worldtree, for crying out loud. 🙂

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