Originally written June 2001
Alternity was an attempt by TSR to create a generic science fiction role-playing game system, much like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a generic fantasy RPG system. It produced a couple of settings (most notably Dark Matter) and gained a few loyal fans, but it wasn’t long before Wizards of the Coast gained the license for Star Wars and shelved Alternity in favor of their hot new d20 mechanic.
I had never really taken a look at the game until I received a review copy of the Gamemaster Guide from RPGnet. I was interested in seeing what the game looked like.
The Guide is a 256-page, full-color hardcover with a cover price of $29.95. First impressions of the book are a clean 3-column layout, solid binding, and cover art that suitably conveys the science-fiction setting of the game. The interior art also contributes to the science-fiction feel of the game, with a decided slant towards the “starship and blaster” style.
This is hardly surprising. The default setting for the game is Stardrive, modeled after the galaxy spanning Traveler and Star Wars. It would appear that, while many sub-genres of SF are supported by the game, it is optimized for “space opera”.
This book is clearly designed for use with the companion volume, the Player’s Handbook. References are made to tables and information available only in the first book, and understanding the overall system is more difficult with just the “second half” of the rules.
The base mechanic of the game isn’t difficult to grasp. Tests are rolled on a d20, trying to roll below a given target number. The base roll is modified by a situation die, which is added or subtracted to the base roll to determine the final result. For easy tasks, the situation die is subtracted from the d20 (making the average roll lower, and therefore more likely to beat the target number) and for more difficult tasks it is added (so the reverse situation occurs). The degree of difficulty (or ease) affects the type of situation die rolled; an “extremely easy” task calls for subtracting the result of a d10, while a “tough” task calls for a d4 to be added.
Usually the target number is determined by the skill being used; a character with a ranged weapons skill of 14, for example, is trying to beat a 14 on his roll in order to successfully hit a target. Skill ratings are initially based on character attributes (which range from 3-14 for standard humans), but can be increased beyond those levels at character creation and through advancement. Any modifiers to the situation (based on target resistance, environment, etc.) change the situation die used.
There are seventeen chapters in the book, divided into three basic types. Some chapters deal with specific applications of the basic mechanic (many of which may parallel information in the Player’s Handbook), some deal with GM-specific aspects of the game (developing stories and campaigns, tips and tricks to make running a game easier, and the like), and finally chapters that contribute to alternative settings (rules on starships, star system creation, psionics, and so forth).
All in all, much of the material in this volume is designed to help a new GM run a game of Alternity. Emphasis on fun and playability takes precedence over adherence to rules, and the GM is reminded several times that he is the ultimate arbiter of his game. He is given a wide variety of options and styles to choose from in his game. Again, there is a slant towards the default “space opera” style, but modern-day, near-future, and far-future settings are discussed. Rather than railroad GMs into a given style or setting of play, the emphasis here seems to be on the myriad possibilities these rules allow.
Without the Player’s Handbook, it is difficult for me to make an accurate assessment of the game. All of the character creation rules and tables are in the first volume, for example, as are the background write-ups of the four basic character classes (and which skills they get access to).
I don’t have any real objection to a class-based system, provided the opportunity to go beyond the template is there. It allows inexperienced players to get a handle on character concepts more easily. As an example, compare the hero creation of Brave New World (choose a “power package”) to Aberrant (spend points on various powers listed in the book). The latter allows greater flexibility, but can be very daunting for a player not familiar with the system.
From what I gathered in the Guide, some classes get skills “on the cheap”, paying one less point than other classes for the equivalent skill rating. This results in a Combat Spec having more available points to spend on combat skills, but doesn’t prevent him from being a decent hacker on the side if the player wishes. Some players may find this style limiting, but it isn’t hard to change if you prefer a more open creation mechanic (just have all skills cost the same across the board).
Overall, I think this a nice attempt to make a generic science-fiction game. I can also see why Wizards decided to shelve the game in favor of the d20 mechanic for Star Wars. While there isn’t a huge difference in the complexity level of the two systems, it does give the advantage of a house system, allowing customers to easily get into any game released by the company.
I may have to track down a copy of the Player’s Handbook and take my game group through the paces of the introductory adventure (which, while nothing spectacular, does give a good overview of the game systems). If you can find a copy of this game on sale, you may find it worth a look.