Growing up and gaming in the 80s and 90s, there were a lot of options for roleplaying games, but TSR stilled ruled the roost. Shortly before 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons came out and the reins were handed over to Wizards of the Coast, the team there decided to try a new rule set and did so with a sci-fi fantasy so as to keep it wholly separate from their fantasy games. That game was different than other systems and it introduced some inventive concepts. Yes, I am talking about the Alternity RPG.
The game did not do too well. I liked it for the way it did things, but I guess I was in the minority. There were also some interesting settings that came out for it. Recently, after many years, the Alternity roleplaying game is making a comeback. One of my friends was able to back the project on Kickstarter. He has invited me to join in the playtest with him. It’s kind of fitting too, because he was on the original Alternity demo team and is the one who first introduced me to the system way back in the day.
This System is Still New & Different
Much of the original Alternity system has remained intact for this reboot. So, for those who never got to experience the game before, it will be new. I say this because the system uses a unique dice rolling mechanic that I haven’t seen in other games. So, it’s still different. In a day and age with OSR and retro clones and new game systems hitting the shelves regularly, Alternity brings forth a system that can be polarizing. First, you either know about it or you don’t. From those I have met and read about being familiar with it, you either love it or hate it. Personally, I really like it.
“Maths is Hard”
Let’s talk about why people don’t like the game–or, at least why I have heard people don’t like it. Yes, sci-fi roleplaying isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. For that matter, not everyone enjoys roleplaying. But, those roleplayers who don’t like Alternity for the system–not for the genre–all seem to have the same bone to pick. In most games, you roll either a single dice and try and get over or under a specific number or you roll a pool of dice, typically trying to gather numerous successes by rolling high enough on each dice. There are certainly a myriad of exceptions there; I’m speaking generally, folks. The Alternity RPG is different.
Alternity gives characters a rank to do different tasks by adding together an Attribute and Skill. That total is then subtracted from 20 to come up with the target number you’re trying to roll over on a roll. Beyond that, depending on how hard or easy the task is, you might be adding dice to the difficulty you’re trying to beat (if harder) or subtracting dice from that difficulty (if easier). Some people believe this adds a level of complexity that they’re not comfortable with. Having played the game before, I am familiar with it and I enjoyed it, but it did take rolling a few times to fully get the hang of it. When we played we either used a separate set of dice for our “difficulty dice” or we used two sets of dice of different colors for “easy difficulty dice” and “hard difficulty dice.”
Even as I explain it here, I know people might have a problem with this. I just wanna roll dice! I get it folks. I like rolling, too. But, roll using this mechanic a handful of times (no pun intended) and you’ll find it’s not that difficult or cumbersome.
Why I Like Alternity’s Dice Mechanic
In most of the games I play, there is a set difficulty for doing various things. In some, to attack someone, I just have to roll higher on the attack that their Armor Class. In others, I have to roll under my skill to pick a lock. In still others, I grab a handful of d10s and see how many 7s, 8s, 9s, and 10s I get to see if my character succeeds or not.
The number I am trying to beat might be laid out perfectly in the rules of the game. In many cases, there are also a series of factors that can make the task at hand harder or easier. What if I have superior tools? What if there is poor lighting? What if I have never seen this sort of tech before? It all amounts to modifiers. The modifiers, again, might be clearly described, codified, and enumerated in the text of the game books. Or, they might be more or less arbitrary, for the GM to decide.
In the Alternity RPG, the dice you roll and either add to or subtract from your target number are setting a variable difficulty. This doubles down on bringing Lady Luck and chance into the game. Some times, things are harder than they appear. It also means that your players aren’t immediately able to tell if they need to get a 16 or a 12 on a roll of a twenty-sided dice to succeed. They might know they need to get anywhere from a 12 to a 32 to succeed. So, they can end up taking a bigger risk for a bigger pay off. Or, there might be some spectacular failure ahead.
I actually think this might deal with the power gaming problem talked about in an earlier blog, but maybe I am wrong.
Beyond that, the way the mechanics here work, it becomes a little easier to manage degrees of success than it would in other d20 roleplaying games. I like having those partial, full, and superior failures and successes. This might partly explain why the person who introduced me to and enjoyed the original Alternity so much also enjoys the Apocalypse World and games based on the Apocalypse Engine so much.
What Was Old is New Again
While the dice mechanic and overall system for the Alternity RPG is mostly as I remember it, there have been certain changes made. For example, previously, there were a number of races (or species) and archetypes (or classes) that you could choose for your character. A number of those certainly have not come over into this new version. I am not sure if that was by creative choice or licensing limitations. However, a bunch have risen to take the place of the old stuff. What I have read so far seems creative and fresh even though it’s pretty much based on races and classes from the world’s most popular roleplaying game(s).
I am a little surprised they were able to contain this system and the various choices for players in just under 300 pages. I am not sure how much will be added to the final product, but it’s definitely something that screams ready for homebrew and supplements. I’m looking forward to getting started with the playtest and talking/writing more about the game.
What about you folks, what is your experience with the Alternity RPG–then and now?