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Saturday 15 December 2018

1998: Alternity: Science Fiction Roleplaying Game

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


The publication of Alternity: Science Fiction Roleplaying Game in 1998 marked the return of TSR, Inc. to the Science Fiction genre. In its twenty or so years, the publisher had dipped its toe into the genre several times, hoping to find the success it had with Dungeons & Dragons in the fantasy genre, the most well-known entries being Star Frontiers from 1982, Buck Rogers XXVC from 1988, and the worldbooks like Bughunters, The Galactos Barrier, and Kromosome for use with Amazing Engine. Where those roleplaying games differed from Alternity, was that they were not generic, but instead had their own settings, whereas Alternity was generic. It was designed to provide a framework for Science Fiction adventures not just in the far future, but also adventures in then ‘here and now’. So Space Opera, gritty Cyberpunk, alien conspiracy, and so on. At its core were two books, the Player’s Handbook and the Gamemaster Guide. It is the former that is being reviewed here.

What is striking about the Player’s Handbook is that it is not just a guide and the rules to creating characters for Alternity. It is an introduction to the Alternity rules and the rules themselves as well as the guide and the rules to creating characters for Alternity. This is such that the Game Master will probably be referring to this rather than the Game Master Guide for the running of the game. The very first chapter of the Player’s Handbook even includes a set of ‘Fast-Play Rules’ which explains the basics of the game and gives some characters all in a few changes. After that, the Player’s Handbook settles down to explain Hero creation and its various elements, as well combat, equipment, arms and armour, computers, mutants, psionics, and cybertech. Not spaceship construction and planets—rules for those will have to wait until the Game Master Guide. Throughout, there are parallels to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but these are quite light and although the roleplaying game is a ‘Class and Level’ or ‘Profession and Level’, there is greater flexibility in what a character can be within the rules in Alternity than there is in Dungeons & Dragons.

What is really striking about Alternity is the core mechanic. It uss polyhedral dice as normal—except oddly, not the ten-sided die—but any roll to undertake an action always involves two dice. One is the Control die, which is always a twenty-sided die. The other is a Situation Die, which can vary in size—although not a ten-sided die as the designers only wanted to use the platonic solids—and can either be a plus or a minus. When rolled together, the result on the Situation Die is applied to the result on the Control Die and the total compared against an attribute if a Feat Check or the total of an attribute plus skill if a Skill Check. The aim of course, being to roll equal to or under the target number. Results range from Critical Failure (a natural twenty) and Failure to Ordinary Success (under the target), Good Success (under half the target), and Amazing Success (under a quarter of the target). A typical Situation Die is +d4 for a Feat Check or a broad Skill Check, but +0 for a speciality Skill Check, the type of Situation Die and the number of Situation Dice can go up or down on the Situation Die Steps Scale.
For example, Doctor Walter Gallardo is conducting a comparative examination of legends of the peoples of two worlds in an attempt to draw parallels in their structure and so confirm his theory about their being connected. To confirm his hypothesis, Doctor Gallardo’s player wants to make a Xenology check. The target is 16 and since this is a Speciality Skill Check, he will be rolling +d0 for the Situation Die as well as the Control Die. The Game Master moves this down one Step to -1d4 as Doctor Gallardo gets a strange prickly feeling, which he puts down to intuition (in fact this is the artefact affecting his mind). So his player is rolling 1d20 and -1d4. On the Control Die, he rolls an 8, but on the Situation Die, he rolls a 4. The latter is deducted from the former to get a final result of 4. This is an Amazing success and the obsessed is able to make the connection between the two legends and the two cultures. 
Later on when Doctor Gallardo goes to his head of department to get funding to follow up on his findings, he is faced with a more difficult task. For this, Gallardo’s player will roll the dice against his Interaction skill, which is a Broad Skill. This means that he will be rolling the Control Die and a +1d4 Situation Die. The Game Master states that the task is a difficult one and suffers a +1 step situation penalty, increasing the Situation Die to +1d6. Given that Gallardo’s Interaction skill is 10, this is a tough challenge, so his player triggers Gallardo’s Luck Perk. That requires a Will check, the aim being to get a bonus. Gallardo’s player manages to get a Good success, which gives him a -3 bonus to apply to the roll. Unfortunately, he rolls 14 on the Control die and 6 on the Situation die. Even with the bonus from the Luck Perk, there no way in which Doctor Gallardo is going to get funding to go off on a harebrained scheme to confirm the existence of ancient aliens...
A character—or Hero as he is known—in Alternity is defined by his Ability scores, Species, Career and Profession, Skills, Perks and Flaws, as well as various roleplaying attributes. The six Abilities are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Will, and Personality, and range in value between four and fourteen for Humans, and slightly higher for some other Species. The base Species is Human, but five other Species are given—Fraal, Mechalus, Sesheyan, T’sa, and Weren—all of which feature in Star*Drive, the first setting for Alternity. Fraal are like the Greys, long-lived with psionics and a limited emotional range; Mechalus are cyborgs with an affinity for computers and technology; Sesheyan are bewinged humanoids capable of flight from a low tech world new to spaceflight who make good spies and scouts; T’sa are reptilian and fast, ever-cheery tinkerers; and the Weren are giant, furred, clawed tough warriors from a primitive culture with a reputation for zealotry. As well as notes on roleplaying for each species, each write-up includes details of their roles in contemporary, near-future, and far-future campaigns, giving both Game Master and player alike further useful information.

Alternity provides four broad Professions—or Classes—Combat Spec, Diplomat, Free Agent, and Tech Op, each a sort of archetypal character. Each provides a few simple benefits. For example, Combat Spec Heroes are faster and specialise in one combat related skill, so their Action Check for determining their initiative is increased by three and the base Situation Die for their chosen skill is -d4 rather than +d0. Diplomats start with contacts or resources and can purchase skills from another chosen Profession at a discount; Free Agents have greater resistance for one Ability and more Last Resort Points—the equivalent of Hero Points in Alternity; and Tech Ops receive extra Skill Points as they attain each Achievement Level.

Within Profession there are several Careers. So for Combat Spec there is Bodyguard, Law Enforcer, Spacehand, and so on, whilst for Free Agent, there is Explorer, Reporter, Spy, amongst others. These are guidelines only and the Game Master is encouraged to create more. They do not provide any particular benefit, each instead providing a ready package of skills to purchase and an equipment package. Skills themselves are either Broad or Specialised, so Culture is the Broad Skill, whilst Diplomacy, Etiquette, and First Encounter are the Specialised Skills. The Broad Skill needs to be purchased before any Specialised Skills can be taken and is always equal to the governing Ability. So for Culture, this is the Hero’s Personality Ability. Specialised Skills are bought in Ranks, the Ranks being added to the value Broad Skill. Perks and Flaws are advantages and disadvantages, whilst Attributes—Motivations, Moral Attitudes, and Character Traits are essentially roleplaying hooks and tags.

To create a Hero, a player selects a Species, Career and Profession, then divides sixty points between the six Abilities. Although every Hero receives some Broad Skills, the number of points their player is given to spend on skills is derived from a Hero’s Intelligence score. Unfortunately, this favours the Intelligence Ability over the other three Abilities, forcing a player to put points into that Ability when he may not necessarily want to play an intelligent Hero. This is a problem which Alternity shares with many generic roleplaying systems which favour Intelligence. Purchasing skills is probably the most complex part of the process, requiring a fair degree of arithmetic, again an issue with many generic systems. Another issue with the skills is the choice, there being an odd lack of social sciences. So no anthropology, archaeology, and so on, but plenty of hard and life sciences. Purchasing Perks and Flaws is easier as is selecting the various roleplaying Attributes.

Our sample Hero is Doctor Walter Gallardo, a physicist turned xeno-archaeologist who is obsessed with confirming the existence of a progenitor species which occupied and seeded known space with their current species. This began after he found an artefact, an amethyst bracelet that at first he thought would be a perfect gift for his wife, but upon latter examination was found to be worked through with an unfamiliar circuitry. When he began having strange dreams of worlds beyond known space, he soon realised that the artefact was the cause. He quickly bought his wife another gift, kept the bracelet for himself, and began researching both it and legends of the ‘ancients’. In the last year, his search has become an obsession, his wife despairing of both his focus and his loss of interest in his research at work.

Doctor Walter Gallardo
Species: Human Gender: Male
Profession: Tech-ops Career: Scientist
Rank 1

Abilities (Untrained)
Strength 8 (4) Dexterity 9 (4) Constitution 9 (4)
Intelligence 14 (7) Will 10 (5) Personality 10 (5)

Action Check 11

Athletics (8/4/2)
Vehicle Op (8/4/2)
Movement  (9/4/2)—Trailblazing 1  (10/5/2); Stamina (9/4/2); Survival  (9/4/2)—Survival Training 1 (10/5/2);
Knowledge (14/7/3)—Computer Operation 1 (15/7/3), Deduce 2 (16/8/4); Life Science (14/7/3)—Xenology 2 (16/8/4); Physical Science (14/7/3)—Astronomy 1 (15/7/3), Chemistry 2 (16/8/4), Physics 2 (16/8/4); System Operation (14/7/3)—Communications 1 (15/7/3), Sensors 1 (15/7/3)
Awareness (10/5/2); Investigate (10/5/2)—Search 1 (11/5/2)
Culture (10/5/2); Interaction (10/5/2)

Perks & Flaws
Concentration, Good Luck, Photo Memory; Alien Artefact, Forgetful, Obsessed

Roleplaying Attributes
Motivation: Discovery
Moral Attitude: Selfish
Character Traits: Logical, Curious

Combat in Alternity adds an interesting tweak or two to its mechanics. For example, initiative is determined by an Action Check, the result—Marginal, Ordinary, Good, or Amazing—matching the four phases in an Action Round and indicating when a Hero can first act. Similarly, damage has three degrees of success—Ordinary, Good, or Amazing—which match the outcome of the Skill Check made for the attack and each weapon has three damage ratings, one for each of the three degrees of success. Weapons can inflict stun, wound, mortal, and fatigue damage. So a standard 9mm handgun does d4+1w on an Ordinary degree of success; d4+2w on a Good degree of success; and d4m damage on an Amazing degree of success. Wearing armour does not require a Skill Check, but instead each type of armour has three ratings—Low Impact, High Impact, and Energy. Thus a Flak Jacket has a Low Impact rating of d6-2, a High Impact rating of d4-1, and an Energy rating of d6-3. The type of damage is matched against one of these ratings and the result of the armour roll deducted from the damage roll. The higher types of damage—wound and mortal—also inflict the lower type, with mortal damage being potentially fatal. That said, Heroes can withstand Stun and Wound damage equal to their Constitution scores and since they will be wearing armour which deducts a single die’s worth or so of damage and most weapons do a single die’s worth or so of damage, unless a Hero gets really unlucky, combat in Alternity has a high degree of give in it. Heroes can take a lot of punishment which gives the mechanics a certain cinematic feel. That said, the combat rules are all that well explained and a more detailed example of how combat works would have been useful.

Roughly half of the Player’s Handbook is dedicated to technology—computers, arms and armour, vehicles, and cybertech. This is governed by Progress Levels, the equivalent of Tech Levels in other Science Fiction roleplaying games. These run from Progress Level 0, the Stone Age, up to Progress Level 9 and beyond… Progress Level 5 represents the Information Age—the here and now, Progress Level 6 is the Fusion Age, the near future, and Progress Level 7 is the Gravity Age of the far future. Computers covers hardware and software as well as the Grid, the worldwide computer network, and hacking; future weapons include electrochemical or charge firearms which ‘charge’ and fire plasma rounds at high velocity, stutter or sonic weapons, lasers, mass weapons which throw short-lived singularities at targets, quantum weapons which fire subatomic particles, amongst others; and future armours include powered armour, body tanks, and displacer suits which shift and blur a wearer’s image. Overall, it is a decent selection arms, armour, and equipment, the authors having mostly succeeded in coming up with a few more options than the obvious laser pistols and sonic stun guns without necessarily being too over the top.

The vehicle rules cover vehicular combat in fairly short order, including spaceship combat. What is really surprising about this chapter is that it includes not one, but two fully worked examples, one of modern vehicle combat and the other of spaceship combat. Both are really useful because they are also the only examples of play in the book. Although there are single examples of the rules in use throughout the Player’s Handbook, the lack of fully worked example does hinder learning the rules of the game and it seems strange to not have any until four fifths of the way through the book. One notable addition to the chapter is a spaceship, including deck plans. The Trader-Class spaceship is not dissimilar to the A2 Far Trader of Traveller fame and it likely serves the same purpose in type of Science Fiction campaigns that Alternity is designed to handle. Straight out of the book it would serve as the base of operations for a group of Heroes in a near or far future campaign, though more starships would probably be needed.

Rounding out the Player’s Handbook for Alternity are further character (and genre) options—mutations, psionics, and cybertech. Although the mutations, such as Acid Touch, Dermal Plating, Hyper Dexterity, echo those of roleplaying games of TSR, Inc. past—such as Gamma World, there is not the wacky range of types and power levels present in the rules for mutations in Alternity. Instead, there are rules that allow them to be purchased much like Perks and Flaws as well as rolling for them randomly. Of course, there are far too few options, but that is to be expected from what is really the introduction to the roleplaying game, and really, it would not be until the release of the Gamma World Campaign Setting that this subject would be covered in any depth.

The treatment of psionics is also decent and feels quite balanced.  Where mutations are abilities, Psionics are skills, listed under four the six abilities as per the other skills, which can be purchased by a fifth Profession, the Mindwalker. Various Mindwalker careers are given, from Biokineticist and Biowarrior to Psiguard and Telepath. Cybertech is the book’s last chapter and feels like the shortest and least useful. A Hero need only invest ten skill points into learning to use a nanocomputer and after that, he can have as much cyberware install as his Tolerance can withstand and he can afford. The list includes the BattleKlaw, Cyberoptics, Data Slots, and so on, but after the richness of the Muations and Psionics chapters, it feels a bit threadbare.

What the Mutations, Psionics, and Cybertech chapters do is actually quite a lot. In absence of worldbuilding rules and advice, rules for spaceship construction, and rules for creating alien species, is that they open genre options. Of course, they are options available to the Heroes in some settings, but they also allow the Game Master to create alien races, run campaigns involving them, and so on. Push the Mutations and Psionics rules in one way and Alternity could work as a low level superhero roleplaying setting, but pull it in another and you could do a world where mutants are hunted.

Physically, the Player’s Handbook is very late nineties, all sidebars and text boxes with rounded corners. Here these boxes are done in bright green, making them stand out against the white pages of the book, although not always easy on the eye. Done in full colour throughout, the book is not heavily illustrated, but does include some really nice illustrations in its pages. This being a TSR, Inc. book, the writing and editing is of course, professional. 

One issue with the Player’s Handbook is that some chapters are better organised and presented than others. Certainly the later chapters are better and easier to read than those earlier in the book. As a consequence, the rules for things vehicle combat and mutations and psionics are better explained and in the case of vehicle combat, better shown in action, than the core rules themselves. Yes, it helps that the fast play rules are presented at the front of the book, but the lack of an example of play and of standard combat—as opposed to vehicle and spaceship combat—are a definite hindrance rather than a help. Nor does it help necessarily, that the section on personal combat is lumped in with the ‘Heroes in Action’ chapter, so that the rules for combat do not stand enough for the Game Master to run them with any great ease.

Re-examining Alternity twenty years on and it is difficult to really engage with it with any great enthusiasm. Certainly in the form of the Player’s Handbook what really stood out about Alternity was the core mechanic of the Control Die and the Situation Die—the latter being able to scale—which was as radical a design as TSR, Inc. ever attempted, and really was more quirky than radical. The rest of the roleplaying game is far from radical though, a fairly standard take upon the Science Fiction genre, but one grounded in Space Opera and cinematic Sci-Fi rather than hard Science Fiction. There are aspects of the mechanics that are well handled though, mutations and psionics, in particular. These show promise as to what Alternity can do in terms of genre and campaigns should the Game Master want to include them. In the meantime, the Player’s Handbook provides a serviceable introduction to a serviceable set of generic Science Fiction roleplaying rules, from which a good Game Master should be able to get a good game. Essentially TSR, Inc.’s last hurrah, it is left up to the campaign settings—Star*Drive, Dark•Matter, and Gamma World—to really showcase what Alternity: Science Fiction Roleplaying Game can do.


With thanks to Geoff Greenwood for his comments on the review.

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