Tag Archives: lighthouse

Alternity “The Lighthouse” Session Summary 46

Forty-sixth Session – The Externals assault the Aegis system in force, and we have our entire fleet there to prevent them. We tear them a new one. Now we have to figure out what to do with all these weirdo prisoners!

This was an interesting session.  First we spent a good bit of time planning our strategy – we knew the aliens were coming.  Since we’ve teamed up with the Medurr and have access to their drivespace denial weapon, we came up with a plan to trigger it in microbursts designed to spread incoming ships out in a big ol’ line trailing out of the system.  We’d then put our forces in one big ball and roll them on up!

Before they come, we go and get the other forces in the system on our team – some Thuldans and some VoidCorpers. The Thuldans say yes, the VoidCorpers say no.

We were interrupted by a systemwide hack. I thought we had thwarted that back in the day but apparently not.  This took a LOT of rolls to resolve.  Taveer went out into cyberspace to thwart it. The enemy AI pretty much chased Taveer off and back to the station and started attacking us!  Once we got VERA and Captain Takashi into the fight, we finally managed to cut it off.

Then we found out it was a VoidCorp AI behind it all. They had some flimsy excuse but the Admiral pretty much told them they were going to join our fleet or we were going to seize their assets in the system.They gave in.

In an attempt to turn this whole thing around, we took the AI, VORL, and put it on a barge with some External wireless codes to mess with the incoming fleet.

But before the battle – a promotion!  I had actually written that “Letter to the Admiralty” and sent it to our GM Paul  a while back so that when we were in Bluefall and could get some admirals together that we could have a board of review to promote the faithful Martin St. John to Captain.  He was surprised! And in fact, once he was promoted, we talked about a command for him – it hadn’t originally been my plan, but Takashi as an Admiral has been kinda kicked upstairs to do full fleet command tactics a lot of the time, so he offered command of the Lighthouse to St. John, who accepted. Woot!  We put as much pomp and circumstance into it as the GM had patience for (not all that much). Hell, I’d be happy to do a whole session around just the promotion, but then I’m a roleplaying freak.

Then we fought the Externals and pretty much owned them.  Only two problems – one, the second fortress ship got away despite all our efforts to catch up to them (we’re not really sure how that worked, it was GM fiat) and also the rules tended to punish us for being big.  We were using a simple abstract system that uses Space Tactics rolls; that’s where Takashi is a Viking. Well, first round he rolls Amazing and the first bit of the enemy fleet rolls like Ordinary, they lose 15% of their force and we lose 5% of ours – but we are so much bigger we lose about as many ships as they do!  We were like “WTF!” Usually “stacking” all your forces is an advantage but in this ruleset it’s not, so next time we’ll go with small task forces that should get the same effect with fewer losses.

Suddenly we went from most of the Externals being rare “never seen by humans” stuff to “We have a prison hulk full of thaal, what the heck do we do with them?” We spent a lot of time trying to turn the various client races with mixed results. Not everyone is on board with the crazy Scientology religious heart of this war, but many of them are stupes who like their congenital slavery so it’s a hard nut to crack.

The bareem were like this.  We got some sifarv turncoats to command them all to help us, but Chris had the most inspired idea; we’re putting them through Concord Marine training not only to battle harden them but also to try to inculcate them with our values. Once they accept leadership other than the sifarv, and kill sifarv on orders, then they’ll become more liberated dudes, at least that’s the idea.

The A team is going to take half the fleet to Tendril to lift its siege and the B team is going to go RIF the Algemron system, which is probably controlled by teln mind-worms.

Interestingly, I think we kinda all unanimously and implicitly backed off going from one big serious space battle thing to another – after another half hour of roleplaying suddenly the next steps became smaller and closer to home!

We were looking for the N’sss (stealth space jellyfish) we are sure are in the system, and detected the VoidCorpers beaming clandestine messages into the gas giant (where N’sss like to hang out). Admiral Takashi lost his shit. Forget about interstellar diplomacy and weak excuses, this is an act of war and/or treason and he immediately ordered a Marine strike force to load up and assault VoidCorp’s Cloud City. After the AI thing, and finding out that they are trying to stop Old Space from coming to the Verge’s rescue, it was the last straw. They are clearly traitors against humanity and he’s not going to tolerate it another second. Long term consequences can worry about themselves.

Plus, there was a throwaway rumor about problems on the set of actor Jack Everstar’s new movie and suddenly, for no real reason, all the B team (while playing naked beach volleyball on Bluefall, our usual vacation time diversion) decided we all want to meet Everstar and have cooked up a Burn Notice/Leverage style plot to all get onto his movie crew.  Woot!

Alternity to Feng Shui Conversion

Here’s a little something I started working on in the year 2000 (!) and just found and decided to finish off.  It’s a conversion of Alternity to the Feng Shui system.  Feng Shui is the RPG of action movie roleplaying and has a nice fast system, one that it’s easy to teach people at the beginning of a convention game, for example.  Alternity’s system has its charms but it’s heavy crunch and requires time investment to learn. Anyway, it’s a simple stat + skill vs difficulty system, with a positive and negative d6 roll applied (stat + skill + d6 – d6) – fast and reasonably normalized, and you intuitively know you can hit a difficulty equal to your stat+skill on average.

I’d like to hear comments on the conversion and how it could be made better.  Here it is for your reading pleasure!

Alternity: Second Edition

I like Alternity, but it could stand a little cleaning up. You could remove a lot of the complexity from the system by just jettisoning the class system and making a couple skill changes.

Here’s what I’d do with an Alternity Second Edition.  I’d keep the general skill basis and skill check mechanic with the differing quality of results for skill/half skill/quarter skill. Really the main rules are great and need little tweaking; the optional rulesets are where things start slipping.

Remove classes.  They give you so little that it’s annoying – go “full GURPS” with it. Removes one chunk of useless complexity.

Remove levels.  Spend XP as you get them. Removes a second chunk of useless complexity.

More skill points.  Or cheaper costs.  Definitely use at least the “Optional Rule Set 2” skill point values and, since you’re getting rid of classes, maybe just reduce all the skill point costs by one off the bat and tweak from there; maybe another one point drop for all broad skills. “But I always suck” is the main Alternity critique one hears.

Damage and hit locations.  This would go a long way to fixing the armor issues.  Top Secret/S.I. had a hit location/box system I really liked. You’d do this, fix the “lower number of mortal points” problem and the O/G/A weapon vs armor thing to be nicely symmetrical.

General guidance.  There are a couple recurring pain points that are more about how you run the game than the rules as written.  This includes “let any relevant skill work, with a 1 step penalty if it’s a real stretch.” Looking to stop a security computer on a starship from sending an alert signal?  Yes, you can use Sec/Security Devices, Tech Sci/Juryrig, Computer/Hacking, or System Ops/Communications. Not “No, that’s not the perfect one.” Cover and stuff, it’s worthless currently, need a bit more focus on the firefight.

Consolidate and simplify.  No separate GMG with rules players should know hidden in it.  No “weapon accuracy by range modifier” special table. Make it so grenades work faster. Mainly look in the GMG, pull out all the tables, and then delete 99% of them as pointless cruft.

Psionics.  Done once in the mainbook, redone in the Mindwalkers book, still sucky. Our party psis are always really weak – you don’t want to make them uber but currently you end up feeling sorry for them.

Computers. Are tarded. For what should be a sci-fi high tech game, the equipment and especially the computers are boring and stupid.

That’s it really, mostly a “delete all the exception stuff” rampage, and you’d have a terse and solid ruleset. More on specific new rules I’d like to add tomorrow…

Alternity: The Community

Is Alternity a dead game?  Well, of course WotC isn’t publishing it any more, and you can’t even buy the PDFs because of them being huge ol’ bitches.  But between Half Price Books, ebay, and bittorrent, you can get your hands on the materials OK, and there’s still communities out there actively supporting it!

The big one is AlternityRPG.net, or “A.Net” for short.  They host a bunch of great downloads and have some reasonably active forums. If you’re interested in Alternity it’s the place to go.

There’s a lot of fan content too – most notably the two major Alternity e-zines, Action Check and Last Resort! Action Check had folks like Neil Spicer work on it, but stopped in 2002; Last Resort last published in 2009, but you can still download all the extant issues of both.

Action Check E-Zine (16 Issues!)

Last Resort E-Zine

And then there’s the massive Resources list at AlternityRPG.net, with metric tons of player contributed goodness!

There used to be an Alternity mailing list but Wizards discontinued it way long ago.  If you know of a pocket of Alternity goodness out there, let me know!

Alternity “The Lighthouse” Session Summary 45

Forty-fifth Session – The A Team and a fire team of Recon Marines take the Lighthouse back from MINA and a bunch of aliens.  Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me? M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E. Enter a world of shit in this episode of our Alternity Star*Drive campaign, The Lighthouse!

The Lighthouse’s bridge is taken by a bunch of aliens and MINA, the station AI, is compromised (more than usual, of course). A bunch of old plot threads come together pleasingly in the solution.

First of all, we have the hacker Brent Terchyev, the son of the Jamaican Syndicate leader on Lucullus, who we saved from kidnappers and have had on board the station since our last visit.  Now we’re back to free the system from the aliens, and this apparently kicks him out of his normal diet of videogames and Grid porn into action.

Secondly, we have our means of access – the concealed airlock in the back of a massage parlor that our criminal characters have used from time to time. Lambert Fulson was reluctant to narc it out to the station personnel, but with the fate of the station on the line he gave it up.

Third, we have the Concord Marines. We’ve been making good use of these guys, and this time we promote them from faceless NPCs to real personalities. Besides Concord Marine Captain David Chase, who is a named NPC in the Lighthouse supplement, we had along an elite Recon/Marauder unit consisting of:

  • Sgt “Animal Mother”, violent and jaded even for the Marines, largely derived from the character of the same name in Full Metal Jacket
  • Cpl “Klinger”, whose armor is skillfully painted to be wearing a negligee and garter belt, somewhat based on Klinger from M.A.S.H. and Fruity Rudy from Generation: Kill
  • LCpl Wierzbowski (no cute nickname yet), the unit’s grenadier, named after a quickly deceased character from Aliens
  • Pfc “Ludafisk”, a Nordic whiteboy that talks like a gangster rapper, inspired by Evan “Q-Tip” Stafford from Generation: Kill
  • Pfc “Motorhead”, with mottos like “Eat the Rich”  and “Born to Lose” spraypainted across his combat armor, just inspired by a love for Lemmy

They are stock second level NPCs, altered only from the default Concord Marines listed in the Lighthouse supplement in that they have recon powerered armor and a couple more skill points due to our more generous chargen rules – just about everyone who played Alternity used “Optional Rule Set 2” published as part of the Alternity errata that upped skill points by a small but noteworthy margin.

As you may be able to tell, we’ve been watching a lot of stuff like Full Metal Jacket, Generation: Kill, etc. lately.

Back in the day, I had done some work with an ex-Marine on a Concord Marine supplement detailing some Marine TOEs, training, and the like – I’m going to dust that off and publish it here for  your enjoyment! And we’ll be using it ourselves, Paul generously told us we can level this squad to third and customize them up a bit for future supporting cast roles!

Anyway, it took us a while to insert, make our way down the two kilometer elevator shaft, disable our crazed station AI, and then assault the bridge. The Marines burst in and put down the thaal high priest like he was Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad. It was beautiful – the bridge was full of External bigwigs – the thaal high priest, a bunch of other thaal psychics, superior sifarv bird-men, a gardhyi (or “space vampire” as Takashi calls them), bareem ape-thugs, karaden roach scientists… And our squad of Marines ripped them a new asshole in extremely short order. (Well, it took hours of game time, but short order in game).  The KZ 130 13mm charge machinegun is quite a weapon in the hands of some motivated men. We put the video out on the Grid to demonstrate the lack of invincibility of our heretofore-untouchable enemies.

As Takashi, I alternated between using my Command skill to give our friendies bonuses and the Infantry Tactics skill to mess with our enemies. And I also shot down two bad guys with my little laser pistol – Takashi has way more luck then he has any right to with that thing. For whatever reason, he is really not good at combat by the numbers, but when he finally whips out the pistol and shoots it’s always followed by some alien boss falling with a hole seared in his forehead.

Next time, the fleet goes to Bluefall to defend against the approaching External fleet!

Alternity “The Lighthouse” Session Summary 44

Forty-fourth Session – Back on Lucullus, the Lighthouse comes to the relief of the kroath-beset locals.  That’ll teach them to be such criminal douches next time we need their help. We engage in some large scale land combat and send in the A Team and some Recon Marines to nip the alien leadership in the bud. It all goes well, except those darn psychic aliens teleport up and take over the Lighthouse’s bridge while we’re giving them their whupping! Experience the twists and turns of the latest installment in our Alternity Star*Drive campaign, The Lighthouse!

We spent a ridiculously long time getting the various Lucullan factions on board with the Verge Alliance last time we visited, only for them to totally roll over like bitches for the Externals. All the alien fleet left but has ovipositor-ramming facilities in full swing turning Lucullans into kroath soldiers. Sigh. We put together a joint Verge Alliance and Medurr fleet, using the Medurr riftship to gate in draco-centaur needle ships. Concord Marines, Lucullan Picts that have been on board the Lighthouse, and Medurr all take part in the assault.

I as Admiral Takashi put together the tactical plan. We had our forces feint at the alien domes to lure out their armor as we sent in an infil team (including our command staff, of course) to take out their orbital-capable guns and decapitate their leadership. Then once those guns are silenced, our aerospace superiority would enable us to pound their armor and carry through the assault. I made some great tactics rolls and the larger army action went very, very well for us.

On the micro level, we rolled hard on the aliens and had a lot of success, including killing some of the birdlike sifarv whom we hadn’t encountered in person yet, until one of them downs Haggernak and negotiates for his release.  Admiral Takashi is a naval man of his word type, so he accepts the sifarv’s parole and chats cordially with him, only to discover the other alien leaders had teleported off to take over our space station!  Grr. We’ve tried to set up psychic teleportation detectors with little success and prevention with zero success. Fricking aliens.

I am always a bit worried about going into a lot of battles with Takashi since he is by no means a combat monster. He has inordinately good luck with shots from his laser pistol when it counts, but he is not well armored or really all that skilled. He excels in using his Command skills to inspire other combatants and give them bonuses, however.

This episode also features the continual combat effectiveness of the Concord Marines. We have been continually impressed with these guys; in fact, I’ll do some posts on them in particular as we’ve been inspired to detail them more as they continue to come through for us. Our PCs are not butch enough to go in on assaults without backup, and so we bring them along a lot. For second level NPCs they have performed remarkably!

Alternity: The Settings

Alternity was around for a good while and TSR published a lot of content for it. They had a number of settings for it – two of which were good!

Star*Drive

Star*Drive is a far future, gravity age, space opera type of campaign setting. They tried to bundle the feels of Traveller, Bablylon 5, and anti-bug-alien-war (we’ll say Starship Troopers) all in one. Evil megacorps! Stellar nations fitting every major stereotype! Ancient artifacts left behind by progenitor races! Dozens of retiring alien races! Ovipositors waiting to be rammed down your throat!

Star*Drive is pretty good.  The PC alien races aren’t as interesting as my all time favorite, Star Frontiers, but are still fun.  Humans are #1, other PC playable alien races are total minorities. The weren are big furry monstrosities from a Renaissance era planet (Wookiees). The mechalus are genetically cybered by this point and dress like Borat. The t’sa are little nimble lizard men, and the sesheyans are eight-eyed flying bug-bat-men. And there’s the fraal, who are Greys by any other name.

After massive galaxy shattering wars, the dozen galactic nations have been joined by a thirteenth, the Galactic Concord, formed form parts of all 12 to create a peacekeeping nation – like the UN if the UN were an actual country, very The Federation from Star Trek in feel.

Most of the action takes place not in “Old Space,” for that would require work on the part of authors, but out in the lightly inhabited “Verge”, a frontier region. They published thirteen supplements for the setting, including a bunch of alien books.

Our The Lighthouse campaign is set in Star*Drive.

Dark•Matter

Dark•Matter is a modern day paranormal conspiracy setting, designed to tap into the huge popularity of the X-Files, Millenium, and the 100 other TV series infesting the genre from the late 1990s on. And it war surprisingly good, probably thanks to the skillful authoring of Wolfgang Baur Monte Cook.

I was prepared to discount Dark Matter (I’ll pass on that dot crap from now on), already owning Dark Conspiracy, Bureau 13, Conspiracy X, and other games in the genre, but it was more than  just a me-too effort on the part of TSR.

What sold me was the Dark Matter fastplay adventure Exit 23.  You can download it with background info and sample PCs here from alternityrpg.net. It can be hard to write evocative modern day settings and characters for some reason, but here they nailed it.

Gamma World

TSR is never reluctant to return to the older cows, and true to form they couldn’t resist putting out a new version of the early sci-fi postapocalyptic RPG Gamma World with their new ruleset. A fifth edition!

I never played this.  I hate Gamma World. I like postapocalyptic, but GW is postapocalyptic the way Tomb of Horrors is medieval fantasy. A friend and I actually had Jim Ward run a game of Gamma World for us at a con and it sucked and I refuse to say any more about it.

Starcraft

It’s funny, you would think licensed properties would be good, but TSR always jacked them up.  Like their Diablo supplement for D&D, they put out a Starcraft supplement for Alternity, StarCraft Adventures.  It was more of a separate small game using a fastplay version of the Alternity rules.

Four different game settings!  They were serious about this game, for a while until they got demented by licensing Star Wars and decided to kill it.

Alternity: The Characters

In our previous post celebrating Alternity, I talked about the general core mechanic – the d20 +/- step modifier dice and the triplet theory of results, damage, effects, and qualities.

So now let’s talk more about characters and character generation. As an example, we’ll use my character, Captain Ken Takashi of the Concord space station Lighthouse, at level 1.

As you’ll notice, Alternity PCs have the usual six D&D stats, with Wisdom renamed to Willpower and Charisma renamed to Personality. Fair enough. They are point buy, though, and normally can range from 4-14 though 8-13 is the typical spread. Int determines your number of skill points and this is a skill based game so you really can never afford to go under about 10 in it.

PCs also allegedly have classes and levels but frankly this is cruft bolted on to the system to make it friendly to the D&Ders. The class gets you a bennie at first level and then makes certain skills one point cheaper to buy. Ken is a Diplomat (Tech Op) – diplomats suck enough that they get to take a secondary class to get cheaper skills from, in this case the techie class. Other classes include Combat Spec (fighter) and Free Agent (thief). That’s it in core but you can also become a Mindwalker if you are into psionics.  No multiclassing or whatnot, you choose and that’s it, but it doesn’t matter later on except for skill costs.

You have a bunch of calculated values off your skills, including your Action Check (initiative), number of actions, speed, durability, and Last Resort (hero) points.

Skills

The heart of the system. Now, the core rules are a bit stingy with the skills.  You can only have about 5 discretionary broad skills and about 50 skill points (assuming an Int of 11) when you start. With the Alternity errata, the authors got the hint and immediately published the “optional rules” which are really law in all games – see Optional Rule Set 2 which gives that same character 7 discretionary broad skills and 66 skill points. You are still not uber or anything but you don’t suck so bad.

Keep in mind the skill system is VERY granular.  Want to shoot a pistol with a basic level of competence?  You’ll need to spend 6 points on the Ranged Weapon, Modern broad skill and then 4 points to get 1 rank in Pistol. That’s 10 points down already. I count 41 broad skills in the game with hundreds of specialty skills.

As you can see, for Captain Takashi I mainly had some basic broad skills at first level. I gave him a point in pistol and in a smattering of space navy type tech skills, a point of Leadership/Command since he’s in charge, and a point of defensive martial arts and intuition to simulate his pastime of Tai Chi. Bang, done! Simple enough, though there’s a lot of point fiddling.

Besides skills, you can buy a couple perks and/or flaws to round things out.  I didn’t, at least not at first level.

Walter

But there’s no sense in doing the math yourself! Because Alternity has the best fan-made character manager next to Byakhee, the awesome Call of Cthulhu character manager. It’s called the Alternity Character Manager, or Walter to us fans. Download and use it!  Some of the weapons listings are messed up but you can edit the XML yourself to fix them easily enough.

Kill

Is Captain Takashi too prosaic for you?  Want to see how much you can combat-optimize? Well, here’s my other starting character for the campaign, the Thuldan Warlion Markus Oroszlan. He is a mutant who was a shock trooper for the Thuldan Empire before moving to the Verge to find his own way in life.

Note his 16 STR, two points above normal human max, made possible by both mutation and Thuldan origin. He’s not great at shooting normal guns but in melee and with heavy weapons he is hell on wheels. Markus is the go to guy when our group needs to blow the bejeezusfuck out of something.

Leveling Up

You get XP, and when you get enough, you get a level.  For getting a level, you get skill points, approximately equal to the XP. Why wait for levels?  No good reason.  Anyway, you get better at skills but you don’t really become much more durable – see Takashi at level 10 and Markus at level 10 to see how much ten levels, the result of a year of playing every other week without fail, looks on you.

And that’s the Alternity character! Not, like Over the Edge simple but simpler than some games nowadays. Not as complicated as GURPS characters but more complicated than Silhouette characters; I’ve played space games with both.

Alternity: The Poll

Let’s ask you for Alternity Week here on Geek Related – have you played Alternity?  Did you enjoy it?  Share your thoughts below in the comments!

Alternity “The Lighthouse” Session Summary 43

Forty-third Session – We infiltrate an External fortress ship to prevent them from getting away with their superweapon. We use our own superweapons to defeat them – the Red Queen, alien aphrodisiac crystals, a nuke, and a Thuldan Warlion! They never stood a chance. All this and more in this session of our Alternity Star*Drive campaign, The Lighthouse!

Last time, we’d basically gone down to Mantebron and found out that the aliens had stolen an Ancient superweapon and generally were all over things there. We were leaving with our tails between our legs after some light recon, but Markus the warlion convinced the rest of the group that with a clever plan, we could (albeit at the risk of our own lives) sabotage their effort.

Mainly, this involved clandestinely inserting into their fortress ship the Phlegethon, nuking the thaal cathedral where all their psychics are, and setting off the alien weapon so it shoots the other fortress ship, the Styx. The main goal being destruction of the weapon, but also sowing whatever chaos and destruction we can.

Many of the group had misgivings about the survivability of this plan. But Markus figures it’s war – gotta go big or go home.

And the plan worked!  This is one of those sessions where we spend as much time carefully laboring over every little detail as much as in execution – which ends up paying benefits in survivability. The main nail-biter was the precognition ability of the enemy psychics, which end up alerting them to potential attacks. We bypassed that by installing a nuke in their cathedral, given that they probably couldn’t escape the radius in time even with teleportation. Luckily this worked, and then when we fired off the superweapon we put a big albeit nonfatal hole in both fortress ships.

Markus got to march around the ship in power armor firing drum after drum of grenades from his Zeke-5 grenade launcher, which always gives him a warm feeling. Wily opponents try to move into melee range to escape the hail of grenades, whence they discover what real pain is like.

Enjoy the writeup!  More to come… We’re moving into the final stages of the war, looks like.

Alternity: The System

This week, we celebrate the Alternity sci-fi game that has given many gaming groups years of fun.  I’ve played in and run a number of Alternity campaigns over time – most recently our two year long campaign The Lighthouse, but a fair number of others too.  I even played in the Living Verge campaign – they had an RPGA campaign for Alternity back in the day.

Today let’s explore the Alternity system itself. It is an interesting departure from most systems, and especially for the D&D-haunted halls of TSR/WotC! In terms of other major systems it is probably most similar to GURPS (strongly skill based, roll under) but has a lot of unique aspects to it.

The Core Mechanic

The core mechanic of Alternity uses a d20, but to roll low under a skill. Die rolls are modified not by flat numbers but by die “steps” (d4, d6, d8, d12, d20) where a negative is a bonus. Therefore if you are rolling your skill at “-1” you roll 1d20 -1d4.

The Skills

Alternity sports a very detailed skill system which covers combat as well as other skill use, an approach much more appropriate for modern and future games than normal d20 in my opinion. First, there are general broad skills and then ranks in specialty skills, all based off a relevant stat. Let’s say you want to shoot someone and have no skill in it.  You roll versus half your DEX stat, with a one step penalty – in other words, 1d20 + 1d4 trying to get under 1/2 your DEX.  If you have the broad skill “Modern Ranged Weapons,” you roll against your full stat with a one step penalty. If you have a specialty skill such as “MRW: Pistol,” you roll 1d20 versus your Pistol skill, which starts at your stat and adds skill ranks.  This provides a nice differentiation of levels of mastery in the system, and since you have to buy the broad skill to get specialty skills, it helps ensure that you aren’t great at one skill and awful at another that are very, very closely related. In this case, if you have ranks in Modern Ranged Weapon: Pistol, you at least have the broad skill for firing rifles or SMGs. A common weakness of granular skill systems is that you are pathetically unskilled in otherwise logically clustered skills.

Degrees of Success

The most unique part of the skill system is the precalculated degrees of success that the rolling scheme makes possible.  If you roll under your skill, you get an “Ordinary” success.  If you roll under half your skill, you get a “Good” success and under 1/4 your skill gets you an “Amazing” success. These numbers are precalculated on your character sheet and don’t change, the die step modifiers just affect your roll.

So let’s say you have Modern Ranged Weapons: Pistol 14. You write this on your sheet “Pistol: 14/7/3”. You can then see at a glance which threshold you roll under.

Different skills behave differently in terms of degree of success; in the case of weapons they actually do different amounts and types of damage. Let’s say you are firing a 9mm pistol at someone, it does d4+1 points of wound damage on an Ordinary success, d4+2 points of wound damage on a Good success, and d4 points of mortal damage on an Amazing success.  You write this “9mm pistol: d4+1w/d4+2w/d4m”, matching the O/G/A format of your skill entries. For more techie skills, you often need a number of successes (perhaps before another number of failures) to accomplish a task, and Ordinary successes give you one, Good two, and Amazing three successes against the total, which lets you go faster the better you are.

As a result, the runtime complexity of the system is mainly figuring out the relevant die steps of bonus and penalty. Then you roll, get your degree of success, and look up the right result. This encodes a lot of complexity in the system while making most of it not burdensome at play time.

Effects

The theme of “three kinds” carries through the system.  As there are the three levels of success, there are also three types of damage – Low Impact (LI), High Impact (HI), and Energy (En). This is an innate characteristic of a weapon – an axe is always LI, a 9mm pistol is always HI, and a plasma gun is always En.

Similarly, there are three different degrees of damage a weapon can do – stun, wound, or mortal. (Characters have stun, wound, and mortal damage tracks.)

Armor is damage ablative and has three ratings, for LI/HI/En.  So a specific type of body armor might be statted as “Battle Vest: d6-3/d6-2/d4-2” which means it will soak e.g. d6-3 points of LI damage every time you get hit.

And still more – there are three different levels of quality of damage, Ordinary, Good, and Amazing, designed to level set personal vs vehicular vs starship combat.  So a 9mm pistol does HI/O (High Impact, ordinary) damage, a heavy machine gun does HI/G (High Impact, Good) and a starship’s rail cannon does HI/A (High Impact, Amazing). Armor is rated similarly, such that Ordinary damage against Good armor gets automatically degraded a level. It’s like a more well thought out version of Palladium mega-damage.

Once you get the hang of the triplet system it flows pretty quickly. Its strength is that it encodes a lot of the desirable complexity in a semi-crunchy science fiction system without depending on exception based design.

There’s a blowthrough aspect to damage; if you deal wound damage to someone and their armor soaks it, they take half the damage one level down. So if you shoot someone for 6 wounds, that actually does 6 wounds (minus armor) plus three stuns (not affected by armor). This prevents armor from making you invulnerable, a problem with some ablative armor systems (old WFRP being a good example of that).

All this may sound complicated, but in the end here’s a meaningful combat stat block for a street goon.

Skills: Modern Ranged Weapon 12/6/3, MRW: Pistol: 14/7/3
Weapon: 9mm pistol (HI/O): d4+1w/d4+2w/d4m
Armor: Battle Vest: d6-3/d6-2/d4-2
Durability: Stun 11, Wound 11, Mortal 6

It Gets More Complicated From There

Yeah, OK, so many skills have unique little “rank benefits” where you get feat-like abilities when you have a bunch of ranks, and using things like grenades turn into minigames of their own. They had to fill 250 pages of Player’s Handbook and another 250 pages of Gamemaster’s Guide with something I guess.

Flaws

Probably the single biggest frustration players find with the system is how granular the skills are.  There’s between 100 and 200 skills, of which  you only have a dozen or so, and sometimes it’s unclear what the right one is in a given situation.  And stats are not high – though the game uses the familiar 6 “D&D stats”, they don’t go from 3-18, they hover more in the 8-13 range. So if you are relying on broad skills with their one step penalty you usually have a very poor chance of succeeding. The main mitigations for this is the more generous optional skill point system we’ll discuss in my next post on Characters, and the GM being generous in letting related skills be used to achieve tasks. “I want to disconnnect the shuttle’s security computer” could arguably use Security: Security Devices, Technical Science: Juryrig, Computer Science: Hardware, System Operation: Defenses, and probably several more skills (Demolitions!). A GM that takes a very exclusionary approach and says “Security Devices is the right skill for that so it’s the only one that can be used” is likely to piss off players.

A slightly lesser concern is how effective and mandatory armor is. A lot of foes end up having good armor and it turns shootouts into whittling-down fests decided by secondary stun damage.  We’ve been known to joke after bombarding an enemy with attacks that do mortal damage but all get ablated by armor that “at least my bullets are making him sleepy!” On the other hand, it makes character death less frequent – Alternity has “levels” but you don’t get D&D style hit points as you go up, you have the same ~10 wound points at level 10 that you do at level 1, so it could be a very deadly system.  Well, it is a deadly system, it’s just that good armor is not a luxury, you have to have it. If you are wanting more of a Star Wars feel, you are probably out of luck; any sane player gets as much armor on as they can; even moderate armor takes combat from 1-2 shot kills to 5-10 shot stun takedowns. In our game we’ve mitigated this a little by making armor half as effective against mortal damage. Mortal damage is “worse” so usually the system does fewer points of it – like that pistol above that does “9mm pistol: d4+1w/d4+2w/d4m” – but that means that RAW, armor effectively almost always does away with  mortal damage, which is supposed to be the coolest Amazing result.

And the final concern is more of a packaging/formatting concern – they smattered a bunch of fundamental rules into the Gamemaster’s Guide instead of putting them in the PHB. You can see the standard TSR “well you need to sell them both a player’s book and a GM book right” philosophy fray in this game; a proper redesign would put a lot of the GMG content into the PHB and then turn the GMG into more of a resourceful campaign and opponent book.  As it is we ignore the GMG most of the time until we have to look up a picky splash diagram or range modifier table. Hell, you could do without the GMG just fine as long as you don’t mind off-the-cuffing some of that other stuff.

Conclusion

These two flaws can be worked around, and in the end provides a quite satisfactory system, in the same weight class as GURPS. I’ve played a variety of other SF systems – Traveller, Traveller d20, Star Frontiers, Silhouette, GURPS – and I put Alternity right up there next to all of them for overall quality and play experience. It was quite a departure for TSR, too, who then fell into the trap of “d20 Modern” and killed off Alternity when they got the Star Wars license.

Our Alternity Campaign Is Still Rockin’

Let’s hear it for science fiction gaming.  Our group has been running a campaign using the venerable TSR game Alternity for, goodness, nearly two years now!  The campaign is called The Lighthouse, as it is mostly set aboard the eponymous Galactic Concord space station in the Star*Drive universe. Paul is our faithful GM, who is using pretty much all the extant Alternity sources as part of one huge megacampaign.

It’s an interesting game that has a good bit of Babylon 5/Star Trek flavor.  Each player has two characters, in fact.  One is part of what we have taken to calling the “A Team” which is mostly command staff aboard the Lighthouse.  I play Captain Ken Takashi (since promoted to Admiral), the commanding officer. Patrick plays the faithful station pilot Commander Martin St. John, Bruce plays the eccentric mechalus engineer Taveer, Tim plays Haggernak, the weren station Concord Administrator (police chief). Chris was playing a CIB spy who died, and now it’s arguable which of his characters is “A team” – we’ll call it Drest, the Pict warchief who has come aboard with a task force of Picts from Lucullus who are flinging their bodies into the interstellar fray. You can check out our character sheets here.

Our second characters come from the seedy underbelly of the station. Disaffected diplomats, criminals, and other miscreants.  I play Markus the retired warlion shock trooper (who is bartender of the station bar/casino The Corner, and deals arms on the side), Patrick plays Lenny the T’sa “diplomat” (a semiretired master thief), Bruce plays Lambert Fulson the demented illegal merchant, Tim plays Ambassador Peppin (a dissolute professor who spent most of his career preying on coeds), and Chris plays Ten-zil Kem (apparently a VoidCorp diplomat but really a sleeper agent for an opposing faction).

The Lighthouse is a space station with a stardrive, and it wanders the Verge, a poorly populated part of space cut off from the main galactic civilization by a galactic war some time ago, spreading the law of the new Galactic Concord. We have been caught up in a holy war spearheaded by a variety of demented alien races who seek humanity’s death and/or enslavement. Unfortunately, they did not count on our resourcefulness, tenacity, or enormous capacity for violence.

We write up each of our adventures in some detail; you can read each session’s delightful mix of adventure and in-jokes on our session summary page.

This week will be Alternity Week here on Geek Related; we’ll celebrate the the game with some in depth looks at the system, characters, and campaign. Chime in with your experiences if you’ve played it too!