Monday, May 27, 2024

Review: Alternity RPG (1998)

 Here we are for the last week of Sci-Fi month, and I wanted to dedicate this week to the game I really wanted to love. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with this game; it just never had the chance to connect properly. But more on that. This week is Alternity week.

Alternity RPG Player's Handbook and Gamemaster's Guide

Alternity was a noble effort. A new Sci-Fi game that would allow you to play hard sci or science fantasy as you saw fit. It had a core system and there were supplements and campaign guides to extend from the near, and dark future (Dark*Matter) to the stars (Star*Drive).  Even Gamma World was updated to this new system.  It was, honestly, a wonderful idea. 

Sadly, Alternity suffered a fatal blow in the death throws of TSR. Published in 1998 it was the last RPG developed and published by TSR. Wizards of the Coast bought TSR in 1997 (and lets be honest, saved TSR in 1997). In 2000 the Alternity line was dropped. While you can find the Quick Starts online in PDF form, there are no legal PDFs of the Alternity game. There is an online community and a new RPG that uses the same system (more or less), the 1998-2000 version of the game is very much out of print.

For this review, I am going to focus on my print copies.

Alternity Player's Handbook (1998)
Alternity Player's Handbook (1998)

by Bill Slavicsek and Richard Baker. Full-color covers and interior art. 256 pages.
Art by rk post, Todd Lockwood, William O'Connor, Dennis Kauth, Rob Lazzaretti.

Released, April 1998.

Let me start with the look and feel of this game. If you are familiar with the later TSR offerings, in particular the Revised 2nd Edition of AD&D, then you will get a good idea for the art and layout here. Picking up the books they feel "familiar." Though I can't help but smile at the "lens flare" in the Alternity logo. Hey, we are all allowed to use a lens flare once non ironically and if you can't do it in 1998 then when can you? This does make me feel nostalgic for late 90s.  

Authors Bill Slavicsek and Richard Baker had grand hopes for this game in 1998, and their love for it shows throughout the book. Whatever other issues I might have with this system (and spoilers: they are minor), their efforts here are not among them. They start be justifiably comparing what they are doing to Dungeons & Dragons. Rereading these rules now, so many years later, the similarities are much closer than I recalled. 

I am breaking out the chapters into sections here since they are largely mirrored in the Gamemaster's Guide.


This covers the basics. What is role-playing, what is this game and so on. Veterans can skip this, but there is some good insight here about what they are trying to do. 

Chapter 1: Fast-Play Rules

This covers the game in a very fast-paced and simplified manner. Designed to get everyone up and running right away. Personally, I like the idea, but I wonder if it is not better served with a PDF or a soft-cover freebie alone and not included in this book. Granted, in 1998, not as many people were on the internet, and freebie printed products were likely still too much for a company that had just been rescued from financial oblivion. Still, we are only talking about a handful of pages here, and it really helps set the stage for what is to come. The Gamemaster's Guide also had a free PDF.

Note: The new Alternity also offers this for free for their updated version. 

Chapter 2: Hero Creation

What is says on the tin. We have nine steps in our hero creation, which feels very, very similar to D&D. Even the six attributes are similar. You choose a concept, a species (Fraal, Mechalus, Sesheyan, T'sa, Weren, and Human), and a Career and Profession. Careers are your concept in a few words and Professions are bit like classes, but certain skills and abilities are cheaper/easier to acquire. So anyone can take any skill, some are just easier. It's a good approach. The Professions are Combat Specialist, Diplomat, Free Agent, Tech Operative, and the psionic Mindwalker. Mindwalkers are detailed later.

Ability scores are assigned, largely compatible with AD&D scores. Some species have ability score minimums and maximums. Skills are also bought/assigned. Some species lend themselves to some skill easier. The Mechalus, for example, get computer science for free. Weren get unarmed attacks.

Characters get perks and flaws, a popular game design choice of the later 90s. Choose some attributes, and complete the character sheet. I'll work through an example later this week.

Chapter 3: Heroes in Action 

This chapter covers the basic rules of the game. The basic idea here is to roll a d20, sometimes with some additional dice as a bonus or penalty, and roll under a given margin. The additional dice are called "steps" and they change based on the situation. Trying to reprogram a computer when you are at ease, have all the time in the world and it is a system you know well might be a "Cakewalk" step. So you roll your d20 and then roll a d12, you minus whatever you get on the d12 from the d20 for your final result. Remember rolling low here is good. On the other hand reprogramming the same computer in another language while being shot at might be a "Grueling" step. So roll a d20 and add another d20 to that! There are plenty of examples given in the book.

Dice Steps Difficulty

Which skills and abilities to use in what situation are also covered. 

Combat is a big one and here we have four types of damage. Stun, Wound, Mortal, and Fatigue. Anyone one can incapacitate a character. Ok four damage types is not ideal in my mind, but it works here and that is fine with me. 

Chapter 4: Skills

This covers the skills, how they work and where they are used. As expected for the time there are LOT of skills here. Of course the advantage to this is character customization is great. 

Chapter 5: Perks & Flaws

These sorts of mechanics were very popular starting in the 80s and into the 90s. These also help improve or hinder a character to some degree or provide some role-playing fodder. Many here are common ones you see in other games. Ones to make the character harder to kill (Tough as Nails), lucky (Good Luck), Ambidextrous, Great Looking, and more. These sorts of things are still popular in newer games, but to a lesser degree.  Flaws work the same way. Bad Luck, Powerful Enemy, Fragile, and so on. 

Chapter 6: Sample Careers

The flexibility of this game is baked in. Here we only get a sampling of potential careers. The various supplements can (and will add) more. Not a long chapter, but long enough.

Chapter 7: Attributes

These are character "tags" and descriptors that help round out the character. They include various Motivations, Moral Attitudes, and Character Traits. I can't help but notice that is pretty much all some new games have for their character-building. Also not a long chapter. 

Chapter 8: Achievements

The Achievement Point system works a little different than the typical XP system that many readers of this game would have been used to. These allow the character to advance skills, add a new perk, remove a flaw, and so on. 

Chapter 9: Goods & Services

Our goods and equipment chapter. Important here is the PL or Progress Level of the game and the place where the characters will be buying things. The PL of our current time is PL5 or Information Age. D&D, not counting the effects of magic, is PL 2. Star Trek is PL 7. There is a rough timeline from 4,000 BCE to 5000+ CE. 

Lots of fun things here too. I am not going to gripe about some of the "future tech" projections that are a bit off. Instead I will point out that they do a better job than many other games. Speaking of which...

Chapter 10: Computers

Covers the ubiquitous computers of all sci-fi games. There is a great little overview of Computers through the ages which is a good read. I do like how they try to get cyberware and computers right into the core rules from the start.

Chapter 11: Weapons & Armor

Again, what is says. PL values are given. I didn't see anything to adjust prices based on PL, but I could have missed it. I guess that is the biggest fiction of all here, that standard wages keep up with inflation and supply/demand. This is fine. This is a sci-fi RPG, not an econ textbook.

I am not one to get all gaga over guns, but I do love some sci-fi weapons. Give me lasers, phaser, pulse rifles, I love them all. 

Chapter 12: Vehicles

This covers both personal craft and space ships. There are more in the Star*Drive game. 

Chapter 13: Mutations

I think Gamma World was very much on their minds here. 

Chapter 14: Psionics

Ah, now I look forward to this chapter in every sci-fi game I read. This covers the powers and Mindwalkers. The idea here is to be a really good psionic character who have to train for it. This fits. The feel here is solid Babylon 5 and Catspaw by Joan D. Vinge. Mind you these are good things. 

Cyber Characters

Chapter 15: Cybertech

It has been threaded through out the game, but this chapter cover cyberware and cybertech (it was the late 90s remember) in detail. 

We end with some compiled tables, an Index and character (Hero) sheets.

Alternity Gamemaster's Guide (1998)
Alternity Gamemaster's Guide (1998)

by Richard Baker and Bill Slavicsek. Full-color covers and interior art. 256 pages.
Art by rk post, Charles Bernard, D. Alexander Gregory, Hannibal Kings, Terese Nelson.

Released May, 1998.

Notable, the authors' order is swapped on the cover. While reading this, I felt that this was a full joint effort.

The layout and organization mirrors that of the Player's Handbook. One thing is pretty clear that Game Masters should (maybe "need" is a better word) read both books. 

The Gamemaster's Guide has an Introduction, Chapter 1: Fast-Play Rules, and Chapter 2: Hero Creation, just like the Player's book, but from the Game Master's perspective. This includes what to allow (or not allow) during character creation. The same is true for Chapters 4 and 5, Skills and Perks & Flaws, respectively.  

Chapter 3 is Gamemasters in Action. This is more detail on the rules of play. The GM side of the Heroes in Action chapter in the Player's book.

The biggest changes from the format come in Chapters 11 to 17. 

Chapters 10 and 11 cover Vehicles and Spaceships, respectively. Now I love Starship and Spaceship design. So this is a chapter I kept coming back to, just like I did during my days with Traveller and Star Frontiers. Spaceship design and creation might be more fun than character creation to be honest.

Chapter 12: Alien Artifacts

This would be the "magic items" chapter in D&D-like games. There are some good background details here to add to the campaign chapters (13 and 14) that follow. 

Chapter 13: Campaign DesignChapter 14: Campaign Architecture, and Chapter 15: Adventure Design

 These chapters detail how to create your own campaigns. They are both about 20 or so pages of material. More details are given in the various campaign settings. Still, there is enough here to keep any sci-fi busy for a while.

Chapter 16: Optional Rules

Mutants, Psionics, Cybertech, AI, and FX are all covered here. FX, which is short for "Special Effects" (here and elsewhere), deals with all the other sorts of things in the game, like magic, miracles, and superscience. Normally, I don't like to mix magic and sci-fi, but in this game, I didn't mind it, really. Maybe it was more due the Dark*Matter setting.

Chapter 17: Creatures & Aliens

People who want to meet or eat you. The stat blocks are similar to PC/NPCs. They remind me a lot of Gamma World in terms of layout and presentation. There are some animals (earth standard) and some templates for alien animals. 


This fun appendix covers converting AD&D 2nd Ed Characters to Alternity and back.  It's actually kind of fun and I admit, one of the first chapters I first went to when I first started looking into this game.

AD&D 2e to Alternity

We end with an index, spaceship sheets, system sheets, and a bibliography. 


I wanted to love this game. I really did. So here is what works and doesn't for me.

I love what the developers were trying to do here, a system to cover all sorts of different kinds of sci-fi. A way to combine genres like Gamma World, Traveller and Star Frontiers. Plus I love the style of this game. 

While it has a certain "AD&D meets GURPS IN SPAAACE!" vibe, I really like this vibe. This is increased when we bring in the Dark*Matter and Star*Drive settings. 

On the downside, this game suffered from the death of TSR. While reading the history of the company pretty much guaranteed the game was doomed from the start, this was sealed when the d20 system was introduced.  The d20 system did everything the Alternity system was trying to do and then some more. This becomes obvious in the d20 Future book, which includes Alternity and Star Frontiers material.

The system itself, while it takes some of the best of AD&D, also has some of its problems. They tried to patch over them, so some degree of success, but not say as much as the d20 system would later do. 

I know that there was not a lot of love for this system back in the day. Again, I wanted to love it, and Dark*Matter in particular. Well, I discovered the WitchCraft RPG at the same time, and that was pretty much love at first sight. But like many games, I kept coming back to it and thinking, "What if..." 

Re-reading it now, many years later, I still see that it has all of the elements of things I would love. They are all here, but maybe not in the order I need them to be. But there is still a really fun game here, and I am looking forward to exploring it more.

Alternity RPG Today

While the original Alternity RPG is out of print, there are still options for players today.

There is the new Alternity RPG out. Richard Baker, who was half of the original team, worked on this version. I like it and I will try to review it at some point.

There is also a great Alternity RPG website with a LOT of material. There is so much here I might have to spend some time reviewing it as well. 

Looking forward to getting into my other Alternity books.


doccarnby said...

I've been interested in Alternity for a long time. I don't remember where I first heard of it, I must have been pretty young since I'm pretty sure it was before I actually started playing TTRPGs but I don't know how I would have heard of it (it got a Starcraft booklet and my friends and I loved that game, maybe somebody I knew heard about that? Maybe an ad in a magazine?), but the name always stuck with me as something I wanted to know about. It just sounds good.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

For me Alternity was happening as I was getting out of D&D in favor of games like CJ Carella's WitchCraft. But yeah, it was one I always wanted to try out.

Russell said...

Owned a good number of the books, but only got to run it one time. I ran the Dark*Matter intro adventure, Exit 23.

I wish I was able to keep all of the books I owned.