Showing posts with label 90s. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 90s. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Review: Alternity Dark•Matter

Alternity Dark*Matter
 Ah. Now, this one is hitting me where I live. By 1999, Alternity was already interesting to me. I had, of course, seen bits of it online and knew about it from the internet and talking to other gamers. But it was 1999's Dark•Matter Campaign Setting that REALLY got me interested. 

Dark•Matter came out at a time when Dark Urban Fantasy was my drug of choice, and I was an addict.  I had played Chill off and on (mostly off) through the 80s and I had picked up a new copy of Chill 2nd Edition. It didn't have enough magic in it for me. Oh the Art and the Evil Way were fun, but I wanted something more.

I will get into what was going for me in 1999 a bit later on and talk about how Dark•Matter almost made the cut, but didn't. But first lets talk about what it is and what was good about it.

Dark•Matter (1999)

by Wolfgange Baur and Monte Cook. Full-color covers and interior art. 288 pages.  Wizards of the Coast logo.

Like all the books in the Alternity line, Dark•Matter is out of print and not available on PDF.

By this time, the Alternity line has given over completely to Wizards of the Coast, with the TSR logo only seen in ads on the back few pages.  Reading through this book, its layout, and its art make me think of the early d20 Modern books and the d20 Call of Cthulhu book Wizards would later do. They share some artists. 

Ok stop me if you have heard this one before, Dark•Matter takes place on Earth, but not the Earth we know. This is an Earth with a hidden history where monsters, aliens, psychic powers and even magic are real. 

Now I freely admit, I love the name. It is sci-fi and yet spooky at the same time. I mean what is not to love really?

Chapter 1: An Introduction to Dark•Matter

Like our previous books, this is an introduction and some fast-play rules with a sample adventure. Nice way to do it. Maybe it is because it is Baur and Cook, but this seems a little more readable to me.

Chapter 2: Welcome to the Hoffmann Institute

Ah, now we get into some in-world background on what is going on. The Hoffmann Institute is our BPRD, our SAVE, our SPC, our Sanctuary, our in world organization to help our character push back against the night. 

Chapter 2: Welcome to the Hoffmann Institute

Unlike Star*Drive, which didn't grab me, this grabbed ahold of me pretty hard. I remember reading websites on the Internet dedicated to the Hoffmann Institute and thought it was great. Yes, I had read similar things about SAVE back in the days of Chill, that doesn't matter. The fact was this stuff was new and it was out there and I was enjoying it. This fluff, as much as anything else made me want to play this game more.

Chapter 3: Heroes of Dark•Matter

This is our hero creation chapter. The rules for hero creation are still in the Alternity Core rules, this just adds some additional skills, perks, flaws, and careers. As expected most of the high tech or advanced sci-fi stuff is out. No alien heroes, no cybertech ( But Mindwalking is now a "core" profession. 

Chapter 4: Arcana

Now this is something new! In the Dark•Matter world, magic is real. There new FX rules here that replace the FX rules from Alternity and the FX book (more on that). There is Arcane Magic in the form of Diabolism, Enochian, and Hermeticism. And Faith magic in the form of Monotheism, Shamanism, and Voodoo. Really fun stuff. Magic FX is taken like a broad skill with skill-specific "spells" chosen under each one. The spells are powered by a limited resource of FX points. So, magic-using characters will not be the magical powerhouses seen in D&D, or even Mage or WitchCraft, but they are more powerful than the ones found in games like Chill.  Honestly, this worked GREAT for me since my own home campaign was based on the idea that as we approached, the new Millennium magic was going to increase. 

Chapter 4: Arcana

Chapter 5: History of the World

Dark•Matter was released between two great paranormal TV shows; The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It manages to capture the zeitgeist of both of them well. This chapter feels like it could have come from the series bible of either show. 

Chapter 5: History of the World

There is a timeline of the world that manages to incorporate some sort of malignant, evil force, the arrival of aliens, and the rise and fall of Atlantis. There is the expected involvement with the Egyptians, and then later the Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs and Incas. Tesla gets name-dropped, as do the Templars and Masons. Nazis, Roswell, New World Order. It's like we all read the same books! Even the rising "Dark Tide" to the new Millennium. I would say I read it here, but it was something I was doing in Chill 2nd ed. 

There is no "game" information here, but it is a great read.

An aside: I wonder how this timeline tracks with the one from TSR's Masque of the Red Death. I have no expectations they are the same on purpose save that they both are drawing from the same sources of information. It might be fun (yes I said fun) to see how they line up. 

Chapter 6: The Illuminati

With conspiracy theories, the Illuminati will inevitably be brought up. This covers a bunch of topics related to the Dark•Matter world. We get a bunch of groups that are vying for control of knowledge of the world. These include The Free Masons, the Rosicrucians, The Hidden Order of St. Gregory, The Invisible College, the Knights of Malta, The Final Church, The Bilderbergers, and of course the Hoffmann Institute. All of these factions are trying to control and all of them will either try to stop or recruit the heroes. There are also plenty of governments, the UN, and other organizations involved. 

It reads like a who-who of conspiracy theories. 

Chapter 7: Places of Interest

A trip around the globe starting in Africa and giving the Congo, Sahara, and Egypt their due. Lots of locations in America. I was happy to see a local favorite while growing up, the Cahokia Mounds, get some good ink as well as a place more local to me now, Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago. All the expected sites are here. Groom Lake (Area 51), Rosewell, Los Alamos. Moving on to Asia, Australia and Europe. There is even coverage of Atlantis, Earth Orbit, and Mars. 

Chapter 7: Places of Interest

Chapter 8: Xenoforms

Or our Monster chapter. We get all sorts of creatures here including aliens, demons, trans-dimensional travellers, Elohim, Ghosts, Men in Black, Sasquatches, and Yeti just to name a few. No vampires though. 

Chapter 9: Running a Dark•Matter Campaign

This is all pretty good advice for a lot of modern supernatural/conspiracy style games. Non of this is game specific and would work well for WitchCraft, Chill, Conspiracy X, and yes even NIGHT SHIFT.  There is a huge list of topics on page 240 that is a fantastic starting place for any intrepid Game Master. 

Chapter 10: Campaign Options

This chapter covers various ways to see up a campaign and give the characters (and players) a focus. There are even nots here on playing a Grey, Kinori, Mothman, Sandman or even a Sasquatch hero. 

Chapter 11: Raw Recruits 

This is a sample adventure where the characters are new recruits to the Hoffmann Institute. 

Thoughts: 1999 to Now

1999 was a pivotable year for me and gaming. I wanted a new modern supernatural game. I had flirted with Vampire: The Masquerade off and on for years. I played Chill 1st Ed, and had made the drive out to Mayfair Games (which was now local to me) to buy one of the apparently "hundreds" of Chill 2nd edition books they still had laying around. But neither Vampire nor Chill were giving me what I wanted. 

Enter the Dark Trio.

WitchCraft, Dark*Matter, and Mage

Around the same time, I discovered Mage: The Ascension (and Dark Ages Mage), C.J. Carella's WitchCraft, and Dark•Matter.

All three of these games can do very similar things. They all draw on a lot of the same history, myths, and legends. In my mind, all were very good games.

I love Mage. But there is a lot going on there. Dark•Matter had nearly everything I wanted, but at the time, I had a new baby on the way and not a lot of readily disposable cash to drop on three hardcovers to play a game. WitchCraft though. Man, that game hit me hard and never stopped. 

You can play the same game with all three rule sets. I think even that each of these has Roscrucians, Hermetics, and stats for the Comte de Saint-Germain.

Dark•Matter is excellent. It really is, but it also suffers from the same Alternity system that bogs it down. Also, I am partial to Roll-Over Mechanics and not Roll-Under. Mage is Dice-Pool. 

A lot of these arguments against Dark•Matter go away when you consider the 2006 d20 Dark•Matterreleased by Wizards of the Coast. But that is a discussion for next year.

All three are at least thematically compatible with each other. You can move characters between the games with some effort, and as expected, I have done so. 

Let me restate it. Dark•Matter is excellent. It is a wonderful game that, in the end, fell just a little short of perfection. At least for me. In another world, a world where I didn't find the Unisystem WitchCraft, I'd still be blogging about this game today.  I am looking forward to covering the d20 version next year when I take on the 25th Anniversary of the d20 system.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Review: Alternity Star*Drive

Alternity Star*Drive
Continuing on with Alternity, I am turning my attention to the Star*Drive Campaign Setting. Before I go too deep into it I have to say that I think TSR, before their purchase by WotC was on track to making the same mistakes with Alternity that they were making with AD&D Second Edition. That is having a core system and too many campaign settings. Now, to be 100% fair here, Alternity only has two different but linked campaign settings; Star*Drive and Dark*Matter. Two and a half if you also count Gamma World. Two and two halves if you add in the Starcraft material too. But the seeds are here. Sadly, they never fell into fertile ground, and even the ones that did were not well tended to.

Star*Drive Campaign Setting

by David Eckelberry and Richard Baker, 1998. Full-color covers and interior art. 256 pages. 

This book still features the TSR logo, but all details of the company that produces it is Wizards of the Coast. I only point this out because it is a weird transitional time for the company and I can't help but think this as much as anything else sealed the fate of this game.

As with the rest of the classic Alternity material, this is out of print and there are no PDFs availble. 

Chapter 1: The Star*Drive Campaign

This covers what this setting is about and some basics and a timeline of contact with the Fraal to the modern day of the 26th century (2501).  Interestingly we are 100 years away from constructing the first Star Drive tech. This is roughly comparable to the timeline we would later see in Star Trek.  This chapter also discusses different ways to play this game. The feel is somewhere between Star Frontiers and Traveller, with dashes of Star Trek and/or Starship Troopers added in. 

Chapter 2: The 26th Century

An aside. Are we in the 26th Century because it is not the 25th century of Buck Rodgers? 

Anyway. Here we get an overview of what our setting is like now. Science, Technology which includes cybertech and biotech, mutants and psionics, medicine, and even religion, is covered here. There is not a lot of game text here, this is all an overview.  The religion section is interesting since it usually gets ignored by most sci-fi games. Unless it is Star Wars.

Chapter 3: Stellar Nations

This takes us into more detail of the who, what and where of this campaign setting and feels most like an extension of the Alternity rules. Note, not a lot of mechanics, but more information on material presented in the core rules. All of the species from the core are here, with their home worlds. Also, the various "Nations" in space, including the Solar Union (oddly not established in 2112). 

Chapter 4: The Verge

This is the area of unexplored space and the part that gives me the "Star Trek" vibes.  We are introduced to "The Lighthouse" which I will get into more detail about later on. Plenty of new worlds and systems are detailed, but the obvious thing here is that GMs will create their own worlds and systems. Still, though, there is plenty here to keep you busy. This section is the bulk of the book; over half. Game stats are largely limited to NPCs, some ships, and planets. 

Chapter 5: Hero Creation

This is the most rules heavy section of the book, but that is not say a lot. It is largely additional information to what is found in the Core Rules. The additions here include Homeworld or Nation and a few new careers. Though there are a lot of new details here that can affect every career. 

While there is a lot of material here, it is really all "World Building" material. While it is interesting, I don't find it compelling. Chances are very, very good that if I had played this game in the late 1990s, I would have converted it all to some sort of Star Trek-like game and used that background. In truth, I also find it less compelling than Star Frontiers, which tried to do something similar 15 years prior. I mean the Fraal are interesting, but they are no Vrusk!

Still I can't fault the game for what I want it to be, only what it is. It is somewhere between a fully realized campaign setting and a toolbox. Maybe if it had been allowed to continue on we could have seen more growth. Certainly, sites like give credence to this idea. Their Star*Drive section certainly has enough to keep anyone busy for a long time. 

Select Supplements

I don't have a lot of material for the Star*Drive Setting, but I have some. Here are a few.

Alternity Star*Drive Supplements

Game Masters' Screen

This is lighter card stock. Not too different than some of the early D&D 3.0 screens. 

Gamma World

Softcover, 192 pages. Color cover, black & white interior art. 2000. This one has a TSR prefixed product code (as did Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition) but the logo and company information is all Wizards of the Coast.

I briefly discussed this one in my discussion of post-TSR-Gamma World offerings. This softcover book by Andy Collins and Jeff Grubb takes us back to Gamma World—or at least, a Gamma World. It is still Earth, and it is still post-apocalyptic. 

This book uses, but doesn't require, the Alternity Core. Also it feels like Gamma World. I think this is because the design of Alternity had Gamma World in mind. Mutants and the like are already baked in to the core so no extra rules are needed to add them, just some extra options.  

While the rules are 100% Alternity, the background sort of precludes Star*Drive. Unless of course you want the Galaxy to have moved on without humans and Earth is this wasteland, OR, this is different, very Earth like planet. Imagine the shock when space travelers from Earth/Solar Union find this planet out in the Verge and there is a colasping Space Needle in a town called Seatle. This is something that would work, and work well, in Alternity. 

I would say that if you like Gamma World and Alternity is your system of choice then this is the version of it to play. 


by David Eckelberry. 96 pages, color covers, monochrome interior. 1999.  This one has the TSR Silver Anniversary logo on the cover. Listed as copyright 1999 TSR.

This one is fun. Not only do we get some cool spacehips (always a plus in my mind) but there are alternate FTL systems listed here so you can have the kind of game you want. Me? I would have seen the section on Warp and never looked back. Though there are some other good options here including relativistic travel with time dialation effects. And get out your scientific calculators, because in relativistic flight you will need to caluclate gamma changes. Yes. This is a selling point to me. 

We cover basic spaceship operations, technology, some skill uses and most importantly Spaceships!  The last third of the books covers ships and deck plans with costs. Again, not sure how acurate the costs are, but who cares! Spaceships!

The Lighthouse

by David Eckelberry. Color covers, mono-chrome interior. 1998. 64-pages. Features the TSR logo of the late 90s. Contact information is all Wizards of the Coast. 

This is the space station mentioned in the Campagin setting. The cover come free (like the old adventure modules) and has deck plans for all (well most) 200 decks. The feel is a cross between a Star Trek Starbase and Babylon 5. 

The history of the lighthouse is discussed including why it was built. We get some details on it's various systems and who lives there. It is be necessity a broad overview, but there is enough here to let me really dive into it. 

One of the reasons I have kept this one around becuse the plans are really perfect for my various Ghost Tower/Ghost Station of Inverness ideas [1][2][3]. For this reason alone I am glad I have held on to this.


Alternity Star*Drive has a lot going for it. If you are a fan of the system then I think this is a must aquire set of books. It doesn't do anything above and beyond what we have seen in Star Frontiers, Traveller or many other games, BUT it has a great flavor and the oprotunity to add material from Gamma World, Starcraft and even their other campaign setting, Dark*Matter. 

Sadly all of this was superceded by the d20 system. Much of Star*Drive (and Dark*Matter) would go on to live in d20 Modern and d20 Future. I will deal with those in another time. Likely next May.

I can't say for sure, but I have the feeling that Alternity was never given the chance it needed to survive. Cut off early and not supported. We saw the leel of support WotC could give to d20, which was in truth their darling. Alternity was the lost and forgotten older sibling of d20.  I am happy to see it has support online and that it still has fans out there.

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.

Friday, May 24, 2024

This Old Dragon: Issue #166

Dragon Magazine #166
 Dipping into the box of mildewy Dragons under my desk, I find this gem in February 1991. Ok, again, I did not pull this one out completely at random. And compared to some of the others this one is in rather great shape. Let's see. February of 1991. I was an undergrad, living in an apartment with three other guys. Graduation was still a year or so off. My computer at the time was my aging Color Computer 3 that, while I loved it, was showing me its limitations in an increasingly IBM-PC-compatible world.  The number song on the radio was "The First Time" by Surface. No I don't remember them at all. The number one movie was "Sleeping with the Enemy" staring Julia Roberts. And on tables and shelves everywhere was Issue #166 of This Old Dragon.

Again, this is a sci-fi-themed edition, so let's see what we have here.

Our cover this month is from E. M. Gooch. I admit I don't know them and my quick internet search pulled up nothing.

Letters covers the topics of the month from all over the world. An Israeli reader provides some names for creatures in Hebrew. A Canadian reader has Griffon questions. 

The Editorial by Dale A. Donovan covers a lot of good non-TSR games for various genres. 

In Time for Tomorrow is our Sci-Fi themed section. Up first is Michael LaBossiere with Wired and Ready a guide to running a cyberpunk-style RPG. The 90s were a great time for cyberpunk games. I had tried out several in the first half of the decade, with Mike Pondsmith's Cyberpunk and FASA's ShadowRun as my two favorites. Ithink Shadowrun edged it out for me since I was always a fan of magic. His 5 page article covers a lot of ground and was required reading back then. Today, well many of the things that seemed like fantasy then are all too real now. Large, above the law, corporations. Dark futures. cyber slang. All feels like history and current events instead of some future time.

Mike Speca has some BATTLETECH advice in Tricks of the Trade. Now I never played BATTLETECH though I do see the appeal. 

Up next is an article that to me at least feels like "what happens if we adapt Paranoia's biggest gag to GURPS Autoduel?" Edward Goldstein gives us A Clone of Your Own for GURPS Autoduel. It reads like one of the "Ecology of" articles; set in the world of the game and reporting what they know with game details interspersed.

Breaking up the sci-fi is TSR PREVIEWS for February and March 1991. Among the listings are The Complete Psionics Handbook, which I just dug up for my new Forgotten Realms campaign. Some Buck Rogers XXVc accessories. Ship of Horror for Ravenloft, which I think I picked up right away, and some more. 

Three pages of the Convention Calendar is next. Lots of international ones here too. The Egyptian Campaign '91 is listed for March 1-3. Despite being there, I am pretty sure I missed it. Lots of little cons back then, I don't find as many of these now.

The Lessers (Hartley, Patricia, and Kirk) are back with The Role of Computers. This time they cover Wing Commander, which they give 6 stars out of 5! That's quite a review. The requirements are also pretty high for 1991, s Roland sound board and VGA graphics. No indication on RAM but I am betting at least 8 or 16 megs, which was top notch back then.

The Game Wizards from Timothy B. Brown is up with a preview of the new Dungeons & Dragons set subtitled "An Easy-To-Learn Introduction to Role-Playing." Like all Game Wizards entries it is half sales pitch, half preview. 

Friend of the Other Side, Bruce Heard is up with another installment of The Voyage of the Princess Ark.

Superstar Tom Moldvay is next with a new game, Dino Wars! A very clever game of army men vs toy dinosaurs. Honestly, it looks fun. There is quite a lot of detail, and it looks like something everyone could play with, given how ubiquitous toy soldiers and dinosaurs are.

Dino Wars by Tom Moldvay

Our fiction section is Rest Stop by J.W. Donnelly.

Scott Waterhouse is up with Arcane Lore: More Pages from the Arch Mages. Not the subtle title change. This covers new spellbooks and spells for AD&D 2nd Edition.

Sage Advice answers our burning questions and errata. 

Jim Bambra reviews Torg and Rifts in Role-Playing Reviews. Is there any game that is more early 90s than Rifts? Almost every designer I know has developed something for it. 

Marlys Heezel "reviews" some new novels for the Novel Ideas column, which I have never seen before. Both books are from TSR Books, so it really feels more like an ad.  In fact a full page ad for them follow.

Forum covers some deeper topics from Dragons #155 and #156.

Robert Rinas gets in on the Top Gun craze and gives us The Navy Wants You! for the Top Secret/S.I. RPG. It covers naval officer training as a character creation option.

Dragonmirth has our comics including Yamara. One day I will track these all down and read them in order.  The Twilight Empire is next. The art is good and I am sure the story is too. HAve to read it from the start to be sure. 

Through the Looking Glass by Robert Bigelow has the latest on new miniatures. 

So not a great issue by any stretch, but there are some gems. This feels like a transition issue before Dragon becomes a TSR game only show.  I was hoping for more sci-fi material to be honest.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

This Old Dragon: Issue #183

Dragon Magazine #183
  That time again when I reach into the pile of Dragons under my desk and pull out one to read. This month, I am focusing on sci-fi, so in a bit of a cheat, I am pulling from the small selection of sci-fi-themed Dragons. Today's Dragon #183 comes to us from the summer of 1992. It's July; I just finished my undergrad degree and working on my Masters. My best friend from all over the world also graduated, but she is finishing up another bachelor's degree and will be moving to Chicago in a month or so. No. I am not ready for this. Spoiler: We decide in February of 1993 to start dating. Can't do it while we live in the same town I guess, have to wait till we are 300 miles apart. We are still married.  In the theatres, "A League of Their Own" is number 1. Mariah Carey is at #1 with "I'll Be There," and on the shelves and gaming tables everywhere is Issue #183 of This Old Dragon. 

Our cover this month is from Mike L. Scott and features Spelljammer "space whales" called Kindori. I noticed my oldest was prepping a new Spelljammer game, so I asked him if he knew about these guys.

So, at this point, I was not reading Dragon regularly. I knew of this issue, but nothing really about it. 

We were hit with some ads right away, which I enjoyed. One is for a Doctor Doom supplement for Marvel Super Heroes, and another is for Dungeons of Mystery. Dungeons of Mystery features the concept art and not the final art. The concept art has a solid "Mystara" feel to it that I rather like. Flipping the page more TSR ads for the new Dragonlance book and Aurora's Whole Realms Catalogue.  I am not that familiar with this one outside of the name, I will have to track it down.

We get to the Contents and learn this month's special feature is Science and Fantasy. Great!

Letters cover a bunch of quick-shot answers from past issues in a rapid-fire fashion. I see the Witch from #114 is still stirring the pot, er, cauldron. 

Roger Moore's Editorial covers how to adapt some fantasy books to your AD&D game. There is a picture of four books, including The Princess Bride, but he only talks about two of them, "The Face in the Frost" and "The Last Unicorn."  He does mention he ran out of space and time for the others.

Bruce Nesmith is up first for our feature with Magic & Technology Meet At Last in his notes on converting AD&D 2nd Ed and Gamma World 4th Ed. Thankfully, it seems to be a bit easier than I expected since they are more closely related than I originally knew. Plus Gamma World essentially is using the d20 to hit AC mechanic we will later see in D&D 3rd Edition and the d20 rules. 

Advice to a High Lord is from Martin Wixted. It is interesting for a couple of reasons. First off it is copyrighted, so likely one of the articles that would cause so much drama when the Dragon CD-ROM came out, and it is about West End Games' TORG. So a rare non-TSR game. Though at this time they were still being featured, soon all other game support would drop.  I don't know much about TORG really. I saw people playing it when I would pop over to the Student Center when they had their RPG open games, but never played. I still see it a lot at Gen Con.

Speaking of which. Small ad for the combined Gen Con/Origins game show. 

People love pirates. Well...I admit I don't, but they are popular. "Avast, ye swaps, and heave to!" by Richard Baker III covers pirates and privateering in AD&D Spelljammer. While not a lot of mechanics, there is some good stuff here. It should work for AD&D 2nd Ed and the 5th Ed material my kid was reading over.

Ah...Now this looks fun. Unidentified Gaming Objects brings UFOs to your Fantasy RPG. Gregory W. Detwiler gives us great overview of what is going on in the skies a full year before the X-Files hit our TV screens. He provides a lot of what we might call "Conspiracy theories" today and gives you a way to work them into your games. A lot of these would be fantastic for *D&D. Though I am disappointed that in his otherwise great coverage on the Hollow Earth he doesn't mention Mystara as Hollow, published two years prior. His Bibliography is really good for pre-Internet publications. I would use these all in NIGHT SHIFT.

Game Science has a cool ad for the RANGE 1 electronic dice roller. After my CS 212 and STAT 501 courses, I learned about pseudorandom numbers. I never allowed these things in my games. Which was a moot point because I could never afford them back then! But still, I did like the idea.

Gamescience ad

Convention Calendar has your summer vacation travel plans ready. Oh, wait. I was in grad school then, I didn't get a summer vacation. In fact it was either 1992 or 1993 (can't remember) when the State of Illinois did not meet its budget and all workers, including Graduate TAs, were furloughed. I didn't get paid all summer long. That's why I could not afford fancy dice rollers. Anyway the format here has changed on the Calendar and it is easier to see the various states faster and easier.

FASA is up with a ShadowRun 2nd Edition ad. I loved ShadowRun, I loved the world building. I just wish I could have played it more. WAIT I can if I combine NIGHT SHIFT with Thirteen Parsecs! Note to Self, try this. 

Dragon Magazine 90s MVP, and friend of the Other Side, Bruce Heard is up with Part 30 of The Voyage of the Princess Ark. Second Note to Self: Track down all of these and review them in order. As usual there is a narrative piece and some game material too. 

The Voyage of the Princess Ark

Role Playing Reviews by Rick Swan covers the Leading Edge Games version of Aliens and FASA's MECHWARRIOR 2nd Edition. They get 2.5 and 3.5 stars respectively. Swan mentions he does not see the appeal of the Aliens franchise, so I wonder if that affects his review at all. BUT given my own personal experiences with Leading Edge Games, he might be right.

The Lesser Clan of Hartly, Patrica, and Kirk are back with more The Role of Computers. They look forward to the time when CD-ROMs lower the price of games not having to ship floppy disks! Yeah... They do review the first Civilization game which they rightfully give 5 stars. It is amazing what these old games used to be able to do with the limited hardware of the day. Granted, we didn't see it that way; I had my first Gateway 2000 computer and I thought I was living in the damn future.

Jean Rabe is up with an oddly placed (given the theme) The Vikings' Dragons, Part 2. This is a set of five linnorm dragons in AD&D Monstrous Compendium format ready to put into your binders. Love the idea, really, and the dragons are fun. Part 1 appeared in issue 182.

The Vikings' Dragons, Part 2.

TSR Previews lets us know what is coming for July 1992. Most of these are featured as ads in this very magazine. 

Ardath Mayhar has our short fiction, Gryphon's Nest.

The MARVEL-PHILE from Steven E. Schend covers Cerise and Kylun from the Excalibur series. 

Forum covers some deeper discussions. I see some familiar names here like Alan Kellogg. 

Role of Books with John C. Bunnell has the new novels gamers might be interested in. Among those listed is new author, Laurell K. Hamilton and her Nightseer book. I bet she will be a big name later on! Also featured is the new one from Michael A. Stackpole (yes, that one).

Skip Williams has more Sage Advice. Anne Brown has shopping advice for your characters in The Game Wizards.

Dragonmirth has our back-pages comics. I recognize Yamara certainly. The Twilight Empire is features too. I never followed it. I should make an effort to try sometime. 

Gamers Guide has our small ads. Ads to cast your own metal minis, t-shirts with dragons, play-by-mail, and a new idea, computer-simulated galaxies. I can tell some of these were made with the Mac version of PageMaker and then printed out and sent to Dragon. Not a criticism, more fondness.

Ah, now something very interesting. Through the Looking Glass by Robert Bigalow covers minis but spends the first page discussing the banning of lead miniatures due to governmental regulations on lead. I remember this and felt like I was just getting to a point where I could afford them and then they go away! Well, I can't recall where that shook out, but plastic rules the tables now.

Through the Looking Glass

All in all, not a bad issue, just not as much science fiction as I wanted.


Remember, we have a new crowdfunding campaign to fund the production of our Thirteen Parsecs: Beyond the Solar Frontier Tabletop RPG. Please help us out if you can. If you can't pledge, then help us by sharing the links with all your friends. 

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Larina Nix for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition

Larina by Beatriz Sanguino
Larina by Beatriz Sanguino
Again, I'm surprised I haven't posted something like this already. Given that I talked about AD&D 2nd Edition earlier today, I thought this might be a good time to discuss the different witches from the AD&D 2nd Ed era. 

I have talked in the past about how the AD&D 2nd edition era was a good time for all sorts of witch classes. By my count, there were at least four official classes from TSR (and later WotC) for AD&D 2nd Ed, and quite a few unofficial ones. 

I have compared a few witch classes with each other at varying levels of detail over the years and will likely do it more when I take my deep dive into the Forgotten Realms for AD&D 2nd Ed. But looking back, I see I never taken the time to compare the AD&D Second classes to each other. The closest I have come was comparing two AD&D 2nd Characters to each other, Nida and Sinéad, and Sinéad is no longer even a proper witch. 

One day, I'll do more, but I want to look at one official witch and two unofficial ones for today.  I think I'll save Nida when it comes time to discuss the other official witches. Plus, using Larina here is much more appropriate. 

As I mentioned earlier today, AD&D 2nd Edition can be seen as an extension or continuation of the AD&D 1st Edition line. The games are very compatible. So, my characters often moved from 1st to 2nd Edition without so much as getting a new sheet. Larina here is no exception. She began in 1986 with AD&D 1st Ed and moved to AD&D 2nd Ed in 1989 without a blink. But I did make new sheets for her eventually.

Let's go back a bit before AD&D 2nd edition came out. Back in July 1986, I created a witch character, Larina, to test some ideas I had about doing witches in (A)D&D. When Dragon Magazine came out in October of 1986 I started using that. But all the while, I am collecting my notes and ideas. Moving forward to 1989, AD&D 2nd Edition was released. There were a lot of new ideas in that and I was looking forward to trying out my collected notes. One set of notes became my Sun Priest kit for Clerics, another became a pile of notes for the Healer, another the Necromancer/Death Mage, but the largest would become the Witch. It would be almost 10 years before it would see publication but it did and Larina was a central figure in that work.

In those 10 years, there was a lot of writing and playtesting. 

While I kept my Dragon #114/AD&D1st ed witch version of her, I created a parallel version using my new witch rules. This version was supposed to be the same person, just with a different set of rules to govern her. While that happened, two other witch classes were published to help me make other choices. I also set her up for these rules and played all three (or four, really) versions to see how she worked in different situations.  So, if you have ever wondered if I have run out of things to say about witches or even this witch in particular, the answer is no, I have spent more hours with her than any other character I have.

So I would like to present her for AD&D Second Edition, but three different witch classes.

Various AD&D 2nd Ed Witches

Larina Nix for AD&D 2nd Edition

This version(s) of Larina is just the continuation of her AD&D 1st Edition incarnation.

Base Stats (same for all versions).

Larina Nix
Human Witch, Lawful Neutral

Strength: 9
Dexterity: 17 
Constitution: 16
Intelligence: 18 
Wisdom: 18
Charisma: 18

Movement: 12
AC: 1
HP: 86

Dagger, Staff

Defenses: Bracers of Defense (AC 1)

Languages: Common, Alignment, Elven, Dwarven, Dragon, Goblin, Orc, Sylvan
Ancient Languages: Primordial, Abyssal, Infernal

So, in this version, her dex and con were raised by some magic.

The Complete Wizard's Handbook
The Complete Wizard's Handbook

Class: Wizard
Kit: Witch
Level: 15

Saving Throws (Base)
Paralyze/Poison/Death: 11
Rod, Staff, Wand: 7
Petrify/Polymorph: 9
Breath Weapon: 11
Magic: 11

THAC0: 16

Proficiencies: Ancient History, Astrology (2), Herbalism, Reading/Writing (4), Religion (2), Spellcraft (4), Animal Handling, Artistic.
Weapons: Dagger, Staff

Secondary Skill: Scribe

3rd level: Familiar
5th level: Brew Calmative
7th level: Brew Poison
9th level: Beguile
11th level: Brew Flying Ointment
13th level: Witch's Cure

1st level: Burning Hands, Charm Person, Comprehend Languages, Copy, Chromatic Orb
2nd level: Blindness, ESP, Tasha's Hideous Uncontrollable Laughter, Knock, Ice Knife
3rd level: Clairvoyance, Hold Person, Hovering Skull, Iron Mind, Pain Touch
4th level: Dimension Door, Fear, Magic Mirror, Remove Curse, Fire Aura
5th level: Advanced Illusion, Cone of Cold, Feeblemind, Telekinesis, Shadow Door
6th level: Eyebite, Dragon Scales
7th level: Shadow Walk


Mayfair Role-aids: Witches
Mayfair Role-aids: Witches

Class: Witch / Wizard
Tradition: Classical
Level: 15 / 1

Saving Throws (Base)
Paralyze/Poison/Death: 13
Rod, Staff, Wand: 9
Petrify/Polymorph: 11
Breath Weapon: 13
Magic: 10

THAC0: 16

Proficiencies: Ancient History, Astrology (2), Herbalism, Reading/Writing (4), Religion (2), Spellcraft (4), Animal Handling, Artistic.
Weapons: Dagger, Staff

Secondary Skill: Scribe


1st level: Feather Fall, Identify, Read Magic, Sleep, Chill Touch, Protection from Evil, Color Spray
2nd level: Flaming Sphere, Locate Object, Forget, Ray of Enfeeblement, Strength
3rd level: Cure Light Wounds, Dispel Magic, Clairvoyance, Delude, Mystery Script
4th level: Call Lightning, Fear, Fire Shield, Magic Mirror, Wall of Fire
5th level: Feeblemind, Shadow Magic, Dream, FAlse Vision
6th level: Geas, Legend Lore, True Seeing
7th level: Shadow Walk


Mayfair Role-aids: Witches
The Complete Netbook of Witches & Warlocks

Class: Witch (Priest Sub-class)
Level: 15

Saving Throws (Base)
Paralyze/Poison/Death: 5
Rod, Staff, Wand: 9
Petrify/Polymorph: 8
Breath Weapon: 11
Magic: 10

THAC0: 12

Proficiencies: Ancient History, Astrology (2), Herbalism, Reading/Writing (4), Religion (2), Spellcraft (4), Animal Handling, Artistic.
Weapons: Dagger, Staff

Secondary Skill: Scribe

1st: Turn Undead
3rd level: Read/Detect Magic
6th level: Chill Touch
9th level: Candle Magic
12th level: Immune to Fear
15th level: Fascination
11th level: Brew Flying Ointment
13th level: Witch's Cure

1st level: Create Fire, Katarine's Dart, Witch Light, Dowse, Wall of Darkness, Painful Wounds
2nd level: Burning Wind, Acquire Witch's Familiar, Blackfire, Dance Trantra, Minor Hex, Pain Armor, Protection vs. Elementals
3rd level: Lesser Strengthing Rite, Beguile III, Astral Sense, Lethe, Witch Writing, Rite of Remote Seeing
4th level: Spirit Dagger, Cloak of Shifting Shadows, Broom, Cleanse, Card Reading, Grandmother's Shawl, Middle Banishing Rite
5th level: Rite of Magical Resistance, Starflare, Dolor, Bull of Heaven
6th level: Anchoring Rite, Greater Banishing Rite, Kiss of Life
7th level: Demon Trap


The biggest differences are in the powers and the spells. 

I kept her HP the same in all three cases to keep combat a fixed variable, the same with her weapons and non-weapon proficiencies. 

The Wizard's Handbook from TSR strikes a good balance of powers and spells. The Mayfair Role-aids Witches book has some great spells. Of course I am fond of my own Complete Netbook of Witches & Warlocks. Of course, after 25 years, there are things I would do differently now.

Playing All Three

Playing all three in a game was interesting but also a lot of fun. I'd generally alternate between them, choosing which one to use in combat beforehand so I could measure the utility of the spells. So when I say I have played her more than any other character, I really mean it. I kept her "real" sheets as notes in MS Word 2.0/95/97 to make easy changes to them as I played with my CNoW&W one as the "official" character sheet. 

This also gave me the idea that all her incarnations are aware of each other. It has nothing to do with any of the game mechanics I have written, but it is aa fun little role-playing exercise. 

In 1999, on October 31st, I was sitting in the hospital. My wife had just had our first baby, Liam, and I had my laptop. Just after midnight, I released my "The Complete Netbook of Witches & Warlocks" for free on the web. Larina was featured in that book as a 6-year-old who discovered she was a witch.

All the playtesting would then lead to my "The Witch: A sourcebook for Basic Edition fantasy games" released exactly 14 years later.  It would also lead to my 3rd Edition books on witches, but I'll talk about them next week.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Review: Gary Gygax's Dangerous Journeys: Mythus Magick (1992)

Gary Gygax's Dangerous Journeys: Mythus Magic (1992)
I needed a bit of a break before tackling this one.

I covered Gary Gygax's Dangerous Journeys: Mythus on Tuesday. I also wanted to go over the second (or third) volume of his Mythus game, the book of magic called, easily enough, Dangerous Journeys: Mythus Magic (1992).   I will not go into as much detail on this one for the same reasons I actually find this book more interesting, it is largely a collection of spells and rituals.

Gary Gygax's Dangerous Journeys: Mythus Magick (1992)

Gary Gygax with Dave Newton. 384 pages. Color covers. Black-and-white interior art.
Published by Games Designer Workshop.

We open this book and it is described as "the Colossus (or more appropriately, the Merlln) of all magick books!" is certainly large and very in-depth.

I will start in the middle and mention that a full 270 pages of this book are "Castings," so Spells, Cantrips, Rituals, and the like. They are interesting in a very academic sense. If you are going to play this game (ve con Dios) and play any type of spell caster, then this is a must-have book.  IF you are the type like me and love reading about different sorts of magic and magical systems, then this is a very interesting book with some RPG applications. I am not about to try to convert these to any form of D&D mind you. It just would be easier to convert something like Judika Illes' "The Element Encyclopedia of 1000 Spells." And at least Illes writes in a way that can be plainly understood. 

The spells range from the useful (Heka Bolt, Find Traps) to the oddly named (Acclumséd—make someone clumsy) to the largely unneeded (Candlemake Formula—make 10 beeswax candles. Still need 10 BUCs of supplies; might be cheaper to buy them.) That's fine; it's hard to come up with 1,400 different spells. All of these spells are split up by vocation. So, at least, we have that going for us. 

Returning to the beginning, we get a repeat of the material from the core book on what Heka is. Or rather, I should say the core book summarizes what is here. 

We learn more than we ever wanted about the sources of Heka. To be fair, there is some material that people might find useful in their games. However, I will point out that a lot of this can be found by going to other sources. No, I am not saying that Gary copied anything here! These are some classical ideas (crystals, times of day, times of the year, places) that have more or less magical energy. Gary takes these ideas and codifies them for his game. Again, similar information can be found in other sources that are a bit more approachable. Bard Games' "The Complete Spellcaster" comes to mind. Still, this is much easier to read than, say, Isaac Bonewits' "Authentic Thaumaturgy."

There are chapters on Heka Users, Replenishing Heka, and the Structure of Magick. Look. I like reading this stuff, but there is more here than any RPG needs. 

This covers the first 30 or so pages. We learn that Heka (and it's pronounced "HEE-ka" not "Heck-Ah") is the sum of your Heka-producing K/S STEEPs, and every casting level has a base Heka cost and sometimes extra costs.

Remember all of those Spell Points and Mana systems for AD&D that started appearing on the internet (and before if your town had a good-sized gamer population)? Well, this is that dialed up to 17. If you play a caster, then your books are going to get used—a lot.

After all the spells there are sections on how to create new castings. Useful, for this game, but not others. It would be easier to create your own. There is even a section for on the spot creation. I think someone got a glimpse of Ars Magica or Mage and realized that for 1992 this was already an old and clunky system.

There are chapters on non-human Heka using HPs and Heka-based powers.

The last Chapter covers various magic items, which makes it a good read. 

There is a huge Bibliography that dwarfs Appendix N. What stops it from being truly useful are a complete lack of publication dates and publishers. I mean, yeah I can figure them all out (and have more than a few in my own library) but it seems...well, sloppy.


We also get a tome sheet for all the spells you can cast.

So, maybe even more than the Core Rules, I enjoy reading this book for the content, and I hate it more than the Core Rules in terms of playability.  There is just so much dense text here geared toward such low returns. People point to D&D Basic and Expert (B/X) as a masterpiece of word economy. In just 128 pages total there is everything you need to play to last years. That's not hyperbole, that is a documented fact at this point. Something that Mythus can't do in 800 pages (so far). This is yet another example of how a good editor is worth their weight in gold. 

If we look at this game as a Fantasy Heartbreaker, we can be amused and laugh a little at some of the ridiculousness of it all, and then brush of our heavily marked characters sheets and try to play a session. No one though in 2024 is going suggest playing a regular game of this though. Fun for an experiment while one of the regular players is away and you put the campaign on hold.

If we look at this though as something that was supposed to be the Magnum Opus of the father of RPGs, then we can't help but come away a little confused and maybe even a little sad about it.  What went wrong here? How did this get out of Gary's hands and into mine? Was it hubris? Was it something else? Was there so much desperation here to keep this from looking anything like D&D that good ideas were thrown out in favor of bad ones? I honestly have no idea. But here is the score right now, Gary made two games (or 1½), D&D and AD&D, that are nearly universally loved to this day. Then he made Cyborg Commando and Dangerous Journey, which are nearly equally reviled. 

I was going to spend some time figuring out Larina's spells, but honestly, I really can't anymore.

Dangerous Journeys: Mythus

A Note About Mythus: Epic of Ærth

I had this book once upon a time and I will readily admit I enjoyed it. For fluff it was great stuff and reminded more of the Gygax of old. Yes I also remembered there were some questionable bits in it, but nothing I can recall off the top of my head. It was enough that I unloaded years ago at a game auction.

Ærth in the Mythus books reminded me a lot of the sort of Earth one sees in games like "Man, Myth, & Magic (1982)" or "Lands of Adventure (1983)." A mythical Earth that only exists in some sort of dreamtime.  Mind there is nothing wrong with this as a game world. In fact arguments could be made that these sorts of Earths are great for gaming. Obviously, I am a fan of the idea and would 1000% do a "Crisis on Infinite Ærths" one day.  If trying to get those three to work together didn't drive me insane first.

At the end of this I find this is where I am at. Mythus does not give me anything that Man, Myth, & Magic didn't also do 10 years before. Even as a Fantasy Heartbreaker, it doesn't live up. But I keep coming back to it, hoping to find something here that I missed. 

Sadly, due to the lawsuits that did come from TSR, Game Designers' Workshop was forced to close in 1996, leaving games like Traveller, Twilight2000, and Dark Conspiracy adrift for a number of years.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Review: Gary Gygax's Dangerous Journeys: Mythus (1992)

Gary Gygax's Dangerous Journeys: Mythus (1992)
 This week is Gary Con, so I thought while I am celebrating 50 years of Dungeons & Dragons, I would also spend some time with Gary Gygax's other two games he made after leaving TSR, where he created D&D. This week, I am coving Dangerous Journeys: Mythus.

A bit of background for those not 100% up to speed. Back in 1985, D&D brought in a lot of money, but the publisher, TSR, was in debt of $1.5 million. These reasons have been explained better and in more detail elsewhere; suffice to say that by the time the dust settled (almost), Gary Gygax had been kicked out of the company (but not yet the industry) he helped create.  He spent some time doing some novels with his New Infinity Productions where he also published his near-universally reviled Cyborg Commando. No, I am not going to review that one. Plus I don't own it.

After a little time away he returned to RPGs in 1992 with his new game, "Dangerous Dimensions," or DD for short. Well, TSR was not going to have any of that and threatened to sue (in fairness, it is from a playbook that Gary helped write), and his new game became Dangerous Journeys, and Mythus became the fantasy setting. 

Dangerous Journeys would be his new core system with Mythus, the Fantasy RPG. There was a mention of the supernatural horror game Unhallowed, which would have been fun. Plus, I would have loved to have had a fantasy RPG and a supernatural horror RPG that used the same system. 

Eventually, more pressure from TSR would kill Dangerous Journey, leaving only Mythus produced.

But what is Dangerous Journeys, and what is its setting, Mythus?

Gary Gygax's Dangerous Journeys (1992)

Gary Gygax with Dave Newton. 416 pages. Color covers. Black-and-white interior art. Some full-color art plates.
Published by Games Designer Workshop.

First some clarifications.

Dangerous Journeys is the system being used here. Mythus is the Fantasy RPG that uses the Dangerous Journeys system/rules.  Mythus is also divided into Mythus Prime, which is a basic game and Mythus Advanced, which is the advanced or full game. This book covers both the Mythus Prime and Mythus Advanced games.

This game was designed to address some of the perceived shortcomings of AD&D, though Gary could not come right out and say that. He had to be a bit oblique about it.  This book is huge and there is lot going on. 

Welcome to the Mythus Game

This introduction introduces us to the game and some RPG ideas like what an RPG is, what a Gamemaster is, and so on. None of which I think are needed here to be honest, its a bit much. But the meat is the Game Premise and, in some ways, the most interesting to me. Mythus takes place on Ærth, a world like our own but 1000 years in the past, so at the time of publication, 992 CE. Here, the myths of old are real, and we know about them because of Ærth's connection to Earth. So elves, dragons, and vampires are stories here, but there they were/are real. The trouble I am having with Ærth as presented is there is very little to differentiate it from our Earth save for window dressing. This is disappointing really since I feel there is something here if given the chance to grow a little. The maps and hints throughout the book are tantalizing but not enough.

Here we are also introduced to the next two books in the line "The Epic of Ærth" and "Mythus Magic." Of those two, I only have the Mythus Magic book. We are also introduced to the concept of the Basic and Advanced games. 

Your character in the game is a persona, or Heroic Persona, or HP. This game uses regular d6s and d10s for all the rolls. There are also d3 and d5 rolls here, but most will d%.

Dangerous Journey Mythus

Mythus Prime Rules

Note: There is also a "Basic Set" sold separately as "Mythus Prime" that is a 144-page book. It is essentially the same as this section, with some expansions. 

This is the "Basic" game designed to get people started in the Mythus game. It is like the Advanced Mythus game in many ways but obviously simpler. I am not going to delve too deep here. I have read it many times over the years and I like some of the ideas here. But I can talk about them when I cover the Advanced Rules. This does cover the next 45 pages or so. Reading the chapter Creating your Heroic Persona, though, is a good one since the Advanced Mythus points back to it for character creation. There is more in the advanced game.

HPs (remember, Heroic Personas) have three Traits: Mental, Physical, and Spiritual. It is not a bad division, really, Tri-Stat would later do it to much success. In this Basic section all the steps are outlined by an example. So choose SEC (Socio-Economic Class), Traits, Vocation (not a class...), choose K/S (Knowledge/Skills), and STEEP points (Study, Training, Education, Experience, Practice); get your finances and possessions., and round off your character.  Compared to the flipping through pages, one has to do with AD&D 1st ed. This is an improvement, but compared to other games from around 1992, like, say, Vampire the Masquerade, it already felt dated. Still better than World of Synnibar, released the year before.

All characters get three K/S for free, Perception (Mental), Perception (Physical), and Riding/Boating.

There is a chapter on rolling and success. I go into that in detail with the advanced game. The same is true of the chapter after the next on Combat.

The third chapter is on Heka, or the force of Magic in the Mythus world.  Now this was an interesting one to me. In the 90s I was dying for a new magic system. It is interesting but wildly crunchy. Heka is determined by your HP's magical K/S. Again, more on this in a bit. 

Improving Skills & Abilities is after Combat, and the rules here as simple enough. you spend APs (accomplishment points, our XP stand-in) to improve. This one also gets more complicated in the Advanced Game.

A Chapter on Playing your HP, moving to the Advanced Game and some Gamemaster advice.

I like the idea of a simpler game to introduce the more complicated one, but I can't help but feel that the real game, the one that would been more successful, isn't somewhere in between. I mean we all did the same with Basic and Advanced D&D.  Feels like the same mistakes are being made here for completely different reasons.

There is a brief adventure for the Basic game, High Time at the Winged Pig, at the end of this section. To be honest, it's not really all that interesting, especially given that this is the same guy who gave us B2 and the TGD series. I mean the HPs meet in a tavern. Fine for 1974-1977, but 1992? We deserve better than this really.

Advanced Mythus

Now 55 pages later, we are now in the Advanced Mythus game.

We are referred to the Basic Mythus game often, but the steps for character creation are pretty much the same.

1. Determine Socio-Economic Status. It may not be the best way to run a game since no one will go here first anyway. People choose a concept and/or a class first. This, though, does have effects on what your HP can and can't do. A table of the percent of the population of every SEC level is also presented. Not sure if it is here for illustrative purposes or if you are supposed to have your character population conform to it. I should point out though that frequency distribution for "rolled characters" will never match the SEC Populations table, no matter what you do. This is why I wonder why it is here.  A lot depends on your HPs SEC. If the acronyms get to be too much, remember this is a Gygax game, and there will be a lot more. Now personally, I am not a fan of so much to be dependent on my HPs SEC (damnit now I am doing it), I mean I have my Taxes for that. I want to make kick-ass characters. Honestly, I'll just choose my vocation and then find an SEC that fits it.

2. Generate numbers for Traits/Categories/Attributes. We have the same traits as before, Mental, Physical, and Spiritual. These are divided into two categories each. Mnemonic/Reasoning (Mental), Muscular/Neural (Physical), Metaphysical/Psychic (Spiritual).  Each of these six has three Attribute scores: Capacity, Power, and Speed. So a total of 3+6+18=27 numbers to describe your character, I mean HP. That seems a bit excessive. Granted, we only need to roll up 18 of those (OR assign 6 in the point spread) and the others are derived. These scores range from 6 to 20, with 8-11 as the average. The maximum of any human attribute is 30 for physical (cap, pow, or spd) and 40 for mental or spiritual (cap, pow, or spd). There are two ways to get these numbers. The first is a point distribution method. You get a range of numbers to divide among the 6 categories the split them up for the cap, pow and spd scores and then add them up for Mental, Physical and Spiritual. The second is a 2d6+8 rolled for all 18. Again, examples are utilized here which helps. These numbers are used to determine "Critical Levels," "Effect Levels," "Wound Levels," and "Recovery Levels." They will also be used to determine an HP's Heka. 

3. Calculate STEEP for the HPs Knowledge/Skill areas. Players are encouraged to look over the vocations to see what areas they need to increase here. The same basic vocations are here, but a lot more are added. Now, vocations are not classes. Classes are picked in other games and then the skills are given. Here you start with the skills. While there are vocational packages that feel like classes, you could in theory ignore them and build a vocation of your own. There is an Appendix (E) here for that.  STEEP scores are 00 to 91+ with 00 as "no knowledge" and 91+ as Ultra-genius. There is a K/S of "Witchcræft," and it is sadly presented as nothing but pure evil. Even Demonology here is not so vilified.  Yes. I am taking this as a challenge.


4. Choose the HPs K/S sub-areas. This goes along with the various vocations. In the advanced game, there are three additional automatic skills, Etiquette/Social Graces, Native Tongue, and Trade Phoenician, which is the "Common" of Ærth.

5. Determine Personal information. This can be random or chosen.

6. Calculate the HPs Resources.  This is random based on SEC. The unit of currency is the BUC or...Basic Unit of Currency. So 50' of rope costs 10 BUCs. I am not sure if this is clever or irritating. 

This all covers about 70 pages. I glossed over a lot of it. 

Core Game Systems

These are our core rules. Rolls are made with the K/S areas. The six difficulty levels all have a multiplier to the HPs STEEP. They are Easy (x3), Moderate (the default x2), Hard (x1 [one would think a x1 would be the better default]), Difficult (x0.5), Very Difficult (x0.25), and Extreme (x0.1).  So if I want to read a scroll and my K/S in Dweomercræft is a 20 then if this were an Easy Challenge, then my chance to succeed is 20 x 3 or 60%. Moderate is 40% (20x2); if it is Very Difficult, then 20x0.25 or 5%, and 2% for Extreme. While so, a lot of the math is front-loaded on figuring out those K/S scores. These are roll-under abilities (roll under or equal). So, rolling 96% or above can be considered an automatic or even a special failure. 

We get guidelines for combining efforts, for rolling a K/S vs another K/S and so on.

There is also something called a Joss Factor (JF) which work like luck or hero points. At least...I think they do. There is not much here about it at all. If there are rules about how to regain Joss (and WHY is it called that?? Oh, I found an "in game" reason that explains nothing.) I have not found them. 

Spending APs is also covered for Traits and K/S areas. For this, advanced K/S descriptions are given. 

Combat is largely an application of the appropriate K/S areas. Combat is done in units called Critical Turns (CTs) of about 3 seconds each. The initiative is a d10 roll.  Armor reduces damage so HPs can take a lot of damage.  Combat can target hit locations, given the names with damage multipliers of: Non-Vital (x1), Vital (x2), Super-Vital (x3), and Ultra-Vital (x4). This is to account for creatures that might have different sorts of vital parts. It feels weird, but given what this game was trying to do, I can see the utility here. 

There is an insanity and madness mechanic, but as I have said before, I am never very fond of these. 

Heka & Magic

Heka was the god of and the word for magic in ancient Egypt (or Ægypt in this book). Now I will freely admit, this is also one of my favorite sections. It is a wonderfully complicated system that would have made Isaac Bonewits proud. We get a few spells, but there are more in the Mythus Magic book (Thursday).

More on Personas

This covers anything that can change in an HP, like a change in SEC to becoming a vampire. This also covers some basic monsters.  There are some examples of NPCs, or er...NHP? Oh, actually, they are OPs, or "Other Personas."  The "monsters" are divided into three categories: Evil Personas (EPs), Monstrous Personages (MPGs), and Mundane Personas (MPs).  Other than being descriptive, there is no real difference between these that I can tell, save for name/label. Maybe if they had different point spreads.  There are also Friendly Personas (FP), which are what they sound like. 

Magickal Items

Pretty much what is says on the tin. There isn't a lot of stuff here.

Condemned as Galley Slaves

An adventure for new HPs. 

Appendices follow.

So. This game. 

Let's be honest. It is not good. It's actually kind of embarrassing how bad it is. Not to say there are not good things in it.

There are a lot of things I do like about it, though. I love the idea of Ærth, and Necropolis is still a fun adventure. The Mythus Magic was also a lot of fun, and I am looking forward to going over it again on Thursday. That said, I love some of the fluff here and there are things I could use, but it is a lot od shifting wheat from chaff here. 

Larina ferch Siân
Larina ferch Siân of Ærth

The over-heavy-handedness of the "Witchcræft is pure evilTM!" and the inclusion of "wicca" vis-à-vis through the Wisewoman/Wiseman vocation (or Mystic, the book is not very clear on this) is just too tantalizing to pass up, even if character creation in this system has been universally reviled.  I think I will try the character today and some spells on Thursday.

I did find some character sheets online, but I am going with the one in the back of the book.  I considered doing the point spread, but I opted to roll up a new character instead. The numbers I got were a bit higher, but not very different from the point spread or the sample character. It also works out since I wanted a character similar to her AD&D stats.  

I admit that rolling up the characteristics and getting my derived scores was much faster than I expected. But then I got to the K/S area, and things ground to a halt. It is not that it is hard, just tedious.

Note: For all the talk that this is a Class-less system, the Vocations are classes in all but name really. 

So, our basic K/S skills are figured out as follows:

  • Etiquette/Social Graces: SEC Level (6) x 5 = 30
  • Native Tongue (Welsh/Keltic): 30 (above) + MMCap (16) = 46*
  • Perception (Mental): 2d10 + MRCap (15) = 31**
  • Perception (Physical) 2d10 + PNCap (12) = 28
  • Trade Language: SEC (6) x 3 +MMCap (16) = 34
  • Riding: SEC (6) x 5 = 30

* In some places it says SEC x5 for language others SEC x3.
** The formulas are reversed for these in the book. 

Now, I have to pick my Vocational K/Ss. I picked Wisewoman for Larina since that fits well, but be sure I'll be bumping up her Witchcræft. Since this is a spiritual Vocation, I can choose which perception to use, so I chose Perception (Mental). I think I could figure out how to knock together a "White Witch" option per Appendix E, but instead, I am just going to tweak the Wisewoman a bit.

For this, I just shifted the same K/Ss around and kept the same number of STEEP points (248).

Crap. Forgot to adjust for age. Not going to do it. Say I rolled the appropriate number, and those above are the adjusted ones.

Attractiveness: Got a 16. Not bad. Should adjust for age or other factors I am sure, but not going too.

Joss: Rolled a 62, so 10 Joss factors. 

Not rolling for birth rank, despite some fun things for a 7th child of a 7th child. This character is way established in my mind as the 1st born daughter. 

She is from Cymru (Wales), and her birthplace was near Gŵry (Gower).

Quirks: A bit of roleplaying fun here. A lot like Qualities and Drawbacks in point-buy games. I'll choose two as long as they don't change any trait numbers (good or ill). I am not recalculating all of this. I'll take Psychic Awareness and Heka Channeler. For "Conter Quirks" I'll take Obsessive/Compulsive and Low Tolerance to Alcohol. 

Connections: She gets two of these, so I am giving her access to the local Druid Hierarchy and an Apothecary; both of these are due to her parents.  

Results below.

Larina ferch Siân of ÆrthLarina ferch Siân of Ærth

Larina ferch Siân of Ærth

Ok. That was fairly tedious, but in the end, I got a character that I think will be fun to use IF I ever play this game.  I'll figure out her Heka and do spells on Thursday.

I need a mental break now.