Continuing the line of thought of making new rules systems leads me back to Alternity. I have a soft spot for the game and I wish it would have taken off. It was published at the tail end of TSR’s existence though and was shelved soon after they were bought by Wizards of the Coast. There were over a dozen books, but it never seemed to get off the ground. At a time when many games were coming out with different systems and Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons was on the horizon though, it never gained a foothold to keep it in print. Some of its elements were later converted into d20 Modern, but the game died a quiet death and existed on bookshelves of collectors for years.
Recently though, a new company has purchased the rights to the name and will be coming out with a new version of Alternity in the near future. What I have read of this game though leads me to believe it has very little to do with the original except for the name. It remains to be seen what will come of the game, but a setting-agnostic science fiction roleplaying game would be welcomed.
But for my purposes, for the production of Xenomega, I need to dig into Alternity and dissect it. I need to take what I like from the rules, discard what doesn’t work, and somehow mold it into a fully functioning game of science fiction. There are gems to be found in there, as well as some rubbish, but the core deep inside is solid.
So what makes Alternity “Alternity”?
There are two key ideas that come to mind that define it. One: Skill-based. Two: The dice mechanic.
First, skill-based. In Alternity, everything is done by use of skills. There are no base attack bonuses. No magic spells. No psionics. Everything is broken down into a skill, given a rank and a description, and the end result is managed with dice. Attacks are even skill-based. Skills cover everything from piloting a spacecraft to hacking a computer to knocking out an opponent. It makes things simple to understand, if you want to do something, roll a skill check.
Second, the dice mechanic. While not entirely unique as there are other games that have a “roll under” process, I think what made Alternity different was the levels of success. Skills had ranks which were purchased and added onto the Attribute. There were no modifiers, an attribute was an attribute. Attributes are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Will, and Personality. Sound familiar? It should since they are almost identical to D&D abilities. I’m not sure why they renamed Wisdom and Charisma since they function the same anyway, but ultimately they did. If you want to perform a melee attack, its a simple Strength (melee skill) check. Ranks in Melee are added to Strength to give a total, then the die is rolled. Roll under and its a Marginal Success, under half and its Good, under one-quarter and its Amazing. Since the skills were noted ahead of time where the different skill levels divided, its easy to see which level of success you have.
But we aren’t done there. Next comes in the difficulty slide. A standard, easy to perform, non-stressful action has a modifier of +d4. So in addition to the d20, you also roll a d4 and add it to the result. If something is significantly harder, move along the difficulty slide and see what die you roll. Something very hard could move it four or more dice, so a very difficult action could be resolved with a d20 (the standard die) PLUS up to 3d20. Imagine trying to roll under the skill with a possible +60 to the standard die. Its not going to happen unless your character is really good at what he does.
At the same time, and easy action could move the difficulty slide the other direction and lead to a subtraction situational die, up to 1d20. So you roll your standard die, then roll a d20 and subtract the result. It makes it far easier to succeed, but then, that is the point. Difficult actions can be very hard, easy actions can be very easy.
For most actions, there are different results for levels of success. With weapons, its even more important. Weapons are divided into three damage ratings, listed as (__/__/__). A Marginal success does the first listed damage, Good the second, and Amazing the third. Weapon damages were commonly listed with number or a small die. Most weapons did not do a lot of damage, but then, most characters did not have a lot of health. Armor then added a damage reduction aspect, so they were also listed with the same layout as weapons, but instead of damage inflicted for success, it was damage absorbed by the armor depending on type: Low Impact, High Impact, or Energy. Low Impact is things such as punches or swords, High Impact is bullets, Energy is, well, energy from lasers or fire and such. Since health was a small commodity in Alternity, damage reduction was great resource.
Now then to health. All heroes had three levels of health: Stun, Wound, and Mortal. Stun is bumps and bruises, exhaustion, and things that can be healed quickly. Once all of that is gone, damage moves onto Wound. Wound is things like cuts and a good bashing by a baseball bat. Maybe a broken bone, but still able to be treated. After that comes Mortal, where things can get bad. Mortal damage requires surgery to fix (or magic), and can be fatal quite easily. Some weapons do Mortal damage right off the bat, though most do Wound for a Good success. Since some weapons do more severe damage automatically, there is a threat of death at any turn, combat is deadly, and armor is a lifesaver. Heroes don’t have more than 15 or 20 of any type of health, so a few gun shots can easily kill even a veteran.
Of course, there are some other elements to Alternity. There are mutations (bought and sold with Mutation Points), cybernetics, a few Professions (that really don’t do much), races, and drawbacks. What do we take from these for Xenomega and what do we leave behind?
I’m not looking to use classes. I’ve seen too many games get bogged down with new classes in every book they publish that leads to a dilution of the original classes and less importance of what a class means. Add to that the power creep that so many end up with and its a headache I’d rather avoid.
Races, though, are important. But what makes a race and how does it affect gameplay? I want there to be a few unique races for Xenomega, some based on fantasy, some genetic creations, and some aliens/dimension jumpers. I think in this case, I will fall back on the old D&D stereotypical race outline and go from there. A race has Attribute bonuses based on their strengths and weaknesses. A race may also have a skill bonus. Finally, a race may have a special ability that other races do not have. This includes things like Darkvision, special movements, resistances or armor, or even spells or psionic bonuses. I do not have a problem with new books coming with new races as there will be a large amount of creatures to play in Xenomega. I want things to be diverse in playing groups and having a Dwarf fighting alongside a human, android, and Moreau fits the setting.
Now, to take a page out of the d20 System, I’ll add feats. I may outright copy some of them from the SRD, but most will probably be unique to the setting. One feat I need to have though is Learned Broad Skill. In Alternity, there is no way to learn a new Broad skill. This I feel is a weakness of the system as it stymies growth and expansion. It may be expensive, but it should be possible for a hero to learn how to do medical procedures, or how to pilot a new type of vehicle they’ve never come across. Learning new Broad skills also allows a hero to pick up a talent with casting spells or develops psionic powers. These are things that may come into play through mutations as well, but I would still like a hero to be able to learn them if possible.
On the other side of the coin is Drawbacks. These are things that do the opposite of Feats. They are limitations, but they can be added at character creation to give the hero more build points. A new drawback may develop as the game is played, but most are there from the beginning.
Now, this is not the same as a Mutation drawback, so I’ll have to rename them. Mutation drawbacks are things like Monocular Sight, or Weak Bones. They can come about with contact with mutagens that might also give beneficial mutations. Detrimental Mutation is probably a better term for those.
Cybernetics should be self-explanatory. Tech devices that can implanted into a fleshy part to make things work better or do something new. In this case, cybernetics will not be unique to each race, but they will have a negative effect on magic.
Magic, Psionics, and Supers will all be skill-based, as they are in Alternity. I may just adapt the original spells and powers whole cloth from the source and modify them a bit, but the spell system works pretty well. I will also have to add some new magic traditions and the ones in the book are pretty basic and focused on real world Earth traditions. They are still very generic and open ended, but there is a lot of room to expand.
With all of this, Transcendence and Xenomega are evolving. I’ve bounced back and forth a lot, but this blog is about the development of a game and rarely are games developed overnight or in a straight line. The more I discuss things, the more focused I get. In the end, hopefully Xenomega will see print, or at least screen, so you, the reader, can play in the world after the end!