One of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” -Hunter S. Thompson

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Hitch Hikers Guide to Alternity

Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today - but the core of science fiction, its essence has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.
                                                                                 -Isaac Asimov

I managed to get a good bit of reading done over the Easter weekend. During that time I had this strange compulsion to take a fresh look at some of the older gaming books in my library. I guess that makes me some sort of RPG antiquarian.

So as you can probably figure out already this post is about the Alternity game line. TSR's now defunct generic modern/science fiction RPG came out in 1998 about the same year I got into gaming. I remember seeing the ads for it in Dragon Magazine and thinking it was a pretty neat looking game. There was a handful of reasons I never played this game.

Primarily I think this was because despite Star*Drive and Dark*Matter settings it seemed to try and push it's generic nature as its primary asset. Personally I had never read/watched a lot of sci-fi to figure out what to do with all that freedom. For some reason that I still don’t quite understand theres just something about fantasy and D&D that is just intuitive. Modern/Sci-fi gaming seems to suffer from this inherent weakness of expectations of how to satisfactorily play shit out. This is probably the reason why fantasy rpgs have always, and will continue to always dominant over modern/science fiction ones.

Secondly the rules seemed fairly intimidating to me at the time. In fact D&D 2e was already pushing my comfort level as far as rules went. Which is to say I had very little to none. If it had not been for people who already new how to play, I never would have figured this shit out. Not to mention fantasy was the bread and butter of my gaming group at the time. Meaning that if we were ever going to play Alternity it would be incumbent upon me to learn the rules and run a game.

Then in 2000 the d20 system and D&D 3e took the world by storm and swept me along with it. Strike three your out Alternity. For a long time my interest in almost any other rpg with the exception of maybe Heavy Gear or Call of Cthulhu was next to nil. In fact it was really only the arrival of D&D 4e that snapped me out of my misguided and stubborn love for all things d20.

At roughly the same period in time that Wizards of the Coasts acquired TSR they also picked up the license for Star Wars. This was pretty much the death knell for the Alternity game system and Star*Drive. As for Dar*Matter I'm sure the d20 version of Call of Cthulhu had a hand in making sure that line got the axe as well. Essentially the philosophy was that if it didn’t help sell the core d20 books it wasn’t sold by WotC. Additionally WotC didn’t want another space opera setting competing with Star Wars sales. I mean its just good business sense.

So 15 years later I've gone back to these books. Mostly I was looking for material I might be able to steal or adapt for the mythical Digital Dark Age campaign I hope to run one day. Part of it was as I said previously this strange nostalgic urge to revisit something from my gamer past. A chance to visit fleeting memories of that time in my life when things were just a little more simple than they are now.

The end result was that I came away inspired by much of what I read. No longer did I see an overly complicated game system. Though perhaps not as streamlined or as intuitive as d20, there are some innovative and interesting mechanics none the less. A Skill based system, degrees of success, and a neat way of going about handling modifiers. I'm sort of amazed that this game hasnt had a retro clone based off of it.

The Star*Drive campaign setting was also pretty interesting to read. Where as before I saw a boring generic space opera setting I could now instantly see a the possibilities for a campaigns that could be set there. Now I find myself wishing that I had collected all the books for this campaign setting a little bit at a time while I had the opportunity and spare cash to do so. Alas, hind sight, as they say is 20/20.

My prediction is after D&D 5e is finally released, combined with the lack of attention that d20 Modern got during the 4e era and the dumping of the Star Wars rpg license we may just see a new version of Alternity down the pipeline. Or at the very least a repackaging of Star*Drive and/or Dark*Matter.

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