Monday, February 7, 2011

Alternity: I Just Can't Quit You


I think that I want to like Alternity more than I actually do. I think I like the idea of Alternity more than the reality.

My friend Josh peeked at the system and described it as "wonky," which I think is about as succinct as you can get. Unfortunately, succinct isn't one of my strong points.

I say that the mechanics of the game are... well, unnecessarily mechanical. Perhaps that seems an odd comment, but I submit for your review:

The core mechanic of Alternity is to roll a d20 and try to roll under your skill. That's not so bad, is it? I mean, it's good enough for GURPS, right?
Well, then they go and cock it up with a bunch of totally unneeded crap.
The d20 is the control die, see? You also have to roll a situational die, which is the ugly cousin that other games might call "a +2 modifier" or the like. The default situational die is a d0, which means you aren't rolling a die. (Yes, there's a term for when you aren't rolling a die) Bonuses are negative steps, which give you a situational die of -1d4- -1d20. You subtract the negative situational die from the control die, which means you want to roll low on the control die and high on the negative situational die, since it subtracts from the control die and you want to roll low.
Penalties, on the other hand, are +1d4- +3d20, and are bad because you add them to the control die, so you want to roll low on the control die and low on a positive situational die.

Irritated already? I know I am.

Add to this the degree of success, which is Failure, Ordinary, Good, and Amazing. Oh, if you can't fail, then Failure is called Marginal. In combat, each weapon has a different damage level at each of the success levels. You also have three types of hit points: Stun, Wound, and Mortal. Oh, and Fatigue, which are sort of like hit points except only for strenuous physical activity.

I hesitate to even mention the part where I cracked open the Starships supplement and found myself staring at XYZ grid-based movement and some square root signs splattered all over the page.

None of it is difficult to understand, it just seems so goddamn overly complicated. Three and half different types of hit points? (Although RIFTS does this... but RIFTS is hardly an example of intuitive or coherent game design, is it?) Go back and read that action resolution summary to yourself and tell me that you can't think of half a dozen other games that handle action resolution in a much, much more intuitive and elegant fashion.

...and yet...

Something makes me want to not give up on this game. It might be the same misguided motivation that makes me continue to play RIFTS even though reading the rules to RIFTS makes me want to slam my head in a car door over and over until it makes sense or until my skull cracks open like a pinata on Cinco de Mayo. Something about Alternity makes me want to never give it up, never let it down, never- oh, you get the idea. Is it the artwork? I have to say that the artwork in Alternity speaks to me. It might be the modules. It might be the alien races, which I like quite a bit. It might be that, like RIFTS, there is a game that I want Alternity to be that it isn't, and I think if I just find the right house rule or tweak the right mechanic, it will suddenly stop being so dumb, rules-wise.

Did I mention that Alternity's initiative system divides combat into four phases, named after the success levels in the task resolution system? Yes, that means if you have really good initiative, you get to go on Amazing, then the schmucks who got Good on their initiative roll can go, and so on. No? Didn't mention that?

Reading back on this entry, my relationship with Alternity is almost like an unhealthy relationship with a crazy ex. A sad reflection on me, I'm sure.

Oh, and Friday group, if you happen to read this: I am not converting the Friday game to Alternity. This is just me fussing over obscure game systems. Let it be.


  1. I share the curious affection for Alternity, though I've never gotten to run it and I've played a total of four sessions of it.

    I'd point out one thing about the three and a half different kinds of hit points, though - the new World of Darkness rules also have three and a half flavors of hit points: bashing, resistant bashing (this is the .5), lethal, and aggravated. (Not having played old WoD extensively, I don't know if it had a concept of resistant damage.)

    There may be rules weirdness that I'm forgetting, but I think a lot of people would like the way that Alternity handles damage mitigation (armor that reduces incoming damage rather than reducing your chance to be hit? in a game published by TSR? weird!), among other things.

  2. I don't recognizes the resistant bashing. Maybe I've just forgotten...where is that written up? What is it for?

    Old World of Darkness, pre-Vampire Revised only used aggravated damage to denote damage types that couldn't be healed easily by supernatural means and could finish off the undead permanently; mortals did not take aggravated damage. (Well, mages did, but only to denote damage they couldn't heal with magic) I suppose it's still a bit less complex than Alternity because you pretty much known what type of damage your attack is going to inflict, whereas in Alternity you might do different types based on how well you roll.

    I think Alternity would be largely salvageable with a new initiative system and by converting all those steps to accumulative +2 modifiers. I'm down for some complexity, but I don't like it when I perceive it as unnecessary.