Thursday, November 3, 2022

Alternity Gamemaster Guide

Oh, right, I've committed myself to reading a whole bunch of core books. I mean, it's fine. These sorts of books are, dare I say, the core of our hobby, so I wouldn't be in this position if I didn't, on some level, enjoy reading them. However, that enjoyment has always been a sort of mercenary, transactional enjoyment. I like a core book because of what it can do for me, because it enables me to play a game in a fantasy or science fiction universe. And while my opinion of Alternity (by Richard Baker and Bill Slavicsek), after reading its two cores, is positive, I can't deny that it came with a cost - having to force myself to remain engaged while the book explained the concept of gravity.

It was a bit harder with this volume than the Players' Handbook, and my knee-jerk explanation is just that I've already used up all the novelty. This is a similarly dry book, with a similar subject matter, but there was very little inside it that I was encountering for the first time. But it's probably not completely superfluous. I've already forgotten most of it, and my notes are of little help, but it's got the starship creation rules, and stats for various animals and alien creatures and . . . um, a social status system . . . and, look, these two 240 page books could have been a single 300 page book and it likely would have been better, but this is peak 90s game design here. There are charts with modifiers that would have taken up a lot of space in a combined book.

Plus, there's plenty of GMing advice. And maybe most of it is technically supernumerary, like we need the book to tell us that you can use the racing rules for swim races or that "the primary purpose of [the Fortitude Perk] is to give the hero an edge in resisting exhaustion and knockout" (seriously, that got its own header). But you do get a TSR product with a bunch of now-standard GM advice "set a scene," "establish a mood," that sort of thing.

And I think I might be running out of things to say (a real awkward position for someone who likes to hear himself talk). It's bland. It's functional. It doesn't do anything notably good or bad. You could probably get away with running Alternity without it, but there's something like four chapters (out of 17) that you're going to miss. 

Funny thing is, I have a bunch of notes, but they don't build to any particular idea. Just a bunch of unconnected observations.

"The katana is superior to the primitive spear" - maybe an uncontroversial opinion in 1998, but I'm pretty sure I've seen a half dozen youtube videos disproving it.

The radiation rules say, "The risk of contracting leukemia 10 years down the road doesn't come into play in most roleplaying game scenarios," but they also don't say that your characters won't get leukemia. Since this is an extremely plausible turn of events, I have to assume that it canonically happens all the time, but is simply outside the scope of the rules.

Oh, also, this book does pitch what is probably the weirdest campaign model I've ever heard. "No Statistics!" (Exclamation point is in the original, but it does also mirror my feelings.)

No Statistics mode is not, as you might guess, a freeform version of Alternity. Characters do, in fact, have all of their usual statistics, used according to the standard rules. It's just that players are not allowed to know what they are. Seriously. "You think you're pretty strong. . ." and the GM rolls all the dice.

(Calm down, John. Breathe. It's just a sidebar. It can't hurt you. Clearly, someone was just dicking around and they decided to leave it in. It could have been worse. You could have first encountered this idea in an Exalted storytelling chapter).

::Shudder:: The very idea stresses me out. I consider myself a fairly democratic and easygoing GM, but I do have one rigid rule that I generally try to stick to - "Each player is solely responsible for knowing what their character can do." It's something I implemented not just to save myself the mental load of remembering everyone's character sheets (because, honestly, back in the days when I was regularly GMing, I was also in the habit of frequently re-reading the core books to try and internalize the rules), but also as a kind of hedge against the temptation to kibbitz. I can't intrusively suggest a course of action if I don't know precisely what you're capable of. Poor GMing technique is often satirized by suggesting the GM should just go and write a novel, but No Statistics mode seems to demand that style of play.

Alternity is kind of at an awkward historical moment where it's GMing advice has graduated from old-school adversarial, but hasn't quite discovered player agency. "What the gamemaster says, goes," but also the player characters "need to be the center of the story" (so the GM should arrange for that to happen.

In the end, I can't say I enjoyed reading this book (it was . . . tolerable), nor can I say that I'm inspired to run an Alternity game (it still needs a setting), but I can say that I'm confident that if I did run an Alternity game, it would turn out more or less okay.

Ukss Contribution: Giant, carnivorous, land-dwelling starfish. My kind of weird.

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