Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 8: Alternity!

Hello! As you might expect, I’m continuing on my survey of old adventures. This week, it’s all about Alternity.

Back in the tail-end days of TSR, I was brought onto the Alternity team as Bill Slavicsek’s co-designer after Lester Smith left the company (he was Bill’s original partner on the idea). Bill and Lester had the core mechanic worked out, but I distinctly recall that I convinced Bill that negative steps where you subtracted the difficulty die were necessary because there wasn’t enough difference between d20+4 for something that was easy and d20+d12 for something that was pretty hard.

Alternity happened at a strange and bad time in TSR’s journey. The company was vapor-locked and couldn’t print books, but we were still coming in and trying to work every day. Some of my co-workers whiled away the days playing Doom. Doing nothing wasn’t in my nature (and definitely wasn’t in Bill’s!), so we put our heads down and worked hard on the new SF game. It was way better to feel like we had a reason to keep coming in to work!

I could tell many stories about the Alternity development process, include some of the most infuriating sorts of interference and office-politics I ever saw in my twenty-plus years in the game biz. (If you see me at a con, ask me, “Does there have to be gravity in the future?” and I’ll regale you.) But since this series of posts is about adventures, I’ll move on to my Alternity adventures.

#8: Cauldron Station
When I composed my list of adventure credits, I completely overlooked this one. It appeared in the Alternity Science Fiction Roleplaying Game Gamemaster Guide, and also in the Fast-Play Rules booklet (a free promotional item intended to provide a little taste of the new game). So, between this and the adventures in the First Quest boxed set that I forgot about, I’ve actually published 30 or 31 adventures, not 28. I won’t bother to correct the blog title now!

“Cauldron Station” was intended to be simple. When I was working on Alternity, I was on something of a hard-SF kick, so I was always looking for ways to emphasize the science in the sci-fi game. That’s not to say that “Cauldron Station” is based on any real science, it’s just that I wanted to create a scenario that made the players pay a little attention to the technology keeping them alive on an inferno planet.

#9, #10: Black Starfall, Red Starrise
Two more promotional adventures I worked on back around the Alternity release. In all honesty, I usually approached marketing-oriented pieces with a real lack of enthusiasm—I didn’t like drawing those assignments because I wanted to work on big, serious adventures. But part of being a pro is doing good work even on projects you’re not excited about. I remember that I was actually pretty happy with how Black Starfall turned out. I managed to catch a pretty good “technothriller” vibe, and that was one of the sub-genres we hoped Alternity would support. Rather annoyingly, I cannot actually find a copy of Black Starfall in my house, so I couldn’t re-read it to remind myself of why I liked it.

#11: The Last Warhulk
In the fall of 1997, I finally got the chance to write a *big* Alternity adventure. It was a darned busy time for me, since my family and I moved from Wisconsin to Seattle in August of ’97 as part of the WotC-buys-TSR move. The Last Warhulk was pretty much the first thing I worked on after the move.

Being an ambitious fellow, I set myself a difficult challenge for the adventure: I wanted to include a complete deck map of the Warhulk. That put some real constraints on just how big I could let the Warhulk be. My main inspiration for the robotic ship was Fred Saberhagen’s berserkers, and in his stories front-line berserker battleships might have kilometers of armor and be fifty or a hundred kilometers across. I couldn’t square that with the goal of avoiding the cop-out of providing no deck plan, so I decided to go with a smaller Warhulk and keep the map. (A fair number of readers seem to feel that was the wrong move, and wonder why the Warhulk isn’t miles across.) I will point out that the “small” Warhulk is still about three or four times the size of an Iowa-class battleship.

Despite the fact that the Warhulk has a pretty thorough map, it’s not a keyed-location adventure. It’s set up in event-based acts and scenes that use the Warhulk as a backdrop. Parts of the adventure can be pretty railroad-ish; there are places where I really forced the action (for example, the outcome of the first visit to the ship’s control room, or the timing of the ship jumping to its next target). I feel bad about that, but it does build a strong narrative and conveys an excellent “thriller” script for the right group of players. By way of making up for that, I provided a lot of different ways for the players to take out the Warhulk: Kill the AI, detonate its own ordnance, sabotage the engines, and so on. There is a lot of room for player creativity here if you push the NPCs to the background, where they belong.

The Last Warhulk has some extremely lethal parts, and I wish I’d paid a little more attention to just how dangerous the battle scenes were. Unlike 3e, 4e, or 5e Dungeons & Dragons, we never built any kind of hard encounter math to figure out what made for a balanced combat in Alternity. In all honesty, we sort of defaulted to, “What should be in the room? That’s what’s there,” which is a very 1e-2e way of doing things. Looking back on it now, it amazes me that we wouldn’t have worked out some kind of basic guidance for what kind of opposition is too much for a group of heroes to handle. People learned to eyeball it in earlier editions of D&D (if nothing else, the encounter charts by dungeon level helped with that), but Alternity was different enough that we should have expected GMs to have trouble determining lethality.

Oh, and one thing I did enjoy about the adventure: The personality of Ares 22 is a lot of fun. Your players will *hate* that AI before they’re done.

Overall, I’ll give The Last Warhulk mixed reviews. Some people loved it, some people felt it was flat. As they say: YMMV.

Next Week: “Exit 23,” my adventure for the Dark*Matter Campaign Setting.


  1. I just wanted you to know, Richard, that Alternity (particularly Star*Drive) was my first foray into pen&paper RPGs. My first RPG session was an alternity game, which coincidentally also my first time GMing. Alternity will always hold a very special place in my heart, and I still find myself with a drive to dust off my books and play again. I love the game design of it, and the adventures, which made this an interesting post to read. Black Starfall is my favorite Alternity adventure, ever. It's a perfect introduction to the Star*Drive setting and game. I do hope to one day meet you in person (and Bill Slavicsec) and shake your hands, because if it weren't for Alternity, I would not be where I am today in the greatest hobby in the world. I just thought you would like to know.

    1. Thanks for saying so, Jared! It's good to know that people have found real enjoyment in my work.

  2. Let me chime in here also saying that Alternity was some great work, and I'm glad Wizards supported the line, at least until its conclusion. Would like to've seen some more Dark•Matter come out, or see what the next setting would have been after Gamma World. I'm currently running a science-fantasy fusion online using Alternity to power it, so the game definitely lives on, Richard! (yes, those are "Alternity" tags on some blog posts)

    I'll save my praise for "Exit 23" until next week, I guess :)

  3. Alternity is one of those game I regret pawning off to get other games. The system looked like it was inspired by Earthdawn (which I played a lot!), and in turn it seemed like the Alternity system inspired D&D 3rd Ed. Is that a correct impression?

    When we played the first couple of published modules for Stardrive, it did though seem like the psionics was a bit imbalanced, and with my GM skills back then I did found it hard to decide what characters could and couldn't do with technology.

  4. I wouldn't say Earthdawn inspired Alternity very much--I never played Earthdawn, and I only gave it a cursory skim when it came out. It's possible that Bill Slavicsek drew more from Earthdawn than I did, but he never mentioned it to me, and I don't think he was a big Earthdawn fan either. So possibly you're seeing some "convergent evolution" of mechanics that are otherwise unrelated. Alternity's skill system and unified resolution mechanic definitely influenced 3e a little bit, but of course any up-to-date RPG in the late '90s was moving in those directions.