Original SA post
The 'oh God why am I doing this' edition.
So this is not an attempt to do the usual FATAL chapter by chapter book review; anyone curious about it can read one of the earlier posts, assuming that the archives are ever fixed. Despite the broken archives, the newer Alternity posts are still accessible if anyone needs refreshing on the basics.
What this is is a quick-ish skim over the high and low points of the system. I believe that Alternity is a mostly-overlooked diamond in the rough for roleplaying games, thanks to TSR's horrible incompetence. It had everything it needed to make for an epic system, and if it had gotten better support I think it would not have fallen through the cracks.
Where Alternity shines.
Alternity's resolution system is fantastic in its verisimilitude. Where most games have just a pass/fail or a crit/pass/fail setup, Alternity has amazing/good/ordinary/fail/critical fail, providing a much clearer picture to a GM to work from than, 'Um, okay, you succeed.' In many cases, the system is set up to take the degree of success into account when a skill is checked. Most notably, weapon damage hinges completely on how well one does with an attack roll, and even some bum with a knife can put you on the floor if they stick the knife in the right spot, instead of just being a nuisance like you would find in most systems. And while characters may purchase more stun/wound/mortal boxes during their career, people don't magically become more resistant to bullets just by being more experienced. Additional nice touches abound, like being knocked out lasting for a realistic amount of time (as short as about ten seconds before waking up), and secondary stun damage getting through armor, because taking a magazine of bullets to the chest still puts you in a world of hurt even if you're in body armor. Additionally, taking any mortal damage whatsoever means that a character is
because getting a bullet in your liver is actually sort of a big deal, and it's kind of important to get them to a doctor sooner rather than later. A suitably tough person can hang on for hours after receiving a terrible wound, but they'll eventually die without real medical attention.
The system also streamlines play in several areas by favoring giving the acting player bonuses or penalties derived from their target rather than making the target engage in a contested roll. The situation die lets you work an opponent's efforts into just the one resolution roll. Trying to shoot some slippery fucker? Well his juiced-up dexterity gives you a two-step penalty, the bad light gives you another step, and the medium range is a fourth step, so add a d12 into that roll, the results of which will tell you whether you hit and how well you hit in one fell swoop.
While Alternity is a class-based system, your skills are what really make a character. Players are not locked into fixed archetypes, so while for example a free agent is going to be able to be a rambunctious gambler for less investment than a combat specialist would, there is nothing at all keeping you from having a combat specialist who makes a living hustling the poker tables in Vegas on weekends. There are no artificial class-based constraints on how good a character is at a skill.
Alternity's luck analogue, last resort points, costs experience to refresh. Unlike systems where willpower or luck or fate or whatever refreshes after every session or after sleeping or some other short interval, using a last resort point in Alternity is actually a big deal. As the name sort of implies. They still exist as an option for players to use, but you won't see anyone rerolling their dice half a dozen times on every gaming night.
The generalities of the setting are very interesting. The technologies are very advanced in some places, and somewhat utilitarian in others. By and large it's not at Star Trek levels of magic science, but then you find that they have pistols that
shoot black holes.
I suspect it's intentionally set up to give players something to do rather than sit around like George Jetson while a ship's computer handles every task for them, but the result is a weird vibe that appeals to me. I also generally like all of the alien PC races. Philosophical warrior-poet wookies with flintlocks, eight-eyed bat people, psychic greys, hyperactive lizards, and borged-out cyber people all bring interesting things to the table.
Where Alterntity stinks.
Remember when I praised Alternity's verisimilitude? Well that falls right on its face when you go into some of the more specialized rules. Vehicular and starship combat is a mess of maneuver templates meant to be played on a hex mat. Hacking is vague at best. In the case of vehicular and starship combat, I've found that it's best to just throw out the hex mat and play it like FTL: Instead of wasting time on charting out the position changes caused by a barrel roll on a mat, keep it to, 'There's a ship. It is X distance away,' and then let the players just describe what they want to do. Hacking was fixed somewhat in the Dataware splatbook which gave some actual detail about how computers and communication are supposed to work in the setting. It's still not Shadowrun, but people aiming to misbehave with computers have more to work with than they would with only the core book.
5% of the time, Einstein fatally irradiates himself. Coming from second edition D&D, Alternity suffers from the same unforgiving critical failure as 2nd edition psionics: Rolling a natural 20 fucks a character. (Low is good in Alternity.) Fortunately that one's easy to house-rule; I simply amend that to 'Rolling a natural 20 is a critical fumble only if the roll is also a failure.' If the roll involves a favorable situation die, it's very possible for a player to roll a 20 on the base die but still succeed after the situation die modifies the result. In those instances, I'm not going to arbitrarily turn a success into a failure. I will taint the success in some way to reflect the bad luck, if the situation allows for it, but I won't turn the success into a failure, and definitely not turn the success into a critical failure.
The Stardrive setting sucks. I like the species, I like the technology, and I like some of the social stuff, but by and large Stardrive is tedious and boring. There are something like twenty different governments described as existing as major players in interstellar space, and of those twenty about three are actually interesting. And while Bad Things are happening on the fringe of human space with mysterious aliens being all evil, and while there are supposedly secret plots going on among the nations, not much is actually going on for some ninety-nine percent of the population in the setting. It basically has the feel of the more mediocre 2nd edition D&D settings. Planets are described here and there, and there are some 'dungeons' in the form of alien space stations floating around, and there are bad guys doing bad things, somewhere. The rest? It's all just one big ???. The setting has some nice touches, I'm personally fond of VoidCorp, a company that grew so large that it became its own interstellar nation, within which every person is an employee with a serial number instead of a name and more or less enslaved for life. But the fun bits are few and far between.
Generating a character gives seizures to people who can't handle math. The Amazing/Good/Ordinary/Fail division of skill levels is not something that's ever given me any problem, but I've encountered players who had an awful time working out what numbers go where. Once a character has been made it's not really a problem any longer, as the character sheets have fairly clear places to put all the numbers down, but some players may need the help of someone who can perform basic math.
Get the various splatbooks. Dataware in particular is very useful in that it both fixes holes in the computer rules, adds more detail to AIs, and provides rules for making robotic PCs. The core books try to stuff a whole lot of content into not a lot of pages, so some of the optional stuff like cybernetics and psionics are not very fleshed out.
Be ready to improv. Alternity never got deeply expanded, and never got very polished. As a result, some of the rules are either too vague to be useful on their own, or are just bad. The rules that did get polished are fantastic examples of what more roleplaying games should strive for, but sometimes you're going to wind up with a situation not covered in any book and just have to wing it. Be prepared for this.