Alternity Design Blog #3: A Playtest Escape

alternitylogometalbevelonwhiteThis week, we want to give you a glimpse of our ongoing Alternity playtests so you can watch as we hone the rules and explore different SF settings. These early reports won’t be a deep dive into the rules specifics, because when we were playing, the rules were… let’s go with “fragmentary.” Yeah, fragmentary. You should get a sense of how the design is progressing, though and the interesting conflicts and dilemmas that Alternity characters find themselves in. Here’s Dave with this week’s report: 

For this first playtest — an ongoing narrative, but focused on ground-based SF action — the PCs are amnesiac “residents” of a mysterious medical facility who find themselves urged to escape by a recorded “Soothing Voice.” Their escape goes awry, and the players helpfully test all sorts of combat, parkour, item manipulation/juryrigging, zero-g, and other rules as they blast their way out.

The two PCs for this session are Dack and Oni — the only names they know, because they don’t remember their pasts or how long they’ve been residents of the “Institute for a Better Tomorrow.” (And yes, I’m a bit tired of the amnesiac trope too, but it’s just the ticket for a playtest.)

As the first session begins, Oni and Dack in a dormitory performing a scripted “visualization exercise.” I convince my players to a little real-body acting as I cue up the spacey music (Tangerine Dream’s “Flowered Knife Shadows,” if you’re curious), tell them to close their eyes, and give them instructions from the Soothing Voice like “imagine yourself walking through a park…”

After a while, the Soothing Voice’s instructions and visualizations become more surreal, and then they take a turn for the oddly specific. Eyes closed, the players start to smile as they realize that the the Soothing Voice is asking them to visualize their own escape from the institute: “imagine yourself counting to fifty when the guard turns the corner, then hurrying to the third door on the left.”

About midway through the instructions, I cut the music that’s been running behind the Soothing Voice; it’s a subtle clue, and one the players don’t notice. When the instructions conclude, Dack and Oni commence their escape from the Institute.

They follow the Soothing Voice’s initial instructions exactly and find themselves in the Neuroengineering Lab, where they don “cranial reciprocators” (high-tech helmets) and select the skills they’d like to download into their brains. At the time, we didn’t have anything resembling character classes, so this was a kludge that let them choose their own skills on the fly.

Then it was on to the Fabrication Workshop, where they activated two of the fabricators: high-tech versions of 3-D printers, each the size of a phone booth (kids, ask your parents what a “phone booth” is). Behind the screen, I had a weapons and armor list but precious little else in the way of equipment, so I used the “blueprint not available” kludge when I had to and otherwise gave the players a few minutes to arm themselves and get some other basics they thought they’d need: tools, communicators, that sort of thing.

The players took it upon themselves at this point to marvel at how they couldn’t remember their pasts, but they were familiar with the basic tools and trappings of everyday life. They did a great job of playing this up as a moment of existential crisis — “how is it that I know this, when I can’t remember any of it?” — and I’ll play up this angle in future sessions. It’s nice when they do some expository pipe-laying for me!

Their next instruction from the Soothing Voice was to force open the cargo door in the far end of the Fabrication Workshop, then abscond with the hoverlorry parked there. While Dack continued to fiddle with the fabricator, Oni overrode the security protocols on the cargo door and opened it…

…to find himself staring out into space, a gleaming green planet below him, as all the air rushed out of the Fabrication Workshop. They were in orbit this whole time!

(The “open the cargo door” instruction was the first one the Soothing Voice gave them after the music cut out. Why did that happen? How come the Soothing Voice was correct about the minute details of life in the Institute, but seemingly didn’t know it was orbital? I’d answer, but my players are probably reading this, so I’ll simply say NEENER NEENER NEENER for now.)

When you’re exposed to vacuum, things tend to happen fast, so it was time for a test of our initiative system as Oni braced himself against the bulkhead and tried to avoid being sucked out into space while Dack tried desperately to reengage the safety protocols. He succeeded, and air began to flow back into the room. That was good news!

But in the “bad news” category, exposing an entire orbital module to space got Institute Security’s attention, so they arrived just as Oni got the cargo door closed and Dack started the fabricators working on constructing EVA suits. Security cut the artificial gravity in the orbital module as well. (Their reasons for doing so are unstated and vague. Honestly, I just wanted to playtest zero-G combat.)

The first session ended with a grand, floating firefight, with the PCs ultimately taking down the security guards — aided by a number of power tools floating in midair now that gravity was gone. Highlights include:

Oni, who opted for some melee skills back in the Neuroengineering Lab, was able to do a clever bit of wall- and ceiling-running to outflank and overpower the guards.
Dack launched himself from cover to obstruction and back again, firing his newly fabricated blaster as he did so.

Throughout the fight, the fabricators continued to hum, and the second session was set to begin with the duo donning their EVA suits. Now they’ll have to improvise; they know they can’t trust the soothing voice anymore…Alley_Final

All in all, a successful playtest. We got to try out two key systems: an initiative system intended to keep everyone engaged in the action whether it’s their turn or not, and a wound system that doesn’t rely on big buckets of abstract hit points. I spotted some wrinkles (mostly on the NPC side of things), but both systems were fun enough to continue developing.

We’ll pick up the action in a future blog entry… when Dack and Oni get behind a ship’s controls for the first time.

One final GM note on inspirations: The original idea for this session came from the Within the Wires podcast, a spin-off of the also-excellent Welcome to Night Vale. And I wasn’t consciously thinking of it at the time, but the notion of picking one’s skills and attributes during the prologue is very much akin to what the Fallout series of video games do.

That’s it for this week. We’re working on putting a playtest document that we can send around to interested parties. It’s still a few weeks away, but keep an eye on our Facebook page or our website for information on how to sign up for playtests!