Alternity Design Blog #4: Encounters and Improvisation

This week, Dave gives a glimpse of how our approach to Alternity affects encounter design and enables improvisation. Take it away, Dave!

Your “Alterniteers” (Rich, Bill, Steve, and I) are hard at work on building the first public playtest packet. Look for it soon! As we do that, here are a couple of “hey, that’s kinda neat” moments that emerged from our design work thus far.

Alternity Encounter Design

With a whole universe — OK, multiple universes — to explore, Alternity has a broad set of encounter spaces. So far in my Thursday night game, I’ve been thinking of encounter spaces as a set designer for a good SF TV show or film would, lavishing extra attention on the places where set-piece dramatic moments happen and the places where the protagonists return to again and again.

That’s a key difference between most SF genres and the “wandering fantasy hero” archetype that games like D&D are built on: the persistence of places.

Think of how much use Star Trek gets from their bridge set. Throw in sets for Engineering, Ten Forward, and Medical, and you’ve got (wild guess here) half the screen time in many an episode. Interior of the Serenity? Same deal. Modern spy drama? Office of the big boss, training area, interrogation room, and someplace to relax. And so on.

Those are the places you’ll return to, again and again. Most fantasy campaigns don’t have places that persist to that degree, but they’re prevalent in many of the genres that Alternity models. That persistence of place is key.

The second key difference that we’re building into our encounter spaces is object manipulation and interaction with the environment.

All of those modern or futuristic “sets” we mentioned above are crammed with computers, devices, complex electronics, air/gravity controls — countless modern or futuristic contrivances.

Contrast that with the typical dungeon room, where 90% of your interactions are with the monsters in the room and probably only 10% are the doors, treasure chests, and traps. I’m aware that great D&D adventures stretch way beyond the typical dungeon room, but still… typical is typical.

I’d estimate that my Thursday night Alternity players are interacting with the “monsters” two-thirds of the time and with the objects/setting one-third of the time. It’s not so much what the Alternity PCs can interact with (compared to their fantasy RPG counterparts). It’s more that they are interacting with all that stuff — even when the bullets/lasers are flying.

On a basic level, this means more work for the encounter designer (whether that’s me as an adventure writer or GMs making up their own stuff). But I’m here to tell you: it’s fun work.

When I was building out the Institute (described in last week’s recap), I knew it would essentially be place-driven with some event-based interruptions. In each place, I made sure I’d sketched out three key aspects of a place.

  • Intentional interactions: For objects in the place, what can the PCs do with it? What can the computer access? How long does it take the fabricator to make body armor? I’m not trying to define everything possible; that would be a) laborious, b) not much fun; and c) probably impossible anyway. But I am noting what the most likely and most interesting interactions are.
  • Battle damage: What happens when a missed shot hits the wall behind the antagonist? Is there a bank of machinery that goes up in a shower of sparks? Or (as in Aliens) are there primary heat exchangers that will rupture the cooling system and set off a nuclear meltdown? I almost always have something that’ll blow up, rupture, or otherwise do something cool in the chaos of combat. Unlike actual SF films, TV shows, and video games, I have an unlimited special effects budget!
  • Lucky events: Right now we’ve got a “lucky event” in the game that occasionally triggers off skill checks — whether those checks succeed or fail. So before an encounter happens, I want to have sketched out how the environment might change due to a “lucky failure” or a “lucky success.” The overhead fire-suppression sprinklers trigger, or the missed shot hits the mirror behind the bad guy, showering the floor with sharp, slippery debris. That sort of thing. Sometimes this overlaps with battle damage, but not always.

    Dice on Ship

    Map from Christopher West’s Maps of Mastery line.

Improvisation and the Second Die

These encounter spaces tend to be more dynamic and more manipulable than the typical dungeon room — and when you combine that with Alternity’s core mechanic, you have an easy way for players to get in on the act.

First, a quick recap on how our dice work. You’re always rolling a d20 (which represents fate/quantum uncertainty/the whims of a cruel universe) and one other polyhedral (which represents the specifics of the situation). If the situation is amenable, you’re adding the two dice together, but if the situation is dire, you might be subtracting the polyhedral from the d20. Compare your result to some numbers on your character sheet, and boom! You know whether you succeeded — and what sort of success you achieved.

The size of the second polyhedral depends upon the situational factors that go into the die roll. Positive influences can increase the die size, but are offset by negative influences. With all that manipulable stuff in the encounter space, my Alternity players love messing with it in an attempt to improve the situation and roll a bigger polyhedral.

A player says: “I try to parkour my way around the robot blocking the hallway. Hey… since my ally turned off the gravity, I can carom off the walls and ceiling, right?”
Me: “Yes you can. Zero-G makes a lot of things harder, but parkour gets easier. Turn that d4 you’re rolling into a d6.”

Or a player says: “I hit the emergency stop button. What happens?”
Me: “Down on the factory floor, the conveyor belts lurch to a halt. This throws the goons off balance, so they’ll be rolling a minus d4 on their next attack.”

You can do this in most RPGs, of course. But because Alternity already has a dedicated die for it and it’s easy to shift the size of the die up or down, you can improvise rules on the fly with great speed and ease. You’re just sliding upward and downward on a well-worn scale. It’s one of the most improv-friendly setups I’ve ever played with.

Finally, here’s what’s on my “to write” list: “Build a whole bunch of sample encounter spaces (warp chambers, factory floors, etc.) with defined manipulables for GMs to grab on the fly.” Because any musician will tell you: improv is always easier when you’ve got a good backing band.