Alternity Design Blog #9: AcadeCon Playtest part 1

alternitylogowhiteonblackWhile we’ve been quiet the past few weeks, much work has been happening behind the scenes to prepare Alternity for playtest. As part of that process, Rich performed a dry run of the playtest rules at AcadeCon 2016 a few weeks back, and ran a couple of scenarios of Alternity for the RPG Academy fans in attendance. Here’s part 1 of his convention report!

Sasquatch Rich here! The nice folks at RPG Academy asked me to come out and join them at AcadeCon for the second time this year, so naturally I jumped at the chance to shanghai some unsuspecting gamers and try out our new Alternity rules on them. Well, actually, I advertised the event and they signed up of their own free will. But this was my first time trying out the new system “in the wild,” and I was eager to see if some savvy gamers would like it as much as I hoped they would.

I decided to prep two different scenarios with entirely different character sets because I decided that sleeping is overrated. The first choice was pretty obvious: a classic space-exploration mystery right down the middle of the sci-fi fairway. For the second scenario, I decided to stretch our still-cooling system a little bit to try out an entirely different subgenre of science fiction . . . but more on that in a future blog post. Here’s the pitch I gave Michael at RPG Academy for my first scenario: What is the secret of the starship Memnon, and why did it crash on an alien world?

The first thing I did was jot down a couple of quick assumptions about the setting—nothing too formal since I wasn’t going to present a whole universe in a 4-hour con session, but enough that I’d be comfortable if the players asked me, “Do we have a gadget that can do X?” I decided that the Memnon scenario would take place in a galaxy that looked a bit like the setting of Jack McDevitt’s Priscilla Hutchins novels. Ships are small and expensive, crews are small and science-oriented, and the job of exploring the stars falls on a handful of private foundations and special agencies.

With that in mind, I came up with six PCs to represent the crew and science team of the drivescout Simon Fraser: Dr. Grace Tharsi, Senior Scientist; Captain Vance Carr; Engineer Omari Temu; Crew Specialist Dieter Frank; Miles Morales, the slightly shady alien archaeologist; and Masako Wade, the NIS agent investigating the accident. The skills were pretty straightforward, but I thought up a couple of new character talents to flesh out the PCs, and then I had to piece together a bit of design work on combat gear like laser pistols, plasma pistols, and the diskos (a powered melee weapon I borrowed from Hodgson’s The Night Land).

The adventure kicked off with the party arriving in the Xi Scorpii star system, following Memnon’s automated distress beacon (I decided that low-bandwidth, non-instantaneous FTL comms were okay for my setting). They soon discovered Memnon’s beacon broadcasting from a crash site on the surface of a previously unexplored terran-type world, and landed Fraser a few hundred meters from the wreckage. Naturally they discovered a pack of local predators lurking in the debris—a sort of saurian lion with the intelligence of a chimp or dolphin.

That fight really took it out of the PCs, but I think a big part of the challenge was that the characters really spread their attacks around instead of focusing fire. A couple of the PCs got clawed up a bit, but the battler Dieter Frank in his heavy armor took on the worst of the assault and did his job, keeping the squishier characters more or less safe. (There was a funny moment when the guy playing Morales the archaeologist discovered that he was actually pretty good at two-pistol fighting, and finally remembered to draw his second gun.)

With the aliens chased away, the party spent time combing over the wreckage. They found some of Memnon’s crew, and discovered others missing from the wreck. They discovered security footage of the bridge, and missing time on the tape. And when they reviewed the tape, they observed Memnon’s pilot acting very strangely in the minutes leading up to the crash. The Alternity skill system stood up pretty well to the job of investigating a crash site; I was pretty happy with how it turned out.

Tracking down the first two missing crewmembers, the PCs encountered another hungry alien and blew it away pretty handily with massed weapon fire. They learned that Memnon’s crew had discovered a mysterious alien artifact and were bringing it home when disaster struck—day after day in which they discovered again and again that their course had been mysteriously changed for Xi Scorpii, when they’d find themselves standing in a room with no idea of why they’d gone in there or what they’d been doing, and a sense of dark dread and an evil presence haunting the ship.

My players figured out pretty quickly that Memnon’s crew had stumbled upon a hostile alien that through pheromones or telepathy could mask its presence from humans or force them to do its will. (Pheromones—nice idea. The players thought of that. I almost stole it on the spot.) With some trepidation, Fraser’s crew set out to locate the last missing crewmember from Memnon and determine how exactly the ship had been destroyed.

In the climactic battle, the PCs confronted the hostile alien in an ancient ruin of its long-dead people. My rule for the H’naal was simple: The instant you caught sight of it, you had to make a Willpower skill check. If you failed, you didn’t see it and simply didn’t register its presence (sort of a “the clouded mind sees nothing” power). At the beginning of your turn, you could make a new check to determine whether you’d managed to catch a glimpse of the alien. With six PCs in the party, I knew that someone would make the check just about every round, but several more wouldn’t.

Mystery of the Memnon turned out to be creepy, unsettling, and quite a lot of fun for a little con adventure I’d thrown together in a few hours. And, more importantly, our new Alternity system handled it with flying colors. We have a little fine-tuning to do on the encounter difficulty: damage is a little more swingy than a straight hit-point system. But that’s why we’re piecing together games and trying out the system!

That’s it for this installment! Next time we’ll take a look at our damage system, and provide a look at the layout we’re using for the upcoming playtest!