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Author Topic: [Alternity] Dice mechanic  (Read 2204 times)
James_Nostack
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« on: November 25, 2004, 05:20:46 PM »

This is my first post to the Forge; forgive me if I'm do anything wrong.  In this thread, Ron Edwards wrote...

Quote
I'm glad you mentioned Alternity - I've always wanted to get some insights from people who'd played that game about their experiences. Was the dice system problematic? I actually found it intriguing to read, but wondered if it required too much handling time (add this, subtract that) in the middle of play... But maybe that ought to be saved for an Actual Play post (which I encourage you to do)


Despite being published by TSR, Alternity isn't a widely played system; I discovered it in 1999 and it was discontinued sometime in late 2000.  It has a relatively perky fan site though.

Alternity was TSR's late 90's generic sci-fi game, and though it rocked my D&D-playing world at the time, for you avant garde Forge types there's nothing particularly innovative about Alternity aside from its die mechanic.  

Basic Mechanic
Task resolution in Alternity is handled by a single technique, the Skill Roll.  You want to roll under your score in a particular skill: this is always accomplished by rolling 1d20 +/-1dX, where X varies depending on the difficulty of the task; 0 is the default.  The lower the combined roll, the more decisively you succeed.  An easy task might be 1d20 - 1d8; a moderately hard task may be 1d20 +0; and a daunting task would be 1d20 + 1d12.

As an example: let's say I'm Sirius Black, interstellar space pirate, and I want to carve up some poor fool with my laser cutlass.  My skill score with the laser cutlass is 16.  I'm going to roll 1d20 no matter what happens... but in this case, the unsuspecting victim has his back toward me, making this an easier strike than usual: I may subtract 1d4 from my roll.  This means I will roll 1d20 - 1d4... I get an 8.  Not only do I succeed, but because this is half of my skill score, I succeed pretty darn well--I manage to slice through his cybernetic kidneys, or something.  Contrariwise, if the victim were more wary and in fact a seasoned space-dog himself, it might be a more difficult task, so I would roll 1d20+1d6.  By luck, I get a combined roll of 3--this is less than one quarter of my skill score, so I succeed even more spectacularly, by piercing the wretch through his genetically engineered heart and perhaps slaying him.

This basic mechanic is used in combat, but it also applies to scientific studies ("Arrr, mateys, fire up the gas chromatograph so we may analyze the composition of that gas giant"), business skills ("Avast ye scurvy dogs, I be writing an Annual Report for our stockholders"), and socializing ("By Davey Jones's Self-Storage Unit, ye blasted self-willed robots will do as I say!")  Most skills you can think of are represented here; it's hard to think of exceptions, and should you come up with some, they're easily inserted into the list.

Although the example I used featured space pirates for the sake of campiness, Alternity works for any tone of space opera, technothriller, or cyberpunk genre.  Also, while playing a bunch of space adventurers is the default assumption, the game itself works very well for the shenanigans of 1980's stockbrokers, paranormal investigators in 1920's Paris, and so on.  

(By "works well," I mean in Simulationist terms... assuming I'm using the word correctly.  I don't always follow Forge-speak as well as I should.)

Special Mechanics
Each player has a couple of "Last Resort Points," which are used to alter the degree of success by one: instead of failing, you can achieve a pretty tame success... or if you succeded reasonably well, you can bump that up to an outstanding.  Generally no one has 2 of these points at any time, and they're spent in high-stakes situations.

For prolonged challenges, like starting up your own Dot Com and making a fortune, you make a "complex skill check."  You make multiple skill checks, hoping to accumulate Y successes, where Y varies from 3 to 8 depending on just how prolonged this should be.  A single failure doesn't mean much, but if you accumulate 3 failures during the sequence, you've botched the whole thing and cannot proceed.

In Actual Play
In play, the Alternity system isn't too obtrusive: the GM calls for a roll and states the 1dX modifier, and then narrates the result based on the outcome.  Each skill has some pretty fidgety rules for calculating the size of X, but the book also supports the idea of just winging it... which is what everyone does in practice.

I've found that this system works very well for a wide range of simulationist play: it handles mercenaries and meeting planners equally well.  Real gritty simulationist types may object to inaccuracies or simplifications, but it's a pretty easy, versatile system once you get used to it.  

With that said, combat in the existing system is a pain in the butt, partly due to the initiative and round structure, and partly due to rolling for damage followed by rolling for armor.  The rest of the system plays quickly and IMO elegantly; combat, however, is a return to the D&D slog.  It should be pointed out that rolling for damage ought to be redundant since the 1d20 +/- 1dX determines how well you hit... but not how much damage you do.  In theory this could be streamlined.

I have played Alternity for six months of weekly play; I've GM'd it for a little over 2 years of bi-weekly play.  My stint as a player was mostly hack-and-slash fighting; my GM'ing involved a wide range of activities, from spaceship battles to computer hacking to political negotiating to running a business... all of which it simulated very pleasingly.

There are some bugs in it, but overall the 1d20 +/- 1dX against a skill score mechanic works pretty well.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: November 25, 2004, 06:02:41 PM »

Thank you!! I greatly appreciate you taking the time to weigh in on all this.

One thing I'm interested in, regarding the dice, is whether any sense of "ownership" arises over the modification dice that get factored in. It's kind of hard to describe what I mean verbally, although if you and I were watching a role-playing group, I could point and say "there" when it happens.

If that makes no sense, then let's skip it for now and I'll try to come up with a better way of putting it.

Another thing I'm interested in is whether the combat system tends to kill or otherwise take out characters. Oddly, when we played The Babylon Project, the rather vicious damage system ended up making play very enjoyable.

Best,
Ron
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James_Nostack
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« Reply #2 on: November 25, 2004, 08:29:11 PM »

Hi Ron, I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "ownership," but that might be because my personal roleplaying experience has always been kind of meat-and-potatoes.  (Can you tell it's Thanksgiving Day where I'm at?)

Let me see if my latent telepathic powers can solve the riddle.  By "ownership" I'll assume you're talking about applying the results of a dice roll to the narrative.  

Example: Ben (the player) wants his character to write a lyrical love poem to the genetically uplifted dolphin Bottlecap, so Ben makes a skill check vs. his Creativity-poetry skill, but unfortunately the course of true love never did violate Bernoulli's laws and Ben flubs the roll.  So who decides what happens?  

Officially, the GM does--or at least, that's how we've instinctually handled it in the years I've been playing, based on our fairly traditional D&D-ish backgrounds.   In the games I run, I usually narrate outcomes based on how I read my group's expectations, and usually they will elaborate on my input.  I suppose the player involved could narrate the outcome just as easily; there's nothing forbidding it.

Now you've got me thinking about some issues, like, "What was this conflict really about?" and so on.  Is Ben making the roll strictly to write the poem... or was the use of the poetry skill simply an attempt to win Bottlecap's warmblooded heart?  I guess it depends on what we were doing at the time; the rules don't provide much guidance.  

Hmm!  How broadly to interpret a skill check, and who does it, is actually kind of a provocative bit of GM-ing philosophy.  I'll have to ponder that, maybe even ask the regulars on the fan site.
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James_Nostack
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« Reply #3 on: November 25, 2004, 08:54:18 PM »

Quote
Another thing I'm interested in is whether the combat system tends to kill or otherwise take out characters. Oddly, when we played The Babylon Project, the rather vicious damage system ended up making play very enjoyable.


Combat in Alternity is pretty similar to combat in Dungeons & Dragons, with the following exceptions:
    High level characters have the same hit points as newbies
    Armor reduces damage, rather than the chance to hit
    A lucky hit may knock you unconscious, even if it doesn't kill you[/list:u]

    These combine to make each battle scene fairly short, especially if you're running a game without armor.  A modern day gun battle, for example, would make even highly-competent soldier types think twice.  You could definitely cut a bloody swath through the enemy... but it all depends on luck and tactics.

    Genre expectations will affect this too.  The traditional D&D adventuring party is a group of combat-crazy madmen armed to the teeth; but science-fiction often involves, like, scientists n' stuff.  Non-combatants are perfectly acceptable concepts in Alternity; in fact, in my campaign, 50% of the PC's are hopeless at combat though they are extremely accomplished in their own fields.  So for these particular professional adventurers, an actual fight would be about as scary as it would be for most of us in real life.

    I've solved this "problem" in my far-future game by removing armor so that combat runs decisively, but opponents are generally too civilized to shoot to kill: I've added a bunch of non-lethal weapons, from quick-drying cement guns to anti-friction grenades so that when this group loses a fight it's not the end of the line for them.
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Precious Villain
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« Reply #4 on: November 25, 2004, 11:42:49 PM »

I played Alternity a bit in the summer it came out.  Handling time was not a problem at all once the step scale was learned.  In fact, several of my players in a one shot Star Trek universe game considered it the fastest system they'd ever used.  Of course, they were used to Shadowrun so their expectations were low.

Using the system's "official" modifiers for running combat was much slower than just winging it, which worked better anyway.

I'm not sure what you mean by "ownership."  Do you mean the use of some kind of author stance by the player in describing the outcome based on the result of the step die??  I didn't notice anything like that at all, but my groups were, and are, fairly mainstream.
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Darren Hill
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« Reply #5 on: November 26, 2004, 03:48:56 AM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
Another thing I'm interested in is whether the combat system tends to kill or otherwise take out characters.


I GM'd the game for around two years, and the PCs got into a lot of fights during that time. I am "let the dice fall where they may" kind of GM, and I never had a PC death.
Alternity's system looks lethal, but the way severe wounds work mean that you always drop unconscious before you reach the death point. Then if you can get decent medical attention, you can usually be saved.
Three factors might have influenced the low mortality in my game:
The standard scifi setting, Stardrive, allows PCs to have very effective medkits. I wasn't using that setting, but I did use the equipment guide.
I was generous with Last Resort Points, allowing players to have a pool of regularly recovering points. This allowed people to do well despite injury, which minimised the possible death spiral - helping to keep Alternity lethality a bit more manageable. Still, 2-3 mods per adventure isn't that generous, and it isn't an uncommon house rule.  
Finally, I started characters out more advanced than the standard - a higher medical skill makes a big difference.

But those factors aside, I think it would still tend to play out much as gun combat does in the real world - characters get hit, maybe more than once, and collapse. They are sxtill alive but in need of medical attention, and if they get it, they will probably live.

After taking mortal wounds, they should probably stay in hospital, but in a more cinematic game they can take drugs to reduce the pain penalties and keep going pretty well.

Despite this, the damage system is still nasty - players never get blase about taking injuries, and do have a healthy respect for lethal weapons. Any hit might be a mortal wound, and those medical rolls are always moments of high tension!

Quote
Oddly, when we played The Babylon Project, the rather vicious damage system ended up making play very enjoyable.


I had the same experience with the old FASA Star Trek game. When the phasers and disruptors came out, things get very tense!
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Matt Wilson
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #6 on: November 26, 2004, 06:03:08 AM »

I've played the game briefly, and a consensus among my fellow players is that the character structure is the biggest flaw in the game. The resolution mechanic is kind of a neat, quirky variant of basic task resolution, but it's no different than the GM assigning a difficulty mod in some other game.

It was the character creation and maintenance stuff that was a real disaster. At least that's the consensus of people I've played it with.

As far as fatality goes, I'd agree with the demiurge.

In all, I'd call it a useful system for mining ideas, which it's pretty clear they did for the 3rd edition of D&D.
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James_Nostack
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« Reply #7 on: November 26, 2004, 06:15:36 AM »

While we're on the subject of taking damage:

Alternity does not use a single measure of health such as D&D's hit points.  Instead, "Durability" is broken into three damage tracks: Stuns, Wounds, and Mortals.  Generally, each weapon inflicts a certain kind of damage, though a spectacular success may upgrade the type: a handgun normally inflicts wounds, but if you really nail someone it does mortal damage.  

On the one hand, this is a big improvement over the hit point mechanics I was used to.  On the other hand, it leads to "lag" since each weapon has different damage values in different categories, and the degree of damage you've sustained may (or may not) affect other actions.  

By the way, for people interested in stealing the mechanic, skill scores can be approximated this way:

* Something you're totally clueless about: 3 or 4
* You kinda know the basics/high school proficiency: 8 or 9
* Some beginner's training: 11 or 12
* Some hands on experience: 13 or 14
* Respected professional: 15 or 16 (players seldom push beyond this)
* Obsessed: 18
* Best possible: 22 or 24

This oversimplifies what little part of the system it doesn't obscure, but from actual play that's what most skill scores look like.  Using the 1d20 +/- 1dX method, this actually does a decent job across a wide variety of skills.
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Darren Hill
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« Reply #8 on: November 26, 2004, 09:17:53 AM »

Quote from: James_Nostack

* Something you're totally clueless about: 3 or 4
* You kinda know the basics/high school proficiency: 8 or 9
* Some beginner's training: 11 or 12
* Some hands on experience: 13 or 14
* Respected professional: 15 or 16 (players seldom push beyond this)
* Obsessed: 18
* Best possible: 22 or 24


Another thing to consider is that some skills give rank benefits - at certain skill levels you can get a -1, -2, or -3 (gasp!) modifier to certain applications of the skill. This makes the higher level skills really frightening.
One unfortunate thing is that the way this is applied (which skills get it and which don't) is inconsistent, but the rank benefits system on the whole is pretty cool.

The modifier system has another effect that I meant to mention.
Let's say you have a skill of 16. That means you get an Ordinary Success on rolls of 9-16, Good success on 5-8, and Amazing on 1-4.
Now, if you're rolling with no modifiers, you can see you'll get an Amazing success 20% of the time - pretty good. But if you have, say, a +4 modifier, you'll be rolling d20+d12, which means that the lower results are very hard to get - the chance of an Amazing success drops to 2.5% - when you succeed, you usually scrape by with an Ordinary success.
On the other hand, if you have a -4 modifier (pretty rare), and roll 1d20-1d12, you have a 47.5% chance of an Amazing success!
In other words, helpful modifiers not only increase the chance of success, they dramatically increase the chance of a GOOD success. Likewise, penalties cause you to be happy with whatever success you get. I always liked this effect - I can't think of another dice mechanic that achieved it quite as elegantly.

<hoping his maths is correct, he hits send>
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johnzo
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« Reply #9 on: November 28, 2004, 05:30:12 AM »

Quote from: Matt Wilson
The resolution mechanic is kind of a neat, quirky variant of basic task resolution, but it's no different than the GM assigning a difficulty mod in some other game.


Yeah.  The nice bit about using dice as modifiers was that you had a smaller range of possible modifiers to apply.  So once you'd assimilated that +d4 situation die was a slight inconvenience and +d12 was a major one, you could very quickly dictate modifiers.  I liked that bit.  And all my players were comfortable with the simple arithmetic, so the combination of fast modifier assignation and math-comfortable players made for pretty quick handling time.

One counterintuitive bit was the fact that a negative modifer made a task easier for the players and a positive one made things harder; I stickhandled around that by renaming the situation die as a 'difficulty die' so that semantically, it worked a little better: negative difficulty=task easier; positive difficulty=task harder.
 
As far as situation die "ownership," the Alty texts are pretty traditional about who owns the situation die--the GM is the one who assigns it.  In our group there was sometimes a little negotiation about the die, but nothing extraordinary, just the normal give-and-take.

Quote from: Matt Wilson
It was the character creation and maintenance stuff that was a real disaster. At least that's the consensus of people I've played it with.


Again, yeah.  Creating an Alternity character involved quite a bit of points-crunching, with a fussy skills chart and perks/flaws costs and the like.  Unfortunately, after all that effort, one's character isn't much differentiated from another's character.  They'll have a slight edge in their class skills, but that's it.  The game is almost too well balanced.

Then, as the characters bought up their skills, they'd start running into special rules exceptions that kicked in on a per-skill basis.  In our short campaign, we only licked the tip of this iceberg, but I could see it getting unmanageable as high-powered characters and NPC's start piling on those exceptions.

Sometimes I fantasize about bolting Alty's elegant die mechanic onto a more likeable character creation system.
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James_Nostack
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« Reply #10 on: November 28, 2004, 06:36:36 AM »

Quote from: johnzo
One counterintuitive bit was the fact that a negative modifer made a task easier for the players and a positive one made things harder


Granted.  I never found it that confusing myself, but I see a lot of complaints to this effect on RPG.Net whenever the game gets mentioned.  Once you figure it out, though, everything's easy as pie.
 
Quote from: johnzo
Again, yeah.  Creating an Alternity character involved quite a bit of points-crunching, with a fussy skills chart and perks/flaws costs and the like.  Unfortunately, after all that effort, one's character isn't much differentiated from another's character.  They'll have a slight edge in their class skills, but that's it.  The game is almost too well balanced.


Hmm--that's interesting, it's not a problem I've had, but then I was coming from AD&D2e, where I had to record "Bend Bars/Open Gates" percentages and two different "Reaction Modifiers": one for initiative, the other for socializing.  In comparison, chargen in Alternity struck me as pretty simpleminded.  Selecting skills requires some thought, but it always struck me as the price you pay for not using rigid classes which tightly define everything you can do.  

Regarding similar characters: Alternity is one of those games that works best with very sharp character concepts.  It's easy to build Jackie Chan, Richard Feynman, Harry Houdini, Luke Skywalker, or Ripley, all of which end up with pretty distinct abilities.  But vague concepts generally lead to overlap.

My main complaint with Alternity chargen is that the five alien species in the core books are atrocious both in concept and in execution.  Lizard men?  Bear men?  Cyber men?  Bat men?  If the aliens aren't interesting biologically, they should at least have well-developed cultures, but generally they're summarized with a few generic paragraphs.  This isn't the 1950's, it's a science-fiction game written in 1996!
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #11 on: November 28, 2004, 07:24:22 PM »

Hello,

I shall clarify what I meant by "ownership." Everyone is reading it to be far more profound than what I'm talking about.

I mean actual "it's mine" statements and body language, referring to the physical dice.

If the GM assigns a +1d4, does the player grab it enthusiastically? If the skill has its own designated +1d4, does the player keep it right there, handy at all times?

This sense of actually managing the bonus and modifying-dice physically is one of the most powerful attractors to play Alternity, speaking for myself only. It's quite childish and enjoyable, and comes into any game that I play with similar mechanics.

So I'm interested in whether you've seen any similar behaviors in your game.

Best,
Ron
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Darren Hill
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« Reply #12 on: November 29, 2004, 04:26:57 AM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
Hello,

I shall clarify what I meant by "ownership." Everyone is reading it to be far more profound than what I'm talking about.

I mean actual "it's mine" statements and body language, referring to the physical dice.

If the GM assigns a +1d4, does the player grab it enthusiastically? If the skill has its own designated +1d4, does the player keep it right there, handy at all times?


No I haven't seen that. The players usually make sure they have a set of all possible dice (1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 1d12, and several d20), but don't need to keep a d4 at the ready.
The skills don't have their own designated modifiers usually (unless high enough rank to get a modifier) so the modifier is entirely down to situation. And if the skill did have a set modifier, as soon as a +1 or -1 is applied you need to replace the chosen die with a different sized one.

Darren
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James_Nostack
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« Reply #13 on: November 29, 2004, 03:39:58 PM »

Aha!  Who actually rolls the dice!  The players do usually.  Rarely the GM may want to create suspense by splitting up "ownership"--the player will roll 1d20, and the GM will roll the +/- 1dX in secret.  So the player has a pretty good notion of how well she did... but there's always this sneaking suspicion that things didn't go as planned.

One application that springs to mind: when I was little, I used to sneak around the house early in the morning when my parents were asleep.  I knew I was bein' pretty quiet... but always suspected it was never quiet enough!
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Darren Hill
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« Reply #14 on: November 30, 2004, 03:07:06 AM »

Quote from: demiurgeastaroth
Quote from: Ron Edwards
Hello,

I shall clarify what I meant by "ownership." Everyone is reading it to be far more profound than what I'm talking about.

I mean actual "it's mine" statements and body language, referring to the physical dice.

If the GM assigns a +1d4, does the player grab it enthusiastically? If the skill has its own designated +1d4, does the player keep it right there, handy at all times?


No I haven't seen that. The players usually make sure they have a set of all possible dice (1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 1d12, and several d20), but don't need to keep a d4 at the ready.
The skills don't have their own designated modifiers usually (unless high enough rank to get a modifier) so the modifier is entirely down to situation. And if the skill did have a set modifier, as soon as a +1 or -1 is applied you need to replace the chosen die with a different sized one.

Darren


Actualy, now that I've thought about it more, I'll do an about face - I think I have seen that. When a player has, say, a gun with a laser sight that gives him a -1 modifier, and a rank benefit that gives him another -1 modifier, and says he will take a shot, and reaches for his d6 bonus die with a look of glee on his face, only to be told that this shot has a +4 modifier and that d6 is actually a penalty...

So, yeah, I think I realise what you're talking about finally and it is there.
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