Looking Back At The Alternity Role-Playing Game
  • Looking Back At The Alternity Role-Playing Game


    The Alternity Player’s Handbook and Gamemaster Guide together form a combined 512 page comprehensive ruleset for near future and sci-fi adventure. A new version of the game is slated for 2018 and made EN World’s most anticipated RPG for 2018 poll. This review explores the original edition. Many of the authors of the first edition are working on the new version.


    Alternity uses a variety of dice alongside a roll under d20 check. An extra die could add or subtract to this roll. Four outcomes are possible: failure or Marginal success, Ordinary success, Good success, or an Amazing success. Stat blocks included all needed levels to make reading results easier. The dice system is not revolutionary although replacing modifiers with an additional die was new to me in the late 90s. What really Alternity thrived on though was choices, options, and attention to detail.

    Players choose a species (if aliens are an option), a career (which provides suggested skills), and one of four professions: combat specs, diplomats, free agents, or tech ops. Each profession has two or three special abilities. In addition to ability scores and skills, each character may also choose perks and flaws. Optional templates took some of the work out of building characters.

    The alien species included standards like the reptilian t’sa and Wookie like weren. The sesheyan was a batlike alien that thrived in darkness. I like all the included aliens and felt they interacted in interesting both with human characters and with each other.

    The game includes gear, computers, vehicles, starships, and alien artifacts (the last two covered in the Gamemaster Guide along with starship construction rules). For characters, the game offers optional mutations, psionics, and cybertech.

    Ship systems included various stations with skill needed to operate it and what the role was. Nine stations included command, pilot, engineering, sensors, and weapons. A sample starship was a trader-class complete with a detailed ship schematic.

    GMs are provided with a wide range of tools as well. An included adventure used fast-play rules to introduce the rules. NPC templates and around thirty creatures aid in world building. Campaign design advice includes progress levels to help set up technology. For starfaring games there are star sector, star systems, and planet building rules. A detailed sample star system and planet map are included as usable examples. Adventure design includes adventure hook ideas. There are even AD&D conversion rules.

    Star*Drive was the first campaign setting released for Alternity and the species and starships in the rules existed in that setting. It is an easy jump from learning the rules to running a starfaring sci-fi Star*Drive game.

    Dragon magazine also provided support for Alternity. The aliens from Star Frontiers were updated to the new rules. Having a dralisite serving alongside a sesheyan on a starfaring ship enhanced my enjoyment of all the species even further.

    Alternity expanded into three campaign settings, several setting neutral rulebooks, and novels. Star*Drive had the greatest amount of support. Dark Matter covered modern conspiracies (like the X-Files on steroids). Gamma World was reborn using the rules but had no books beyond the main rulebook.


    The new Alternity is likely to cover a campaign centered on humans in the solar system to start. Many of the rules have been updated or changed to make a more modern system. But the details, options, and choices are likely to be baked in again. Campaign and adventure support are already planned.

    Alternity is a great game, whether you try the classic version or the free playtest of the new rules. Traveling through space to alien worlds, dealing with inhuman monsters close to home, or living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland are all possibilities.

    contributed by Charles Dunwoody
    Comments 31 Comments
    1. Ath-kethin's Avatar
      Ath-kethin -
      I still have a limited edition signed and numbered copy of the original Alternity Player's Handbook. It was interesting to me a couple of years later when 3e came out, and seemed heavily influenced by the Alternity rules engine. I loved the Dark Matter setting, and I look forward to seeing what the new edition brings.
    1. evildmguy's Avatar
      evildmguy -
      Alternity is still in my top tier of games. To make sure I could play it, I ended up getting eight extra PHs via eBay or garage sales so that I could give one to each player. I wrote up my own spell rules. I modified Red Dragon's excellent fantasy stuff for my own. I used Squad and Hero Lab for it. I probably ran more Dark*Matter style campaigns than Star*Drive but did do one or two one shots of that.

      I think the biggest thing that Alternity did, for me, was that by rolling low and having implied limits on ability scores, it was bounded. The numbers were reasonable. It took me a long time to realize Ordinary was still a success, a very long struggle. I also loved the idea of Rank Benefits with skills. The system had a mechanic way to show someone with raw talent being good but edged out by someone with more experience.

      I also thought 3E was heavily influenced by what they found out with Alternity. While Flaws didn't seem to make it, Perks seemed to be Feats and maybe a few class skills. Rank Benefits were definitely feats.

      I'm very excited by the new version and hope to see what they do with it!
    1. Dannyalcatraz's Avatar
      Dannyalcatraz -
      I own Alternity in the original and the D20 conversion forms, and look forward to seeing the game’s next incarnation. Never got to play it, but frequently mine it for other purposes.

      Like, Seshayans have become my #1 go-to substitute for Underdark races.
    1. Henry's Avatar
      Henry -
      I gave my Alternity books away to a good friend many years ago prior to a move - hopefully they found good use. I really did like that system, and ran a Star*Drive campaign using Bill Gates as the major bad guy. My favorite, though, was how seemingly well the wounds system worked in that game. I may have rose-colored lenses, but I remember it modeled minor and grievous injuries quite well in the same system, thanks to multiple wound tracks and a limited hit point pool.
    1. Charles Dunwoody -
      The system did work well. And the aliens were great, especially after the Star Frontier ones were added in Dragon Magazine.
    1. LuisCarlos17f's Avatar
      LuisCarlos17f -
      After reading the blackground of "Eclipse Phase" I have got different eyes for old sci-fi RPGs and fiction. I hope the aliens from Star*Drive and Star Frontiers to be saved from oblivion. And what if I want to use these for me homebrew version of Spelljammer with more steampunk style?

      This type of franchises in the right hands can be a blockbusters like Star Wars o Star Treck. They may need a good movie or a videogame like "Baldruc Gate" or "Newerwinter Nights".

      Other matter is about d20 system and high-tech settings is big monsters, for example dinosaurs, can be killed easily with only a shot by a modern weapon, and that would be too many free XPs. A horde of zombies could be a nightmare for a character with only a basebol bat, but they can be hit by a truck.
    1. CarlZog's Avatar
      CarlZog -
      Alternity remains one of my favorite systems of all time. The core mechanics are elegant in their direct relationship to charaters' abilities, and the rules take a modular approach that allows everything from a freewheeling narrative to a much crunchier attention to tactical detail. Alternity offers levels of success and failure, and distinquishes among various types of injuries and damage.

      These factors make it a great system for modern settings. The game's own Dark Matter setting mixes supernatural and modern, but the game is also perfect for gritty espionage.

      Star*Drive is still a phenomenal wide-open space opera campaign setting, rife with political intrigue and exploration. It was designed as a generic SF setting and I think it still holds up well for a lot of uses.
    1. thearchenemy's Avatar
      thearchenemy -
      Glad to see love for Alternity. This was my go-to RPG system through late high school and college. Despite being sold as a sci-fi system I found it worked perfectly as a generic system. Even after 3rd edition D&D came out I still used Alternity for nearly everything I ran.

      Unfortunately the new version being worked on doesn't really do it for me. Maybe it's nostalgia, but I feel like the raw mechanics of the original game worked so well. I would have loved an updated, streamlined version of those original rules rather than what seems like a complete rebuild.

      Oh well.

      Also, Dark Matter is one of the greatest setting books ever written.
    1. Cergorach's Avatar
      Cergorach -
      Honestly, I wasn't a fan of of the system, but I liked the sci-fi setting that was associated with it. So it's fun for the folks that liked the specific system that they are making a new version, but without the old setting, it's not interesting for me (and I think for others).
    1. Charles Dunwoody -
      Quote Originally Posted by thearchenemy View Post
      Glad to see love for Alternity. This was my go-to RPG system through late high school and college. Despite being sold as a sci-fi system I found it worked perfectly as a generic system. Even after 3rd edition D&D came out I still used Alternity for nearly everything I ran.

      Unfortunately the new version being worked on doesn't really do it for me. Maybe it's nostalgia, but I feel like the raw mechanics of the original game worked so well. I would have loved an updated, streamlined version of those original rules rather than what seems like a complete rebuild.

      Oh well.

      Also, Dark Matter is one of the greatest setting books ever written.
      I do like the initiative that works in a cycle now. Very chaotic but manageable.
    1. thzero -
      LCD
    1. Charles Dunwoody -
      Quote Originally Posted by thzero View Post
      LCD
      Liquid crystal display?
    1. SMHWorlds's Avatar
      SMHWorlds -
      Alternity was an interesting system and I played Star*Drive using it. I think the system was an interesting step, half step forward into other ideas. The Star*Drive setting though I think is terribly underrated and deserves a reboot of its own.
    1. Charles Dunwoody -
      Quote Originally Posted by SMHWorlds View Post
      Alternity was an interesting system and I played Star*Drive using it. I think the system was an interesting step, half step forward into other ideas. The Star*Drive setting though I think is terribly underrated and deserves a reboot of its own.
      Agreed. Loved the aliens and loved the setting.
    1. SagasOfMidgard's Avatar
      SagasOfMidgard -
      I played Alternity in High School and, having since lost the books, it's held a very special place in my heart.

      I had no idea they were bringing it back. You've legit made my day
    1. evildmguy's Avatar
      evildmguy -
      I also think Star*Drive had some good things planned, or hinted at, and it was too bad they never got a chance to do more. I don't mind making up stuff for my games, and made up a spell system for it, but do wonder what they could have done with only two or three more years worth of releases. Really hopeful about the new version!
    1. Eltab's Avatar
      Eltab -
      Alternity's "Gamma World" rulebook didn't feel very much like Gamma World to me: the injury rules in particular were too gritty and realistic for a game with a history of being over-the-top and humorous.
      And maybe they had heard about the campaign referenced upthread featuring Bill Gates B.B.E.G. - their new setting was Seattle WA.

      This doesn't mean that Alternity is automatically bad. I happened to find a Star*Drive accessory at my Public Library and now I want to get my hands (and eyes) on the Setting Background. It was cool !
    1. Charles Dunwoody -
      Quote Originally Posted by Eltab View Post
      Alternity's "Gamma World" rulebook didn't feel very much like Gamma World to me: the injury rules in particular were too gritty and realistic for a game with a history of being over-the-top and humorous.
      And maybe they had heard about the campaign referenced upthread featuring Bill Gates B.B.E.G. - their new setting was Seattle WA.

      This doesn't mean that Alternity is automatically bad. I happened to find a Star*Drive accessory at my Public Library and now I want to get my hands (and eyes) on the Setting Background. It was cool !
      Star*Drive is a great setting. I really liked the War Hulk adventure where the PCs roamed through a massive warship. I also liked the Lighthouse as a mobile mini-setting.
    1. AbdulAlhazred's Avatar
      AbdulAlhazred -
      I guess my primary question would be what distinguishes Alternity from core Traveler or d6 Space in terms of what you could do with it. I mean, I'm sure there are significant differences in default setting, but is there any strong reason to favor it as an SF rule system and for what sort of games?
    1. Ratskinner's Avatar
      Ratskinner -
      Still have my books (well, my son does). I ran Dark Matter with it and man, for a system that looks so clunky, I still remember being impressed at how well it played. I remember hoping that more of Alternity would make it into 3e and Star Wars, but alas.

      Probably helped that Dark Matter was Achingly cool as a setting.
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