Alternity (1998)'s Core Mechanic

I’m still floundering in my perpetual quest to design my own personal OSR/NSR adjacent game system for my own personal OSR/NSR adjacent katamari game settings. Generally speaking, my design goals are: 1) a lot of character progression and character options with some bounded accuracy, 2) a unified mechanic that includes degrees of success, 3) a tiered, slot-based system for character options, maintaining most of the flexibility of point-buy systems like Player’s Option (and Alternity) but reducing complexity and trap options.

Lately, I have been really looking at Alternity Science Fiction Roleplaying Game and its core systems-- it’s a TSR game from the same (post-WotC, pre-Hasbro) time period as some of my biggest influences: Player’s Option and Dragon Fist.

For those who don’t remember this underrated gem, the core mechanic of Alternity is a d20 roll-under; the player is usually trying to roll (equal or) under the sum of an ability score (4-14) plus skill ranks (0-12).

Difficulty is represented by an additional die added (for penalty) or subtracted from the d20 roll, ranging from ± d4 to multiple d20s. Degree of success is measured by MOGA, which stands for Marginal (or failure), Ordinary (under target), Good (under 1/2 target), or Amazing (under 1/4 target).

For instance, combat initiative (Action Check) is rolled against the average of DEX and INT, with some species and some classes getting a -1 step bonus. The combat round is divided into four phases: Marginal, Ordinary, Good, and Amazing. Your character can first act in a round on the result of their Action Check, and the number of actions they can take per round is based on their CON and WIS scores.

Every weapon or attack has three damage ratings, since Marginal is just failure. Basically, Ordinary hits do HP damage, Good hits do more HP damage, and Amazing hits jump straight to death & dying. It’s more complicated than that, and I’m not engaging with that system.

Alternity’s native character system is a hybrid class/point system where species sets your starting Broad Skills, profession provides a discount on class skills, and then every Broad Skill and Specialty Skill has its own skill point cost that increases with skill ranks. (Removing or mitigating that is a common house rule.) Like most point-buy games, combat skills and magical skills are included here.

Broad Skills are more expensive than Specialty Skills and the number a PC can have at all is limited by INT. The main benefit of a Broad Skill is allowing the character to roll skill checks using their full ability score (instead of half) and attempt untrained skill checks. Specialty Skills remove the +1 step penalty for rolling Broad Skills, and add their skill ranks to the target number.

As you level up your Specialty Skills, you also gain Rank Benefits which, contrary to their name, are actually pretty sweet. They let you do more things with your pre-existing skills (drink) or improve your character’s checks or resistance modifiers or whatever. You can buy Rank Benefits early by spending more skill points, though this is rarely a reasonable thing to do.

Next I’m going to start spitballing about what I’m thinking of trying to do with all this,

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I’ve got a half-dozen paragraphs I’m wanting to open with “Starting with…” so…

Skills & Powers: I want to partially silo certain things off from the skills system, notably armed/unarmed combat abilities, D&D-style saving throws, big parts of the magic/psionics/technique systems, and so forth. Same resolution mechanics, but the progressions are a little more templated by class.

Generally, I am thinking that all of these things advance by X-twelfths of a level, ranging from one-twelfth of a level (in rare cases) up to six-twelfths of a level (also rare), with most abilities advancing by between two- and four-twelfths. Putting more slots into something is usually more about horizontal growth than increasing the number, but not exclusively.

Spells & Magic: In Alternity, psionics (and later magic) are divided into Broad Skills where each psionic discipline is a Broad Skill (and talents are restricted in the number of Broad Skills they can learn) and each “power source” (effectively class) of magic is its own Broad Skill, and then each individual spell is a Specialty Skill.

I want to do something more like Rolemaster, a compromise between Alternity and Rolemaster wherein spells are organized into spell lists and spell lists act as Specialty Skills-- your rank improves your spellcasting with all of the included spells and also grants you access to the higher-level spells on the list.

Combat & Tactics: Alternity has four different kinds of hit points, and three damage ratings for each weapon type, and armor dice. I want something a lot simpler, something a lot closer to d20 Modern, and I’m really trying to make weapon damage something that’s determined more by the wielder than the implement.

Really want to go hard with fantasy martial arts here, because both of my settings draw from source materials with a lot of that sort of thing. I’m looking very closely at both Flying Swordsmen and Dreamscarred Press’ Path of War (and Expanded).

Alternity uses the Standard Six D&D ability scores, more or less. Wisdom is renamed Will but still includes the Awareness Broad Skill. I have big problems with this arrangement, but I don’t think I have anything to say on this subject that anyone on this forum hasn’t already heard (better) before.

  • Combine Strength and Constitution into Physique. This part is easy, especially since STR and CON are the two abilities with the fewest Broad Skills. (I think, combined, they’re still in fifth place.)
  • Split Dexterity apart. This is harder, but more important. I want acrobatics, stealth, and missile combat to be attached to three separate abilities.
  • Split Intelligence apart. I want lawyers and hackers to run on different abilities.
  • Split Charisma apart. I don’t want an entire pillar of gameplay to run off a single ability score.

I’m looking real hard at Chapter 6 of Player’s Option: Spells & Magic, the section on all the different alternate spellcasting systems for AD&D. I want to use all the little gribblies here, major/minor access and free/fixed spells and all the different ways of acquiring them, and combine them with 5e-style augmented spellcasting.

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