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Character Creation 49: AlphaOmega

The Game: AlphaOmega
The Publisher: MindStorm Labs
Degree of Familiarity: Bought, read, really need to playtest before reviewing
Books Required: Only the corebook exists

Ever have one of those moments when you knew that a game was going to be bad, but you bought it anyway? AlphaOmega was mine, and I really don't mind it. Don't get me wrong, the game's crunchy as all hell, but that isn't enough to make it a bad game. It's less up it's own arse than Nephilim, it's less of a crap video-game ripoff than The Shadow Project. It's just... fun.

AlphaOmega made waves in the run up to 2007's Godzilla-shagging-the-Blair-Witch-Project creation Cloverfield. An RPG promoted via viral marketing, it all got mixed up with the virals for the film until nobody was certain what was going on. Next thing I heard was December 2007, on RPG.net. I clicked through, looked at some of the promo stuff, and the vastly Flash-dependant website. It's going to be a heartbreaker, I thought to myself. But it's fucking pretty. And that, combined with a weak dollar/strong pound, was enough for me to plump for a copy. I expected a pretty heartbreaker.

And that it is. AlphaOmega is one of the best-looking gaming books I own. It's prettier than Dark Heresy, mostly because the latter has parent company Games Workshop's attitude towards art--re-use as much as possible, and damn whether it actually matches. It's not quite as pretty as D&D 4E, but that game sets a damn high bar.

AO is a landscape format hardback without page numbers. One of it's great features is that the designers understand design and page layouts. Each section has a numeric heading; the city writeup for Vancouver, for example, is 4.1.7. Pretty much every two page spread has a numeric header, and it's replicated in the top corners. Along the side is a graphical representation of which chapter you're in, colouring one of a series of graphics. Below that is an index of the chapter. It doesn't sound like much, but it gives an instant ability to appraise where you are in the book and with reference to related information. Chapter 4, for example, is Locations. It's got a red-orange graphic of a tower, fourth from the top, at the edges of each double-page spread. 4.1 is North America, 4.2 is Central & South America, and so on. 4.1 to 4.5 run down the side of the page below the icons, with the current one highlighted in orange. From there, it's alphabetical all the way. It's an experiment, and it works.

If only I could say the same for the system. But I get ahead of myself.

It's 2280, and the world's undergone an apocalypse. Much of it is uninhabited (or uninhabitable). Humanity clusters in city-states, either fully enclosed arcologies, walled cities, or open communities. Where people have stuck together, technology has advanced--while AO can be Mad Max, it doesn't try too hard. Humans are the dominant population, but not the only ones; from bio-engineered clone soldiers to the Nephilim and Grigori, the world's got more interesting. Oh, and we've also got magic. In three years time, two alien races (who seeded the Nephilim and Grigori) are going to come back and use the planet as an intergalactic battleground. This is a Bad Thing™. Humanity has tech, guns, and magic. We're not going to go down without a fight. Some of those guns have big blades sticking out of them. Or a flail in the stock. Or an axe on the barrel. Or all three.

One of the things that I can't really convey in this review is just how much fun this game is to read. The writing's clunky, so I don't mean that, but... it's a RPG. It doesn't take itself too seriously. Fuck, how to explain it... take RIFTS (please Gød take RIFTS). Remove the reallygoofy shit, the kind that comes straight from the wet dreams of 1980s power gamers. Pare it right back to "Post-apocalypse with magic". Then, only allow things in if someone says "Wouldn't it be cool if..." and everyone else in the room agrees after four weeks of consuming nothing but Red Bull. If RIFTS has munchkin semen in the gas tank, AlphaOmega runs on sugar-high gamers. And that's not a bad thing. The whole book has an air of naïve fun so common to heartbreakers, and I love it for that.

The system didn't break my heart, but it was a close run thing. It's rules-heavy. I normally prefer light games, but I can overlook that. Every action has a dice pool. This comes (usually) from an average of two primary stats. It's never more than six dice, though the types and size of dice vary.GMs are encouraged to apply modifiers not to the stats, but to the dice pool directly, shifting it up or down one. The main dice pool does come as part of the downloadable GM's screen. Most rolls are a case of tossing the dice pool for the associated stat, and adding on any Skill. If it's an opposed roll, then higher wins. Unfortunately, when it's unopposed, then shit gets weird.

The game offers two different scales of difficulty, one for rolls where a skill applies, and one for just rolling a stat. The skill DRs are twice the stat DRs. A starting character isn't likely to be able to make an average skilled check, and only investing vast amounts of points will . The only effect this doubling has is making stats more and more useful. I wish I could say that the table was a misprint (personally, I'd go for making the skill DRs just five higher than the stat DRs, but imposing negative dice pool shifts for unskilled characters). The real problem is that the designers haven't worked this out. In the sample adventure, several skill checks are entirely impossible for the provided sample characters, though the GMPC provided is good enough. Perhaps this is intentional, to reinforce the "farmboy to badass" thing. If it is, I don't like it. If it's not intentional, it's still poor design.

Of course the game has a bunch of optional rules, but they all veer towards adding complexity. Most people don't necessarily want to roll a d20 along with their already convoluted dice pool just to add a flat 10% chance of your main dice not mattering at all.

A funky mechanic is how the game assigns modifiers. Rather than combining them on the fly, a character has a stance, regarding how far they can move and how any actions are modified. That's it. With the GM screen and a token for each character, all the modifiers are right there. Better, the game also includes seven States: Size, Speed, Density, Fear, Disposition, Thought, and Emotion. Everyone starts out at normal, but some skills and powers (most notably those possessed by the Grigori) can shift people along those states. Each one has, again, a set number of modifiers. It's all rather cool and well thought-out.

The reason for the 6-die hard cap comes down to the combat system. Each character can act in at least one Segment in a Cycle of six segments, as determined by Reaction. But through each Cycle, a character can only roll six dice. So if you had two actions (that is, you could act in segments 3 and 6), you have to choose which dice you roll so long as you only roll 6 in total. Again, this is another situation where stats are good (for performing multiple actions), but skills suffer no penalties--so for a change, the biggest add might just be from a skill. Which makes things better than standard rolls, if only because most numbers in combat are derived from other characters, rather than the dodgy invented DRs.

No, the real place where AlphaOmega broke my heart was character generation. Everyone has 500 points to build up a racial template. Each template has special features and baseline traits. Everyone's better than humans. The idea is that humans are balanced by being able to purchase lots of Fields and Skills to make up for their low stats, and have a higher eventual cap. But balance doesn't work that way. Just getting stats to any acceptable level is enough to ruin any hope at getting high skills at character creation, and if you want Wielding or funky Advantages? Forget it. Many other character types are pretty front-loaded, with high base stats and low eventual maxima, but the sheer power of stats makes their assumed disadvantages mean nothing. I'd be a lot happier if each template had a cost, reflecting how much it's front-loaded. Most games won't get to the point where players can spend fifty or a hundred sessions worth of XP making their characters great, so low eventual maxima don't matter.

But, of all the unbalanced options, I'd better pick one...

Step 1: Get Started
Fuck it. There's roughly two tiers, looking at the amount of available bang at character creation. The first is made up of humans, Necrosi (mutant goths), and Remnants (generic mutants), Lesser Nephilim, and Lesser Grigori. The second tier is Nephilim, Grigori, Bio-Engineered, Anunnaki, and AI.

Fuck it, let's go for an AI. An autonomous ex-citizen of the Loth Foundary; one of the few things to have escaped the Machine. Unlike typical creations, he doesn't care if he's "human" or even "sentient". The question of whether a computer can think is about as pertinent as asking whether a submarine can swim. No, what matters is building up enough of a power base to stop Loth sending assassins after whatever secrets are locked away in his head.

Step 2: Choose Species
That'd be AI, then. Funnily enough, to work out base stats, I first have a pool of 50 points before spending any of the 500 main points. Also, plenty of immunities.

I'll spend those 50 points here. I want high Strength, Agility, and Conditioning, and a fair whack of Intelligence as well. I'm using a character generator, because of all the crunch, so I won't show all my working. Human baseline is 12.

Str 19
Agi 20
Con 16
Vit 14
Disc 15
Int 20
Cha 9

Step 3: Core Qualities
Now, I start spending those 500 CDP. I don't want to blow more than a couple of hundred at the most. The cost is a bit odd, hence the whole "using a program" bit. Now, having blown 200 CDP, this'un's got

Str 20
Agi 22
Con 20
Vit 14
Disc 15
Int 22
Cha 9

Step 4: Secondary Qualities
Most rolls are based off one of the secondary qualities. These are averages of two core qualities. Why? I don't rightly know. Possibly to obfuscate the best way to abuse the system? I can't be sure. Still. Easy to fill in...

Ath 21
PA 21
Fit 17
Wil 15
Wis 19
Wit 16
Pre 15

Step 5: Tertiary Qualities & Step 6: Health Pool
More calculations, including plenty of averaging. I've made worse.

Step 7: Abilities and Drawbacks
These are our Merits and Flaws. As an AI, this guy can go to town on cybernetics, but only if he can afford them. The top level of Windfall thus represents the vast reserves of cash lingering in the equipment in his body. That's 90 CDP. Ouch. But it does mean I start with 8500T, rather than 2500T. I'll make up for that with him being Wanted by the Loth Foundry. It's a big drawback, but it's better than a price on his head. Also, being raised in the Machine Hive didn't leave him much time to bone up on how to behave amongst fleshy ones, so I plump for Unsophisticated. All that said, I've got 360 CDP. Scanning the list of options, Steady Hands looks like a good pick; boosting as it does all PA-based skills. With 280 CDP left, I go on my merry way.

Step 8: Genetic Deviations
aren't available to AI. Oh well.

Step 9: Skills
This is more like it. Annoyingly, Skills cost 10 CDP per rank, which is vastly too much. Fortunately, AI have 30 bonus ranks. Fields cost 30 CDP, but add to all related skills. Why yes, I am intending to become a skill monkey.

3 points in Tactics, 5 in Tracking, 2 in Electronics and Computers, 1 in Mechanics, then over to physical skills. 2 each in Stealth, Escape Artist, and Defeat Security. Three in Pistol/SMG, two in Rifle, three in One-Handed Melee and Unarmed Combat. That's the 30 bonus points  down.

Fields are groups of 3-5 skills. Players can drop points into Fields that apply to all the Skills under them. A point in a Field costs the same as 3 Skill points. Technology 4, Science 2, Espionage 2, Operate Vehicle 1, an drop the remaining 10 CDP into Ground Vehicle.

Step 10: Wielding
Again, not for AI

Step 11: Equipment
Oooh, shopping!

And here we hit a snag.I don't know if I already count as having cyber-limbs et al just for being an AI or not. Which is really most vexing. I'm going to assume not, given the increased tolerance for cyberware in AI characters.

Now, what do I want? I figure that our escapee here has been trained as an infiltrator, designed to extract information then get out as swiftly as possible. For that reason, a wired neural interface and terabyte of storage should help. Cybernetic arms as well, with weapon mounts. Cybernetic eyes, with low light vision and recording capability. That'll do. I have 2280T left over. A Misca Specter dart pistol in one arm, for striking from concealment. That costs 900T . An ASP baton rounds out the combat equipment load. 1280 left. Light armour is 800T, so a suit of that. 480 to go. A grappling gun, hook, and plenty of line sets me back 100. 180 on a micro-welding torch. The remainder goes on a designer P-Comm.

AO 1 AO 2
AO 3 AO 4

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