12.18.2008

The Rudis Review: Alpha Omega

Book: Alpha Omega: The Beginning and The End
Length/Type: 408 pgs., Dead Tree Hardcover or PDF
System: 6-6
Author(s): David Carter, Earl Fischl
Publisher: Mindstorm Labs
Licensor/Endorser: n/a
Rating:

(4.5 0f 5 rudii)

When I first got my hands on the Alpha Omega book, I opened it – I have to confess – prepared to be underwhelmed. I thought if you’ve seen one spells-and-guns-post-apocalyptic setting you’ve seen them all. Hell, what is someone going to do to improve on Shadowrun or Rifts (I refuse to mention Spelljammer in this context)? Skip improving, how about just being different? So I opened the book with my lips slightly compressed, shaking my head, ready to yawn.

And the first thing I thought? Wow! That art is gorgeous! Which was enough to get me reading, and by the second page of the setting I thought Wow! That art is gorgeous! Ok, back to the setting. Next page. Wow! That art is – you get the idea.

The art in this book is beautiful. This book is beautiful. My first time with the cover open, I stopped reading and just flipped the pages, adoring the layout, the binding, the thick glossy cover, and – did I mention the art? It’s really beautiful.

To my surprise and secret chagrin, the setting itself is original, intriguing, and designed for maximum playability. You may wonder what I mean; after all, aren’t all settings designed for playability? In truth – no.

Lots of settings think they’re designed for playability, but are really designed to show off the authors’ creative and linguistic flairs. Being designed for playability means designing with mystery. It means leaving titanic unknowns, delivering just enough but never too much, and maximizing room for the GM and the other players to be creative. Detail every last bolt and ratchet and there remains little for the gamers to do. In short, good setting design involves proper use of the literary negative space. It also means building in the maximum amount of tension, tension the players get to push past the breaking point. Colorful NPCs are always a plus, provided they are incomplete, that they need something the players can provide.

In my experience the best settings, the most fun to play, are a quivering system of conflicts – some visible and understood, many not, some you only think you understand – on the verge of detonation; but in which direction, when, how, and who’ll be hurt remains totally unpredictable. And the players will trigger the story bombs, not the colorful NPCs, who act while players stand helplessly to the side and watch.

Alpha Omega has all that.

Here’s the concept: it’s 2280. Some time past, humanity blew itself up. Apocalypse like nobody's business. We poisoned the earth past the planet’s limits of endurance and in consequence suffered every imaginable disaster mother nature – and we – could upchuck.
Here’s an excerpt, paraphrased from the setting:

Volcanoes erupted, spewing ash and fumes into the atmosphere and the Earth’s surface was torn open by massive earthquakes. Tsunamis scoured many of the world’s coasts, forcing inhabitants…inland. Storms of never-before-seen power swept the globe. Crops failed and droughts spread…terror…round the world, fueled by…doomsday cults…war erupted. Plagues spread, tearing through even the most developed countries, some the products of biological weapons…the Earth endured the ravages of nuclear and biological terror, bringing humanity to the brink of extinction.
And then, because all this wasn’t enough, meteors pounded the earth. Real wrath of God type stuff. Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes...The dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!

Ghost Busters quotations. Given the opportunity, I can’t help myself.

Back to the setting: well, humanity survives in small redoubts, which grow into polis. The nation state is dead, the city state reborn. Everything between the city states is devastated: a mutant filled, horror drowned, wasteland scratching out its violent, transmogrified existence on the bones of civilization’s rubble, living off the detritus of vanished cities.

In time, the city states grow in various ways. For example, they grow into arcologies of super science, or redoubts of technology and order. And so, scattered across a planet returned to nature and populated with horrors, we have enclaves of humanity re-ascendant.

The game opens with humanity living in these isolated pockets, technologically superior to anything from before the devastation, and slowly spreading out to once again master the world. Which is when the first real wrinkle pops up: it turns out that two alien species – the Seraph and the Ophanum – have used the planet Earth as their battleground every 10,000 years or so since the beginning of time. And they’re due back. So at best, humanity re-ascendant is about to host a war that might make the apocalypse look like the Green Goober ghost next to the Stay Puff Marshmellow Man. At worst, we’re all about to die.

How do we know this? Because every war has its deserters, those who stay behind to marry the locals and have children. Recently these children, half alien demi-beings with special powers (Alpha Omega’s ‘magic’ is called Wielding) and a history of secretly dominating human societies, have finally made themselves known. Often immortal, always powerful, they are very concerned about the imminent return of the parent species and the war they bring.
The best part: there are many different kinds of human/alien crosses. A line of different types following the Seraph and another following the Ophanum. And you get to play them.
I think this is some pretty cool shit.

Briefly, let’s talk mechanics. Character creation is a point buy system, and a good one. Very in-depth, broad, and extensible. There are no artificial or inherent blockages to instantiating any character concept, no matter how whacky. I tried to break the character dev system – within the context of the setting material – and couldn’t. This is good. Adventures reward people in the same currency, CDPs or Character Development Points, and I think that is also good.

Combat and skill checks are handled with a die pool approach. Mindstorm Labs and AO have their own flavor, it’s called Six-Six, and it ran smoothly - if a little bookkeeping heavy - when play tested. On the equipment side: tons of magic and tech, ginormous guns and dai-katanas. Great illustrations. What’s not to love? For my part, I just want a system that doesn’t get too much in the way of my game play and equipment that maximizes my fun – and Alpha Omega delivers.

So after all this praise, why 4.5 rudii and not 5? Two reasons. The first is blatantly unfair, totally unjust, and a mere matter of opinion. My opinion. But just like Ghost Buster’s quotations, I can’t help myself: I just don’t enjoy biblical mythology in my games. AOs take is original and deftly delivered. I still don’t like it. References to Seraphs and Nephilim make me wince. The blatant mytho-biblical cut and paste grates on me. Not that AO doesn’t serve it up fine. It does. It’s just not my cup of tea. It is however, many people’s preferred poison (Note - I’m trying to set a record for mixing metaphors in a single paragraph, bear with me), and in this sense I’m simply not Mindstorm’s target audience. Maybe they didn't intend it that way, but there you go.

The second reason for the less than perfect rating is more germane, I think, and I admit up front it’s a tiny quibble. I think the fluff is a bit overwritten. It’s well written, don’t get me wrong. Evocative and powerful, clear, but not always concise. It could have used another editorial pass in spots. On the other hand, if you love to luxuriate in setting fluff, here it is.

The bottom line: despite my quibbles, I want to play, and I expect to have fun doing it. I’ll say it again: the art is wonderful. The production values are over the top. It’s a very unique, extremely well designed spells-and-guns-post-apocalyptic setting. This is some cool shit. I’m putting it right on my shelf next to Shadowrun and Rifts, but I’m playing Alpha Omega next.

PS The game is also well supported online. Check out their cool web site at: http://www.alphaomegathegame.com/

Want to learn more about Alpha Omega? Read on... Special Offer from Atomic Array: $15 off Alpha Omega when you enter the coupon code "Atomic" during purchase. Drop by Mind Storm Labs to pick up your copy.

4 comments:

Rone Barton said...

Fantastic review, Lou. Maybe we can get an AO game going sometime in the early part of the new year.

Lou said...

Thanks!

Ed Healy said...

See, that's why you guys need to move out here to WA State... You're making me jealous with all this "let's get together and game" talk!

Mind Storm Labs said...

Great review Lou! Thanks!