Monday, November 13, 2006

Not Quite A Review: Alma Mater

[Here's a repost of an item from theRPGsite thread entitled Tell Me About "Alma Mater". I wanted to save a copy and also I thought maybe some folks who read this blog might find it interesting. I've made some edits to the original post, because having your own blog gives you the ability to rewrite history.]

Okay, I've got my copy in front of me. Time to break it down.

The Erol Otus cover depicts juvenile delinquents gathered at the front door of their high school. The common vices of high school are shown: horny guy grabs his girlfriend's crotch, junkie buys pills from generic black gangsta. As much as I like Otus's art, many of the figures look awkward. I really like the junkie though, he's really spooky looking and reminds me of Otus's ghoul from the Monster Cards set.

The inside front cover is a dungeon map of Central High. That should tell you a lot right there.

The first page of text is the generic rpg intro, explaining how the hobby works and how to use dice. The game uses d6's and the old d20 marked 0-9 twice.

Onto char gen. Each character has 7 stats: Strength, Coordination, Appearance, Intelligence, Learning Drive, Courage, Willpower, and Constitution. These are generated by rolling 7d10 and assigning each die to a different stat. You then pick a class, with some classes requiring certain stats or a specific gender to join. The classes are Average kid, Brain, Cheerleader, Criminal, Jock, Tough, and Loser. Anyone can get into the Average class. In order to be a Loser all your stats have to be 4 or less, which is cute. You then generate your social level based upon your class and a d10 roll, which in turn generates your starting money and allowance. Your age and birthday are then generated. You get stat pushes when you turn 16, 17 and 18.

Next you generate your PCs problems from the Problems table. The number of these you are assigned is a function of your Appearance score, the lower your App the more likely you are to have one or more problems. These problems included Respiratory ailments, speech impediments, missing teeth, weight problems, shortness, dental problems (including braces), vision defects, tallness, skin disease, unusual practice (leading to a subtable of sexual deviancy, a '7' on the chart makes you gay), phobias, and a miscellaneous physical defect subchart.

Next up are skills. Your class determines your initial skill set. In addition to skills you would expect from any skill system, you get neat stuff like Cheating/Plagiarism, Coolness, Dirty Fighting, and Homemade Drugs. Mechanically, the system is nothing to write home about but they do a great job of hitting the themes of the game in this section.

Then we get six and half pages of random encounter charts, allowing you to dice up who you bump into (whether in school or out of school), random events in class, and charts for determining random NPC skills and equipment. Taken together with the reaction chart that follows, a whole session could easily be devoted to just getting through the perils of a typical day of class. Think Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but with more violence.

Speaking of violence, next up is the combat section. I haven't read it thoroughly, but on the surface it's a pretty standard 80's design. Lots of modifier charts and maneuvers. The weapons charts are chock full of improvised implements, which fits the game quite nicely. Damage directly reduces your Con stat, and stunning, knockdown, and knockouts are based upon your Con as well. At 0 Con you are out. At -1 to -4 you are bleeding out. At -5 you're dead.

After a brief side-trip describing the rules for explosives, we come to the Social Rules, or as I like to put it the "How to Score" section. This section is very respectably crunchy, moreso than even the excellent seduction system in James Bond 007. The Alcohol and Drugs rules follow and then another fairly crunchy section on succeeding in Academics.

Next comes the very important section called "Success". In my opinion this should have been in the front of the book, before chargen even. Players score points for Social Success, Academic Success, and General Success. Academic Success is all about keeping your grades up (the char sheet has a report card on the flip side), General Success is mainly for Toughs and Criminals, who can gain points for illegal behavior. The main focus of the success section is Social Success. Dancing, dating, fighting, flirting, making friends, gaining lovers, becoming an officer of a club, getting drunk, throwing and attending parties, and participating in a sports can all score you points. Losing a fight, being humiliated, killing someone, becoming pregnant, raping someone, or being raped cause you to lose points. Although I'm a bit queasy about the fact that rape victims lose points, the fact that the attackers lose points as well ought to discourage such behavior in play.

The final passage of the "Success" section is called "Winning". Unlike many RPGs, there is an explicit victory condition. Whoever has the most Success Points after four years of game time wins the campaign. Personally, I think that rocks on toast.

Next up for no apparent reason is the section on vehicles, followed by some miscellaneous rules such as weather, and some GM and player advice. The player advice section is neat. It encourages each player to set their own goals "whether it is to pass the school year, become the football captain, score with a perfect '10', or start your own gang." Players are admonished to keep their grades up if they wish to win, and to avoid crime, unless they are Criminals. If they must commit a crime they are urged to not get caught.

Then we get some setting information on "Central High". The teachers each get a paragraph and a statline, as do the inhabitants of Mr. Buzz's homeroom. Ten scenario outlines are given a couple lines each, such as school dances, food fights, upcoming exams, and class trips. A page is devoted to a couple of Day Plans, outlines by the SchoolMaster (that what the GM is called) as to what happens on a given day of school, followed by a larger scale map of the school grounds.

Finally, we get to the sample adventure, entitled "Starr's Party". Basically, we get here a description of a party thrown by one of the cool kids. The players will have to either figure out a way to get themselves invited or crash the place. They can then interact with the other party-goers. Think of it as a "social dungeon" and you'll get the right idea. A timeline is given for events at the party, including such great items as "9:10, Blotto vomits on random PC" and "12:00, An orgy starts in the living room".

A glossary, index, and the map of the second story of Central high close ou the book.

So I hope that answers all your questions. Alma Mater is basically Teenagers from Outer Space minus the anime plus more teenage sex comedy and the occassional Boys Room stabbing. I really like the campaign victory conditions, but I am boggled at the idea of playing this game on a continuing basis.