Alpha Omega Full Review
by Patrick Irwin
Read the shorter first-look review of Alpha Omega
Also check out The Encountered Volume 1 review, a book of foes for Alpha Omega
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This review will follow the format of the Core Manual section by section, providing an overview of game systems and content contained therein without attempting to communicate all the details necessary to game in AO.
Section 1: Welcome to Alpha Omega
Pretty much an institution in role-playing game manuals, this is the standard "here's what a role-playing game is, here's how to navigate our book, here's what you need to play, and this is what a game session might look like and the way you might handle it." Nothing revolutionary here, but it more than meets the required bar for minimum information imparted to new players.
Section 2: The Visions of Ethan Haas
This is by far the shortest section in the book: a two-page spread of beautiful background art and an excerpt from fictional mid-19th Century Parisian author Ethan Hass' book The Wheel and Other Stories. Haas is the prophet of the apocalypse that preceded the emergence of the AO game world, and his work casts a long shadow into that world. If you're reading the book cover-to-cover, this section provides a wonderful introduction to the context sections which follow it.
Section 3: Setting: The World Remade
This section describes the history of Earth as it stand for the purposes of the AO game world, the "New World" as it is called in the Core Manual. Details are provided for the ecological collapse known as Mother Nature's Revenge and the fragmenting of global society that followed it, as well as the subsequent rise of corporations and city-states as the new units of human civilization; outside of the city-states, nature has gone feral and the wilderness is almost reminiscent of a fantasy campaign setting.
Furthermore, the detail separating AO from being one more post-apocalyptic, cyber-punky campaign setting is revealed: Earth is the traditional site of battle between two immortal alien races collectively known as the Elim: the Seraph and the Ophanum. The Elim are gearing up for the next round of war between themselves after a 10,000 year hiatus from Earth, and have returned to find the cavemen they left behind far evolved from their ancestors and rivalling the Elim in power. The various Terran races cannot be ignored, and victory for the Elim may well be decided by who can get the most capable Terrans fighting for them.
This rich background provides a staggering amount of options for a campaign to be set in: you could ignore the Elim, running a totally urban or wilderness campaign, or bounce around the New World experiencing all that AO has to offer. I applaud the designers for essentially gathering together a mass of cool ideas with a web of threads connecting them, and saying to players and GMs "here's a world we built for you; use what you like, set the rest aside."
The section also contains a very robust dictionary of terms Player Characters might hear I everyday life, making it easy for players new to the cyberpunk genre to get a handle on the vernacular, as well as a breakdown of the different types of city-states that exist in the New World and what life outside those areas can be like. Every detail of life in the New World-technology (genetic engineering and AI, just to start), Wielding (pseudo-scientific "magic"), entertainment, and the Evolutionary War between the Elim-is covered in sufficient detail for a player to immerse themselves in the New World before crafting a character of their own.
Section 4: Locations
This section provides an in-depth (but by no means exhaustive) look at a series of sample locations such as city-states, freezones located in the middle of the wilds, and much more. The section is broken down by continent for the most part, noting what's changed, what's stayed the same (very little) and what has simply ceased to be. Some of the locations are fairly mundane, such as Los Angeles, which remains a mass of urban sprawl but now centers around the Eden Corporate Arcology, a soaring, self-contained tower complex, a self-sufficient city within a city. Others are emblematic of the New World in a radically different way, such as the five immense dark pyramids that make up Loth Foundry on the central plains of Canada, home to a constantly enlarging android army controlled by a massive central AI buried deep beneath the central pyramid. Each location is provided with an overview of its population (culture and demographics), its government, and its military capabilities.
This merges well with the sense of limitless possibility inspired by the previous section: no matter what Section 3 made you hungry to play, AO provides a template for you to work from in this section.
Section 5: Personalities and Organizations
This section is a series of roughly half-page, no-stats-provided breakdowns of archetypal or important characters for the New World, such as the two androids who serve as the commander and public face of the Loth Foundry army-for-hire, a wide variety of mercenaries and outright criminals of every kind, and the leaders of both the Ophanum and Seraph recon teams sent ahead of the main battle-forces of their people.
The descriptions are well written but not restrictive, allowing for plenty of customization room for GMs or to serve as character inspiration for players, and are all accompanied by character illustrations, many in full colour. The organizations portion that follows the personalities is also well written, clear but not restrictively so, and ties in nicely with many of the names and faces introduced in the personalities portion. It also provides sample corporations, which would serve well as templates for customization or to stand on their own in a campaign.
Section 6: Character Creation
Character creation in AO is focused heavily on customization and the ability to push the character's statistics in the direction you want. The system is class-less and without the more traditional Experience Point system. Instead, character creations begins with the selection of one of ten races for the new character (which establish minimums, maximums, and bonuses/penalties) followed by spending a pre-determined number of Character Development Points (CDP) on various aspects of your character.
A player can spend CDP to determine the following:
- Their character's Core Qualities, measures of basic physical and mental ability. Penalties can be taken in these areas to provide additional CDP to spend elsewhere.
- The Core Qualities are used to determine Secondary Qualities by combining and averaging the scores of two of a characters Core Qualities. For example, your Strength and Conditioning Core Qualities are averaged to provide the number for your Athleticism Secondary Quality. Secondary Qualities are applied to Skill Checks to provide a more realistic measure of the effects a character's traits have on their ability to perform successfully.
- The character's Core and Secondary Qualities are used to in various combinations to determine things such as ability to take damage, avoid being hit, react to danger, and even measure a character's genetic complexity. These things are known as Tertiary characteristics.
- Abilities, Drawbacks and Genetic Deviations, things that set the character apart from others, such as possessing citizenship in a city-state or having night-terrors, or having a more efficient cardiovascular system or a weak skeletal structure. Penalties can be taken in these areas to provide additional CDP to spend elsewhere.
- Ranks in Fields (general areas of study or training) and ranks in Skills (more specific areas of expertise within a Field) such as the Field of Arts with the Skill of Sociology, or the Field of Small Arms with the Skill of Pistols and Sub-Machine Guns.
- Access to and ranks in Wielding, which determine the character's ability (if any) to tap into Sources and Intentions (similar to Fields and Skills, respectively) to create supernatural effects.
As one might expect, some races can access all of the above areas of customization while others must choose from a more limited subset. For example, an AI character cannot select Genetic Deviations or Wielding, while Grigori characters (a servant race created by the Elim) can choose to specialize in their very own type of Ability known as State-Shifting, an area that no other races have access to.
Power difference between the species are handled in their base or maximum scores: for example, humans have low base scores for their Core Qualities, starting at 12 of a possible 100, and during character creation cannot raise those scores above 20; but their Field and Skill Ranks have a maximum of 6 during character creation, relatively high. Conversely, Nephilim (children of one parent of Elim descent and one parent of Terran descent) have base Quality scores of at least 16 across the board but can only purchase up to Rank 4 Fields and Skills in character creation.
Character creation in AO is a smorgasbord of creativity, allowing players to pick and choose the direction they take their character, with species providing only a rough outline of the possibilities. There are no penalties for focusing on one character aspect; being an excellent marksman in no way precludes your character from being a master of civil law or painting. This explosion of options could overwhelm players new to the RPG experience, but for veteran players allows for maximum customization in a fairly short time: in testing, we were successfully able to roll one character per player in less than an hour working with only a single copy of the core manual.
Section 7: Game Mechanics
This is the nitty-gritty of the system, what makes it tick and determines the outcomes of everything from a shot taken across a crowded bar at an old enemy to the efforts of a down-on-his luck character to barter for a better price on some mystery meat. The Section opens with an explanation of what to consider when deciding whether or not dice need to be rolled in a given situation before moving on to an overview of the lingo needed to understand the discussion of the mechanics that is to follow.
I won't be able to touch on everything here, but I am going to try to hit the core mechanics as I see them. The most obvious of these is the Dice Pool concept. Simply put, on page 7.1.1 there is a full-page chart titled "Quality Scores and Associated Dice Pools." This is pretty much the holy grail of AO's game system. For any action a character is taking with a less-than-certain outcome, using a combination of GM fiat and the explanations and rules in the Core Manual, determine the quality most closely aligned with that action, be it Core, Secondary, or Tertiary, and consult the chart. The numeric value of a character's Quality score determines how many dice (1-6) of what kind (from 4-sided all the way up to 20-sided) that character is permitted to roll for checks associated with that Quality.
For example, a character with a score of 17 in the associated quality for a given check has access to two 6-sided and four 4-sided dice to roll in determining the outcome of that check. These dice are rolled, bonuses from Fields/Skills, Abilities and Equipment added, and the results compared to a Difficulty Rating (DR) predetermined by the GM based on the difficulty of the task at hand, using a chart provided, with five difficulty categories ranging from Simple to Formidable, with DRs scaling accordingly. If the number rolled equals or exceeds that DR, then the character is successful in completing that task; otherwise, they fail.
The Core Manual makes very clear for most of the scenarios characters might encounter in a session of play what Qualities should be used and what types of bonuses might apply to a given check-running, jumping, swimming, shooting, negotiating, intimidating etc. are all covered in extreme detail, and the system is flexible enough that it would pose little problem to negotiate a compromise if a situation arises that doesn't appear to be explicitly addressed in the Manual.
Ultimately, this breaks down to a slightly more complex version of the familiar "roll dice, add bonus, compare to required result, determine success/failure" that's become synonymous with role-playing. The attraction of this system is that it allows for a more finessed grading between those who are talented at a given task, and those who are less or more so.
With Quality scores ranging from 1 to 100 and a graded approach to determining what pool a character uses based on their Quality score, there are almost 40 Dice Pools for a character to use, allowing for a more fine-grained representation of "skill" within the game world. The downside of this is, of course, that there are almost 40 Dice Pools to contend with as a GM, making memorization difficult and quick access to this chart mandatory.
Further complicating things is that in combat, characters can only access a limited number of dice in each 6-second cycle of time, but will be able to act on one or more 1-second segment of that 6-second cycle. Tracking this in large combats could quickly get out of hand, especially when characters are forced to choose between using those dice to defend themselves or for taking pro-active action on their own turn.
The Stance system follows the rules for Dice Pools and checks, and adds an interesting, although possibly cumbersome, level of detail to the combat system. When "static" (i.e. not moving with the intention of covering distance) characters have access to the following stances: Lying Prone, Kneeling, Standing, Hovering, or Treading Water. Each of these provides bonuses or penalties depending on the type of action your character is making or having made against them.
When "dynamic" (i.e. moving with the intention of covering distance) characters can: Crawl, Monkey Run, Walk, Run, Sprint, Climb, Fly or Swim. Again, each state has bonuses and penalties depending on what type of action is being made by or made against the character, but these Dynamic States also have an associated movement rate, based on a character's Athleticism Secondary Quality, which is different for each state. Yet another chart is provided for determining the exact values for each Quality score.
The State system adds yet another neat and realistic, but potentially frustrating series of tables and charts to the game system. Every creature in AO possesses 7 states which are constantly tracked: Size, Speed, Fear, Density, Disposition, Thought and Emotion. Each of these tracks from Levels 4 to -4, with Level 0 labeled "Normal" across all states and indicating the standard disposition of a character, with no bonuses or penalties. Each of these stats provides a fluctuating game impact based on its current level and can be affected by Wielding, Grigori State-Shifting, Skill checks or simple events with the game world.
A brief overview of the combat system: the combat is designed to allow for fast-paced, short-time-in-game battles. Depending on their Reaction Tertiary Quality score, characters will be more or less active in each 6-second Cycle of combat: a character may be able to act on one of the 6 seconds in a cycle, or may be active on all of them.
Each one-second Segment of a cycle allows a character to make a full-action (such as firing a gun up to its maximum fire rate) or two half-actions, such as moving and then firing a gun up to half of its maximum fire rate. Lower level characters will likely be active on only two of the six Segments, but as characters progress fire fight would increase in pace as characters are able to take more and more Segments, requiring more careful management of their Dice Pool but allowing for much more activity in a shorter time.
Combined with the fact that high damage can cause bleeding that accelerates a characters health loss, and the stage is set for an extremely lethal system that has no default favour for PCs over NPCs. Armor will prove crucial for characters who wish to improve their survival chances, as unless a character forgoes their own ability to act in order to defend themselves, most characters are quite easy to hit; armor provides a much-needed soak-up of damage, rather than improving your odds of not being hit, although it can be destroyed if it absorbs too much damage. Melee weapons are kept as a viable option against firearms by the inclusion of rules for blocking ranged attacks using them with relative ease.
In testing, the combat system held up well once we'd established the appropriate Dice Pools for our characters. Once you know the bonuses that apply and the number and type of dice to roll, all that remains is to establish difficulty and determine what portion of your dice to roll for that particular check/attack, keeping in mind that your character may have another active Segment coming up in which they may have to use the leftover dice from this segment to act.
That being said, between technological advances in medicine, the new powers provided by Wielding, and the genetic deviations available to characters, healing progresses at a much fast rate in AO than in our own world, with many options available even for character resuscitation, should it be required. This provides a needed pad for PCs to fall on, lest they become too terrified of combat to venture outside.
The combat section is followed by a well-rounded over-view of all the non-combat hazards a character might encounter: extremes of weather, falling, drowning, poison, drugs and darkness are all addressed at length. The mechanics of using vehicles follows that section, which combine the statistics of the various vehicles in Section 9.7 with the game mechanics and Skill rules already presented to allow for using a vehicle, both in and out of combat. These follow the theme established for other checks earlier in the Section, although they seem slightly vague. A truly outlandish situation might require some discussion around the table as to an appropriate DR for vehicle-related checks, but the same might be said for the basic rules.
Finally for Game Mechanics are the step-by-step instructions for dealing with Wielding. Rather than more traditional systems wherein magic-users craft their effects using time-honoured rituals and spells to cause functionally the same effect every time, every instance of Wielding is treated as a totally unique instance of a skill check. The benefits and drawbacks of this are immediately evident. First, as the Manual is quick to point out, this means that players are free to craft each Wielding effort to suit the situation at hand, to push the limits of their characters abilities every time or establish the perfect risk-return curve as they see fit.
Based on factors such as distance, number of targets/area of effect, damge/healing/weight manipulation, bonus/penalty amount, and casting time, the GM and the player together determine the DR for the Wielding Check, and then the rest is handled in the same way as any other check: Dice Pool is determined, bonuses accounted for, dice rolled, result determined.
Success means the effect works smoothly, costing a set amount of Endurance (another Tertiary Quality). Failure can mean anything from the effect going somewhat awry (affecting more/less targets, more/less damage, etc.) or that the Wielder takes a significant amount of damage; if the failure was sufficiently spectacular, it could even kill the Wielder outright. The Manual provides a list of sample effects, the relevant chart used to determine DRs, and outlines on generating new effects.
Without a campaign's worth of play-testing, I am not comfortable making a judgment on whether or not a magic system with this level of flexibility would be good or bad, although I suspect it would depend largely on the play group at hand. Certainly, until the group felt comfortable I would wish to limit the group's Wielder(s) to the sample effects in the Manual. As a player, though, I would love access to something so innovative, which is part of what scares me.
Section 8: Character Development
Character development in AO is handled in exactly the same way character creation is handled: the GM hands out an amount of CDP for players to spend on their characters as they see fit in exactly the same ways as in character creation. The exception to this is that Wielding and Fields/Skills now require that instruction be paid for in cash and in-game-time spent learning.
Total CDP is tracked to measure a character progression: this serves as a replacement for the more traditional character level index of power. Characters also have access to Ascension after they leave character creation; this is the closest analogue to traditional level-up present in AO, representing a devotion to the "holistic development of their mind, body and spirit."
Ascension is a graded increase in a character's power that requires that CDP be spent in improving all of a character's Core Qualities to a more balanced level before accessing, and provides a character with unique wielding and genetic deviation opportunities. Ascension is only one for a character to improve, and is by no means required for players to pursue. Combined with all the other character options, however, it certainly adds to the already rich tapestry of character customization characterizing Alpha Omega.
Section 9: Gear and the Marvels Of Science
No punches are pulled in the gear section: players are provided with everything you could hope for in a post-apocalyptic, cyber-punk world full of genetic manipulation. Each gear-type portion is prefaced with an explanation of the various stats presented in each piece of equipment's description. As far as weapons go, everything from conventional firearms to energy weapons, submachine guns to anti-tank weapons, 2-handed swords and chemical grenades are available, with everything serving as an easy template for creating custom weapons.
Armor is left more to the player/GMs discretion: templates are provided along with base costs, but no specific types of armor are given, just lists of things to be added to the basic template. This doesn't mesh particularly well with the endless list of firearms available in the section, but does further enforce the ideal of customization while still providing everything you need to play. The rules for superior craftsmanship, enchantment, or special materials in gear is similarly loose, a brief overview of what could be while leaving the details to GM discretion.
The list of "non-combat" equipment is almost as long as the combat one, a refreshing change from most RPGs, and seems to cover everything a group that's just starting might need while leaving the door open on new ideas. The same goes for the section on augmentations and vehicles, be they cybernetic or biological, designed for combat or otherwise. There is even a sample suit of power armor available.
Section 10: Playing the Game
This is a fairly short section containing a rundown of tips on being a good player and a GM; as with the introductory section there's nothing paradigm-shifting here. There is, however, something that can save a GM a boatload of time: a fairly extensive listing of pre-generated generic and archetypal stat blocks for NPCs. With minimal tweaking these can provide everything you need to get started on running a session: the only frustrating thing is that, unlike the character sheet provided for players, the NPCs do not have their Dice Pools listed anywhere, meaning that a copy of the chart will be needed for reference if you intend to make use of these pre-gens.
Section 11: Index
This is the last Section of the Core Manual, and in my opinion the least useful: it spans less than the full two pages it is allotted, which is maddeningly inadequate for a book spanning several hundred pages, over two-thirds of which are crunchy and nutritious game rules. In testing, it took me almost half an hour to find the rules for bonuses to melee damage based on Quality scores, because the subject isn't listed in the index, isn't found or referenced in the melee combat chunk of the Game Mechanics Section or in the melee weapons part of the Gear Section, but is instead located and referenced only in a chart in the Secondary Qualities area of the Character Creation Section and in the "damage, dying, death and endurance" portion of the Game Mechanics Section. To be fair, that was the only problem that we had with the overall organization of the book and its navigation, but it was extremely infuriating.
Conclusions on My Behalf
Alpha Omega provides a marked change from most main-stream gaming engines, in that it tries to minimize abstraction from game-world to game-mechanics. While this allows for a wide margin of customization and possibility, it also necessitates a great deal of complexity and quantity of rules. This lends itself to a gaming group with more experience, and one that is interested in in-depth role-playing and character development.
In my recommendation, casual gamers and those with little to no experience with role-playing games may want to avoid Alpha Omega, as the added work required to make use of the system may not provide any extra enjoyment to compensate for additional time invested.
If you enjoy spending hours working on a character, crafting a backstory and getting their stats just right to reflect that story before pitching them into a wildly fatal game world to see how long they can last with you at the helm, then AO is probably right for you. If you'd rather sit back, sip a fizzy beverage and shoot the shat with your buddies while rolling some dice, there are probably systems that will reward your time and money better.
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