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Alpha Omega Reviewed, First Look - Short Version

by Patrick Irwin

Alpha omega website

This first look review is based on several extensive readings of the Core Manual and an evening's worth of test-driving the system itself with a focus on the core mechanic of dice pools and the Cycle 6-6 combat system.

I've also written a longer, more detailed look at each section of the Alpha Omega Core Manual. If you have the time, I'd recommend reading through this to get a general feel for my take on the system before moving on to the main section.

Observations

The Core Manual would probably require about a week's worth of evening reading to get through.

Material is dense, but well written, with minimal typos (only one obvious and actually inhibitory one, in the explanation of two-weapon fighting).

Fluff sections are evocative, enjoyable, and provide an excellent thematic sense without laying out too much groundwork. All the background is there, but the entire crunch of details, layout and maps is left to the GM.

Mechanics

Mechanically, the game is very involved and complex; the designers seem to have done their best to minimize the level of abstraction from envisioned game world to actual game rules/mechanics. The system will work well once a group is familiar with the rules-set, but be somewhat boggy until then. The sheer number of dice which can be necessary even for solitary attack rolls will make sure everyone gets the use out of the entire contents of their Crown Royal bags.

Combat is broken down into very small increments, all the way down to single-second segments; this will make for combats that play out very "quickly" in game-world-time. Capacity for large number of actions balanced by Dice-pool limiting rules - the Cycle 6-6 Rule, I believe - which makes it progressively harder for multiple actions to be successful, but has no impact on multiple attacks made in a single segment of game-time. If a group plans their actions carefully and in advance of their turns, combat could be made to progress extremely quickly, with massive numbers of damage handed out before passing over the remainder of character turns because of loss of access to the die-pool.

Optional rules contained within the text are interesting, and some are tempting to include, but most provide significant added layers of complexity and math to the game; for the play-test sessions, we ran a strictly basic set of the rules.

Only unsatisfactory optional rule is the one provided for critical successes and failures, stolen almost verbatim from the d20 system. An additional d20 is rolled on the first attempt of any skill or type of attack against a target a character makes in a turn: on a roll of 20, there is an automatic and "critical" success; on a roll of 1, there is an automatic and "critical" failure. No other results on the d20 have any effect. Rule seems arbitrary and takes away from a system designed to roll dice in aggregates to encourage average results: inclusion of a static 5% chance of a spectacular success/failure seems an inelegant solution at best. For long term campaigns, I would explore more satisfactory means of resolving the issue of extremes of good/bad "luck."

I appreciate the overwhelming attempt to make the rules of Alpha Omega suitable for customization and house-ruling. The entire magic system is designed with player and GM innovation in mind, and the system of balancing weapons, equipment and vehicles is fairly simple and number-desensitized. On every other page, GMs and players alike are flat-out encouraged to make things up. That being said, as a GM I will look forward to any supplements Mindstorm decides to put out, especially those with pre-made creatures and NPCs, as the character creation process is fairly number-crunchy and time-intensive.

Aliens

Speaking of pre-made creatures, the one outright frustrating/disappointing lack in Alpha Omega is the complete absence of any rules for creating non-humanoid or non-intelligent beings. Despite consistent mention of monsters and horrible genetic creations throughout the fluff chapters, and large sections of plot-hook and organization chapters centered on those same monsters, nowhere does a stat-block or procedure to create one appear. I understand this is only the first in a (hopefully) long line of AO products, but this lack is truly frustrating. It's certainly not a deal-breaker by any stretch of the imagination, but the section on NPCs at the back of the book could certainly have had a page or two of critters added to it to give GMs some kind of a baseline to work with. Hell, I'm a serious gun-nut, but they're just about the easiest thing in the system to homebrew and the book certainly offers more than the necessary assortment of pistols, SMGs, rotary cannons and the like; why didn't someone think to trim that down and toss in the howling monstrosities that seem emblematic of the setting while reading the context chapters, but are absent in the crunchy sections?

Edit: Aha, a belated check of the AO website reveals that their next scheduled release is, in fact, an epically large book full of 200+ critters, rules for their creation, and even some more detailed NPCs. I'll be picking that up for sure. From a marketing standpoint, I can see the intelligence of pulling a stunt like that, but it would make even more sense if they'd planned well enough for a simultaneous launch. Stuff happens, and I think the spirit of my above criticisms stands regardless.

Beautiful books

Before I move on, with the thought of the next impending AO release in mind, I need to mention something; these books are absolutely beautiful. The layout is sharp and reads fairly smoothly, and the unusual short-spine, wide-cover design really shines when eating/gaming/typing and reading at the same time, putting all the text nice and close to your eyes. The art is fresh and really puts your head into the space of the game world, and the "NavBar" on the outside border of each page is a nice touch which looks really great. The same goes for the frequent full-page tables and often-breathtaking double-page art spreads. Hands-down the most visually appealing RPG rulebook I've ever read.

Character creation

On the front of character creation, rarely have I been so intimidated by a character sheet while immediately being comforted by the directions of the character-creation chapter. It really holds your hand all the way through the process, providing a consistent dynamic example that progresses along with you, as well as a concise to-do list at the end of each section so you don't get screwed out of anything via unfamiliarity with the system. I would have no qualms about handing this book to any of my friends who have the tiniest experience with a gaming system and letting them handle character creation by themselves.

That being said, the character sheet is pretty complex compared to what I'm used to, what with its Secondary and Tertiary derived characteristics and its combinations of Fields and Skills. However, it quickly became apparent to me that the sheer mass of content is largely a product of the classless system used by AO, and that in actual practice the layout and contents of the character sheet would eliminate much of the grind of whipping through pages looking for rules for players: everything they need is on the sheet as long as the GM knows what he's doing.

GMing

Ah yes, on that note: this is by far the most GM-intensive system I've ever seriously given thought to playing. You not only have the standard duties of any RPG, you've also got a laundry list of subjective and context-dependent modifiers and decisions to make in pretty much every situation. This is where the complexity of even the unaltered game mechanics comes into play.

Every character has a sort-of progressive list of Stances (a somewhat misleading title for things like whether you are standing or "monkey running") that affect almost every combat check they make or have made against them, and a most-definitely progressive list of various categories of States (Fear, Emotion, Concentration, Density etc...) that also apply their own modifiers to combat. All this (and a few chapters more) needs to be tracked and applied to the game, and since the GM is likely to be running the most characters and making the most rolls, the brunt of that burden is probably going to land squarely on his shoulders.

Conclusion

I'm stoked to get to work on a mini-campaign for AO, and would love to expand that into a full-time campaign. The system feels really flexible, lends itself well to my storytelling style, and really encourages player involvement in every step of the process. It's definitely not the RPG for the everyman, but I'm beginning to suspect it just might be the RPG for me.

Read the a longer, more detailed look at each section of the Alpha Omega Core Manual

Also check out The Encountered Volume 1 review, a book of foes for Alpha Omega

Read other reviews