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Wednesday, 20 July 2016

RPGPundit Reviews: Alpha Blue

(note: I can think of no better moment to post this review of Alpha Blue, a product that was once the victim of censorship in our own hobby, than today in the wake of Twitter's utterly unjustifiable censorship of noted conservative journalist Milo Yiannopoulos. Whether you agree with Milo or not, whether you like Venger's game or not, the censorship of dissenting views by the Regressive Left, in something as large and influential as Twitter or as small and seemingly inconsequential as the RPG hobby, is appalling and indefensible to anyone who believes in the values of the western enlightenment society)

RPGPundit Reviews: Alpha Blue

This is a review of the RPG "Alpha Blue", writen by "Venger As'nas Satanis" (yeah, seriously), and published by Kort'thalis Publishing (continuing with the love affair with unnecessary apostrophes).

This is a review of the print edition, which is a 112 page softcover, with a color cover of some kind of very scantily-clad cyborg elf chick surrounded by tentacles, on some kind of space station.

The interior art is black and white, and mainly in a similar style to that of the cover. It mostly depicts one of two themes: either really weird looking vaguely Lovecraftian (or maybe Giger-esque) monsters/aliens in a sci-fi environment, or sexily semi-dressed women (humans or near-humans) also in a sci-fi context. There's also a couple of pieces that are very blatant references to popular sci-fi staples: there's one image (of a scantily clad warrior-queen of some kind) which features what are very obviously original-series BSG Cylons.  Ming The Merciless makes an appearance oogling a nude woman with an early-1980s hairstyle.  The 4th Doctor is present (iconic scarf and hair and all) being manhandled by a couple of scantily-clad babes, one of the robots from The Black Hole makes an appearance, and there's a couple of others that are probably references to other classics as well.  The art and the choice of cameo appearances make it very clear that the setting of this product is meant to hearken back to the late-70s/early-80s sci-fi style.

This product has not been without controversy (and not because of the artistic cameos, though other aspects of the artwork may have had something to do with it).  After its release, a group of Regressive Leftists got this product pulled from OneBookShelf (that is, from the storefronts of RPGnow/DriveThruRPG).  It was eventually reinstated, after myself and a few other prominent figures in the hobby (mostly from the OSR) made an intense and directed campaign to not let this act of censorship stand.  But regardless, it is a product that certain people had targeted as a way to make it impossible for YOU to even have an opportunity to read it.  They felt they knew better than you did as to what's best for you, and better than all of us as to what's best for the hobby.  In other words, they are a gang of totalitarian fucks.

At the time, I had not read Alpha Blue, I was simply opposed to censorship on principle.  Whatever Alpha Blue says, whatever kind of game it is, I defend its right to exist and the right of others to purchase and read it.  But now, it's time for me to take a look at it not as a salvo in the ideological war against leftist fascists, but rather as a product, to judge its quality.  Let's see if I think it's worth buying as more than a political statement.

So the first 35 pages of this book are dedicated to the basics of the system and character creation; and I guess the first thing to note is that Alpha Blue is NOT an OSR game.  I've seen a lot of people sounding like they are mistakenly thinking it is. But in fact, the game uses the dice-pool system very similar to the one found in Crimson Demon Slayer (another of Venger's games).  There is a very brief set of "OSR conversion notes" but these are actually to explain how to convert material FROM an OSR game to use it in Alpha Blue's home system, and while you can get a few hints from reversing the instructions it's not really even enough to effectively convert the system over to D&D-style rules.  So I have to say emphatically that Alpha Blue is in no sense an OSR game.  Of course, the setting itself could be used with some kind of OSR sci-fi ruleset.

The system mechanics are based on dice pools, where a player will normally roll two d6s for an average check, or just one if they are at a disadvantage, or three d6s for some big advantage.  Some legendary creatures or objects might roll four or five dice.  Only the highest result is counted. Any sixes are re-rolled and the total number of sixes rolled are considered in some elements of task resolution to reflect extra-good outcomes. Once per session, each player can choose a single roll where they "steal the spotlight" and roll double the normal number of dice that would usually be allowed them.

Generally speaking, 4 or more on a result is at least some sort of success (3 is actually "mostly failure" while 4 is "partial success"). What number of success you get determines how much damage you do in an attack (a result of 1 on an attack is a fumble, and you have to roll on a table to see if you did damage to yourself). Armor mostly reduces damage, though some force fields can instead divert attacks (causing a penalty to the to-hit roll).

Characters have 25 hit points to start, and gain more as they level up. You die at a negative value of your level in hit points, though there's also some chance that a 'dead' character might still be revived through high-tech healing and cybernetic or organic replacement parts. These replacement parts have a chance of causing physical or mental side-effects.  There's also a simple saving-throw mechanic to avoid massive-damage or instant-death scenarios.

So, the system is very simple, and not absolutely atrocious as far as dice-pools are concerned. But I'm left questioning why the author couldn't have used the OSR; after all, he could have made an OSR-based system that was very innovative and whatnot while still being fundamentally an OSR game (something along the lines of my own "Appendix P" rules found in Dark Albion).

Character-creation is very freeform, there's no attributes, or set skills. Instead it's all done through a set of random lifepath-table rolls. There are two 'basic career' tables: Scoundrel or Respectable. A human gets to roll twice, and it can be both rolls on a single table, or one of each.

Sample random Scoundrel roll: Gambler & Con-man
Sample random Respectable roll: Diplomat & Templar (space-priest)
Sample random Mixed roll: Assassin & Interior Designer

Each table roll also generates starting "Blue bucks", your cash.  Scoundrels make twice as much money, but for each roll you take on the Scoundrel table you have a chance of being wanted by the law.
There's no further 'skill' considered apart from career; it's up to the GM to decide if your career gives you any special knowledge or edges.

A character also has three other options besides human; in any of those three they would roll only once on the occupation table (choosing either Scoundrel or Respectable).  The other options are "alien", "mutant" or "something special".
The "something special" is a random roll with only four options: Psionic, Zedi, Noble, or "Better Lucky than Good" (which seems out of place with the other, as it's not an actual occupation, but rather just a special ability, allowing you a once-per-session re-roll of an unfavorable roll).

The Mutation table has 100 options, and a "mutant" character would roll on the table 3 times. Some options are a lot better than others.

Random Mutant powers: seizures (the character has a 1 in 6 chance of having a seizure lasting several minutes, each 'scene'), extra eyes (1d6 extra), flesh melted off (the character is now just a walking skeleton).
Random Mutant Powers 2:  Tech crash (disrupts all technology within 5' of you), death frenzy (you go into a berserker rage when you're at negative hit points), danger sense (you are aware of dangerous situations a few seconds before they happen).

Aliens are generated through several tables, with the starting note that there's a 1 in 6 chance that your alien cannot survive in an Earth-like environment (meaning that on the space station and other Earth-like conditions he will need to wear a special protective suit). Basic alien form is rolled on a d30, then you roll for rough size, and on a d100 table for a random "alienism" (a weird quirk of your species).

Sample Alien: can survive in earth conditions, aquatic (fish like), approximately rat-sized, alien cultural trait: always respects authority figures in public.

After you've chosen your basic occupation/race, you roll on a random table-set to determine what your "prior experience" has been. This is done by mixing an A/B/C option of table results with a d6, d8, and d12 check. The d12 determines more or less how things went for you in the past, and in an homage to Traveler it's possible that you might have to make a roll to avoid having died during character-creation!

Sample prior event: "the first time you had sex with an alien life form... you got lost in the great wastes... being irradiated by a lethal dose of gamma isotopes (33% chance of death!)"
Second try: "Your native dome was bombarded by heavy artillery and... you were taught the way of the Zedi... a group of of alien humanoids took you in helping you make your way through the galaxy (good for 1 re-roll!)"

After this you roll for your basic fashion style (the idea being that "looking groovy, radical or groovoradical" is very important in the retro-70s sci fi genre). These are also done by a series of rolls.

Sample fashion: Casual skintight space pajamas in flesh-tone and sky-blue with an orange sunburst, made of alligator skin.

You also roll randomly for your 'weapon of choice'. In the Alpha Blue system most weapons do the same amount of damage, so the selection is purely a question of aesthetics.  All characters start with one weapon, but can purchase more.

Sample weapon: Spectrum "liberator" ray-gun
2nd sample weapon: laser crossbow

A very brief and general list of basic equipment is included.

You can then optionally roll for "astrology" to see your star-sign. Curiously, Venger chose to just use our real-life western-astrology star-signs, and the descriptions of each sign fit the traditional descriptions of characteristics people born under that sign are supposed to have.

Then there's also a table for "Known associates" (though it should actually be "known associations", as it isn't about what people you're connected to, but what organizations).  This table has two parts, one where you roll for the group (which includes examples like "The Robot Development Cartel", "Alpha Omega space-college fraternity", "The Imperial Fleet", "The Knights in White Satin", "The Defenders of Atari", or "The Last Starfighter Guild"); and the second where you roll for the nature of your relationship to that group (which can include things like "Master/slave", "Nemesis", "Relative", "Friend", or "Shared a cell").

There's also a random table of "things robots were built from", which includes options like "gumball machine", "A/C unit", "Cash Register", etc.

After this, just to remind us that this is supposed to be a Very Naughty rpg, you have a table of sexual fetishes you roll on to see what you're into.
Randomly determined examples: Witnessing car crashes, feet/shoes/etc, Cheerleader/Girl Scout/Private School/Nurse or Stewardess outfits, Furry fetish.

There's also two smaller tables, one entitled "what part of a woman you like the best", and the other entitled "For the ladies and gay dudes... what's your type"?  Samples from the first include "legs", "butt", "breast" or "other"; while samples from the second include "scruffy", "rugged", "clean cut", or "intellectual".

Then there are some more conventional tables. Your character can start out in debt, and there's tables to determine the type of debt and what is threatened to be done to you if you don't pay up. There's tables for getting work as an assassin or bounty hunter, and also a list of suitable male and female sci-fi sounding names.

So, while dice-pool systems are not my favorite, I'm glad at least the character creation is not point-based! Also, it's mostly random and could be resolved quite quickly, both of which are features I consider very positive in RPG design. Some redeeming qualities there.

After this, we get to some details about the universe of Alpha Blue.  The book informs us that "as you may have already noticed, the universe is full of assholes". We get a detailed listing of the various asshole organizations that can be found therein.  This includes the Federation, the Draconian Empire (vaguely reptilian aliens who are hot for humans), the Krylon Protectorate (vaguely reptilian androids that are at constant war with everyone), the Interstellar Caliphate (who literally space-jihadis), The Brain Bugs (evil mind-controlling aliens), the Mega-Corporation Conglomerate (an interstellar super-corporation called the "Micro McDonald Disney Walmart Cola mega-corporation"), and the Clerics of the Seventh Age (a space-based religious cult). We also learn a little about hyperspace, and a black hole that leads to an evil universe ruled by a kind of Great Old One. We also learn, in keeping with the 'rumpy bumby' goofiness of the setting, that humans are most notable as a species by virtue of the fact that they can interbreed with just about any other alien life form.

We get some random tables as well, including tables to determine reasons for inter-species breeding, random tech device names (stuff like the "permutation converter cube"), random weird effects of radiation, and a 'what are the sensors scanning' table. There's also information on things like memory crystals, cloaking devices, star-quakes, time warps (with a "what fell out of the time warp" table), derelict-spaceship tables, and a "things inside an asteroid" table. There's also information on the Terra Nostra (the Earth-based space-mafia), the unification wars, and the mining ship Crimson Dwarf.

Next we get a large section on Alpha Blue itself.  We're informed that Alpha Blue is a huge space station, built almost 100 years ago (the present date is 2269), with a population of half a million inhabitants.  It was originally created as a kind of therapy station for the clinically oversexed; but gradually turned into a space brothel. In the present day, Alpha Blue is like a Space version of Las Vegas, where you can satisfy all the decadent desires (gambling, intoxication, fashion, entertainment, and of course sex).  Being quite the sprawling station, it has some areas that are fairly bourgeois and respectable, and others that are lawless and dangerous.  Being a den of vice, crime (organized or otherwise) is rampant.

In this chapter we learn about prostitution, currency, law (or the relative absence of the same), the central computer system (named "Jason", which tends to have odd mood swings), and the revolving door of Alpha Blue's captains (apparently its a position that regularly vacates). We're also told about the Orgasmatron (a kind of orgasm-simulating chamber, that can cause hallucinations and might accidentally teleport you to Metebelis III), sex aids (like Penetration Blue, the Mind Condom, or Blue Dreamers), and smoking (no one in the future smokes cigarettes, instead the personal hookah is the preferred method). There's also random tables for other drugs, venereal diseases (including the "Vulcan Nerve Pinch"), and random (potentially sexy) events, as well as a table for reasons someone might be on Alpha Blue.

There's likewise tables for first-experiences on Alpha Blue, random overarching plots, complications, a table of random alien inhabitants of the station, what's on Alpha Blue's TV station, random robots and their quirks, random parties, random sexual activity, random events done by someone intoxicated, and more.

Anyone who's read previous reviews of mine knows how much I'm liking the insane number of random tables this book has. They're also generally good tables, in the sense of how they are constructed, with enough options and variety, and some of them covering very general topics while others go into very specific topics; in other words, a good range.

We also get a breakdown of some of the locations on Alpha Blue. There's Casino Royale Bleu, the spa, the library, the 'Blue Julius' smoothie bar, the Blue Velvet Lounge, a list of random weird drinks (a sci-fi companion to my own Fantasy Drinks table?), the Space Station Restaurant and Bar, the Blue Light District, the Orgasmatron Stations, Central Control, the Blue Balls court ('Blue Ball' being a favorite sport on Alpha Blue), the medical and bot-repair bays, the exercise deck, the Alpha Blue university, the Alpha Blue mall, the gift shop, the Alpha Blue Quasar Palace cinema, and the Holodeck (with a "holodeck glitches table").

Then there's even more random tables: a table of criminal motivations, a table of therapy-bot advice (there's also a Priest-bot for Catholics), a table to determine how much of a 'freak' a given sexual partner might be.  There's also information about sanitary products, hot sauces, memory-erasing pills, sports, a sleeping princess in a cryo-chamber, some weird movie-watching mind-control crystals, the heroic 'Knights in White Satin' and the villainous 'Knights in Black Satin' and the neutral 'Knights in Alpha Blue Satin', arena games, the illegal "blue market" (it's a bit unclear just what would actually be illegal on Alpha Blue?), the Pleasure Dome (a section of the station which has a never-closing 24-hour orgy), the station's observation deck, Alpha Blue's force fields and weapons, life support, its science lab, teleporters, quarantine, docking bays, the "Blue Flamingo" shuttlecraft, gravity and maintenance, the slave auction (seriously, what the fuck could possibly be for sale on the 'illegal' blue market if slavery is ok??), the Ultra Room (a room for voyeurs), and space poker (unfortunately, "space poker" is really just Texas Hold-Em).

So far, Alpha Blue paints an interesting (if slightly sophomoric 'naughty') picture. But what can you actually do there in terms of adventuring?  The next section has some of Venger's proposals for that, in the form of 'scenario star seeds'. Examples involve being hired to go on missions to given worlds, for corporations, accidentally ruining utopian planets, etc. Likewise, some adventures on the station: for example, the popular entertainers known as the Blue Humanoid Group come to the station, but one of their members goes missing; or a dark cult is impregnating women on the station to create a race of magical star-children; or having to thwart the terrorist machinations of space-jihadis.

A couple of sample NPCs are also included, with backstory, in case the GM wants to use them.

There's also details of a few special items, including the "Throbbing Blue Jelly" and the "Rape Machine". The latter is pretty much what it sounds like, an automated penetration device (the book is mercifully devoid of further schematic details).

This section ends with some very basic stats for dangerous creatures and villains.

We also get a section with "campaign advice", where it suggests that Alpha Blue can be used to address some of sci-fi's 'deeper questions' like "does god exist", "how can we continue to survive in an uncaring universe" or "are we really all that different"?
I thought this was amusing, given that the setting is a giant space-brothel.

There's some advice to show rather than tell, to sometimes ramp up the menace, and to keep things moving, all of which are fine advice though very generic.  There's some guidelines to archetypal personalities to apply.
There's also the advice that the first time a PC tries something, it should be consequence-free, but then after that all bets are off; I find this utterly terrible advice, frankly.  First, it's totally anti-emulative: the risk should be what the world says it is, not what is convenient to the GM or player. Second, this particular advice has the additional negative quality of confusing Player expectations: the GM is how they view the world, and if the first time they try a dumb thing they get off free, they'll expect to get off next time as well. The GM should always be consistent with consequences!          

The book ends with some schematics of the space station; though its just a diagram of floorplans, with no descriptive element.  There's also character sheets.

So what to conclude about Alpha Blue? Well, in the first place I'd unquestionably state that there is nothing that would merit the censorship of this book. Of course, almost nothing merits the censorship of any book!  But there was certainly nothing in Alpha Blue worthy of it ever having been censored, even temporarily, from OneBookShelf.

Now, as to the product itself, I will say that I think that Alpha Blue is a very interesting setting. It has a delicious level of gonzo to it that would fit right at home in my DCC campaign.  But I think that it probably would have been more interesting if it hadn't had the focus on sophomoric sexual nonsense. You could still have kept that as a kind of background element, but if the book had not wasted as much time on relatively immature sexual childishness, it could have dedicated a bit more space on making the game setting more interesting in terms of adventuring.  Because let's face it, most gamers are really not going to be all that interested in playing out the results of their character's roll on the 'sexual fetish table', and would be more interested in playing some 70s sci-fi high action. There should have been a bit less of the former, and a bit more of the latter.

The other thing I'd add is that honestly, Alpha Blue would have been better as an OSR product. Now, you may take this as a personal taste, and I guess on the most superficial level it is.  I play OSR games, and of course I'd rather the game was some variety of (perhaps very rules-light) OSR rather than its own system.  But this is not just personal, it's also a question of utility.  The OSR is incredibly popular right now (and tons of people play the D&D system), while the Alpha Blue house rules are not.  They aren't awful rules, at least not for a dice-pool system, but I think more people might be willing to take the plunge on Alpha Blue if it was set up with the rules system that they can mingle with all their other OSR products and games.  Alpha Blue has an old-school '70s aesthetic, so it would have been a perfect fit.

Now, the good: even if you take out all the tables related to eye-rolling benny-hill type naughtiness, this book comes with TONS of spectacular random-tables that could be of use for any number of sci-fi games.  The setting itself, divorced of the excessive sleaze, is very interesting, and a GM who wanted to could ignore the nudge-nudge wink-wink schoolboy salaciousness and you'd be left with a great premise for a sci-fi campaign.

Ultimately, whether or not Alpha Blue will be worth buying for you will depend on how much you want to either engage with the smarm or surgically reduce it; and whether you will be interested in playing with the house system or doing your own work to adapt it to another system (OSR, for example).  If you're already running a sci-fi game (or planning to), and your game has a 1970s-style softer sci-fi feel to it along the lines of old Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica or Buck Rogers, you could use the setting material and random tables to enhance your game.

And of course finally, you may just want to buy the game to tell all the Regressive Leftist censors of the Outrage Brigade to fuck off from our hobby.


Currently Smoking:  Mastro De Paja Rhodesian + Image Virginia


  1. I bought a softbound copy from Venger during the brief controversy and let drivethrurpg they lost a sale due to their idiocy. If something this softcore got censored, even briefly, then OBS has lost all credibility in terms of free speech. Which is sad, because if anything should be free of thought crime, it should be works of imagination.

  2. Thanks for the review, hoss! I'd like to address some of your commentary/analysis.

    1) Many will probably disagree, but outside the fantasy genre, I would include d6 dice pool RPGs (like those published by West End Games) to be part of the OSR, such as Star Wars, Ghostbusters, etc. Never played Traveller, but wasn't that 2d6?

    2) There are dozens of sci-fi RPGs out there. Probably a half-dozen that focus on cheesy 70's sci-fi. The sex is what sets it apart and is one of the very few reasons to actually buy Alpha Blue.

    3) Regarding the "try it first consequence-free" advice, I was trying to emulate the concept of beginner's luck. Although, maybe that's not the right phrase for what I'm talking about. How many times have we been introduced to something without negative effects only to face negativity the 2nd or 3rd time we explored whatever it was? For me personally, the answer is: countless.

    Anyways, thanks again for reviewing Alpha Blue!

    1. Thank you for replying. To address your first point: I would say that Traveller is OSR. The d6 system from West End from Star Wars is marginal, right at the fringe of what could be seen as Old-School.

      But in any case, YOUR system is not West End D6, nor is it Trav. If you'd used either of those it would to some extent have mitigated my criticism. But you invented your own system.

      My issues about your dice pool system were two: first, it's not OSR, second that it's not as universal as using D&D.
      So in the first case, you could argue a game based on Trav or D6 would be OSR, but your game is not. Just a random game with a totally new system that happens to roll a D20 (but in a different way than D&D), would NOT be D&D or OSR.
      Your game is a d6-dice pool, but it is not an Old-school game.

      As to the second point, if you had made your system traveller based or west-endD6 based, it would somewhat mitigate my argument about universality because then Trav fans or D6 fans could port the game directly. The gist of my argument was NOT to say your system was in any way bad (like I said, for a dice-pool system it's pretty good), but just that it's less useful because no one uses it.

    2. To your second point, I'd say that you're underestimating the quality of your own work, the skill of your crafting. There are similar settings to Alpha Blue, sure, but without any of the salaciousness, AB is STILL an interesting and novel product with great material. The only aspect in which the sex-stuff really might have given you more sales was just because of the controversy it generated. Within the book itself, I really don't think it makes any difference. 99% of RPG gamers have ZERO interest in roleplaying sex with 300lb bearded guy in the nacho-stained t-shirt collapsed on the ez-chair beside him. They don't want that guy playing a "sexy prostitute", they don't want to hear him with the GM talking about how he's fingering an alien chick, they want NOTHING to do with any of that. I don't get why a couple of guys in this hobby seem to think otherwise.

      But your setting, even with none of that stuff in, is still a spectacular Gonzo sci-fi product. It could have been an AMAZING DCC setting, for example.

    3. That's high praise, thanks! Yeah, maybe I did underestimate it. In my gaming experience, I rank sci-fi below both fantasy and horror, so creating Alpha Blue was a bit out of my comfort zone. Perhaps I overcompensated with the sexy goofball stuff. However, it still makes me smile.

      You're right about the incompatibility. On that level, it's not OSR at all. However, the spirit or essence of OSR might still be there. That's what I was going for, at least.

      Maybe one day I'll GM you through alien prostitute finger-banging. One day...

    4. You'd have to be a hell of a lot prettier than you are.

    5. Just close your eyes and imagine that I'm Han Solo. ;)

  3. It sounds to me like the sex element is anither way to interact with the world : fighting and f*cking. I don't know if it would be my cup of tea, but maybe instead of reducing the sex element you expand it by including instructions for creating scenarios around it. ("A shipment of nano sex bots has gotten loose on the station just as Queen Z'axx the Insatiable is staying on the station ad part of her dslisplomatic mission)

    1. Then again. Maybe it's already there.... ?