|"Alpha Blue Cover" by Faustie,
© 2016 Kort'thalis
Publisher: Kort'thalis Publishing
Note: This is another review for grown-ups. Racy art, racy topics.
Note: This is one of four Kort'thalis products I will be reviewing in rapid succession. Mostly because I went on a shopping spree.
I am going to start this review by flying my Gen-X Lefty Libertarian colours with a slogan from a favourite old cause: "A book worth banning is a book worth reading!"
Alpha Blue, and its author, Venger Satanis has faced censorship and censure. This has included public smear campaigns, false flagging, doxxing attempts, petitions to ban his work and see him black-balled, and being - briefly - removed from DrivethruRPG without proper cause.
When I see stuff like that going down, I want to read the book on principle. I don't care if it is the religious right doing it, like it was back when I was participating in Banned Book Week, or whether it is being done by intersectional cultural critics now. Banning things and silencing voices is morally wrong. I don't care if it is Captain Underpants or Journey to the End of the Night, The Naked Lunch or Catcher in the Rye, Harry Potter or Alpha Blue. And that is what first put it on my radar.
|Promo material for Lexx
Beyond my own prurient interests, I actually found Alpha Blue pretty useful. You see, my campaigns include a lot of sex. How explicit it gets depends on the comfort levels and/or drunkenness of the room. Often, I prefer to fade to black, but sometimes I want to give a little more than that... and sometimes my players want me to go a little further, too. Mostly to the point of the humorous screwball-film cut-off point. Actually doing sex well in a role-playing game is difficult to do. Having a game that does a good job at sleaziness without being deliberately vile (like F.A.T.A.L. or Maid) is valuable for figuring out how to make it work.
If you want to hear this line of thought expanded on, I recommend the interview with the YouTuber "Crazed Sheep" entitled "Do You Have to be a Frustrated Incel to Download a Sex RPG?" On Geek Native.
|Cover to "Kobayashi Maroon", an
adventure module for Alpha Blue,
© 2018 Kort'thalis
Alpha Blue is one of the most refined versions of Venger Satanis' VSd6 game engine, which is a very well-considered rules-light engine. It is similar to Tiny D6, but includes graduated rather than binary success and randomized damage.
VSd6 has appeared in some of Venger's other books, like The Isles of Purple-Haunted Putresence as an add-on to an OSR-compatible game. VSd6 uses a d6 dice pool to replace d20 rolls in an OSR game. Characters roll a pool of d6s based on how competent they would be at the task based on their profession, ability scores (if they have them), narrative bonuses, etc. The highest roll determines the result on a continuum of 1 for disastrous failure to 6 for exceptional success, with a failure with a silver lining, and success at a cost in the middle.
Additional tables for combat results and critical failures spice up the game.
Unlike in Crimson Dragon Slayer and The Isles of Purple-Haunted Putresence, VSd6 is not prsented as an OSR overlay. Characters don't roll traditional D&D stats. Instead, all weapons do flat damage based on the degree of success on the attack. Characters have a flat 25hp. They level once per session, but it only raises maximum hit points. It plays fast, and is easy to learn.
What I Loved
|"4th Doctor Pastiche Art" © 2016 Kort'thalis
Alpha Blue, for all that it is sexually-charged doesn't actually focus on playing out explicit scenes. That is most definitely left to the group's choice: the game as written scales readily from 'R' to 'XXX', but 'NC-17' seems to be the default.
What Alpha Blue does well is describe characters' preferences and fantasies, and set up racy and risqué backdrops for the game's adventures. When a character does have a sexusl encounter, a table to determine just how happy and satisfied they were with it is consulted. The better the encounter, the more temporary hit points the character enjoys as a result for the next day. This mechanic, amusingly, encourages PCs to build relationships with compatible NPCs. Adding a mechanical bonus, but no heavy mechanics is a pretty tasteful compromise to my mind.
I have historically offered XP, myself, but it has always seemed like a silly choice for something that occurs "off-screen."
|Cover to "Druuna: The Lost Planet,
Issue 4: Clone" by Pablo Serperi
© 2001 Dargaud
I like the way Alpha Blue handles character death in a sci-fi backdrop. Any time a PC or major villain dies, there is a 33% chance that some kind of resurrection is possible. A table is used to determine whether they ate brought back with surgery, transplants, cybernetics, robotic bodies, cloning, or alien technology.
A character who must be resurrected has a chance of rejecting the technique, which leads to some random tic, weakness, mutation, or personality change. This keeps character death from being a complete buzzkill, while still giving it some teeth. It is a mechanic worth pirating.
I am pretty good at coming up with fantasy adventure ideas. I can improv a Sword and Sorceey adventure in a minute or two with just a notion of the PCs involved. But for some reason, Space Opera stumps me. I just have a hard time coming up with premises. This is why the adventure generating tables in Alpha Blue are so useful to me. Tables like "What is on the Derelict Ship?" or "What Fell out of the Warp?" take some of the guesswork out of planning for Sci-fi. The advice at the end is pretty helpful, too.
One of the most helpful things, however, is that Alpha Blue has random tables to roll up or inspire racy, risqué, and compromising situations, which gives a player looking for a place to start adding a sexual tone to a game.
|Jane Fonda as Barbarella in
Barbarella, Queen of Space
Paramount Pictures, 1968
Or, as it will probably be called in my games, the "hold my beer" mechanic. Once per session, a player may declare that their PC is about to really kick ass. They can double their dice pool for one roll. But the Space Dungeon Master gets to do the same for an NPC once per session. Giving a player a mechanical means of taking that spotlight once in awhile.
Fun Character Gen
Mechanically, the only important character traits ate Hit Points, Level, the character's professions, and any mutations or alien abilities that the character might have. However, a character in Alpha Blue can have dozens of optional traits ranging from name, to sexual fetishes, to major incident in the backstory, to fashion statement. Here is an example of a totally random character using the full set of optional tables:
The name's Alkar Akier (lvl. 1, 25 hp). ♋ Officially, I'm a medic. Unoficially, I am a killer for hire. Not that you, or the Law, have ever heard of me.I got into this work the first time I participated in a mercy mission on an alien planet; I met up with some insurgents and got reeeeally drunk... the next thing I knew I was on Cygnus Alpha trying to survive the aurora eclipse. No easy trick (+1 Con). I still wear the rebel uniform, because I look great in skin-tight tanned leather. 'Still use the same laser rifle that got me out alive on Cygnus.These days, I work as a medic for Star Command on freelance... it lets me find my "better paying gigs" all over the galaxy. Now that I am on Alpha Blue, I am hoping to take in some tentacle shows... long story. In any case, I am looking for a party with some weird aliens and babes with huge tracts of land.First, though, I need a little work. I owe some cash to some space pirates who want a refund for a mark that I left enough bits of to be cybered back to life. Now if I don't pay, they will take whatever I have the next time they see me.
That's a pretty fleshed-out character that took me 10 minutes to roll up.
|Poster for "Green Slime,"
Tohei / MGM, 1968
Venger Satanis' greatest strength as a game developer (other than marketing) is world-building. He knows how to create a compelling setting. Alpha Blue, on the surface is a fusion of Babylon 5 and the 1980s porno "The Satisfiers of Alpha Blue"*, mixed with a liberal dose of circa 1990s Heavy Metal Magazine. The action takes place aboard a space station that is a lawless floating brothel, casino, resort, and grey market in neutral territory. Dozens of factions do shady dealings here, and dozens of spies, bounty hunters, and assassins shape the fate of the galaxy in its shadows. What makes this interesting is twofold: the minute details, and the richness of the background universe.
In minutae, we have details on the drugs of choice, the fashions, the customs, and sex-enhancing tech of Alpha Blue. It is easy to bring this place to life. Hell, we even have a list of weird alien VDs that an unwary character can contract. The setting is wonderfully, weirdly vibrant.
Beyond Alpha Blue station, the galaxy has different faction, governments, crime syndicates, mystical orders, and alien empires. Each with allies, rivals, sweeping goals, and reasons to want to infiltrate Alpha Blue. Creating an intrigue plot in this game is easy thanks to the richness of the background.
Alpha Blue is teeming with pop-culture jokes, visual references, and parodies. Everything from a send-up to Traveller with a background result that causes your character to die before playing, to images of characters like Doctor Who, Barbarella, IG-88 and Ming the Merciless appear all over the manual in suggestive situations. A trend that continues throughout the Alpha Blue line. It is a delightful Easter egg hunt for a science fiction geek.
AB D20 was Disappointing
My first taste of Alpha Blue was the recent d20 version of the game Venger released as a part of his O5E marketing blitz for Cha'alt. That 5-page document was exceedingly disappointing, and did not acquit the Alpha Blue brand well. I would not recommend it as a road into this setting.
|Poster for "Cinderella 2000"
Kashmir Urbanski did a video on this point entitled "Venger, You Ignorant Slut" that covers this topic in greater detail, but here is the gist and my own two cents:
VSd6 is an OSR game when it is used the way it is in Isles of the Purple-Haunted Putresence: an alternate dice rolling system that rides on top of an OSR retroclone like OSRIC or OSE. In that situation, translation between an OSR stat block and a VSd6 engine is easy. But as it appears in Alpha Blue, totally abstracted from Dungeons and Dragons? Not so much.
The OSR conversion rules are extremely rough, and only cover a way to build a rough approximation of a monster for Alpha Blue's purposes. It is a stretch to call Alpha Blue an OSR game. Mostly the tenuous compatibility is maintained because Venger knows who his people are, and markets to them relentlessly.
I suppose "sophomoric" or "occasionally puerile" might be more sophisticated ways of describing the point that I wish to make... but they've been said, and the former is hardly a bad thing in my eyes while the latter is unfair. So I will settle for calling Alpha Blue "Brotastic."
What I mean by that is that Alpha Blue is clearly made to be played by a group of unreformed, barbaric, beer-swilling heterosexual men. Check for me. I am as hairy and beer-swilling a barbarian as they come. But most of my players are women, based women who are equally prone to swilling beer, mind you, but women. This game just doesn't play to the interests of women very well. In fact, the attempt to offer a sexual preference for female characters and gay male characters is pretty uninteresting.
|Image from "Zardoz", 20th Century Fox, 1974
Likewise, at least I would say 40% of the kinky material in here is very much designed with only the titillation of the male libido in mind. The rest is neutral. It is not particularly aimed at a female audience... although that other 60% is a great jumping-off point.
This, by the way, in no way means Alpha Blue is misogynistic or heteronormative; these words only apply in the absolutely most diffuse, meaningless, and stupid definitions of the terms applied to a shallow reading. To cater primarily to men is not to exclude women... only to not include them very well. Of course it would be very easy for an asshole to turn this into a slimy misogynistic mess, but they seem to do that every day with D&D5e, they don't need Alpha Blue...
I intend to use Alpha Blue material with my female gamers, and I expect they will enjoy it. It is all in the presentation.
Alpha Blue is a silly, lightweight rpg designed to emulate a niche genre. It puts characters in racy situations, and might include some seduction and sex, but the level of explicity is yours to calibrate, and easily done. It gives a great starting point for GMs looking to add a little raunch into their campaigns, but don't know where to start.
...Or it can be an excellent tool for just creating campy sci-fi scenarios by ignoring some select tables. And it has a couple of unique mechanics worth stealing.
*Yes, I watched "The Satisfiers of Alpha Blue" as research for this article. I deserve combat pay.