One Hit Wonders: Dark*Matter

This last Sunday we did a one-shot of Dark*Matter, the modern fantasy/horror/conspiracy setting for the Alternity system. The game didn’t end up being very system heavy so I don’t have much to comment on, so this will be a comparatively short after-action report.


Pre-Game

The game was picked mainly on the basis of the GM being willing to run and offering to run this. The other option on the table was Unknown Armies, but the person willing to run that needed a bit more than a month to prep for it. And I was happy to pass on GMing responsibility.

This session was our first time having it on a Sunday. Saturdays exploded for many of the people involved so Sundays became the only option. We also had a strong end time of 6 PM, so we also had a need for everyone to show up on time. (Which they did! Yay!)

If I was a good monkey, I would have skimmed through my copy of the Alternity Player’s Guide. I was not a good monkey.

Character Creation

We had pre-gens, so we didn’t really need to wade through any character creation. At a glance it looked relatively basic. I think the biggest annoyance was copying over all the little fields from the book for the characters. Weapons were particularly obnoxious because they had all sorts of crazy information for their damage codes. “1d4w/1d4+1w/1d4m” makes sense once you know what it all means, but it’s a pain in the ass to transcribe. There’s also the lurking knowledge that this is a class/level system of some sort, which rankles me a bit. But we didn’t really have to face that aspect.

In Play

The basic game mechanic was reasonably simple. Most skills ratings looked like they were equal to the connected attribute, with specializations receiving additional ranks to that. The goal was to roll your d20 below that number. Modifiers to your d20 roll involved varying die types (the “situation die” as they were called) added or subtracted from your d20 roll to adjust the outcome. Each skill had three tiers of success noted for it. At a glance, it looked like an “Ordinary” success was simply below your rating, a “Good” success was at half your rating and “Amazing” was at a quarter of your rating.

In combat, for example, your initiative roll (called an “Action Check”) determined which phase combat you went in. Amazing went first, followed by Good, etc. There was also a “Marginal” phase if you tanked your Action Check. If you were allowed than one action (a derived ability based off of high stats) then you could take the additional on a later phase. You lost this extra action if you rolled poorly on your Action Check. Attacks used the same Ordinary/Good/Amazing scale of success, with the degree of success indicating what sort of damage you did. (Hence the three different sets of die rolls mentioned above.)

Health had three different pools of points: Stun, Wound and Mortal. Losing all of your Stun points left you unconscious, losing all your Wound pounts left you dying, losing all your Mortal points left you dead. Each pool overflowed into the next more serious pool. Very evocative of the Shadowrun damage tracks, and suffering from some of the same problems. Also, there was no penalty for taking heinous amounts of damage that I was aware of, lending another connection to the game’s D&D origins.

What didn’t work? Overall our characters were mediocre at our core niche skills and abysmal at other skills we may have had. Some felt that it was supposed to be indicative of the lower-powered nature of characters in modern occult/horror games, but I’m not sure if these were actually made on a different scale of power from standard Alternity characters. Alternity does have a sort of level system, so it could be this is meant to reflect that these are just first level characters. Either way, there were many flubbed rolls and it was frustrating.

This was not helped by the fact that a general skill roll (as opposed to any specialties you had) had a “1 step penalty.” Which meant you added a d4 to your result. As an example: I was playing one of the combat guys. I had the “Combat Specialist” class profession and so I had a lot of skills revolving around punching and shooting. I had the general skill “Ranged Weapons, Modern” at 12 with specialties in Rifles and Pistols at 13 each. As long as I was just shooting my .38 and assault rifle, I seemed to be okay. If I picked up a submachine gun, then I’d suddenly face a 1-4 point penalty to my roll on top of just being not as good as I am with other guns. (I sadly lack the statistical chops to tell you just what that did to my odds. I’m generally certain it was “not good.”)

Worse, though, was the Awareness skill. It had two specialties that came up, of which I had neither: Perception and Intuition. I had an 8 in the skill in addition to getting that 1d4 penalty. The penalty just seems… gratuitous. Like, “Yes, you’re not great and we’re going to punish you further for not having some specialized skill! Huzzah!”

I hesitate to think of what combat would have looked like if we’d dealt with advanced combat situations like “dodging” or “armor.”

Some of the challenges of the low skill rolls might have been offset by having more situations where modifiers worked in our favor. It seems to be a common difficulty when dealing with skill systems where you roll under your skill instead of rolling against a target number. (Another game where I’ve tripped over this challenge is Fading Suns.) Rolling against a target number, the GM doesn’t need to think about exact numbers. It works quite well for “roll the dice and see if they look pretty.” “You got a 13? Um… sure, that works.” Rolling under a skill level means that the GM needs to either figure in advance what the modifier is or be willing to let players look up pleadingly while saying, “I missed by 2. Do I still succeed?” In general we felt inclined to just roll and say, “Yeah, I failed again” and move on, but that wasn’t very satisfying.

My moment of supreme satisfaction with my self was when our parapsychologist spectacularly failed his occult roll and hence was unable to identify the giant tumbleweed ball rolling though the sky after us. I opined that such a result meant that the thing chasing us must be the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the people in the town that we’d run afoul of must be Pastafarians.

But no one found that nearly as funny as I did. Even after I repeated the joke a few times in the session.

Compared to the Leading Brand

Dark*Matter is not the first and certainly not the last modern horror/conspiracy investigation game. I can only speak to the ones I’m relatively familiar with, so no examinations of how it compares to Chill or Conspiracy X. Also, I cannot speak too much to the setting it provides. The Hoffman Institute seems like a fine plot device for organizing and motivating characters (right up there along the lines of AEGIS, Delta Green, SAVE, Project Twilight, etc), I otherwise had no basis with which to judge it. One or two people voiced a preference for a private organization doing more academic research compared to the gun fondling goodness of Delta Green, but that preference did not stand out for me personally.

Of the games contemporary with Dark*Matter, the only one I’ve played is a few one-shots of Call of Cthulhu. (Delta Green coincidentally came out a year before Dark*Matter.) Despite my complaints about the situation die, I found it at initial glance preferable to dealing with the chart for opposed roles from the CoC book. We didn’t really do much with opposed rolls with the Alternity system, so it may be that it’s even worse when you get down to it. But at initial glance the Alternity system seemed preferable in that regard.

Call of Cthulhu wins out in other avenues for having a Sanity system. It just didn’t feel right to kill children possessed by some sort of monster plague and get chased around the back roads of a ghost town in Kentucky by the Flying Spaghetti Monster and not have it impact our mental stability.

Unknown Armies came out the same year as Dark*Matter. While I haven’t played it yet, the simpler system and robust sanity system seems like it’s much more to my taste. I should have more to report on that front in a few weeks.

Sadly, it’s been a decade since Alternity and Dark*Matter came out and I don’t think the system holds up to some of the other creations in that genre that have come out. Obviously I’m a huge fan of the simple elegance of the new World of Darkness, especially with the Morality/Derangement. (Clearly I’m a fan of having some sort of sanity system, regardless of the focus.) Even d20 Modern feels more elegant in comparison. (It’s no surprise they put out a d20 Modern adaptation of Dark*Matter.) I think it d20 Modern suffers from a host of other problems, but in terms of simple system flow I’m leaning towards it over Alternity.

Final Verdict

I had fun. I’d probably never use the Alternity system for anything. It is, at it’s root, a generic class and level system that at times reminds me of dolled up AD&D 2e. And it has the problem of a lot of systems of the 90s: It tried to stand out by finding new and elaborate ways to roll dice. *cough*Earthdawn*cough* I would be more likely to just poach the setting and run it in nearly any other generic system that appeals to me, with the front-runner being the new World of Darkness. (Possibly even blended with Hunter: The Vigil, depending on the sort of game I’d like.)

Next up: Unknown Armies. And I’m still not running. Totally excited.

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