A Review And Walkthrough
Alma Mater is one of the better known obscure role playing games of the early 1980s, and once you’re done parsing that, we can move on. Ready? Good. Published in 1982 by Oracle Games Ltd, it focused on playing characters in High School. Not mutants, ninjas, aliens, or elves, just boring mundane high school kids… so it was like real life for most of the target audience, except with rules that were explicitly spelled out and clear. Hey, it works for me!
In an era where even a hint of political incorrectness in an RPG will get someone writing an outraged editorial and spark a 500+ page thread on RPG.net (49.9% of the posters will be shrill, self-righteous, holier-than-thou liberals desperately trying to show off their broad-minded commitment to tolerance and diversity by racing to see who can put more people they disagree with on ignore lists (or just get them banned), and 49.9% will be right-wing trolls or apologists who will insist that America is completely free of racism, classism, sexism, and every other -ism, except for violent hate crimes against Christians such as saying “Happy Holidays”, which is just how the Holocaust started, and 0.2% will be people trying to rationally begin with a basic ethical framework and then use that to judge the issue in question, good luck to them), it’s hard to imagine the kind of era that permitted Alma Mater to even be published. It is filled with offensive stereotypes, art that is basically demeaning to everyone, and an utter lack of apologetic or “kids, don’t try this at home” introductions to any section that deals with anything anyone might find disturbing. To be fair, the authors call this out up-front, and, perhaps anticipating the growing death of the sense of humor in America, state outright that the game is satirical in nature. (As opposed to the modern invention, the after-the-fact “I was just kidding” excuse so beloved of pundits and politicians today.)
Really, you pretty much just need to look at the cover to know exactly what you’re getting into — in the game, and in this review. If you go beyond this point, you have only yourself, or perhaps Google, to blame.
By the way, in 1982, Michael Jackson did not look anything like the guy buying the drugs.
So, having shown you the cover, let’s move on to the article proper, shall we?
You ought to know the shtick by now. This is where I flip open the rules and start creating a character. So… we flip!
A lot of the usual boilerplate. The guy in charge is called the Schoolmaster, which sounds like he ought to be involved in a video involving naughty cheerleaders and paddling. The goal of the game is to achieve “success” during one’s four years of incarceration. The rules are intended to be “balanced” and “realistic”, and one is cautioned that the rules for classes, some of which are male-only and some of which are female-only, are not intended to be sexist, and the rules for sex and drugs are intended to help simulate (as opposed to stimulate, I guess) the modern “liberal” high school student. Then we’re told what 20 sided dice are for and given the basic rundown of how to read the rules.
The core mechanic seems to be a roll-under system based on Attribute+Skill on a D10. This being an early 80s game, I am damn sure there will be lots of system-specific mechanics and modifiers. There’s also a “variable die” rule which is used for random situations, to add a random positive or negative modifier that encapsulates all the complexity that isn’t easily categorized. Basically, there’s a lot of different notations for die rolling that are all explained on page 1, before we stumble on them later. That’s good.
For some reason, the heading of this section is “Creative Characters”, not “Creating Characters”, and I have no idea if that’s intentional or not. Weird.
Character attributes are generated by… are you ready for this… randomly rolling. Roll 1d10 7 times, and arrange as desired. The attributes are Strength(ST), Coordination (CO), Appearance (APP), Intelligence (INT), Learning Drive (LD), Courage (CR), Willpower (WP), and Constitution (CON), which is not rolled for. The only one of those that might need explanation for anyone likely to be reading this is Learning Drive, which has nothing to do with cars, per se, but which measures your attitude towards school and your ability to learn. I’m not sure how this isn’t a function of Intelligence and Willpower, but, whatever.
Before I roll, though, I want to look at classes, as that will help me figure out what order to put things in.
Average (AVE): Anyone who doesn’t fit into any other class. Basically, Hufflepuff. You can also choose to be Average no matter your stats. Averages can be male or female.
Brain (BRN): The typical good student/honor roll type. Perhaps because certain archetypes hadn’t congealed yet, there’s no maximum for the Brain’s social attributes. Also a bisexual class. I mean, both males and females can be brains.
Cheerleader (CHR): The typical socialite/popular girl. Not sure if you’re required to actually be a cheerleader. Female only, obviously.
Criminal (CRM): Sleazy leather-jacketed hoodlum types. May be of either gender.
Jock (JOC): Basically, a male cheerleader — the handsome, popular type.
Tough (TGH): Bullies and thugs… not really sure why this is a distinct class from “Jock”, based on my experiences, but who am I to judge? Oddly, Toughs start with 1d5 friends… I say this is odd because the classes which are the popular types (Cheerleader and Jock) don’t automatically get friends, but they have the Friends skill. This might be explained when I get to the skill section. Toughs can be male or female. Lastly, Toughs are the only class, other than Loser, with attribute caps — they can’t have an INT higher than 5 or an LD above 4.
Loser (LOS): “Weak, clumsy, stupid, lazy, cowardly, and dirty” says the rules. You cannot choose to be a Loser; you can only play a loser if you roll no attributes higher than 4. Although the rules note that “sex does not make much difference” to Losers, they can be male or female.
Rolling The Dice
Somewhat surprisingly, I see no rules that modify attributes based on gender… girls can be as strong as boys. So let’s roll some dice and then think about classes!
Seven rolls, then: 9,5,1 (sigh…),8,8,8,9
Uhm…. wow. Why can’t I roll like that when it matters?
Obviously, “Loser” is out. I could be a Tough, if I put the 1 in LD and the 5 in INT, I’d just scrape under the wire. Hmmmm… that might be interesting to try. So, let’s go for this:
STR: 9, CO 8, APP 8, INT 5, LD 1, CR 9, WP 8. This gives me a CON of 17 (STR+WP).
Now, for my social level. The table for this cross-indexes a D10 roll and your class, and some classes can’t be from some social levels — Toughs can’t be above middle class, but that just means I reroll the social level, not that I have to change class. It’s sort of interesting in that you decide what you are and then generate an “appropriate” background, instead of generating a background and seeing what that allows you to be. I got a 3, or “Pr/Mi”. Rather oddly, Jocks have to be middle class or higher… I guess there’s no ghetto kids hoping for an athletic scholarship in this reality. Your Social Level also determines your starting money, based on (INT+APP) * SL *5, which means I have 195.00 in 1982 money, and my allowance is 1% of this, or 1.95/week. Hmm. So this means that parents in Alma Mater world hand out money to their kids based on which one is prettier, all other things being equal. Well, I suppose that’s training for the way the real world works.
Now, how old am I? You’d think all Freshmen would start at the same age, but you’d be wrong! Following the typical pattern of early-80s game, first you use a formula, given as (2*INT)+LD+number of scholastic skills+Variable Die 6, then you look at a chart to see what that formula produces. INT 5, LD 1, and none of the listed skills gives me 11, and a “v6” roll of 3 gives me a -1, for a total of 10, which means I’m 15, as per the chart. Another chart and a roll of no fewer than 4 dice tells me I was born on January 18th.
Now I see if I have any Problems. Problems are determined by Appearance, including mental Problems; the uglier you are, the more likely you are to be gay. Seriously, taking the rules as written, that’s what this implies. (“Homosexuality” is listed under “Unusual Practices”, which you roll for if you get an 18 on the Problem Chart, if you have a Problem in the first place, which you’re more likely to if have a low APP. Lumping homo/bi sexuality in among things like “Paranoia” and “Compulsive Habit” as a “generic mental defect” was pretty common in 70s/80s games, and I think is still in RIFTS, though I’m not sure and am too lazy right now to go look.)
With an Appearance of 8, I need to roll 8 or less to not have a Problem. I rolled a 2, so, no Problem!
This brings us to Skills, which is a good place to stop. Oh, wait. I need a name. “Biff” is the obvious one, and let’s go with “Muntz” for the last name, combining two of fiction’s great bullies. Tune in whenever I get around to it to see what kind of “skills” Biff Muntsz uses when he extorts money from anyone smaller and weaker than him! (And with his stats, that’s almost everyone…)