Tag Archives: Alma Mater

Welcome To Skull Tower, Part XVI

Welcome To Skull Tower, Part XVI

Inns, Holidays, Guilds, And More

Like Wind Chill Factor, For Example

When I Said These Little Books Were Dense With Information, I Wasn’t Kidding, You Know

(Doing This Running Gag With The Headers Mucks Up My SEO, I Think. I Hope You Appreciate It.)

With this 16th installment of our walkthrough of Welcome To Skull Tower, we start delving into the background information about the Arduin setting, previously mostly hinted at obliquely through small fragments of flavor text surrounding the mechanics. Now we get the full-on details of the setting, beginning with a broad, high-level overview that provides a meaningful contextual framework for what is to follow, and then progressively more detailed information, presented in a clear, logical manner that builds on what has gone before in a way that is… (snicker)… a way that… (hee hee)… a way… aw, to hell with it. It’s the same wonderful, glorious, chaotic, insane mess of idea after idea after idea coming at you pell-mell without surcease, and you either leap into the onrushing tide of creativity and ride it, screaming “Wa hooo!” as you surf into a skyscraper (props to anyone catching that reference), or you drown.

Last week, as you recall, Dr. Smith and Will were fixing the planetary astroscope, when a cosmic storm… no, wait. Last week, as you recall, we had a picture of a Hobbit barbarian. (Yes, really. Go to Part XV. I’ll wait. Back? Good.) But, little did you know that that picture illustrated “Comments On Inns And Roadhouses.” What does a Hobbit barbarian have to do with inns and roadhouses? Really, you should know better than to ask.

“You All Meet In A Tavern…”

And why not? As Dave Hargrave notes:

Also, You Can Roll On The STD Table After Seducing A Serving Wench/Stable Boy, As Your Tastes Dictate

Also, You Can Roll On The STD Table After Seducing A Serving Wench/Stable Boy, As Your Tastes Dictate

(No STD table in Welcome To Skull Tower, actually, though there might have been one in Alma Mater, which was illustrated by Erol Otus, so it’s totally related and not just another random digression.)

And then we go into the seasons and the length of the day.

Seriously.

We get a half-page of general comments on inns, followed by a barbarian Hobbit, and then… the length of the day. There is, in fact, a long section listing an assortment of inns ,taverns, etc., but it’s many pages away from the introductory text. Welcome to the 1970s, folks!

It’s Been A Long Day’s Night

Days in Arduin are exactly 25 hours long, with ten hours of night and ten hours of darkness, and 2.5 hours of twilight and dawn. There is no “axial tilt or rotational wobble”. Weeks are six days long, there are 15 months in a year, and there’s a three day “Endyear” period. Each season is precisely 125 days, which sort of leaves the three day “endyear” out of the equation. Taken literally, it would mean the Arduin calendar shifts, relative to the seasons, at a rate of three days a year, so every forty years or so, an entire season is ‘out of sync’, so fall would be where summer is, etc.

The years are in  15-year cycle, as follows:

Those Born In The Year Of The Phantelope Get 10% Off Eggrolls

Those Born In The Year Of The Phantelope Get 10% Off Eggrolls

Presumably, these are symbolic/mystical, like similar cycles in Earth mythology and astrology. It’s a cool idea, especially for setting up plot macguffins, like a ritual which can only be completed in the year of the Scorpion, or a race to get a royal marriage completed during the year of the Sun. I would gather that wars happen in years other than Draconus, and Druids hold festivals all the time, but this kind of thing creates some flavor, and helps invoke a sense of reality in the world — there’s a past to it, with traditions, rituals, and superstitions that aren’t necessarily hooked into what the PCs are doing today. The sparse descriptions — each barely a sentence of vague implications — sets the creative mind a-wandering, and inspires the young worldbuilder (i.e., me) to include such things. Who does not want a campaign that begins with “It was the fourth day of the fifth month of the Grey Year, and…”?

Endyear, by the way, is a riotous time of parties, orgies, and benign anarchy. (Which is, again, the kind of small detail that can be inspiring… and now, as an older, more experienced worldbuilder, I wonder… everywhere? It’s an entire planet! Wouldn’t some cultures treat Endyear as a time of sober reflection, and others as a minor calendar quirk? Are there cranky old phraints and centaurs sitting around, grousing how in their day Endyear meant something, but now, all these kids are just thinking about the orgies, and you can’t even hang up traditional Endyear wicker men, because they’re “offensive” and everything’s all politically correct… But I digress. Big shock, I know.)

Weather in Arduin (the nation; the planet is called Karse, though I’m not sure if this is ever mentioned in this book) varies quite a bit over the course of a year — with no axial tilt, the world must have a much more elliptical orbit than Earth. It resembles, we are told, “Bavarian Germany”, with more insect men and fewer pretzels. Probably. Somewhere in Dave’s copious and possibly lost notes, there’s got to be a page or two on Arduinian pretzels. If we ever get to the post-trilogy books, you’ll understand why I think that.

Speaking of weather…

Wind Chill

Because it would hardly be an old-school supplement if we didn’t interrupt the flavor text with some random information that has no mechanical support, would it? There’s a quick discussion of the dangers of wind and cold, and then a table that correlates wind speed to effective temperature assuming a base of 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and.. erm… that’s it. Nothing to translate this information into game rules.. just a half page of discussion about wind and cold. Why? Maybe it’s something Dave was researching that ended up on the same page as the other topics and got pasted into the book. Maybe he needed a place to stick it, and it ended up here. Who can tell?

Holidays

The next two pages are a listing of the holidays of Arduin, following the pattern of “name and really brief description” we’ve seen elsewhere. Once more — very inspirational. Few worldbuilders, at least in the early days, ever thought about things like this. And the list isn’t just “Fake Easter, Fake Christmas, Fake Fourth Of July”, either. Here. Let me show you a part of it.

My Holidays. Let Me Show You Them.

My Holidays. Let Me Show You Them.

There’s another full page in this fashion. I think these are specifically Arduinian holidays, not global ones. Even given the limited descriptive text, it’s easy to imagine the various celebrations, rituals, and rites which might accompany each day, from desperate lovers buying flowers at the last minute for Woman’s Day, to parades honoring the town’s naval veterans on Aquamass. Ancient rituals might only be performed on the Night of Shagrath, and a child born at midnight on Triangularus may have a destiny both great and terrible. Etc. The real value of this list, and the many similar in the trilogy, isn’t in the information it presents, but in the very idea of it — it’s the kind of thing you instantly want to replicate for your own worlds, something you didn’t realize you were missing until now.

Next, guilds. Or, technically, “Guilds And Societies Of The Arduin Cycle”. A lot of F/SF literature of the time was granted the slightly-pompous title of “Cycle”, to tie it back to older myths… you’d hear “The Elric Cycle” or “The Cthulhu Cycle” on occasion. I think we’re done with that now, with “series”, “universe”, or even “mythos” taking over that role. In any event, why Dave chose a literary term is beyond me; it seems a bit aspirational.

No Guilds Called !!AzzK1kerz!!? How Odd!

No Guilds Called **!!AzzK1kerz!!**? How Odd!

Nowadays, each of these would have a 64 page supplement complete with three Prestige Classes, twelve NPCs, a detailed map of the HQ, and plenty of plot hooks. Back then? You got a name and some words, bub, and you liked it.

The Joy Of Sects

Sorry, couldn’t resist…

Following the secular guilds, we have a similar list of religious groups:

Some Of These Simply Sound Too Damn Awesome For Words

Some Of These Simply Sound Too Damn Awesome For Words

I like how the “League Of Faiths of the Followers of Christ” usually have Christ as their deity. I also want to know more about “the Star Dragon mythos”, or “Mordakk, Doom Fire”, but it is not to be. (At least not in this supplement… there is a 600+ page hardcover, published long after Dave’s death, that provides a lot more information on the setting.)

That’s enough for now, methinks. At this point, we’re looking at either two or three more articles in Skull Tower before we move on to the Runes Of Doom.

Alma Mater, Sophomore Year

Alma Mater, Sophomore Year

The Return of Biff Muntz

As you may recall, far longer ago than I’d like, I posted Part I of this review and walkthrough,  in which I began generating a character for the RPG “Alma Mater”, published in 1982 by Oracle Games, and best known for its Erol Otus art and serious political incorrectness. Today, we continue with the process of character generation. I had just named my character Biff Muntz, and we were about to see if he had any skills with which he could pay the bills… or, being a bully, get the money to pay the bills from someone else.

As a “Tough”, Biff begins with Dirty Fighting, Driving, Drinking or Drug Use, Intimidation, and any one other skill. Well, first, we’ll go with “Drinking”. Skills in Alma Mater come in levels, and if you have a skill, you start at Level 1 (all other skills begin at level 0). For each level in Drinking, Biff can add (or, optionally, subtract) 1 from his Con when drinking. This also gives me a chance to spike someone’s drink without them knowing about it (a bonus of +1 against their Intelligence, so, 1d10+1 against my target’s Int. Hopefully, Cheerleaders have a low Int.) The more drunk I get, the more my skill in drinking increases; this is one reason to use the skill to lower your effective Con… it makes you get drunk faster and thus get more SP to drink.

There’s a lot of good options for other skills, many of which fit with Biff’s personality: Brewing (to make your own hooch), Illegal Economics (buying and selling illegal items), Coolness (to not show fear), Crudeness (as exemplified by the late, great, John Belushi in Animal House, this is the ability to be so disgusting people are actually revulsed… you know, a College version of AM would be pretty easy to create, especially one which focused on the classic “boobs and beers” films of the late 1970s/early 1980s. Revenge Of The Nerds: The RPG!. But I digress.), Lying, Weapons Knowledge, Forgery… this is a great skill list! But I get to pick one, and only one… hmm…

It’s interesting. Since most of your skills are pre-selected, this choice really matters; it’s one of the most defining elements of your character. To drift even more off-topic for a moment, I believe that whatever aspects of your character really matter ought to have mechanical representation. There’s some who say this is the antithesis of role playing; I disagree completely. If your character is shy, or flirtatious, or drinks heavily, or likes to ride motorcycles, or whatever, there ought to be a codified representation of it in the rules set. So, with that in mind, and looking at the skills, I think Biff is going to pick Coolness for his free skill. Why? Because the higher your Coolness, the better you are at picking up girls. At Level 2 Coolness, for example, you don’t need to roll to ask someone for a date. Biff is starting at level 1, of course, so he’ll need to roll his Courage (CR) to ask a chick out. His CR is 9 and he’ll get a +1 from this skill.

Learning new skills is hard. First, you can only have a maximum of 8 skills. Second, you can’t just gain skills through play, though you can improve them. You only get to check for new skills each September, and you need to roll against your LD (Learning Drive), of which Biff has virtually none. So, barring exceptional luck, Biff will just get better at what he already knows, which is pretty realistic. Biff is likely to end his life as a meth addict living in a trailer park, trying to avoid paying child support and watching the nerds he beat up become internet millionaires. Sucks to be you, Biff.

Rules For School

Now, if someone were to make a game on this theme today, it would be some weird Forgey thing with two-inch wide margins on half-size paper, and all the rules would be things like “Contrast your Angst to the opponent’s Pathos and then write a poem that doesn’t rhyme to describe your feelings and everyone involved reaches a consensus evaluation based on how many Trauma points you wagered in the Drama.” Let’s just say… Alma Mater isn’t like that. It’s a true old school game, and, contrary to what the revisionists would like to claim, that means rules. Oodles of rules. And charts. And tables. And, let me just say this… they are wonderful.

Here, for example, is the table of modifiers for dating:

The chart of dating modifiers for Alma Mater

If I'd hard this in High School, it would have been very useful.

You see all those numbers? You get to cross-index everything and work out all the details. The letters on the top, by the way, mean “Dance”, “Flirt”, “Date Request”, “Date Success”, “Seduction”, and “Love”.  Of course, you need to track things like successful or unsuccessful Flirt attempts, and your chances of going steady (which means you don’t need to roll to request a date, but you do need to roll for date success), are based on tracking a large assortment of modifiers, including your successful dates.

Seduction can’t even be attempted unless you roll against CR-1 (Coolness helps here, heh heh), and s the chance is your (INT+APP)/2, minus the target’s WP if they’re “passively resisting”.  Attempting to seduce a character who is “actively resisting”, the rules helpfully remind us, is also known as “rape”. (If both characters are willing, no seduction roll is needed, but both must roll against CR-1.)

There’s oodles of other rules, too. Rules for throwing a party, rules for drugs… hell, for those interested, here’s what drugs were going for in 1982. (Because I was a total nerd in High School, and still am, I can’t vouch for the quality of research of these rules.).

The Cost Of Illegal Drugs In 1982

If you somehow got here while googling for useful information on the cost of illegal drugs in 1982, I feel sorry for you.

It’s a bit of a nostalgia trip, in a way… no meth, no crack, and PCP was still being used by some people. (That was the terror drug of our era, and, like most such things, the problem was pretty much self-correcting; any drug horrible enough that it might actually be as scary as the usual suspects claim will quickly eliminate its users from the gene pool, which also eliminates the pushers. Much like a virus, if it’s too deadly, it eliminates itself. The biggest risk is all the stupid kids who, knowing adults lie about marijuana, assume they are also lying about the things that really can fuck you up for life, or just end your life.)

The rules, charts, and tables just go on and on, and it would be impossible for me to point out every cool thing there is, from an extensive weapons list that provides modifiers for everything from erasers to meathooks to blowtorches(!?), to the random items you could find on people you beat up (divided by class, so you could roll on the Brain Equipment Chart to see what you took from the local nerd, and so on), to the many fine illustrations, such as this one, for combat:

Chick fight!

This Is What Illustrates "Combat" in Alma Mater. Elmore, Eat Your Heart Out.

Now, that’s an illustration! I’d post the one that accompanies the “Dating” rules, but there are kids reading this blog! (Well, not really. There’s no one reading this blog, but, among my imaginary readers are imaginary kids.)

And In Conclusion…

Well, that’s sort of it, really. The bulk of the game is post char-gen, as it really should be. There’s only a handful of real decision points, again typical of the 1970s and early 1980s. For the most part, your character tended to evolve solely after play, with games like Traveller or Chivalry&Sorcery being notable exceptions. Many games, such as Metamorphosis Alpha, had only one or two decision points to make; everything else was either mandated or random. I think that’s it’s indicative of the time that we’d say “I’m going to roll up a dwarf fighter”, even though we mostly couldn’t control what we got; basically, without rules to let us decide what to play, we either cheated outright or we just kept rolling up one character after another until we got what we wanted.

Sadly, there are no rules for playing RPGs within Alma Mater; the possibility of infinite recursion would have been wonderful.