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Interview with Bill Slavicsek and Richard Baker
by James Maliszewski
 

TSR has been at the forefront of roleplaying games design since it more or less invented the hobby back in the early 1970's. Since that time, TSR has been known primarily for its successful Advanced Dungeons & Dragons fantasy game line. Its forays into science fiction roleplaying never proved as popular as AD&D. That trend may change with the release of Alternity, its new SF RPG. While it is still too early to tell for certain, there are good indications that Alternity has had a big impact on the roleplaying world. I had the chance to ask a few questions about the game from its designers, Bill Slavicsek and Richard Baker.  

 

Could you briefly outline the origins of the Alternity project and how you became involved in it? That is, when did TSR decide to create a new set of SF rules and why? How did you land the job of its designers?
Rich: Back in 1995, Bill Slavicsek, Lester Smith, and Dori Hein decided to present TSR’s management with a proposal for a new science fiction roleplaying game. Science fiction had been on the upswing throughout the 90’s, so it seemed like a good move for us to get back into the sci-fi game market. It took quite a sell job (TSR’s old management could be notoriously suspicious of new ideas), but eventually they convinced the powers that were to put Alternity on the schedule. We wanted to reach out to gamers interested in the genre of science fiction and to build a game that might become the common currency of science fiction gamers everywhere, a system that could fit any science-fiction roleplaying setting.

My role in the Alternity development process began in late 1995, when Lester Smith decided to leave TSR for greener pastures. I joined the team as Bill Slavicsek’s co-writer. Together, we developed the rough sketch of the rules and the first setting into the game that’s out there today.

Bill: I was one of two designers at the time (this would have been in 1994; the other was Lester Smith) who was pushing the company to consider doing a new science fiction game. In early 1995, we got the go ahead to put together a formal presentation. During this period, the initial concepts for the Alternity game and the Star*Drive and Dark•Matter campaign settings were developed. It actually took three formal proposals to get the game scheduled. The final presentation was made to the TSR executives at the Lake Geneva movie theater. I produced a slide show, complete with music and a voice-over, that finally convinced them to let us start the real design work. Originally, the design team consisted of myself and Lester, but when he decided to leave the company, Rich Baker came aboard as my co-designer.

Alternity is almost unique in this day and age in being a set of generic SF roleplaying rules? Do you think that is one of its great strengths?
Bill: Yes, and that’s what we set out to do from the beginning. We looked at TSR’s previous forays into science fiction gaming and came to the conclusion that their greatest weakness was that they were different from what TSR had trained its audience to expect from a roleplaying game. With Alternity, we decided to follow our time-tested model of base rules with the ability to expand both the rules options and the campaign worlds one can use them in.

Rich: Yes, I think it is. The system’s remarkably adaptable, and everyone who tries it out seems to have their own idea about the kind of game they’re going to run with it. The question of whether or not to include a baseline campaign in the core rule books was one that we wrestled with for quite some time, but I think that we ultimately made the right decision.

Critics often call the game "AD&D in Space." While I think that's highly unfair, aren't there a lot of conceptual similarities to AD&D? Was that deliberate?
Bill: In a good design, everything you do is deliberate. We deliberately set out to make Alternity follow the AD&D business model, but the games are significantly different. As far as the business model goes, our customers expect a roleplaying game to come in two hardcover books (one for players and one for gamemasters) with various campaign worlds added on later. Everything else that TSR has ever produced that didn’t follow this model was considered to be an afterthought or a poor cousin to the flagship AD&D game. With Alternity, the presentation is designed to show TSR’s commitment to this new product line. Otherwise, AD&D is a 25-year-old game system designed to handle fantasy in the tradition of Vance, Tolkien, and others. Alternity, on the other hand, is a brand new system designed around a central mechanic and especially crafted to handle the demands of the science fiction genre. We used some of the same terminology developed over the years, but when you get beneath the surface, Alternity is very, very different from AD&D.

Rich: You can’t really blame someone for referring to Alternity as AD&D in space. But I think it’s important to differentiate between a game’s role in the marketplace and its mechanics and play. We very deliberately set out to recreate the AD&D role in the science fiction marketplace; we wanted a game that would be a generic engine for any kind of SF you’d want to play, just as AD&D is a generic engine for fantasy role-playing. The decision to present the game in a Player’s Handbook and a Gamemaster’s Guide was another step toward this goal. As a game system, though, Alternity shares no more similarities to AD&D than an F-15 Eagle shares with a World War Two-era fighter. You can climb into the cockpit of either and find a throttle, a control stick, rudder pedals, and a trigger to fire the gun. But they’re very different planes. Alternity is a much more modern and flexible game than AD&D.

Speaking of similarities to AD&D, the presence of (effectively) character classes and levels has baffled me somewhat. The professions of Alternity are very flexible and not nearly as rigid as true character classes, so why were they included? Likewise, the level structure can be easily dispensed with, so why was it concluded?
Rich: A very large segment of the RPG audience begins playing with the AD&D game; everyone knows and understands the basic concepts. Alternity uses these old concepts as springboards for a modern, mechanically unified game system. We knew we wanted some kind of ability or characteristic scores for Alternity, so why not use the AD&D ability scores as a model? It makes it easier to learn how to play Alternity if you know anything about AD&D.

So, we looked long and hard at the AD&D game when we started to write Alternity, and we used the ideas that we thought would best serve a science fiction game. Sometimes that means that Alternity bears a passing resemblance to AD&D, but more often you’ll find that Alternity is really its own game. Class and level are everything in AD&D, but in Alternity they’re only familiar labels that a skilled player can dispense with if he’s so inclined.

I like Alternity's die mechanic for performing actions. How did it come about? Was it enjoyable to be able to bring out all your old polyhedrals that have been in hiding since the dawn of the "Percentile Age?"
Rich: You’ll have to ask Bill about that; the basic mechanic came out of the initial proposal he and Lester Smith put together. I helped refine it a little, but the die mechanic is Bill’s idea.

Bill: The die mechanic for Alternity was developed from a basic idea Lester Smith presented to me early on in the proposal process. He had the most rudimentary elements of the mechanic, which I fleshed out for our second pitch to management. Later, Rich helped modify the mechanic a bit more, but this essential element of the game is pretty much as I envisioned it after Lester’s initial input.

I’m not sure about the "old polyhedrals" comment. They’ve been a mainstay of AD&D since its inception, and AD&D is still the best-selling RPG out there, so somebody’s using them! We decided to go with them because much of the TSR audience already has them, because we had a cool mechanic that made the most of them, and because we like them a whole lot. It’s fun to roll dice, especially dice with strange and unusual shapes. As far as the "Percentile Age" is concerned, we made a concerted effort to keep d10s out of the game. We felt that including percentile dice would have made it too easy to fall back to them in the design, and we were striving for something new. I think we succeeded.

Star*Drive is the first published setting for Alternity and it's receiving a lot of support. Does TSR plan to publish other settings for Alternity in the future? If so, what might they be?
Rich: You bet! Science fiction is an amazingly diverse genre; we’re only scratching the surface with the Star*Drive setting. We’re planning a second product line for 1999 entitled Dark Matter—I’m afraid I can’t tell you much more than that right now. And we’re also looking into producing "one-shots", stand-alone settings and adventures like the Council of Wyrms or Return to the Tomb of Horrors sets for the AD&D game. There are a lot of great science fiction hooks or sub-genres that might not be appropriate for a major release schedule, but a single book or set centering on a theme we wouldn’t try to hang an entire line on seems like a great way to use the Alternity engine. I ran a short campaign last year that used the Alternity rules for a Wild West Cthulhu game—that’s how flexible these rules are.
I've found that most people like Alternity once they've had a chance to really read the rules or play in a game. What's been the reception of the game among gamers? Is it doing well?
Rich: Very positive, I think. I’ve found that the best sales pitch for the Alternity game is the game itself. People sit down, they try it out, they see how the system works, and they come away excited. All we have to do is convince the buyer to pick up the book, thumb through a few pages, maybe play in a store demo or ask a friend who’s playing Alternity what he thinks of the game. As far as how we’re doing ... in my opinion, Alternity is selling strongly. It’s one of our leading titles this year, and we expect that it will continue to do well for a long time to come.

Bill: We’ve heard the same comments at the conventions this past season: "Oh, that’s just AD&D in space." But when we get to demonstrate the mechanic and show people how the game is played, we win them over. Players love the integrated system, the on-the-fly feel of the mechanic, and the ease of manipulating the level of complexity inherent in the game. Everyone who reads the rules or plays the game loves it.

Finally, is being a professional game designer an enjoyable job? Do you have fun doing it?
Bill: Being a professional game designer is a great job! It’s fun, exciting, creative, and full of lots of challenges that make every day different. I’ve been at this for 13 years now, and no two projects have ever been the same. I get to work with the most talented bunch of people in the industry, creating games and stories for our own enjoyment and the enjoyment of others. I love the hobby, and getting paid to advance the hobby is a dream come true.

Rich: Unless the Phillies wake up and sign me to play left field, I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing. The best part is that my job changes once every few months; I work on a particular game or adventure for a set amount of time, and then I move on to work on something else. There’s always something new and exciting ahead of me. And I get to play a lot of games at work!


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