[Review] Universal Exploits (Alpha Blue); Alpha Blue into Darkness

[Sourcebook]
Universal Exploits (2016)
Venger Satanis (Kor’Thalis Publishing)
Summary: Alpha Blue Revengeance

Disclaimer: Sponsored Content. Also Spicy content. NSFW.

I have some sponsored content to get through. I figured the best way to kick a habit is to ease off gently. You got it boys, that means we are doing another Venger title, the last fucking one for a while before this place turns into a webstore for Kor’thalis Publishing.

Universal Exploits is the 2nd expansion to Venger Satanis’s tongue-in-cheek sleazy-sci-fi game Alpha Blue and follows in the footsteps of Girls Gone Rogue. If you have ever read a Venger Satanis book before, you’ll sort of know what to expect, a hapzardly organized but occasionally funny and inspired collection of random tables, rules and adventure seeds meant to expand upon the Alpha Blue experience. Where Girls Gone Rogue sought to expand the sleaze bit considerably by adding all sorts of random slut generation and cockblocking rules, Universal Exploits seems to be aiming to expand the sci-fi part of Alpha Blue. Indeed, were it not for the occasional mention of boobs and anal (as they do) one could be mistaken for supposing this was a straightforward supplement.

Before I delve into the content, I should point out that the art, by a different roster of artists then the prior two books, looks good…almost classy at times. If we ignore the out of place birds with their fannies out by MG Curves (sorry old son, maybe give them a space helmet or something?),  this supplement could almost pass for a cheezy 60-80s sci fi game, with some awesome pieces of Zedi Warriors in the middle.

I’ve managed to impose some order onto the book by dividing it into three very rough categories that I will go over separately, Character Options, GM Resources and Adventure Seeds. This isn’t a hard division, you will find sections of the book sort of bleed over into eachother but not to the point that it becomes incomprehensible.

Part 0.93371: Character options + Rules

I’ve already recommended Venger put out some sort of ultimate Alpha Blue rulebook containing all the additional mechanics he came up with since the core book came out as the trickle of additional rules and subsystems gets unwieldy. In his defense virtually all the rules are essentially modular, and can be implemented at the GM’s discretion without much regard for upsetting the “balance” of the game. Alpha Blue is not a finely tuned tactical wargame, it is a fast-paced narrative comedic-space game and its rules should be treated as such.

An improvement point here is organization. It would have been helpful if Venger had started out with changes to the fundamental rules THEN improved character creation options THEN additional technologies/equipment etc. Here everything just sorta runs together. The book is only 110 pages and there’s an index but still.

We open with errata from Girls Gone Rogue, result nr. 8 from the space-combat table, the blowjob hit, is replaced by a sub-table of more readily applicable results, with some results for damage from the crew from exploding consoles [1] or the brig malfunctioning and all the prisoners getting set free etc.

The first fundamental change was actually a good one, very much in the spirit of the game. Exploding critical hits that inflict a massive overkill on their target carry over their damage to the next target, described as awesomely as possible. Why not? The whole point of a game like this is to have something that is light, fast, awesome and funny. An ersatz cleave system makes people feel like a badass.

The most questionable rule was the reintroduction of ability scores, something Alpha Blue essentially did without. Characters may roll or choose a single ability from the big six and get advantage on tasks involving that score. They have the option to pick or roll another one if they also pick a score that gives them a disability. This is A MISTAKE. Because of the use of advantage in lieu of bonuses Alpha Blue already has a multitude of devices, rules and mechanisms that can give you advantage on a roll, introducing an entire category of rolls that a character is automatically good at should come at a cost. I recommend having players either play vanilla or roll both a good and a bad ability score.

There’s some genuine improvements and nice additions here. An expanded origin table in case you exhaust the possibilities of the previous one. An unarmed combat rule (Alpha Blue was never about equipment optimization but getting disarmed should have some sort of mechanical effect to accompany the narrative peril). Rules for cloning so the short lived characters of Alpha Blue have something to sink their money into to extend their campaign (and turn it into Paranoia).

I have to complain about the order in which these sub-systems are placed. It’s essentially random. One moment the book will be rambling about the Federation as the villains of the setting, being an evil bureaucratic government with 90% of its inhabitants living below the poverty line and introducing tables of motivations for joining the revolution, the other moment it will introduce rules for cockblocking (didn’t you already include cockblocking rules? I can’t believe Girls Gone Rogue didn’t have Cockblocking Rules) random cellblock denizens, npc relations (with 80% involving sexual relationships of some kind, although I have to say the idea of meeting the Station Commander of Revan II and finding out it is your ex-wife does sound hilarious), fucking DOMAIN MANAGEMENT RULES.

Yes. Yes Alpha Blue has domain management rules now. They maybe sort of work in a storygame way but require a lot of abstraction and winging it. This one needed some more time in the cooker. Your domain has a bunch of stats: Loyalty, Resources, Population, Money, Influence, Military. You roll 1d4-1 for each. What happens when the result is a 0 hoss? I mean I can come up with something, like rolling twice and taking the lowest result. It’s not unworkable, but help us out here hoss, it just takes a sentence.

So let’s try to generate an Alpha Blue Domain for shits and giggles. Our hero Buck Starthrust has aquired a (roll) Enormous Ship (A Battlecruiser let’s say) via (roll) a poker game. Of course. So his battlecruiser has Loyalty 3, Resources 2, Population 2, Money 0, Influence 2, and Military 0. Uh…this guy is essentially Zap Branigan and we will say his ship, the Strong Male Ally, was originally a battlecruiser but has been overhauled to a cruise ship for elderly women.

So if Buck wanted to invade a neighbouring planetary system we would roll military, possibly with some sort of penalty if the planet is much more powerful then we are (this isn’t covered in the book, but everything else seems to work this way). I feel the difference between resources and money is insufficiently pronounced since the two are essentially interchangeable. I can see some of the stats like Loyalty coming into play if the crew has to make a difficult decision, Money if it wants to bribe someone and Influence could be used to resolve matters peacefully but SWN this ain’t. Too broad hoss.

For the sake of the setting, it is nice to have prices listed for planetary colonization or various large construction projects, if only to get a bit of a grasp. I will say that Alpha Blue’s rates for weapons of mass destruction seem to be obscenely cheap, with 10.000 credits, or 10 sets of body armor, being sufficient to afford one.

Then there is the bizarrely evocative little subsystem to determine someone’s origin which manages to convey the entire structure of the known universe with a simple random table and evokes images of wealthy Central Worlds basking in plenty while on spacers carrying blasters openly eke out a meagre existence on the periphery, fought over or forgotten by all manner of foreign powers. It’s Star wars with a whiff of Star Trek TOS without all the trivial background lore that rendered Star wars an autistic mess.

After that you are bombarded with random tables but each table is coherent and adds to the setting. I think it was Kent who commented (soberly?) on Melan’s Blog that random tables were originally used to convey something infinitely larger in the GM’s head, and it was only the underlying coherence that made them worthwhile? Universal Exploits has effective tables if only because at some point you can anticipate the next result. If you had not gotten the idea behind Alpha Blue before it is inevitable that it will instill it in you now.

I will also give kudos where it is due and point out that many of these tables are useful in coming up with something on the fly, something that Alpha Blue seems very much designed for. For what reason is the Federation Officer trying to fine you? Randomly generated passengers trying to get gray passage somewhere. Rates for cargo and shipping, travel times, these are not bad rules, but the organization likely means that they will be hard to find. I can’t even imagine the horror of having to palm through three pdfs in the middle of a game looking for my travel time table. The presentation could be a lot stronger.

Then we are again hit with a career perks table that allows PCs to gain a minor reward (randomly generated) every time they act according to their character class which is honestly not bad and a nice alternative to levelling up. Perks can vary from a free drink, an alliance with some type of planetary government, to learning some sort of nerve pinch technique or having a sex move named after you. This system is probably one of the best things in Universal Exploits and offers a character reward system that is much more differentiated then the usual increase in hit points that Alpha Blue offers. It’s a perfect combination of fluff and crunch that enhances the original in a minor but significant way.

I should point out that in contrast to some of Venger’s later works like Dead God Excavation or Battle for the Purple Islands most of the tables in this game that are not about cockblocking or gargling purple prism or whatever other stupid shit are full of gameable shit. The npcs have action potential, they are doing shit, implying shit or otherwise a vector associated with them. They are alive and indicative of a living and breathing world, no matter how cartoonish.

Options for the BB5 inspired Telepath background and rules for drug addiction are again reminiscent of a more serious take on Alpha Blue, with the drug addiction rules covering most elements of the game. Using drugs in Alpha Blue can be a great advantage…for a while.

Part 2.194: Setting 

Gradually the focus of Universal Exploits shifts a little bit and starts covering the setting. While a lot of rules are added to cover what should be fairly common events like shipping freight costs or federation official bribery, the setting isn’t really expanded despite some details. We are introduced to both the darker station of Revan III, where everyone has a secret (some of it sexy) but there is little reason not to just use the table for visitors to Alpha Blue. Universal Exploits, a sort of temp-agency for adventuring spacers is introduced, but there is not much expansion beyond the convenience of its existence.

I think this is the part where Universal Exploits kind of disappoints. If Girls Gone Rogue focused on something that made Alpha Blue distinct from other sci-fi games, namely the sleazy sexy parts, UE feels more like a conventional expansion, filled with useful but never essential optional rules and failing to expand the outlines of the setting it created in Alpha Blue. There’s tables galore to expand your game and these are useful, but they are additions to what was already there.

Part 3.351 Adventure hooks, advice and outlines

Arguably the weakest part of the book, the adventure section goes into the structure of an Alpha Blue adventure, which caused me to scratch my head a little as it often purports itself to be a sandbox game, following a fairly rigid but immediately familiar 7 scene adventure template for relatively short sessions not unlike the structure of your average sci-fi episode (so its appropriate).

Scene 1: Characters are doing normal shit.
Scene 2: Characters stumble onto something unexpected, either by accident or design
Scene 3: Characters take their first step towards reaching the goal
Scene 4: Something unexpected side-tracks them, the left field obstacle must be dealt with
Scene 5: Re-focus and they discover the bigger picture
Scene 6: Final Battle
Scene 7: Conflict resolved business as usual or further adventure ensues

To which I would arrogantly propose the following superior 5-part alternative.
Scene 1: In their normal routine, the characters stumble onto something unfamiliar or tantalizing (you don’t need an establishing scene, just do it at the end of the scene)
Scene 2: Initial headway is made, characters must talk to an informant or raid a hideout or something
Scene 3: Unexpected setback, threat is greater then it appears, villains hire ex-blade runner to hunt the characters down etc. Bigger picture is discovered either at the end or at the beginning of the scene
Scene 4: Characters must either gain help, get better gear, assault some sort of secondary obstacle or weak point or in some other way cope with the adversary’s newfound strength
Scene 5: Final Showdown. Final boss is always a degenerate version of Boba Fett with increasingly unlikely arsenal of exotic weaponry (shoulder mounted rocket launchers, space-mini gun, weird space shuriken). Business as usual can be dealt with as a monologue or a few cheesy one-liners while the Kung Fury Soundtrack plays in the back.

But regardless, the problem here is that, as written, Alpha Blue seems almost built for tangents and a means to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory playstyles would have been valuable.

Regardless, Venger illustrates the above principle in several adventure outlines in the back of the book, being so generous as to include some sample statts for the final smackdown. Then immediately he breaks his outline above.

1: Characters are hired by Universal Exploits to prevent war between two species by figuring out who is behind the attacks on Purple Prizm [2] shipments
2: Characters are interrupted on their way to the Vertuda Triangle (location of the last shipment) and encounter Revolutionary vessel pursued by Federation vessels. Ship offers minor reward for aid of a colony. Adventure assumes the PCs will side with the Revolution (not very sandbox), but to its credit offers the option of putting a large bounty on the rebel leaders head so the PCs can backstab him later
3: Characters trace Revolutionary vessel into asteroid base and must contend with mad scientist creating slut-monster (frankenslut) from various girl parts.
4: Now on colony, PCs go to recruit other rebel and fight swarm of seemingly random cyborg marauders
5: Finally arriving at the Nebula, PCs discover that neither species was behind the disrupted shipments and its actually some other, more assholish group.

You will observe that, and I swear to god I wrote that outline without reading the adventure, Venger’s intial adventure actually bears much closer resemblance to the structure I SUGGEST then his own and is otherwise composed of many tangents that would be somewhat tedious to follow.

My problem with this and the other adventures in the book is that by this time we KNOW how to write an alpha blue adventure and unlike the Very Good adventure in Girls Gone Rogue the stuff in Universal Exploits feels like a step backward. There is more railroading, and some of the interesting dilemma’s, volatile scenarios or mexican standoffs of the adventure in Gone Girl or THOT Audit are absent.

Universal Exploits has some nice rules and interesting tables that can contribute to your game of Alpha Blue, but I was never convinced of its necessity. It fails to succesfully expand the potential of the setting proposed in the core rulebook or introduce interesting factions and lacks the focus of its predecessor, coming across as just another supplement. Fans and completionists will want to check it out, casuals can afford to give it a miss or wait for a sale. Final Verdict: ** or 4.5 out of 10.

Check it out here.

Obligatory Bookfagging:

Sons of the Emperor, the first Primarchs anthology for the Great Crusade Era of Warhammer 40k, was a mixed bag, containing some nice fluff pieces and the suprisingly good story The Mercy of the Dragon by Nick Kyme, but the presence of THREE stories that take place after the Great Crusade/Primarch era is dissapointing and somewhat jarring. If you stuck with the series this far, odds are you already own it and the additional detail on pre-heresy human cultures is welcome but everyone else should give it a miss.

A surprise hit, Shadow Prowler by Alexey Pehov had me groaning by page 30 and cheering by page 40. I discovered to my dismay that it was yet another fantasy novelist who had turned his dnd campaign into a book, then discovered to my delight THAT IT WAS DA BEST DND FANTASY CAMPAIGN NOVEL EVAR. Pehov somehow manages to inject his misanthropic thief character and his colourful companions with a life that tends to be missing from licence fiction, transcending the sometimes clunky names and translation (Kronk-a-Moor, King Stalkon, Avendoom etc. etc.). All that bullshit blurb on the cover of “writing like a young moorcock” or “reminiscent of Fritz Leiber” and its just dnd on acid. I can’t for the life of me if Magician was any good, but I am still amazed at the inability of licenced DnD fiction to be worth anything while the occasional dnd inspired fantasy dime-store novel can reach it all the way up to entertaining. Quaint and charming.
[1] I can’t recall who pointed it out, but it was a genius observation that exploding consoles started out in Wrath of Khan so as to simulate damage during the Kobayashi Maru and idiot Voyager writers took it over willy nilly and thus Federation vessels were from thereon out cursed with exploding
[2] Halluciogenic aphrodesiac softdrink


8 thoughts on “[Review] Universal Exploits (Alpha Blue); Alpha Blue into Darkness

  1. You make some good points, hoss. The ability score option and domain rules came to me and I thought, “Why not include them here?” The adventure template was only meant to be a suggestion. While I don’t follow any kind of template myself when writing scenarios, there are certain things I try to be mindful of – like the mid-adventure complication, etc.

    While not essential, it’s simply MORE. Extra Alpha Blue content that can be plugged into your game at any time. Aside from Alpha Blue itself, Universal Exploits is the largest book for that game, and it’s loaded with ideas everywhere. If you plan on running a sleazy scifi campaign, I think you’ll want to pick it up.

    Just my 2 credits…

    Like

    1. No problem Venge, thanks for taking the criticism well, as usual.

      The ability score I feel would be fixed with the modification I outlined below. The template was a little jarring because of the very improvised, free-flowing style of play you usually describe, and I just saw an opportunity to tighten it up a little bit.

      MORE Alpha Blue is probably the best description for Universal Exploits.

      Like

  2. The thing I love about indie RPGs is the best ones are idiosyncratic expressions of the creator’s personality and interests rather than the reheated gruel we get from Wizards of the Coast. That being said, I struggle to imagine what the audience for a sci-fi sleaze tabletop RPG is. Single male baby boomers that openly discuss the finer points of hardcore pornography with their friend group? Trekkie swinger couples? Is this the equivalent of those RPG products that are meant to read rather than played, but with masturbation instead of reading? Unlike, say, Carcosa or Gardens of Ynn or Deep Carbon Observatory, I can’t image any Alpha Blue product being played by more than a dozen or so very strange people. But what the hell do I know? Kort’thalis Publishing keeps pumping out product with good art, so product must be moving.

    Like

    1. In some cultures, maybe it’s weird to talk about murdering people with friends. Haha. Sure, it can be uncomfortable… but if you give it a chance, it can be a lot of fun; freeing, even. Like an “adults only” party game, X-rated Trivial Pursuit? 😉

      I’m going to start BDSMing Alpha Blue on Roll20, right after a month or two of Cha’alt. So, there’s opportunity afoot.

      Like

      1. Its not the sexual aspect that I don’t understand but the Venn diagram problem. There are people who like raunchy party games; there are people who like classic sci-fi; there are people who like indie, OSR-like RPGs. But those are all niche interests. I don’t imagine there are many people that like all three and have enough similarly-inclined friends to get a game of Alpha Blue off the ground.

        Like

      2. Well, let’s take a look, shall we?

        Do most gamers like vintage scifi? Yes. Do some of them like traditional/OSR games? Yes. Do those same people like sex? Probably. Now, do they want to roleplay sleazy situations with others around the game table? Maybe.

        There you go…

        Like

      3. I wouldn’t be too sure about vintage sf and gamers. Fantasy always seems a bit more accessible, though I’ll give you credit for picking Star Wars, which is by far the most accessible of space franchises. So you’ve already cut part of the overal roleplaying public out. OSR games is a sub-set of the hobby and Alpha Blue is kind of fringe-OSR so again, part of that, points for having a segment mostly inhabited by boomers and starry-eyed dads with dreams of producing their home campaign, then add sex into the mix…OOF. I feel the concept probably would have worked better if you had done it under the Fate system and marketed it to polyamorous queerfolk or the furry community but sometimes you gotta row with the oars god has given you.

        Like

      4. Long time ago, I attended this “how to be a porn film producer” weekend seminar in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. One of the key takeaways was that niche is king. Niche is KING!!! If you’re trying to be like everybody else, you’ll never stand out and customers won’t have a good reason to favor you and your products over the next guy. Niche is king, motherfuckers…

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s