Review of Alpha Blue

I couldn't help thinking of this movie while reading this book.
I couldn’t help thinking of this movie while reading this book.

Summary

Alpha Blue is a charmingly fun romp through pulpy, R-rated science fiction. It is chock-full of fun tables that I believe would be a good addition to any less-than-serious campaign.

Note

This is a review of a complementary PDF from the author, Venger Satanis. I’ve generally given positive reviews of several other of his works. I’m also finalizing a second draft of an adventure for his Crimson Dragon Slayer RPG. Something to keep in mind before reading the rest of this review.

Just the facts

Alpha Blue is 114 pages with a black and white interior (grey-scale images) with a colour outer cover and interior maps (in the PDF, the map spreads across 4 pages, but in print it might be a fold-out spread).

Usability

Preview of one of my pieces donated to an upcoming Alpha Blue adventure on Kickstarter
Preview of one of my pieces donated to an upcoming Alpha Blue adventure on Kickstarter

The PDF is extremely well bookmarked and organized: the best so far from this publisher! The table of contents is fully functional and click-able. While a hefty file size (about 60 MB) the pages load quickly and aren’t bogged down with slow loading times thanks to the simplicity of the watermarks and the black and white artwork.

The chapter titles are very clear and obvious about their contents, so it is very easy to scan through the index to find what you’re looking for.

There are two character sheets: one in full colour (for screen use, I guess, unless you have a high-quality colour printer) and a grey-scale print version. While both are very, very nice looking and have a simple, straightforward grid layout, I would rather have had a purely black and white version without watermarks.

Included are a few pages for notes: probably more useful in print than on the screen.

The map of the space station is super pretty but again, not very print-friendly unless you’re using high quality colour. It has contains no numbering or letters (so no predetermined locations) which is okay if the spirit of the campaign is mostly an open-ended sandbox anyway. But since there are several sample locations, NPCs and encounters in the book (a whole chapter, actually), this would have been nice; otherwise it’s totally up to the DM where these things are placed.

Typical NPCs on board Alpha Blue (from the Flash Gordon movie)
Typical NPCs on board Alpha Blue (from the Flash Gordon movie)

Art & Layout

Overall a very good presentation: the artwork is top-notch for Korthalis publishing and the layouts are clean. But I still have a few minor gripes (because I’m a stickler about these things).

The following bit might get a little technical if you’re not into typography or desktop publishing (like InDesign).

Typography

kilgoretrout
Surely this was inspiration for Venger…

The body text is a serif font that would look great in print but on a screen feels a bit blocky. The leading feels a little tight but the 2-column layout makes it easier to read.

The main headings are in all-caps and use a very stylized sci-fi font, which works, but if it were any smaller it would be harder to read. I’m not fond of the style for some sub-headings: they are inverted (white text with thin black outlines) and were difficult for me to read without enlargement. I wouldn’t recommend doing that next time, but it isn’t super serious. The spacing before and  after headings keeps them close to their content: a detail that I simply love.

While the watermarks are mostly on the sides of the pages and unobtrusive most of the time, they still kind of annoyed me when they appeared behind text. Most readers may never even notice this, but I wanted to mention it (patterned watermarks behind text is a major pet-peeve of mine).

The page numbers are nice and clear and the overall page layout has just enough white space to make things breathable.

Tables

The tables all have the same look and feel: simple, clear and usually easy to read. I kind of wish the content had been adjusted a little to allow tables to stay within one column or page, but it’s not the end of the world.

Please note that a few of the tables require a d30. There’s a simple workaround if you don’t own one, of course (1d3 + 1d10).

Artwork

Preview of one of my pieces donated to an upcoming Alpha Blue adventure on Kickstarter
Preview of one of my pieces donated to an upcoming Alpha Blue adventure on Kickstarter

Overall quite impressed with the quality: it’s on par with the rest of the publisher’s library. There are multiple artists but they all tried to stick with the look and feel of the setting: campy science fiction movies, comics, tv shows and pulp book covers from the 70s and 80s. There’s some Star Crash, Heavy Metal magazine, Barbarella and lots of nods to pop culture in general.

The tone varies: some of it looks pretty standard science fiction fare (PG-rated) while others have full-on nudity. A couple of pieces were disturbing to me in a H.R. Giger sort of way (weird images that include hints of genitalia or pregnancy).

Besides one or two pieces that seemed to embrace the sleaze factor a little too much for my tastes, the art was fitting for the subject matter.

Chapters

This is a quick run-down of the main sections of the book and my overall impressions.

The System

Caroline Munro, Starcrash, 1979
Caroline Munro, Starcrash, 1979

As Venger (the author) himself states, Alpha Blue is not just a setting but a set of rules that are a cross between two of his other products: Crimson Dragon Slayer and The Outer Presence. That is to say a very rules-light game with hints and tastes of the OSR (Old School Renaissance: there’s even a brief section on converting rules from other games). There’s an elegantly simple dice pool mechanic that uses only d6s: the highest result on any of the rolled dice dictates the degree of success or failure. Rarely will anyone roll more than 3d6 at once.

What I like about this chapter is that it includes a few dials to make the game a bit more lethal or heroic (to suit your gaming group’s tastes).

In keeping with sci-fi tropes, it has a handy little system for wounds, dismemberment and artificial limb replacements. Lots of fun because it is short and sweet; not too complicated.

Creating a Character

In my opinion, this section really shines because it is re-usable in other science fiction or gonzo games. You’ve got occupations (both respectable or scoundrels), mutations, alien generators (physical traits and social/cultural behaviours), past experiences (which both provide background context and ties each character to the setting in some way, for good or ill), fashion (what is your character’s unique outfit?), associations with organizations or factions, a recycled robot companion (my favourite idea) and… of course… sexual orientation and fetishes.

The reader needs to approach this work with an understanding of the author’s intentions: to be light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek. It should be noted that this isn’t some cringe-worthy “Book of Erotic Fantasy”. This is funny camp, through and through.

I think that it could’ve used a few more table content for people of other sexual orientations (well, there IS a small table for those groups, but I think that it would be great to enlist some authors of those persuasions to produce a few more entries to help make a more diverse setting).

Stuff about the Universe

This chapter outlines some of the biggest antagonists, interesting setting features and a few generators, like weird cyber devices, space encounters, and derelict space hulks (think Alien and Warhammer 40k).

Some fun stuff here. Just enough fluff to be useful to a DM with limited time or interest in reading tons of prose about a premade campaign setting. The generators are, again, useful in any science fiction RPG. They’re almost like the ones in Kevin Crawford’s famous Stars Without Number: system-agnostic tags.

Everything You Wanted to Know about Alpha Blue but Were Afraid to Ask

This chapter is specifically about the Alpha Blue space station… er space brothel. It’s a delightful mix of:

  • Star Trek’s Risa
  • Jabba the Hutt’s palace
  • the Restaurant at the End of the Universe
  • Ming the Merciless’ palace

It covers things to do (hint: naughty stuff), things to obtain (e.g. drugs) and things to catch (e.g. venereal diseases). There are hooks, complications, a robot generator and lots of random encounters and tables of all kinds. One of my favourite feature of the station is a really funny homage to Douglas Adams (I won’t spoil it).

Again, I like the content here: it’s very useful, in conjunction with the previous chapter, for setting up a session (or campaign). You could run Alpha Blue a hundred different ways thanks to these two chapters.

Sections on Alpha Blue

This chapter goes into more detail about specific locations. Most of the descriptions are limited to a paragraph or two, so one could read through and remember things without too much effort.

There are a few fun tables to generate encounters or cool details at some of the more interesting locations, such as holodeck mishaps and weird cocktail names (think Pan-Galactic-Gargle-Blaster).

As already mentioned, I wish that these locations were already referenced on the very elaborate map included in the book. There’s a lot here and it will take some GM prep to position everything in a way that makes sense.

A bit brief, but considering the plethora of things that can happen thanks to the previous two chapters, it’s enough for me.

Scenario Star Seeds

If the previous three chapters don’t generate enough ideas, this one has  a dozen or so adventure seeds. Some of these are tame enough to be a standard episode of Star Trek the Next Generation… others are like setting the scene of a movie like Flesh Gordon.

Lots of decadent alien mob bosses to assassinate on Alpha Blue
Lots of decadent alien mob bosses to assassinate on Alpha Blue (artist unknown)

NPCs

Here are a few pre-written NPCs. They’re alright: I’m more interested in what can be generated from the previous chapters, though.

Technology

This is essentially a page with a few unique items (like space magic items). To be honest this feels like a bit of an afterthought: I wasn’t all that impressed or interested.

Potential Enemies

This mini-bestiary is definitely a great start if you’re playing Alpha Blue without any external material or reference (or don’t want to bother converting anything). We’ve got funny, gross, campy and a suitable “mook” stat block. Serviceable, if brief. Easy enough to customize.

Campaign Advice

Another nice inclusion to this book: almost a mini-companion to Venger’s How to Game Master like a F@#$ing Boss zoning in on science-fiction tropes. Again not very long but I really liked what was included here.

Conclusion

I recommend Alpha Blue for anyone wanting to run a light-hearted and/or pulp-y science fiction campaign. While it has an established setting, it wouldn’t be very difficult to use it as a system for a larger cosmos, especially if paired up with other material, such as Kevin Crawford’s Stars without Number (which has a free PDF version at DriveThruRPG!).

The subject matter, content and artwork will not be for everyone, especially those who do not want any sexual content in their games, even for comedic effect. Luckily, as is usual with Venger’s works, you can get a very good idea of what this book is about by looking at the cover.

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