Alter Data Out Now!

Alter Data is a post-cyberpunk roleplaying game. Enter an abandoned library built by an elusive AI to find what you need to save humanity–but all great deeds require sacrifice.

It’s a game-in-a-box post-cyberpunk experience. It has rules for standard play, character creation, and telling the story of a venture to the Library, a megastructure built by a now long-gone AI that houses secrets that could save humanity–if anyone ever returned.

You can find it now on itch.io and DriveThruRPG. If you’re a past DriveThruRPG customer, you should also have received a discount code with a link to it. If you’re a SubscribeStar subscriber, I don’t currently have access to the account because my main laptop is in the shop, but you can reach out to me on Twitter or Discord and I’ll get you sorted out. Once I’ve got access, I’ll add it to the subscriber games.

About

Alter Data is a game with a lot of different inspirations. It’s post-cyberpunk, with a variety of nods and inspirations from all over the genre. It’s not explicitly a horror game, though it can be run as one. My main vision was to make an action-survival game that centers on a moral dilemma, which I won’t spoil here.

Obvious inspirations include games like STALKER, Prey, and System Shock (and its successors), though most of these have a horror element that I don’t consider influential. Some of my visual design and universe is inspired by the likes of Deus Ex, especially the reboots, though the thematic elements are closer to the original Deus Ex.

One part of making a video-game inspired tabletop roleplaying game is that you want a relatively simple and straightfoward resolution system, which I think the dice pull off very well.

To encourage more storytelling, each player develops their character’s memories during character creation. These are not strictly biographical, though they don’t have a direct gameplay use. The more important goal with these was to make sure that they help emphasize a connection to the world and a storytelling focus to the game.

Mechanically, the game is fairly simple, with a blend of static attribute ratings (which can decrease during play) and personae (which are resources that can be expended to gain bonuses or avoid problems).

The actual difficulty of the game is relatively easy. It’s not built to mercilessly punish players, and it gives a lot of room for development. In fact, it’s almost built around the idea of kid’s gloves, with the resource management and consequence mechanics serving as a spotlighting tool rather than a serious threat to most characters.

Visual Design

Going into Alter Data was interesting. I’ve been using Midjourney for a while, but for part of Alter Data’s development I capitalized on how they were testing a new Stable Diffusion based model. While it had issues that led to its (temporary) retirement, it has lots of potential and generated some images that I could use very easily for marketing materials and high-attention pieces, which is a significant improvement over the older images that were much more temperamental and would have required software I don’t have access right now to prepare for publication.

My main laptop is currently off for repairs. This imposed several limitations, the most odious of which is that I didn’t have my usual PDF layout application, Affinity Publisher. The computer I’m borrowing could probably run it, but I didn’t want to have to install it and then uninstall it later, plus it would be just barely eking by.

So I used PowerPoint to make the pages, and Word to do a print-friendly version that can be used as a companion or alternative.

A screenshot of a section of the book, featuring three of the beta renders as well as an abstract render made with an older version of Midjourney. The warning sign was made in Inkscape.

The color scheme of black, gold, and white is fairly obviously inspired by art déco and baroque sources, plus my personal appreciation for the rebooted Deus Ex games’ aesthetics.

I worked in PowerPoint, which gave an added flair but also limited some of my productivity, because I wasn’t using full-scale layout tools. This opened up room for a much more intensely illustrated work, and I think it worked out in terms of boldness and identity.

Alter Data’s Goals and Risks

Alter Data isn’t really experimental, but it does a few things weird. One is the dice system, which is relatively novel, but since I was mostly leaning into it as a probability mechanism I don’t think it’s as interesting as it might otherwise be. There are the personae, which make things a little more interesting, but they’re not super-duper common throughout the game.

One thing that’s a little risky is that some mechanics are hidden from the players until they reach certain points in the scripted game. This means that Alter Data is really best for playing Alter Data, and it raises questions that might not be immediately obvious on the game’s surface.

I don’t think this is going too far off the rails, but it’s certainly a little bit outside the wheelhouse of more traditional roleplaying games. In Paranoia, where knowing the rules is explicitly off-limits, at least players know that there’s a rule about not knowing the rules.

In Alter Data, it’s more subtle, with basically extra mechanics added on.

That’s something that you see in video games and some TTRPG adventures, but it’s relatively rare.

This partly goes in with the moral dilemma, but it also makes things more costly to players.

Despite this, it’s not a horror game. You might end up sacrificing yourself, but I want it to feel heroic and not miserable. It can go that way, but the actual resource system is very generous. It would take something like 12-15 abject failures for a character to have burned through their proficiencies and entered actual danger territory, and unless you’re rolling for everything (though there’s nothing to say that each player doesn’t roll individually to, say, climb up an area, and potentially fall while doing so).

This is up to the GM to decide on how they want to run it in the end. It could be that the player characters are just that competent. Historical destiny may be taking the reins. Or maybe there’s something else going on.

Post-Mortem Thoughts

I made Alter Data in PowerPoint because I don’t have access to my usual tools. I made the character sheet in Inkscape, which I don’t really recommend because of text handling issues. This means that it’s probably got some issues like resolution and whatnot, though it’s explicitly not meant for print.

The 3:2 aspect ratio has grown on me a little, but I don’t think it’s a great platform for all games. It might be a good platform for my shorter games, especially in real page layout software and not PowerPoint.

This is also the first time I’ve sent out an email for one of my commercial releases on DriveThruRPG, I think. It got a good response, all things considered, when paired with a relatively generous $1 off coupon (on a $3 game).

Is it something that pushes the envelope beyond my previous capabilities? Maybe. I’m very proud of the aesthetic and the final look.

But the game stuff feels merely competent to me. Well-executed, hopefully, and proof that the big/little model works. I’m looking forward to an extended version of Jovia, which will be my next game.

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