Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Retrospective: Alma Mater

In the annals of this hobby, there are only a handful of RPGs that can claim to be "notorious" and 1982's Alma Mater is one of them. Written by Steve Davis and Andrew Warden and published by a company called Oracle Games in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Alma Mater is one of those games about which most people have strong feelings one way or the other. Subtitled "the high school roleplaying game," it takes its inspiration, according to the authors' acknowledgments from "movies like American Graffiti, Animal House, Grease, Meatballs, and Prom Night, as well as the television series The White Shadow." Almost anyone who grew up in the 70s to early 80s probably understands these references immediately, which are important to keep in mind, as Alma Mater is very much a product of its time.

The game came with a warning on its back cover, indicating that it "deals with mature subject matter and is not suitable for children under 14 years of age." The introduction also stressed this point, noting that it "contains some rather mature subject matter, especially in regards to sex and drugs. We are not making a stand for or against either, but both are common in modern high schools." It's because of this that the game enjoys such notoriety -- as well as its illustrations, including many by old school legend Erol Otus (who drew the cover illustration depicted here). At the time, some within the hobby were scandalized by Alma Mater, with its rules for drug addiction, pregnancy, and constructing explosives in chemistry class. Reading it now, though, I find it more puerile than scandalous, with many of its more sensational elements reflective of Hollywood's depiction of high school than anything occurring in reality.

That said, the idea behind Alma Mater is not without merit. Its basic premise -- creating a fresh high school student and then playing out his or her high school career, with success points garnered in academic, general, and social areas -- is an intriguing one. Indeed, I am surprised no other games covering this subject have ever been written so far as I know. Alma Mater characters have seven randomly generated attributes that determine their qualifications to enter one of seven classes: average, brain, cheerleader, criminal, jock, tough, and loser. Each class grants access to certain skills and, sometimes, special abilities. Skills cover most of the activities that teenagers would likely engage in, as well as those that cinema and TV shows suggest they do. There are rules for combat, random encounters, doing homework and taking tests, dating, getting sick, and many other aspects of high school life. Taken together, they provide a good framework for adjudicating most of the events and activities of one's high school years. Alma Mater also include sample high school (called Central High) and an adventure.

I never owned Alma Mater back in the day, but I knew others who did. It had an aura of "dangerousness" about it, because it was difficult to acquire -- you had to order it direct from the publisher, as I recall -- and lots of people thought it would bring the hobby into even greater disrepute. And of course it had all those naughty Erol Otus pictures in it, which, I'll be perfectly honest, I found far more disturbing than titillating. Otus is the perfect artist for fevered dream fantasies but not my first choice when it comes to depicting salacious scenes of Hollywood-style high schools. Having later had the chance to examine it very thoroughly -- I've still never actually played it -- I can't shake the feeling that, had it not been for the uproar it caused, no one would remember it today. It's a fairly mediocre implementation of a potentially clever idea, hampered by its self-serious attitude about its subject matter, an attitude that's all the more odd given the unreality of the world it depicts.

Except for Erol Otus, I don't recognize the names of anyone associated with this game and I didn't even realize that its publisher was Canadian until I recently re-examined the 48-page rulebook. I can't shake the feeling that there's some great history associated with the game's origins and publication, but, if so, I've never come across them. Instead, all I recall are the denunciations the game received at the time and the way that certain rebellious teenaged gamers, like my friend's older brother, cherished their copies. It'd be very interesting to learn more about this odd little game and the circumstances behind its creation.

25 comments:

  1. I never heard of the game until quite recently but then I was very young in 1982.

    Interestingly I wanted to write a game something like that and compiled a few, mostly mental notes on the topic.

    It never went anywhere though and if I were to revisit the idea (fat chance as I can't get my players to play High School students in Buffy much less Ordinaryville) I'd use Risus as a core and hack a bunch of other stuff into it.

    It would be a hideous kludge but that would reflect my High School experience nicely.

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  2. I dunno, my high school experience had lots of the elements you describe (though no combat.) I've never read the rules, so its hard to say if it really would describe my own rather salacious high school experience.

    I won't play it though. There's no need to relive those rather uninspiring days.

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  3. I actually have a copy of this, socked away somewhere. Never did play it, though.

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  4. I have a copy. I bought it imagining that it would be a kind of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" rpg. I guess in a way it was, but reading the rules made it pretty clear to me that running a high school campaign emulating high school would be less fun than actual high school.

    I prefer "Teenagers from Outer Space" for my HS role playing.

    Alma Mater was indeed shocking to many though, one only need look at the cover to see why.

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  5. I own a copy. And although I've never been that interested in modern age RPG's , i've always had some deep freudian-like urge to play this game with people who went to high school in the late 70's/early 80's.

    It's a strange game that resonates to me in some odd way...

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  6. Teenagers from Outer Space was one of the most fun role-playing experiences I've ever had. I can appreciate the idea behind Alma Mater, but it would get old after a while. Teenagers has an outrageous premise that enables the GM to keep things fresh and constantly focused on character interaction and wacky-fun situations. If the purpose of role-playing is to find yourself in situations that never occur to you in real life, then why would you want to simulate real life itself?

    I had the pleasure of being in a Teenagers game in which the PCs were American exchange students in a Japanese anime high school. Except for us, all the characters were ripped from anime and manga, even the teachers. Loads of fun, and way better than Alma Mater. If someone ran an Alma Mater game set in Arkham, Massachusetts, where some teachers were part of a cult or something (think of The Faculty), that would be cool, but the emphasis on day-to-day life in Alma Mater just doesn't appeal to me beyond a bad trip down memory lane.

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  7. Although if you like an interesting school game I do recommend Hellcats & Hockeysticks by Corone Design (and available from Cubicle 7). Does an excellent job of simulating life at St Trinians ... excuse me, I mean St Erisians School For Girls.

    "What do you mean the sixth form is summoning demons again?"

    I have fond memories of Teenagers from Outer Space. Definitely didn't play enough games of it though.

    Alma Mater, on the other hand, I found to be a rather pedestrian work essentially relying on the tired joke of what would characters in a fantasy role-playing game play if given a chance.

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  8. ...That sounds intensely awesome.
    I'd love to get a look at it.

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  9. As a geeky high school student who was somewhere between a brain and loser, I loved Alma Mater. My freinds and I enjoyed playing it at the time, largely for the same reasons why the guy stressed out at his job enjoys a hack and slash fantasy game during his downtime. It's pure escapism, except this time it's through the filter of 80's school, as told by Fast Times as Ridgemont High or Animal House.

    The direct correlation between the game's subject matter and our stressed out hormone-fueled high school days really can't be underscored. In a way, it's similar to why I think Grand Theft Auto is more fun than Halo. Imagining that you are blasting drug dealer (which could actually be on your street) has more of a visceral impact than blasting some forgettable monster on Planet Wherever.

    We never found the artwork or subject matter of Alma Mater as beyond the pale, but perhaps it's telling that despite its lame animation style or crude humor, we were part of the same demographic that ended up liking South Park years later... :)

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  11. Wow James - I'm continually amazed at your ability at bringing this old stuff to light again. Coming into the hobby around 1989 I missed a lot of this stuff early on. Nice find!

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  12. Hey look! Michael Jackson wearing a hemp t-shirt, buying some viagra!

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  13. If anyone is curious to see them, I posted the outrageous Erol Otus illustrations here:

    http://cyclopeatron.blogspot.com/2010/05/naughty-erol-otus-banned-illustrations.html

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  14. I may have to track this one down. I've wanted to do a couple of different "school" related campaigns in the past: One, a more serious "Harry Potter" wizard school type and one, a Monster High School type, where the players are all monster types at a high school learning to protect dungeons and defeat adventurers. I could never really get my head around how I wanted to handle everyday classes and mundane events though. Maybe this would help...

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  15. The "throat stabbing on the basketball court" is actually one of my favorite Otus images.

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  16. At the time, some within the hobby were scandalized by Alma Mater...

    No kidding. Banned form GenCon by TSR, and Elizabeth Danforth, as editor of Sorcerers Apprentice magazine, wrote an editorial condemning the game that reached the timber of shrill moralistic tirade.

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  17. Now I've never played a high school RPG but I have played enough Little Fears: Nightmare Edition to imagine that it wouldn't interest me. Of course, Little Fears NE has monsters from the primal subconscious to barrel through the grade and middle school micro-drama every once and a while, so it's not much of a problem.

    Still, I'd be interested in trying it just to see how it would work.

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  18. "Red Dawn" "Toy Soldiers" "Goonies" numerous horror movies, are examples of highschool games I might want to play in, but it doesn't sound like this is set up for that style of play.

    Wolverines!!!!

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  19. I bought Alma Mater a few years ago because I collect role-playing games and I'm a fan of Erol Otus, but I'd never play it after having read it. I spent my free time in junior high and high school role-playing partly because I hated junior high and high school. Nothing could induce me to role-play high school unless it was significantly more fantastical, such as Teenagers from Outer Space. Now that was a great game!

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  20. Wow, you've got to say that Erol Otus really committed to the bit on that project (looking at those other illustrations).

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  21. I think Otus has always had a wild streak in him. I know he grew up in Berkeley, Ca and was into punk rock ( hence the Dead Kennedy's references. Plus growing up in the 70's in the bay area next to the mean streets of Oakland and Richmond, stuff like that image of the kid getting attacked in the bathroom and other kid getting his throat cut happened all the time.

    If James or anyone else ever gets to interview Erol again, they need to ask him about Alma Mater.

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  22. Teenagers from Outer Space was probably the best anime simulation game ever. Big Eyes Small Mouth and other games just didn't work as well, to me.

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  23. I have to say, that actually GROWING UP in Halifax, NS the game had even more of an appeal. Years later I went to Acadia University where it was play tested. I never did find out if that group is still around (doubtful),
    I ended up playing a campaign of this game that lasted for an entire year or more of real time. It consisted of a Grand Theft Auto type of mentality. After all, if we engaged in the type of violence that we did in the game, we would have ended up in jail with in minutes! So, a type of “suspension of belief” was required. It ran like a very violent version of Dawson’s Creek, with LOTS of soap opera and twisted love triangles. In time it turned into a “Red Dawn” game, as that film had just come out (Never played “Price of Freedom” though, it would have been a better idea). Later we used the rules to play a RPG of “V: The Series”-go figure.
    BTW: I met a fella here who claimed to have met the inventers.

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  24. LOL. I know one of the guys who wrote this game, and used to play Champions with him and a few othere people that lived in Wolfville/ went to Acadia in the early 90's.

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  25. Hey Chris, I don't suppose you would be willing to contact the author you know on my behalf, would you? I've been trying, without any success, to track them down, to negotiate permission to revise and publish a second edition of the Alma Mater! :) You should be able to access my e-mail through my blogger account, but if not, pls reply and we could discuss the situation more fully?

    Hope to hear from you.

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