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.