2400 devlog: ALT

ALT is a game about transhuman operatives in a star system where memories are stored on magnetic tape backups. It’s my lo-fi love letter to Eclipse Phase, Altered Carbon, and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. You can find it as part of the entire 2400 collection on Itch.io, and on its own and in a bundle on DriveThruRPG.

I didn’t say much about ALT when I first released it on Itch; I basically just noted in a later devlog that the name changed from CTRL. In retrospect, I wonder if I was hesitant to say much more because I didn’t know what else to say besides, “If you love the setting for Eclipse Phase as much as I do, but find the rules too in-depth for your taste, and the other hacks I made didn’t hit the spot … maybe this one will!”

But there’s a reason I wanted to do this one in addition to all the other hacks I made: I didn’t just want “Eclipse Phase, but with [another system].” I needed an excuse to take the concept in my own direction, at least a little bit.

The influence of Eclipse Phase

Eclipse Phase‘s influence is probably very obvious to anybody who knows that game, especially in the list of “skins.” (These are called “morphs” in Eclipse Phase, “sleeves” in a previous version, after Altered Carbon, and renamed after I decided it made more sense to use a more “computery term.”) Like…

  • Why are you secret agent troubleshooters? Because Eclipse Phase‘s “Firewall” demonstrates this is a super-easy setup to get into all kinds of weird hijinks. (But you could absolutely use either system to make another kind of team, like explorers or salvagers.)
  • Why is there a special skin just for juveniles? Because that’s what Eclipse Phase does — and because I appreciate that it raises the question of whether there even are “real” kids in a setting that potentially redefines “life” and “reproduction.”
  • Why these uplifted animals? Because Eclipse Phase taught me these are especially intelligent species, and I didn’t have room to also include pigs.

Meanwhile, the things I consider deviations from Eclipse Phase are so tiny as to likely seem irrelevant to anybody who isn’t super familiar with that game. For instance, when your character dies in Eclipse Phase, if you and your teammates didn’t invest credits, favors, or character points to get equipment like an “emergency farcaster,” “ghostrider module,” or a portable spare body, you’re stuck waiting for the mission to end so you can get back into the game. But that’s boring, and this setting has a really easy way to fix that — so getting to stick around as an augmented-reality ghost is standard issue in ALT.

[Also, the initial draft of this post included some revelations about how psi could work differently in ALT from Eclipse Phase. Of course, then I remembered I ended up having to take psi powers out of ALT for space considerations. Whoops! Well, even so, I was pretty excited that combining ALT with Inner System Blues meant you could play a telepathic android or a telekinetic whoever-you-want, which I was bummed I couldn’t do in Eclipse Phase.]

While details like these may seem inconsequential, the way I felt while designing this illustrated to me that it’s worth making games inspired by stuff you love, instead of (or in addition to!) making direct adaptations of the stuff you love. Yes, doing your own thing makes it possible for you to sell it, which is nice, but that was never my main motivation. From a creative perspective, though, once you stop trying to map every piece of the original into a matching place in your design, you may find that there are bits of the original you don’t need, or might not even like. It’s wonderfully freeing.

Technology and aesthetics

At this point in 2400’s development, I was pretty concerned with making every game feel like it could be part of the same “lo-fi” setting. So, minds exist on “cortical cartridges” (inspired by the “cortical stack” in Eclipse Phase and Altered Carbon) that risk “mass-wipe by stellar magnetic storm,” as if everybody’s brain is stored on cheap floppy disks. And if you hook a buddy’s cartridge up to your brain after their body gets killed, you see them as “a ghost with scan-lines.”

By the same token, I think this is probably the game where you start to see the cracks in my resolve to keep 2400 restricted to retro-futuristic technology. Those examples in the previous paragraph are mostly just for flavor. There’s another example in the GM prompts about people collapsing into “gray goo,” which some might recognize as a reference to highly advanced nanotechnology.

Looking back on this, and where the 2400 series as a whole has gone, I suppose I’m more concerned with “lo-fi” as an aesthetic for the product — that is, inexpensively made, intentionally imperfect or even “incomplete,” and not trying to maintain too much “fidelity” in modeling the world — than as an aesthetic for the setting.

(But I do still think of every screen in 2400 as having scan-lines, and T-1000 is still a robot made of goo from a movie that came out over 30 years ago, so maybe that will preserve my lo-fi cred.)

Transhuman themes

I don’t think ALT gives you much to explore the deeper themes of transhumanism — what it means to be “alive,” or “human,” and so on. There’s a brief rule about how being in an unfamiliar body might hinder you until you get used to it, but that’s pretty agnostic about an experience that would actually likely be horrifically traumatic if it were even possible. But personally — and with the acknowledgement that I’m no expert in this area of science — I don’t think it’s possible, or ever will be.

I’m not Ray Kurzweil. I am not drawn to transhuman fiction because of any real hope that mapping the brain will grant our species immortality. I do find certain themes and questions posed by the genre to be very interesting, but more for their entertainment value than their philosophical or practical value, especially in the context of horror, thrillers, and games where death is on the line.

The last of those, the elimination of death, is just a matter of convenience to me. I love having an excuse to keep players in the game! But otherwise, my mind jumps more easily to how creepy transhumanism would be rather than how liberating it would be. Like…

  • Is the “juvenile” you’re speaking to actually a child? An adult who prefers to look like one? An adult who needs to look like one as mandated by employers so they consume fewer resources in space flight?
  • The term “alt” in the title refers to a spare skin with another appearance — but is that even legal? Are you allowed to be skinned in two bodies at once? (It’s fine in most jurisdictions in Eclipse Phase. It’s illegal in Altered Carbon.)
  • If memories are just data, and the mind effectively a database, how common is it to edit the mind? How common is unwilling editing of memories or even personality traits?

ALT deliberately avoids actually answering any of these questions. My goal was to include some prompts that would raise some of these questions, like, “Dr. Day raised an army of himself — stop him.” I hoped to spark interesting discussions and situations, but leave it to you to fill in the gaps.

I avoid filling in those gaps myself in part because I trust you to come up with interesting answers. But also, I can only fit so much, and I’d rather focus on thought-provoking details you can use at the table than more abstract topics that may or may or not actually come up in a one-shot.

Combining with other 2400 games

I think these early 2400 games are the easiest ones to hack together. They use similar character templates, the same level of skill granularity, and very similar item lists. I hope it’s obvious when you look at the short paragraph on “gear” that you can say, “Wait, why not just pull in the much longer list of gear and cybernetics from Inner System Blues? And while I’m at it, maybe I’ll give them a ship from Cosmic Highway…”

One thing that might be less obvious, though, is what you can take from ALT into other 2400 games. I’d recommend one of the following.

In general, I find every list of 20 people of interest useful. Most of the people can be ported to other settings as-is, or with trivial editing. And in this case, I literally do not even remember naming a character “Balderdash,” but looking back at it, I am pleased that I did.

You can use the idea of cortical cartridges and mind backups, but I intentionally placed this in the context of a single star system to leave open the possibility that this isn’t normal across the entire setting. Clones and mind backups may well be unavailable outside Alpha Centauri — or they might be illegal. You might want to pull in some material from ALT, for instance, if you ever use 2400 to run the excellent Mothership module A Pound of Flesh, which features a space station with a sketchy “chop shop.”

Even if you don’t have reskinning in your game, though, I hope the skins themselves will be of use in other settings. ALT gives you ready-made templates to create three different kinds of robots and three different kinds of uplifted animals. You don’t need mind-backups and cloning to throw a chimpanzee hacker onto your crew in Inner System Blues or an AI copilot in Cosmic Highway. And who wouldn’t want a chimpanzee hacker watching their back?

Finally, as that last sentence probably highlights, I should acknowledge that while ALT means to have an action/thriller vibe with a potential side of horror, it’s potentially kind of goofy. If I were taking it more seriously, I probably wouldn’t have named its spy organizations after keys on my keyboard, with one of them (pretty much) the same name as the agency in Get Smart. If you want to port material from ALT into a game that doesn’t ever make your players chuckle, you may wish to change some names. (But I’m a big fan of making my friends chuckle.)

Featured image edited from original by Beeple (Mike Winkelmann).

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