Here’s a situation that should be familiar to just about any GM: You pick up a new RPG, and you’re stoked about running it. You’ve got the player buy-in you need to make for a good game. So…how do you actually go about, you know, running it for the first time?

I wrote about the general case back in May, in the article 17 Steps to GMing a New RPG for the First Time. This time around, I’d like to do a sort of case study — and to make that work, we need a new RPG to delve into.

Enter Alpha Omega, from Mindstorm Labs.

I hadn’t heard of Alpha Omega until a couple of weeks ago, when I was asked if I’d like to write an article related to the game in exchange for a copy of the rulebook. I took one look at the intro PDF and was sold — visually, this is a beautiful game: landscape format, great art, and tons of style. And the backstory and setting sounded like they’d be right up my alley, which they are. Saying yes was a no-brainer, and this topic — GMing Alpha Omega for the first time — popped into my head right away.

Now that I’ve spent some delicious, delicious time with Alpha Omega, I have a little something to share: This game gives me wood.

I’m going to talk about running Alpha Omega specifically — with a focus on planning a campaign and running a great first session — as well as extrapolate my thoughts on GMing this particular RPG to GMing just about any RPG for the first time. I’m excited about the game, so a sort of mini-review will naturally emerge, as well. Sound good? Off we go!

Alpha Omega Backstory

Let’s start with a quick summary of Alpha Omega‘s setting and big hook: In 2049, the Earth gets back at humanity by wiping the planet clean with globe-spanning natural disasters: tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, and monster storms scour the world. This sparks global war, and ultimately nuclear and biological warfare that thoroughly ravages all the parts of the planet that weren’t already fucked. Humanity is on the brink of extinction — which is when a massive comet breaks up in the atmosphere, raining down meteors all over the world.

Amidst the devastation, pockets of humanity survive. Radiation, biological warfare agents run amok, and crazy alien shit from the comet combine to mutate humans and animals alike. In time, people begin to gather in small communities, and eventually in cities — some old, many new — as they seek to avoid the dangers of the wilderness and find strength in numbers. The human spirit, still unbroken, enables us to climb out of the ashes and begin to rebuild — but not everywhere.

Isolated from one another, cities become city-states. As decades pass, science and technology resurface, and the cities grow stronger. The largest cities become massive arcologies — kilometers-high superstructures that are almost entirely self-sustaining.

In 2099, beings called Evolutionaries begin to emerge from hiding, and it is revealed that two warring species, the Ophanum and the Seraph — essentially, demons and angels — have been using the Earth as their battleground for millennia. Only able to descend to Earth under specific conditions, they have quietly left behind members of their races after every conflict, and those beings have interbred with humans. At some point in the future, the massive armies of both races will return to Earth to wage another war.

150 years pass. The cities continue to grow, many of them crossing into cyberpunk and sci-fi territory — like the aforementioned arcologies, self-containing cities several miles high that are home to tens of millions of people. The Evolutionaries have “come out” fully, and become part of society (after being hunted, persecuted, and finally — in some places — accepted). The wilderness between the massive cities is a wasteland of mutated creatures, devastated landscapes, and warring tribes, bands, and mercenary companies. The cities themselves are hotbeds of intrigue, locked in an arms race and constantly on the verge of war. And the Seraph and Ophanum reconnaissance forces have just returned to Earth for the first time in centuries…

Got Wood?

That’s the kind of backstory that either grabs you and screams “Run me!” or turns you off entirely. I love it because it’s so over-the-top — and yet it works.

It’s not just the Apocalypse, it’s a Biblical scourge, the classic nuclear war scenario, and a planet-smashing comet all rolled into one — topped off by the twist on how humanity rebuilds (I heart mega-cities), the whole Ophanum/Seraph-Demon/Angel angle, and a heavy dose of sci-fi, magic (in the form of Wielding), and post-apocalyptic goodness. It should be a cross-genre mess, but it’s not — this is a very cool game.

GMing Alpha Omega

So you’ve got a game you dig, excited players, and wood. What next?

Start by laying some groundwork, and getting yourself and your players pumped for the game.

The Backstory

Use the biggest tool the game provides to help you GM it: the book itself. Alpha Omega does a fantastic job of hooking you immediately; the two-page summary of the game’s backstory (which is much better than my summary) is a great intro, and I found it immediately appealing. Reading it made me want to GM Alpha Omega, and it makes a great litmus test for player interest.

The next section takes you by the hand and leads you into the game world, with a glossary, a neat bit on what’s in your pockets (which reveals a lot about society, theme, etc.), and an intro to the elements of the setting. Alpha Omega does this better than many other RPGs, and it’s a real treat to explore.

Curb Appeal

This is one of the prettiest RPG books I’ve ever seen, and that field includes standouts like White Wolf’s recent lines, Dark Heresy, Confrontation, and other first-rate, big-publisher books. I’ve never heard of Mindstorm Labs before, but they did a killer job with this game. Don’t take my word for it: Check out the (free, 13 MB PDF) 48-page core rulebook sample.

From the landscape layout to the graphic design and the excellent art (from a limited number of artists, which really reinforces the theme — always a good choice) to the overall feel, this is a sexy book. I don’t know about you, but that helps get me excited about running a game, and it helps some of my players, too. Pass the book around, share the PDF and artwork, and get everyone in the mood to play.

Pitch It

The first few pages of the free sample PDF make a great pitch. I’d point my players to that PDF and let them read as much or as little of it as they wanted to. Alpha Omega is balls-to-the-wall cross-genre craziness, which should get an instant reaction from most players. For our purposes, we’re going to assume your players dig it.

Next up, wrap your head around it — find out what specifically interests you, and learn the rules.

Read It Your Way

I’m a strong believer in reading core rulebooks all the way through (or at least the majority of the way) before running a game; you may prefer to just dive in. I tend to flip around and stop wherever my interest leads, or if the whole thing is grabby, read from cover to cover. It doesn’t have to be work, and you don’t have to absorb every last detail.

With Alpha Omega, I recommend reading all of the backstory, most of character creation, all of the core mechanics and combat stuff, and the GMing chapter. The equipment section is very good, but not a priority for your first session.

Take Notes

Open a new document on your computer (or grab your tiny notebook) and jot down notes about everything that excites you about the game. (This is a good break point if you think you’ve made a mistake: If you don’t get inspired and start getting campaign ideas, you probably shouldn’t run the game at all.)

Don’t Tie Yourself Down

You may find that in the process of jotting down notes about and game ideas, your focus begins to narrow to a handful of key ideas. That’s awesome, but don’t feel like you have to limit yourself — write down whatever you want. If you wind up with too many campaign ideas, you and your players can sift through them and pick one together. There are way too many directions you could take Alpha Omega to tie yourself down this early on.

Learn the Rules

A good rule of thumb is that you should have a stronger understanding of the rules of a new RPG than your players do, at least for the first few sessions. Some players devour rulebooks, and will happily read this one before the game begins; others will learn as they go, and could care less about mastering the mechanics as long as they have fun. You don’t have that luxury, though: You need to know the rules pretty well to GM the game.

That said, you don’t need to memorize every detail. Be confident that you understand the basics, and plan to showcase a number of key elements of the system in the first couple of sessions — as little test runs, basically.

Master the Core Mechanic: The 6-6 Cycle

Alpha Omega‘s core mechanic is fairly simple, but unique — I’ve never seen one precisely like it. For most actions, your points in a Quality determine the number of dice you get to roll, and their type, and you add a fixed number to the result; you need to beat the GM’s target number, the Difficulty Rating (DR).

So if you’re trying to hack a computer, you reference your score in the Wisdom Quality (let’s say it’s 20) on a master table and find out that you get to roll 4d6 and 2d4. If you have points in the Computer Technologies skill — or (and I love this bit) in the Field associated with the skill, Technology — you add those to the result of your die roll.

The wrinkle is how turns play out, which is primarily relevant in combat. Alpha Omega uses the 6-6 System, with rounds (called combat Cycles) that last six seconds, in which there are six segments. How fast you are determines how many segments you get to act in (at least one, as many as three) — but you can only roll six dice, no matter how many times you act in a Cycle.

Sticking with the hacking example, your dice pool for that roll alone is six dice (4d6 and 2d4) — so if you used them all, hacking is the only thing you’d get to do that turn. If you want to act twice, you can split your dice pools however you see fit. Each action uses its own pool, and you always use the best dice (most sides) for each roll. So if you hacked the computer using three dice, you’d roll 3d6 and add your skill + Field points to the result. For your second action, you’d be able to roll the best three dice from that pool.

That’s not especially complicated, but it’s fiddly when compared to some RPGs — I recommend trying out a handful of rolls on your own, then running both sides of a mock combat so you see how that aspect of the game plays out. I also recommend printing or copying the master chart for Qualities and dice pools, and having enough at the table for yourself plus each of your players.

Now put it all together into a campaign framework: a core idea, the party of PCs, and a direction.

Pick a Few Ideas

After spending some time snuggled in bed with the Alpha Omega core book, taking notes whenever something strikes you, and prodding the mechanics until you’re sure you understand them, it’s time to settle on a few strong ideas for your game.

Whenever my group gets together and settles on an RPG to play, we’ve found it best for the GM to bring a handful of compelling campaign ideas to the table (three is a good ballpark). So pick your three sexiest ideas, flesh them out just a bit, and see which one everyone is most excited about.

This would be my preliminary big three list for Alpha Omega:

  1. Arcology intrigue. Alpha Omega is all about the contrast between the mega-cities and the lawless wilds — the Freezones — that separate them. I love the concept of arcologies (and have since Shadowrun first came out), so I’d have to pitch at least one campaign idea centered in one of them. So far, one of my favorite arcologies is the Valux Corporate Arcology, a superstructure three miles high and three miles wide, and home to 60 million people. It’s entirely run by Valux, which is where the intrigue comes in: corruption, scandal, corporate espionage, etc. And since nearly all citizens are Valux employees, there’s an easy common theme my players can use in their character backgrounds.
  2. Freezone scavengers. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the classic post-apocalyptic setup: The PCs are all raiders, mercenaries, bandits, or other wasteland denizens, battling mutants and struggling to survive in the Freezones. This would be a pretty freeform game, with lots of different directions for my players to go in. It would also let me paint the contrast between the wilds and the cities very clearly, and really immerse my players in the dangers of the world.
  3. Mythic battleground. The first waves of the Ophanum and Seraph forces — the scouts — have already reached Earth and begun getting the lay of the land. Few people in the world’s teeming cities (and even fewer in the wastes) know the threat that they represent…except the PCs. This campaign would start small, with skirmishes with Seraph scouts and run-ins with Ophanum spies, and mount over the course of many sessions into full-blown war. Along the way, it would include elements of both of my other favorite concepts, and I’d make sure to give my players something worth fighting for (a settlement or community, or an arcology they’ve adopted as their home, maybe).

Group Character Creation

99% of the time, group character creation produces more coherent parties, tighter PC relationships, and better hooks for you, the GM, to use to involve your players deeply in the game. That’s especially true for an RPG like Alpha Omega, which features 10 playable species (from human to AI, with every Evolutionary crossbreed in between), a wide variety of tech levels, and tons of cross-genre elements.

Some campaign styles are well-suited to the old “Everyone make characters and we’ll all meet in a tavern” approach, but most of the time you’ll get better results with more up-front effort to connect the PCs. Sound your players out, contribute freely to the discussion, and get everyone on the same page about what kind of Alpha Omega game you’ll be running.

Run a Killer First Session

The first session playing a completely new RPG will always involve some growing pains. The keys to success for a first session of Alpha Omega (and just about any RPG) are:

  • Starting with a strong hook. Two good approaches are to start with an action scene or to start with a clear path to action. I prefer to let everyone get a feel for their characters before bringing in too many mechanics, so I usually go the second route.
  • Immerse your players in the game world. Alpha Omega‘s setting and themes rock — it’s just a cool world. And it drips with style and obvious hooks, so use those to create evocative descriptions and add little touches that bring the world to life. If you don’t normally GM using a highly descriptive style, go outside your comfort zone and try it for Alpha Omega.
  • Keep the first night simple. One or two big scenes should do the trick. Just think of it like planning a convention scenario: A handful of people are going to sit down to play an RPG they’ve never played before, with characters they just created, in a world that’s largely unfamiliar to them — you’ll be looking things up, answering questions, and generally taking longer for everything than you will a few sessions down the road.
  • Spotlight moments. Include a spotlight moment for every PC, centered around whatever you think inspired your players to create their particular characters (a sneaky computer expert PC was likely created by a player who wanted to skulk around and hack into things, for example). This will give each of your players a chance to see if the most important thing about their PCs is as fun as they thought it would be.
  • Showcase the mechanics. Every player should get to make a bunch of different rolls under different circumstances (not just for the sake of it — they need to be in exciting situations, of course), and there should be at least one battle. Take it slow at first, and as your players get more comfortable with the 6-6 System, speed things up a bit.
  • Open the door for changes. At the end of a fun night, give your players a chance to change anything they don’t like about their characters (within reason — but be liberal). Don’t worry about whether it makes sense; that’s much less important than making sure everyone is playing a fun character going forward.
  • End with a clear direction for the next session. You might segue into a fuzzier, sandox-style campaign in the next session, but whatever style of game you’re going to run, be sure your players have a clear idea of what cool stuff they’ll be doing the next time you play.

Future Sessions

Once your Alpha Omega campaign is a couple of sessions in — and well off the ground — everything you already know about GMing applies to turning that killer first session into an equally killer campaign. (And plenty of GMing advice — I believe the technical term is “metric shit-tons” — can be found right here on Gnome Stew.) Go forth, and enjoy Alpha Omega.

I just finished a year-long campaign, and my wife and I have a baby on the way — there’s no way I have time to run a game right now. But reading through Alpha Omega, hot damn do I want to GM this puppy. I highly recommend it — check it out, and prepare to be impressed.

Happy GMing!

Want to learn more about Alpha Omega? Read on…

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