Escapism is a primary attraction of role-playing games; however, Alma Mater bucks that trend, offering as a setting which is neither a fantastic realm of elves and dragons nor a far-flung star empire. Instead, the game takes place “in North American high schools.” 'North American' is a key term; the game was developed and published in Canada. The authors, Steve Davis and Andrew Warden, have no other gaming credits. The publisher, Oracle Games, has no other gaming credits. One of the illustrators, Owen Oulten, has no other gaming credit, but Erol Otus is the other listed artist. Otus' art is distinctive and is especially creepy when depicting 'real world' scenes such as those in Alma Mater. In fact, according to Lawrence Schick in his Heroic Worlds, Otus' art was “in such poor taste that the game was actually banned at GenCon!” The authors, cognizant of the explicit nature of the art, urge that readers “not be shocked by the illustrations” and reminds of the back cover warning, “this is a game which deals with a mature subject area.”
Schick categorizes Alma Mater as a 'humor' system. While it is certainly a difficult game to categorize, 'humor' may not be entirely appropriate. Schick states, “Humor games tend to have loose systems,” yet Alma Mater 's system is rather detailed. In the opinion of the authors, “The game is generally meant to be realistic, balanced with fun and excitement.” Additionally, “We have tried to devise a game that simulates the modern high school student...”
The authors comment on their inspirations in the Acknowledgements:
In the creation of this game we used many sources of information. We would like to thank movies like American Grafitti (sic), Animal House, Grease, Meatballs, and Prom Night as well as the television show The White Shadow, not to mention all of the students in North American schools who raised enough hell to make this game what it is.The first printing of Alma Mater was in 1982, meaning that it predates the various John Hughes teen flicks. Also, it was released a little too early to be influenced by Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the Porky's franchise, or the Square Pegs television series. If the game failed to develop a following among the RPG community, it wasn't due to a paucity of genre-related media.
“The object of the game,” the Introduction tells us, “is to attain as much Social, Academic, and General Success as possible by playing a character through four years of high school.” Unlike most games, there is a winner in Alma Mater : “the character with the highest score is the winner.”
Page 42 has the following admonition: “IMPORTANT: Do not forget to roll for encounters for every class period or once every five minutes outside of the classroom...in addition to the encounters described in the day plan.” The implication is that game time should be played out in considerable detail. Playing four years worth of that level of detail is a formidable prospect. Page 35 states that...
...the game demands a great deal of creativity on the parts of the players and the SchoolMaster. If neither uses his imagination to enliven the situations, the game will quickly become like real school – DULL!Note that the official title of the Game Master is “SchoolMaster.”
Success, of course, is measured by the standards of teen-agers and is quantified (as one might expect) in terms of 'points'. Social Success is the same thing as popularity. It can be accumulated by: throwing parties, being invited to parties, gaining positions (“such as a club president or student representative”), participating in sports, winning sports awards, dancing, gaining a friend or lover, helping others, and being intoxicated. Flirting, dating, and seduction grant points when successful, but cost points when unsuccessful. Points are lost by being humiliated, being raped, perpetrating rape, becoming pregnant, causing pregnancy, and killing people. The winner of a fight gets points while the loser (aptly enough) loses points. Regardless of who wins or loses, the person who started the fight loses points and the other character gains points. Also regardless of who wins or loses a fight, the more popular opponent gains points while the other loses points. Characters only gain (or lose) Social Success if the causative circumstances are “publicly known.”
Academic Success is gained through grades and academic awards.
General Success is defined as “success that is neither social or academic.” Given the definition, it seems appropriately named; however, General Success is earned only through illegal gains (“such as selling drugs”), stealing, and vandalism. Furthermore, except for two character classes, General Success is subtracted from Social Success, meaning there is a net gain of zero points.
“Although Alma Mater was written with a modern American high school in mind,” the rules comment on variants: different areas (“including countries – imagine Alma Mater in the U.S.S.R.”), different periods (“the 50's are a good example, but the '60s and '70s are also possible”), and different institutions (“private, elementary, or even university”). The game designers do not recommend mixing Alma Mater “with other role-playing games” in terms of an entire campaign, but they make allowances for a one-time event (“it can be done, but it's gross!”).