Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Strange Ways

The universe is stranger than we think… Beneath our world and the rest of the natural universe is a sea of dark energy known as the ‘Strange’ that can be accessed, traversed, and sailed by those in the know who have the ‘Spark’. Dotted across this chaotic sea are any number of unique worlds, varying wildly in size and possessing their own laws of reality. These are ‘Recursions’, the closest of which, caught in the shoals around the Earth, are reflections of the human imagination, even of humanity’s fiction. Many of these Recursions can be accessed from the Earth and then from each other by those known as the ‘Quickened’. As ‘Recursors’, only they possess the ‘Spark’ necessary to make the Translation between Recursions and thus explore the Sumerian-influenced high fantasy that is Ardeyn or the advanced bio-tech dystopia of Ruk, walk the fog-bound streets of 1890s London in the Recursion known as 221b or confront the Cthulhu Mythos in Innsmouth, and more. There are adventures to had, discoveries to to made, and treasures to be found—not just gold or jewels, but powerful devices known as Cyphers that can bend reality on each of the Recursions. Yet there are dangers too—dragons and shoggoths, jabberwock and sarks, weird drugs and great artifacts, and worse—planetovores, great creatures or constructs that devour whole worlds. With the Strange open to the Quickened, Earth is vulnerable to attack by these creatures, and there are factions on Ardeyn, Ruk, and the Earth that would see the planet attacked and consumed by a planetovore. Equally there are many Quickened who would not see this happen.

This is the setting for The Strange, the second RPG to be published by Monte Cook Games, following on from the highly successful, award-winning Numenera. Released following a successful Kickstarter campaign, The Strange uses the same Cypher System mechanics as Numenera and shares some of the same concepts, but its genre and setting is radically different. For The Strange does not involve just the one genre or the one setting, but it is a multi-genre, world-hopping RPG in which the player characters can jump from one world or Recursion to another world or Recursion. Each time they jump, they not only change worlds or Recursions, but also bodies and powers. Further, they might change their gender, their species, and their genre, from modern day Earth to fantasy to Science Fiction to… Some of these Recursions are all original to The Strange, but others are derived from fiction, such as the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Lewis Carroll, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and others.

In Numenera, there are just three character types—Glaives, Nanos, or Jacks. Glaives are warriors, either wearing heavy armour and wielding heavy weaponry or relying light arms and armour to give them movement and agility. Nanos are sorcerers, capable of tapping into the Numenera to alter reality or learn more about it, wielding ‘Esoteries’ to command nano-spirits. Jacks are somewhere in between, being flexible in what they can do, capable of learning to fight, using ‘Esoteries’, and more. In The Strange, the three are replaced by Vectors, Paradoxes, and Spinners. Vectors are physical types, whether it is about combat, movement, or action; Paradoxes are scientists/sorcerers, who can use science, psionics, spells or similar to draw upon The Strange and alter reality; and Spinners are charismatic storytellers, persuaders, and dissemblers.

At their core, each character is defined by three stats—Might, Speed, and Intellect, and a descriptive sentence. This sentence has the structure of “I am a [adjective] [noun] who [verbs]”, where the noun is the character’s Type; the adjective a descriptor, such as Clever or Intelligent, that defines the character and how he does things; and the verb is the Focus or what the character does that makes him unique. For example, ‘I am a Tough Vector who is Licenced to Carry’, ‘I am an Intelligent Paradox who Solves Mysteries’, and ‘I am an Appealing Spinner who Works the System’. A player will also need to assign some points to the three Stats and choose some options in terms of Background—how the character became a Paradox, Spinner, or Vector—and select some skills from the Type. The choice of descriptor and the verb further defines and modifies the character, whilst the Background and the Connection help hook the character into the setting. Characters begin at Tier One and can advance as far as Tier Six, gaining skills and abilities along the way. The three sample characters attempt to showcase what the system can do. The Paradox is a native of Earth, the Spinner is from Ardeyn, and the Vector is a native of Ruk.

Huongsem Kim
‘I am a Clever Paradox Nano who Solves Mysteries’
Tier One Paradox
Might 08 (Edge 0)
Speed 10 (Edge 0)
Intellect 18 (Edge 1)
Effort 1

Cyphers (3): (Three Cyphers selected by the GM)
Revisions: Exception (1 Intellect), Premonition (2 Intellect), Investigator
Skills: Trained in the Strange, Train in Lies & Trickery, Trained in Mental Defence, Trained in Computer, Trained in Perception, Trained in Identifying & Assessing danger/lies/quality/importance/function/power, Practiced with light weapons
Equipment: Street clothes, light handgun, laptop computer, torch, utility knife, mobile phone, $500

‘I am an Appealing Spinner who Shepherds the Dead’
Tier One Spinner
Might 10 (Edge 0)
Speed 12 (Edge 1)
Intellect 14 (Edge 1)
Effort 1

Cyphers (2): (Two Cyphers selected by the GM)
Physical Skills: Trained in Persuasion, Trained in Pleasant Interaction, Trained to Resist Persuasion & Seduction Attempts, Practiced with light and medium weapons
Twists: Fast Talk (1 Intellect), Understanding (2 Intellect)
Equipment: Ardeyn clothing, light armour, quarterstaff, explorers, incense, 10 matchsticks, 400 crowns

“I am a Graceful Vector who Controls Infiltrates”
Tier One Vector
Might 12 (Edge 1)
Speed 14 (Edge 1)
Intellect 10 (Edge 0)
Effort 1

Cyphers (2): (Two Cyphers selected by the GM)
Moves: No Need for Weapons, Fleet of Foot
Skills: Trained in Unarmoured Speed Defence, Trained with Running, Trained with Climbing, Trained in Balance & Careful Movement, Trained in All Physical Performing Arts, Practiced with weapons
Equipment: Ruk Clothing, light armour, knife, light tools, umbilical, account with 50 bits

In comparison to Numenera, there are fewer options when it comes to a player choosing a Focus in The Strange. The problem is not only that there are fewer of them in The Strange, but they are divided between the different Recursions. What this means is that there are certain Foci that a Recursor from Earth cannot have until he Translates to a Recursion where said Focus appears. Until then, he is limited to those available on his home world or Recursion. For example, a character from Earth who is ‘...a Strange Paradox who Conducts Weird Science’ might Translate to Ruk where he becomes ‘...an Strange Paradox who Processes Information’. Now some of the Foci given are ‘Draggable’ in that when a character Translates, a Focus can go with him unchanged. He still has the choice to change his Focus if he wants to. As much as the idea of Translation and changing the Recursor when he goes from one Recursion to another fits the setting of The Strange, this limited number of Foci also restricts choice in terms of character design and in comparison with Numenera, where there were no limitations in terms of Foci choice, The Strange could really do with more Foci and thus with more choice. Now to an extent this is offset by the default set-up in The Strange where every player character begins the game aware of the Strange, Recursions, and the ability to Translate, and can thus choose freely from all of the Foci.

Mechanically, The Strange uses the single mechanic of the Cypher System—the roll of a single twenty-sided die against a Difficulty, ranging from zero up to ten. The actual Target Number is the value of the Difficulty multiplied by three, thus giving a range between three and thirty—any action with a Difficulty of zero is automatic. Modifiers, whether from favourable circumstances, skills, or good equipment, can decrease the Difficulty, whilst skills give bonuses to the roll. A character can also spend points from his Stat pools—on a one-to-one basis—to reduce the Difficulty, though a player should bear in mind that the Stat pools reflect his ability to act and take damage when attacked. The cost of spending points from a Stat pool is reduced by its associated Edge, as are the use of a Paradox’s Revisions, a Spinner’s Twists, and a Vector’s Moves. In some cases, this will reduce the cost to zero, thus reducing it to an innate action. For example, Huongsem has an Intellect Edge of 1, which reduces the cost of his Exception and Premonition Revisions. His Exception Revision costs one point from his Intellect pool to use, but his Intellect Edge is also one, so that reduces the cost to zero and means that he can do it instinctively. No effort is required. Whereas, his Premonition Revision costs two points from his Intellect pool, so he still needs to spend a point of Intellect to use it because his Edge reduces the cost by one. Results of nineteen indicate a success and a Minor Effect, which might be extra damage in combat or something listed for a character, such as ‘Hitting a Muscle’ for the ‘Carries a Quiver’, which inflicts Speed damage as well as ordinary damage. A roll of a natural twenty also inflicts extra damage as well as a Major Effect.

While the system is simple enough—even if the GM adds any of the given options—the radical, even elegant aspect to the Cypher System mechanics is that the GM never, ever rolls a die. So whilst a character rolls to attack as normal, when an opponent attacks him, the character rolls to avoid the attack. Essentially the mechanic focus of the game is always on the player characters and they are always the focus of the action and the story. At the same, the shift for the GM is on running and presenting the story, not the dice rolls, and as a development of this idea, player characters receive Experience Points in again, another radical fashion when compared to other RPGs. First and foremost, they are not earned for defeating opponents, overcoming challenges, and so on, but for finding interesting things and making discoveries. Secondly, a player character gains them when the GM ‘intrudes’ on the game in storytelling terms to present the character with a challenge or difficulty, such as his crossbow string snapping whilst in combat or the rope slipping whilst climbing. Accept this ‘Intrusion’ and the character earns two Experience Points, one of which he must give to another character. A player could reject this ‘Intrusion’, but that would cost him an Experience Point. If a character rolled a natural one at any time, the GM can give an ‘Intrusion’ that cannot be bought off. However it comes, a GM ‘Intrusion’ replaces the need for him to roll dice and encourages him to participate in the telling of the story.

In addition to their own abilities, the player characters in The Strange can find and use cyphers. They come in two types. Devices are simple items, commonly in the form of pills or grenades, such as a Curse Bringer, Monoblade, or Melt All, that have a one-time use and in each case grant a Recursor an amazing power—if only for that moment. Recursors are not expected to hold onto devices such as this for very long and can only carry a few anyway, but they are expected to use them at will. This is for two reasons. First, the GM will always let the player characters find more, and two, using cyphers gives a Recursor to shine and look great. More desirable are the artifacts, as they have greater endurance and more obvious application. For example, a Dragontongue Weapon or a Skill Bud. Unfortunately, artifacts have a depletion factor, a chance that they will cease to function. Artifacts are not always perfect and may have quirks that the GM can use as ‘Intrusions’. In the setting of The Strange, there are a number of Quickened who have learned to Translate and who go Recursion Mining for cyphers to bring back home.

A good proportion of The Strange is devoted to describing its background and setting. This begins by examining the mechanics of Translation and what is important here is that Translation takes time and effort—it is not instantaneous. Now it can be sped up and the process can be eased so though it is not as disorientating—and each player character Type can participate to ease and hasten the process, but it never takes less than ten minutes and it can be as long as four hours. Further, when Recursors first Translate to a Recursion, they always appear at a set location and later, if they Translate from a different location and then come back, they will always appear at the new location. This firmly places the emphasis in The Strange on adventuring and gaming on the various Recursions or in the Strange itself rather than on the act of Translation. There is little chance of there being a chase from one Recursion to another because of both the time delay and location limitations. Most of the time, Translation is an act of concentration, but there are gates and devices, often permanent ones, that connect Recursions and make Translating easy.

The description of the various Recursions begins with the Earth. Since it is our Earth, it really only looks at the Earth and its connections to The Strange, primarily the various agencies with an interest in these connections. The primary agency is The Estate, a private science foundation dedicated to protecting the Earth, exploring the Strange, and preventing the development of technology that might ping the Strange and attract the attention of a planetovore. The default set-up for The Strange has the player characters as agents of The Estate. Other agencies, like the government funded OSR (Office of Strategic Recursion) want to use the technologies and discoveries from other Recursions to weaponise them, whilst the September Group wants to to build advanced technology.

As well as the Strange itself—how to navigate it and what can be found there—the two Recursions that receive the most coverage are Ardeyn and Ruk. Formed from the prison of an evil god called Lotan the Sinner, Ardeyn is a world of mighty magics with a lengthy history. Lotan the Sinner’s gaolers numbered  the Maker, his Seven Incarnations, and their angelic qephilim servants, but since their fall long ago, Ardeyn has been without protection. In their stead, humans and fallen qephilim seek to protect the world against dragons, soulshorn, homunculi of the Betrayer, invaders from alternate recursions, demons of Lotan, and worse. Where Ardeyn is a fantasy world, Ruk is a Science Fiction Recursion. Located in the shoals of Earth, Ruk is a bio-tech, bio-punk near-dystopia, that although self-contained, is constantly expanding. Rife with factions, the not-quite human inhabitants of Ruk have lost their history and constantly search for what they call the True Code, the original basis for their race. The capital, Harmonious, is relatively safe, but beyond this floating city there are spore worms, venom troopers, free-roaming constructs from the Qinod Singularity, and glial storms. Where most of Ardeyn are not aware of Earth, it hangs faintly in the sky over Ruk and many of the inhabitants of Ruk see the future of Earth as being tied to that of Ruk. Other Recursions include Atom Nocturne, an anime-influenced world of youth and psychic superpowers; Catalyst, a post-singularity Recursion of runaway transformation; Crow Hollow, a world-tree home to anthropomorphic crows and ravens who run the Glittering Market; and more.

Both the Strange and all of the Recursions in The Strange are described in some detail and extensively supported with places, personalities, and possible adventure hooks. Indeed, both Ardeyn and Ruk could have RPG settings all of their very own. This is in addition the RPG’s bestiary and list of cyphers, the latter complementing the various artifact descriptions given for each Recursion. In the long term, the player characters have an interesting for the Strange—they can create a Recursion of their own. This requires a Starseed and no little effort, primarily in the form of Experience Points. This is an interesting option, but the rules for do feel slightly underwritten, but doubtless there will be a sourcebook devoted to this at some point.

As with Numenera, the GM advice in The Strange is well written and helpful. It includes sections on how to use the rules, building stories, and specifically running a game of The Strange. Together this covers things such as how to set task difficulty levels and using GM Intrusions properly, how to introduce the game and understanding the mechanics, challenging the player characters and how to involve characters from different Recursions. It is supported with a single adventure, ‘The Curious Case of Tom Mallard’, plus various adventure hooks. Like the RPG itself, the adventure assumes that the characters begin the game aware of the Strange.

Physically, The Strange is as well presented as Numenera. The writing is clear and the book is redolent with superb, full colour illustrations. It is also clearly laid out and organised. Yet at the same time, The Strange is messy. In a good way and a bad—which comes of it being a multi-genre, multi-world RPG. This means that the artwork has to depict a variety of things and styles; and it does that. The setting though, is not a coherent whole, but interconnected parts held together by a framework. This may make the RPG difficult to run at the outset—despite the good advice for the GM—because there are too many options and because The Strange has one singular flaw.

As an RPG, as The Strange has a flaw that hinders initial play, or at least anyone’s first approach to the game. Simply, it utterly lacks an ‘elevator pitch’, a simple statement that defines what the game is about and what the characters do. In comparison, Numenera did this—it had a whole chapter up front that told the GM and the player what the game was about. The Strange lacks this and in an RPG as conceptually complex as it, it seems like a very odd omission. In its stead there is a leaflet from The Estate, but it is not an adequate pitch for the game. Worse, it is not until fifty pages into The Strange that it is fully explained how a Recursor translates and switches to a new body—in the process becoming part of the new Recursion—rather than translating in whole. There are hints up until this point, but it seems odd not to have this vital piece of information up front, especially when the default set-up in The Strange is that the player characters will be aware of it from the start of a campaign. Similarly, it feels odd not to have a scenario in The Strange that introduces its setting and concepts, which might again have helped with this issue.

Despite the oddities of these omissions, The Strange is a well-produced, interesting RPG. Although there have been many RPGs that have done world-hopping, genre-hopping, and so on, like Tri Tac Games’ Fringeworthy, Chaosium, Inc.’s Worlds of Wonder, or West End Games’ TORG, but oddly the game that The Strange is closest too is TSR, Inc.’s 1993 Amazing Engine. In that RPG, a player created a core character and could take said core character from one game to another, from the alien-monster blast ‘em up of Bughunters to Tabloid!, a spoof comedy setting of sensationalist journalism. The process though, was between games/settings and not within the setting of the game itself, whereas it is within the setting of The Strange. The multiple settings also means that The Strange is also greatly expandable, with new Foci and Descriptors, new Recursions, and so on. This is in addition to expanding upon the Recursions given in The Strange. Similarly The Strange is also infinitely expandable with the GM’s own material, whether of his own creation or derived from his favourite fiction, film or television series, or even RPG. (It should be noted that the Recursions in The Strange based on other sources are all based on out of copyright intellectual properties.)

As a framework, The Strange is a rich, well realised RPG. It is not quite as accessible as it should be and not all of the settings are quite as rich as they would be if the game was just devoted to the one setting. Nevertheless, the settings are interesting, varied, and rife with gaming possibilities.