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Thursday, 19 July 2018

Conspire Like Its 1992

It is interesting to note that the three great modern roleplaying games of the 1990s—a decade dominated by fear of the New World Order, the belief in UFOs and UFOlogy, and the birth of the digital age—are all conspiracy roleplaying games. Two of these, Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green for use with Call of Cthulhu and Conspiracy X from first New Millennium Entertainment and then Eden Studios, Inc., published in 1997 and 1996 respectively, are post-Magic: The Gathering, digital age settings of global scale. The other is none of these. Over the Edge: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger, published by Atlas Games by 1992, is set on a single island that almost nobody has heard of and is rife with not with just a few conspiracies as Delta Green and Conspiracy X are, but a multitude, involving altruists, extra-dimensionals, extraterrestrials, mad scientists, mobsters, religious cults, street gangs, and of course, traditional conspiracies a la the Illuminati. All this takes place on Al Amarja, an obscure island off the coast of Italy in the Mediterranean, liberated from Mussolini by president for life, Her Exaltedness Monique D’Aubainne and transformed into an independent state which steadfastly refuses to join the United Nations or any other international body and does not maintain an embassy anywhere in the world. Here, where English is the official language and the American dollar is the official currency, the discerning businessman can trade unencumbered by copyright and trademark laws and safety regulations, and law enforcement resistant to bribery. Worshipers are free to follow what faith they like as they do not disrupt the peace, so Christian Scientists, Scientologists, and Satanists can be found on the island as can ‘Sommerites’, religiously oriented fans of rock star Karla Sommers. There are no churches or other official places of worship on Al Amarja, except for The Temple of the Divine Experience, a combination of multi-religious worship centre and dance club. Colonised and in turn conquered Greeks, Romans, North African Muslims, Catalans, Castilians, various Italian states, and ultimately, the newly unified Italy, Al Marja is a crossroads in the Mediterranean, through which smuggled ivory and other forbidden animal products can be trafficked, legal and illicit business can be conducted, and persons of all kinds and come and go—if the right palms are greased that is… Meanwhile the discerning tourist can find all manner of pleasures illegal elsewhere, or in the case of narcotics, illegal, but not policed by the Peace Force. Though not guns, private ownership being extremely frowned upon and strictly policed by the only armed body on the island—the Peace Force.

There are many reasons to come to Al Amarja. Off the beaten track tourism or to take up a business opportunity are obvious draws, or perhaps you are looking for someone. Perhaps you want to conduct scientific research or medical experiments unhindered by ethical guidelines, then Doctor Chris Seversen or Doctor Fürchtegott Nusbaum might be interested in your work or maybe D’Aubainne University might offer you a grant. Perhaps you want psychic powers? Either way, there is nowhere better to study fringe science than Al Amarja where scientists are known as Oppenheimers. Perhaps you are a devotee of rock star, Karla Sommers, then Al Amarja is home to her true fans. Or is there some secret organisation you want to track down, whether to expose or join? Then according to some conspiracy theorists that organisation—be they secret masters, lizardmen, aliens from outer space, and so on—operates on Al Amarja.

All of these character concepts—and more—are supported by the simplicity of the rules for character generation. A character is defined by four traits, three positive and one a flaw. The first of the positive traits is a character’s central trait, which essentially describes what he is, for example, ‘Baltimore Homicide Detective’ or ‘Avenging Mother’. Where the central trait can be fairly broad, the other two positive traits have to be more specific. They are side traits and they define either a particular skill or aspect of the character, for example, ‘Good Behind the Wheel’ or ‘Charismatic’. One of these three traits is a character’s superior trait, one his good trait, and the third an average trait. All traits and flaws are rated in a number of six-sided dice, so the superior is assigned four dice, the good trait three dice, and the average trait just two dice. The fourth trait is a character’s flaw, for example, ‘Obsessed with the New Age’ or ‘Speed Junkie’.In addition, every trait—including the flaw—has a ‘sign’, something that can be noticed by others, for example, ‘Jittery’ for ‘Speed Junkie’ or ‘Always looking to frame a shot’ for ‘Photographer’.

Beyond the traits, a character also needs a motivation, a secret—preferably a dark secret, and someone they hold to be important, whether someone they know or someone they hold to be an ideal. Lastly, each character needs an illustration, hand drawn by the player, no matter how bad. 

The character creation process is mechanically very quick. Coming up with a concept and appropriate traits is necessarily as easy because of the freedom for a player to create what he wants, but the process is partly collaborative because the Game Master has to work with each player to define their character to help bring out what is interesting about the character and what will make a good story. The process is slightly easier in that there is a set way of interpreting a particular trait, so that two characters might have the same trait, but describe them differently. The process is also very open, so whilst some sample traits and flaws are listed, a player does not have to choose from them and can build almost any type of character, from the most mundane to the most powerful. The rules though specifically advise players against power gaming when designing their characters since it is likely to garner their characters greater attraction and greater trouble.

Vittoria Oborín

  • The ‘perfect’ housewife

Languages: English, Italian, Russian
Attacks: 2d (knitting needles)
Defence: 2d (Sometimes Oleg threw crockery!)
Hit Points: 14
Traits

  • Mother knows best (Superior) 4d: “Whatever the situation, whatever the drama, whatever the danger, I am sure that we can find a way to deal with and learn how to be better people.”
  • Prim & Proper 3d: Always looks her best, no matter the situation. The right outfit for the right occasion.
  • Intuition 2d: “Sometimes I just get a funny feeling about someone…” (Sign: a twitch of the nose.)
  • McMafia Widow (Flaw): “I can’t help what my husband and my father were, and I never knew anything about their criminal enterprises. It was also so shocking when I found out. No, really…”

Secret: Serial Killer
Motive: To find her backpacking son, Daniel

Mechanically, Over the Edge employs simple dice pools rolled to exceed a task number—4 for a very easy task; 7 for an easy task; 11 for a moderate task; 18 for a difficult task; 18 for a very difficult task; and 21 for a nearly impossible task. The difficulty for an opposed task is the opponent’s roll. A player simply rolls the dice for the appropriate trait to beat the target difficulty. The more a result exceeds the target difficulty, the greater the success, whilst equaling the target difficulty results in a draw and the more a result is lower than the target difficulty, the worse the outcome. If a character has an appropriate trait, then his player rolls the dice for that trait, otherwise he rolls two dice if an average person could do it. If a character has an advantage, then his player gets to roll a bonus die and drop the lowest die from the roll. Conversely, a penalty die means that the highest die is dropped. Bonus and penalty dice cancel each other out, whereas a flaw reduces the number of dice a player will roll.

In addition, a character also has dice in his experience pool, beginning play with one. They are earned for good play by the Game Moderator and can be used for two purposes. The first is to add to a character’s dice pool, just a single die for each action. Once used, an experience die is spent for that session and cannot be used until the next, but the reason for their use has to be justified in narrative terms. The other use is to improve a character, to improve an existing trait or taking a new one. This costs five experience dice and again needs to be reflected in terms of the narrative.

All this covered in a chapter of less than thirty pages, including ten pages for character generation, four pages for the base mechanics and optional rules, and eight pages on combat, which is outcome based. Combat is handled as opposed rolls, with the difference between a successful roll and the failed roll being multiplied by the weapon type to determine the amount of damage inflicted. Combat can be very deadly, especially when firearms are involved. The Game Moderator has her counterpart to this chapter, which is of roughly the same length. This gives her advice aplenty, starting with how to edit a player character to help it fit in with the player group and not be too powerful, and how to handle both money and the mechanics. Its focus is twofold. The first is on fringe powers, encompassing magic spells and psionic powers, with some twenty of the latter being listed, such as Automatic Writing, Hunches, and Sub-Vocalisation. Only a few magic spells are listed, leaving the Game Moderator and player to work together to create what the player wants his character to learn (unfortunately, there is little advice to that end). Learning either takes a lot of effort and experience dice and there is a chance that all that effort is for nought and the dice are wasted.

The other focus is on running Over the Edge, covering starting the series, how to use the setting and keep track of everything, handling the weird and the remarkable, designing and running adventures, how to screw with the player characters, and so on. It is a really good section, backed up with an example of how and how not to run a session, and how to adjust for errors and so on.

The opening players’ chapter and the Game Moderator’s chapter together amounts to a quarter of the Over the Edge, leaving the rest to what is essentially background to Al Amarja. This begins with an ‘Overview’, an introduction to the island intended for those native to Al Amarja—or at least have lived there for a while—and are familiar with the basics of living and getting by there, including geography, climate, politics and power groups, law and order, economics, population and customs (including why the noose is a fashion item), language—primarily English, but with five different ways to say yes, hot spots and places to avoid, drugs, and media. This runs to just six pages and really amounts to sets of pointers. They are points to start from for the Game Moderator, for whom the rest of the book is designed for.

This begins by building on the ‘Overview’ with a ‘Deep Overview’, expanding on the basic information presented so far before subsequent chapters deal with specific aspects of Al Amarja. So ‘The Edge’ presents the premier city on the island, whilst ‘At Your Service’ details various businesses in the city. ‘Forces to be Reckoned With’ presents the aliens, artists, bureaucrats, conspiracies, cults, gangs, individuals, politicians, rubbish collectors, scientists, students, vigilantes, and more who have a hand, an interest, and some influence in what goes on on the island of Al Amarja. Every place, every establishment or institution, every organisation is accompanied by a Game Moderator character and a story hook, giving the Game Moderator numerous ideas and suggestions for her game. The number of power groups and conspiracies on the island, ranging from inner and outer aliens, organised crime, and religious cults to politicians, weird scientists, and occultists could be seen as a problem when running Over the Edge, threatening to overwhelm a campaign, but the point is clearly made that the Game Moderator should really only concentrate on a few rather than all of them, leaving some to become interested in the player characters’ activities later on. One very useful addition here is a table listing all of the organisations, groups, and cults and their relationships with each other which nicely helps the Game Moderator begin to grasp the web of conspiracies which covers Al Amarja.

To support the running of the roleplaying game, the Game Moderator is provided with three scenarios or plots to get her player characters involved in the wonder and weirdness of Al Amarja. The three are designed as one-shots, intended to be played each time with different characters before the players create the characters that they want to play in a full campaign. As a means to showcase the rules and also the three styles of play in Over the Edge—espionage, supernatural mystery, and partying over the Edge—this is fine, but it feels like a waste of three decent scenarios with which to feed the characters into that campaign. The first scenario, ‘Contact on Al Amarja’, casts the characters as bodyguards for a courier delivering a message on the island, which in true espionage style turns into a MacGuffin hunt. In the second scenario, ‘The Bodhisattva’, the characters are fringe scientists on an information exchange in and of course it goes weird, whilst in the third, ‘Party on Al Amarja’, the players are free to create a group of friends, colleague, or family members, who go on vacation on the island. None of the three is really that straightforward, the second being event and time driven, whilst the third is much more of a freeform with greater capacity for the input of the Game Moderator. Given how weird Al Amarja is meant to be—and is—it is strange that the first scenario misses out on the opportunity for the characters to enjoy all of the delights of the airport, literally the first port of call for travellers coming to the island. Rounding out the three out is another trilogy, this time of detailed campaign outlines, each basically given two pages for the Game Moderator to build from and each really very good. 

Physically, Over the Edge is well presented for a book of its time—the second edition was released in 1997—and is certainly well written. It is entirely black and white throughout, clean and tidy, with some decent pieces of artwork, though some of it is underwhelming by modern standards. One issue with the content is the plea made to reviewers not to reveal the roleplaying game’s secrets and even over thirty years later that is difficult adhere to. That said, the setting of Al Amarja is so dense with secrets it is difficult to know where to start.

Over the Edge: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger is a toolkit. The tools are inspired by the works of William S. Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, David Lynch, and Robert Anton Wilson, amongst others. The result is Interzone meets Mulholland Drive, a hive of wretched scum and cultists, a kitchen sink of conspiracies put through a surreal blender, strange tourism on the American dollar, the weird accepted by the ordinary, and the player characters confronting this mess and getting used by it. Plus there is still room for the Game Moderator to add her own conspiracies and cults. Yet as much as the conspiracies have their plots, Over the Edge is not necessarily intended to be a plotted roleplaying game, but rather more a freeform, improvised style of game, with the Game Moderator having a idea of the antagonists’ plots whilst reacting to the actions of the players and their characters. This is something that would have been quite radical in 1992 when the first edition was published and is thoroughly supported by the simple, but solid mechanics which although designed to accommodate innumerable concepts and ideas, do not impede the narrative. The essays on narrative and storytelling are groundbreaking and lay the groundwork for the roleplaying games that the designers would create in the years to come and doubtless would influence game design in the late 1990s (after the Collectable Card Game craze) and the early 2000s.

Above all, what shines through in Over the Edge: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger is the setting. Al Amarja is a Game Moderator’s dream, rich in detail and rife with ideas, populated with plots which will fuel a campaigns for months and months. Over the Edge: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger is as fresh and as modern as it was in 1992—add protagonists and let the weirdness begin.

—oOo—

In 2012, Atlas Games published a twentieth anniversary edition of Over the Edge—and it is this version of the roleplaying game that is being reviewed. Aside from the fetching blue leatherette hardcover, it includes a sixteen page full colour insert that consists of five mini essays from the publisher, the designers, and subsequent contributors. These explore the game’s origins in the APA, Alarums & Excursions, and beyond, placing Over the Edge in context and grounding it in the early nineties—and even the eighties. These even the suggestion that Over the Edge could be shifted back into the Reagan era along with a list of suitable props. This would firmly place it before the Information Age, but the Over the Edge 20th Anniversary Edition was published in 2012, a decade or so after the start of the Information Age. The game’s designer comes firmly down on the side of the argument that the two do not mix and if they did, on Al Amarja, it would not be so much the Information Age as the Misinformation Age.

Given how light the rules are in Over the Edge, it is surprising that they get revisited in these essays. In 1992, those rules were radically light and fast, designed to facilitate the narrative rather than simulate a story, but as radical as the storytelling mechanics were over twenty five years ago, the design of mechanics has moved on. In fact, they moved on a decade after Over the Edge was published, emphasising the same types of storytelling as the roleplaying game did. So the designer examines the new mechanics of the past decade (this was 2012, remember) and suggests ways in which to incorporate them into Over the Edge. These include ‘Fail Forward’, the ‘Kicker’ from Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer for starting each session with something compelling, the ‘Beliefs’ system from Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel, and running short campaigns a la Paul Czege’s My life with Master. In turn, these feel like a natural fit for Over the Edge and its storytelling style.

—oOo—

Over the Edge: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger only received two editions and bar the Over the Edge 20th Anniversary Edition from 2012, has been out of print for several years. Between those two editions there was very little change to the setting of Al Amarja and given that the second edition was published in 1997, the setting has not been updated in some twenty years. All that changes with Over the Edge: A Roleplaying Game of Weird Urban Danger, a third edition of the roleplaying game currently being funded on Kickstarter campaign, which will see changes to the setting and the mechanics, taking account of the changes in game design and storytelling games that Over the Edge: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger helped start.