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Saturday 23 November 2019

Fabulating from Beyond the Old School Renaissance

Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm is a roleplaying game of retro-Science Fantasy inspired by the artwork of Frank Frazetta and Roger Dean, the adventures of John Carter of Mars and Buck Rogers, and Barbarella. Published by Mottokrosh Machinations, it casts Aliens, Beasts, Constructs, Revenants, Royalty, and Ultranauts into the the past of an extreme far future and has them explore the fantastic and discover the wonders of an age unimagined. This is a future in which it is all but impossible to tell the difference between science and sorcery, between technology and magical artefacts, a future in which adventures can take place any when and anywhere. Mechanically, it has been inspired by a range of roleplaying games from Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game to The Black Hack and Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World, but the roleplaying game it feels closest to is Numenera, but the retro-future of Hypertellurians is weirder, more wondrous, and is more Swords & Sandals meets Ray-punk than the Ninth Age of Numenera.

A character in Hypertellurians is defined by three abilities—Brawn, Agility, and Mind. He will have Affinities and Buffers in one or more of these as well as a Defence value and a Drive and a Weakness. He will also have an archetype and a concept from that archetype, and they together will determine the character’s initial major and minor powers. There are six Archetypes—Aliens, Beasts, Constructs, Revenants, Royalty, and Ultranauts—each of which gives three Concepts. For example, under Beast, the three concepts are Shapeshifter, Gnoll Madam, and Learned Centaur. Each given Concept sets a character’s abilities, Affinity, Drive, Weakness, Advances—what Cosm powers a character starts with, and Equipment.

Every Hypertellurian starts two major and three minor cosm powers. For example, the starting powers for the Alien archetype are ‘Level Playing Field’, by which the Hypertellurian can raise and lower natural features—this requires a Mind check and costs the Hypertellurian one or more Mind points in damage, and ‘Phase’, by which the Hypertellurian can pass through solid objects. Again, this will cost him Mind points in damage. An Alien with the Aquatic Creature Concept will have ‘Bioluminescent’, ‘Deep Lungs’, and ‘Well Adjusted’, whereas a Royal with the Genie Without a Lamp Concept would have the powers ‘Different Down There’, ‘Spoken Like You Mean It’, and ‘Vox Furore Dei’, as well as the archetype powers of ‘Grace’ and ‘Rallying Speech’. As a Hypertellurian adventures and explores the Ultracosm, he may gain experience and learn or develop further cosm powers. These can come from within his own archetype or they can be taken from a general selection.

One issue here not really explored or supported in any depth is that of a player creating a Hypertellurian of his own design. The danger here is that any design could be too powerful or too weak, and perhaps a future supplement might address this as well as provide wider options in terms of possible starting powers and cosm powers.

Character creation in Hypertellurians is foremost a case of choosing Archetype and a Concept. A player is free to take the given options—Drive, Weakness, Advances, and so on, or choose more freely. Similarly, he can note down the values for his character’s abilities or he can roll for them or assign points. Alternatively, a player can devise a character from scratch, including Archetype, Concept, and so on, working out the details with the Game Master.

Captain Larissa Tosca
Pilot, Soviet Air Forces
Brawn 9 (-1), Agility 11 (+1) (Affinity 1), Mind 12 (+2)
Defence: 11
Drive: Justice
Weakness: Must always be the hero
Powers: Favoured, Know Things; Beloved, Ray Emitter, Wonders Never Cease
Equipment: Power of the People Beam Emitter, alms for the poor and innocent (who have suffered at the hands of capitalists), temperature controlled space suit, nozzled container of pressurised and condensed vapor, mini-skirt, picture of her family, picture of Lenin.

Mechanically, Hypertellurians is again fairly simple and designed for fast, character focused gaming. When a character wants to act, his player rolls a twenty-sided die, applies a bonus from an appropriate ability, and attempts to beat a given Target Number. This is set by the Game Master, but in combat is equal to the defender’s Defence value. It also uses the Advantage and Disadvantage mechanic of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition and The Black Hack. Combat is slightly more complex in that characters have a choice of taking a Fast Turn or a Regular Turn. Actions within those turns include making an attack, moving, disengaging, performing a special manoeuvre, using a power, and so on, but if a character takes a Fast Turn, he only gets one action, but goes first, whereas if he takes a Regular Turn, he can take two actions, but acts after anyone who was going to, has taken a Fast Turn.

Combat allows damage to be transferred from mook to mook to allow player characters to take out hordes. Damage is inflicted directly on a character’s abilities, first Brawn, then Agility, and lastly Mind, although social or psychic damage might inflict damage on Mind directly. Damage can be reduced by armour, an affinity with a particular ability, a buffer, a power, and so on. When an ability is reduced to zero, then a Hypertellurian suffers trauma and the player rolls on the appropriate table—the Physical Trauma table for damage suffered by the Brawn or Agility abilities, the Mental Trauma table for damage suffered by the Mind ability.

Characters in Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm are meant to be dynamic, if not heroic, and that means unencumbered. Instead of his carrying around numerous bags and pouches—a task best left to servants, pak-yaks, and the like—a Hypertellurian can only comfortably carry a number of items about or on his person. Mechanically, this is equal to his Brawn and represented by a number of slots, and some items take up more than a single slot. So a light force shield which is projected from a ruby gem on a wrist bracer would take up a single slot, whilst a spiked maul would take up three slots. The encumbrance mechanics are simple, but have a couple of nuances. One is that heavy armour and heavy weapons are exhausting to use and cost Brawn to employ, so there is an emphasis away from lumbering slug-fests in combat in Hypertellurians. The other is that spellbooks—which anyone in Hypertellurians can read and cast from—also fill a single slot, but since magic is esoteric and complex, a spellbook only holds one spell. Some spells are given in Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm, but a Game Master can easily plunder any other fantasy or Old School Renaissance roleplaying game and its supplements for more spells and equally, more magical artefacts. That said, spellbooks capable of holding more than a single spell are sought after in the Ultracosm.

At the heart of Hypertellurians is wonder—that of the Ultracosm, its awe-spiring places, creatures, and vistas—and Wonder. When the Hypertellurians encounter the amazing, the fantastic, the phantasmagorical, the Game Master hands out points of Wonder, roughly ten per session. This goes into a communal pool from which every player can spend for various effects. In combat, this can be to inflict a Brutal Blow, make a Called Shot, Charge, or Sprint. Typically, such use of Wonder in combat will trump the actions of others, its use being a Fast Action. Out of combat, this can be to suddenly Manifest Memory, reaching through the Ultracosm to manifest a relevant, experienced memory to gain a wildly beneficial effect; draw upon the Ultracosm to make a Marvelous Adaptation and become an expert in a skill or topic for a scene; Push Fate and gain a reroll on an action, though the Ultracosm will add a complication to the Hypertellurian’s future; or Recall Memory to gain a roll with advantage.

In addition to tracking Wonder going into the communal pool, the Game Master also tracks how much is spent. For every ten spent, every player character can take an advance. These can be to increase an ability, gain affinity or a buffer with an ability, or gain a new Archetype or Cosm power. Advances are either minor, medium, or major, and over the course of one hundred gained and spent Wonder, a Hypertellurian will gain six minor, three medium, and one major advance. Overall, this handles experience and experience in a simple, communal fashion.

Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm with solid advice for both players and the Game Master. For the former, this includes making sure that your character supports the tone and setting of the Ultracosm, supporting concepts of your fellow players, enjoying failure, playing beyond the character sheet, and so on. For the Game Master, it is to support the players and their characters, to say yes, to reveal rather than keep the scenario hidden, be informative, take pleasure in the game play, and so on. It is thoroughly good advice, pertinent to most roleplaying games, not just Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm, and yet…

Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm feels underwritten in a number of places. Mechanically, for example, how does Manifest Memory work in play. There is no example, so the Game Master will have to adjudicate or decide. Although sample NPCs, monsters, and magical items are included, and there is a list of inspirations in the roleplaying game’s own Appendix N, there is the question of what exactly the Ultracosm is and what it looks like. There is also the visual inspiration of the author’s Pinterest page and the roleplaying does include a table of reasons why a diverse range of characters such as the player characters are together, but some more advice and help would have been useful, because as much as some Game Masters are going to find the freedom of the Ultarcosm exhilarating, others may well be daunted by it. Much of the problem stems from the emphasis upon creating characters in Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm.

One way in which to see Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm is the fantastic of Dungeons & Dragons and the Old School Renaissance pushed a million years into the future or into the length and width of a cosm parallel to those fantasies. Indeed, the roleplaying game gives advice on adapting the characters to such worlds—every ten Wonder spent being the equivalent to one character Level in Dungeons & Dragons—and converting monsters and NPCs, and so forth. Thus the Game Master could take her Hypertellurians campaign up and down and across the Ultracosm, having her player characters visit or play through various scenarios Dungeons & Dragons and the Old School Renaissance (and other roleplaying games). Ideally, these should be weird, arch, or arcane, obvious publishers whose scenarios would probably fit include Lamentations of the Flame Princes and Hydra Collective LLC, but there are plenty of others from numerous different publishers. 

Another issue is the lack of a scenario in Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm, if only to see what a Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm scenario looks like. Again, this comes back to some Game Masters are going to find the freedom of the Ultarcosm exhilarating, but others may well be daunted by it. To some extent, this can be offset by the Game Master looking for scenario herself, perhaps from those publishers listed above, but it would have been both useful and interesting to see what the author had in mind.

Physically, Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm is a relatively slim tome, illustrated throughout with period artwork. There is a certain lurid oppressiveness to its look, but the artwork is never less than fantastic and inspirational.

Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm is not an Old School Renaissance roleplaying game in the sense that it does not directly draw from Dungeons & Dragons and its advice for the Game Master is definitely contemporary. That said, its roots do lie in Dungeons & Dragons and the Old School Renaissance and it is able to plug back into it as much as it and the Ultracosm stands outside of it. Indeed, Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm is a fantastic way to revisit the fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons as well as other genres from an entirely different place.

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