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

Sunday 17 July 2022

Over the Edge Again. Again.

Ever hear of Al Amarja? Yes, that Al Amarja. The island in the middle of the Mediterranean that everyone denies exists, ruled by president-for-life, Her Exaltedness Monique D’Aubainne, Historic Liberator and Current Shepherdess of Al Amarja? There is no way you would go there. After all, the state health care is mandatory, especially under Doctor Nusbaum’s experimental treatment programme, as is voting. Plus it is a brutal place with state control and overwatch, whether it is the seemingly ever-present members of Peace Force and their guard baboons (and if the baboons are not in Peace Force, they are everywhere), the nationalised state Total Taxis, and more. Sure, it is unrelentingly violent. There are fights on the streets and even organised in the middle of Roller Derby League matches, but nobody is allowed guns, and you really, really do not want to see what goes on in the ice skating—or maybe you do! (Since it is a full contact sport, baby, do I mean contact...) Then there are the public hangings as well as the Festival of Fate, the highlight of which is prisoners submitting themselves to Sister Cheryl’s Wheel of Fate at Temple of Divine Experience, the result of which possibly leads to the commuting of their sentence, but more likely death or torture and death. Of course, it is a commercial, trade, and scientific free-for-all, unfettered by all the regulation we have to suffer. So go to Broken Wings District for the best parties—whether to be seen amongst the elites or disrupt the event; Flowers District to party on the streets or experience that latest in Avant Garde artwork; spend time away from the island’s weirdness in the Sunken District with a fellow exile; and so much more… And there are supposed to be sorcerers and psychics on the island, Organ Grinders harvesting for their dead god, aliens, oh so many aliens, secret world bettering technologies which the corporations are hiding because they can and the same goes for cancer treatments, and more. Yes, that Al Amarja, which does not exist and never did because it is all some damned roleplaying game, Over the Edge: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger from back in the nineties, put out by some weirdly progressive little gaming company in Minnesota, Atlas Games. So, none of it is real.

Except it is.

Al Amarja is real. You can get there if you know how. Plus, if you are American, the state language is English and everyone takes dollars. They will take every other currency too, because it gets exchanged into the state currency, zlotys. So if it is real, where is it? Well, not where it was in the nineties. Now it is not in the Mediterranean, but rather in the Atlantic. Freedom is still valued above all, but the government monitors everything—for your safety of course. Weapons are outlawed—especially firearms, but everyone carries something. Medical care is free at the point of delivery, but so is medical malpractice and there are no laws against that. Drugs are totally illegal, but the barista will add a shot of something to your coffee. In the teensies and the twenties, you will need look harder though, as Al Amarja slipped down a parallel time stream where Donald Trump got elected president and he let Nazis walk the streets of America again. Which means that it is different from back in the nineties, but the same, right? So if you have been before, you still need to get ready for the heady rush of unreality, because this is a whole other unreality even if bits still look familiar. And the reason for Over the Edge: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger? Call it the ultimate in disinformation sponsored by the government of the Ultimate Democratic Republic of Al Amarja. And if a piece of propaganda worked the first time, why not do it again? After all you are never going there, you were never going there, and you never will go there—and Al Amarja was and is fake, is it really there?

Over the Edge Third Edition: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger is real though. Funded via a Kickstarter campaign is no mere update. Instead, this is a re-envisioning of Over the Edge with everything old, but new. It is still a roleplaying game of counter-culture conspiracy, weird science, and urban danger combining conspiratorial factions, strange fringe abilities, cutting-edge technology, and cross-reality incursions all under the watchful eye of an all-powerful anarchic State. The revision also includes the rules and the mechanics, which forgoes the complexities of the original WaRP system, in favour of a more luck-based system designed to drive the story with extra twists—good and bad. There is nothing to stop a Game Master from running Over the Edge Third Edition: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger using the original WaRP system, but it is not designed with that in mind. It should be noted that Over the Edge has always been cited as one of the progenitors of the storytelling movement in roleplaying and this latest edition very much draws from that movement. The result makes demands of both the Game Master and her players. It uses simple character creation that calls for strong conceptualisation and scope for storytelling over the course of one or more story arcs. It asks the players to be ready for said characters to encounter and accept random twists—both for good or ill—to the outcomes of their actions, whilst the Game Master has to be on her toes ready to create and suggest those twists. Lastly, the players are required to commit their dice to Over the Edge and no other campaign roleplaying game. (Fortunately, Over the Edge only uses a pair of six-sided dice each.)

A Player Character in Over the Edge can almost be anything, which includes paranormal and magical gifts. This excludes plot wrecking powers such as invincibility, invisibility, flying, phasing, mind reading, shape-changing, and others. So an ex-MMA fighter turned vigilante, a doctor searching for the cure to cancer, a burned out ex-FSB agent, a conspiracy theory seeking the truth, an extreme tourist, a would-be sorcerer with an intelligent rat sidekick, and more. A Player Character though, is always human, adheres to ‘Hollywood’ reality and tenacity of the everyman, described in broad details, fits in and interacts with the setting, and is new to the island. He is described in four features—a Main Trait, a Side Trait, a Trouble, and a Question Mark. The Main Trait is what the Player Character is or does, whilst the Side Trait is something that he can do in addition to the Main Trait. The Trouble is whatever will draw or force the Player Character to act in ways that are probably unsafe, if not dangerous, to him, but will always be interesting. The Question Mark is an aspect of the Player Character about which he is uncertain or he will break or he will transgress. For example, ‘Hard-Hearted-?’, ‘Friendly-?’, or ‘Fearless-?’. He also has a name, but this is chosen last and the other players can suggest ideas for it too.

Cheyanne Lovecraft
An ex-stripper turned sorcerer’s apprentice [Main Trait] who is Intuitive-? [Question Mark] and has a talking rat mentor [Side Trait].
Trouble: Cannot resist a sob story

In addition, a Player Character has a Level. In fact, everything in Over the Edge Third Edition has a Level, ranging from first to seventh. So this is not just a Player Character’s capabilities, but also locations, backgrounds, opponents, and story arcs. What the Level does is set the degree of challenge that a Player Character will face in comparison to his own capabilities, and a Player character will typically match that. So a First Level Story Arc is about ordinary people in over their heads, a Third Level Story Arc is about notable experts in their fields, even powerful, who can get into trouble as much as they can out, whilst a Fifth Level Story Arc is about characters beyond human. Sixth and Seventh Levels are godlike and out of reach of a Player Character. Typically, the default in Over the Edge Third Edition lies at the lower end of the scale. Opponents, or Game Master Characters, are on a similar scale as Player Characters, whilst locations and backgrounds get progressively weirder the higher up they are on the scale. Where a Player Character sits on that scale with regard to the world of Al Amarja around him has an influence on the mechanics of Over the Edge Third Edition.

Mechanically, in Over the Edge Third Edition, a player does not so much roll dice as ‘cast lots’, and lots are cast only when the outcome matters and then really to encompass everything in what the Player Character is attempting to do. Thus, sneak into a warehouse to obtain a sample of Voo, the drug that makes temporarily forget everything or get away from the Charters, the independent band of pirates that predates the United States and only men can join (so technically women are men in the Charters), that is one roll. If the roll is a success, then fine. If a failure, then maybe other rolls are called for. What a player needs to do in either situation is cast his lots and aim to get seven or eight, or more. That is a success.

If a Player Character is of a higher Level than the Game Master Character, location, or background, his player gets rerolls and he rerolls one or more dice, but must keep the result. If a Player Character is of a lower Level than the Game Master Character, location, or background, the Game Master gets rerolls that the player must make and keep the result. If the Levels are equal, then there are no rerolls. Casting lots also generates twists. Each three rolled when casting lots, generates a bad twist, whilst each four generates a good twist. So it is possible to roll one good twist or one bad twist; a ‘Lightning Bolt’ or two threes, which can a two bad twists or a double-bad twist; a ‘Twist Tie’, meaning a good twist and a bad twist’; or a ‘Crazy Eight’ and two good twists or a double-good twist. It is also possible to fail a casting of the lots and still have a good twist or succeed and cast lost with a bad twist. Whatever the nature of the twist, the Game Master brings something new and interesting into play, this perhaps being the capacity that the Game Master can have when running Over the Edge Third Edition: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger. In addition, the players can have access to Karma which is shared between them and also allows a reroll. Together they can only share one use of Karama, but since it can be regained whenever doubles are rolled, it is always better to use it than not.

Combat uses the same casting lots mechanic. The primary outcome of a bad twist in combat is damage. Three strikes and a Player Character is possibly dying, and unless it comes from a strange, alien, or paranormal source, healing is slow. Depending upon their status and potency, Game Master characters can have one or more Saves, Game Master fiats which enables them to shrug off damage.

A good third of Over the Edge Third Edition: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger is dedicated to Al Amarja. This covers Al Amarja and the outside world, the presence and role of the state, culture media and media, and more. Every district is detailed, including why somebody might go there and what can be seen there, before the book details the gangs, groups, organisations, and more. Each one comes with an expanded explanation and advice for the Game Master as to how they can be used because ultimately, the Game Master is free to use them as she chooses, to pick and discard them as needed, and in the process, make Al Amarja hers and thus different to that of another Game Master. On the downside, this does mean that the island and its weirdness is densely presented, but on the plus side, the Game Master can in part tailor the island, its conspiracies, and its weirdness to the Player Characters and what is driving them.

For the Game Master there is further advice on running the new edition of Over the Edge, this in addition to the advice that appears throughout the book, as well as on engaging the Player Characters, creating Game Master Characters, to what degree she should be preparing her game, and advice in general. Like much of the rest of the book, it is accompanied by commentaries from both of the authors and there is also a full scenario, ‘The Sun Queen Must Die’. It is designed as an introductory one-shot, in which the players should create characters coming to Al Amarja in search of a reclusive guru. Their chance to meet him takes place at Sad Mary’s Bar & Grill, known for its girl fights and radical arts performances, at the height of an unsurprisingly adult Passover celebration. Events outpace them though and potentially take a darkly weird turn…

Physically, Over the Edge Third Edition: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger brightly and colourfully presented. The artwork is excellent, the layout a little busy in places, and the index is great. However, it takes a while for the roleplaying game as written to click. The issue is that the first fifth of the book is devoted to rules which feel out of context and difficult to quite grasp until you get to the selling point of Over the Edge Third Edition: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger and that is Al Amarja, its setting and its weirdness.

Over the Edge Third Edition: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger is weird and weird. It is weird because of what the setting is and what it is made up of, but it is weird because its resolution mechanic, which is designed as much to throw something else, a good twist or a bad twist, into the mix as much as can resolve any one situation. It forces players to fall back upon roleplaying and their character’s story and motivation rather than whatever stats or numbers a Player Character would normally have to rely upon. The lack of stats and numbers do make character creation incredibly simple, but incredibly challenging in making a player create a character with story potential. There are examples, all of them fully worked out, but the resulting ready-to-play Player Characters are not immediately obvious at the back of the book. Further the designers push the weirdness further than might be found in another roleplaying game by having the Game Master reveal interior elements of that weirdness to the players which their characters would not be aware of. Thus, the play of the game takes on extra-narrative elements, an artifice that enforces the sense of unreality on Al Marja.

Over the Edge Third Edition: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger is a darker, faster-playing, even more improbable random return to the unreality of Al Amarja. Its even more storytelling-focus and ultra-light mechanics make demands of both the Game Master and her players and consequently the degree of buy-in, whether because of those rules or the unreality of the setting, is greater than might be expected. Still, what it comes down to is that just like Over the Edge: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger back in 1992, what stands out in Over the Edge Third Edition: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger is Al Amarja, and that is worth overcoming whatever reservations you might have about the mechanics.

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