Saturday, 30 May 2015

Some Housecleaning and Other Strangeness (Monte Cook Games)

First, a bit of news. The scenario I wrote for YSDC, The Long Con, has been nominated for a UK Game Expo award. As I write this, votes have either been cast or are being cast for this award; not sure which. If you're reading this, and can vote, please do! Hope all's well over in Birmingham, Paul!

Second, if you listen to the Plot Points podcast, there's a show coming up that you'll be veeeerry interested in. I don't know how much I can say about it now, so I shall say nothing, except stay tuned!

Recently the Plot Points folks have been talking about Monte Cook's The Strange RPG, which I reviewed for the Escapist, but the review never saw print. Rather than waste material, here's the column that never was. Enjoy!


System: The Strange
Creators: Bruce R. Cordell, Monte Cook
Publisher: Monte Cook Games

When I saw that RPGgeek had nominated The Strange in both its Game of the Year and Best Presentation categories for 2014, my first thought was, ‘bwuh? I’ve never heard of this one. Monte Cook I know – difficult not to, if you’ve ever been interested in Dungeons and Dragons - but this Bruce Cordell guy is new to me.  Oh, another Dungeons and Dragons alumnus, eh? Perhaps this is worth seeking out …’

Yes. Yes, it is.

The Strange assumes that aliens once created a communications and transport network, which humans now call the Strange, many billions of years ago. For whatever reason, that network was abandoned, and over the years has become chaotic and difficult to navigate. Among the many creatures living out there in the Strange are planetovores, creatures capable of devouring Earth, and which can get to Earth via the Strange, if a connection is created between their reality and ours.

However there is a defense network, of sorts. Stable, imaginary little islands in the Strange, called Recursions, form a buffer zone between us and the planetovores; a Warsaw Pact of sorts, where creatures of magic, weird science and pretty much anything else in between stand between us and destruction, merely by existing. These Recursions are essentially fictional, mostly created by human imagination, but the Strange gives them a kind of life. As far as each Recursion is concerned, it’s the reality, and we’re the fiction, though some Recursions have a better idea of the nature of the Strange than others.

The game assumes that each character is a member of the Estate, a quasi-governmental organization with the self-appointed task of keeping the Recursions more or less stable, thus staving off attack from those all-devouring planetovores, or even the inhabitants of those Recursions less inclined towards civilized interaction with fellow sentient beings.  After all, Recursions cover the entire scope of humanity’s imaginary worlds, and that means everything, from zombie apocalypses to world-conquering Nazis, ravaging Mongol hordes, immortal Pharaonic priest-kings, and so much more. It should come as no surprise that some of them want to invade our version of Earth, for reasons of their own.

However the Estate isn’t the only organization which knows about the Strange. The Office of Strategic Recursion is a nice, friendly agency which really just wants to get along with everyone, and weaponize whatever Strange technology it can pick up. The September Project may or may not be using the Strange to develop the next generation of quantum computers. The Circle of Liberty wants to use the Strange to get rid of governments worldwide. That just scratches the surface, and it doesn’t include the many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of individuals who are also aware of it, and are busily exploring or harvesting its riches for their own benefit.

This, mind you, all in North America; what with all the dodgy physics and mystic forces floating around, if you wanted, say, a Torchwood-style group, or any other kind of Strange-exploiting organization elsewhere, no problem.

Character generation is a breeze, even for novices. Fill in the blanks: I am an adjective noun, who verbs. Or, I am a fast spinner, who solves mysteries. Fast means you have a tier tree linked to the attribute fast, spinner that you’re a character type who relies on bluff, manipulation and subterfuge, and solves mysteries gives you access to a tier tree that revolves around solving mysteries.  That, and a little bit of point spending on your three attributes of Might, Speed and Intellect, and you’re good to go. Shouldn’t take longer than half an hour, even if you’ve never played tabletop before in your life.

Mechanically, The Strange’s Cypher System is about as simple as you can get, and still involve random chance. Tasks range from Routine Difficulty, which doesn’t require a dice roll, to Impossible. That Difficulty setting determines the Target Number, which you have to roll equal to or greater than on a d20. The outcome is dependent on the character’s Might, Speed or Intellect – whichever is most appropriate to the task – with any special benefits, items or other modifiers factored in. Roll the dice and find out if you did it or not. As the character, you’re always going to be the one driving the action, and you’re going to be the one rolling dice. Conflicts between NPCs are decided by the Game Master, who decides which result would best fit the narrative and goes with that.

Simplicity is one of the things I really appreciate about The Strange. Sure, I loved First Edition Dungeons and Dragons when I was a teen, and had the time to master all of its arcane subsystems, tables, and charts. Those days are done. Now what I want out of a game is an intriguing core idea, and rules mechanics that are lucid enough for anyone to pick up without any difficulty.

That core idea is definitely intriguing. You can quite literally go anywhere, anywhen. The main book describes several different Recursions, including one based on a fantasy video game RPG, another on a dystopian world racked by nuclear war and inhabited by, among other things, hyperintelligent roaches, and yet another where Sherlock Holmes plays violin and waits for clients at 221B Baker Street, London. You can go to Shangri-La, Innsmouth Massachusetts, King Arthur’s Court, the Land of Oz, or anywhere else you fancy. It’s not difficult to see how the Game Master could design a whole raft of scenarios around this core concept. For those willing to dive right in and just go nuts, The Strange offers all kinds of pulp fun.

Its Dungeons and Dragons roots are pretty clear from the example scenario and scenario seeds in the main book. You are made aware of a potential problem by your employer and are sent out to investigate. You go into what amounts to a dungeon, whallop a few mooks, and perhaps negotiate your way past the tougher obstacles. There is a boss encounter of some kind, and after you deal with that, you go back and report to your employer. Job done, until next time, when your employer makes you aware of another potential problem, and the cycle begins anew. The game certainly doesn’t have to play that way – the rules are simple enough and the setting loose enough for any kind of play style - but those are the examples on offer: light on investigation, heavy on the action. I was particularly struck by one encounter, which could have come straight out of Grimtooth’s. You have to wonder where the bad guys get their contractors. There’s no Angie’s List for that sort of thing.

Do I recommend it? Sure, it’s a great little knockabout. The rules are simple enough that anyone can get to grips with them without too much effort, and the core concept’s strong enough to engage even the most jaded of players. Its malleability is one of its strengths. If your group is tired of horror, play fantasy. Tired of fantasy, play sci fi, and so on. The Recursion idea is pretty close to the old Ravenloft concept of the Mist, with little pockets of reality hidden away from each other behind a mysterious wall, which is great for changing up the setting when you feel the need.

Would I play it? Hum. As a break from a different system, yes. It’s perfect for that one or two session hiatus game, where you put your main campaign on hold for a while, so everyone can recharge their batteries, but The Strange’s malleability is a problem as well as a benefit. It can become so many things that it almost lacks an identity of its own. 

Oddly, it reminds me a little of Atlas’ horror title Unknown Armies, in that I feel the same way after reading The Strange as I did when I first read Atlas’ game. There are so many ideas here, a lot of them really great, but what do I do with them all? Monster of the week it, try to go for high concept, immerse in the fantasy aspect, something else? How do I pitch it to the players? Is this something for a particular kind of gamer, the way Wraith suits certain players and not others, or will anyone be able to get on board?

On the whole, these feel like minor worries rather than dealbreakers. It’s still a system I’d like to try. Wandering through the multiverse with an Estate gold badge, like some kind of modern day Wyatt Earp with all the potential layers of existence as my Tombstone, has a lot of appeal. I’d recommend The Strange to anyone who enjoys Dungeons and Dragons style monster bashing, with a touch of Torchwood, and just a little hint of X-Files. Enjoy!

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