I’m finished moving, unpacking, and now — I get to resume blogging! And if you thought I’d be carrying on about the latest Dungeons & Dragons — well, maybe later. I have a lot to comment on that but I feel I need to get my thoughts in order on it. In the mean time, I wanted to ramble a bit today about a recent impulse buy: The Strange by Monte Cook Games! I have been interested in this title for a while for several reasons: First, I skipped Numenara because even though the premise of a weird science-fantasy intrigued me, I was worried it would be just another fantasy title on my shelf that I never played in place of D&D in any form. Still, part of me wanted to know what the big deal with the Cypher System was.
The second reason I took interest is because it’s rooted in a modern Earth setting, but entails dimension hopping and weird things. I love weird modern settings, whether science or fantasy based, and The Strange promised elements of, well, all of it. I remember early on Monte Cook talking about taking inspiration from shows like FRINGE, which is one of my favorite TV shows ever. Lastly, I was a huge fan on Monte Cook’s version of World of Darkness, so I was really curious to see what Bruce Cordell and him brought to the table.
The setting of The Strange is a convoluted, “anything is possible” multiverse that relies on a mysterious “dark energy network” called The Strange. At the center of this universe is “The Shoals of Earth,” which includes our modern world and various recursions that surround it. Recursions are alternate dimensions, each with their own applied laws and variables to our own. Two of these recursions are listed in great detail: Ardeyn, which is a Babylonian-inspired fantasy realm ripe with sorcery, and Ruk, which is a world of mad-science incarnate. We’re talking a realm filled with bio-mechanical and cybernetic oddities born out of a fiction from elsewhere.
Oh, and speaking of “born out of a fiction,” this multiverse includes realms such as Oz, Barsoom, Victorian London (as its own pocket universe born out of the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,) pretty much anything conceived ever. And through the Strange, they are all tied to our world — and for reasons as infinite as the worlds themselves, there are plenty trying to infiltrate, conquer or destroy our planet.
The base setup of the game is that our heroes are quickened — folks who are not only aware of the other recursions and the existence of The Strange, but are capable to tap into the dark energy network to give them cool powers, including the ability to translate themselves into another recursion. This isn’t teleportation, or crossing some portal (although those are possible too,) this is manifesting your consciousness into living existence in another damn world! So, quite easily, you can center the game around modern day people, with real life jobs and worries, who secretly project their beings into another universe to become an entirely different entity, to fight off alien threats that want to take over or consume our home.
BUT!! That’s just one angle! Back on “modern earth,” we have a lot of factions and conspiracies pulling power plays on one another. Cabals of alien beings planting themselves in our society, crazy organizations and sects of humans who are trying to abuse The Strange for their own mad agendas. It’s a damn infinite universe, yet you could probably spend years just exploring all the crazy bat-shit stuff while defending our own backyard.
My initial impression of the premise and setting:
It’s like Robert A. Heinlein and Robert Anton Wilson got together and created an RPG setting. Maybe not as gonzo, but, the capacity is there. I approve.
I kept hearing praises for the mechanical flexibility and simplicity, with folks comparing this to the likes of Fate. Honestly, I was surprised to see it (to me) feel more like an adaptation of the d20 System — albeit a very streamlined and different approach of it.
Three stats (Might, Intelligence, and Speed) empower characters divided up into three classes (Vector, Paradox, or Spinner.) It’s essentially “Fighter, Magical Person, Skill Junkie” with flavorful names — but, their presentation in this particular game world works. The core mechanic is roll d20, beat a difficulty number (which is ranged in steps of 3.) What I applaud here is that the Stats aren’t fixed numbers, but instead pools of points the characters use to lower difficulties or spend to power their cool abilities. They also function as the “damage” resource — attacks on the players deplete the pools, as well as fatigue and other conditions. I wasn’t a fan of the idea when I heard about it, and my quick description doesn’t do it justice — but it does look solid, and I think careful consideration to the math in the game has been made for it to flow right. Skills are present, many are listed, but essentially only operate as particular knacks that a character has a lower difficulty in. Which is fine by me — it defines a character’s talent but doesn’t add any more fiddly bits to the system. Also, it’s a “player rolls everything” kind of system (much like High Valor, which is an always favorite of mine.) The GM’s do have a mechanic for “intrusion”, though, where they reward the players EXP in exchange for a hindrance or a plot twist (although, when a player rolls bad, these can be invoked without reward.)
What tickles me about character creation is that characters are defined as “I am an adjective noun that verbs.” Really it’s you picking out a Descriptor, Type, and Focus. It’s easy to look at “I am a Clever Spinner who practices Mad Science” and have a pretty good idea of what the character does. The interesting thing to note here, though, is that those Descriptors and Focuses have mechanical definitions to them (they’re not as free-form as, say Aspects in Fate.) Although, on a side note, I think next time I run Fate I may make my players use the Adjective/Noun/Verb combo to establish High Concepts.
If I had any gripe about the mechanics, and this is just a nit-picky small one, it’s Cyphers. Cyphers are one-time use items found in The Strange, varying across worlds, broken up between anoetic (pop a pill, flip a switch, push a button) and occultish (rarer, more complicated things.) It’s noted they’re less like treasure, and more like random abilities quickened characters can discover and use during a game. You have a limit of how many you can carry based on your Type and power level, and hoarding them results in them “canceling” each other out. I think the reason I have mixed feelings on these are that they scale somewhere between “loot for loot’s sake” and what I’m going to call “video game logic.” No matter how cool the description, I can’t shake the image of someone bonking a question-marked box and pulling a magic mushroom or fireflower all Super Mario style.
But, you know, in a game world where I can “translate” myself into other dimensions — including dimensions spawned out of the imagination of humanity or other races — maybe that isn’t such a far-fetched idea? Hell, maybe I finally found the perfect system to run Scott Pilgrim vs. The World with. (Yes, I’m saying that with a straight face.)
A Different Take on “Collaborative World Building.”
A while back, in the height of 3rd edition days, a good buddy of mine discussed the possible fun a person could have playing with the Genesis spell. We even discussed the idea of a prison dimension, created by a wizard, with its own rules and physics. Well, now The Strange actually provides very detailed rules and guidelines for our quickened heroes to invest into their own recursions. That’s right: through a lengthy shopping list of acquiring things like a chunk of matter called a “reality seed,” finding a nexus point and performing a process that involves investing their own experience into it, players can create their own pocket dimensions. And these recursions will grow over time… first to the size of housing and estates, to even city sized within several years.
Art Style in The Strange
For a game that is rooted in modern earth (at least as a base of operations,) the bulk of the art has more to do with alien vistas and strange landscapes beyond our world. We see a lot of artwork of the qephelim (the anubian-looking race from Ardeyn) and the bio-mechanic species of Ruk. Most pictures of humans entail either mystical qualities or strange super-science gadgetry that would be at home with Mage: The Ascension’s virtual adepts. The style can be very gloomy,but littered with bursts of color emphasizing strange and wondrous things. The things listed in the Creatures chapter are absolutely nightmarish and awe-inspiring — we’re talking Cliver Barker levels of awesome here.
The layout for the book is wonderful. If you’ve read any other Monte Cook game book — Arcana Evolved and Ptolus in particular for me — you’ll feel at home with his layout and cross-referenced notes in the margins of the pages. Games of this caliber are riddled with rabbit holes you can find yourself tumbling down for more definition, and it’s nice to have a guide.
I came into this game expecting something between Monte Cook’s World of Darkness or d20 Modern. Instead, I’m walking away with a pretty unique spin of the multi-verse that has the potential to be played in infinite locales. The aspect of playing the same character as, well, multiple incarnations in different genres and settings has a huge appeal. When Matt Bryant was running his play tests for MAIN SEQUENCE, he kept using the same characters across different settings (including Star Trek’s Mirror Universe, and Firefly.) When he did that, I thought it would’ve been cool to use that as a premise for a campaign — and now, I’ve found a game that really embraces it.
In my opinion, the setting of The Strange has managed to find a sweet-spot concept for genre-hopping. It’s not as cumbersome as generic systems like GURPS that tries to establish rules for everything, or games like Fate or Savage Worlds that want the GM to adjust the game rules to the setting. Instead, it establishes a setting that includes everything, and defines everything to its terms — such as how a mage, a psychic, an inventor of super-science or a hacker from The Matrix can all simply be “Paradoxes.”
The mechanics seem fluid enough without being too easy or too lite, so I’m excited to try them out. Even if I end up not able to sell my players on it, I think the setting and lore itself was worth the price of the hardcover. I will gladly raid this book for ideas for any modern or horror setting, as well as any universal systems I may find myself running. But, man oh man, do I pray this isn’t just going to be a book that sits on the shelf for idea farming.