It was a weird night for Max Morgan Ayers. Which says a lot, since he’s a pretty weird guy.
The man has seen and done some odd things in his career as a hacker, especially when he discovered he could hack reality just as easy as he could machines. Hell, he only recently put together that his methods of coding and intrusion technically fall under the realm of pseudoscience and babble. Only, it works really well for him.
But on this night, he finds himself sitting in a booth of a cheap-ass Asian food restaurant. He’s scamming the security system in the place — too high tech for such a dive — via his smartphone. At least, the Smartphone is operating as a focus for his hack job. Through a video output on his glasses, he’s monitoring the back kitchen with a small device he planted on a shelf when he “accidentally” stumbled back there looking for the restroom. He gets a glimpse of two men, circuitry on their faces, shambling their way past the line cooks with a glass case, carrying something.
The glasses dissolve from Max’s face, as their purpose in this reality had worn out. He curses to himself, and drops a line on the guy in the Van down the street (as well as the two Estate agents in the building across from the restaurant) that he’s going to get a closer look. He curses to himself while he quickly hacks the alarm of a luxury car outside for a distraction — he just knows shit is about to get weird. Even his sense of premonition can’t prepare him — hours from now, he’ll be leaning out a car window casting spells at cybernetic mobsters chasing him across a desert in another world entirely. No big deal, this is just how things happen when you work for The Estate.
A Chance to Explore
(Disclaimer: This is just me babbling, and shouldn’t be taken as a legitimate review.)
Last night I was able to hop in on an online session of The Strange ran by GamingRonin via Google Hangouts. Over the course of the evening, my character had gone from a crazy shoot-out in a Chinese restaurant, to a black and white 1920’s noir city of automatons, to a technicolor desert of pyramids and crazy-ass crocodile men. And this all seemed perfectly legit for my computer hacker who just happened to know how to scramble reality with spell-like effects. Just another day in The Strange.
I first picked the game up on a whim back in August (and blogged my initial thoughts.) I was blown away by the flexibility and the concept — a game where characters can hop worlds, even genres, take on new personas and still be the same character! But there were some things that I was questioning in execution: Instead of formal stats, you have pools that can be spent to achieve greater success on tasks (or deplete as you fail defensive actions.) The XP you earn in-game is meant to be spent on re-rolls as much as it is to advance your character. And speaking of characters: I was concerned the system wasn’t as easy to pick up as it’s been hyped, since every description or label you attach to your character has a different mechanical benefit attached to it.
Let’s start with the latter: Character creation was no sweat. I was able to swiftly choose an appropriate descriptor and focus based on names alone: “I am a Lucky Paradox who Works the System.” Luck grants bonuses to re-rolls and gives an extra pool of points to spend on increasing the odds, and “Works the System” gave me an edge on my hacker concept — allowing me to hack any mechanical device through the use of The Strange. The rest of the character creation was painless — assign some points to your stat pools, pick a skill here or there, and choose some basic equipment. Took me all of 20 minutes, including time to read and jot notes on my powers.
Mechanically, the game played like a breeze. I thought game play would get bogged down with how difficulty levels are assigned (where each level/step is worth 3 ranks of difficulty… so a difficulty of 4 means roll a 12 or higher on a d20.) After seeing it in play though, it makes a lot of sense (as your skills, powers, and stat pools are used to lower difficulty by steps, not flat modifiers.) The balancing act of making sure I didn’t go spend crazy with my stat pools didn’t feel “gamey” to me — as in, I wasn’t scared to spend nor was I going crazy on every roll.
Our session ended up being a one-on-one, as the other player had to bail out for some real-life stuff. Since the system keeps all of the dice rolling on the player end, everything had a pretty organic narrative to it. The only times we were missing out on having a bigger group was in the case of some of the game mechanics that only work in group settings. For instance: GM Intrusions award 2 XP, but one of those points is supposed to go to another player of the recipient’s choice. We didn’t know if I was supposed to stash the 2 XP to myself or not (we elected to just award me 1 XP at a time.) There’s also the case of some of the background connections — while some are just fluff, others actually have cool game mechanics that benefit a team.
The Rabbit Hole ends in Infinite Space
If the goal of The Strange was to provide a great system that allowed multiple styles and genres within a cohesive environment, it nailed it. It’s definitely not a “universal system” but instead is a universe that has room for everything. I’m a sucker for alternate universes and bizarro cosmologies, weird conspiracies and gonzo adventures. I originally didn’t give enough credit to the central plot arc of “The Estate” and other Earth-bound factions, but now I want to explore their struggles. The Strange is a worthy title for my bookshelf, sitting among other titles like The Laundry and GURPS Illuminati. It lives up to its name: trying to compare with any other game isn’t doing it a service. It’s the “one game to rule them all” but damn if it isn’t a fun way to try.
You can pick up The Strange on RPGNow or at the Monte Cook Games website.