What follows is a set of house rules I originally came up with to runThe Strangeby Monte Cook Games using Fate Accelerated by Evil Hat Studios. At the time, I wasn’t too sure how I felt about the Cypher System. Since then, I’ve ran quite a few games using both The Strange and the Cypher System Rulebook. It’s grown on me, and it’s one of my favorite new systems.
That said, there’s still a lot that merging Cypher and Fate can provide. The biggest advantage is how Fate handles Aspects, and relies on the narrative to define the rules. As long as you and your GM agree on what a descriptor on your sheet means, you can rock it. On the flipside, I think Cypher has the strength in allowing newcomers to cherry pick descriptors, types and foci to build a character in a somewhat “Mad Libs” fashion. My only gripe is then you’re stuck with an ability progression that is somewhere between d20 Feats and a Diablo-style skill tree.
This homebrew mashup sort of takes the best of both worlds, and allows you to quickly get to playing. It allows the fluid flexibility of Fate Accelerated with the options and guided concept building of Cypher (as well as Cypher’s effort system) with minimal adjustments.
Note: This was originally written for The Strange, prior to Cypher System Rulebook coming out. I also hadn’t played or read much Numenera at the time. Even though I reference The Strange heavily, I think any Cypher game could convert using these pretty easily.
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.
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 Strangeby 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 recursionsthat 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.