Review – The Strange

Monte Cook Games launched the Cypher System with the highly successful Numenera, which premiered  at GenCon 2013, and more recently released a stand-alone Cypher System Rulebook. In between, however, was The Strange, a stand-alone game in a multiple-worlds science fiction setting. The Strange core book is a 400+ page, full-color hardcover that retails for about $60.

The Concept

The Earth of The Strange is, at its core, the current-day Earth. However, “beneath” this reality lies The Strange. Within the vastness of the Strange lie pocket realities known as “recursions.” Recursions come in various sizes – one might be the size of country, while another is the size of a city, and a third only a few hundred feet from end to end – but all are much smaller than Earth. Each recursion has its own laws of reality – magic might work in one recursion, while giant mechs battle in a second, and extensive biomodification is the rule in the third. If one knows how, one can leave the Earth and travel through the Strange to another recursion. However, in practice most travel occurs through a process called translation, where a person or group of people “teleports” directly from one reality to another, usually “translating” the people and their equipment. This might be a relatively straightforward translation (a martial artist with a pistol may become a man-at-arms with a sword) or it might involve more radical change (a golem might become a spy).

The relevant scope of the Strange is known as the Shoals of Earth, which is replete with recursions. Most recursions (but generally not detailed in the book for legal reasons) are the result of fictional leakage – when the collective imagination of humanity births a recursion (Oz, Narnia, Wonderland, and so forth). Two recursions, which were created through other means, are described in detail. The recursion of Ardeyn is a fantasy world that was directly downloaded from a computer RPG into reality. The creator of the recursion, Carter Morrison, was the first human to discover the Strange. This “pinging” of the Strange attracted the attention of a planetovore, which Morrision was able to deflect by jamming data into the Strange. The existence of planetovore’s explains the game’s effective restriction to the Shoals of Earth – there is no interstellar travel, and the Earth is the only known instance of a civilization not being destroyed when coming to the attention of the Strange. The second highly detailed recursion, Ruk, is the remnant of one such civilization, which hurtled itself through the Strange until it crashed into the Shoals of Earth. Ruk is a “mad science” recursion (the one with extensive biomodification I referenced earlier).

There are several organizations in Ruk, the Earth, and Ardeyn that are aware of the other realities, and are involved in long-term machinations to keep the Earth and its environs safe from planetovores … or to ensure that Earth is destroyed by one. Other recursions primarily serve as places for the characters to visit and explore in short bursts. Characters can, eventually, obtain the power to create their own (likely limited) recursion, defining its traits to suit their plans and whims.

Basic Mechanics

The Cypher System is fairly established by now, but the short version is that the characters roll a d20 against a target set by the GM (running up to a 30). The GM sets the task’s difficulty and multiplies that difficulty by three to get the target. Difficulty can be modified by skills, assets, and effort. Being trained in a skill reduces the difficulty by one (and therefore the target number by three). An asset (help from a friend, relevant equipment, whatever) can reduce difficulty by up to two. Effort requires spending points from a character’s applicable Pool (discussed later). The maximum difficulty reduction from Effort is equal to the character’s level, called a tier.

The players always roll the dice. When going up against an enemy, the foe (or situation) is simply assigned a default difficulty number. Whether the player character is attacking, defending, conversing, or otherwise, the difficulty remains the same (although most creatures and unique NPCs have something they are a bit better at and, therefore, use a higher difficulty number for).

Two other critical concepts are GM intrusion and the role of cyphers. GM intrusion lets the GM introduce some sort of unexpected complication into the story. GM intrusion is also used instead of a random roll to determine whether something happens that’s out of control of the players – for example, whether some guards a few rooms down hear a fight. When the GM intrudes, the affected player gets 2XP, who must then immediately give one of those XP to another player (more rarely, the GM might just hand each PC 1XP). The affected player has the option to refuse the intrusion by declining the XP offer, and paying 1XP.

Cyphers (the one-shot items) are intended to provide a constant source of new and different things to the game. They’re one-shots, they’re intended to show up frequently, and the PCs can only carry a couple each. This incentivizes the players to use them pretty quickly.

Characters (~80 pages)

Characters in The Strange have three stats (each of which has an associated Pool and Edge), plus a Descriptor, Type, and Focus.

Stats

The three stats are Might, Speed, and Intellect. Might encapsulates both raw strength and health/constitution, Speed includes raw speed but also dexterity, and Intellect also incorporates social graces. Each stat has a Pool and Edge (the starting values for these are defined by your Type). Pool is what one might normally think of as the value of the stat – how Mighty you are, how Speedy you are, whatever. Points from the starting Pool can be lost to attacks, can be used as Effort to decrease difficulty, or can be used to fuel some abilities. The Edge value for a stat reduces how much has to be spent out of the Pool to pay for a particular effect. So if an ability cost 3 Intellect, a character with an Intellect Edge of 1 would only need to pay 2.

Type

A character’s type is their most mechanically significant feature, effectively the character class. There are three Types – vector, paradox, and spinner. Type determines starting stats (each ranging from 8 to 12), some equipment, and special abilities. Additionally, each Type makes one particular aspect of translation much smoother. A party without all three Types will find translation much less convenient, making a full spread of types a de facto requirement for any party (unless the group finds that particular challenge to be desirable).

The vector is action-oriented and physically focused. Vectors have good values in Might and Speed, but poor Intellect. Vectors are trained in unarmored defense and proficient with weapons. Each vector gains two moves at character creation. Options include inflicting more damage, greater endurance, greater speed, improved unarmed attacks, or proficiency with armor. As a vector gains tiers, he or she gains additional moves, more physical skills, more defensive skills, and more attack skills.

A paradox breaks the rules of reality. They are the closest thing to a spellcaster in The Strange, although their Focus at the time will define the way that their abilities work – actual magic, mad science, miracles, or otherwise. Paradoxes have excellent Intellect, but poor Might and Speed. They can bear more cyphers than other characters, are more knowledgeable about the Strange, and have limited weapon proficiency. Each paradox gains two revisions at character creation. Options include mental defense, ranged damage, levitation, and precognition. As a paradox gains tiers, he or she gains additional revisions and can bear more cyphers (all characters gain some cypher increase, but the paradox gains more). As compared to the vector and the spinner, a paradoxes power increase from higher tiers is very focused on their revisions.

The spinner is the “face” of The Strange, focusing on social interactions. A spinner has good Intellect, decent Speed, and relatively poor Might. A spinner is proficient with more weapons than a paradox, but not as many as a vector. A spinner is skilled at their choice of social manipulation. Each spinner gains two twists at character creation. Options include enthralling others, fast talk, sleight of hand, inspiring allies, disguise, and understanding others’ motivations. As a spinner gains tiers, he or she gains additional twists and training in more skills (except for attack and defense).

Descriptor

A character’s descriptor is something like a background and something like a generalization. Descriptors include Appealing, Brash, Clever, Fast, Graceful, Intelligent, Lucky, Sharp-Eyed, Skeptical, Stealthy, Strange, Strong, and Tough. Descriptors are not limited by character Type, although some combinations will synergize better than others.

Most descriptors provide a +2 increase to one Stat Pool, training with one straightforward skill, and training in something more specific. For example, a Brash character gets +2 Speed Pool, training in initiative, training in any action that involves overcoming fear or intimidation. Some descriptors come with stronger or more bonuses, and an accompanying inability that increases the difficulty of certain tasks.

Focus

Focus serves a somewhat different role in The Strange than one might be used it, if coming from another Cypher System game (such as Numenera). Like a character’s Type, the Focus adds more powerful abilities as the character levels up. In the Cypher System generally, I would say that a character’s Focus is what most defines them. But Focus serves a different role in The Strange because a character’s focus will often shift when he or she translates. In some sense, a character’s Focus isn’t really part of the character at all, but more like a cypher or other piece of equipment – sure, that Flaming Longsword +2 may be nifty, but it gets cast aside for the next better thing. Many Focuses work much better with a particular Type.

With one exception, each Focus presented in The Strange is tied to one of the three core worlds – Earth, Ardeyn, or Ruk. A Focus can only be assumed in the appropriate location, and in general must be abandoned when translating away from that plane. A few of the Foci (mostly ones native to Earth) are draggable, which means that they can be retained when translating away from that reality. For example, a character must be on Earth to start Operating Undercover, but can continue to Operate Undercover when subsequently translating to Ardeyn.

The Focuses native to Ardeyn are mostly fantasy concepts – golem, archer, dragon-slayer, magic-user. The Focuses native to Ruk mostly focus on biotechnology. The Focuses native to Earth are more generic, such as Entertains, Leads, or Solves Mysteries.

Leveling Up

Characters are, of course, not static. XP in The Strange can be spent on a variety of things in the course of the game, but (as one might expect) one of them is character advancement. In order to go up from tier to tier, the character must improve the character in a variety of ways. There are four “steps” to gaining a tier (they cost 4XP each), and the character must do all four (in any order) in order to gain a tier: assign 4 new points to stat pools, increase an Edge by 1, increasing Effort by 1, and becoming trained/specialized in a skill. Each tier the player can forego additional skills training in favor of one of several other options: an additional selection from the Type ability list, better recovery rolls, or less hassle wearing armor. These things cannot be bought randomly, but only as character advancement steps – so not only do you have to spread the XP around in order to level up, but you cannot simply load up on one aspect of the character (e.g., just dumping tons of XP into an Edge).

Characters can also spend smaller amounts of XP to get short-term benefits or more limited long-term benefits, such as contacts, an artifact, or wealth.

Rules (~30 pages + another ~20 on translation and recursions)

I’ve discussed the basics of the rules above, but this section of the book provides more detail (although the Cypher System is not a particularly detailed one). Topics covered include combat (of course), environmental hazards, damage, vehicles, crafting, and experience.

During combat, characters get one action per turn. Much of combat positioning is expressed broadly in terms of distance – immediate (within 10 feet), short (up to 50 feet), long (up to 100 feet). Distances beyond 100 feet are expressed in exact terms. A character can move an immediate distance as part of another action. Moving a short distance is an action. Moving a long distance is an action, but it requires a roll.

Attacking is, unsurprisingly, an action. Other actions include waiting, defending, and “do something else.” The latter category (which also has lots of out-of-combat application) includes climbing, guarding, healing, jumping, perception, interaction, pretending you’re playing a D&D Rogue (aka, disabling devices and picking locks), sneaking, and swimming.

Damage to players by default results in the loss of points from the Might Pool, but sources of damage may specify a different pool (for example, a mental attack might do Intellect damage). NPCs just have a health number. If a Pool is empty, then the damage is dealt to another Pool. Every time one of the Pools is emptied the character moves down on a damage track, which applies penalties when the character attempts further actions. If all three Pools empty, the character dies. Armor reduces the amount of damage taken, as appropriate for the nature of the armor (so chainmail will reduce Might damage, but not Intellect damage). Resting allows a character to make a recovery roll to replenish depleted Pools (the character automatically moves up the damage track as Pools go back above zero).

Combat situations covered by the combat rules include cover, being prone, surprise, range, visibility/light, being in water, area attacks, attacking objects, and terrain.

Experience in The Strange is not awarded for defeating monsters in combat. Rather, XP is awarded for intrusions, for discoveries, or for completing goals.

There are a variety of ways to translate to or from recursions. There are gates that anyone can use, and a variety of ways to invoke the principle of sympathy (an object from the recursion, a picture of the recursion, etc.). Just having knowledge of sufficient details of the recursion can be enough. It is also possible to translate directly into the Strange. Except for special objects or special gates, the appearance and focus of the character change to match the setting, as does the character’s gear. How difficult this process is varies greatly depending on whether the party has a vector, a paradox, and a spinner. Note that I’m also including in this section the beginning of the Setting portion of the book.

Setting/Gazetteer (~105 pages)

The setting section of The Strange covers five broad topics – Earth, Ardeyn, Ruk, the Strange itself, and some other specific recursions.

Earth (~20 pages) is essentially the Earth we know already, but with a few shadow organizations that interact with other recursions. These include The Estate (an independent Earth-based organization that seeks to protect the Earth), the Quiet Cabal (a Ruk-based organization that seeks to protect the Earth), The September Project (an Ardeyn/Earth organization that wants to take over everything and elevate its founder to planetovore levels of power), and the Office of Strategic Recursion (a government agency seeking to weaponized material from recursions). Almost the entire Earth section focuses on providing an overview of these organizations.

Ardeyn (~30 pages) was, as noted above, recently created in a desperate effort to protect Earth from a planetovore. A fantasy cRPG come to life, Ardeyn has thousands of years of history from the point of view of the recursion (from the game’s backstory), despite its relatively recent creation. Ardeyn is something of a decaying realm, its gods (whose roles were taken up by the programmers were responsible for its creation) fallen to the Betrayer (one of their own). The entire world of Ardeyn contains the body of Lotan the Sinner, who was imprisoned long ago. With no one left to monitor Lotan, or check the Betrayer, Ardeyn’s future is uncertain.

Ruk (~30 pages) is a recursion of biotechnology and body modification. Essentially consisting of a disc centered on a large city, Ruk is a fragment of another planet that was entrapped in the Shoals of Earth while traveling through the Strange. It has lost its own history (the True Code), its own inhabitants not sure where there recursion came from or whether it’s a good thing that they are now lodged in the Shoals of Earth. All-controlling factions dominate life on Ruk, vying for their own power, to preserve or destroy Earth (depending on what effect they think this will have on Ruk), and to preserve the True Code or embrace the All Song (sort of a communal wireless signal). Unlike Earth or Ardeyn, the population of Ruk as a whole is well aware of the Strange.

The section on other recursions (~20 pages) includes brief presentations on several other recursions. Also provided is a discussion of worlds created through fictional leakage, which comprise the majority of recursions in the Shoals of Earth (the origins of Ardeyn and Ruk make them massive outliers). Many specific recursions generally cannot be detailed for legal reasons (sorry, no Star Trek license), but the recursions that are presented have elements of fictional leakage from certain types of stories. The more detailed recursions presented include Atom Nocturne (anime super-powered duel tournaments), Cataclyst (a post-apocalyptic cityscape populated by mutants), Crow Hollow (kenku everywhere), Graveyard of the Machine God (a moon-sized machine god corpse, still worshiped by the machines living on it), Thunder Plains (Native American themed), Gloaming (battles between groups of vampires and werewolves sworn to order or chaos). Another dozen recursions get a paragraph each (half of those being specifically for fictional leakage from public domain materials like Oz and 221B Baker Street).

Opinions

It’s taken me a while to figure out how to formulate the opinion section of this review, and in no small part that’s because I have a very difficult time judging The Strange without the comparison to Numenera. The setting for The Strange was created independently of the Cypher System – but the Cypher System is ultimately was it uses, and that system is very much tied to Numenera, making it easy to fall into thinking of The Strange as a science fiction analogue of Numenera, which it really isn’t. That causes an expectations problem (or, at least, caused one for me) – I went into The Strange thinking of it as a Numenera-style exploration, and most of the book isn’t about that.

Even setting that expectations question aside, I’m not sure that The Strange is a good mechanical fit for the Cypher System. The may seem, well, strange, given that it’s the very company that created the Cypher System that’s using it here. But there are a couple of specific mechanic aspects that I think aren’t a great fit, and a broader conceptual issue as well.

First, there’s the issue of Focus. In Numenera, a character’s Focus is the single biggest unique (mechanical) thing about them. Being a jack or a nano, or being tough or clever – those things are identifying, but ultimately fairly standard. The character’s big hook is their Focus – they Carry a Quiver or Control Gravity or Howls at the Moon. In The Strange, a character’s Focus can (and usually will) change every time they translate. The Focus goes from being the most distinctive and identifying mechanical aspect of a character to being something that changes every time they take a trip. So, in The Strange, it’s much harder to mechanically find the identity of the character – the remaining mechanical bits are relatively generic from character to character. That doesn’t mean that the players can’t roleplay distinctive characters, but this central aspect of the game mechanics is no longer supporting that in the same way.

The notion of cyphers themselves doesn’t fit snugly in The Strange either. It was arguably always a little bit forced in order to keep things moving (why does everything break all the time?), but at least in Numenera you were talking about anachronistic miscellanea from thousands of years past. In The Strange, you’re just talking about stuff that’s consistent with the recursion where you found it, often technological. In my review of Numenera, I characterized the setting (as did that book itself) using the Arthur C. Clarke quote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But in the Strange, there’s mostly just technology. There may be mechanical reasons to keep a flow of different items running through the characters’ hands, but it doesn’t have the same thematic connection in The Strange.

On a broader level, The Strange (at least as presented in the core book), is not a great fit for the story goal of exploration and wonder, and the mechanics that further that. The top-level pitch for The Strange makes it seem like the game is about worlds numberless, but when you get into the book, it’s really about three – Earth, Ardyn, and Ruk. And there’s not really a lot to explore and wonder at in those worlds – they’re fairly known quantities (they aren’t that big), and a lot of their plot hooks interact with Earth (and one of them, Ardyn, is a fantasy setting, which they’ve got covered pretty well with Numenera). That doesn’t mean that there isn’t the possibility with The Strange of opening things up to more widespread explanation of a variety of recursions (or the Strange itself), but that isn’t the focus of the content of the core book. If there is a central type of story to be told out of The Strange, it seems to me like that story is about protecting Earth. There are forces on Ardyn, and on Ruk, and in the Strange that seek to destroy, absorb, or conquer the Earth. These provide the most unifying threads in the Strange core book, presented through different lenses – perhaps direct combat against foes on Ardyn, espionage and intrigue against forces on Ruk, and more cosmic encounters against other forces. Indeed, the current tag line of The Strange is “Explore Defend Create,” spreading the thematic focus. Beyond that, there is a strong suggestion that GMs can use recursions that are the result of fictional leakage to delve into licensed material. While I’m sure there’s fun to be had with a Quantum Leap style journey from Star Wars to Babylon 5 to The Wheel of Time, that isn’t tapping the same sense of wonder and exploration that Numenera taps into, and that the experience system (and cyphers) was designed for.

So, what about the book beyond how well the mechanics fit the game? Well, a problem for someone just picking up The Strange is that it isn’t organized to make the game world easily understandable. The introductory parts of the book simply don’t present an overview of the setting that’s easy to grok. It isn’t until you really combine the tail end of the rules, which cover translation (Chapter 8) and then the chapter on the Strange (Chapter 14) that you really get a good picture of what this universe is. I’ve given my own summary above of these things, but reading the book from front to back I found a couple of things frustrating. First, until I read the rules on translation, I really had no idea how it was the characters moved back and forth between worlds (not that you need or even want a detailed mechanical explanation before character creation, but even a broad conceptual framework wasn’t there). Second, until I read the section on the Strange, I didn’t get that the Shoals of Earth are really the entirety of the game world (because every single technologically advanced world other than Earth has been destroyed by a planetovore). The introduction gives you this setup about the creation of a galaxy-spanning transportation network that, in once it broke down and started decaying, became the Strange. But none of that really relates to the game world, because there’s nowhere else in realspace for the characters to go – the entire exploration of the game is within the recursions in the Shoals of Earth. But I didn’t realize that until page 220.

How much it matters that the book doesn’t have the best presentation of the setting will depend on how it’s being used. I’ve often said that there are, in general, three possible audiences for an RPG book – players, gamemasters, and readers (good idea or not, many of us buy and read many more RPG books than we could ever use at the table). If you end up playing or GMing The Strange, then the initial confusion is arguably less important – by the time you’re playing the game, you’ll have a good handle. And, arguably, simply by reading something like this review – which provides (from my perspective, at least) a summary of the setting (including a few references to what I consider the most significant parts of the background material) – this concern is mitigated; even the reader will head into the book with a stronger handle on the structure of the setting. And yet, I can’t help but continue to be dissatisfied with that aspect of The Strange core book.

Ultimately, The Strange is a good concept, but it’s hampered by a mechanical system that isn’t a great fit, a core book presentation that doesn’t present the world as well as it could, and a mismatch between the high-level concept and the kind of setting information in the core book. The latter two issues can, at least, be addressed – once the whole book has been read through the player will fully ‘get’ the setting, and (I presume) the supplements that have been released add more content for exploring in the Strange itself or a wider variety of recursions.

 

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