Game Review: The Strange

The Strange
One of the greatest things to come from starting The Redacted Files, though nothing in comparison to meeting Megan of course, was the discovery of just how diverse the tabletop gaming genre really is. We’ve tried something like a dozen games sofar, and bought tons more. I’m new to the whole space, so it’s not like I’ve had time to get tired of anything yet: but even so, I did start to wonder at how many games used D20, and how many did it in essentially the same way. And don’t get me wrong, it’s very fun, but how many games are there that have skills based on attributes that modify a D20 roll? There are versions of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Call of Cthulhu that work the same way as Dungeons & Dragons. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, but variety is good. And nothing seemed so different yet familiar as Numenèra.

Numenèra’s Cypher System is a marvel of elegant simplicity. Your health is tied up in three point pools: might, speed, and intellect that deplete in that order when you take damage. If a pool reaches zero, you become less capable to the point that you’re essentially only able to crawl away when you have points in just one. But that’s not all, aside from getting training, using equipment or coming up with circumstantial reasons (I have the high ground) for making your rolls easier, you can choose to burn points from your pools. It’s terrific to see it in action, as players run through the cost/benefit analysis on the fly and bet it all for the big win, trading in their half their might points for extra damage or to guarantee a hit with that superweapon they’ve been keeping in their back pocket, or ensure that official definitely sees things their way.

Aside from rolling in skill challenges and combat, the Cypher System handles everything else in a similarly abstracted but meaningful way.. How much your character is carrying doesn’t matter unless it’s important to the plot, all weapons of a given category always do the same damage be they heavy crossbow or greatsword so long as they hit. And distances are described as merely being immediate, short or long.

As far as a GM’s ability to tell an interesting story, there are a few more interesting twists. the experience system works off of discoveries and plot developments players encounter in game: and, the points they earn can be cashed in for more immediate benefits than character improvement like re-rolling a result or having the benefit of a skill for a limited time. What truly set Numenèra apart though, was that the game master does not roll. Instead she sets difficulties for tasks, which the players must roll against. Trying to bluff a town guard, roll against his ability to sense deception. Need to avoid having an angry mutant cave your head in with a maul, roll speed defense against his creature level, plus any applicable bonuses and penalties. It is one of those systems that seeks to get out of the way and let the GM and the players try to tell a good story. Where it succeeds better than most in my opinion, is that it remains a fun game while doing so.

So we all fell in love with Numenèra. The game had a brilliant system and was set in an incredibly well-realized science fantasy world a billion years in the future where high technology from past civilizations is as little understood and tenuously controlled as magic in the hands of people scrabbling to survive in otherwise medieval conditions. We played several sessions of it on the podcast and loved it: but then I began to wonder, what would it be like to run Star Trek in this? 😛 And then Monte Cook Games brought us The Strange, and we found out.

Now, we could find out what it was like to be crewmen on a starship exploring the galaxy, or knights on an epic quest, or scientists racing to discover the cure to a zombie virus, all in the same game. Because in The Strange, practically every fictional reality believed in by enough people is real, somewhere in the Strange: a network of dark energy older than Earth itself and underlying our own plain of existence. And for people who are “quickened,” going to those other worlds is as easy as closing your eyes and thinking yourself there. It’s not quite that simple of course, and there are dangers involved, not least of which is the ever present threat of planetary annihilation from residents of the Strange hungry for new worlds to devour. Ever wondered why we seem to be alone in the universe? They’re why. What’s worse, everyone who’s learned of the Strange, from greedy recursion miners to shady government agencies are out to use what they can buy, borrow or steal from handy recursions or even the Strange itself here on Earth.

So how does it play? You can hear our actual plays here. As of this writing, we’ve run half a dozen sessions and all involved seem determined to run several more. I ran the adventure included in the core book for a scratch group and have been spinning a yarn for our players ever since that I hope listeners have found entertaining. Not having to roll is very liberating, as it gies me the freedom to try to keep ahead of the players as they react to the fluid situation created by the dice rolls. I like to think this makes me less vulnerable to dramatic die rolls as I can adjust difficulty on the fly as things happen. Also, throwing in creatures to fight or NPCs to interact with is as easy as coming up with a creature level. The world provided for players to explore are well-populated with people to interact with, monsters to slay, and plenty of hooks to drag players into long sessions full of questionable choices. Unfortunately, since the book is about as long as that for Numenèra but with infinitely (literally) more worlds to cover, there isn’t as much detail, including really important things like foci specific to the different kinds of recursions you’ll encounter. Moreover, many included recursions are the thinnest of skeletons that require the GM to fill in a lot of blanks. This is the sort of thing that can be addressed with supplements though. And if the recently released Bestiary and the way Numenèra have been supported are any indication, there’ll be plenty more to chew on in short order.

In short, I’ve fallen in love with the game, but just wish there was more of it, and cannot wait for more Cypher System games and the forthcoming system rule book so I can try coming up with a setting just for TRF.

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