Tuesday, March 31, 2020


Real talk - Aberrant is my number one choice if I'm ever asked to turn an old White Wolf game into a Netflix series. Sorry, Kindred: The Embraced reboot, you don't even make the top 5, the rest of which are: 2)Werewolf: The Wild West; 3)Changeling: The Lost; 4)Exalted; 5)Adventure!

Now, I'm not going to pretend that Aberrant is the first superhero setting to satirize the genre by drawing parallels between superhero culture and celebrity culture. However, one advantage that Aberrant has over, say, The Boys, is that White Wolf was clearly under the mistaken impression that they were too cool to write a superhero game.

But while White Wolf was much too dorky to be quite so dismissive of costumed heroes and supervillains, Aberrant's desire to downplay genre conventions does yield certain dividends. There's an old SMBC comic that winds up suggesting the best way Superman can serve the world is by turning a crank to generate electricity. It's funny because it takes the fantasy of heroism and replaces it with actuarial practicality, but Aberrant spends a lot of time conceding that it's "realistic."

The result is a setting where your average superhero has a day job. Every time an anti-comics curmudgeon would say some variation of, "but Spiderman could make so much more money if he just sold his web-shooters," Aberrant answers with, "good point, let's make sure we have a guy like that."

Sometimes the book can go a little too far in this direction (though the apex won't come until the infamous introduction to the Aberrant Player's Guide), but it also leads to some of the setting's most unique and rewarding ideas. Aberrant takes place in a world in flux. Things are changing with breathtaking rapidness and usually for the better. That gives the world a weird energy, as if it was filled with people scrambling to keep up with the present. Even the reactionary viewpoint seems somewhat reasonable, especially when remember that canonically, this whole period ends with the massive war from Trinity.

If you weave together all of Aberrant's strongest threads of influence - vapid celebrity gossip, professional wrestling, speculative futurism - you wind up with a setting whose wheelhouse is, roughly speaking, "reality show during the run-up to the Singularity." It's a mix that's unique, even among superhero deconstructions (that I'm personally familiar with - I'm sure that somewhere in the 90 year history of superhero comics, there's something comparable), and along with memorable characters like Divis Mal, Mefistofaleez, and Raoul Orzaiz, that uniqueness makes it one of my favorite superhero settings - period.

Of course, there's a downside. White Wolf's gotta White Wolf. And while I wouldn't say that the cynicism and conspiracy stuff is entirely to the setting's detriment, I would argue that it's a very sheltered suburban brand of cynicism. Project Utopia, the global philanthropic organization devoted to using nova powers to improve the world, is corrupt and authoritarian, whereas the Teragen, the openly nova-supremacist organization that proclaims that all superheroes are above the law, is democratic and sincere. And the logic of this is pretty transparent - a person who is trying to trick you would say that they're trying to help you, whereas a person who openly declares they care only about themselves is at worst exactly what they appear to be. Therefor you should be suspicious of people who are trying to help, but you can trust that nakedly selfish people are just "telling it like it is."

Taken together with the plot point that the USA's first female president would be a Libertarian, elected because the public was getting fed up with the two party system, suggests a very ironic political naivety in a text that otherwise prides itself on its worldliness.

Also, while we're talking about politics, I'm not a huge fan of the idea that a "moderate Republican" president would be ousted by a "sex scandal" that was nothing more than him having an affair with a man. I guess this was written shortly after the contentious reaction to the Ellen coming-out episode, so they were just writing the world they saw, but they were writing about their future, so maybe they could have spared just a little bit of hope (actually, to be fair, they did say that in Aberrant's 2008, the Republican party had severed its ties to the far right, which strikes me as a particularly . . . untutored brand of optimism).

Still, while the conspiracy stuff was the weakest part of Aberrant, it's not entirely unsalvageable. The plot where Project Proteus tries to sterilize every nova on Earth is both puppy-kickingly evil and a logistical nightmare, but the rest of it is probably okay. I don't have my copy of Trinity in front of me, so I don't know if the time travel element had been introduced yet, but given that Maxwell Mercer is name-dropped in the Proteus section of the setting chapter, I suspect it was at least already planned. And that gives the anti-nova conspiracy an interesting and sympathetic edge.

It's not just dramatic irony that we know this era of promise is going to turn into a graveyard. There are characters in the setting that know it too, and not just with a bigoted preemptive suspicion, but with genuine knowledge of the future. That's a good hook for a campaign - the classic SF-Fantasy predestination plot - can you change the future or are your efforts to prevent a tragedy the very thing that brings it about. It would be a pretty cool thing to have going on in the background . . . if 90s White Wolf didn't do the thing where they rationed their "secret reveals" to help drive supplement sales.

Now, the part where I talk about the system. . . It's cool that Aberrant encourages you to design your own powers. This was my first experience with that sort of thing. It's not quite an effects-based system. For example, you can buy the "Flight power" and you're supposed to skin it as something more specific, like gravity manipulation, or you can buy the Gravity Manipulation power, which includes flight as a possible technique. It's a sloppy design that tries to have it both ways.

However, that's not really the issue with the system. The problem with Aberrant is that it works well when characters are relatively evenly matched, but the chances of that happening, by either chance or design, are basically zero. I don't know if this is the game in my collection most vulnerable to char-op shenanigans, but it's definitely a candidate. There are four different character improvement resources (five if you count Taint, which you should) and they all convert to one another in different formulas that are highly dependent on things like the order in which you spend them. And then there's the fact that there's a huge amount of stuff you can buy, the costs of which vary depending on which currency you use to purchase them and which aren't necessarily equally valuable at a given price point ("let's see, should I get that fifth point of mega-perception or the first three points of mega-strength?").

If you play as fast and loose as White Wolf seems to think is proper, it will mostly be okay . . . probably. But attempting any sort of battle league or XWF tournament is a recipe for disaster. Specialists will absolutely destroy anyone who is even slightly well-rounded, and two characters specialized in different areas will probably annihilate each other just as easily, leaving the outcome almost entirely to chance.

Still, I have very fond memories of this game, and look forward to playing second edition some day. Until it becomes available, your best bet for playing in Aberrant's setting is to use a better rules system Either that or accept that life is a cruel dance of unforeseeable chance that ends, inevitably, in an absolute catastrophe.

Ukss Contribution: "Elites" are mercenary novas who perform services for the highest bidder. Since their work is often only technically legal, they wear masks, both to conceal their identity from their many enemies and to establish a marketable persona, in the vein of Mexican wrestling. It's the closest the setting comes to unabashed comics nonsense, and not coincidentally is also one of the best things about it. Ukss too will probably have a subculture of flamboyant masked mercenaries.

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