Saturday, May 16, 2020

Aberrant: The Directive

This book is really starting to task me. It's got one really obvious angle of approach, but I don't want to be the guy who reflexively judges all these wacky fantasy books by the standards of his own real-world politics.

Because, hoo-boy, if I did, I would not like The Directive one bit. Take the methods a modern national security apparatus, have their attitudes reflect the paranoid nationalist style of realpolitik, and make them prepare for the coming race war, and that's pretty much the Directive.

But what they also (and, arguably primarily) are is the cool organization of mundanes who combats rogue superhumans with the powers of superior organization, tactics, and professionalism. They really need not be anything more than secret agents who use neat gadgets to fight monsters.

Aberrant, though, liked to try and have it both ways. So the Directive is both the repository for comics-inspired superspy tropes and fills a dour geopolitical niche in their complex worldbuilding. With the advent of Project Utopia's profligate do-gooding, someone has to make sure the traditional nation-state isn't sidelined. It might as well be this group of implausibly well-trained and well-funded espionage specialists.

But heaven help me, I'm positively conditioned to read the guy who says "I must protect America" and then follows it up with "niceties of legal restrictions and constitutional constructs stand in our way rather than help us" as a straight-up villain. The thing they're suggesting - an unaccountable, omnipresent police force with unlimited surveillance powers - is positively unconscionable,  and that's before they start in with the "[we] hope to someday purge our ranks of all these aberrant, potentially dangerous beings" business.

(Also, I could barely endure the irony of the Directive operative describing Project Utopia as "Orwellian." I'm sure it was intentional.)

The most unnerving thing about the Directive is that its attitudes are distressingly plausible, even if its primary conceit - that post-cold-war, Russia and the US will put aside at least some of their differences for the sake of intelligence sharing and cooperative law enforcement - is decades obsolete.

So what am I saying, exactly? I guess that it's that by tying it so closely to narrow national interests, the Directive somehow makes "we are humanity's shadow guardians, standing fast against the dark gods" sound . . . petty.

"We continue to give better than we get. Nova approval ratings in all four charter countries are at an all time low, according to our polls."

Sigh. How is that a victory for you? This isn't a zero-sum game, people. You can't advance yourself by tearing down a minority group . . . though if you said that to any of the current real-world administrations of the Directive founders, maybe they wouldn't quite believe you.

So, all-in-all, The Directive is pretty successful as an antagonist faction. If you're playing a nova literally anywhere on the ideological spectrum aside from "novas are dangerous, I'd better join the military to stop people like me" then sooner or later they are going to try and thwart you. There are interesting themes at work - a conflict between new power and old, and a reminder that just because you've got superpowers doesn't mean you don't need to fear the little people.

However, when you talk about the Directive as protagonists, I kind of feel like you only make that move when you're starting to become jaded with Aberrant. Because their whole thing is basically "superpowers make us feel inadequate." They're an organization in the game that self-consciously rejects the premise of the game. They employ novas, but only those who "can be tamed," i.e. those without a flashy power profile. There's even a list of acceptable choices in a sidebar. A Directive nova can have Armor "only so long as it does not render the Agent less human in appearance."

Playing the underdogs in a superhero setting does have a certain appeal, but there is a sense here, very nearly explicit in the Storytelling chapter, that it is something you do when playing powerful characters begins to bore you. ("Some players may find it great fun to go on a rampage, Quantum bolting any opposition into submission from high overhead . . . If they find such destructive expressions of their 'characters' personalities a good time and a worthwhile roleplaying experience, watch what happens when an Alpha Division blue-and-white team . . .")

Honestly, I think if you're really going to make the Directive work as a player faction, you're probably going to have to dial back their general anti-nova attitude and focus them more on superpowered law enforcement. Leave the "advancing the political goals of the member nations" in the realm of obnoxious NPC bureaucrats who want to manipulate the mission and are as much an obstacle as the rogue novas.

Or, you know, just play a grim and cynical take on the superhero setting. If that's the sort of thing you're into, of course.

Anyway, one last bit of business - metaplot alert. Aberrant: The Directive is set post-2010 in the Aberrant timeline, which means that the Worldwide adventures have already happened. The book specifically mentions Divis Mal's infamous fight with Caestus Pax and President Randall Portman (the Firefighter from the cover of the core). The wiki says this book was published two months before Worldwide: Phase I, which means either the wiki is wrong or the books were written concurrently and this one was deliberately future-proofed.

It's probably best if I just wait until the requisite books to talk about these events, I just thought it was interesting that they showed up here. I've gotten used to the Onyx Path books being timeless.

Ukss Contribution: There's some interesting espionage tech here, though I think in general it's more conservatively imagined than it needed to be. So I'll go with the most over-the-top bit there was - Klot, a fast-setting foam that you can use to restrain mega-strong novas. It doesn't go into detail about how this can possibly work without crushing the captives to death under immense pressure, but there is talk of flooding whole rooms with the stuff as a security measure, so I'm just going to chalk it up to a bit of cool comic-book imagery that I don't need to think too hard about.

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