Sunday, May 3, 2020

Aberrant: Teragen

Is it possible to be racist against superheroes? That's the riddle we must solve if we're to untangle Aberrant: Teragen. They say racism is about power, but that's what superheroes have, almost by definition. And yet, the ability to obliterate mountains is distinct from institutional power. Superheroes may be able to defeat armies, but they don't command armies.

The lack of institutional power means they can be targeted for exclusion and harassment and their only recourse is superpower-fueled vigilantism. Yet the threat of that vigilantism is so effective that it must be factored into public policy. And there's no guarantee that the threat will be deployed with precision. A tantrum in defiance of a just law is as likely to succeed as principled resistance to an unjust one. That, to me, says that superheroes do have power.

But maybe that's just the dormant power of people who labor under oppression. Yes, if the masses rise up, they could throw off their chains, but systems of control are largely arranged on the assumption that they won't. If society's institutions are biased against superheroes, but the superheroes themselves feel beholden to those institutions, such that resistance is nearly unthinkable, maybe they don't have the power after all.

I don't know. I've thought about this for all of a half a day, and it's a much more complicated subject than that. What I do know is that Aberrant: Teragen is not going to bring any clarity to the debate.

The titular Teragen are an organization that quite creepily calls novas "The One Race," and refers to humans as "monkeys." The worst thing any nova can be, in their opinion, is "assimilationist," and they believe that any nova has unlimited rights to do whatever they want (up to and including rape and murder) to baseline humans.

But also, their paranoia about Project Utopia is completely justified. There is, indeed, a genocidal plot to prevent novas from reproducing and the head of Utopia is knowingly sending novas into armed conflicts with the express intent of getting them killed.

What we wind up with in this book is an organization whose impetus to act is a genuine threat to their safety and essential dignity, but whose rallying cry is that they should not be subject to human law.

So much of it reads like, "hey, maybe these Nazis have a point." And I'm not just doing the thing where I label the group "Nazis" just because they espouse an ideal of racial superiority. Divis Mal's plan to purge the Teragen of all voices who are not sufficiently loyal to him personally is called, in the text, "The Night of Long Knives." Comparisons to Hitler were completely intended.

Although, embarrassingly, the last time I read this book, maybe 15-16 years ago, I didn't know enough about history to pick up on the reference. All I knew at the time was that there was a lot in this book that made me shake my head and go, "these fuckin' guys."

There's one of those interview sections that Aberrant liked to do, where Count Orzaiz is making the case against Project Utopia, and he says, "The Utopian program to use us to fix the world's problems is nothing short of slavery." Which, I don't know, does it really count as slavery if they pay you a wage and allow you to quit? Also, isn't one of the more prominent signature characters someone who was famously fired from Project Utopia? Is that something that ever happened? Someone was so bad at being a slave that their captors were like, "I'm sorry, but I just don't think you're a good fit for our organization. The best of luck in your future endeavors."

Luckily, Ozaiz elaborates, "Anyone who doesn't join Project Utopia is treated like a pariah." Oh. You mean the sort of pariah who lives in a fabulous Valencia estate, vacations in Monte Carlo, and is invited on talk shows to politely discuss their views with sycophantic interviewers who barely push back when they say some incredibly stupid shit?

Which is to say that the Count in particular, and the Teragen in general are well-observed characters, but also. . . these fuckin' guys.

"The Confederate is opinionated and has the courage of his convictions. Few know, however, that he is not only a nova supremacist, but a white supremacist as well."

Wow, not The Confederate. Who could have ever seen that coming? But that's the Teragen for you. Their one and only unifying trait is that they don't want people telling them what they do, and thus they have no ideological vocabulary for those times when the people telling you not do something are 100% justified.

Like, Orzaiz can go on the Parker Stevenson show and claim that novas allowing themselves to be governed by human laws is like humans submitting themselves to the rules of ape society (a metaphor that the radical, Shrapnel, seems to think is "diplomatic"), but that doesn't change the fact that anyone with even a modestly developed sense of morality will side with the ape over the poacher.

The Teragen seem to believe themselves severable from the great natural continuities. Orzaiz often refers to baseline humans as novas' "genetic ancestors," and claims that this releases them for any responsibilities for things human beings have done, but that's not how it works. Count Orzaiz is, as near as I can tell, 4-6 years older than me, which means that we have almost all the same genetic ancestors. If novas shouldn't have to clean up the environment because it was baselines who ruined it, well I've got news for him - he and I are separated from the perpetrators by the exact same number of generations (i.e somewhere between "1" and "0"), and in any event only one of has inherited an enormous fortune made by reaping the benefits of an environmentally destructive economic system.

But that is how racial supremacists misuse the concept of evolution. They're taking 180 degrees the wrong lesson from it. There are no "higher forms of life" and everything is connected to everything else. Although, even if you subscribe to the notion of purely atomic species that owe nothing to each other, "I kicked a beehive and got stung by the swarm" is the purest form of natural justice there is.

So, you know, the Teragen are just completely ridiculous human beings, even if there is a glimmer of a point buried in their self-serving ideology. The emergence of novas really does raise difficult questions of political legitimacy, especially in a democracy. FAA regulations exist to keep airplanes from crashing into each other, and that's a job that doesn't become any less important when some of those "airplanes" are actually just dudes floating around up there. It would be unfair, though, if the agency came up with a policy without even consulting the people directly affected by it. Yet novas are a vanishingly small minority, so how does a government ensure that it respects the voices of the few without giving them a peremptory privilege over the many?

Um . . . don't mind me over here, just casually tossing out fundamental ethical dilemmas while analyzing a silly 90s superhero game. Anyway, if you do come up with a persuasive answer to this question, just skip me entirely and send it directly to the US Senate.

Ironically, the group in the Aberrant universe most likely to tackle these issues head-on is the Teragen's old rivals, Project Utopia, which has a whole legal department that works with governments to ensure the fair treatment of novas. Unfortunately, most of the conspiracy theories about Utopia are true.

Aberrant: Terragen reveals that the Teragen know about Project Proteus' sterilization scheme and they have a member capable of neutralizing the effects. There are several children already born and the Teragen are convinced that if Utopia knew of their existence, they'd be killed. I wish I could say this fear was unjustified, but, well, this very book contains a note from a Utopia doctor that talks about doing repeated exploratory surgery without anesthetic on a captured member of the Teragen. Killing children does not seem beyond Proteus' established behavior.

It would have been so easy to pigeonhole the Teragen as typical right-wing yahoos. They're obsessed with their theory of racial hierarchy and tolerate open talk of genocide (even if most of them agree that it's "too far.") Yet, it would be unreasonable to expect them to cooperate with a group they quite reasonably suspect will kill their children. Under those circumstances, resistance is noble.

I get an uneasy feeling at those times when it feels too much like the game trying to launder right-wing conspiracy theories ("hey, guys, here's a pitch: what if in our next game world, white genocide was real"), but I'm sure that what's really going on is 90s White Wolf's enthusiasm for "everyone's a villain" narratives.

Anyway, with all that said, I actually thought Aberrant: Terragen was a pretty fun take on the Legion of Doom as a fractious family of bickering cliques (the setting chapter contains a rather remarkable drawing of the Teragen leaders as a parody of "The Last Supper"), even if they're much less ambiguous as villains than the storytelling chapter seems to think.

Oh, and I would be totally remiss if I didn't say at least something about the Chrysalis system. You can ding it for being unbalanced, offering experience point discounts in exchange for basically nothing, but honestly I don't think that matters so much in a game as chaotically designed as Aberrant. Its real flaw is that it assumes a mode of play that would be reckless if it were actually enforced. Chrysalis points give you mutations, just like Taint points do, but the difference is that players pick what mutations they get from Chrysalis, but the storyteller picks the mutations from Taint.

When I read that I was like, "wait, what?" The previous rules mandated that the GM violate the players' ownership of their characters by imposing behavioral restrictions in how they roleplay? I was supposed to be giving players the cannibalism flaw without their permission? Needless to say, that's never how I played it, and players already had final veto on Taint mutations, so Chrysalis was never much more than a source of bonus xp in my games. A shame. It's a great setting idea, but poor execution here.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of great characters here. The writers went all out in designing fun new supervillains with interesting motivations and visually arresting designs, the weirdest of which was Sloppy Joe, a nova whose skin and bones dissolved and who stays alive by means of a transparent forcefield holding all his organs inside.

Joe's kind of a great character, but he's not my pick. For obvious reasons, I'm going with The Mathematician, a super-intelligent nova whose statistical models are detailed enough to serve as a form of precognition. He has phantom numbers floating around him at all times and he's so worried about his own actions changing the future that he hides away from the world, futilely warning the Teragen that their actions will hasten the global apocalypse.


  1. the writers see Teragen as villains, ambiguous or otherwise? I always got the impression that White Wolf was disappointed whenever I failed to side with Divis Mal.

  2. Well, the word "villains" is used explicitly to refer to the Teragen in the storytelling chapter, but in a questioning sort of way. They're villains, but you should roleplay them with empathy. I'd say that they're the villains of Aberrant in the same way the Kindred are monsters in Vampire: the Masquerade.