Friday, June 26, 2020

Aberrant Players Guide

I'm not sure how much I want to get into this book's infamy. Because parts of this book are quite justly infamous, and I feel like I should talk about them, but if I do, I know I'm just going to cover the same ground as everyone else who has ever written about this book. . .

But how many people could that actually be? Maybe enough time has passed that I can state the obvious without embarrassment . . .

Fuck it. There are four things in this book that are legendarily contentious. They are: the Introduction, the high-level powers, the gadgeteering system, and the Queer Nova Alliance. Of these, only the Introduction is purely bad. The other three have questionable execution, but also some inspired ideas.

The introduction was layer upon layer of baffling. It was titled "This is not the Super-Friends" and I guess its mission is to make you feel bad about playing a superhero. And I have to tread carefully here, because it's going to be really tempting for me to be super-mean and that wouldn't be entirely undeserved.

Mostly it's just White Wolf being White Wolf. They would never do something as silly as a superhero game, so they pitch character concepts like a nova who "worked her way through college as a teleporting courier and now uses her nova powers primarily as a way of avoiding traffic on her way to the office." And . . . and . . . what is that? Who is it for? I guess I can see how an otherwise unremarkable teleporting office worker might be drawn in to superhero shenanigans, but that's just an origin story, isn't it? You and your rpg group might not be literally the Super-Friends, but they're still going to be doing Super-Friend-type things - getting into big-budget power battles, thwarting the schemes of rival superhumans, dicking around in outer space or under the sea. This introduction can't possibly be suggesting that we're supposed to be running Aberrant games about celebrity chefs, industrial chemists, and celebrity bodyguards.

Luckily, I think this might be a low point. White Wolf made a pretty decent superhero game, but then published an essay about how superhero gaming is for people who lack the sophistication to tell grown-up stories. I have to assume that the cosmic imbalance created by a take that bad must have awoken something in the higher ranks. I'm not entirely familiar with their subsequent work, but I don't recall any of their subsequent games going to war with their genre in quite the same way.

Now, I don't want to leave the impression that the Introduction has any redeeming qualities (it is historically bad), but I do think that it's an outgrowth of something Aberrant generally does well - looking at its superhumans through a lens of humanity. My favorite part of the book (and I'm sure this will be its own kind of controversial opinion) is the part immediately after the Introduction, where, without using so many words, they talk about branding and trademarks as an economic and cultural force in nova society. It's framed as novas fighting each other for the best "nova names," and it feels like it draws a lot from late-90s frustration around picking an already-chosen aol screenname, but it feels real in a way that superhero fiction often doesn't. There's money attached to being able to call yourself  "Razorburn," enough to inspire a big-budget power battle and ever-lasting rivalry. It's absolutely amazing to me that Aberrant has this built-in excuse for superheroes to challenge each other to duels.

The only real problem for me is that Aberrant doesn't quite understand branding as an artform. Sure, Appellate Lexington will hire poets to help novas come up with codenames, but it never seems to realize that when two novas fight over the same name, the fight itself is more valuable than the ostensible prize. Or maybe it does, and that's why it keeps happening, but if so it never comes out and says it.

The only character who really seems to have a handle on "nova identity as a personal brand" is Mefistofaleez. So many people, from Duke Rollo to Alejandra to fashion blogger Mackenzie Robertson, insist on giving him a hard time about his eccentric spelling, but of all the various fame-chasers in the Aberrant universe, he is the one it is easiest to imagine having a million-subscriber youtube channel. I'm probably in the minority in this, but I love this character. He can be problematic at times (like in this very book, where he engages in a bit of textbook sexual harassment that I'm sure was meant to show off his mogul swagger), but that's something that can be fixed. What would be hard to replicate is his uniquely plausible combination of low-effort presentation and mass market appeal. He has superpowers, he puts on a cheap devil mask, he swears a lot, and the kids love him. The setting's most accurately-observed character and I hope he winds up making it to 2nd edition.

Let's pretend I've got a smooth transition to the topic of high-level powers. These are tricky because most of them you'd never want to use and the ones you might want to use exist within a rules framework of "shit's broken now, do you want to try being the GM?" There's a level 5 power called "Geological Supremacy" that allows you to manipulate general levels of volcanic activity and over a period of months you can plunge the Earth into a new ice age, but . . . being able to call down a global catastrophe doesn't have much tactical benefit and unless someone has he exact same power, nobody is going to stop you or even interact with you in any way. The powers exist to establish something about the setting - that the end of the road for novas is in universe creation.- but there's no effort to make it an actual game.

I can't say that the setting implications are entirely reasonable. Canonically, there are at least half a dozen novas with access to level 5 powers as of the start of the Aberrant War, and it's unclear how humanity can fight creatures with the ability to strip away all of the oxygen in the atmosphere, render food crops extinct, or engage in global-scale mind control. Even with the knowledge that the war only ends when China threatens to nuke the Earth, it seems unlikely that the novas would let it get to that point.  I guess the NPCs were poorly optimized.

To minimize the grousing, I'm just going to skip over gadgeteering. It's got much of the same problem as other complex rpg crafting systems, so I'll have a chance to complain about it come Shadowrun or Exalted. Its main unique problem is that it doesn't mesh well with Aberrant: Year One's technological discovery system. Old White Wolf was much too timid about letting the big powers escape the elites' control.

Now, the Queer Nova Alliance. Oi. Props for forward thinking, I guess. Question is: how stereotypical are they allowed to be without squandering that good will? Tommy Orgy is a pop star who makes clones of himself for . . . you know. Roger "the Master" Morrison is a creepy weirdo who ignores boundaries and tries to act like a Dom in ordinary social situations. And even the ones who are not actively yikes are the sort of gays who hang around in a fabulous night club being catty and using words like "fabulous."

I'm tempted to interrogate my own discomfort with their presentation as being a manifestation of some latent homophobia that can only accept queer people in the abstract while trying to hold queer culture at arm's length. I'm not so sure about that, though. I actually think that "flamboyant" stuff is pretty cool (I'd describe my own presentation as "mildly effete") and I've got nothing but respect for Glamora, Queen of the Glamazons.

There are two deciding factors for me here. First, Andy Vance and Jake Koreli have been demoted back to "partners" after being husbands in the previous book. Secondly, it talks about the QNA's "dark side," which includes "sex- and fetish-cults." and that's a hell of a thing to say without dropping in some editorial support for gay marriage. I think the verdict is "well-intentioned, but ignorant to the point of doing actual harm."

I was amused by the implication that Price is Right announcer Rod Roddy is alive and working as an openly gay superhero in fantasy 2015, but since the real Roddy never came out while he was alive (and, indeed, may really have been a flamboyantly-dressed lifelong bachelor), it does feel less like a tribute and more like some unnecessary presumption.

So those are my complaints, but I really liked the book overall. It introduces a bunch of new nova organizations like the space-exploring Daedalus League or the tragedy waiting to happen Teen Tomorrow (you know, like "Team Tomorrow," but with teens), plus new power customization options, alternate campaign models, and, of course, the inspirational aspects of the ideas I've spent most of the post griping about. A true grab-bag of orphaned ideas that managed to sneak into the line's last book.

Ukss Contribution: The idea I most wish was real was the Opnet's ability to keyword search your streaming services to make them bring up only the episodes that contain your desired subject matter. But that's not anything when it comes to a fantasy world.

Likewise, Mefistofaleez requires a whole social context around him to even make any sense (plus, the great thing about him is that even with that context, he barely makes any sense).

So third choice it is - New Orleans municipal defender and all-round #1 most popular civic superhero Anton "Gator" LeBec. He's a weird gator-man who keeps New Orleans safe and that's literally all I know about him.

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