Monday, June 15, 2020

Aberrant Worldwide: Phase II

Worldwide: Phase II is an odd beast. It doesn't have nearly the same footprint on the Aberrant discourse as its predecessor. I've yet to see a flamewar centering around the plausibility of Szlaniskovich's plot to take over Ukraine (well, the book consistently calls it "the Ukraine," but that's just a 90s-ism). I haven't registered much impact even from the Ibiza scenario, where Project Utopia raids the Amp Room and sets off some truly terrifying nova rioting. My guess is that for all the flak the Pax v Mal fight gets, the dev's instincts about branding were spot on. Worldwide: Phase I has a headline fight and has become something of an immortal book, Phase II doesn't and so it fell into obscurity, despite being nearly as momentous a contribution to the Aberrant canon.

Or maybe it's just a case of series decay. There was a certain audience for Worldwide: Phase I and the audience for Phase II was logically just a proper subset of that and it just turned out that they weren't a large enough bloc to keep the memory alive. It's hard to say, though I think it's probably not a coincidence that the strongest of the four adventures is also the one that's the most on-brand.

With the exception of one line (WW gratuitously reminding us that some men are using the breakdown of civic order on Ibiza to form "rape gangs") the Chapter 4 scenario is pretty fun. We see the return of some old friends, "Ironskin" Andy Vance and Jake "the Dragon" Korelli, and this time they're consistently called "husbands." You get to rescue fan favorite character Raoul Orzaiz and the less prominent but charmingly named Ragnarockette. The villain is a creepy weirdo whose thinly sketched motives play well with the game's larger media satire (basically, he wants to kill a couple of famous novas on live TV so that he'll debut high up on N!'s mercenary rankings list). At one point, an orbital kinetic weapon shows up.

It's a versatile scenario. You can play it as a fun action-adventure romp, a daring rescue mission into a super-powered soccer riot or you can talk about some serious themes. If Team Tomorrow are the cops, then what this story is really about is a no-knock raid gone disastrously wrong (Team Tomorrow threw flashbang grenades and didn't announce themselves, prompting the Amp Room bouncers to start defending themselves, then all hell broke loose). There's even a sideplot where you have to "recover" some embarrassing footage from a journalist and it includes the line "if the characters work for Utopia the complaint [from the journalist, about having her shit stolen] is conveniently lost." It's not prescient, because stuff like that has been going on for a lot longer the last 20 years, but it's kind of funny the way that Aberrant sometimes went out of its way to get Utopia involved in these elaborate conspiracies and then just incidentally describes a more plausible form of corruption that would be reason enough on its own for people to want to abolish it.

Oh, and by the way, Project Proteus and the Bahrain facility are still around in Worldwide Phase II, which sort of implies that Utopia managed to hide its dirty laundry at the end of Phase I. Not the canonical outcome I'd have gone with, but I guess it would have been a little awkward for the last few books in the series to have one the major setting features self-destruct. The only explanation I can come up with is that they didn't know, at the time, that they were one print book away from the end of the line.

The middle two adventures are all right, though they are both variations on a theme - "what if a nova tried to take over the government." The methods are different - Arthur Anningsley wants to create a high-class secret society that places agents in the British government so that he can orchestrate the rebirth of the Empire, with himself as King, and Radu Szlaniskovich wants to recruit a gang of elites, loyal only to himself, to militarily conquer Ukraine while using artificial crises as a distraction to keep the UN from intervening - but they both rely on a similar structure - a shadow conspiracy that uses patsies to conceal the nova's involvement until it's too late.

They're fine adventures, even if it sometimes feels like White Wolf believes espionage thrillers are a more legitimate form of story than superhero adventure tales (Chapter 3 even has a sidebar titled "Roleplaying vs Roll-Playing" that encourages the GM to "enforce [their] right to 'go narrative'" when PCs prove too combat-optimized for the NPCs).

The only real complaint I have about them is a certain . . . problematic racial element that maybe I'm just being too sensitive to, given current events. The chapter where a nova tries to become the King of England says "it's one thing to have a third-world nation with a nova ruler . . ." And the chapter where a nova takes over Ukraine refers to it as "the blatant conquest of a first world nation." There's enough plausible deniability here that we can attribute these attitudes to Aberrant's global political order, rather than the authors, but it's still not a good look.

I think the best way to use this book would be ignore the timeline and do a full campaign, starting with a fixed version of Phase I's election plot, but emphasizing Randal Portman's attempt to uncover the "Sphinxes" (his name for mega-intelligent novas who manipulate society), then if he wins the election have him act as a patron to get the PCs involved in the two middle plots. After the PCs have gone up against a couple of Sphinxes and won, run the second, third and fourth adventures from Phase I, culminating in the revelation that there's secret manipulators working inside Utopia itself. Then, if you're sadistic, run the fourth adventure from Phase II, where a wounded Utopia tries to score a big win by capturing the Teragen red-handed, but winds up setting off a major humanitarian catastrophe. This will set up the fall of Utopia and you can just roll right into the pre-Aberrant war tension.

And if you've been paying close attention, you'll have noticed that there's one adventure I left out of the long arc. The first one in this book. It's . . . possibly offensive to Italian Americans, and almost certainly annoying to most Catholics, and even to the extent that it's not, it winds up sounding like a knock-off Dan Brown novel. The plot is that the Opus Dei is trying to frame the Pope for laundering money for the Mafia. Yadda yadda yadda . . . this is in service to their anti-nova agenda . . . yadda yadda . . . the PCs are being set up to take the fall. In the end, you exonerate the Pope of this specific crime, but it turns out he does have mob ties after all, and it's just . . . ill-conceived. It does have a nova with the power of slow disintegration, though, and that's properly terrifying.

To avoid going out on a bum note, I'll mention one last positive thing - there's a super cool trans superhero called The London Fog and she's treated with a surprising amount of grace. More than the trans character in Scion: Demigod, for sure. The text very consistently uses her proper pronouns, discusses her experience of dysphoria with sensitivity, and she's not a sex pervert or anything. Maybe a bit too media savvy and concerned with stuff like branding and endorsements, which can make her thrilling heroics seem a little less sincere, but that level of artifice is the default standard for the Aberrant setting, where even the villains sell their likenesses for action figures. There's an uncomfortable plotline where she's outed and deadnamed by The Sun, but the text treats that as the scummy act that it is and since The Sun is exactly the sort of paper that would do that sort of thing I guess it boils down to the question of whether it's appropriate to have realistically bigoted villains in an rpg.

I am curious as to why trans issues are handled so much better here than they are in a book written seven years later. My current theory, based on the very respectful way the Andy Vance/Jake Korelli relationship is handled, is that the Aberrant team had an LGBTQ member who did not go on to work on Scion.

Ukss Contribution: I almost made a big mistake here, luckily I was interrupted by work stuff and had time to think it over before hitting the "publish" button. My initial Ukss choice was the villain from Chapter 4, The Angel of Bones. He's a gaunt, wraithlike figure with giant skeletal wings and he can inject you with cancerous fat cells that cause you to swell up until you explode like an R-rated Violet Beauregarde. He's also kind of a petty dick and subsequently great rival-fodder for a typical group of PCs.

The only problem is his origin story. Before he became a nova, he was a man with an eating disorder. Instead of starving to death, he erupted and now he's an eternally hungry skeleton. His powers keep him alive, but they also ensure that he can never be satisfied by food. And while his dickishness doesn't directly stem from illness, it still seems a bit ableist.

My second choice had the same problem. ScarCrow was a mafia leg-breaker, but he was trapped in a fire, during his long, painful recovery he transferred his mind into another body, taking it over. Since the new body wasn't burned, he felt no pain. Now he jumps from one body to another to avoid feeling his terrible wounds.

Two villains, two cases of permanent injuries. And while it would be simplistic to say that their afflictions turned them into assholes, I get the uncomfortable feeling that maybe I'm supposed to be okay with their suffering because they're assholes. I'm not an expert on these issues, but it feels like a trope to me.

Third choice it is - slow disintegration. There's a villain that can touch someone and cause them to start rotting from the inside out. You find the body later and it might look normal until you touch it and it collapses into a pile of dust. I'm sure that there's some dark sorcerer of Ukss who could make use of that kind of attack.

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