Thursday, May 27, 2021

Trinity Continuum: Aberrant (2nd edition)

 Ah, a new edition of one of my favorite games, using a rule system I'd previously praised. This is sure to be a light and easy post, full of nothing but positivity. Let me just consult my notes . . .

Sixteen pages? Good grief.

No, I kid. My overall impression is actually very positive. Most of my notes are of the genre "notice a difference from 1st edition and speculate about whether it's significant." The Fireman's first act is now saving an apartment building instead of saving a schoolbus - probably doesn't mean anything. The Fireman is now declining an offer to run for US President - probably indicative of a change in the game's focus and themes. Plus, "America has had enough of 'celebrity politicians'" is an obvious, if extremely mild, rebuke of Trump.

It's actually a pretty weird line, because it implies that the Trump presidency is canon in the Aberrant universe, but it sort of glosses over it. I might accuse it of being overly timorous, possibly speculating that Onyx Path didn't want to alienate its Trumpist customers, but that doesn't seem likely. The USA's characterized as struggling to recover from a major loss in international credibility (another obvious Trump reference) and I doubt very much that a book meant to placate the American right wing would have quite so many nonbinary characters.

No, the likeliest explanation is that Trump is not mentioned by name because he has a way of sucking all the oxygen out of the room and completely derailing otherwise productive conversations (point of evidence - consider how extremely entertained you've been so far by this line of inquiry), and they probably didn't want the distraction.

It does, however, have the incidental effect of giving Randel Portman some strange characterization. He is, apparently, almost self-destructively tactful. Oh, can you imagine the field day Fox News would have with that "celebrity politician" line. A well-regarded public figure who had somehow managed to maintain popularity with both sides of the political divide comes out with a statement that is less than worshipful of Donald Trump. The right wing press would chew that bone for years. And it doesn't even earn him points on the left, because it's clearly a bit of calculated diplomacy towards the American fascist movement. Just the worst of both worlds all around. Never mind being president, take away this man's Twitter account before he gets himself in serious trouble.

Anyway, that's one sentence down, only 296.9 pages left to go. Except that digression wasn't just whimsical nitpicking on my part, it's actually related to something broader I noticed about this book that might be worthy of comment - this text was written in 2018 and it shows. I once wrote, of some White Wolf book or another, that there was no way they could know in the 90s that one day sincerity would seem radical. And now I'm looking back at both Onyx Path and my younger self to say that there was no way we could have known in 2018 that this would only last for, like, two years, tops.

We now know that our current institutions are extremely ill-suited to deal with a global crisis. There's a delay of three months between the first appearance of novas (superhumans) and the UN passing the Zurich Accords, a resolution recognizing their human rights. It took the real world longer than that to agree that people dying of a virus was bad (someone let me know when the clock runs out on that one, by the way).

Which is to say that the old White Wolf would have absolutely had a (vaguely leftist but highly problematic) blast at the chance to write "President Donald Trump vs the Mexican superheroes," but Onyx Path went another way with it.

And make no mistake, Trinity Continuum: Aberrant is a good game, and its less-cynical take on the setting has its merits, but it's one of those things that was destined to feel like a period piece almost as soon as it was written. An example would be the Aberrants.

There was a group with that name in 1st edition, and I probably do need to say something about the strange fate of its signature characters (Corbin and Sophia Rousseau work with Utopia's covert operations now, which is an odd reversal from their 1e versions, who had a principled commitment to exposing Utopia's covert operations), but the 1e Aberrants don't actually have anything to do with the 2e Aberrants, aside from sharing a name.

In second edition, the Aberrants are now the radical arm of the Teragen, and they embody all the same uncomfortable contradictions as their parent organization, but more EXTREME. There's a sidebar in the systems chapter that is not specifically about them, but which sums it up pretty well, "Here's the problem with using superheroes to represent marginalized people . . . Superpowers - key word 'power' - represent agency that systems of oppression actively exclude marginalized people from."

So the Aberrants are a group that sometimes takes radical direct action in defense of nova rights - when the mayor of Tampa bans Teragen members from the city (an event that also happened in 1e, though 2e makes the curious choice of softening his position from "no novas, period" to "no novas with a specific political association that we have no way of verifying"), Geryon assassinates him. But they're also a group that terrorizes baselines (unpowered humans) for no discernible reason - "Members of the Aberrant faction attack downtown Los Angeles, killing hundreds. It's unclear what the motive was for the attack . . ."

I think this is just a common trope in superhero media, villain groups that ride that ambiguity. They kind of have a point, but their methods and ideology are so extreme that they have to be stopped. And while this is something that often draws criticism from the left - Killmonger did nothing wrong and all that - in this case (and probably X-Men) it's probably less an attempt to discredit revolutionary politics and more a natural consequence of trying to navigate an awkward truth of the superhero genre - they are both a vulnerable minority, too small to politically resist any degrading conditions imposed by humanity's overwhelming numbers, and an aristocratic minority, whose small numbers only serve to highlight the extreme inequity of their massive power.

It's therefor pretty natural that the Aberrants, as a "nova rights" group would occupy the unnavigable no-man's-land between "black power" and "white power." I just feel like, if the text were written today, Onyx Path might have felt more pressure to pick a lane.

And in something completely unrelated, but which I'm going to bring up now while I'm still riled up - why the hell is Saxon still a canon character? Just casually mentioned in the Team Tomorrow Europe write-up as another member of the group.

So, in second edition, Slider is still alive because "While the Proteus modus operandi includes sabotage, theft, violence, manipulation, and the destruction of a career or two, assassination is not on the menu." And the sterilization conspiracy is no more, not even as an alternate campaign model. And Cestus Pax is now Sam Williams, driven to distraction by his awesome sense of responsibility, instead of Shelby Eisenfaust, prickly asshole who's obsessed with his own image. And all this is in service to a vision of the setting that wears its unironic love of the superhero genre on its sleeve. Aberrant, second edition could be Superfriends, and so it had to dial back on the parts of the setting that were clearly White Wolf doing awful for the sake of awful. Fair enough.

But then they bring back fucking Saxon as a canon character. Covering up his crimes is arguably the worst thing Proteus ever did (and yes, I'm aware I'm saying this about an organization that secretly sterilized people) and he's just chilling here, as if he wasn't a complete piece of shit.

Although it's entirely possible that, like Cestus Pax, the 2e version Saxon is meant to be a completely different character than the 1e version. It seems unlikely to me that a game as optimistic and inclusive as Aberrant 2e is going to want a character who CONTENT WARNING killed several women by using his giant growth power mid-coitus. I'd be very surprised if that was still canon, even as a potential villain plot. But if that wasn't the intention, why keep him around? Nerds like me are going to freak the fuck out and the name isn't going to mean anything at all to anyone else. What is to be gained? It's not as if "generic heavy named after a northern European tribe" is such a dynamite pitch that you'd be negligent for not attempting to redeem it. It's just a mysterious decision all around.

Also mysterious - the noticeable lack of Mefistofaleez. Surely, if Julian Waters, Utopia's head accountant, can get a name drop . . .

Nah, that way lies madness. I don't want to start nitpicking every editorial decision here. Where's Sloppy Joe? Why is Caroline Fong still walking out and about? Who has the streaming rights to Hardballs? All questions that could potentially have significant answers that reveal insights into 2e's design philosophy, but which more likely are of interest only to fans of 1e who also happen to have no proper sense of perspective.

So my guy Mefistofaleez could just be waiting in the wings for another product. Or he could have been quietly removed for the sensible reason that a lot of what he did was pander to Black stereotypes. 

However, I suspect that the main reason Mefistofaleez went from major spotlight character to complete non-entity is a shift in the game's overall focus. He's kind of a ridiculous character (that's what's great about him) whose niche was to help illustrate the game's media satire - i.e. "a character this ridiculous exists because novas are celebrities and some celebrities are ridiculous." In the more sincerely superheroic milieu of 2nd edition, he doesn't fit in. He's too crude to be a hero and too silly to be a villain, but he's exactly in the sweet spot to be an influencer and 2e so far hasn't made a lot of room for that sort of character.

There's some. Slider (the charismatic teleporter whose shocking murder by Proteus drove so much of 1e's metaplot) is alive and she's a total influencer. She uses her teleportation abilities to make a series of low-effort travel videos and is quite believably popular. And some local superheroes are crowdfunded, which implies a social media infrastructure, but it's not as upfront as a theme as the tabloid stuff was in 1st edition (though "celebrity" is one of the game's suggested subgenres).

I once made the snarky comment that Aberrant's greatest asset was that "White Wolf was clearly under the mistaken impression that they were too cool to write a superhero game." When 1st edition was running on all cylinders, that attitude gave it just the right amount of jaded distance to establish a unique voice - superheroes as pro wrestlers, superheroes as gossip fodder, superheroes as amoral mercenaries (keep in mind, I don't think Aberrant would have been better if WW was correct about being too cool for superheroes). It just came with a big downside when they went too far - the superhero who was a perfectly ordinary office worker who teleported to avoid traffic, whatever fucked-up decision making process led to green-lighting Saxon's plot in Teragen.

Second edition avoids the worst of 1e's excesses, and is probably the better for it (assuming the Saxon thing is no longer canon), but I will confess to missing at least some of the bitter notes that came with it. The N! cable network has been replaced by N!Sight, the social media portal/streaming service by novas for novas - a fair update, but there's no exploration of the effect of superhumans on post-truth politics (and, more frighteningly, vice versa). Some city defenders are crowdfunded, and OMG, your setting needs to parodically cover the nova hustle culture and superhero gig economy. That feels like classic Aberrant to me.

Hey, if anyone from Onyx Path is reading this, here's a product pitch for you - Aberrant: 24/7 - "People think that when you're a nova, the world just lines up to give you fame, fortune, and respect. What they don't see is the work that makes it happen, the pressure to always be 'on,' even when you're not getting paid. You want to be a superhero? It's not just about busting bad guys and saving civilians, it's about living the lifestyle. All day. Every day. Even when it eats you up inside.

Narrated by Mefistofaleez, Slider's dark reflection and only true rival for number 1 social media clout."

Although, again, I do want to be clear that you should not interpret my grognardish longing for "the way they used to do it" as saying "it sucks now." Trinity Continuum: Aberrant is a decent superhero settings with a lot of individual strengths. It's even better than 1st edition at being a global superhero setting, and even directly addresses the elephant in the room re: Utopia's programs and philanthropic colonialism. And I would say that it is as good as any other superhero setting out there at creating memorable, distinctive characters that are not obvious clones of someone from the big two. Homelander is clearly Superman, but Cestus Pax isn't. And the Trinity Continuum's overall historical arc continues to be fascinating. I think it's up to individual tastes whether it's a strength or a weakness that it's all wrapped up in a package that feels like it could seamlessly cross over with the MCU.

There's plenty more I could say about the setting (like how in the hell does Maxwell Mercer have a granddaughter - wouldn't that imply that he's had sex at least once, pretty unlikely from where I'm sitting), but we're past 2000 words and I still haven't talked about the system.

It's better than 1st edition's by a huge margin, but that's not saying a lot. I don't think it quite has a handle on the upper ends of the power range, especially with regards to the scale system. It's possible for a starting character to get access to Scale 10 strength effects like moving a planet out of orbit or punching so hard you rip the fabric of space and time. It's not even that hard. It's actually a pretty obvious build (64xp for Quantum 5 + 60xp for Mega Strength 5 + 12xp for Mega-Lifting + 12 xp for Mega-Crush = 148xp out of a total of 150). It's better than Wild Talents, which allows starting characters to obliterate all matter and energy in the visible universe, but in a way it's worse because you still might stumble on this nonsense accidentally (it doesn't take a total power-gamer to come up with the character concept "me strong").

My suggested errata - Mega Crush gives you +1 scale for attacks, maximum. Mega Lift doubles your lifting capacity, relative to your scale, so that the scale 5 character is as strong as two wrecking balls, instead of an earthquake.

I think this is merely the result of a well-intentioned attempt to simplify the math, but simpler math doesn't count for much if you're not clear about what the numbers are supposed to mean. Mega-Strength 7 allows you to move major land-masses. Quantum Agent with the 7x Horde tag allows you to summon 250 disposable mooks with a dicepool of 2, both require Quantum 7, but that version of Quantum Agent costs 12 more xp.

Although, to be fair, if you ignored the Horde tag and just went with a single agent, you could summon a champion with Mega-Strength 7 at the same xp cost as getting Mega-Strength 7 yourself, with room to later buy the Horde tag, so that at the cost of two maxed-out Mega-Attributes you could summon up to 250 MS-7 brawlers . . . which is properly frightening. 

Although to be even more fair, it's distressing that there's this much potential for char-op, even from a cursory read of the text. It's probably unavoidable in an effects-based system.

Speaking of which, Techniques are weird. Techniques are a mega-edge that allows you to buy new powers at an extreme discount, provided you tie them to one of your existing powers. So, for example, if you have Quantum Anima (basically telekinesis) at level 5, that costs you 60xp. Then you can spend 12 xp to buy a Technique for Quantum Anima and that can be any power with an xp cost of 60 or less. So now you have, say Flight 5 and Quantum Anima 5 for a total of 72xp instead of 120xp. 

I don't hate it as a mechanic, but it's a weird bit of system mastery because it's tucked into the Mega-Edge section, where you might gloss over it, instead of just being rolled into the way you normally buy powers, like it should be. It's also unclear what happens when you spend xp to improve the base power. And the Technique Mega-Edge is limited to 5 ranks (although you can buy it separately for each of your base powers), so I'm not sure what happens when, say, Storm discovers a sixth thing she can do with weather manipulation.

I think if you avoid stress-testing the extremes, Trinity Continuum: Aberrant's system works as well as any other supers system I've encountered, and even its faults are hardly unique. It's easy to get degenerate builds in Mutants and Masterminds too. The main reason to pick it over any other is its rational way of approaching scale (even if scale shifts of more than 2 ranks or so wind up completely derailing your character), and the fact that you can easily incorporate Talents from the Trinity Continuum core.

Overall, I'd say that this book is definitely pretty good. It's a decent system and a decent setting, and as an introduction to the Aberrant world, it's clean, clear, and friendly. My only real caveat is for old, returning fans like me - this is a book that speaks best in the new Trinity Continuum voice and less well in the old Aberrant voice we came to both love and fear.

Ukss Contribution: I liked Violet "Tank" Chao - an invulnerable pacifist who uses her probability manipulation powers to minimize the collateral damage that comes with high-powered super fights. Just a neat idea.


  1. Perhaps Grognard-ish, but... wasn't Violet Chao strongly indicated as being Slider's murderer in 1e?

    1. Not that I recall. Slider's murder was actually solved in one of the books, but they didn't make a big deal about it, so it was easy to miss.