One-Hour Library Review: The Strange

Beneath the orbits and atoms of our natural universe lies a network of dark energy. Those who have learned to access and navigate this chaotic sea have discovered an almost endless set of “recursions” in the shoals of our Earth: Worlds with their own laws of reality, reflected from human experience or imagination, given form in the swirling Chaosphere of the Strange. Worlds teeming with life, with discovery, with incredible treasures, and with sudden death.

Worlds sometimes jealous of our own.

-From Monte Cook Games

Readers of the site might remember my review of Numenera, the first game published with the Cypher System. You might also recall that some of us here at Castles & Cooks backed the Kickstarter campaign for The Strange back in the fall of last year. All this is to say that this review will be my first hour with the book but that I know something about it already.

This game is even more of a chance for Monte Cook to show off what remains of Planescape than Numenera was. Earth in this setting is surrounded by a mysterious alien data network that can create other dimensions, and those with “the spark” are able to transfer between these dimensions (called recursions) to defend the Earth from nefarious plane-hoppers and primordial evils out to destroy it. Sound familiar?

Like Numenera, characters in The Strange are constructed with the following formula: “I am an adjective noun who verbs.” The nouns (or Character Types) in The Strange are vectors, paradoxes, and spinners rather than the glaives, nanos, and jacks of Numenera with a similar spread of specialties. Your Character Descriptor (the “adjective” part) remains with your character (so that you’re always “Clever” or “Stealthy”) but the Character Focus (the “verb” part) switches with each recursion as characters create an appropriate body for themselves that blends in with the locals and follows the recursion’s laws (some recursions have magic, some have bioengineering, etc). Your focus then changes with each jump allowing you to try new options all the time. Personally, I’m very excited to see how this plays out because it seems like such a natural fit for the Cypher System.

Alright, so that’s what I know so far. Let’s crack open this pdf and see how it ticks!

Part 1: Getting Started

The first section of the book starts with Chapter 1: Welcome to the Strange, an in-character brief from a group called the Estate introducing its agents to the Strange. I’ve heard of the Estate in the preliminary stuff, and it seems to be a sort of Fringe Division for combatting threats from the Strange. All the stuff I mentioned about the setting above is given here (but in a form that doesn’t break the Fourth Wall so much) as well as introducing some concepts I skipped: planetovores, the worlds of Ardeyn and Ruk, and cyphers. We’ll deal with all of these in future sections, I’m sure. Probably the best part of this first chapter is all the redacted black lines. It feels like something you could seriously hand to players for an in-game prop, a strength in all the Monte Cook Games products so far.

After this section comes Chapter 2: How to Play the Strange which I expect to be mostly a repeat of the mechanics sections in Numenera. Check out that earlier review for more on the Cypher mechanics, but I’ll just be mentioning the only part that seems different: the cyphers themselves. In Numenera, cyphers are the magic weapons of the setting (technically magic-equivalent technology) and they could be held, injected, worn, ingested, or any other sort of activation.

The Strange does things a little differently with cyphers split into the categories of “anoetic” and “occultic.” The former are simple to use, the latter more complex. I expect that this is to make it easier when translating between recursions: your lightning zapper on Earth turns into something more setting-appropriate on a fantasy-themed recursion but it’s just as easy to use. On the other hand, your complex computer scanner becomes a “soul-seeker” (or whatever) on that world, and it requires as much chanting and twisting as the computer required typing and tuning. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any oddities in The Strange, but that’s easily fixed.

Part 2: Character Creation

The first chapter in the Character Creation section is, unsurprisingly, Chapter 3: Creating Your Character. Again, there is a lot of repeat here from Numenera so I’ll just mention where it differs. Stat pools, Edge, and Effort seems all the same and skills are still nebulous without a defined list. The really new stuff comes about with the move from mechanics to setting material. Player characters are described as being very rare individuals, being quickened recursors with the spark. A recursor is just someone who has switched recursions (analogous to a planewalker) and could be any type of person.

The special people are those who have the spark which means “a full awareness of one’s self and one’s place in the world.” This might seem like a magical thing but it describes every human being on Earth… just not every being in recursions. In small recursions (such as one that is basically Sherlock Holmes’s London) lots of people might function like extras and not question the limitations of their world. It never occurs to them that it’s odd that the world just ends outside of the city limits, whereas someone traveling there from our world would be instantly suspicious.

Having the spark doesn’t mean that you know all about the Strange and about recursions, though, just that you could understand if presented with the material. To actually become a recursor, you must also be quickened which means having a connection to the Strange that lets you do awesome stuff and that lets you translate between recursions. It’s interesting to note that not all quickened people start on Earth and in fact a number of other recursions have whole crowds of quickened folks. More on that later, I hope.

The last section of this first chapter is background ideas for how you got into this mess in the first place. You might have been a combat recruit, a lucky sonuvagun, a grifter who got in over his head, an esoteric scholar… All of these are nice ideas and they come with advice on how to play up this take on the character and build it into your mechanics.

Next we get into the really new stuff. Chapter 4: Character Type introduces the three core builds (the nouns) for The Strange. Vectors take the place of glaives as “action-oriented people,” and a lot of their moves seem the same (Bash, No Need for Weapons, Wreck). Of course there are new moves for guns (Spray, Shooting Gallery), but they seem to rely on weapons and armor more. Paradoxes, on the other hand, are the “mad scientists, the sorcerers, and the breakers of the rules of reality.” In other words, the new nanos. The “revisions” of paradoxes are not at all the same list as the “esoteries” of nanos but they are similar in function at least and can be thought of as spells.

In Numenera, jacks are a hybrid of glaive and nano and their abilities are exactly that. Spinners, on the other hand, fill in the social role of a party but their abilities are quite different from vectors and paradoxes. Spinners have “twists” that allow them to Fast Talk, Spin Encouragement in others, Spin Identity to hide their true selves, and gain Understanding of a creature or object just by looking (and that’s just the Tier One). Not to minimize this, but it seems like jacks are the Cypher equivalent of 3e D&D bards and spinners are the equivalent of 4e D&D bards. We’ll see if that holds up.

Something that is a great idea for all of these types is the built-in cooperative elements for translation (moving between incursions). There will assuredly be more information on this later but translating apparently involves initiating, easing, and hastening options. Vectors are noted as best at easing, paradoxes at initiating, and spinners at hastening. Flipping ahead a bit, this is more than just aptitude: the rules are actually different for each type. Nice move.

Alright, halfway through our time and we’ve only just arrived at Chapter 5: Character Descriptor. Some of the descriptors are repeats (like Clever and Intelligent), some are similar (Fast and Swift, Strange and Weird from Numenera Character Options), and one is totally new: Strange (which trains you in things involving the Strange). Generally it’s 50/50 between old and new and I really like that the ones which share a name are identical.

One notable absence from this list of stuff is character race. In The Strange you can pick a new race when you translate to a new recursion, but it doesn’t grant you anything new right off the bat. In Numenera, picking a new race means using your descriptor to do so: you can be a Stealthy Jack who Entertains or a Mutant Jack who Entertains, but not both. In The Strange, you can be either one but the differences are not that big mechanically. I think there may be some adjustments but they aren’t outlined in this chapter so far.

The next chapter is Chapter 6: Character Focus which introduces the newest part of character generation. When you switch between recursions in The Strange, you also switch between foci… mostly. Some foci are draggable which means you can take them with you between recursions. These tend to be genre-neutral foci like Solves Mysteries, Entertains, or Adapts to Any Environment and your equipment might change even if your focus doesn’t, but it’s a nice option for players. There’s also a special focus called Translates which gives you a bonus on translating between recursions. The book notes that you can’t start with it but you can gain it after any jump, and that it’s draggable so once you gain it you can keep it.

Making up for the silence on race under descriptors, there are some foci here that give you a de facto race. If you are someone who Abides in Stone, for instance, you are an Ardeyn golem. If you are one who Embraces Qephelim Ancestry then you are, obviously, a qephilim. It doesn’t look like you have to have these foci to be these races, though, which makes for some fun options.

Lastly, we have Chapter 7: Equipment, which brings us back to repetition. There are light, medium, and heavy weapons and armor and all the same rules for encumbrance apply. However there are surveillance items, grenades, poisons, and other interesting items that you might run into. There are also super-powered Artifacts, as in Numenera, and the cyphers, though both of these are handled later in the game to keep this section Players Only.

Part 3: Playing the Game

I’m a little short on time so I already know this won’t be a complete review. This section has some repeat material in Chapter 8: Rules of the Game which you can probably just skip if you already know Numenera. Chapter 9: Rules of Translation, however, is new and awesome. To translate between recursions, you need an undisturbed four hours of meditation and when you arrive you have an hour of acclimation time when your focus abilities aren’t accessible (unless you’re dragging your old focus). You also need to be quickened (or at a special gate) and have an object, image, or specific knowledge of the incursion you are going to.

Here is where we see the different Character Types’ strengths as well. Anyone can modify any aspect of the translation roll (success, speed, or acclimation) but each type has their own strength. Paradoxes are good at initiating translations because they can reroll failed translation rolls. Spinners are good at hastening because they can reduce trance time to ten minutes (others hastening reduce it to two hours). Vectors are better at easing translations because they reduce the acclimation period to one round (others easing reduce it to ten minutes).

When you get to the new incursion, you pick out a new body, race, gender, focus, and set of equipment to arrive in. Characters tend to appear in crowded areas where they won’t be noticed suddenly appearing if it’s their first time entering a recursion, but if they’re returning they can pick where they jump to (so long as they’re quickened).

Conclusions

Well, that’s what I got to in the first hour. It looks like everything I was expecting (which is awesome!) and the other sections are even more interesting. I’ll be making a second foray soon, in that case, to look at the DM-centric sections of the Setting, Creatures & Characters, Running the Game, and Adventures. Keep your eyes peeled!