Hopefully you read the One-Hour Review of The Strange so you’re all caught up on the player side of things. If not, we’ll give you a chance to get it together. Caught up? Alright!
This time, we’re looking at things from the GM perspective: the latter parts of The Strange core book that deal with the stuff you need to run a game of The Strange. In my experience with Numenera, it’s hard with this system to get players to take on the role of “sole determiners of rolls” in the game (being the only ones rolling dice) so I’m hoping for some information included in that. Also, creatures in Numenera are often pretty focused in their abilities and maneuvers. This is great when those maneuvers are evocative and not so much when they are repetitive.
Lastly, the setting of The Strange is dominated by three worlds: Earth, Ardeyn, and Ruk. They seem cool and interesting, but I’ve been promised “Worlds teeming with life, with discovery, with incredible treasures, and with sudden death.” I want to make sure there’s enough in these three worlds to keep my players occupied and, more importantly, that these aren’t the only kids on the block to contend with or it’ll be more Forgotten Realms than Sliders.
And with that, we’re off!
Part 4: The Setting
The start of this section is Chapter 10: Recursions which covers the Strange and the worlds it encompasses in a general day. A lot of the concepts here will be familiar to fans of Planescape (my first RPG experience and still my oldest love… sorry mom). For instance, replace Earth, recursion, and the Strange with Prime Material, plane/planar, and the Astral respectively and you’ve got a good idea of how the whole system works.
The Earth is surrounded by the Strange (which ignorant scientists call dark energy) and spins out recursions through “creative resonance” with Earthlings in a process called “fictional leakage.” They all have their own rules and laws so you can’t ever be quite sure what you’re getting into when you translate to a recursion.
Speaking of which, the chapter begins with an overview of all the different ways to move between worlds. Permanent or temporary connections between a recursion, Earth, or the Strange and somewhere else are generally called recursion gates but there are a few different sorts. Translation gates are the most straightforward but pretty rare, being open connections between worlds that anyone (quickened or otherwise) can wander through. Inapposite gates are similar but inanimate objects can pass through the as well as conscious creatures (though things like magic items or crazy technology deteriorates if the new locale doesn’t support it).
If these first two options are rare, the remaining two are probably near-fictional. Portal spheres are transportable objects that are keyed to a specific spot in a specific world that will create a temporary translation or inapposite gate when activated. In the more chaotic direction, fractal vortexes are naturally occurring phenomena that suck anything nearby into a recursion or even to another portion of the Strange (meaning you could jump to an alien world with its own recursions… writing that idea down).
Recursions themselves come with attributes so that players and GMs can get a thumbnail sketch of them. Level determines the difficulty to translate to the recursion and also the base-level for inhabitants. Laws describe how the universe works in the recursion whether it’s Standard Physics, Magic, Mad Science (where modern science is just the start), Psionics, Substandard Physics (where modern technology is impossible), and Exotic (otherwise known as “other”). Most likely, recursions have some combination of these. They also come with playable races, appropriate Character Foci, relevant skills, connections to Earth and the Strange, size, traits, and percentage of the population with the spark.
As a GM, you probably have an idea of what you want to be creating to mess with your characters but players also have the chance to make recursions. By wandering the shoals of Earth you can find reality seeds with which to start your own recursion and bring it to a nexus in the energy network that’s primed for creation. Again, exchange the Strange, shoals of Earth, nexus, and reality seed with the Ethereal Plane, shallow Ethereal, Deep Ethereal, and demiplane seed spell and we see some Planescape leaking through. This could be a whole mini-game of creating and establishing your own recursion… And don’t worry there are tables for quickly generating recursions. Personally, I can’t wait for my players to visit a Wuxia recursion of dolphin people made of dream and coins in the shape of a Mobius strip where the stars are living creatures. You know you want to visit.
Chapter 11: Earth describes just what you would think, but it’s a lot more interesting than you might assume next to such fantastical realms. If you’re a recursor on Earth you most likely work for the Estate, a clandestine organization which has taken upon itself the task of defending Earth against all things Strange. To the larger world, of course, they’re a simple research foundation and that’s what their website also says (no really). Ongoing projects for the Estate includes keeping tabs on freelance recursors, developing quantum computers, identifying newly quickened humans, and investigating the other groups on Earth investigating the Strange.
There’s a map of the Estate campus in Seattle (everyone’s in Seattle), which is clearly intended to be a base of operations for Earth PCs. Actually, it makes sense that the Estate is in Seattle as it was a research group in Seattle that originally “pinged” the Strange from Earth and started the group’s interest. There are also short descriptions for other groups including the Quiet Cabal, a group of spies from Ruk (see below); the Circle of Liberty, which is apparently a charity front for Strange-interested anarchists; the September Project, a group developing the next generation of quantum computing but also attempting to take over Ardeyn (see below) as their own; the Office of Strategic Recursion (OSR), which is the U.S. government’s response to the Strange; and a number of groups who want to use recursions just for themselves either as valuable resources, hiding places, or objects of worship.
The end of the chapter includes some Earth artifacts which are the sort of superscience devices you expect to see on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Between these and the many interesting groups to work for or oppose, there’s clearly a lot going on here on Earth. It seems like this chapter is pretty clearly written with the idea that PCs from Earth will work for the Estate and go on missions to safeguard the planet, using the Seattle campus as a base. It’s definitely detailed enough to accommodate that but there’s enough going on that you could have a pretty satisfying set of adventures without ever leaving Earth.
Next up is Chapter 12: Ardeyn, the guide to the biggest fantasy recursion in the setting. It’s an open meta-secret that Ardeyn only seems to be an ancient land filled with centuries-old cultures and traditions. In fact, it’s the result of a panicked researcher named Carl Morrison who was the first person on Earth to directly connect to the Strange. When Morrison woke something in the dark energy network that could threaten the whole planet, he took the code for an MMORPG called Ardeyn: Land of the Curse that he had been working on and dumped the whole thing into the Strange where it found a reality seed and germinated into a pre-built defensive world to keep back the worst of the Strange.
The result is a pre-fabricated ancient world with thousands of years of history and large-scale nations that are actively working to destroy incursions from the Strange into the area around Earth. Carl Morisson and some of his fellow designers are also incorporated as figures in the Sumerian-esque mythology of Ardeyn (classy, Monte and Bruce, whose dream was that?) and someone from the September Project (see above) is apparently set up as the Betrayer, the villanous demon-god of the setting.
The most iconic part of Ardeyn are the qephilim, the descendants of angels in the mythology of Ardeyn who resemble the Egyptian god Anubis. They once had magnificent cities but these crumbled to dust when the Betrayer first attempted to take over the world, and now they continue as a divided people of great power next to the humans who have come to dominate this age. Again, this is an invented MMORPG so if it’s sounds grandiose it’s literally by design. All people in Ardeyn, qephilim and human alike, know of the Strange and things even occasionally fall out of the network from the sky and must be vanquished.
As any good fantasy RPG, Ardeyn is far from unified and it also has dramatic geographical differences from Earth. The land is relatively small and shaped like a disc, with a lit surface on top called the Daylands where everyone lives and a dark underside called the Night Vault where the dead dwell. Regions of Ardeyn include the Queendom of Hazurrium, the most populated land and fairly stable; the Green Wilds, an uncivilized forest with fantastic flora and fauna; Oceanus, the central basin sea with adventurous ports and sunken cities; Mandariel, the antagonistic neighbor of Hazurrium which exploits the Strange; Kuambis, a desolate desert of danger and adventure; and Meggedon, the corrupted land of the Betrayer. Surrounding everything are the mountainous Borderlands where monsters dwell.
The first take-away from the Ardeyn chapter is that Monte Cook Games should totally go into the MMORPG business; I would totally play in Carter Morrison’s world. The second is that Ardeyn is more than just a stop-gap to keep the Strange from hitting Earth hard, it’s a real and engaging world for adventures. There’s even a sidebar about starting players in Ardeyn and having their characters slowly realize that they are in a bounded recursion in the shoals of Earth. Come to think of it, that is a great way to leap your group from playing Numenera to playing The Strange. Writing that one down too.
Next we have Chapter 13: Ruk, the science fiction counterpart to Ardeyn. Unlike Ardeyn, this recursion was not created by anyone on Earth in response to the Strange… In fact its existence pre-dates humanity itself. Millions of years ago, another world created Ruk as a lifeboat to save its people from an unnamed destruction. The recursion-vessel sailed through the Strange until it ran afoul on the ripples in the data network that surround Earth and it became lodged in our shadow.
With me so far? Well good, because it’s about to get really weird. Ruk society has developed slowly to connect and manipulate events on Earth, and spies regularly traverse the gap between worlds to gather intelligence and direct world events. While they revere the True Code which describes their origins and the All Song geo-digital network that connects everything in the recursion, Ruk natives have been changing to deal with being tangled up in Earth for generations.
There are a number of different factions on Ruk including the Church of the Embodiment, the orthodox hard-liners waiting for a messiah to lead their people; the Karum, who think that Earth needs to be destroyed so that Ruk will sail free again; the Quiet Cabal, which thinks that Earth’s destruction would also mean Ruk’s and so they try to protect it; the Unified Choir, atheists who want to leave the old ways behind and embrace science and technology; and Zal, which seems like a mix between a corporation and a hivemind.
As far as geography, Ruk is built around the central artificial construct with a biotechnological Periphery that is expanding (very rapidly in recent years). Specific regions of Ruk include the Spar Jungles and the Shattered Wastes, the chaotic terrain where Ruk originally “ran aground” on Earth; the Grey Forests of creepy fungi full of hallucinogenic spores; moving Glial Storms, which are discharges of energy from the damaged All Song network; the Glistening City of Harmonius, largest and most detailed of Ruk’s settlements; and the Veritex, a maze of subterranean tunnels. Seriously, though, this is like half the locations in the chapter and I can see setting an adventure in any one of them.
Chapter 14: The Strange deals with the data network itself. Conditions in the strange are… well, I don’t want to be obvious here so I’ll say bizarre and alien. When visiting there, you appear in whatever form you just had on Earth or a recursion floating about the extradimensional space that exists completely separately from the baryonic universe (that is the material world) that we live in. Various fractal shapes float about there with you and you can hang onto or kick off of these to move about. All of this crazy, Strange-ness can really warp the mind so staying in the Strange for any length of time means you risk complete mental breakdown.
Unfortunately for Earth and all the recursions, creatures and relics can be found in the Strange as well and they are rarely the nice and fluffy sort. There are collections of sites and creatures, but I’d actually rather not post them here since I think it would be more fun to explore on your own. So… Enjoy!
The last chapter of this section is Chapter 15: Other Recursions and it is chock full of some interesting little tidbits. Each of the recursions in this section gets a page or two (some of them less, but usually only when they reference existing settings) and the majority have at least a few bits of game mechanics attached to them. Most of these recursions are the result of the “fictional leakage” described above where narrative
The recursions here include Atom Nocturne, a combination of glamrock night-club world and psionic realm; Cataclyst, a post-apocalyptic realm after a Singularity gone wrong; Crow Hollow, a strange world of crow-people and shady dealings, as well as a major setting for the upcoming Dark Spiral adventure judging by the latest images; the Graveyard of the Machine God, which is just what it says on the tin; Thunder Plains, a collection of Native American myths and legends; and Gloaming, a Ravenloft-esque modern world of vampires and werewolves.
There are also a collection of “public domain” recursions which are inspired by fictional leakage from a single, specific world, strongly imprinted onto the Strange because the public domain-ness of them make them so widely written about and discussed. Of course, it doesn’t help that being in the public domain also makes it fair game for Monte Cook Games to write up… but that’s secondary, yeah? These include Old Mars, Oz, 221B Baker Street, Innsmouth, and Wonderland. If you can’t figure out what each of these is, it probably won’t excite you anyways.
Part 5: Creatures & Characters
“Enough of the scenery, what do we kill?” If you have players that think that way, check out Chapter 16: Creatures for fistfuls of ways to kill the impudent wretches. Options include weaponized heart transplants called angiophages and bioengineered soldiers from Ruk, homunculi and golems from Ardeyn, and ancient dark energy pharaohs living in the Strange itself. Creatures are not limited to the major recursions and the data network, though, with most of the big name recursions also weighing in. Helpfully, the entries also list the Laws that the creature is happy under so that even brand new recursions feature threats that might show up.
Some of my favorite creatures in this section are the variokaryon, the kray, and marroids. On Ruk, the various grafts can drive a body too far into digital madness and the addicts known as variokaryons are the result. When you first meet them, these creatures seem like everyone else on Ruk and might even be helpful contacts in the PCs’ mission. When they get one of the PCs alone, however, the charade drops and they try to rip every bit of modification and mechanical grafts from the target’s body.
Elsewhere in the Strange, an immense creature called the kray broodmother gives birth to scurrying insectoids called the kray that force their way into other recursions in an attempt to rip down anything they can and feed to their mother. Because the Strange is so mysterious, this creature is a way for GMs to present a recurring villain that the PCs can’t just track down and murder. Hate those bugs popping up all the time to ruin your day and want to go after their base? Sure, just poke around the Strange for a while. Hope you aren’t too attached to your sanity, though.
Back on Ruk, the marroids are a classic science-experiment-gone-wrong. Originally they were wandering creatures that would survey the genetic material of Ruk and assess any damage. Now, however, they aren’t so picky in what sort of genetic material they sample and they readily attack and suck dry any marrow they can get their maws on. Best yet, they are still attracted to the damaged sections of the recursion-ship so when you’re out in the wilds a pack of these buggers might just jump you and start cracking open bones.
After the creatures come a handful of characters in Chapter 17: Nonplayer Characters. These include some stock options such as agent, criminal, and technician. Helpfully, each of these has notes on how these come across in each of the major worlds (Earth, Ardeyn, and Ruk). A technician, for example, is a lab tech on Earth, a ritual assistant on Ardeyn, and a biotechnician on Ruk.
Next come the more important people of renown, i.e. folks with names. There are just two of these here: a free-floating AI out in the Strange called Cinticus Z, and the infamous Professor Moriarty escaped from the Holmesian recursion (a la Star Trek). I wish there were more of these but there are at least simple stats for NPCs elsewhere that will fill out your world a little more.
Part 6: Running the Game
This section for DMs starts with Chapter 18: Strange Cyphers which lists cyphers that the game system is named after. As mentioned last time, cyphers can be anoetic (easy to use) or occultic (complex to use). They also switch form between recursions, appearing as a wand in Ardeyn, a smartphone on Earth, and an organic pod on Ruk. Or whatever, use your imagination. Having already collected a good number of cyphers in Numenera, I’m happy to see that this list is not a direct copy. There are some similar devices, of course, but all in all I think the lists complement each other instead of overlapping.
The advice given in Chapter 19: Using the Rules, however, is very similar to the advice given in Numenera. You’re advised how to set difficulty ratings, use GM intrusions, adjudicating story over rules, countering particularly powerful character abilities, and creating NPCs quickly and easily (definitely the biggest advantage of the Cypher System).
Similar advice is given in Chapter 20: Building the Story, though this stuff is more focused on The Strange. The first few sections outline how to start the game, including advice on introducing the setting, describing the first few translations, and crafting stories. This seems like awesome advice for new and experienced GMs alike and it comes from masters of the trade no less. Different themes and descriptions are also handled, giving DMs advice on how to evoke certain aspects of their particular take on the game.
Chapter 21: Running a Strange Game is more about the different possibilities that a GM could take away from the baseline experience in The Strange. Several different scenarios for starting a campaign are outlined including Estate Operatives, Quiet Cabal Agents, Off the Street, and the players portraying themselves as Character Players. Some more advice on evoking the very Strangeness of the game is also appreciated and even creating new recursions. All of this, again, is good advice and can help to keep players from being paralyzed with constant information dumps after each translation and with GMs struggling with flat depictions.
Part 7: Adventures
Two adventure sections follow the main book to get gaming groups started. In Chapter 22: The Curious Case of Tom Mallard, Estate operatives are sent to follow a man traveling into the Strange to mine it for resources and potentially bringing back trouble with him. After this (only summarized because of spoilers, obviously) comes Chapter 23: Adventure Ideas. These are an expanded mission to the post-apocalyptic Cataclysm recursion; a mini-campaign about foiling the plans of the nefarious OSR; stopping a weapons deal gone bad which involves small town America and big-city Ruk; and the threat of a new technology on Earth that’s just a little too advanced. I wish there were a few more of these, but there are plenty of plot hooks throughout the book for those looking.
There’s a lot here in The Strange for GMs and that means a lot to pick up on. However, most of this game is atmospheric so you don’t have to read every single detail. The most exciting thing, though, is that the setting and creatures in this book read like three different campaign settings with details and a fourth setting connecting all of them. And that’s not even including the smaller recursions or whatever details you have in your head. Making NPCs and creatures is really easy in the Cypher System (though I could do with a few more in this book) and the details and advice are sure to get your imagination running. I definitely recommend scooping up The Strange, and soon! It’s only going to get better from here.