So back 2012, I kickstarted Monte Cook‘s Numenera. For those of you unfamiliar, Numenera is a tabletop RPG set in the extreme far future of Earth, a world so full of the ruins of advanced science fiction of numerous civilizations and races that’s come full circle into weird fantasy. It’s set so far in the future, noted to be about a billion years, that someone would have had to either move the Earth or stabilize the sun for it have not expanded and destroyed the planet. To go with this setting is a new RPG system invented by Monte Cook and his team, called the Cypher System. While based on rolling a d20 and including something like classes and levels, it’s a very different beast then D&D’s d20 games. It’s famous for having character creations that is composed of “I am a __________ __________ who _________s.” That means you could be a Charming Glaive who Rides The Lightning, with Charming, Glaive, and Rides the Lightning each providing important distinctions and character abilities.
The Strange is a 2014 game also by Monte Cook Games and also using the Cypher System invented for Numenera. It’s written by Bruce Cordell, a member of Monte Cook Games. It was also a Kickstarter project, but I was sadly unable to throw money at it back in the day. I was able to read through a copy of it while visiting Card Kingdom. The setting takes place in the modern world, but with a massive Dark Energy Network underlying our reality, and providing access to semi-real “Recursions.” Each Recursion is it’s own little world, varying in size from thousands of miles across to just a small room, and each with it’s own unique nature. Some recursions support magic, some support mad science, and some are even weirder or hostile to human life. Players are among the rare few people able to naturally travel between our real world and the various recursions, and are typically aligned with an organization that hopes to protect Earth and humanity from the dangers of the Dark Energy Network… like planetovores… a class of entities that literally eat worlds. As an interesting feature, characters typically change when they travel from recursion to recursion. While you might be a human with a license to carry firearms on Earth, you could end up a Bird-man that casts illusions when you “translate” into the Crowhollow recursion.
These two games can be viewed as different settings for the Cypher game system, and there is even a document that can help you mix and match the two. Surprisingly, I found The Strange a much more compelling setting, at least to me. I think there are several reasons for this.
Firstly, the setting of The Strange is easier for me to wrap my head around, because it has a starting point of our own modern world. While it certainly gets weirder from there, that solid foundation is more than what I found in Numenera where a billion years in the future humans are living in villages in a world that both does and does not remind me of a D&D-ish fantasy setting. To put it another way, Numenera sort of falls into an uncanny valley. It looks kind of like fantasy, but isn’t. It’s supposed to sort of be Sci-Fi, but doesn’t use enough tropes of that genre for me to get a grip on it. To some extent I count this as a failing on my part. It looks like an amazing setting, something I figure would excite me, but I just don’t seem to find it interesting. That’s why I kickstarted it… but when I finally got it in my hands it didn’t grab me. The Strange, on the other hand, gets to use all the fun of secret organizations and conspiracies layered under the world we know, and then you get several other worlds to visit too.
While the setting of The Strange is easier for me to comes to terms with, it’s the nature of Translating between Recursions that first got my attention and gripped my imagination about the setting. In The Strange, when you leave Earth and visit the recursion of Ruk, you may go from being someone that is Licensed to Carry guns to someone that Spawns clones of themselves. Each recursion you visit, part of your nature changes to match that world, and along the way you can learn about your own character by what stays the same. I find this incredibly interesting, although having not actually tried playing the game, I don’t know for sure that the mechanics of changing a character’s nature, or at least a third of it, is something that does or does not slow down gameplay much.
The third point of interest to me in The Strange is the strange itself: the spiraling network of dark energy that underlies the universe. In the game, it’s an actually place that can be reached by going beyond the edges of a Recursion. It’s an odd place made of fractal patterns and inhabited by strange beings, some of them friendly, some of them aliens from other worlds, some of them dangerous, and a few of them interesting eating worlds, with Earth on their dinning list. Players can even potentially make their own recursions. It’s very compelling.
Now for all the enjoyable aspects of The Strange, there are parts I’m not much of a fan of. The largest of which is that I’m not especially thrilled that so much space of the book was given over to describing the recursion of Aredyn. In the game setting, Aredyn is “world” made from a computer game RPG not unlike Elder Scrolls or D&D. Initially I thought this was an interesting take: the world is a fantasy video game made real, and anyone familiar with computer games is probably aware that their nature as a game world means things are often a bit strange. I looked forward to seeing gaming tropes tucked away into the nature of the world… but having read through the chapter a bit, I didn’t see much of that. Instead it read like standard fantasy tabletop setting. It has some interesting twists and concepts, especially where The Strange intersects with it, but it felt more like a fantasy pen and paper RPG than a computer game made real, and there is an awful lot of detail given over to recursion, and I found myself being bored a bit by it. Overall I’m happy that such a part of setting exists, if for no other reason then it means a dragon or similar fantasy critter might slip into the real modern world, but it wasn’t my favorite part of the setting. I would have preferred that the section be about half as long, and more space devoted to detailing a few more other recursions. Overall not a big issue, and one that more my preferences than anything outright wrong.
Another potential problem I see, and again I haven’t had a chance to actually play this, is the slow down and tracking needed to handle translation and multiple Foci. Each time you translate into a new recursion or world, you usually need to pick a new focus (unless you are dragging one with you from your last world.) That means picking a focus from those that exist in that world, and then picking features from that focus for each of your tiers. Having everyone at the table do that all at once means things probably grind down to a slow speed for a while. All these choices also need to be recorded, because when you return to a world or recursion, you take your specific-that-recursion form again, although if you’ve advanced a few tiers you’ll need to update those. A look at the Strange Character Sheet shows there is a separate page for each focus, essentially a separate page for each Recursion you’ve been to, and another page to add almost every time you go to a new one. My point is that it’s a bit of tracking and a slow down when traveling to a new Recursion, but I have to admit I don’t know a better way. This is a setting about traveling to recursion, and translating and changing into each one. Anything that would make this simpler would also make it less interesting.
Overall, I’m very interested to try playing The Strange, although I don’t know when I’ll get the chance.