Beemer (dr_tectonic) wrote,

Strangely Missing the Mark

So Thomas loaned me his copy of The Strange RPG, and I want to love it, but I kinda don't and it frustrates me.

The basic premise is awesome: beneath the physical universe, there's a dark energy network called The Strange that's filled with partial alternate worlds ("recursions") with different rules. Many of these worlds are reflections of popular fiction from our world. There are also Bad Things ("planetovores") in the Strange that want to destroy Earth; the recursions act as a barrier to keep them out. The players are (obviously) part of Team Save the Earth, and the really interesting thing is that when you travel to a recursion, your character morphs into a new version that fits in to that reality.

It uses Monte Cook's "Cypher" system from Numenera, which I'm sort of lukewarm about, but that's neither here nor there; you can always swap out system. The thing that is bugging me is that most of the book is about the wrong things.

The awesome thing about the premise is the idea of mashing up every fictional setting you like under an all-encompassing dimension-hopping framework with a built-in objective. So, like, the PCs can go from being Starfleet officers to Sailor Scouts to warlords of Barsoom, all in a single session and in pursuit of an overarching goal. Wow, that sounds amazing! How do we make it work?

I don't know! Because the book is mostly about having very standard RPG-type adventures in two entirely new settings created for the book.

I mean, they're not bad settings -- one's fantasy, one's sci-fi, both have some really creative twists and both have a really interesting tie to the basic premise. But they're not what's interesting about this game!

What the book really needs is a big long chapter about how to adapt the rules to handle all the different settings you want to mash up, and how to do the mashups, and how to take storylines from your favorite source canons and turn them into adventures that tie in to the premise of the game, and how to build monsters, and how to create adventures when fighting a monster doesn't make any sense. With sidebars about the pros and cons of encountering famous characters, and handling different tones and styles, and what to do with the knowledge of the settings that players bring with them, and all that kind of stuff.

And instead we've got fifty pages of these two new settings and eighty pages of character creation stuff that's all tied so strongly to these settings that you can't use half of it for any of the other settings they provide as examples and another fifty pages of monsters from these settings, and I just feel like, how can you invest so much work into something with so much potential and not recognize the core element that makes it so interesting in the first place?

It's like when we playtested the (absolutely dismal, IMHO) Firefly RPG a decade and a half ago. Nevermind that the mechanics were a mess, the big problem with the game was that all the designers' effort went into statting up dozens of weapons and vehicles and interplanetary travel times when that had nothing whatsoever to do with what made the show so great. That game didn't need tables with different ranges for pistols and rifles, it needed character creation rules for giving everyone a secret backstory and gameplay mechanics for having the secrets come to light via interesting interactions with other characters. That's what made people love the show, so that's what you need to put into the game! How is that not obvious?

It is a puzzlement.

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