An Aberrant Brain

Oh my goodness, I did not intend to have so much time pass between posts. A big work development plus two major trips (a third next week!) plus my first bout of Covid have all kept me away from my laptop.

And yet I had a lot of fun pouring over one of my favorite games of my childhood, Golden Heroes. It was a nice validation of what I want to write about these days: the long list of superhero tabletop roleplaying games (hereafter TTRPGs) that rarely get enough attention. I’m going to continue jumping around the list of games, spotlighting ones I either love or that intrigue me.

Since I started in the 1980s, let’s fast forward a decade. Honestly, the 1990s isn’t a particularly interesting span of superhero games. It’s the time when Champions and, to a lesser extent, GURPS Supers, took up most of the oxygen in the room. Goodness knows I spent my TTRPG time in the ‘90s running two different Champions campaigns and loving the crunchiness that would become the HERO System.

But right at the end of the decade entered a game that I’ve owned for more than twenty years yet barely played: Aberrant. My curiosity in this game abounds. I picked it up at a time in my life when I had just moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, was deep, deeeeeeeep into Magic: the Gathering, and without a dedicated roleplaying group. By the time I was back into TTRPGs there were newer, fresher games to play. As a result, it’s one of those handful of games I own that I’ve played only in a couple of one-shots.

The more I’ve explored Aberrant as part of this blog, though, the more curious I’ve become (and also slightly poorer, since I bought the next two versions to compare them). Let’s see why…

A few weeks ago, I only had three books. Hm…

A Brief History of Aberrant

I couldn’t find a rich, narrative history of Aberrant like I did Golden Heroes, so here is the story as I understand it. Apologies in advance for anything I’m somehow misinterpreting or not seeing clearly.

White Wolf Publishing was a new and powerhouse European game publisher in the 1990s. White Wolf was most successful and famous with its World of Darkness games, but it also produced some fantasy TTRPGs and, right at the end of the decade, the trio of games now known as the Trinity Continuum.

The Trinity Continuum was ambitious because it was essentially three different games interconnected by the same basic mechanics and fundamental lore: Adventure! was an action-pulp, alternate-1920’s game. Aberrant was a near-future superhero game. And Æon was a far-future sci-fi game. All three shared, essentially, one universe with each taking place on a different part of that universe’s timeline. It’s a cool idea, and one that has followed each game through various editions. Although this post is focused on Aberrant, each time the game appeared it has been joined by Adventure!, Æon, and a variety of Trinity-spanning books.

This is speculation on my part, but in looking at White Wolf’s projects I suspect that they saw the success of their World of Darkness games and thought the future was in taking these properties into videogames. They merged with an Icelandic videogame company in 2006 and were acquired by another in 2015. Shortly after that, a scandal led to the dissolution of White Wolf as an independent entity.  

Whatever the case, after three years and quite a few supplements, Trinity generally and Aberrant specifically in 2002 ceased publication. The games tried a d20 reboot in 2004 (because pretty much everyone at the time was seeing if they could make d20 work, sort of like 5E now), but they never found their footing. There is shockingly little content I could find on this d20 foray.

Then, for fifteen years, Aberrant faded into the background as a cool setting with a sometimes-unwieldy game behind it. Eventually Onyx Path Publishing, founded by a White Wolf alum, obtained the tabletop publishing rights to a lot of White Wolf’s old games, including Aberrant. After a recently successful Kickstarter, a new version of Aberrant was born using Onyx’s Storypath System. For these reasons, sometimes this new Aberrant is called “Second Edition” and sometimes “Storypath Edition.” Almost everyone calls the 1999 game “First Edition.” (And again, no one refers to the d20 version as anything, really.)

I was able to find this 2019 interview with the most recent version’s core authors, Steve Kenson and Ian Watson. There isn’t much history-telling to fill in the blanks above, but it’s a great introduction to the broad brushstrokes of the Trinity Continuum generally and a deep look at what excited the authors about this newest incarnation of Aberrant. Check it out!

It’s amazing to think that the original game only lasted three years. As far as I know, people are still playing Aberrant campaigns from First Edition, and it’s still some people’s favorite “crunchy” superhero game. And hey, it spawned a reboot twenty years later that is already seeing a ton of new supplements. What makes it so intriguing, you ask?

What’s Great About Aberrant

The single best thing about Aberrant is the one thing that has endured across three distinct game systems: the setting.

It occurs to me that superhero TTRPGs fundamentally need to decide how much to invest in worldbuilding a setting that explains – and potentially sets the boundaries for – superpowers. Most games just assume that it’s a comic book reality, in which radioactive insects, mystical artifacts, aliens, time travel, interdimensional demons, and giant robots just exist, and that people with amazing powers (often bestowed by some combination of the above) choose sides and battle with their fists and eye lasers.

Aberrant does deep worldbuilding. Indeed, the first HUNDRED pages of their 285-page core book in 1999 are dedicated to fleshing out how superpowers came to be and how “novas” – the people with these powers – exist within society. Those pages are also the only ones in color, full of rich, creative entries detailing news reports, science journals, celebrity interviews and, yes, comic book pages. The art throughout is consistently excellent and evocative of the “Iron Age” of comics, clearly a core inspiration for the tone and flavor of Aberrant. In the newest version, the setting takes up even more space (over half of the roughly 300 pages) and is still the centerpiece of drawing you into the game.

I won’t try and do a full review of the setting here. Suffice it to say, Aberrant takes place about ten years in the future after an international space station blew up and irradiated the globe, spawning the rise of novas. The authors have created a richly textured story as to how the world embraced these thousands of superpowered individuals, full of factions, internet celebrity, private companies, and varied government interventions. Playing Aberrant means becoming facile in terms like quantum flux (and quantum tech and, honestly, quantum everything), The Utopia Society, eufiber, the Æon Society, The Teragen, OpNet, the XWF, Mazarin-Rashoud Coils, and yes… Aberrants (both a slur term for novas and a formal organization).

Getting steeped in Aberrant’s setting is as daunting as learning the game’s mechanics, and in fact creates a sort of dual barrier to entry for new players. The First Edition book didn’t help matters by making the setting a series of wildly creative but unorganized snapshots, something very cool when you spend time with it but incredibly difficult to skim or reference later. The newest edition, thankfully, does a bit of indexing and exposition, but it’s still dense stuff.

But just like any deep worldbuilding, the density and depth of the setting are also the things that fans of the game are most passionate about. The world of Aberrant is evocative and full of intrigue. Reading those first hundred pages of the original book or the setting chapters of the new one, it’s impossible not to have your mind explode with campaign and character ideas, very much like modern Blades in the Dark or Symbaroum, but even more globally expansive.

Aberrant’s setting strives to take a realistic view of how the world would react to superpowers. It’s also, as I said, steeped in the Iron Age of comic books, full of the gray morality and grittiness of the 1990s. There is a very real sense that power corrupts. It’s even baked into the mechanics, as the thing most likely to take your character out of a campaign isn’t death – it’s the tainted transformation from modern god to monster. There are rules in the most recent edition for adapting Aberrant to different tones, but I’m a big believer in playing to a system or setting’s strengths. Aberrant is about the costs and perils of having superpowers as much or more as the glory. It’s a game about tough choices in a complicated world.

Here’s a terrific summary from a very good 2019 review of the original game:

“You are placed as central figures participating in a tragedy played out in slow motion. All Novas are doomed to be tainted by their powers in time, despite any good intentions. No matter how hard they try, they will lose that which makes them human. It’s inevitable. It’s a devastating bit of storytelling, and creates a setting rife with narrative rabbit holes to fall down. I haven’t found a superpowered RPG that comes close to this level of depth in its world building.”

For a detailed look at all things Aberrant, check out the OpCast podcast – a podcast completely dedicated to the Trinity Continuum. There is an episode specifically looking at the First Edition of the game, and a five-episode breakdown of the new Storypath book. Not surprisingly, these episodes slant heavily towards the setting.

Let’s Talk Mechanics (And Lots and Lots of Dice)

The strength and richness of Aberrant’s setting are, I believe, what has engendered so much nostalgic love for the game and the reason why it’s respawned into a new edition. It’s certainly the reason I kept cracking open the original 1999 rulebook over the years. But I’ve made it almost to the end of this write-up without mentioning the mechanics. So how does Aberrant actually play?

The 1999 edition was based on White Wolf’s Storyteller system, which uses d10s exclusively. At its core the system is elegant: You create a dice pool when trying something, and every 7 or better on a d10 is a success. The more successes, the better the result. Aberrant built on this core idea by adding “Mega” (or superpowered) attributes and abilities, which count two successes for a 7-9 and THREE for a 10, resulting in much splashier results.

Although elegant, the original Aberrant broke down in how big the dice pools became. It wasn’t uncommon to have twenty or even thirty d10s in a pool. Although rolling dice is fun, it’s apparently possible to have too much of a good thing. Add in that a 1 on a d10 is a “Botch” and those big dice pools start getting weird. Most longtime players of the First Edition shake their head at how out-of-control silly the game experience could be, especially as the power level increased. As one player commented in a Reddit forum: “The idea [of Aberrant] is fantastic, but you will need to houserule the crap out of it.”

Unlike Golden Heroes, character creation is time consuming and complicated, using a point-buy system that isn’t hard to grasp but does involve a lot of steps. It’s nowhere near as crunchy as Champions (which, as I said, was the dominant superhero game when the first edition of Aberrant came out), but it’s not easy either. The good news is that the system allows for pretty much any superpowered concept, but it’s also a process that a GM is going to have to supervise.

I mentioned earlier the inevitable decline from god to monster inherent in Aberrant’s system. This mechanically in the 1999 game is called “Taint” (which, yes, everyone made fun of then and still do today) – basically, the more Taint your character accrues the less human they become. I really like the idea of this system, but in practice it was a little clunky and surprisingly easy to avoid, a better concept than execution.

So along comes the Storypath system from Onyx Path Publishing, an updated version of White Wolf’s Storyteller system. It’s still d10 based, still with Mega attributes and a point-buy system to create any and all powers. Dice pools are less unwieldy. Taint becomes “Flux” and is more flexible (and less narratively inevitable). And the rulebook is definitely, definitely better organized and thus easier to navigate than the First Edition one. For a good overall review of the new Aberrant compared the original, check out this write-up.

Alas, though: I haven’t yet been able to play the newest edition of Aberrant. It remains on my “super interested to try it out” pile. So consider today’s post a nostalgic reminiscence of the 1999 game more than an analysis of the update. Still, my interest is piqued. Here’s hoping the power of my nostalgia and the strength of the overall Trinity setting is one that pulls you into checking it out. And if you do… drop me a line and let me know how it goes!

Next time I’ll jump forward another decade into the 2000s and pluck some fun-but-lesser-known game out of the pile. Until then, uh… may your Summer be Taint-free and all of your experiences Mega? I don’t know, man. I didn’t really have a closing in mind.

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