#RPGaDay2020 Day 26 - "Strange"
Today's word is "Strange" and while I could easily go any of several ways, I have to go with an essay on the RPG of the same name, which is one of my favorite games of all time. This is not a review. It is an essay on why this game resonates with me so strongly as a GM.
For a bit of background: The Strange is the second game by Monte Cook Games, and like Numenera, is based on the Cypher System Ruleset. It started off well, with a very strong Kickstarter. And what they delivered was truly exceptional: proof of this is that including the independent podcast about it, The Strange was nominated for seven ENnie Categories in 2015 and won silver awards in three of them, including best game, best setting and best interior art.
It was originally conceived and largely created by Bruce Cordell, who is a longtime friend of Monte Cook. Bruce went to Monte with an idea for a novel, and Monte suggested that instead, he should come to work at MCG and they would make the idea into a game. The rest is history, though the original novel, Myth of the Maker did finally get published in 2017.
In terms of a game, it is exceptional in both concept and execution. For those who don't know, Cypher System games are very rules-lite, with the core ruleset being about six pages long. This means that the remaining 400 page books has a lot of room for character building options, setting details and tips on how to run the game--and it really makes the most of them.
The underlying setting is based on modern day earth, and everything is mostly what you would expect if you live there. However, there are a a vast number of other realms called "recursions" that connect to our world, and there is a Men In Black style organization that tries to maintain order, and keeps things on the right side of the doorways.
This means that as a GM, literally anything the players show an interest in, you can create an adventure tied to their preferred theme and they can step through the doorway into that world. They like Blade Runner? The organization has detected a replicant who is trying to escape from that world into ours. Stop them by either removing their ability, or if necessary--retiring them. They like King Arthur? The Holy Grail will allow escape to the real world, and needs to be found before the Knights can do so.
This setting is really cool, but what I especially like is that when the characters go to the new world, the character's physical appearance, what they are carrying, and their underlying abilities all change to match the new world. If somebody is a gun-wielding heavy on earth, they may find themselves to be a different-gendered staff wielder in the new recursion, with the ability to talk to the spirits of the dead. This is not only an useful mechanic for adventures in different environments, but it also lets the players explore other options for their own characters and potentially discover new play styles.
This is also a step beyond what the core Cypher game lets you do. Cypher excels at being an open system which lets you create virtually any environment you want to try out, for an adventure or a campaign. It easily supports Victorian, "prehistoric dinosaurs with guns", super heroes, fairy tales, etc. But The Strange goes beyond by letting you do all those same things in one extended campaign, with the same character.
My personal love for the system is strongly supported by the three demo adventures I've run, one of which was a Sherlock Holmes style adventure, one of which was a straight up dungeon crawl and one was 90% in the world we know, with "Strange" elements working their way through.
A good GM with a good setting will be able to create adventures that the players enjoy. When the world encourages sandbox play, there is even more flexibility, as a GM, to let the players do what they want. In The Strange, you have a multi-world universe to sandbox, which provides the opportunity to create literally any story that you and the players want to tell.
The ability to jump between recursions is the most obvious strength of the game. One of it's less sung heroes is the two very well-developed recursions, Ardeyn and Ruk. The basic game is "Earth" and "everything else". But there are actually two other major recursions that tie into the core story. These recursions, Fantasy and Bio-Mechanical in nature are developed such that the entire game could theoretically be run from one of those recursions instead. Or they could be second-homes for the players, or they could represent major factions or assets in a broader story.
Ardyn tends to be used more often, because it is a fantasy world, and scratches that itch for players, as well as being the easiest to use as a GM. Plus, it's really not just fantasy; it has some seriously interesting story elements. Ruk seems less used, which I find disappointing, because it's as well developed and certainly completely different with numerous story hooks on its own.
To me, as a GM, a story teller and a World Builder, that the game provides me with not one major story anchor, but three, is just an amazing gift from the publisher. It means that I can take my normal collection of ideas, and base them in three different worlds for three completely different campaign-level experiences.
The Native American Recursion
I have to call out this incident, because it was handled so well. The Strange Core Book contains many other recursions, written in short and efficient manner, to give you more places for characters to travel. One of those recursions was based on Native American themes. After publication, it was brought to their attention that the recursion contained many sterotypes and inaccuracies . Long story short: MCG acknowledged the problem, worked with several experts to create a more authentic and still usable recursion, and then published that new recursion, Ohunkakan, as a free supplement.
As I've said, The Strange is one of my favorite games. It has a fantastic core book, solid critical supplements (it's Bestiary and Character Options.) It also has valuable secondary supplements, which grow the game, such as the World Numberless and Strange (which increases the number of pre-documented recursions) and Encyclopedia of Impossible Things, which provides a number of historical and literary artifacts that can show up and/or be story elements for the characters adventures. (Excalibur, but being carried around by Chewbacca, anyone?)
If I have one issue with The Strange, it's that it really seems to be a completed product line. On the one hand, this makes me sad, because it's so innovative and deserves more love. On the other hand, it's got solid core rules, more recursions than one could ever use, a strong set of long and short format adventures, and supplemental material of all sorts. What more would I want?
Well, if you gave me the option, here are some things I'd consider:
Bruce created an amazing supplemental book for Numenera called Jade Colossus. It was part adventure and part mechanisms for creating ruins (dungeons?) on the fly through randomization. I would love a book like this for The Strange. Something like "For each of the ten most common recursion themes (fantasy, sci-fi, etc. with specific coverage of Ardeyn and Ruk), here's how you generate a random adventure-hub for that recursion)
Numenera and Cypher System both have supplemental books that expand the core setting to entire new concepts. I would like to see some Cypher System supplements with a specific consideration for use in The Strange. To be fair, MCG has created guides for converting Gods of the Fall and Predation to Numenera and The Strange. I'd like to see the opposite...create something that would be absolutely perfect for The Strange...and also everybody else.
Finally, I would love books that take the two primary recursions, and turn those into full blown supplements that explicitly help you run whole campaigns based out of those worlds. Additional books that cover other recursions at that level of detail would be welcome as well. And of course, they could be part of the Cypher System library...but designed to support the Strange.
I'd love to see it expanded, but I have more material than I will probably get to play, especially given all the other games I have. Of course, I would back or buy anything they created, if only for ideas, but I'll be happy either way. That said, The Strange will always be one of my favorite games, because it is resonates with me as a game that was designed to be played my way, and tell my stories. It is technically wonderful: the storytelling, cosmology, structure and mechanics all come together, to form an absolutely fantastic game. Hats off to both Bruce and Monte for creating something so "Wonderous and Strange."
About Today's Art and Art in General
Today's Art, from the game's Kickstarter campaign, specifically has a Trademark and Copyright immediately below the art, because that is what the owner of the art, MCG, asks for in their fan use policy--and I am more than happy to comply.
Most artists that I use on my blog do not have any sort of a use policy. For those, I try to ensure that I know who the original artist is, and give them full credit in this section, with links to their best sales or gallery platforms. I also contact them if possible, to let them know I used their art for non-commercial purposes, credited them, and assure them that I will take it down if they have any issues with my usage.
I have received a few responses from artists...each of which was functionally the same. They are both surprised and pleased that I asked, even if after-the-fact and credited them. And each has been very happy to allow my usage.