Tabletop Review: The Strange: Player’s Guide (Cypher System)

The Strange: Player’s Guide (Cypher System)
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Cost: $10
Page Count: 98
Release Date: 08/06/2014 (Preorder PDF and Kickstarter Backers)/TBD (Everyone Else)
Get it Here: DriveThruRPG.com (eventually)

Back in late 2012, Monte Cook Games ran a Kickstarter for a game you might have heard of called Numenera. It was awesome, received praise from critics (like myself) and went on to win scads of awards like “Best New Game of 2013” from Diehard GameFAN. Since Numenera‘s release, I have reviewed sixteen different products for the brand (both first and third party), and all have been fantastic. So of course Monte Cook Games had to follow up Numenera with something, but what?

Well that would turn out to be The Strange. This too was another successful crowdfunding project, although not as successful as Numenera. Now backers and those that pre-ordered are getting their items for this new RPG hoping it will captivate and excite them in much the same way the Ninth World did. In my opinion, The Strange is not as great as Numenera, but it’s still a pretty terrific game I’m glad I pre-ordered. I decided to do a review of the Player’s Guide first for three reasons. The first is that with a price tag of only ten bucks for the digital version, it’s a lot cheaper than the core rulebook and thus easier to recommend as something to try sight unseen. After all, you’ll only be out ten dollars. The second reason is that the Player’s Guide is a truncated version of the core rulebook, focusing only on character creation and the core mechanics. You’ll get some basic overview about the setting and key terms and/or players in The Strange, but this book is all you need to PLAY The Strange. So if you are interested in playing The Strange but not running it, this is all you need. The third and final reason is that the Player’s Guide is only one-fourth the size of the core rulebook, meaning it’s an easier review to write in terms of topics and word count. Don’t worry – I’ll be reviewing the core rulebook later this month, but I really wanted to get this up for all of you curious about the game and my thoughts on it.

So to start – The Strange uses the Cypher System just like Numenera. This means the games are somewhat interchangeable and if you already know how to play Numenera, you already know how to play The Strange. Sure there are some differences but most of them are in terms of storytelling rather than mechanics. You’re still rolling a d20 for nearly everything. You still have the same ten point difficulty chart where each step up or down is a difference of three in terms of what you are trying to roll (so a Step 1 challenge means you want to roll a 3 or higher, a Step 2 means a 6 or higher and so on up to Step 10 which is a 30). This is great because I love the Cypher System, it’s so easy to explain and teach. I’ve seen Numenera used as a first game for kids and completely new gamers alike and it works so well. So this ensures The Strange will feel intuitive and familiar. It’s almost akin to a new campaign setting rather than a new game. Indeed who is to say the Ninth World is not a recursion for The Strange or that the setting of this game isn’t one of the eight previous worlds alluded to in Numenera? It’s your game, and you can make the two as connected or utterly separate as you choose!

Now, the Player’s Guide for The Strange devotes VERY LITTLE time and space to the world setting and core concepts of the game, so I’ll be saving much of that for the review of the core rulebook. The Strange does take place on Earth during a modern era. The Strange is not just the name of the game but also the nickname to a network or portal system created by…some advanced alien species a long time ago. None of it is certain. What is certain however is that The Strange has become its own thing, where the rules and laws of our universe do not exist. It is pure chaos. It is a void and yet everything at once. Inside the strange are two things. The first are Plantevores which are sentient life forms that move around the chaos like a fish in water. Perhaps a shark is a more appropriate analogy for these Planetvores want to devour entire planets or perhaps even reality itself. That’s where the PCs come in. They are part of an organization dedicated to preventing Planetvores from breaching our reality, mapping the Strange and the recursions within it.

What is a recursion? Well they are stable pocket universe that reside within the Strange. These alternate realities may have physics and scientific principles similar to our own, or they may operate completely differently. Perhaps one is a world of high fantasy with dragons and wizards. Perhaps one is a dystopian scientific future ala Shadowrun. Perhaps one is a steampunk version of the Victorian era. Anything and everything is possible in theory. There are two really fleshed out recursions in The Strange – one is a D&D style fantasy world called Ardeyn and another is a dark sci-fi world known as Ruk. Both of these aren’t fully touched on in the Player’s Guide, but it does mean GMs who purchase the core rulebook have two in-depth pre-designed recursions that they can really work with if they don’t want to homebrew something. Remember, the Player’s Guide is almost 100% focused on creating characters.

So let’s talk character creation now. Again, it’s very similar to Numenera but there are a few differences. In Numenera your three character classes were Glaive (warrior), Nano (mage/psionist) and Jack (rogue). In The Strange you have Vector (warrior), Paradox (mage/scientist/psionist) and Spinner (bard). The archetype I gave in parenthesis aren’t 100% accurate but it’s more to help those of you new to the Cypher System to understand what each Type basically is. Now the Types in The Strange are not an exact copy of their Numenera counterpart. Their starting stats and powers are different, but progression through the Tiers (the equivalent of levels) is the same in that you raise stats, skills and powers first and then eventually move on to the next tier.

You have three statistics or Pools as they are known in the Cypher Systems: Might, Speed and Intellect which are self-explanatory. You also have an Edge for each of these stats which can help decrease the number of Pool points you have to spend on a power, skill or challenge. Finally you have Effort which allows you to spend Pool points to decrease the target number of a challenge you are currently facing. The game is really quite simple in this regard and so character stats are really light and easy to remember mechanically.

Character creation in The Strange comes down to the following phrase: “I am a Advective Noun who Verbs.” Basically you fill in the Mad Lib style blanks and that determines your character. The “Noun” part is your character type (Vector/Paradox/Spinner) and determines much of your starting Pools and Edge, as well as your powers. The “Adjective” part is your “Descriptor and this will give you some slight changes to your stats and skills. For example, out of the fourteen Descriptors provided in the game, I could choose Stealthy and gain +2 to my Speed Pool, and several related skills. I would also get a disadvantage of movement related challenges being harder because my character would be precise rather than fast. There were only twelve Descriptors in the core rule book for Numenera, so it’s nice to have two extra here in The Strange. Only a few of the Descriptors transfer over from one game to the other, and even then it is mostly in name only, which helps to make the two games stand apart.

The “Verb” part of the character sentence is the Foci. The Foci basically fleshes out you core power set that makes the character unique and/or special. Unfortunately this is the weakest part of character creation for The Strange, but not Numenera There are two reasons for this. The first is that The Strange has far less Foci than Numenera. Numenera started with twenty-nine Foci while The Strange only has twenty-six. That doesn’t sound so bad at first. However there’s a catch to Foci in The Strange and that’s that they will change from recursion to recursion as your body is transformed (more or less0 to fit in with the new reality. So a professional wrestler might be an Orc Barbarian in Ardeyn or a Terminator on Ruk. What this means is that your Foci changes from place to place so you might want to have several character sheets. Now, out of those twenty-six foci? Only eight are available for Earth, ten are available for Ardeyn and seven are for Ruk. There last is one you can only get after you’ve been off Earth at least once. The problem here is that since the game starts on Earth, you have a lot less options for your starting character. I’m totally fine with the idea of the Foci changes from reality to reality. I really like it in fact. I just wish there were more options. There needed to be at least a dozen for each of the three “worlds” in order to help characters feel more alive or unique to their creators. It just feels too sparse for my liking.

Of course, if all the Foci were applicable across the board, it would be a different story. Some actually can be which is called “Dragging” or “Draggable Foci.” Only eight of those are (mostly the Earth based ones) and the decision behind what ones are and are not draggable eludes me completely. For example “Solves Mysteries” can. That makes sense, but “Carries a Quiver” or “Lives in Wilderness” are not? Because the principal behind arrows should be the same in all three worlds, especially Ardeyn and Earth -doubly so as it doesn’t involve magical arrows strange bow skills like that. It’s just straight up archery and fletching. Yet it is not draggable. Why? Who knows! It’s apparently arbitrary. Of course it is your game so you can make any of these skills draggable, but the lack of Foci options and the weirdness of what is and is not draggable are a weak spot in The Strange that is not present in Numenera, and this is why I say I like Numenera better. It just doesn’t have this minor, albeit easily corrected, flaw. It is still a great game with a lot of potential most gamers will find fun and exciting, so don’t less this one quibble of mine throw you off The Strange.

That’s pretty much the Player’s Guide Sixty of the pages are purely character creation and the rest is devoted to light explanations of mechanics, equipment guides, pre-generated characters and a look at how characters move from one recursion to another. For a mere ten dollars, the Player’s Guide is a great way to see if The Strange is for you. You get all that you need to know in order to play the game and make your own PC for the setting. All the core mechanics and explanations are here. This book is especially great if all you want is to PLAY The Strange rather than run it or design adventures for the game. For aspiring GMs or those who want a lot more in-depth look at the setting and history of the game’s multiverse, you will NEED to get the core rulebook, which is fine. Both books are wonderful in their own way – it just depends on what you need or want in regards to playing/running The Strange.

Again, the Player’s Guide only touches on character creation and a basic overview of the setting so that’s all I’ve talked about here. I’ll have a full review of the Core Rulebook up later this month as I continue to devour it. I can say without a doubt though that The Strange is a worthy follow up to Numenera and is up there with Atomic Robo RPG and Valiant Universe RPG as my favorite new games of 2014. Definitely check it out when it becomes available to the general public later this month!

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