Review: Aberrant

Published by White Wolf Game Studio

Designed by Richard Hatch, with Andrew Bates, Ken Cliffe, Greg Fountain, Sheri M. Johnson, Chris McDonough, Ethan Skemp, Mike Tinney, Richard Thomas, Stephan Wieck, and Fred Yelk. Additional Design by Justin Achilli, Steven Long, and Mark Moore.

296-page softcover book, $24.95

“What would you do if you had the power of a god?” That’s the question White Wolf asks in their Aberrant roleplaying game, the second game set in the alternate universe of Trinity, but over a hundred years earlier than that game, before the events of the Aberrant War that make the Aberrants the bad guys of Trinity. For the time being the Aberrants are heroes. The only question is: how long can that last?

The basic premise of the game is in 1998 the destruction of a space station in Earth orbit increases radiation levels worldwide, triggering a mutation in certain people and causing them to “erupt” as “novas”, people with a node in their brain that allows them to manipulate quantum forces. In short, novas have the potential to do anything they can imagine. In practice, they’re more limited but they still have the kind of power accorded comic-book super-heroes, or mythic demigods.

What do novas do with their power? Lots of things. The first 96 pages of Aberrant are full-color and present information about the world of 2008, ten years after the emergence of the first novas. Now there are an estimated 6,000 novas worldwide, from every nation and all walks of life. Many have chosen to join Project Utopia, an organization devoted to harnessing nova power to cure the world’s ills. They’ve made considerable progress: cleaning up the environment, breaking the back of organized crime in the United States, producing cures for cancer and AIDS, averting natural disasters, and terraforming Ethiopia into a tropical paradise. But within the heart of Utopia lurks a dark secret. A faction called Proteus wants to ensure that Utopia is able to help the world, no matter what gets in the way. More importantly, they want to ensure that the power of the novas never become a threat to “baseline” humanity.

Then there’s the Teragen Movement, novas who follow the philosophy of the mysterious nova demagogue Divis Mal. His Null Manifesto declared novas outside human law, authorities unto themselves, and the Teragen refuse to be governed by anything other than their own consciences. Many consider them terrorists, and the individual beliefs of some Terats have led them to commit acts of terror, like the assassination of anti-nova politicians. But the Teragen aren’t comic book super-villains, in many ways they may understand better than most the responsibilities that come with the kind of power novas have.

In fact, Aberrant takes a lot of the comic book conventions and turns them sideways, in the tradition of post-modern comics like Alan Moore’s Watchmen or Warren Ellis’ The Authority. There are no real “super villains” in the world. Why use your tremendous powers to rob banks when you can become a spokesperson for Nike or earn millions doing the talk-show circuit? If you have the power of a god, maybe you should be worshipped as one? A lot of novas seem to think so, and nova cults and new religions are all over the place, while the appearance of living gods has its impact on existing religions as well. Then there are nova mercenaries that fight wars like one-man armies, super-powered wrestlers in the XWF (Extreme Warfare Federation), “novox” rock stars, and nova businessmen and scientists, using their abilities to make a living.

The color section of the book is packed with a blizzard of fictional excerpts, from television shows to magazines and newspapers, to e-mails, web sites, and comic strips. The authors take the approach of immersing the reader in the world of Aberrant, giving us quick snapshots, slices of everyday life in a world of people with super-powers, and along the way introducing the major events, institutions, and characters of the setting. This approach does provide a great deal of flavor and a feel for the setting. However it suffers in the area of organization. Some of the information is vague, presented through the biases of the fictional source, and difficult to find in the middle of a game. There are also no game stats for major non-player characters. It’s not a typical “setting sourcebook” in that respect.

The rest of the book, some 200 pages, is in black-and-white, devoted to the Aberrant game rules. By contrast, it is well-organized, with a pretty decent index for a White Wolf product. (Note that the index only covers the rules portion of the book, another thing that makes it a bit harder to find information in the color setting section.)

Aberrant uses the same simplified Storyteller rules as Trinity: most actions are resolved by rolling a number of 10-sided dice equal to an Attribute + a Skill. Each die that comes up a “7” or higher counts as a success. A roll with no successes, but one or more 1s, is a botch or a critical failure. The system works well enough and keeps play moving along. Fixing the target number simplifies things by comparison to Storyteller games like Vampire: the Masquerade, where both the number of dice rolled and the target number are variable. The basic systems ofAberrant are summed up in six pages.

Character creation is a bit more complex than some Storyteller games, because of the wide menu of choices available. Players are encouraged to design a normal “baseline” character, then are given “nova points” to purchase the character’s super-human powers.

The powers themselves take up about 80 pages, and cover pretty much every ability you’d expect in a super-hero game, from “Mega-Attributes” (things like super-strength and intelligence) to force fields, flight, energy blasts, and so forth. The powers work on the same Attribute + Ability (in this case, power rating) system as the rest of the game, although some of the calculations get a bit arcane in places. For example, the Quantum Bolt power does “[Quantum Trait x 3] levels + (power rating x 4) dice of bashing damage or [Quantum Trait x 2] levels + (power rating x 4) dice of lethal damage.” Fortunately, most of these values don’t change during the game, allowing players to calculate them in advance and just write “6 +12d damage” on the character sheet.

Starting nova characters are quite powerful, although perhaps not as godlike as some players might expect from the game’s cover copy. Still novas are as powerful as most comic-book super-heroes (I was able to create analogues of all of the members of the Fantastic Four and many of the X-Men as starting characters) and have the potential for tremendous levels of power with some time and experience. But that power comes with a catch.

The more power your nova gains, the greater your “Taint” score becomes. Taint represents the stresses of the tremendous energies novas channel. At first it can manifest in minor mutations (like green skin, glowing eyes, or blue fur) or personality quirks. At higher levels the nova becomes utterly inhuman in appearance and personality, eventually going insane and becoming a non-player character. Novas are not necessarily doomed to this fate; careful management of Taint is fairly easy, but Taint tempts players with more power at the cost of some of the character’s humanity, making for an interesting dilemma.

The end of the book offers Storytelling (gamemastering) advice, most of it fairly common sense. I would have liked to have seen more on the idea of pro-active player characters, allowing the players to drive the plot, since novas are supposed to have the power to change the world and the responsibility of deciding how they’re going to use their power. Instead, the game seems to have largely fallen back on having the player characters belong to a “cause” or organization like Utopia or the Teragen that tells them what to do. One of the charms of Aberrantversus most super-hero games is the player characters can and do make lasting changes in the world, whereas in the comics everything goes back to the status quo at the end of each issue (or adventure).

For those interested in more traditional “four-color” superheroics, the Aberrant setting can be adapted for it (and there’s some brief advice to that effect in the book). Certain comic book staples like magic, super-gadgets like powered armor, and aliens are completely absent from the game and would have to be created by the gamemaster based on the existing material. Still the game rules are quite serviceable for a generic super-hero game that’s simpler than Hero Games’ Champions but more detailed than, say, Wizards of the Coast’s Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game.

Overall, Aberrant is an excellent game with workable mechanics and an engaging setting full of interesting themes, not the least of which is power that’s put into the hands of the player characters. I confess that I enjoy RPGs that allow for ultra-competent characters and Aberrant statisfies my wish-fulfillment urges quite well. The game’s setting is full of fun ideas, provided you’re willing to read carefully in order to find some of them amidst the presentation. It’s also supported by a line of quality sourcebooks that provide more detail on the world and the characters in it. If you’re interested in super-powered gaming, but you’re looking for something less trite than the usual comic-book cliches, you should definitely give Aberrant a try.