Title: Aberrant Authors: Justin R. Achilli, Andrew Bates, Robert Hatch, Sheri M. Johnson, Steven S. Long, Mark Moore, Ethan Skemp, Fred Yelk Publisher: White Wolf Games Year: 1999 296 pages Product Rating: 3 (***) Game Play Rating: 3 (***)
Review by John H. Kim (Copyright 2000 John H. Kim)
cf. other reviews by John
Aberrant is White Wolf's near-future superhero role-playing game, set in an alternate history in year 2008, where in 1998 an exploding research satellite spilled radioactive material throughout the atmosphere, triggering the activation of super-powered "novas" (similar to Marvel Comics' "mutants").
The game background has no link to the "World of Darkness" series of games, but is the prequel to the Trinity RPG. This review looks at Aberrant solely as a stand-alone system, however. If you use Trinity, it describes a pre-destined future that many of the superpowered novas will slowly become inhuman and try to take over the world, and a war in the 2140's will end in China forcing them off-planet with the threat of nuclear annihilation.
The rulebook is digest-sized and 296 pages. The first 96 pages is pure background. All of it is ostensibly documents from within the world of Aberrant, including web-sites, articles, and interviews. However, this section has no table of contents, index, or visible organization.
Pages 97-296 is the rules. There is a table of contents on page 100 naming the chapters and a brief index, both of rules only. The primary chunk of this is rules for superpowers, taking up about 86 of the 190 pages of rules. There is a 16-page section on general campaigning ("storytelling"), but no sample adventure and only 3 brief character write-ups (who are opponents rather than sample PC's).
Background and Genre
The world background is a version of "superheroes meet the real world". Since the satellite accident in 1998, numerous people have been "erupting" to discover that they have superpowers. By 2008, there are around six thousand of these "novas" worldwide. A fair bit of space is spent explaining their powers as manipulation of quantum forces, but the effects are typical of comic-book superpowers (except no super-gadgets). Also like in comics, novas frequently wear colorful skintight costumes and masks. However, there supposedly are no supervillians for them to fight. Instead, novas seem to be largely for hire: working for governments, corporations, or themselves to become rich and famous.
Since 1999, an international organization called "Project Utopia" has sprung up to channel their powers into social pursuits. In 10 years, "Project Utopia" has lived up to its name: it has promoted world peace, made deserts bloom (specifically the Ethiopean highlands), cleaned up the oceans, advanced technology, and many other things. There are apparently superpowered mercenaries, but they mostly seem to be profiteering on third-world squabbles. On the other hand, there are "XWF" wrestlers who have televised bouts against each other, as well as less formal duellists who apparently spend their time in various grudge matches.
There is the hint of trouble in paradise, however, in several excerpts which make clear that there is a conspiracy within Project Utopia (known as "Project Proteus") to eliminate "trouble-makers" within the ranks of novas, or perhaps even trying to kill off all novas. However, the details are kept deliberately vague. No information is given on nature, goals, motivation, or extent of the conspiracy.
This is an interesting twist on the traditional comic-book superhero genre, but it puts many restraints on adventure possibilities. Novas in this world have no visible problems: they are publically accepted and revered; they can easily and legally make wads of money; there are no supervillians; and there is a worldwide organization dedicated to helping them learn to use their powers and fit in. Character generation (covered later) has no system of personal disadvantages, either. Since there is no sample adventure, I checked to sample story hooks to find: "Disaster Relief", "Publicity Stunts", "Young Novas in Love", "Mob War", and "Space/Deep-Sea Exploration". On the one hand, it is refreshing to see 4 out of 5 are completely non-combat. On the other hand, there is little support for running them. The only 3 NPC's given are "bad" novas; the only equipment described are weapons, armor, and vehicles; and there are 16 pages of combat rules compared to 1 page on mental feats (for example). The rules cover vacuum briefly (although not water pressure), but the rules on the power of surviving in space are contradictory and the vacuum rules refer to a "Life Support" superpower which is not described anywhere.
In practice, I think that the comic-book standard of fights with other novas is the supported style of adventure. Opponents can be made with the generation system, and combat and combative powers are well covered in the rules. This can be either petty duels, conflict over the conspiracy, or "supervillians" (contrary to the written background).
The mechanics are a variant of the World-of-Darkness Storyteller systems, very similar to what was used in Trinity. A character has nine attributes (rated 1-5) and thirty-five skills -- aka "abilities" -- (also rated 1-5). For most tasks, the character rolls a number of ten-sided equal to (attribute + ability). Any roll that comes up 7 through 10 is a "success". Difficult tasks may require more than 1 "success" result ("Difficulty" +1, +2, etc.). There doesn't seem to be any standard way to represent tasks easier than normal.
This is a reasonable basis. Compared to the World-of-Darkness version of the Storyteller rules, this handles high difficulties smoothly and doesn't have the arbitrary distinction of what is "higher difficulty" vs "requires more successes". However, this simplification is countered by the frequent use of "mega-dice" and "auto-successes" in addition to normal dice. "Auto-successes" are just that: the automatic equivalent of a successful roll. "Mega-dice" provide 2 successes on a roll of 7-9, or 3 successes on a 10.
In practice, a nova might roll 4 normal dice, plus 2 mega-dice, with 3 auto-successes. Under normal conditions the mechanic is clear. However, there are various penalties which subtract dice from your pool. Wounds, multiple actions, and powers like Disorient all say "subtract N dice from the pool" without explaining how to handle mega-dice and auto-successes. In other cases these are handled by special-case rules: "soak" (p242) explains how to handle auto-successes, and "Immobilize" (p204) explains how to handle mega-dice but not auto-successes.
Rules editing has several slip-ups, which is often the case for first editions. Unfortunately, White Wolf is usually poor about publishing errata. I found about 15 direct contradictions in the rules text. Among a few slip-ups, it appears that many power names were originally lifted directly from the Champions RPG, and then later renamed... presumably to avoid accusations of plagiarism. There are references to "Growth", "Clinging", "Life Support", and "Psychic Link" in the text: all of which are Champions powers, but not listed by that name in the power descriptions.
Character creation is point-based, using several separate pools of points. First, the player has 24 points to distribute among the 9 attributes (Strength, Dexterity, etc.). Then there are 23 points in skills and 7 points in background advantages, followed by 15 "bonus points" and 30 "nova points". Everything except the nova points is labelled the "human phase" of character creation. This implies that the first phase represents what the character was like prior to her eruption into a nova. However, some of the "human phase" involves buying nova-only abilities like Quantum. The example character spends some of his "human phase" points on having "sycophants who hang out with Philip now that he's a nova".
Mechanically, the primary feature is that nova effects have very sharp jumps in their capabilities. Most powers are based on either 1 of the 9 attributes and/or on the Quantum trait. As a result, if you have a high rating and/or mega-dice in the controlling attribute, the first dot often gets you a large dice pool. This also encourages specializing in a few attributes for your powers.
Example: A Quantum-4, Stamina-5 character buys 1 dot of Force Field (3pts), gaining average +9.0 soak from it. Another dot of Force Field power (3pts) would raise this to +9.8, while buying a dot of Mega-Stamina (also 3pts) would raise it to +10.8, with an extra permanent +1 soak and other benefits for the Mega-Stamina itself (Regeneration would be one option).
Similar jumps occur in other powers: 1 dot of Shrinking will let a high-trait character shrink to 1 inch tall. 1 dot of Matter Creation will let a mega-Wits character create tons of raw material or complex devices.
In short, the powers system produces characters with tremendous abilities of differing amounts. This makes it easy to get to demigod-like capabilities (which fits the genre) but also makes it difficult balance characters to be effective without being overwhelming. I made several sample characters and tried them against each other and the sample opponents in the book in test combat. The result was a great many one-sided fights.
One thing which I could not fathom was how powerful beginning characters are intended to be. Their abilities seem as powerful as anything I see in the background documents, but the references are all vague. None of the characters described in the background section are written up using the mechanics. For example, being totally immune to small-arms fire is easy for a beginning character, but is mentioned as a significant power in the background descriptions.
The Aberrant game has a number of intriguing ideas, hampered by problems in execution. My key complaints are the total lack of organization to the background material, poor editing of the rules, and the lack of character write-ups. The basic mechanics have a number of flaws, but as long as you want to run the ultra-high power level described these are not critical.
The background will undoubtably be supplemented by sourcebooks. However, I am reasonably certain that these are geared towards a fixed timeline leading up to the events described in the Trinity game. While the avowed theme is "the ability of the individual to impact her world" (p112), the official future is fixed. I personally would drop this for any campaign I run, and allow the PC's to change what the future holds in store.