Welcome to the once a month review article where Jeremy Verkley tries to answer the question “should I play this game?” Or is the question “why should I play this game?” Maybe it is “is this game any good?” or “who is this game for?” regardless, once a month, Jeremy is going to answer A gaming question.
This month: I’m tired of games centred on combat, so what can I play instead? Enter The Strange!
Why look at this game?
Time to let the cat out of the bag: I’m (for the first four articles) looking at games that are very different from each other, as I want to show just how diverse the hobby can be in terms of setting, style of play, rules set, and flexibility.
Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is a generalist game that supports just about every type of playstyle possible and Monsterhearts focuses entirely on narrative, so I’ve got two more areas to cover those being games that focus on the simulation and abstract storytelling aspects of the hobby. The Strange fits the abstract storytelling aspect of TTRPGs (Tabletop Roleplaying Games) better than almost any other game out there. Not only that, but The Strange also has a cool sci-fi bent that helps differentiate it from the plethora of fantasy or dystopian settings out there.
What type of game is this?
The Strange is a game based around mystery, discovery, intrigue, and action. It uses a rule set called the "Cipher System" that is designed to tie player and story progression to discovery and interaction, rather than conflict resolution. The Game Master (GM) doesn’t give out experience for defeating that robot from a forgotten dimension, but for discovering that it is from a forgotten dimension. Did your character confront a parent that walked out on their family at a young age? Chances are (unless you killed them…and maybe even then) you are getting some experience for having that situation inform the growth of your character.
Characters can also gain experience through a system called GM intrusion. During play the GM might think of something that will make the story more interesting, or more complex, in which case they can interrupt the players and offer a choice, the player can take an experience token accepting the intrusion, or they can refuse the intrusion. If the player accepts the intrusion the GM will describe what happens as the scene becomes more complicated. If the player refuses play continues as normal. When a GM intrusion occurs the player, who accepted it gets two experience tokens and gives one to another Player, meaning that the intrusion provides benefits to more than one player. The GM intrusion mechanic allows for twists and turns in the storytelling that would otherwise be more difficult to pull off in a more traditional TTRPG like D&D. It is important to note that a player might complicate things for their character without an intrusion, The Strange encourages the GM to hand out retroactive experience tokens (as if they had initiated an intrusion) so long as the complication makes sense for the character, or fits nicely within the narrative.
Editors Note- sorry/not sorry for adding this GIF.
Now normally I would start talking in depth about the three pillars of TTRPGs (Simulation, Narrative Storytelling and Abstract Storytelling), but in order to do that, I’ve got to lay out the big differences in The Strange’s setting, and character creation so I’m changing the order to make things a little less strange. (hehehe)
The Strange is science fiction set in the modern day. The entire setting revolves around the idea that a second dimension full of dark energy connects (or connected) everything, and the Earth has just stepped into this cosmic arena. The vast majority of people have no idea anything is different, and for them, life goes on as normal, but there are a few organizations who are aware, and directly involved in interacting with this new reality. There are, of course, government spook squads, ambitious shady corporations, and renegade factions that are standard for Sci-fi mystery settings, but there are also crossover factions that I would love to describe, but first I need to explain Recursions.
The dark energy network (DEN from here on out, though the book refers to it as The Strange, but that could get confusing in this article) that connects all things has been broken by some past, unknown cataclysm, but the spaces in-between the breaks can be/are filled by pocket dimensions called ‘Recursions’. Each Recursion has its own laws: for instance, in one, magic and wizards (like Gandalf) are common, while in another, every living thing is a combination of flesh and machine, and you are able to grab information out of thin air. There are several ways a Recursion can be made (as in someone was actively trying to create one), but many just drift into existence. This is because the human consciousness is connected to the DEN, and if enough people buy into an idea, or if an idea is robust enough, it can take hold and generate a Recursion. This means there could be almost any type of world for the GM or player to explore; do you want Sherlock Holmes in your game? No problem. Want there to be a place where everyone can read each other's thoughts? Easy. Want to insert another genre like film noir? Here is a world where everything is smoky and in greyscale. The book does outline several ready-made Recursions but encourages the GM to insert and design their own.
Are we back to factions now? Not quite, there is one more space to cover: the DEN itself. The lore of the game points toward the DEN being a system for FTL (Faster Than Light) travel and communication, so think of it like outer space, but remove the idea that it is a vacuum, cold or filled with dangerous radiation. Creatures can exist and subsist within the DEN in the spaces between recursions and in the sparser areas further from the Earth, the book calls the areas near Earth “The Shoals”, and the sparser area the “Luminous Circuit”. This empty space is filled with a few important things: first there are ships (pretty much spaceships) that can act as ferries, pirates, or vigilantes. Second there are creatures that range from small physics breaking horrors, to large predatory beasts that move about devouring whatever crosses their path. The third thing lurking in the DEN is the most important to the setting and that is a Planet Eater. The Strange asks the questions “Where are the other intelligent species in the universe?” and “Why haven’t we met any other them?” The answer the game gives are the Planet Eaters. There could be an almost infinite number of these within the DEN and each is unique in its own way. These entities roam the DEN until a civilization (like ours on Earth) connects to the DEN, then they track the connection, finding the target planet and consuming it in its own horrible way. There is one (called the Kray in the book) hanging out right by Earth, but it’s currently unable to enact its usual grisly task because a Recursion called Ardeyn is in the way. In fact, all the Recursions around Earth protect it from the Kray.
Before I jump back into describing factions, there is one more thing I need to bring up about Recursions. Most of the people and creatures you meet in the Recursion are not truly sentient creatures--they might have a complex role to fill but really, they won’t do anything but fill that role. Think about them as NPC (non-playable characters) in a video game; they follow a script. There is an exception to this though. Sometimes one of these NPCs becomes what the game calls “Quickened” and gains not only free will, but usually the knowledge that something is out of place, and their Recursion might not be the true reality of things. The Quickened make up most of the factions coming from the various Recursions around Earth. There are defense groups, groups looking to invade and take over the Earth, groups looking to ally against the Kray and of course the Kray’s agents. There is even a group that fled from another planet in a mobile Recursion seeking to conquer Earth so their people could have a new home.
I know this all seems like a lot to deal with, but no campaign/session will deal with all of this and it’s very easy to pick and choose what to engage with. Such a deep setting is necessary if you want Player to be able to dive deeper and deeper into the various mysteries of the universe.
In The Strange each character is a sentence made up of specific parts.
That sounds confusing, I know, so let me lay it out for you: each character chooses a Descriptor, a Type and a Focus to create a sentence that goes something like this: “Character Name is a Descriptor Type that/who Focus” or “I am an adjective noun who verbs”
I know this is still confusing but stay with me as I explain each part of the sentence below:
Let’s start with the Type of character you might choose to play (this is the noun in the sentence). There are three types that anyone familiar with fiction will recognize: Vectors (Characters who are mostly physical in nature aka the fighters), Paradoxes (Characters who are outside the ordinary; Sorcerers, mad scientists, followers of a machine god), and Spinners (Characters who rely on their expertise or personality; rogues, spies, and experts). Each Type is tied to a progression route and gives the character certain abilities. Think of it as the archetype you want to play.
Next is your Descriptor or the adjective in the sentence. This is a single word meant to represent what makes your character stand out. For instance, you might be “Smart” or “Lucky” but you could also be “Fast”, “Stealthy”, or “Skeptical”. Descriptors give your character specific advantages to show their unique character compared to others, some Descriptors even come with disadvantages to show that while your character excels in one area they may struggle with another.
If we go back to those two example sentences for a moment they would currently look something like “I am a Lucky Spinner who verbs”.
Let’s now turn our attention to the Focus, which is concerned with what your character does. Some options point to a job or behavior a character might exhibit like the “Entertains” option, or it could reference an ability or equipment they have access to like the “is Licensed to Carry” option; whatever the Player chooses, the Focus is what your character is really good at, or simply, what your characters does. If we complete the sentence we have been working on, it turns out something like this: “I am a Lucky Spinner who Entertains”. Even without explicit knowledge of the rules of the game, you might have several ideas of who this character might be, or you might think: “wait that’s not quite what I had in mind” and change something. The sentence is a useful tool because it highlights what you are going to focus on when playing your character.
Wait! I’m not done yet!
There is an additional mechanic tied to a character’s Focus: whenever a character enters a new Recursion, they choose a new Focus, as their identity within the Recursion shifts to fill with that Recursions version of reality. They retain their memories and equipment, but their appearance and Focus changes. So, our “Lucky Spinner who Entertains” Might turn into a “Lucky Spinner who Regenerates Tissue”. This way the character will always fit whatever world they are in.
...back to our regularly scheduled programming
OK, now that we have sorted the Setting and Character Creation, let’s talk about how The Strange handles Simulation, Narrative storytelling and Abstract storytelling.
The Strange leaves any simulation of realism you want in the game to a few choices: one where you want to set the game (which Recursions you plan to explore, or if the player characters are from Earth or Quickened). If your characters are from Earth and playing mostly on Earth, then the rules of our reality apply to the game. You cannot throw fire from your hands, or turn your shoulder into a laser cannon on Earth, so you cannot on The Strange’s Earth either.
The second choice to make is “just how deep are the characters “in the know”? Are they rookies, or part of a special group in an organization like the Estate which is a secret government organization (so secret the other secret organizations have no idea about it) tasked with dealing with all things Strange. How much do they know about the DEN? It’s important to set a starting point because it informs much about how the game will be played.
How do the rules support simulation though? The game uses a very simple system: the Player rolls a d20 (twenty-sided die), the GM looks at the challenge rating of the task being attempted (1-12) and multiplies it by three. If the roll exceeds the challenge rating the character succeeds.
“Wait for a second” you might be saying “if you multiply seven by three its twenty-one! A d20 can’t beat that!”
To which I say, “Hold on! I’m not finished yet”:
Each character has skills they can rank up in, each rank of a skill a character has reduces the challenge rating of related tasks by one, so if you have two ranks in the acrobatics skill and attempt a jump that is a challenge rating seven, for you it is a challenge rating five. Characters can also choose to apply effort, which drains their stamina (more on this in a second) but reduces difficulty so, if on that jump the character used two levels of effort, the challenge rating becomes a three so (your/the) character only needs to roll a 9. A character might also choose to use an item or get assistance from another character. Combining all these approaches can actually reduce the challenge rating to zero, in which case a roll isn’t necessary.
For the characters, another simulation tool is their three stamina pools. Each character has a pool of points for Might (Strength and Durability), Speed (Agility and Finesse), and Intellect (Charisma and Intelligence). These pools represent not only how good the character is in each specific area, but also how much effort they can put forward, and how much of a beating they can take. If a pool becomes empty there are dire consequences. Intellect pool at zero? Your character is dumbfounded and unable to think, maybe because of a concussion, or because of a nervous breakdown. Ran out of Speed? Your character is unable to move their legs and their fingers. Has your Might been reduced to nothing? Your character is unable to exert any force and is probably gravely injured. If two of these pools are empty a character is generally unconscious, of all three are at zero the character is dead....
Back to a cheerier outcome, each pool has an Edge rating, Edge is a rating of how efficient a character is at using their pool when exerting effort. A character with a high Edge will use less stamina when applying effort making them last longer even when exerting themselves to the limit. The points in these pools will inform the story and the way you play each situation more than anything else on your character sheet.
Even though up to this point I’ve really been focusing on the Setting, The Strange presents a lot of opportunity for personal stories. The game is all about rewarding exploration and discovery, so the situations the characters run into will reflect that. You will be spending a lot more time in this game away from combat, than you would in D&D, so the characters take center stage in the drama unfolding. Half of the games narrative focus is on the characters, thus the players have a lot of power in deciding how things play out. However, mystery is also a large part of the narrative, everyone (even the GM sometimes) will be looking for answers until the campaign is about to end. Even after the campaign is complete I would fully expect that many questions remain unanswered.
I’m going to reiterate the GM Intrusion mechanic I brought up earlier, because it is a narrative tool. The story is going to make twists and turns; it is beautifully set up for stinging betrayals and redemptive reveals. The Strange is also a game that removes a lot of the work a GM would usually have to do; by standardizing difficulty, managing balance becomes easier, and because there is less combat they need fewer creatures or maps. This frees a GM to focus on the story, or other details they might want to bring in rather than the actual mechanics and numbers they would usually have to be managing in other systems.
Hold on to the edge of your seat because there is another narrative mechanic I haven’t even mentioned yet: the active use of experience points. Experience points (EXP) in The Strange can be used in a large number of ways. Did you shit the bed on a crucial roll? Spend one EXP and reroll that die! Think your character has got the hang of piloting this specific giant robot? Spend two EXP and you have a rank of training in Robot Piloting (but only for that robot). Have you been designated the cook for the group, but don’t want to take cooking as a skill? Spend three EXP and gain familiarity with cooking so you have a plus one on each roll to do with cooking.
There are two final things a Player can do with their EXP during gameplay and that is to offer an Intrusion to another player just like a GM would (which must be approved by the GM), or they can offer EXP to make a Declaration, which is a detail of the scene (maybe your character has something you forgot to actually bring, or there is a sweet sports car to steal). It is worth mentioning that the GM will set the cost of EXP for the Declaration a player makes (as declaring you have your cell phone with you has less of an impact than declaring SWAT raids whatever building you are in). All of these uses of EXP inform and direct the narrative and are a great way of engaging with the narrative. I don’t usually include player progression rules in my articles, but I’ll at least mention that four EXP is the amount a player needs to level up, and after four instances of leveling up, the character will gain extra bonuses.
If you cornered me and demanded I tell you what The Strange is all about, I would tell you that it’s about discovery. Remember, you don’t get EXP for resolving conflict, the game only rewards players for delving into the unknown and unstable. As far as TTRPG’s go that is an almost revolutionary departure in structure, and it focuses the game into more Abstract storytelling than traditional TTRPGs. The progression of the story is tied to how in control and how knowledgeable the characters are, which means that in addition to characters becoming more capable they are also becoming more firmly entrenched in the world and more connected to each other. This idea is at the centre of the TTRPG hobby as a whole, but The Strange has managed to take this abstract concept and make it the entire experience of the game.
The Strange has a lot more built in structure to support Abstract storytelling. Every time a different Recursion is encountered in play, there is another opportunity to change the nature of the game. Not only does each Recursion have its own rules (you could enter of world where bad puns do actual damage for instance) but the characters themselves are fundamentally changed while they are in that Recursion. This brings in the question "what stays the same for a character and what changes in each Recursion?" It lets a player put a character in a position they would never be in otherwise, and the choices they make reflect what is the core of that character.
There is a breadth of possibility in The Strange for all the types of abstract storytelling that is impressive to behold. Most of this made possible by the Cipher System, (originally made for the TTRPG Numenera) which prioritizes flow of play and takes the focus away from direct conflict. It also has a pretty unique item system, where the majority of what you use is powerful, but temporary, which encourages both the design of strange and wonderful items to use, as well as fast and loose risk-taking play. While a ton of TTRPGs penalize risky choices, The Strange encourages and rewards them.
It might seem like all this talk about The Strange’s Abstract storytelling is just a continuation of my section on the game’s Narrative Storytelling elements. That is because the two are so deeply intertwined. The Strange is all about telling a more abstract kind of story, one where existential threats can become physical forces, where inner life can be easily exposed and the truth of a situation can change depending on where you are standing. The Strange takes the Abstract elements present in most TTRPGs and puts them front and center.
What you need to need to play the game
At the base level, you need one d20, one d6, either two d10s or a d100 and the rules book. I would recommend each Player to have their own set of dice to use, an additional rulebook with the GM owning one of them, and a set of poker chips to use as a physical representation of EXP.
You can get character sheets online or scan the ones in the back of the rules book, because characters change from one Recursion to another, have a good number of spares printed and ready to go.
First-time Player: The rules are simple and intuitive, but the game gives the players a lot of agency, so if your plan is to sit back and learn while others play, the game will stall and you will be bored. Be ready to take risks.
Experienced Player: Don’t hoard your EXP. The Strange is more interesting when you are willing to use it, and the GM will be more willing to give it out if you aren’t hoarding it. If you are the type of player who loves to figure things out this is the game for you. If you want to try roleplaying more, but don’t feel confident, this game is a good bridge for you, as many of the mechanics encourage it. Relish in the complications that happen and try to love the drama.
First time GM: Honestly, if you are looking for a game to start GMing, this is a good one. You won’t have to worry as much about all the math and moving pieces like you would in most TTRPGs, and can focus on the story, but make sure you are ready to improvise and work with your players, because they will have a lot of control. If you are bored, use a GM Intrusion. Be free with the EXP and focus on creating a fun and interesting experience.
Player Becoming GM: This is a good place to start, if you have played it before there won’t be much of learning curve for you. If you are used to a particular setting, consider starting the game in a Recursion that matches that until you get comfortable, and everything I said for the first time GM applies to you as well.
Experienced GM: If you like weaving a wicked web of intrigue and deceit you are going to LOVE The Strange. It has lower prep time, you have to track less during the game, and if a player seems lost you can use a GM intrusion to push them in a direction. Bear on the side of too much EXP rather than too little, and use the extra time you have to flesh out parts of the story. DON’T use everything the setting has to offer right away, keep it going at a small trickle of new things, and give the players lots of cyphers to play with. If the idea of a game that hinges so much on mystery and interaction scares you, maybe try to play a one-shot (single session game) as a Player to get a feel for it. You might not like it, but MAN the potential of this one is exciting.
Hey everybody, thanks for reading this article, I’m grateful for any feedback you can provide. If you have a request for games to cover let me know, and I’ll do my best to track them down/write about them.
If you would like me to write about the history of a game, game design, board games, or anything else tabletop gaming let me know, as this should be an evolving process.
You can reach me on twitter @MightyThews or the regular TheGuysFrom channels