Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Nuts & Bolts #48 - On the Fringe of The Strange


Recently I binge watched Fringe via Amazon Prime. The weird cases, alternate realities, alternate timelines, and exotic creatures really make for a pretty fun show. It took the formula of the X-Files and dialed it to "11," and in the process I think it did it better. However that's all beside the point as this isn't a review of the show. Instead as I watched five seasons on a near continuous binge I was hit the thought that Fringe would make a good source of inspiration for The Strange RPG from Monte Cook Games.

Now, to be fair, Fringe is already listed in the back matter of The Strange's core book as an inspiration (alongside some other great TV shows and films). Given the default assumption that the player characters will probably be operatives of the Estate, Fringe becomes an especially good source of inspiration what with its Fringe Division, civilian contractors, and slightly mad scientists...

... but let's take a closer look shall we?
Oh, and beware spoilers ahead ...

The Fringe Incidents/Cases
The basic formula for the early seasons of the show was: weird something happens, probably somebody dies weirdly, Fringe team investigates. As story structures go this is not revolutionary, but it is fairly tried and true. It's also great for early sessions of a game focusing on Estate Operatives.

Early seasons tended to feature things like odd events (people getting stuck in amber, finding a crook stuck halfway inside a wall, etc), odd diseases or biological attacks (a virus that makes your skin grow shut, a virus that makes people crystalize, a chemical that makes bones disintegrate, etc.), and/or other weird events (serial killers with weird habits, people turning into monsters, psychic powers, etc). These events can be great inspiration for The Strange when viewed through a lens otherworldliness.

In The Strange only Cyphers can be brought from world to world via translation and retain their normal use. There are ways to bring other items over, but they are either rare (like Recursion Pods), or cause the object or creature in question to degrade under the law of the new recursion or prime world (inapposite gates and the like). This doesn't stop groups like the Karum, The OSR, and others (including the Estate) from trying to develop ways to make stuff last longer. These experiments on artifacts or technology can form the basis of events that kick off and continue a session. Likewise the use of more exotic cyphers can provide the weird fodder to kick off a game session.

Imagine the chaos on Earth that would ensue from somebody using a Gravity Inversion Grenade. Likewise a Mind-restricting Wall, could make an excellent way for a criminal to prevent pursuit or apprehension. A Slave Maker could allow a criminal to co-opt innocent civilians into doing is dirty work for him without the need for explosives and blackmail. These could all set off a session, and possibly an entire campaign.

The Creatures
Weird creatures were a big staple of the series as well. From parasites rendered large, or bio-engineered to kill, to viruses that caused people to turn into giant half man half porcupine monsters the show features a lot of biotechnology and a lot of beasties. Creatures from another recursion may not normally be able to translate, and some may not be able to survive for long on Earth or another recursion with different laws, but that doesn't mean that there aren't creatures on Ruk, Ardeyn, and other worlds that could survive on outside their home.

Likewise the use of cyphers or working artifacts on parasitical or other creatures to change them here on Earth could explain the presence of giant amoebas that consume your guts, or other such biological horrors. The best part here is that you can easily step outside the pre-existing framework of cyphers and/or artifacts. After all when the PCs finally catch the guy using "strange" tech to control giant wasps that tech could be depleted or burnt out. Cyphers don't even need to leave a burned out husk behind if you don't want.

The Tech
When biotech isn't killing people and making a mess of things it tends to be weird technology. Machines that let people walk through walls, or travel to other worlds, or teleport, or even kill people just by accessing their computer. As with the prior examples all of these can easily be the purview of an artifact or a cypher, but they can also be the result, possibly unintentional, of trying to replicate the technology of another world here on Earth. The neural interface of the All Song in Ruk might be responsible for a bunch of people going mad and committing crime, or dying when duplicated here on Earth.

Consider that whatever items from the strange and recursions you use they should behave effects that are well outside the norm if they are going to attract the attention of the Estate quickly. A weapon needs to have an odd effect or perhaps some kind of lacking trait (e.g. an "explosive" that doesn't detonate, but disintegrates leaving no "blast" radius, just an effect radius). It's also more interesting and easy to work NPCs into your games if you have victims and survivors. If some weird weapon is used leave somebody alive to tell the PCs what they saw (and how weird it was).

Observers
The Observers are the ultimate boogeymen of the series. They manipulate events apparently to ensure that their timeline stabilizes enough to begin colonizing the past in season five. They're with us from day one however, with at a minimum tiny cameos in every episode, and many times a far more prominent role. While it is almost 100% non-tenable for a GM to include an NPC "Observer" in every session, it is relevant to The Strange to have invaders from another world or time (see below).

It may also be possible to use the idea of the Observer as a surrogate for the aliens that created the strange itself. As a GM I find the idea of there being aliens who control the strange visiting Earth (which we know seems to interact differently with the strange). They may be remnants of the original builders, interstellar refugees like the citizens of Ruk (indeed, the Karum and Quiet Cabal could be repurposed for this use), or perhaps even a manifestation of the strange itself if the GM wishes to imbue the dark energy network with some form of intelligence. In this way you may want to have the characters make an Intellect roll (difficulty 4 perhaps) to recall seeing these strange visitors once they finally come face to face (or face to photo) with them and realize that events involving the strange and recursions are being watched by some other party...

The Other Side
... and now for the elephant in the room ...

The Strange is a game about other worlds; worlds seeded by fiction and beliefs or by conscious intent. These worlds are unlike our own, but familiar nonetheless. Fringe's "other side" was a more traditional mirror universe (though they thankfully dodged the "evil goatee" cliché), so while the Other Side doesn't serve to directly parallel the setting and story aspects of The Strange it can still inspire them.

Specifically the idea that the recursions that our characters visit are still very much real worlds. They have people whose lives go on when we are not there. They have groups and individuals who have ambitions and plans continue even when we are not around. Walternate didn't sit back and coast during the episodes where he was not featured, instead he was sending shapeshifters to infiltrate our world, or working on the Machine that he believed would end our world (and instead helped to fix his own).

As a GM I think it's easy to forget that these recursions keep going while we are away, and that the more we interact with them the more likely the chances are that the PCs will make enemies. However I think we owe it to ourselves and our players to let those recursions be affected by the players and in turn to have their chance to effect the characters in turn. If the characters stop Karum plans four times in a row the Karum may well decide to end the characters and eliminate a thorn in their side.

I think it's also important for us to remember that translating to other recursions changes the PCs on a fundamental level. They gain new abilities sure, but they also gain new memories, and with those changes they may (should?) also see subtle or not so subtle changes to their personality. A character who Interprets the Law on Earth who goes to Ardeyn where he is a she and has the Rages focus should not act exactly the same. This is partly for the PCs to play with, but it's also for the GM to remind them, and to prompt them by putting situations where those changes would come up into the game. That character no longer Interprets the Law, at all, they Rage; therefore if they see some injustice their reaction should not be one of working within the bounds of law but one of passion and anger.

Take a look at how Fringe portrayed its Other Side versions of the mains differently. The Olivia of universe A was reserved and intense where Fauxlivia was at ease, personable and emotional. Lincoln Lee was just as brainy on both sides but one version was practically meek and the other gregarious and self confident.

Recursions should have a major impact on the game play beyond just their ability to offer a weird locale and a new set of powers each week. They should be alive and offer ways for the characters to change on subtle levels as much as they change on gross levels. They should also be living things that react and change and provide their own ongoing evolution to the story.

Closing Thoughts
At the end of the day I find that after re-watching Fringe it really is one of the best possible sources of inspiration for a game of The Strange, which isn't to say that it couldn't inspire other games. I'd imagine that a game built using FATE and centering on the weird could work very well. Likewise I would think that Call of Cthulhu or Deadlands Noir might be able to benefit from the strange and horrifying ideas of the early series. It also opens my eyes up a little and I will probably approach other series differently when I watch them in order to try and extract ideas for use with various RPGs.