The Game: Over The Edge
The Publisher: Atlas Games
Degree of Familiarity: Played a couple of games, never had a chance to run it.
Books Required: Just the corebook
Over The Edge bills itself as "the roleplaying game of surreal danger". Obviously inspired by William Burroughs, David Lynch, and David Cronenberg, the game lives up to its tagline. Set on the Edge, the main city of the anarchic island of Al-Amarja (hell, it's Burroughs' Interzone with the serial numbers filed off). It's a weird place, full of secret societies that are actual secrets, groups that are more about broken people doing what they know is right for them to uncover the secret and mysterious powers of the world. It's a place where psychics, aliens, mystics, and secret agents bump shoulders, and most of them will never even know why they're there. The island holds dark secrets; not just one but ten, a hundred, a thousand—from the radio-controleld baboons to the secrets of the Pharaohs, the ultimate chaos of the Cut-Up Boys to the alien horror of the Throckmorton device. Any one of these things could destroy the world, and they're all going on at the same time.
I have the second edition of the game, from 1997. The first was originally published in 1992. I'm not sure if that makes it the first hyper-rules-light game, but it's certainly the one that catapulted hyper-light systems to the fore. While it doesn't dabble in shifting narrative control, it gives players the ultimate freedom to define their characters. The age of the game does date it slightly—some of the ideas are rooted in pre-millennial tension, but the setting's weird enough to accommodate that change. Nothing happened in 2000. Why? Who plotted, and who counter-plotted? Did any of them win? And when's the next major offensive—2012, at the cataclysm of the Mayan calendar, or 2032, during the projected singularity point of technical development?
One thing that I do want to point out is one of the possible stories laid out in the back of the book, where the characters start to question their own reality in a fashion similar to the climax of Grant Morrison's run on Animal Man, or the self-referential subplot of the Cassandra Project0. After they start to wonder as to their own reality, the characters come into possession of the Over The Edge rulebook, which has a special sidebar for them to read, informing them of their fictional nature1. Then enter the GM and players into the game reality. Some people disliked this plot, as it's a complete fucker to pull off and pull off well. Others thought that it was too weird, and these people missed the trick: in a game where the whole fabric of fictional reality is fodder for all manner of literary mangling, insertion of the players and GM as additional fictional constructs is inevitable.
Anyway. With all that said, I'm here to make a character.
Characters in OTE should be engaging, dynamic, and danger-worthy. Oh hell yes. I could do all manner of things here: a disowned member of the German aristocracy who has taken to dabbling in magic and journeyed to Al-Amarja to unearth more secrets. The first result of a super-soldier program, physically and psychologically mutated and in search of the meaning of humanity. An artist who needs a particular drug to create at his peak, a drug only reliably found on the streets of the Edge.
Part of me wants to drive right in to Stew's Default Character Box2, but I'm going to resist the urge (despite all three being great choices for the game). I've finally started reading some of Jim Steranko's Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD and that's playing on my brain. What happens to the secret agent when he's past his prime. The death of the cold war is the end of a certain kind of agent, the kind used to dealing with the insane underbelly of the intelligence community. An agent used to improvising in the field to overcome any setback and not just remove the threat but kill everyone involved with the threat. Cross MacGyver with Nick Fury and you've got the basic idea. He knows too much, so a strange Control figure keeps in contact (speaking with a voice much like SHODAN), making sure he's not getting into trouble and acting as Number 2 to his Number 6.
A character starts the game with four Traits. One, the Central Trait, covers the main thrust of what the character can do, and is often something analogous to a profession. The two Side Traits are narrower, designed to reflect specific aspects of the character. Finally, a Flaw is one Trait that penalises the character in some way. Each Trait has a Sign, an indicator of the trait that fits naturally into a character's description.
In this case, the character's Central Trait is easy enough: He's a grizzled old secret agent, easily in his mid-50s by the time the game starts. He's been through the Cold War and the rise of the American superpower as an innovator who could face the surreal horrors of biological engineering gone mad, but who got forced into retirement after a swan-song of an operation. I note down "Grizzled former secret agent". I get three dice for actions when I'm doing secret agent stuff: shooting bad guys with a gyrojet pistol, driving a car packed with gadgets, and seducing enemy agents.
So, what's a good indicator of the secret agent? An eyepatch, in true Nick Fury style? Always wearing a tuxedo? A different watch every time? The last two are a bit too James Bond for my liking. I'm thinking he walks with a military bearing3, but he's always ready to dive for cover.
I don't need to pick up any combat traits, thanks to being an ex-secret agent. MacGyvering is the one that I really want. It's not particularly technical—cobbling together simple gadgets from handy materials is the sort of thing anyone can do, compared to brain surgery. The Sign is a relatively easy one, he fiddles with his Leatherman when he's thinking. 3 dice again.
Other than that, I'm thinking he's been exposed to psychedelic weirdness. A lifetime of facing face-changing KGB spies, MI5 superagents who jump from body to body, sentient bacterial life-forms, mutant humanoids adapted for life on the surface of the Moon, satellite weapons readied to call dieback,, undersea civilisations, and Nazi war machines that still work for the Third Reich in secret below the Earth's crust. He's thoroughly jaded (again worth three dice) and make cynical comments about anything and everything.
I've got to define one of the traits as Superior, and at this point I decide to ramp up my Central Trait, giving me an extra die.
The Flaw is obvious: He's still monitored by Control, who don't want him embroiled in the ongoing secret history of he world. They dog his steps, and every time he's about to get embroiled in some strange plot he receives a call from Control warning him off. For that reason, he's nervous around ringing telephones.
I get 7 hit points per dice in a physical trait—so, that'll be "Grizzled former secret agent", then. 28 hit points makes our protagonist rather hard to kill.
The experience pool is a simple mechanic: it starts at one die, and can be used once per session—as long as you narrate how your experience can help in that action. All characters start with one die in the Experience Pool. Not much I can do at this stage.
Everyone's got a motivation, an end goal to their personal narrative on the island. Our protagonist—and at this point, I really need a name because I've just derailed my train of thought by constantly referring to "our protagonist". Maxwell Black, not his real name but then, does he even know who he used to be any more? Right, so, yes. What's Max striving for? Why does he get embroiled in strange adventures? I think that, deep down, he wants his old job back like it was before he went on that last mission and did something so terrible he was exiled to Al-Amarja. He never had a chance to dive into the real conspiracies when he was working for the United States government, because then he'd be investigating his old masters. Now, however, he's got free reign to dig in to whatever weirdness he likes—as long as Control doesn't realise it. Being unemployed isn't his style, so job one is to isolate and shut down Control, and job two is to uncover the truth at the heart of the American intelligence scene.
Everyone has a secret. In Max's case, it's his last mission. When he's had one too many and feels talkative, he might mention what he did, and how he saved the free world one too many times. He may even mention that they pensioned him off after one last really big mission that saved the whole damn world.
Thing is, he's lying. What nobody can know is that his last mission was a failure. He doesn't even remember half of it himself—there was something about him simply being the embodiment of an archetype but he can't be sure. He didn't win, he lost. And someone saved the world anyway. He's no longer the hero he wishes he were.
Everyone's got someone who changed their lives for ever. In Max's case, that's Siobahn Lord, a British spy he met during his first mission. They tried to kill each other that time, but three years later they worked together to stop a SHADE plot to detonate the world's nuclear stockpile. That's when she told him: "It's all a game, Max. We're just pieces on a board, but we can't ever comprehend our players." Something struck a chord with Max, and so the next time they were on opposing sides he deliberately fumbled his gun, shooting the doorframe seconds after she'd left.
Over The Edge stipulates that you draw your character. Normally, I'd say fine, no problem. Unfortunately, I'm not anywhere near a scanner so if I did draw someone then I'd have no way to share it. I could crack open City of Heroes, but that means far too much work when I'm on the MacBook. So imagine I did a drawing here.
Max has a bank account that's always got enough funds in it, though he never works for it. The balance is never more than five hundred US dollars, but he can take that out at any time, and by the next day he'll have another $500 ready to access. The card's got the telltale tracery of one of Control's remote access circuits, so he doesn't use it too much. He generally carries a Leatherman on his belt, and wears a denim jacket along with black jeans. Under the jacket is his trusty old automatic. He's got a flattened roll of duct tape in one pocket, and he's always picking up detritus that may come in handy later. He's got a cellphone, but Control's got his number and he doesn't like using it.
That's me done.
Name: Maxwell Black
Traits & Signs
Grizzled former secret agent 4 (Constantly on-edge)
MacGyvering 3 (Fidgets with Leatherman)
Jaded 3 (Makes cynical comments at everything)
Monitored by Control (Nervous around ringing phones)
Hit Points: 28
Experience Pool: 1
Motivation: Track down the dirty secrets at the heart of American intelligence.
Secret: He failed his final mission. If it weren't for another agent pulling his arse out of the fire, the world wouldn't exist.
Important Person: Siobahn Lord, British spy.
Possessions: Leatherman, automatic pistol, roll of duct tape, cellphone, pockets full of random junk.
0: A modification for Deus Ex headed up by professional weirdo Kieron Gillen
1: This sidebar is in the actual book. It's not a detail added just to the fictional book. I'm pretty sure this marks the first time that an RPG corebook has been it's own key prop.
2: Contents: One cynical cop with a hard-on for justice no matter the law, one scientist with avant-garde theories who turns to self-experimentation, and one agile martial-artist with access to action-movie kung fu.
3: Which he tossed in the air and caught.