Aberrant d20 Edition by Night10194
WHYOriginal SA post Aberrant d20 Edition
So if you've read Feinne's review of Aberrant in its Storyteller you know Aberrant is a game about monumentally powerful god-people who can't quite handle being god people and who are all kind of slowly going nuts and becoming a class of Doomed Highborn Manchildren. It is a setting that is absolutely, totally gawdawful and one of the best examples of purestrain White Wolf I can think of, having an actual Main Character (who isn't you) and things like a screed about how anyone who wants to play the game as a superhero game is a mush-brained dullard because nobody would ever put on costumes and fight superbattles...
Then having an entire class of superpowered mercenaries whose lives are built around their super-personas, used for their merchandising, costuming, and other bullshit, up to and including a symbolic 'unmasking' to kill off a persona when one is defeated. Also, you know, while having plenty of art of its Main Character Divis Mal (who is basically wizard hitler if the whole setting was about 'wizard hitler's got him some ideas and is actually a deep and smart thinker!!') in his shiney costume and red cape, posing beatifically in front of his weird demon statue (No, I don't know why he has a demon statue).
In short, Aberrant is pretty confused about itself and really, really bad. When I played Aberrant we never once used the standard setting because it's one of the best examples of 'a setting with no actual room for your PCs' that I have ever seen. It's also completely nonsensical in a lot of ways- I love the bit where all trash is being converted to 'harmless' carbon dioxide emissions that the environment 'can handle in any quantity' or the part where the Libertarian party suddenly becomes the power in the US for reasons (people are just so mad about Clinton being a philanderer, followed up by the Republican elected in 2000 being caught in bed with another man!!)- but we're not here to talk fluff in detail. If we talk about the fluff A: Feinne already did it better than I can because they have more of the books and I only have the core and B: I am going to be yelling for weeks and nobody wants that. Instead, we're here to talk about the d20 conversion of Aberrant. Because someone had to try to find a worse system for a superpowered supers game than Storyteller and 2004 was still OGL o' clock. I actually don't think the d20 version is any worse, but you know my opinions on Storyteller from Hunter; I legit think Storyteller is the worst of all of the 'successful' mass-market RPG systems. Yes, I think it's actually worse than d20. But really, that's splitting hairs; it's kind of a 'rather be stabbed than shot' sort of thing when you get down to it. Ideally neither happens! Ideally you have a well considered system designed for its game. But sometimes that's just not in the cards and you're stuck between a Storyteller and a d20.
No, the reason I want to do this isn't just to yell that d20 is a terrible fit for this game and the OGL was poison to game design or whatever; I want to do this because what's particularly interesting to me is how much the d20 system version alters the entire tenor of the setting by making Novas much weaker than they are in Storyteller. All of the fluff of the setting about what absolute and total Gods you are is rendered weirdly hollow by the fact that the d20 Novas aren't that good, due to a mixture of poor class and power design. They're reasonably powerful, it's true; you can get pretty high stats and basically everyone is a caster to some degree, which actually does the d20 system some good. But you aren't invincible god-kings next to a 'baseline' human and you're certainly not more powerful than a normal d20 Wizard or Cleric with magic gear. A level 20 Human will absolutely kick the shit out of a party of level 3 Novas. To give you a taste of what Aberrant d20 is like, it suggests you simulate the world-shattering power of even a normal, newly Erupted Nova by starting PCs at level 3.
So I actually have to talk about the fluff a bit, because we have to establish what's supposed to be happening to get at why d20 doesn't accomplish it. So Aberrant is a game where in 1998 (it was written in 1998/1999) a space station explodes out of nowhere (Divis Mal, Wizard Hitler, blew it up to saturate the world in energy that would make superhumans) and then suddenly a guy runs into a burning schoolbus to try to save some kids and just 'eats' the fire on live TV. So the very first Nova (superhuman) the world saw was a brave NYC firefighter who as facing almost certain death and who suddenly gained the superhuman power to rescue an entire bus full of screaming kids from a fire. As you might imagine, that gives people a pretty good first impression of superheroes! Randel Portman, the Fireman, is absolutely one of the nicest people in the setting and really does just want to use his powers to make things better for people. Lots more of these 'Novas' begin to appear throughout the world, and they're simply massively superior to normal people. They become the focus of much of the world, as super-geniuses try to save the entire environment, the UN gets a superteam that gives it real clout (and is, of course, secretly evil), and a bunch of nonsensical global events happen around them.
Then Mr. Mal shows up and declares the Null Manifesto: "All Novas should only really focus on reaching their ultimate potential, which is impossible if you are restrained by the laws and ethics of existing human society. Do whatevs if it makes you more powerful and you feel like it." It's meant to be a seminal work of philosophy in the setting or whatever, but it's really just a dumb asshole declaring that superhumans need to get more super so he, the superest superhuman that was ever super, can maybe have someone around who is almost as super as he is. Mal is absolutely the worst part of Aberrant and worse, he's the Actual Main Character of the entire Nova Age (and the authors go with him being right about everything, because get this, what if the guy who reads like an insane superpower wizard hitler was right about everything! That really 'flips the script', right!?) who started it up and gets to decide when it ends. Nothing your PCs do is going to matter that much; you're in the middle part of a heavily metaplotted trilogy that mostly exists to yell about how stupid comic books are and jerk off its wizard hitler. Yeah, sure, 'he never gets exactly what he wants' (which is a romantic partner; Mal is gay, grew up in the early 20th century where that was absolutely not something that you can go around and talk about, and really wants his cool adventurer buddy from the 20s to notice him and maybe go out to dinner or something) but he gets to drive the entire plot whenever he feels like it, he's declared to be genuinely correct about everything he says about Novas never being able to act as humans again, etc. He's the protagonist. And he's a really shitty protagonist.
Anyway, why that matters is because Novas are meant to be so powerful that human endeavors really are a little meaningless now. They're also all meant to be going slowly insane or turning into weird bio-monsters. The ones who turn into weird bio-monsters are generally less insane, actually, because trying to resist the monsterism is what makes them go crazy as a shithouse rat. Thus, you have the Exalted situation where the world really only cares about 6000 or so people who have actual PC powers (because nothing conventional or human can ever match them) and many of them have Charisma powers that let them just influence millions of people, or mental powers that let them jump technology ahead to the hyper-space age, or physical powers such that one of them showing up in a country with a gun is equivalent to launching a strategic strike. But they're also all going fucking insane and everything is about to get really, really bad. To accomplish this story, they have to actually be insanely powerful. Your gaming group of 3-6 Novas is meant to be the sort of force that scares first world Governments.
And instead you start out as level 3 PCs with poorly designed classes, a couple extra powers and tricks, and not much else. As you might imagine, this is a bit of a disconnect! So join me as we talk about why making Novas suck via d20 changes the entire tone and tenor of the setting! And avoid talking about the fluff more except to talk about why the mechanics enormously contradict it!
Next Time: Making a Nova
How Not To Design ClassesOriginal SA post Aberrant d20
How Not To Design Classes
So, one of the core issues with Aberrant d20 is that Aberrant d20 applies the normal level of White Wolf mechanical care to the d20 system. Though something that occurs to me as I look at my PDF is that I can't find credits or authors listed anywhere in the damn thing; I suppose the people involved in the d20 version aren't especially proud of it.
So let's get started on why Aberrant d20 is a terrible game. It starts off in two places: One is the 'Superhuman' template and how it interacts with character level, another is literally everything about the game's class design. This is a game where one of the most mechanically powerful things you can play is a single classed fighter. In d20. I want that to sink in for a moment. We'll get into why, but it's a sad truth of Aberrant d20. This is partly because everything to do with actual superhuman powers is effectively a dead fighter level without bonus feats anyway, but also because you can have extremely high non-combat abilities through superhuman abilities anyway and at a certain point, focusing on making non-combat skill check numbers go up is throwing the good after the bad. It's also because the classes are so poorly designed on the whole that 'guy with a good BAB, HP, and couple bonus feats' is no longer the worst thing to be, though your saves will still suck and man do you need saves.
I'm getting ahead of myself, but there's a lot to unpack here. First, you are a Human with the Superhuman Template. Being a d20 Human is a good thing, so that's hardly bad. The Superhuman Template applies a bunch of bonuses to your character: +2 to Con, access to Level 1 Quantum Powers, access to Superhuman Feats (Mega Attributes), a Quantum score, and a power slot every odd level. So yeah, you start with 1 slot at level 1 (assuming you Erupted at level 1; you actually RAW get fewer powers if your character became a Nova later in their career) and then an extra slot every 2 levels. You can spend these slots at any time; you'll actually need to save up to buy level 2 or 3 powers. Slots can also be spent on Mega Attribute Feats, though you can also spend normal Feat slots on those, or on Enhancements for those (though again: You can spend normal Feats on those and Slots can be kind of precious). Your Quantum is equal to the ability modifier of the average of your Int, Str, and Con at character creation (factoring in the +2 Con from being a Nova). Hope you put good rolls in those stats/point bought them high, because Quantum is super important! Quantum also increases by 1 per 3 levels, so your effective starting Quantum is (Int+Con+Str)/3's ability modifier+1. You also get a point of Quantum for every 2 Aberrant levels you have, and boy howdy are we going to go into Aberrant levels.
As a starting character, you also start at level 3, to simulate your IMMENSE POWER. The book even acknowledges that level-grinding and becoming much more powerful 'usually isn't part of the Superhero genre' (I thought this wasn't a superhero game, WW!) and that because of 'd20 design principles' you'll have to work up to and earn 'being Superman or Magneto'. It also goes on and on about how there's no magic in this setting where people use Quantum powers to control probability and shit. Whatever you say,
Let's just...let's just get back to classes for now. So mistake 1 with the classes: Every class is designed as a 10 level class. You're meant to multiclass because it's 'realistic' and produces 'rounded modern characters'. Now, considering how rarely d20 actually gets beyond level 10, I sort of don't mind the idea of 10 level classes. Fuck, none of the classes actually have a capstone. Level 10 for many of them is just a dead level. Most of them are Average BAB, two have 2 good saves and 1 bad, most have 1 good, 2 bad. You also get an AC bonus for leveling up because modern characters usually don't wear armor and blah blah.
The base classes are all bad. The Entertainer is a shittier Bard with a poor form of Bardic Knowledge and a very meh Inspire Courage. The Investigator is a much shittier version of the Spycraft Snoop. The Scholar is a skillmonkey and the only class with poor BAB. The Scoundrel is a D&D Rogue (down to Sneak Attack, but they get far less of it, for reasons) with an inexplicably excellent AC. The Warrior is just a D&D Fighter but with more Skillpoints. Everyone slowly gains free Background Feats as they level, most get a tiny handful of shitty class abilities. You're expected to multiclass or take a Prestige class eventually, and the Prestige classes are all 5 level classes, so...
Look, one of the things in d20 is you want to specialize! You want to pick some stuff to be really good at and be good at it. Having to multiclass between shitty mundane classes is not a path to 'world busting quantum gods'. Yes, your class levels and things aren't meant to be as important as your powers, but you still get kinda fucked over on character power by all the classes being bad and multiclassing being mandatory. Plus, well, look back at Spycraft: The classes all actually did exciting things! You had things to look forward to in your class abilities, something they leaned even harder into in 2.0; a Soldier in 2.0, for instance, didn't just give themselves cover even if they were out in the open, they started giving it to all their allies if they stuck close, fluffed as a mixture of cover fire, knowing how to improvise from anything in the scene, and simple combat experience telling you how to move. That's the kind of fun stuff to actually look forward to in class abilities. Not 'I get an extra +2 to knowledge checks' or 'I get +2 to Spot if I declare I'm SWEEPING THIS 30 FOOT SCENE!'. That's all you get from Aberrant d20 classes and they suck.
The Prestige Classes aren't any better. They're a confused mishmash, too. The Disciple just gives you some Monk abilities (because God knows the d20 Monk is such a powerhouse it needs to be sectioned off as a special extra prestige class, right?). The Crusader gives effectively Smite Evil and some shiney Paladin style stuff. The Gladiator requires a 17 Str, Dex, and 18 Con (More doable than you think with Superhuman feats but still) and gives a weird mishmash of sporting abilities and social stuff. They also claim that 'professional sports were moribund before Novas reinvigorated them!' because God knows professional sports aren't actually big business, right? Nobody is fanatical about sportsball, especially not games like football or American football! The Inventor has a 1/5th BAB. Yes. They have a worse than Poor BAB. They also gain a couple bonus feats you could've just spent Feat slots on. That's all. Don't be an Inventor. They don't even get 8+Level SP! The Mercenary is a generic d20 Weapon Master, focused on a single weapon. The Spy is...well, a Spy. They're good at disguises and have hilarious art of an elf boy being petted by a catgirl while he points a gun at the camera. Both are wearing leather corsets. What this has to do with espionage, I couldn't tell you. The Vigilante tries and fails at being Batman. And...that's it. Those are the PRCs that are supposed to be your big, exciting character goals. They all suck.
The class design being so bad and intended to be secondary to your Powers is actually a really bad move in a d20 based game, where your class is your major baseline of power. You'd think they'd center the classes around your styles of superhero or superpowers or something, since that's the central element of the game (or at least, it's meant to be), but no, they don't. Skills work exactly as they do in normal d20, and have a pretty generic set of extra 'modern' skills tacked on to the normal d20 set; they aren't nearly as (over)detailed as they are in something like Spycraft. Feats are just a list of a couple new (bad) feats for superheroes (like Brawl, which makes you do more non-lethal damage unarmed and adds +to-hit unarmed, but doesn't make you count as armed so you still provoke AoOs against any armed opponent. It has an entire feat tree) and a list of which normal 3e Feats you can take. You can also spend Feat slots on Background Feats if you're thick, or Superhuman feats if you're smart. Really, you're not bad off to try to take every one of the 6 Mega stat feats over your career. Megas give you a +Quantum to a stat, which can get pretty considerable, especially if you're willing to go Aberrant. You also get a single Enhancement for taking one, for free, plus you can buy more with Feat slots or Power slots, and some of them are honestly pretty worth it. I'll go into them when we get to powers.
Suffice to say, though, the mundane elements of Aberrant d20's characters are extremely badly done. Will the powers save them? (No).
Next Time: Basics of Quantum Powers
Fear The TaintOriginal SA post Aberrant d20
Fear The Taint
So one of the funniest things about the 'planet busting' Quantum Powers of Novas is that any d20 Caster is infinitely superior to them. One of the reasons I suggest taking a lot of Megas and stuff? Quantum Powers aren't actually very good. Well, some are, but they tend to be the simpler and more straightforward ones. Before we get to that, though, we have to go over the Megas, Power Points, Taint, and a bunch of other stuff. Also, after I get done with Powers (which will take multiple updates) I really need to go back and talk about Backgrounds because they're actually really important.
So: Power Points. You get 10+Character Level+3xQuantum PP. This is, weirdly, one of the most important uses of your Quantum stat (the other is determining how high your Megas boost you). Quantum actually isn't used for the effects of powers very often; they usually use character level instead. A normal character can only spend 6 PP in a single turn. Characters with the Node background (For your MR Node, the tiny brain cancer in your frontal lobe that gives you superpowers but also potentially drives you bugfuck crazy) can potentially spend more. You recover PP by resting, relaxing, sleeping, or by spending 2 HP per PP to regenerate them immediately (or even increase them above your max). Considering that if you have Regeneration or Healing, you can heal d8+1 HP per PP spent, uh, that might not be a well considered rule Aberrant d20. The rules on it are really unclear: It says you do this if you don't have the PP to do something, but then it also busts out 'you can raise above your max this way!', so, uh, it's not actually clear if this is something you can only do if you didn't have enough PP to do something or not. Get used to that. Aberrant d20 is badly written in addition to badly considered on a technical level.
They also talk about a few other little goodies you get for being a Nova here: You're immune to most drugs and alcohol unless they're specially tailored or created by another Nova's powers. That's right, once you're a Nova you need specialty alcohol to get hammered. Novas also tend to look different to normal humans, in a way that allows you to be picked out: Even if they don't have weird mutations, they're usually weirdly idealized and 'too healthy'. Novas also age slower and live longer, though as they've only been around for 9 years at this point I'm not sure how anyone really realizes this. A basic 1-3 Quantum Nova lives to 150. 4-6? 200. More? Immortal God-Head and prosperity rains down upon you. You're also immune to your own powers. You can also go Quantum days without food or water as you eat QUANTUM POWER for a bit. Mostly fiddly and useless stuff except that 'poisons and disease have to be specifically targeted to bother you' thing. Still, I like the thought of a newly Erupted Nova staring sadly into a glass of their favorite whiskey, knowing it will never again get them totally wasted enough to dance fearlessly. WHAT PRICE GODHOOD!?
You recover PP by resting (2 per hour, defined as doing low impact stuff like spending time with friends or watching TV or wandering a mall) or sleeping (4 per hour). You get more of that back if you have ranks of the Node background feat (Node is a pretty powerful Background!). You can also do a very stupid thing and try to regain PP faster. This is stupid of you because it requires not one, but two saving throws in quick succession. You roll a Will save of DC 13+Extra PP You're Trying To Get (up to Quantum). If you succeed, you get that much extra PP that hour. THEN you make a TAINT CHECK. Taint Saves are DC 15+Aberrant Levels+PP Spent or Recovered In The Check That Caused Taint Fort saves. If you fail, you get a negative level (-1 to all checks, -1 to all attack rolls, -5 HP, -1 effective character level for everything) and then check again in 24 hours. If you fail that check, you replace your highest Character Class level with an Aberrant level. You don't rejigger your skillpoints or Feats at least, but you do change over your Saves, BAB, and max HP as if you'd taken Aberrant instead of whatever class you took. Do you lose your Class Abilities? They don't actually say because this is poorly thought out!
So, what's an Aberrant level do and why do you want them/not want them? Remember, you can take these willingly for extra power. If you gain one by Taint, you don't get extra Power Slots for being an Aberrant. If you gain one on purpose, you get +1 Power Slots for your first Aberrant level, and another on every odd Aberrant level. You also get +1 Quantum per 2 Aberrant levels, stacking with the +1 per 3 character levels. You do still get the bonus Quantum if you gained Aberrant levels by Taint. Also, if you have more Aberrant than Character levels, you are 'now an Aberrant, an enemy of humankind', but this has no mechanical effect. Aberrant Levels are like a shitty Fighter level aside from the superpower bonuses: +1 BAB, d10 HP, 2+Int SP, only physical skills. The real kick in the nuts is their save progression (and remember, they will eat your Save Progression from your 'real' levels if you get Tainted). They don't get the 1st level +2 of a normal save progression and just get +1 Fort and Ref per 2 Aberrant levels, +1 Will per 4. Every Aberrant level also gives you 1 Aberration. Levels 1-4 give you minor ones (usually a -2 to social skills or something), 5-8 give a major one, and 9+ gives severe issues. Aberration is rolled on a d20 table.
Starting at minor, you get stuff like 'cool, weird eyes' or 'so pretty you make people uncomfortable' or 'Rob Liefeld Character physique, which weirds people out since you got huge muscles and no feet'. You might even get something as simple as 'cool special effects when you use your powers and no penalty'. Minor Aberrations aren't a big deal. Don't fear them. I ran a PC with Aberrant 4 and never had any problems with it, and the +2 Quantum, +2 Power Slots and the fact that I was a single-classed fighter anyway so the +1 BAB No Skills shit didn't screw up my PC worked out fine. Also note you can only ever get Taint by stuff you actively choose to do, so you're never really at that huge a risk of gaining accidental Aberration, especially as the stuff that gains you Taint isn't even very useful to do most of the time. Running to the edge of Aberrant 4 is fine.
Major, uh, is where you get issues. You might cause everyone around you small amounts of non-lethal damage, or gain an allergy to something common that gives -4 to everything when you're around uncounted rice or silver or some shit, or take lots of extra damage from specific elements, or become a rapist. Oh, yeah. I'm not kidding.
Aberrant d20 Rulebook posted:
Hormonal Imbalance: The Nova has difficulty resisting base urges. This can be fits of destructive rage, sexual desire, gluttony, or other impulse control problems. In non-stressful situations, the character suffers -4 on any checks related to the imbalance- Refraining from angry outbursts, making lewd remarks, snacking constantly, etc. In a stressful situation (rolling a 1 on an aforementioned check, or GM's discretion) the character must succeed at a Will save to stay in control. If he fails, he falls under sway of his imbalance for a number of minutes equal to his total Aberrant levels- Whether attacking those around him (or his surroundings), assaulting a target of his preferred sexual orientation, or gorging on any edibles at hand, etc.
Fuck off, White Wolf. Fuck off forever.
Severe Aberrations are back to stuff like gaining God Complexes or having weird mutations or a power you can't turn off. Only Major has the 'become a rapist' risk. Fucking hell, you idiot edgelord bastards. I'm trying real hard to only talk about mechanics and not get mad at this game's shitty fluff and terrible writing, but goddamn. That was right there in the mechanics: "One of your risks of misusing your powers is becoming a Super Rapist."
Right. Time to get back to yelling at game mechanics and how they don't match up to the godlike power you're supposed to have, instead.
So, Mega Stats! Mega Stats are actually very powerful because they're simple and easy. You spend a Feat Slot OR a Power Slot, you get a significant bonus to a stat AND a neat little 'Enhancement' as a cheap superpower added on free. You can spend more Feats or Power Slots to get more of them from a specific Mega Stat, though this won't raise your stat any further. You create a PC with a good-ass starting Quantum score and you can do some nice things with these. Enhancements are things like 'Can, for free, make shockwave punches that hit everyone around you and break buildings' for Mega Strength, or 'Get massive to-hit bonuses with one Ranged attack a round' for Mega Dex or 'Spend a Move Action to regenerate d8+1 HP per PP spent' for Mega Con. Even the ones that cost PP are usually worth it. They're really pretty good! And getting one for free with your first purchase of any Mega Stat is just splendid. Hell, Mega Con has 'spend 1 PP to convert all damage to Nonlethal Damage (which is much easier to heal in d20, and also awkward as fuck) for Rounds equal to your Con Mod' or 'Gain Natural Armor equal to your Quantum'. If you offered the average d20 Charop guy 'This Feat gives +3 to a stat, which gets better as you level, and lets you turn everything that hits you into non-lethal' they'd probably go 'doesn't protect against instant-death, Save or Suck or stuns, mostly useless against the real power moves', but hey! They're still alright.
Again, it's honestly not that bad an idea for an Aberrant PC to take all 6 Megas over time. You basically get 6 superpowers for doing it, on top of sky high stats. Sure, you don't need all the stats, so you can probably cut a few out, but the fact that each one comes with a free, decent superpower on top makes a better argument for it. Megas are recommended (in the book's words) for 'subtle' Novas who want to be a 'Batman' type instead of a 'Superman' type. Tell that to my Regenerating single-classed fighter who was once exposed to the heat of a sun and still couldn't die. He was real 'Batman' like, Aberrant.
Plus, well, uh...normal Quantum Powers are not great. Not great at all. The people designing the powers did not think, at all, about limited character resources, or what is actually powerful in d20. We'll get to that next time, as I yell at Aberrant more.
Next Time: I'd Rather Be A Wizard
Awe Inspiring PowerOriginal SA post Aberrant d20 Edition
Awe Inspiring Power
So, first: The other way you can Taint yourself. When you bust out a power, you can use extra power points and make Saving Throws (which if you fail them, mean you wasted the power points) to add 'stunts' to them. What are stunts, you ask? Stuff like 'this power affects 2 people' or 'This attack becomes AoE but gains a Reflex for half save' or 'I do +1 dice of damage (lol)'. For every Stunt, you have to make a separate saving throw while casting the power. Any save that fails makes that part stunt fail; you could manage to add the AoE to a blaster power but still fuck up doing more damage. Now the DCs of all the saves are 15+Base Power Level+Extra PP Spent. Remember you can also only use 6 points a round. Unless you took the Node background, which honestly you probably should. Also trying to use a boost for a Stunt is a full round action, because nobody making this game knows what action economy is (well, WW), and you can only try to do it once per encounter anyway. Just don't bother with Stunts.
Given how much that specific Background has come up, I'm just gonna skip ahead and say what it does: Node gives you a ton of extra PP regeneration (+2 per hour per rank) and makes your PP per round 2 points higher per rank, up to 3 ranks. Node Rank 1 also has no drawbacks, at all. Node Rank 2, however, makes it so any time you fail a Taint check you get 2 Negative Levels instead of 1. Which also means you now risk gaining 2 Aberrant levels and losing 2 class levels. Node Rank 3 busts that up to 3. Now, that would be a real drawback...if you ever really had a lot of reason to do stuff that causes you Taint. But once you've got Node Rank 2 or 3, you're already regening PP extremely quickly without needing to 'push it'. And Stunts, frankly, aren't generally useful enough to be worth the risk/cost. The only useful ones are 'make this AoE' and 'Hit more people'. And when we get to Extras, you can just...take an Extra for a Feat Slot (No word on if these count as 'Superhuman Feats' and thus could also be purchased with Power Slots if you have the Superhuman Template, because this game does not like clarity) that will do that anyway. Or take AoE powers. You're not going to have a lot of good power choices anyway.
As you might notice, then, the only two ways to actually Aberrate against your will are both mostly vestigial and not useful, and you have to actively use them and make choices to ever be at risk of Taint. This is one of those places where the rules in the d20 version end up directly contradicting the fluff, which is all about how every Nova is actually slowly going Aberrant because their bodies can't handle their incredible
Which also gets at one of the issues of Aberrant d20: The game is much, much too eager to try to directly translate concepts from Storyteller directly into a d20 context. Like Quantum. Outside of the boost to your Mega stats and a few random spots like your PP total? Quantum actually doesn't get used in the powers very much. Quantum is mostly just a vestigial power stat because c'mon, it's a WW game! It has to have a Power Stat. You don't even use it to determine the Save DCs of your Powers; that's your Wisdom modifier. And yes, you use the Wis Modifier to generate the Save DC for all powers. Hope you have a good Wis if you intended to fuck with people at all, because there are no other ways to raise the Save DCs of your Powers. It's always 15+1/2 Character Level+Wis Mod.
Also remember: Buying a 2nd level power costs 4 character levels (or 2 Aberrant levels) worth of resources (2 power slots) AND required you to plop at least one big ole Dead Level into your progression to get access. Buying 3rd level ones? Two dead levels, more resources. Note that you won't even get everything a 3rd level power does with buying it, either! You just get 2 'Techniques' and have to spend additional slots to learn more. For the most part, the most useful powers are level 1 for exactly this reason.
See, the thing about powers is, the powers being shitty doesn't actually weaken your PC. They're a second axis of advancement separate from your normal character advancement and they're only ever an 'extra' added on that makes you better. What you're fucking up if you take bad powers won't cripple your character like taking bad skills or Feats in normal d20, you'll just miss out on some nice extra abilities. This is because a lot of the powers in this game are hyper-specific and full of caveats and book-keeping. Let's talk about 2 egregious examples to show you what I mean:
Absorption sounds cool, right? You can pick Energy or Physical damage, and you get damage reduction against it and damage you absorb turns into temporary stat points (usually Strength, you can pick a different one when taking the power with GM permission). It's a 2nd level power, but it's doing two things for you, so that seems fair-ish. Well, let's get to the caveats. One: You have to pay an extra PP to get the actual absorb effect (not a real problem, but hey, nickles and dimes). Two, you have to make a saving throw with Fort at 10+1/2 Attacker's HD+Attacker's Quantum to actually get your Absorption. Against every attack. Rolling all those saves will take time. Three: You only absorb your Quantum in damage (Quantum DOES come up at random in these powers; this one is unusually Quantum-intense) per attack, so you don't actually get that much DR. Four: Your Enhancement Bonus from eating damage fades at 1 per round, so you have to keep track of that, too. You can spend Feats for Extras that make your Enhancement fade slower or let you Absorb with a DC 15 Will save from non-attack sources (like plugging yourself into a power plant) to play GM-may-I with how much of a bonus that gets you for a short time. This is how most powers are! A total mess of bookkeeping, extra rolls, and in the end they aren't even that 'big'.
Or what about Quantum Vampire, which lets you make Touch Attacks to steal someone's power such that they can't use it? What's the catch here? It can only steal one specific power, chosen when you took the power. This is ALSO a 2nd Level Power. You could also more usefully make it a Touch Attack that steals d8 HP (healing you at the same time) per 3 character levels, but it still has Will Negates and takes a Standard Action, so you can't multi-attack with that and there's probably something more useful you could be doing at the levels where that does appreciable damage. 'Boy, I sure hope my enemies have the exact and only power I can steal from people!' says the guy who wasted 2 power slots on this pile.
They're all like this, mostly! They're full of weird little caveats and smaller-than-you'd-expect effects. Also, a lot of the 3rd levels are really just a grab-bag of lower level powers, but you get 2 of them for taking it and can take more of them for 1 slot each but they also have asinine restrictions added. Take Molecular Manipulation: It's 'techniques' are basically Disintegrate (Which is not as useful as you'd expect, doing d6 per Character Level with Save for half, and which is itself a 3rd level power; but the version here only affects non-living things), Armor, Matter Creation (again, also a 3rd level power, but with the Molecular Control version you can't make stuff out of nothing, just change stuff into anything), and a very GM-may-I 'change a thing into any other form' Technique. All the big 3rd tiers are like this save a few. Also, some of them, like Precognition, outright tell the GM to make them auto-fail if they would 'ruin the drama' of a situation. So, uh, you can't even really use Precognition to suss out the plot if your GM decides you can't.
Also, as usual, the most useful powers are the ones that just knock someone the fuck out of a fight immediately. Immobilize is a level 1 power. Immobilize stuns someone until they either make a save or they've failed for rounds equal to your level (note this is actually pretty shitty by normal stun standards, but it's the best Novas get). Dominate is one of the only level 2s that's really worth it, because hey, mind controlled a guy; he's lost the fight. Similar, the 3rd levels that are useful are stuff like Clone, because hey, now there's more of you on the field (though you'd best take the Technique that lets your Clones use powers, and your PP Per Round is now spread between you and the Clones, so, uh, better have Node) and that lets you fuck with action economy. Note even with Domination someone gets to resist every single command you give while they're Dominated, so better hope you have a good Wis Mod and they don't have a good Will save or you're in trouble. The other useful powers tend to be simple ones that give you bonuses and buffs; this is, after all, a free extra axis of advancement so having a bunch of buffs, healing, and other Cleric type stuff isn't amiss. Still, most powers are weirdly specific and underwhelming and full of caveats for some reason. A basic D20 Caster (especially one using Metamagic and magic items) would completely clown all over these 'quantum gods'.
Now on one hand, not being as insane as a normal d20 Caster isn't that bad of a thing for game balance. But the thing is, you're meant to be a God. And here you're mostly a mundane with some higher stats and maybe a few piddly tricks up your sleeve. You're just not all that big of a deal as a Nova. Which again: Completely changes the entire setting. When Divis Mal is just a dude with high stats, a bunch of normal people can still kill him if they have high enough character levels and roll well. All Novas are suddenly actually much more vulnerable to being killed by regular people, using regular people bullets, which is like the greatest possible insult a superhuman can suffer. Also, because you have such limited power slots, you're way better off just using powers to boost your mundane abilities for the most part. The character with Claws (d6 per 3 levels physical attack, +SB), a bunch of Fighter levels, a bunch of melee Feats, Mega Str, Mega Con, Mega Dex, Mega Wis, a high Quantum, regeneration, and a bunch of Mega Con 'toughness/Armor' add ons? Actually kind of dangerous as hell in this system, since their enemies actually lack for many ways to easily knock them out of things the same way a D&D Fighter gets knocked out. When nobody is getting much bang for their buck, the simple stuff becomes much more useful.
The designers just had no idea what was actually useful in D20, or how to design powers, and so accidentally they made Nova Powers kind of a little edge/add-on rather than divine force that can reshape the world. Don't get me wrong, a Nova absolutely has a big edge on any normal human character; you'd rather be the guy getting extra slots for powers (even if the powers aren't that great) than the guy getting nothing, after all. And you'd rather be the guy with stats in the mid twenties. It's just not as insurmountable of an edge as the designers clearly intended it to be going by the fluff. This is actually one of the big reasons we kept changing the fluff when I played this game in college; because the rules just didn't fit it. We weren't going to run around pretending these guys were god kings, so we rewrote the story to fit what the mechanics provided. That's how we ended up with like, superpowered police procedural and shit.
So in short, powers are a complete confused mess that ends up disappointing and you're better off just treating them as a cherry on top of your character rather than PC-defining awesome abilities. Which is clearly completely against designer intent, but hey. This game is a badly made d20 shovelware conversion of a game that was already in a terrible system and that already sucked really hard. What did you expect?
Next Time: Backgrounds, at last
Some Background on BackgroundOriginal SA post Aberrant d20 Edition
Some Background on Background
So, you remember Backgrounds from Storyteller, right? How you get some dots to put into things like 'I have money' or 'I'm the main character' or 'I am covered in guns?' Well, rather than just say there's no equivalent sort of thing in d20 like quitters, our brave and highly unidentified authors on Aberrant d20 (Again, weirds me the hell out that I can't find the writers' names on the PDF anywhere) have decided they're going to do Backgrounds as Feats! You get 1 free Background Feat, plus every even character level of a normal PC class (or the 2nd level of Superhuman) gives you another one for free. In place of actual class abilities, of course; do you think we're just made of mechanical power here!? You fool!
Every Background has 3 levels, so you can invest up to 3 feats in it. Backgrounds are stuff like 'I have clothes made of magic meta-materials that can store 2 PP per rank I've taken and is immune to my powers and fits me no matter how much I change shape. Also it gives +X AC as a Natural Armor bonus where X is how much juice I have stored in it and I can draw the juice out whenever I need to', which is honestly pretty nice. Or Node, where you can spend more PP a round and regenerate PP much faster, but also take more Negative Levels in one whack if you mess up a Taint Check but given how rarely you should be making those get Node you fool. Especially as the faster regen basically negates the main reason you might end up taking Taint Checks, because this game is well designed. They are also stuff like "I HAVE A NEMESIS" (You get PP back when you foil them or discover they're behind things, but this mostly generates an increasingly powerful person who wants to kill you) or the other usual 'Merits and Flaws' style stuff, translated into Feat Trees.
So if you want a Fortress of Solitude or a lot of money, you spend Feats for it and buy up Backgrounds. One of the issues with them is the translation to Feats means that you're advancing your Backgrounds as you go, rather than taking these at the start of the game. Which ends up making them weirder. Say I take a Mentor at character creation: They're 2 levels higher than me (5), max of 10. Then I upgrade them at level 4. Now they're 3 levels higher than me, max 15. Then I upgrade them at level 6. Now my Mentor is 4 levels higher than me and will be until level 18. So my Mentor is shooting ahead of me in power like a WW NPC (which, well, in-genre I guess) but because it's done by Feats, I couldn't have started with a Rank 3 Mentor (without spending my non-Background Feat Slots, anyway, and that's sort of a sucker's game) and been connected to someone who is a big deal at the beginning. Also, all the various 'I have Money' or 'I'm Famous' Backgrounds being things you keep advancing as you go conflicts with the game being an active thing. After all, you're a Nova. They can be tremendously famous, and Get Money trivially by going in hard on a public persona or working for amoral superhuman Blackwater or the UN Conspiracy or whatever. Stuff like Reputation or Resources or Fame feels like the stuff you'd be gaining naturally by playing the game, instead of being tied to taking Feats. It would be more organic if you just got some Backgrounds at creation and that was it, but the designers are just wedded to 'no, we're gonna make these part of the Feat System goddamnit'.
Backgrounds also give me a good segue to talk about SUPERSCIENCE, the next Powerset for Novas. It is, like Megas, significantly better than most actual Quantum Powers! Specifically if you take Invent Organism. Now, one of the Backgrounds you can take is owning something made by a superscientist. These are items that can simulate other Quantum Powers like D&D Wands (With Charges and everything, but Charges are restored by spending a single PP to add a Charge so that's trivial). They can also just be +X items. Using the 'Simulate a Quantum Power' Inventions is really fiddly and annoying, but also potentially insanely powerful because you can just spend time off-screen building stuff and that is a much less limited resource than Character Levels and Power Slots. The real power is in the Invent X options: You need Invent Device, Invent Organism, or Invent Compound to do superscience (all Feats, all reasonably easy for a starting PC to get), but Invent Organism is the most bullshit one for reasons we're about to get into.
See, to do Superscience, you need time, a lab, and dice. You go to the tables of enhancements and Science Bonuses you can give a thing, then you work out how long R&D will take based on which enhancements you took and how many you took, then you work out the R&D DC. The DC is 15+Number of Enhancements+2 Extra Per Rank of The Same Enhancement. So like, if I'm trying to make a hyper-rifle with +2 Damage and +2 To Hit, I would need 15+4 (Number of Enhancements)+4 (Two places where I took the same Enhancement twice)=19 on the eventual Do Science check. These are all Knowledge checks, so one trivial application of Mega Int and its Mental Prodigy Enhancement (which is free and always on) will get you +2xQuantum to all Superscience checks while also enhancing your Int, so if you're doing Super Science and don't have that you are a sillybilly. If you roll a 1 while making a superscience device you can never again try to make that superscience device. If you beat the DC by a lot, you research the device or surgery or whatever faster, but not much faster given most devices take months to research and you get 1 day knocked off per 3 you beat the DC by.
Now, the bullshit comes in with a little sidebar that says if you have the Invent X Feat, you can just start with any device with that Feat already researched and ready, because you 'made it during your background'. Without actually paying for the Gadget Background. This is kind of bullshit. But even if this wasn't here, the smart move is to grab 2 ranks of Gadget at your starting career and get an Invention with 10 Enhancements. And make the invention My Awesome Biology. Because you can only take up to 10 Enhancements on any organism anyway. And Enhancements in Invent Organism are things like 'permanent +2 to a stat, up to 3 times' or 'Permanent +4 Natural Armor Stacks With Everything, DR 2/-'. A character with 10 Enhancements on their biology can pop out of the Genetic Enhancement Chamber with +8 Natural Armor That Stacks With Everything, DR 3/-, and +14 to their other stats. Or just +20 to their stats, overall. Or they can turn themselves into a cat person but really, no mechanical pluses. Note there are 3 different sources of +Charisma (Plastic Surgery up to 3 Ranks, Pheromone Generators up to 2 Ranks, and 'Lobomatic Behavioral Modification' up to 2 ranks) so you could conceivably come out of the chamber at +14 to Charisma. Smarter move is boosting more useful stats in a d20 context, but it's hilarious. Still, just having Invent Organism entitles you, RAW, to all this delicious madness. Or taking 2 ranks of Gadget. Superscience is off the rails.
Similarly, you can invent items that just, uh, simulate powers. No need for Superhuman or Aberrant levels. The item will only work for 1 week per point you beat its build DC by unless you permanently lower your Quantum by 1 to make it forever (or just take Gadget, those last forever, and can simulate up to 2 3rd level powers at Rank 3 anyway) and still takes PP to run, and you have to make it harder to make to give it a better to-hit or ability to operate via a byzantine formula of 'It starts with 1/2 your Quantum skill/to-hit and then gets +2 per 3 days you spend working on it, up to your 2xQuantum, then can go higher than that by making it harder to build' but c'mon. You can get much better bang for your buck here than by spending power slots and dead levels; one or two Feats will get you access to most Quantum Powers, effectively. Most of these magic devices can only be used by their maker, but for +4 research DC you can make them usable by any superhuman. For +8, even those silly mundanes can use your Magnetoray Cannon or whatever nonsense bullshit you called it.
And now that all that's out of the way, I can finally make an example PC. They are obviously going to be a superscientist who Gene-Modded themselves TO THE MAX for maximum power (or just someone who took 2 Gadgets to get in the Gene Enhancement Chamber), but aside from that, I'm open to suggestions as per usual. Seriously, I'm not leaving +20 to stats on the table when I'm trying to make a genetic superbeing.
And keep in mind even with all this bullshit, d20 Aberrant characters are still significantly weaker than the Storyteller ones to the point that the fluff feels a bit off. After all, anyone could go into the Gene Enhancement Chamber, and a character who was upgraded there can end up significantly more super than someone who fucked up and got 1 Quantum at creation even if they're technically a 'baseline'. Superscience being batshit broken isn't a result of Novas being powerful, it's a result of Superscience being really, really poorly thought out. Superscience is batshit because the resources it's asking you to use are theoretically unlimited and depend on the pleasure of your GM and campaign (who knows how precious in-setting time is going to be) while normal Powers and things cost a deeply limited, hard-locked resource (Power/Feat Slots).
Next Time: A Modern Prometheus
This gun of light can eradicate anything, even Gods!Original SA post Aberrant D20 Edition
This gun of light can eradicate anything, even Gods!
As per Hunter, one of these will be the character made based entirely on mechanical concerns with a silly backstory, and the other will be the character built to be the way Aberrant wants you to be. The gulf in power between these two Novas will be, uh, impressive.
First up will be our superscience marvel. Since we're given no point-buy system or alternate attribute generation system, we'll have to roll 4d6 6 times drop lowest for her. She gets a 16, a 16, a 12, an 11, a 14, and a 16. This can be worked with! She wants to max her Quantum, but she also gets +2 Con before calculating Quantum from being a Nova. So she'll take 16 Str, 16 Int, and put her 14 in Con and raise it to 16. She'll also take 16 Dex, 11 Charisma, and 12 Wis. This means she starts with a 3 Quantum, which raises to 4 from being level 3. Any Mega is now +4 to her stats, she has a lot of PP, and she's generally an extremely powerful Nova. She selects Scholar as her first class (to get way more SP at level 1), and for her initial 2 Feats and 1 Power Slot (She gets the Human Bonus Feat and SP, they say as much) she takes Mega Int (Mental Prodigy), Mega Dex (Fast Tasks; she can build devices and things much faster!), and Mega Con (Regeneration). No Quantum Powers needed; these will do nicely. That takes her immediately to 20 Int, 20 Con, and 20 Dex. She spends her 48 Skillpoints, making sure to focus on Knowledge (Technology) and Craft (Mechanical), but she'll throw in skills like Research, Demolitions, Computer Use, etc. You don't need her every Skillpoint. She has many! She also spends her first free Background on Gadget. Also takes her Scholar starting Feat as I dunno, Investigator. They're all pretty worthless. And selects Technology as her Knowledge Focus; free +2 to that.
She then takes a Warrior level. This would normally be a bad idea (multiclassing), but A: Her stats are going to be so goddamn high, you don't even know and B: She'll basically be alternating Warrior and Scholar every other level to keep using the Scholar Levels to pointbuy to the max the stuff she cares about in between learning to smash faces. While she is, for now, immensely more dexterous than strong, she's going to do melee because it's way more powerful than ranged. Also taking a Warrior level gets her Brawl (+1 to hit unarmed, Unarmed does more non-lethal damage) and Personal Firearms for free, so that's nice. She'll also take Combat Martial Arts as her Fighter Bonus Feat just so she doesn't eat AoOs every time she punches someone. Yeah, she could do better mechanically, but eh. Science-lady just being able to punch a guy through a building is funny to me, so it stays.
Scholar 2 is where she becomes a God. She takes the second rank of Gadget for her bonus Background Feat. Now she can take a 'device' with 10 Enhancements. The device is 'My Awesome Genome'. She selects 2 ranks of Brain Augmentation for +4 Int, an Exoskeleton Transplantation for +4 AC and DR 2/- (She's thick-skinned and naturally armored under her skin), Subdermal Chitin Implants for +3 AC and DR 1/- (Stacks), then 2 ranks of +Dex, 2 ranks of +Con, and 2 ranks of +Str. She comes out of The Chamber with a 24 Int, 24 Dex, 24 Con, 20 Str, 12 Wis, and 11 Cha. And AC +7 (which stacks with worn armor, class defense bonus, and dex bonus) and DR 3/-. She also gets a Power and Feat slot here, and spends the Feat slot on Invent Device; now she can make whatevs to do whatevs, and her Int and Research checks are so high she can already fairly easily build things that represent 3rd level powers if she ever needs Quantum Powers like a fool. She also takes Mega Str as her Power, because a 24 Str sounds fun, and grabs Crush; she can choose to make an attack unarmed for 1 PP once a round that adds 2xQuantum melee damage and becomes Lethal. She can just kinda...rip a guy in half like a phone book. Now our Science Heroine just needs a pithy backstory.
Megan Westerbrook began life as a humble grad student, working for a Nova professor and fetching coffee while he scampered around and pretended to solve every mystery in the universe. One day, he asked her to step inside a chamber he'd designed for a moment to 'calibrate' something; this was the Genetic Enhancement Chamber, and the stress of having her body remade into a power beyond human imagining caused her to Erupt. Now she is DR. Megan Westerbrook (having finished her PhD in 7 days after her Eruption) and with that influx of legitimacy and genetic power, she has set out to prepare mankind for the disaster she has foreseen in the next 12-17 years: She is convinced the world is going to be invaded by some kind of shitty alien wizard-god and his legions. She wades into the world of Nova Politics to gather the funds and legitimacy to convince Project Utopia of the need for some kind of 'Earth Defense Force', and also to build a totally sweet kill-sat laser that she can watch the eventual invasion from.
It's good to have hobbies.
Next, let's build the guy Aberrant wants you to make. First, let's see his stats. 10, 18, 11, 12, 13, 14. Not bad. Also, rolled 6666 for that 18! Weird. He's going to be a guy with an office job who always dreamed of being a rock star, and now he's got the Nova powers to do it. So we'll say he's 10 Str, 13 Dex, 11 (13) Con, 12 Int, 18 Wis, 14 Cha. He's sharp and pretty decent with people. His Quantum would actually be 0, but it starts at 1 automatically, +1 for being level 3. He's not good at Quantum because his character concept didn't jack up the key stats. He will pay for this.
He'll just take Entertainer for all 3 classes, which makes things easier and it's what he dreams of. For his Background feats, he'll take a Eufiber costume at rank 1, and Cipher at rank 1; nobody really knows of him yet, and his old background as an office worker is mostly hidden. For his Entertainer bonus feat, he'll take Persuasive (best of a bunch of bad options). For his Human and level Feats, he'll take Mega Charisma (Awe Inspiring) and Mega Wisdom (Hyper-Enhanced Hearing), and Mega Int (Enhanced Memory). Yeah, leaning hard on the Megas, but for a guy who is solely trying to be a diplomatic rock star type there's not much else in the Feat list that can compare. Plus, this forms a flavorful little set: He makes a big impression, but he's also legitimately a superhumanly talented musician and he can remember anything he's heard from one listen or glance. For actual powers, he'll take Empathic Manipulation (He can heighten emotional impacts, or calm people down) and because he's maximum sparkly decent guy, Healing (He can heal you with the power of rock). He takes general bard skills for his various Skillpoints and stuff, and he's a way simpler character than Dr. Minmax up there. He's also on a wholly different power scale.
Michael Hawk was a completely normal office drone. He went to college, got an MBA instead of studying music like he wanted to, and generally did the sensible things to get a sensible job that paid a sensible wage that he sensibly hated. His one real stress valve was his hobby: Metal. Quiet office drone on weekdays, guitarist in an amateur band with his friends on the weekends. It was enough to make his life bearable. Until one day, out of nowhere, he complained of a terrible headache; everything just seemed so loud. He had Erupted for no reason at all, seemingly given power by the whimsical hand of fate; his dreams were dropped right in front of him, there to try to take. Of course he'd pick them up and run with them. His hyper-enhanced hearing (which he's slowly learned to control), his superhuman talent, and his enhanced memory and ability to help others feel what he wants them to feel (not to mention his ability to somehow stimulate healing and recovery by sound waves; quantum bullshit can do whatever it wants) have given him a new lease on life. He's quit his office job and set out to try to get on N! and make a name as a hot new Nova performer, hoping to wow crowds and share the music in his heart. How he'll end up with the crazy superhuman lady who wants to build a death satellite to defeat aliens is unknown, but in case the aliens will instead be defeated by popular music and the power of love, he'll be along for the ride.
So there. Look at the scale of difference between them. Even if I wasn't abusing the Invent Organism RAW stuff and how it interacts with gadget, Dr. Westerbrook would be way stronger than Mr. Hawk. Mr. Hawk is still a fun concept for a character, and could still be fun to play, but he lives entirely in the non-combat system, which is really not the focus of d20. His powers are all about singing and playing guitar and inventing new genres of music, except the healing. Meanwhile, Dr. Westerbrook can simulate extremely 'powerful' Quantum powers (they're not actually that great) while having sky high stats and being good at fighting and non-fighting stuff. All the Superhuman stuff does is introduce another fiddly layer of optimization to d20's tons of fiddly layers of optimization. It doesn't really make someone feel like a God; Westerbrook is getting as much or more out of abusing Gadget as she is out of her actual powers. She is pretty goddamn crazy for 3rd level, though.
Next Time: Why These People Don't Matter
You said you weren't going to talk about fluff!Original SA post Aberrant d20 Edition
You said you weren't going to talk about fluff!
I lied. Well, rather, I realized I need to. You see, one of the issues of Aberrant is an issue that was a big one in most 90s RPGs: "What do we do, and why are we a team?" They set up a ton of the fluff about Novas as being solitary, super-awesome man-gods who can get anything they want in life because most people look at them with awe and hero worship (in 2008. Things are about to go downhill.). Most can get what they want without having real adventures, or without needing a team. In fact, strictly by the fluff, your PC party of 3-6 Novas descending on a place looking for adventures is effectively like someone launching a WMD. 3-6 Novas are enough to topple governments by fluff. Not by rules, but that's a failure of the rules writing and its inability to live up to the fluff. The book even carries on about how unusual it is for Novas to actually work in teams or in numbers, because the average Nova doesn't need anyone and can get money and power and fame just by going on TV and going 'Hey I can set myself on fire' or whatevs.
Still, Novas are people, so inventing reasons a close-knit group of friends come together to accomplish stuff is easy enough. No reason Westerbrook and Hawk can't just be buddies. Maybe she was a fan of his amateur band or something and when he erupted too she thought he could help her publicize her fears of alien invasion. Heck, maybe she was in his band and they knew each other before shit got started. Grad students still have hobbies. Novas don't really have anything that makes it difficult for them to be together in a team like some WW splats and games, they're just usually huge egos that don't need each other. That part's easy enough to ignore, the bigger issue is that setting-wise 'these 3-6 people are good friends who stick together and do super stuff' forms a significant power bloc. In this sense, weirdly, the d20 version is actually easier to handle. There's a lot more reason for the Powers That Be not to get instantly nervous about 3-6 superpeople. They're only level 3, after all. Not a big deal, yet.
Which brings us to another issue with Aberrant that comes out of the fluff, the What Do We Do problem. You see, Aberrant's fluff has a serious problem: It's full. There's no room for you in it. Every major setting problem or plot-line has someone else 'on it'. Let's take Project Utopia, The Obviously Evil Shiney UN Hero Guys. Project Utopia recruits Novas to fight against tyranny, world hunger, etc. They have successfully repaired all of the ecological damage of the industrial revolution, they've cut down on WMDs that aren't Novas, they've provided food for all of the world's starving, and the entire world has high speed internet basically for free, among other things. Honestly, I wish real life sinister cabals thought they had to do all that good shit for 'PR' and covering their asses. They are, naturally, secretly sterilizing Novas in their 'training facilities' and intentionally pitting Nova against Nova to keep their numbers down. And they're depicted as trying to 'enslave' Novas towards...doing good things for humans and the rest of the world. Well, okay, again, significantly better than most sinister cabals.
The issue with this is, there's already somebody on it. Also those somebodies are mostly irrelevant. Peter Corbin is an NPC with a fleshed out backstory about how he'll have to learn to be responsible and not just a swaggering dick of an ex-soccer star turned superhuman so he can investigate the death of his good friend Slider, who tried to come to him with her theory that Utopia is sterilizing all Novas. He's got mysterious backup and his own crew and a lot of learning and growing as a character to do, because he's the protagonist of that arc. Every NPC in the book is written in such a way that they don't create plot hooks, they take them. They're on it. No need for you here; Corbin's got this plot. Not a single one of them is actually written towards providing plot hooks or, you know, being NPCs. They're all written like the main characters of their own stories, which don't really need you.
Similar, look at what Utopia's already done. Even if you want to play a game where you join Utopia or get on their premiere superteam, Team Tomorrow, and just want to punch the world into a better place, 2008 is already the 'high water mark' of the setting where for the most part everything's done. The environment's fixed. Everyone's fed. Tech is advancing, the world is looking increasingly post-scarcity (for now), and almost every major threat that isn't another Nova having a preening costume fight has been dealt with. Utopia's done all the good it's going to manage to do and the story is meant to be about the slide down into everything being on fire.
The setting just doesn't give you real hooks that aren't already being covered by someone else the story talks about. Sure, you can still make a place for your PCs, but the setting fluff isn't going to help you do that. That's why I say it's so lacking. One of the things that hits you when you've been GMing for a long time is how much work GMing is. I like doing it. I like sitting around making shit up, writing, making extra stuff for systems that work, all that. But I judge a lot of fluff and a lot of system work these days by how much work it's going to make me do for the parts it should be providing for me. How much am I going to have to come up with every plot hook? If the answer is 'every goddamn time' then the setting isn't really helping! It might be a good setting for a novel, or a movie, but it isn't well written to be a setting for an RPG. Because RPG setting writing is about inspiring other people to do creative work. That's what it's for. The setting fluff is here to get players and GMs excited to play in this world and help them come up with stuff that will be fun to play with. 'Hooks' are so useful because you read a hook and go 'Man, I really want to fill this in and do more with this!' and Aberrant just doesn't give you a lot of hooks.
To that end, I also want to look at the two most powerful characters presented in the book, both of whom could crush your party with ease. One of whom could do it no matter what level you are. You know I hate Divis Mal. You know I consider him one of the worst RPG Major Setting NPCs I've ever seen for purposes of playability and just how goddamn lame and annoying he is. But let's look at him solely in what you get in the Core Book, since I'm only reviewing a Core Book here. The book starts off by insisting that Mal, the man who descended from the heavens to say 'Novas have no responsibility to do anything for humans, obey human laws, follow human morals, or engage at all in human society. Their only goal should be to become more super', is no monster in deed or thought. 'He treats Baselines (humans) well, in a noblesse oblige sort of way'. This is the majority of his description. Actually, they go that direction with a lot of the Teragen (Mal's buddies who like his Null Manifesto), and in 2019 it doesn't fly at all. Where they're like 'well, I don't actively hurt the inferior humans like SOME members of our group, I just consider myself above them and that they have no right to ask moral consideration of me, the insects'. The rest of Mal's writeup is all about how he has every power and is the most powerful Nova ever and none can equal him, at all. Especially not your PC group. Now, naturally, this is an RPG book; God NPCs like Mal can have as kickable of an ass as the GM and group want to give them. But the intention is clearly that he's invincible and allowed to just do whatever the hell he feels like until he decides to move the plot again. If I build up a plot so that Mal gets his wish and someone becomes as super as he is, then tells him he's a piece of shit and kicks him into a black hole, that's me building that plot and it's pretty against the intention of the character. The big thing is, his writeup is about how he's actually not bad (the book tries to claim that it won't 'tell you who's right' but then also makes a point of trying to defend him and say he's actually a good, smart dude) and also how you're not allowed to play with him.
Let's look at the other big mighty guy, Caestus Pax. Who you are clearly supposed to disdain as a big, dumb jock living a superhero fantasy. Pax is the leader of Team Tomorrow, the UN Superteam, and he's one of the most powerful Novas on the planet. He has every Mega Stat except Int, and a generic 'flying brick' powerset (that would require more levels than a PC can get) and a Quantum of 9 (or higher, they say). His only description is to say he's the living symbol of Project Utopia, and then to talk about how he loves basking in attention and good publicity, and loves how his job lets him be the 'good guy' but also show off just how powerful he is. Now, weirdly, the little truncated description he gets actually interests me more than Mal; I'm actually kind of curious why a guy with the power to get pretty much anything he wants picked 'I'll be a highly visible hero, doing the Right Thing on TV'. Because that's the thing: As far as this writeup goes, Pax doesn't know about any of the bad shit Utopia is up to (implication being that he doesn't want to know, but that's actually interesting too) and loves his job because it makes him a Big Hero to billions of people. He loves being the symbol of Novas and humans getting along. You could actually get an interesting character out of the idea of someone whose urge for 'how to get the wealth and fame I desire' is 'Go do heroic things and try to earn it'. That suggests a conscience, or maybe just a fantasy of actually being a comic book hero that a guy is getting to live out in real time so he's afraid to ask questions about his job. Someone who really, really wants to believe they can just punch the world better and that they really are who they say they are, confronting the fact that their backers aren't on the up and up? That could be a cool character.
But like Corbin, that seems like a job for PCs. Not for a guy with an arbitrary enormous number of powers and stats that say 'you can't play with this guy, no matter what level you are'. And especially when again, I'm constructing all that. The clear intent with Pax is he's a big dumb bully Jock who loves attention and he's not really a good guy because he likes being famous. Meanwhile the shitty 'we are the overmen, you can't complain about us being selfish or abusing you or anything' asshole gets lines devoted to how 'actually he's not bad at all!'. Neither of them is a character written to be played or played with. You're not going to fight either of these guys, or change their minds, or have a plot hook involving them. Nothing in the setting is really written to provide a place for the PCs to play, it's all just its own 'worldbuilding'.
And to that end, I have to say: Maybe the d20 version is onto something in making you level 3 schlubs who would need to grind for longer than a normal d20 campaign goes on to challenge these Epic Level Overmen (or take advantage of how broken Superscience is). That's clearly how the setting be as it is, after all. Maybe it's better not to pretend the PCs are that important in the first place.
Another thing: In the main setting, it's a big thing that every Nova is going Aberrant. The ones who don't look Aberrant are mentally Aberrant and are secretly crazy murderers and stuff. But look at the d20 version and the fact that none of that stuff is in the Core Book, and you actually get the impression it's very difficult to Aberrate. Which again, changes the entire character of the setting. If Aberration is rare and mostly a case of people trying to push for more magic powers (by taking Aberrant levels) and you have to do a lot of it to get anything more than 'looks a little odd/cool'? That legitimately changes how the setting works and makes the inevitable Aberrant War no longer inevitable. And as far as someone looking at this core book knows, that's how it is. It's one of the reasons Aberration was treated as a medical condition when I was running Aberrant; one of the PCs was even a doctor who specifically studied how to treat Aberration and help people who developed dangerous Aberrations still live in society. You say you need human blood to survive? The super-doc is going to figure out what, exactly, your system needed from human blood and synthesize it in the lab so you don't. That kind of thing. Which is wholly against the setting's intention, but was the impression I got from reading the book I had so I altered the setting to contain it.
So yeah, the d20 version making it so hard to Aberrate actually fundamentally changes one of the core elements of the setting, too. Game mechanics matter. If your powers aren't that impressive and you're mostly people with high stats, it changes the entire game. Instead of a game about how humanity's been rendered obsolete, you get much more of a game about how there's now a class of people who have various edges and useful abilities that they mostly use for relatively mundane reasons and the public fascination with them. Which actually ended up being a pretty fun game to write for. It's not the game Aberrant intends to be, but it is the game Aberrant d20 is better at running. Which is a failure of design, but a very interesting one. It's why I bristle so much at stuff like Hunter trying to laugh off that the 'game mechanics don't matter at all, it's all about the STORY!' When you're writing fiction using an RPG, you are using the game mechanics as part of the tone of the story. One look at how different the two Aberrants end up should tell you as much; neither is in a good system, but which system you use changes the entire tenor of the game and alters the fluff significantly.
Next Time: Concluding Aberrant
Why was any of this helpful?Original SA post Aberrant d20 Edition
Why was any of this helpful?
I was inspired to do this writeup by the passages in Hunter: The Reckoning that kept talking about how the game's rules weren't really an important part of the game (despite it having a shitton of rules that took up a lot of the book) and you could just ignore them if you wanted. While I talked about it there, and I'm sure I've said it enough to make everyone here sick of it, mechanics are part of the fiction of an RPG. They're part of why you're playing an RPG instead of sitting with friends and collaboratively writing fiction with improvised dialogue. Even in very, very 'fiction focused' games, the mechanics are part of how you get that focus on the fiction; well-made PbtA games are still designed with mechanics that will reinforce their themes and help drive the fiction. Hunter's complete disregard for the role of its own mechanics explains a lot about why its mechanics were so poor.
That brought to mind the separation between Storyteller Aberrant and d20 Aberrant for me. I have only ever played/run d20 Aberrant, but there already being a pretty good review of Storyteller Aberrant was enough to help me get a grasp on just how powerful Storyteller Aberrant Novas were. This was, thus, a perfect chance to really talk about a setting whose fluff was made for the Storyteller demigods but whose crunch was d20 shovelware by people who had no idea what makes a d20 character powerful. So here, you're being told Divis Mal is literally invincible, and that may've been true in the Storyteller version, but it's just not here. Oh, sure, a guy with like 12 Quantum and all the Megas and powers is dangerous and has very high numbers, but high numbers can be overcome in ways that the other system's super-powerful people couldn't be. A level 20 human character is still very powerful! Especially when you get Superscience in on the party, but that's just because Superscience is implemented without any thought as to how insanely powerful some of its options are. Really, the rest of the setting's mechanics are so full of caveats and limiters that Superscience is a huge outlier. Because the writers didn't understand d20, or action economy (most powers will remove your ability to multiattack; if my main options are pure damage anyway since there aren't many good disablers in Aberrant d20 I'd rather have claws, super strength, and 4 attacks), a Nova is lacking in the things that make d20 wizards and clerics so dangerous. So a Nova ends up being a human with higher stats and a few tricks and bonuses, especially because the power slots are so stingy and everything is tied to Feats that characters still don't get many of.
Which then changes the entire tenor of the 'in universe' half of the book, which is all about how completely invincible and awesome Novas are but is also presented through the lens (mostly) of an in-universe reality TV network dedicated to hyping up Novas for ratings. So when I first read this book, because my first experience was the d20 version, my first impression was 'clearly Novas have really good publicity that makes them come off as more powerful than they really are'. My impression of the setting was one where people were so awed by the existence of superhuman powers that no-one had really noticed that, say, your average flying dude could be shot down by an attack helicopter. The world had changed and things were really interesting, and of course people were very excited by these sudden 'demigods' and wanted to know all about them, but I never got the impression that 3-6 Novas could knock over a nation the way you're meant to. And that was entirely a function of the in-universe fluff/unreliable/inconsistent narrators (hey there, WW) and the mechanics not backing up the hype at all. My impression of the game and my reading of its themes was completely different than intended because I read the version where Novas start out as 3rd level schlubs and Quantum Powers mostly suck. Because the mechanics matter!
Aberrant d20 is not a good game. But it is a very, very different game, despite trying to be the same game. You even see it in the design; they directly try to port in Power Stats and a corruption meter and Backgrounds and all kinds of stuff right from Storyteller in ways that don't fit into the system no matter how much you use the crowbar. But it doesn't work, because the underlying system is very different, resources are much more hard-limited, characters are much more durable, and they really didn't understand how to even make pure damage useful. Seriously, 20d6 Fort Save for Half at Level 20 with a 3rd level power that does nothing but try to disintegrate people? That's what you replace a 6 Agg minimum kill-move with? That's the level you should be getting into Save or Dies if you want to simulate that power. Aberrant d20's differences in tone and how the mechanics make you read the fluff are an excellent example of just how much mechanics matter to the writing in an RPG; if you try to play out the Storyteller style's stories with the d20 system, you'll have a bad time. Same for the other way around. The d20 version is better for lower powered adventures or stories about the hype and awe of Novas (and how it might not match the reality), and that's fine. That's actually the sort of thing I'd want out of a conversion, because I'd want the game to be meaningfully different in another system. Otherwise, why are you bothering to convert, beyond it being 2004 and the first question after any genre is 'can I run it in d20?' in a lot of gaming circles (the answer is usually no, you should probably have a more focused system, because d20 was made for a different kind of game).
And so that's Aberrant d20. Same terrible fluff as Storyteller, but with the added bonus of the Novas coming off as posing prima-donnas who don't have the power to back up their flashy costumes. Which ironically lends it better to 'realistic superheroes' than the original. In the original, the writers could whine about how nobody in their costumed world of superpeople would be a super-criminal, ignoring that someone with Nova powers could do that just because they felt like it. Novas' reputations being partly a product of flashy media campaigns and the awe of the new honestly works better for me as 'superman has a publicist' style superhero stuff. Aberrant has the same fundamental insecurity as Hunter, where the authors really want a cool superhero setting, but are also afraid to be caught reading comic books so they slather it in some rape and conspiracy and gore and try to play it all off as ironic and 'so much more REAL than that comic book nonsense, MAAAN'. Adding the issues of the d20 conversion to that ends up creating an even more incoherent and insecure setting, but it also creates a much better jumping off point for altering the original and ditching some of the hyperbole to write a story where the average superperson has an edge but isn't a huge deal. I had a lot of fun writing about a world where the average Nova is like, a super-chef or amazing guitarist or hyper-athlete and most of them never even think about seeing combat. It was a lot of fun to write about people dealing with Nova Crimes (by which I mean crimes committed by Novas, but also crimes committed against them, since Nova celebrities and things tended to be really rich and lucrative targets and since this was the d20 version, weren't unassailable) and doctors dealing with Aberration and trying to understand how all this happened. And I don't think I could have gotten that story out of the Storyteller version. The mechanics didn't really help, and this in no way means the d20 version is any good; I just found the way it changes the tone of the setting useful when I was playing it a long time ago.
Mechanics matter. Mechanics will always matter. The fact that old WW thought they didn't and would talk about that at length in their games is part of the reason their games were such a goddamn mess.