Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Review of Strange Revelations

Monte Cook Games recently released Strange Revelations -- a set of small adventures for The Strange.   With this, there is only one book left for the kickstarter release schedule and we are starting to see what The Strange looks like as a complete line of products.

Strange Revelations uses the Instant Adventure format introduced in Weird Discoveries for Numenera.  The design goal of an instant adventure is to minimize GM preparation to 15 minutes and get a group playing as quickly as possible.  Each instant adventure includes about 2 pages of prefatory material (including an overview of the adventure), 2 pages of locations tied to a map or diagram of the connection between locations, and 2 pages of additional material to help with adding to the instant adventure if you wish.

Before talking about the Strange Revelations implementation of this format, it is worth talking about the basics of the format itself.  I have not run an instant adventure but several people have reported that they work, more or less, as described.  People have been able to read the first couple of pages, skim the second couple of pages (the only pages one needs to have open during the game session), and develop a few "cool ideas" (tm) to add in to ones own taste.  This approach has been subject to a range of responses from "you are doing it wrong" to "duh, we always played like that anyway."  Each Instant Adventure lets the GM place various "keys" to the adventure (items, NPCs, knowledge, etc. that the party will need to resolve the adventure) at various locations.  This allows the GM to tailor the experience to the party.  This is where some say the instant adventure format is "wrong bad fun."  The option lies with the GM to make the session easier or harder, longer or shorter.  If someone is looking for a uniform challenge or standard so that every party earns or fails to earn their success against that standard, this is not the adventure format for you.  Each session can be a little different and there is no single reference for the content of the adventure.  The key-based approaches makes customization very easy -- thus reducing preparation time while still providing options.

The uniqueness of this approach is also sometimes overstated.  Some of the press around the time of the first Instant Adventure book emphasized the novelty of this approach that allows flexibility in the placement of adventure keys.  One can consider flexibility of a scenario along a continuum.  On the one end is the completely scripted experience where the encounters and maps are all deeply scripted and interconnected.  Think of this as a Roll20 download with all of the maps, encounters, and room descriptions in a giant script.  The GM just moves monsters around on a grid.  This is an extreme (maybe hyperbolic) case of a lack of flexibility in scenario design.

The other end of the continuum is not Instant Adventures -- but the improvisational model from Robin Laws' Armitage Files and Ken Hite's Dracula Dossier.  In the improvisational model, the book includes many locations, NPCs, items, etc.  For each of these elements, there are multiple versions ranging from malign to helpful.  The party is free to go just about anywhere.  Once the party chooses, the GM chooses a version of the location/NPC/item and moves forward.  In the Dracula Dossier, you are supposed to be able to hand the players a copy of Dracula (possibly the specially designed "redacted" edition) and let them decide what lead to follow from that text. Needless to say, that sort of campaign can start just about anywhere and the GM selects a version of the lead and sprinkles in a few clues to other locations, NPCs, etc.

Instant Adventures fall somewhere between the fully scripted and improvisational models.

To some, this middle of the spectrum of scripting is a golden mean.  Instant Adventures reside at a point on this continuum that provides a maximum flexibility with very little GM experience required or specific preparation for the session.  The improvisational model seems to work best with experienced GMs who have the confidence to improvise mid-session and translate campaign material into encounter-based clues with facility.  Instant Adventures provide some flexibility but not so much that one needs to improvise as one would in the improvisational model. This may be just the right mix of flexibility and low prep time for many GMs.

This model works particularly well for the The Strange as a setting.  Each adventure provides just enough for a 3-4 hour session in one recursion.  The recursions range from popular and developed recursions like Ardeyn and Ruk to more exotic recursions like Crash (a space ship craft site), Cannibal Wasteland (pretty much what you would expect -- post-apocalyptic tribal conflict), and even the Strange itself.  A few of the  adventures even take place on Earth but with enough linkages to other recursions and strange twists to make these interesting adventures as well.

One of the great innovations in this book is the addition of recommended moods for each instant adventure.  Before the Lovecraftian adventure, for example, there is a paragraph with tips to establish an appropriate mood.  Of course, the recommendations are different for a visit to Halloween or Ruk.  These short mood discussions are very helpful to distinguish the adventures and provide a nice teaching tool to help GMs learn how to establish mood within the game session.  They can also inspire additional material to add to the session like GM intrusions or side encounters.

There are a couple of other new elements in the book.  There are new cyphers (too many to list) and foci  (3) to complement the new recursions -- Cannibal Wasteland (you can't simulate Mad Max without a car and a driver), Crash (someone needs to clear out the aliens), and Steam London (a steam tech-based focus).  There are also new starter characters -- an inclusion that is particularly welcome for those of use running demos at stores.

The book is not perfect, of course.  Some of the adventures call for a little more preparation for the GM.  While one may be able to run the adventure with a quick read through, the more exotic settings really require some thought in how the GM will describe setting elements like architecture.  It is these details that really help a location seem real to players. This may be relatively simple for a small, rural town on Earth.  It will require much more thought for locations like Ruk or Steampunk London.  The wonderful art (conveniently collected as "Show Em's" at the back of the book) help with this but do not provide a full substitute for GM preparation.  I would recommend less experienced GMs take closer to an hour (rather than 15 minutes) to flesh out the various encounter locations and develop rich descriptions.  Most encounters consist of only 3-4 sentences and, without experience, you will want some time to develop them out.  This will pay off with a richer play experience though the Instant Adventures become merely "low prep."

The book also falls clearly in the "one off" scenario mode of adventure design.  There is a  way to connect several of the adventures together and to transform one adventure into a capstone adventure of sorts.  However, the design focuses mostly on each adventure as a separate session.  Again, this is part of the design philosophy.  Some readers may find such small, disconnected adventures to be unsatisfying.  The adventures will support a 3-4 hour session each but don't really add up to a campaign.  There are notes for how to pull the individual adventures into an ongoing campaign but this material is quite limited.  Of course, short "one off" adventures may be all you want and are all that the book is advertised to provide.

I am quite pleased with Strange Revelations.  With my previous read of Weird Discoveries, I pretty much knew what to expect.  Strange Revelations modestly improves on the Instant Adventure format and provides excellent short adventures for The Strange.  With these adventures, you can explore the breadth of The Strange as a setting.  Even if you never plan to run these adventures, there is a lot of inspiration to find here.  Each adventure provides a slightly different take on a short adventure (some with an investigation focus, some the exploration of ruins, some are more combat-oriented).  If this is what you are looking for in a book, you will likely be pleased by Strange Revelations as well.

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