The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘the strange’

Review: The Strange Supplements

February 11th, 2018


The Strange Bestiary - Monte Cook GamesThe Strange Bestiary is 160 pages, packed almost cover-to-cover with a fantabulous array of creatures drawn from across the rich breadth of recursions found in the Shoals of Earth. While there are a few familiar faces (a handful of Lovecraftian beasties and a selection of fan favorite dinosaurs), for the most part it is a scintillating display of creative imagination.

This selection is lightly rounded out with some general advice on creature design for The Strange and a little over a half dozen specific NPC characters (like Sasha the Blade and Doctor Ceratops).

Bestiaries in all of their varied forms are, of course, a long-term staple of the roleplaying industry. After several decades of perusing them, I’ve come to the conclusion that their quality can generally be measured by looking at three metrics: Basic Utility, Art, and Scenario Ideas.

Basic Utility refers to the bestiary’s ability to fully stock a typical campaign. This category is particularly important for games in which statting up bad guys is a time consuming task. In those systems, I need a resource that will cover the basic staples. A lot of games – particularly modern and science fiction games – completely pratfall in this category, frequently failing to provide any basic utility. (A notable exception to this is Eclipse Phase, which provides the absolutely essential NPC File supplement.)

The Strange Bestiary – like the core rulebook before it – kind of flirts with this a little bit, but in offering less than a half dozen such options it’s really not trying all that hard. BUT this is largely irrelevant, because the simplicity of the Cypher System would make the exercise largely pointless: Statting up an NPC basically consists of assigning them a single number. You don’t need a supplement to do that for you.

Art should be fairly self-explanatory. The more exotic and unique the creatures described in a bestiary, the more vital I consider truly excellent art to be. As I described in “On the Importance of Art in Bestiaries”, the difference between a fantastic creature that immediately captures your imagination and one which you never give a second thought to often has more to do with the art which accompanies it than the text which describes it or the stats which define it. Furthermore, I find the ability to use high quality art as a handout at the table to be something that really enhances a session.

Like everything else Monte Cook Games has produced, The Strange Bestiary features generally fantastic art. Flipping through the book, you’re just constantly captivated by evocative, beautiful, memorable art that will make you immediately want to feature it in your campaign.

The Strange Bestiary - Pixellated ArtHowever, I am going to ding the PDF version of the book pretty severely here. I am uncertain how to explain what can only be frankly described as Monte Cook Games’ complete incompetence when it comes to producing the PDF versions of their books, but like virtually every other MCG PDF I own, the artwork in The Strange Bestiary is pixelated to the point of becoming completely unusable. In many cases, it is nothing more than an ugly smear across the page. (In the core rulebook for The Strange, this problem was so bad that maps literally became illegible.) You can see one of the less terrible examples by clicking the image to the right and viewing it at “full” size.

I’m not sure why MCG is systemically incapable of producing acceptable PDFs of their books. They certainly charge enough for them that there’s no excuse for their shoddy quality. It’s a very significant embarrassment for an otherwise sterling company.

Scenario Ideas. One of my fondest memories is sitting down with the 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual for AD&D and reading through it cover-to-cover while taking copious notes for how each of its copious entries could be incorporated into my campaign world.

Above all other concerns, I believe the measure of quality for a bestiary lies in the ideas it inspires within its reader. And by this measure The Strange Bestiary is an exemplary volume: By the time I had finished perusing its contents, I had generated more than two dozen scenario ideas; enough to fuel months of gaming and probably more than one campaign.

A really fine book and one which I would heartily recommend for any GM getting ready to translate their way into the Strange.

Style: 4 (2 for PDF)
Substance: 4 (3 for PDF)

Author: Bruce R. Cordell, Monte Cook, and Robert J. Schwalb
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Print Cost: $39.99
PDF Cost: $14.99
Page Count: 160


Encyclopedia of Impossible Things - Monte Cook GamesThe Encyclopedia of Impossible Things is an equipment handbook for The Strange: In addition to adding hundreds of new cyphers, it also introduces the concept of “artifacts” to the game.

First, the new Cyphers. Taking up a wide swath of the book, these are probably the primary utility of the book and, if you’re running a campaign of The Strange, almost certainly make the book worth purchasing entirely in their own right.

There’s a reason the Cypher System is named after these one-use items (which create a constant, semi-random churn of a group’s capacities and, thus, continuously sparks the game with a fresh feed of creative and unexpected play), and increasing their variety by more than six-fold is a huge asset for any game. (I’ll also note that, as far as I can tell, the crossover with the Technology Compendium for Numenera is extremely minimal, so that buying both books also represents a good value.)

My one critique of the new cyphers is that a significant minority of them are just game mechanics that are left floating around without any comprehensible connection to the game world. For example:


Earth: Thin black gloves

Ardeyn: Amulet

Ruk: Spine graft

Effect: The user has an asset on lying, sneaking, lockpicking, falling, and resisting torture for twenty-four hours.

I get that these are basically the equivalent of skill boost magic items from D&D, but in D&D the form and function of the item tend to be obviously connected: Gauntlets of ogre strength give you a boost to Strength because they push, pull, and punch. How do thin black gloves help you lie?

This is a particularly egregious example because the grab-bag of purely mechanical effects seems fairy arbitrary. Lying, sneaking, lockpicking… yes, those are all things which would help someone infiltrate. Resisting torture, though? Seems like that’s what happens when you’ve already failed your infiltration. And having an asset on “falling” is weird since it doesn’t really sync up with the core rule mechanics for falling damage. Maybe they were thinking of HALO insertions or base-jumping?

This is a fairly minor critique, however. Although there are a significant number of such items, they’re surrounded by a multitude of more interesting cyphers. And even with these items the GM shouldn’t struggle too much to tweak them or provide forms which make their utility more interesting in-character.

Which brings us to the second major component of the Encyclopedia: Artifacts.

Encyclopedia of Impossible Things - Monte Cook GamesIn Numenera, artifacts and cyphers were basically two sides of the same coin: Both were remnants of ancient technology inexplicable to modern understandings of the world. The only distinction was that cyphers were one-shot items and artifacts could be used multiple times before they would stop working (as randomly determined by a depletion roll).

The core rulebook of The Strange didn’t really include artifacts in this sense. Cyphers were manifestations of the Strange itself (possibly bugs, possibly backdoor features originally accessible via the alien equivalent of cheat codes or sysop privileges, possibly some remnant of forgotten network functionality), but it used the term “artifact” to mean “powerful items featuring ‘impossible’ functions that are native to a particular recursion”. So magic items on Ardeyn, crazy bio-science tech on Ruk, and so forth. The nature of these items weren’t intrinsically linked, except insofar as they were all generally modeled using the depletion roll mechanic. On Earth it included stuff like perpetual motion engines and inapposite harnesses.

But the concept was always kind of muddy, because the term “artifact” was ALSO defined to just mean “anything that’s difficult to obtain in that particular recursion”. So on Earth, for example, a pistol is equipment but a rocket-propelled grenade launcher is an artifact.

This muddiness in the core rulebook didn’t really matter because it didn’t list that many artifacts. But in the Encyclopedia the ill-defined nature of artifacts, in my opinion, bloomed into a full-blown problem. Partly this is because the utility of an “artifact” is thoroughly confused — you end up with powerful technology/magic and rare items and items that can translate like cyphers all muddled up into one big grab-bag. But also because the larger multitude of “artifacts” leads the designers to try to hang other mechanics off the term “artifacts”… except the term doesn’t actually mean anything, right?

For example:


A physical duplicate of the user, or a touched creature or object, appears next to the user. […] If a duplicate of an artifact is created, the original may become depleted… Likewise, if a cypher is duplicated, the original may dissipate.

So the Dupe can duplicate a shotgun (which isn’t an artifact), but it probably can’t duplicate a rocket-propelled grenade launcher (because it is an “artifact”). And this sort of thing gets even weirder because the Encyclopedia deepens the muddle by realizing that technology which is rare (and therefore an “artifact”) in one recursion may be really common in another recursion (and would therefore not be an “artifact” there). So in some recursions you can’t dupe a shotgun, because they’re unusually rare/powerful there and are therefore considered an “artifact”.

It’s kind of a confusing mess. And a largely unnecessary one.

Personally, the artifacts in my Strange campaign follow the same basic paradigm as in Numenera: They’re based on the same principles as cyphers except they can be used multiple times. (Which, in The Strange, means that they’re manifestations of the Strange itself.)

There’s also other equipment which happens to use the depletion roll mechanic. (Magic wands, for example. Or strange creations of mad science on a superhero recursion.) In many recursions, there’s also technology/magic that can duplicate the function of any number of cyphers… but they’re not actually cyphers. (Just like your Earth-made pistol, they can’t translate and they can function oddly if taken through an inapposite gate.)

If you basically do the same thing, then the seventy or so pages of “Artifacts” in the Encyclopedia can be a really great resources, albeit with a somewhat chaotic arrangement.

The Encyclopedia is rounded out with a half dozen pages describing the creation of personal recursions. Basically you expend a cypher 2 and XP and you create a little pocket dimension for yourself. The concept is interesting, but, much like the rules for genesis quests and creating recursions in the core rulebook, I feel that it’s an idea which really demands more care and attention than it has so far been given in any of the published resources.

Style: 4
Substance: 3

Author: Bruce R. Cordell
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Print Cost: $39.99
PDF Cost: $14.99
Page Count: 160

Encyclopedia of Impossible Things - Monte Cook Games

Go to Part 1


In stark contrast to inapposite recursion travel, the process of translation — which has been hypothesized to use the “normal” transfer protocols of the dark energy network — is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a strange one.

A fundamental part of the translation process, of course, is that the Strange alters the recursor in order to fit them into the local context of the destination recursion. This can include physical alterations, but also notably includes new skills and abilities, too.

The experience of having these new skills, however, is similar to an amnesiac’s: The recursor has semantic memories of how the skill is performed, but lack any episodic memory of how they were acquired. This can be disorienting and sometimes confusing. Even more disturbing for many is the realization that the Strange overwrites some of their normal semantic memories in order to… make room? for the new semantic processes. (Or possibly the Strange is blocking those semantic memories without actually removing them? But for what purpose? Or is it just a random bug resulting from whatever catastrophic event caused the Strange to malfunction into its current form?)

(Note: Although it’s customary — and recommended! — for players to choose their new Focus when traveling to a recursion, this is generally not an experience shared by the character. Most characters are surprised by their new appearance, skills, and the like.)

Fitting the translated recursor into the context of the recursion is not merely a matter of changing the recursor, however. The Strange also seeks to integrate them into the life/narrative/social topography of the recursion. Generally speaking, there are two versions of this.

The Man With No Name: This is widely considered the easier variant. The Strange decides that the quickened individual should be cast as some form of outsider who has just arrived in town (or similar scenario). There may be some evidence that they’ve come from somewhere else (travel papers, identity card, or the like), but that life is largely irrelevant to current circumstances and often turns out not to have left any meaningful trail to it (dead parents, no friends, classmates who don’t really remember you all that well, etc.). In some cases, a recursor will find that their identity’s “former life” never existed at all, with continuity gaps in to the recursion.

Quantum Leap: The other variant has been nicknamed quantum leaping by Estate Agents. Here the recursor finds themselves slipped into a fully fledged identity within the recursion: They’ll have family, a job, friends… and no memory of any of them. Figuring out the parameters of the life they’ve found themselves in can often be a little tricky.

(Even worse is “cliffhanging”. That’s when you show up in a recursion hanging off of a cliff or having a gun pointed at you with no idea how “you” got “yourself” into this situation.)

In some cases, this new identity and its full supporting cast will have been created out of whole cloth by the Strange and integrated into the recursion. In other cases, the translating recursor will have taken over the life of some previously Spark-less member of the recursion.

Translation Orientation: Upon arriving in a new recursion, recursors typically have no knowledge of the recursion or of their place within it. However, in some cases recursors gain episodic memory in addition to semantic memory, often manifesting as a basic knowledge of what the recursion is. (It’s been suggested that this is the subconscious mind in some way picking up knowledge from the Strange’s data stream.)

Quickened individuals with sufficient skill can sometimes force this acquisition of information about a recursion they’re arriving in via translation.

(Note: This is a specific house rule. Players can spend 2 XP when translating to a new recursion in order to get the standard “recursion briefing” described in the core rulebook. If they do not, they simply arrive in media res and will have to figure things out as they go.)

Persistent Recursion Identity: In very rare cases, translating out of a recursion won’t cause the PC’s identity there to disappear. Instead, a spark-less duplicate (seemingly possessing only the knowledge of the “recursion identity”) will continue living their life there. (This construct will, of course, be once again replaced by the PC when or if they return to that recursion.)

Many find this disquieting for obvious reasons.

No one has ever observed a persistent recursion identity gaining the Spark (let alone becoming quickened in their own right). It’s possible that it’s impossible for this to happen. But if it did, no one knows what the consequences would be for the recursor to whom the identity “belongs”. (It’s possible that they would simply kill the new Sparked individual. Or it’s possible that they would just temporarily inhabit their body. Or it’s possible they’d both end up in the same head, able to talk to each other and wrestle for control of the body. Or maybe the recursor would simply find themselves in a new identity, since their former one has been “claimed”.)


The Strange - Crisis Point

Contrary to what the core rulebook says, the Aleph component buried inside the Earth is not why Earth has generated so many recursions. The Aleph component may prove important, but Earth isn’t a special snowflake: The Strange is drawn to concentrations of sentient life. Any planet with 7+ billion people on it would have a similar corncucopia of recursions all around it.

And that’s part of the problem.

Historically, Earth’s population was small and its collective creative consciousness was heavily limited due to the lack of mass communication. The lower concentration of the Strange around the planet meant that ideas needed to be bigger and more persistent in the collective subconscious of the planet in order to instantiate as a recursion, and the limits of literacy and communication meant that it took very long periods of time for ideas to reach that threshold.

Now, however, the population has caused the Strange to concentrate. That lowers the threshold for the creation of new recursions at the same time that the sheer size of the population — combined with mass literacy and mass communication — has caused an explosion in memetic content.

There’s also some evidence that the concentration of the Strange around the planet is resulting in a higher proportion of the planet’s population becoming quickened, at the same time that the population boom would already be radically increasing the total number of quickened.

Simultaneously, the sheer quantity of recursions means that recursion natives with the Spark (and even quickened recursion natives!) are increasing at an exponential rate.

All of this, in turn, increases the number of interactions between recursions. Which, in turn, causes more Spark events among recursion natives. Larger recursions also tend to naturally possess a larger percentage of natives with the Spark, and, of course, those are also on the rise.

Some refer to this as the Strange Point. Planetovores are a real and prevalent threat from the Strange, but they’re not the only one: The Estate is arriving on the scene at the very moment that the Shoals of Earth are transforming from a handful of isolated worlds into a burbling and interconnected morass of recursions. What the consequences of this may be would be impossible to predict even if we fully understood the nature of the Strange itself.

Which, of course, we don’t.


Virtuvian Cabal

When the Estate first made contact with the Quiet Cabal on Ruk, the Cabal told them that Ruk had been hidden in Earth’s shoals since before humanity evolved.

This is a lie.

Or, if you want to be more polite about it, a cover story.

Ruk — the recursion of an alien world transformed into a life raft for the survivors of their race — arrived in the Shoals of Earth three or four hundred years ago. When they arrived, the Quiet Cabal decided the best way to make their new “home” secure was to try to isolate Earth from the Strange. The reason all of the “magical” stuff went away and science now reigns supreme is because the “real” magic was all about pulling stuff from recursions or manipulating the Strange, and the Quiet Cabal eradicated the inapposite gates and suppressed the “magical” teachings which allowed people to tap into the Strange.

Age of Enlightenment? Inadvertent byproduct of the Quiet Cabal.

It’s hard to say how the Estate will react to this when the truth comes out, but the Quiet Cabal would tell you bluntly that they did it for humanity’s own good. The first danger a civilization faces from the Strange is that it obscures the civilization’s ability to interact with and understand the physics of the prime reality.

The second danger? Look at what’s happening now.

The problem is that the Recursion Renaissance created by the massive boom in Earth’s population and our technological advances has made the Cabal’s “seal Earth off” plan non-viable. The Cabal is trying to figure out how to deal with the new situation, but this is also why the Karum is gaining political strength on Ruk: An increasing number of Rukians are forced to conclude that, if humanity can’t be protected from itself, then the problem of humanity needs to be dealt with. Permanently.

As the Estate digs deeper into researching the Strange and investigating Strange-related incidents, they’re going to increasingly discover evidence of this historical cover-up.


In addition to the emergent dangers of the increasingly chaotic system forming from the increased recursion and quickened activity in the Shoals of Earth, it’s possible that the increasing concentration of the Strange itself may manifest new properties.

One hypothetical possibility are Strange Incursions: The Strange literally overwriting the prime reality instead of merely creating pocket universes within its dark energy network.

Imagine, for example, a day when Devil’s Tower in Wyoming is overwritten by the popular conception of the laccolithic butte which exists in the popular consciousness as a result of Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Alien spaceships stream into the sky above the United States.

Disturbingly, some of the Estate’s investigations into inapposite gates suggest that this sort of phenomenon is already consistent with the mechanisms of the Strange: The difference between a very large inapposite gate and a recursion being written “over” the prime reality may be an entirely academic distinction.

Is this end? Perhaps. Perhaps some of the worlds which have been torn asunder by their exposure to the Strange have died not as a result of planetovores, but due to the Great Filter of the Strange itself. Perhaps that is, in fact, what led to the destruction of the civilization which originally created the Strange in the first place.

Or perhaps not.

Lyapunov Fractal


My primary goal with these tweaks to the metaphysics of The Strange is to open up scenarios that the existing metaphysics make impossible. For example, “Fantasy creature comes to Earth!” is already the basis for a large number of scenarios for The Strange, but the stakes are always relatively low because even if the PCs don’t do anything at all the creature will generally decay and die within a few days. I think it’s more interesting to have a setting which is, in fact, under meaningful threat not only from the planetovores, but from the recursions themselves. It also allows for the recursions to function as a more meaningful resource to be exploited (both by Earth and by each other).

I believe the intention of the Strange “half-life” for entities from other recursions is to help explain why Earth isn’t already overrun with things from the Strange. My revised background for the Quiet Cabal provides an alternative solution for this, while leaving wide open the possibility that they (and the other emerging organizations like the Estate) will lose control of this situation.

The revision of the translation mechanics has a similar motivation: First, I like the idea of truly exploring the strange new world you’ve come to, which you lose if you follow the rulebook’s procedure of providing a brief primer to the players/characters of the recursion they’re arriving in. Second, the “quantum leap” dynamic adds some really rich possibilities for scenarios which otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Note that, in both instances, I leave open avenues for the GM and/or players to bypass the “let’s figure out where we are and who we are” portion of the scenario whenever they wish. It’s one of those best of both worlds things.

I was also seeking throughout to clarify certain points where I find that the core rulebook isn’t necessarily clear about whether decisions are being made by the players or the characters. I find this primarily happens because, in The Strange, character creation bleeds over into actual play (with character creation activities taking place every time you translate to the new recursion). Once again, I find the, “Who am I?” question to be an interesting one for the character to confront; but this is balanced against the player’s interest in controlling the type of character they’re playing.

I’ve found that many people feel this is very different from other RPGs, but I think it’s more similar than you think: The dissociated decisions you’re making in selecting a new Focus for your character in The Strange is not that dissimilar from the dissociated decisions you’re making when you level up a character in D&D or spend skill points in GURPS. These are all character creation/development/advancement mechanics and, as I’ve mentioned in the past, such mechanics are virtually always dissociated.

The final thing I did was remove the idea of Earth as a “special snowflake” of the setting. This just boils down to my belief that the setting is more interesting if you can imagine lots and lots and lots of alien recursions floating around out there. (Later stages of a campaign could even feature ways of traveling from the Shoals of Earth to the shoals of alien worlds. Perhaps that could be the true purpose of the Aleph component in your game?)

This is, in many ways, a house rule document, although it is primarily concerned with setting material rather than mechanical content. I’m a big fan of Bruce R. Cordell’s The Strange. I find its premise fascinating and the possibilities of the setting refreshingly vast. It’s a truly delightful twist on the interdimensional genre.

But having spent a few years playing around with The Strange, there are a few tweaks to the metaphysics of the setting which I think enrich it for the purposes of gaming, and I think other prospective GMs of The Strange might find them useful to consider.


I’ve talked about the potential benefits of rolling back the clock on a published RPG setting previously.

For The Strange specifically, the thing I note is that the Estate — as described in the core rulebook and sourcebooks — is aware of and has relationships with a lot of different organizations and threats. The Estate has fully established itself among the major players, carved out a specific role for itself, and is also very knowledgeable of the current state of affairs as far as the Strange is concerned.

If you’re running a campaign in which the PCs are (or are likely to become) Estate agents, I’m going to recommend that you roll the timeline back to a point before that’s all true. Let the players experience the “first contact” experiences of the Estate and help determine exactly what place the Estate carves out for itself (and how that will affect the fate of the entire planet and the many recursions which it sustains).

One option would be for the PCs to be among the very first agents recruited by Katherine J. Manners after her experiences with Carter Strange (as described in Bruce R. Cordell’s Myth of the Maker novel). This would make for a campaign roughly equivalent to the first days of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the summer of 1942; much as the agents of the OSS were confronted with figuring out how an intelligence agency should work from scratch, the PCs would need to invent what it means to be a Strange agency from scratch.

The approach I would advocate as a more general structure for The Strange would place the action four or five years after that (the equivalent of joining the CIA during its early days): The Estate is an established organization, the campus in Seattle has been built, and they have at least several dozen active agents. At the moment they:

  • Are well-established in Ardeyn and Ruk.
  • Have explored or “made contact” with over a hundred other recursions and have active missions in at least a dozen of them.
  • Using the Morrison Fellowships (and other, more nefarious means) to detect, monitor, and shut down individual projects which threaten to ping the Strange.
  • Tracking and shutting down incursions from the Strange.
  • Tracking and recruiting quickened individuals.

They have just recently:

  • Discovered that independent “recursion miners” exist. They are now tracking the activities of several, and this department is ramping up.
  • Made contact with the Quiet Cabal (see below), who has also made them aware of the existence of the Karum. These are the first major Strange-related organizations that the Estate has become aware of an begun interacting with.

The Estate is NOT aware of:

  • Circle of Liberty; they may discover the Circle’s activities as a result of investigating Dr Gavin Bixby (The Strange, p. 154), and then later uncover its connections to the Karum as a result of liaisoning with the Quiet Cabal
  • September Project
  • Office of Strategic Recursion; the CIA discovered quickened individuals as a result of the MJ-12 projects and the OSR has been around for decades
  • Spiral Dust; which may not even have started being distributed yet (I imagine the PCs being the first ones to make contact with it)
  • Butterfly Objectors; these disaffected former recursors are only just beginning to organize (and Dedrian Andrews is still an Estate Agent, see The Strange, p. 155).

Basically, the vibe you’re looking for is that the Estate feels very large and well-established and the big fish in the Strange pond when the campaign starts… but they’re about to discover that there are more big players out there than they ever suspected.

Taking a little peek into the future, I will also now suggest that what will set the Estate apart from the other extant organizations is their willingness to form alliances and working relationships with the inhabitants of the recursions they interact with. Where most of the other “big players” take an Earth First (or Ruk First) approach and look on the Strange as a resource to be exploited or a danger to be guarded against, the Estate has a more holistic approach to the problems of Earth and its shoals.


One of the major priorities of the Estate’s research department has been to explore how “Strange Science” works. Their initial efforts at a Unified Theory of the Strange was that different recursions operate under distinct “laws”: Mad Science, Magic, Psionics, and so forth. The reality, however, has proven more complex than this.

Standard Physics — the rules of physics as they exist in the prime reality of Earth’s universe — is also fundamental to all recursions.

In any circumstance where recursions appear to allow effects impossible under the laws of physics, that is almost always because the Strange is actively creating and sustaining that effect. When you cast a spell in Ardeyn, for example, the fundamental reality is not that the laws of physics on Ardeyn allow spells to work; it’s that the dark energy network of the Strange recognizes the spell as being consistent with its model of the Ardeyn recursion and it actively creates that effect. The distinction is subtle, but important.

Substandard Physics: In a recursion with substandard physics, the Strange network appears to do exactly the opposite. Instead of enabling acts which are not compatible with physics, it actively prevents or suppresses actions which physics would normally allow. A common example are fantasy recursions where gunpowder won’t ignite.

Exotic Physics: The exception which proves the rule are exotic recursions. In these recursions, the Strange has fundamentally altered the laws of physics. These effects are generally fairly minor (like varying the gravitational constant), but radical departures are also possible. These recursions are incredibly dangerous to visit through inapposite gates, as the proper functioning of the human body is rather dependent upon the laws of physics. (Visiting them through translation is just fine, since the translation process creates a body consistent with the local exotic laws. Although, in this case, leaving the exotic recursion can be equally dangerous.)


When traveling via translation, the Strange takes care of realigning people, creatures, and objects to their “new reality”. Where things become complicated is when inapposite gates allow matter to transfer directly from one recursion to another (or to Earth) without going through the translation process.

Transferring Technology: The first thing to note is that mixing-and-matching reality is not something which can be easily generalized. The Menzoberranzan, Harry Potter, Ardeyn, and Middle Earth recursions all feature magic wands, but the wands which work in one recursion may not be “compatible” with another. The same thing applies to, say, laser guns from different science fiction recursions. On the other hand, sometimes they do.

Technology taken through an inapposite gate to an incompatible reality will become “buggy”, becoming subject to a depletion roll once per use or once per day. On a failure, the technology stops working. The severity of the depletion roll usually defaults to 1d20, but the GM can set a different threshold if they feel it appropriate.

Note that technology with an Earth origin will work in virtually all recursions, the exceptions being those with substandard or exotic physics.

Stabilized Technology: Some technology, however, will become stable within the new reality. This can happen as a result of a GM intrusion, but can also occur if the technology succeeds at a number depletion checks equal to the die type. (For example if a 1 in 1d20 depletion roll succeeds 20 times without breaking down, the tech becomes stable.)

Some stabilized technology actually becomes an artifact, but most stabilized technology will become unstable again if it’s taken through another inapposite gate.

Working with Impossible Technology: Although existing items can be brought through an inapposite gate, attempting to create new versions of those items (or repair them) outside of the incursions where their creation is part of the simulation never works. (You can import Star Trek phasers, but you can’t create them on Earth.)

The underlying cause of this behavior appears to be that items are “tagged” by the Strange network as possessing certain attributes. Inapposite gates move those items to a new context (possibly bypassing the normal translation-based safeguards of the Strange), but they’re still tagged with a particular functionality and the Strange will continue to actively enact that functionality.

Revelatory Technology: Sometimes, however, the Strange is allowing technology to work because it follows the normal laws of physics in ways that humanity doesn’t understand yet. This technology is incredibly valuable, because you can bring it back to Earth, figure out what makes it tick, and replicate it.

Some believe that this technology actually offers a glimpse into the unimaginable civilization which originally created the Strange. But it’s also possible that the Strange is simply working from templates created by other civilizations. Or perhaps the Strange itself is some sort of insane (or simply incomprehensible) artificial intellect. We just don’t know enough to be sure.

Cyphers and Artifacts: Cyphers and artifacts fundamentally seem to work due to the same principles that allow other forms of technology to work in alien recursions. The distinction is that cyphers and artifacts can also pass through the normal translation-based firewalls of the Strange. (Carter Strange once described these items as having “sysop privileges”.)

Transferring Life: Unlike technology, lifeforms passing through inapposite gates usually have no difficulty, although environments which would naturally be lethal to them will, of course, continue to be so (including exotic recursions, as described above). The best hypothesis for the distinction is that the byzantine, alien operating system underlying the Strange somehow gives priority to life.

Vitruvian Man SymbolIf that’s the case, the Strange network’s definition of “life” seems to be fairly broad, encompassing virtually any independently operating entity (including things line animate skeletons and robots).

Fortunately, it appears that the Strange contains some sort of limited hazmat protocol that weeds out viruses and most microscopic / sub-atomic entities. “Gray goo” nanotech can’t propagate through inapposite gates; nor can the civilization-ending flu from The Stand.

It should also be noted that taking sentient creatures without the Spark through an inapposite gate will often awake the Spark within them.

In a manner similar to that found with technology, creatures with physiologies sufficiently incompatible with their current recursion (or the prime reality) are also unable to breed or otherwise reproduce: You can bring a Tribble to Earth, but they won’t take over the entire planet. (Taking a Tribble to a Star Wars-derived recursion, however, will probably result in varied forms of hilarity.)

Go to Part 2

The Strange: Strange Revelations - Bruce R. CordellA couple years ago I reviewed Weird Discoveries, a collection of ten “Instant Adventures” for Numenera using an innovative scenario format featuring:

  • Two page description of the scenario’s background and initial hook.
  • Two page spread that has “everything you need to run the adventure”.
  • Two pages of additional details that can be used to flesh out the scenario.

The general idea being that the GM will be able to pick up one of these scenarios, rapidly familiarize themselves with it, and be able to run it with confidence in roughly the same amount of time that it takes for the players to familiarize themselves with some pregenerated characters (which are also included in the book). Basically, you lower the threshold for spending the evening playing an RPG to that of a board game: You can propose it off-the-cuff and be playing it 15 minutes later. And since I’ve been preaching the virtues of open tables and the importance of getting RPGs back to memetically viral and easily shared experience they were in the early days of D&D, that’s obviously right up my alley.

Last year, Monte Cook Games released Strange Revelations, which basically took the exact same concept and applied it to The Strange, their other major game line. I did not immediately read through it because, at the time, there was a plan in place for me to actually play in a campaign where the GM was going to use these scenarios. Those plans fell through, unfortunately, but now I’m in a position where I’m running a campaign of The Strange and I’m naturally tapping Strange Revelations as a resource for scenarios.


Since 2015, I’ve actually spent a considerable amount of time interacting with MCG’s Instant Adventure format under a variety of use-types: Using them as one-shots, incorporating them into ongoing campaigns, running them at conventions, using them with and without prep, etc.

Unfortunately, the more time I spend with them, the less I like them.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the basic structure of the format is a limitation: It only really works with certain kinds of adventures. Unfortunately, it’s become a one-size-fits-all format for Monte Cook Games, and so they end up trying to cram every type of adventure into the format. (This is something I talk about in the Art of the Key: When you become a slave to your format instead of using the format and structure that’s appropriate for the specific content you’re creating it never ends well.)

There also seem to be some systemic problems with the specific execution of the format. These prominently include:

Keys. As discussed at length in my original review of Weird Discoveries, the Instant Adventure format uses Keys to highlight essential elements for the scenario — either some crucial item or clue without which the scenario cannot be resolved. But rather than simply include these Keys in the scenario, they are optionally coded into different scenes or locations using an icon which refers back to a table on a different page that describes what the Keys are.

The most immediate problem is that by putting literally the most crucial information on a different page, MCG fundamentally sabotages the entire concept of the central two page spread being the only thing you need to look at during play.

But the more insidious problem, as I’ve discovered, is that good scenario design is not in the generic; it is in the specific. Figuring out how information flows to the players during a mystery, for example, is a key difference between a good mystery scenario and a mediocre one. By genericizing the core elements of the scenario, the Instant Adventures format lends itself to mushy, generic scenarios that are, as a result, largely forgettable.

Bad Cartography: Inexplicably, many of the two-page spreads consist of sketchy, vague maps that have keyed content “associated” with them by having arrows pointing at semi-random locations on them. Strange Revelations is slightly better in this regard than Weird Discoveries, but it’s still frequently problematic. For example, here’s the map from one adventure paired with the graphical handout depicting what it’s supposedly mapping:

The Strange: Strange Revelations - Alien Spaceship Map

Confusing Graphical Handouts: This ties into another problem with the book. It includes 10 pages of pictorial handouts — referred to as “Show ‘Ems” — that are designed for the GM to hand to the players. I absolutely love pictorial handouts. The problem is that I would classify the majority of these as being functionally unusable. They do things like:

  • Depict things which don’t match the text of the adventure (like the spaceship above).
  • Include random characters who don’t appear in the text of the adventure. (Are they meant to be the PCs?)
  • Spoil surprises. (For example, there’s one scenario where the PCs are supposed to get attacked by bad guys after arriving onsite… except the Show ‘Em depicting the site shows the bad guys standing there waiting for the PCs. I ended up photoshopping them out in order to use the picture.)

To be fair, many of these problems have afflicted pictorial handouts since The Tomb of Horrors first pioneered the form. But I nevertheless remain disappointed every time I see these get fumbled (partly because I always get so excited at the prospect of it being done right).

GM Intrusion Misuse: For some reason, MCG’s Instant Adventures frequently describe scenario-crucial event as “GM Intrusions”. (Possibly because the format doesn’t include any other way to key this content in some cases?) The problem is that, in the Cypher System, players can use XP to negate GM Intrusions. (See The Art of GM Instrusions.) So what these scenarios basically end up saying is, “Offer your players the opportunity to spend 1 XP to NOT receive the clue they need to solve the mystery.”

Too Short: Probably the most significant problem, however, is when the struggle to cram material into the two page spread causes a scenario to come up short. Literally. There are simply too many examples of Instant Adventures that are supposed to fill an evening of gaming or a 4 hour convention slot which consist of only 3-4 brief scenes. For example, there’s a scenario in Strange Revelations which consists of:

  • Seeing a wall with a symbol spray-painted on it.
  • Talking to an NPC.
  • Talking to a second NPC.
  • Being ambushed by a single NPC.
  • A final fight vs. a single NPC.

Maybe your mileage varies. But for me, that might fill a couple hours of game play.


… if you’re a big fan of The Strange.

I’m not sure whether Strange Revelations suffers more regularly from these systemic failures than the scenarios in Weird Discoveries, or if I’ve just gotten more sensitive to these problems as a result of running face-first into them so many times. If it’s the former, I suspect it’s because Strange Revelations is so often struggling to force material that’s not really appropriate for the format into the format. Cordell does some very clever things trying to make the format work, but it’s clear that he’s got some really cool ideas for scenarios that are just being hamstrung by the necessity of making them work (or sort-of work) as Instant Adventures.

And it’s that “cool idea” factor that is why, ultimately, I found value in this book and suspect that you might find value, too: Above all else, Strange Revelations gives you 10 separate scenarios for $24.99 (or $10 in PDF). At as little as $1 per scenario, it can have a lot of rough edges and still be worth the effort sanding down the edges. At the moment it looks as if, with near certainty, I’ll be using at least 8-9 of these scenarios at my gaming table (with various amounts of tender loving care), and in my experience that’s a pretty good hit rate for a scenario anthology.

It’s just incredibly frustrating to see an idea with so much potential greatness as the Instant Adventures so consistently come up just short of achieving that greatness. It’s also frustrating to see that MCG has apparently decided to produce ALL of its scenario content in the form of Instant Adventures, which severely limits the scope of the scenario support they’re capable of offering for some absolutely fantastic games.

Bottom line for me: If Bruce R. Cordell offered another collection of 10 scenarios for The Strange, I would scarcely hesitate before dropping $10 on them.

Style: 4
Substance: 3

Author: Bruce R. Cordell
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Print Cost: $24.99
PDF Cost: $9.99
Page Count: 96
ISBN: 978-1939979439

The Strange - Bruce R. Cordell

In Bruce R. Cordell’s The Strange, Earth is surrounded by a miasma of dark energy which, according to the best guess of Carter Morrison (who most prominently discovered it), is the broken remnant of an ancient interstellar transportation network created by some vast alien civilization. In its current state, the dark energy network — which Morrison dubbed the Strange and others refer to as the Chaosphere — is drawn to sentient life. Where there are large concentrations of sentient life (like, say, a planet with 7 billion people living on it), the dark matter clumps thickly.

Once gathered in sufficient quantity, the Strange will begin to manifest “recursions” or “limited worlds”. (Whether this was an original, intended function of the dark energy network or an emergent property of its current state is unclear.) Each recursion is a tiny universe, operating according to its own rules of reality. They are something like a computer simulation, but it appears that the data network of the Strange actually manifests them as a physical reality. Most recursions are “seeded” through a process referred to as “fictional leakage”: The Strange manifests the collective subconscious of humanity as physical realities within its matrix. This means that, within the recursions clustered around Earth, you can find worlds based on historical mythology, pop culture, conspiracy theories, television shows, massive multiplayer online roleplaying games, and basically any other memetic clustering of ideas.


Not to be confused with fictional leakage is the concept of fictional linkage. Fictional linkage occurs when the Strange’s manifestation of the collective subconscious causes multiple recursions to spontaneously interact with each other.

Perhaps the most basic (and common) form of fictional linkage is the crossover. For example, there is known to be at least one recursion based on the Marvel superheroes and several recursions based on the DC superheroes. It is not unusual at all for inapposite gates to manifest as part of the recursive reality in those limited worlds, linking them together and allowing for crossover team-up scenarios to play out.

JLA/Avengers - Kurt Busiek, George Perez

A slightly more unusual form of fictional linkage is the visitation. Take, for example, the recursion of the USS Enterprise. This recursion is actually limited almost entirely to the ship itself. (In fact, its internal architecture is, as a result of non-Euclidean geometry, mostly dominated by the major sets that were built for the TV show.) The rules of the recursion frequently generate planets for the ship to “stop” at, but in some cases the ship is actually reaching planets through fictional linkage — it arrives in “orbit” around a science fiction planet that’s actually a separate recursion.

The Enterprise is also a good example of context collision, which occurs when fictional linkage results in one or both recursions involved in the linkage having its reality shifted to Sherlock Holmes - Leonard Nimoybecome consistent with the context of the other. For example, the Enterprise might appear in “orbit” above the 221B Baker Street recursion (see pg. 253 of The Strange). For the duration of the linkage, 221B Baker Street would “become” an alien planet where the natives worship the Holy Books of Doyle. (One of them Arthur Conan, the other a book of card game rules.)

That particular context collision is likely to occur with the Enterprise because that sort of thing is part of the fictional consciousness of Star Trek (see “Piece of the Action”). But you would be unlikely to see a Star Destroyer from Star Wars appear in orbit around 221B Baker Street, because that’s not the sort of thing that happens in Star Wars. (On the other hand, you might see a pair of Jedi show up on the relatively new recursion of Pandora because that world is potentially more consistent with Star Wars-derived recursions.)


For the residents of a recursion, a fictional linkage is often unremarkable: The inapposite gate that allows Spider-Man and Superman to meet is contextualized within the reality of their existence.

Context collisions, on the other hand, can often trigger sparks (granting full sentience and consciousness to a recursion’s resident as their worlds no longer make sense and they aren’t sure why, but are compelled to figure it out) and even quicken existing sparks.

In some cases, fictional linkages become permanent realignments with the two formerly separate recursions becoming a single recursion. The Estate has noticed that this is most common among “micro-melange” recursions; i.e., smaller recursions that are based around a melange of fictional tropes and beliefs on Earth (as opposed to mimicking a specific piece of fiction or mythology). One theory is that some of the larger “mature melange” recursions (those which have grown to become complete worlds as opposed to smaller “shard” recursions which only contain a single city or region) are actually the accretion of multiple micro-recursions which have become joined through fictional linkage.

The Strange - Monte Cook Games



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