The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘the strange’

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

The Strange: Mastodon - Bruce Cordell

As I’ve done previously for Into the Violet Vale (for Numenera) and Eschatology Code (for The Strange), I’m offering up the prep notes I made for Mastodon — an introductory scenario for The Strange designed by Bruce Cordell — before running it at Gen Con 2015.

Unlike those previous adventures, I didn’t put together a GM cheat sheet for the adventure. But I did put together a bunch of other cool tools that I hope you’ll find useful.


The Strange: Mastodon - Notice of Termination

(click for PDF)

This Notice of Termination is designed to be given to your players as they approach the table. (Or you could e-mail it to them as a pitch for the scenario.) It’s designed to serve as an initial briefing for the background of the scenario.


The Strange: Mastodon - PC Cheat Sheets

(click for PDF)

The adventure includes pregenerated characters. The PC cheat sheets I’ve prepared are designed to eliminate book look-ups for the abilities that aren’t fully described on the character sheets. (I’ve found that this usually saves about 20-30 minutes of playing time, so their use greatly improves pacing if you’re using Mastodon as a one-shot for introducing people to the game.)

These cheat sheets, however, also include additional briefing material regarding PROJECT MASTODON and a “flashback memory” specific to each character that reveals a slice of what happened 10 years ago. (Note that I’ve specifically altered the background of the adventure to include the “amnesia” the PCs are suffering from.)

If you’re not using the pregenerated characters, it should still be relatively easy to adapt these flashbacks to whatever characters the players are running. They serve three functions:

First, in combination with the Notice of Termination, they eliminate the need for the GM to do a verbal exposition dump at the beginning of the session. Instead, you can frame hard to the PCs having drinks in the hotel bar before going up to their meeting with Alessandra Torres.

Second, they introduce an element of mystery around their experiences on Ruk. I found that this provided an additional driver for the scenario and also delivered a bigger pay-off for the players when they finally reach Ruk.

Third, by giving each PC a different clue/memory about their experiences 10 years ago, it gives them a topic of meaningful conversation for that first meeting in the hotel bar. This allows that conversation to continue at greater length, which means it also works better at introducing and establishing the characters. (Before I introduced this change to the scenario, the hotel bar meeting would usually consist of everyone saying “hi” and then sitting in awkward silence until I cut away from the scene.)


  • Mastodon Handouts: These include a Deinonychus photo, the whiteboard in the conference room, the Breakaway Couriers logo, Anson’s note, and photos of both Amla-Shoon and the Rukian guards. (You’ll need a couple of envelopes: One for the Breakaway Couriers delivery. The other for Anson’s briefing on Ruk. Glue the logo to the former; paperclip the note to the latter.)
  • PC Tent Cards: Using the pregen characters included in the scenario, I put these in the middle of the table. As people approach, they can select whichever character looks appealing to them and put the tent card in front of them. It’s a nice, quick way to facilitate character selection and also means that you (and other players) can quickly identify who’s playing who with a quick glance during play. These files are designed to be printed with Avery “Small Tent Cards” (template 5302), but you could also just print them on normal cardstock. What you need to do is take each A file and then flip it and print the matching B file. (Each sheet has four tent cards, so I’ve designed the three files so that I get two complete sets of character names if I print all three (to minimize wastage). If you just want one set, print sets 1 and 2 and you should be good to go.)
  • Cypher Cards: These are for all the cyphers that the PCs can find or gain during the adventure. (This includes the three cyphers that Frin brings them, see above.) These cards are designed to be printed on Avery 8471 business cards, but can easily be printed on any paper or cardstock and then cut out.

Go to Part 1

A few thoughts on follow-ups to this scenario:

  • Enkara-ulla contaminated the reservoir at the water tower with Rukian biology. That reservoir is connected to the water supply for thousands of San Francisco residents. What effect may it have had on them?
  • The Strange: Violet Spiral Gambit - Transamerica PyramidThe crisis at the Transamerica Pyramid may result in a huge up-tick in quickened individuals throughout the San Francisco region. (Particularly if the fractal worm showed up.) The Estate may be working overtime tagging new threats and recruiting new assets.
  • Speaking of the fractal worm, the PCs may need to work fast to plant a cover story capable of explaining its presence. (LSD in the water supply?)
  • What made the Transamerica Pyramid so special? Did Jack R. Beckett (CEO of Transamerica when the Pyramid was built), William Pereira (the architect), and/or someone at the Dinwiddie Construction Company include Strange technology in its construction? (Perhaps recursion keys or inapposite gates?)
  • The most obvious step is tracking Enkara-Ulla’s operation back to Ruk. As long as he, his notes, and/or his prototypes survive there’s a significant danger to Earth. (Such an investigation might start with tracking down the inapposite gate he was using to bring Rukian equipment and personnel to Earth.) Things could get even more interesting if the entity behind the Qinod Singularity takes an inexplicable interest in his technology.
  • The mailing list of Eschaton Electronic’s customers represents a database of people with potentially strong or unusual interest in cyphers. If the Estate became aware of it, they might attempt to secure a copy (if the PCs have not already done so). And once they’ve done that, they’ll start sending teams to investigate it.


Alternatively, the recursion rupture powers up the Transamerica Pyramid as a giant, multifaceted inapposite gate.

Because of the building’s unusual shape, all of the windows in the building are designed to rotate 180-degrees – flipping around so that they can be cleaned from the inside. After the Incident, however, when you flip one of the windows around you’ll find yourself looking into another recursion (or out into the Strange).

The Estate (or some other organization) moves in to secure the building and begin exploring the 3,600+ gates that the building now plays host to.

(Alternatively: Perhaps the windows act as gates without showing you what’s on the other side. That turns the building in to the recursion-equivalent of Frederick Pohl’s Gateway.)


If you’d like to download a PDF version of The Violet Spiral Gambit, click the link below. There’s also a link for downloading all of the props for use with this scenario.

The Strange: Violet Spiral Gambit - PDF Download


The Strange: Violet Spiral Gambit - Props Pack

(Zip File)


Go to Part 1

The Strange: Violet Spiral Gambit - Crown Jewel Alight


  • Enkara-ulla has replaced the Crown Jewel beacon atop the Transamerica Pyramid and filled the Spire below it with his multiply field-tested equipment.
  • When the PCs arrive, Enkara-ulla’s machinery is up-and-running.
  • His goal is to temporarily blanket downtown San Francisco with the law of Mad Science.
  • Enkara-ulla’s experiment will actually fail regardless of what the PCs do. However, if it’s allowed to continue to conclusion what it will do is rip a huge recursion rupture in the sky above downtown San Francisco. (See Failure, below.)

GM Note: The general intention here is that the Rukians on the 48th Floor will fall back into the Spire. There will be a big, climactic fight in the Spire itself. And then the PCs will need to ascend to the Crown Jewel and prevent Enkara-ulla’s machine from opening the recursion rupture.


This intrusion can be triggered at any time when it would complicate something the PCs are trying to accomplish: Just as the PCs arrive at the building. While they’re arguing with security guards in the lobby. Just after they’ve been arrested by security. As the fight breaks out on the 48th Floor. (It should definitely start before they reach the Crown Jewel.)

BLUE LIGHTNING: Races up and down the exterior of the Pyramid, dancing across the surface of white quartz and between the 3,600 windows.

  • Speed defense (level 4) to avoid 6 points of ambient damage, then Might defense (level 4) to avoid losing next action.
  • Entering/Exiting Building: Blue lightning affects anyone trying to enter or leave the building.
  • GM Intrusion: Can be used for a blue lightning strike almost anywhere, but particularly in the Spire and Crown Jewel.

PANIC: Once the blue lightning starts, people will begin to panic (both inside the building and outside of it). PCs may need to deal with mobs (Might task to move through them). Once it becomes clear that the lightning is striking people trying to run out of the building, they may also need to take action to save people.

STRANGE CREATURES: The rupture can also serve as a vector for a GM intrusion which adds creatures from anywhere in the Strange or the recursions of Earth.

STOPPING THE RUPTURE: Once the experiment has been triggered, the equipment in the Spire is largely irrelevant. Its purpose was to catalyze the Enkara-ulla’s Ersatz Jewel. Once that’s done, the Ersatz Jewel runs by itself (see The Crown Jewel below).

FAILURE: If the PCs fail to prevent or interrupt Enkara-ulla’s experiment, the sky above the Transamerica Pyramid ruptures and a portion of the Strange is copied into the sky above downtown San Francisco.

  • Clouds billow out of the rupture, rapidly filling the sky above the pyramid.
  • Then the clouds are eaten away by huge, fractal roils of purple and blue which burn the eye that tries to follow them.
  • FRACTAL WORM: The massive tentacles of a fractal worm (Strange Bestiary, pg. 55) descend out of the roiling fog of the chaos-stuff. (Followed by the full bulk of the thing moments later.)


  • The public is only allowed on the ground floor of the Pyramid (where a gift shop and historical center are located).
  • Access to the elevators requires passing through metal detectors monitored by security guards.
  • The 48th Floor is rented out by “Uller Manufacturing”: Mentioning that name or Andrew Uller counts as an asset for convincing the guards that you have legitimate business up there.

TRANSAMERICA SECURITY GUARDS (Level 3): health 12, damage 4, armor 1.

  • Perception as level 4.
  • Paranoid, all activities involving suspicion as level 5.

48th FLOOR

The Strange: Violet Spiral Gambit - 48th Floor of the Transamerica Pyramid

A single conference room with an elevator in a niche off to one side and a flight of stairs that lead down to the restrooms on the 47th Floor

VIEW: Surrounded by windows looking out over Alcatraz, Coit Tower, Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge. (The Bank of America building to the south takes a chunk out of the view.)

SPIRE DOOR: On the wall of the conference room opposite the elevator, there’s a metal security door in the wall next to a 55” television. It leads to a short flight of stairs up to the base of the Spire.

VENOM TROOPERS (x2): The Strange, pg. 300.

  • Armed with slaughter accelerators that spit out a hail of plasma-charged flechettes.
  • After a round or two of combat, they’ll fall back into the Spire.

ENKARA-ULLA ON AIR: Enkara-ulla will commandeer the TV, displaying his face and using it to shoot electrical bolts.

  • Electrical Bolts (Level 5): 6 damage


The Strange: Violet Spiral Gambit - Spire of the Transamerica Pyramid

BASE OF THE SPIRE: A broad, open space with diamond-like girders above. The walls of the Spire are only open, aluminum grating – the window howls straight through them.

  • Strange, alien machinery has been suspended from the support beams like scaffolding. Thick, black cables run between them.
  • There are several ominous hums in the air; each overlapping and harmonizing with each other in a horrible, broken cacophony.
  • Bright lights pulse randomly here and there. Several thick laser beams stutter-step back and forth, like some sort of fiery morse code.
  • GM Note: The Spire is 212-feet tall.

STAIRS: Lower Spire is lined with a 100-foot steel stairway at a steep, 60-degree angle (+1 difficulty to move up or down it).

LADDERS: At the top of the stairs, there are two steel ladders that climb another 100 feet to the Crown Jewel above.

VENOM TROOPERS (x2): The Strange, pg. 300

  • 1 near the top of the stairs, 1 near the bottom.

RUKIAN SERVITOR DRONES (x8): Flying here and there throughout the entire height of the Spire.

ENKARA-ULLA: He’s up on the ladders, finishing adjustments to the last bit of machinery.

  • Andrew Uller: Non-descript guy. Mousy brown hair. He’s taken off his suit coat and has the sleeves on his dress shirt rolled up. His eyes have purple irises.
  • Manipulating Machinery: Causes various pieces of machinery to jut out or spark, causing 4 points of damage. (If he feels eminently threatened, he triggers his battle chrysalid transformation.)
  • Battle Chrysalid Transformation: Rips out of his skin. Mechanical wings spread wide. His human face sloughs away. (Prop: Enkara-Ulla)

GM Intrusion: Instead of dying, Enkara-ulla smashes out through the aluminum grating. (He’ll begin using his shoulder cannons to attack from a Long range, firing into the interior of the Spire.)

ENKARA-ULLA: level 5, health 30, damage 5, armor 2

  • Performs Mad Science tasks as level 7.
  • Melee Flurry: Can make two melee attacks as a single action.
  • Shoulder-Mounted Slaughter Accelerators: Can also fire two shoulder-mounted slaughter accelerators as part of the same action.

RUKIAN SERVITOR DRONES: level 2, health 6, damage 2

  • Rukian Servitor Drones are the size of a small dog with a vaguely insectoid appearance.
  • They’re biotech, with either metal wings or aeropter rotors grafted to their backs.


The chamber at the top of the Spire is a glass cap perched atop the Pyramid. It’s roughly the size of an office cubicle.

  • GM Note: The beacon that is normally located in the center of the Crown Jewel is a multi-faceted reflector inside a glass cylinder. Puts out 6,000 watts and is only lit on special occasions.

ERSATZ JEWEL: A huge, cylindrical console thrusts up out of the floor. Atop it is a device studded with long, purple crystals.

  • Strange Lore – Intellect task (difficulty 3): To recognize the purple crystals as violet spiral (see Scenario Background).
  • Removing the Jewel: Intellect task (difficulty 6). On failure, the person pulling the jewel out is struck by arcs of blue lightning.

BREAKING THE JEWEL: Deal 10 damage to the Ersatz Jewel and it will explode. (The explosion takes off the top of the Pyramid.)

  • Explosion: 12 ambient damage, Speed task (difficulty 6) to jump down the stairs and only take 2 ambient damage.

REMOVING THE JEWEL: As they begin working to deactivate the Ersatz Jewel, it will begin sending pulses of energy up into the air. The blue lightning will intensify. It’s a race to finish before the rupture occurs.

  • Rupture Race: Must succeed at 5 Intellect tasks (difficulty 5). If the PCs ever have more failures than successes, they’ve failed and the rupture occurs (see Failure, above).
  • Special: PCs can’t fail on the first check. If they fail the first check, arcs of blue lightning (6 ambient damage) course through them. (This still counts as a failure; they’ll need to dig out of the hole.)

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