With both the cultural monolith that is Avengers: Endgame finally upon us, and D&D having sunk it’s claws into my soul after a long absence (I’m trapped in two campaigns at the moment), I felt the urge to play some tabletop super-powered RPGs. Or at the very least, flip through my old books and reminisce about old characters and stories. The RPG I go back to for this fix every time, without fail, is Aberrant, a game that’s out of print and lost in the shuffle. I’ve been wanting to write about it for awhile now because it’s an under appreciated gem in White Wolf’s crown, and I don’t want it to be forgotten.
The gameplay was fun, flexible, and the lore was way ahead of the curve in its depth of world building. I actually think it’s more relevant today in 2019, than when it was released back in 1999. At least a few other people do too, as Onyx Path Publishing is working on a second edition. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What I really want to talk about is the setting.
Aberrant was the second core rulebook in a planned trilogy of games called the “Æon Continuum”. This is an important fact, because in order to feel the impact of this game’s setting you have to know its place in a much larger, meticulously woven plot. The Æon Continuum was a unique set of games, a risky attempt by White Wolf to take a crack at genres other than horror. Though each game is radically different in tone, they are linked by a shared world, picking up at different points in its timeline. This wasn’t originally the plan for Aberrant. It was initially a stand alone game already in development, and both it and Æon, the first game in the trilogy, were reworked to interconnect.
Aberrant is set in 2009, ten years in the future at the time of its publication, and in it you play a Nova, a human being who gains the ability to alter the universe at a quantum level, which manifests itself as kickass super powers. But this isn’t DC or Marvel, it’s mostly our world. It’s messy, divisive, and the people who have power aren’t necessarily the ones you want to. It’s a world where public image and celebrity status mean everything. The only people that matter now are the gods that walk amongst us, the Novas.
The game drops you in at the end of the golden age. In the decade since Novas began to appear deserts have been terraformed, science and technology has leapt forward, and humanity’s possibilities seem endless. With the help of the Æon Society, a mysterious philanthropic organization that coordinates Nova activity worldwide, life overall has improved for the human race. But things aren’t as rosy as they appear. A growing number of Novas are joining the Teragen. This organization is bound together by the idea that Novas are not equal to humans, they are a new, superior race and should embrace that which makes them different. Basically, think the Brotherhood of Mutants but with a much better PR department.
Some Teragen are just philosophers and socialites, but others lash out at a species they view as inferior, clashing with members of Team Tomorrow, the Æon Societiy’s personal Avengers. Regardless of temperament, all Teragen are bound by the leadership of Divis Mal, a Nova of unknown origin and a figure that is pivotal to the overarching plot of the entire “Æon Continuum” series. Worse yet are reports that Novas are changing in alarming and dangerous ways. Every Nova has an MR Node, a tumor in their brain that is the source of their quantum powers. As it grows, so does a Nova’s strength. As it grows, it also puts increasing pressure on their brain, driving many Novas completely insane. In addition there are some Novas so thoroughly altered by their quantum powers they have been tainted into beings that would hardly be considered human.
The veneer of utopia has been stretched to the point of breaking and the game’s setting starts right after it’s finally snapped. Slider, a member of Team Tomorrow, is assassinated, the first casualty the team has ever suffered. A teammate has been blamed for the murder and gone underground, but not before he claims Slider was killed for finding out something dangerous, and it’s all a frame job. The world is in a state of shock and it will never recover. That is not an exaggeration or oversimplification– it’s a fact, one that someone who has played Æon would be very familiar with.
In Æon, a Sci-Fi Action RPG set in a dystopian 22nd century, humanity’s last line of defense are a group called Psions, humans who manipulate Psi, or subquantum particles, to manifest kickass superpowers. Sensing a theme, eh? But you aren’t superheroes in that one, you’re something kind of like a Jedi. Powerful, but not Superman. Psions emerge to protect humanity just as it’s starting to recover from a nuclear holocaust that occured in the late 21st century. The governments of the world had scorched the earth to rid it of creatures called Aberrants, inhuman monsters that were once the heroes of their age. In the 22nd century, the Aberrants have returned from their exile out on the edge of space, hungry for revenge.
If you played Æon, you would know that the Aberrants are still under the thrall of their leader, Divis Mal. There is a reason this game is called Aberrant and not “Nova”.
You are placed as central figures participating in a tragedy played out in slow motion. All Novas are doomed to be tainted by their powers in time, despite any good intentions. No matter how hard they try, they will lose that which makes them human. It’s inevitable. It’s a devastating bit of storytelling, and creates a setting rife with narrative rabbit holes to fall down. I haven’t found a superpowered RPG that comes close to this level of depth in its world building.
Mechanically, the game is great too. It uses a variation of White Wolf’s Storyteller System, so if you’ve played any of the Old World of Darkness games, you’ll be very comfortable jumping in. In general, I happen to find this system is pretty gentle on new players. But where it differs greatly from other White Wolf games is the sheer quantity, variety, and flexibility in character options. Any type of superpower you can dream up, the game has a way to make it happen. This does mean that GMs need to supervise character creation a bit more closely, as the glut of options can be overwhelming to some players.
Your superhuman abilities are split into two categories: Mega Attributes and Quantum Powers. Mega Attributes are pretty straight forward. Want to punch like Wonder Woman? Take Mega Strength. Want to dodge like Spider-Man? All you need is a little Mega Dex. Want to build mech suits like Tony Stark? Grab yourself some Mega Intelligence, my friend. The game has a pretty good supplement for creating quantum fueled, super science machines.
Quantum Powers are where things get exciting for me. They are ranked in levels ranging from 1-3, the higher the level the greater the type of power and the more it costs to use. A level 1 power for example would be something like “Luck”, which gives you some extra dice in a pinch. Level 2 has your more standard fair like “Flight”, “Invisibility”, or “Quantum Bolt”, which is their catch-all power for projectiles. Cyclops’s optic blasts, the Shocker’s gauntlets, and Captain Marvel’s whatever-she-does? All Quantum Bolt. Most powers have all sorts of extras too, that let you customize them how you see fit. As bizarre as this sounds, in Aberrant Wolverine’s claws and Gambit’s kinetic discharge are narrative variations of the same mechanical power. At level 3 Novas are pulling off some pretty crazy stuff: “Magnetic Mastery”, “Weather Manipulation”, and “Disintegration” to name a few good ones. They are the most expensive to purchase and use, but offer some truly exciting gameplay options.
The “Player’s Guide” supplement adds power levels 4-6, where your options are, simply put, ridiculous. At level 4 you can jump between alternate realities, level 5 you can control the climate of the entire planet, and at level 6 there is a power called “Universe Creation”. I kid you not. The first words in the power’s description is “Yes, really”. Obviously these higher level powers are meant to be used with extreme discretion by your GM, but still, that’s awesome. My group played one game at that absurd power level: in it my character was a time traveller who defeated his foes by opening up warp gates that sucked them into the sun. Good times.
The point is, you can mix and match these powers to your heart’s content at character creation and beyond. The only limit really is your imagination. You are given a pool of points to purchase all your cool new powers, you can even start with extra powers– at a price. You can choose to buy powers tainted, which makes them cheaper but makes you accrue Taint, the stat used to measure your Nova’s relative humanity. Too much Taint and you begin to manifest Aberrations. You can begin play with that extra strength, but you might just turn into a furry blue monster like the Beast. That’s if you’re lucky. Most Aberrations are not fun at all.
The system is flexible enough that you can ditch the core setting and do whatever you want. You can play with or without Taint, change the points you start with to play at different power levels, or restrict available powers to fit a particular theme. My group has used Aberrant to play our own team of New Mutants. I won’t lie, it was pretty awesome getting a chance to join the X-Men and fight alongside them. In fact, most of the times we played Aberrant we were doing something else with it. Every time we did, it just worked and we had fun.
White Wolf would go on to make other attempts at playing superpowered beings, namely Exalted and Scion. But while I deeply enjoy the settings of both games, neither one handled the balance of superpowered play nearly as well as Aberrant. I ran a “Scion” campaign that fell apart because the rules got messier the more godlike you became. In hindsight, I should have kept the setting and just used the Aberrant rules instead.
Aberrant was inclusive, too. The game went out of it’s way to emphasize that Novas were all over the world, not just the USA. They put out an entire supplement called “Year One” which detailed the state of important places across the globe at the start of the game. The cast of characters that inhabit Aberrant are diverse and fully realized. If you pore through all the lore fluff as I did, you’ll find a complex network of conflicting ideals and goals.
For a time, the game saw a fair amount of support, with a little over a dozen supplements released to explore the various factions, as well as storylines that would lurch the Novas ever closer to their tragic fall from grace. Unfortunately, the entire Æon Continuum line never really developed the sales it needed to stay alive. White Wolf wound up abandoning the setting without realising the planned story content that would bring players to the Nova apocalypse. The last game in the series, Adventure! only ever received a core rulebook. Which is a tremendous shame, because Adventure! is a fantastic game in it’s own right. It’s an ode to pulp heroes like The Shadow, Doc Savage, Indiana Jones, and The Rocketeer. In contrast to the rest of the Æon Continuum it’s light hearted and hopeful, which makes it a bittersweet experience given the future we know is coming. Plus they got Warren Ellis to intro the book with a short story called “Under the Moon”, which is just awesome.
So Aberrant was just kind of dumped and left by the wayside of RPG history for a while. Which I think is unfair. There’s a lot to like about Aberrant and even though it is out of physical print, you can buy PDFs of everything on DriveThruRPG, if you feel like taking a look.
Also, there seems to be some hope on the horizon. The current owners of the IP, Onyx Path Publishing, kickstarted a second edition of the entire line of books, now called the “Trinity Continuum”. They seem to be in full swing putting the game together, and I’m honestly excited to see what they cook up. From what I can tell, they are keeping the lore and simply updating the timeline, which sounds pretty good to me. I hope they don’t lose the depth of customization that kept my group and I coming back.
Until then, I’ll keep my first edition copies handy for whenever I start having dreams of being faster than a speeding bullet.
10 thoughts on “Aberrant: A Forgotten Superhero RPG Worth Remembering”
Aberrant couldn’t handle superpowers at all. Some powers required quantum points, some didn’t. Some “novas” will run out of power in a couple of turns while others can use their mega-strength and throw cars at their opponents all day without any strain.
Not to mention any game with a power called Clone where the so-called clones don’t have the same abilities as the original has serious problems.
Thanks for taking the time to read the article!
I don’t think I agree with your assessment. Mega Attributes are always on and do not cost Quantum to use, that is true. It’s also true that if you build a starting character with a low Quantum Pool, they run the risk of burning through their abilities quickly. But personally, I’ve found that a character who uses only Mega Attributes is at a disadvantage. What good is punching real hard and throwing trucks at people if someone can dominate your mind and make you their puppet, or turn into a cloud of gas before they can be hit?
I once had a character that started with a high Quantum Pool, the Reflexive extra on my Teleport power, and no Mega Strength at all. Any time I’d get hit, I could opt to teleport a safe distance away. Most of the time physically tougher opponents were not a problem for me. I honestly believe that it all comes down to the GM’s encounter balance. Aberrant is a huge tool set, but it’s easy to be unimaginative with power builds, and can become one note and dull if it devolves into people trading super punches.
As for the Clone power’s inefficacy in the core rulebook, you are not wrong and certainly not alone in that judgement. In fact, White Wolf completely reworked the power (and many others) when they released the Players Guide. There is an errata section in that supplement that fixes and clarifies many powers, but Clone got the biggest overhaul.
The Players Guide version of Clone gives every duplicate full access to your character’s power set, sharing the original’s Quantum Pool. The clones last for a scene then either merge with the original, preserving the duplicate’s memories, or it dissipates.
I don’t think I stressed enough in the article how vital the Players Guide is. It’s basically the second half of the core rulebook. It does so much to balance out the game. Beyond providing errata and power levels 4-6, it adds Merits and Flaws, new power extras (like Relfexive), and rules for playing Psions (the Aeon protagonists) in the Aberrant time frame.
I’m not looking to change anyone’s mind, but I stand by my feelings about the game. Thank you again for taking the time to read and comment!
This review really makes me want to track a copy of this game down. I linked folks over here this week on my blog and podcast. Keep up the good work!
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Thank you! I really appreciate you taking the time to read and spreading the article!
Yeah….I wanted to like this game too…very much, and I tried really hard, but whereas you didn’t seem to encounter the mechanical problems in Aberrant that were rife, I did, and eventually they ripped my campaign to pieces – even AFTER I bought the player’s guide.
I think when I zoom outwards and look, the two lynchpin problems with Aberrant mechanically – even moreso than the wonky mechanics and uneven powers etc. – were Taint and the basic Storyteller System itself. I’ll start with the easiest to explain first:
You noted above that the fate of all Novas was to one day lose control of themselves, become insane, mutated or worse. The actual MECHANICS of that begged to differ. At it’s simplest, Taint was not that easy to accrue and once accrued it was too easy to get rid of. Did you ever play a Dragon Blooded Exalt in 1st Edition Exalted? Remember how if they spent their last available Willpower point they’d end up temporarily given over to their elemental nature and sort of lose control for a while? Well, guess what all those Masters of their Idealized Game Selves I played with saw to it NEVER happened? That’s right. Mysteriously, in all the DB campaigns I ran, never ONCE did they spend their last WP. No matter the situation. One of the Immaculate Dragons her own SELF could have descended into Creation and personally commanded that last Willie be spent and newp. No dice! Why do I bring this up? Because all my players in Aberrant, once they realized what would cause them to accrue Taint avoided it like un-shielded uranium. And as an ST, there was little I could do to FORCE them into situations where they accrued Taint without running the risk of being accused of “F—ing” with them. So honestly, I ended up with a version of Diogenes’s dream – a group of the last untainted PC’s. Now, it turns out later editions of Aeon/Trinity would have some love for such creatures but that was a long way away.
The second lynch-pin problem lay in the ST system itself, and it was one we got to see in even starker terms in Exalted 1st Ed. Simply put, statistically once you get into dice pools bigger than 10, the ST system begins work directly against whomever’s rolling the dice. As you add more dice, you’re more likely to accrue an overall failure or botch than you are a success. There are some precise mathematical studies of it I can dig up if you want, it’s been years since I’ve referenced them but they’re out there. But what it boils down to is that the bigger the heroes got, the more unstable the effects of their powers became – which might have suited the theme of the game, but on my planet broken mechanics are a bug, not a feature.
But like you, I LOVED the game and wanted it so desperately to succeed, and now that Onyx Path is taking a stab at it, I look forward to seeing what they do with it. Not sure how I feel about a lot of what the Storypath system brings to the table, but I’m still keeping an open mind about it all.
Remember the #1 rule in the game system. “If a Rule doesn’t work for you, break it!” it’s a game that is supposed to be fun and if you get to wrapped up in the rule book it will ruin any game system.
My old gaming group got around the fail & Botch issue with 2 simple modifications to the rules.
1. If you have a Mega-Attribute you can not botch, your just too dam good to do it.
2. If you don’t have a Mega-Attribute and even one Die out of ten comes up a success, even if you role three ones, you still won’t botch. You will fail but not Botch.
These two rules fixed that issue. We still botched, but it was a very rare instance, and that is exactly how a botch should be.