Æon gets an ‘A’ for Effort

Æon. Poor, sweet Æon. Or is it Trinity? Depends on who you’re asking and if Viacom is listening. This RPG was meant to be White Wolf’s epic space opera, but fell short financially and was cancelled much to the dismay of it’s small, but loyal fanbase. However, the death of Æon had larger reprocussions. As the first chapter in what became a planned trilogy, its inability to generate sales spelled doom for the other two games in the Æon Continuum. I had written a piece awhile back about Aberrant, the second game in the series, which was White Wolf’s swing at the superhero genre. They introduced us to an engrossing, but nihilistic story of superhumans doomed to be their own destroyers. In the time since writing that article, Amazon released The Boys, which is basically Aberrant the TV show. I had a friend text me, quite serious, asking if White Wolf was planning to go to court over it. They didn’t. He didn’t know it was a comic and White Wolf didn’t invent the grim superhero shtick. They didn’t invent the epic space opera either, but with Æon they gave it an earnest shot.

I’ll be honest, this game never quite clicked with me, it’s my least favorite of the trilogy. But I’ve still got this setting on the brain and I recently found myself cracking open Æon to see what it was specifically that didn’t connect. Mechanically it’s a very solid game, using a version of the White Wolf  Storyteller System that provides a lot of interesting ways to build your character. There’s a lot of creativity in ‘Æon’, a lot of cool ideas. But mostly there’s just a lot. Like, too much. Tonally, the game tries simultaneously to be Blade Runner, Aliens, and Star Wars without really reaching the heights of any of them. To me it feels disjointed, stitched together in places with too many dangling threads. 

There’s a good reason for that, it was stitched together. ‘Æon’ and ‘Aberrant’ were being developed concurently, but separately and someone at White Wolf decided they needed to be part of a shared universe. Both games then remolded their lore to link into each other, but the process seems to have hurt Æon more. Compounding this, the game was taken from initial concept to publication in just ten months to fill a gap in the company’s schedule. I think that’s what ultimately doomed the game. Maybe if they had a little more time with ‘Aeon’ they could’ve smoothed those rough edges I feel. They rushed a new game, jammed it together with another, then came up with a third to explain the other two. It’s messy.

Even if Æon had more time, it still would have faced the marketing nightmare that was Viacom’s lawsuit against White Wolf. You see, Viacom owns a lot. It owns MTV, which at the time had a hit show called ‘Æon Flux’ (it’s real weird, check it out). Viacom didn’t want anything close to the word Æon appearing anywhere else, and being a much bigger company they told White Wolf to change the name immediately. But the ads were out, and the books were printed, ready to go. White Wolf’s solution was to change the game’s name and refer to the overall trilogy as the ‘Aeon Continuum’, a term that never appears on the cover of any of the books. First edition copies of ‘Aeon’ were sold with a sticker on the cover changing the name to ‘Trinity’. To this day, if you look it up on wikipedia or DriveThruRPG you are going to find it under ‘Trinity’, not ‘Aeon’.

Not the smoothest of launches to say the least, but oddly fitting as the game’s story finds humanity struggling to stand back up on their feet after taking a serious beating. The tone Æon conveys is one of  hope in the face of insurmountable adversity. Taking a cue from the George Lucas school of storytelling, White Wolf decided they would tell their story out of order. Although Æon was published first, it’s chronologically last in the setting’s timeline, taking place in the year 2120. This future finds a human race that is just starting to crawl out of the fallout from a nuclear holocaust. World powers have shifted and large swaths of continents are irradiated ruins, uninhabitable for all time. Yet despite this, humanity recovers.

Earth’s blasted surface is due to the Aberrant Wars, a conflict in the late 21st century between world powers and the Aberrants, superhumans that were once heroes but had degenerated into madness as they grew in power. Ultimately, in an event called the ‘Earth Strike Ultimatum’, the Aberrants were forced to leave Earth lest China nuke the whole world. The Aberrants left for space, but promised to return. In their absence, humanity regained their confidence and rebuilt themselves. Technology advanced significantly, and while the world wide internet was destroyed in the Aberrant Wars never to return, smaller separate networks allowed people to reconnect. Humanity made discoveries in biotech which blurred the line between man and machine. They also began to look at the stars again, inventing artificial gravity, reclaiming the lost lunar colonies, and inching towards faster than light travel. Global famine is solved and cultures advance with China, Australia, and the United Aftican Nations rising as the world leaders.

Of course, this is when the Aberrants show back up. Rumors persist for a few years of Aberrant attacks on intrasolar colonies, until one day they descend from the stars and attack Sydney. All seems lost until a group of soldiers fly in from nowhere and barrage the Aberrants with fireballs conjured by their will alone. Surprised, the Aberrants flee. For the first time since the ‘Earth Strike Ultimatum’ humanity was able to beat the Aberrants.  This is how the world was introduced to Psions, the powerful psychics which you play in Æon.

To dissuade the skeptics, the Psions explain that they are here to protect humanity from the Aberrants and had been waiting for years, gaining strength. While Aberrants gained their powers from the manipulation of quantum energies, Psions were attuned to the universe on a subquantum level. They manipulate the unseen particles which bind reality together, which they call ‘Psi’. Because they use Psi and not quantum, Psions are immune to the taint which mutates and drives all Aberrant insane. Cautiously, Earth accepts their help. A mysterious, but influential philanthropic organization known as the Æon Trinity step in to facilitate the Psions’ integration into society.

They do this by dealing with the Proxies of the eight orders of Psions, each one specializing in their own branch of psychic wizardry. The Proxies search the world for latent psions and submerge each potential in a strange device called a ‘Prometheus Chamber’, the source of which remains a mystery at first. With the Psions at their side, humanity is able to make their first steps outside  the solar system. Years pass until one order is accused of being in league with Aberrants and is destroyed by the others. Most recently the Psions capable of teleportation, and therefore deep space travel, have disappeared. This leaves humanity’s far off colonies stranded and out of contact. It’s after all of this that the game finally begins. This is where you pick up, ready to take the fight to the Aberrants and find those lost in space. Whew. That’s a lot, right?

Except we’re not done. There’s aliens, too! We make first contact with a race of slugs in people sized mech suits called the Qin. They’re weird, but we’re able to communicate and establish embassies on our respective homeworlds. Our other contacts have not been so smooth. Our encounters with the Chromatics, a monstrous but intelligent species named after the bioluminesence they use for communication, have all ended in violence. Then there is the mysterious Coalition, a federation of alien species we have little intelligence on save for the fact that their technology far outstrips our own. Whether they are friend or foe, remains to be seen.

Okay, that’s it— except it isn’t! Secretly, the Proxies of the Psion orders were given their powers and Prometheus Chambers by a group of advanced psychic aliens called the Doyen. The Doyen had been watching the human race since they first manifest superhuman abilities in the early 20th century. They watched as the Aberrants grew to possess the power of gods and out of fear for the damage they’ve caused, the Doyen genetically modified people with the potentital to manipulate Psi and gave them the means to make others. The Proxies hold on to this secret, with the Doyens being the forces behind the screen.

OKAY, THAT’S IT. For real, that’s all the lore… that I’m willing to get in to. Æon was the first in the series and saw the most supplements released, so there’s a fair amount of story that got developed. But everything I wrote about is in the core rulebook alone. Yeesh. If your head is spinning, that’s completely normal. This is definitely not an RPG you can play casually and it’s very hard on new players. The mechanics aren’t bad at all, but it takes way too much explaining for anyone to understand what kind of setting they are playing in.

Like I said earlier, I think it’s the merging with Aberrant that did this game the most harm. There’s just one element too many. It would be preposterous to say that superheroes and aliens clash thematically, given that the first superhero ever hailed from the planet Krypton. But it feels like the Aberrants were swapped in for one of the other alien races, maybe the Coalition, and repurposed as the main antagonists. The Aberrant vs. Psion conflict is a very internal one, two ends of humanity’s spectrum fighting for our collective souls. It’s honestly very gripping. Adding other aliens to boot, especially a group of aliens responsible for our heroes’ creation, unfocuses the narrative. It feels like it’s pulling you away from the core themes, or rather telling you it’s one game while really wanting to be another.

More than anything Æon wants to be Star Wars. It’s true. This becomes incredibly apparent once you move from the lore part of the core rulebook into the mechanics. On the source of Psions’ powers the book says, “Psi flows within and throughout all things, connecting and unifying energy and matter into a single sublime whole”. The higher a Psions rating in Psi, the further they can “sense strong sources of psionic energy as well as perceive sudden, dramatic changes in the Psi flow”. Somebody drag Old Ben out of his hut on Tatooine, because I sense a disturbance in the Force.

So the Psions are stand-ins for Jedi, but the powers they have are bit broader than throwing some crates or assuring some Stormtroopers that these are not the droids they are looking for. At creation, characters choose an order of Psions to belong to which gives them access to a specific suit of powers called ‘Aptitudes’. There’s the stuff you’d expect like Telepathy, Clairsentience, and Telekinesis. But that really is the tip of the iceberg.

Telekinesis is actually one skill branch in the Aptitude called ‘Psychokinesis’, other branches grant you mastery over fire and ice. There’s another called ‘Electrokinesis’ which of course lets you shoot lightning like Palpatine, but also allows Psions to interface directly with machines or generate holograms. On the stranger side of things the Aptitudes of ‘Biokinesis’ and ‘Vitakinesis’ give Psions an unsettling control of the human body. They can grow adaptations to survive harsh climates, fully merge with their biotech,  shapeshift, and regenerate lost limbs. Stuff that kind of goes beyond the Jedi of their inspiration.

All the powers are balanced well, clearly defined, and satisfying to use. Compared to an Aberrant though, the Psions are definitely less super and more human. This is another aspect that makes the shared universe aspect grate a little. The powers you have in ‘Aberrant’, which is set well before they became insane space monsters, is on a scale that dwarfs a Psion. It’s hard to imagine a Psion of 2120 beating an Aberrant of 2009, let alone an Aberrant that has been living in space for a century growing in power. Because there is no veil of mystery regarding how Aberrants function, my suspension of disbelief strains, if not cracks. Psions don’t stand a chance against an Aberrant, the dice don’t lie.

The game also contains mechanics for a biotech system that lets characters merge with their weapons or armor, which is pretty neat. There’s rules in the core for space travel and combat, but it comes off as more of an afterthought with a whopping three pages devoted to the mechanics and a list of ships in the back. It’s hard to begrudge them on this though, as there was little room left after cramming three campaign settings worth of lore into one book.

Overall, Æon feels like missed potential. It has all the ingredients for an awesome sci-fi game, but it needed more time to cook. The concept is solid, I’ve seen it done well. As I was combing through the lore prepping for this article, I couldn’t help but catch similarities between it and the video game franchise Destiny. Not only did both games have troubled productions, but it too tells the tale of a human race recovering from apocalypse, reclaiming the stars, and protected by superhumans granted power from an alien intelligence. But where Destiny was given time and resources to find its footing over the last five years, Æon didn’t have luxury of being supported by a AAA video game studio. Maybe if the line had been given a longer lifespan to flesh out its immense world and nail down its tone, we’d still be talking about it like we do Vampire: the Masquerade.

Thankfully, we can end this on an up note. Onyx Path Publishing purchased the rights to the entire Æon Continuum and successfully kickstarted a brand new edition of the entire line. Rebranding the franchise as the ‘Trinity Continuum’, they are hard at work on the first book in this new series. Although I have no clue how the final product will turn out, I’m pleased to report the second edition of this game will be printed under it’s true name, Æon. I’m looking forward to trying out.

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