Aberrant Second Edition Review

I don’t review a lot of new editions, at least not of games we’ve already reviewed. While everyone remembers the giant step changes like D&D 4e, Cyberpunk v3, and WFRP 3e, most edition changes are relatively small. Reviewing the playtest version of Pathfinder 2e way back when required very careful reading to pull out the changes that would be most apparent to players of the first edition, and that was a more significant revision than many games receive. 

Aberrant is one of very few games we’ve actually reviewed multiple editions of; the only other one I can think of off the top of my head is Cyberpunk, and Cyberpunk 2020 was given a full review only in the context of the Cyberpunk Chimera System Hack series. Aberrant, though, is kind of fascinating. I spent some time jumping between Ari’s review of 1e and the new core rulebook and realized that while many elements of the game have been preserved, there is a core change to how the game is presented that both changes the experience entirely and strikes in complete opposition to a game design ethos which is slowly becoming more central to the hobby.

Aberrant, in both editions, is a part of the ‘Trinity Continuum’, three games which take place in the same setting. Æon focuses on Psiads, who as you may guess have access to potent mental powers. Adventure focuses on Talents, who are, especially compared to the other two games, essentially very ‘talented’ baseline humans with some modest but useful gifts. Aberrant focuses on Novas, superhumans who can manipulate the base forces of matter. As of this writing, the core rulebook, Æon, and Aberrant have been released, Adventure is forthcoming. The three games fall onto a timeline which places Adventure in the (pulpy) past and Æon into the future, with Aberrant sitting in the middle and being roughly set in the present day. This is a solid place to start comparing the two editions, because the first thing that 1e fans will likely notice is that the timeline has been advanced; this edition of Aberrant is set in 2028 rather than 2009, and while a lot of broad strokes are the same, a lot is different. Let’s start with discussing what’s the same.

What’s the Same

I can already visualize the hate mail I’ll receive when I say the mechanics are basically the same. It is true, though. Storypath is an evolution of the Storyteller system and the basic concepts and mechanics haven’t changed. You’re building a dice pool of d10s that is at its core your skill rating plus your attribute rating. Skills, attributes, and most other character elements are rated in ranks (or ‘dots’), typically from one to five. Most abilities are permissioned, that is to say that gaining new powers are generally modeled from buying off of a list which states what you can do. And while Storypath does benefit from more playtesting and more revision than older Storyteller games, the system generally only bears so much weight when it comes to the scale breadth inherent in a game. This is why a game like Vampire works fairly well and a game like Werewolf works fairly well, but trying to combine them (no matter which edition you choose) is a disaster. This is also why Adventure, Aberrant, and Æon are separate games, though Onyx Path has yet again been seduced by the allure of the separable core rulebook. But I digress.

Both editions of Aberrant use similar power structures. There are mega-attributes, which essentially grant extra dots in an attribute over and above what’s humanly possible. There are also Quantum Powers, which are a broad palette of essentially point-buy abilities that model different superpowers. An observation: Ari in his review of the first edition compared Aberrant to two other Storyteller games, Scion and Exalted. Aberrant basically uses a cut down version of both of these games’ power mechanics. Mega-Attributes is of course a version of what Scion ran on, but in that game they spiralled upward into statistical nonsense very quickly. Quantum Powers are comparable to Exalted’s Charm structure, though honestly if you read the Quantum Powers chapter it’s much more like Hero System than anything from the White Wolf/Onyx Path family (and better for it, frankly). Still, using these two constrained power systems was why the overall powers system seemed to work without breaking the system, although the comments section in Ari’s original review showed some disagreement with that statement. Even so, the actual mathematical balance of the powers available in the book is likely one of the things that did improve, and character creation giving each player a spread of both mega-attributes and quantum powers by default somewhat eases up some of the edge cases from the first edition.

There are also a lot of setting elements that haven’t changed. The basic idea of Novas is quite similar to First edition, and the overall setting touchstones, both broad ones like advanced Nova technology and narrow ones like the specific organizations of the Æon Society, Team Tomorrow, and the Teragen are all still there. Aberrants, broadly, still exist. That said, in First Edition “there’s a reason it’s called Aberrant and not Nova” and…well…that’s no longer true. At all.

What’s Changed

The metaplot is gone. Dead. Now, as I just said all the organizations and major world touchstones are still there, this may be a confusing sentence. But the entire notion of player characters being Aberrants by default and any weight that being an Aberrant carried is gone. This is important for reasons that aren’t limited to this game.

In Aberrant First Edition, the implicit assumption was that characters were Aberrants. Now, the rules were flexible and you could to a degree mix and match, but there was a default. This included an attribute called Taint. In First Edition, you could get an XP discount on powers which were Tainted, but using them would make you acquire Taint, which would force you further away from your innate humanity. This was structured as an inevitable shift, a coming doom which was built into your character’s arc (whether or not the mechanics actually played out this way can be argued). In Second Edition, Taint is gone; the word ‘Taint’ literally isn’t in the book. There is a new version, now called Flux, but it’s been completely rewritten. What makes Flux simply not like Taint is the addition of Grounding and Chrysalis. Grounding lets any character who uses their powers at an attenuated level (or not at all) reduce their Flux. There’s also the opportunity to reduce Flux just for roleplaying scenes with baseline characters, which is a neat incentive but really kicks the legs out from underneath the Aberrant arc. And realistically, the system needed this because, as mentioned before, it’s no longer assumed that player characters are going to be Aberrants. Chrysalis, though, really blows up the relationship that characters had with their powers from 1e. Chrysalis abilities basically allow the character to choose and shape their transformations to avoid negative effects they don’t want. All of the negative effects of being a Nova, their inevitability, and a lot of the narrative weight, are gone.

What does this make Aberrant really? It’s kind of hard to say. Storypath Hero System, perhaps. The Trinity setting is neat, and thanks to being a revision of an existing setting it’s fairly well realized, but the changes made between first and second edition kind of have the flavor of a designer wagging a pencil at an MCU movie. And the problem with that, really, is that Hero System has better crunch and Cortex Prime is easier to play.

Aberrant was interesting when it was ‘Aberrant and not Nova’. The Aberrant metaplot showcased the strength of White Wolf products at the time: they were trying to tell specific stories. While they could certainly get too specific (Gehenna was *a choice*), they were leaders in tying setting back to mechanics, at least for a while.

This is why I think the game’s design choices make it what I’d call anti-Indie. Anti-Indie doesn’t mean Onyx Path is against indie games, it means they’re making design choices that walk in the complete opposite direction of modern indie games. Indie games, now more than ever, are about specific experiences. What started with games meant to be played a specific way, eschewing rule zero, evolved into games that really only mechanically generated one experience, games that really only did one thing. These games are definitionally less popular but by many (most?) metrics, they are better, usually significantly better, at their one thing than any other game. Aberrant went the other way. Aberrant tried just a bit harder to be another Supers game, to let you play everyone in the MCU. Aberrant 2e took the thing that made it Aberrant and excised it from the book. Why?

If you truly love Storyteller/Storypath, if you really enjoyed Aberrant’s mechanics, you’ll probably like this new edition. If you couldn’t stand the mechanics, if you thought it was a mess, I can’t confidently say this one will be much better, though I imagine people in the “I wanted to like it” camp may find the incremental improvements good enough. For me, though, I can’t see past the game losing its core element. Aberrant told a story, and whether or not you liked it, whether or not it was well integrated into the mechanics in practice, it was there and it drove the game. Now? I mean, you could still play that game, I guess. But it’s been handed back to the GM. The designers have disclaimed responsibility for picking a narrative. It may be that the game does just play better with Flux instead of Taint, lord knows there’s enough utter mess in the White Wolf back catalog to indicate that possibility. I just wish they tried to keep it interesting instead of making it flexible.

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5 thoughts on “Aberrant Second Edition Review”

  1. Yeah the original 90s version of Aberrant had something like 4 powers that were just increasing at too quick of a level ( Quantum Blast for example), but if you tweaked those few powers you pretty much leveled the field. I always thought the game was well done and it was actually my favorite supers system. Advancing the setting’s timeline to just a few years before the crash is interesting, but removing the metaplot is odd. Taint had rules (Teragen supplement I think) for Chrysalis to control taint, but I’m open to a different system handling all that. Avoiding negatives while you overall increase your power thru Flux and Chrysalis does really remove the weight of choice tho.

    Nice review, I’ve been curious how the new game is as someone who has all the original books at home.


  2. I think, fundamentally, you’re wrong that the ‘reduction’ in Taint is some sort of sea change in the way the game is designed or presented. The two ways to decrease Transcendence (which is just renamed Taint) in 2E are either by not using powers (called ‘grounding’ in 2E) or using the Chrysalis system.

    But both of those existed in 1E as well. Indeed, the ‘not using powers’ bit is even in the core rulebook, and the Chrysalis system was in the Teragen book, and remains Teragen restricted even in the new edition (and is thus a sourcebook consolidation issue rather than some sort of philosophical shift).

    Now, both have been made slightly less time intensive…but it’s not a huge reduction, frankly. For grounding, it’s gone from needing to spend a whole story or a ‘month of downtime’ in 1E to ‘a full session’ in 2E. Note the lack of the ability to do it during downtime. It’s better for a quick paced game, but possibly more restrictive in one with larger amounts of downtime. That’s…really not a huge difference, to be frank. It’s mechanically meaningful, sure, but certainly not a huge thematic distinction. Within Grounding, in 2E only, there is also the ability to lose some once a scene by interacting with baselines with absolutely no powers…but that requires spending Bond successes, and Bond successes are actually much harder for Novas to get than normal people (their Transcendence score actively hampers getting them), and, once they’ve got any Transformations at all, the difficulty of such interactions is increased…so yeah, they can lose some Transcendence that way, but only by taking significant time and effort and very possibly damaging their relationships to do so (and they need to have such relationships with baselines in the first place).

    Chrysalis is actually similar, though the system discussion there gets more complex since the 1E version was overly messy and complicated. But regardless, it takes less time (making it a better fit for quick paced games), but doesn’t fundamentally change the ability to use it to stave off Taint (though, in both editions, it often does so by giving additional Transformations/Aberrations…which is to say, thematically, making you even more of an Aberrant, even if you do choose what they are). You can (again, in either edition) theoretically use it to completely stave off most Taint, but doing so is tricky in 1E and extraordinarily expensive in 2E.

    So in both cases, you need to spend significant time and resources (in the case of grounding this includes actual time in play, so your time as well as the character’s) to remain ‘human’. And, frankly, if spending huge amounts of time and resources is necessary to maintain your humanity, I don’t think the theme you seem to be complaining about losing has really been lost. especially since that was hardly impossible in 1E either.

    There’s also a section on Genres allowing easy to implement shifts in genre, and both ‘Deconstruction’ and ‘Horror’ make all the issues with Transcendence even worse, not that doing so seems particularly necessary to me to keep the ‘Aberrant’ feel.

    Liked by 2 people

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