Review of Aberrant

For the inaugural game, I chose White Wolf’s 1998 superhero game “Aberrant.” Despite owning the game for years, I never had a chance to play it and for some reason, it never really took off despite a fairly promising idea behind it.

My main criticism of the game is that the core book is very poorly designed and laid out. It has the typical White Wolf oversaturation with story and metaplot as told by multiple unreliable narrators. The first half of the book is all metaplot and backstory, told mainly in posts to what 1998 thought a website would look like in 2008. Often, it was fun to read and poke through, but the text tended to be very dense, small and hard to read: particularly the text that was overlaying the colored image backgrounds.

Once we get to the second half of the book, where the rules are found, the disorganization becomes maddening. In order to run the game as a one-shot, I decided to create a batch of characters to hand out beforehand. Due to the disjointed layout and sprawling character creation rules that cross reference back and forth between chapters and the lack of clear character creation examples, this was a much less fun task than I had hoped.

The biggest sin of the book—and of the game in general—is that the combat rules and information on how to actually play the game is tacked on as an afterthought. There is a lot of character generation, backstory, and detailed information on powers: but how to actually run a game, and what sorts of stories you can tell with it is sorely lacking. And when the rules do appear, they aren’t in a coherent order and often embedded into the character generation system, rather than explained on their own.

Take, for example, trying to figure out how a Nova punches someone (a feat that is pretty much required for any comic book hero). The general combat rules start on page 239 (out of a 296 page book). Punching is defined as part of “close combat,” which means you roll the number of 10 sided dice equal to your Brawl or Martial Arts as a standard action. Any additional successes rolled go into your damage pool, up to a maximum of 5 dice (something mentioned in passing here and nowhere else in the book). You determine your damage type (typically ‘bashing’ for a normal punch) and roll the specific damage dice for that attack, which are found on a chart on page 250. Unless you have Mega-Strength, in which case you need to remember to go back to page 156 and see how many auto successes you get. Which is ambiguously written and could be construed as either auto successes or as extra dice to add to the pool (5 per level of Strength). So, a 5 Mega Strength punch, based on these three pages separated by 100 pages, Does 25 auto successes (or possibly dice) + regular Strength (rather than the Mega-Strength attribute, which is separate) +2 + rolled successes (up to 5) dice of damage. Most characters have 7 health levels. Ah! But there is soak as well. You take a certain number of dice away based on Stamina, Armor, and Quantum powers, such as Mega-Stamina or a Force Field. Each point of Stamina removes 1 die, and each point of Mega-Stamina removes one die from the damage roll. The Armor Power can remove 3 dice per point spent in it (up to 5, each point being spent in armor costing 3 out of 30 Nova points to buy all of your powers with at character creation).

So, lets see that punch in action. The Green Monster (Strength 4, Mega-Strength 5, Brawl 3) throws a punch at Brickhouse (Stamina 5, Mega-Stamina 3, No armor). The Monster rolls 7 dice to hit, looking for a 7 or better on a d10 and gets 1 success (roll 2, 3, 4, 6, 6, 6, 8). His damage pool is 25 auto successes to damage plus 6 dice of damage (Strength +2). Brickhouse has a soak of 8, which removes 8 automatic successes from the pool. The Green monster doesn’t even have to roll damage because he’s killed Brickhouse in one shot. Bashing damage rolls over to lethal on a 1 to one ratio after all the health levels are gone. If he had Armor 5, he would have removed an extra 15 damage, thus having a soak of 23, meaning he’d only take 2 health levels automatically, plus whatever damage is rolled on 6 dice. Strongmen are ridiculously lethal in the game, unless facing armored opponents as the automatic successes on damage far outstrip the ability of most anyone to soak the damage. The same problem occurs in a lot of the blast powers as well.

Another unbalanced power difference comes in the various types of ‘blast’ powers. The standard Quantum Bolt does [Quantum x 3] + (Power Rating x 4) + number of additional successes (up to 5) dice of bashing damage (as a note, the damage listed in brackets apparently are automatic successes of damage, which is briefly touched on once in the combat section as an aside). Your basic newbie energy blaster with a Quantum score of 3 and Quantum Bolt rating of 3 would therefore do 9 automatic levels of damage + 12 rolled dice of damage on a hit. If you had taken the power as part of the more expensive ability Elemental Anima which admittedly allows you some more flexibility with your powers for an increased overall cost, you would do a Blast of [Quantum x 2] + (Power rating x 3) damage, which for the same power level would be 6 automatic levels + 9 dice of rolled damage. Suppose you want to use your mind for a Mental Blast instead: your damage is only your attack roll successes on a resisted roll: Intelligence + Mental Blast vs the Targets Willpower (and soak 2 dice per level of Psychic Shield if the defender has that). A 5 Intelligence, 5 Mental Blast character would have 10 dice to roll vs the standard Willpower of 3. A mental blast might do 4 damage per blast, and be soaked down to 2 or 3. This power costs the same as the Quantum Bolt power above to buy.

The system is a mess, and the game is difficult to play. I did enjoy the one shot session, mainly because the players were awesome and really got into it. At least until we had to interact with the system, at which point it came to a grinding halt. I found quickly that there were a lot of “traps” in the system that meant that an improperly built character (ie, one that didn’t spend a lot of points in armor) was super easy to accidentally one shot, despite being thematically consistent and having powers that looked, at first blush, that they would prevent such an occurrence.

The game wanted to be a simplified superhero game, with defined powers and an emphasis on role playing people who could and should change the world by their very presence. It misses the boat mainly because its a muddled mess, hard to follow and unbalanced. Additionally, there’s no real game in it; or at least no explanation of what type of game it wants you to play. It reads like it wants you to play comic book superheroes, but the rules are punishing and the themes it emphasizes are the dark conspiracy theories that so many of the other White Wold games abound with.

As much fun as I had during the game, I would not want to run this system again.