I recently ran a playtest session of Over the Edge’s 25th Anniversary Edition. OtE has been my wife’s very favoritest game since we picked up the 1992 edition some years back, so when we heard there was going to be a new version, of course we were thrilled. This post will mostly be a session log, with most commentary held for the end. Teal deer version: we had a great time and I think all three players are excited to play again.
Session 1: Touchdown (8/5/2017)
Our three protagonists are:
- Tejaswami “Teja” Freedman, an MIT graduate of AI engineering who paid her way through college as a phone psychic (Insightful?) and is, unbeknownst to her, sometimes an avatar of Lord Shiva.
- AJ Gupta, a startup investor who has secret ties to The System (that is, the Illuminati), but has a distinct ascetic (?) streak.
- Owen “Kody” Dakota, a highly accomplished athlete in nearly every sport (especially EXTREME! sports), who has also been a costumed vigilante from time to time, but found that wearing a mask denied him the acclaim that he sought.
They are all contestants on a new reality TV show, Last Champion Standing. They wake up just as they touch down at the Terminal in Al-Amarja, all three flying on AJ’s private jet. The day is overcast, and they’re not sure what time it is. Kody’s watch indicates that it is 12:01. Teja’s laptop says that it is 3:57, so she checks her phone, which indicates that it is 5:94. The screen fuzzes over with static and this changes to 4:71. Then 2:30. She turns off her phone to power-cycle it, but it won’t come back up. (AJ doesn’t have any kind of timepiece, because he rejects such attachments.) AJ’s flight attendant makes small talk with him as the plane taxis to the gate, and Teja has a strange premonition that she will never see Jeff again. AJ shrugs it off – Jeff has been working for him for years.
They go through the jet bridge into the Terminal, finding themselves at Gate F-67. The nonsensical numbering patterns and overall layout of the Terminal are insignificant problems compared to Teja’s inability to find a decent Wifi network. They’re all named “presidential_(whatever),” and all but the last one are secured. Given time, she might have been able to do something about that, but there’s really no place to sit down and work at it here. So she connects to the unsecured network and receives an immediate message from someone demanding to know who she is. She doesn’t give a satisfying answer fast enough, and gets dropped from the network. She asks about a wifi connection an attendant at a nearby gate, and learns that Measure 23 prohibits unsecured networks.
She also needs to figure out what the hell is going on with her phone, which means finding an adapter for ‘Marjian outlets. Of course you can’t just use any of the European adapters, why would you even ask that? To buy an adapter, she needs local currency, which (not remembering the canon) I decided was the Al-Amarjian franc. Finding a currency exchange becomes her all-consuming goal.
In the meanwhile, Kody is driving AJ into paroxysms of rage with his endless stories of how each new situation or potential idea reminds him of this or that sporting event. This was some of the greatest character byplay I think I’ve ever seen. They’re all hoping to find someone from the show to tell them what the hell is going on and get them to their hotel.
Teja packed light, with just her laptop bag and a single, manageable carry-on. Kody has a carry-on, and a checked duffel bag. AJ rejected the attachment of a carry-on, so his only luggage is checked. So in addition to their other problems, they have to find Baggage Claim. Asking for directions proves less than helpful.
A whole lot of people in the Terminal (not including Our Heroes) are foreign nationals who look miserable, sleep-deprived, lost, and in dire need of a shower. Weird. The ‘Marjians seem like they don’t have any difficulty navigating, though.
They pass through a food court, where Kody decides that he’s overdue for a protein shake. He also buys Teja a coffee. Fortunately, they’re willing to take his American currency, in part because he’s a big-time sports celebrity. He can’t help but notice that the protein shake is, um, a bit crunchier than he typically likes it, though the flavor is good. Like, really good. He spits out one of the crunchy bits, and he is horrified to see it unroll itself into a small black insect of some kind. AJ and Teja just see it as a black sphere, like bubble tea that has gone a bit off. In a fine example of “this is awful, here, taste it!” Kody convinces Teja to have some, and suddenly she also sees that the tapioca balls are bugs. On the other hand, it tastes really good. You know what, it’s probably fine. Kody finishes his drink, and Teja gratefully returns to her 100% liquid coffee.
Just as they’re finishing up, a shaggy, bearded old man in the crowds begins shouting at a young, vaguely gothed-out woman who is standing in line. He denounces her as a monster sent to kill him; she tries to fade into the crowd. It’s a huge public scene. Teja and Kody go to get help from airport security, which turns out to be a guy in uniform with a machine gun slung over his shoulder. (Editor’s note: I was thinking of the 1992 OtE Peace Force; I missed the part where the 25A Peace Force and Presidentials don’t use guns, and I still kind of like having them as the sole gun-toting group on Al-Amarja.) AJ goes to talk to the old man, who turns out to be a low-level agent of The System. With some effort, AJ convinces him to stop making a big public scene and potentially exposing The System. The crowd finally moves to protectively surround the girl.
They leave the Food Court to keep looking for Baggage Claim. Teja finds the kiosk selling adapters, which is how she learns that she needs Al-Amarjan francs. AJ steps in to help, but the kiosk attendant insists that he won’t need his money here and she’ll help him if she can. He almost seems distressed by how thoroughly The System has infiltrated the shops of the Terminal. Kody notices a shop right here in the airport selling tire irons, which is weird enough that he has to check it out. Even weirder, he notices that the shop is doing brisk business, and all of the customers are handling the tire irons to check for balance and swing comfort. To fit in as much as anything, Kody buys (again with American dollars… it’s almost like the world was conspiring to make Teja’s life more annoying) tire irons for each of them. He frequently wonders aloud if they’re being filmed for Last Champion Standing here, and if they might suddenly be ambushed by other contestants.
They keep exploring the Terminal, with Teja checking out the escalators (weird, there’s an escalator coming down from above and one going down to the floor below, but no escalator going up?) and Kody noticing that the way forward slopes downward a bit, and the only currency exchange in that direction is closed. Teja spots a currency exchange near the bottom of the escalator that goes downward. In the meantime, AJ steps into a kayaking shop on a whim, and is surprised – well-nigh ambushed – by the old man from the Food Court. The man begs him for help, saying again that the girl is hunting him. AJ talks to the sales clerk long enough to discover that she too is an appendage of The System. He asks about how to get out of The Terminal, and she offers him the VIP Double Platinum Exit Pass. (Not gonna lie, up to this point in the session I’m leaning awful hard on Straight-mode Paranoia for inspiration, and the session looks a lot like parody or gonzo satire. But that’s about to shift again.)
He takes the VIP Double Platinum Exit Pass (which will only get one person out of The Terminal anyway) and gives it – with the greatest possible reluctance – to the old man. (This foiled a later scene I had in mind, but the result was wildly cooler than what I had planned.) The old man takes the pass to one of the security personnel, who usher him through a door marked Employees Only.
Teja makes a snap decision that she has got to get to that currency exchange before it closes, and she dashes down the escalator with the other two close behind. She’s so focused on it that she ignores the five people who were lurking off to the right, between them and a concourse rail platform. The Currency Exchange is the only shop open down here, the lighting is poor, and the other closed shops have had their shutters bashed in some time back. The five… people?… now menacing Kody and AJ are dressed in filthy, tattered business suits, and look half-starved. While Teja races toward the Currency Exchange (as she can see the clerk already lowering the shutter), Kody steps forward and delivers a hilarious-yet-menacing speech, in exactly the way that vigilante street heroes do with gangs of rampaging white-collar workers. (I wish I could quote it in full here.) Two of the attackers remember themselves enough to decide to go do something else, while the other three swarm Kody.
At this point, I need to observe in my own defense that there are no combat examples that I saw in the playtest draft, so I ran this like a more trad RPG combat. This is almost certainly massively incorrect for design intent, but we had a fun, fairly kinetic action scene, so… whatever.
Kody is apparently just too freaked out by the primal, ape-like fighting style that these deranged white-collar workers display – he spends the first part of the fight getting his ass kicked. AJ steps in with his tire iron and discovers that hey, he’s a little better at this than his total lack of combat training can justify. Maybe The System has something to do with it? Teja finally concludes her business at the Currency Exchange and discovers that her teammates are in the middle of a brawl. She closes her eyes and doesn’t remember what happens for the next minute or so. What Kody and AJ see is her avatar nature taking over, and she proceeds to kick the crap out of the attackers, even as they leap onto her and deliver deep scratches to her upper back. By the time they’re done, Teja has stared one of them to death, Kody accidentally-on-purpose broke another one’s neck (that protein shake didn’t fuck around), and the third has fled for its life. Teja comes back to her senses, a bit confused as to where all these bodies came from.
Just as the dust settles, the concourse train arrives at the platform and the doors open. Freaked out by the combat, they dash inside. There are no other passengers in the poorly-lit subway car, but it’s full of crates. Kody opens one of the crates with his tire iron, finding video cameras, boom mikes, and the like – all with brand names filed off. Their sense of alarm increases. Oh, and the roaches in the subway car start whispering to Kody; they’re disturbingly amiable. The team decides to head toward the front of the train, to see if there’s a conductor they can talk to, but just as they’re opening the door to go forward, the girl from the Food Court shows up with murder in mind. AJ realizes that he’s taken the old man’s place as her chosen prey, and he rushes to meet her attack.
Kody’s bad luck in combat continues unabated, and he soon parts company with his precious tire iron – lodging it in a crate full of electronics, so that it is electrified. Teja fires up her laptop to see if she can figure out what’s going on with the electronics in the crates, but things rapidly go from bad to worse – something called HyperTech 7100 is trying to seize control of her laptop, and/or wreck it. She does everything she can to stop it, and to gather information on this attacker, but it’s a losing battle from the start (a series of abysmal dice rolls against a higher-level opponent). AJ gets the worst of it from the girl, and quickly discovers that her joints are 360-degree flexible in a distressing, inhuman way. She has no trouble fending off Kody’s attacks while also throwing AJ into the subway car’s windows. A moment later, AJ is dangling out the window of the car, watching other half-lit platforms go by at speed – here’s a group of security personnel lining up a bunch of people for execution by firing squad, here’s a group of pudgy office workers apparently taking in a lesson about time travel. Finally Kody pulls him back into the car, and they turn the fight around so that the alien girl is the one with her back to the window and off-balance. With one little shove, she’s thrown from the car, a rapidly dissolving acidic stain on the tunnel wall.
The team pushes forward through the cars, all of which are empty of passengers but full of questionable cargo. They finally get to the front of the train, after passing through a fully blacked-out car. Kody steps into the front car and sees the conductor, who has his back turned. The conductor’s head slowly turns… 180 degrees… and he says, “End of the line, Kody. End of the line” (which, in fact, the bugs in the walls had just said to him as well). He freaks the fuck out and takes a swing at the conductor’s head, but the one light in the car suddenly winks out and the tire iron doesn’t connect. The car comes to an instantaneous but inertia-less stop and the doors open.
They step out into Baggage Claim.
AJ and Cody discover that their bags have been thoroughly ransacked. AJ’s bag has six magazines of ammunition that he doesn’t recognize (having no prior experience with guns), while Kody’s bag has a pile of religious tracts. They see some airport security approaching, though at a distance, and they decide to worry about all of this later. There’s a man standing there with a Last Champion Standing sign, a ‘Marjian. They decide that he’s untrustworthy but less of a definite bad thing than the rapidly approaching security personnel, so they load their bags into his car (on top of a huge black duffel bag that makes some distressing squelching noises) and pile into his SUV. He jams his foot on the gas and they are away from The Terminal at last.
He takes them to their motel. There are a lot of questions about why a high-production-values show like Last Champion Standing is keeping them in a motel, but he says he doesn’t have any answers on that. There are even more questions once they actually see the motel. It is a run-down building with a hand-lettered sign out front that reads E-Z Sleep. He hustles them into their separate rooms, carrying their bags for them, and then he’s gone.
As the session closes, AJ suddenly notices that the driver left that big black duffel bag in his room.
I really, desperately need combat resolution guidance. I made it work, but I know that what I landed on is going to be nothing like what the designers intend. Reducing each combat to a single die roll – which is what I think the rules will ultimately propose – still needs a bunch of guidance.
Overall, I really like the 2d6 (“lots”) resolution system, and I especially like 3s as bad twists and 4s as good twists. Those turn “average” rolls into “outstanding” rolls, for good or ill. I could use more suggestions for suitable good and bad twists; declaring that blanking someone (dealing 1 Harm, in PBTA parlance) is always appropriate doesn’t feel true in actual use. My mental energy was fairly taxed by coming up with bad twists and failure states that were not blanking them, because the flow of the session suggested to me that knocking someone out or killing them would not ratchet up the tension, but just sour the scene.
I LOVE Al-Amarja, both the new iteration and the old, though I have to work harder to improvise things that are tonally correct for it. Still, I got in a lot of references to previous-edition conspiracies. When we get to play again, I hope I will have absorbed more of the new edition’s style and content, so that I can riff that as comfortably and freely as I do the old.
One of the most serious challenges we faced in the whole session was players coming up with their ? trait, their main and secondary traits, and their trouble. There may have been some dithering. To be fair to them, my wife is the only one with any prior experience of OtE, so once they heard her concept, AJ’s player went back to the drawing board to ratchet up the weird.
The level system, shifting outcomes up or down the Lots Results chart, is interesting but sort of hard for me to use right out of the gate. It will take some getting used to. It looks to me like a bird’s-eye-view take on AW move structures, which is fascinating in itself.
My broader gaming community, and these three players in particular, are not really here for Author Stance as the playtest document directs. The document’s discussion of the evolution of roleplaying – from adversarial to character-driven to author stance – fits very weirdly into a community deeply steeped in primarily-cooperative boffer LARP play. The more the text pushes Author Stance, the more it’s likely to sour my prospective players. I know Author Stance is all the rage with indie gaming and storygamers, but it is terribly unsatisfying to us to start from a place of rejecting character immersion. Character-driven play needs to be tempered with awareness of other players, and with the player’s obligation to sculpt a character that meets the story halfway, but we see that as a very different animal from stepping out of character to decide – based on just your own perspective – what’s going to be the most interesting thing to have happen in this scene.
Probably the most important takeaway here is that we had a phenomenal time, and the whole session that I describe above was about three and a half hours of play. It felt like a dense, active span of time to me, with minimal discussion of mechanics and maximal engagement with the setting’s weirdness and tension. I can’t wait to run the next session, and I think the players came away with the same feeling. That’s about as much as I can ask of any game.