Over the Edge
Author: Johnathan Tweet and Robin D. Laws
Company/Publisher: Atlas Games
Line: Over the Edge
Page count: 240
Playtest Review by Darren MacLennan on 06/17/00.
Genre tags: Fantasy Science fiction Modern day Horror Far Future Space Espionage Conspiracy Vampire Asian/Far East
In using the fold in method I edit delete and rearrange as in any other method of composition-I have frequently had the experience of writing some pages of straight narrative text which were then folded in with other pages and found that the fold ins were clearer and more comprehensible than the original texts-Perfectly clear narrative prose can be produced using the fold in method-Best results are usually obtained by placing pages dealing with similar subjects in juxtaposition."
- William Burroughs
I've been waiting to review this for a long, long time.
What's Over the Edge about?
I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train... Young, good looking, crew cut, Ivy League, advertising exec type fruit holds the door back for me. I am evidently his idea of a character. You know the type comes on with bartenders and cab drivers, talking about right hooks and the Dodgers, call the counterman in Nedick's by his first name. A real asshole. And right on time this narcotics dick in a white trench coat (imagine tailing somebody in a white trench coat -- trying to pass as a fag I guess ) hit the platform. I can hear the way he would say it holding my outfit in his left hand, right hand on his piece: "I think you dropped something, fella"
Think of it as a prequel to Unknown Armies, a tribute to William Burroughs, David Lynch and David Cronenberg, and as one of the best role-playing games that you'll ever see, and you'll have a rough idea of what Over the Edge is like. I initially bought it for the sole purpose of writing this review, and then immediately became so enamored of the game that I realized most of the tricks that I was going to use weren't going to be of any particular use. The game is good enough to grab attention purely by its lonesome.
We intend to march on the police machine everywhere. We intend to destroy the police machine and all its records. We intend to destroy all dogmatic verbal systems. The family unit and its cancerous expansion into tribes, countries, nations we will eradicate at its vegetable roots. We don't want to hear any more family talk, mother talk, father talk, cop talk, priest talk, country talk, or party talk. To put it country simple we have heard enough bulls---.
Of course, that's not going to stop me from going nuts with the tricks anyways. And here you thought you was going to be lucky.
"How's that couple coming along in double emersion tank No. 187?"
"Don't look at it, boss, it's too horrible. Tley're melting together, and one is eating the other inside."
"Selbstverstaiidlich," snapped the Herr Doktor. "And vat did you think would happen, so stupid American swine?"
At this point, a most regrettable brawl broke out in the operation room, overturning nutrient tanks, jars, aquariums, sloshing monstrous larval being across the floor the scientists slip about slashing at each other with scalpels and bone saws screaming.
I'm not kidding when I suggest that On the Edge is a close cousin to Unknown Armies; in most respects, they're very similar. Both are inspired by an author - William Burroughs for On the Edge, Tim Powers for Unknown Armies. Both of them have simple systems that provide an immense amount of flexibility. Both of them have vivid settings, unique characters, and adventures that literally knock you out of your boots. They're both by Atlas Games. As a matter of fact, they come closest to Call of Cthulhu in that they're very accurate representations of fictional worlds, with a complete understanding of what makes those worlds work and a great system to go along with it. They actually form a triangle of excellent games, with similar themes.
Kim knows that the first step toward space exploration is to examine the human artifact with biologic alterations in mind that will render our H.A. more suitable for space conditions and space travel.... We are like water creatures looking up at the land and air and wondering how we can survive in that alien medium. The water we live in is Time. That alien medium we glimpse beyond time is Space. And that is where we are going. Kim reads all the science fiction he can find, and he is stunned to discover in all these writings the underlying assumption that there will be no basic changes involved in space travel.
So, what is it about?
Panorama of the City of Interzone. Opening bars of East St. Louis Toodleoo... at times loud and clear then faint and intermittent like music down a windy street....
The room seems to shake and vibrate with motion. The blood and substance of many races, Negro, Polynesian, Mountain Mongol, Desert Nomad, Polyglot Near East, Indian -- races as yet unconceived and unborn, combinations not yet realized pass through your body. Migrations, incredible journeys through deserts and jungles and mountains (stasis and death in closed mountain valleys where plants grow out of genitals, vast crustaceans hatch inside and break the shell of body) across the Pacific in an outrigger canoe to Easter Island.
The Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market.
Minarets, palms, mountains, jungle... A sluggish river jumping with vicious fish, vast weed-grown parks where boys lie in the grass, play cryptic games, Not a locked door in the City. Anyone comes into your room at any time. The Chief of Police is a Chinese who picks his teeth and listens to denunciations presented by a lunatic. Every now and then the Chinese takes the toothpick out of his mouth and looks at the end of it.
You're a visitor to, or native of, the sunny island of Al-Amarja, which is kind of like Tangiers as seen through the drug-distorted lens of William Burroughs. (In other words, it's Interzone, with a new name.) It's impossible to describe just how remarkable the setting is, mostly because it'll sound a lot like promises that other games have made without following through. For example: secret societies. Secret societies always sound really cool, right up until it becomes obvious that getting membership is really, really easy. Any White Wolf game, for example, has a small army of secret movers and shakers, all of whom have gained this power simply by being who they are. Al-Amarja's secret societies seem like actual coalitions of the damagd and disturbed, moving towards accomplishing their own twisted agendas - in other words, they're exactly like real secret societies.
"Fats" Terminal came from The City Pressure Tanks where open life jets spurt a million forms, immediately eaten, the eaters cancelled by black time fuzz....
Few reach the Plaza, a point where The Tanks empty a tidal river, carrying forms of survival armed with defences of poison slime, black, flesh rotting, fungus, and green odors that sear the lungs and grab the stomach in twisted knots....
Because "Fats'" nerves were raw and peeled to feel the death spasms of a million cold kicks.... "Fats" learned The Algebra of Need and survived....
One Friday "Fats" siphoned himself into The Plaza, a translucent-grey, foetal monkey, suckers on his little soft, purple-grey hands, and a lamphrey disk mouth of cold, grey gristle lined with hollow, black, erectile teeth, feeling for the scar patterns of junk....
And their goals aren't silly, or far-fetched. I've seen one too many cult whose existence seems like a straw man for the players to make fun of, like the cult that worships undead dragons in the Forgotten realms, who base their entire philosophy around a sentence in a prophecy that they mispunctuated. Think about this for a moment. Not only does this cult create dracoliches, they do it becuase they mispunctuated. Silly? Yeah? Commentary on cults? No, not really, because they only exist for the PCs/players to snigger at and mock once they find out what's going on. Realistic? Not in any sense of the word.
Whereas the cults and secret societies in Al-Amarja will cut out your tounge and leave it dangling through a hole in your neck - a Columbian necktie - for suggesting that they're misguided. Not just because they believe that they're right. Because every day, they're getting closer to the truth behind it all, and anybody scoffing at some of the more crazy theories is going to be taking them a lot more seriously after a day on Al-Amarja. Rather than misguided ninnies to make fun of, the groups here have their own motivations, and levels of sanity, and goals. The Neutralizers hunt down supernatural threats, but are out of their depth on Al-Amarja. The Movers attempt to destabilize world society, forming various cells which manipulate each other into assorted plots. The Glorious Lords pose as Satanists, but aren't much more than cheap muscle. The Cut-Ups - named after a technique that I've used in this review - cut and paste reality to decrease the power of those who want control, one of the major themes of Burroughs' work. There's a dozen other groups hanging around, including the government, the Garbage Men, a woman who leads a pack of radio-conditioned, ill-tempered baboons, mutants, aphids, fringe scientists, researchers...and hanging above them all is the alien threat of the Throckmorton device, the sanity-shattering revelations of the glugs, and the ancient malice of the Pharoahs. And the great thing is, any one of these groups could have a major effect on the island. All that it'll take is the right time and the right circumstance. And, if the players really feel the need, any one of the cults can be brought down - all that it'll take is blood, sweat, tears, toil, and a willingness to flex along with Al Amarja's reality.
Manhattan Serenade. A. J. and entourage start into New York night club. A. J. is leading a purple-assed baboon on a gold chain. A. J. is dressed in checked linen plus fours with a cashmere jacket.
MANAGER: "Wait a minute. Wait a minute. What's that?'
A. J.: "It's an Illyrian poodle. Choicest beast a man can latch onto. It'll raise the tone of your trap."
MANAGER: "I suspect it to be a purple-assed baboon and it stands outside."
The characters? Pick any archetype you want and you can have it? Tortured violinist? Sure. Intrepid journalist? Sure. Mad scientist? Absolutely. Mutant human adapted to the deep sea? Sure. Experiment that's gotten loose? Sure. Illyrian poodle? Sure, within limits. The system is incredibly flexible, and while you can't have supernatural creatures, you can have just about every flavor of human there is. Like Unknown Armies, the game system allows you to pick whatever skills you want, ranging from beating people up, to cheating at cards, to fringe science, to psychic abilities. What's more, each skill or attribute has to have a description tacked onto it that indicates how that skill affects your apperance and personality. If you beat people up a lot, you've got calloused knuckles, or lots of scars. If you're a fringe scientist, then your skin might be marked with weird burns, or you might wear funny goggles all the time, or you might be continually scribbling diagrams on inappropriate surfaces. It's not just for your primary skill, either; all skills have a descriptor, which means that the character actually has a relation to the skills that he's chosen. It lends immense amounts of character to what would otherwise just be skills.
The system itself is somewhat simpler than Unknown Armies, but it also lacks some of that game's versatility. Characters have four traits, which serve a double purpose as skills and attributes. One of the traits is classed as superior, and acts as the tag skill for that character. Others can be narrowed in scope to provide extra dice - instead of just Drive, you could take Drive Limo, for example. Want to be tough? Just take the skill Tough. Or Quick? Same thing. Weird powers are also very easily purchased, and can accomodate just about any crazy thing you might want, from mutants to psychics to mages. (Well, mages may not be able to do everything that they'd be able to do in Mage: The Ascension, but those kinds of power don't entirely fit here.) Hit points either default to a set number, or, if you want a tougher character, you can roll as many six-sided dice as you have in any physical trait.
The Buyer spreads terror throughout the industry. Junkies and agents disappear. Like a vampire bat he gives off a narcotic effluvium, a dank green mist that anesthetizes his victims and renders them helpless in his enveloping presence. And once he has scored he holes up for several days like a gorged boa constrictor. Finally he is caught in the act of digesting the Narcotics Commissioner and destroyed with a flame thrower -- the court of inquiry ruling that such means were justified in that the Buyer had lost his human citizenship and was, in consequence, a creature without species and a menace to the narcotics industry on all levels.
The dice resolution system is a simple "shotgun" system that uses six-sided dice and a difficulty number. Rolling all ones is a botch. Rolling a six on any dice means that you've suceeded, but not by much. Combat is just as simple, and uses various multipliers to indicate just how lethal a weapon is. And that's just about as complicated as the system needs to be. As a result, you can literally take any character that you want, just using the flexibility of the game's rules.
Most of the book devotes itself to the setting, which is one of the most intricate I've ever seen. The city's government is a benevolent - well, it's kind of a dictatorship, and kind of a democracy, and it mostly exists only because everybody on the island wants it to hang around. Everybody who doesn't fit in on the more sane parts of planet Earth is here, as well as the natives of Al Amarja themselves. The neat thing is that the entire city is roughly laid out within the book, with entries for pretty much every building that a player might need - fight clubs, gun stores, an ATM that plays the music of a particular cult, that kind of thing. The interior of the airport - the Terminal - is larger than the outside, and is so large that people actually live inside of it; meanwhile, those trying to find their way around inside can look forward to an experience much like a nightmare. There are also lists of people that you might find on Al-Amarja, including maniacs, wizards, mutants, Pubes, Satanists, Kergillians, fringe scientists - it's like the cantina from Star Wars, except that everybody's human. Well, most of them are human.
The forms of democracy are scrupulously enforced on the Island. There is a Senate and a Congress who carry on endless sessions discussing garbage disposal and outhouse inspection, the only two questions over which they have jurisdiction. For a brief period in the mid-nineteenth century, they had been allowed to control the dept. of Baboon Maintenance but this privilege had been withdrawn owing to absenteeism in the Senate.
The purple-assed Tripoli baboons had been brought to the Island by pirates in the 17th century. There was a legend that when the baboons left the Island it would fall. To whom or in what way is not specified, and it is a capital offense to kill a baboon, though the noxious behaviour of these animals harries the citizens almost beyond endurance. Occasionally someone goes berserk, kills several baboons and himself.
What also makes the book's contents golden is that story ideas are tagged behind just about every place on the island, even for those that wouldn't seem that useful. Also useful are constant references to two of the book's main metaplots, both of which are laid out in exhaustive detail in the back of the book - you hear that, White Wolf? There's constant mention of the Throckmorton device, and when we reach the end of the book, everything about the Throckmorton device is there, including its effects, its creators, and tips on running a complete campaign to defeat the Throckmorton device and its owners. And if you want to leave the Throckmorton device out, it's remarkably easy to do so.
William Seward Hall, the man of many faces and pen names... The Traveller, the Scribe, most hunted and fugitive of men, since the knowledge unfolding in his being spells ruin to our enemies. He will soon be in a position to play the deadliest trick of them all... The Piper Pulled Down The Sky. His hand will not hesitate
In addition, there's conversion notes for a bunch of also-ran role-playing games, including CORPS, Bureau 13, To Challenge Tomorrow, Nightlife...but not Vampire, Call of Cthulhu, or GURPS. I have no idea why this game chose to associate itself with this sad pack of losers and wannabes, but I can't say that the conversion rules help anybody. However, there's also notes in there for converting Over the Edge - and there's neat ideas, like changing Al Amarja's location, or describing Al Amarja's city elemental, one of Nightlife's few interesting ideas.
The back of the book has some adventure ideas, and it's here where the game enters the realm of the truly inspired. Some of them introduce future subplots, or demonstrate Al Amarja's craziness, but the true gem of the whole thing is an adventure where the characters realize that they are fictional characters, being played in a role-playing game, and meet their players. (The way that the game describes this, using meta-textual objects and challenging characters to come up with their mother's name on the spot - which they won't be able to do - is brilliant beyond words.)
My present assignment: Find the live ones and exterminate. Not the bodies but the "molds," you understand -- but I forget that you cannot understand. We have all but a very few. But even one could upset our food tray. The danger, as always, comes from defecting agents: A.J., the Vigilante, the Black Armadillo (carrier of Chagas vectors, hasn't taken a bath since the Argentine epidemic of '35, remember? ), and Lee and the Sailor and Benway. And I know some agent is out there in the darkness looking for me. Because all Agents defect and all Resisters sell out....
Does it have problems? One or two. For one thing, the Throckmorton device encourages conformity - one of Burrough's themes, along with control - but it also uses the Throckmorton device as a commentary on social prejudice, and so forth. It's been a long time since I've read Burroughs, and I know that control and lack of same are one of his major themes, but the book doesn't go into some of the weirder areas that complete control leads into. It's like describing the Great Old Ones as similar to Godzilla. Physically, they're kind of similar, but they're worlds apart in scope, and I found myself wishing that Tweet had pushed the limits, rather than simply parodying what sounds like a Republican agenda.
There's also the use of the word "Republocrats", which gets my hackles up. The art is somewhat sparse, and not all that great. There are points where computer graphics are used instead of actual drawings, which makes them look out of place. The cover painting is amazing, but it doesn't grab the eye nearly as much as it should. Unknown Armies had some of the same problems, but I imagine that Over the Edge will eventually get artwork that can live up to the contents of the book itself.
But, I can open up the book to any page, at random, and see a dozen good ideas for an adventure. Anybody can use this book in their systems, anybody can use the rules set that the game provides, anybody who enjoyed Unknown Armies or Call of Cthulhu is going to love this game.
What the hell. Just go and buy it, wouldja?
A heaving sea of air hammers in the purple brown dusk tainted
with rotten metal smell of sewer gas...young worker faces vibrating
out of focus in yellow halos of carbide lanterns... broken pipes
- Darren MacLennan, with extensive quotes from William Burroughs. Profuse thanks to bigtable.com.Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)