Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Five or So Questions on Over the Edge

Hi all, today I have an interview with Jonathan Tweet on Over the Edge, an RPG currently on Kickstarter! I hope you learn something fun about Over the Edge from Jonathan's responses below!


Tell me a little about Over the Edge. What excites you about it?

Of all the RPGs I’ve designed, Over the Edge is the one that means the most to me personally. It started as a pet project of mine, not meant for publication, so it’s weirder than anything I would have conceived for a broad audience. The rules are also free-form and story-driven. That was a rarity in 1992 when the original released, but it’s more common these days. It’s exciting to be able to reboot this game and update it so that it’s ahead of the curve again like it was 25 years ago.

The team I’m working with is also really good. Atlas Games published the original, and they’re doing the new version, too. The producer, Cam Banks, is a big fan from way back, and so is Chris Lites, who contributed a lot of creative material.

What have you had to do to make Over the Edge modern, both in consideration of real life issues and what we conceive as paranormal or "weird" in the modern era?

In terms of real life, I had to ramp up the stakes. The setting is now set up with the expectation that a final reckoning is on the horizon. The world of 1992 was relatively peaceful, when the Soviet Union was defunct, Francis Fukuyama was touting the end of history, and Samuel Huntington’s so-called “Clash of Civilizations” was a new idea. These days, things are worse. Teenage girls who revere the Peacock Angel are burned to death in cages for refusing to be sex slaves in the army of the “Caliphate”. Carbon is heating the planet and killing the coral. Russia annexed territory by conquest, which no other country had done since 1975. Inequality has skyrocketed. Nationalism and racism are in fashion from one democracy to another. To compete with all this nightmarish stuff, the setting had to become more menacing.

The original game debuted just before the worldwide web, so the online aspect of modern life was missing. Interacting with the online world in Al Amarja usually means logging into the corrupt, State-run social network called Reba Online. Yes, the State is logging all your activity, but how else are you going to find a coffeeshop that has soy milk?

The paranormal elements of the game hardly needed updating. Paranormal beliefs reflect consistent human biases, such as magical thinking, so 25 years later you’ll still find ESP, interdimensional visitors, past lives, subliminal messaging, curses, etc. One new thing to add is epigenetics. Lay people tend not to understand what epigenetic changes really amount to, so you can sort of invent all sorts of weird abilities and say that they're epigenetic. 

The Over the Edge cover with a woman in a head covering and face paint, a television showing an image of a man holding a knife behind his back, a morphed skull, a baboon, a person covering their face all but their eyes, and a plane flying off into the distance.
The Over the Edge cover is quite nice!
How does paranormality affect the average person in Over the Edge, from a narrative perspective and from a mechanical perspective?

The paranormal of Over the Edge is the sort of paranormal that fits right into everyday modern life. It’s like the paranormal that people actually believe in: prayer circles, horoscopes, alien contact, mind-control chemicals in the drinking supply, a parasitical skin disease from outer space, chakras, past lives, energy vampirism, subliminal mind control messages, chem trails, exorcism, reiki, rebirthing, or even child slavery on Mars. These sorts of paranormal elements are the sorts of things you find in Over the Edge, only in the game they’re weirder and more powerful.

The island of Al Amarja is a paranormal power center and a weak point in the reality manifestation matrix, so there’s more crazy paranormal events going on beneath the surface there than anywhere else. The people take it for granted that the government’s propaganda posters are some sort of mind control program, that messages are hidden in television broadcasts, and that the Internet is haunted. The most public face of the supernatural is Sister Cheryl, the leader of the Temple of the Divine Experience. Seekers who turn to Sister Cheryl can find all manner of shrines, disciplines, rituals, penances, psychoactives, prayers, book clubs, and animal sacrifices to help them progress along the spiritual path.

For players, the paranormal opens up a degree of freedom when they invent their characters’ traits. A player in my campaign, for example, invented a Christian Necromancer with a YouTube following. The game is set in the modern day, so players can bring in references to anything happening in the real world, and including references to the paranormal, such as necromancy. An important point is that the game doesn’t have mechanical subsystems. It doesn’t have a combat system or a magic system. It has a system for determining success and failure, along with possible good and bad surprises. That system works for psychic powers, street fighting, counterintelligence, and Christian necromancy.

What does the resolution mechanic feel like in play when supporting this rich fiction - is it punchy, does it leave a mark? What are any differences from previous versions?

From now on, that’s my new tagline for the dice mechanics in Over the Edge: a dice mechanic that leaves a mark! In the new system, players throw dice only when the results are consequential. With every throw, in addition to succeeding or failing, the player might get a “good twist” or a “bad twist”, which are surprising results that are outside the binary succeed/fail dichotomy.
Every throw of the dice matters. Fights, skullduggery, and paranormal efforts that would have taken several dice rolls in the original version are handled now with a single throw. A player's dice throw determines how the conflict turns out, so a failure for the player is a success for the enemy. That’s a trick I learned from Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World. So every dice throw matters. For most throws, everyone at the table stops and watches. Each throw is that important.

Mechanically, a conflict is resolved by the player rolling two dice. If the player-character has a big advantage, the player can reroll a die once or twice. If the PC is at a serious disadvantage, the GM can force the player to reroll a die once or twice. After all the rerolls, the total on the dice indicates success (high roll) or failure (low roll). In addition, if a die shows a 3, that’s a bad twist, and if a die shows a 4, that’s a good twist. Good twists are more common with a higher roll, but you can fail the roll but still get a good twist, as when you throw a 4 and a 1 for a total of 5. Likewise, you often get a bad twist even with a success. The twists add a new dimension to the resolution system, a discontinuous result that can take the action in a new direction. The old system was serviceable, but it didn’t “leave a mark” like the new one does.

What are you doing in narrative and mechanical design to support a more inclusive, respectful play environment, considering the content you have in the game?

My roleplaying games have been marked for the way they have promoted women and people of color, especially Everway from 1995. It’s been gratifying to see the rest of the RPG industry follow the lead of those of us where on the front lines 20 or 30 years ago. In the original 1992 game, I made the leaders of the island women. That was back when D&D had officially removed the pronoun “she” from their rules, and it felt great to push back against “the man”. Putting women in charge was one small step toward counteracting the preponderance of powerful men in RPG settings. The great news is that today it’s no big shock for there to be powerful women, such as our own President Clinton. In order to continue to challenge stereotypes, I changed the ruling family, the D’Aubainnes, from French to black African.

More generally, the Atlantic island where the action all takes place is a mish-mash of germ lines and cultures. Seekers, fugitives, and spies from all over the world converge here, and the local population includes genetic contributions for all sorts of ancestries, including Neanderthals and probably Homo erectus. (It’s a long story.)

If you’re asking about respect, however, you might be asking the wrong person. Have you looked at the manuscript? The whole island is a mess of exploitation, lies, mind control, personal excess, social neglect, narcissistic self-aggrandizement, mental dysfunction, and conspiracies. Respect is hard to find. Instead, I’m an equal-opportunity disrespecter. The most powerful public figures on the Island are two black sisters, and if they’re powerful, that pretty much makes them villains. That said, if any GamerGater thinks that this is the game for him because the most prominent villains are black women, I hope he buys the game so he can be harshly disappointed. In Al Amarja, all sorts of people are terrible.


Thanks so much to Jonathan for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed it and that you'll check out Over the Edge on Kickstarter today! Remember to share the interview with your friends, too!

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