You didn’t notice at first. That can of pop seemed a little ‘wrong’ somehow, but you put it down to a new packaging design and a different recipe or something. Then you noticed that someone appeared to have swapped their chair for yours at the office, but that coffee stain on the seat where you nearly did yourself a nasty injury was still there. It looked – and felt – like the same chair, but you knew, deep down inside, that it wasn’t. After that, you started to notice more and more of these things, and even people. The mailman, whose name you’d never learned, but who you’d often swapped pleasantries with about last night’s game. He wasn’t replaced by a new mailman; he looked the same; he still swapped friendly insults about your team, and even told the same story about how he’d tried out for his team but that knee injury from his early school years had put paid to his chances. He had the same memories as the mailman, put it just wasn’t really him. They (whoever they were) had replaced him with an exact replica. Things in your house were replaced, but your wife couldn’t see what you were trying to say when you tried to explain that they were the same, but changed, and you stayed quiet after a while, so that she wouldn’t think you were going insane. You did wonder yourself, a little.
Then you came home and found that your wife had been changed too.
Exquisite Replicas is the latest game from Abstract Nova, who specialise in surreal off-the-beaten-track games such as Heaven and Earth 3rd edition, Aletheia, and Noumenon. ER shares this surreal quality, but couples it with horror. This is not the gore-laden horror of zombie films (though there are creatures in the game which you wouldn’t want to come across on a dark night), but the horror of losing your mind, or a distinctly unsettling feeling that you know something’s wrong, but can’t explain (even to yourself) why, and you feel powerless to do something about it.
A few days later you meet the Anonymous. All wearing masks, seemingly using the opportunity of the anonymity that the masks give them to indulge themselves in vandalism, smashing up a car, breaking the windows of a bookstore, burning some (but not all, you notice) of the books from inside. Then you realise that the things they’re destroying are all replaced things, not real things. They understand. When they see that you, too, understand, they approach, and one offers you a mask, telling you that it’s the only way to keep them from replacing you. You join them in destroying the replicas, and tell them that your house is full of them, and start to lead them back there.
And then you remember that your wife has been replaced too.
In ER, you play one of the Anonymous, mask-wearing freedom fighters bent on destroying the replicas and attempting to return the real versions to this world. Trying to tell people what’s happening would get you locked up; being caught destroying things – or people – would get you locked up too, but doing nothing means that the world will slowly get replaced, until there’s nothing left that’s real. Eventually they’ll come for you, and replace you.
The core book is split into seven chapters and an index, with an appended character sheet (another of which can also be found in the section on character creation). The first chapter, a brief Introduction, gives the basic description of the game’s setting and quick description of role-playing that most games give, a very general description of the system used, and a warning that the subject matter of the game “is intended for mature readers.” This is not a game with which you want to introduce your 10-year old kid to role-playing, unless you like being woken at night by them screaming. It deals with disturbing issues – are you sure that you’re not going mad? You’d better be certain before you start to destroy those replicas of people, especially when you’re talking about your own family. Are you really sure that you aren’t just having some sort of flashbacks from that acid you did back in college?
The second chapter, Initiation, is an in-character explanation of what’s going on, told from the viewpoint of one of the Anonymous, an induction speech by someone with an obviously tenuous grasp on what remains of their sanity: “I think I remember putting a piece of tinfoil underneath my gardening hat; you never know if someone’s trying to microwave your head. You see, I know they were trying to scan me, like a big barcode.” I would suggest having your players read this (it totals 24 pages) after they’ve created their characters, and maybe after a brief introductory scenario wherein they meet the Anonymous. This chapter does an extremely good job of summing up the awful choices that the PCs will have to make, and the mental anguish the characters will have to go through at times, as the scene where the narrator relates how she had to kill her replica grandchildren chillingly illustrates.
Chapter three, Character Generation, is similar to other Abstract Nova games too. You play ordinary people who have joined the Anonymous because you understand that something is amiss. The Anonymous are not some government special forces group; they’re shop workers, businessmen, hairdressers, office workers. They don’t have much in the way of special equipment either – just a collection of tatty plain black suits, some masks (hockey masks, wooden fetish masks, carnival masks, any will do), and “a black conversion van…in time, we hope to acquire a second van.” This is not to say that an elite group of the Anonymous hit-men couldn’t easily be set up by the GM if that’s what your group prefers, but that would reduce the feeling of immense isolation and powerlessness in the face of true horror that the game exudes. Similarly to the old Shadowrun allocation, four things have to be categorized: Physical attributes; Mental attributes; Occupation; Advantages. Priority 1 gets you 9 points to spend, category 2 gets 7, category 3 gets 5 and category 4 gets 3 points. Physical and Mental attributes have a rating between 1 and 5 (1 is free) while these points are used to increase attributes on a 1-to-1 basis. Physical attributes include Co-ordination, Agility, Strength and Endurance, while Mental attributes are Intelligence, Knowledge, Awareness and Will.
Occupations, used similarly to that of other AN games, give a wide-ranging group of skills. For example, a taxi driver (one of the 15 example occupations given, though the players and GM can come up with whatever else they want) has skills in street smarts, casual conversation (useful for interviewing), and navigating the city, in addition to things like driving. Probable contacts are also given for each occupation, and general equipment is also based on occupation. This, to my mind, is one of the great things about the occupation system that ER uses – if it’s a skill that an occupation is likely to have, then they’re skilled at it. There’s no giant list of skills given anywhere – if your character is a mechanic, then his occupation covers repair work, contacts with auto suppliers etc. Occupations are rated from 1 to 5 stars (with each star costing one point), depending on their usefulness – for example, a cop has training in a lot of handy skills, has good contacts that can be very useful, and costs the full 5 points to take, whereas a cleaner wouldn’t have many useful contacts or skills , and would cost 1 point. Occupations have ranks, similarly to attributes, with the same maximum of rank 5, and these also cost points – a player who wants to be a very good cop, for example, could assign Occupation as category 1, getting 9 points to spend. Since cop is an example of a 5 star occupation, 5 of his 9 points would be spent getting that occupation, and the remaining 4 points spent on increasing the occupation rank from 1 to 5. This, to my mind, is a distinct improvement over occupations in Heaven and Earth and Aletheia, where you were given a set amount of points to spend on occupations and ranks that meant you could never be a veteran professor – choosing to put your occupation as your first priority means you can have a veteran at a 5-star occupation. It is also possible to spend points on two (or even more) occupations – an ex-cop who now works as a journalist, for example. Something that isn’t covered here (it’s covered later, in the game mechanics section) is what to do when a character has two occupations that share some skills – the above ex-cop, now reporter, for example, would be able to interview people through both of his occupations – he’d use the highest rank of occupation when doing so, but wouldn’t he get any bonus through having had experience in interviewing for a longer period of time compared to his other reporting skills? This could easily be house-ruled, though, with that cap of rank 5 acting as a limiter.
Advantages are skills that fall outside of a character’s occupation (my postal worker is also interested in hunting, and knows how to use a rifle), increasing particular occupation skills to reflect greater expertise in that area (my taxi driver is rank 3, but when it comes to driving, he’s rank 5), and buying weaponry. For some, as yet undisclosed, reason, replicas are hurt more by replicated objects than by real objects. Spending 1 point will get you a replicated baseball bat; spending 5 will get you a replicated gun and 50 replicated bullets. One thing that I dislike about this part is that objects are being replaced all the time; it’s surely better to spend your advantage points on skills, and simply pick up a replicated chair leg to use as a weapon when play starts.
The rest of the chargen chapter discusses psychological states, and this is another area where ER really shines. Each character chooses a rating of 1 to 5 for three psychological areas – Paranoia, Violence, and Immorality. Players are free to choose whatever level they wish for each of these, but they’re a double-edged sword. Paranoia, for example, makes it easier to spot replicated objects and people; Violence means the character is more able and willing to destroy objects – or people, replicated or not – and Immorality is the scale for how well the character can lie when under interrogation, how willing he or she is to steal or act against their conscience. As such, a character will want to have fairly high levels of these traits to effectively operate. The catch is that as each of these traits increases, the character becomes more unstable, perhaps being unable to act in social situations, becoming more and more selfish, or becoming more sadistic. If a character’s three psychological ratings all reach rank 5, the character becomes a fully-fledged psychopath, and is removed from play. As these mental instabilities are role-played, however, the character receives Tragedy Points (the tragedy being the descent into madness), which can be spent on skill rolls to ensure success. Each character also has 5 points to spend on trivial skills (playing guitar, knowing the names of each player in the Rotherham United squad that played in the League Cup final in 1961 and who scored the first goal (Barry Webster)). The chapter ends with a discussion of the character’s mask – does it have any particular meaning to the character, or was it the first one he picked up? What is the character’s background? Family? Masks are important – with a mask, the Othersiders cannot properly read the person, the first stage in replacing them.
Chapter four is concerned with Game Mechanics. The rules, like all Abstract Nova games, are simple and unobtrusive, while remaining very evocative of the feel that ER tries to convey. Game mechanics only come into play in stressful situations, and everyday skills a character uses for his or her occupation (changing oil for a mechanic, for example) are automatic successes. When testing is required, the GM sets a difficulty of 1 to 5, and decides what types of skills and attributes should be used. The rank of the aptitude (eg Awareness) and occupation rank for a particular skill (eg searching someone) are added together, and that number of 10-sided dice rolled. Any dice that roll 1 give 1 success; any that roll a 2 give 2 successes. Rolls of 3-10 give no successes. Tragedy points can be spent to increase the number of successes rolled. Opposed rolls are as above, but with the highest number of successes winning. GM decision says whether lacking a skill can default to just using the attribute, or whether the roll automatically fails (a housewife isn’t going to be able to perform brain surgery). Rules for hurried actions, extended actions, and teamwork also follow, as well as several examples of common actions (spotting replicas, chasing someone, etc).
The chapter is rounded out with a section on combat, which start with initiative and a Violence roll to see whether the character is capable of inflicting damage on someone – a neat touch, and something that most other games lack – Call of Cthulhu investigators, for example, are similarly normal people, and yet they often seem to have no compunction against beating up or shooting anyone that moves). Does your lovable grandmotherly professional babysitter character have what it takes to stab an adorable (though replicated) flopsy bunny rabbit with her kitchen knife? What about one of the kids she’s babysitting? If she has a Violence rank of 1, but rolls well and joins in on an attack against a replicated person, she stands a strong chance of her Violence rank increasing as she comes to term with the need for violence. Combat is simple, mostly opposed rolls for hand-to-hand combat and fixed difficulties for ranged combat with various modifiers (cover, lighting, range, movement etc). Damage is based on the weapon used and the number of successes in the attack roll, the strength of the attacker and the endurance of the defender. Each character has 20 health, and some weapons have very high damage ratings, easily able to kill with one shot or blow. Wounds can affect skill rolls (one success is lost for every 5 health lost). Alongside rules for falling and fire and the other usual things, there are also rules for starvation – handy when the characters take a trip to Otherside, when they prefer not to eat replicated food, or when their paranoia gets the best of them and they find themselves unable to leave the house. To deal with the ever-increasing psychological ranks, rules are also given for therapy and medication to bring these ranks lower, but this is a longer-term action, likely to be overtaken by the pace of increase of these traits.
Surprisingly, the game omits any form of XP system, meaning that characters will find it difficult to improve on their original skill levels, though it is suggested that the GM can use Tragedy Points as XP if he or she wishes. The GM is warned, however, not make this too cheap, as super heroic characters able to easily defeat Othersiders removes something from the game. Even so, the complete lack of any XP system at all seems a little odd – surely the Anonymous group the PCs belong to could provide some rudimentary training in certain skills over time, or the PCs themselves could train each other? Again, though, house rules could easily be put in place, and the rationale behind omitting such a system is a fairly good one.
Chapter five, Threats, covers the Othersiders, those strange creatures who are busy replicating people and things. Five types of Othersider are presented, from watchers to those which replace people, to those given the task of eradicating the Anonymous. When they are killed, their bodies disappear, so no trace of them can be used to learn more about them. Each of the Othersider descriptions include some suggested storylines that can be used with them. Also in this section are notes on journalists and law enforcement groups.
Chapter six, Otherside, describes the hell where the people and things that have been replaced are taken to, a weird mish-mash of concentration camp, dangerous waste repository, junkyard and factory, mired in red smog and darkness. It is not a place you want to spend any length of time in. Patrolled by weird creatures that stop escape back to reality, Otherside quickly brings on insanity and a rapid disintegration of civilisation and morality. With little available food, cannibalism is the norm, and many of those replaced have undergone such mental torture that their sanity has irrevocably gone. The Anonymous who go there (there is a way for them to go there (and return), though very dangerous) to bring back replicated people have to be very wary, and cannot stay long before they too have their minds twisted. One of the horrible ironies of ER is that as the characters become more competent at dealing with Othersiders, they become more and more liable to insanity, until they can no longer function and are taken over by the GM. Several other denizens of Otherside are described here. Your PCs will not want to meet any of them. Various locations are also described, which most characters will usually want to avoid.
Chapter seven deals with Gamemastering, and gives lots of good advice for running an ER campaign, starting with advice for running through chargen with the players, to scene-setting, types of conflict (social, environmental, psychological as well as physical), to the usual scenario and campaign creating sections. The section abounds in plot ideas (you hear about a similar group in the next city over – are they for real, like you, or are they a new and sinister development by the Othersiders to draw you out?), as well as doing a good job asking questions as to what effect on normal people the characters’ actions will have – are they just LARPers? Battling an evil and invisible menace, as a tabloid might suggest? What will happen when someone sees a white cop with a mask on and his similarly masked friends beating the crap out of a Black guy in an alleyway? Does Michael Jackson cover the faces of his children to hide their faces from paparazzi or because he knows what’s going on?
Conclusion: So, why are the Othersiders replicating and kidnapping people and objects? ER doesn’t say, but it does give several possible reasons that you can use to come up with your own campaign ideas. As such, there is quite a bit of replayability in ER. The simple game mechanics ensure that the game doesn’t get stuck in tactical combat for goes on for hours, leaving more time for role-playing and the story. The mechanics related to psychological attributes, while of course they don’t pretend to match the reality of mental illness, are innovative and help create the atmosphere that the game thrives on, of a slow descent into madness and terror, and the probably ultimately failed attempt to fight back.
Art: Eric Lofgren does some very evocative work in ER. A lot of the half-page scenes depicted are natural poses – the narrator of the Initiation chapter, for instance, is seen sitting, an old woman in a cheap black suit with a carnival-style mask. A run-down abandoned building which serves as the Anonymous HQ and the like. In addition, each chapter begins with a full-page greyed illustration, usually of Anonymous members destroying replicated things (or people), attacking Othersider creatures etc. Some of these are repeated in other chapters as half-page illustrations. The outside margins of other pages are decorated with depictions of various masks. These margins are the same throughout the book, and it would have been a great aid to flipping through the book looking for particular chapters if these had been different marginal mask illustrations for each chapter, but otherwise they look good; several of the masks seem have a malign or malevolent look to them, which fits well.