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Brave New World
Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 05/07/2016 18:35:45

Because of its recent inclusion in a Bundle of Holding, it seems an apropos time to talk about Brave New World, perhaps the first RPG ever to be unfairly scuttled by the Internet.

BNW eschewed the "everything and the kitchen sink" approach of prior superhero RPGs, most of which were aping the bizarre, unplanned conglomerations called the Marvel and DC universes. Just thinking through how the Marvel and DC universes happened (mergers! soft reboots! hard reboots! office coups! lawsuits!) should have been a huge warning sign to RPGs that maybe this was not the needle we wanted to try to thread. But okay, we wanted to know whether Superman or the Hulk was the strongest, and hadn't noticed that the answer to that question depended on the dramatic needs of the comic book creators instead of a beep boop computer analysis of how many pascals are exerted by a Hulk punch. The result was Champions and its successors, which I regard with the kind of reverence reserved only for the accomplishments of mad geniuses.

But even the independent superhero RPGs, for the most part, didn't pursue an independent setting capable of standing on their own two feet. Instead, they leaned on existing comics and tried to pursue their aesthetics instead of their own. The exceptions started to hit at the end of the late 90s. In 1999 we got two big ones: Aberrant, White Wolf's deconstruction of superheroes, starring superpowered wrestlers, religious figures, and superspies, all with lovingly detailed haircuts and sunglasses, and Brave New World. I'll defend White Wolf stuff all day and all night but in this matchup, Brave New World wins walking away.

The premise of Brave New World, as implied by its literary-reference name, is that America (and much of the rest of the world) exists in an alternate 1999 as a totalitarian police state. A great deal of effort is put into grounding this in reality; how do people live in such circumstances? How do they accommodate themselves mentally to it? How do people come to support a police state in large or small ways? And how do they resist, in large or small ways? The need for the police state, naturally, is the emergence of superpowered beings, extremely powerful in the WW2 generation, and somewhat less so by 1999. Some of these beings are more or less leashed thugs working for the government; others are rebels trying to expose the truth and tear it down. Propaganda urges non-powered people to hate and fear powered people, and they do. The X-Men rarely gave us this kind of detail even when they remembered that humans hated mutants (which they often forgot).

There were two elements of the game that the Internet (at the time, primarily Usenet), responded to negatively. Bizarrely, they identified two of the best elements of the game as deal-breaking flaws.

First, in Brave New World, you can't just be any sort of superhero you want. Character - both player characters and non-player characters - powers fit into established categories. The super-strong person, the super-fast person, the psychic, and so on. This has numerous advantages: it makes character creation faster and easier, it makes tactical decisionmaking in fights faster and more reliable ("that guy's super strong, therefore I don't have to worry that he's going to take over my mind") and it encourages players to come up with new cool ways to use an established power versus ceding the field to someone who happened to toss a few points into the right ability, or feeling that because they didn't, they can't. The fact that the system smoothly utilizes power stunts within the options for using these limited powers multiplies this advantage - you can see how to make a power stunt and what they should be like.

The Internet absolutely freaked about this. After so many years of being told "you can do whateeeeever you waaaaant" without noticing that this produced a ton of shitty, boring character building before you got good at it, and impeded quickly getting into play, the idea that you couldn't be Dr. Strange with Weirdly Undefined Abilities was just beyond their comprehension. "Incomplete" was a word thrown around. Ugh.

The second thing that BNW did well that the Internet freaked about was not say anything about the "origins" of the superpowers that spread across the world. There was some implication they would be handled in later supplements. but of course by 1999 we had all forgotten what the word "supplement" meant and assumed that if something was bad in a supplement that it would be bad in all games around the world forever. In practice, BNW's decision to withhold this information worked because everyone assumed the evil government had it in a computer somewhere, or that they were undertaking evil experiments to GET it in a computer that had to be stopped. It became actionable primarily in response to villainous undertakings, which of course, is what superheroism actually is.

It seems like when we talk about our RPGs, we often measure them by what we already think a RPG should be, instead of what the RPG actually is. We take our prior experience as the center of RPG play and regard games that don't support that experience as deviations from the norm. Perhaps the better way to handle ourselves is to try to take each RPG from zero. Brave New World can't "do" the X-Men - christ, about 73 percent of the time, Marvel Comics can't. But that's not what Brave New World is. It's not a comic book, nor a simulator of a comic book world - it's a superhero RPG, and a damn good one.

All in all, Brave New World was a tremendous experience. The high stakes of being a superpowered rebel and trying to keep your identity secret created a heightened environment for throwing a car at a guy shooting lasers. It is one of my all time favorite superhero RPGs and I'm psyched that the Bundle of Holding might bring it to a new audience. I definitely encourage picking it up!

[5 of 5 Stars!]
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Brave New World
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