So not the biggest reveal in history but yes, this review is about three game books at once, well no, actually six.
How is this possible you ask, well let me tell you a story.
Back in 1997 White Wolf published a new sci-fi game setting using their Story Teller system called AEon (yeah I dont have the font to make that look right but so it goes). The game hinted at a long standing history including a period of super humans on earth that went bad that spurred this specific future. Then MTV and the holders of the Aeon Flux title claimed that naming the game Aeon infringed on their copyright, and so they changed the name to Trinity. But that BS aside a lot of players still called it Aeon. In 1999 White Wolf released part two of the series, Aberrant. This was a step back in time to the birth of super humans in the time line. In 2001 White Wolf released part three, Adventure!, which was a pulp era setting that showed where the organizations that existed in Aeon/Trinity got their start and where some of the major NPC’s that had been active through the whole timeline originated. In 2004 under their Sword and Sorcery logo White Wolf reprinted the rules for all three of these games in the highly popular d20 3.5 rules.
Now then normally I am not one for prequels of any kind. So having a series of games that are published in reverse chronological order seems like something that would be antithesis to me. But in this instance it worked, and worked well. In part because of the fluff in the game setting. Information lost, secret government agencies keeping things hidden, and that lack of knowledge being portrayed in the setting left you with the feeling of ‘Ok so I know a bit about how we got here, but why is completely missing. Why did things go this way?’
Also the possibilities presented by converting a point based system into a level based system spurred my interest in 2004, because I had not seen it done all that well yet. I mean Guardians of Order had done their level best to convert Big Eyes Small Mouth (BESM) into a d20 engine variant, but there was nothing you could really call out as balance between BESM d20 and regular d20. So I was very interested to see how the use of pulp, supers, and sci fi from a point based engine would be translated into a level based engine.
Unfortunately for the fans of the setting(s?) shortly after the publication of the main book for Adventure! the whole story line was canceled due to poor sales. Or at least that is what White Wolf told us all. If they had any other reasons they have kept them to themselves and not shared even a hint. So there is a fair bit of support material in the Story Teller system for Aeon/Trinity, a few books were added for Aberrant, and nothing was added for Adventure!. For those that like telling stories though, filling in the blanks and building out the secrets and delving into the shadows, this works fairly well as you have enough material to set you on the path of completing the time line, but you will get to flesh out the details. Unfortunately none of the supporting materials were published in the d20 format. So anyone wanting to convert over everything will have to read through the base books, do some comparisons and convert it over on their own. Time consuming yes. Hard, not really.
Currently the license for the Aeon/Trinity books is held by Onyx Path Publishing and you can get just about everything for the whole series in PDF form online. Those of us who have been long time fans and pay attention to Onyx Paths website got a bit of a boost a while back when they said that they were planning to republish Trinity as Aeon again, and that they may have more releases coming in the future for the series.
So now comes the question, if I am doing up a review for three settings in two different game engines in one review, will I be doing things like World of Darkness (WOD) in a single review? Will I take d20 and d20 Modern and make one review? Will I put all of the Tri Stat games into one review?
But they all use the same engine? WOD is really all one big story-line too? Why not?
Well it comes down to my perspective. Lets look at WOD for a moment. Yes they all use the same game engine. Yes they are all in the same world, on the same time line. But each part of WOD has a vastly different perspective. And while the parts may share a time line, the only other thing they may share is a meta plot about how dark the world is getting, or maybe ending depending on the edition of WOD you are playing. Any part of WOD interacting with any other part is a challenge, as abilities clash and some may not even be able to perceive the other kinds of supernatural entities around them. It gets to be a bit of a boggle. If you look at d20, yeah you can mix the modern and the fantasy settings together, but they are not complimentary and boy do you have balance issues when it comes to making the characters cross over. And on another perspective, Palladium, obscene levels of power creep, no mater what they say about Rifts it really does not blend. IT DOES NOT BLEND! Aeon though is one single time line. And yes the supers that are in the middle of the time line are powerful, their powers have a natural weakness to the psi powers in the sci fi setting, and neither the supers nor the psis have any advantage against the talents that come up in the pulp setting. They not only balance but they play well together. Not only is this true in the Story Teller system but it is also very true in the d20 version. The mechanics they chose to use and the way they used them worked out beautifully.
So there you have it. To me this is a very unique (or nearly so, Rouge Trader and associated games I am looking your way) moment in games where everything flows together well, and you can actually say that even though there are multiple main rule books, and three distinct settings, it really is all one game. Unless you choose not to play it that way 😉 but hey that’s your choice not mine. 🙂
So now how about we talk mechanics for a moment and then get into the part of the review you all want to see, how I carve this one up.
In terms of game mechanics, the original publication of the Aeon series of games used a slightly modified version of the original Story Teller game engine. Meaning that it is point based builds that result in a number of d10 being rolled to figure out success or failure. The engine is not so modified that you would not be able to play it if the only thing you had ever seen was Vampire (the whatever it is this week) but if the only other game you had played with the Story Teller system was say, Street Fighter, then it will be a bit harder. Power increases happen at a heightened scale (geometric rate I think with a scale of two or three) so the higher your powers are you become significantly more effective at that action. But gaining high powers comes at a cost. In the pulp setting you see an increase in danger, and risk as your talents affect fate and give you small more than human boosts. In the supers settings the failing is the loss of your humanity, as you get more powerful you become something, other. In the sci fi setting you not only attract more danger, you become more reliant on outside forces and assists. So with great power comes great cost, like with most White Wolf products. I can say that a starting Mage character and a starting Psion do make for an interesting match up though if you want to see just what each can do.
On the d20 side instead of creating a new type of character class for any of the special abilities that can come up they created racial levels. The first racial level is actually a template that can be added at zero level cost, and it mostly grants access to new types of feats and special talents like in d20 Modern. Normally a system like this is hard to get around if you want to have a pulp hero who becomes a super who becomes a psi. In this case they actually put a rule in place that if you take one of the racial templates it blocks you from taking any other racial levels. So if you are planning on playing with the Savage Species book and trying to import supers into your D&D 3.5 game, it will be a pain to do that with anything other than a human or other race that does not need levels. Hmmm, although a bronze dragon that goes by the name Doc Savage would explain a lot… hmmm. Anyway. All of the mechanics in the Aeon series for d20 balance out with the classes in d20 Modern. D20 D&D not quite so much. Although my test run of two level five characters against each other came out closer than I thought it would.
Ok so on with the meat of the review.
Fluff – This is a field in which the White Wolf team always brings its A game. Each of the books is about half fluff and it really gives you a fee for each of the settings. Everything from short stories, news clippings, secret conversations that were recorded in hidden ways, and art that really ties the setting together. And since absolutely none of the fluff material is directly tied into the game mechanics none of it needed to be changed from the Story Teller to the d20 system. Some have balked at the grammatical errors in the fluff but when you point out the them that it is not an error but actually an accent for a character or point of view, it becomes more flavorful. Even the use of pictures of the White Wolf team in garb for the NPC characters in the Adventure! book adds to the flavor. Also the fact that all of the books are designed so that you get 95% or more of the fluff in the first half of the book suits me just fine. That way you get a real feel for the setting before you delve into the mechanics of how to make it work.
Overall Fluff Score 5/5 – one of the few times I have actually felt like there is just enough fluff to be awesome.
Crunch – This is a little harder to quantify. Aberrant has some truly innovative ways to set up supers. And the mechanic works well. The power gamer in me squees with delight at the level of power available at steps four and five on most of the powers in all three settings. However at the higher levels it is really easy to get unbalanced. Without nearly constant moderation it is possible in all three settings that anything taken into the level five range will toss any chance of game balance out the window. And the fact that they offer up the option of going beyond level five abilities just kinds blows my mind. Sure it takes a lot of time and XP to get characters that far along, but dang. If you want a comparison, lets dive into comic book characters for a sec. Start out with someone like ohhh, Jimmy Olson from DC. He is your base human in all the settings. Once you get any kind of talent what so ever, you go Batman/Captain America. You get up about level three powers and you are dealing with most of the Xmen. Level four Superman/Thor. Level five you are bordering on Thanos/Darksied. IF you go level six you have hit Galactus/Spectre kinds of powers. This is a bit less of a problem in the Adventure! setting and the Aeon/Trinity setting than in the Aberrant setting. But it still represents itself well. Game Masters need to keep an eye on what they and their players are bringing out. Strangely enough this is true in both the Story Teller system and in the d20 system versions. I have to hand it to them for keeping the issues the same even in translation.
Overall Crunch Score 3/5 – sure it works but you have to keep a watch on it closely.
Mod – Ok so you may have figured out by now that modding this stuff is actually pretty easy. What with my comments about pitting characters against each other and all. And that is ohhhhh so true. The most frequent mod is to add elements of other games into these, or to send characters from these settings into others. Like dropping a d20 Aberrant into D&D. Or adding Wraith characters to Aeon/Trinity as an alien species (this sort of thing really works). The only real issue with this kind of modding is the power levels. Just like with crunch you need to monitor it closely or it will get out of hand really quick. Modding the materials in the game itself, well if you are familiar with Story Teller or d20 then you know they both can be modded fairly easily, and these are no exception to that long and glorious history.
Overall Mod Score 3/5 – I cant go higher than this because even though you can, the power levels beg the question of if you should. And that to me hurts the mod score of any game.
Fun – Ok so I am a story fanatic. You give me good plots, good sub plots, great characters and glorious villains to rail against and I am having fun. Oh and look tons of mechanics to run with and tinker with and ohhh pretty. The fact that it comes in two game engines that I really enjoy, also a bonus. The one thing that would really kick this over the top for me though would have been a book, or books, that focused more on the technology of the times. Aeon/Trinity has one, and personally I thought it was one of the weakest books I have ever seen White Wolf Publish. Then again when it comes to things like vehicles, Story Teller and d20 both get a bit weak sister on what they publish. Character focus is great, but I want to have my character get in a dog fight and have more to back up his win than, because the dice said so, and to let the gear heads actually have the fun of modding up a vehicle or tools so they can push their limits as well as the fighters and the con men do.
Overall Fun score 4/5 – Really great, but it still could be better
Total Score 15/20
Conclusion. Solid games that you can tinker with and have some really epic adventures with. They have their own internal balance and that balance carries over between the games. Well done, and awesome job in making a translation between two very different engines.
Ok so that is a big freakin review. Especially for the day after Free RPG day. Sorry if anyone missed it but there was no way I was going to 🙂
Now then gimme the dice, I need to spot hidden to see where my next article is coming from.