The concept of a group of people investigating contemporary strangeness and paranormal events is not a new one, but this book provides a coherent and well-considered approach to what is going on that makes it worth investigating.
It begins with a short Introduction that provides the obligatory "what is role-playing?" explanation and describes the core premise of the game: that the characters are members of a society dedicated to hunting out the truth. It also states that the following four chapters can be read by players and gamemasters alike, while the rest is best left to the gamemaster alone. As with any game in which there are secrets to unearth, it's best not to know those secrets in advance if you are one of the people trying to unearth them... but it does presuppose that only one member of your group wishes to game master at least for this system.
The second chapter gives the background history of the remarkable man, Jerico Usher, who laid the groundwork on which the character's society - the Seven Dogs Society - is based. As this would be known to a member of the Society, it's regarded as 'open access' and tells how a seemingly blessed Renaissance Man appeared to lose it totally and sink into madness, albeit well-funded madness, before disappearing leaving a loyal follower to actually organise the Society. Note the 'well-funded' bit - unlike many such groups of seekers after truth, your characters want for nothing in terms of resources, freeing them to concentrate on their search without having to worry about mundane matters like the rent or where the next meal is coming from... or even what your boss wants.
Chapter 3 provides a comprehensive description of the Society's base, a mansion in Alaska. Luxuriously-appointed with just about everything you could wish for - including an excellent library and a high-speed Internet connection - you'll find everything you need to know about the place that will become your team's home. Again, the assumption is that the players will know all about it - the basic premise is that the game will open about a month after they have accepted an invitiation to join the Society, so they will have had time to explore. This includes a fascinating section called the Annexe, where doors lead into remote and unlikely places... such as the Amazon river basin, a used car lot in Mexico and the French Bibliotheque Nationale.
Next, Chapter 4 looks at Characters - the underlying rule mechanics for creating them (the rest of the game mechanics are in the following chapter, Mechanics). It's a very basic and simplistic system, while allowing for considerable flexibility and customisation of your character to be precisely what you want him to be. Those who like very precise game mechanics might prefer to use another contemporary system (I'd recommend either Spycraft or the New World of Darkness core rules), but for those for whom the unravelling of the plotline is of key importance and die-rolling just a means for combat and other task resolution this should suffice, particularly if the game master is adept at assessing a situation and determining the results of character actions without need for rules to refer to!
Whether you use the ruleset here or import another, however, you will need to pay attention to one component: the special powers which each character has to have. To be eligible for membership of the Society, a character needs to have at least one extraordinary and unexplained (at least for now...) power, ranging from quite minor ones like being able to sense that something's not quite right, through rather fun ones like the ability to know your way around a place you have never visited before to really strange abilities like time travel. While the characters will have no idea how they came to have these abilities, it does fit in with the underlying story which they will, in time, discover... perhaps.
Mechanics out of the way, Chapter 6 takes a look at Anomalous Phenomena. This chapter includes a good overview of how to go about investigating an incident (useful even if you are an avid watcher of such TV shows as the X-Files or Poltergeist: The Legacy - both, incidentally, recommended if you want some ideas for events to be investigated) which should also prime the game master as to what evidence he needs to have ready for the characters to find! It also presents some thumbnail sketches of events you may wish to use, in very general terms - you will still need to work out the specifics of each one before play. Things covered include spontaneous human combustion, crop circles, UFOs, alien abduction and other standard fare.
Then things get a bit more interesting, although this is moving into Game Master territory. Chapter 7, Revelations, provides a unifying theory which ties together Jeremiah Usher, the characters' own abilities and the sort of paranormal events suggested in the previous chapter. With some highly speculative use of modern cosmological theory mixed in with ancient myth, it actually holds together quite well and means that the game master will be empowered to create his own mysteries which fit in with this underlying concept.
Chapter 8 is entitled Gamemastering, and looks at the nuts and bolts of putting together individual game sessions and complete campaigns that are both original and faithful to the core concept of this game, and how to run them in a way that is both effective and fun. This is done in part by creating a sample investigation, which you could even use more or less as is with a little extra work to flesh it out, or which provides a useful template for creating your own events for the characters to investigate. Anyone who runs games in which investigation features could benefit from reading this. There are also plenty of ideas for extending some of the specific concepts of the underlying theory that is the core of this game, so as to enable the characters to come closer and closer to the 'Truth.' One artifact to be investigated are the few remaining pages of Usher's own writings, the 'Usher Codex,' and these are presented in facsimile (along with a game master-only explanation of what the symbols and cryptic comments mean). If you own the PDF, print out a copy for your players, but if you have the book version it will be better to make use of a photocopier rather than rip them out (for a start, some of the explanation is on the back of one of the pages!). There's more: other people investigating the same phenomena as your characters may be friendly or hostile, and plenty of ideas for extended campaigns which might, just might, see your players unravelling the lot and becoming fully enlightened beings...
Finally, Chapter 9 presents an introductory adventure called From the Heavens to get the ball rolling. It's a well constructed investigative adventure involving a sudden influx of extraterristrials in a Mid-West university town, and demonstrates the sort of evidence that you'll need to have ready for the characters to find. It is admittedly short on action, but there are a couple of suggestions as to how to provide something a bit more physical for those players who want to include combat in their games.
Overall, this is a game based on a coherent underlying concept which holds together well. Mechanically it is a bit weak, but given the nature of the game this should not be a problem and as the mechanics are not vital you can easily substitute another contemporary ruleset if you prefer. The whole plot, from what the characters know initially to the full revelation - if they get that far - has been thought through and is consistent, enough for you to be able to believe that it might be true. If you like paranormal investigations, this game is well worth a look.
Return to Aletheia Corebook page.
Reviewed: 7 October 2007