Author’s Note: In the interest of disclosure concerning the politically controversial nature of Otherverse America’s setting, the author would like to reaffirm that this review was not written by someone who is particularly involved in the abortion debate. This review was written by an apolitical gamer focused on trying to answer the main question about Otherverse America, “Is it a fun game?”
Otherverse America, by Skotched Urth Studios, is a role-playing game supplement that advertises itself as an edgy superhero cyberpunk milieu. Unfortunately it ultimately comes off as a setting that doesn’t know what it wants to be and relies on ham fisted characterization, shock value, and hyper-sexuality to distract readers from its many flaws. Unfortunately, the target audience that would have eagerly bought into this sort of “brain candy” has either grown up or moved on to electronic gaming a long time ago. To celebrate the release of Otherverse’s second edition, the original d20 Modern-powered edition has been released for free to promote the franchise. For the record, handing out free samples does not exempt a company from making those samples look as pretty as can be. Unfortunately, Skotched Urth seems to have been unaware of this basic marketing truism.
Otherverse America is a politically charged pen and paper RPG set in 2107 AD. Less then two decades before the game begins, the thirty-year long Second American Civil War was finally brought to a tentative close after the Abortion Debate tore the country apart. But the war never truly ended and America is a powder keg waiting for the first spark. Pro-Choice “Choicers” and Pro-Life “Lifers” watch each other cautiously from behind sharply defined socio-political lines and fortified enclaves, both factions amassing armies and stockpiling a catalog of horrific weapons, terrifying mind powers, and loyal superheroes to further their agendas. This is the world the players are thrust into…
And right there is the first red flag, OA attempts to take a political viewpoint and make an entertainment product out of it. Does it succeed? Or would the better question be if it managed to avoid making the same spectacular story-telling failures electronic gamers have seen in HAZE and Homefront? The answer to both questions is a resounding no. Instead of both sides being somewhat fairly portrayed, we have benevolent “Earth Mother” neo-pagans on one side and macabre gore-obsessed Evangelist death-cultists on the other. Which is a pity because out of what little the campaign sourcebook provides in the way of new character classes and mechanics, the best of them are firmly on the Lifer side of the debate.
To be fair, if there was a decent, well-organized game underneath OA’s laughably one-sided approach to the debate, the flaws concerning the writing would be forgivable. Regretfully this is not the case. In their infinite wisdom, someone at Skotched Urth Studios decided to forsake the traditional format style that has served game guides and their reference book cousins for ages and instead wrote the setting guide like an oversized and badly formatted novel. In addition the PDF file has not been programmed with a navigable table of contents, the only directory is the non-interactive index tucked away near the end of the 256-page document (edit: the author is aware that the store page says the document is 320 pages long, Adobe Reader disagrees with that figure.) Finally, while some amount of background lore and other “fluff” is considered standard for this sort of role-playing publication, OA is positively drowning in it. Between the amount of lore and the poor format, the parts actually concerning rules and new things to play with often get literally lost in the noise.
Speaking of things to play with, one might be surprised to find that in a text roughly three times the size of Wizards of the Coast’s d20 Cyberscape (the latter weighing in at a very modest 96 pages,) there is actually very little that gamers would call "crunchy." Players familiar with the cinematic action of WotC’s d20 Modern and its family of products will not experience much of a learning curve. Despite having superheroes, near future technology, and even elements of magic crammed together in the same setting, Otherverse does very little to deviate from WotC’s “roll a twenty-sided die and add some modifiers to the result to determine what happens” formula. There is a Powered Hero basic class for players that want to be a superhero but it suffers from same problem most third party base classes have in Modern supplements, it feels limited and stifling compared to the broadly-defined, attribute-focused Strong, Fast, Tough, Smart, Dedicated, and Charismatic heroes Wizards of the Coast introduced in 2002.
The more advanced options are unfortunately not that much better. There is an extensive section on genetic engineering and biomodification in the setting that could be interesting. Unfortunately half of the entries are various fertility modifications or otherwise have no direct impact on the players and the items that are relevant tend to be fairly standard, such as serums that turn characters into agility or strength-focused super-soldiers; the three playable races that come out of all this transhuman technology are a similar disappointment, ranging from the Neverborn (necromantic humans the Lifers “save” from abortion clinics) to a race of humanoids with blue tiger stripes that happen to be immune to all diseases.
The sections on martial arts and affiliations, detailing special schools of combat for Choicer and Lifer factions or bonuses for specific organizational allegiances, suffer from the same sort of mix-bag presentation seen throughout the book. Some styles are useless, some are like the Lifer “Rescue-Style” designed to take down cyborgs and might see some actual use after a name-change. Likewise, some affiliations are useless or only provide bonuses when near another member of the same allegiance. Others are so powerful or so easy for power gamers to run with a game master may be tempted to outright ban certain allegiances.
Object Philosophies, the game’s approach to handling psychic powers, is where things get potentially interesting and is presented in a system of feats and abilities similar to Darwin World’s Psion powers or Telepathics in Brutal Games’ Corporation universe. Select a power and it opens up a series of feats that modify it in different ways. Yet the difference between the two factions is apparent here as well. Choicer powers tend to have a neo-pagan theme with a balanced collection of bonuses while Lifer powers… Lifer powers are clearly inspired by a combination of the single-minded zeal and gory images of aborted fetuses one may stereotypically associate with Pro-Life rallies. They’re gruesome, terrifying, and tend to provide bonuses to physical defense or willpower to reflect the Lifers’ unwavering belief in their cause.
Then there are the parts of the book dealing with equipment and advanced classes and regretfully they aren’t much better then previous segments. For starters, both sections have been horribly shortchanged by the author wasting pages on describing Choicer orgies, Lifer fertility porn, and otherwise twiddling his thumbs (more on that in a moment.) Subsequently what is there is limited, grossly underdeveloped, and yet manages to say more about the general philosophies of both sides then everything previously. In addition to a number of fairly standard sounding near-future firearms, Otherverse brings a handful of cruelly creative less-than-lethal police weapons for the Choicers and a collection of concealable guerrilla weapons for the Lifers. Yet considering the Choicers make extensive use of power armor and the Lifers are supposedly veterans at asymmetrical warfare, the relative lack of battlesuits and guerrilla technology is odd but is perhaps unsurprising given how this lack of development has become a trend elsewhere in the book.
On the subject of advanced classes, Otherverse comes with four advanced classes with two per faction, again roughly the same amount you’d get in something like WotC’s Cyberscape or Apocalypse supplements. Of the four, the Covenguard and Neo-Witch Midwife represent the Choicers while the Lifers bring the Closer and Vindicator advanced classes to the fray. The Covenguard is a powerful defensive warrior and bodyguard that can be converted to other settings with a little work while the Neo-Witch Midwife is a healer that… honestly players looking for a medically-inclined character would be better served by choosing the Field Medic in the Modern core rulebook or the Implant Hack described in Cyberscape, both provide about as much healing as the Midwife with none of the unnecessary requirements.
Lifers on the other hand get a more interesting selection with the combat-focused Closer and the Vindicator combat medic. The Closer (apparently named for what they do to abortion clinics) is a powerful self-modifying full-conversion cyborg that’s almost too powerful for the players to have, eventually acquiring integrated railguns, fusion-powered “fire fog” flamethrowers, and immunity to disease, poison, critical hits, and mild-altering effects. Meanwhile the Vindicator is a melee-focused psychic vampire, draining life energy out of enemies to heal allies while dancing around like a fencer in a swords and sorcery video game.
Finally, a note about sexuality and other controversial elements in the Otherverse, the book positively overflows with descriptions of sex, the pornography industry, and graphic descriptions of how the Lifers are seemingly obsessed with violence and gore. In particular the author spends multiple pages going over things like neo-pagan orgies, Lifer fertility pornography, superhumans in the porn industry, and how the future has affected the topics of sexuality, sexual orientation, and reproduction with such wonderful devices as “exo-wombs.” For the record, Otherverse America’s problem is not that it touches on the subject of sexuality, alternative lifestyles, and related topics. Otherverse America’s problem is that the handling of the topic feels adolescent, crass, and generally pointless. Every page spent wasting the reader’s time with this poorly-written adolescent wish fulfillment drivel is a page that could have been used to describe even more Choicer/Lifer equipment and character classes. The lore specifically mentions Lifer snipers, where are they? Lifer gunslingers are hinted at, are they any different from the Gunslinger class described in the Modern core rulebook? And what about these elite Choicer power armor battalions? Simply put, what could have been a intriguing subtopic for a chapter or two is over played and gives the impression that the designers have no idea what gamers truly want from a roleplaying game.
To conclude, Otherverse America is a political soapbox disguised as a game and a poorly designed one at that. A poorly designed game that uses hyper-sexuality as an attempt to divert attention from the fact that it has a lot of flash but no real substance. Its main redeeming qualities are that it is free, it gives gamers a glimpse at what sort of production standards they can expect from the publisher at no cost to them, it gives us a faction that offers a way of making a functional if not entirely believable techno-guerilla movement, and it provides an excellent case study in how to not make a good game for budding game designers. Otherverse America is available for free download at RPGNow, DrivethruRPG, and all other fine online providers of roleplaying games.
Final Verdict: If there was actually a game underneath all the one-sided political drivel, Otherverse America might have earned a cautionary recommendation. As it stands, any competent game master worth their salt can do much better then this; one out of five stars.