Over the Edge might just share with Vampire: the Masquerade the accolade of bringing RPGs into the 1990s. A certain tip of the hat may be owed to late-1980s designs like Cyberpunk 2020 or Shadowrun which brought a certain gritty attitude to proceedings, or releases like Ars Magica or Pendragon which took an almost arthouse cinema approach to what had been a B-movie-and-blockbusters sort of medium previously, but in terms of games actually released in the 1990s, Vampire and Over the Edge really set the mode for the rest of the decade – particularly when it came to games turning a spotlight onto modern-day settings where high weirdness abounds. Though later games like Vampire: the Requiem or Unknown Armies would arguably hit the same notes with better clarity and superior design, you can’t imagine either game happening unless they were able to build on the foundations set by their predecessors.
A while back, the Bundle of Holding put out an Over the Edge bundle, which offers as good a cross-section of the line as any. (Plus it has an adventure from Atlas Games’ WaRPed Adventures lines, based off a generic version of the Over the Edge system, but that’s slight enough that I won’t cover it here.)
Over the Edge 2nd Edition
Primarily produced by Jonathan Tweet (with some ideas pitched in by Robin Laws), Over the Edge originally emerged in 1992. Rumours swirl that it was the product of a creative challenge between Tweet and his Ars Magica co-designer Mark Rein-Hagen, since Over the Edge and Vampire: the Masquerade were both major departures from previous RPGs in terms of their tone, involved a modern-day occult setting with a diverse range of strange occult things existing in the shadows, and had a system using a dice pool system.
In interviews, however, Tweet has admitted that it was not originally devised for publication. Tweet had crashed out of Lion Rampant (which was metamorphosing into White Wolf) and believed he’d exited the industry for good, and had developed the game largely inspired by a suggestion from Robin Laws that an RPG inspired by the work of William Burroughs would be an interesting creative challenge. As a result, whilst Vampire was a major commercial hit, Over the Edge would end up becoming a forerunner of the indie RPG movement, in the sense that it was designed with a complete disregard for the commonly accepted wisdom about what you needed to include in a commercially-released RPG – and as such, ended up being both a major departure from what had come before and extremely influential on later releases.
In terms of style and atmosphere, Over the Edge is an overflowing melting plot of all sorts of ideas which would either gain wider currency in the RPG world shortly afterwards or were simultaneously bubbling to the surface elsewhere. GURPS Illuminati, Conspiracy X, and Delta Green might have delivered more in the way of conspiracy and paranoia; Mage: the Ascension and Unknown Armies might have had more vivid and distinctive takes on the idea of postmodern magic; Kult and Vampire: the Masquerade might have gone further in presenting a dark, oppressive world where supernatural evil lurks in the shadows and exerts a baleful authority on our mundane lives. Over the Edge tossed in all that and more, and worked in some fascinating system innovations to boot.
For instance, that liberatingly flexible Unknown Armies name-your-own-character-traits thing? Gets an early outing here, with characters being largely defined by freely-defined traits. On top of that, players are encouraged to get outright weird with it; the setting of Over the Edge, the Mediterranean island of Al Amarja, is a centre of dark conspiracies, high weirdness, occult cabals and all sorts of other strange goings-on, and as such attracts strange and eccentric people from all over the world. It’s quite neat how Tweet enables a setting where anyone and anything can be encountered by offering a system where anyone and anything could be modelled as a dice pool.
The presentation of the setting information is extremely handy for the purposes of by-the-seats improvisational refereeing as well; you get descriptions of the major districts of the Edge, the major city on the island, you get rundowns of the major factions, you get a range of interesting locales and NPCs, and once you get familiar with the book you could probably run an improvised game extremely easily. The 1997 2nd edition offers extensive guidance offered on running the game which is very evidently based on five or so years of actual play.
With Tweet’s imagination running wild like this, naturally some of the ideas here are going to be a bit hit and miss. The concept of having to draw your character, or some sketch of something random if you really don’t want to draw your character, is claimed to have all sorts of benefits but I’m frankly sceptical, and one of the indie RPG habits the game pioneers is the habit of having a really grating authorial voice which is caught up with how smart it is. (Oh, I can change shit up if I want to, John? Thank you, thank you sir, thank you so much, I would never have conceived of such an option had you not enunciated it at smug and pretentious length.)
Moreover, whilst some of the ideas in here are still raw and ready to go, others are steeped in the smug, smartarse 1990s lazy postmodernism which just makes my eyes roll these days. (It’s big on that early 1990s edginess kick and so is a bit free with references to rape and pedophilia and the like without giving much thought as to whether that’s even remotely fair game at the tabletop.) Over the Edge is infamous as being the tabletop RPG where one of the proposed campaign structures in the core book ends with the PCs finding a note telling them they are player characters in a tabletop RPG. I’m breaking Tweet’s request to reviewers not to spoiler stuff here, but at this point I’d prefer to get it out there to dissuade people from using that angle, because it’s easily the weakest plot offered in the core book. Breaking the fourth wall isn’t unusual or cool any more, and hasn’t been since Deadpool ground it into the dirt, and what are the player characters supposed to do with this knowledge anyway? Also, what sort of self-defeating dickbag of a referee gives the PC party an in-character note which effectively boils down to Your Immersion Is Hereby Permanently Shattered?
Still, for everything that bugs you about Over the Edge, there’ll probably be three things you quite like – so run a campaign focusing on what enthuses you and ignore what doesn’t. The book gives you a powerful set of tools to enable you to do that, and the 2nd edition book came out after most of the rest of the product line so it also does a good job at pointing you towards the supplements you’ll want to look at to take some threads further.
Players’ Survival Guide
This is largely a reprint of the players’ section of the core book, along with some flavourful handouts and a range of handy essays by various different hands (including a very fresh-faced young Greg Stolze) on how to get the most out of Over the Edge as a player. It might not give you much new, but it’s handy to have onhand to pass around your players without tipping your hand when it comes to some of the games’ deep secrets.
At Your Service
The newest supplement for the game is quite simply a fat chunky expansion of the original “At Your Service” chapter in the core rulebook – a massive set of locations to be found within the Edge, ranging from a private toilet with an outrageous secret to Al Amarja’s friendly local RPG shop. Penned by a broad range of writers and edited by John Nephew, it’s a fun little utility supplement which enriches the setting and gives further support to the wild and wooly improvisational style Over the Edge lends itself to – each of the individual location writeups is deep enough to have plenty of bite, but brief enough that if the players stop in on these places spontaneously you can get up to speed on them nice and quickly.
Friend Or Foe?
An NPC-oriented equivalent to At Your Service, this 1994 Tweet-edited supplement offers a range of intriguing NPCs (as well as associated locations), once again further expanding on the tool set offered to the referee. Especially useful is an appendix at the back breaking down the various major neighbourhoods in the Edge and giving a rundown of which NPCs can be often be found in them – always handy when you want to shake things up with a significant new acquaintance for the PCs.
This is a comparatively late addition to the line by Tweet (it’s from 1998) which, rather than focusing on a single faction, gives a more generalised rumination on running games based around espionage and spycraft in Over the Edge. This includes some extra toys, powers, NPCs, locations and plot ideas, as you’d expect, and these are the usual mix of genuinely weird and fun ideas and tired 1990s edginess (oh look, a dominatrix who’s into sex magick, how… yyyyyaaaawwwwwn… transgressive).
What’s perhaps better value than that are Tweet’s ruminations on running espionage-themed games in general, which have broad applicability even outside the limited context of Over the Edge and at points remains cutting edge, especially when it comes to considering how even if you and your players might want to run a game about professional spies you probably don’t have the professional knowledge needed to make it realistic, so simply taking how you’d run a normal game and requiring “one notch more” when it comes to plausible-sounding tradecraft and preparedness can go a long way.
He also makes a useful distinction between “hard” espionage roleplaying, where stealth and meticulous planning are emphasised, and “wild” stuff where people just want wacky chaos and violence with an espionage aesthetic, and on the vital importance of getting everyone on the same page and not trying to run one when the players want t’other. I tend to think Over the Edge as a system and setting is way more suited to the wild side than a hard espionage campaign, mind, but it’s good to see both options so clearly enunciated.
Weather the Cuckoo Likes
This is Robin Laws’ baby – a supplement all about the Cut-Ups Project, a cell of an interdimensional surrealist conspiracy out to fight Control Addicts wherever they rear their ugly head, covering their origins, ideology, major players (including a “Famous Movie Director” who is very obviously meant to be Terry Gilliam) and their various terrible foes. Two scenarios are included that may or may not be to your taste, but to be honest it’s the setting details which are handy here, giving support either to a campaign where the PCs fight the Cut-Ups or (more likely, given the usual proclivities of player characters) join up with them.
This supplement by Robin Laws, Greg Stolze, and John Tynes displays all the dark imagination and genuinely mature treatment of disturbing subject matter that the latter two would eventually bring to the table in Unknown Armies. This supplement details the various subcultures and cliques that surround the drug Nightmare, and (along with supplements like Cloaks or Laws’ Unauthorised Broadcast or some of the adventures in Forgotten Lives) seems to be part of an attempt to drift Over the Edge into a somewhat less freewheeling and somewhat more serious direction – it’s still weird as balls, mind, but the humour inherent in the baseline game is largely abandoned in favour of a more sober treatment of abuses arising when someone in a place of power stops regarding classes of people as people.
This is an adventure collection that’s more miss than hit. Scott McDaniel offers Misplaced Childhood, which is the best of the lot and not just because it’s named after a classic Fish-era Marillion album. (There’s an odd intersection between Marillion and 1990s high weirdness RPGs – their lyrics get quoted a lot in the 1st edition Changeling rulebook.) It provides a solid hook leading into an interesting situation, and it’s wide open to what could happen as a result of player action. Greg Stolze offers The Fürchtegott File, which is a standard MacGuffin hunt with a bunch of quirky NPCs – nothing to go wild about, but nothing terrible either.
The rest is not great. In the SACQ by Jeff Tidbull sends the players on a wild goose chase which grinds through way too much railroady scene-setting before it finally lets the players off the leash. Party Crashers seems written entirely without consideration for how the PCs are supposed to meaningfully contribute to the situation. (In particular, the nature of the main adversaries is such that unless the PCs happen to have particular powers, it’d be near-impossible to figure out the rationale behind their actions or usefully interact with them to resolve the crisis.)
Two adventures fall into the trap of authors writing new conspiracies to intrude into Al Amarja who end up being somewhat redundant. The Jackboot Stomp by Chris Pramas has the island’s 1930s-era fascist dictator attempting a comeback, but not only are its current rulers already a perfectly cromulent representative of repressive authority but the Throckmortons make a far better “creeping fascism” conspiracy – to the extent that even in the design of the adventure Pramas has to concede that the Throckmortons are probably fine with this. Keith Baker’s Dreaming On the Verge of Strife has him trying to add a dream-based conspiracy when there’s already a vastly more interesting one in Wildest Dreams. On the whole, Forgotten Lives just doesn’t hit a good enough batting average to be worth it.
This adventure by Robin Laws is basically a railroad to drop a MacGuffin in the players hands and then pointers on how to handle what they choose to do with it, though the assumption that they will want to sell it to some faction or another rather than using it themselves and maintaining a personal monopoly on it seems like a stretch, as do the circumstances which land it in their lap. Most competent referees could improvise something similar once they’re aware of the basic premise, and with less intrusive railroading or obvious plot contrivances.