Kickstopper: Backing Away From the Edge

Atlas Games seems to have undertaken a slow process of updating their 1990s RPG portfolio via the medium of Kickstarter. Following the campaigns for a new edition of Feng Shui and Unknown Armies there came the inevitable and long-rumoured bid to revive Over the Edge.

This seems, on the face of it, to be a somewhat challenging prospect. Jonathan Tweet’s not offered much in the way of new Over the Edge material in recent years – indeed, before this Kickstarter it had been well over a decade since any new products had come out in the game line. Whereas when it first came out it genuinely represented a bundle of fresh new ideas both in terms of RPG system design and setting concepts, a quarter of a century has passed by and the field has evolved extensively since then.

Heck, a certain amount of that evolution was at Tweet’s own hands. In terms of really pushing the envelope in terms of how loosey-goosey you could make a traditional RPG system and how avant-garde a setting you can get, Everway arguably left Over the Edge in the dust. 3rd Edition D&D, which he was the lead designer on, may have had its flaws, but it does at least represent one of the most major system shake-ups that D&D has had since its inception, and yet at the same time succeeded far better at selling audiences on its reforms than 4th Edition did.

Whilst 3.X could hardly be said to be a revolutionary system – it’s basically TSR-era D&D with a swathe of ideas borrowed from Rolemaster, especially in terms of characrer generation – there’s no denying that it was an influential one, in part due to the glut of D20 knock-off products yielded by the OGL. Thankfully, the tide has receded and the floodwaters have sunk in recent years – to my eyes, it seems like the RPG game design ecosystem is much healthier in terms of diversity of system than it was at the height of the D20 craze – but the end result is still a generation of gamers who one way or another have had their attitude to system shaped by 3.X D&D – either through their embrace of it, or through their reactions against it.

On top of all that, away from Tweet’s own projects other games seem to have rather stolen his thunder in terms of some of the more unique setting and atmosphere aspects of Over the Edge, with Unknown Armies absolutely nailing the postmodern weirdness angle (especially in terms of the occultism-tinged aspects of it) and the various World of Darkness and Chronicles of Darkness games taking the whole “urban environment in which weird stuff goes on in the shadows” concept and wringing everything they could out of it.

Is Over the Edge redundant, then? Or is there cause to believe it can be revived? Let’s dig deeper and see…


Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign

The Over the Edge Kickstarter ran from July to August in 2018, picking up over 2000 backers and raising $134,333. It’s no slouch in that respect – Shannon Appelcline’s Year In Review column for 2018 lists only 34 RPG Kickstarters from that year which broke the $100,000 mark – but at the same time it wasn’t even in the top 20 tabletop RPG Kickstarters from the year. Though in some quarters anticipation for the Kickstarter was intense, it feels like this didn’t translate into a widespread surge in curiosity about the game.

What Level I Backed At

OTE Print Retro: Includes everything from the OTE Digital Retro plus a copy of the complete core rules in hardcover.
The OTE Digital Retro tier included a PDF of the new book, as well as PDFs of all the books from previous editions.

Delivering the Goods

Atlas Games predicted delivery in June 2019; I got my book in June 2019. This is about the level of efficiency I’ve come to expect from Atlas Games’ Kickstarters; the Unknown Armies one was similarly bang on time.

Reviewing the Swag

Over the Edge 3rd Edition

So, back when I reviewed the original game, I had a thing or two to say about its tone:

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. […] 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.

Right, the thing is, that “three ideas I quite like for every one thing that irritates me” ratio from the previous version of the game? It’s been flipped. Tweet’s dialled up his authorial tone to 11 for this one, and the upshot of that is that what seemed entertainingly off-kilter and sometimes annoying in 1992 now seems like risible, try-hard bullshit, which finds me twitching with irritation on every page.

Part of the issue is that whilst the world of game design has moved on appreciably since Tweet first wrote the game, and the text here shows little evidence that he’s caught up. His major credits since have included 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons and Pelgrane Press’ 4th edition D&D-inspired 13th Age – projects which, whilst notable, don’t exactly represent the cutting edge of the avant-garde, and when “cutting edge of the avant-garde” is more or less literally the thing which Over the Edge has built its reputation on attempting to represent that gives rise to issues – the major one being that Tweet’s just not that hip any more.

For instance, in this edition as in the previous one Tweet is very adamant that you shouldn’t let players take powers which “break plot”, which feels like rather dated advice. For one thing, Tweet doesn’t seem to appreciate that “breaks plot” is a moving target and will depend greatly on the plot that the referee had planned out; for another, Tweet is surely aware that it’s only possible to break a plot if you have a preplanned plot in the first place, whereas the atmosphere of freewheeling wildness that Over the Edge goes out of its way to cultivate surely lends itself more to far more improvisational affairs and play styles that foster Story Now, not Story Before.

Generally, it feels like the powers which Tweet cites as being plot-breaking are a weird mixture of stuff he finds personally annoying, stuff which can be awkward to referee unless you set clear ground rules for it (like precognition), and stuff which could allow a player to just abandon the party and solve everything by themselves if they chose not to play in a generous, sharing manner (like the ability to sneak past guards into a secure facility, leaving everyone else behind).

The thing is, I reckon if that if you have a gaming table where everyone is on the same page and willing to pull together co-operatively, these powers don’t represent a problem at all – whereas if your gaming table isn’t seeing eye to eye, then any powers you choose will become a problem because ultimately the dysfunction at the game table comes from outside the confines of the system and is beyond the capability of the system to address. Tweet’s apparent failure to grasp this is the sort of thing which lends credence to the notion that Tweet’s thinking hasn’t actually developed and moved on that much from the original edition, with the result that an approach which was groundbreaking and revolutionary for its time now appears drably reactionary because the design conversation has moved on and Tweet hasn’t kept up.

The big selling point of this new edition is that Tweet has refreshed and reconfigured the mysteries behind the Edge comprehensively, so there’s new answers behind all the questions and a different set of conspiracies out there and so on. The thing is, now I see this I realise that the provided answers were never the attractive thing about the original game so much as the freewheeling system was – and that’s been replaced this time around with a system that I’m not convinced is that much better.

I think part of the reason a lot of the revisions leave me cold is that they are still fundamentally riffing on the same set of influences that underpinned the previous version of the game. The game is still littered with William Burroughs quotes; Tweet’s interpretation and appreciation of Burroughs seems broadly the same as it was in 1992; the inevitable consequence is that even the differences feel like more of the same.

Worse still, recent developments have left me decidedly in two minds about the older game. Tweet has made a bit of an ass of himself with, well, some tweets – specifically, tweets suggesting that he believes that there may be something to the race-based pseudoscience beloved of some parts of the far right, and that the left is missing out by not looking into this stuff. (When called out on this, he played the “I can’t be racist, I’m in an interracial marriage” card, which rarely impresses when you consider that noted racist and occasional Hitler supporter H.P. Lovecraft married a Jewish woman.) It prompted enough of a controversy that Pelgrane Press felt obliged to put out a press release reassuring customers that Tweet no longer worked on 13th Age and did not receive any ongoing royalties from it.

(It occurs to me that between this and Mark Rein-Hagen making an ass of himself over the Vampire 5th Edition fiasco, we’ve hit a point where both of the creators of my beloved Ars Magica have managed to lose a bunch of the esteem and goodwill they once had. Then again, arguably Ars Magica has been at its best during its 4th and 5th edition runs, a good while after Tweet and Rein-Hagen last touched it.)

Now, all this race realism stuff sits uncomfortably with some of the plot around the Glugs in the previous edition – and this edition, for that matter (some of the plots haven’t actually changed all that much, turns out). Whilst in some cases it’s possible to set aside the author and the work, the problem Over the Edge has in this respect is that the author’s very present in the work; Tweet’s voice is so loudly intrusive that it’s hard not to read the book like it’s John Tweet very loudly shouting at you (an impression heightened by a very aggressive, confrontational layout style), and as such it’s extremely difficult to set aside your opinions about Tweet when approaching the text. “Death of the author” is a stance that is hard to maintain when the author is capering around the text drawing attention to themselves.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

Eh, Just Wrong.

Would Back Again?

Backing Tweet again? I really don’t think so; it increasingly feels like from a game design perspective he’s a spent force. Backing Atlas Games in general, I am more inclined to do, since they’re pretty good at this dance now.

3 thoughts on “Kickstopper: Backing Away From the Edge

  1. Thanks for this review. I am long past the days of buying everything that comes out, so your reviews give me a little vicarious enjoyment.

    I only wish you had said anything at all about the system in the revised game! The original Over the Edge, which I had bought and played when it came out, had one thing going for it: its rules-lite system was, in my view, the most exciting I’d ever seen at the time. What I hated about it–absolutely hated–was the setting of Al Amarja. I still think it’s utterly abysmal. So when I ran the game, we took the system (just a few pages of material) and ditched the rest. My players made some hilariously creative characters, and we had a great time in a weird world we collaboratively created. It was a blast. I thought then, twenty-eight years ago, that the system of Over the Edge was the coolest RPG ruleset ever designed, but I thought it should have been presented as a pamphlet of rules, not a glossy book dedicated to what seems to me as one of the stupidest settings ever. People on Al Amarja wear nooses for neckties? I know who Edgar Rice Burroughs was and I understand “surreal,” but my group thought this was lame.

    Anyway, your review seems to be all about the pretentiousness of Tweet’s presentation (agreed!) and a tangential politically-charged debate about the author. What I want to know about is the system of this reissued game. Does the new edition do anything new to it? Or is it just the original, brilliantly creative, rules idea published in 1992, now repackaged?

    1. I believe the nooses are a William S. Burroughs thing. Though even then 1992 Over the Edge, for all of its… ah… edginess… didn’t quite have the courage to include as much autoerotic asphyxiation content as Burroughs typically did in his stuff.

      The new rules more or less entirely junk the old system and replace it with something I found entirely unmemorable.

      1. Thank you!

        I’m in full agreement with you about ’90s “edginess.” It got old very fast, and some otherwise smart game designers milked it until it bled, adopting the obnoxious “I’m-gong-to-teach-you-how-to-REALLY-play” authorial voice. I remember picking up the original Vampire rules when they first came out. It looked fresh and cool! My sister, who played mainly to socialize, suddenly got more interested in this game. And then the players I knew ruined it faster than White Wolf did. Oh, the pretentiousness and the power trips! And it got worse with every White Wolf publication. I started running a pulp fantasy game with GURPS back then, and in hindsight I think it was partly in reaction to the artificial “darkness” of the role-playing fantasy (and comic books, and movies) that predominated.

        Too bad about Over the Edge.

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