beyond the supernatural

The Gauntlett is a new weekly column here at The Escapist, where roleplaying expert Adam Gauntlett talks about the best there is and ever was in smart roleplaying games, from horror to history and beyond.

What? Beyond the Supernatural, 1st Ed (1988, 255 pages); Boxed Nightmares supplement (1990, 80 pages)
Who? Written by Randy McCall & Kevin Siembieda, Published by Palladium Books

Just looking at that cover brings back all kinds of memories. True, this is a horror game, but there’s none of that Secrets Man Was Not Meant To Know crap here. Those heavily armed heroes facing off against Big Hairy know better. ‘Secrets? EAT LEAD, SUCKER!’ Followed by heavy machine gun fire and mysterious thermal energy from the Arcanist. The guy with the Uzi looks a little worried, but he’s standing his ground like a champ. Full auto fire? Sir, Yes Sir!

The 1st Edition is the fun one, the one with the monsters and the magic rules in it. Though there is a 2nd edition, published 2005, I wouldn’t recommend seeking that one out just yet. The 2nd Edition was published without any magic rules or a bestiary, two omissions which make the game all but unplayable. Since the rules are interchangeable die-hard Palladium fans might work around that problem, using other Palladium properties to fill in the gaps, but the rest are better off saving their money. If Palladium ever gets round to publishing Tome Grotesque and Beyond Arcanum then the 2nd Edition might be worth a look, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. Those two have been Coming Soon for donkey’s years.

So what do you get for your money? A complete ruleset, including nine Psychic Character Classes (P.C.C.s) and rules for non-powered Victims, the magic system, psychic abilities – everything from Carrie-style pyrotechnics to more subtle sensory perception powers – a brief description of the game world including its ley lines and mystic places, an interesting bestiary about thirty monsters strong, three short scenarios, and stats for a bunch of firearms and pointy things to skewer the monsters with. Want to unload on that vampire with a .44 automag, the same handgun used by Mack Bolan and Dirty Harry? No problem! Prefer to slice and dice with a katana? Can do!

Right away you can see the main philosophical difference between this title and its major rival at the time, Call of Cthulhu. The CoC of that era was pretty gung-ho and where’s-my-dynamite, but even then it assumed that the PCs were vulnerable, weak creatures whose Sanity or Hit Points would give out long before they got too close to the heart of the Mythos. BtS, by contrast, has a Horror Factor mechanic, which amounts to a d20 saving throw. Fail your HF check and you lose initiative for the round, stunned with the awfulness of it all, and can’t defend against the monster’s first attack. After that, you’re fine. I’ve seen CoC games where one failed Sanity roll reduced a healthy character to gibbering jelly; in this game you could meet Cthulhu, shiver a little, then spit in its eldritch eye.

In style, it’s very much in keeping with the era. This is the age of Chucky, Freddy Kruger, Christine, brain-munching zombies and those bloodsucking Lost Boys. Horror isn’t about subtlety or psychic trauma, it’s about kicking the door in and blasting away at whatever slavering monster’s hiding on the other side. That doesn’t mean your character can’t die, but it does mean he’s in with a fighting chance, even if he’ll have to wade through an ocean of gore to do it.

The P.C.Cs include most of the ones you’d expect, and a few welcome additions. The Psi-Mechanic gets to channel her mojo into all the neat gadgets and weapons she builds. The Parapsychologist is no lab-bound researcher; his tools let him detect the enemy, while his limited grasp of magic lets him put the whammy on whatever’s out there. The Nega-Psychic is so firmly convinced nothing’s out there that, for him, the supernatural really doesn’t exist, and magic stops working when he’s around. The Arcanist is basically John Constantine or Angie Spatchcock, putting the hurt on the enemy and making deals with devils to get the job done.

Some of the character types feel a little dull – who’d be a Latent Psychic when you could be throwing fireballs around as a Physical Psychic? – and the character creation rules are, by modern standards, clunky. The games I play these days spend maybe half an hour, even with new players, on character creation. Experienced players could easily spend twice as long on a BtS P.C.C. That said, it’s a well-thought out character list, and it benefits from the welcome inclusion of non-powered Victims, changing the nature of the game. What was a gun-toting psychic firework display becomes Oh Shit, It Saw Me, as these quivering mundanes try their damndest to stay alive.

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So what’s threatening these heroes? Pretty much everything you can think of and some new stuff to boot. Sure, this game has vampires, werewolves and ghosts, just like every other horror title, and they’re about as you’d expect, with some differences. The haunting Entities, for instance, don’t just clank chains and warn misers of the error of their ways. They build their own bodies out of car parts, possess objects as well as people, and make full use of all the usual poltergeist and haunting phenomena. Vampires, for another example, aren’t just pointy-fanged pests; they get their ultimate power from other dimensions of reality, a dimension which the characters can – potentially – visit.

That’s not counting the beasties that are unique to BtS, like the magic hunting Demon Spider, the ultra-violent insectoid Malingous, scarlet hunter Naracant, techno-terror Gremlins, or the scheming Sowki. There are some pretty interesting adversaries here, and even when the entity’s basically a new take on an old foe, the twists are fun enough that your players will have a challenging time working out how to defeat them.

This is not a subtle game. The core assumption is that any supernatural problem can be solved with overwhelming force, applied at the right time; there’s no suggestion of mystery here, no clue-finding mechanic. All your enemies are Evil by default, and destroying them is really the only option. Interestingly, there’s no suggestion of any supernatural Good in the game universe, or any kind of higher power. The characters are very much on their own.

The scenarios reflect this: when your heroes aren’t blasting flying monsters that have invaded a government lab, they’re chasing demons in the sewers, or fighting tentacle monsters from another dimension that have invaded a long-dead scientist’s house. The exception in the main book is the Teeny-Bopper Terror, or Tomb of Perpetually Cool Adolescents, an … interesting one-shot for Victim characters that depends on not having stats or using any of the combat mechanics. It feels oddly out of place, as if the author didn’t get the memo and thought he was writing comedy scripts.

Internally the book’s clean and well laid out, with some incredibly evocative black & white art from Steven Bissette of Swamp Thing fame, and Kevin Long, who worked on pretty much everything Palladium ever published. Long’s OK, but Bissette is much, much better, which makes the difference in art style a little jarring. This is the pre-photoshop era, so clever imaging tricks are out of the question; it’s pencil art or nothing, fanboy.

Those of us hungry for more had to wait two long, frustrating years before the game’s only published supplement: Boxed Nightmares, with six scenarios, new rules for creating secret supernatural-busting organizations, a meagre three new monsters, and some GM tips. The supplemental rules and GM tips are useful, but brief, which is to be expected, as the main interest here is the scenarios.

No Teeny-Boppers, thankfully, just action, action, and more action. There isn’t much room for Victims in these scenarios; you’ll be going up against magic-powered gangbangers, demonic cocaine smugglers, possessed psychopaths, psychic assassins, Tasmanian Devils, and Jack the Ripper’s long lost evil twin. The scenarios are fun but brief, and lack a lot of the structure you may have come to expect from other systems. There often isn’t a beginning, clue-finding middle, and end; instead the adversaries are described, the reason why the players might want to tangle with them given, and after that, it’s up to the GM what happens next.

Internally the layout is clean and well-presented, with black & white art, most of which is by Long. Again, Long’s OK, but his work is functional rather than evocative. It lacks any real ‘spook’ factor; just heavily-armed heroes going after slavering bad guys.

Is Beyond the Supernatural worth seeking out? That depends. Do you enjoy horror films like Salem’s Lot, Firestarter or A Nightmare on Elm Street? Have you always wanted to play a game that felt like Delano’s Hellblazer? Beyond the Supernatural isn’t a perfect fit; it’s old-fashioned, a little clunky in places, and if you’re not comfortable designing your own scenarios this really isn’t for you. That said, it is a complete action horror game in one book – Boxed Nightmares is nice, but not a must-have – so if you’re bored with cosmic horrors, and just want to shoot ghouls in the face with a shotgun, this is worthy of your time.

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