"Supernumerary," for Zero; Kevin Melka, Archangel Entertainment

Pros: Perhaps useful if you really need a short, very pre-packaged adventure
Cons: No free will; huge plot holes; wasted space
Rating: 1.5 out of 5

First posted 3/15/2000
Previously posted on RPGNet
Review book courtesy of Archangel Entertainment

“Supernumerary” is 14 pages of story and 30 pages of adventure in a 5.5″ x 8.5″ softcover format. The story is a bare-bones fictionalization of the adventure from the original Zero book and the adventure contained in “Supernumerary.” The fictionalization of the original adventure (“Break Away”) is fairly pointless: it doesn’t add any insight to “Break Away”, and since you need to have read “Zero” in order to use “Supernumerary” at all, anyone reading the story should already know everything that has happened to date. Interestingly, the story manages to conveniently skip over every part of “Break Away” I found problems with in my original review of “Zero”.

The general plot of the “Supernumerary” story/adventure is as follows (if your gamemaster may run this game some time in the future, then you should read no further). The characters meet their mysterious savior from the end of “Break Away”, an android. He offers to show them to food, water and shelter, if they’ll steal some power from the Hive with which he can save his companion android before her memory is erased forever. The characters proceed to a minimum security sector, steal the power, and then run into a contingent of guards leading an unarmed female with the designation of “S01”. A battle ensues, the characters take S01 with them, and they return to the habitation of the androids. The androids inform them that S01 is a replacement body for Queen Zero, that she has a beacon implanted within her, and that they must kill her or soldiers will come. The characters are supposed to then kill or abandon S01 in order to save themselves from the tireless waves of soldiers that will come to recover her.

The Adventure

Once again, we find the “who’s going to play the cleric?” problem. At the beginning of the adventure, we are told that at least 4 of the 5 castes should be represented in order for the characters to be able to complete the scenario. It’s a minor gripe, but one that in my opinion is indicative of an overly restricted and constrictive style of adventure-writing. My players and I found that the number, strength and armament of the soldiers the party is supposed to come up against during the course of the adventure were just too much for one soldier and several non-soldier biomechs. If you don’t have more than one or two soldiers in your party, you may want to lighten up on the strength of the enemy. The author seems to have forgotten that only drones and soldiers can take combat abilities as focus abilities (either that, or they’re anticipating much larger parties than simply one of each caste).

The author states that “Supernumerary” can be inserted into any ongoing “Zero” campaign, even though it’s designed to follow immediately on the heels of the first adventure. I would amend that to say that it can be inserted into any ongoing campaign, provided that you’ve stuck primarily to the underwhelming list of adventure ideas in the original rulebook, and that your characters haven’t left the immediate surroundings of the Hive. Those are some pretty big ifs. There are only so many times you can roleplay stealing food from the Hive before you decide to move on to greener pastures. If you like to create your own campaign material and have moved significantly beyond the Hive, then “Supernumerary” isn’t for you.

The plot is kind of neat, and the moral ambiguities are interesting (goodness knows I enjoy moral ambiguities). $5 isn’t too bad for that, even though the adventure is only six scenes (one of which is a repeat of the last scene of “Break Away”, and which for some unfathomable reason has been rewritten to substitute lots of dice-rolling for the description and use-your-head approach the original used). The cover art is kind of nifty, the story is unmemorable, and there’s so much additional information that would have been useful – a problem the original “Zero” suffered from as well. I think another $3 would have been a small price to pay for some information, background, and cultural details on the androids. Yes, cultural details – the androids have been rogue for at least 1,000 years, according to the book. Almost all of the information given on the androids is from the point of view of the Hive and their interactions, which doesn’t suggest a whole lot for further gamemaster-written adventures.

Obligatory typesetting complaint: paragraphs that are meant to be read directly to the players should be offset somehow: different font, different style, or different indentation.

Free Will

Free will is a sticky issue. Some gamemasters like to run very scripted campaigns, where the characters are required to follow the adventure more-or-less to the letter. Some people like this, and I can’t argue with that. I, however, don’t like it. This adventure goes beyond scripting the characters’ actions (it likes to tell you that the characters could really go off and do this or do that, but it restricts them in some subtler ways – more on that shortly). If you read the paragraphs you’re supposed to read to your players, they do something much more insidious than trying to make the characters follow your plot: they tell the characters how to think and feel.

I object to “descriptions” that read “While your suspicion of the android is evident even to him, you cannot deny the necessity of his proposal.” What if a player thinks the proposal is patently ridiculous? What if someone else thinks the proposal is good, but that her character would be too suspicious of outsiders to accept it? What if someone has decided that their Archivist is a naive and trusting soul who really isn’t that suspicious of the android after all? In fact, when I ran this adventure, none of the characters were particularly convinced of that scripted necessity, and there was a lot of laughter all around when I read that paragraph (I had been considering rewriting the descriptions before running the adventure, but then, this is supposed to be a playtest of the book, not my writing abilities). This kind of “description” denies the players what I consider to be the basic point of roleplaying (and yes, I’m aware that many would disagree with me; they’re welcome to do so): exploring a character. If you’re being told how to think and act and feel the entire way, then what’s the point? You’re pretty much a passive observer. Why not just read the ten-page story at the beginning and save yourself the frustration?

I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago that there were some more subtle forms of restriction in “Supernumerary.” Let me give you two examples. In the first, we are told: “By design, only Queen Zero can restore an erased memory core and reactivate an android.” By not detailing the mechanism by which this is so in any way, it denies the players the option of solving the problem through their own creativity. In my second example, the big huge moral dilemma the characters face at the end is that the Supernumerary (S01) has a homing beacon implanted in her that will always lead Zero’s forces to the characters. According to the scenario, the only choice the characters have is whether to kill or abandon S01: if they make any other choice, they will eventually be worn down and killed by the Soldiers sent to retrieve S01. This completely ignores, once again, player creativity. To list only the most glaringly obvious plot hole: what if someone with the medical skill wants to try to remove the beacon? (Before running the adventure I made provisions in case the players thought of this. Sure enough, it was the first thing they thought of.)

The problems with the emotion-scripting in the descriptions could be easily solved with a little gamemaster (or author) creativity. As every writing teacher I’ve ever had has said: “show, don’t tell.” It takes more skill and style, but it is possible to craft a scene such that it conveys the emotions you wish without baldly stating them. I don’t know if the author simply didn’t wish to do this, or if he was bound by space constraints, but he should have put in the effort (in the former case) or the publisher should have given him the extra space and charged another dollar or two (in the latter). It would have made a huge difference.

For more information on free will, see our free will articles.

What’s the Point?

One of the points I like to look at in a review is whether or not the book does what it sets out to do. There’s a book I reviewed once that I gave lower marks to than I’ve given to either “Zero” or its first supplement. I think that book was better overall, but I also believe that “Zero” and “Supernumerary” do a better job of doing what they set out to do than that book did.

These books serve a very specific niche. For the most part, they’re only useful to people who want a nice, pre-packaged adventure, where everything is written out and detailed for them. They fulfill this purpose reasonably well, and would be of use for such people. (My only reservation would be that the adventures take up maybe an hour or two each, and the booklets aren’t coming out so quickly as to allow this adventure to be a regularly-scheduled event.)

The original rulebook might be useful to a gamemaster who likes to take someone else’s basic system and ideas, and then create their own campaign material from there. However, in that case he’ll be lucky if any of the supplements at all are useful to him. Judging by the description at the end of this book of the next supplement, it’ll be even harder to work into the campaign if you’ve run any of your own material between adventure supplements.

Another possible use of this adventure would be to give experienced gamemasters something to run for players who’ve never roleplayed before. It would make a fairly gentle introduction, since it isn’t a difficult adventure and there isn’t a lot to do. However, I recommend that the free will issues discussed above be dealt with in this case, or your new players might become too frustrated to continue. And I’m not sure I’d recommend teaching new roleplayers that this is the way people roleplay. Also, the supplements aren’t really coming out often enough to be useful for this – you’d have to save them all up and then run them one after the other (and that assumes that the company actually puts them all out–I have a feeling sales will be low enough that they’ll never make it through the planned run).

“Supernumerary” assumes a certain lack of ability on the part of the GM: rather than giving you general information and letting you run with it, it details everything precisely. This often results in long, wordy monologues that are only semi-relevant to what the characters have actually been doing or asking – assuming that the characters are going to do exactly as expected is assuming the impossible.

For gamemasters who like to explore a world, this game isn’t for you. There is almost nothing to the world beyond what is necessary for the adventure, and the storyline is much too restrictive for your players to be able to explore the world with impunity.

Posted in Gaming, Reviews

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