Vs. Stranger Stuff Season 2 (VsM Engine)
This second and vastly expanded iteration of „Vs. Stranger Stuff” clocks in at 112 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a massive 108 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This pdf was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.
Okay, so first things first – this is obviously inspired by the AMAZING series Stranger Things – while I can still argue about why the D&D-name analogues in the series don’t work too well and that the kids should know better, I adore it and have rarely had this much fun with it; the original iteration of this game was pretty much a quick and dirty adaptation of the VsM-engine, with the primary focus on some easy gaming inspired by the hit series, or pretty much another form of weird 80s-inspired adventuring.
Fast forward and we get this massive expansion of the system. Beyond a list of inspirations that can be helpful, you don’t need much to play – a playing card deck will do the trick (minus Jokers) and, should you want to, there is actually a custom deck you can get; it is by no means required to play though! Big kudos here for not going for the cash-grab option and locking the system to a custom card deck.
Anyways, the first crucial difference to e.g. Vs. Ghosts will be evident pretty much from the get-go: This system comes in 3 modes: In Easy Node, the Kids are basically superheroes and PCs don’t die – they are just knocked out, which allows you to tell kid-friendly stories sans frustrations. Normal Mode lets PCs only die if they do something really dumb and the Kids are above-average in power. Finally, there would be Hard Mode (preferable setting for experienced roleplayers, whether they’re kids or adults) – in this mode, PCs die when their Toughness falls below 0 and the attributes of the Kids are as bad as everyone else’s. Season One adventures are retroactively classified as Easy Mode scenarios, just fyi. (It should also be noted that the Easy Mode is available as a FREE pdf and at-cost PoD!)
Character generation is simple: The player character is the Kid, and is defined by two attributes: Brains and Muscles. You either have 3/5 (strong Kid), 5/3 (smart kid) or 4/4 (balanced Kid) in these. These values determine how many cards you draw when you face an obstacle. 7 is usually mortal peak, 13 is basically “god”-level. These are the normal mode rules – easy mode nets 6/4 or 5/5, while hard mode nets a 4/2 or 3/3-distribution.
Much like vs. Ghosts, these can be modified by good and bad gimmicks. Some of these represent attribute increases, while others are what you’d expect: A cool older sibling nets you a reliable older buddy; being popular or schooled or rich; these similarly are pretty self-explanatory, I assume. They also include increased Toughness (hit points/health of the system), etc. – but while you have a good gimmick, you also have to pick a bad one: Broken homes, poor depth perception, nosy siblings – they are pretty much as self-explanatory as the good ones. Every character starts play with 10 Toughness, basically your hit points, which may be modified by gimmicks.
Vs. Stranger Stuff usually doesn’t track equipment – the system has you draw a card and compare it to the equipment value of the desired equipment. Cool: There is an optional rule for groups seeking to track money etc. and there are plenty of sample values and items. Cool: There are optional rules for off-brand equipment, which has a chance of malfunctioning and causing even injury…but at the same time, it’s less costly.
The core mechanic of the game is incredibly simple: When you e.g. have a challenge to Muscles, it sports a TV – the target value. You draw the associated attribute number of cards and succeed when you draw at least one card of the TV value. Opposed checks have two characters draw their attribute cards; the one with the highest card wins. Teamwork is emphasized: The character with the highest attribute draws cards, plus one per assisting character! This means that players will want to help each other out.
Okay, so, reading cards: Red suits are generally good, black ones generally bad. The sequence of suits is Hearts > Diamonds > Clubs > Spades – so yeah, cue anguished looks and Motörhead when you draw the “ACE OF SPADES”! …Sorry, couldn’t help myself there. A simple draw is an easy decision facilitator for the game: Hearts = something very good happens, Diamonds something good…you get the idea.
Okay, so how does fighting work: Each character can act once during a Turn; Turns have a variable duration, not a fixed frame of time – so, in one combat, a Turn could be a minute, in another a couple of seconds. Attacks and actions are usually resolved when the character takes then, unless a delay is in order and determined by the GM. Initiative is simple: The player left to the GM goes first, then the next, etc. NPCs and monsters act last. In Hard Mode, an alternate system for drawing for initiative makes things more interesting and causes less potential for bickering about seating order at the table- I strongly suggest using it, even in Easy Mode. Surprise is handled by providing a free Turn.
Movement in combat is similarly abstract per default, with drawing based on brains or muscles as an alternative to the freeform; if you prefer a more crunchy solution, hard mode bases movement on muscles: move muscles units of measurement and act, or move twice that amount but don’t act. This, once again, is easy to grasp, but makes the game more tactical…and, at least to me, rewarding. Melee is based on Muscles, ranged combat on Brains – so, either way, you’re automatically competent at what you do. Melee requires you beat the opponent’s Muscle value to hit, ranged attacks require that you beat the RV – Ranged Value. Some monsters may have a Defense Value that overrides these; weak monsters that are hard to hit. Hard Mode does provide optional values for tougher damaging of foes, basically a confirmation; otherwise, it’s fairly easy to damage targets, but not necessarily to kill them – attacks only inflict 1 – 3 damage, typically. That being said, incurring damage matters: 5, 2 and 0 toughness are thresholds that impose penalties to the attributes due to pain; -2 is the threshold for being dead. Wimpy kids are more susceptible to pain, while certain NPCs can be less susceptible. Furthermore, you can make bad gimmicks based on injuries – broken limbs, concussions.
Now, per default, there is NO HEALING. When taking basically a long rest, you regain 1 toughness; short rests reduce pain levels. There are rules for first aid, pain killers and long-term treatment that allow for the regaining of functionality, though, as a whole, characters will want to avoid serious injury. From basically video game logic to unreliable healing and drugs that require draws, the customization options presented for the system are impressive here as well.
Notice something? Customization is the name of the game and this book has more for you. Need rules for damaging objects? Included. Rules for fire, fireworks and explosives? Right here. Rules for Fear Challenges (including negative repercussions for (failing to) sleep)… really cool. Now, the GM gets some serious array of tools here: Hazard-wise, we get rules for falling, light/darkness, rules for sneaking through the shadows, water as a hazard, drowning, hazardous weather, endurance required by long-term tasks, food, air and water – these are simple and fun; the leitmotif for the GM is “keep it simple, make it fun” – as such, the GM section provides advice on the creation of 4-act adventures, reward bonus draws, reward good gimmicks, earned bad gimmicks…and we actually get downtime rules between adventures: These include ways to add/remove gimmicks, bonus draws, equipment or attribute increases; playing games within the game (The PCs are Kids, after all), is also handled – and sidequests can be either used as a story-facilitator, etc. The pdf provides examples for specific games, from whack-a-mole to pinball, including easy examples. Tickets can be turned into rewards – though here, something went wrong in the table – there are strike-through boxes placeholders where card-icons should be, which is somewhat odd…but since the basic resolution mechanic is simple, you can deduce the symbol meant). Oh, and if you’re lucky, you can perhaps get ninja throwing stars, switchblades, basically a Commodore=64 with serial numbers filed off…( As an aside: If your German is passable and/or you enjoy good Synthwave – check out Welle:Erdball, one of my favorite bands…they actually make music with them.)
Really neat: Locations have a cost to hang out there and rules that provide restrictions; they also have a cool rating; the higher the rating, the less likely bad stuff will happen there. They usually have points of interest, NPCs – you get the idea. It’s a simple, easy to grasp system to codify how you think about locales. Beyond generic NPCs, GMs also get a premade NPC babysitter as a nice example on how the rules can be employed.
Oh, and there, obviously, is the eponymous Stranger Stuff: We get enthralling recorders, a sentient build-your-own robot toy, tomes, x-ray specs that work…and there are strange powers; from astral projection t being forgettable (which comes with a nasty scenario-suggestion earlier) to parasitic rejuvenation and the classic pyrokinesis, these powers run the gamut of the iconic classics. Once more we get a sample character – 13, who is, surprise, wanted by the MIB…
The monsters presented in the next section fall in 4 general categories – Aliens, cryptids, humans and supernatural threats – from maniacs to aliens and sentient ideas, the basic tools here are nice. Cooler yet: The year is 1984, so we get a list of highest grossing films, TV programs (with network), full moons notes, billboard year-end Top 10 songs and important events. The town of Crestview Hills comes with some sample NPCs and locations and serves a brief backdrop and default setting for the adventures for the system, with a small town named Slim River being close to it, though it is less detailed.
Okay, so the pdf also provides an adventure by Kiel Howell – “The Mask Behind the Make-up” – it is intended as a Normal Mode scenario and sports a bullet-point break-down: At one glance you can see “Adolescent Mischief”, “Crude Humor”, etc. – in short, at one glance, you can determine what could be problematic if you use this for kids or sensitive folks, allowing for instant awareness and an easier customization…on the other hand, if you’re into horror and/or have hardened players, these can just as well act as bullet points to make the respective aspects more extreme. I really like this and hope that further season 2 scenarios will employ it as well! The adventure is pretty well-made (though it doesn’t sport maps or the like) and enjoyable – and it ties in well with the other Vs. Stranger Stuff offerings, which I will cover in due time.
A random generator for adversaries, their motivation, etc. allows you to quickly come up with adventure frameworks. We also get a neat full-color character sheet, a full-color location sheet…and a b/w-map of a town, which you can use as a coloring prop…or, you know, color unlocked/pertinent locations.
Editing and formatting, for the most part, are very good; on a rules-language level, I have no complaints; on a formal level, there are a couple of relics where card-suite symbols should be and use/us-level glitches can be found here and there. Not too many, but if you’re picky, it may come up. Layout adheres to an album-style and the pdf uses graphical elements from 80s’ gaming/videos/etc. in subtle ways – it’s not obtrusive, but it is a nice touch and shows the extra care that went into the gorgeous layout of this game. Artworks depict e.g. collectible playing-card paraphernalia, poster-facsimiles, “photos” with strange stuff inside…the overall aesthetics are really neat. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
Lucus Palosaari, with additional content by Rick Hershey and Kiel Howell, has really stretched his design muscles with this modification of the VsM-engine. My main issue with vs. Ghosts, in comparison, is that it is very reliant on the ghost-hunting equipment. The acquisition of these isn’t linear, so planning longer games isn’t too easy. Vs. Stranger Stuff Season 2 eliminates that component – it emphasizes different aspects of the game. The locations and their cool rating, and, more importantly, the versatility of the system, deserve a big round of applause: With this game, you can conceivably play a Scooby-doo-type of wholesome kid-mystery…or you can basically go Stephen King-grimdark smalltown-dystopia.
The more detailed and simulationalist hard mode rules add a SERIOUS amount of potential for longer games; while the VsM-engine isn’t perfect for epic tales and massive character progressions, the hard mode options allow for well-made and enjoyable “mini-series” – you know, half-year/year campaigns. The emphasis on roleplaying, the dead simple rules – what makes the system work well is still here; this is very much a rules-lite system, even with all optional hard mode options included. However, it is my firm conviction that this works infinitely better than vs. Ghosts to tell stories that are not just a few sequential adventures; in sort, it lets you tell “bigger” stories, with more nuances. The fact that it allows for kid—friendly entertainment and darker stories for adults (or for kids that are like yours truly was…I always had a penchant for the dark and macabre…) in equal measure is another HUGE plus for me. The modularity provided allows you to customize the game according to your preferences and it works well in all scenarios. What more can you ask for? This succeeds triumphantly at its intended vision and most assuredly represents the VsM-based game to get. While the pdf does have a few cosmetic rough edges, I thoroughly enjoyed this system and look forward to playing through scenarios for it. My final verdict will hence clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval.
You can get this cool game here on OBS!
You can check out the easy mode (though imho, hard mode is where the system becomes amazing) for free here on OBS!