|Nexus: The Infinite City|
Realities On The Edge
Daedelus Games , 1994
Supplemental materials in the collection
Contributed to the Museum by Spike Jones
Nexus was a universal game, but in an unusual way. Instead of being a set of rules that could be applied to many different settings, Nexus was built around a universal setting. The Infinite City is an interdimensional combination of parts of cities across many dimensions. Sections of Nexus are stable and have permanent inhabitants who are citizens of the Infinite City, while other areas are temporarily connected to the whole and may blink out at any time. This setting provides, quite literally, for players to encounter anything: aliens, high technology, gods, magic, time travel, and inexplicable mysteries. Philosophically, the game is a sibling to Over the Edge, another game of high weirdness. Nexus was also the original basis for the rules to Feng Shui, Atlas Games's marvellous game of martial arts and mystic weirdness. (Since that game originated with Daedelus Games, that is hardly surprising.)
As mentioned above, the Infinite City is literally indescribable, because of its unguessable size and constant flux. There is no central authority: neighborhoods operate in their independent ways. Features that tie the city together are its cheerful chaos, the shameless mercantilism of its citizens, the rickshaws that serve as a primary mode of transportation and the street gangs that rule their particular turfs. The more solid pieces of the city are called "hubs," areas that remain relatively stable. One such hub is the game's psychological center: Angel City, a large chunk of Los Angeles, California, that became incorporated into Nexus on February 27, 1993. While this introduced great disruptions to the lives of Angelenos, most of them adapted, and Angel City is now an important part of Nexus. Coincidentally, it's also a great place to begin a game, as most role players can relate to a modern American city, and Angel City has managed to include all sorts of weirdnesses.
The book included quite a bit of background material about the Infinite City. Besides the relatively fixed Hubs, we get relatively permanent features (a canal that winds through the city, crossing many realities; an infinite building populated by the unlucky who get lost within and cannot find their way out; a superhighway that likewise crosses realities; a barrier of essentially no return; part of an alternate history Norman Conquest moonbase), nooks and crannies that are difficult to find (Gothic York, a retro futuristic New York City, complete with caped avengers; an alternate history Saigon from the Vietnam war where superpowered soldiers recuperate from their fights in the jungles), individual locations (a Karioke bar for wannabe gangster triad recruits; a used book store specializing in back room survelliance equipment from many worlds; a museum whose goal is to unsettle or disgust the patrons; a hotel with subtly changing rooms that can be uniquely customized to any customer's tastes; the Internex computer system and MegaChannel television network). There are many races to meet, including the brash tasteless Saurians who never met a trashy trend they didn't like; the Sayhid, a multidimensional race that lost their afterlife dimension; the symbiotic Simms, and others. There are businesses, religions and gods, two adventures, and adventure hooks that all but leap out of the pages at the reader.
Traveling through Nexus was confusing at best, possibly even hazardous. People cross visible or invisible portals to enter different realities, and these portals moved, disappeared, or changed destinations at random. The shawmen (rickshaw pullers) are generally adept at reaching the proper destination, but even shawmen could go astray. Since realities might have different physical laws, the rules categorized realities based on their magic level (None, low, moderate, or high) and their technology level (Low, moderate, high, super). One never knew if one's tools or magic would function from place to place: a car might turn into a donkey and cart, a magic sword might turn into a child's plastic toy. Even living beings might be transformed into different organisms on crossing realities.
Nexus has something akin to the 1990s internet (called Internex), intermittent telephone service, and sometimes cable or broadcast media. There is no central government, although there may be governments functioning in some areas, or there may be powerful groups serving a government role. But for the most part, there are no rules, and might makes right in most areas, barring local enforcers who try to keep order. What keeps the city together is everybody's need to trade to survive, so that it's not profitable for the entire city to be a cluster of heavily armed camps.
Character creation was done through a point build system. The game moderator set the power level of the game and this determined how many character points players started with, from twenty-five in a mundane game up to three hundred in a superhuman one. Characters had three primary abilities, each with three or four secondary abilities attached to them. The abilities were Body (strength, constitution, toughness, move), Mind (charisma, perception, intelligence, will), and Reflexes (agility, manual dexterity, speed). Characters began with the default human value of five, and these could be raised at a cost of ten character points per level (or players could lower them to get ten points back per level). Secondary abilities went up and down with their primaries, but players could adjust these independently, typically at a cost of three character points per level. (Intelligence, agility, and manual dexterity, important for magic and combat, cost five points per level.)
Once primary and secondary attributes were set, players spent character points on skills. Skills were generally cheap (one or two points per level), so to avoid overpowered characters it was strongly recommended that characters not be permitted to have skills of greater than five. Nexus didn't include a skill list; players were supposed to make up their own, although there were many examples for the referee to refer to.
After buying skills, players chose advantages and disadvantages. These might be as cheap as one point (for an extra limb) or as expensive as fifteen (complete immunity to all toxins and diseases). Players could then round their characters off with tags, minor quirks or tics that distinguish their character from others, but did not have enough of an effect on the game to make them worth points.
To assist with character creation, Nexus included a small number of archetypes that could be used as models for typical characters. These helped give a feel for the gameworld.
The basic game mechanic was a "stat plus skill plus roll minus difficulty" system. But this simple description robs Nexus of much of its charm, especially in the combat system. The stat plus skill number was referred to as the Action Value, or AV. The roll was 2d6, with one die positive and the other negative. (Nexus recommended using two differently colored dice, of course.) A roll might be "open," where a six was counted and re-rolled, whether positive or negative, or it might be closed, where sixes did not roll again. Whether open or closed, the AV plus roll then had the task difficulty subtracted from it. The character succeeded on a final score of zero or better. In many instances, the margin of success determined the size of the game effect, such as how fast or how far an object might be thrown.
Combat resolution used the core game mechanic, with the addition of an innovative initiative system. Basic initiative was determined by the character's speed attribute plus the result of a single d6 roll. Actions basically went from the highest initiative value down, but with a twist. All actions had a cost, which was subtracted from the character's initiative value. The result was when the action was executed, at which point players could select a new action if they had enough initiative left.
Players could choose to have their characters react to another character's behavior, and their original choice would be pushed back by the number of rounds the new action cost. For example, Greasy Jack has an initiative of eight, and Eight Fingers has an initiative of six. Jack decides to draw his knife (cost 1), and Fingers pulls a gun (cost 1). On round seven, Jack has his knife out; Fingers hasn't gone yet (his gun will come out on round five). Jack gets to choose a new action, and he chooses to stab (cost 3). His attack will strike home on round four, which is after Fingers will get his gun out, but before he can shoot. Fingers decides to try to block Jack's attack (cost 1). This change of plans will push Fingers's unholstering back one round, to round three, as he has prepared to block on round 4.
Combat value was based on one of the character's Reflexes sub-abilities: agility for melee or manual dexterity for ranged combat. The combat value might also be based on the character's skill (such as a Firearms skill). As per the standard resolution system, this number was added to the results of the two opposed d6s, and the difficulty value of the attack was subtracted from the total. If the result was zero or greater, the attack hit. The difficulty of the attack might be adjusted by movement, the size of the target, a called shot target location, and so on.
While the basic system was simple enough, damage took the attacker's margin of success into account. This meant the damage system had to accommodate a very wide range of outcomes without making most of them into instant kills of the target. Nexus handled this by translating damage results into a number of wounds using a table.
First, how was damage computed? Different weapons did different amounts of damage: attacker's strength plus a bonus for muscle-powered weapons, and a fixed amount for bullets and other missile weapons. The weapon's damage factor was added to the attacker's margin of success, and the defender's toughness score was subtracted. The result was referred to as the "damage check outcome," and this was converted to a number of wounds on a table. An outcome of five meant one wound; a lower result meant fractional wounds (down to 1/4), while higher scores caused more wounds in a non-linear fashion. An outcome of seven was two wounds, a ten meant six wounds, and so on.
If a character accumulated five or more wound points, they had to make a Death Check, using their constitution as their base score, and the number of wound points as the difficulty. A failed check meant the character was dying. The moderater added thirteen to the value of their failed result to indicate how many rounds they had to get treatment, which would permit another Death Check.
Of course, adding armor to the system meant further complications. In general, armor either blocked a hit or it didn't. Attacks were classified as impact (blunt weapons) or penetrating, and armor was rated for impact and penetration protection. If the weapon's penetration value (even impact weapons had a penetration value) exceeded that of the armor's matching rating, the attack went through with a slight reduction in damage. If the penetration value didn't exceed the armor, the hit was blocked, although there was an optional rule for penetration type attacks to do some impact damage through the armor (from bruises and the like).
Automatic weapons were handled neatly, but used a slightly different system. Firing more bullets increased the attackers AV, provided an opportunity to hit multiple targets in the same attack, and required more strength to handle the weapon without penalty. To determine how many rounds hit a target, the referee noted the weapon's rate of fire on a table to obtain a multiplier for the attack's final outcome value; this gave the actual number of bullets that struck home. Rather than use the standard damage mechanic, the player rolled a d6-1, and this value was added to the gun's base damage score to create the damage done by each bullet.
Magic and Supernatural Powers
It is no surprise that Nexus featured a very loose and customizable magic system. Players and moderators were expected to use the rules to detail each character's magical system, and as one might also expect, the setting had some different magical traditions to work from.
Powers were like skills, except they weren't based on stats, so the AV was entirely based on how many levels of the spell the character had learned. Powers could be defined as specific (having a particular effect, such as throwing fire) or broad (having a wide range of possible effects under a single label, such as telepathy). Players and moderators negotiated the details of any power the player might choose.
For the basic game mechanics, powers were classified into nine basic types: Alters, Attacks, Conjure/Summons, Illusions, Information Acquisition, Information Send, Negate, Telekinesis, and Teleport. Each of these nine types of powers had broad guidelines as to what they could do and the difficulties of various effects. Difficulties could be adjusted up and down by various factors: did the spell affect one target or an area? Did the caster need to speak and gesture? Was a skill check needed to bring the spell off? Did the spell go off immediately, or was there a time delay? And so on. Sample spells were included to help players and moderators define their magic.
As for types of magic, the rule book listed three different systems popular in Nexus: Nexan Sorcery (a blend of magical traditions from various dimensions), Rhyming Magic (practitioners work like artists to craft a rhyme of deep personal meaning to work a spell effect), and Psychic Powers. Each of these used the same basic magic system, but differed in details. Nexan Sorcery, for instance, used each spell's Power Level for the difficulty of the spell, and the Sorcery Skill AV for the die roll. Psychic powers, on the other hand, were more limited in that users couldn't improvise effects on the fly, but the power could be used in low mana realities. Of course, there were other systems, but the rules don't detail them.
The Rest of the Book
The game masters advice section was short but excellent. It not only had basic advice about running good games, but also advice on how to create a workable game in a setting where anything goes. (Hint: the players needed to work together to create characters that could gel into a workable team.) Referees might also pull in existing parties from other games: there were conversion tables for many games, including Call of Cthulhu, GURPS, Hero, Over The Edge, White Wolf's Storyteller system, Torg, and extensive notes on combining with Talislanta. The book closed with references suitable for copying and handing out to players, including a terrific introduction to the setting and checklists for the game mechanics.
The Nexus Life supplement was an unusual sourcebook. Ostensibly a lifestyle magazine for Angel City, complete with advertisements, Nexus Life was a fast, light read that helped give players a feel for what life in Nexus might be like. This extensive flavor text could have been a real help for portraying the setting.
Nexus was vast; it contained multitudes. If the design aim was to create a setting where PCs from any time, any place could be thrown, it worked. If it was about creating an anarchistic modern setting where there were no rules to hem the PCs in, and traditional RPG violence would be considered acceptable, it worked. If it was about a setting of high weirdness for characters to explore, it worked. If it was intended as an extended campaign setting...well, maybe for the right group it could have worked. If it was intended as a satire on modern life, it was pretty subtle about it.
A personal note from the curator
I was mainly interested in this game for its mechanics. I can't tell from reading it alone if the game mechanics were good enough to try, but the setting certainly captured my interest. This game isn't anything like I expected, and that's a good thing. A quick flip through the rule book really isn't enough to get a solid feel for this neglected gem, but if you have a taste for the bizarre and you have a chance, snap this one up. I don't think you'll be disappointed, even if you never play it.