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Reviews - Exquisite Replicas
by Lee Valentine

Exquisite Replicas coverExquisite Replicas
Published by Abstract Nova
Written by Lee Foster, Monica Valentinelli, John R. Phythyon, Jr., Werner Hager, & Todd Cash
$29.95 (perfect bound print edition), $9.95 (PDF), or $31.95 (print+PDF bundle)

Exquisite Replicas is the newest RPG entry from indie publisher Abstract Nova. Probably best known for their Heaven & Earth roleplaying game, Abstract Nova specializes in imaginative RPGs with highly detailed, creepy, alien or paranormal settings.

Exquisite Replicas seems heavily influenced by John Carpenter's They Live, but it also features strong elements of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dark City. This combination of movie motifs along with a healthy dose of twisted innovation makes Exquisite Replicas a unique game setting. In Exquisite Replicas, invaders from another dimension called "Otherside" are seeking to secretly invade our reality. Their plan is to capture everyone and everything on our planet and in their place leave exact replicas, simulacra, carved out of alien "weird matter" by the mysterious Surgineers of Otherside. The rationale behind the Surgineers activities is unclear. What is clear is that the original people and objects that were copied are being spirited away to prison camps and junkyards in Otherside.

Given that the simulacra are perfect to the last detail, even down to memories, most people are unaware that their neighbors and loved ones have been kidnapped and replaced. Invisible alien invaders from Otherside also walk the streets of Earth. The only ones who can see the alien Othersiders and detect their simulacra are a group of human freedom fighters known only as the Anonymous. This group, possessed of altered sensory powers, has banded together to fight off the alien invasion. Given that none of their friends and family can see the invaders, the Anonymous are forced to fight their battles as "missing persons", outcasts from society, trying to stay out of jail and the inevitable padded room in the insane asylum that awaits them if they reveal the reality they perceive to the world at large. The Anonymous hide their identities from the world by wearing masks while engaging in a war against an invisible enemy. Those masks perform a second function, however, because to copy and replace a person, the Surgineers send their servants to obtain a scan of the person's memories and a clear scan of that person's face. Wearing an ornate mask prevents a person from being scanned and copied, and so the disguises of the Anonymous keep them in the fight.

I won't go into too great a detail about the nature and kinds of alien invaders featured in Exquisite Replicas, to avoid spoiling surprises for would be players reading this review. I will say that it is possible for the Anonymous, through the use of captured alien technology, to travel from our world to the industrial wastelands, junkyards, and concentration camps that make up Otherside. Sometimes characters may visit Otherside to rescue a kidnapped loved one. At other times they may visit that hellish place just to take the fight to the invaders by making quick commando raids on important targets.

Suspension of Disbelief
A healthy amount of suspension of disbelief is required to play Exquisite Replicas. Why can the Surgeoneers get enough information to perfectly copy your body if they scan you with clothes on, but they cannot copy your face if you are wearing a mask? Why can't the servants of the Surgineers scan your memories while you are wearing a mask, and if they did, couldn't they just lift your appearance from your memories of looking into a mirror? A lot of this you just have to take with a grain of salt and move on, because the authors really never bother coming up with satisfactory answers to these obvious questions. If, however, you can suspend your disbelief and accept the premise that wearing masks to stop alien invaders is merely a necessity rather than a thematic contrivance, then you are in for a wild ride, because Exquisite Replicas is rich in detail and excitement.

Character Creation Basics
The character creation system used in Exquisite Replicas is quite distinct from the run-of-the-mill systems commonly presented by other game companies. While there is a "point buy" system to purchase character attributes and skills, it is not entirely freeform. There are four categories of character traits which are purchased during character creation: physical attributes, mental attributes, occupations, and advantages. A player chooses a unique rank priority (from 1 to 4) and assigns it to each of these categories. The player then gets a number of character points equal to (11 - 2 * priority) to spend on each category. Attributes and skills are rated as either non-existent (for skills your character is unfamiliar with), or else purchased with ranks ranging from 1 to 5.

Skills are handled as a mix between traditional skill-by-skill point buy using the advantages system, and an amorphous super-skill using the occupation system. In short, a character spends a certain number of his occupation points to become a practitioner of a given occupation. Additional occupation points are then spent to improve the character's rank in that occupation. A character can perform any skill thematically associated with that occupation at the same level as the rank of the occupation. So, for example, a rank 3 journalist will have interviewing, writing, research, and street smarts all at rank 3, along with any other skill the GM deems appropriate, whether or not they are listed in the game manual.

Points spent on advantages can grant bonuses to occuptional skills (such as increasing your interviewing skill to rank 5 while your other journalist skills are left at rank 3). Alternately, advantage points can be spent to grant access to so-called "extracurricular skills" not typically associated with your character's chosen occupation (such as granting your journalist skill with a firearm). Alternately, they can be used to equip your character with alien-made weapons.

Psychological States of Characters
Where Exquisite Replicas really shines is in its system for Psychological States and Mental Instabilities. There are three Psychological States possessed by all player characters: Immorality, Paranoia, and Violence. In other games, these would likely be strictly disadvantageous, but in Exquisite Replicas, these descriptors are double-edge swords, granting both advantages and disadvantages. Unlike other character traits, which are purchased with character points and remain at a static rank throughout game play, Psychological States start at ranks hand-picked by the player (at no cost in character points) and may go up or down from there during game play.

Ranked from 1 (low) to 5 (high), Immorality rates a character's willingness to lie, cheat, steal, and betray people to get what a character wants. Since the Anonymous often live on the fringes of society, being highly Immoral has its survival applications.

Given that even loved ones of the Anonymous have often been replaced, it is not surprising that many of them are incredibly Paranoid. High levels of Paranoia can prevent any meaningful social interaction in Exquisite Replicas. In extreme cases, the most paranoid members of the Anonymous never remove their masks, and will not eat food that they haven't personally acquired and prepared. At the same time, spotting the invisible threats and simulacra in the world is not automatic, but highly Paranoid individuals, being ever vigilant, are quite adept at spotting the Otherside invaders.

The combat system in Exquisite Replicas lets you know immediately that you are in for deep roleplaying and not merely hack and slash adventuring. In a typical fantasy game, characters casually lop off the head or limbs of anything in their path. A character has to be fairly inured to Violence in Exquisite Replicas before he'll consider killing a doppelganger (a replicated human) and even more callous before he'll kill an actual human.

Mental Impairments & Tragedy Points
While having an Immoral, Paranoid, Violent killing machine seems to grant maximum effectiveness for a character, it also comes with severe downsides called "Mental impairments". They range from mild to outright debilitating in level, and how bad they are for your character depends on how many ranks of the three Psychological States you chose to assign your character. At worst your character may have severe agoraphobia or become an uncontrollable sadist. If your character is still playing with a mostly full deck, maybe he only buys food from people who haven't yet been replaced by the Othersiders.

This system does add some rules complexity that the GM is required to handle, as a variety of things in the game require rolls to increase or decrease Psychological States, and thus to change the Mental Impairments that a character has.

Mental Impairments have only one upside: by roleplaying their effects a player gains "Tragedy Points" (read "plot points") that he can spend during play to modify dice rolls to his character's favor. The more elevated your character's Psychological States are, the more Mental Impairments he has, the more Tragedy Points he can bank to save his character from danger. You can guarantee that a highly unstable character will definitely be in regular danger.

Core Mechanics
Exquisite Replicas uses a d10-based dice pool system for task resolution. In a slight variant of the classic Skill + Stat systems which are commonly found in gaming, a character here adds his Attribute score + any relevant Occupational rank + any relevant Advantage. The sum of these is the number of ten-sided dice the player rolls for a given task attempt. Every "1" that is rolled on the dice grants one success, and every "2" grants two successes. So, if one rolls 1, 2, 2, 3, and 4, that's 5 successes total.

For an unopposed roll (i.e., one where another player or non-player character is not directly involved) the GM determines the difficulty of the task, usually level 1 or level 2, but sometimes as high as level 5. If the number of rolled successes equals or exceeds the difficulty level of the task being attempted, the task attempt is a success. Otherwise it is a failure. The game has a binary success/failure mechanic, and does not have a detailed system for determining the relative level of success.

For opposed rolls, each character rolls the number of dice he is due for the task at hand. The one with the higher number of successes wins. Ties can result somewhat frequently, since it's hard to roll lots of successes at one time. In these cases, each side keeps rolling a single d10 looking for the highest roll, as a tie breaker, until someone comes out on top. Again, there is no mechanism for a standoff or tie, or for relative levels of success.

The dicing mechanic, while functional, provides for only a very coarse-grained difficulty rating system, with probabilities dropping dramatically from one difficulty rating to the next. As a result, going from difficulty 2 to difficulty 3 produces a strong drop off in the level of expected success. The system is thus somewhat reliant on a Tragedy Point (i.e., plot point) expenditure mechanic and situational modifiers for teamwork to tackle anything above a minimal level of difficulty. Thankfully, most unopposed rolls in the game are of difficulty levels 1 or 2. This is slightly less troublesome with opposed rolls (which roll against each other rather than against a static difficulty number), but may be an area of potential concern for unopposed rolls, particularly ones where a character's occupation doesn't happen to help him (like a lawyer breaking down a door). Very little in the task resolution rules is tied to using a ten-sided die as prescribed by the rules, and so the system's success percentages can be readily altered simply by adjusting the type of die being used (e.g., switching to a d8) if this is a concern for you.

There are no tables summarizing sample task difficulties. Further, the difficulty ratings which are provided are not thoroughly explained. This can sometimes make it difficult for the GM to appropriately set task difficulties for unopposed rolls. What the game desperately needed as a GM tool (but failed to supply) was a probability chart showing how likely a character rolling X dice would be to succeed at a task of Y difficulty.

Combat in Exquisite Replicas is generally resolved by opposed rolls, with each character taking an action after determining initiative for the combat. If you are attacking and you win a roll versus a defender then you will do damage. You add your number of successes to your Strength score (in melee combat) plus a weapon modifier and subtract your opponent's Endurance score; that's the amount of damage you inflict. Most melee weapons have a weapon damage modifier in the tight range of 2 to 6, but a chainsaw does +15 damage. Since the system doesn't have specialized rules by weapon type, most characters will naturally gravitate toward chainsaws if the situations of the plot allow for it. The downside, I suppose, of wielding a chainsaw, is that when one of the Anonymous uses one of the deafeningly loud weapons on a replicated human in the middle of the street, the mask wearing killer will look like he stepped right out of a slasher film, attracting all sorts of negative attention.

Firearm combat is handled as an unopposed roll against a task difficulty determined by the GM (factoring in distance, movement of the target, etc.). Damage for firearms does not benefit from Strength, and the weapon modifiers of firearms multiplies successes instead of adding to them. So, when just rolling a single success, a melee weapon is more likely to work better for a strong character. However, when multiple successes start appearing, firearms can become extremely lethal weapons in this game.

Typical humans in Exquisite Replicas have 20 Health and can sustain 21 damage before dying. Receiving 16 to 20 damage still requires fast medical treatment or death will occur. Othersiders have widely varying Health scores, depending on the nature of the creature in question, but any replicated weapon used on any Othersider does double normal damage.

I didn't like the fact that, again, the system was strongly binary (success/fail) in it's application to combat. Damage in the game is calculated based on the quality of the shot, ignoring the difficulty of making the attack. For example, if you roll 5 successes against a difficulty 5 target you inflict the same amount of damage as if you had rolled 5 successes against a difficulty 1 target.

Combat in the game can be sudden (in the case of called shots with high damage weapons) or it can be more drawn out, but either way, high damage and various wound penalties involved in the rules system make the game's combat system potentially quite lethal. The only thing that keeps lethality under control is the relative difficulty of rolling multiple successes using the dicing system. Even the methods for handling nominally non-lethal damage are pretty lethal. To add some flash to otherwise violent combats, the game system includes a variety of rules on chases, breaking objects, healing, recovery, and psychological trauma. While this may not be the best rules system you have seen, there's enough meat on the bones for a GM to run the game out of the box without having to "wing" too many things in combat the first time out.

Rules Complexity
Overall, the rules were generally clear throughout the rulebook. Some points are repeated to limit the amount of cross-referencing to be done. The only thing that was not well-handled is mentioning that the system uses a d10-based task resolution mechanic. It is noted early in the book, but is not reiterated at the beginning of the game mechanics section.

While parts of Exquisite Replicas are a quite rules heavy game when compared to many other indie RPGs, the onus of the mechanics will fall squarely on the shoulders of the GM. To a player, this game may appear as a light Stat+Skill dice pool mechanic that will be learned in under ten minutes. Particularly when foraying into Otherside, there are many customized rules for every situation which a GM must either internalize or ignore. When adventuring in Otherside, the rule of thumb seems to be "why roll one die with three will do the trick."

Examples & Additional Content
There are plenty of examples of actual rules interpretations and calculations throughout the text. Unfortunately, the various charts used in the game are not summarized in any quick reference section at the back of the rulebook.

The setting in Exquisite Replicas is well-developed and filled with many ideas for plotlines. However, some areas of the game are less fully developed. With the exception of two human NPCs, there are no character examples of any kind in the book. I found this most noteworthy because a large section of the setting background is presented in the form of an "in character" storyline that introduces a number of key NPCs. This practically begged for these NPCs to be "statted out" in game terms, but they just weren't there. Not only will this needle GMs who want to pick up the game and run it without a lot of planning, but such characters would have been great examples to players trying to understand how good attributes and occupational skills needed to be to make competent characters for an Exquisite Replicas campaign.

While there is no introductory adventure included with the game, there are certainly plenty enough plot ideas that were written up by the game's authors that a competent GM will have inspiration for where to take his story line in the long run. Typically I don't care if there is an introductory adventure in an RPG core book. However, the setting of Exquisite Replicas is so out-of-the-norm that GMs would have been well-served with the inclusion of an introductory adventure. My fear is that without such an introduction, GMs may simply resort to handing out photocopies and using lengthy exposition to present basic information to players. The game would be much better served by artfully revealing key information one scene at a time.

Art & Layout
The rules are presented in a clean, readable, single-column layout. Standardized page ornamentation appears on the outside edges of the page layout, in the form of a column of masks of all kinds, ranging from a wooden tribal mask to a gas mask. The editing is pretty good overall, with only a handful of errors of note.

The cover and the other illustrations in the book were done by Eric Lofgren. The cover artwork features three mask-wearing members of the Anonymous with improvised melee weapons. While the cover does show a scene characteristic of what one might see in an actual game, the scene is not active and not particularly exciting. I worry a bit that the cover will not tell the reader enough about what type of game he's in for; it screams "mugging in an alley" not "stop the alien invaders." The back cover does go into greater detail about the game, but I wish there had been a greater connection between the information on the back cover and the image pictured on the front.

The interior artwork, while not always top notch, was generally quite serviceable. None of it detracted from the overall feel of the product, and it often helped set an appropriate tone. Some art panels were even imaginative enough that I expect to see them again if any motion picture of Exquisite Replicas ever gets made. Some of the art panels felt a bit thematically repetitive from section to section, but there were a few standout pieces of artwork that were quite nightmarish.

Appeal to Users of Other Systems
Exquisite Replicas is a thought provoking roleplaying game. It deals with a variety of adult topics, and can be handled either as an intricate morality play or as a two-fisted game of serialized alien-fighting adventures. It's subject matter is far enough off the beaten track, however, that it may be a tough sell for some gaming groups. This will be a better fit to World of Darkness players, fans of alien invasion movies, and to some groups of indie RPG aficionados.

By applying some modest effort, a clever GM could convert the campaign setting for Exquisite Replicas to White Wolf's World of Darkness Storytelling System. The examination of the fundamental nature of humanity that goes on in Exquisite Replicas could appeal to some players of the various World of Darkness games even though this game is more thematically aligned with science fiction than the supernatural. I think users of other generic systems such as FUDGE or GURPS could readily convert this game to those systems, as so much of the book is non-rules content regarding the setting.

Adult Content
This is definitely a game for adults. While sometimes only dealt with tangentially, mental illness, rape, murder, kidnapping, and even cannibalism are all discussed in the game. While a neophyte role-player may enjoy the experience, the game so deeply involves mature situations, character exploration, and soul searching that it may not be suitable for younger or inexperienced roleplayers. While other horror games focus on the dread from without, Exquisite Replicas often focuses on mundane concerns that destroy lives like drug abuse, marital problems, homelessness, and mental illness. The existence of aliens in this game is not the end point of the discovery, but at some level merely serves as a vehicle to explore other painful issues which will feel more real to players and may hit uncomfortably close to home for some.

For GMs Only?
Unlike other RPGs, I could not help but feel that most of this book was targeted almost exclusively at GMs and not players. Exquisite Replicas has far too many potential "spoilers" for it to be loaned out to all the players in the group. Thankfully, the vast majority of the book is dedicated to setting, rather than character creation rules, meaning that it is highly possible for an experienced GM to run an Exquisite Replicas campaign with a group of players who have never read the rulebook, by giving them a 10 to 20 minute introduction to the game's core rules.

At the end of the rulebook there is a fairly rich section dedicated to guiding the GM through the art of running an Exquisite Replicas campaign. This section does not focus on balancing encounters and managing the rules minutiae of the game, but instead focuses on the storytelling aspects the GM will need to master to run a successful campaign. The primer on GMing in Exquisite Replicas is well thought out and well presented, and surpasses GMing advice presented in games published by larger companies.

I enjoyed exploring Exquisite Replicas. The work is, on the whole, quite clever. More importantly, the setting is definitely out of the ordinary. Exquisite Replicas is certainly among the most memorable gaming products that I have ever encountered.

While I found the material in Exquisite Replicas to be thought provoking, sometimes the authors tried to aim for the surreal just because it's surreal. This is particularly true with regards to Otherside, leading the reader to ask himself questions like, "why are there 30-foot tall pig men in this game?" Sometimes there are no answers given by the authors, who seem to want to create a setting as inexplicable, alien, and madness-inducing as possible.

The book is presented well. Dark, surreal, and imaginative, with some refinements, the core contents of Exquisite Replicas could make a fine science fiction film.

Consider picking up Exquisite Replicas if your group is into indie games. Its creepy vibe, paranoia-inducing themes, and out-of-the-ordinary setting could be a great change of pace for the right group. Having reviewed it, I'm now eager to go back and pick up that copy of Heaven & Earth Third Edition which I have had my eye on for some time.

For Retailers
Being a role-playing game from an indie company dealing with a fringe genre, I expect that Exquisite Replicas could get lost on the shelves of a game store without an indie RPG section. If your store carries a selection of indie RPGs, however, then this may be a worthwhile product for you to carry. Should you run demos of Exquisite Replicas in your store with an experienced GM, I think you'll get some converts. In a demo, players will perceive this fairly rules heavy game as subjectively rules light, and the setting will provide an immersive experience which I believe will result in sales for you.

Lee's ratings:
Overall: B
Rules Complexity: heavy for GM, light for players
Rules: B (lacking quick reference, example characters, and possessing a few rough edges)
Setting: B+ (nice setting, with some bits that don't hang together perfectly)
Appearance: B (clean readable layout with some rather repetitive art)
Retailer Saleability: B- (nice indie game with a niche genre)


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