In terms of release schedule, Torg Eternity is following the same progression as the original Torg game. The Delphi Council Box did its best to replicate the boxed set edition of the initial release by giving enough of an overview of the setting to be able to play, offering the players a couple adventures to get a flavor of the world and previewing the worlds yet to be released. From there, they built the Living Land Sourcebook, which was the setting for North America, before moving on to the excitement of pulp reality, high fantasy and cyberpunk.
If you break down the previous sentence semantically, you see the problem with all of this. For a lot of the original players of Torg, the Living Land wasn’t very exciting. It was a savage reality, echoing bits of Tarzan and Land of the Lost, as well as a number of pulp sources. But compared to the thrilling adventures of fighting the minions of Pharaoh Mobius in two-fisted action, the sleek chrome-tinged dystopia of an oppressive theocracy, or the juxtaposition of epic fantasy battles between light and darkness in the ancient capitals of Northern Europe… it just fell a little flat.
Compared to the other settings laid out in the broader campaign setting, there wasn’t as much hook for the adventures set in the United States, which was unfortunate, given that the main audience (English speaking gamers, playing an American game) was generally predisposed to that setting by default. Characters in the Living Land could expect to watch their favorite toys break down, their magic to stop working, and have to deal with furiously savage opponents that could withstand hilarious levels of damage. It was a rough setting, with a lot of potential to kill both players and fun. The only setting to really compare was Orrorsh, the realm of Victorian Horror, where it was next to impossible to actually defeat their opponents on any permanent basis.* Orrorsh maintained a reputation of being a bit of a meatgrinder for player characters, and the complexity that was baked into it was pretty discouraging for GM’s as well.
The Living Land wasn’t particularly complex. It just didn’t seem particularly fun. It didn’t help that many of the plots revolved around dealing with resistance communities, weird intrigues against the Delphi Council, and discussions of whether or not having ordinary people interacting with the Living Land was detrimental or not.** There were only so many times a group of Storm Knights could “run supplies to a far flung resistance community” before they found something else that was more interesting.
As the greater campaign metaplot unwound, the Living Land became more and more of a joke amongst the players and game devs, to the point that Baruk Kaah was the bitter punchline of the final Infiniverse update sourcebook. There were Edeinos Happy Meals at McDonald’s, action figures of the friendly cartoon characters in-universe, and images of assimilated Edeinos being drafted onto professional baseball teams. The threats of the Living Land weren’t specifically threatening – dinosaurs, lizardmen, losing access to your toys – they were more annoying than anything else. The movie for Jurassic Park, easily the best representation of having massive and dangerous reptiles stomping around, came out in 1993, when the line had already mostly died out.
Partway into the game line, the game devs tried to skew the setting more towards the Edgar Rice Burroughs end of the source material, creating the Land Below, a more pulp-oriented flavor of the setting that quietly stole everything it possibly could from Savage Pellucidar. According to the lore of the setting, it was created through some weird interaction between Rec Pakken and the Kefertiri Idol (respectively, the Darkness Devices of the Living Land and the Nile Empire) and given a vague hand wave accordingly. Eventually, the Land Below proved to be a more popular setting for the game anyway that it burst through the surface, replaced large portions of the Living Land and no one looked back.
This time around, there are a few factors that help sell the idea.*** The basics of the setting remain constant, but rather than letting GM’s slack off and breeze the characters through what they consider a dull setting, there are some interesting incentives to try to keep the setting from being a miserable, unendurable slog.
For one thing, the schism between the High Lord Baruk Kaah and his various tribes are a lot more clearly defined. In the original setting, there were dissidents in the ranks, but they were used on more of a case by case basis than anything else. Shane Hensley’s Temple of Rec Stalek ratcheted the internecine warfare by introducing a protestant death cult into the ranks, but that was well into the metaplot when that happened. This time around, there are some five distinct clans, only one of which is fanatically loyal to their High Lord. Two are noted as being more potentially sympathetic, one is the previously noted death cult, and one is portrayed as shadowy and questionable. (It’s also worth mentioning that Lanala, the goddess that underpins much of the setting lore, seems to be displeased with Kaah’s efforts, to the point that the new sourcebook for the Living Land allows human characters to be “touched by Lanala” and pick up otherwise unavailable Perks for their use.)
And then there’s the new attempt to reconcile the Land Below. As noted above, this was an element that was introduced as the line progressed that tried to pivot the setting into the pulp action of its roots. Rather than delay the introduction of a popular setting, the land of Merretika has been integrated immediately with the big campaign module of The God Box****, which details a big, realm-crossing adventure to slow down Baruk Kaah’s ascendancy. While not apparently meriting its own sourcebook (for now), Ulisses Spiel has included the original Land Below Sourcebook in its PDF bundles with the original Torg Eternity Kickstarter. (And for what it’s worth, they used art from the original book as placeholder art in the backer-only release of God Box. Which tells me that they’re not assuming that much has changed in Merretika from 25 years ago.)
In order to integrate the Land Below more directly, the new setting brings in Lost Worlds as a necessary component of the Living Land. These manifest as semi-random, often impermanent glitches in the realm’s reality that can reference lost cosms or cultures ravaged by Baruk Kaah in his prior conquests. A couple of the modules have talked of the artifacts of the Ustanah (an insectoid race that has been part of Kaah’s original cosm since the first edition) showing up as a sort of Lost World in the setting, and there are suggestions of new, weirder ones in the new sourcebook. Some draw from elements of Core Earth history, oddly, while others reference bizarre remnants of dead races.
Not only do these Lost Worlds offer a sometimes needed edge of surreality, they also allow the Storm Knights a respite from the harsher aspects of the Living Land. Often, the odd little subrealms offer little more than a safe place to rest and recuperate, but that’s still a pretty helpful aspect. Other times, they contain little bits of tech that can still operate in the Living Land axioms. (Speaking of hand waves – the tech found here is gifted to the players as being “weird science,” which hearkens back to the Nile Empire origins of the original Land Below. As such, the artifacts found within the Lost Worlds can safely be used in the greater Realm of the Living Land without the same fear of disconnection.)
Also, depending on the set-up, the Lost Worlds can also serve as an adventure hook of their own, which is a nice break from the “resistance communities” grind that the first edition tended to revisit.
*To shine a little light on this, every major opponent in Orrorsh had a True Death entry on their stat block. If you hadn’t spent enough time researching or experimenting, that meant that any sort of defeat that you dealt an opponent in Orrorsh was pointless and they would come back in a future adventure. There is nothing like having to deal with a centuried vampire elder that’s pissed off because you kept him from enslaving a small Malaysian village for a ritual sacrifice. And he’s doubly pissed off because you defeated him last week already, and this is the third time this quarter that he’s had to deal with your meddling.
**Two related things to talk about with this.
First off, it bears noting that there was a heavy element of how to ethically deal with the problem of unintentional quisling activity. The idea was that, if an ordinary person was transformed to the invading reality, they were suddenly helping to anchor that reality to Core Earth. This was a heavy element of the Orrorshan Invasion, to the point that the Victorian soldiers that showed up in Malaysia to help fight the Gaunt Man were simply another, more ironic form of an invading force. (Thankfully, this doesn’t seem to be baked into the setting this time around.)
Applied to the North American Invasion, this meant that normal, everyday people that were caught in the Realm were going to eventually transform, which meant that they were part of the problem. And this meant that the Delphi Council (which was more of a shadowy conspiracy agency for the 1990’s mindset) would dispatch their “Spartans” to quietly wipe out entire towns of people, rather than have them fall to the enemy. This was, naturally, abhorrent to any real group of Storm Knights, so some of the plots ended up dealing with how to fight the remains of the US Government alongside the problem of massive dinosaurs and lizardmen fanatics. It added to the “no win situation” that was already in place for most of the Living Land adventures.
On the other hand, if you were in the Nile Empire, you could just punch Nazis and not have to worry about moral implications.
***I would like to offer that I’ve always loved the setting. The sourcebook was the weakest of the line, in terms of how the content was organized, but that was because they only managed to refine the template for the realm books as they went along. It was dense with material and setting details. It just lacked solid hooks for flavoring the setting and keeping everyone engaged the same way that the other realms did.
For my part, I always interpreted the realm it as a horror setting. One of the campaigns I ran, the characters were trapped in New York when the maelstrom bridges came down. They were cut off from the all of the logistical resources they had come to rely upon (they were FBI agents, so this was pretty hard for them to adjust to, honestly), and they had to make their way out of a suddenly hostile city with none of their modern conveniences. They learned quickly to respect the savagery of the setting when they could only fight back with the most primitive of means. One of the key elements of horror is a dread of the unknown, and it’s very easy to ratchet up the tension in a Living Land game, since most of the comforts of modern life have been stripped away.
****I would like to talk for a brief moment to point out how painfully dull some of the Torg nomenclature ends up being. Between the God Box and Darkness Devices, I feel like there could have been some deeper discussion of coming up with more interesting terms for these elements. While not immediately obvious, terms like jakatt and gotak at least were some interesting terminology for the realms. Referring to an ancient, eldritch intelligences that set the agendas of a godlike High Lord (also, this is not a great example of nomenclature in itself) as a Darkness Device is doing a disservice to the alien horror that these things embody. Especially when you immediately veer off and refer to the modules that lock the invading reality in place as Stelae. Or the all powerful synthesis of the merged device and its conquering High Lord as Torg.
A Darkness Device is so … mundane in comparison.
It’s no secret that I’m an old school, die hard, original fanboy of Torg. For a while, I managed to curate two complete sets* of the original run of the game, including the weird, solitary Revised and Expanded Rules by “Kansas” Jim.
Naturally, when Ulisses Spiel started in on the Kickstarters for Torg Eternity, there was zero hesitation on buying in. I’ve gotten very fond of Euro-RPG’s as time goes on, so I had complete trust in their ability to bring a competent, solid project to completion. Perhaps moreso than domestic, depending. (Yeah, this is an Onyx Path dig; you’ll see why in just a moment.)
I pledged for the Delphi Council Cargo Box with the original Kickstarter, which ended up being gloriously expensive at the $200 asking price. That said, the stretch goals boosted it up to being an actual value when all was said and done. They pulled in over $350K, which loaded the box with all manner of extra bits, little of which I can complain about. When the Kickstarter fulfilled in February, they started putting everything together for the first of the cosm books, the Living Land Sourcebook.
I’m not going to soft pedal this: Ulisses Spiel is out to make money on this. Each of the Kickstarters is likely to demand a similarly high buy-in for their products. The Living Land Survival Box is priced out at $180 for a similar boxed set with similar levels of extra bits. But they deliver with their books, their cards, their chips and so on. And for the slightly more discerning buyer, there are more economical measures to be taken.
But consider: With the first Kickstarter, I ended up with three hardcover books, a GM screen, a soundtrack CD, dice, chips, cards, maps and an assortment of useful extras. Totaling out the retail on the books alone puts me over $100 without breathing hard.** This Kickstarter is promising to do the same – three books, an assortment of dice, chips and cards – so really, it isn’t a shock to see the price hold similar. And considering that the campaign for this sourcebook went surprisingly high – over $200K for a single part, rather than the whole game, and it’s the part that was arguably the least liked of the original run – there’s a lot of value ended up being added in.
So, while it is turning into a rather expensive corner of my Library, I can’t argue with the return I’m getting on my investment. Not only are they delivering quantity with these campaigns, the production values are seriously top notch. Glossy books with solid art, deft rules with adequate crunch, and an attention to detail that comes with having a staff of guys that know what they want in their old school throwback game.
But here’s the thing that throws it all over the top, in terms of customer satisfaction and making sure that your base comes back for the next round of funding. Also, this is where I sink my teeth into Onyx Path for being absolutely worthless on the same footing.
For those that aren’t aware, Onyx Path is the flawed regeneration of White Wolf, trying its damnedest to carry on the tradition of 90’s gaming nostalgia and design in the aftermath of a questionable IP sale to a disinterested Icelandic computer game company. (And since, that same IP has transferred out to some new company whose plans are … murky, at best. Time will tell.) Onyx Path has managed dozens of Kickstarters to flog new merch based on the games that dominated a good portion of the pre-D&D Third Edition era, all of which have run way past their prescribed date of delivery. It is now to the point that any new Kickstarter will launch with the understanding that it will be a minimum of a year and a half between funding and fulfillment, regardless of what they’re talking about. And most of the time, they claim that the text is wholly in hand, ready for art and layout and similar.****
Not only do the backers end up having to wait until shortly before the books are sent off to print (a point usually after the first year mark), there’s a lot of obvious proofing and editing errors that Onyx Path relies on their audience to correct. And this is after having told people that the actual writing is done at the launch of the Kickstarter.
Now, let’s compare.
The Kickstarter for the Living Land Sourcebook for Torg Eternity funded on April 24th, 2018. (Last Tuesday, from when this post was written.) The book is slated for delivery in July of 2018. The core rules Kickstarter ran through the month of June in 2017. It was supposed to be delivered in October. Logistics and sich ran over, meaning that it didn’t get delivered until February. Whether or not I get my physical product by July remains to be seen. But I’m okay with that.
I received my PDF copy of the Living Land Sourcebook on April 25th. Or if we want to be annoyingly precise, about fourteen hours later.
Granted, there are a number of placeholders for art to be added later, and it has some scattered typographic errors that need to be ironed out, but it is a complete and playable product. And I’m already using these rules in my home game. And with it, I also have the two other hardcover books in PDF, ready to run. It bears noting that these books were stretch goals that had to be unlocked, but they were already through layout and basic proofing, ready for publication.
I’m sure that there are other game companies that have their act together to the same extent that Ulisses Spiel does. But personally, my experiences have caused me to be a little bit jaded when it comes to RPG companies and the promises that they make when it comes to Kickstarter campaigns. (It’s worth noting, again, that the very first thing that I pledged for – nay, that I created a Kickstarter account for – failed to deliver. I’m still bitter about that one, if we’re being honest.)
So, to sum up… Yeah, I’m going to end up giving this game company a serious amount of money before I’m through. But to their credit, they’re making sure that I’m going to be happy about doing so.
*Sadly, budget constraints and opportunity forced me to have to liquidate the extra set. Much as I have done in the past. I want to say that I’ve acquired “essential” collections of Torg about four separate times, all of which have ended up in the hands of my various friends. It’s never bad to get people into a semi-obscure game, only to be able to later help them build collections.
**Seriously, though. OSR and Indy games aside, when was the last time anyone escaped a game store with a game’s corebook under $30? This is not a hobby for anyone with any sort of economic sense. Especially when there are limited edition rulebooks to acquire.
***I figure, without too much hyperbole, that this game alone is going to top out around $2,000 for a complete run of the basic game. There are seven cosms, which will necessitate close to $200 per Kickstarter, plus the base set, and I would be surprised if there wasn’t a hidden cosm that’s waiting in the wings to monkeywrench expectation. This role was filled by Tharkold and Space Gods in the original run.
****Personally, Exalted 3e was the worst of this whole lot. From launch to delivery was almost four whole years, of which there was a mysterious time period where the game seemed to be going through a manual proofread and indexing at the hands of a single person without the aid of a computer. It was maddening and strange. And the end product was an inversion of the original design goals of streamlining and correcting rules bloat, with the delivered product being a new standard by which rules bloat could be judged.
I’ve been intending to come back here and start up on a new series of Torg Eternity posts, but naturally, things have gotten directly in my way. And while I have all manner of things to discuss with that game, especially now that I have my Cargo Box in hand.
Sadly, there’s been a recent bit of news that has started hitting the feeds, and I felt enough inspiration to sit down and talk about it.
On March 6th, Paizo announced that they would be ending the Pathfinder line within the next two years, replacing it with a new edition that will supersede it. This will be a wholly new ruleset, specifically not backwards compatible*, and there are no plans to continue support for the extant Pathfinder rules.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Wizards of the Coast undertook a similar move when they decided to scuttle Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition / 3.5 for the sake of of the newly hyped 4th Edition D&D, and it was the sudden announcement – coupled with the licensing nonsense that required third party publishers to pay out beforehand to be able to adequately support the new edition – that caused Paizo to break away from their position as a dedicated licensee of WotC and become the de facto preservationists of the 3rd Edition rules canon.
It goes without saying that this was a gamble that has paid off for them.
A cursory examination of the proposed rules changes confirms some of the whispers that have been circulating since the debut of the new Starfinder core book** that the new game was to serve as a test bed for new revisions. What stands out to me is that the base structure of time has been seriously monkeyed with, from distinctions on whether a given situation falls within an Encounter, Exploration or Downtime. (Without going too deeply into this, it can be broken into Combat, Non-Combat, and Between Adventures. It’s not a bad idea to actually codify this, but it seems like it’s pulling from somewhere else entirely. Or it’s trying to put way more emphasis on optional rules from things like Complete Campaign.)
Similarly, Combat Rounds are structured in a completely new and curious manner, where the Actions are simplified (?) down from the existing Full Round and Standard Actions to a sort of Action Economy. Characters have a pool of Actions that they can undertake, in different combinations, and these can approximate the flow of combat as it exists in the current rules. Devoting extra Actions to a given thing (such as a spell) seems to allow it to be more effective, and there’s the implication that this will apply to Combat Actions as well. (In this way, it seems similar to how FFG handles combat in Edge of the Empire, oddly.)
On a surface level, none of this is particularly bad. I can admit that.
But I’m still stuck with the basic “If it ain’t broke…” mentality. There was a reason that they were able to expand their company in the wake of what was supposed to be an industry switch to 4th Edition D&D. For good or for ill, this is a hobby filled with the stereotypical grognards. Change is not well received when you have a group of people who dedicate themselves to a product for the sake of long years of enjoyment. Go onto any discussion group, and one of the first things that will jump out is the number of old players that speak fondly of their game that ran for the course of years. Combine that with the sheer outlay of cash required (in all seriousness, my personal collection would ballpark at over $3,000… and I’m not as dedicated as some…), there’s a reason why the announcement of a new system is met with antipathy.
I mean, a deeper dive into the forums will turn up the weirder groups that have chosen to stick with one of the older editions, be it BECMI, AD&D 1st, 2nd or the questionable Spells & Powers era of things. There’s a reason the OSR guys have tried to stake out their own niche of things; people will tend to go back to their original experience.
So, where does this leave me, specifically?
My first inclination is to draw a line in the sand and declare that I’m not going to be pulled in by the hype or the promises. I’ve put down enough cash that I can justify the refusal to be brought into a new edition, no matter what the actual experience ends out being. And someone, somewhere is going to salvage the Pathfinder basics to carry on in an uninterrupted manner. And after all, I have managed to avoid being drawn into the wave that is 5e D&D.
But the truth is probably that I’ll begrudgingly pick up the new edition at some point after it comes out. There’s a reason that I have titled this blog the way that I have. I collect RPG books, and this is likely to be another eventual addition to the stacks, even as I’m trying to avoid admitting such things. (And who knows? Maybe I’ll actually get a core of 5e D&D one of these days.)
Right now, however, I feel that there are too many unknowns with the newly announced edition, and Paizo’s track record in recent products hasn’t been exactly great. They talk of “Playtest Editions,” but their tendency is to pay very little attention to the feedback that is generated, forging ahead with their original ideas unaltered.*** (And lest we forget, they didn’t even bother with a playtest of the recent Shifter class, and it turned out to be a bit of a joke. It’s only made worse with the new errata, theoretically brought in from forum feedback, that arguably makes a lousy class even worse.)
Nothing will be released, in terms of actual playtest material, until Gen Con 2018. Until then, I assume there will be the predictable amounts of forum debates, wild speculation and unbridled optimism. For my part, I’m going to be maintaining the same sort of casual disinterest that I save for other game’s edition changes.
At least this way, there’s plenty of room to impress me. And a lot of work needed to be able to disappoint me.
*This is an interesting bit. In theory, the rules are seriously overhauled, with regards to the way combat and sich flows, but extant stat blocks are going to be almost entirely the same. The vibe that I’m getting is that specific mechanics are going to be altered in ways that can’t precisely be shifted over, but the numbers are going to be comparable.
In theory, this is how Pathfinder relates to D&D 3.5, but that falls apart when you look too closely. Having played a campaign through the shift from 3.5 to Pathfinder, I can with some authority that the characters were radically changed, in terms of power and ability.
And while I picked up Pathfinder with the intention to convert between editions, I know full well that all of my old D&D books have scarcely moved from their shelves since I got up and running with Pathfinder.
**In case you’re unfamiliar with this, it’s an odd sci-fi game that was brought out at the last Gen Con. Generally, it’s being sold as an updated Pathfinder, but In Space. Goblins, Dragons, etc. I’ve skimmed through the new rules, but as yet, I haven’t actually managed to throw dice for it.
***To be fair to Paizo, it’s not like they’re alone on this. Given the vast gulf between what D&D 5e was announced to be and what it ended up being… along with the feedback that was routinely ignored, it’s fair to say that Wizards of the Coast will continue to hold the record on generally ignoring criticism in light of their own agendas.
Down to the final two adventures in the Day One Adventures book. Aysle is the second longest adventure, spanning two full acts. The longest one, the Living Land module, is going to be my final review for the book, and we’ll see how it fares. So far none of the adventures really lend themselves to adaptation, which is fine, as that means that they are going to be run as written. These adventures serve their purpose in being a larger anthology framework to introduce new players to the world and the systems. Were I a new player or GM, this book would be a godsend.
As it is, I’m still probably going to work these modules into rotation, just as a palate cleanser for my home game. Killing off PC’s, even if they’re marked for death pre-gens, is a great way to underscore just how bad things can be.
So, let’s take a look at the available pre-gens. And … hells.
You might remember how annoyed I was when I found out that most of the characters in the Cyberpapacy adventure had converted to that Reality, for no obvious reason? Seems that I was premature in my irritation on that count. Where that adventure had four of the six characters converted, Ayle ups the stakes by having only one Core Earth character in the entire lot, and he’s the cranky old veteran with a gun. Everyone else seems to have gone native.
Of the now-Ayslish characters, we have one guy with chain mail and a mace, one priest, and one spell-caster. There’s a married couple who happen to be adrenaline junkies, both of which converted, but that’s about where the interesting parts end. (I think, if I do any modifications to running this, I’ll find a way to get the guy a fire axe. He’s already running the edge of barbarian lug, which would serve as great counterpoint to his wife, who ended up being the cleric.)
Point of note: This is the second module to involve a bus driver as a character. The other one was the Orrorsh adventure, and it seems like an interesting thread to pull on. Given the worldwide nature of Torg Eternity, it only makes sense that there will need to be some sort of transportation specialist. Even the original edition had a truck driver as a main option.
And a quick skim of the module tells me that we’re back to using zombies as part of the main antagonist force. And morlocks, from the look of things.* Being Aysle, there are also the inevitable corrupted sorcerers that feel like throwbacks to the Elric Saga, which serve as the eventual final enemies of the scenario.
Act one has the characters caught in the axiom wash of the initial Invasion, which occurs without any particular fanfare – at first. The ground shakes, publicly endowed art comes to life, people need rescuing, etc. Compared to the Invasion events in the Nile Empire, this module is pretty low key.
And then, the dragon shows up.
I have to give the game designers this much. They knew what was going to be required to hold the GM’s over until the Aysle book actually lands. Granted, the dragon is pretty much half-dead (picking a fight with the RAF will have that effect), but it’s enough of a challenge for the PC’s to be a serious problem. And conveniently, the stats for a healthy dragon are part and parcel to the encounter, so later adventures are accordingly stocked as needed. There is an odd note with the dragon having a mane of golden hair around its head and a puff at the end of its tail, but I have no idea if this is going to be a continuing notation on Ayslish dragons or a weird thing that slipped past copy-editing.
The rest of the act has the characters venturing into what had originally been Charing Cross Station. Now that the dragon part of the adventure is out of the way, clearly the next section had to cover the dungeon aspect. I’m left to debate if this particular idea of adventure design is brilliant, lazy or simply adhering to everyone’s expectations.
The second act introduces us to Ayslish elves and dwarves, in the form of one of the Torg Eternity Iconics, Tworek. These characters serve as the information dump for this module, detailing a lot of Realm specific information for the Player Characters (and the players themselves) as they work through the module.
Each of the modules has something along this line. The Living Land and Aysle modules are the most generally heavy-handed on this, given that they are supposed to be the first played. Even so, the Orrorsh module has a character filling in details about Gospog, while the Pan-Pacifica adventure features a newscast that covers the jiangshi aspect of the Invasion.
Most of the second act deals with the Temple of Corba’al, where the characters need to disrupt a sacrifice to the god of corruption. It’s a solid enough set-piece, with chains and traps, a snarling necromancer and his minions, and victims to save.
There is an interesting bit of scenery within the temple, where a shrine to the Gaunt Man is set up. Tworek, the dragon warrior, remarks upon it when they pass the statue, which is clearly out of place in both modern London and the Ayslish Land Between. The fact that the rank and file of the Cosm are aware of the larger Infiniversal goings-on hints that there is a bit less mystique than in the previous edition. And the presence of the Gaunt Man in a shrine points to strange things happening with the Possibility Energy of the Invasion of Core Earth.
My uninformed guess would be that the different High Lords (or their Darkness Devices, depending on how you want to frame the question) are being directly taxed on their own income of Possibilities.*** I’m not precisely sure how this is going to play out, in terms of the larger Invasion, but I figure that’s going to be addressed soon enough.
*The concept of the morlock, as given life by H. G. Wells, is an oft-repeated and imitated idea that ranges from Lovecraft’s ghouls (and the derivatives that populate every flavor of Dungeons & Dragons) to cinema’s C.H.U.D. There doesn’t seem to be much time spent on exploring the idea very far, in terms of how they’re treated in their various forms, but seeing them here, in contrast to the ubiquitous gospogs, fascinates me. It would have been dead simple to simply shorthand them as ghouls, but instead they’re brought back to their degenerate post-human origins rather than simply carnivorous undead. I would be surprised if they weren’t in specific reference to Wells.
**In the original game’s lore, there was always the idea that most of the Invaded Cosms were unaware what was going on. They had no idea that they were under attack by the forces of a multiversal adversary, and often they only woke up to the truth of an Invasion when things had reached a serious crisis point.
By way of example, the Invasion of Victoria took place in the Grand Canyon, in their own version of America. Over the course of the Invasion (which took decades, as I recall), the Victorians were slowly forced back to England, as the horrors of the Invasion overtook the rest of the world. The only reason the Victorians made the expedition to Core Earth in the original game was because they were pawns of the Gaunt Man. Otherwise, they had no real idea what was going on.
***In the original Invasion, it was stated that the Gaunt Man enlisted the help of the other High Lords simply because he couldn’t fully process the sheer amount of energy that was being put off by Core Earth (said to be the Possibility Nexus). Bringing in the other High Lords was a risky gambit, but it was done with the understanding that, as the oldest and most powerful High Lord, he would most likely be the one able to undertake the process of becoming Torg. There was never any implication that the other High Lords weren’t going to try their hand at ascending; they were just less likely to succeed in their efforts. So, to see this sort of control being exerted over them seems odd, if that’s what’s going on.
If you look at the Torg Eternity map, you’ll see that the entirety of the permanent UN Security Council has been wiped out. Sure, the Russian government still exists, but it has been compromised by Tharkold. There is still a US government (once it reforms down in Houston), but it still hasn’t been answered whether we’re going to be under martial law like the original edition implied. France and the United Kingdom are both right out, with nothing left for them, save governments in exile. Maybe. And while China still appears to be untouched, owing to Pan-Pacifica’s “invisible” Invasion, they’re going to be dealing with the whole jiangshi lunacy that will keep them from being any sort of world leader.
So, who’s going to actually remain to coordinate the war effort?
There are some fascinating potentialities in the uninvaded regions. First off, we have Canada remaining mostly untouched. They’ve got compromised territory up around Yellowknife,* but otherwise, their entire government is unimpeded. Mexico stands with a similar situation. Otherwise, South America, in its entirety, is untouched as yet (it had been host to Space Gods or Akasha in the original Torg, but clearly that’s no longer an issue to bother with. Also, Australia remains open, but I have the feeling this is going to end up being something like the Casablanca of the Possibility Wars. (Naturally, we still have the real Casablanca open for such a purpose, but we’ll see what the designers will do with that.) In the original game, Hawaii served that purpose, but I don’t see the same thing happening, given the updated scale of things.
Insofar as what’s left of the European Union, we essentially have Germany (who would be the top economy in the world, once the dust settled) and Italy. Both of these countries are flanked by Invading forces,** so it’s a crap shoot whether either one would survive very long into the war. Rounding out the top ten of the world economies, we are left with Brazil and Canada.
Well, what can we see for world militaries?
The largest military in the pre-Invasion world is the United States, in terms of military expenditures. (China and India can boast higher enlistment numbers, but go figure…) For better or worse, this would probably hold true post-Invasion. I mean, already we know that Quinn Sebastian has his own aircraft carrier for Delphi Council operations; clearly there’s still enough military to keep that sort of logistical support going.
Many of the same arguments about militaries remain in place from the discussion of world economies. Canada and Brazil are pretty strong contenders for having the actual ability to respond to invading threats, being that they’re not precisely on the front lines of the war. (This is where things start to falter for the Canadians. Not only are they way too close to the Living Land Invasion, the original timeline of the Possibility Wars had them playing host to a Cyberpapacy Invasion. Granted, this was the bizarre logic of “They have Catholic French speakers in Quebec, therefore…” but it’s helpful to keep in mind for future developments.)
They certainly have the money, the world power and influence, and the military to back up a credible threat on the world stage, in the aftermath of an extradimensional war at the hands of Reality-manipulating High Lords. And it would be a fascinating inversion of the first game’s timeline, to set the important stuff in a country that most of its audience is only vaguely familiar with. They’ve already taken serious steps in the idea of making the game world vibrant with existing culture. (I’ve already learned quite a lot about the historical landmarks of India and Russia, just based on the early modules.)
While it would be tempting to put all my chips on this, I have the feeling that it’s going to play a pretty sizable role in the Invasion. Y’know, by being Invaded.
Here’s my logic: We already have precedent with the High Lords using transplanted culture as a foothold for the Invasion, if we take the Quebec Invasion from the original edition timeline. And Brazil happens to hold the largest foreign population of Japanese in the world, at nearly two million people. (This is about 1% of the greater population of the country, which seems insignificant, but I’d hazard that it’s enough for the purposes of the High Lords.) Coupled with the stealth Invasion that Pan-Pacifica is conducting closer to home, it wouldn’t be too hard to see Kanawa setting up a corporate stronghold in Rio.
The only real drawback I could see is in branding. I have to assume that Ulisses Spiel is pretty well set to keep to their story bible, and by naming the Invading Realm with a purely geographical signifier, it’s going to be anti-thematic to have them expand into a non-Pacific region. This is a fairly minor quibble, however, and about the only one that I can make to deflect from a full on Pan-Pacifica Invasion.
Otherwise, this might point toward a larger Invasion of South America, whether it falls into the hands of Pan-Pacifica on their own or a concerted effort by the rest of the High Lords to pacify the region. I like the idea of a Kanawa expanding into the region, but most of their methodology holds to more industrialized, urban settings.
And well, it seems lazy to send the Living Land into the Amazon.
So, this is where we end up: Right now, we’re looking at Australia, Canada, and Brazil, likely with the support of most of South America. Mexico is playing host to a little more of an Invasion than Canada, but it’s also a much smaller in terms of the economic and military strength, so it would be a long shot to consider them emerging from this with any sort of wherewithal.
The Year One projections that Ulisses Spiel has given us show that neither Canada nor Mexico have been further encroached. (In the original timeline, the Invasion in Canada never advanced beyond the original four stelae either.) Naturally, we don’t know much about the state of affairs in Australia or Brazil (since Ulisses Spiel is offering info in the run-up to the Living Land Kickstarter), but I would be surprised if there is much going on there at present anyway.
*Here’s my nonsensical idea of the moment. When the original edition of Torg hit, the invasion of this territory was confounding. What was actually up there that was worth dealing with? I think the question was covered somewhere in the Infiniverse dispatches, but I’ll be damned if I can remember what happened thereabouts.
Nowadays, there’s an entire reality TV show dedicated to the goings-on around that area, in the form of Ice Road Truckers (in its early seasons, anyway). Not only is there all sorts of source material to bring the area to life, there’s massive potential in adapting this kind of adventure to the area. Relief efforts to the tundra outposts, impeded by edeinos and all manner of weird wildlife, as well as environmental hazards and the Law of Wonders.
**Canonically, Germany ends up playing host to Tharkold and Nile, according to the Berlin Citybook from original Torg, but we already know that things are going to be all sorts of different this time around. For my experience, Berlin ended up being a tich too weird to actually use, given the bizarre overlap of realities.
Going through the Day One Adventures book for Torg Eternity, one thing keeps coming back to me, over and over. I realize that it largely did not matter in the first edition, due to the relative Tech Axiom when it was printed (and this is actually addressed at some point in the mainbook, I believe), but these days it becomes an issue.
With the Invasion, Core Earth loses a great deal of what now defines it – ubiquitous, instant global communication. Back in the early 90’s when the game first appeared, this was a point for science fiction; now it’s taken completely for granted.
I read an article at some point where the author put forth the contention that X-Files was the true, modern procedural. The characters could investigate a mystery together or separately, but the advent of cell phones allowed them to collaborate on a problem while they were otherwise in wholly disparate locations. It removed a central conceit of this sort of storytelling, thereby opening up new avenues of narrative creation.
And now comes a low Tech Axiom wash that sets us back to those days, where being able to keep in contact is no longer possible.
Some parts of this are fascinating. When the Nile Empire invaded Cairo, one of the first things the Invasion would have done was create an entire infrastructure of corner phone booths. After all, what sort of pulp noir story could be told without a character calling from the fog bound docks at midnight? This really underscores the careful planning and logistics of the Kefertiri Idol.
It also shifts the balance of the Realms in an interesting way. Will Core Earth characters be less likely to want to visit places like the Living Land, Nile Empire and Aysle because they will immediately be deprived of their 4G signal? (This is something that keeps being brought up; cell phones obviously won’t work without active cell towers, and all of the cell towers have been wiped out in the Axiom wash.) Or will there be a new industry for the Kanawa Corporation, providing satcom phones for Storm Knights? This seems like it would be a great way to undermine the hell out of the other High Lords.
There’s also interesting potential for Storm Knights to try an end run around the axioms, in the same way that the Nile Empire’s Weird Science hand waves its own low Tech Axiom. How hard would it be to market Amulets of Distant Communication that were keyed to each other? The first Aylish Elf to come up with this would be an instant millionaire. Or how about going all Avatar in the Living Land? The characters end up bringing along a Jakatt (a priest of Lanala, the goddess of life in the Cosm) that knows the miracle to send and receive distant communication through the very trees of the Living Land. It wouldn’t have to be the vine USB that we saw in Cameron’s movie, but it could be fairly easily adapted and / or explained away.
But what happens to the original Internet in Core Earth? A good portion of it runs along specific pathways set down years before, and a great many of these lines on the grid have been severed by the Invasion. Is it even possible to have a recognizable or even functional telecommunications network in light of where the Realms set down?
What if – and this is a huge stretch, depending on your outlook – some parts of the wider internet were able to survive as their own discreet hardpoints? In the original novels for Torg, there was a point in Baruk Kaah’s stalled Invasion of California where he was confronted with a massive hardpoint in the form of Silicon Valley. He threw as many resources as he could muster from Rec Pakken, his Darkness Device, but when the dust settled, he had wasted time and energy* only to find that the hardpoint had roughly ignored him. Logically some of this mojo could be applied to the trans-Atlantic cables that serves as part of the backbone for the web, just for the sake of preserving some aspect of what we now accept as modern life. Yes, this requires a whole lot of specific hand-waving, in terms of colocation and redundancy for any of it to work, but I feel like there’s just enough potentiality for it, just to satisfy player questions.
But all of this brings me to a larger question of just exactly what is left of Core Earth, in terms of society. Instantaneous communication through cell phones and computers is one very important aspect of modern life, but what about civil government and the forces that prop it up?
The short and unsatisfying answer is that an Invasion of this magnitude would cripple most of the world governments to the point that Core Earth would collapse under its own weight. In any realistic portrayal of the Possibility Wars, the world economy would be a lawless wasteland. Of the top twenty stock exchanges in the world, only five would remain. Ideally, the remaining markets could shoulder the burden of the lost ones, but I feel like the Invasion would make things twitchy at best. Worldwide depression would likely become a factor to add into the woes of the Invasion, making it that much harder for the extant governments to operate in any real position of power.
… which naturally brings us back to the power of Pan-Pacifica. They would effectively control three of the most powerful nations, in terms of GDP – China, Japan and South Korea. Similarly, they would have the Asian Stock Markets under their sway** and be able to influence money on that front. And in the original Torg, the Kanawa Corporation was the main one selling arms and vehicles to the rest of the world. Hells, they even had the vehicle and weapon books named accordingly.
*So, this is an interesting facet of trying to write blog posts while the game is still being released. In a recent post on the Ulisses Spiel website, one of the game devs revealed that Baruk Kaah is done fucking around. Where the original Invasion had him wasting a lot of time and effort trying to deal with Silicon Valley, he’s learned a couple of things this time around.
Instead of the debacle in the novel trilogy, where he threw Possibility Energy and armies of Edeinos at the problem, only to have it bring his Invasion to a grinding halt, the new way to deal with things is just to toss an earthquake at the problem and walk away. In this post by Eric Simon, Kaah ran up against the hardpoint of Seattle (Redmond is the home of Microsoft) and rather than be stymied by it, he destroyed everything in his path with a ritual. The resultant earthquake was powerful enough to destroy Vancouver, BC and Portland, OR (effectively a 150~200 mile radius for the devastation) both, so we’re looking at half the state being in ruins.
I’m going assume that this was a Shane Hensley idea, given his love of destroying the west coast through earthquakes, but I’ll hold off pointing any fingers until I actually see how the details are handled. (For those wondering what the hell I’m talking about, it’s a reference to the setting of Deadlands, where the entirety of the California coast was destroyed by a massive earthquake. Google Great Maze and Deadlands for more.)
**It bears noting again that the original Nippon Tech book had rules for corporate finance and market manipulation. I sorely doubt that this edition will go into that sort of depth, but it’s already in the game’s DNA for Kanawa to be able to control a ridiculous amount of the world economy.
One of the stretch goals for the Torg Eternity Kickstarter was fiction by Ed Stark, one of the original writers for Torg back in the 90’s. Stark wasn’t precisely on my radar as a writer, but I respect his contributions to the game in the form of Pixaud’s Practical Grimoire and the like.* All in all, I’m glad that Ulisses Spiel managed to get him back to work with the new material.
The stretch goals for the fiction were in the quarter million range, and being that the KS campaign topped $350K, all three parts of the story (while billed as three short noveletes, the reality was that they were sections of a 30K word story), these were dealt with pretty easily. And as the game draws closer to release (the last update showed the pallets of product being warehoused in prep for assembly and shipping), the PDF’s for Stark’s story were just released to the backers.
Well, to be frank, it’s gamer fiction. Weird typos, questionable narrative choices, and a story that exists to propel specific details forward. No disrespect to Mr. Stark, but none of this will appeal to anyone outside the extant Torg audience. It wasn’t bad, but much like the original Storm Knights trilogy, it’s there for the GM’s to get ideas from, and that’s about as much as it can be recommended.
I’ve certainly read far worse gamer fiction. And worse NYT Bestseller stuff. (Why the likes of Kevin J. Anderson succeeded is beyond the logic of a rational universe.)
But really, I’m not here to review the Torg fiction, even though it seems like I should.
What I want to talk about is the way the book ended. And what it might mean for the game line as a whole.
Sometime back, I talked about how things had been changed with the new timeline of Torg Eternity, in comparison to the original game line. Specifically, I was noting that one of the original mechanisms of the Invasion, the conversion of Jean Malraux from the False Pope to the Cyberpope, was essentially retconned out of existence. While it hasn’t been officially dealt with in detail, the omission of the key details points to a different narrative being put in place.
In a subsequent column, I touched on the details that came out in the mainbook (and later in one of the Day One modules) about the destruction of Akasha, which made up the Space Gods sourcebook in the original line. This was a pretty bleak understanding to come to, being that old Torg made the arrival of Akasha exceedingly important, as they would be what amounted to the requisite saviors of Core Earth.
At the end of the last entry, I had briefly mused on the idea that the iconic character of Dr. Hachi Mara-Two still remained unconfirmed in the larger milieu of the Torg Eternity game line, which could mean that her home cosm of Kadandra might still be in play for the role of cosmic savior.
Now keep in mind that Kadandra was only ever referenced in a couple of places within the game line. In the fiction, it was the backstory for both Mara and Thratchen, with a couple of scenes taking place in the cosm before both characters headed for the Invasion of Core Earth. Mara’s memories of Kadandra were the basis for Malraux being forcibly brought up to a Tech 26 axiom, thereby forming the Cyberpapacy we know. And had Thratchen exfiltrated with the rest of the Tharkoldu when they left to join the Core Earth Invasion, he likely would have been slain in the effort.
At no point did anyone in West End Games seem interested in further exploring the ideas of Kadandra in the game line. (It was never exactly clear why they thought that the old home cosm of Pharaoh Mobius, Terra, deserved its own sourcebook, but that’s another matter entirely.) At best, there were some ideas batted around on the Torg mailing lists of the early 90’s, but even they didn’t amount to a lot.
With all of this in mind, I had posited the idea that the specific omission of Kadandra from the new game’s backstory might point to some larger metaplot elements. When I wrote about it last, I was fairly dismissive, since all of this hinged on an otherwise wholly unimportant bit of deep lore being suddenly pivotal. Even for me, this was grasping at straws, given that nothing related to Kadandra had weight in the original metaplot.
And I was wrong.
The three Stark novelettes (Into the Storm, Sacrifice, & Last Gasp) follow an English Lit grad student while he navigates Washington D.C. in the early stages of the Living Land Invasion. It all reads like the transcript of someone’s game session, with the different elements checked off as the story progresses. Here’s a description of disconnection, now we have a Moment of Crisis, and this part details some of the World Laws. All in all, it isn’t wildly different from any of the Day One modules in structure. Even down to the way that it wraps up.
Yes, just like the throwaway adventures in that supplement, we have the appearance of the game’s deus ex machina narrator, Quinn Sebastian, to welcome the newly minted Storm Knights into the as-yet unnamed PC organization.** But then Stark threw in the monkeywrench of describing (but not naming) Sebastian’s female companion.
And yeah… they brought back Dr. Hachi Mara-Two.
Granted, this does not necessarily mean that any of my posited theories have any basis, but it strongly implies a number of things. In the context of the new game world, Quinn Sebastian occupies a fascinating meta-narrative slot as the embodiment of the previous edition of the game. He knows every bit as much as a GM of the old system, from the details of the old Realms to the timeline of the original Invasion.
This also means that he knows all about what uses Kadandran tech could be put to. And with Mara at his side, that means he could potentially have access to some pretty serious stuff. Having fought off the Tharkold Invasion of their own world, Kadandrans managed to put together some impressive tech, being able to open dimthreads and detect some of the aspects of differing Realities.
In the mainbook, Sebastian is regarded as sort of doomed prophet, being that he’s canny enough to organize the new Delphi Council to prepare for the Invasion, even as he sees just how things are unfolding differently. There’s a heavy implication that he’s going to become a target for the Invaders as time goes on, which is only logical.
This new revelation, however, casts some interesting shadows. Maybe Sebastian isn’t going to be as easily blindsided by the new developments that Gaunt Man has planned out. While I would be cautious about setting his machinations on the same level as a centuried High Lord, it looks like he has a couple of aces he’s holding back.
*Full disclosure, such as it is? Yeah, I never wrapped my head around Pixaud’s Practical, back in the day. It was alarmingly complex, and I say this with full knowledge of how the Universal Chart was supposed to be used. In comparison to a logarithmic scale that would allow a GM to properly calculate out the difficulty of lifting a Mack truck, this book was really hard to make sense of.
Imagine, if you will, a supplement that accurately depicted the complex and detailed hermetic equations necessary to transform a human to a frog, with all of the requisite steps outlined and detailed. It was a fantastic system, and I can pretty much guarantee that it languished on the shelves of any given Torg collection once the players had done their shopping for the utility spells.
**This one is vaguely funny, much like the similar issue in the Archer animated series. Archer had the characters working for ISIS, before that name was co-opted by the Middle Eastern terrorist organization. And now, Torg Eternity made the mistake of naming the umbrella agency that the players could be part of as Stormfront, which has the rather unfortunate implication of being associated with white supremacists. I would suggest they pull the Tempest Fugitive name out of the archives and use that, but I’ll leave that to a paid employee to stumble upon.
A couple of things before I launch into this review: First, the Nile Empire has always been one of my favorite Realms in Torg. I spent a lot of time there as a GM, and there was always a lot of great action to be had within its borders. Not only was I a huge fan of things like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rocketeer, and The Phantom, the weird science and general tech level of the place amused me.
Second, this is one of the reviews I’ve been dreading most.
What sense does this make? Well, so far I’ve really been enjoying the darker tone and general nihilism of the new Torg Eternity version of the Possibility Wars. The original game, for better or worse, had a lot of goofy moments in it. Sure, there was a war going on, and odds were stacked against the characters… but it was also a game of high action and character stunts. And a lot of this came from being able to wing it with the high pulp sensibilities of the Nile Empire. Dramatic speeches, electro-guns, overwrought plots to steal shiny maguffins – if the characters needed a break from the dire events taking place in Orrorsh or Tharkold, they could take a bit of a break and try to untangle the plots of the insidious Wu Han. Comparatively, it seemed like a much less deadly place to run around in, and there were a lot more opportunities to be larger than life heroes.
Mounted against the backdrop of the other Realms, there are essentially two ways that Ulisses Spiel could bring forth the Nile Empire. Either they could preserve its inherent pulp heroics, which would set it even further apart from the hopelessness of the rest of the current Possibility Wars, or they could alter things so that even Pharaoh Mobius has great and murderous plans for the heroes.
From the look of things, the writers have tried to strike a balance between the two ends of this spectrum; while the adventure does offer some opportunity for daring exploits, it makes fairly clear that the heroes are facing overwhelming odds. The module offers a couple of fun directions that the characters can go in their rescues and escapes, without making any part of it seem too unbelievable.
Reading through things, I will say that they did some great things with this module, as would befit the pulp milieu that it’s built from. For one thing, this is the first Invasion I’ve read where the characters are at Ground Zero for the maelstrom bridge dropping. As in, about half a klick from where it actually touches down. From where they are standing, they see the troops and vehicles descend the bridge and start carrying out the business of the Invasion. In the module for Tharkold, everything happened roughly a day after the invasion. For Orrorsh and the Cyberpapacy, the Invasion took place the previous night, but no one is quite sure what’s going on. And of course, with the vaguely secret invasion of Pan-Pacifica, everyone’s more concerned with what’s going on in the rest of the world.
Naturally, the characters get a front row seat with the Nile Empire.
The first scene of the adventure deals with the maelstrom bridge falling. From there, the characters are dropped into a newly created ancient catacomb (go, weird World Laws!) for the second scene that they have to escape in the proper high action way.
This is the point where it seems like poor editing has thrown a monkey wrench into the text of the adventure. The characters have to make their way through a death trap maze under the pyramids, but if they fall victim to the death traps, they’re magically restored to life when it comes time to return to the surface. Earlier, there’s a Moment of Crisis opportunity that comes in, where it’s noted that, if the characters fail to save the NPC in question, she’ll simply return later. And it cites a World Law that doesn’t actually exist as a World Law – the Law of Inevitable Return. This seems to be the same effect that covers the dead characters surviving the catacombs.
Here’s the thing: Inevitable Return exists in the game, but it’s a Cosm Card that operates under the Law of Drama. I feel like this is an issue of having the module written before the text of the rules has been fully nailed down.* Being that this was sent out after the mainbooks were, it feels really odd that the module book wasn’t finalized after the rules were. Maybe that’s just me, though.
The final scene is a broadly sketched free-for-all against a variety of foes at one of the Invasion base camps. There is no defined assumption on how the characters should proceed in their escape, so it can range from a pure Stealth approach to a pitched battle against one of the pulp villains of the Nile Empire. There’s even the option of stealing a zeppelin and flying off into the night. (This would be my preference, if I’m being honest. It even comes with its own hull-mounted plane, the Nile Empire version of the Vought Corsair. Then all my Crimson Skies books would suddenly come into play.)
The pulp villains are just enough over-the-top to fit into the definition without being too outright goofy. The closest one to ridiculousness would be Lady Hourglass, who has a weird science monocle and acts like a stereotype of a femme fatale. She’s a bit out of place in the military camp – she’s really more of a subtle, social character who would be better suited to a nightclub setting – so I think I’ll save her for another scenario entirely. (Even in the text of the adventure, it notes that she sashays her way around the military camp at a slow roll, taking far longer to respond to anything than her compatriots.) In comparison, the Hooded Cobra and Brick-Knuckle Branko are solid villains without descending into nonsense.
I’m still not sure that the Nile Empire is going to be capable of inspiring the same sense of danger that the other Realms are doing (I mean, really… Pan-Pacifica is now running its own version of Biohazard on the populace), but I guess we shall see. There’s still the dire potential for mood whiplash when moving from Realm to Realm, but I’m hoping that the designers have plans for keeping this place threatening enough to keep up with the other Invaders. I guess we’ll see.
*For what it’s worth, I did submit this to the errata engine, so hopefully this will change by the time it goes to print. Yay, modern tech, for allowing on-the-fly proofing like this. Boo for relying on your customers for the proofreading.
Right or wrong, I’ve always felt like the Cyberpapacy was the weirdest Realm of the whole game. Take the fanaticism of the Spanish Inquisition and weld it onto the bleak nihilism of cyberpunk fiction. It certainly hasn’t been done in regular sci-fi to any great extent, so here we have West End Games inventing a new gestalt whole-cloth. Granted, I always had someone in my old games that wanted to play someone from Cyberfrance, but I assume that was more of an indicator of “High Tech = Better Guns” or some similar equation.* Combining amazing armor and physical enhancement with the ability to cast gnarly miracles certainly did not hurt things, either.
Scanning through the pre-gen characters, there are a startling number of people who end up converting to the Invading Reality. Pan-Pacifica had three characters convert, but all of them took on vague anime archetypes. (Well, except for the spooky psychic girl; she had been waiting her entire life for this Invasion.) The Tharkold adventure had one character go native, which turned him into a dermal plated Heavy. I can get behind this. Orrorsh similarly had one, who became the Slayer archetype. But I’m not really sure why we have four of the six characters converting this time.
Of the four, one becomes a functional Priest, replete with Faith and Miracles. Another is converted to a cyberwitch, albeit seemingly without the cyberware.** The other two of the converted characters are largely unremarkable, insofar as why they specifically can’t be Core Earth. We’ll have to see if there’s any reason given within the text of the module itself. I have my doubts.
All right, so … I’m working my way through the first page of the module text, and here’s what has stood out to me: First off, the crux of the adventure is searching for some of the townsfolk that have gone missing. This is pretty standard, but the module notes that the new Church Police are busily loading the “undesirables” onto trains. Well, that gives us a solid hook for at least part of the setting. (And really, if you can’t portray a Free French Resistance in the face of ruthless, authoritarian occupiers, you need to get caught up on your history.)
Then it talks about the blind, street corner prophets proselytizing about the end of the world that would come in the form of “Dragons, demons, and nightmares […]” Hells, that just sounds like people in the 80’s, when I would talk about my hobbies.
The actual course of the module is fairly simple. The characters investigate in the first scene, rescue one of the missing townsfolk in the second and steal a train in the third. None of it is especially complex or surprising. The fourth scene of the adventure is the boss fight (much like the way the Tharkold adventure was framed), and the epilogue has the characters recruited by Quinn Sebastian.
I realize that we’re going to get rules for the GodNet when we finally see the book for the Cyberpapacy drop, sometime in the next year, but it seems strange that there is nothing that really references it here. One of the main hooks for the setting, according to the mainbook, is finding hidden information within the realm of the GodNet to use in the greater Possibility Wars.*** (I’ll be honest. I was sort of hoping that the reason that so many characters had transformed was that one of the pre-gens would have a way to jack into the net and monkey about there. This was not to be, however.)
Now the question is, how did this module fare against the rest of the book?
The truth is, it seemed a little … dull. I can’t say that it was bad, but it felt like it was just sort of a by-the-numbers adventure. There were no real innate threats that had to be confronted (unlike the others I’ve gone through up to now, there were no zombies to be found), and the opportunities for selfless heroism (rescuing small children, defending the landmarks of Core Earth) were relatively minimal.
The way the adventure was structured, the hooks that set things in motion actually felt like the only reason the characters could be bothered to do anything. If they weren’t trying to save missing loved ones, would they have even gotten involved? It doesn’t feel like they would have. Does that mean that this is a larger problem in the face of the Cyberpapacy itself?
In the lead-up to the game, as well as the book itself, there have been notations that the machinations of Pharaoh Mobius have actually gained him supporters amongst the Core Earth residents of the Middle East. Similarly, Jean Malraux dropped his bridges after he had sent forward scouts to warn of the other Invasions. Does this mean that resistance to the Cyberfrance Invasion is actually fairly minimal? It’s an odd setting to deal with, if that’s actually the case.
There was one element that would only appeal to a hardcore English geek like myself, however, which redeemed part of the adventure for me. And to make any sense of this (it’s always good when I have to launch into a lengthy sort of preamble), I need to lay some groundwork.
The longest poem ever written in the English language is The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, ancestor of Lady Diana Spenser, the late and lamented Princess Di. Spenser was a contemporary of Sir Walter Raleigh, and the poem was considered, among other things, to be an allegory in praise of Queen Elizabeth.
An epic poem, The Faerie Queene was a lengthy examination of sin and virtue, with the loyal knights of the story embodying certain aspects of proper Christian morality. As such, they faced off against adversaries who were embodiments of sin and immorality. In the first book of the poem, the main hero is the Redcrosse Knight, who embodies the virtue of holiness. In his travels, he meets and challenges the Saracen knights; Sansfoy (the Faithless), Sanjoy (the Joyless) and Sansloy (the Lawless). Being Saracens (which normally referred to the Moorish Islamic Knights, but in this context mainly just meant non-Christian), they were represented the antithesis of Christian values, hence their names and outlooks.
In the module, the characters encounter the formerly blind prophet who had preached the end times before the Invasion, and he lends them assistance in the form of weapons and information. In the vein of The Faerie Queene, he is named Sansnom (the Nameless).
This is one of those points where overthinking and reading too much into the naming of an NPC is probably inadvisable. The broader mythology of Torg deals with two greater aspects of creation, Apeiros the Creator and The Nameless One. I feel safe in saying that this ragged priest is not representative of a primal force of destruction.
*Torg, I will maintain, is a game of bigger and bigger guns. Hence the relative distaste for the Living Land (“Our guns no longer work!”) and the gravitation towards the realms of the Cyberpapacy and Tharkold (“Better living through firepower!”). I’m not off to a great start in disproving that with my PMC crew.
**In the original game, sometimes merely converting to the reality of the Cyberpapacy was enough to install low-end cyberware. I haven’t seen evidence of that as yet, but it would make a certain sense. After all, official illustrations have full on Dragon Armor fading out of existence with disconnection. (Which, by the way, is technically against the rules; Dragon Armor is a Perk, and depriving a character of a purchased Perk during the course of the game is generally forbidden. As in, it has to be reinstated within a matter of scenes. Having it wholly vanish from reality seems pretty final to me.)
***As a sidenote, this is a fascinating carry-over from the original edition. Even then, it was noted that the GodNet was actually far larger and weirder than even Jean Malraux understood, and there were places hidden in the farther reaches of the matrix that might hold the key to winning the Possibility Wars. However, like so many other dangling plot threads from the original edition of Torg, this was one of those things that never got further illumination.
Throughout the history of Torg as a game, Orrorsh has always been a hard sell. It is the most dire and unfair of the Realms in the game, and there is nothing untoward about the defeat of a major villain requiring some great sacrifice. This place is roughly the reason that the Martyr Card exists in the first place. No one wants to go to a place where they’re just as likely to lose a beloved character as they are to actually succeed.
It didn’t help that the underlying nastiness of the realm was reinforced by somewhat heavy-handed historical commentary. Part of the success of the Invasion was due to the misguided interference of the Victorian Regiments that came down with the maelstrom bridge, intent on bringing their “civilization” to the savages. There was a whole “white man’s burden” subplot underlying the Gaunt Man’s Realm, and while it had an ironic literary aspect to it, it made things pretty frustrating. The Storm Knights were faced with having to deal with a faction of potential allies as being part of the larger problem, and the GM had to deal with trying to integrate Kipling into an adventure game.*
The original setting for Orrorsh was New Guinea and greater Malaysia, which was rather foreign to the average American GM. This has since been moved to the more logical and thematically correct Indian subcontinent, but that doesn’t make it much more accessible to the core audience. Outside of the Bollywood genre of films, there aren’t a lot of media properties that offer ingress to the setting.
Take, for example, the first notable location in the Day One adventure for Orrorsh. The text casually mentions that they’re starting out from Madurai, which happens to be a hardpoint for Core Earth. Okay, that’s interesting, but why? A quick Google search turns up the Meenakshi Temple, a massive and colorful Hindu temple that dominates the city’s skyline. Apparently, it has existed in some form for about 2,500 years, but its present form was only built about 500 years ago.**
As I noted with Tharkold, these adventures invite the GM to do a lot of research, just to bring some depth and texture to the world the characters find themselves in. While this is a fascinating aspect to the setting, I’m starting to wonder if it’s an overall strength or weakness for the game. Granted, we’re only working with a single mainbook and the first book of adventures (and PDF’s, at that), but I feel like we’re going to need some seriously in-depth setting books to make any of this work worth a damn.
And while we’re on the subject, this adventure drives home how much easier this would all be if I had my Delphi Council Cargo Box in hand. One of the first things that happens is the characters pass out of the sheltering effect of the Madurai hardpoint, and they’re immediately subjected to the axioms of Orrorsh. With the proper material in hand, this would take the form of setting the Axiom Table Tent in front of the players and handing out the relevant Cosm Cards. I’ve already started lamenting the lack of the Condition Tokens that I’ll be getting in October, and I’ve had to repurpose my Deadlands Poker Chips for Possibilities. This is what happens when you try playing without all of the necessary components in hand.
The characters for the scenario are pretty fun, really. They’re all members of a wedding group that’s traveling to the hometown of their friend / co-worker for the ceremony. We have the sister of the groom, her best friend, the priest (who also happens to be the best friend’s adoptive father, more or less), two of the groom’s closest work friends, and the poor bastard that’s driving them there. (One of fun aspects of the scenario is that the reason they’re not in the center of all the horror immediately is because the driver’s bus broke down and delayed them. And he’s really defensive about it.)
Being a horror scenario (as though would be any other kind in Orrorsh), the GM starts out by putting the game on a clock, counting down to the inevitable sunset. Because we all know things are going to go straight to hell once night falls. The goal of the first act is to make it to the village where the wedding is going to take place in time to investigate it before the main plot kicks in. Naturally, there are all the elements of creeping horror – mysteriously abandoned cars, inexplicable anachronisms, and a zombie attack.
Okay, maybe the last one is a bit more overt.
Between this adventure and the one from Tharkold, there’s an element of small children in danger. The Pan-Pacifica adventure avoids this by setting the events against nightlife in Harajuku, but both of the other ones have small children that need to be rescued from the events of the Invasion. It’s an easy Moment of Crisis, but I’m hoping that this isn’t going to be a crutch for the game designers to lean on.
In the context of the adventure, the characters have to rescue a young boy from a horde of Gospogs. Gospogs are an interesting aspect of the game, as they were one of the first creatures detailed in both the original game and the new edition. At their core, they’re little more than zombies that can get by the inherent contradiction of being zombies. They’re mainly featured in the Orrorsh module thus far, but the Tharkold adventure had the Thralls (think the Revenant from Doom, although mounted shoulder cannons are not required) and Pan-Pacifica had the Jiangshi, which we’ve been over.
I don’t think it needs to be said that Shane Hensley loves him some zombies. (Seriously, take a look at the introduction to his Unisystem take on Army of Darkness. He lays out his adoration for the genre pretty clearly.) I would be surprised if he hadn’t quietly nudged some of these adventures to include more Gospog or Gospog-variants.
Once the characters reach the village, they are treated to the “survive the night against the hordes of zombies” scenario, with a couple of fun added horrors thrown in. It’s not too bad of a set-up, but I will offer some incredulity as to the fact that the rural village (which serves as the destination and therefore the killing ground) is less than a dozen houses with a well. It makes sense in a Victorian setting (which is what Orrorsh is based around), but it seems odd, given modern times. The module hand-waves it by saying that some of the outbuildings have been overtaken by the jungle, but I think if I were to run this module, it would be tweaked to be slightly larger.
Oddly, the overall scenario feels like it would be more survivable than either of the other two that I’ve read through, despite being Orrorshan. Maybe I’m giving too much weight to the Realm, but it honestly seems like this is less apt to end in absolute, unavoidable slaughter. Which, given the way that the Gaunt Man has changed the War this time around, seems out of character.
Then again, who knows? Maybe this is to lull the players into a sense of complacency before bringing the hammer down.
*Not that Kipling is bad, by any stretch. But when you’re plumbing your college texts of English Lit for thematic elements, there’s a bit more whiplash when everything is pulled off track by (and suddenly, Ninjas!) the interference of a different Cosm. Torg works best when you have a blending of elements. And just like the old game, Orrorsh is the most isolated setting.
**I must say this: Being American, the idea of having a structure that’s five centuries old is hard to comprehend. Having a city that’s twenty-five centuries old is just unreal.