Threading the Needle on Lore

Let’s talk about Legend of the Five Rings by opening with a discussion on Star Wars.  That makes sense, doesn’t it?

A distressing amount of my life has been defined by my adoration of Star Wars.  I am old enough that I managed to see the original trilogy in the theaters, and I adopted the old West End Games Star Wars D6 game nearly as soon as it hit the shelves.  (Y’know, thirty damned years ago.  Ugh.)  My world, for good or for ill, is littered with the ephemera of the setting, whether it come in the form of toys, books, concept art, etc.

I was not, however, a fan of the Prequel Trilogy.  It made little to no sense, and I have made it a point that anyone who prefers these movies is not likely to be a good fit for my playing group.  I’ve gone to the trouble to rewrite my own personal canon for this time period, deviating from the movies as I need to in order to maintain a cohesive narrative, something that these movies do not do.

And so far as it goes, I’m a huge fan of the direction of the new Star Wars movies, with a special eye to the bleakness of Rogue One.  I understand why people don’t necessarily like the new movies, but they’re challenging.  They may not be made for people who are comfortable in their perceptions of the galaxy that these stories are set in.*

I especially liked Solo, which seems to put me in the minority.  I had no problem with the re-casting of the main character, I enjoyed the plot, and more than anything, I was a fan of the inclusion of the myriad little details that hinted at the expanded universe of the old novels and comics.  It was a pity that the so-called “easter eggs” that were scattered throughout the movie were missed by all of the old fans that chose to sit this one out because of their reaction to The Last Jedi.

Looking over the adventure in the Beginner’s Box for L5R, I feel like this edition is going to be the Solo of role-playing.  It’s brand new, gorgeous, and it’s made with a particular mind for the die-hard fans of the game, but there’s an entire contingent of the audience that’s acting all butthurt about the new direction and won’t pick it up.  Which is a shame, since the writers went out of their way to reference specific lore for their benefit.

When it was announced that Alderac was selling L5R off to Fantasy Flight, there was a hue and cry among the various fans that I know, all of them complaining about the new directions that FFG would likely take things in.  When the card game was discontinued and reborn as an LCG, the same set of people muttered darkly about how everything was accordingly ruined.  And of course, when the Beta PDF was released, the new version of Roll & Keep was roundly despised.

Now, of course, I’m not saying that this particular group represents the entirety of the L5R fanbase, but I have little doubt that there are echoes of their displeasure within the audience.  I am well familiar with the Edition Wars that define Dungeons & Dragons (I mean, I’ve complained here about the new edition of Pathfinder that’s due to release in another year; it’s not like I’m a stranger to the phenomenon), so it would be well within bounds to assume that there will be a similar backlash to this new edition of L5R.

One of the things that FFG has done with this new edition is to reset the timeline of the setting, bringing everything back to the very beginning of the familiar storyline.  L5R began its run with the Clan War era, a period of time when the dynastic Emperor was assassinated and the Great Clans raised armies against each other.  It was a rich era for the game, and by doing this, FFG can introduce new players to the setting without trying to make sense of what has happened over the last 20 years of play.

The canned adventure in the Beginner’s Box takes full advantage of this, building out a scenario that is a direct reference to the canned adventure in the back of the original L5R book from 1997.  The adventure is set a year after the original module, with many of the same characters appearing.  The situation is similar, with the newly minted characters being brought forth to participate in the coming-of-age gempukku ritual that ushers them into adulthood.

To anyone unfamiliar with the lore,**  the adventure is a solid sort of one-off.  It allows new players to make sense of the rules and introduces enough aspects of the setting to bring them back for future sessions.  But to the fans of the deeper lore, all of this builds on what has been established and anticipates what is to come.

And really, this is a shame, since I feel like Fantasy Flight went to a lot of trouble to make an adventure that has the right sense of history and placement, only to have the people most poised to appreciate it generally ignore it.

I mean, I could be wrong.  It may turn out that the people that have been with the game for its history could eventually come around and learn to appreciate what FFG has done with the game.  That would, of course, be the best possible situation.  But there seems to be too much ingrained cynicism within the gaming community when it comes to new innovation and design, which could very well doom this game for the old audience.

For my purposes, I can see myself sticking with this edition.  The learning curve for the depth of lore has been eased back, and while it’s still a different flavor of game from what a lot of people are familiar with, it’s a much lower threshold for entry.  That alone should be enough to bring a new audience in.  At least, I can hope for such.

*Point of note:  I actually managed to scare off a player from my regular Star Wars game with a discussion of the new movies.  The guy was bound to the idea that the portrayal of Luke Skywalker was terrible and out of character for what had been established.  He was of the opinion that Luke would have swung in, lightsaber in hand, and defeated the First Order on his own.  When I countered with the idea that Luke’s general methodology was based on reacting out of fear, he nearly flipped the table on me.

But it’s true.  If you look at everything established in the original trilogy, Luke’s actions are not those of a hero as much as they are the actions of a character who is unprepared for the role that has been thrust on him.  This is best illustrated by the sequence in the cave on Dagobah.  There, he is confronted by his own fears, strikes out, and it is revealed that he is in danger of becoming what he most fears:  Darth Vader.  This is reflected by the sequence in Last Jedi, where he confronts Kylo Ren.

And well, the end result of this discussion was that the player in question vanished and has not been seen since.  He was very uncomfortable with the idea that Luke wasn’t his vision of greatness.

**Make no mistake; even though I may own the books, I had to pull the book off the shelf and skim through the adventure to make sure that my assumptions were correct.  Most of my suspicions were confirmed by a couple of specific Google searches and a bit of careful reading of the attendant wiki.  I only know the lore in passing.  I leave it to other people to make a close study of the setting.


Discontinuations and Assorted Questions

I’ve talked here and there about FFG’s Star Wars games, and I just put up a post about the new L5R game they put out.  While I’m at it,  I want to touch on a couple of other points.  My first instinct has been to gush about the overall quality of FFG games, both in their production and rules, but I would be remiss were I to ignore the company’s questionable past.  Fantasy Flight’s success with actual role-playing games has been pretty spotty, with them handling a number of solid properties and then unceremoniously dumping them when sales or general interest flagged.

Foremost among these was, of course, the venerable British property, Warhammer.  FFG acquired the license to produce both Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40K from Black Industries in 2007.  From there, they expanded the WH40K property into a full five separate lines – Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, Only War and Black Crusade, for those playing at home; six, if we count 2nd Edition Dark Heresy on its own.  Overall, this ended up with a catalogue of over 50 books, by my count, including modules.

They also developed a wholly new system for Warhammer Fantasy that involved new, color-coded dice and cards to track actions and degrees of success.  While the game line managed close to two dozen products in its line, they only managed to publish it for about three years before abandoning it entirely.  The only bright point in this mess was that the new system of weird dice led directly to their work with the new Star Wars and Genesys lines and their narrative dice system.

All in all, FFG held onto the copyrights for Warhammer Fantasy and 40K for about seven years.  In that time, they managed to put out some well-regarded books; but somewhere along the line, the decision was made to kill the games, and there was no apparent effort to try to salvage the properties.  Perhaps the decision to bring about a second edition of Dark Heresy was one such attempt, but the only products brought forth on that line were all quickly put out in 2014, the last gasp of any WH40K products from FFG.

Less well known was the Anima line, which was a translation of a European (Spain, if we’re being specific) RPG based on Japanese properties like Final Fantasy and Suikoden.  Much like Warhammer, they held the license for about ten years and then discontinued the line with little fanfare.  I can’t specifically blame FFG for the demise of this line, given that the original Spanish version seems to have faded away shortly after it got translated into English, but it’s not like a robust American company couldn’t have expanded upon the property and continued producing material.

And this isn’t even to talk about their early foray into RPG’s with the Midnight line, which was a 3.5 / D20 OGL world that is best summed up as “Lord of the Rings, only if Sauron had won.”  This particular line had over a dozen supplements, a second edition, a boxed set, and even a movie to its name, yet it vanished completely after being published for just over five years.  Less well known D20-era games like Dragonstar, Dawnforge and Fireborn feel like they’ve been dropped into the memory hole altogether.

And much as I love their direction on the three Star Wars lines, it’s not hard to question their future plans with the game, being as they’ve already slowed their news on the next supplements coming out.  This spring had four hardcovers in the pipeline, and as of Gen Con, they soft-pedaled the news on the line to focus on things like L5R.  (Even Genesys was dropped in priority, and they have something like five potential game worlds they can immediately roll out for it.)  At present, there’s literally only one book, and it’s going to be the Prequel Trilogy / Clone Wars book.  (And while I like the Clone Wars cartoon, I’m inclined to write my own history on both that and the Prequels.)

All of this is mysterious to my perception, this promotion and subsequent abandonment.  West End Games only lost the Star Wars license when their company imploded.  And the decision of Alderac to divest L5R seems to have been driven by their decision to move their company over to a boardgame focus.  Pinnacle has dived into the business of their Savage Worlds properties (a mistake in my mind), but they still hold tightly to all of their Deadlands IP.

So, to sum up…  While I really like the new system that Fantasy Flight has designed for L5R, I’m hesitant to hope much for the future of the game in their hands.  Alderac put out the first edition of the L5R RPG back in 1996, and even with the weird hiccups that went along with the game briefly transitioning to Wizards of the Coast,* AEG managed to hold onto the rights for the game through four editions and twenty years.

In comparison, FFG’s best selling line (until Star Wars overtook it, I would presume) has been Warhammer 40K.  They put out the first books in 2008, and the last books in the line were hurriedly dumped out in 2014.  They held the license for another two years before announcing they were terminating their relationship with Black Industries, after which it ended up in the hands of Ulisses Spiele, the guys that have been putting out the new Torg Eternity.  This means that the best that FFG has been able to do in supporting and continuing a line has been seven years.

And well, they’re coming up on year six with Star Wars (Edge of the Empire was put out in 2013, not counting the Beta), and it’s looking like that line has slowed to a near stop with few signs of actual life.  I don’t know as I see much hope for L5R being able to make it beyond 2024, given their track record thus far.

I mean, sure…  it’s going to be very high quality, great art and production values.  But I don’t know that we’re going to see any real future for a game that has come this far over all these years.  At best, I think we’re going to see about a dozen books for the line (all the Great Clans, a couple of location books, some storyline books, and a handful of modules), but sooner or later, FFG is going to abandon the line like they have done all these times before, and it’s a question of what’s going to happen from that point.

*This was a tangled mess, really.  As I understood it at the time, Wizards was looking for a domestic source to print their Magic cards, being as they had been outsourcing to Carta Mundi in Belgium.  They saw the opportunity to acquire Five Rings Publishing, which was the card printing company that was attached to AEG.  In doing so, they ended up with L5R, printing the 2nd Edition main books with the Wizards logo alongside the AEG logo.  This led to the D20 Oriental Adventures being set in Rokugan and 2nd Edition L5R being dual-statted to D20 and Roll & Keep.  Somewhere in the process, things reverted back to AEG, and 3rd and 4th Edition L5R went back to the original dice.

And this underscores the weirdness of AEG and their handling of property.  Back in the day, they had some sort of arrangement with Pinnacle, to the point that the two game companies briefly shared ownership of Brave New World, a dystopic supers game that used a system similar to Pinnacle’s Deadlands.  The core books were put out by Pinnacle, but all subsequent books ended up being AEG properties.  This was along the same time that AEG was handling Pinnacle’s Doomtown card game, so there was the sense that the way BNW was handled had to do with the distribution rights for Doomtown, but no one really talked much about it.

A String of Alphanumerics

There’s no good way to title an entry on the new edition of an old game and still have it come out being comprehensible to anyone beyond a very narrow niche of people already familiar with the game in the first place.  My original title would have looked something like “FFG’s L5R 5E RPG,” with some qualifiers, so I just gave up.

Gen Con saw the release of the first product for the new edition of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG (hereafter shortened to the much easier L5R), in the form of the Beginner Game Boxed Set.  Fantasy Flight Games bought the license from Alderac Entertainment Group, who had originated the setting back in 1995, gaining rights to both the card game and the RPG from this point forward.*

Much like Alderac before them, FFG put out the card game beforehand, albeit in a Living Card Game format, rather than Collectible.  I feel like this was a necessary step for them to take (the LCG vs. CCG thing), given that the 90’s were littered with failed card games and collectors that had to learn the hard lesson that nothing other than Magic was worth buying and investing in.**  FFG had previously had some success with adapting the old Netrunner game (based on R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk RPG) into an LCG, so it only made sense to go in that direction anyway.

The new game plays to the current strengths of FFG’s recent history.  It’s a well-defined setting with a long history and a lot of lore, and they can build a system that allows them to sell off unique dice sets with funny symbols on them.

The actual core book isn’t due out until some time in October, by current estimations, so right now, all we’re working with is the Beginner’s Box and the PDF of the Beta that they put out back in the spring.  That said, I feel like we’re already off to a good start on things with this new edition.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I haven’t had a huge amount of experience with the older editions of L5R.  I never played the card game, which seems to be the gateway drug for the RPG and the lore therein, and while I like the setting, it was always a bit … much.  The original books read less like an RPG than a culture guide to Shogunate Era Japan, to the point that the diehards could accurately reel off increasingly esoteric trivia about the setting.  How many handmaids could a samurai reasonably expect to have travel with them on a journey to the Winter Court?  What was the number of peasants that a distant province would likely have at a given time?  Et cetera.***

What I do have is a lot of experience with people who played L5R in its original editions.  And my perception of these gamers is that they cleaved to the lore of the setting to the point that their samurai were always extremely precise and mannered in all possible situations, never deviating from the proper courtesies and behavior.

And well, FFG is having none of that.

Part of the reasoning behind the dice sets with the funny symbols is that they can revise the mechanics of the system to put in what I have taken to calling “Samurai Freakouts.”

In Star Wars, the Strain mechanic has become something of a character limiter for my games.  Wounds (and Critical Injuries) are one thing, but more often, my players have found that their characters suffer a crippling amount of battle fatigue, to the point that they’re constantly looking for ways to mitigate the Strain that they take in the middle of combat.  For me, it allows a solid mechanic to create tension and equalize what might otherwise be one-sided fights.

This mechanic has shown up in the new edition of L5R in the form of Strain.  The dice are divided into Ring and Skill Dice, and keeping with the original Roll & Keep of the old editions, characters build a dice pool and roll, keeping a number of dice equal to their Ring.  (For the uninitiated, the Ring is roughly equivalent to the Attribute Dice in other games.  The Rings are based on the elements of the setting, and here they define how a character approaches a problem.  More on this elsewhere.)

The Ring Dice are six-sided black dice, with symbols for Success, Opportunity,  Exploding Success, and Strife.  The Skill Dice are twelve-sided white dice with the same symbols, in different combinations.  Unlike the narrative dice of Genesys and Star Wars, there are no failure symbols, but many of the success symbols come at the expense of Strife.  And if you build up too much Strife, your character is going to lose their shit in a well defined and spectacular way.

It bears noting that the manner in which your character “Unmasks” or loses their very particular shit is up to the player.  The mechanism is chosen at character creation, and the method by which they freak out in the game is left to the character.  None of this is forced on the player by the GM, which is important.

Also, since the system is a new iteration of Roll & Keep, the player can choose to either succeed with a buildup of Strife, or lose with grace, simply by choosing which dice they want to keep for their final result.

This eliminates (or at least sharply mitigates) the perfectly mannered samurai that I have heard tell of in the previous editions, and I couldn’t be happier with the idea.  Yes, this is a game of political intrigues and samurai action, but having a core mechanism with an eye to creating internal tension for the characters is a masterstroke.  It gives greater depth to the narratives, and it allows a greater degree of humanity to be present in the games from this point forward.

*There are some interesting permutations to this, I might note.  According to some fairly well-connected sources, this license was strictly and severely limited, in that apparently it only covers the core setting of Rokugan, with a rather specific exclusion of the Legend of the Burning Sands setting that is tied to it.  Burning Sands was the weird and largely unused Arabian Nights setting that existed to the West of Rokugan.  This was where the Unicorn Clan wandered during its exile, and where the Scorpion ventured after the failed coup.

Removing this setting from L5R poses some interesting problems, should the game ever need to expand.  Granted, it was only ever included in the regular RPG in a single book in the 3rd Edition of the game, but the diehard historians know that it’s out there, the same way that the Ivory Kingdoms to the South are a documented part of the setting.

Also, it is interesting to see that, with the divestment of their 7th Sea and L5R properties, Alderac has become just another board game publisher.  I get the feeling that, given the way that they went and the direction that Steve Jackson Games is going, RPG’s just aren’t able to bring in the necessary operating funds.  Not that this is a surprise, necessarily, but it’s still worth talking about.

Unless you’re publishing Dungeons & Dragons, of course.

**The L5R CCG is a particularly damning example to put up against Magic, since it has a lot of factors making it expensive to get into without any investment angle.  First off, AEG tried to sell the early sets on a monthly rotation, meaning that you were always buying cards, and the cards you were getting weren’t necessarily that good, since they might be replaced next month.

Second, being a clan-based play style, anyone playing was going to concentrate on their one or two factions in order to have a playable deck.  This meant that roughly 80% of the cards in a given booster pack were going to be worthless to the average player.  Sure you could trade off with the other people in a local group, but it’s a little disheartening to get a stack of cards, some of them amazing, that you were going to have to immediately turn around and get rid of.

And finally, each core set made sure that the cards you’d been playing with last year were no longer tournament legal.  If you weren’t playing with the current edition-legal cards, you really couldn’t play.  (I may be wrong about this, but somewhere along the way, I found out that people never played different sets against each other.  To the point that there had to be fan-made rules in place to allow such ideas.)  This meant that within a year or two, the card base that you would have spent serious time and money amassing was going to be strictly worthless.  Which also had the effect of making stores less likely to bother stocking L5R, being that they could get stuck with product that would literally never move off their shelves.

At least when I got out of Magic, I had a base of cards I could sell off to justify the amount of money I had put into it at the time.  Sure, I still have stacks and stacks of worthless cards, but being able to sell a single card for $900 makes up for a lot of that.

***There was a notation in the Beginner’s Box adventure that felt like a callback to this sort of nonsense.  In a contest of etiquette, they had an example of the sort of question that a samurai with the proper understanding of the culture of manners would be able to answer.  Roughly, if meeting at a narrow bridge, would would defer to the rank of the other, an Emerald Magistrate or the Topaz Champion?  This feels like the sort of deep lore that a diehard player would be able to answer.

Also, for what it may be worth…  yeah, I never played L5R very much, but my own idiot collector tendencies ensure that I have a near-complete set of all of the previous editions of the game.  Whee.

Torg Eternity – The Burden of Glory (Part Three)

Thus far, we have looked at the implications of stelae boundaries around the time of the Year One update, according to what the module gave us for goals.  Following that, we had a discussion of what amounted to being roughly two-thirds of the module, with the main encounters that dealt with uprooting a Living Land stela and defending a critical Core Earth hard point from Baruk Kaah’s forces.

Which leaves us with what most GM’s would probably consider the most important of the main objectives – the weird one.

On the surface, this doesn’t present itself as being a fundamentally interesting module.  There is a matter of missing scouts, the undefended stela, and the dinosaur attack in the midst of everything.  Based on the Day One Adventure modules and the Delphi Council modules that came as additional goals for the Kickstarters, most of the adventures were pretty much by the numbers.  They showcased the individual Realms pretty well, since they were trying to work as introductions for the GM and players, none of whom were required to be familiar with a game that’s about 30 years old by this point.  (And has been out of print for close to 25 years.)

The thing is, while all of these modules are good at showing what players could expect from an adventure in Tharkold or the Nile Empire, they didn’t actually do justice to what should be expected in the context of a proper Torg module.

So, what’s the difference, you might reasonably ask?

Simple.  A Torg module is at its best when it gets seriously weird.  All of the adventures that have come before this have been very Cosm-specific.  (And no, I can’t speak to the variance of the modules on the Infiniverse Exchange, as I haven’t availed myself of any of the fan-made materials.)  The extant modules, with the vague exception of the God Box by Shane Hensley, have done an excellent job of dealing with single Cosm forays.  It’s when things start to overlap that Torg really shines.

In the Relics of Power trilogy, the characters were initially sent after an assassin sent by the Cyberpapacy to eliminate Nile Empire agents in Atlanta.  Then, ninjas.  And it only gets more complicated from there.  You see, by rights, all of the High Lords are working against each other in the course of the war, each trying to jockey for power or position to the point that any given objective has a complex conspiracy woven into it.  In my own home game back in the day, Nippon Tech agents were routinely sparring with Tharkoldu for things like Eternity Shards, even as other groups vied for control.

And that’s what makes the Burden of Glory such fun.  But then, it sort of has to hearken back to the old ways, given that the guys they were running for happened to be hardcore fans of how things used to be done.  Anything less would have been disappointing.

Anyway, back to the module itself.  As noted, we have yet to deal with the final option for the module’s objectives – the mysterious golden temple that appeared nearby, which is somehow connected with the prehistoric “Mound Builders” of the area.*  The characters learned of this when they rescued Daybasker, the slacker edeinos, along with the attack on Lincoln University.  It’s heavily implied that the characters will seize upon this as a main objective, since it’s too bizarre to pass up otherwise.

It’s worth noting that the rest of the module tends to funnel the characters toward this idea as well.  There is a sidebar early on that offers suggestions for the different Cosm cards that could be played as part of the action.  Both the Dino Attack card and the Lost Treasure card specifically refer to the temple, with any sort of further investigation of what they find moving them to the front steps of the mound.

Upon arriving at the golden temple, the characters are filled with a sense of unease, and the GM reinforces this with a sense of unease for the players – the Living Land Cosm Cards are discarded and replaced with Orrorshan Cosm Cards.  (If it wasn’t bad enough that the entire Cosm of the Space Gods was destroyed by the Gaunt Man, the module adds insult to injury by dropping a Nightmare Tree on top of everything, making this an Orrorshan hard point.  Yay.)

At the entrance to the temple, they find the mummified remains of one of the scouts that had ventured out several days before from Lincoln University.  (The mummification, of course, is due to the overlay of Orrorsh; otherwise, the body would already be reduced to bones by Living Land world laws.)  Further in, they find the rest of the expedition, all of whom have been felled by mysterious weapons.

The interior is a weird amalgamation of high tech superscience and Incan iconography, with equal parts circuitry and pictographs built into the stone of the walls.  The images tell the story of how the Akashans traveled between worlds, trying to shore up defenses against the High Lords, with the inevitable betrayal at the hands of the Elves of Aysle.  At one point, it is revealed that this “temple” is actually an interdimensional lifeboat from the Star Sphere, with extremely minor remnants of their tech.  Along the way, there are a couple of combat encounters, but these are more like Easter Eggs for the dedicated Torg lore enthusiasts than anything else.

The final chamber at the top of the pyramid has the important bit of lore as everything starts to crumble.  It seems that right before the Gaunt Man destroyed Akasha, they had dispatched as many of these lifeboats as they could, but they were almost all destroyed.  The only ones to survive, according to the star map in the control chamber, were the one that the players found, and another somewhere to the far south.**

The encounter concludes with the Wonder imploding and the Nightmare Tree that has been propping it up falling apart.  The characters can scramble to pick up a couple of neat toys from the lifeboat before it collapses completely, but otherwise, the main thing that they leave the temple with is more questions.***

*Now, this is an interesting bit.  According to the module, there isn’t actually a mound at the site of the newly arrived golden temple, but it’s in the shape of one.  And when it is destroyed in the final confrontation, it essentially becomes one.  This leaves us without a defined location for the temple itself, other than being “an hour away” and somewhere within the vaguely defined stelae boundaries.

What’s strange is that most of the mounds that people are familiar with are nowhere near the confines of the module, with the Cahokia Mounds (the ones most people could name off the top of their head) being up near St. Louis.  There’s another one, deep in the Mark Twain National Forest, where it’s noted that previous fighting took place.  But as we are to learn, it’s clearly not that one either.

And none of this is to touch on the idea that one of the NPC’s detailed in the beginning of the module is actually obsessed with the mounds in the area, ranting on about the dire significance of these constructs and their connection to South America.  (Of course, he’s absolutely correct in his hypotheses, but there’s a good chance that he dies before he can be questioned by the Storm Knights.)

**It seems to me that the big reveal at the end of the module is pointing toward a broken remnant of Space Gods showing up somewhere in Peru.  This is left with a mysterious and unresolved plot thread that will either be hinted at in future special modules or in the Year Two products coming sometime in the next three years.

***Personally, I think I’m going to add in some biotech toys for the characters to pick up as they explore.  There are more than enough things to bring over from the Space Gods book from back in the day, and it would be sort of fun to give them bizarre things to try to figure out.  I mean, most of the encounter is built on a helmet with tentacles, so it’s not like they’re shying away from this idea anyway.

Torg Eternity – The Burden of Glory (Part Two)

Now that I have the intricacies of Stelae-Bounded Zones of Reality out of the way, we can talk about other things in the module, Burden of Glory.

As I said before, the characters start out in Living Land occupied Missouri, where it is implied that they are going to be sent out after a group of missing soldiers who had been scouting for a Lost World within the bounds of the Living Land.* Once the opening scene has been established, a strangely anachronistic gyrocopter approaches, and its pilot, one of the high-ranking Delphi Council members, lands to give them a new mission.** The square-jawed Nile Empire expat, Rex Steele, tells them that there is a new stela nearby that is otherwise undefended, and with the local Glory result, it’s safe to uproot the boundary. This is the main plot hook of the module, but as we’ll see, it seems strangely optional.

From there, the characters are free to requisition equipment from one of the NPC’s that is detailed as being part of the Lincoln University hard point. These NPC’s are noted as being an integral part of the adventure, insofar as they serve as personal stakes for the characters to either save or mourn later. Early on, the module forces the group to have to prioritize what goals to pursue, and I have the feeling that the University is going to end up being the weakest of the choices, overall.

Heading north, the first real encounter offers a new plot hook in the form of a diversion from the original mission, as revealed by a curiously lazy and inept edeinos that has to be rescued from a spontaneous tar pit. He tells of an imminent attack on the hard point at the University (where the characters just came from) and the appearance of a strange sort of temple (a byproduct of the Law of Wonders) that was apparently investigated by the missing scouts.

According to the text of the module, the characters are going to have to choose which of the three objectives they can manage to take on. There is the innate assumption that one of the objectives is going to have to be lost. Since the module made a point of trying to establish the NPC’s at the University, logically, it’s going to be fairly high priority.

Working down the list, the removal of the Living Land stela – what is ostensibly the main mission – is the most straightforward. It’s a Dramatic Skill Resolution, with all manner of distractions being thrown at the player characters in the form of a whole raft of gospog and a single Ravagon. Once the stela has been disconnected and pulled free, the zone immediately flips, and the fight is largely over.****

There is one aspect to the fight which I find particularly weird. It states that, unless the GM is wanting to prolong the fight, the gospog essentially vanish in the Core Earth axiom wash. This seems like it goes against the established rules for gospog, which have them straddling the line on their native Reality. They’re formed of seeds from the Invading Cosm (Living Land, in this case) and the native dead, which allows them to be sent into zones where they might otherwise cause contradiction without fear of ever becoming disconnected. By rights, this would mean that the axiom wash would not trouble them.

Again, this is a case of “what best serves the story,” but it’s still weird. There are two possible scenarios that would explain this effect, but neither one is explicated in the text of the module. One idea posits that these gospog aren’t actually Core Earth native, but the leftover Ukhaan gospog that get dimthreaded in. This would explain why they were essentially dissolved with the axiom wash. The other possibility is that the act of pulling a stela free is violent enough that it would affect the gospog the same way that a hard transformation would effect an Ord without benefit of a Glory result. This is the more likely explanation, but none of this is actually codified.

Skipping ahead, the third objective that the characters can attempt is the Siege of Lincoln University. As outlined by Daybasker, the edeinos that the characters rescued in the first act of the module, the local tribe of Redjaws has taken it upon themselves to attack the campus and attempt to destroy the hard point that it houses.

There is almost nothing to this encounter, other than outright tactical combat. The Core Earth forces are scattered about the University grounds, fighting separate groups of feral lizardmen, and the characters are tasked with confronting the main leader atop his own personal Tyrannosaurus Rex mount, whose presence alone pushes this into a Dramatic encounter. There are some machine gun emplacements in the form of a couple of M240 nests, but beyond a couple of choices in where to engage their foes, it’s all combat.

That said, the leader of the edeinos looks like he’d be a fun adversary. Being that he’s a Possibility-rated character, he can soak wounds for himself and his mount, which can ramp up the difficulty of the fight even further.

The one factor that is noted is whether or not the characters had gotten around to getting the stela uprooted before they came back to the campus, as it eliminates about half of the edeinos forces and drops the health of the T-Rex by about 25% overall. There is also the potentiality of reinforcements arriving as a result of the edeinos that the characters had encountered in the first act. This is offered as a sort of deus ex machina, should the fight run too long for the anticipated session, but I feel like this should have been more of a story-driven outcome that would have rewarded the characters for taking the time to rescue a potential ally.

With all of this in mind, all that remains of the module is to talk about the mysterious temple that served as the third objective for the adventure. And we’ll get into that next time, with the final discussion of the Burden of Glory.

*It’s never outright stated how long the area has been overrun by the Living Land Realm, but I have to think that it’s been a couple of weeks, given the spread of the Glory and the implied fighting that’s been going on. That said, it’s weird that Baruk Kaah hasn’t tried to set up a back-up stela yet. The adventure is on a clock, to the point that only two of the three stated goals of the adventure can be optimally achieved in the course of a session, and one of the eventualities has this backup being put in place, seemingly as a direct consequence of the players’ inaction. I can grok the implied tension of having to make hard choices for the sake of story, but the timing of the adventure is a little wonky if you look too closely at it.

**It’s worth noting that Rex Steele appears to be one of the characters created as a result of the Kickstarter. There were a number of pledges open to people who wanted to spend $1,000 on the opportunity to play in this same Gen Con exclusive module and create one of the personalities attached to the canon Delphi Council. If we wanted to get picky, the fact that Steele is giving the briefing here, rather than participating in the module means that we’re not exactly in the same reality of the Infiniverse, but that’s splitting hairs.

***In theory, all three goals are possible to overcome, but it’s heavily implied that they’re not going to be able to manage to accomplish more than two. And well, the module was a convention special, so there is the actual clock of the session slot holding things back. If they screw around too much, there are notes on what happens when time runs out.

For my purposes, I’m assuming that I’d allow greater success, so long as the characters weren’t screwing around or notably misguided in their efforts. Hells, depending on how things went, I could even see splitting the party, with one or two characters heading back to the University to help mount a defense. Naturally, this isn’t something that would have worked in the context of a convention module.

****Personally, I’m delighted to see a Ravagon show up. These nasty winged reptiles are one of the worst threats that a High Lord can marshal in the early parts of the Possibility Wars. They’re the scrappy survivors of a Cosm that the Gaunt Man ravaged, with weird resilience when it comes to dealing with Possibility Energy. In the original edition, they were nearly impossible to beat in a Reality Storm, but the new rules have nerfed them somewhat, given that it takes a lot more work to invoke the Everlaws these days.

Oh, and there’s a Gospog of the Fourth Planting also, but he’s not as interesting, really.

Torg Eternity – The Burden of Glory (Part One)

In the previous post, I talked about the Delphi Council session at Gen Con 2017, where the possible remnants of Akasha were teased.  The information I was working with was derived from a discussion of the module on the official forums, so I was, as the historians would put it, working with secondary or tertiary source for my information.

Today, Ulisses Spiele NA, in anticipation of Gen Con 2018 kicking off next week, released the text of the module for the general public.  I have to say, at no point has the staff of Torg Eternity made a misstep in how they have handled the game line.  Making all of this public, easily accessible, and open to discussion has been a great boon to the line, so far as I’m concerned.

Insofar as the module is concerned, I did get one thing generally wrong.  This would have been corrected, had I listened to the three hours worth of someone else’s game, so there you have it.  (I have the same tendency to view sports the same way.  I’m not actually there, so I don’t have as much interest in hearing other people having fun.  It’s just how I’m wired, I’m afraid.)

When I had read through the highlights of the session, it had referred to the encounter with the Akashan tech as being a “lifeboat.”  My assumption had been that it would have been more of a starship, but in keeping with the generalized weirdness of the Cosm, the lifeboat was more along the lines of a golden temple.  It’s a neat sort of misdirection, and I can wholly appreciate that.

Otherwise, what about the module?

The characters are dropped into Jefferson City, MO, which lies about halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis.  According to the text of the module, part of Missouri has been overrun by the Living Land, and Lincoln University (where the characters are briefed) is one of the few remaining hard points in the state.  (How much of this is objectively true is up for debate; I’ll get into that momentarily.)

But here’s the thing:  According to the three month and one year maps that have already been released, the stelae boundaries are nowhere near Missouri.  The Year One updated map has the main advances coming in the South, advancing from the Atlanta Maelstrom Bridge toward Oklahoma and Texas.*

There is also mention of the Tragedy of Nashville, wherein a group of rogue stormers was responsible for ripping up a stela and vaporizing untold sections of the population in the process.  (More on this in a moment.)  Much like the conquest of Missouri, the map of Year One shows that Nashville was otherwise safe.

So, what do we do about the assumed territory losses that the module casually informs us of in the opening text?  Well, basic geometry allows us to fill in the implied territory with stelae boundaries to cover the missing parts.  According to the module, the stela that was destroyed near Nashville covered three zones, which would have been the areas extending from roughly Lousiville, KY in the north to around Memphis, TN to the west, and connecting to the Pure Zone around Atlanta.  By the nature of stelae boundaries, it places Nashville at the very edge of the Living Land.**

Since the module deals with a mission to uproot a stela in Central Missouri, that gives us some clues toward how the spread of the Living Land has progressed.  (And since it tells us that uprooting this stela will only revert one zone, it gives us some further idea of the general direction and strategy.)***

The module places the targeted stela in the Ashland Wilderness Research Area, just north of Jefferson City.  Using extant stelae boundaries, that would connect with the stelae in Fort Smith, AK and Clarksdale, MS, thereby covering most of the remainder of Arkansas and the central portion of Southern Missouri.  The module speaks of battles in the Mark Twain National Forest, so that jibes with what we otherwise know.

Looking over the maps for Year One, this roughly tells us that the Nashville Stela and this one are the only unaccounted for stelae, which means that, canonically, these zones are not official.  Of course, the stela that’s the focus of the adventure is still left to the whims of the Infiniverse voting, but still.

So, what about the Tragedy of Nashville, which the module talks about?  Why did untold millions of people die?

This dives into the metaphysics of the setting.  According to game lore, the conversion of a normal, ordinary person (an “Ord,” in the lexicon) to a new reality uses up their store of Possibility Energy, which takes time to restore.  If they subsequently are transformed again (by a stela being removed, for sake of example), without restoring this Possibility Energy, they generally vanish as a sort of self-correcting paradox.  Mechanically, the only way to definitively restore Possibility Energy to Ords in the game is to do something truly noteworthy in the fight against the Invaders and spread the tale.  This is accomplished by spending a Glory Card in the midst of the game and having the story spread in the local area.  It’s all but outright stated that this happened before the start of the module.

Otherwise, we have what happened in Nashville.  No Glory, and countless people were lost in the aftermath.  It isn’t as dramatic as the old edition, where people would be consumed in fiery agony, but it’s a bit more contemporary with their potentiality wafting away as though they had never been.

But what about the actual course of the adventure?  Well, there’s a lot of interesting stuff to cover, and rather than prolong this particular post any further, I’ll get into the meat of the module in the next entry.  Suffice to say that there are some weird elements that I’m not entirely certain of their inclusion, so I’d like to devote a bit more time to that end with the next entry.

*And yeah, there are the expansions in the Caribbean and the Pacific Northwest, but for now, the only real info I have to play with is the general state of the Midwest.  And if things are going as badly as they seem to, I shudder to think what’s going on with those other areas.  I mean, it was bad enough that the Caribbean Invasion jumped from being half of Florida to taking over the entirety of Cuba.  If it’s actually worse than this…

**If the Living Land had extended to the Northwest, toward the areas referenced in the module, the destruction of the Nashville Stela would have flipped more than three zones when it went.  There was an adventure in the original Torg that dealt with similar stelae boundaries in the Cyberpapacy.  In Operation: Central Fire, the storm knights were going to attempt removing the stela in the center of France that was critical to five distinct zones, which would have pretty well crippled the Invasion.  Since this stela was only on the intersection of three zones, that means that the Invasion didn’t continue far enough to connect with any other zones.

***I had originally tried to make sense of other parts of the module, with what appeared to be the implied destruction of the St. Louis Arch.  Being that the module only deals with flipping one zone back to Core Earth, the stela that’s being targeted doesn’t connect with any other zones, else there would be deeper ramifications.  Which means that the note of Lincoln University being “one of the last remaining hardpoints in Missouri” is just sort of weird.  By simple geometry, none of the rest of the state is at risk, let alone St. Louis.

Torg Eternity – Scavenging

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t spend a lot of time in official forums.  I used to be the sort to frequent the message boards and Usenet groups for information and discussion, but more and more, these hangouts have turned into weirdly exclusive zones for the more hardcore GM’s and players.*  I don’t really have the time or interest these days, so the most I do is browse for opinions on specific topics.

Say, for immediate example, I want to get a read on a fine rules point for Pathfinder or an element in one of the Adventure Paths.  Fire up Google, parse as narrow a search term as I can for the question that’s been brought up, and dig through a half dozen sources on the particular boards.  When I have what I need, I close it up and go away.  Part of this is my general indifference to forum cliques these days, and part of it is due to a couple of miserable experiences, which are best left alone.

The official Torg Eternity forums yielded up two interesting notes – one of which is little more than a passing hand-wave, and one of which has broader implications.

The first note concerns gospog, which are the in-game version of basic, shambling mook zombies for low-level adventurers to deal with.  According to game lore, they’re a weird sort of biotech created by the Gaunt Man and spread amongst the invading High Lords.  The idea is that they are the war dead of the Invasion, planted with eldritch seeds that rise as zombies.  What makes gospog a staple for the war effort is that they’re considered “Mixed” axiom, so they can be used in Pure and Dominant Core Earth zones without fear of having them fall apart.

Each subsequent planting of gospog becomes incrementally more powerful, which is why they continue to be a threat to Storm Knights as the game progresses.  There is one problem, however, with the way that Torg Eternity has been built out.  By allowing some games to start with the Invasion, the week required to grow the First Planting Gospog is no longer available.

And yet, the early adventures and fiction include them.

The quick explanation is that they’re remnants of previous invasions brought over the Maelstrom Bridges.  In the Day One Adventure book, it specifically notes that the fields outside the village are tended by Gaean gospog.  And it’s implied that the weird temple walls in the Aysle adventure are some kind of pre-fab gospog building materials that were assembled on-site.

For me, this is an interesting sort of missed opportunity.  These gospog are pretty much expendable, even moreso than the usual sort.  Since they’re not dual-Cosm gospog, they will pretty much fall apart when sent into Core Earth.  Where regular gospog are able to weather Axiom changes, these would disintegrate on a regular basis, which would allow for some interesting situations for the GM to foreshadow.

Consider:  The characters are in a Day One scenario where they are called in to try to fight off the leading edge of the Invasion.  Edeinos ride in, leading a horde of Ukhaan gospog.  The characters mount a defense, and as they do so, they note that some of the army of the undead fall apart fairly easily.  They form an impression of how to deal with the threat of gospog.

Then, a week passes, which allows the native First Planting Gospog to rise, and the same characters are faced with a new horde of vine-choked undead.  Only to find that the rate of attrition isn’t nearly as great.  The first point of many where the rules start to change for the player characters.

And on the note of changing things as they go along…

I’ve already talked at length about the implications of what happened to Akasha, the Realm of the Space Gods from the original Torg line.  The Elves of Aysle betrayed them to the Gaunt Man, who annihilated the Cosm and stole bits of their biotech to add to his already impressive arsenal.**

And from the line in the core book, it was implied that this footnote was going to be the last we’d see of the interstellar empire of the Star Sphere.

Then came the details of the Gen Con Delphi Council session.  This particular session was run for the high level Kickstarter backers, people who had dropped $1,000US for the sake of putting their characters into the game lore and hanging out with the game designers at Gen Con.  The plot of the adventure concerned dealing with ripping up a Living Land stela, which was also the plot of the Day One Orrorsh adventure.***

In the course of the adventure, the characters encountered what amounted to being a crashed starship in the midst of the Living Land.  (I’m going to assume that, despite the potentiality, this wasn’t a Lost World.)  The starship was fleeing from the destruction of Akasha at the hands of the Gaunt Man, and searching through the dying tech, the group noted that there was at least one other surviving ship.

This fired a lot of circuits for me.  Rebuilding Space Gods as Torg’s version of Battlestar Galactica changed a lot of my interest for the Cosm.  Originally, the Akashans were little more than weird and hippy, the squirrelly saviors that could bring about the peaceful end of the war, if only they weren’t distracted by their own problems.

I’ll be honest, other than the Psionics rules, I didn’t really do much with Space Gods in the original run.  But the war-torn survivors of a desperate, lost war?  Yeah, I can use that.  Especially if there is any sort of work put into detailing the expansive dead cosm that they’re trying their best to escape from.  A post-apocalyptic interstellar empire would be a fascinating place to adventure in.

*Not that they weren’t weird and exclusive back in the day.  It’s just that I was part of the “in-group” at the time.  Or as Abe Simpson put it:  “I used to be with ‘it’, but then they changed what ‘it’ was.  Now what I’m with isn’t ‘it’ anymore and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary.  It’ll happen to you!”

**I fully expect new bits of this to show up in the lore as time goes on.  Already, we have seen the world-saving Reality Trees re-branded as Nightmare Trees, which allow Orrorsh to casually invade pretty much anywhere.  And I have the idea that the Dimthread Trees that show up in the God Box adventure are similarly adapted, being that they’re mostly indistinguishable from Nightmare Trees.

What I see happening is having new forms of gospog show up with grafted biotech that was pulled from Akashan sources.  First or Second Planting Gospog with a bhelablade or tentacle sword would be a nightmare, as would one implanted with the ability to fire Telesh.  Upgrading gospog would be a fascinating rules enhancement.

***I feel like these adventures that deal with stelae are interesting but ultimately futile.  In the original game, uprooting stelae was a much more important, much more difficult venture.  In the fiction, it was the reason that Core Earth was able to repel the original Tharkold Invasion.  Setting two events like this in the first year, without serious setbacks to the Possibility Wars themselves, seems like we’re making the whole process into a sort of meaningless gesture that ultimately won’t matter.


Some Thoughts on Experience Levels

My previous post talked about the relative experience levels in Torg Eternity, which the designers chose to delineate using “clearance levels” within the Delphi Council.  It’s in keeping with the flavor of the setting, as well as giving some indication of what sort of adventure awaits the characters in a given module.

This is a standard, if fading practice from the earliest days of D&D.  Thinking on it now, it seems like the more narrative games of the 1990’s era did away with the idea of leveled modules in favor of subtle scaling, as necessary.  These days, even in more numerically crunchy systems like FFG’s Star Wars line, about the only real nod to leveled encounters comes in the Force & Destiny line, where there’s a sharp divide between Beginning and Knight level play.  (Mainly, do the characters have lightsabers and extensive Force power to call upon?)  Otherwise, a lot of the encounters in modern games can be run according to the general assumed challenge level or the specific skills required to overcome the kinds of opposition mustered.*

As a core mechanic within role-playing games, the idea of experience points forms a bit of a contentious argument about the rapid advancement of characters within the setting of the game itself.  Skill improvement comes with the advancement, and depending on the system, it can seem like the protagonists can go from incompetent to murderous in a matter of weeks – a rate of progress that has no real world analogue.  But this is where the satisfaction of the players and the requirements of the game itself tend to overrule any cries against the intended realism of a given scheme of advancement.

That aside, Torg Eternity has a fascinating way of dealing with experience points, which may just be unique unto itself.

It’s a common aspect of RPG’s and specific groups to introduce new characters (or even players, for that matter) in the middle of an ongoing story.  Given that continuous games could theoretically be played indefinitely, a rotation of characters is an accepted part of the system.  And depending on the whims of the group, newly introduced characters may be added without the same benefit of level.  There is no shortage of horror stories that involve fresh-faced players joining an established group, only to find themselves with grievously underpowered characters who cannot stand beside the veterans.

For that matter, it’s also well established that a player who misses a session of a given game are similarly going to miss out on the experience that goes with that session.  None of this is uncommon, and depending on the system, the experience is specifically tied to the challenges that the characters overcame in the course of play.  Dungeons & Dragons has entire spreadsheets devoted to this idea, with the relative challenge of an encounter being factored against the characters confronting it.

None of this applies in Torg Eternity.

It’s outright stated in the core rules that it doesn’t specifically matter what sort of ideas the characters had to overcome a challenge, as long as they pushed the story forward when they overcame it.  Experience points are particularly flat in this edition, with a non-variable reward coming at the conclusion of each act of the story.  It’s implied that a single act is approximately enough for a one night session, which flattens it even more.  An act will have multiple scenes, but given the published adventures that have already been released with the Kickstarters, it’s still expected to fit within a session.

So, with at in mind, the Clearance Level of a character within Torg Eternity is essentially a shorthand for how many adventures they have been part of.

Sort of.

It’s also noted that any new character brought in, whether to replace a character that has died in the course of the campaign or with a new player joining the game, will be created at the same level as the extant characters.  This is a very specific codification of how to handle the situation, which I haven’t really found elsewhere.  And with it, the game notes that even if the player has been absent, the character is expected to remain at consistent experience levels with everyone else.

So, to distill this to the core ideas, character level is literally set by the progress of the game itself, not by any specific action by the players.  In its way, the game itself sets the experience level of the characters playing it, not the other way around.  Personally, I’ve played with iterations of this idea myself in different games, but having it be part of the game’s very foundation seems like a bold departure from decades of established gaming tradition.  Part of me wonders if I should see this as a better way of doing things or if the differentiated awards of old are still preferable.**

I guess the main thing that I’m struggling with in considering all of this is whether or not it’s a change I’m comfortable with.  I remember all too well the XP systems of old, and in a lot of cases, I tended to circumvent or hand-wave them as I saw fit.  Part of me wants to knee-jerk at the idea of flattening the experience system down to such an extent, but I feel like I tend to institute systems like this in my games already.  All that’s really changed in any of this is my ability to regulate experience points on my own terms.

In some ways, all this system does is remove a certain sort of tyranny from the hands of the GM.  There is no mechanism to restrict the abilities of a new character, which makes a lot of sense, especially in the context of the baseline conflict that Torg Eternity is built around.  This iteration of the Possibility Wars is geared to be far grittier and deadlier than the original.  Intentionally handicapping characters is a poor idea.

Now it remains to see if I try applying any of this philosophy to other games.

*Of course, none of this applies to any derivation of Dungeons & Dragons.  Encounter levels require careful knowledge of the maths involved, to the point that even published material gets called into question as to the actual fairness of monster design and ability.  Best I can tell, only GURPS players have to deal with more calculation.

**One system that I still look back upon fondly is the old White Wolf mode that I used to such great extent in Werewolf.  Roughly, it went as such:  One point, automatic.  You got one XP just for warming the chair.  One point, what did the character learn?  This one has the player connecting XP with some aspect of character growth, which I rather like, even if my players half-assed it at points.  One point, role-playing.  Pretty standard, but worth noting.  One point, concept.  Did your character act according to the overarching theme that they were built with?  Ofttimes, this went hand in hand with the RP award.  One point, heroism.  Did your character go above and beyond in defending his pack?

Basically, a single session of Werewolf would net a PC between one and five XP, based on how they were being played.  About the only point that was variable was the award for heroism, which may or may not have come up in the particular session.

I see this system being echoed in games like Blades in the Dark, which operates on a very similar basis for what the characters did in a given caper, with the same kind of general self-reporting that I used in my Werewolf games.  And even though there is variance, there isn’t a whole lot.  Most of the time, my players in Werewolf would end up getting about the same XP reward, meaning that the only difference between this and Torg is the illusion of free will.  Which is a little bit meta, really.

The Unreleased Book

I made mention of the Beta Clearance Guide for Torg Eternity in my previous post, and it merits a little more examination, given the content that it makes use of.  Released in two parts – the Beta Clearance Player and GM Primers – this guide works as something of a stop-gap measure for anyone playing Torg Eternity in these early stages, covering the higher experience levels that will result from regular play.

It’s fairly obvious that this game is going to take place in discrete phases, and we’re only about a quarter of the way through Phase One.  The Core Book and the individual Realm Sourcebooks – Living Land, Nile Empire, Aysle, Cyberpapacy, Tharkold, Pan-Pacifica and Orrorsh – are going to cover the state of Core Earth from the beginning of the Invasion until about Year One.  Viewed from the standpoint of the finished game, this allows the GM to be able to pick and choose from material to build their campaign.

The problem is, we’re not going to have these sourcebooks out with any haste, given the rate of Kickstarter fulfillment.*  At best, we can hope for two to three sourcebooks per year, which means that an optimistic and slightly unrealistic estimation for the basic line to be finished is sometime in mid to late 2020.  There aren’t a lot of GM’s that are going to wait three years to get their campaigns rolling.

And that’s the gap that the Beta Clearance Guide is trying to bridge.

The title of the book (yeah, they released two books, I realize, but they’re 11 and 13 pages per, so I’m comfortable considering them as one volume) refers to the specific clearance level of agents with the Delphi Council.  The game assumes that the characters are going to be affiliated with the Council, and even if they’re not, we’re going to use the specific terminology anyway.  Since Torg has always been a skill-based game, these clearance levels are a shorthand for the relative experience levels of the player characters.  Alpha Clearance simply assumes that the characters have undergone a Moment of Crisis and are able to manipulate Reality, which makes them starting level.  Beta Clearance are the characters with a minimum of adventuring experience, roughly equivalent to three regular adventures or a dozen one-shots.

Originally, this was all that was put forth, which was interesting in that gaining Beta Clearance would take roughly two to three months of regular play.  The Guide opens this up with three additional operational levels – Gamma, Delta and Omega.  Gamma jumps up the scale to 200 Experience, Delta holds at 500 Experience, and Omega requires that the characters have a fascinatingly high 1,000 Experience.**

Being that the book is specifically for Beta Clearance characters, there isn’t much that is detailed beyond that level.  There is only one Perk in the Player’s section that is listed as being Gamma Level, and really, it’s a Beta Level Perk, so long as you take a fairly obvious prereq.  It’s only Gamma if you want to do things the hard way.

So, to digress for a moment…

Cosm Adaptation, the Perk in question, answers a question that’s been floating around on the forums ever since the PDF for the core rules got released.  In the original edition of Torg, it was an accepted part of experienced characters that they would start picking up random shit from the various Cosms as they went along.  Your Core Earth college professor would take some time, read a couple of books on Aysle sorcery, and he’d be able to chuck some Altered Fireballs when he ran out of bullets.  Teach Nile Mathematics to a Cyberpriest, and he was good to go.  Edeinos ninja, Core Earth truck drivers taking up pain weapons against Orrorshan vampires, Kadandran exiles wielding hrockt spears; the weirder it was, the better.

The new system in Torg Eternity is modeled a lot more closely on D&D 3.5 / Pathfinder Feats, where certain requirements are in place before a character can buy Perks (which cover things like Sorcery, Miracles, Psionics, and weirder things).  One of the main things that serves as a delineation on which Perks can be bought is what Cosm the characters are actually from, to the point that, should a character ever be Transformed to a new Reality, they’re obliged to trade in whatever Perks they from the old Reality.

By taking this Perk, the character is able to pick a specific category – to pull something out of the air, let’s say the Electric Samurai tree from Pan-Pacifica – and from that point, they are able to take Perks from that category as though they otherwise met the basic Cosm requirement.  It doesn’t obviate the more specific requirements (such as having to actually be a Dwarf for the so-named Dwarf Perks, like Dragon Warrior), but it does open up some fascinating possibilities, like the Edeinos Paladin from the original Aysle book.

While we’re on the subject, it’s worth noting that the racial requirements may not be as hard and fast as they’re initially presented.  In the Living Land Sourcebook, there’s a new Perk, Chosen of Lanala, that allows the character to take any Perk that has “Edeinos” as a requirement.  I have the feeling that this is the sort of Perk that can only be taken with explicit GM approval, since something of this sort serves as the climactic moment in the “God Box” adventure.

The rest of the Player section covers some interesting rules on what the characters can use the Delphi Council for, in terms of equipment and support, as well as details on the various sections of the organization they’re widely assumed to be working for.  The GM section, aside from the Year One overview, has rules for adapting adventures for higher level play (Beta, mainly) as well as on-the-fly numbers if a GM has to wing an encounter out of thin air.  A quick glance tells me that these tables are a kinder, friendlier version of the old Value Chart of the original game, where you could estimate the relative armor value of a battleship, as needed.

All in all, this is a nice update, but I have the feeling that everything contained herein is going to end up recycled into a much more comprehensive Year One update, sometime in the next several years.

*And make no mistake, I’m not ragging on Ulisses Spiel about this.  They’re doing very well for the business model, but the simple logistics of running a Kickstarter, doing the necessary paperwork in the aftermath, and dealing with international printing and shipping tends to prolong the process.  The Living Land Sourcebook, which is at the printer at the point I’m writing this, ran into specific snags with artwork (as I am given to understand it), and that meant there’s going to be a delay with the Kickstarter for the Nile Empire book.  They have otherwise been exemplary in their fulfillment.

**If we assume that a single act of an adventure (or a one-shot, depending) requires one night, Omega Level Clearance translates out to a campaign that ran weekly for a full four years.  Without fail, every single week.  (And it might be noted that Delta Level Clearance is half that, at a two year threshold.)

The fun thing about this level is that it doesn’t detail what sort of Perks are available to this level of character (they barely sketch out Gamma, beyond the one Perk I’ll be talking about) beyond a singular notation that hints at the origins of Quin Sebastian’s unique view on the Possibility Wars.

Moving the Clock

For good or for ill, I’m fascinated by the timekeeping in Torg Eternity.  This is a game predicated, in both the original game and the current edition, on being carefully modern day and contemporary.  Until such point as the Maelstrom Bridges fell, the world went on as normal, and our perception of the war hinges on how it disrupted our familiar history.

The timeline of the game essentially starts at the three month post-Invasion mark, with a little bit of flex with the Day One Adventures.  These adventures serve as an intro to the setting with what amounts to be expendable characters, but the players can theoretically hold onto them for campaign play.  The Deus Ex Machina of Quin Sebastian showing up at the conclusion of each adventure allows the characters to be transplanted into a central narrative point, where they can join up with any other character as needed.

Each Realm sourcebook continues from the three month mark, extending things out to the point of a Year One milestone.  The Living Land sourcebook (the first of at least seven) does this in depth, and the Kickstarter funded enough that a general guide, the Beta Clearance GM Primer, worked on an overview of the rest of the realms.

Long story shot?  Core Earth is boned.

Each of the Realms has expanded significantly, with the Living Land covering a good third of the United States and managing a complete stranglehold over the Caribbean.  On a practical basis, this shuts down nearly all shipping to any port on the East Coast or Gulf Coast, leaving only the ports in San Diego and Los Angeles open for general trade.  Given that Houston is the temporary capital of the US, this creates a host of logistical problems.  If the Living Land were to commit to taking Los Angeles and San Diego, the US would be little more than an isolated island, without a lot of options on how to deploy anywhere.  The “planes can fly over the axioms” aspect of things helps, but an awful lot of our basic infrastructure requires boats.

What’s even more fun is the notation on the state of the Cyberpapacy.  In the original war, Malraux made some progress outside of Europe by dropping a Maelstrom Bridge into Quebec, with the idea of using French refugees as a way to establish a bridgehead.  This time around, the false papacy takes a stronger role, and the Cyberpapacy makes a point of invading a country with close to a 65% base of Catholics.

So, remember when I had predicted that Brazil was huge, powerful and ripe for the taking as a target of Invasion?  Yeah.  Turns out that I was right, but I had picked the wrong Realm as having their eyes on it.  The guide notes that there were some forays made by Baruk Kaah, only to have Malraux swoop in and start establishing stelae.  Naturally, this leads to the inevitable schisms between High Lords, being as Kaah was trying to get the whole “dinosaurs in the rainforest” thing going.*

This has the effect of removing the influence of Brazil from being able to affect the course of the war in any significant way for Core Earth.  The rest of South America is still in play, of course, but they’ll be feeling the pressure on two fronts, as the Living Land advances along Central America and the Cyberpapacy pushes in from the coasts.  I have the feeling that this is going to cause them to focus locally, rather than committing forces to the international effort.

Canada is still in play, which is essential, but they’ve lost the main port of Vancouver, which limits things notably.**  They’re also looking to be one of the only remaining oil producing nations, which I find fascinating.  It doesn’t seem like it would take a lot of work for Baruk Kaah to expand out from Yellowknife to drop stelae around Fort Mac in Northern Alberta, which would cripple that, but I feel like I’m overthinking the real world aspects of a high action game.

The Pan-Pacifica Invasion has largely crippled East Asia, subsuming all of China’s ports as well as most everything west to Orrorsh’s realm in India.***  On the other hand, the map of the different realms has left one fascinating corridor open – the Silk Road.  In the real world, China has made overtures toward building a huge bit of infrastructure that would overlay the historic route with modern roads and railways.  (Google “John Oliver China” for his discussion of Xi Jingping and the “Belt and Roads Initiative.”  The relevant part starts at about seven minutes in.)  This keeps China available as a global power, but only barely, since it’s essentially bordered by three separate Invaders.

From my original thoughts, this only really leaves Australia as a possible stronghold.  All Risk jokes aside, this shifts the war in weird ways.  The update makes note that there is a Delphi Council HQ in Sydney (possibly this is the Delphi Council central, but it’s a single line in a PDF, so do with that what you will) where Eternity Shards are being housed.  There has been some threat from Pan-Pacifica, but right now their realm has only reached as far as Jakarta (original site of the Orrorshan Invasion in the original edition), so there’s still some breathing room.

So, let’s talk about Australia.

It’s almost hilariously underpopulated, compared to other nations.  Land mass wise, it’s about 75% of the size of the United States or China, with around 25 million people, mostly concentrated on the south and west coastlines.  (By way of comparison, the US has around fourteen times as many people…  and China has fifty-six times as many.)  Militarily, it ranks above Canada, but below Italy, Turkey and Israel, the only other ranking non-Invaded countries.

I feel like we’re going to see the game build something of an ANZAC military force under the auspices of the Delphi Council, with this as a main international force.  (It bears noting that ANZAC regiments were deployed to East Timor in 2006, so this isn’t just a bizarre holdover from World War I.)

*I have the feeling that this is going to be the long game for an actual conclusion of the Possibility Wars.  The main book notes that Torg Eternity is going to be a much harder slog than the original war, with much less chance of success in repelling the Invaders.  There’s no indication that we’re going to get the “Gaunt Man Vapor Lock” that stalled the war in the first place, so I have the suspicion that in-fighting amongst the High Lords will be the only way that the war might grind to a standstill.****

**On some level, I feel like the shutdown of all Pacific trade is going to end up pissing off Pan-Pacifica in the long run.  The original game had Kanawa making in-roads in all of the Invaded Realms by catering to the local Tech Axioms.  This becomes a lot harder when they can’t get ships to the necessary ports.  I guess that a case could be made that they could simply fly everything in, but that’s decreasing their share by several orders of magnitude.

***Oddly, there seems to be a sort of neutral zone between Orrorsh and Pan-Pacifica, in the form of a smallish Realm of the Cyberpapacy.  I’m not really sure why this has shown up here, since it seems to be in China itself, rather than Vietnam, where the whole “former French colony” could be claimed.  There aren’t any details in the update to make sense of this, so I have to figure that it’s only going to be dealt with in the Cyberpapacy book…  sometime in 2019, at the very earliest.

****For those that are unfamiliar with the basics of the original, the novel trilogy had a US Senator sacrificing himself to hit the Gaunt Man with an Eternity Shard.  Essentially, a powerful artifact of Core Earth, the Heart of Coyote, reacted with the weird Possibility void that was the Gaunt Man and locked him in a Reality Storm for a matter of years.  It makes more sense in context, but it was a case of the original game designers realizing that they had to take the Gaunt Man off the board in order to keep the game line going.