Of storms and cards and largely forgotten games
Y’know, for a guy with a library, almost none of this blog has dealt with the contents of this mythical collection. I’ve covered most of the other topics from my Kilroy post, but the one bit that I thought I would spend the most time on has been the one that has gotten short shrift in the process. It’s a cross between being an embarrassment of riches – when you have dozens of different game lines, which one do you pick to start with? – and debating if I should write about something that will drive page views, rather than drive people away. On one end of the spectrum, I have posts concerning various Star Wars RPG’s, and on the other end, I’m going to be talking about games like Phoenix Command and Millenium’s End.
At the end of it all, it’s probably best to strike somewhere in the middle, pulling out a game that people of a certain age in the hobby have heard of but isn’t on too many people’s shelves either.
And the game of the moment is Torg.
Torg came out in 1990, at the start of the weird gaming explosion that would mark the decade. The 1980’s were an era of experimentation with the early models of the games of the 1970’s, where the different companies tried to get away from the examples set by TSR, even though they knew that was the center of the industry. Towards the end of the decade, WEG’s D6 system had come into being, and Ars Magica was experimenting with troupe style play (something that never went very far) and the dicing system that would become the Storyteller System.
The first thing that Torg did that set it apart was its marketing. At GenCon in 1989, they gave away mottled chunks of plastic at their booth, promising that it was the next great thing and telling the gamers to come back next year. Over the intervening months, they started advertising in the gaming magazines with minimalist ads. On a background of dark storm clouds, there would be a cryptic quote from a person talking about how they had no idea that the world was coming to an end. And the teasers would talk about how the storm was coming and your character had less than a year to prepare. Towards the end of the campaign, right before the reveal, the teasers noted that ‘The Storm has a name. It calls itself Torg.”
The game itself worked on a principle of ‘The Near Now.’ “Later today, early tomorrow, sometime next week … the world began to end.” It was all supposed to be present day, present time, with your character being someone that was jarred out of their everyday existence by a fantastical war that threatened not just their way of life but their very grasp on reality. I’m a huge fan of using the real world as a backdrop, if only for the idea that the players have a better base to visualize their characters and setting.
There was a lot of really, really heavy stuff going on in Torg. The fact that the rolling system hinged on the GM being able to understand a logarithmic scale for difficulty was something that turned a lot of people off from the deeper complexities of the game, but the philosophy of the setting was epistemologically and teleologically difficult at a quick glance. A character’s grasp of their own personal reality and its philosophical underpinnings was an actual score on their character sheet. And they could attempt to overlay that belief onto events and creatures whose very existence was anathema to these beliefs.
As an example, it notes that very few people in the Core Earth setting actually understand the physics behind how a firearm works. You pull the trigger, and it kills things. But if you were to confront a character from a high magic setting with a gun, they would not have the same belief that the gun would work to kill them, let alone accepting that the physics required for the gun to function have any bearing on the argument. Inversely, they operate on a system of magic that they have studied and understand, so they hold onto that belief which allows them to case a fireball. And if their belief that your gun does not work is backed up by their environment, then your gun doesn’t work. You would have to forcibly activate your sense of reality to get it to work properly.
As to the rolling system, you could get by without having a deep understanding of the logarithmic scale that formed the core mechanics of the system, but the dice themselves were fairly non-intuitive. The game relied entirely on D20 rolls, which were then compared to a chart on the bottom of the character sheet. The rolls open-ended on 10’s and 20’s, allowing a largely unlimited scale to roll from. This number was then added to the particular attribute plus skill number that formed your skill base and compared to a difficulty. Not exactly complicated, but like I say, it was fairly non-intuitive. You knew that anything above an 11 on the chart was a bonus, and the higher the roll, the better the bonus, but you needed the chart to get more specific than that.
There were two things that truly set Torg apart from other games of the time.
First were the cards. Every boxed set of Torg came with a deck of about 150 Drama Cards. These cards were used both to determine initiative and to offer players some control over the scene they were in. For initiative, the GM flipped over the top card of the Drama Deck, which noted whether villains or heroes went first and what sort of conditions they were subject to. (This had an odd effect of making any sort of inner party conflict really hard to adjudicate. This was probably purposeful, but when Masterbook offered cards to screw with other members of the party, it didn’t help.) The conditions were things like free bonus dice, health restoration, or extra actions for either side – or negatives like equipment breaking or card removal. They also offered bonus cards for doing specific things in the heat of combat, such as successfully ridiculing your opponent or dramatically staring them down.
The cards could also be used to influence the course of play, allowing a character to avoid being wounded, gaining a slight advantage on one or their rolls, or entirely negating an opponent’s successful attack. They also allowed the player characters to directly influence the plot of the scene through Subplot Cards. These were a fascinating little mechanic that offered the GM new direction for the plot. The most commonly used card was the Romance Subplot, where an applicable NPC was romantically inclined towards one of the characters. This came up regularly, where a girl would fall to the character’s charms and agree to help them, despite their better interests. There were also cards like Mistaken Identity, Personal Stake, and True Identity, where one of the characters had a deeper connection to whatever plot was going on than they originally let on. (Or in the case of Mistaken Identity, one of the NPC’s has decided that they’re connected to the plot, even when they actually weren’t.)
The second notable innovation for Torg was the ability to build non-combat characters. These days, this seems like a bit of a given, even in the most historically grognard games like D&D where Bards are a viable concept. But in 1990, it was a strange and wondrous thing.
The way it worked was this: Attributes essentially hinged on three separate axes. There were the physical stats, which came into play in Combat. There were the mental stats, which worked for Magic. And there were the Spiritual stats, which worked for Social and Miraculous. It was pretty simple to max out a character in the physical stats, so they could never be hit or take serious damage. But when you came up against a Cyberdemon using a Pain Weapon, which tested against your Spirit, you were pretty much fucked. And Cyberdemons themselves were vulnerable to mental attacks, such as Taunts, which could cause them to lapse into a bout of cyberpsychosis. (This was due to the extreme amount of cyberware they were sporting, as the more machine they were, the crazier they got.)
And since the cards regularly rewarded players for doing something in combat other than simply shooting at their adversary, actually Taunting an enemy was pretty advantageous.
The actual world set of Torg was fairly fascinating, as well. Since the Earth was being invaded by other realities (and their specific genres), it was possible to play a pulp noir character alongside a high elf from a world of fantasy, both of whom are catching a ride from Joe-Bob the trucker, who just wants to get his freight to Pittsburgh. There were ninjas in the corporate reality of Japan, dinosaurs invading New York, Cyberdemons overtaking Los Angeles, and dragons over London. North Africa was home to mystery men and pulp villains, a la The Shadow and Indiana Jones, where France had been overtaken by a cybernetic version of the Spanish Inquisition. And most of Indonesia had fallen to gothic horror and weird Victorian invaders.
And since characters could ostensibly learn skills from all of these various realities to better fight the invaders, it became fascinatingly diverse very quickly.
As should be fairly evident, Torg is one of my all time favorite games, from its depth and scope. Sadly, I’ve only rarely been able to run the game in its full setting, as my usual attempts (like the previously referenced Torg SWAT game) tend to focus on the run up to the war, rather than the war itself. There’s much more to talk about with Torg as a game, but for the time being, I’ll keep this entry to a manageable length.