Monthly Archives: July 2017

Day One – Tharkold

You might ask, “Is there any rhyme or reason to the order in which you’re reviewing the adventures in the new Day One Adventures book for Torg Eternity?”  And the answer that I would offer is, “No, not really.”

I started with a discussion of the Pan-Pacifica module, which was a love letter to horror video games from Japan.  Now, I’m moving on to the Tharkold adventure, which offers a chance to revisit my beloved S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games.  I’ve been avoiding both Living Land and Aysle, the two longer adventures (they’re three and two acts, respectively, where the rest are one act, one session forays), because they’re going to require closer attention and discussion.  I’m also wondering how easy they will be to modify, which will necessarily require a bit more consideration.

There’s also a bit of personal bias.  I’m much more of a horror GM than anything else, so I’d rather see what directions the game is going with those themes before I settle into the more normal adventures, such as they are.

Anyway.

In the original game, Tharkold was a nightmare realm, rivaling Orrorsh for the sheet meatgrinder aspects of the setting.  With Orrorsh, everything was awful and impossible and frustrating because of the inability of the characters to make much headway against the main foes.  You needed to research, connive, compromise your principles, and try to undertake arcane rituals from dusty books in order to properly combat evil, because if you skipped any of these steps, the murdering vampire that you spent six sessions trying to overcome would just return from the dead when you were busy elsewhere.

With Tharkold, all you had to deal with was insanely powerful demons with gnarly bits of evil cyberware that made them impossible to kill.  Also, they had weapons that did their damage against your Spirit attribute, which meant that your combat-tuned PC with the best armor and weapons would be killed to death by a pain weapon.  It was nasty, brutal and unfair, which made a certain sense as to why it showed up over a year after the game launched.  Dealing with Tharkold in the opening days of the war was outright unfair for the player characters.

Naturally, Torg Eternity is keeping them around, just to make the lives of players that much more difficult.

The characters are quick, easy and obvious – the Commander, the Medic, the Heavy, the Scout, the Mechanic, and the Sniper.  All of them are Russian military, and in the course of the adventure, the Heavy transforms to Tharkold and gains Dermal Plating.  No real surprise there.  There is a note that players can swap out the genders of these pre-gens as they see fit; they’re only given call-signs, so feel free.

The characters are the Russian equivalent of Delta Force, tasked with the extraction of a group of scientists in Moscow that are trapped there after the maelstrom bridge dropped on the city.  Actually, they’re supposed to retrieve the data the scientists are working on, making the actual rescue a secondary objective.  Priorities, people.

Because this is a military-centric mission, there’s a lot more in the way of tactical gear that the characters have access to, and the initial briefing is terse and direct.  Where the Pan-Pacifica adventure structured itself along the lines of Asian horror, this is all done as a military operation, which reinforces the stark difference between Realms.

The adventure makes casual mention of Russian landmarks, with the historic Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius and the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman sculpture.  I feel like these are sprinkled into the text of the adventure as anchors for those GM’s that are either familiar with the importance of these places or want to add a little verisimilitude to their games.  (I mean, I know a fair amount about Russia and the Former Soviet Union, but I would need to do more research into the histories to adequately use them properly.  At the bare minimum, I would have to offer play aids and images for the rest of the table.)

The first scene of the module has the characters advancing into Moscow to find the lost research lab.  There are no real surprises to the structure of this part, but the adventure notes that, being soldiers already, the characters are going to have to do something a little more heroic to invoke their personal Moments of Crisis.  (Some adventures simply require them to get into combat against the Invaders.  That’s sort of a given with these characters, so they have to actually do something heroic.)

And where the Pan-Pacifica adventure draws its inspiration from games like the Resident Evil series, there are some pretty evident Doom references.  What’s interesting is that the original Torg came out shortly before Doom was made, so the cyberdemons of Tharkold were original creations then.  With this edition, they’ve been built to be a lot more like the ones in the computer game.  The depiction of Kranod (page 63 of the Torg Eternity mainbook) owes more than a little to the menacing boss monster of the 1993 shooting game, even as he channels a little bit of classic Orcus.*  And now, the Tharkoldu are no longer generally human-sized, as they once were.  (As I recall; if they were actually as large as they are depicted now, it had never registered on me.)  Instead, according to the mainbook, they now stand three (or more) meters tall.

If the illustrations in the Day One book is anything to go by, it’s at least four meters.  Just like the one in Doom.

This is another one act adventure, much like the Pan-Pacifica one.  The first scene of the adventure concerns the briefing and the trip into Moscow to the lab.  The second scene covers the investigation of the lab, with the dire reveal of what is going on (and what the Russian government knew about the coming Invasion).  There is a bit of a throwback to the first game, in that it pretty solidly references Hellraiser, which always seemed like one of the influences of the original Tharkold.  And then the third scene has the player characters fleeing Moscow as the maelstrom bridge is nuked above them.

There’s a fourth scene, which simply involves fighting a pissed off technodemon, but it doesn’t offer much beyond the climactic battle.

What is fun is that, unlike the Pan-Pacifica adventure, this one has an epilogue where Quinn Sebastian himself shows up to recruit the characters for the Delphi Council.  It serves as the hook to the semi-official campaign setting, where otherwise the characters are stuck in a weird fusion of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. AND Twilight 2000.  Not that this is a bad thing, mind you.  I have every intention of drawing from that well, when the time comes.

*I’m hoping this isn’t such an obscure reference that it requires much explanation, but my years of writing classes tells me not to make assumptions of my audience.

Orcus is the demon prince of the undead, dating back to the original white box edition of Dungeons & Dragons and appearing ever since.  In Torg Eternity, he is referenced in the same depiction of Kranod I talked about before, by including a wand very similar to the one that Orcus wields and giving Kranod a similar winged and bloated form.

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Day One – Pan-Pacifica

Let’s start off with a nit-pick and build this entry out from there.

As a Day One adventure, the scenario set in Pan-Pacifica* gives half a dozen available pre-generated characters to choose from, with the understanding that they’re likely to die.  This scenario, in particular, operates on the idea that we’re here to establish some atmosphere and show what kind of story the new Torg Eternity is here to tell.  And when we’re given a Biohazard / Resident Evil-derived adventure to go with, I’m immediately onboard with the potentials.

In the original edition, Nippon Tech was a weird, weird realm.  I mean, sure…  we had the ninjas and 80’s corporate Japan flavor, but if we’re being honest, there weren’t a lot of hooks to make it stand out.  There was a bizarre corporate finance sub-system that would allow the GM to properly simulate the boardroom level activities that would fuel adventure series, which made sense to me at the time, but it was a tremendously odd aspect to build out.**  Otherwise, there were no particular campaign ideas that stand out to me when looking back.

But before I follow too many tangents to their logical conclusion, what was the nitpick?

Well, among the available characters, there is a North Korean emigre who runs a stall in one of the markets near Harajuku.  For some reason, however, he isn’t actually given a proper Korean name.  Sun Hyong is almost a proper Korean name, but it’s really only two syllables, instead of the correct three.  (And yes, Hyong is one syllable.  Much like how Tokyo is two syllables, the same as Seoul.  Whee…)  Sun can function as a surname, but it isn’t one that shows up in the common surnames, so I’m left to assume that this character is simply lacking a family name.  Sun Hyong is his given name, and he’s probably a Kim or Lee.

There’s a further twist in that most emigres from North Korea to Japan take Japanese names, for the sake of fitting in better.  That’s a tweak that’s unlikely to matter to most players or GM’s, so I’m not going to press that point.  And well, there’s also the matter that there are heavy North Korean connections to the Yakuza, which could offer some heavy plot implications.***

The pre-gens for the scenario are a proper mix of Japanese culture / anime tropes, which allows them to be dropped into the hands of American players with little problem.  We have the aging Kung Fu student who’s just looking for a purpose and the thuggish street ganger who is about to re-evaluate his life; there’s the genki corporate receptionist who loves fashion and the disillusioned novelist who’s considering getting a safe corporate job.  And of course, we have the moody psychic teenager.

Sadly, the way the story unfolds, it seems like the whole adventure is written for the sake of the spooky teen girl, since it hits so many anime story conventions that it could be an unaired OVA from around 1991.  If she didn’t end up being the sole survivor that turned up later in most people’s campaigns, I would be shocked.

And while we’re on the subject, the background of the Pan-Pacifica invasion lifts so much from the Biohazard franchise (Resident Evil in the States) that I’m sort of wondering why Capcom isn’t getting froggy about it.  The scenario is wrapped around the outbreak of a new and awful biological agent that kills its victims and subsequently reanimates them as zombies.  Naturally, the zombies are less like George Romero or Sam Raimi and more in the style of the modern video games, where they can further mutate into biological horrors.  (Seriously, though…  pick a video game franchise that deals with zombies, and you can pull inspiration for your game from it.)

These zombies draw inspiration from the “hopping vampires” of Chinese folklore, where rigor mortis has stiffened their limbs and made their motions erratic.  In Pan-Pacifica, the Jiangshi move the way they do because of how their muscles realign, but it’s the same idea.  (Point of note:  While Pan-Pacifica is heavily Japanese in its influence, the actual term, Jiangshi, is the Chinese term.  Properly, they would be localized to Kyonshi, but that’s solely for the otaku purists.)

As far as the adventure is concerned, it unfolds in fairly predictable fashion.  The first scene establishes the setting – elements of Japanese nightlife in the center of Tokyo, people milling about and shopping, then … zombies!  From there, we have a tense scene focusing on trying to escape Harajuku, with a nice example of Dramatic Skill Resolution for the players to work through.  Scene three is the standard calm-before-the-storm set piece at a historical shrine nearby, which culminates in a zombie siege, leading to the final scene – the revelation of what’s really going on.  The characters find the hidden lab where all of the infection originated, fight their way through the building as they’re being pursued by the final boss monster.

And that’s where it ends, with the final cinematic and credits.

I’m not kidding when I say that this adventure plays out exactly like a chapter of the Resident Evil franchise.  There are sinister corporate agendas, lurking enemies and jump scares, and a resolution that has the moody psychic girl carted off for study.  (Here’s your sequel hook, everybody…  play through the F.E.A.R. games and use the character of Ayaka Kuroda as the psychic in a coma.)

Thus far, this is the first scenario that I’ve read in depth, and if it seems like I’m trying to harangue the designers for borrowing too heavily from the obvious source material, that is rather far from the truth.  This is a fantastic adventure, hitting all necessary beats to make it a proper homage to the original material.  For my money, it does exactly what it was supposed to do, and the result is a phenomenal introduction to a now-deadly Realm.

We’ll see if the rest of the book holds up as well.

*I swear, it’s going to take long, long years before I adjust to the loss of Nippon Tech to this new title.  All in all, it’s a much better, more evocative name; but really, I’ve already built all these neural connections to the old version.

**None of this makes any sense without having read the cyberpunk fiction of the time period.  Between Gibson’s Neuromancer and Williams’ Hardwired, there was a thread of corporate espionage to a lot of the near-future books of the time.  R. Tal’s Cyberpunk 2020 and FASA’s Shadowrun both borrowed heavily from these sources, but they never went to the trouble of building out the same sort of financial warfare system to allow actual battles to be fought at this level.  Mostly, it was hand-waved that Arasaka was picking a fight with SovOil over something and it was up to the PC’s to steal some techy bit of story maguffin.  For whatever reason, Torg decided that this was inadequate.

***Fun fact:  While I was living in Japan, I had an adult English student that was likely part of the Yakuza.  Nice lady, owned a chain of Pachinko parlors.  She had wanted to improve her English because she spent so much time in the States, touring casinos in Las Vegas.  The tip-off of her connections was that she complained that a lot of Japanese felt that she looked “too Korean,” a distinction that flew past me at the time.

And now for the New Book…

So, two weeks of commentary on the Torg Eternity mainbook, and I had roughly covered everything that immediately came to mind in my first read-through.  I had more or less accepted that my continuing blog posts were probably going to concern themselves with how the individual sessions of my home game progressed.

Naturally, this is the point when Ulisses Spiel decides to release the next book in the line for me to work my way through.  I’d fall back on paranoid musings about who actually takes the time to read this blog, but really … I know better.  This was convenient timing, rather than actual correlation.

And what, you might ask, is the new book of which you speak?

When they launched, the first set of stretch goals dealt with a module set, bound as a 144-page supplement book.  This covered the first $30K of pledges, which was blown past in a matter of hours on the campaign’s first day.  This was the supplement they already had in the pipe by the time the Kickstarter went live, I would guarantee.

The idea is that these adventures serve as an intro to the game, and they allow for all of the necessary fuck-ups that come with testing out a new system and worldset.  (One of my longtime friends and players opined that the first character in any given game was pretty much doomed.  Once you figured out what stats, mindset and general build was going to survive in a game, you would be better off scrapping the first effort and going with a new character altogether.  He’s not entirely wrong.)  There is no expectation that any of the characters in these scenarios will survive, and one in particular confirms this with the statement that, unless the players are particularly smart, only one character is scripted to actually make it out.

Added to this is the tacit understanding that each of the modules will be introducing new elements to the game.  The first and longest of the adventures (which also has the most direct advice for the GM) is the Living Land Invasion.*  In it, the characters start as Ords, the in-universe term for non-Storm Knights, whose experiences put them in Moments of Crisis as the adventure unfolds.

Unsurprisingly, the official rules for Ords differ from my own, completely cutting the characters off from being able to use Possibilities.**  Even if they are dealt cards that would allow them to throw Possibilities (Drama, Hero, etc.), they have to sit on these functionally dead cards until they ascend.  They can still roll the standard D20 for the task resolution, and unlike the original edition, they can re-roll on both 10’s and 20’s regardless.  (In the old rules, Ords did not re-roll 20’s at all.  It was pretty significant.)  And because it’s a heroic game, the rules for Moments of Crisis are pretty loose and easy to achieve.  I can get behind this.

I’ll delve into the specifics of each discrete adventure in future posts, so let’s focus on the overall basis of this book.  How well does it work, how easily can the adventures be put to use elsewhere, and does it accomplish what it set out to do?

Naturally, I will answer these questions in reverse order.

First off, let’s talk about what this collection of adventures is trying to do.  At its heart, this book is pretty straightforward in its goals.  The universe of Torg Eternity is a pretty complex one.  Every cosm has its own intricate history (some to the point of needing multiple books to make it all shake out), and trying to get new players into a world that can change up its rules like a game of Calvinball can be daunting.  As I have said before, my personal take on the game is to start somewhere around six months before the game is traditionally supposed to take place, just to bring everyone up to speed slowly.

The Day One Adventures book is doing just that.  But it’s also taking on this narrative weight with the understanding that these characters are not actually meant to live through their travails.  Sure, you can keep playing Officer Reyes or Professor Moore once their scripted adventures are done with, but it’s not something that is required in the slightest.  Much like an intro Call of Cthulhu scenario, this book is meant to give a sense of how things in the world work, so you won’t make the same mistakes later on.  So, on that basis, this book serves its defined purpose admirably.  It allows the GM and the players a method to learn how everything works, with the safety net of impermanent characters to hedge against complete failure.

The next question is, how easily can the information be adapted to extant campaigns or different characters?

Things don’t appear to fare quite so well on this count.  The groups of characters in the scenarios are designed for that adventure, and trying to change some of the details looks to be something of a headache.  It’s going to require a chunk of work to adapt other types of characters into an adventure built around Russian Army soldiers (which is what the Tharkold scenario hinges on), and the first act of the Living Land adventure has the characters removed from much of the danger that the Invasion of New York offers.  (In fact, they actually watch much of it unfold from the relative safety of a tour boat.)  I’m sure that I could make it work for my current crew of PMC mercenaries, but it would require some structural details being shifted around.

And finally, how well does any of this work?

At the risk of answering prematurely (since I haven’t read through all of the scenarios past a quick skim), I’m going to assume that it does just fine.

Intro adventures are nothing new.  They’ve existed all the way through the timeline of RPG’s, and more often than note, they’ve taken up precious real estate within the core book of the game in question.***  Ulisses Spiel makes the wise choice of separating this book from the core rules (hells, let’s talk about the grand novelty of making it a boxed set, in the style of the old games), and using it as an opportunity to teach the rules as they go along.  It relieves the GM from having to structure an entire session as an information dump, and accordingly everyone can learn as they go along.  (See, while all of this is just second nature to me, I well remember how much of a slog it was to learn the rules for the original game, along with the picky details of the way cosms and such worked.  I will not assume that any of it will come easily to new players or GM’s.)

*Now, here’s the thing…  I’m not going to nitpick or second-guess the writers on any of their decisions (yet; there’s always the future), but given the criticisms of the original game’s obvious American-centric module output, it seems odd that they’re going back to the same well on the first set of modules.  Yes, this is a game that’s mainly marketed to Americans (one of these days, I’ll talk about the relative scales of translated games in their home countries vs. how they sell in the States; assuming I haven’t covered this in the distant past), but it is an international game in both parent company and general setting.  I’ll assume that the future modules will compensate for this when they hit, but at present, we have 30 pages devoted to America, with the other countries only managing around 15~20 for their sections.

**As a meta-commentary on the West End Games’ products of the 90’s, there was never any discussion of why the other game lines used what amounted to being Possibilities in their mechanics.  Torg made a point of delineating the purpose of their re-roll system in the underlying philosophy of the game world.  Masterbook never really bothered to try to make sense of why player characters could get this boost, other than the generally unfair nature of the dice.  Which, in all truth, is enough of a reason.

***In all truth, I have always hated that intro adventures are included in RPG books.  I would rather have such things come with screens (if only to justify the expense of the damned screen in the first place), rather than take up space that would be better served as supplemental material.  More often than not, these intro scenarios are a waste of the paper they’re printed on, since the best outcome would be a single session of whatever scenario got pasted in.  And there are a good number of these that never get run at all, which is that much more infuriating.

A lot of this stems from the intro scenario in 1st Edition Shadowrun.  The setup has the characters coming back from an actual mission and having a firefight in what amounts to being a convenience store.  So, rather than giving me the information I wanted to have about how best to structure an actual adventure, I’m left with advice on how to have the bags of chips and displays of soda pop explode merrily around the characters.  I guess it says something that, all these years later, this is my go-to example of bad design.

On the other hand, I love the adventures in Call of Cthulhu main books.  But then, again go figure…  I’ve run these sessions dozens of times, and since no character ever survives the final resting place of Walter Corbett.

Day Zero Adventures

As written, any Torg or Torg Eternity campaign starts approximately three months after the maelstrom bridges come down.  The Realms have been established, the events that define the opening gambits of the Possibility Wars have already played out, and all of the various character options have been established for general use.  You can set up a party (in the new game) with a Realm Running Core Earth character, an Aylish Wizard, and a Renegade Cyberpriest seeking redemption for his heresies.  All of the potentials for a starting character group have been unlocked.

Being the contrarian that I am, I don’t really cleave to this idea.  For me, it’s a lot easier to lead into the war and give the players a little more personal stake in what unfolds.  It has worked very well for me in the past, even if the games in question ground to a halt in the midst of the war starting.  I have less to explain in a long and dry information dump at the outset of the campaign, and this way, I can introduce elements at whichever rate I choose to.

What’s gratifying is there is some official support to this idea from Ulisses Spiel.  Part of the Stretch Goals for the Kickstarter included funding a 144-page sourcebook of Day One adventures, where the players can take on the roles of otherwise normal, non-ascended people caught in the middle of the initial Invasion, seemingly as they are made to face their own Moments of Crisis.  According to the write-up of the book, playing through these adventures can serve as an introduction to the Possibility Wars, but obviously this is only going to hold true for GM’s who wait until the adventures are released to do so.

So, while this is a nice thought, I’m likely going to have to find a way to use these later on.  By rights, these adventures are structured to be used as side sessions with pre-made characters who are implied to possibly show up in later adventure supplements or serve as a stock NPC’s within the GM’s home campaign.  Whether or not they will serve that function in my game will depend on a number of factors, not the least of which will be the timing of the release.  The way I figure it, Ulisses Spiel has about a month in which to make good on the release of this book.

When I set up a pre-Invasion Torg game, there are a couple of considerations that I try to build into the concept.  First off, I want to have the characters involved in a high action game from the first scenes.  As discussed, this has taken the form of a group of FBI agents on one occasion and a squad of SWAT team members on another.  This gives the players the chance to get into necessary combat, offers plot hooks from a designated superior, and allows them to get into all manner of scrapes without worrying overmuch about having the law come after them.  Y’know, mainly because they are the law in these given scenarios.  (That is not to say that they kept their noses clean in either of these games.  We’ll not talk about the time they set a gas station in Maryland afire in the course of their investigations.)

This time around, the characters are part of a PMC called Tannhauser Solutions.  During the opening shots of the game, they’ve been based in Miami (all those seasons of Dexter and Burn Notice are coming into play again), which limits the protection that the PMC can offer them, but in the grand tradition of real world PMC’s like Blackwater, they will be able to act with utter impunity once they hit foreign soil.  Also, being part of a group like Tannhauser, they have access to whatever military hardware they decide to bring along.  Makes things so much easier.

One of the mechanical considerations that I have to keep in mind is that the characters are not, as yet, Possibility Rated.  This means that several of the core elements of the game, as written, are off-limits to them.  They have none of the Reality-based Perks, they can’t avoid Transformation until they actually hit their Moment of Crisis*, and their dice are actually different.

Or at least, they always used to be.

This is the problem I have with not having a physical book.  For good or for ill, I tend to skim anything I read on a screen.  And when I’m going over familiar material like this, I am already pre-disposed to skim.  So, when I go back to check on the particular rules for Ords, I can’t verify whether or not they’ve limited them the same way.  In the original rules, they rolled the same D20 for task resolution, but they were limited on the re-rolls, being unable to explode a result of 20 on the die.

For my purposes, I default to Masterbook.

By way of explanation, Masterbook was the more generic system that West End Games put out after Torg was well underway.  Most of the worlds that fell under Masterbook were horror-themed, with titles like Tales from the Crypt, Necroscope, Species, and their own Bloodshadows.  As such, Masterbook tended to be a little grittier (there was a card in their version of the Drama Deck that gave bonuses for a well-timed betrayal), and the dice for the game reflected it.  Instead of a D20 for task resolution, Masterbook used a system with 2D10, which seems like it would run out a similar curve but didn’t.  The end result was that the average result was lower and characters had to try harder and be more generally competent.

This means that the pre-Invasion Core Earth characters are running a 2D10 baseline, which makes things more difficult, but I’ve kept in most of the mechanics of the actual Possibilities, meaning they can use them for re-rolls in necessary tasks.  I’ve also had to limit the available Perks, since they no longer have readily availed access to such things as Miracles, Psionics or Reality.**  Soon enough, they’ll open up those categories for their advancement, but not for the time being.

*Since I’ve already referenced this twice, it bears a definition.  A Moment of Crisis is the point where a non-Possibility Rated character (termed an Ord, in-universe) reaches a moral choice in a potentially life-or-death situation.  When they choose a path under these circumstances, they are infused with Possibility energy and can learn to subtly manipulate it to chart the course of their existence.  Core Earth is particularly rich in such individuals, but Moments of Crisis pop up all over the place.  When a person is infused with this energy, they become a Storm Knight and can weather the changes in Reality as they continue to fight the Invasion.

**On the off-chance that someone is using my tweaks for their own home game, I’ve allowed the following Perk categories as potentials:  Faith, Leadership, Prowess, Psionics, Social and Spellcraft.  Mind, I’ve disallowed them from being able to take Faith, Psionics and Spellcraft, but that’s only because of how their characters were built.  Had someone decided that they were a devout Catholic, rather than a CEO (Christmas, Easter, Other) Catholic, it would have been an option.

Character Death, in the Middle of a War

There’s a certain philosophy within role-playing games that assumes character death to be something of a last resort, only in certain circumstances type of thing.  As with most things, this lies along a particular spectrum within the continuity of RPG’s, where the more narrative, story-based games hold that it should be a mutually agreed event that serves some larger element of the plot.  And the crunchy, number-heavy games can let it all happen according to how the dice fall.

More succinctly, modern games aren’t going to let your character die from a bad throw, where the progenitor games are all too happy to watch it happen.

But what about those games that figure it’s largely inevitable?

Back in the heyday of West End Games, Paranoia was so trigger-happy that characters were generated in packs of clones, with six duplicates of a player character being drawn up to ensure that one of them might live long enough to sniff the adventure’s objective before being packed off to the reprocessing station in some comedically absurd manner.

And well, it has always been my assumption that any session of Call of Cthulhu that ends without a Total Party Kill has been run in a horrifically inappropriate manner.*

In the both cases, character death served the purposes of the particular themes of the specific game.  Murder, misadventure and outright betrayal can be comedic elements of a properly run Paranoia game, to the point that, in an advice column, one of the game designers took issue with the idea that characters should ever be allowed to rank up their Clearance Level.  And well, it’s hard to portray the bleak nihilism of Lovecraft’s works if your characters aren’t walking a knife’s edge the entire time.

Torg Eternity offers an interesting spin to this core element.  Being that the game is set against a backdrop of interdimensional war, there is an underlying assumption that there will be character death along the way.  Part of this is dealt with at the basic level, where it is understood that players can simply roll up a new character of their choosing and have them introduced nearly immediately thereafter with no loss of experience or momentum.  As I recall, no other game has explicitly laid out the rules for replacement characters in this manner.  It’s sort of refreshing.

But to be fair, it pretty much has to be done this way.  One of the enduring cards of the Drama Deck (now spun off to the Destiny Deck, which is the Player Deck for the new game) has always been the Martyr Card.

All the time I’ve run Torg, this card is the one that everyone remembers.  The original text stated that, by playing this card, a character could defeat any foe.  At the cost of their own life.  It was an unambiguous effect that anyone who drew it immediately made sense of.  Nearly every time it was drawn, it was a ticking bomb that no one was quite sure if they wanted to use.  The new version alters it slightly to allow the success of some significant event, but that was already a valid interpretation from the old days.  Through all my time running Torg, I have only seen the card thrown a couple of times.

By defining the effects of character death like they do, the designers have made it so that the inherent trauma of losing your character is balanced by being able to quickly build out a new one to bring in during the next act of the adventure.

There’s another factor at play, which appeared during the most recent session of my local game.  The new Feat system (called Perks in Torg Eternity) limits the acquisition of Realm specific abilities to characters native to the Realm.**

That means (as I have already learned from my current play group) that, in order to get access to the Electric Samurai Perks, you need to build a Pan-Pacifica character from the ground up, rather than simply spend your downtime acquiring the interesting kit and abilities.  This offers a different incentive to let a character act as a Martyr for the sake of the Possibility Wars.  It also goes a long way to ensuring that any PC group be made up of a variety of characters from a variety of cosms.

Finally, they’ve added some new flavor with the Cosm Cards for each Realm.  One of the big ones (from where I’m sitting) is the Inevitable Return card from the Nile Empire.  This card plays to the pulp[ sensibilities of the Realm, allowing a character that had been killed previously to spontaneously return.  (What makes this great is that the characters can even use it to bring back a favorite villain, if they so choose.)

So, with all of this, the designers have weighted the game towards an inevitability of character death.  I mean, it’s not like I tended to pull any punches during my time as a Torg GM back in the day, but this offers a sort of tacit permission to outright kill off any offending character that managed to run up against the wrong odds.

It is a war, after all.  Most of the heroes are remembered posthumously.

*Call of Cthulhu is a game of cosmic horror, after all.  Not only are the odds already stacked against the characters in the first place, they’re likely to go mad with the dire understanding of it all.  Don’t forget, this is also a game that pushed the realism of the preferred setting and time period enough that they included a table to generate the permanent disability that your character was likely to suffer in the process of being committed to an asylum.

**This is a picky little detail that I need to look more closely at.  In the original game, a Reality Storm of sufficient power was able to transform a Storm Knight from one reality to another, and a Disconnection while in a hostile Realm also could serve to push that potentiality.  Since these Perks are (Rules As Written, so it’s easily house-ruled) limited to characters from the Realm in question, would it be possible for a determined character to pick up the necessary abilities through a series of transformations? Signs point to “yes” on this one, so I’m thinking that I will probably just house-rule it to allow cross-Realm abilities, rather than go through the gymnastics of bending around the rules.

That’s not to say that I won’t require specific story-based rationales to accomplish this, so as to keep the idea of new, Realm-specific characters attractive.

Why Things Are Going to Go Wrong…

There is a pretty sizable secret hidden within the GM’s Guide section of the new Torg Eternity book, and while it doesn’t seem like much of a concern for new GM’s or players, it’s enough of a game changer that it merits some exploration and discussion.  I’ve noted already that this particular version of the Possibility Wars has new complications and plot twists compared to the original, and this is one of those elements.

In the original plotline of the Invasion, there was a big, epic module series that set in motion certain later events.  The Relics of Power trilogy of modules had the characters seeking out a version of the Holy Grail (the Possibility Chalice, as per the name of the second module) and using it to light the “Signal Fire” to send a message … somewhere.  The module itself is cryptic and vague as to what this actually means, but there is an immediate result of sending hope to other people of Core Earth to keep fighting.

A year and change later, West End Games released Space Gods, the final Realm book for the game, which profiled the factions of the Star Sphere, the only sympathetic Realm in the Invasion.  Ostensibly, they had received the message of the “Signal Fire” and traveled to Core Earth to assist.  But since nothing in Torg ever quite goes as planned, the help from the Star Sphere was complicated by in-fighting and a rampaging zombie plague.

With the release of Space Gods, Torg finally had rules for psychic characters, which had been hinted at since the very beginning of the game with Iconic characters like Katrina Tovarisch (who had pretty much directed the Russians to keep Tharkold from invading).  This was one of the things that I felt Torg Eternity had immediately improved upon, by having psychic rules in the new mainbook.

Also included with Space Gods was the means by which the Invasion could be thwarted, without the wholesale destruction of a good portion of Core Earth’s population.  See, in the areas where the Invasion had taken over, the inhabitants of the Realm had converted to the new Axioms and World Laws.  If the Storm Knights were to simply tear up the stelae in a given area without inspiring everyone within (this all goes into the economic theory of how Possibilities themselves work), everyone who had converted to the new Reality would simply burst into flame.

The Space Gods had come up with biotech known as Reality Trees.  These were trees that essentially functioned as hardpoints for specific realities and allowed a counter to the plans of the Invaders.    By planting trees in a given Realm, Storm Knights could preserve the Invading reality’s axioms, even after the stelae were removed.  This would allow the inhabitants of the realm to survive, while destroying the High Lord’s grip on things.

So, what does this have to do with the price of rice?  Excellent question.

In the GM’s section of the new book, it talks about how the Elves of Aysle carry a deep and abiding guilt with them for their actions in preserving their race against the wrath of Uthorian.  Apparently, in order to stave off their inevitable destruction at the hands of the Dark Lord, they enacted a large and costly magic ritual to cast a prophecy for the chance to save themselves.  And instead of being offered an explicit solution, they were rewarded with the location of a separate cosm that could serve to distract the Gaunt Man from helping to destroy Aysle.

As the book dryly states, the name of this new cosm was Akasha, which was the official name for the Star Sphere from Space Gods, and I quote, “the Gaunt Man’s powers had increased dramatically thanks his victory.”

This means that, in the timeline for Torg Eternity, the Gaunt Man has lain waste to one of the main saviors of Core Earth, thereby throwing a good portion of the later war effort wholly off-track.  And remember those Reality Trees I was talking about?  Yeah, those are now in the hands of the Gaunt Man, in the form of Nightmare Trees.  I mean, it’s not like the Gaunt Man was a pushover before, but now he’s managed to co-opt one of the main strategies that the original game line had for win conditions.*

This is one of the things that Quinn Sebastian has already noted in his assessment of the new version of the Possibility Wars; there are new, subtle invasions, courtesy of this newly acquired tech, that there doesn’t seem to be a way to detect or counter in any easy fashion.  Odds are, this will be a defining factor in the early portion of the war.

All things being equal, I’m not sure what’s going to replace the Star Sphere as allies for Core Earth.  There are hints that the dead cosms can show back up as part of the as-yet unexplored factors of the Living Land’s Law of Wonders, but that seems like a long shot at best.  (Although, they have noted the appearance of flying saucers, which seems like an awfully big hint of the Star Sphere.  There are also lost cities, which will require a whole lot more information before I try to put them into play.)

For whatever it’s worth, this could point back to an idea that I’ve already discarded, namely the reappearance of Kadandra.  I will note that none of the Ulisses Spiel guys online have even bothered to answer questions about the lost realm of Dr. Hachi Mara-Two, which could fuel a couple of conspiracies on that count.  I think it would be a neat potentiality, but I’m not yet prepared to believe it.

I am, however, completely willing to be proven wrong on that point.

*The thing is, these new Nightmare Trees make a lot of sense having ended up in the hands of the Gaunt Man.  In all honesty, they’re just a logical outgrowth of the stuff he was starting off with last time.  The ability of the trees to go into unconquered areas and establish the axioms of Orrorsh are just a weird sort of mirror of the Gospogs that were the bread and butter of his original invasions.

For the sake of the uninitiated, Gospogs are the local version of zombies used by the Invaders.  If you take the corpses from a local reality and plant them in fields with the special Gospog seeds, they reanimate as these weird, mixed reality zombies that can go anywhere and muck things up.  They’re surprisingly effective.

Defining Nested Niches

As blogs go, this is not a well-known or popular one.  I’ve done very little to optimize or publicize what I write here, as it is mainly an outlet for my own musings.  Sure, it would be great to get some measure of publicity for my reviews and ideas, but that really isn’t the point of why I made a blog in the first place.  I have a few people that have found my site, and that’s fine.  I can even say that I had someone take my advice once on how to revise an Adventure Path, so I have that going for me.  Which is nice.

But if I’m being truthful, it actually is a surprise when people do find what I write here.  And it’s really fascinating when people take issue with it.

Just recently, a semi-anonymous person found some of my opinions on Savage Worlds.  I’ve made no secret of my disappointment for the system, since I hold the designers in fairly high regard otherwise.  Shane Hensley is a great guy, and nearly everything that he has had a hand in, ranging from old TSR boxed sets to Deadlands, all the way up through the newly minted Torg Eternity, has been gold.  I’ve actually gone to the trouble to get most of his old stuff signed, because it is quality work and I can appreciate that level of dedication to the hobby.

But seriously, I really dislike Savage Worlds.

I’m not going to go back over the reasons that I dislike the game; that’s been hammered out to the point that I don’t need to justify it all over again.  Right now, I want to talk about something that this “Shockwave” fellow tried to put forth.

In the midst of his typo-ridden defense of Savage Worlds, he made the claim that it was a “strong niche” game within the hobby.  He actually threw a lot of claims at me, including the idea that I should spend more time playing a game that I don’t like, as though I would somehow change my mind on the issue with continued exposure.  But it was the “strong niche” idea that actually stuck with me.

Role-playing games are already a niche hobby at the outset.  There are no hard numbers, but some estimates put the US gamer population around six million, give or take, with perhaps another three to four million additional for the rest of the world.  Put up against the broader US or world populations, this is not a high number by any stretch.

But I was curious.  In Shockwave’s mind, Savage Worlds was a quality product, based on its sales and its particular niche within the hobby.  Personally, I have always assumed that this was more or less true.  I have seen Savage Worlds products at nearly every game store I’ve ventured into in the last decade, so there is a demand, right?

So, I started looking around.  I knew that it wasn’t pulling the sales on Kickstarter that its predecessor, Deadlands, had been capable of.  When Pinnacle launched simultaneous KS campaigns for the Deadlands 20th Anniversary Edition and a new Plot Point book for the Savage Worlds Deadlands, the 20th Anniversary KS far out-performed.

Using Kickstarter as a base metric, we can see that (with the exception of Savage Rifts) the interest for Savage Worlds hovers around a thousand backers.  This number flexes a little bit, depending on what is being adapted to the system, but it offers a baseline to work from and compare to other known lines.

For one thing, Savage Worlds books are actually offered for sale in your standard FLGS (Friendly Local Gaming Store), so that’s going to bump up the numbers a fair amount.  I say this because pretty much everything done by Onyx Path (heritors of the old White Wolf licenses) is only available through POD or their online store.  They’ve cut out the distributors to make themselves money, and as a result, their stuff only ends up in the hands of the people that already want to buy it.

So, we’ll leave out any of the Onyx Path Kickstarters.  They go stupidly high, in terms of backers and pledged cash, but their audience is kind of locked in.  (And dwindling, given the responses on the KS comment pages.  The Exalted 3rd Edition did them no favors on that count.)

This leaves something of a cross-section of immediate utility.  Without devoting too much time to my research, I have a fair chunk of odd foreign games and a number of relatively identifiable mainstays to work with, many of whom I have put in money to support.  The hobby leaders – Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Fantasy Flight – don’t bother Kickstarting any of their products, because they already have the working capital to support their respective lines.  But I do have some idea of numbers to throw at this later.

Let’s start with the bigger numbers.  Chaosium launched a Kickstarter that actually was able to fund enough to bankrupt the company (I might have to talk about this in another post, at some point) to bring out 7th Edition rules for Call of Cthulhu.  This garnered near to 3,668 backers, with over half a million dollars.  And when Sandy Petersen (the original designer of Call of Cthulhu) did a campaign to convert the Mythos over to Pathfinder, he pulled over 2,300 backers.

Atlas Games brought back two games from the 90’s in their Kickstarters.  Neither of these games were barn burners in their original run, but they had respectable followings in their way.  Unknown Armies managed 2,819 backers, and Feng Shui 2 had 3,402 backers.  And for our last domestic publisher, we have Green Ronin’s conversion of Blue Rose to their new Dragon Age rules.  Blue Rose is the very definition of niche product, being an attempt to bring Mercedes Lackey-styled “romantic fantasy” to tabletop.  For that, we have 1,513 backers.

Foreign games are a weird category.  These are games that were popular (and sometimes award winning) in their home country, but until these Kickstarters, they’ve never been played outside of their place of origin.  These include Riotminds’ new edition of Drakar och Demoner, brought to the US as Trudvang Chronicles, which managed 3,273 backers.  Agate partnered with Studio 2 to translate Shadows of Esteren from French.  This one got more backers with each successive release in the line:  Main book – 705, Prologue – 601, Travels – 951, Tuath – 1,053, Occultism – 1,066, Dearg – 1,160.

Then we have Ulisses Spiel, publishers of Das Schwarze Auge, brought to the US as The Dark Eye.  This brought them 1,619 backers, with a follow-up sourcebook, The Aventuria  Almanac, netting 696 backers.  They also brought back Torg, originally published by West End Games in the early 90’s, with Torg Eternity with 2,282 backers.

Finally, we have the efforts of Fria Ligan, the Swedish game company that now owns the rights to the old Swedish game, Mutant.  They have been flogging a new edition of this game, Mutant: Year Zero through Kickstarter.  Genlab Alpha pulled 1,010 backers, and Mechatron managed 1,653 backers.  They have also brought over two unrelated games, Coriolis (described as Arabian Nights meets Firefly; 1,915 backers) and Tales from the Loop (described as drawing from ET and Stranger Things, kids in the 1980’s in a setting where dimensional rifts are prevalent; 5,600 backers).

At this point, I’m not sure what Shockwave’s contention was based on.  Savage Worlds hits a level roughly similar to English translations of dark medieval fantasy French games and pulls less than nostalgic re-issues of games from the 80’s and 90’s.  I’m not seeing how this is a strong niche, by any definition.

Comparatively, the darling of the Indy Press, Fate Core, racked up 10,103 backers when it finished its Kickstarter (and that’s just a fraction of the copies sold).  I guess, if you were comparing Savage Worlds to all of the Fate-derived games that show up on Kickstarter, you might have a case to build, but that’s a rabbit hole that I’m going to personally stay out of.

Inevitably, none of this matters in comparison to real games.  There aren’t hard numbers for Pathfinder or D&D 5e, but there are some estimations that can be made.  Paizo has done very well with their 3.5-sourced RPG, to the point that their executives imply that it woutsold their expectations by an order of magnitude.  And well, the Player’s Handbook for D&D 5e managed to hit #1 in sales on Amazon for a while, which requires thousands of copies sold per day.

On Eternity Shards

One of the most persistent bits of Torg iconography is the Eternity Shard.  These minor artifacts serve as maguffins for the High Lords and sources of ready power for the player characters – magic items in a setting that otherwise didn’t encourage them.  According to lore, when Torg was being teased at Gen Con in 1989, the West End Games staff handed out small chunks of red and blue swirled plastic and told people to come back in a year to learn what it was.

Over the following year, they ran ads in Dragon Magazine and other trade publications, talking about the storm that was coming.  It wasn’t until almost the next Gen Con that Torg was actually given a name (depending on whom you believe, they were trying to come up with a name the entire time; hence the lack of branding in those teaser ads), and it was revealed that the chunks of plastic were, in fact, Eternity Shards.  When the boxed sets were released, the D20 included was the same swirled red and blue.

Within the world of the game, these are items of legend and significance.  The blue and red are the colors of Possibility and creation (Reality Storms are often depicted with red and blue lightning), and these artifacts are imbued by Apeiros, the force of creation, with the ability to alter destinies.  Excalibur, for example, is one such Eternity Shard, having been forged in legend to eventually become such an item.  (In current lore, such an item can start out as mundane and grow in stature.  The red and blue coloration is integrated to the item somewhere along the way, once it has attained proper power and lore.)

In the original edition, GM’s were encouraged to create their own Eternity Shards for their campaigns, as the only example offered in the corebook was the Heart of Coyote, a fairly minor Shard that canon had already disposed of by the time the game’s timeline started.  (In the novels, the Iconics found the Shard in their journeys and immediately used it to lock the Gaunt Man in a Reality Storm.  I can’t argue with its use, but it made using the damned thing problematic from a storyline perspective.)

It didn’t help that there were very few examples offered in the game line going forward; what few Eternity Shards showed up usually were the object of an adventure or given a very narrow utility.  The namesake of the Possibility Chalice adventure module was little more than a maguffin for the module trilogy, and its main use wasn’t readily apparent for several years.

Torg Eternity has gone a step farther by offering a variety of Eternity Shard examples – one each from the different realms.  Hopefully, this will continue as a trend, if only to offer some ready-made options for GM’s to pick up and toss into a scenario.

As to the ones in the book…

Let’s start off with the obvious one.  They’ve gone ahead and reprinted the original Heart of Coyote, for better or worse.  It’s pretty basic, in that it carried Core Earth reality with it and can only be tapped for Spirit-related rolls.  Nothing flashy and certainly nothing to write home about.

For the Living Land, they bring the Usaanta, a flower that … isn’t.  My first read of this one was pretty cursory, since I didn’t think much of the whole “plants as Eternity Shards” bit from the original game.  There were the red and blue flowers that allowed characters to be reincarnated (as happened with Tolwyn) and ones that expanded consciousness and revived wounded characters.  There was flavor to them, sure, but something about the idea of a flower ranking at the same level as Excalibur seemed weird.  (Mind you, in the context of the original Living Land, where non-living things corroded and decayed, it only made sense to have plant-based Eternity Shards, but still…)

The Usaanta is pretty basic in its power and restriction:  Gain extra Wound levels, use the Possibilities contained within for non-violent actions.  Sure.

Aysle gives us a very straightforward version of the Holy Grail.  It heals afflictions, and that’s all.  Nothing exciting, but it serves a basic purpose, much like the other two.

According to the scant resources I’ve been able to find, the Eternity Shard from the Nile Empire is also a repeat, but without heavy research, I don’t know which book it appeared in originally.  The Crown of Natramititi is a pulp hero’s greatest fantasy, as it allows a character to evade death as a basic function.  Much like the shards from Aysle and the Living Land, its power is completely defensive, so there’s that.

The Cyberpapacy gifts us with the Penance Configuration, which sounds like it should be some derivative of a Hellraiser cube, but isn’t.  It mimics the “carry your reality with you” power of the Heart of Coyote, and it can only assist Mind-related rolls.  Nothing terribly new or exciting there.

The last three examples are actually pretty fun, for entirely different reasons.

The shard from Orrorsh is pretty much just a copy of the Necronomicon.  It boosts Magic for the wielder, and tapping its Possibilities becomes easier if they’ve performed a blood sacrifice beforehand.  Nothing particularly complex about any of it, but the flavor of the shard is spot on.

The shard from Pan-Pacifica (seriously, it’s going to take a while before I stop wanting to automatically type “Nippon Tech” for this cosm) is a pair of twin, engraved katanas – one red and one blue.  This one in particularly fun, because it refers to specific lore and story tropes.  Their powers are pretty straightforward, in that they offer greater resilience in battle and their Possibilities can only be used in combat.

And then there’s the one from Tharkold…  This one caught me off-guard because it was just weird enough to fascinate me.  Having spent a fair chunk of time around custom trucks and the like, it seems particularly weird to have an Eternity Shard that is used as a gearshift knob.  Which, in all seriousness, is what it is.

The knob enhances vehicle use, which only makes sense, and its flavor gives the whole thing a From a Buick 8 vibe, which fits nicely with Tharkold.

In going through the new Eternity Shards, it took a little while for it to sink in, but the new rules seem to have done away with the Group Powers aspect.  Group Powers were something unique to Eternity Shards, and they offered the idea that the entire group of player characters could access one singularly powerful aspect of the shard.  The Group Powers were useful (this is what could reincarnate otherwise slain characters), but as a whole, they were sort of dull.  One power allowed characters to create hardpoints for reality, and another allowed temporary teleportation gates, while a third could seek out hidden stelae of the Invasion.  There was one that allowed transdimensional messages to be sent, and another that allowed better collaboration on tasks.

All of these are useful, but they’re more of a meta-system level of play.  Gating characters between locations is useful, but from a narrative standpoint, it doesn’t change very much for the characters.  Keeping characters alive or having them reincarnate also falls more into the territory of GM fiat, which isn’t particularly thrilling.  (And yeah, I realize that putting such power in the hands of the characters is likely the purpose of the Group Power thing, but it’s still not very exciting.)

All in all, I really like the new Eternity Shard offerings, but I hope that more will follow in the individual Realm books.  In my own games, I almost never used Eternity Shards, as they were generally more work than I wanted to put in, just to make sure that they didn’t unbalance the game in any way.

Taking a Look at the Numbers of Torg Eternity

Going through the mainbook, I’ve been trying to keep an eye out for new alterations to the rules, just to keep myself honest.  I’ve gone through different rules iterations in other games (Star Wars D6, D&D / Pathfinder, Deadlands, Call of Cthulhu), and if I’m not careful about paying attention, I tend to default to elements of the old ruleset.

Of course, there is no better way to learn the rules than to make characters and play.  And naturally, this is where the first rules changes start to hit.

The Attributes for Torg Eternity have been slimmed down notably, which speeds up Character Generation notably.  Instead of seven Attributes, it’s dropped to five, and the available pool of points has dropped with it.*  On a practical level, this means that the characters are going to work from an established average, rather than having to guess at which stats to boost and which to dump.

In terms of systems and raw numbers, the Bonus Chart has remained largely the same, with a little bit of relief on the low end (a roll of 2 nets a -8, rather than a -10).  But for whatever reason, the Difficulty Scale has shifted around a lot.  Where something that was an Easy task used to be a threshold of 5 to clear, it now demands an 8 instead.

This may not seem like much, in the scheme of things, but Torg’s system is built on top of a surprising amount of math.  The Value Chart, which an adept GM can use to calculate nearmost everything, is a logarithmic scale.  Without going into full explanation, a difference of five points means that the higher number is a full ten times the lower.  As such, this change in difficulty is significant.

Without claiming a full grasp on the rule changes, this particular minutia seems to be the result of changing how Possibilities work for characters.  For one thing, Possibilities are no longer tied to Experience Points, meaning that there’s much less risk in using them at a whim, and they are significantly easier to come by.  For another, they have a higher built-in utility.

In the rules, both old and new, there are some fairly obvious kludges and rules braces to compensate for the random die rolls.  Among these is the “Minimum Bonus of 1” rule that applied to active defense.  Normally, your defense against being hit in combat is a static number that the opponent had to hit.  In desperate times, you could devote your action to an active defense, which meant that you rolled for a bonus to augment this number.  The problem is, there is a static 50% chance that you’ll actually roll a penalty and make things worse.

This is where the “Minimum Bonus of 1” rule comes in, ensuring that, at a minimum, you’ll have a defense that’s slightly higher.  This same philosophy underpins the use of Possibilities in the new edition, where an added roll from spending a Possibility will guarantee you a minimum of a 10, even if the roll was lower.

This is pretty huge.  Between this and the looser flow of Possibilities, Torg has become a much more high action game than it had been.  And it was pretty high action already.

Added to this is the Favored Skill rule.  There are a number of Perks in the mainbook (with more to be added with the upcoming realm books, I’m sure) that upgrade certain skills to be Favored.  What this means is that characters have an option to re-roll a bad result and take the second instead.  Most of these are defensive in the mainbook, but it’s still a fantastic upgrade, given the way dice tend to fall.

Looking at all of this from a top-down perspective, it’s pretty evident that the new design is trying to patch over a lot of the old randomness of the original system.  It has become a lot easier to succeed in a given action, just from the way that Possibilities are handled now.  A great deal of this defaults to the design sensibilities of Shane Hensley, who has been a constant proponent of easily obtained bonus dice.  Deadlands had the poker chips that came and went freely within a session, and this system was refined in his Savage Worlds system with bennies.  This system is just a continuation of what was used there, with the necessary disconnection from experience points.**

The change in Possibility management seems to have also eliminated some of the more interesting cards from the Drama Deck – things like Suspicion, Personal Stake, Mistaken Identity and True Identity.  These were Subplot Cards, plot altering monkey wrenches that players could drop on themselves or each other to complicate the main plot.  These were wildly unpredictable cards to use, because it meant that the GM either had made plans to be able to integrate them beforehand (unlikely, since a given one was rarely going to show up) or had to come up with a suitable solution on the fly.

The headaches of these cards were offset by the amazing possibilities that they offered.  Because they rewarded the player affected with extra Possibilities, players would try to use them immediately.  Personal Stake and True Identity were fairly harmless ones that mainly just deepened aspects of the main plot (“So, yeah…  It turns out that my character has already been in Mumbai, and one of his friends is involved in what’s going on.”), but Suspicion and Mistaken Identity were twists that made things much harder.  In one of the games I ran, this started a chain of events where one character was mistaken for an international weapons dealer, and this eventually grew to overtake the main plot.

Being that the Possibility flow has been seriously altered, it’s likely that these cards were eliminated accordingly, since an extra Possibility per act is no longer quite so necessary.  Which is a pity, since the inclusion of these cards had some hilarious implications.  It’s not to say that all of these cards were taken out, however.  The big three – Romance, Nemesis and Martyr – were kept in, but they’re also the easiest to manage.

Similarly, it looks like they pulled out the Monologue and Escape cards.  As things go, these were fairly minor, but they added some fun dynamic aspects to the game.  Escape was a “Get Out of Jail Free” card that players hung onto, just in case things went wrong for them.  And Monologue was … weird.

Monologue read “All hostile actions cease while you make a dramatic speech.”  The idea was that, if you had a player capable of pulling off a properly distracting in-character speech, the other characters could look for a solution to some situation.  Most of the time, this meant that the other players would move themselves into a better position or ready an escape plan of some sort.  It was an odd little card, but the effect that it had on the game was always entertaining.

In some ways, I feel like it could make a reappearance somewhere down the line, maybe as a Perk for Nile and Core Earth.  If not, maybe that’s how I’ll reintegrate it.

*The alteration to the Attribute spread between editions is one that’s going to be fun to suss out.  Originally, there were seven Attributes and 66 points to spread; an average of nine points per Attribute with three bonus points to spruce things up.  This time around, it’s gone to five Attributes and 40 points to spread.  Already, we’re looking at a flat base of eight points per, instead of nine plus.

I’m guessing that the game designers are banking on regular and constant improvement of Attributes this time around.  It’s notably cheaper (2x vs. 10x for experience point cost), so there’s that, but the early sessions may end up to be murder.

**This has been a constant sort of problem in games that grew out of the various design philosophies of West End Games.  If you tie your re-roll mechanic to experience, there will always be a hesitation in using the re-rolls.  On one hand, it makes sense that you’re trading immediate benefit against long term gains, but this comes at the price of chilling the action part of the game down to specific instances.

This is a perfectly valid approach to game design, but it can also blow back on the GM if a character is competent of lucky enough to avoid needing regular re-rolls.  Hording chips or Possibilities like this can mean that one character advances way more quickly than anyone else.  And again, this can be justified in some games, but current thought tends to keep everything a tad more egalitarian.

Torg Eternity – First Session

This Sunday, I ran the inaugural session of my new Torg Eternity campaign.  I had gotten the first PDF’s earlier in the week, and it was no secret that a game would soon follow.  I had made enough headway that I could fake my way through Character Generation, and the rules were familiar enough that I could manage a session without much trouble.

This is not to say that there weren’t some issues to resolve and prep work to be done.  By way of example, the first thing I had to do was build a usable Character Sheet.

Torg Eternity is a gorgeous game.  It’s a full color, sharply laid out, modern production of what had traditionally been a black and white product line.  The illustrations are rich and evocative, and the information is easy to reference and use, even from a PDF.  (One that doesn’t have bookmarks, however; I assume this will be remedied once we have the game closer to full release.)

The problem is, the character sheets that are included in the main book are awful.

The sheets mimic the design archetypes of the full-color main book itself, which has the unfortunate effect of looking like absolute trash when printed out.  (Oddly, I just realized that the character sheet I was using as a reference wasn’t actually included with the main book.  It was part of the Free RPG Day PDF, which I had gotten the week earlier.  I’m not sure what regular GM’s are supposed to do if they want their own sheet.  Or an example of it, even, since there is literally nothing to reference in the main book.)

The original character sheets were really functional.  As in, they looked like some sort of official incident report, rather than a character record.  It worked, but there was no art to it.  I guess they were trying to make up for that this time around.  My solution to the new character sheets was to fuse the two design ideals, ending up with a very functional throwback to the original edition, with just the slightest amount of upgrade to the layout.

That was the practical, pragmatic side of building the new campaign.  The next part of the game, the actual character hook, I left up to my players.  Since I prefer to introduce people to Torg in an incremental way,* my games invariably start in the run-up to the Possibility Wars.  In the past, I’ve run the characters as FBI Agents investigating the weirdness that accompanies the Invaders’ scouts, and I’ve run a Miami SWAT Team that sees things that begin to escalate towards the outbreak of combat.

It’s probably fairly obvious what these two campaign seeds have in common.  Torg is, at its most basic, a game about characters with big guns, so it only made sense to let them start out with guns immediately.  (And yeah, Pathfinder is, at its heart, a game of swords and magic.  It’s an easy generalization.)

With this in mind, one of my veteran players decided to keep to the formula and set the characters as part of a modern day PMC.  In the past, a staple part of the White Wolf games I’ve been in or GM’ed has been the institution of Tannhauser Solutions, a bigger and nastier version of Blackwater, headed by an amalgam of Erik Prince and Joseph Kony.  (If you’re in a world that actually includes supernatural creatures like vampires and werewolves, a genocidal mercenary company makes perfect sense.)

We went through basic Character Generation, including the Personal Checklist that I built a while back.  Since these characters were set in the real world, I tend to require actual biographical details that would be otherwise ignored – parents, siblings, best memories; things like that.

For Player Characters, we ended up with Vinny (borrowed from Disney’s Atlantis), Callum (stolen outright from the character in Far Cry 3), and Zach (your basic frat guy gone military).  Respectively, the demolitionist, the driver, and the sniper.  They also have an NPC medic / investigator that one of the players suggested, a sociopath by the name of Ryan.  I don’t expect him to live very long, if it comes to it.  Either that, or he is going to go straight dark side when the Invasion starts.  Either one works.

For simplicity, I dropped them in Miami.  It’s an easy setting that everyone has some understanding of, even if I have never personally been there.  (I have watched every episode of Burn Notice and Dexter, so there’s that.)  I had previously run the SWAT game out of Miami, on the same auspices.

The set-up was simple:  They’re in town for semi-official business (testify as character witnesses for a fellow Tannhauser employee), with no particular agenda.  It’s the weekend, they’re cut loose, and go from there.  Naturally, they end up at a beachfront nightclub with overpriced drinks and a fairly crappy Jimmy Buffett cover band called The Fla-Mangos.  (That was a player contribution, immediately worth a Possibility.)

While drinking, one of the characters sees an altercation between an apparent couple on the beach.  Things escalate, the woman gets drugged by what appears to be a bodyguard, and the group tries to subtly leave the area with her.  The characters intervene, but their military training severely outclasses the goons’ bodyguard training, and they rescue the girl.  The bad guys vanish into the night.

This is where the limitations of running from a single book start to show.  There aren’t all too many stat blocks included in the new mainbook, so everything defaults to some basic variant of the examples in the book.  Core Earth has Police Officer, Soldier and Soldier (Officer).  Each cosm has three or four stat blocks, so the available foes are pretty thin on the ground without a chunk of prep work.

Luckily, what I have in mind can generally default to these archetypes without any real work.  Bodyguards, militia types and mercenaries are pretty similar to what we already have to work with.

It turns out that the woman they rescued, Natalie Markham, is in town representing some weapons manufacturer who is trying to get some prototype testing done through the local doomsday prepper faction.  She has no idea who tried to abduct her previously, but she enlists the PC’s to escort her to a meeting south of the city.

Naturally, the meeting is interrupted by an outside force (Pan-Pacifica agents), and they have to flee amidst a running gun battle.

This is where I ran into limitation number two.  Since the game is still running up to an actual release, I’m doing all of this without a GM screen.  Over the intervening week, I’ll try to knock together a set of reference tables derived from the mainbook, but while I was actually running the game, I found myself flipping PDF pages to check the relevant rules.  Torg eternity has done away with many of the charts of the original game, but there are still enough that I’m going to need a physical aid before I run again.

Similarly, I’ve been relying on the old Drama Deck for card play, since the basics are still in place.  (Although it seems that some of my favorite cards – the Subplot Cards – have either been altered or replaced entirely.)  I would bemoan the lack of Cosm Cards, but since we’re still in pre-Invasion Core Earth, it doesn’t really matter so much.

It also bears noting that, since these characters are not yet Possibility rated, I’ve altered the dice mechanics.  Currently, they’re rolling 2d10 for task resolution, as though we were running Masterbook instead.  It’s a steeper difficulty curve, but since they still have Possibilities to throw (Core Earth, after all), it balances out somewhat.

The way I figure it, they’ll have the rest of summer to wander around and get familiar with the system before I spring the Invasion upon them.  By the time that the maelstrom bridges fall, they might actually be ready for them.

*For me, trying to introduce players to a new game is best handled slowly.  Start with the basics of the system and the world, and let them build those elements out as they go.  This was absolutely vital with 2nd Edition Exalted, since that game had a myriad of picky little sub-systems integrated into it, and the world was wildly complex.

There are a lot of games that require very little introduction.  Doctor Who, Star Wars, Star Trek, Song of Ice and Fire; if it’s a licensed property to start with, people know the basics of the world they’re in when they sit down.  Legend of the Five Rings, 7th Sea, Deadlands, most of White Wolf, Pathfinder / D&D; all of these are quick intros or fix to whatever the GM has planned specifically.  If a game can be summed up with a single adjective (“We’re playing a Samurai Game.”), it’s a lot easier to get things rolling.

And then you have stuff like Torg, Shadowrun, and Exalted.  Any game that requires 20 pages of homework before you start your first session needs to be handled carefully.  No player wants to do that kind of work, just to play.

Instead, we have half a dozen sessions to make things fall into place.