Monthly Archives: August 2017

Day One – Nile Empire

A couple of things before I launch into this review:  First, the Nile Empire has always been one of my favorite Realms in Torg.  I spent a lot of time there as a GM, and there was always a lot of great action to be had within its borders.  Not only was I a huge fan of things like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rocketeer, and The Phantom, the weird science and general tech level of the place amused me.

Second, this is one of the reviews I’ve been dreading most.

What sense does this make?  Well, so far I’ve really been enjoying the darker tone and general nihilism of the new Torg Eternity version of the Possibility Wars.  The original game, for better or worse, had a lot of goofy moments in it.  Sure, there was a war going on, and odds were stacked against the characters… but it was also a game of high action and character stunts.  And a lot of this came from being able to wing it with the high pulp sensibilities of the Nile Empire.  Dramatic speeches, electro-guns, overwrought plots to steal shiny maguffins – if the characters needed a break from the dire events taking place in Orrorsh or Tharkold, they could take a bit of a break and try to untangle the plots of the insidious Wu Han.  Comparatively, it seemed like a much less deadly place to run around in, and there were a lot more opportunities to be larger than life heroes.

Mounted against the backdrop of the other Realms, there are essentially two ways that Ulisses Spiel could bring forth the Nile Empire.  Either they could preserve its inherent pulp heroics, which would set it even further apart from the hopelessness of the rest of the current Possibility Wars, or they could alter things so that even Pharaoh Mobius has great and murderous plans for the heroes.

From the look of things, the writers have tried to strike a balance between the two ends of this spectrum; while the adventure does offer some opportunity for daring exploits, it makes fairly clear that the heroes are facing overwhelming odds.  The module offers a couple of fun directions that the characters can go in their rescues and escapes, without making any part of it seem too unbelievable.

Reading through things, I will say that they did some great things with this module, as would befit the pulp milieu that it’s built from.  For one thing, this is the first Invasion I’ve read where the characters are at Ground Zero for the maelstrom bridge dropping.  As in, about half a klick from where it actually touches down.  From where they are standing, they see the troops and vehicles descend the bridge and start carrying out the business of the Invasion.  In the module for Tharkold, everything happened roughly a day after the invasion.  For Orrorsh and the Cyberpapacy, the Invasion took place the previous night, but no one is quite sure what’s going on.  And of course, with the vaguely secret invasion of Pan-Pacifica, everyone’s more concerned with what’s going on in the rest of the world.

Naturally, the characters get a front row seat with the Nile Empire.

The first scene of the adventure deals with the maelstrom bridge falling.  From there, the characters are dropped into a newly created ancient catacomb (go, weird World Laws!) for the second scene that they have to escape in the proper high action way.

This is the point where it seems like poor editing has thrown a monkey wrench into the text of the adventure.  The characters have to make their way through a death trap maze under the pyramids, but if they fall victim to the death traps, they’re magically restored to life when it comes time to return to the surface.  Earlier, there’s a Moment of Crisis opportunity that comes in, where it’s noted that, if the characters fail to save the NPC in question, she’ll simply return later.  And it cites a World Law that doesn’t actually exist as a World Law – the Law of Inevitable Return.  This seems to be the same effect that covers the dead characters surviving the catacombs.

Here’s the thing:  Inevitable Return exists in the game, but it’s a Cosm Card that operates under the Law of Drama.  I feel like this is an issue of having the module written before the text of the rules has been fully nailed down.*  Being that this was sent out after the mainbooks were, it feels really odd that the module book wasn’t finalized after the rules were.  Maybe that’s just me, though.

The final scene is a broadly sketched free-for-all against a variety of foes at one of the Invasion base camps.  There is no defined assumption on how the characters should proceed in their escape, so it can range from a pure Stealth approach to a pitched battle against one of the pulp villains of the Nile Empire.  There’s even the option of stealing a zeppelin and flying off into the night.  (This would be my preference, if I’m being honest.  It even comes with its own hull-mounted plane, the Nile Empire version of the Vought Corsair.  Then all my Crimson Skies books would suddenly come into play.)

The pulp villains are just enough over-the-top to fit into the definition without being too outright goofy.  The closest one to ridiculousness would be Lady Hourglass, who has a weird science monocle and acts like a stereotype of a femme fatale.  She’s a bit out of place in the military camp – she’s really more of a subtle, social character who would be better suited to a nightclub setting – so I think I’ll save her for another scenario entirely.  (Even in the text of the adventure, it notes that she sashays her way around the military camp at a slow roll, taking far longer to respond to anything than her compatriots.)  In comparison, the Hooded Cobra and Brick-Knuckle Branko are solid villains without descending into nonsense.

I’m still not sure that the Nile Empire is going to be capable of inspiring the same sense of danger that the other Realms are doing (I mean, really…  Pan-Pacifica is now running its own version of Biohazard on the populace), but I guess we shall see.  There’s still the dire potential for mood whiplash when moving from Realm to Realm, but I’m hoping that the designers have plans for keeping this place threatening enough to keep up with the other Invaders.  I guess we’ll see.

*For what it’s worth, I did submit this to the errata engine, so hopefully this will change by the time it goes to print.  Yay, modern tech, for allowing on-the-fly proofing like this.  Boo for relying on your customers for the proofreading.

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Day One – Cyberpapacy

Right or wrong, I’ve always felt like the Cyberpapacy was the weirdest Realm of the whole game.  Take the fanaticism of the Spanish Inquisition and weld it onto the bleak nihilism of cyberpunk fiction.  It certainly hasn’t been done in regular sci-fi to any great extent, so here we have West End Games inventing a new gestalt whole-cloth.  Granted, I always had someone in my old games that wanted to play someone from Cyberfrance, but I assume that was more of an indicator of “High Tech = Better Guns” or some similar equation.* Combining amazing armor and physical enhancement with the ability to cast gnarly miracles certainly did not hurt things, either.

Scanning through the pre-gen characters, there are a startling number of people who end up converting to the Invading Reality.  Pan-Pacifica had three characters convert, but all of them took on vague anime archetypes.  (Well, except for the spooky psychic girl; she had been waiting her entire life for this Invasion.)  The Tharkold adventure had one character go native, which turned him into a dermal plated Heavy.  I can get behind this.  Orrorsh similarly had one, who became the Slayer archetype.  But I’m not really sure why we have four of the six characters converting this time.

Of the four, one becomes a functional Priest, replete with Faith and Miracles.  Another is converted to a cyberwitch, albeit seemingly without the cyberware.**  The other two of the converted characters are largely unremarkable, insofar as why they specifically can’t be Core Earth.  We’ll have to see if there’s any reason given within the text of the module itself.  I have my doubts.

All right, so … I’m working my way through the first page of the module text, and here’s what has stood out to me:  First off, the crux of the adventure is searching for some of the townsfolk that have gone missing.  This is pretty standard, but the module notes that the new Church Police are busily loading the “undesirables” onto trains.  Well, that gives us a solid hook for at least part of the setting.  (And really, if you can’t portray a Free French Resistance in the face of ruthless, authoritarian occupiers, you need to get caught up on your history.)

Then it talks about the blind, street corner prophets proselytizing about the end of the world that would come in the form of “Dragons, demons, and nightmares […]”  Hells, that just sounds like people in the 80’s, when I would talk about my hobbies.

The actual course of the module is fairly simple.  The characters investigate in the first scene, rescue one of the missing townsfolk in the second and steal a train in the third.  None of it is especially complex or surprising.  The fourth scene of the adventure is the boss fight (much like the way the Tharkold adventure was framed), and the epilogue has the characters recruited by Quinn Sebastian.

I realize that we’re going to get rules for the GodNet when we finally see the book for the Cyberpapacy drop, sometime in the next year, but it seems strange that there is nothing that really references it here.  One of the main hooks for the setting, according to the mainbook, is finding hidden information within the realm of the GodNet to use in the greater Possibility Wars.***  (I’ll be honest.  I was sort of hoping that the reason that so many characters had transformed was that one of the pre-gens would have a way to jack into the net and monkey about there.  This was not to be, however.)

Now the question is, how did this module fare against the rest of the book?

The truth is, it seemed a little … dull.  I can’t say that it was bad, but it felt like it was just sort of a by-the-numbers adventure.  There were no real innate threats that had to be confronted (unlike the others I’ve gone through up to now, there were no zombies to be found), and the opportunities for selfless heroism (rescuing small children, defending the landmarks of Core Earth) were relatively minimal.

The way the adventure was structured, the hooks that set things in motion actually felt like the only reason the characters could be bothered to do anything.  If they weren’t trying to save missing loved ones, would they have even gotten involved?  It doesn’t feel like they would have.  Does that mean that this is a larger problem in the face of the Cyberpapacy itself?

In the lead-up to the game, as well as the book itself, there have been notations that the machinations of Pharaoh Mobius have actually gained him supporters amongst the Core Earth residents of the Middle East.  Similarly, Jean Malraux dropped his bridges after he had sent forward scouts to warn of the other Invasions.  Does this mean that resistance to the Cyberfrance Invasion is actually fairly minimal?  It’s an odd setting to deal with, if that’s actually the case.

There was one element that would only appeal to a hardcore English geek like myself, however, which redeemed part of the adventure for me.  And to make any sense of this (it’s always good when I have to launch into a lengthy sort of preamble), I need to lay some groundwork.

The longest poem ever written in the English language is The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, ancestor of Lady Diana Spenser, the late and lamented Princess Di.  Spenser was a contemporary of Sir Walter Raleigh, and the poem was considered, among other things, to be an allegory in praise of Queen Elizabeth.

An epic poem, The Faerie Queene was a lengthy examination of sin and virtue, with the loyal knights of the story embodying certain aspects of proper Christian morality.  As such, they faced off against adversaries who were embodiments of sin and immorality.  In the first book of the poem, the main hero is the Redcrosse Knight, who embodies the virtue of holiness.  In his travels, he meets and challenges the Saracen knights; Sansfoy (the Faithless), Sanjoy (the Joyless) and Sansloy (the Lawless).  Being Saracens (which normally referred to the Moorish Islamic Knights, but in this context mainly just meant non-Christian), they were represented the antithesis of Christian values, hence their names and outlooks.

In the module, the characters encounter the formerly blind prophet who had preached the end times before the Invasion, and he lends them assistance in the form of weapons and information.  In the vein of The Faerie Queene, he is named Sansnom (the Nameless).

This is one of those points where overthinking and reading too much into the naming of an NPC is probably inadvisable.  The broader mythology of Torg deals with two greater aspects of creation, Apeiros the Creator and The Nameless One.  I feel safe in saying that this ragged priest is not representative of a primal force of destruction.

*Torg, I will maintain, is a game of bigger and bigger guns.  Hence the relative distaste for the Living Land (“Our guns no longer work!”) and the gravitation towards the realms of the Cyberpapacy and Tharkold (“Better living through firepower!”).  I’m not off to a great start in disproving that with my PMC crew.

**In the original game, sometimes merely converting to the reality of the Cyberpapacy was enough to install low-end cyberware.  I haven’t seen evidence of that as yet, but it would make a certain sense.  After all, official illustrations have full on Dragon Armor fading out of existence with disconnection.  (Which, by the way, is technically against the rules; Dragon Armor is a Perk, and depriving a character of a purchased Perk during the course of the game is generally forbidden.  As in, it has to be reinstated within a matter of scenes.  Having it wholly vanish from reality seems pretty final to me.)

***As a sidenote, this is a fascinating carry-over from the original edition.  Even then, it was noted that the GodNet was actually far larger and weirder than even Jean Malraux understood, and there were places hidden in the farther reaches of the matrix that might hold the key to winning the Possibility Wars.  However, like so many other dangling plot threads from the original edition of Torg, this was one of those things that never got further illumination.

Day One – Orrorsh

Throughout the history of Torg as a game, Orrorsh has always been a hard sell.  It is the most dire and unfair of the Realms in the game, and there is nothing untoward about the defeat of a major villain requiring some great sacrifice.  This place is roughly the reason that the Martyr Card exists in the first place.  No one wants to go to a place where they’re just as likely to lose a beloved character as they are to actually succeed.

It didn’t help that the underlying nastiness of the realm was reinforced by somewhat heavy-handed historical commentary.  Part of the success of the Invasion was due to the misguided interference of the Victorian Regiments that came down with the maelstrom bridge, intent on bringing their “civilization” to the savages.  There was a whole “white man’s burden” subplot underlying the Gaunt Man’s Realm, and while it had an ironic literary aspect to it, it made things pretty frustrating.  The Storm Knights were faced with having to deal with a faction of potential allies as being part of the larger problem, and the GM had to deal with trying to integrate Kipling into an adventure game.*

The original setting for Orrorsh was New Guinea and greater Malaysia, which was rather foreign to the average American GM.  This has since been moved to the more logical and thematically correct Indian subcontinent, but that doesn’t make it much more accessible to the core audience.  Outside of the Bollywood genre of films, there aren’t a lot of media properties that offer ingress to the setting.

Take, for example, the first notable location in the Day One adventure for Orrorsh.  The text casually mentions that they’re starting out from Madurai, which happens to be a hardpoint for Core Earth.  Okay, that’s interesting, but why?  A quick Google search turns up the Meenakshi Temple, a massive and colorful Hindu temple that dominates the city’s skyline.  Apparently, it has existed in some form for about 2,500 years, but its present form was only built about 500 years ago.**

As I noted with Tharkold, these adventures invite the GM to do a lot of research, just to bring some depth and texture to the world the characters find themselves in.  While this is a fascinating aspect to the setting, I’m starting to wonder if it’s an overall strength or weakness for the game.  Granted, we’re only working with a single mainbook and the first book of adventures (and PDF’s, at that), but I feel like we’re going to need some seriously in-depth setting books to make any of this work worth a damn.

And while we’re on the subject, this adventure drives home how much easier this would all be if I had my Delphi Council Cargo Box in hand.  One of the first things that happens is the characters pass out of the sheltering effect of the Madurai hardpoint, and they’re immediately subjected to the axioms of Orrorsh.  With the proper material in hand, this would take the form of setting the Axiom Table Tent in front of the players and handing out the relevant Cosm Cards.  I’ve already started lamenting the lack of the Condition Tokens that I’ll be getting in October, and I’ve had to repurpose my Deadlands Poker Chips for Possibilities.  This is what happens when you try playing without all of the necessary components in hand.

The characters for the scenario are pretty fun, really.  They’re all members of a wedding group that’s traveling to the hometown of their friend / co-worker for the ceremony.  We have the sister of the groom, her best friend, the priest (who also happens to be the best friend’s adoptive father, more or less), two of the groom’s closest work friends, and the poor bastard that’s driving them there.  (One of fun aspects of the scenario is that the reason they’re not in the center of all the horror immediately is because the driver’s bus broke down and delayed them.  And he’s really defensive about it.)

Being a horror scenario (as though would be any other kind in Orrorsh), the GM starts out by putting the game on a clock, counting down to the inevitable sunset.  Because we all know things are going to go straight to hell once night falls.  The goal of the first act is to make it to the village where the wedding is going to take place in time to investigate it before the main plot kicks in.  Naturally, there are all the elements of creeping horror – mysteriously abandoned cars, inexplicable anachronisms, and a zombie attack.

Okay, maybe the last one is a bit more overt.

Between this adventure and the one from Tharkold, there’s an element of small children in danger.  The Pan-Pacifica adventure avoids this by setting the events against nightlife in Harajuku, but both of the other ones have small children that need to be rescued from the events of the Invasion.  It’s an easy Moment of Crisis, but I’m hoping that this isn’t going to be a crutch for the game designers to lean on.

In the context of the adventure, the characters have to rescue a young boy from a horde of Gospogs.  Gospogs are an interesting aspect of the game, as they were one of the first creatures detailed in both the original game and the new edition.  At their core, they’re little more than zombies that can get by the inherent contradiction of being zombies.  They’re mainly featured in the Orrorsh module thus far, but the Tharkold adventure had the Thralls (think the Revenant from Doom, although mounted shoulder cannons are not required) and Pan-Pacifica had the Jiangshi, which we’ve been over.

I don’t think it needs to be said that Shane Hensley loves him some zombies.  (Seriously, take a look at the introduction to his Unisystem take on Army of Darkness.  He lays out his adoration for the genre pretty clearly.)  I would be surprised if he hadn’t quietly nudged some of these adventures to include more Gospog or Gospog-variants.

Once the characters reach the village, they are treated to the “survive the night against the hordes of zombies” scenario, with a couple of fun added horrors thrown in.  It’s not too bad of a set-up, but I will offer some incredulity as to the fact that the rural village (which serves as the destination and therefore the killing ground) is less than a dozen houses with a well.  It makes sense in a Victorian setting (which is what Orrorsh is based around), but it seems odd, given modern times.  The module hand-waves it by saying that some of the outbuildings have been overtaken by the jungle, but I think if I were to run this module, it would be tweaked to be slightly larger.

Oddly, the overall scenario feels like it would be more survivable than either of the other two that I’ve read through, despite being Orrorshan.  Maybe I’m giving too much weight to the Realm, but it honestly seems like this is less apt to end in absolute, unavoidable slaughter.  Which, given the way that the Gaunt Man has changed the War this time around, seems out of character.

Then again, who knows?  Maybe this is to lull the players into a sense of complacency before bringing the hammer down.

*Not that Kipling is bad, by any stretch.  But when you’re plumbing your college texts of English Lit for thematic elements, there’s a bit more whiplash when everything is pulled off track by (and suddenly, Ninjas!) the interference of a different Cosm.  Torg works best when you have a blending of elements.  And just like the old game, Orrorsh is the most isolated setting.

**I must say this:  Being American, the idea of having a structure that’s five centuries old is hard to comprehend.  Having a city that’s twenty-five centuries old is just unreal.