Author Archives: gameslibrarian
A couple of things before I launch into this review: First, the Nile Empire has always been one of my favorite Realms in Torg. I spent a lot of time there as a GM, and there was always a lot of great action to be had within its borders. Not only was I a huge fan of things like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rocketeer, and The Phantom, the weird science and general tech level of the place amused me.
Second, this is one of the reviews I’ve been dreading most.
What sense does this make? Well, so far I’ve really been enjoying the darker tone and general nihilism of the new Torg Eternity version of the Possibility Wars. The original game, for better or worse, had a lot of goofy moments in it. Sure, there was a war going on, and odds were stacked against the characters… but it was also a game of high action and character stunts. And a lot of this came from being able to wing it with the high pulp sensibilities of the Nile Empire. Dramatic speeches, electro-guns, overwrought plots to steal shiny maguffins – if the characters needed a break from the dire events taking place in Orrorsh or Tharkold, they could take a bit of a break and try to untangle the plots of the insidious Wu Han. Comparatively, it seemed like a much less deadly place to run around in, and there were a lot more opportunities to be larger than life heroes.
Mounted against the backdrop of the other Realms, there are essentially two ways that Ulisses Spiel could bring forth the Nile Empire. Either they could preserve its inherent pulp heroics, which would set it even further apart from the hopelessness of the rest of the current Possibility Wars, or they could alter things so that even Pharaoh Mobius has great and murderous plans for the heroes.
From the look of things, the writers have tried to strike a balance between the two ends of this spectrum; while the adventure does offer some opportunity for daring exploits, it makes fairly clear that the heroes are facing overwhelming odds. The module offers a couple of fun directions that the characters can go in their rescues and escapes, without making any part of it seem too unbelievable.
Reading through things, I will say that they did some great things with this module, as would befit the pulp milieu that it’s built from. For one thing, this is the first Invasion I’ve read where the characters are at Ground Zero for the maelstrom bridge dropping. As in, about half a klick from where it actually touches down. From where they are standing, they see the troops and vehicles descend the bridge and start carrying out the business of the Invasion. In the module for Tharkold, everything happened roughly a day after the invasion. For Orrorsh and the Cyberpapacy, the Invasion took place the previous night, but no one is quite sure what’s going on. And of course, with the vaguely secret invasion of Pan-Pacifica, everyone’s more concerned with what’s going on in the rest of the world.
Naturally, the characters get a front row seat with the Nile Empire.
The first scene of the adventure deals with the maelstrom bridge falling. From there, the characters are dropped into a newly created ancient catacomb (go, weird World Laws!) for the second scene that they have to escape in the proper high action way.
This is the point where it seems like poor editing has thrown a monkey wrench into the text of the adventure. The characters have to make their way through a death trap maze under the pyramids, but if they fall victim to the death traps, they’re magically restored to life when it comes time to return to the surface. Earlier, there’s a Moment of Crisis opportunity that comes in, where it’s noted that, if the characters fail to save the NPC in question, she’ll simply return later. And it cites a World Law that doesn’t actually exist as a World Law – the Law of Inevitable Return. This seems to be the same effect that covers the dead characters surviving the catacombs.
Here’s the thing: Inevitable Return exists in the game, but it’s a Cosm Card that operates under the Law of Drama. I feel like this is an issue of having the module written before the text of the rules has been fully nailed down.* Being that this was sent out after the mainbooks were, it feels really odd that the module book wasn’t finalized after the rules were. Maybe that’s just me, though.
The final scene is a broadly sketched free-for-all against a variety of foes at one of the Invasion base camps. There is no defined assumption on how the characters should proceed in their escape, so it can range from a pure Stealth approach to a pitched battle against one of the pulp villains of the Nile Empire. There’s even the option of stealing a zeppelin and flying off into the night. (This would be my preference, if I’m being honest. It even comes with its own hull-mounted plane, the Nile Empire version of the Vought Corsair. Then all my Crimson Skies books would suddenly come into play.)
The pulp villains are just enough over-the-top to fit into the definition without being too outright goofy. The closest one to ridiculousness would be Lady Hourglass, who has a weird science monocle and acts like a stereotype of a femme fatale. She’s a bit out of place in the military camp – she’s really more of a subtle, social character who would be better suited to a nightclub setting – so I think I’ll save her for another scenario entirely. (Even in the text of the adventure, it notes that she sashays her way around the military camp at a slow roll, taking far longer to respond to anything than her compatriots.) In comparison, the Hooded Cobra and Brick-Knuckle Branko are solid villains without descending into nonsense.
I’m still not sure that the Nile Empire is going to be capable of inspiring the same sense of danger that the other Realms are doing (I mean, really… Pan-Pacifica is now running its own version of Biohazard on the populace), but I guess we shall see. There’s still the dire potential for mood whiplash when moving from Realm to Realm, but I’m hoping that the designers have plans for keeping this place threatening enough to keep up with the other Invaders. I guess we’ll see.
*For what it’s worth, I did submit this to the errata engine, so hopefully this will change by the time it goes to print. Yay, modern tech, for allowing on-the-fly proofing like this. Boo for relying on your customers for the proofreading.
Right or wrong, I’ve always felt like the Cyberpapacy was the weirdest Realm of the whole game. Take the fanaticism of the Spanish Inquisition and weld it onto the bleak nihilism of cyberpunk fiction. It certainly hasn’t been done in regular sci-fi to any great extent, so here we have West End Games inventing a new gestalt whole-cloth. Granted, I always had someone in my old games that wanted to play someone from Cyberfrance, but I assume that was more of an indicator of “High Tech = Better Guns” or some similar equation.* Combining amazing armor and physical enhancement with the ability to cast gnarly miracles certainly did not hurt things, either.
Scanning through the pre-gen characters, there are a startling number of people who end up converting to the Invading Reality. Pan-Pacifica had three characters convert, but all of them took on vague anime archetypes. (Well, except for the spooky psychic girl; she had been waiting her entire life for this Invasion.) The Tharkold adventure had one character go native, which turned him into a dermal plated Heavy. I can get behind this. Orrorsh similarly had one, who became the Slayer archetype. But I’m not really sure why we have four of the six characters converting this time.
Of the four, one becomes a functional Priest, replete with Faith and Miracles. Another is converted to a cyberwitch, albeit seemingly without the cyberware.** The other two of the converted characters are largely unremarkable, insofar as why they specifically can’t be Core Earth. We’ll have to see if there’s any reason given within the text of the module itself. I have my doubts.
All right, so … I’m working my way through the first page of the module text, and here’s what has stood out to me: First off, the crux of the adventure is searching for some of the townsfolk that have gone missing. This is pretty standard, but the module notes that the new Church Police are busily loading the “undesirables” onto trains. Well, that gives us a solid hook for at least part of the setting. (And really, if you can’t portray a Free French Resistance in the face of ruthless, authoritarian occupiers, you need to get caught up on your history.)
Then it talks about the blind, street corner prophets proselytizing about the end of the world that would come in the form of “Dragons, demons, and nightmares […]” Hells, that just sounds like people in the 80’s, when I would talk about my hobbies.
The actual course of the module is fairly simple. The characters investigate in the first scene, rescue one of the missing townsfolk in the second and steal a train in the third. None of it is especially complex or surprising. The fourth scene of the adventure is the boss fight (much like the way the Tharkold adventure was framed), and the epilogue has the characters recruited by Quinn Sebastian.
I realize that we’re going to get rules for the GodNet when we finally see the book for the Cyberpapacy drop, sometime in the next year, but it seems strange that there is nothing that really references it here. One of the main hooks for the setting, according to the mainbook, is finding hidden information within the realm of the GodNet to use in the greater Possibility Wars.*** (I’ll be honest. I was sort of hoping that the reason that so many characters had transformed was that one of the pre-gens would have a way to jack into the net and monkey about there. This was not to be, however.)
Now the question is, how did this module fare against the rest of the book?
The truth is, it seemed a little … dull. I can’t say that it was bad, but it felt like it was just sort of a by-the-numbers adventure. There were no real innate threats that had to be confronted (unlike the others I’ve gone through up to now, there were no zombies to be found), and the opportunities for selfless heroism (rescuing small children, defending the landmarks of Core Earth) were relatively minimal.
The way the adventure was structured, the hooks that set things in motion actually felt like the only reason the characters could be bothered to do anything. If they weren’t trying to save missing loved ones, would they have even gotten involved? It doesn’t feel like they would have. Does that mean that this is a larger problem in the face of the Cyberpapacy itself?
In the lead-up to the game, as well as the book itself, there have been notations that the machinations of Pharaoh Mobius have actually gained him supporters amongst the Core Earth residents of the Middle East. Similarly, Jean Malraux dropped his bridges after he had sent forward scouts to warn of the other Invasions. Does this mean that resistance to the Cyberfrance Invasion is actually fairly minimal? It’s an odd setting to deal with, if that’s actually the case.
There was one element that would only appeal to a hardcore English geek like myself, however, which redeemed part of the adventure for me. And to make any sense of this (it’s always good when I have to launch into a lengthy sort of preamble), I need to lay some groundwork.
The longest poem ever written in the English language is The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, ancestor of Lady Diana Spenser, the late and lamented Princess Di. Spenser was a contemporary of Sir Walter Raleigh, and the poem was considered, among other things, to be an allegory in praise of Queen Elizabeth.
An epic poem, The Faerie Queene was a lengthy examination of sin and virtue, with the loyal knights of the story embodying certain aspects of proper Christian morality. As such, they faced off against adversaries who were embodiments of sin and immorality. In the first book of the poem, the main hero is the Redcrosse Knight, who embodies the virtue of holiness. In his travels, he meets and challenges the Saracen knights; Sansfoy (the Faithless), Sanjoy (the Joyless) and Sansloy (the Lawless). Being Saracens (which normally referred to the Moorish Islamic Knights, but in this context mainly just meant non-Christian), they were represented the antithesis of Christian values, hence their names and outlooks.
In the module, the characters encounter the formerly blind prophet who had preached the end times before the Invasion, and he lends them assistance in the form of weapons and information. In the vein of The Faerie Queene, he is named Sansnom (the Nameless).
This is one of those points where overthinking and reading too much into the naming of an NPC is probably inadvisable. The broader mythology of Torg deals with two greater aspects of creation, Apeiros the Creator and The Nameless One. I feel safe in saying that this ragged priest is not representative of a primal force of destruction.
*Torg, I will maintain, is a game of bigger and bigger guns. Hence the relative distaste for the Living Land (“Our guns no longer work!”) and the gravitation towards the realms of the Cyberpapacy and Tharkold (“Better living through firepower!”). I’m not off to a great start in disproving that with my PMC crew.
**In the original game, sometimes merely converting to the reality of the Cyberpapacy was enough to install low-end cyberware. I haven’t seen evidence of that as yet, but it would make a certain sense. After all, official illustrations have full on Dragon Armor fading out of existence with disconnection. (Which, by the way, is technically against the rules; Dragon Armor is a Perk, and depriving a character of a purchased Perk during the course of the game is generally forbidden. As in, it has to be reinstated within a matter of scenes. Having it wholly vanish from reality seems pretty final to me.)
***As a sidenote, this is a fascinating carry-over from the original edition. Even then, it was noted that the GodNet was actually far larger and weirder than even Jean Malraux understood, and there were places hidden in the farther reaches of the matrix that might hold the key to winning the Possibility Wars. However, like so many other dangling plot threads from the original edition of Torg, this was one of those things that never got further illumination.
Throughout the history of Torg as a game, Orrorsh has always been a hard sell. It is the most dire and unfair of the Realms in the game, and there is nothing untoward about the defeat of a major villain requiring some great sacrifice. This place is roughly the reason that the Martyr Card exists in the first place. No one wants to go to a place where they’re just as likely to lose a beloved character as they are to actually succeed.
It didn’t help that the underlying nastiness of the realm was reinforced by somewhat heavy-handed historical commentary. Part of the success of the Invasion was due to the misguided interference of the Victorian Regiments that came down with the maelstrom bridge, intent on bringing their “civilization” to the savages. There was a whole “white man’s burden” subplot underlying the Gaunt Man’s Realm, and while it had an ironic literary aspect to it, it made things pretty frustrating. The Storm Knights were faced with having to deal with a faction of potential allies as being part of the larger problem, and the GM had to deal with trying to integrate Kipling into an adventure game.*
The original setting for Orrorsh was New Guinea and greater Malaysia, which was rather foreign to the average American GM. This has since been moved to the more logical and thematically correct Indian subcontinent, but that doesn’t make it much more accessible to the core audience. Outside of the Bollywood genre of films, there aren’t a lot of media properties that offer ingress to the setting.
Take, for example, the first notable location in the Day One adventure for Orrorsh. The text casually mentions that they’re starting out from Madurai, which happens to be a hardpoint for Core Earth. Okay, that’s interesting, but why? A quick Google search turns up the Meenakshi Temple, a massive and colorful Hindu temple that dominates the city’s skyline. Apparently, it has existed in some form for about 2,500 years, but its present form was only built about 500 years ago.**
As I noted with Tharkold, these adventures invite the GM to do a lot of research, just to bring some depth and texture to the world the characters find themselves in. While this is a fascinating aspect to the setting, I’m starting to wonder if it’s an overall strength or weakness for the game. Granted, we’re only working with a single mainbook and the first book of adventures (and PDF’s, at that), but I feel like we’re going to need some seriously in-depth setting books to make any of this work worth a damn.
And while we’re on the subject, this adventure drives home how much easier this would all be if I had my Delphi Council Cargo Box in hand. One of the first things that happens is the characters pass out of the sheltering effect of the Madurai hardpoint, and they’re immediately subjected to the axioms of Orrorsh. With the proper material in hand, this would take the form of setting the Axiom Table Tent in front of the players and handing out the relevant Cosm Cards. I’ve already started lamenting the lack of the Condition Tokens that I’ll be getting in October, and I’ve had to repurpose my Deadlands Poker Chips for Possibilities. This is what happens when you try playing without all of the necessary components in hand.
The characters for the scenario are pretty fun, really. They’re all members of a wedding group that’s traveling to the hometown of their friend / co-worker for the ceremony. We have the sister of the groom, her best friend, the priest (who also happens to be the best friend’s adoptive father, more or less), two of the groom’s closest work friends, and the poor bastard that’s driving them there. (One of fun aspects of the scenario is that the reason they’re not in the center of all the horror immediately is because the driver’s bus broke down and delayed them. And he’s really defensive about it.)
Being a horror scenario (as though would be any other kind in Orrorsh), the GM starts out by putting the game on a clock, counting down to the inevitable sunset. Because we all know things are going to go straight to hell once night falls. The goal of the first act is to make it to the village where the wedding is going to take place in time to investigate it before the main plot kicks in. Naturally, there are all the elements of creeping horror – mysteriously abandoned cars, inexplicable anachronisms, and a zombie attack.
Okay, maybe the last one is a bit more overt.
Between this adventure and the one from Tharkold, there’s an element of small children in danger. The Pan-Pacifica adventure avoids this by setting the events against nightlife in Harajuku, but both of the other ones have small children that need to be rescued from the events of the Invasion. It’s an easy Moment of Crisis, but I’m hoping that this isn’t going to be a crutch for the game designers to lean on.
In the context of the adventure, the characters have to rescue a young boy from a horde of Gospogs. Gospogs are an interesting aspect of the game, as they were one of the first creatures detailed in both the original game and the new edition. At their core, they’re little more than zombies that can get by the inherent contradiction of being zombies. They’re mainly featured in the Orrorsh module thus far, but the Tharkold adventure had the Thralls (think the Revenant from Doom, although mounted shoulder cannons are not required) and Pan-Pacifica had the Jiangshi, which we’ve been over.
I don’t think it needs to be said that Shane Hensley loves him some zombies. (Seriously, take a look at the introduction to his Unisystem take on Army of Darkness. He lays out his adoration for the genre pretty clearly.) I would be surprised if he hadn’t quietly nudged some of these adventures to include more Gospog or Gospog-variants.
Once the characters reach the village, they are treated to the “survive the night against the hordes of zombies” scenario, with a couple of fun added horrors thrown in. It’s not too bad of a set-up, but I will offer some incredulity as to the fact that the rural village (which serves as the destination and therefore the killing ground) is less than a dozen houses with a well. It makes sense in a Victorian setting (which is what Orrorsh is based around), but it seems odd, given modern times. The module hand-waves it by saying that some of the outbuildings have been overtaken by the jungle, but I think if I were to run this module, it would be tweaked to be slightly larger.
Oddly, the overall scenario feels like it would be more survivable than either of the other two that I’ve read through, despite being Orrorshan. Maybe I’m giving too much weight to the Realm, but it honestly seems like this is less apt to end in absolute, unavoidable slaughter. Which, given the way that the Gaunt Man has changed the War this time around, seems out of character.
Then again, who knows? Maybe this is to lull the players into a sense of complacency before bringing the hammer down.
*Not that Kipling is bad, by any stretch. But when you’re plumbing your college texts of English Lit for thematic elements, there’s a bit more whiplash when everything is pulled off track by (and suddenly, Ninjas!) the interference of a different Cosm. Torg works best when you have a blending of elements. And just like the old game, Orrorsh is the most isolated setting.
**I must say this: Being American, the idea of having a structure that’s five centuries old is hard to comprehend. Having a city that’s twenty-five centuries old is just unreal.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.