Category Archives: Gaming Philosophy
My previous post talked about the relative experience levels in Torg Eternity, which the designers chose to delineate using “clearance levels” within the Delphi Council. It’s in keeping with the flavor of the setting, as well as giving some indication of what sort of adventure awaits the characters in a given module.
This is a standard, if fading practice from the earliest days of D&D. Thinking on it now, it seems like the more narrative games of the 1990’s era did away with the idea of leveled modules in favor of subtle scaling, as necessary. These days, even in more numerically crunchy systems like FFG’s Star Wars line, about the only real nod to leveled encounters comes in the Force & Destiny line, where there’s a sharp divide between Beginning and Knight level play. (Mainly, do the characters have lightsabers and extensive Force power to call upon?) Otherwise, a lot of the encounters in modern games can be run according to the general assumed challenge level or the specific skills required to overcome the kinds of opposition mustered.*
As a core mechanic within role-playing games, the idea of experience points forms a bit of a contentious argument about the rapid advancement of characters within the setting of the game itself. Skill improvement comes with the advancement, and depending on the system, it can seem like the protagonists can go from incompetent to murderous in a matter of weeks – a rate of progress that has no real world analogue. But this is where the satisfaction of the players and the requirements of the game itself tend to overrule any cries against the intended realism of a given scheme of advancement.
That aside, Torg Eternity has a fascinating way of dealing with experience points, which may just be unique unto itself.
It’s a common aspect of RPG’s and specific groups to introduce new characters (or even players, for that matter) in the middle of an ongoing story. Given that continuous games could theoretically be played indefinitely, a rotation of characters is an accepted part of the system. And depending on the whims of the group, newly introduced characters may be added without the same benefit of level. There is no shortage of horror stories that involve fresh-faced players joining an established group, only to find themselves with grievously underpowered characters who cannot stand beside the veterans.
For that matter, it’s also well established that a player who misses a session of a given game are similarly going to miss out on the experience that goes with that session. None of this is uncommon, and depending on the system, the experience is specifically tied to the challenges that the characters overcame in the course of play. Dungeons & Dragons has entire spreadsheets devoted to this idea, with the relative challenge of an encounter being factored against the characters confronting it.
None of this applies in Torg Eternity.
It’s outright stated in the core rules that it doesn’t specifically matter what sort of ideas the characters had to overcome a challenge, as long as they pushed the story forward when they overcame it. Experience points are particularly flat in this edition, with a non-variable reward coming at the conclusion of each act of the story. It’s implied that a single act is approximately enough for a one night session, which flattens it even more. An act will have multiple scenes, but given the published adventures that have already been released with the Kickstarters, it’s still expected to fit within a session.
So, with at in mind, the Clearance Level of a character within Torg Eternity is essentially a shorthand for how many adventures they have been part of.
It’s also noted that any new character brought in, whether to replace a character that has died in the course of the campaign or with a new player joining the game, will be created at the same level as the extant characters. This is a very specific codification of how to handle the situation, which I haven’t really found elsewhere. And with it, the game notes that even if the player has been absent, the character is expected to remain at consistent experience levels with everyone else.
So, to distill this to the core ideas, character level is literally set by the progress of the game itself, not by any specific action by the players. In its way, the game itself sets the experience level of the characters playing it, not the other way around. Personally, I’ve played with iterations of this idea myself in different games, but having it be part of the game’s very foundation seems like a bold departure from decades of established gaming tradition. Part of me wonders if I should see this as a better way of doing things or if the differentiated awards of old are still preferable.**
I guess the main thing that I’m struggling with in considering all of this is whether or not it’s a change I’m comfortable with. I remember all too well the XP systems of old, and in a lot of cases, I tended to circumvent or hand-wave them as I saw fit. Part of me wants to knee-jerk at the idea of flattening the experience system down to such an extent, but I feel like I tend to institute systems like this in my games already. All that’s really changed in any of this is my ability to regulate experience points on my own terms.
In some ways, all this system does is remove a certain sort of tyranny from the hands of the GM. There is no mechanism to restrict the abilities of a new character, which makes a lot of sense, especially in the context of the baseline conflict that Torg Eternity is built around. This iteration of the Possibility Wars is geared to be far grittier and deadlier than the original. Intentionally handicapping characters is a poor idea.
Now it remains to see if I try applying any of this philosophy to other games.
*Of course, none of this applies to any derivation of Dungeons & Dragons. Encounter levels require careful knowledge of the maths involved, to the point that even published material gets called into question as to the actual fairness of monster design and ability. Best I can tell, only GURPS players have to deal with more calculation.
**One system that I still look back upon fondly is the old White Wolf mode that I used to such great extent in Werewolf. Roughly, it went as such: One point, automatic. You got one XP just for warming the chair. One point, what did the character learn? This one has the player connecting XP with some aspect of character growth, which I rather like, even if my players half-assed it at points. One point, role-playing. Pretty standard, but worth noting. One point, concept. Did your character act according to the overarching theme that they were built with? Ofttimes, this went hand in hand with the RP award. One point, heroism. Did your character go above and beyond in defending his pack?
Basically, a single session of Werewolf would net a PC between one and five XP, based on how they were being played. About the only point that was variable was the award for heroism, which may or may not have come up in the particular session.
I see this system being echoed in games like Blades in the Dark, which operates on a very similar basis for what the characters did in a given caper, with the same kind of general self-reporting that I used in my Werewolf games. And even though there is variance, there isn’t a whole lot. Most of the time, my players in Werewolf would end up getting about the same XP reward, meaning that the only difference between this and Torg is the illusion of free will. Which is a little bit meta, really.
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.
One of the most persistent bits of Torg iconography is the Eternity Shard. These minor artifacts serve as maguffins for the High Lords and sources of ready power for the player characters – magic items in a setting that otherwise didn’t encourage them. According to lore, when Torg was being teased at Gen Con in 1989, the West End Games staff handed out small chunks of red and blue swirled plastic and told people to come back in a year to learn what it was.
Over the following year, they ran ads in Dragon Magazine and other trade publications, talking about the storm that was coming. It wasn’t until almost the next Gen Con that Torg was actually given a name (depending on whom you believe, they were trying to come up with a name the entire time; hence the lack of branding in those teaser ads), and it was revealed that the chunks of plastic were, in fact, Eternity Shards. When the boxed sets were released, the D20 included was the same swirled red and blue.
Within the world of the game, these are items of legend and significance. The blue and red are the colors of Possibility and creation (Reality Storms are often depicted with red and blue lightning), and these artifacts are imbued by Apeiros, the force of creation, with the ability to alter destinies. Excalibur, for example, is one such Eternity Shard, having been forged in legend to eventually become such an item. (In current lore, such an item can start out as mundane and grow in stature. The red and blue coloration is integrated to the item somewhere along the way, once it has attained proper power and lore.)
In the original edition, GM’s were encouraged to create their own Eternity Shards for their campaigns, as the only example offered in the corebook was the Heart of Coyote, a fairly minor Shard that canon had already disposed of by the time the game’s timeline started. (In the novels, the Iconics found the Shard in their journeys and immediately used it to lock the Gaunt Man in a Reality Storm. I can’t argue with its use, but it made using the damned thing problematic from a storyline perspective.)
It didn’t help that there were very few examples offered in the game line going forward; what few Eternity Shards showed up usually were the object of an adventure or given a very narrow utility. The namesake of the Possibility Chalice adventure module was little more than a maguffin for the module trilogy, and its main use wasn’t readily apparent for several years.
Torg Eternity has gone a step farther by offering a variety of Eternity Shard examples – one each from the different realms. Hopefully, this will continue as a trend, if only to offer some ready-made options for GM’s to pick up and toss into a scenario.
As to the ones in the book…
Let’s start off with the obvious one. They’ve gone ahead and reprinted the original Heart of Coyote, for better or worse. It’s pretty basic, in that it carried Core Earth reality with it and can only be tapped for Spirit-related rolls. Nothing flashy and certainly nothing to write home about.
For the Living Land, they bring the Usaanta, a flower that … isn’t. My first read of this one was pretty cursory, since I didn’t think much of the whole “plants as Eternity Shards” bit from the original game. There were the red and blue flowers that allowed characters to be reincarnated (as happened with Tolwyn) and ones that expanded consciousness and revived wounded characters. There was flavor to them, sure, but something about the idea of a flower ranking at the same level as Excalibur seemed weird. (Mind you, in the context of the original Living Land, where non-living things corroded and decayed, it only made sense to have plant-based Eternity Shards, but still…)
The Usaanta is pretty basic in its power and restriction: Gain extra Wound levels, use the Possibilities contained within for non-violent actions. Sure.
Aysle gives us a very straightforward version of the Holy Grail. It heals afflictions, and that’s all. Nothing exciting, but it serves a basic purpose, much like the other two.
According to the scant resources I’ve been able to find, the Eternity Shard from the Nile Empire is also a repeat, but without heavy research, I don’t know which book it appeared in originally. The Crown of Natramititi is a pulp hero’s greatest fantasy, as it allows a character to evade death as a basic function. Much like the shards from Aysle and the Living Land, its power is completely defensive, so there’s that.
The Cyberpapacy gifts us with the Penance Configuration, which sounds like it should be some derivative of a Hellraiser cube, but isn’t. It mimics the “carry your reality with you” power of the Heart of Coyote, and it can only assist Mind-related rolls. Nothing terribly new or exciting there.
The last three examples are actually pretty fun, for entirely different reasons.
The shard from Orrorsh is pretty much just a copy of the Necronomicon. It boosts Magic for the wielder, and tapping its Possibilities becomes easier if they’ve performed a blood sacrifice beforehand. Nothing particularly complex about any of it, but the flavor of the shard is spot on.
The shard from Pan-Pacifica (seriously, it’s going to take a while before I stop wanting to automatically type “Nippon Tech” for this cosm) is a pair of twin, engraved katanas – one red and one blue. This one in particularly fun, because it refers to specific lore and story tropes. Their powers are pretty straightforward, in that they offer greater resilience in battle and their Possibilities can only be used in combat.
And then there’s the one from Tharkold… This one caught me off-guard because it was just weird enough to fascinate me. Having spent a fair chunk of time around custom trucks and the like, it seems particularly weird to have an Eternity Shard that is used as a gearshift knob. Which, in all seriousness, is what it is.
The knob enhances vehicle use, which only makes sense, and its flavor gives the whole thing a From a Buick 8 vibe, which fits nicely with Tharkold.
In going through the new Eternity Shards, it took a little while for it to sink in, but the new rules seem to have done away with the Group Powers aspect. Group Powers were something unique to Eternity Shards, and they offered the idea that the entire group of player characters could access one singularly powerful aspect of the shard. The Group Powers were useful (this is what could reincarnate otherwise slain characters), but as a whole, they were sort of dull. One power allowed characters to create hardpoints for reality, and another allowed temporary teleportation gates, while a third could seek out hidden stelae of the Invasion. There was one that allowed transdimensional messages to be sent, and another that allowed better collaboration on tasks.
All of these are useful, but they’re more of a meta-system level of play. Gating characters between locations is useful, but from a narrative standpoint, it doesn’t change very much for the characters. Keeping characters alive or having them reincarnate also falls more into the territory of GM fiat, which isn’t particularly thrilling. (And yeah, I realize that putting such power in the hands of the characters is likely the purpose of the Group Power thing, but it’s still not very exciting.)
All in all, I really like the new Eternity Shard offerings, but I hope that more will follow in the individual Realm books. In my own games, I almost never used Eternity Shards, as they were generally more work than I wanted to put in, just to make sure that they didn’t unbalance the game in any way.
Going through the mainbook, I’ve been trying to keep an eye out for new alterations to the rules, just to keep myself honest. I’ve gone through different rules iterations in other games (Star Wars D6, D&D / Pathfinder, Deadlands, Call of Cthulhu), and if I’m not careful about paying attention, I tend to default to elements of the old ruleset.
Of course, there is no better way to learn the rules than to make characters and play. And naturally, this is where the first rules changes start to hit.
The Attributes for Torg Eternity have been slimmed down notably, which speeds up Character Generation notably. Instead of seven Attributes, it’s dropped to five, and the available pool of points has dropped with it.* On a practical level, this means that the characters are going to work from an established average, rather than having to guess at which stats to boost and which to dump.
In terms of systems and raw numbers, the Bonus Chart has remained largely the same, with a little bit of relief on the low end (a roll of 2 nets a -8, rather than a -10). But for whatever reason, the Difficulty Scale has shifted around a lot. Where something that was an Easy task used to be a threshold of 5 to clear, it now demands an 8 instead.
This may not seem like much, in the scheme of things, but Torg’s system is built on top of a surprising amount of math. The Value Chart, which an adept GM can use to calculate nearmost everything, is a logarithmic scale. Without going into full explanation, a difference of five points means that the higher number is a full ten times the lower. As such, this change in difficulty is significant.
Without claiming a full grasp on the rule changes, this particular minutia seems to be the result of changing how Possibilities work for characters. For one thing, Possibilities are no longer tied to Experience Points, meaning that there’s much less risk in using them at a whim, and they are significantly easier to come by. For another, they have a higher built-in utility.
In the rules, both old and new, there are some fairly obvious kludges and rules braces to compensate for the random die rolls. Among these is the “Minimum Bonus of 1” rule that applied to active defense. Normally, your defense against being hit in combat is a static number that the opponent had to hit. In desperate times, you could devote your action to an active defense, which meant that you rolled for a bonus to augment this number. The problem is, there is a static 50% chance that you’ll actually roll a penalty and make things worse.
This is where the “Minimum Bonus of 1” rule comes in, ensuring that, at a minimum, you’ll have a defense that’s slightly higher. This same philosophy underpins the use of Possibilities in the new edition, where an added roll from spending a Possibility will guarantee you a minimum of a 10, even if the roll was lower.
This is pretty huge. Between this and the looser flow of Possibilities, Torg has become a much more high action game than it had been. And it was pretty high action already.
Added to this is the Favored Skill rule. There are a number of Perks in the mainbook (with more to be added with the upcoming realm books, I’m sure) that upgrade certain skills to be Favored. What this means is that characters have an option to re-roll a bad result and take the second instead. Most of these are defensive in the mainbook, but it’s still a fantastic upgrade, given the way dice tend to fall.
Looking at all of this from a top-down perspective, it’s pretty evident that the new design is trying to patch over a lot of the old randomness of the original system. It has become a lot easier to succeed in a given action, just from the way that Possibilities are handled now. A great deal of this defaults to the design sensibilities of Shane Hensley, who has been a constant proponent of easily obtained bonus dice. Deadlands had the poker chips that came and went freely within a session, and this system was refined in his Savage Worlds system with bennies. This system is just a continuation of what was used there, with the necessary disconnection from experience points.**
The change in Possibility management seems to have also eliminated some of the more interesting cards from the Drama Deck – things like Suspicion, Personal Stake, Mistaken Identity and True Identity. These were Subplot Cards, plot altering monkey wrenches that players could drop on themselves or each other to complicate the main plot. These were wildly unpredictable cards to use, because it meant that the GM either had made plans to be able to integrate them beforehand (unlikely, since a given one was rarely going to show up) or had to come up with a suitable solution on the fly.
The headaches of these cards were offset by the amazing possibilities that they offered. Because they rewarded the player affected with extra Possibilities, players would try to use them immediately. Personal Stake and True Identity were fairly harmless ones that mainly just deepened aspects of the main plot (“So, yeah… It turns out that my character has already been in Mumbai, and one of his friends is involved in what’s going on.”), but Suspicion and Mistaken Identity were twists that made things much harder. In one of the games I ran, this started a chain of events where one character was mistaken for an international weapons dealer, and this eventually grew to overtake the main plot.
Being that the Possibility flow has been seriously altered, it’s likely that these cards were eliminated accordingly, since an extra Possibility per act is no longer quite so necessary. Which is a pity, since the inclusion of these cards had some hilarious implications. It’s not to say that all of these cards were taken out, however. The big three – Romance, Nemesis and Martyr – were kept in, but they’re also the easiest to manage.
Similarly, it looks like they pulled out the Monologue and Escape cards. As things go, these were fairly minor, but they added some fun dynamic aspects to the game. Escape was a “Get Out of Jail Free” card that players hung onto, just in case things went wrong for them. And Monologue was … weird.
Monologue read “All hostile actions cease while you make a dramatic speech.” The idea was that, if you had a player capable of pulling off a properly distracting in-character speech, the other characters could look for a solution to some situation. Most of the time, this meant that the other players would move themselves into a better position or ready an escape plan of some sort. It was an odd little card, but the effect that it had on the game was always entertaining.
In some ways, I feel like it could make a reappearance somewhere down the line, maybe as a Perk for Nile and Core Earth. If not, maybe that’s how I’ll reintegrate it.
*The alteration to the Attribute spread between editions is one that’s going to be fun to suss out. Originally, there were seven Attributes and 66 points to spread; an average of nine points per Attribute with three bonus points to spruce things up. This time around, it’s gone to five Attributes and 40 points to spread. Already, we’re looking at a flat base of eight points per, instead of nine plus.
I’m guessing that the game designers are banking on regular and constant improvement of Attributes this time around. It’s notably cheaper (2x vs. 10x for experience point cost), so there’s that, but the early sessions may end up to be murder.
**This has been a constant sort of problem in games that grew out of the various design philosophies of West End Games. If you tie your re-roll mechanic to experience, there will always be a hesitation in using the re-rolls. On one hand, it makes sense that you’re trading immediate benefit against long term gains, but this comes at the price of chilling the action part of the game down to specific instances.
This is a perfectly valid approach to game design, but it can also blow back on the GM if a character is competent of lucky enough to avoid needing regular re-rolls. Hording chips or Possibilities like this can mean that one character advances way more quickly than anyone else. And again, this can be justified in some games, but current thought tends to keep everything a tad more egalitarian.