Category Archives: Review

Threading the Needle on Lore

Let’s talk about Legend of the Five Rings by opening with a discussion on Star Wars.  That makes sense, doesn’t it?

A distressing amount of my life has been defined by my adoration of Star Wars.  I am old enough that I managed to see the original trilogy in the theaters, and I adopted the old West End Games Star Wars D6 game nearly as soon as it hit the shelves.  (Y’know, thirty damned years ago.  Ugh.)  My world, for good or for ill, is littered with the ephemera of the setting, whether it come in the form of toys, books, concept art, etc.

I was not, however, a fan of the Prequel Trilogy.  It made little to no sense, and I have made it a point that anyone who prefers these movies is not likely to be a good fit for my playing group.  I’ve gone to the trouble to rewrite my own personal canon for this time period, deviating from the movies as I need to in order to maintain a cohesive narrative, something that these movies do not do.

And so far as it goes, I’m a huge fan of the direction of the new Star Wars movies, with a special eye to the bleakness of Rogue One.  I understand why people don’t necessarily like the new movies, but they’re challenging.  They may not be made for people who are comfortable in their perceptions of the galaxy that these stories are set in.*

I especially liked Solo, which seems to put me in the minority.  I had no problem with the re-casting of the main character, I enjoyed the plot, and more than anything, I was a fan of the inclusion of the myriad little details that hinted at the expanded universe of the old novels and comics.  It was a pity that the so-called “easter eggs” that were scattered throughout the movie were missed by all of the old fans that chose to sit this one out because of their reaction to The Last Jedi.

Looking over the adventure in the Beginner’s Box for L5R, I feel like this edition is going to be the Solo of role-playing.  It’s brand new, gorgeous, and it’s made with a particular mind for the die-hard fans of the game, but there’s an entire contingent of the audience that’s acting all butthurt about the new direction and won’t pick it up.  Which is a shame, since the writers went out of their way to reference specific lore for their benefit.

When it was announced that Alderac was selling L5R off to Fantasy Flight, there was a hue and cry among the various fans that I know, all of them complaining about the new directions that FFG would likely take things in.  When the card game was discontinued and reborn as an LCG, the same set of people muttered darkly about how everything was accordingly ruined.  And of course, when the Beta PDF was released, the new version of Roll & Keep was roundly despised.

Now, of course, I’m not saying that this particular group represents the entirety of the L5R fanbase, but I have little doubt that there are echoes of their displeasure within the audience.  I am well familiar with the Edition Wars that define Dungeons & Dragons (I mean, I’ve complained here about the new edition of Pathfinder that’s due to release in another year; it’s not like I’m a stranger to the phenomenon), so it would be well within bounds to assume that there will be a similar backlash to this new edition of L5R.

One of the things that FFG has done with this new edition is to reset the timeline of the setting, bringing everything back to the very beginning of the familiar storyline.  L5R began its run with the Clan War era, a period of time when the dynastic Emperor was assassinated and the Great Clans raised armies against each other.  It was a rich era for the game, and by doing this, FFG can introduce new players to the setting without trying to make sense of what has happened over the last 20 years of play.

The canned adventure in the Beginner’s Box takes full advantage of this, building out a scenario that is a direct reference to the canned adventure in the back of the original L5R book from 1997.  The adventure is set a year after the original module, with many of the same characters appearing.  The situation is similar, with the newly minted characters being brought forth to participate in the coming-of-age gempukku ritual that ushers them into adulthood.

To anyone unfamiliar with the lore,**  the adventure is a solid sort of one-off.  It allows new players to make sense of the rules and introduces enough aspects of the setting to bring them back for future sessions.  But to the fans of the deeper lore, all of this builds on what has been established and anticipates what is to come.

And really, this is a shame, since I feel like Fantasy Flight went to a lot of trouble to make an adventure that has the right sense of history and placement, only to have the people most poised to appreciate it generally ignore it.

I mean, I could be wrong.  It may turn out that the people that have been with the game for its history could eventually come around and learn to appreciate what FFG has done with the game.  That would, of course, be the best possible situation.  But there seems to be too much ingrained cynicism within the gaming community when it comes to new innovation and design, which could very well doom this game for the old audience.

For my purposes, I can see myself sticking with this edition.  The learning curve for the depth of lore has been eased back, and while it’s still a different flavor of game from what a lot of people are familiar with, it’s a much lower threshold for entry.  That alone should be enough to bring a new audience in.  At least, I can hope for such.

*Point of note:  I actually managed to scare off a player from my regular Star Wars game with a discussion of the new movies.  The guy was bound to the idea that the portrayal of Luke Skywalker was terrible and out of character for what had been established.  He was of the opinion that Luke would have swung in, lightsaber in hand, and defeated the First Order on his own.  When I countered with the idea that Luke’s general methodology was based on reacting out of fear, he nearly flipped the table on me.

But it’s true.  If you look at everything established in the original trilogy, Luke’s actions are not those of a hero as much as they are the actions of a character who is unprepared for the role that has been thrust on him.  This is best illustrated by the sequence in the cave on Dagobah.  There, he is confronted by his own fears, strikes out, and it is revealed that he is in danger of becoming what he most fears:  Darth Vader.  This is reflected by the sequence in Last Jedi, where he confronts Kylo Ren.

And well, the end result of this discussion was that the player in question vanished and has not been seen since.  He was very uncomfortable with the idea that Luke wasn’t his vision of greatness.

**Make no mistake; even though I may own the books, I had to pull the book off the shelf and skim through the adventure to make sure that my assumptions were correct.  Most of my suspicions were confirmed by a couple of specific Google searches and a bit of careful reading of the attendant wiki.  I only know the lore in passing.  I leave it to other people to make a close study of the setting.

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A String of Alphanumerics

There’s no good way to title an entry on the new edition of an old game and still have it come out being comprehensible to anyone beyond a very narrow niche of people already familiar with the game in the first place.  My original title would have looked something like “FFG’s L5R 5E RPG,” with some qualifiers, so I just gave up.

Gen Con saw the release of the first product for the new edition of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG (hereafter shortened to the much easier L5R), in the form of the Beginner Game Boxed Set.  Fantasy Flight Games bought the license from Alderac Entertainment Group, who had originated the setting back in 1995, gaining rights to both the card game and the RPG from this point forward.*

Much like Alderac before them, FFG put out the card game beforehand, albeit in a Living Card Game format, rather than Collectible.  I feel like this was a necessary step for them to take (the LCG vs. CCG thing), given that the 90’s were littered with failed card games and collectors that had to learn the hard lesson that nothing other than Magic was worth buying and investing in.**  FFG had previously had some success with adapting the old Netrunner game (based on R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk RPG) into an LCG, so it only made sense to go in that direction anyway.

The new game plays to the current strengths of FFG’s recent history.  It’s a well-defined setting with a long history and a lot of lore, and they can build a system that allows them to sell off unique dice sets with funny symbols on them.

The actual core book isn’t due out until some time in October, by current estimations, so right now, all we’re working with is the Beginner’s Box and the PDF of the Beta that they put out back in the spring.  That said, I feel like we’re already off to a good start on things with this new edition.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I haven’t had a huge amount of experience with the older editions of L5R.  I never played the card game, which seems to be the gateway drug for the RPG and the lore therein, and while I like the setting, it was always a bit … much.  The original books read less like an RPG than a culture guide to Shogunate Era Japan, to the point that the diehards could accurately reel off increasingly esoteric trivia about the setting.  How many handmaids could a samurai reasonably expect to have travel with them on a journey to the Winter Court?  What was the number of peasants that a distant province would likely have at a given time?  Et cetera.***

What I do have is a lot of experience with people who played L5R in its original editions.  And my perception of these gamers is that they cleaved to the lore of the setting to the point that their samurai were always extremely precise and mannered in all possible situations, never deviating from the proper courtesies and behavior.

And well, FFG is having none of that.

Part of the reasoning behind the dice sets with the funny symbols is that they can revise the mechanics of the system to put in what I have taken to calling “Samurai Freakouts.”

In Star Wars, the Strain mechanic has become something of a character limiter for my games.  Wounds (and Critical Injuries) are one thing, but more often, my players have found that their characters suffer a crippling amount of battle fatigue, to the point that they’re constantly looking for ways to mitigate the Strain that they take in the middle of combat.  For me, it allows a solid mechanic to create tension and equalize what might otherwise be one-sided fights.

This mechanic has shown up in the new edition of L5R in the form of Strain.  The dice are divided into Ring and Skill Dice, and keeping with the original Roll & Keep of the old editions, characters build a dice pool and roll, keeping a number of dice equal to their Ring.  (For the uninitiated, the Ring is roughly equivalent to the Attribute Dice in other games.  The Rings are based on the elements of the setting, and here they define how a character approaches a problem.  More on this elsewhere.)

The Ring Dice are six-sided black dice, with symbols for Success, Opportunity,  Exploding Success, and Strife.  The Skill Dice are twelve-sided white dice with the same symbols, in different combinations.  Unlike the narrative dice of Genesys and Star Wars, there are no failure symbols, but many of the success symbols come at the expense of Strife.  And if you build up too much Strife, your character is going to lose their shit in a well defined and spectacular way.

It bears noting that the manner in which your character “Unmasks” or loses their very particular shit is up to the player.  The mechanism is chosen at character creation, and the method by which they freak out in the game is left to the character.  None of this is forced on the player by the GM, which is important.

Also, since the system is a new iteration of Roll & Keep, the player can choose to either succeed with a buildup of Strife, or lose with grace, simply by choosing which dice they want to keep for their final result.

This eliminates (or at least sharply mitigates) the perfectly mannered samurai that I have heard tell of in the previous editions, and I couldn’t be happier with the idea.  Yes, this is a game of political intrigues and samurai action, but having a core mechanism with an eye to creating internal tension for the characters is a masterstroke.  It gives greater depth to the narratives, and it allows a greater degree of humanity to be present in the games from this point forward.

*There are some interesting permutations to this, I might note.  According to some fairly well-connected sources, this license was strictly and severely limited, in that apparently it only covers the core setting of Rokugan, with a rather specific exclusion of the Legend of the Burning Sands setting that is tied to it.  Burning Sands was the weird and largely unused Arabian Nights setting that existed to the West of Rokugan.  This was where the Unicorn Clan wandered during its exile, and where the Scorpion ventured after the failed coup.

Removing this setting from L5R poses some interesting problems, should the game ever need to expand.  Granted, it was only ever included in the regular RPG in a single book in the 3rd Edition of the game, but the diehard historians know that it’s out there, the same way that the Ivory Kingdoms to the South are a documented part of the setting.

Also, it is interesting to see that, with the divestment of their 7th Sea and L5R properties, Alderac has become just another board game publisher.  I get the feeling that, given the way that they went and the direction that Steve Jackson Games is going, RPG’s just aren’t able to bring in the necessary operating funds.  Not that this is a surprise, necessarily, but it’s still worth talking about.

Unless you’re publishing Dungeons & Dragons, of course.

**The L5R CCG is a particularly damning example to put up against Magic, since it has a lot of factors making it expensive to get into without any investment angle.  First off, AEG tried to sell the early sets on a monthly rotation, meaning that you were always buying cards, and the cards you were getting weren’t necessarily that good, since they might be replaced next month.

Second, being a clan-based play style, anyone playing was going to concentrate on their one or two factions in order to have a playable deck.  This meant that roughly 80% of the cards in a given booster pack were going to be worthless to the average player.  Sure you could trade off with the other people in a local group, but it’s a little disheartening to get a stack of cards, some of them amazing, that you were going to have to immediately turn around and get rid of.

And finally, each core set made sure that the cards you’d been playing with last year were no longer tournament legal.  If you weren’t playing with the current edition-legal cards, you really couldn’t play.  (I may be wrong about this, but somewhere along the way, I found out that people never played different sets against each other.  To the point that there had to be fan-made rules in place to allow such ideas.)  This meant that within a year or two, the card base that you would have spent serious time and money amassing was going to be strictly worthless.  Which also had the effect of making stores less likely to bother stocking L5R, being that they could get stuck with product that would literally never move off their shelves.

At least when I got out of Magic, I had a base of cards I could sell off to justify the amount of money I had put into it at the time.  Sure, I still have stacks and stacks of worthless cards, but being able to sell a single card for $900 makes up for a lot of that.

***There was a notation in the Beginner’s Box adventure that felt like a callback to this sort of nonsense.  In a contest of etiquette, they had an example of the sort of question that a samurai with the proper understanding of the culture of manners would be able to answer.  Roughly, if meeting at a narrow bridge, would would defer to the rank of the other, an Emerald Magistrate or the Topaz Champion?  This feels like the sort of deep lore that a diehard player would be able to answer.

Also, for what it may be worth…  yeah, I never played L5R very much, but my own idiot collector tendencies ensure that I have a near-complete set of all of the previous editions of the game.  Whee.

Torg Eternity – The Burden of Glory (Part Three)

Thus far, we have looked at the implications of stelae boundaries around the time of the Year One update, according to what the module gave us for goals.  Following that, we had a discussion of what amounted to being roughly two-thirds of the module, with the main encounters that dealt with uprooting a Living Land stela and defending a critical Core Earth hard point from Baruk Kaah’s forces.

Which leaves us with what most GM’s would probably consider the most important of the main objectives – the weird one.

On the surface, this doesn’t present itself as being a fundamentally interesting module.  There is a matter of missing scouts, the undefended stela, and the dinosaur attack in the midst of everything.  Based on the Day One Adventure modules and the Delphi Council modules that came as additional goals for the Kickstarters, most of the adventures were pretty much by the numbers.  They showcased the individual Realms pretty well, since they were trying to work as introductions for the GM and players, none of whom were required to be familiar with a game that’s about 30 years old by this point.  (And has been out of print for close to 25 years.)

The thing is, while all of these modules are good at showing what players could expect from an adventure in Tharkold or the Nile Empire, they didn’t actually do justice to what should be expected in the context of a proper Torg module.

So, what’s the difference, you might reasonably ask?

Simple.  A Torg module is at its best when it gets seriously weird.  All of the adventures that have come before this have been very Cosm-specific.  (And no, I can’t speak to the variance of the modules on the Infiniverse Exchange, as I haven’t availed myself of any of the fan-made materials.)  The extant modules, with the vague exception of the God Box by Shane Hensley, have done an excellent job of dealing with single Cosm forays.  It’s when things start to overlap that Torg really shines.

In the Relics of Power trilogy, the characters were initially sent after an assassin sent by the Cyberpapacy to eliminate Nile Empire agents in Atlanta.  Then, ninjas.  And it only gets more complicated from there.  You see, by rights, all of the High Lords are working against each other in the course of the war, each trying to jockey for power or position to the point that any given objective has a complex conspiracy woven into it.  In my own home game back in the day, Nippon Tech agents were routinely sparring with Tharkoldu for things like Eternity Shards, even as other groups vied for control.

And that’s what makes the Burden of Glory such fun.  But then, it sort of has to hearken back to the old ways, given that the guys they were running for happened to be hardcore fans of how things used to be done.  Anything less would have been disappointing.

Anyway, back to the module itself.  As noted, we have yet to deal with the final option for the module’s objectives – the mysterious golden temple that appeared nearby, which is somehow connected with the prehistoric “Mound Builders” of the area.*  The characters learned of this when they rescued Daybasker, the slacker edeinos, along with the attack on Lincoln University.  It’s heavily implied that the characters will seize upon this as a main objective, since it’s too bizarre to pass up otherwise.

It’s worth noting that the rest of the module tends to funnel the characters toward this idea as well.  There is a sidebar early on that offers suggestions for the different Cosm cards that could be played as part of the action.  Both the Dino Attack card and the Lost Treasure card specifically refer to the temple, with any sort of further investigation of what they find moving them to the front steps of the mound.

Upon arriving at the golden temple, the characters are filled with a sense of unease, and the GM reinforces this with a sense of unease for the players – the Living Land Cosm Cards are discarded and replaced with Orrorshan Cosm Cards.  (If it wasn’t bad enough that the entire Cosm of the Space Gods was destroyed by the Gaunt Man, the module adds insult to injury by dropping a Nightmare Tree on top of everything, making this an Orrorshan hard point.  Yay.)

At the entrance to the temple, they find the mummified remains of one of the scouts that had ventured out several days before from Lincoln University.  (The mummification, of course, is due to the overlay of Orrorsh; otherwise, the body would already be reduced to bones by Living Land world laws.)  Further in, they find the rest of the expedition, all of whom have been felled by mysterious weapons.

The interior is a weird amalgamation of high tech superscience and Incan iconography, with equal parts circuitry and pictographs built into the stone of the walls.  The images tell the story of how the Akashans traveled between worlds, trying to shore up defenses against the High Lords, with the inevitable betrayal at the hands of the Elves of Aysle.  At one point, it is revealed that this “temple” is actually an interdimensional lifeboat from the Star Sphere, with extremely minor remnants of their tech.  Along the way, there are a couple of combat encounters, but these are more like Easter Eggs for the dedicated Torg lore enthusiasts than anything else.

The final chamber at the top of the pyramid has the important bit of lore as everything starts to crumble.  It seems that right before the Gaunt Man destroyed Akasha, they had dispatched as many of these lifeboats as they could, but they were almost all destroyed.  The only ones to survive, according to the star map in the control chamber, were the one that the players found, and another somewhere to the far south.**

The encounter concludes with the Wonder imploding and the Nightmare Tree that has been propping it up falling apart.  The characters can scramble to pick up a couple of neat toys from the lifeboat before it collapses completely, but otherwise, the main thing that they leave the temple with is more questions.***

*Now, this is an interesting bit.  According to the module, there isn’t actually a mound at the site of the newly arrived golden temple, but it’s in the shape of one.  And when it is destroyed in the final confrontation, it essentially becomes one.  This leaves us without a defined location for the temple itself, other than being “an hour away” and somewhere within the vaguely defined stelae boundaries.

What’s strange is that most of the mounds that people are familiar with are nowhere near the confines of the module, with the Cahokia Mounds (the ones most people could name off the top of their head) being up near St. Louis.  There’s another one, deep in the Mark Twain National Forest, where it’s noted that previous fighting took place.  But as we are to learn, it’s clearly not that one either.

And none of this is to touch on the idea that one of the NPC’s detailed in the beginning of the module is actually obsessed with the mounds in the area, ranting on about the dire significance of these constructs and their connection to South America.  (Of course, he’s absolutely correct in his hypotheses, but there’s a good chance that he dies before he can be questioned by the Storm Knights.)

**It seems to me that the big reveal at the end of the module is pointing toward a broken remnant of Space Gods showing up somewhere in Peru.  This is left with a mysterious and unresolved plot thread that will either be hinted at in future special modules or in the Year Two products coming sometime in the next three years.

***Personally, I think I’m going to add in some biotech toys for the characters to pick up as they explore.  There are more than enough things to bring over from the Space Gods book from back in the day, and it would be sort of fun to give them bizarre things to try to figure out.  I mean, most of the encounter is built on a helmet with tentacles, so it’s not like they’re shying away from this idea anyway.

Torg Eternity – The Burden of Glory (Part Two)

Now that I have the intricacies of Stelae-Bounded Zones of Reality out of the way, we can talk about other things in the module, Burden of Glory.

As I said before, the characters start out in Living Land occupied Missouri, where it is implied that they are going to be sent out after a group of missing soldiers who had been scouting for a Lost World within the bounds of the Living Land.* Once the opening scene has been established, a strangely anachronistic gyrocopter approaches, and its pilot, one of the high-ranking Delphi Council members, lands to give them a new mission.** The square-jawed Nile Empire expat, Rex Steele, tells them that there is a new stela nearby that is otherwise undefended, and with the local Glory result, it’s safe to uproot the boundary. This is the main plot hook of the module, but as we’ll see, it seems strangely optional.

From there, the characters are free to requisition equipment from one of the NPC’s that is detailed as being part of the Lincoln University hard point. These NPC’s are noted as being an integral part of the adventure, insofar as they serve as personal stakes for the characters to either save or mourn later. Early on, the module forces the group to have to prioritize what goals to pursue, and I have the feeling that the University is going to end up being the weakest of the choices, overall.

Heading north, the first real encounter offers a new plot hook in the form of a diversion from the original mission, as revealed by a curiously lazy and inept edeinos that has to be rescued from a spontaneous tar pit. He tells of an imminent attack on the hard point at the University (where the characters just came from) and the appearance of a strange sort of temple (a byproduct of the Law of Wonders) that was apparently investigated by the missing scouts.

According to the text of the module, the characters are going to have to choose which of the three objectives they can manage to take on. There is the innate assumption that one of the objectives is going to have to be lost. Since the module made a point of trying to establish the NPC’s at the University, logically, it’s going to be fairly high priority.

Working down the list, the removal of the Living Land stela – what is ostensibly the main mission – is the most straightforward. It’s a Dramatic Skill Resolution, with all manner of distractions being thrown at the player characters in the form of a whole raft of gospog and a single Ravagon. Once the stela has been disconnected and pulled free, the zone immediately flips, and the fight is largely over.****

There is one aspect to the fight which I find particularly weird. It states that, unless the GM is wanting to prolong the fight, the gospog essentially vanish in the Core Earth axiom wash. This seems like it goes against the established rules for gospog, which have them straddling the line on their native Reality. They’re formed of seeds from the Invading Cosm (Living Land, in this case) and the native dead, which allows them to be sent into zones where they might otherwise cause contradiction without fear of ever becoming disconnected. By rights, this would mean that the axiom wash would not trouble them.

Again, this is a case of “what best serves the story,” but it’s still weird. There are two possible scenarios that would explain this effect, but neither one is explicated in the text of the module. One idea posits that these gospog aren’t actually Core Earth native, but the leftover Ukhaan gospog that get dimthreaded in. This would explain why they were essentially dissolved with the axiom wash. The other possibility is that the act of pulling a stela free is violent enough that it would affect the gospog the same way that a hard transformation would effect an Ord without benefit of a Glory result. This is the more likely explanation, but none of this is actually codified.

Skipping ahead, the third objective that the characters can attempt is the Siege of Lincoln University. As outlined by Daybasker, the edeinos that the characters rescued in the first act of the module, the local tribe of Redjaws has taken it upon themselves to attack the campus and attempt to destroy the hard point that it houses.

There is almost nothing to this encounter, other than outright tactical combat. The Core Earth forces are scattered about the University grounds, fighting separate groups of feral lizardmen, and the characters are tasked with confronting the main leader atop his own personal Tyrannosaurus Rex mount, whose presence alone pushes this into a Dramatic encounter. There are some machine gun emplacements in the form of a couple of M240 nests, but beyond a couple of choices in where to engage their foes, it’s all combat.

That said, the leader of the edeinos looks like he’d be a fun adversary. Being that he’s a Possibility-rated character, he can soak wounds for himself and his mount, which can ramp up the difficulty of the fight even further.

The one factor that is noted is whether or not the characters had gotten around to getting the stela uprooted before they came back to the campus, as it eliminates about half of the edeinos forces and drops the health of the T-Rex by about 25% overall. There is also the potentiality of reinforcements arriving as a result of the edeinos that the characters had encountered in the first act. This is offered as a sort of deus ex machina, should the fight run too long for the anticipated session, but I feel like this should have been more of a story-driven outcome that would have rewarded the characters for taking the time to rescue a potential ally.

With all of this in mind, all that remains of the module is to talk about the mysterious temple that served as the third objective for the adventure. And we’ll get into that next time, with the final discussion of the Burden of Glory.

*It’s never outright stated how long the area has been overrun by the Living Land Realm, but I have to think that it’s been a couple of weeks, given the spread of the Glory and the implied fighting that’s been going on. That said, it’s weird that Baruk Kaah hasn’t tried to set up a back-up stela yet. The adventure is on a clock, to the point that only two of the three stated goals of the adventure can be optimally achieved in the course of a session, and one of the eventualities has this backup being put in place, seemingly as a direct consequence of the players’ inaction. I can grok the implied tension of having to make hard choices for the sake of story, but the timing of the adventure is a little wonky if you look too closely at it.

**It’s worth noting that Rex Steele appears to be one of the characters created as a result of the Kickstarter. There were a number of pledges open to people who wanted to spend $1,000 on the opportunity to play in this same Gen Con exclusive module and create one of the personalities attached to the canon Delphi Council. If we wanted to get picky, the fact that Steele is giving the briefing here, rather than participating in the module means that we’re not exactly in the same reality of the Infiniverse, but that’s splitting hairs.

***In theory, all three goals are possible to overcome, but it’s heavily implied that they’re not going to be able to manage to accomplish more than two. And well, the module was a convention special, so there is the actual clock of the session slot holding things back. If they screw around too much, there are notes on what happens when time runs out.

For my purposes, I’m assuming that I’d allow greater success, so long as the characters weren’t screwing around or notably misguided in their efforts. Hells, depending on how things went, I could even see splitting the party, with one or two characters heading back to the University to help mount a defense. Naturally, this isn’t something that would have worked in the context of a convention module.

****Personally, I’m delighted to see a Ravagon show up. These nasty winged reptiles are one of the worst threats that a High Lord can marshal in the early parts of the Possibility Wars. They’re the scrappy survivors of a Cosm that the Gaunt Man ravaged, with weird resilience when it comes to dealing with Possibility Energy. In the original edition, they were nearly impossible to beat in a Reality Storm, but the new rules have nerfed them somewhat, given that it takes a lot more work to invoke the Everlaws these days.

Oh, and there’s a Gospog of the Fourth Planting also, but he’s not as interesting, really.

Torg Eternity – The Burden of Glory (Part One)

In the previous post, I talked about the Delphi Council session at Gen Con 2017, where the possible remnants of Akasha were teased.  The information I was working with was derived from a discussion of the module on the official forums, so I was, as the historians would put it, working with secondary or tertiary source for my information.

Today, Ulisses Spiele NA, in anticipation of Gen Con 2018 kicking off next week, released the text of the module for the general public.  I have to say, at no point has the staff of Torg Eternity made a misstep in how they have handled the game line.  Making all of this public, easily accessible, and open to discussion has been a great boon to the line, so far as I’m concerned.

Insofar as the module is concerned, I did get one thing generally wrong.  This would have been corrected, had I listened to the three hours worth of someone else’s game, so there you have it.  (I have the same tendency to view sports the same way.  I’m not actually there, so I don’t have as much interest in hearing other people having fun.  It’s just how I’m wired, I’m afraid.)

When I had read through the highlights of the session, it had referred to the encounter with the Akashan tech as being a “lifeboat.”  My assumption had been that it would have been more of a starship, but in keeping with the generalized weirdness of the Cosm, the lifeboat was more along the lines of a golden temple.  It’s a neat sort of misdirection, and I can wholly appreciate that.

Otherwise, what about the module?

The characters are dropped into Jefferson City, MO, which lies about halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis.  According to the text of the module, part of Missouri has been overrun by the Living Land, and Lincoln University (where the characters are briefed) is one of the few remaining hard points in the state.  (How much of this is objectively true is up for debate; I’ll get into that momentarily.)

But here’s the thing:  According to the three month and one year maps that have already been released, the stelae boundaries are nowhere near Missouri.  The Year One updated map has the main advances coming in the South, advancing from the Atlanta Maelstrom Bridge toward Oklahoma and Texas.*

There is also mention of the Tragedy of Nashville, wherein a group of rogue stormers was responsible for ripping up a stela and vaporizing untold sections of the population in the process.  (More on this in a moment.)  Much like the conquest of Missouri, the map of Year One shows that Nashville was otherwise safe.

So, what do we do about the assumed territory losses that the module casually informs us of in the opening text?  Well, basic geometry allows us to fill in the implied territory with stelae boundaries to cover the missing parts.  According to the module, the stela that was destroyed near Nashville covered three zones, which would have been the areas extending from roughly Lousiville, KY in the north to around Memphis, TN to the west, and connecting to the Pure Zone around Atlanta.  By the nature of stelae boundaries, it places Nashville at the very edge of the Living Land.**

Since the module deals with a mission to uproot a stela in Central Missouri, that gives us some clues toward how the spread of the Living Land has progressed.  (And since it tells us that uprooting this stela will only revert one zone, it gives us some further idea of the general direction and strategy.)***

The module places the targeted stela in the Ashland Wilderness Research Area, just north of Jefferson City.  Using extant stelae boundaries, that would connect with the stelae in Fort Smith, AK and Clarksdale, MS, thereby covering most of the remainder of Arkansas and the central portion of Southern Missouri.  The module speaks of battles in the Mark Twain National Forest, so that jibes with what we otherwise know.

Looking over the maps for Year One, this roughly tells us that the Nashville Stela and this one are the only unaccounted for stelae, which means that, canonically, these zones are not official.  Of course, the stela that’s the focus of the adventure is still left to the whims of the Infiniverse voting, but still.

So, what about the Tragedy of Nashville, which the module talks about?  Why did untold millions of people die?

This dives into the metaphysics of the setting.  According to game lore, the conversion of a normal, ordinary person (an “Ord,” in the lexicon) to a new reality uses up their store of Possibility Energy, which takes time to restore.  If they subsequently are transformed again (by a stela being removed, for sake of example), without restoring this Possibility Energy, they generally vanish as a sort of self-correcting paradox.  Mechanically, the only way to definitively restore Possibility Energy to Ords in the game is to do something truly noteworthy in the fight against the Invaders and spread the tale.  This is accomplished by spending a Glory Card in the midst of the game and having the story spread in the local area.  It’s all but outright stated that this happened before the start of the module.

Otherwise, we have what happened in Nashville.  No Glory, and countless people were lost in the aftermath.  It isn’t as dramatic as the old edition, where people would be consumed in fiery agony, but it’s a bit more contemporary with their potentiality wafting away as though they had never been.

But what about the actual course of the adventure?  Well, there’s a lot of interesting stuff to cover, and rather than prolong this particular post any further, I’ll get into the meat of the module in the next entry.  Suffice to say that there are some weird elements that I’m not entirely certain of their inclusion, so I’d like to devote a bit more time to that end with the next entry.

*And yeah, there are the expansions in the Caribbean and the Pacific Northwest, but for now, the only real info I have to play with is the general state of the Midwest.  And if things are going as badly as they seem to, I shudder to think what’s going on with those other areas.  I mean, it was bad enough that the Caribbean Invasion jumped from being half of Florida to taking over the entirety of Cuba.  If it’s actually worse than this…

**If the Living Land had extended to the Northwest, toward the areas referenced in the module, the destruction of the Nashville Stela would have flipped more than three zones when it went.  There was an adventure in the original Torg that dealt with similar stelae boundaries in the Cyberpapacy.  In Operation: Central Fire, the storm knights were going to attempt removing the stela in the center of France that was critical to five distinct zones, which would have pretty well crippled the Invasion.  Since this stela was only on the intersection of three zones, that means that the Invasion didn’t continue far enough to connect with any other zones.

***I had originally tried to make sense of other parts of the module, with what appeared to be the implied destruction of the St. Louis Arch.  Being that the module only deals with flipping one zone back to Core Earth, the stela that’s being targeted doesn’t connect with any other zones, else there would be deeper ramifications.  Which means that the note of Lincoln University being “one of the last remaining hardpoints in Missouri” is just sort of weird.  By simple geometry, none of the rest of the state is at risk, let alone St. Louis.

Torg Eternity – Scavenging

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t spend a lot of time in official forums.  I used to be the sort to frequent the message boards and Usenet groups for information and discussion, but more and more, these hangouts have turned into weirdly exclusive zones for the more hardcore GM’s and players.*  I don’t really have the time or interest these days, so the most I do is browse for opinions on specific topics.

Say, for immediate example, I want to get a read on a fine rules point for Pathfinder or an element in one of the Adventure Paths.  Fire up Google, parse as narrow a search term as I can for the question that’s been brought up, and dig through a half dozen sources on the particular boards.  When I have what I need, I close it up and go away.  Part of this is my general indifference to forum cliques these days, and part of it is due to a couple of miserable experiences, which are best left alone.

The official Torg Eternity forums yielded up two interesting notes – one of which is little more than a passing hand-wave, and one of which has broader implications.

The first note concerns gospog, which are the in-game version of basic, shambling mook zombies for low-level adventurers to deal with.  According to game lore, they’re a weird sort of biotech created by the Gaunt Man and spread amongst the invading High Lords.  The idea is that they are the war dead of the Invasion, planted with eldritch seeds that rise as zombies.  What makes gospog a staple for the war effort is that they’re considered “Mixed” axiom, so they can be used in Pure and Dominant Core Earth zones without fear of having them fall apart.

Each subsequent planting of gospog becomes incrementally more powerful, which is why they continue to be a threat to Storm Knights as the game progresses.  There is one problem, however, with the way that Torg Eternity has been built out.  By allowing some games to start with the Invasion, the week required to grow the First Planting Gospog is no longer available.

And yet, the early adventures and fiction include them.

The quick explanation is that they’re remnants of previous invasions brought over the Maelstrom Bridges.  In the Day One Adventure book, it specifically notes that the fields outside the village are tended by Gaean gospog.  And it’s implied that the weird temple walls in the Aysle adventure are some kind of pre-fab gospog building materials that were assembled on-site.

For me, this is an interesting sort of missed opportunity.  These gospog are pretty much expendable, even moreso than the usual sort.  Since they’re not dual-Cosm gospog, they will pretty much fall apart when sent into Core Earth.  Where regular gospog are able to weather Axiom changes, these would disintegrate on a regular basis, which would allow for some interesting situations for the GM to foreshadow.

Consider:  The characters are in a Day One scenario where they are called in to try to fight off the leading edge of the Invasion.  Edeinos ride in, leading a horde of Ukhaan gospog.  The characters mount a defense, and as they do so, they note that some of the army of the undead fall apart fairly easily.  They form an impression of how to deal with the threat of gospog.

Then, a week passes, which allows the native First Planting Gospog to rise, and the same characters are faced with a new horde of vine-choked undead.  Only to find that the rate of attrition isn’t nearly as great.  The first point of many where the rules start to change for the player characters.

And on the note of changing things as they go along…

I’ve already talked at length about the implications of what happened to Akasha, the Realm of the Space Gods from the original Torg line.  The Elves of Aysle betrayed them to the Gaunt Man, who annihilated the Cosm and stole bits of their biotech to add to his already impressive arsenal.**

And from the line in the core book, it was implied that this footnote was going to be the last we’d see of the interstellar empire of the Star Sphere.

Then came the details of the Gen Con Delphi Council session.  This particular session was run for the high level Kickstarter backers, people who had dropped $1,000US for the sake of putting their characters into the game lore and hanging out with the game designers at Gen Con.  The plot of the adventure concerned dealing with ripping up a Living Land stela, which was also the plot of the Day One Orrorsh adventure.***

In the course of the adventure, the characters encountered what amounted to being a crashed starship in the midst of the Living Land.  (I’m going to assume that, despite the potentiality, this wasn’t a Lost World.)  The starship was fleeing from the destruction of Akasha at the hands of the Gaunt Man, and searching through the dying tech, the group noted that there was at least one other surviving ship.

This fired a lot of circuits for me.  Rebuilding Space Gods as Torg’s version of Battlestar Galactica changed a lot of my interest for the Cosm.  Originally, the Akashans were little more than weird and hippy, the squirrelly saviors that could bring about the peaceful end of the war, if only they weren’t distracted by their own problems.

I’ll be honest, other than the Psionics rules, I didn’t really do much with Space Gods in the original run.  But the war-torn survivors of a desperate, lost war?  Yeah, I can use that.  Especially if there is any sort of work put into detailing the expansive dead cosm that they’re trying their best to escape from.  A post-apocalyptic interstellar empire would be a fascinating place to adventure in.

*Not that they weren’t weird and exclusive back in the day.  It’s just that I was part of the “in-group” at the time.  Or as Abe Simpson put it:  “I used to be with ‘it’, but then they changed what ‘it’ was.  Now what I’m with isn’t ‘it’ anymore and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary.  It’ll happen to you!”

**I fully expect new bits of this to show up in the lore as time goes on.  Already, we have seen the world-saving Reality Trees re-branded as Nightmare Trees, which allow Orrorsh to casually invade pretty much anywhere.  And I have the idea that the Dimthread Trees that show up in the God Box adventure are similarly adapted, being that they’re mostly indistinguishable from Nightmare Trees.

What I see happening is having new forms of gospog show up with grafted biotech that was pulled from Akashan sources.  First or Second Planting Gospog with a bhelablade or tentacle sword would be a nightmare, as would one implanted with the ability to fire Telesh.  Upgrading gospog would be a fascinating rules enhancement.

***I feel like these adventures that deal with stelae are interesting but ultimately futile.  In the original game, uprooting stelae was a much more important, much more difficult venture.  In the fiction, it was the reason that Core Earth was able to repel the original Tharkold Invasion.  Setting two events like this in the first year, without serious setbacks to the Possibility Wars themselves, seems like we’re making the whole process into a sort of meaningless gesture that ultimately won’t matter.

 

The Unreleased Book

I made mention of the Beta Clearance Guide for Torg Eternity in my previous post, and it merits a little more examination, given the content that it makes use of.  Released in two parts – the Beta Clearance Player and GM Primers – this guide works as something of a stop-gap measure for anyone playing Torg Eternity in these early stages, covering the higher experience levels that will result from regular play.

It’s fairly obvious that this game is going to take place in discrete phases, and we’re only about a quarter of the way through Phase One.  The Core Book and the individual Realm Sourcebooks – Living Land, Nile Empire, Aysle, Cyberpapacy, Tharkold, Pan-Pacifica and Orrorsh – are going to cover the state of Core Earth from the beginning of the Invasion until about Year One.  Viewed from the standpoint of the finished game, this allows the GM to be able to pick and choose from material to build their campaign.

The problem is, we’re not going to have these sourcebooks out with any haste, given the rate of Kickstarter fulfillment.*  At best, we can hope for two to three sourcebooks per year, which means that an optimistic and slightly unrealistic estimation for the basic line to be finished is sometime in mid to late 2020.  There aren’t a lot of GM’s that are going to wait three years to get their campaigns rolling.

And that’s the gap that the Beta Clearance Guide is trying to bridge.

The title of the book (yeah, they released two books, I realize, but they’re 11 and 13 pages per, so I’m comfortable considering them as one volume) refers to the specific clearance level of agents with the Delphi Council.  The game assumes that the characters are going to be affiliated with the Council, and even if they’re not, we’re going to use the specific terminology anyway.  Since Torg has always been a skill-based game, these clearance levels are a shorthand for the relative experience levels of the player characters.  Alpha Clearance simply assumes that the characters have undergone a Moment of Crisis and are able to manipulate Reality, which makes them starting level.  Beta Clearance are the characters with a minimum of adventuring experience, roughly equivalent to three regular adventures or a dozen one-shots.

Originally, this was all that was put forth, which was interesting in that gaining Beta Clearance would take roughly two to three months of regular play.  The Guide opens this up with three additional operational levels – Gamma, Delta and Omega.  Gamma jumps up the scale to 200 Experience, Delta holds at 500 Experience, and Omega requires that the characters have a fascinatingly high 1,000 Experience.**

Being that the book is specifically for Beta Clearance characters, there isn’t much that is detailed beyond that level.  There is only one Perk in the Player’s section that is listed as being Gamma Level, and really, it’s a Beta Level Perk, so long as you take a fairly obvious prereq.  It’s only Gamma if you want to do things the hard way.

So, to digress for a moment…

Cosm Adaptation, the Perk in question, answers a question that’s been floating around on the forums ever since the PDF for the core rules got released.  In the original edition of Torg, it was an accepted part of experienced characters that they would start picking up random shit from the various Cosms as they went along.  Your Core Earth college professor would take some time, read a couple of books on Aysle sorcery, and he’d be able to chuck some Altered Fireballs when he ran out of bullets.  Teach Nile Mathematics to a Cyberpriest, and he was good to go.  Edeinos ninja, Core Earth truck drivers taking up pain weapons against Orrorshan vampires, Kadandran exiles wielding hrockt spears; the weirder it was, the better.

The new system in Torg Eternity is modeled a lot more closely on D&D 3.5 / Pathfinder Feats, where certain requirements are in place before a character can buy Perks (which cover things like Sorcery, Miracles, Psionics, and weirder things).  One of the main things that serves as a delineation on which Perks can be bought is what Cosm the characters are actually from, to the point that, should a character ever be Transformed to a new Reality, they’re obliged to trade in whatever Perks they from the old Reality.

By taking this Perk, the character is able to pick a specific category – to pull something out of the air, let’s say the Electric Samurai tree from Pan-Pacifica – and from that point, they are able to take Perks from that category as though they otherwise met the basic Cosm requirement.  It doesn’t obviate the more specific requirements (such as having to actually be a Dwarf for the so-named Dwarf Perks, like Dragon Warrior), but it does open up some fascinating possibilities, like the Edeinos Paladin from the original Aysle book.

While we’re on the subject, it’s worth noting that the racial requirements may not be as hard and fast as they’re initially presented.  In the Living Land Sourcebook, there’s a new Perk, Chosen of Lanala, that allows the character to take any Perk that has “Edeinos” as a requirement.  I have the feeling that this is the sort of Perk that can only be taken with explicit GM approval, since something of this sort serves as the climactic moment in the “God Box” adventure.

The rest of the Player section covers some interesting rules on what the characters can use the Delphi Council for, in terms of equipment and support, as well as details on the various sections of the organization they’re widely assumed to be working for.  The GM section, aside from the Year One overview, has rules for adapting adventures for higher level play (Beta, mainly) as well as on-the-fly numbers if a GM has to wing an encounter out of thin air.  A quick glance tells me that these tables are a kinder, friendlier version of the old Value Chart of the original game, where you could estimate the relative armor value of a battleship, as needed.

All in all, this is a nice update, but I have the feeling that everything contained herein is going to end up recycled into a much more comprehensive Year One update, sometime in the next several years.

*And make no mistake, I’m not ragging on Ulisses Spiel about this.  They’re doing very well for the business model, but the simple logistics of running a Kickstarter, doing the necessary paperwork in the aftermath, and dealing with international printing and shipping tends to prolong the process.  The Living Land Sourcebook, which is at the printer at the point I’m writing this, ran into specific snags with artwork (as I am given to understand it), and that meant there’s going to be a delay with the Kickstarter for the Nile Empire book.  They have otherwise been exemplary in their fulfillment.

**If we assume that a single act of an adventure (or a one-shot, depending) requires one night, Omega Level Clearance translates out to a campaign that ran weekly for a full four years.  Without fail, every single week.  (And it might be noted that Delta Level Clearance is half that, at a two year threshold.)

The fun thing about this level is that it doesn’t detail what sort of Perks are available to this level of character (they barely sketch out Gamma, beyond the one Perk I’ll be talking about) beyond a singular notation that hints at the origins of Quin Sebastian’s unique view on the Possibility Wars.

Moving the Clock

For good or for ill, I’m fascinated by the timekeeping in Torg Eternity.  This is a game predicated, in both the original game and the current edition, on being carefully modern day and contemporary.  Until such point as the Maelstrom Bridges fell, the world went on as normal, and our perception of the war hinges on how it disrupted our familiar history.

The timeline of the game essentially starts at the three month post-Invasion mark, with a little bit of flex with the Day One Adventures.  These adventures serve as an intro to the setting with what amounts to be expendable characters, but the players can theoretically hold onto them for campaign play.  The Deus Ex Machina of Quin Sebastian showing up at the conclusion of each adventure allows the characters to be transplanted into a central narrative point, where they can join up with any other character as needed.

Each Realm sourcebook continues from the three month mark, extending things out to the point of a Year One milestone.  The Living Land sourcebook (the first of at least seven) does this in depth, and the Kickstarter funded enough that a general guide, the Beta Clearance GM Primer, worked on an overview of the rest of the realms.

Long story shot?  Core Earth is boned.

Each of the Realms has expanded significantly, with the Living Land covering a good third of the United States and managing a complete stranglehold over the Caribbean.  On a practical basis, this shuts down nearly all shipping to any port on the East Coast or Gulf Coast, leaving only the ports in San Diego and Los Angeles open for general trade.  Given that Houston is the temporary capital of the US, this creates a host of logistical problems.  If the Living Land were to commit to taking Los Angeles and San Diego, the US would be little more than an isolated island, without a lot of options on how to deploy anywhere.  The “planes can fly over the axioms” aspect of things helps, but an awful lot of our basic infrastructure requires boats.

What’s even more fun is the notation on the state of the Cyberpapacy.  In the original war, Malraux made some progress outside of Europe by dropping a Maelstrom Bridge into Quebec, with the idea of using French refugees as a way to establish a bridgehead.  This time around, the false papacy takes a stronger role, and the Cyberpapacy makes a point of invading a country with close to a 65% base of Catholics.

So, remember when I had predicted that Brazil was huge, powerful and ripe for the taking as a target of Invasion?  Yeah.  Turns out that I was right, but I had picked the wrong Realm as having their eyes on it.  The guide notes that there were some forays made by Baruk Kaah, only to have Malraux swoop in and start establishing stelae.  Naturally, this leads to the inevitable schisms between High Lords, being as Kaah was trying to get the whole “dinosaurs in the rainforest” thing going.*

This has the effect of removing the influence of Brazil from being able to affect the course of the war in any significant way for Core Earth.  The rest of South America is still in play, of course, but they’ll be feeling the pressure on two fronts, as the Living Land advances along Central America and the Cyberpapacy pushes in from the coasts.  I have the feeling that this is going to cause them to focus locally, rather than committing forces to the international effort.

Canada is still in play, which is essential, but they’ve lost the main port of Vancouver, which limits things notably.**  They’re also looking to be one of the only remaining oil producing nations, which I find fascinating.  It doesn’t seem like it would take a lot of work for Baruk Kaah to expand out from Yellowknife to drop stelae around Fort Mac in Northern Alberta, which would cripple that, but I feel like I’m overthinking the real world aspects of a high action game.

The Pan-Pacifica Invasion has largely crippled East Asia, subsuming all of China’s ports as well as most everything west to Orrorsh’s realm in India.***  On the other hand, the map of the different realms has left one fascinating corridor open – the Silk Road.  In the real world, China has made overtures toward building a huge bit of infrastructure that would overlay the historic route with modern roads and railways.  (Google “John Oliver China” for his discussion of Xi Jingping and the “Belt and Roads Initiative.”  The relevant part starts at about seven minutes in.)  This keeps China available as a global power, but only barely, since it’s essentially bordered by three separate Invaders.

From my original thoughts, this only really leaves Australia as a possible stronghold.  All Risk jokes aside, this shifts the war in weird ways.  The update makes note that there is a Delphi Council HQ in Sydney (possibly this is the Delphi Council central, but it’s a single line in a PDF, so do with that what you will) where Eternity Shards are being housed.  There has been some threat from Pan-Pacifica, but right now their realm has only reached as far as Jakarta (original site of the Orrorshan Invasion in the original edition), so there’s still some breathing room.

So, let’s talk about Australia.

It’s almost hilariously underpopulated, compared to other nations.  Land mass wise, it’s about 75% of the size of the United States or China, with around 25 million people, mostly concentrated on the south and west coastlines.  (By way of comparison, the US has around fourteen times as many people…  and China has fifty-six times as many.)  Militarily, it ranks above Canada, but below Italy, Turkey and Israel, the only other ranking non-Invaded countries.

I feel like we’re going to see the game build something of an ANZAC military force under the auspices of the Delphi Council, with this as a main international force.  (It bears noting that ANZAC regiments were deployed to East Timor in 2006, so this isn’t just a bizarre holdover from World War I.)

*I have the feeling that this is going to be the long game for an actual conclusion of the Possibility Wars.  The main book notes that Torg Eternity is going to be a much harder slog than the original war, with much less chance of success in repelling the Invaders.  There’s no indication that we’re going to get the “Gaunt Man Vapor Lock” that stalled the war in the first place, so I have the suspicion that in-fighting amongst the High Lords will be the only way that the war might grind to a standstill.****

**On some level, I feel like the shutdown of all Pacific trade is going to end up pissing off Pan-Pacifica in the long run.  The original game had Kanawa making in-roads in all of the Invaded Realms by catering to the local Tech Axioms.  This becomes a lot harder when they can’t get ships to the necessary ports.  I guess that a case could be made that they could simply fly everything in, but that’s decreasing their share by several orders of magnitude.

***Oddly, there seems to be a sort of neutral zone between Orrorsh and Pan-Pacifica, in the form of a smallish Realm of the Cyberpapacy.  I’m not really sure why this has shown up here, since it seems to be in China itself, rather than Vietnam, where the whole “former French colony” could be claimed.  There aren’t any details in the update to make sense of this, so I have to figure that it’s only going to be dealt with in the Cyberpapacy book…  sometime in 2019, at the very earliest.

****For those that are unfamiliar with the basics of the original, the novel trilogy had a US Senator sacrificing himself to hit the Gaunt Man with an Eternity Shard.  Essentially, a powerful artifact of Core Earth, the Heart of Coyote, reacted with the weird Possibility void that was the Gaunt Man and locked him in a Reality Storm for a matter of years.  It makes more sense in context, but it was a case of the original game designers realizing that they had to take the Gaunt Man off the board in order to keep the game line going.

Torg Eternity – Living Land Kickstarter

It’s no secret that I’m an old school, die hard, original fanboy of Torg.  For a while, I managed to curate two complete sets* of the original run of the game, including the weird, solitary Revised and Expanded Rules by “Kansas” Jim.

Naturally, when Ulisses Spiel started in on the Kickstarters for Torg Eternity, there was zero hesitation on buying in.  I’ve gotten very fond of Euro-RPG’s as time goes on, so I had complete trust in their ability to bring a competent, solid project to completion.  Perhaps moreso than domestic, depending.  (Yeah, this is an Onyx Path dig; you’ll see why in just a moment.)

I pledged for the Delphi Council Cargo Box with the original Kickstarter, which ended up being gloriously expensive at the $200 asking price.  That said, the stretch goals boosted it up to being an actual value when all was said and done.  They pulled in over $350K, which loaded the box with all manner of extra bits, little of which I can complain about.  When the Kickstarter fulfilled in February, they started putting everything together for the first of the cosm books, the Living Land Sourcebook.

I’m not going to soft pedal this:  Ulisses Spiel is out to make money on this.  Each of the Kickstarters is likely to demand a similarly high buy-in for their products.  The Living Land Survival Box is priced out at $180 for a similar boxed set with similar levels of extra bits.  But they deliver with their books, their cards, their chips and so on.  And for the slightly more discerning buyer, there are more economical measures to be taken.

But consider:  With the first Kickstarter, I ended up with three hardcover books, a GM screen, a soundtrack CD, dice, chips, cards, maps and an assortment of useful extras.  Totaling out the retail on the books alone puts me over $100 without breathing hard.**  This Kickstarter is promising to do the same – three books, an assortment of dice, chips and cards – so really, it isn’t a shock to see the price hold similar.  And considering that the campaign for this sourcebook went surprisingly high – over $200K for a single part, rather than the whole game, and it’s the part that was arguably the least liked of the original run – there’s a lot of value ended up being added in.

So, while it is turning into a rather expensive corner of my Library, I can’t argue with the return I’m getting on my investment.  Not only are they delivering quantity with these campaigns, the production values are seriously top notch.  Glossy books with solid art, deft rules with adequate crunch, and an attention to detail that comes with having a staff of guys that know what they want in their old school throwback game.

But here’s the thing that throws it all over the top, in terms of customer satisfaction and making sure that your base comes back for the next round of funding.  Also, this is where I sink my teeth into Onyx Path for being absolutely worthless on the same footing.

For those that aren’t aware, Onyx Path is the flawed regeneration of White Wolf, trying its damnedest to carry on the tradition of 90’s gaming nostalgia and design in the aftermath of a questionable IP sale to a disinterested Icelandic computer game company.  (And since, that same IP has transferred out to some new company whose plans are … murky, at best.  Time will tell.)  Onyx Path has managed dozens of Kickstarters to flog new merch based on the games that dominated a good portion of the pre-D&D Third Edition era, all of which have run way past their prescribed date of delivery.  It is now to the point that any new Kickstarter will launch with the understanding that it will be a minimum of a year and a half between funding and fulfillment, regardless of what they’re talking about.  And most of the time, they claim that the text is wholly in hand, ready for art and layout and similar.****

They lie.

Not only do the backers end up having to wait until shortly before the books are sent off to print (a point usually after the first year mark), there’s a lot of obvious proofing and editing errors that Onyx Path relies on their audience to correct.  And this is after having told people that the actual writing is done at the launch of the Kickstarter.

Now, let’s compare.

The Kickstarter for the Living Land Sourcebook for Torg Eternity funded on April 24th, 2018.  (Last Tuesday, from when this post was written.)  The book is slated for delivery in July of 2018.  The core rules Kickstarter ran through the month of June in 2017.  It was supposed to be delivered in October.  Logistics and sich ran over, meaning that it didn’t get delivered until February.  Whether or not I get my physical product by July remains to be seen.  But I’m okay with that.

I received my PDF copy of the Living Land Sourcebook on April 25th.  Or if we want to be annoyingly precise, about fourteen hours later.

Granted, there are a number of placeholders for art to be added later, and it has some scattered typographic errors that need to be ironed out, but it is a complete and playable product.  And I’m already using these rules in my home game.  And with it, I also have the two other hardcover books in PDF, ready to run.  It bears noting that these books were stretch goals that had to be unlocked, but they were already through layout and basic proofing, ready for publication.

I’m sure that there are other game companies that have their act together to the same extent that Ulisses Spiel does.  But personally, my experiences have caused me to be a little bit jaded when it comes to RPG companies and the promises that they make when it comes to Kickstarter campaigns.  (It’s worth noting, again, that the very first thing that I pledged for – nay, that I created a Kickstarter account for – failed to deliver.  I’m still bitter about that one, if we’re being honest.)

So, to sum up…  Yeah, I’m going to end up giving this game company a serious amount of money before I’m through.  But to their credit, they’re making sure that I’m going to be happy about doing so.

*Sadly, budget constraints and opportunity forced me to have to liquidate the extra set.  Much as I have done in the past.  I want to say that I’ve acquired “essential” collections of Torg about four separate times, all of which have ended up in the hands of my various friends.  It’s never bad to get people into a semi-obscure game, only to be able to later help them build collections.

**Seriously, though.  OSR and Indy games aside, when was the last time anyone escaped a game store with a game’s corebook under $30?  This is not a hobby for anyone with any sort of economic sense.  Especially when there are limited edition rulebooks to acquire.

***I figure, without too much hyperbole, that this game alone is going to top out around $2,000 for a complete run of the basic game.  There are seven cosms, which will necessitate close to $200 per Kickstarter, plus the base set, and I would be surprised if there wasn’t a hidden cosm that’s waiting in the wings to monkeywrench expectation.  This role was filled by Tharkold and Space Gods in the original run.

****Personally, Exalted 3e was the worst of this whole lot.  From launch to delivery was almost four whole years, of which there was a mysterious time period where the game seemed to be going through a manual proofread and indexing at the hands of a single person without the aid of a computer.  It was maddening and strange.  And the end product was an inversion of the original design goals of streamlining and correcting rules bloat, with the delivered product being a new standard by which rules bloat could be judged.

New Editions and the Inevitable Questions that Follow

I’ve been intending to come back here and start up on a new series of Torg Eternity posts, but naturally, things have gotten directly in my way.  And while I have all manner of things to discuss with that game, especially now that I have my Cargo Box in hand.

Sadly, there’s been a recent bit of news that has started hitting the feeds, and I felt enough inspiration to sit down and talk about it.

On March 6th, Paizo announced that they would be ending the Pathfinder line within the next two years, replacing it with a new edition that will supersede it.  This will be a wholly new ruleset, specifically not backwards compatible*, and there are no plans to continue support for the extant Pathfinder rules.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Wizards of the Coast undertook a similar move when they decided to scuttle Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition / 3.5 for the sake of of the newly hyped 4th Edition D&D, and it was the sudden announcement – coupled with the licensing nonsense that required third party publishers to pay out beforehand to be able to adequately support the new edition – that caused Paizo to break away from their position as a dedicated licensee of WotC and become the de facto preservationists of the 3rd Edition rules canon.

It goes without saying that this was a gamble that has paid off for them.

A cursory examination of the proposed rules changes confirms some of the whispers that have been circulating since the debut of the new Starfinder core book** that the new game was to serve as a test bed for new revisions.  What stands out to me is that the base structure of time has been seriously monkeyed with, from distinctions on whether a given situation falls within an Encounter, Exploration or Downtime.  (Without going too deeply into this, it can be broken into Combat, Non-Combat, and Between Adventures.  It’s not a bad idea to actually codify this, but it seems like it’s pulling from somewhere else entirely.  Or it’s trying to put way more emphasis on optional rules from things like Complete Campaign.)

Similarly, Combat Rounds are structured in a completely new and curious manner, where the Actions are simplified (?) down from the existing Full Round and Standard Actions to a sort of Action Economy.  Characters have a pool of Actions that they can undertake, in different combinations, and these can approximate the flow of combat as it exists in the current rules.  Devoting extra Actions to a given thing (such as a spell) seems to allow it to be more effective, and there’s the implication that this will apply to Combat Actions as well.  (In this way, it seems similar to how FFG handles combat in Edge of the Empire, oddly.)

On a surface level, none of this is particularly bad.  I can admit that.

But I’m still stuck with the basic “If it ain’t broke…” mentality.  There was a reason that they were able to expand their company in the wake of what was supposed to be an industry switch to 4th Edition D&D.  For good or for ill, this is a hobby filled with the stereotypical grognards.  Change is not well received when you have a group of people who dedicate themselves to a product for the sake of long years of enjoyment.  Go onto any discussion group, and one of the first things that will jump out is the number of old players that speak fondly of their game that ran for the course of years.  Combine that with the sheer outlay of cash required (in all seriousness, my personal collection would ballpark at over $3,000…  and I’m not as dedicated as some…), there’s a reason why the announcement of a new system is met with antipathy.

I mean, a deeper dive into the forums will turn up the weirder groups that have chosen to stick with one of the older editions, be it BECMI, AD&D 1st, 2nd or the questionable Spells & Powers era of things.  There’s a reason the OSR guys have tried to stake out their own niche of things; people will tend to go back to their original experience.

So, where does this leave me, specifically?

My first inclination is to draw a line in the sand and declare that I’m not going to be pulled in by the hype or the promises.  I’ve put down enough cash that I can justify the refusal to be brought into a new edition, no matter what the actual experience ends out being.  And someone, somewhere is going to salvage the Pathfinder basics to carry on in an uninterrupted manner.  And after all, I have managed to avoid being drawn into the wave that is 5e D&D.

But the truth is probably that I’ll begrudgingly pick up the new edition at some point after it comes out.  There’s a reason that I have titled this blog the way that I have.  I collect RPG books, and this is likely to be another eventual addition to the stacks, even as I’m trying to avoid admitting such things.  (And who knows?  Maybe I’ll actually get a core of 5e D&D one of these days.)

Right now, however, I feel that there are too many unknowns with the newly announced edition, and Paizo’s track record in recent products hasn’t been exactly great.  They talk of “Playtest Editions,” but their tendency is to pay very little attention to the feedback that is generated, forging ahead with their original ideas unaltered.***  (And lest we forget, they didn’t even bother with a playtest of the recent Shifter class, and it turned out to be a bit of a joke.  It’s only made worse with the new errata, theoretically brought in from forum feedback, that arguably makes a lousy class even worse.)

Nothing will be released, in terms of actual playtest material, until Gen Con 2018.  Until then, I assume there will be the predictable amounts of forum debates, wild speculation and unbridled optimism.  For my part, I’m going to be maintaining the same sort of casual disinterest that I save for other game’s edition changes.

At least this way, there’s plenty of room to impress me.  And a lot of work needed to be able to disappoint me.

*This is an interesting bit.  In theory, the rules are seriously overhauled, with regards to the way combat and sich flows, but extant stat blocks are going to be almost entirely the same.  The vibe that I’m getting is that specific mechanics are going to be altered in ways that can’t precisely be shifted over, but the numbers are going to be comparable.

In theory, this is how Pathfinder relates to D&D 3.5, but that falls apart when you look too closely.  Having played a campaign through the shift from 3.5 to Pathfinder, I can with some authority that the characters were radically changed, in terms of power and ability.

And while I picked up Pathfinder with the intention to convert between editions, I know full well that all of my old D&D books have scarcely moved from their shelves since I got up and running with Pathfinder.

**In case you’re unfamiliar with this, it’s an odd sci-fi game that was brought out at the last Gen Con.  Generally, it’s being sold as an updated Pathfinder, but In Space.  Goblins, Dragons, etc.  I’ve skimmed through the new rules, but as yet, I haven’t actually managed to throw dice for it.

***To be fair to Paizo, it’s not like they’re alone on this.  Given the vast gulf between what D&D 5e was announced to be and what it ended up being…  along with the feedback that was routinely ignored, it’s fair to say that Wizards of the Coast will continue to hold the record on generally ignoring criticism in light of their own agendas.