Category Archives: Systems Discussion
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.
Going through the Day One Adventures book for Torg Eternity, one thing keeps coming back to me, over and over. I realize that it largely did not matter in the first edition, due to the relative Tech Axiom when it was printed (and this is actually addressed at some point in the mainbook, I believe), but these days it becomes an issue.
With the Invasion, Core Earth loses a great deal of what now defines it – ubiquitous, instant global communication. Back in the early 90’s when the game first appeared, this was a point for science fiction; now it’s taken completely for granted.
I read an article at some point where the author put forth the contention that X-Files was the true, modern procedural. The characters could investigate a mystery together or separately, but the advent of cell phones allowed them to collaborate on a problem while they were otherwise in wholly disparate locations. It removed a central conceit of this sort of storytelling, thereby opening up new avenues of narrative creation.
And now comes a low Tech Axiom wash that sets us back to those days, where being able to keep in contact is no longer possible.
Some parts of this are fascinating. When the Nile Empire invaded Cairo, one of the first things the Invasion would have done was create an entire infrastructure of corner phone booths. After all, what sort of pulp noir story could be told without a character calling from the fog bound docks at midnight? This really underscores the careful planning and logistics of the Kefertiri Idol.
It also shifts the balance of the Realms in an interesting way. Will Core Earth characters be less likely to want to visit places like the Living Land, Nile Empire and Aysle because they will immediately be deprived of their 4G signal? (This is something that keeps being brought up; cell phones obviously won’t work without active cell towers, and all of the cell towers have been wiped out in the Axiom wash.) Or will there be a new industry for the Kanawa Corporation, providing satcom phones for Storm Knights? This seems like it would be a great way to undermine the hell out of the other High Lords.
There’s also interesting potential for Storm Knights to try an end run around the axioms, in the same way that the Nile Empire’s Weird Science hand waves its own low Tech Axiom. How hard would it be to market Amulets of Distant Communication that were keyed to each other? The first Aylish Elf to come up with this would be an instant millionaire. Or how about going all Avatar in the Living Land? The characters end up bringing along a Jakatt (a priest of Lanala, the goddess of life in the Cosm) that knows the miracle to send and receive distant communication through the very trees of the Living Land. It wouldn’t have to be the vine USB that we saw in Cameron’s movie, but it could be fairly easily adapted and / or explained away.
But what happens to the original Internet in Core Earth? A good portion of it runs along specific pathways set down years before, and a great many of these lines on the grid have been severed by the Invasion. Is it even possible to have a recognizable or even functional telecommunications network in light of where the Realms set down?
What if – and this is a huge stretch, depending on your outlook – some parts of the wider internet were able to survive as their own discreet hardpoints? In the original novels for Torg, there was a point in Baruk Kaah’s stalled Invasion of California where he was confronted with a massive hardpoint in the form of Silicon Valley. He threw as many resources as he could muster from Rec Pakken, his Darkness Device, but when the dust settled, he had wasted time and energy* only to find that the hardpoint had roughly ignored him. Logically some of this mojo could be applied to the trans-Atlantic cables that serves as part of the backbone for the web, just for the sake of preserving some aspect of what we now accept as modern life. Yes, this requires a whole lot of specific hand-waving, in terms of colocation and redundancy for any of it to work, but I feel like there’s just enough potentiality for it, just to satisfy player questions.
But all of this brings me to a larger question of just exactly what is left of Core Earth, in terms of society. Instantaneous communication through cell phones and computers is one very important aspect of modern life, but what about civil government and the forces that prop it up?
The short and unsatisfying answer is that an Invasion of this magnitude would cripple most of the world governments to the point that Core Earth would collapse under its own weight. In any realistic portrayal of the Possibility Wars, the world economy would be a lawless wasteland. Of the top twenty stock exchanges in the world, only five would remain. Ideally, the remaining markets could shoulder the burden of the lost ones, but I feel like the Invasion would make things twitchy at best. Worldwide depression would likely become a factor to add into the woes of the Invasion, making it that much harder for the extant governments to operate in any real position of power.
… which naturally brings us back to the power of Pan-Pacifica. They would effectively control three of the most powerful nations, in terms of GDP – China, Japan and South Korea. Similarly, they would have the Asian Stock Markets under their sway** and be able to influence money on that front. And in the original Torg, the Kanawa Corporation was the main one selling arms and vehicles to the rest of the world. Hells, they even had the vehicle and weapon books named accordingly.
*So, this is an interesting facet of trying to write blog posts while the game is still being released. In a recent post on the Ulisses Spiel website, one of the game devs revealed that Baruk Kaah is done fucking around. Where the original Invasion had him wasting a lot of time and effort trying to deal with Silicon Valley, he’s learned a couple of things this time around.
Instead of the debacle in the novel trilogy, where he threw Possibility Energy and armies of Edeinos at the problem, only to have it bring his Invasion to a grinding halt, the new way to deal with things is just to toss an earthquake at the problem and walk away. In this post by Eric Simon, Kaah ran up against the hardpoint of Seattle (Redmond is the home of Microsoft) and rather than be stymied by it, he destroyed everything in his path with a ritual. The resultant earthquake was powerful enough to destroy Vancouver, BC and Portland, OR (effectively a 150~200 mile radius for the devastation) both, so we’re looking at half the state being in ruins.
I’m going assume that this was a Shane Hensley idea, given his love of destroying the west coast through earthquakes, but I’ll hold off pointing any fingers until I actually see how the details are handled. (For those wondering what the hell I’m talking about, it’s a reference to the setting of Deadlands, where the entirety of the California coast was destroyed by a massive earthquake. Google Great Maze and Deadlands for more.)
**It bears noting again that the original Nippon Tech book had rules for corporate finance and market manipulation. I sorely doubt that this edition will go into that sort of depth, but it’s already in the game’s DNA for Kanawa to be able to control a ridiculous amount of the world economy.
A couple of things before I launch into this review: First, the Nile Empire has always been one of my favorite Realms in Torg. I spent a lot of time there as a GM, and there was always a lot of great action to be had within its borders. Not only was I a huge fan of things like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rocketeer, and The Phantom, the weird science and general tech level of the place amused me.
Second, this is one of the reviews I’ve been dreading most.
What sense does this make? Well, so far I’ve really been enjoying the darker tone and general nihilism of the new Torg Eternity version of the Possibility Wars. The original game, for better or worse, had a lot of goofy moments in it. Sure, there was a war going on, and odds were stacked against the characters… but it was also a game of high action and character stunts. And a lot of this came from being able to wing it with the high pulp sensibilities of the Nile Empire. Dramatic speeches, electro-guns, overwrought plots to steal shiny maguffins – if the characters needed a break from the dire events taking place in Orrorsh or Tharkold, they could take a bit of a break and try to untangle the plots of the insidious Wu Han. Comparatively, it seemed like a much less deadly place to run around in, and there were a lot more opportunities to be larger than life heroes.
Mounted against the backdrop of the other Realms, there are essentially two ways that Ulisses Spiel could bring forth the Nile Empire. Either they could preserve its inherent pulp heroics, which would set it even further apart from the hopelessness of the rest of the current Possibility Wars, or they could alter things so that even Pharaoh Mobius has great and murderous plans for the heroes.
From the look of things, the writers have tried to strike a balance between the two ends of this spectrum; while the adventure does offer some opportunity for daring exploits, it makes fairly clear that the heroes are facing overwhelming odds. The module offers a couple of fun directions that the characters can go in their rescues and escapes, without making any part of it seem too unbelievable.
Reading through things, I will say that they did some great things with this module, as would befit the pulp milieu that it’s built from. For one thing, this is the first Invasion I’ve read where the characters are at Ground Zero for the maelstrom bridge dropping. As in, about half a klick from where it actually touches down. From where they are standing, they see the troops and vehicles descend the bridge and start carrying out the business of the Invasion. In the module for Tharkold, everything happened roughly a day after the invasion. For Orrorsh and the Cyberpapacy, the Invasion took place the previous night, but no one is quite sure what’s going on. And of course, with the vaguely secret invasion of Pan-Pacifica, everyone’s more concerned with what’s going on in the rest of the world.
Naturally, the characters get a front row seat with the Nile Empire.
The first scene of the adventure deals with the maelstrom bridge falling. From there, the characters are dropped into a newly created ancient catacomb (go, weird World Laws!) for the second scene that they have to escape in the proper high action way.
This is the point where it seems like poor editing has thrown a monkey wrench into the text of the adventure. The characters have to make their way through a death trap maze under the pyramids, but if they fall victim to the death traps, they’re magically restored to life when it comes time to return to the surface. Earlier, there’s a Moment of Crisis opportunity that comes in, where it’s noted that, if the characters fail to save the NPC in question, she’ll simply return later. And it cites a World Law that doesn’t actually exist as a World Law – the Law of Inevitable Return. This seems to be the same effect that covers the dead characters surviving the catacombs.
Here’s the thing: Inevitable Return exists in the game, but it’s a Cosm Card that operates under the Law of Drama. I feel like this is an issue of having the module written before the text of the rules has been fully nailed down.* Being that this was sent out after the mainbooks were, it feels really odd that the module book wasn’t finalized after the rules were. Maybe that’s just me, though.
The final scene is a broadly sketched free-for-all against a variety of foes at one of the Invasion base camps. There is no defined assumption on how the characters should proceed in their escape, so it can range from a pure Stealth approach to a pitched battle against one of the pulp villains of the Nile Empire. There’s even the option of stealing a zeppelin and flying off into the night. (This would be my preference, if I’m being honest. It even comes with its own hull-mounted plane, the Nile Empire version of the Vought Corsair. Then all my Crimson Skies books would suddenly come into play.)
The pulp villains are just enough over-the-top to fit into the definition without being too outright goofy. The closest one to ridiculousness would be Lady Hourglass, who has a weird science monocle and acts like a stereotype of a femme fatale. She’s a bit out of place in the military camp – she’s really more of a subtle, social character who would be better suited to a nightclub setting – so I think I’ll save her for another scenario entirely. (Even in the text of the adventure, it notes that she sashays her way around the military camp at a slow roll, taking far longer to respond to anything than her compatriots.) In comparison, the Hooded Cobra and Brick-Knuckle Branko are solid villains without descending into nonsense.
I’m still not sure that the Nile Empire is going to be capable of inspiring the same sense of danger that the other Realms are doing (I mean, really… Pan-Pacifica is now running its own version of Biohazard on the populace), but I guess we shall see. There’s still the dire potential for mood whiplash when moving from Realm to Realm, but I’m hoping that the designers have plans for keeping this place threatening enough to keep up with the other Invaders. I guess we’ll see.
*For what it’s worth, I did submit this to the errata engine, so hopefully this will change by the time it goes to print. Yay, modern tech, for allowing on-the-fly proofing like this. Boo for relying on your customers for the proofreading.
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.
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.
This Sunday, I ran the inaugural session of my new Torg Eternity campaign. I had gotten the first PDF’s earlier in the week, and it was no secret that a game would soon follow. I had made enough headway that I could fake my way through Character Generation, and the rules were familiar enough that I could manage a session without much trouble.
This is not to say that there weren’t some issues to resolve and prep work to be done. By way of example, the first thing I had to do was build a usable Character Sheet.
Torg Eternity is a gorgeous game. It’s a full color, sharply laid out, modern production of what had traditionally been a black and white product line. The illustrations are rich and evocative, and the information is easy to reference and use, even from a PDF. (One that doesn’t have bookmarks, however; I assume this will be remedied once we have the game closer to full release.)
The problem is, the character sheets that are included in the main book are awful.
The sheets mimic the design archetypes of the full-color main book itself, which has the unfortunate effect of looking like absolute trash when printed out. (Oddly, I just realized that the character sheet I was using as a reference wasn’t actually included with the main book. It was part of the Free RPG Day PDF, which I had gotten the week earlier. I’m not sure what regular GM’s are supposed to do if they want their own sheet. Or an example of it, even, since there is literally nothing to reference in the main book.)
The original character sheets were really functional. As in, they looked like some sort of official incident report, rather than a character record. It worked, but there was no art to it. I guess they were trying to make up for that this time around. My solution to the new character sheets was to fuse the two design ideals, ending up with a very functional throwback to the original edition, with just the slightest amount of upgrade to the layout.
That was the practical, pragmatic side of building the new campaign. The next part of the game, the actual character hook, I left up to my players. Since I prefer to introduce people to Torg in an incremental way,* my games invariably start in the run-up to the Possibility Wars. In the past, I’ve run the characters as FBI Agents investigating the weirdness that accompanies the Invaders’ scouts, and I’ve run a Miami SWAT Team that sees things that begin to escalate towards the outbreak of combat.
It’s probably fairly obvious what these two campaign seeds have in common. Torg is, at its most basic, a game about characters with big guns, so it only made sense to let them start out with guns immediately. (And yeah, Pathfinder is, at its heart, a game of swords and magic. It’s an easy generalization.)
With this in mind, one of my veteran players decided to keep to the formula and set the characters as part of a modern day PMC. In the past, a staple part of the White Wolf games I’ve been in or GM’ed has been the institution of Tannhauser Solutions, a bigger and nastier version of Blackwater, headed by an amalgam of Erik Prince and Joseph Kony. (If you’re in a world that actually includes supernatural creatures like vampires and werewolves, a genocidal mercenary company makes perfect sense.)
We went through basic Character Generation, including the Personal Checklist that I built a while back. Since these characters were set in the real world, I tend to require actual biographical details that would be otherwise ignored – parents, siblings, best memories; things like that.
For Player Characters, we ended up with Vinny (borrowed from Disney’s Atlantis), Callum (stolen outright from the character in Far Cry 3), and Zach (your basic frat guy gone military). Respectively, the demolitionist, the driver, and the sniper. They also have an NPC medic / investigator that one of the players suggested, a sociopath by the name of Ryan. I don’t expect him to live very long, if it comes to it. Either that, or he is going to go straight dark side when the Invasion starts. Either one works.
For simplicity, I dropped them in Miami. It’s an easy setting that everyone has some understanding of, even if I have never personally been there. (I have watched every episode of Burn Notice and Dexter, so there’s that.) I had previously run the SWAT game out of Miami, on the same auspices.
The set-up was simple: They’re in town for semi-official business (testify as character witnesses for a fellow Tannhauser employee), with no particular agenda. It’s the weekend, they’re cut loose, and go from there. Naturally, they end up at a beachfront nightclub with overpriced drinks and a fairly crappy Jimmy Buffett cover band called The Fla-Mangos. (That was a player contribution, immediately worth a Possibility.)
While drinking, one of the characters sees an altercation between an apparent couple on the beach. Things escalate, the woman gets drugged by what appears to be a bodyguard, and the group tries to subtly leave the area with her. The characters intervene, but their military training severely outclasses the goons’ bodyguard training, and they rescue the girl. The bad guys vanish into the night.
This is where the limitations of running from a single book start to show. There aren’t all too many stat blocks included in the new mainbook, so everything defaults to some basic variant of the examples in the book. Core Earth has Police Officer, Soldier and Soldier (Officer). Each cosm has three or four stat blocks, so the available foes are pretty thin on the ground without a chunk of prep work.
Luckily, what I have in mind can generally default to these archetypes without any real work. Bodyguards, militia types and mercenaries are pretty similar to what we already have to work with.
It turns out that the woman they rescued, Natalie Markham, is in town representing some weapons manufacturer who is trying to get some prototype testing done through the local doomsday prepper faction. She has no idea who tried to abduct her previously, but she enlists the PC’s to escort her to a meeting south of the city.
Naturally, the meeting is interrupted by an outside force (Pan-Pacifica agents), and they have to flee amidst a running gun battle.
This is where I ran into limitation number two. Since the game is still running up to an actual release, I’m doing all of this without a GM screen. Over the intervening week, I’ll try to knock together a set of reference tables derived from the mainbook, but while I was actually running the game, I found myself flipping PDF pages to check the relevant rules. Torg eternity has done away with many of the charts of the original game, but there are still enough that I’m going to need a physical aid before I run again.
Similarly, I’ve been relying on the old Drama Deck for card play, since the basics are still in place. (Although it seems that some of my favorite cards – the Subplot Cards – have either been altered or replaced entirely.) I would bemoan the lack of Cosm Cards, but since we’re still in pre-Invasion Core Earth, it doesn’t really matter so much.
It also bears noting that, since these characters are not yet Possibility rated, I’ve altered the dice mechanics. Currently, they’re rolling 2d10 for task resolution, as though we were running Masterbook instead. It’s a steeper difficulty curve, but since they still have Possibilities to throw (Core Earth, after all), it balances out somewhat.
The way I figure it, they’ll have the rest of summer to wander around and get familiar with the system before I spring the Invasion upon them. By the time that the maelstrom bridges fall, they might actually be ready for them.
*For me, trying to introduce players to a new game is best handled slowly. Start with the basics of the system and the world, and let them build those elements out as they go. This was absolutely vital with 2nd Edition Exalted, since that game had a myriad of picky little sub-systems integrated into it, and the world was wildly complex.
There are a lot of games that require very little introduction. Doctor Who, Star Wars, Star Trek, Song of Ice and Fire; if it’s a licensed property to start with, people know the basics of the world they’re in when they sit down. Legend of the Five Rings, 7th Sea, Deadlands, most of White Wolf, Pathfinder / D&D; all of these are quick intros or fix to whatever the GM has planned specifically. If a game can be summed up with a single adjective (“We’re playing a Samurai Game.”), it’s a lot easier to get things rolling.
And then you have stuff like Torg, Shadowrun, and Exalted. Any game that requires 20 pages of homework before you start your first session needs to be handled carefully. No player wants to do that kind of work, just to play.
Instead, we have half a dozen sessions to make things fall into place.
I take a certain pride in my Library.
It has grown, over the years, to include a rather comprehensive breadth of gaming standards, with enough esoterica to keep things properly interesting. I focus my priority on the games that I have played extensively or the new products that seem destined to future sessions. There has to be a reason for my purchases, but once there is a hook, I tend to accumulate everything I can lay my hands upon before it starts to climb in price. There are certain systems and products that are destined for the dustbin of the larger market (for good or for ill), which allows me to pick them up later as I see fit (the Blood of Heroes game, salvaged from the ashes of Mayfair’s DC Heroes game is one that comes to mind), while others obtain instant value, never to fall back into a reasonable territory for a collector. (I could go on at length about the Supernatural RPG from Margaret Weis Productions. On the surface, it really isn’t much more than a properly drawn Hunters Hunted campaign, replete with the Urban Legends sourcebook from Hunter: The Reckoning on the edge, but having the actual, official books would be nice. It isn’t really in too many people’s budgets, however.)
Because I tend to watch the markets and buy what interests me when I can, I end up with some really weird things that most people assume would otherwise be unavailable. Some pieces of rare provenance include the Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium RPG I saw one year at Gen Con, and the Deadlands: Lost Colony Companion book, which enjoyed an extremely short run as a POD title before Pinnacle saw fit to pull it from production. There are others, most of which lay at the tail end of a given game’s production cycle, ensuring that copies would be limited in number and only available to the most dedicated members of the fanbase.
The problem is that it can be difficult to figure out which games are worth the purchase at a given point. I don’t have an infinite budget, nor am I possessed of illimited time or unrestrained shelf space for storage. There are numerous games in my collection that bear the weight of having never been played (though I’m sure that this year will be different) and even more that haven’t been played enough for my particular tastes. (I cast a glance in the direction of my Green Ronin ASoIaF RPG, doubting that I will get the campaign I have planned for it off the ground in the next epoch.) My usual strategy is to draw on my general likelihood of running a campaign under the ruleset or worldset and draw my determination from there.
By way of example, I have a decent cross-section of the various editions of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG, despite having never run the game. I played one abbreviated campaign that one of my friends ran, but it only lasted a couple of months and we actually touched on very little of what most people would normally associate with the game itself. We had next to no combat (in a game of samurai, we played a troupe of actors), and there wasn’t a whole lot of courtly intrigue overall. So, why do I have so damned many books for this game? Well, I did live for a while in Japan, I’ve spent more time than is considered socially responsible watching samurai movies and anime, and I have a lot of campaign ideas that I would love to try out with the right group. The reality hasn’t quite lived up to my aspirations, so I have collected a sizable number of the RPG books across the 18 years it’s been in print without actually using them in any solid fashion.
The dangerous point is when I start assessing the value of a book in terms of how rare it happens to be, rather than what my future use will end up being. Most of the time, I try to keep in mind the potential for a game, but it doesn’t always fall that way. The previously referenced Blood of Heroes game is one that I had, sold and will eventually re-acquire. Most of the logic on this one derives from the fact that it’s collecting and reprinting a fairly well-regarded system, and I could see either running or playing in a vintage superhero game at some point. This is becoming less and less of a likelihood as time goes on and fewer people have the same regard for a system that came out 30 years ago. (And went out of print around 20 years ago.) With Blood of Heroes, this isn’t much of a concern, given that the book in question hasn’t really increased in price. In comparison, the 3rd Edition rules of Big Eyes, Small Mouth would fall into a similar category of comprehensive rules and revisions, but the limited time it spent on the market means that acquiring a decent copy now is somewhere north of $150 for a copy. (It’s been reprinted as a POD through DriveThru, but it’s not cheap there, either. And well, DTR has a special place on my list for its role in killing the FLGS.)
This was something that I found myself considering over Christmas, when I was browsing through one of the big used and wholesale shops a few miles away from my in-laws’ house. There was a copy of a strikingly obscure RPG (to the point that no copies exist on Amazon or eBay) on one of the shelves that I found myself perusing. It had all the hallmarks of being a Heartbreaker RPG, just from the back cover copy, which advertised it as being an “Anime / Fantasy / Steampunk” game of limitless character possibilities and cinematic action. It tossed around terms like “shared narratives” and “collaborative space” without really settling on a single theme or direction, and it promised to be everything a game should be for me. I was beginning to wonder if it could starch my shirts and walk my dog, as breathless as it ended up being.
And predictably, it wasn’t very good. The system appeared to be a dull derivative of the Storyteller System, using D10’s with some various modifiers and picky rules. The art was lackluster, although interestingly sourced from a variety of places (including one fairly well-regarded internet cartoonist), and being the softcover edition (I have to believe it was POD, given the ink quality; I found an edition of it on DTR while searching), everything was in a smudgy black and white. There were some solid illustrations, but there were also some fairly half-assed sketches that tried to evoke some interesting creature designs. (And failed.) There was an element of Furry RPG’s (think IronClaw or Shard, for decent examples of the genre), but the game didn’t even try to embrace that fandom. It was scattershot in its attempt to be universal, and the end result was just sort of … dull. I feel vaguely bad for the fact that it was trying to be a lot of different things without managing any of them at all well. It probably could have used an editor of some sort, if only to give it focus.
As it happened, I put it back and walked away. This was a game that I was virtually guaranteed to never find again, something that would sit on a shelf and offer up interesting conversations on how game design and ambition could go tragically wrong. It was a Heartbreaker, to its very core. It was actually the price tag (fairly reasonable, considering, but not enough of a bargain to entice me to go further) that was the deciding factor. I could have bought it on a lark, or I could have bought myself a second copy of the MWP Battlestar Galactica RPG for future use. (I didn’t buy that, either. I’m not enough of an optimist to think that game will get off the ground any time soon.)
The sad thing is, I’m actually sort of regretting not buying the game.
It’s not because it would ever have any place in my Library, per se. I would never play the damned game, and if someone suggested running it, I’d laugh at them and suggest something a little more interesting or better designed. (In comparison, I would love to see a game of Synnibar run. It may be a game of questionable design and merit, but there’s enough concentrated lunacy to make it worth the experience.) There isn’t even anything in the book that could be mined for other games. (I think that even the old Fantasy Wargaming RPG by Bruce Galloway has some merit in that regard.) This game literally had no value, other than the sheer obscurity of it all. I want to own this game, just so I can pull it off the shelf and pass it around as an example of what not to do. It would be the dire example of how a great idea or concept can go decidedly wrong, even with the support of a community.
Sadly, this particular day is the easiest entry in the whole schema thus far. Most of this has to do with the fact that I’ve been languishing in something of a limbo since I moved, stranded without any semblance of a solid gaming group as I settle into the new house. Granted, the old group that I had held together for several years finally started drifting apart, so I was going to be faced with this dilemma anyway. This sort of thing seems to happen on a periodic basis, just because people tend to shift in and out based on work and school, but it doesn’t make regular groups any easier to keep solid.
As such, instead of the two to four groups I used to run with in a given week, I’m down to one. Occasionally, we’ll get a second session in, for a different game, but it’s not terribly consistent.
Most Recent RPG Played
Oddly, this happens to be for a game that I hadn’t been terribly interested in, initially. One of our crew picked up the latest iteration of Outbreak: Undead last year at Gen Con, the stand-alone book for Outbreak Deep Space. He tends to be a fan of zombie games in general, with a prodigious All Flesh Must Be Eaten collection (one of the few systems that most people own more of than I do) and a scattering of others.
I should note that the new Outbreak edition is coming out shortly, with Pandemic Organized Play system. It’s a bit like the old Infiniverse newsletters that WEG used to do for Torg, with some interesting tweaks. The new edition looks amazing, with a lot of solid refinements that will move the game forward nicely.
Anyway, Outbreak Deep Space is a fascinating system, being as I was largely unfamiliar with anything of the original system in the first place. It uses a percentile system, which is nothing unusual in its own right, but it really starts to get innovative with the Descriptor system. Descriptors run along the same lines as Tags in Fate, where certain qualities of a person’s equipment or background can come into play in different ways.
Consider a character that has spent time in the military. Along their career progression, they’ve picked up some bits of knowledge about firearms, the ability to weather harsh conditions, and a certain amount of tactical knowledge. In play, the character can draw on certain Descriptors to help them in other tasks. The firearms knowledge, for example, can be used as a static value that can add to their actual shooting skill, as well as rolls to recognize certain models of pistol or rolls to effect repairs to their weaponry. The Descriptors aren’t tied to a specific roll, instead being able to be used in relevant situations.
Being a zombie game, at its heart, there is a lot of focus on certain tactical decisions within the game, such as how well the characters equip themselves and what sort of strongholds they employ to gain some measure of safety against the undead hordes. In space, this comes in the form of the starships that come into play, which can serve as more broadly universal facilities than buildings might in a normal, contemporary Outbreak game.
There are some rough edges to this edition, to be sure, but there seems to be some movement toward a revision and update of this edition, moving toward more setting specific game lines. (These are the things you learn when you can actually track down and bend the ear of the designer themselves.)
The other games that I’ve been involved with lately (though not as recently as the Outbreak game) are Star Wars by Fantasy Flight and Pathfinder. We’ve sort of rolled a lot of the different aspects of the FFG line of games into one central whole, with my character, a Falleen Jedi, alongside an Ewok marauder and a murderbot. There’s a lot of Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion aspects being bandied about, making the game a proper gestalt. Eventually, I would love to see a comprehensive edition of this game that incorporates all three game lines into a single line, but I can understand why they split it into separate books. If nothing else, the Jedi rules needed more time to distill and tweak. They’re easily the largest headache for any designer.
Somewhere, it has been said that the ultimate purpose of all role-playing games and systems is to be able to create Jedi within the rules. I can’t argue this. As such, when it’s part of the oblique purpose, you have to be able to do it correctly in the end result.
I’ve also had occasion to play Pathfinder, but that’s less of a revelation and more of an admission that I still game with normal gamers here and there. I’m hoping there will be opportunity for a larger, more dedicated game to be run (one put together and run by someone else for a change, I would hope), but that’s hinging on greater logistics than I can wield at the moment. Too many balls in the air and all that implies.
Going forward, the games I would love to be able to play occupy a much more fanciful niche. I’d like to see a longer, more involved game with the Unisystem rules, like Conspiracy X or possibly All Flesh Must Be Eaten perhaps. The few times I’ve sat down to play Unisystem, I’ve enjoyed it, but they’ve been few and far between. There’s also the Cipher System, which includes Numenera and The Strange, neither of which I’ve been able to find in any of my gaming groups.
And finally, I’ve been looking to some future point where I might be able to either run or play something using one of Green Ronin’s non-D20 systems, either AGE System or Chronicle System, which run Dragon Age and Song of Ice and Fire, respectively. I’ve run a couple of sessions with ASoIaF, here and there, and I’ve liked everything about it, but all of the sessions have been distressingly short-lived. The backstory and world-building that the game implies have been spectacularly solid in the sessions I’ve run, but nothing ever lasts beyond a couple of sessions, for one reason or another.