Day Zero Adventures

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.

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Character Death, in the Middle of a War

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.

Why Things Are Going to Go Wrong…

There is a pretty sizable secret hidden within the GM’s Guide section of the new Torg Eternity book, and while it doesn’t seem like much of a concern for new GM’s or players, it’s enough of a game changer that it merits some exploration and discussion.  I’ve noted already that this particular version of the Possibility Wars has new complications and plot twists compared to the original, and this is one of those elements.

In the original plotline of the Invasion, there was a big, epic module series that set in motion certain later events.  The Relics of Power trilogy of modules had the characters seeking out a version of the Holy Grail (the Possibility Chalice, as per the name of the second module) and using it to light the “Signal Fire” to send a message … somewhere.  The module itself is cryptic and vague as to what this actually means, but there is an immediate result of sending hope to other people of Core Earth to keep fighting.

A year and change later, West End Games released Space Gods, the final Realm book for the game, which profiled the factions of the Star Sphere, the only sympathetic Realm in the Invasion.  Ostensibly, they had received the message of the “Signal Fire” and traveled to Core Earth to assist.  But since nothing in Torg ever quite goes as planned, the help from the Star Sphere was complicated by in-fighting and a rampaging zombie plague.

With the release of Space Gods, Torg finally had rules for psychic characters, which had been hinted at since the very beginning of the game with Iconic characters like Katrina Tovarisch (who had pretty much directed the Russians to keep Tharkold from invading).  This was one of the things that I felt Torg Eternity had immediately improved upon, by having psychic rules in the new mainbook.

Also included with Space Gods was the means by which the Invasion could be thwarted, without the wholesale destruction of a good portion of Core Earth’s population.  See, in the areas where the Invasion had taken over, the inhabitants of the Realm had converted to the new Axioms and World Laws.  If the Storm Knights were to simply tear up the stelae in a given area without inspiring everyone within (this all goes into the economic theory of how Possibilities themselves work), everyone who had converted to the new Reality would simply burst into flame.

The Space Gods had come up with biotech known as Reality Trees.  These were trees that essentially functioned as hardpoints for specific realities and allowed a counter to the plans of the Invaders.    By planting trees in a given Realm, Storm Knights could preserve the Invading reality’s axioms, even after the stelae were removed.  This would allow the inhabitants of the realm to survive, while destroying the High Lord’s grip on things.

So, what does this have to do with the price of rice?  Excellent question.

In the GM’s section of the new book, it talks about how the Elves of Aysle carry a deep and abiding guilt with them for their actions in preserving their race against the wrath of Uthorian.  Apparently, in order to stave off their inevitable destruction at the hands of the Dark Lord, they enacted a large and costly magic ritual to cast a prophecy for the chance to save themselves.  And instead of being offered an explicit solution, they were rewarded with the location of a separate cosm that could serve to distract the Gaunt Man from helping to destroy Aysle.

As the book dryly states, the name of this new cosm was Akasha, which was the official name for the Star Sphere from Space Gods, and I quote, “the Gaunt Man’s powers had increased dramatically thanks his victory.”

This means that, in the timeline for Torg Eternity, the Gaunt Man has lain waste to one of the main saviors of Core Earth, thereby throwing a good portion of the later war effort wholly off-track.  And remember those Reality Trees I was talking about?  Yeah, those are now in the hands of the Gaunt Man, in the form of Nightmare Trees.  I mean, it’s not like the Gaunt Man was a pushover before, but now he’s managed to co-opt one of the main strategies that the original game line had for win conditions.*

This is one of the things that Quinn Sebastian has already noted in his assessment of the new version of the Possibility Wars; there are new, subtle invasions, courtesy of this newly acquired tech, that there doesn’t seem to be a way to detect or counter in any easy fashion.  Odds are, this will be a defining factor in the early portion of the war.

All things being equal, I’m not sure what’s going to replace the Star Sphere as allies for Core Earth.  There are hints that the dead cosms can show back up as part of the as-yet unexplored factors of the Living Land’s Law of Wonders, but that seems like a long shot at best.  (Although, they have noted the appearance of flying saucers, which seems like an awfully big hint of the Star Sphere.  There are also lost cities, which will require a whole lot more information before I try to put them into play.)

For whatever it’s worth, this could point back to an idea that I’ve already discarded, namely the reappearance of Kadandra.  I will note that none of the Ulisses Spiel guys online have even bothered to answer questions about the lost realm of Dr. Hachi Mara-Two, which could fuel a couple of conspiracies on that count.  I think it would be a neat potentiality, but I’m not yet prepared to believe it.

I am, however, completely willing to be proven wrong on that point.

*The thing is, these new Nightmare Trees make a lot of sense having ended up in the hands of the Gaunt Man.  In all honesty, they’re just a logical outgrowth of the stuff he was starting off with last time.  The ability of the trees to go into unconquered areas and establish the axioms of Orrorsh are just a weird sort of mirror of the Gospogs that were the bread and butter of his original invasions.

For the sake of the uninitiated, Gospogs are the local version of zombies used by the Invaders.  If you take the corpses from a local reality and plant them in fields with the special Gospog seeds, they reanimate as these weird, mixed reality zombies that can go anywhere and muck things up.  They’re surprisingly effective.

Defining Nested Niches

As blogs go, this is not a well-known or popular one.  I’ve done very little to optimize or publicize what I write here, as it is mainly an outlet for my own musings.  Sure, it would be great to get some measure of publicity for my reviews and ideas, but that really isn’t the point of why I made a blog in the first place.  I have a few people that have found my site, and that’s fine.  I can even say that I had someone take my advice once on how to revise an Adventure Path, so I have that going for me.  Which is nice.

But if I’m being truthful, it actually is a surprise when people do find what I write here.  And it’s really fascinating when people take issue with it.

Just recently, a semi-anonymous person found some of my opinions on Savage Worlds.  I’ve made no secret of my disappointment for the system, since I hold the designers in fairly high regard otherwise.  Shane Hensley is a great guy, and nearly everything that he has had a hand in, ranging from old TSR boxed sets to Deadlands, all the way up through the newly minted Torg Eternity, has been gold.  I’ve actually gone to the trouble to get most of his old stuff signed, because it is quality work and I can appreciate that level of dedication to the hobby.

But seriously, I really dislike Savage Worlds.

I’m not going to go back over the reasons that I dislike the game; that’s been hammered out to the point that I don’t need to justify it all over again.  Right now, I want to talk about something that this “Shockwave” fellow tried to put forth.

In the midst of his typo-ridden defense of Savage Worlds, he made the claim that it was a “strong niche” game within the hobby.  He actually threw a lot of claims at me, including the idea that I should spend more time playing a game that I don’t like, as though I would somehow change my mind on the issue with continued exposure.  But it was the “strong niche” idea that actually stuck with me.

Role-playing games are already a niche hobby at the outset.  There are no hard numbers, but some estimates put the US gamer population around six million, give or take, with perhaps another three to four million additional for the rest of the world.  Put up against the broader US or world populations, this is not a high number by any stretch.

But I was curious.  In Shockwave’s mind, Savage Worlds was a quality product, based on its sales and its particular niche within the hobby.  Personally, I have always assumed that this was more or less true.  I have seen Savage Worlds products at nearly every game store I’ve ventured into in the last decade, so there is a demand, right?

So, I started looking around.  I knew that it wasn’t pulling the sales on Kickstarter that its predecessor, Deadlands, had been capable of.  When Pinnacle launched simultaneous KS campaigns for the Deadlands 20th Anniversary Edition and a new Plot Point book for the Savage Worlds Deadlands, the 20th Anniversary KS far out-performed.

Using Kickstarter as a base metric, we can see that (with the exception of Savage Rifts) the interest for Savage Worlds hovers around a thousand backers.  This number flexes a little bit, depending on what is being adapted to the system, but it offers a baseline to work from and compare to other known lines.

For one thing, Savage Worlds books are actually offered for sale in your standard FLGS (Friendly Local Gaming Store), so that’s going to bump up the numbers a fair amount.  I say this because pretty much everything done by Onyx Path (heritors of the old White Wolf licenses) is only available through POD or their online store.  They’ve cut out the distributors to make themselves money, and as a result, their stuff only ends up in the hands of the people that already want to buy it.

So, we’ll leave out any of the Onyx Path Kickstarters.  They go stupidly high, in terms of backers and pledged cash, but their audience is kind of locked in.  (And dwindling, given the responses on the KS comment pages.  The Exalted 3rd Edition did them no favors on that count.)

This leaves something of a cross-section of immediate utility.  Without devoting too much time to my research, I have a fair chunk of odd foreign games and a number of relatively identifiable mainstays to work with, many of whom I have put in money to support.  The hobby leaders – Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Fantasy Flight – don’t bother Kickstarting any of their products, because they already have the working capital to support their respective lines.  But I do have some idea of numbers to throw at this later.

Let’s start with the bigger numbers.  Chaosium launched a Kickstarter that actually was able to fund enough to bankrupt the company (I might have to talk about this in another post, at some point) to bring out 7th Edition rules for Call of Cthulhu.  This garnered near to 3,668 backers, with over half a million dollars.  And when Sandy Petersen (the original designer of Call of Cthulhu) did a campaign to convert the Mythos over to Pathfinder, he pulled over 2,300 backers.

Atlas Games brought back two games from the 90’s in their Kickstarters.  Neither of these games were barn burners in their original run, but they had respectable followings in their way.  Unknown Armies managed 2,819 backers, and Feng Shui 2 had 3,402 backers.  And for our last domestic publisher, we have Green Ronin’s conversion of Blue Rose to their new Dragon Age rules.  Blue Rose is the very definition of niche product, being an attempt to bring Mercedes Lackey-styled “romantic fantasy” to tabletop.  For that, we have 1,513 backers.

Foreign games are a weird category.  These are games that were popular (and sometimes award winning) in their home country, but until these Kickstarters, they’ve never been played outside of their place of origin.  These include Riotminds’ new edition of Drakar och Demoner, brought to the US as Trudvang Chronicles, which managed 3,273 backers.  Agate partnered with Studio 2 to translate Shadows of Esteren from French.  This one got more backers with each successive release in the line:  Main book – 705, Prologue – 601, Travels – 951, Tuath – 1,053, Occultism – 1,066, Dearg – 1,160.

Then we have Ulisses Spiel, publishers of Das Schwarze Auge, brought to the US as The Dark Eye.  This brought them 1,619 backers, with a follow-up sourcebook, The Aventuria  Almanac, netting 696 backers.  They also brought back Torg, originally published by West End Games in the early 90’s, with Torg Eternity with 2,282 backers.

Finally, we have the efforts of Fria Ligan, the Swedish game company that now owns the rights to the old Swedish game, Mutant.  They have been flogging a new edition of this game, Mutant: Year Zero through Kickstarter.  Genlab Alpha pulled 1,010 backers, and Mechatron managed 1,653 backers.  They have also brought over two unrelated games, Coriolis (described as Arabian Nights meets Firefly; 1,915 backers) and Tales from the Loop (described as drawing from ET and Stranger Things, kids in the 1980’s in a setting where dimensional rifts are prevalent; 5,600 backers).

At this point, I’m not sure what Shockwave’s contention was based on.  Savage Worlds hits a level roughly similar to English translations of dark medieval fantasy French games and pulls less than nostalgic re-issues of games from the 80’s and 90’s.  I’m not seeing how this is a strong niche, by any definition.

Comparatively, the darling of the Indy Press, Fate Core, racked up 10,103 backers when it finished its Kickstarter (and that’s just a fraction of the copies sold).  I guess, if you were comparing Savage Worlds to all of the Fate-derived games that show up on Kickstarter, you might have a case to build, but that’s a rabbit hole that I’m going to personally stay out of.

Inevitably, none of this matters in comparison to real games.  There aren’t hard numbers for Pathfinder or D&D 5e, but there are some estimations that can be made.  Paizo has done very well with their 3.5-sourced RPG, to the point that their executives imply that it woutsold their expectations by an order of magnitude.  And well, the Player’s Handbook for D&D 5e managed to hit #1 in sales on Amazon for a while, which requires thousands of copies sold per day.

On Eternity Shards

One of the most persistent bits of Torg iconography is the Eternity Shard.  These minor artifacts serve as maguffins for the High Lords and sources of ready power for the player characters – magic items in a setting that otherwise didn’t encourage them.  According to lore, when Torg was being teased at Gen Con in 1989, the West End Games staff handed out small chunks of red and blue swirled plastic and told people to come back in a year to learn what it was.

Over the following year, they ran ads in Dragon Magazine and other trade publications, talking about the storm that was coming.  It wasn’t until almost the next Gen Con that Torg was actually given a name (depending on whom you believe, they were trying to come up with a name the entire time; hence the lack of branding in those teaser ads), and it was revealed that the chunks of plastic were, in fact, Eternity Shards.  When the boxed sets were released, the D20 included was the same swirled red and blue.

Within the world of the game, these are items of legend and significance.  The blue and red are the colors of Possibility and creation (Reality Storms are often depicted with red and blue lightning), and these artifacts are imbued by Apeiros, the force of creation, with the ability to alter destinies.  Excalibur, for example, is one such Eternity Shard, having been forged in legend to eventually become such an item.  (In current lore, such an item can start out as mundane and grow in stature.  The red and blue coloration is integrated to the item somewhere along the way, once it has attained proper power and lore.)

In the original edition, GM’s were encouraged to create their own Eternity Shards for their campaigns, as the only example offered in the corebook was the Heart of Coyote, a fairly minor Shard that canon had already disposed of by the time the game’s timeline started.  (In the novels, the Iconics found the Shard in their journeys and immediately used it to lock the Gaunt Man in a Reality Storm.  I can’t argue with its use, but it made using the damned thing problematic from a storyline perspective.)

It didn’t help that there were very few examples offered in the game line going forward; what few Eternity Shards showed up usually were the object of an adventure or given a very narrow utility.  The namesake of the Possibility Chalice adventure module was little more than a maguffin for the module trilogy, and its main use wasn’t readily apparent for several years.

Torg Eternity has gone a step farther by offering a variety of Eternity Shard examples – one each from the different realms.  Hopefully, this will continue as a trend, if only to offer some ready-made options for GM’s to pick up and toss into a scenario.

As to the ones in the book…

Let’s start off with the obvious one.  They’ve gone ahead and reprinted the original Heart of Coyote, for better or worse.  It’s pretty basic, in that it carried Core Earth reality with it and can only be tapped for Spirit-related rolls.  Nothing flashy and certainly nothing to write home about.

For the Living Land, they bring the Usaanta, a flower that … isn’t.  My first read of this one was pretty cursory, since I didn’t think much of the whole “plants as Eternity Shards” bit from the original game.  There were the red and blue flowers that allowed characters to be reincarnated (as happened with Tolwyn) and ones that expanded consciousness and revived wounded characters.  There was flavor to them, sure, but something about the idea of a flower ranking at the same level as Excalibur seemed weird.  (Mind you, in the context of the original Living Land, where non-living things corroded and decayed, it only made sense to have plant-based Eternity Shards, but still…)

The Usaanta is pretty basic in its power and restriction:  Gain extra Wound levels, use the Possibilities contained within for non-violent actions.  Sure.

Aysle gives us a very straightforward version of the Holy Grail.  It heals afflictions, and that’s all.  Nothing exciting, but it serves a basic purpose, much like the other two.

According to the scant resources I’ve been able to find, the Eternity Shard from the Nile Empire is also a repeat, but without heavy research, I don’t know which book it appeared in originally.  The Crown of Natramititi is a pulp hero’s greatest fantasy, as it allows a character to evade death as a basic function.  Much like the shards from Aysle and the Living Land, its power is completely defensive, so there’s that.

The Cyberpapacy gifts us with the Penance Configuration, which sounds like it should be some derivative of a Hellraiser cube, but isn’t.  It mimics the “carry your reality with you” power of the Heart of Coyote, and it can only assist Mind-related rolls.  Nothing terribly new or exciting there.

The last three examples are actually pretty fun, for entirely different reasons.

The shard from Orrorsh is pretty much just a copy of the Necronomicon.  It boosts Magic for the wielder, and tapping its Possibilities becomes easier if they’ve performed a blood sacrifice beforehand.  Nothing particularly complex about any of it, but the flavor of the shard is spot on.

The shard from Pan-Pacifica (seriously, it’s going to take a while before I stop wanting to automatically type “Nippon Tech” for this cosm) is a pair of twin, engraved katanas – one red and one blue.  This one in particularly fun, because it refers to specific lore and story tropes.  Their powers are pretty straightforward, in that they offer greater resilience in battle and their Possibilities can only be used in combat.

And then there’s the one from Tharkold…  This one caught me off-guard because it was just weird enough to fascinate me.  Having spent a fair chunk of time around custom trucks and the like, it seems particularly weird to have an Eternity Shard that is used as a gearshift knob.  Which, in all seriousness, is what it is.

The knob enhances vehicle use, which only makes sense, and its flavor gives the whole thing a From a Buick 8 vibe, which fits nicely with Tharkold.

In going through the new Eternity Shards, it took a little while for it to sink in, but the new rules seem to have done away with the Group Powers aspect.  Group Powers were something unique to Eternity Shards, and they offered the idea that the entire group of player characters could access one singularly powerful aspect of the shard.  The Group Powers were useful (this is what could reincarnate otherwise slain characters), but as a whole, they were sort of dull.  One power allowed characters to create hardpoints for reality, and another allowed temporary teleportation gates, while a third could seek out hidden stelae of the Invasion.  There was one that allowed transdimensional messages to be sent, and another that allowed better collaboration on tasks.

All of these are useful, but they’re more of a meta-system level of play.  Gating characters between locations is useful, but from a narrative standpoint, it doesn’t change very much for the characters.  Keeping characters alive or having them reincarnate also falls more into the territory of GM fiat, which isn’t particularly thrilling.  (And yeah, I realize that putting such power in the hands of the characters is likely the purpose of the Group Power thing, but it’s still not very exciting.)

All in all, I really like the new Eternity Shard offerings, but I hope that more will follow in the individual Realm books.  In my own games, I almost never used Eternity Shards, as they were generally more work than I wanted to put in, just to make sure that they didn’t unbalance the game in any way.

Taking a Look at the Numbers of Torg Eternity

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.

Torg Eternity – First Session

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.

 

Why the Failed Invasions are Important

In the original timeline of the Possibility Wars, there were three main incidents that dragged the Invasion to a halt in the early days of the war.  Without these events and the way in which they unfolded, it is heavily implied that the war would have been over very quickly, with very little resistance on the part of Core Earth.  A lot of this owes to the level of power that the Gaunt Man personally had and the effects of the other Invaders on the ability of Core Earth to fight back.

There has been no indication of any of these events taking place in the timeline of Torg Eternity, which I find fascinating.  Then again, the opening flavor text does imply that this new invasion is going to be a lot harder to fight off than the original.  I guess we’ll see what Ulisses Spiel has in store for us.

Let’s start with the big one, the one that had the most immediate effect and longest plot implications:  Tharkold.

Thatkold, as veterans of the original game can attest, is one of the deadliest realms of the whole setting.  Cyberdemons are ridiculously powerful, both physically and otherwise, and the high tech, when combined with magic, was nearly insurmountable for the average player group.  And nothing indicates that they’ve been de-powered this time around.  In fact, they may have gotten an upgrade.

When Tharkold set down in Russia in the old edition, the Russian psychics were waiting for them and managed to pull up one of the key stelae at the critical moment.  Core Earth reality pushed back against the invasion, essentially halting Tharkold’s involvement in the first couple of years of the war.

The story effect of this was that the Possibility Energy that needed to be drained off for the Gaunt Man’s plans to take effect wasn’t being managed, and the Invaders had to work all the harder to maintain their foothold in the war.  This ground things to a halt, insofar as a workable end point for the Invaders was concerned.  There was never really a set of victory conditions for them after this point.

A lot of this was further hampered by the actions of one of the iconics, Andrew Jackson “Ace” Decker.  If you’ll remember, he was one of the many forgotten characters from the novel, the professional baseball player turned congressman.  He appeared on the cover of the first novel with Tolwyn, carrying a Mac 10 and wearing a snazzy business suit.

As I recall, he ended up sacrificing himself, along with one of the first Eternity Shards that was discovered (and the only one detailed in the original main book), the Heart of Coyote, to shut down the Gaunt Man.  (There’s a lot of in-universe lore that actually makes this make sense.  Essentially, the Gaunt Man is allergic to Possibility Energy, and getting too close to an Eternity Shard locks him in a semi-permanent Reality Storm for as long as the game designers deem necessary.)

By removing the Gaunt Man (The Man Who Would Be Torg) from the board, the entire Invasion was stalled, as he was the only one that had any real design on how to conquer Core Earth.  This led to a strange situation where one of Tharkold’s cyberdemons was left in charge of most of the management of Orrorsh.

This is an odd note to the Invasion, honestly.  According to the novels, Thratchen was the last cyberdemon to flee Kadandra when Tharkold retreated to join the Invasion.  Because he didn’t leave with the occupying forces, he had to essentially hitch a ride with the main force from Orrorsh, and when he got to Core Earth, it was revealed that Tharkold had already been knocked out of the game.

And that’s when he became the Kato Kaelin of Torg.  He started out as little more than a tolerated guest of the Gaunt Man, but when the High Lord was locked in a Reality Storm, he essentially took over Orrorsh.  Heketon, the Darkness Device of Orrorsh, had little use for him, but it didn’t do anything to thwart him, either.  It was only when the Gaunt Man finally managed fight his way out of his imprisonment that Thratchen buggered off to the recently landed and re-established Tharkold realm in Los Angeles.

Finally, there was the weirdly subtle invasion of Nippon Tech (newly re-styled and less racist as Pan-Pacifica), which doesn’t count as a failure, per se, but does contribute to the way the war progressed.  Normally, when a Realm invades, the clash of Axioms causes a Reality Storm.  These are violent storms that rage at the edge of the stelae boundaries as the competing realities try to overwrite each other.  According to lore, these amp up when the invading reality is pulling more Possibilities out of the surrounding reality.

Ryuichi Kanawa (or 3327, as established in the first edition) made the choice to go lean on stripping Possibilities for the sake of avoiding attention.  This kept Storm Knights from wreaking holy havoc on his invasion, but it also slowed down his progress and did very little to balance the rest of the war.  According to the lore, the Invasion required seven Invaders to strip Possibilities to the point that Core Earth could be subjugated in a timely manner.  Without all seven, the Core Earth forces could easily stall the forward motion of the Invasion, and there was a good chance that the Invasion would eventually fail.  Which it did.

There’s also the point to be made that, were the Invasion pulled off the way that it was originally supposed to, the Gaunt Man would have been able to fulfill the conditions required to merge with his Darkness Device and ascend into the Torg.  (This was an odd bit, in that the intro module in the Adventure Book had the player characters tasked with an impossibly high stakes mission – destroy the device that had caused the earth to stop spinning and save the entire population of Core Earth.  There was a bit of hand-waving to make this possible for starting level characters – the Gaunt Man was already locked down and hadn’t actually allocated the necessary resources to keep things going – but it was a bit of an absurd plot to follow.

This time around, none of these story factors have happened.  The Gaunt Man is still in charge (and implied to be aware of the mistakes that the previous iteration made), and the realm of Tharkold is firmly established – albeit fairly weak because of getting nuked by Volkov; they have the smallest realm of any of the Invaders.  Pan-Pacifica is still trying to lurk in the shadows, but this is a minor thing, comparatively.

In fact, this Invasion specifically is trying to avoid most of the mistakes of the previous one, and several important plot points are being pushed through on an accelerated time table, rather than letting them show up later on.  (Specifically, the search for the broken Darkness Device, Tagharra, is taking place immediately.  Originally, it showed up years after the initial Invasion.)

At this point, the only real counter to the High Lord’s plans comes in the form of Quinn Sebastian, head of the Delphi Council and avatar of every veteran player that paid any amount of attention.

I’m not sure that he’s going to be enough to keep things from going straight to hell.

Cover Images and Irrelevancy

Since we’re on the topic of setting lore, let’s take a look at one of the most important bits of the established content, why it mattered at the time of the original game, and what Torg Eternity is doing with it now.

The cover of the original Torg boxed set and main book (and the first novel, for that matter) featured a pretty striking image:  A Catholic priest holding up a glowing cross and an eternity shard, back to back with a woman in a tiger-striped leotard with a white fright wig and raccoon make-up.  Her left arm and right leg are cybernetic replacements, and she’s holding a modern / slightly futuristic sub-machine gun and has what looks to be a vintage revolver strapped to her thigh.  They’re standing next to a ruined castle wall in a weird rainbow miasma, with the half-occluded head of the Gaunt Man hovering in the background.  The wall may or may not be bleeding.

As things go, it’s a pretty good representation of the game line in a single image.  Tech and miracles, people from different realms working together, and the omnipresent sense of lurking evil glowering over the entire tableau.  The girl is a little bit too 80’s rock video to be taken seriously now, even as a Jem and the Holograms throwback, but this came out in May of 1990.  You could still hear Whitesnake in the background if you paid attention.

The image is an interesting one, from a critical standpoint, partly for the representation I’ve already gone over, and partly for the fact that it is the center image of a triptych.  (In fact, the entire image has been reproduced in the new Torg Eternity book, as part of the foreword by Greg Gorden.)  These images served as the covers of the tie-in novel trilogy that I’ve already touched on briefly.

The first image has a guy in a business suit with a Mac 10, backed up by a girl in full plate with sword and shield.  Over them is some sinister green reptile.  The last image is a werewolf and an Australian Aborigine being menaced by a skeletal figure with antlers.  Of the three, the center image is the strongest, which is likely why it ended up being on the mainbook.  It also featured the Gaunt Man, who is pretty much the final villain and source of the whole line’s title.  The others had (if I remember correctly) the Carredon and the Wild Hunt, neither of which carry nearly the same weight as a High Lord.

So, since we know that the werewolf is the previously discussed Kurst, these characters are clearly the iconics that were introduced in the fiction.  The snazzy dresser with the Mac 10 is Andrew Jackson “Ace” Decker, the baseball player turned Congressman.  With him is the newly reincarnated Tolwyn of House Tancred, a warrior of Lady Ardinay who was sent to Core Earth when she was slain in battle.*  And next to Kurst is Djil, who (as I recall) had premonitions of the invasion and joined the heroes accordingly.

The Catholic priest is Christopher Bryce, and the cyberwarrior / fitness instructor is none other than Dr. Hachi Mara-Two.**  But why is any of this relevant to the backstory of the game?  These characters never show up again in the course of the actual game, so how important can they actually be?

Leaving aside the whole “Kurst is a brain damaged High Lord” bit and the “lock the Gaunt Man in a bubble” aspect (which I will definitely have to talk about at some point), there is a fair chunk of necessary backstory here, without which the game takes on a completely different aspect.

You see, Mara comes from a cosm called Kadandra.  It never shows up in any of the official sourcebooks, and in the text of the novel, it’s only really discussed enough to introduce Mara, establish her motivations, and send her off to Earth.  What’s significant about Kadandra is that, as a target for Reality Raiders, it actually fought off an invasion.  Not only that, it was the dimension that Tharkold was retreating from when they were called on to invade Core Earth.  It could be argued that, given the recent defeat of the Tharkoldu in Kadandra, it set up the disastrous failed invasion that followed in Russia.

It also bears noting that Kadandran tech was advanced enough to be able to mimic some powers of the Darkness Devices.  Specifically, that’s the mechanism that allowed Mara to get to Core Earth in the first place.  Where Tolwyn had to die and be reincarnated, all she had to do was dial up a dimthread and transport herself to the new battleground.

This is already enough of a backstory to make the exclusion of Kadandra from the main sourcebooks a little weird.  I mean, they put together a full sourcebook devoted to Terra, the home cosm of Pharaoh Mobius (something that none of the other High Lords ever merited), but the guide for a singularly useful dimension that could have greatly helped the efforts of Core Earth?  Never mentioned again.***

But then there’s the weird bit in the novel where Mara ambushes Jean Malraux and slaps a modified USB device to his neck.

In the original lore, the Cyberpapacy wasn’t “cyber” in the slightest.  It was a fairly solid, historically-based Spanish Inquisition-styled oppressive theocracy.  Malraux, as the High Lord, was the False Pope, and he presided over a church devoted to purging heresies from the realm.  Heresies, of course, that were impossible to avoid and dictated solely by him.  And before the Invasion, his prophets showed up on Core Earth to preach the end times.  When the Invasion hit, the low tech of the Middle Ages caused a massive tech collapse throughout France, and this was to aid the invasion accordingly.

And that’s about the time that Mara uploaded her memories to the False Pope.  Over the course of the novels up to that point, MAra’s spare time had been devoted to creating a memory file, uploading everything she wanted to remember about Kadandra to this device.  When she encountered Jean Malraux, she hit him with it (I’m sure it made sense in the context of the novel), and in an instant, he was infused with the experiences of her home dimension.  For whatever reason, all of this was integrated his Darkness Device, Ebenuscrux, and the new Kadandra-based Axioms were consequently uploaded to the Invasion.  Therefore, Cyberpapacy.

So, to recap, this is a character that directly influenced the baseline lore of one realm, has access to tech and history that would potentially allow Core Earth to win outright, and was important enough to merit a place on the cover of the boxed set / main book.

Which brings us to the all important question:  What is Ulisses Spiel likely to do with Mara in the new setting?

Answer:  Probably nothing.

There’s zero mention of what Tharkold was doing before they joined the Invasion of Core Earth, but it’s not seeming like they’re coming to the party with diminished resources or accumulated angst.  Also of significance, there’s no mention of Thratchen, a different character who carries a similar amount of inherent weight (but unlike Mara, he shows up in the sourcebooks and modules regularly), which suggests that the Invasion of Kadandra never happened this time around.

Without having the Cyberpapacy book in hand, I feel safe in predicting that Malraux is going to have an altered origin to explain the “cyber” part of his realm.  I could argue for a later introduction of Kadandra based on other ideas, but at best it’s a long shot.

Which is sort of sad, because I’m going to miss the 80’s styled cyberwarrior / fitness instructor cover of the old days.  Alas.

*I would like to note that this was a vividly weird sequence, as far as things go.  In the context of game mechanics, Tolwyn was killed, but her spirit was sent elsewhere by activating the Send power of an Eternity Shard.  Essentially, this was a power that could reincarnate a dead character at some later point in the game.  (There was a lot of loose interpretation to the power, so when or where the character showed back up was largely due to GM fiat.)  When Tolwyn showed back up, she arrived in New York around the time of the invasion, taking possession of a girl who had just been pronounced dead and given Last Rights.  When she awoke, all previous memory was replaced by Tolwyn’s memories and her eyes changed color.

Oh, and did I mention that the Eternity Shard that was used to Send Tolwyn was a field of flowers?  It was sort of like Flanders Fields, but the blossoms were (thematically) blue and red.

**Starting at the left, the character templates in the World Book are:  National Hero, Paladin, Obsessed Prodigy, Doubting Cleric, Human Tribal Shaman, and Werewolf.  In case this was important to someone.

***There was, for what it may be worth, a fair amount of fan speculation on the early forums about how to portray Kadandra.  The most clearly realized version ended up being a high action, anime-based realm.  This accounted for the ridiculous level of tech and tied in with a number of the shows being brought over from Japan at the time.

There may also have been giant mecha.

****I’m not going to argue.  Dr. Hachi Mara-Two runs the ragged edge of an archetypal Mary Sue character.  Be’s gorgeous, exotic, intelligent (can’t forget the Doctor part of her description), and young.  (I believe that, canonically, she’s something like 17 years old.)  She pretty much decked a High Lord (we’ll get back to Ace Decker in the next post), and if it wasn’t for her, Jean Malraux may have ended up being the least interesting villain in the setting for most GM’s.

A Dive into the Lore

Torg Eternity is an interesting game, for the fact that it is based on a decently-sized (about 30 sourcebooks, by my count), metaplot driven game that wound its way to a logical end and closed its doors.  In some ways, its story has already been told in full, and the line has a clearly delineated beginning, mid-point and final act.  (Whether or not were handled very well is up for discussion; I shall be covering some of those points at some point.)

To their credit, Ulisses Spiel has chosen to both acknowledge all of this lore and let some parts of it shape the course of the new game’s metaplot.  At the same time, they have also left the door open – in a strange, in-game way – to casually discard bits of the lore as they go.  (The iconic character, Quinn Sebastian, serves this function.  It is explicitly stated that his knowledge of events roughly equates to having read the entirety of the first game’s canon.  And it’s pretty evident that he’s going to quickly run into unexpected twists within the course of the war.)  From every indication, it’s going to follow a pattern roughly similar to the Sci-Fi Channel’s reboot of Battlestar Galactica:  Many of the same characters and events have survived the transition, but they’ve been tuned to current tastes and sensibilities.  There are going to recognizable elements, but overall, this new edition will fix the mistakes of the old and bring it to a new level.  (Assume that, for this analogy, we can leave off most of the last season of Galactica.)

But what parts of this lore is important, and what parts are likely to be left out?

There is every indication that one of the major overhauls is coming in the form of how the Edeinos – and by extension, High Lord Baruk Kaah, Saar of the Edeinos – are being treated in the lore.  In the original, the Dinosaur Invasion was treated as something of a joke, with the expatriate lizardmen ending up as a sort of continuing source of parody.  One infamous illustration has an Edeinos pitching for the local baseball team, and there is the recurrent nonsense of Skippy the Edeinos.  Partway into the line, they published Temple of Rec Stalek as an attempt to keep things from going too far astray.

This time around, Thrakmoss and his rebel cult are there from the outset, which will provide some interesting tension.  In a passing mention, the game notes that, while these Edeinos are rebelling against Baruk Kaah, they’re not exactly sympathetic to the plight of the Core Earth humans, either.

Also included in this section is an interesting note about a new maelstrom bridge that’s been dropped in the Yucatan.

This requires a bit of explanation to make sense of.

So, when the game was released, it came in the form of a boxed set – as standard for the time.  The box included the main book, a Drama Deck, the smaller World and Adventure books, and the first Infiniverse newsletter.  The World Book covered each of the invading cosms in quick detail, hinting at what sorts of new material was coming.  (Not unlike the text of the new Eternity mainbook.)  The Infiniverse newsletter was West End Games’ attempt at a living campaign in the years before internet ubiquity.  (This is something I will try to get back to as well.)

The World Book had a startlingly wide variety of character templates – essentially half-made characters that needed minor tweaks, like plugging in the skills and adding some equipment.  The character templates gave generic backstories that would hook a player into the setting quickly and gave some insight into the sparse information that the World Book sketched out.  There were 24 archetypes in total, split between the six realms and Core Earth.*

The final template was a weird one:  Werewolf.  The Attributes and Skills were split between the two forms, with certain skills being unavailable for use when transformed.  On the surface, it made sense, but the rules required for it were a little cumbersome, compared to the pick-up-and-play aspect of the rest of the characters.

Shortly after the boxed set was released, West End Games put out the Possibility Wars trilogy of tie-in novels.  I can’t make the claim that they were well written, but they filled in the basic outline of the first months of the war and brought to light some of the events that were vitally important to the storyline.  Among other things, it illuminated the scene where Jean Malraux was ambushed and the Inquisition-themed False Papacy was shifted into becoming the Cyberpapacy.  (See next post for details on this.)

The books featured a set of iconic characters, generally based on the character templates in the World Book, who would never show up again.  Among them was the character of Kurst, the Orrorshan Werewolf.  Except that he wasn’t.

As it turned out, Kurst was actually a brainwashed former High Lord that had pissed off the Gaunt Man.  He ended up getting beaten badly when the Gaunt Man invaded his home cosm, and his Darkness Device fucked off before it could be added to the Gaunt Man’s horde.  Suddenly, this relatively unimportant member of the ensemble cast became pivotal to the events of the war.

See, apparently Kurst (then Dairoga) was the first High Lord that the Gaunt Man had encountered, and his cosm was the first conquered.  And when the broken Darkness Device, Tagharra, fled, it ended up landing on Core Earth.  The Gaunt Man went out to search for where it had fled, found Core Earth, and started making plans to invade it some seven centuries later.

Meanwhile, the broken Darkness Device, Tagharra, was pretty much brain-damaged, and being unaware of its own actual power, used its influence to dick with the natives where it had landed.  Renamed Huitzilopochtli (the god of war in the Aztec pantheon, for those playing at home), it influenced the native tribes of the Yucatan to make blood sacrifices to it, which eventually brought the ruin of most of the tribes in the area.  It wasn’t until the Conquistadors showed up that it was finally dropped down a hole and left to rot.  (And naturally, it became the subject of a later adventure module, High Lord of Earth.)

It also bears noting that the lore for Tagharra appears to be where the in-universe term for stelae originated.

So, yeah.  One of the first things that the new invasion of Edeinos is trying to deal with is to get hold of the broken Darkness Device that rests beneath a pyramid somewhere in the Yucatan.  Exactly what they plan to do with it is entirely up for debate, but were it up to me, I’d hand it over to Thrakmoss.  There’s an established tendency for High Lords to trade in Darkness Devices, as the Gaunt Man rewarded Uthorian with Drakacanus for his loyal service.  It would make sense for Baruk Kaah to lay hands on Tagharra and use it as a means to keep Thrakmoss from being a thorn in his side.

And after all, a broken Darkness Device with an obsession over blood sacrifice seems like it’s tailor-made for a death worshiping malcontent.

*Not an even split, mind you.  A full third of the available characters were from Core Earth, which makes sense.  But of the remaining 16, Nippon Tech and the Living Land only got two characters each, where the rest got three.