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.

Political Subtext in Modern RPG’s

There was an interesting moment in the marketing for Torg Eternity, when Ulisses Spiel started up their Near Now Twitter account.

Ever since its original publication, Torg has marketed itself as being a game set in the Real World Gone Wrong.  The setting of the Near Now implies that all of this could – and perhaps really is – happen to us, sometime in the coming days.  Coming out in the early 1990’s, just prior to the Internet becoming more generally accessible to the average person, it had to make do with the tech of the time to collaborate with its audience.  The Infiniverse Campaign required gamers to buy physical copies and subscriptions, send physical replies through the Postal Service, and wait until the next round of queries was released to see what was happening.

Obviously, those days are past.

Calling on the tech of the day, naturally, they set up a Twitter account that mimicked the live Tweets of a news agency covering the confusing and catastrophic events that were unfolding during the Invasion by the Reality Raiders.*

As the invasion unfolded, there were the expected events that followed the original time frame:  Blind prophets in France, storms over England, the US President going to watch a baseball game in New York City.  Naturally, it was a fictional president, same as the first time around, but that’s to be expected.  As we have seen, the political climate recently has seriously stifled parody (See:  Recent productions of Julius Caesar, which only now are being accused of political fuckery), so wisely the writers chose to sidestep potential controversy that way.

But when it came to the invasion itself, there were a couple of noteworthy observations that came up.  For one thing, the arrival  of Pharaoh Mobius was heralded with the statement that he would “return Egypt to its deserved glory.”  While it is entirely keeping with the character, it’s pretty clear that we were one step short of issuing red ball caps and talking of “Making Egypt Great Again.”  And inevitably, there were a lot of people that signed onto this idea.

Similarly, the invasion of France took place with a solidly coordinated propaganda thrust by Jean Malraux’s agents, promising to heal ills and offer certain forms of salvation to any who willingly converted to the Cyberpope’s dogma.  Given the occasional bits of Euro xenophobia (See:  Anders Breivik, Brexit, etc.), it’s not hard to take this a couple of steps further and note that charges of Heresy by the Church are going to drive a lot of Muslims out of central Europe.  (There’s even a note that people in Spain were clamoring for the “Blessings of Malraux” in their region.)

Interestingly enough, the invasion is being held back in Spain by the Alhambra, the Moorish palace in Granada, much as Mobius’ invasion is being stalled by Mecca and Medinah in the Middle East.

Later on in the book, there is a section (about half a page worth) that deals with how the average, non-heroic person is likely to deal with the Invasion.  Keep in mind that Core Earth, as of this edition, is predisposed towards heroism and adaptation.  Characters from Core Earth are more likely to fit into the mold of John McClain from Die Hard than simply stand by and let things happen.

That said, there will always be resistance.  In game terms, these come in the form of what are called Uncooperative Inhabitants.  These are normal, everyday people that will tend to stand in the way of things the Storm Knights are trying to do.  It makes sense, from a strictly mechanical perspective, as there will necessarily have to be adversaries that are unexpected and less morally simplistic to eliminate.

What’s interesting is the description of why these characters are actively keeping the Storm Knights from trying to save the world.  Some want so desperately to be on the winning side that they are willing to commit treason to do so, while others have come to believe that going along with the agendas of the Invaders is the only way to keep their families and themselves safe.  There is even a faction of these people that are so wholly disillusioned with how the world was before the Invasion that they simply “want to watch the world burn.”

Honestly, all that’s missing from this section is a discussion about how these sorts of NPC’s are lacking in normal levels of empathy, else we’d have a Slate article profiling the normal Republican voter.

Not that I’m decrying any of this, mind you.  This is a game owned by a foreign company, and as such, it’s going to reflect a more international perspective.  And internationally, the United States looks pretty stupid for its continued support of a lying kleptocrat who claims that climate change is a conspiracy created by the Chinese.  Foreign press is less than kind to the American people on that point.

And there is the dire possibility that all of this is a specific interpretation that occurs solely to me, based on my worldview.**  I’m willing to entertain that idea.  But there is enough of a thread to hold to that would allow a GM to be able to tie a game to current events and use the platform of the game as an extended allegory for world political events.  If nothing else, it allows for some interesting moral dilemmas to bedevil the player characters with.

As noted before, easily available bandwidth and functional cybernetics are pretty enticing things.  And if you can get people to sell out their morality for one thing, it’s really not hard to get them to sell out for something else.

*Just as an aside, the term, “Reality Raiders,” seems like one of those things that shouldn’t have made it past Editorial.  It feels like a placeholder, much like Stormer and Darkness Device.  Were I left in charge of the asylum, I think I would have insisted on new terms, perhaps borrowed from obscure linguistic sources or simply made up wholecloth.  Have we learned nothing from White Wolf?

**As point of note for the future, I’m composing this post in the midst of new reports that the Trump campaign knowingly conspired with a representative of Russia, in hopes of gaining damaging information against the Clinton campaign.  Which is backed up by now-published emails to that effect.

Another dozen pages

Further perusal of the Torg Eternity book has corrected a couple of assumptions that I had initially made, which isn’t a huge surprise.  Apparently, the Statue of Liberty isn’t one of the Hardpoints of Core Earth, as I had guessed.  (I blame the small map I was using as a guide.  It seems that the Statue of Liberty isn’t actually holding the Living Land at bay in New York (although, it does seem odd that it isn’t), but the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is.  This was a staple in the original version, just one that I never took much advantage of.  And further recollection points me to the plaque of The New Colossus (the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty) as being an Eternity Shard.

On the other hand, the entirety of Washington DC is a massive Hardpoint, which has thus managed to keep Baruk Kaah at bay.

This is one of those things that I really hope gets addressed in the course of this brand new edition.  I can understand why a lot of these things get labeled as Hardpoints, but there are enough weird exclusions to make me wonder why some things simply don’t make the cut.  It’s not a gripe, per se, but it is a curiosity that I would love to have some explication laid out for.

So, moving along…

There are some new tweaks to Aysle, most of which are only relevant to the diehards who actually focused on the Realm in the original game.  Some of the setting implies some Game of Thrones-styled intrigues and treachery, but since that aspect of the setting is mainly backstory, I’m not sure that it will ever come into play.

The Cyberpapacy is fascinating, this time around.  It was always an interesting place to set adventures in, but now there are some fascinating subtexts to look at.  For one thing, the role of Jean Malraux as a Savior has been given some relevant depth.  Not only is he handing out truly phenomenal Internet, in the form of the GodNet (consider, when the game originally premiered, actual functional Internet was years away; now it’s so very ubiquitous that most people can’t function without it), he’s also offering cures for most physical disabilities.  (There is actually a sidebar that notes – without mentioning any specific conflicts by name – that disabled veterans would be the first to take advantage of cyberware.)

These two elements, alone, make the idea of Malraux’s agenda look really appealing.  I know, given my current state of internet connectivity, that lightning fast gigabit or terabit data speeds would be incredibly tempting.  Add in the fascinating uses of bandwidth that the setting implies, and I can make a case for converting to The New Church.

We’ll just go ahead and ignore the absolutely hilarious level of surveillance that the GodNet has built into it.

The Living Land is one of the most contentious parts of the original game.  It was the main setting for any game based in the United States, which was also the main market for the game.  Add in the fact that it was the first sourcebook (and direly in need of a revision, given how things developed), when the designers were still finding their groove, and it ended up being a poorly received setting overall.  There were some bright points, like the Temple of Rec Stalek, which introduced a horror-themed adventure into what was otherwise dismissed as being vaguely Pellucidar at its base, but those were not the main experience for most people.  (It bears saying that Shane Hensley, who wrote that adventure, is also one of the main forces behind this new edition.)

In the course of the game, the Living Land fared really poorly.  The invaders were treated as more of a joke, and Baruk Kaah himself was regularly beaten about the head and ears by the larger audience and staff themselves.  (If you’re curious, seek out a copy of the third Infiniverse Update.  Essentially, Kaah is chucked into the Possibility Nexus beneath Core Earth at one point, and shows up later, stripped of all power and infused with a weird, pastiche of abilities from being transformed into all realities at once.  It was both really weird and fairly pathetic, all at once.)

This new edition seems determined to make the new Living Land a whole lot scarier than it had previously been seen as being.  (I will note that I always saw a lot of dire potential in the setting.  Any place that removed nearly every aspect of modern life, including the ability to work together as a cohesive group, was a pretty awful place to be stuck adventuring in.)

One new part of the Living Land is the introduction of different clans within the culture of the Edeinos.  There are some easter eggs for the grognards, such as the appearance of the Whitespear Clan, lead by Thrakmoss.  (See above, namely Rec Stalek, to make sense of why this is important.)  Another clan, the Gold Sun clan showed up in the Yucatan when a maelstrom bridge dropped there.  This is a reference to one of the other pivotal modules, where a broken Darkness Device is found during the course of an adventure.  (There’s actually a lot of backstory to this, but since it largely references events that took place in the novel series, it’s mainly weird and irrelevant to most groups and GM’s.)

As a final notation to this bit, I’m becoming fascinated with some of the inherent hooks that each setting is offering up.  Each setting has its own sort of “treasure map” aspect to it, ranging from the obvious ones like the implied “Dungeons” of Aysle.  In the fantasy realm, any sort of underground passage has potential to be a treasure-laden crypt of some sort of another.  So, in London, the subways can lead to some sort of opportunity to delve for treasure, where the fjords and caverns in Scandinavia offer thematically similar quests of their own.  It only makes sense, given the overall fantasy setting that the characters are plunged into.

The other cosms aren’t quite so obvious, so new opportunities have been overlaid for that sake.  In the Cyberpapacy, there are “reliquaries” of forbidden information in the GodNet.  In the Living Land, there are weird remnants of Baruk Kaah’s past conquests that have mysteriously shown up and offer chances to plunder.

Also, it bears noting that apparently the Law of Savagery and the Law of Life somehow make the Living Land a very … sexy … place to hang out.

This has all happened before…

… and it will all happen again.

This is essentially how the new version of Torg is introduced.  The original series of books opened with a standardized pitch for the game:  Later today, early tomorrow, sometime next week, the world began to end.  It was direct, dramatic, and gave the reader some sense of immediacy of the game they were delving into.  This was, by rights, a game that was set in a world very much like our own, except that things had recently gone very, very wrong.

The new version of Torg, set some 25 years after the first, acknowledges that everything in the old game happened – for better or worse.  But it also wants to stress that this time things are different.  This time, shit’s really going to hit the fan.  This is a tale of a different Earth.  One where things did not go as well…  It’s understood that we’re still operating in the game’s Near Now setting, but we’re working with new horrors and situations and power struggles.

For what it’s worth, I’ve played Torg from its original publication, collecting the various sourcebooks and adventures as they were released over the original print run.  It was and remains one of my favorite games, both for the flexibility (I’ve used it for a number of wholly unrelated games over the years) and for the available opportunities for plot and action.  Accordingly, I put out quite a bit of money for the Kickstarter campaign that concluded last month.  I’d be damned if I was left out of the relaunch of a game I have this sort of history with.

The PDF’s arrived this afternoon, and I’ve been slowly moving through the text to see what sort of changes are offered.  It’s been an interesting read thus far, noting what sort of details they’re putting in and what sort of elements they’re referencing.

In one of my longer running campaigns, I started the characters a short time before the maelstrom bridges fell.  The default setting of the game assumes that all of the opening salvos of the war have taken place, and the invasion has settled in for what amounts to be a siege of reality.  My own interpretation was to have the characters brought in on a sort of X-Files themed investigation, where they were forced to confront the scouts of a larger invading force.

Part of this campaign set-up hinged on the fact that, as agents of the FBI (how better to do X-Files than to let people assume that it’s actually based on X-Files?), they reported to a deputy director who knew way more about the coming invasion than he necessarily should have.  Byron McEnnis, they could have eventually discovered, was a veteran of a separate Possibility War who had transitioned to a new Earth in the greater schema of the Infiniverse campaign setting.  He was trying his damnedest to forestall the invasion that was coming to the campaign world, and the player characters were his method of trying to keep this version of reality from failing as badly.

Torg Eternity addresses this idea early on, hinting that one of the old mainstay iconics (a term that didn’t exist at the time of the original publications), Quinn Sebastian, is just such a character.  In the original, he was a soldier-of-fortune who lurked in the corners of the game’s larger narrative, leaving quotes throughout the text but otherwise never really appearing in the world.  (See also:  Dr. Hachi-Mara Two and Father Christopher Bryce.  I mean, they were only featured on the main cover image for the game.  Much like Andrew Jacks “Ace” Decker, they showed up in the novels and were pretty much left out of everything else.)

These days, Quinn Sebastian serves as the MCU Nick Fury of Torg.  He’s the main force in organizing the Delphi Council (which used to be shadowy and more than a little sinister), and he’s been given his own aircraft carrier parked off of New York City.  He’s recruited Lady Ardinay (the original High Lord of Aysle; sort of) to sit on the Delphi Council, and for some reason, he’s also managed to snag one of the members of the Gaunt Man’s own Hellion Court.  This one fascinates me, since it’s so generally weird of a development.  I have the feeling that it’s going to be a pivotal plot element later on.

So far as the larger story goes, there’s a new sub-mechanic that they note, which serves as a rationale for some of the choices the High Lords made this time around.  Originally, when the High Lords invaded, there wasn’t a lot of rhyme or reason to where they all showed up, other than some vague thematic ideas.  This time around, it’s noted that population centers are incredibly important, so one realm was shifted from Malaysia and New Guinea to India.  (And given that it’s generally based on Victorian England, it makes far more sense.)

As far as initial observations go, I have one final one to impart before delving back into the text for a while.  Even though I’ve covered very little of the setting thus far, there are some fascinating decisions baked into the core of the new text.

In the original, there were Hardpoints.  These were iconic parts of the Core earth setting that served as symbols of the original reality and could hold back parts of the invading cosms enough that people could continue to function.  The Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower were two pretty obvious examples, the latter of which allowed Paris to function as a free city within the Cyberpapacy.

On the included map, there are a number of Hardpoints noted, even if they are (as yet) unidentified.  From all appearances, Lady Liberty and La Tour Eiffel are still holding strong, but there are a couple of fascinating additions that stand out.  (Assuming that I’m interpreting them correctly.)  First off, it looks like Mecca and Medinah are represented in the Nile Empire.  (There’s also one in what appears to be Kampala, Uganda, but I’m at a loss as to what that could be.)  That casts some interesting ideas about how hard it would be for Pharaoh Mobius to take Jerusalem.

But more to the point, it appears that Normandy and Hiroshima are similar Hardpoints.

And speaking as someone who has spent time in Hiroshima, that would make for a really interesting element to incorporate.

On the idea of rarity, versus actual playability

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.