Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Gumshoe Deep Dive, Part 4--Swords of the Serpentine

Swords of the Serpentine, by Kevin Kulp and Emily Dresner, is still in playtest, and as of this writing there is no official release date.  And it is grounded in a genre--pulpy, swords-and-sorcery fantasy--that is not normally my favorite sort of setting, or even my favorite sort of game.  But, man, am I excited about this game.  And, for this reason, while I thought about holding off on this until the game actually comes out (my understanding from talking to Kulp and the indominable Cat Tobin of Pelgrane Press is the ETA is the first half of next year), I decided to do a "pre-review" so I can gush about how great I think this game is/is going to be.

Let's start with mechanics.  As I mentioned in the review of Fear Itself, default GUMSHOE fits pretty cleanly into the "rules light" paradigm, as seen by the size of the book and the percentage of that book dedicated to game mechanics.  Moreover, especially in the early generation of GUMSHOE games (Fear, Esoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu), the focus was on getting past the (often hyper-deadly) action as quickly as possible in order to get back to the business of solving mysteries.  So, on the surface, GUMSHOE seems like a strange fit for a swords-and-sorcery game that is presumably going to have an action focus.  But, if you stack lots of mechanics onto top of the GUMSHOE engine, you lose much of the benefit of the clean, fast GUMSHOE engine.

This problem has been addressed before in Ken Hite's Night's Black Agents, and you can see the influence of that game clearly on Swords of the Serpentine.  The biggest add is that each of the General Abilities now has a "Booster" (a "Cherry" in NBA-speak) if the PC has a rank of 8 or more in that Ability.  So, Warfare of 8 allows you to attack multiple targets; Bind Wounds of 8 or more removes the normal penalty for healing yourself, etc.  This sounds really simple, and it is, but it is a very elegant structure that makes characters with different arrays of General Skills feel very different.  It works so well that one of the bits of feedback I got was the playtest characters that spread around their General Abilities and don't have Boosters feel a little dull in comparison to the one's with Boosters.

The other big move that pumps up the action level is that Swords of the Serpentine works on the explicit assumption that players will use their Investigative Ability spends to enhance their General Abilities, and provides very clear guidelines for how to adjudicate those spends.  Previous GUMSHOE games tend to keep the world of Investigative Abilities very separate from General Abilities, and I would be hesitant to let players in most GUMSHOE games go hog-wild with using spends to get a combat advantage.  But it works and makes sense here, and it makes PCs feel heroic without really changing the way the system works.  It's subtle, but has a big effect on the way the game feels.

One departure from Night's Black Agents is that Swords of the Serpentine dramatically cuts down the number of Abilities, both Investigative and General, on the character sheet.  In addition to simplifying the on-boarding process for players, this move also enhances the genre "feel" of the game.  In something like NBA, drawing distinctions between different kinds of spycraft-oriented knowledge or ways of killing foes feels in keeping with the feeling of being a super-spy with multiple hyper-specialized areas of training.  Whereas in Swords of the Serpentine, the "Warfare" General Ability covers every conceivable way of making physical attacks against opponents, which is in keeping with the idea that Conan can do his Conan thing with whatever happens to be available to him.

The Abilities that do exist are dripping with atmosphere.  The "medicine" Investigative Ability in Swords of the Serpentine is called "Leechcraft," which is so great.  The "drives" mechanic in Trail of Cthulhu and other GUMSHOE games is re-interpreted as defining three answers to the question "what is best in life?"  That questions comes from the legends of Genghis Khan, but it is best known from a scene in Conan the Barbarian:

I love every bit of this--(1) it's very genre appropriate; (2) it's very funny; (3) it's a really good way for a player to get a handle on what their PC is all about.

But the atmosphere is not just generalized fantasy, or even swords and sorcery fantasy.  Swords of the Serpentine is situated squarely in a setting, and that setting is every bit as compelling as the rules material.  Right off the bat, the draft document gives you what I think is the ideal amount of setting detail, enough to communicate a clear sense of what this setting is about, without constraining GM freedom of action and creativity.  In this way, it is very similar to the default "Dragon Empire" setting in 13th Age--it draws the map for you, but it leaves plenty of blanks.

What is defined for you is primarily the city of Eversink.  As the name implies, Eversink is built on a swamp and is slowly sinking.  Venice, in all of its medieval glory, is a clear inspiration here, with canals functioning as streets and gondolas being a core means of transportation.  Eversink is portrayed as a classic fantasy "mega-city," in the vein of Lankhmar and its inspirations like Greyhawk, Waterdeep, etc., so it is big and crowded, with many factions, conspiracies, and intrigues.

Speaking of factions, they are built into the rules and PC design.  Each PC begins with relationships to three of the major factions of Eversink (two as Allies, one as an Enemy), and these relationships function like Investigative Abilities, allowing for spends out of these pools (as well as pool from which the GM can make spends against the PCs, in the case of Enemy factions).  This system has some similarities to the Icon mechanics of 13th Age, but on a much more grounded level, in keeping with Swords of the Serpentine's lower power level generally--rather than the undead Lich King of 13th Age, Swords of the Serpentine gives you the Guild of Architects and Canal-Watchers, a secretive clan that is pretty important in a city that is sinking into the water.  The faction mechanics allow GMs and groups to play a gritty, politically-oriented game.  If you asked me which ttrpg system I would use to run Game of Thrones or a Game of Thrones-like story, I would go with Swords of the Serpentine.  But the faction mechanics are also not absolutely essential to play, so if the group wanted to go the other way and just have high-adventure without any political elements, that would also work without having to rebuild the system from scratch (unlike, for example, the Icon mechanics in 13th Age, which have their roots dug pretty deeply into the game system).

Another defining element of Swords of the Serpentine, one that merges rules and setting, is the sorcery system.  Sorcery, by definition, involves consulting with dark powers--a sorcerer makes a pact either with a small god or demon, or otherwise gains forbidden knowledge from the lost Serpentine civilization of the past.  In order to learn Sorcery, your PC must take on Corruption.  Corruption can be spent to boost your spells, at the cost of either taking on physical deformities, or spreading that Corruption out into the world.  As far as a mechanics of Sorcery, the Sorcerer chooses one or more Sorcerous spheres to represent the manner in which their Sorcery manifests.  So, if a Sorcerer has the Luck sphere, he or she can produce magical effects that manifest as extraordinary lucky events; if he or she has the Stone sphere, his or her powers can manifest as creating or affecting rocks or earth.  This system gives players enormous room for creativity (if you squint hard, it has some resemblance to the magic rules in the White Wolf Mage games), while still imposing meaningful restrictions on the power of the PC and without requiring an massive rules apparatus for Sorcery--the entire Sorcery rules are 30 pages of single column, un-layed out text in the playtest document.

Finally, I want to talk about Denari, the patron goddess of Eversink.  Actually, patron goddess sells her short, as Eversink is literally Denari's body made manifest.  Denari is the goddess of commerce and civilization, and every mercantile transaction is a prayer to the goddess.  The brief section describing Denari and her church makes clear that she is the embodiment of capitalism as a religion--the priests and priestess of Denari preach on how to best calculate gross profit margin, giving away something for free is a sin, etc.  Here, I think, we see the strong hand of Emily Dresner, writer of the truly outstanding (and hilarious) Dungeonomics blog about the economic challenges of being a fantasy hero.  This dimension opens up space for Swords of the Serpentine to work as satire and social commentary.   As someone who believes that modern capitalism is, in fact, a religious belief system, this is like catnip for me--pump this directly into my veins.

I know I'm gushing about this game, but it is genuine--I cannot wait for this to come out and get this in the hands of more people.  It has all the simplicity of GUMSHOE, but with interesting and fun mechanical elements and action potential, wedded to an interesting and compelling setting that provides for real depth and complex story-telling opportunities.  Every part of this feels like a massive hit, and I have no problem acting as a shill and evangelist.  Be on the look out for this game in the New Year. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Gumshoe Deep Dive, Part 3--The Fall of DELTA GREEN

I get it.  You're sick of Cthulhu.  Honestly, I am for the most part as well.

There are a lot of reasons to be burned-out with Cthulhu.  First, the source material is problematic.  And, I don't mean that in the edgy, "everything is problematic in 2019!" sense.  Lovecraft's work is actually problematic--he was deeply, virulently racist even by the standards of the 1920s, and many of his works reflect a deep xenophobia of the sort that bedevils our current era and its politics.  He's not exactly enlightened on women's issues as well.  Whatever you think of them, the Chapo Trap House games of Call of Cthulhu (examples of which can be found here, and here), while an intentional parody, are not that far off from the actual attitudes expressed in Lovecraft's works.

Second, I think over-exposure has dulled some of the edge of the Cthulhu Mythos.  I mean, I have a cute Cthulhu plushy sitting on the shelf of my bookcase at home that my brother got me for a birthday present a number of years ago.  It's hard to take Cthulhu seriously as an alien menace from beyond reality when he has been tasked with teaching little kids their letters.

Finally, there are structural problems with using the Cthulhu Mythos in tabletop roleplaying games.  In order to adequately represent many of these creatures in game terms, you have to make them insanely powerful.  But making them so powerful (especially in games that tend not to have quadratic power progression a la D&D) makes them difficult to actually use in the game.  Famously, in a combat with Cthulhu per the Call of Cthulhu rules, Cthulhu eats a random number of PCs every turn, and the PCs are unlikely to be able to do anything meaningful in response, as the PCs will be blasted with the enormous Sanity loss as a result of observing Cthulhu himself.  Actually encountering Cthulhu is a one round TPK, guaranteed.  And so, generally speaking, PCs don't actually encounter many of the more interesting elements of the Mythos.

As a result of this last element, tabletop RPGs that are "about" the Cthulhu Mythos are actually about something else (or some set of things), with the Mythos acting as a kind of background MacGuffin.  Those games as interesting as the thing they are really about is interesting.  And, at a certain point, following a trail of clues up to the point where you get blasted in the face by an overwhelming foe, which is a simplistic but not inaccurate description of what many Mythos-based RPG scenarios are about, gets a little boring.  It is a testament to the skill of the adventure writing in both the Call of Cthulhu line and other lines like Trail of Cthulhu that they can make this basic formula work and be interesting and fresh, because the underlying premise is not inherently that exciting.

Nevertheless, even if you are officially on the "I'm done with Cthulhu" train, I would urge you to suspend that sentiment and give Ken Hite's The Fall of DELTA GREEN a chance.  Hite understands, or at least seems to understand, the idea that Cthulhu games have to have something in the foreground that is not Cthulhu in order to work.  So, while The Fall of DELTA GREEN on one level about fighting the infiltration of the Cthulhu Mythos into our world, it is really about the 1960s.  More specifically, it is about the 1960s in the United States, and how the 1960s eroded the essentially unbounded confidence that Americans had in their country that was inherited from World War II.

The key to The Fall of DELTA GREEN and why it works is that it uses the Cthulhu Mythos as a way to supplement and "turn up the temperature" on events and ideas that are already present in the 1960s.  Telling a story about Vietnam is in many ways already a horror story; adding the supernatural elements just highlights what is already there.  There are many very valid reasons to lose faith the U.S. government through the course of the 60s, so adding on top of all the other reasons the idea that there is a secret conspiratorial organization within the government that is researching alien technology and magic ("hypergeometry" in the language of the game) just puts a finer point on things.  There is a natural marriage between the sense of alienation that comes as a result of the actual historical events of the 1960s and the alienation embodied in the Mythos, and that marriage is why The Fall of DELTA GREEN is so compelling.

This dual sense of alienation is furthered by the fact that the PCs are agents of the U.S. government, members of unacknowledged agency DELTA GREEN dedicated to hunting down and destroying elements of the Mythos.  As such, PCs are placed in a front-row seat to watch things go down the toilet, both in the world generally and in terms of their own particular situation.  The default starting year is 1968, a year which in many ways represents the tipping-point beyond which no one could deny that the halycon days of the immediate post-War period were firmly in the rear-view mirror.  Even better, The Fall of DELTA GREEN fits within the broader DELTA GREEN universe, which states that the DELTA GREEN was shut down by the Pentagon in 1970.  In other words, the organization you are working for is literally at the end of its rope, but no one knows it at the time.  I'm not going to tell anyone how to run their games, but I would favor telling my players this fact ahead of time, as a way to emphasize the idea that this is the "fiddling while Rome burns" phase of things.

So, The Fall of DELTA GREEN is a dark game and setting.  But, unlike so many fictional settings that try to be dark, this game is very understated.  There are no cheap and contrived "edgy" set-pieces put in for shock value.  Instead, it lets the source material do the work.  The intro adventure that comes in the corebook is set in part in the tunnels used by the Vietcong, which is an inherently scary location even before you introduce elements of the Mythos.  War, racism, political violence, social unrest--all of these things are right there, in real life, waiting to be mined as the base for the supernatural to be layered on top.  The events of the late 1960s are so wild on their own that scenario design seems to me to consist of finding some crazy event that really occurred in history, brainstorming the most paranoid explanation for that event, and running with it.  Two hours after putting the book down for the first time, I had eight pages of notes on the how the Mythos ties into the Kennedy assassination, and had Oliver Stone's JFK queued up on Amazon Prime to mine for more material, all ready to be used in a campaign.

Another dimension to The Fall of DELTA GREEN, and a reason I think the game resonated with me, is that the 1960s are the perfect distance away to tell stories that have resonances with the present.  I don't think many are going to find this controversial, but I feel like we are living in another period in which people are experiencing alienation as a result of being let down by institutions and governments.  But it is hard to write about, or even really engage with, events as they are unfolding, because you are too close to them and it is hard/impossible to see the full picture to construct narratives.  The 1960s, however, are firmly in the past, and so they can be seen as a whole, with a sense of remove.  At the same time, it is familiar enough and similar enough to the situate we have now that GMs and players can make easy comparisons with things happening right now.  I suspect that running a few games of The Fall of DELTA GREEN, while perhaps not always "fun" in a conventional sense, might be cathartic for many people in 2019.

Mechanically, The Fall of DELTA GREEN hews pretty close to the GUMSHOE baseline.  Players pick a background specialty that lines up with their prior military or other government service before they were recruited into DELTA GREEN, and this background gives them a spread of Investigative and General Abilities (a system used, in one form or another, in many GUMSHOE games, including Ashen Stars and Trail of Cthulhu).  These are then tweaked with a few more points to spend, and then the character is good to go.  In terms of new elements, The Fall of DELTA GREEN has more extensive combat rules than the baseline GUMSHOE, but unlike Hite's own Night's Black Agents and the forthcoming Swords of the Serpentine which push the action in a more cinematic direction, these combat elements mostly revolve around making combat more violent and deadly, adding critical hits and the "insta-death" Lethality rules.  All of which is well within the tone and feel that the game is going for, without bogging things down too much.  It's still GUMSHOE, it still moves fast, but now with more options and approaches to take when fighting it out.

The other new mechanical piece, and probably my favorite thing in the game besides the setting, is the Bonds and Personal Life system.  At character creation, the player designates Bonds with people, places, and organizations (like a church or other body).  After missions, the player and the GM play out short scenes of what the PC is doing during downtime, and one thing that the player can do is spent time with those Bonds to repair or reinforce those connections.  The mechanics of the game, especially the Stability rules, create a kind of gravitational pull that wears away those Bonds, and so spending your PCs downtime with those Bonds keeps them strong.  But, spending time on our Bonds means you are not spending time doing additional research into the Mythos or other tasks that might help you on future missions, so there are real cost/benefit considerations to maintaining your Bonds.  As a result, many if not most PCs will see their connects with friends and family slowly erode during the course of play, which really reinforces the theme of alienation, while still ultimately leaving it in the hands of the player and avoiding heavy-handed intervention by the GM.  It's very elegant and fits perfectly with the rest of the game.

One last point--I have seen some reviews describe the physical presentation of the book as "amateurish," but I could not disagree more.  I think The Fall of DELTA GREEN is one of the most beautiful books Pelgrane has produced, and the layout and art design fit perfectly with the aesthetic.  The design is going for the random-pages-from-a-dossier look (a common choice for espionage games), but everything is washed through a sepia-toned lens that invokes films and television from that era.  The art is intentionally fuzzy and out of focus, heightening the weirdness and dislocation.

The Fall of DELTA GREEN won the Ennie Award for best setting a couple of weeks ago at Gencon, and it is well-deserved.  It is a deeply flavorful game that works even for those who are not otherwise massive Cthulhu fans, and the 1960s setting is a perfect fit for the tone and themes the game is going for.  The system shows off the flexibility of GUMSHOE, and is well paired with the setting.  The Fall of DELTA GREEN is not one of the most prominent GUMSHOE games, but it is a gem, and well worth a look.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Review of The Living Land, Nile Empire and Aysle for Torg: Eternity

A while back, I wrote a review of Torg: Eternity, the ambitious and (IME) successful re-imagining and reboot of the early 90s classic Torg.  In my review, I mentioned that there were plans for rounds of expansions for each of of the settings, or "Cosms" in Torg-speak.  Thus far, two of the seven Cosms--the Living Land, and the Nile Empire--has been released to the public, while the third--Aysle--has completed its Kickstarter and sent out the drafts of the core products to backers (of which I am one).  So, I figured now was a good time to check in and see where the game is and what we can look forward to in the future.  Because I am going to review three waves of products, I figured it would make sense to make some general comments and then get into each product.

The Kickstarters and the Kickstarter Model:  The base Torg: Eternity game was Kickstarted back in 2017, and was built around a package that the Ulisses Spiele folks called "the Cargo Box."  The Cargo Box for the original Torg: Eternity Kickstarter was a massive 12" x 9" x 8" box made of high-quality cardboard that weighed about 12 pounds fully loaded.  In addition to the hardcover Core Rulebook, the Cargo Box contained two hardcover adventure books, a GM screen, the Drama Deck of cards necessary to play the game, a commissioned soundtrack, and a wide assortment of chips, tokens, and other games aids.  The Cargo Box was and is an extremely impressive physical product, made with high quality materials and a ton of useful features.

This model has been replicated for each of the Cosms--a dedicated Kickstarter, centered around a Cargo Box consisting of a sourcebook for the Cosm, one long, 7-10 session adventure set in the Cosm and one compilation of short adventures (though Aysle has two long adventures), a GM screen, a soundtrack, more Drama Deck cards, and a bunch of accessories.  While I bought the Cargo Box for the first Kickstarter, I have gone for a lesser tier for the Cosm Kickstarters, in the form of the sourcebook in hardcover, pick-and-choose the accessories, and the rest in PDF.  This is in part for budgetary reasons (the Cargo Box was a $175 pledge for the first three, up to 175 Euros for the Aysle round due to the extra hardcover book), but more out of despair for finding storage space for a series of massive boxes of stuff.  Having seen the Cargo Boxes for the Living Land and the Nile Empire "in the wild," they appear to be every bit as impressive physical products as the original, and I am really tempted to go in for a Cargo Box on the next round.

The multiple sequential rounds of Kickstarters and the need to produce a massive product like a Cargo Box has made the release schedule slower than many fans were hoping for.  To be fair, these Torg: Eternity Kickstarters have had very fast turn around times--5 1/2 months between end of the Kickstarter and product shipping for Living Land, about 6 for Nile Empire.  Going forward beginning with Cyberpapacy, they are promised even shorter 4 month intervals between Kickstarters, which is crazy-fast (to put this is perspective, and I hate to drag Heinsoo and Tweet, but it was three years and nine months between the close of the 13th Age in Glorantha Kickstarter and my receipt of the physical product).  A big part of how the Ulisses folks pull this off is that the text of the sourcebook and the other big written products are done prior to the start of the Kickstarter--which is why the draft Aysle sourcebook arrived in my inbox a couple of hours after the close of the Kickstarter on Monday.  That kind of instant feedback is great, and avoids the feeling that you have thrown your money into the void.

Cosm Sourcebooks in General:  While the original Torg boxed set was certainly playable by itself, the original game in many respects wasn't complete until the six Cosm sourcebooks were released (six, because in the original Torg timeline the seventh invading Cosm, Tharkold, was initially defeated, and doesn't reappear until two years into the war).  This is, in part, because Torg is such a big, sprawling thing that you simply need more page count to flesh out each of the Cosms.  But in the first incarnation, it was also clear that the writers of the Cosm books were "making it up as they went along," building out each of these Cosms as the books came out.  As a result, the Cosm books were literally necessary, as they contained critical rules needed to play and make characters in the Cosm.  This also had the effect of retroactively making some of the material in the box set obsolete--famously, the final encounter in the introductory adventure in the boxed set is essentially unplayable if you use the Power of Fear rules from the Orrorsh Sourcebook.

The Cosm sourcebooks for the original game also varied in quality.  From my perspective, Nile Empire (except for the gadget rules) and the Cyberpapacy were excellent, Orrorsh had great lore but poor, complicated rules, the later Tharkold book also had great lore but was completely OP, Aysle and Nippon Tech (now "Pan Pacifica") was hit-or-miss, and the Living Land was poor.

With all of this in mind, the Cosm books for Torg: Eternity follow the trajectory set out by their predecessors for original Torg.  Most importantly, the Cosm sourcebooks provide 144 pages of additional page count to fill in the blanks for their respective Cosms.  I'll get into more detail with each of the respective books, but as a whole they do a great job of being very focused on what is going on in the invasion zones, and thus on the material that is immediately "game-able" as opposed to background lore.

They also provide more game mechanical material.  Unlike in the first go around, however, there are no instances of "remove and replace" that invalidate material in the Corebook.  Instead, everything is tacked on to the existing framework laid out the Corebook.  It's here we see the effects of one of the smartest changes introduced in Torg: Eternity, the unified Perk system.  Every character ability that is not a Skill or Attribute is expressed in a Perk--magic, miracles, cyberware, and a whole host of Cosm-specific abilities and doo-dads.  Because each Perk is a discrete, modular bit of game mechanics, the Cosm sourcebooks can add a bunch of new options without invalidating the previous material by trotting out new Perks, which is in fact a big part of all three Cosm sourcebooks.

To the extent there is brand new material, it is layered on top of existing material and enhances ideas and themes that are already there.  One of my favorite things are the new Drama Decks that come with each Cosm.  The Drama Deck is the lynchpin of what makes Torg unique and great--instead of rolling initiative or similar mechanics, for each round of combat or other dramatic scene, the GM flips over a card that controls initiative, provides bonuses and penalties to the Heroes and/or Villains, and regulates other elements of the round.  The Drama Deck makes each round of combat unique and unpredictable, avoiding the often tedious slog that combat in tabletop RPGs can become.

The Cosm-specific Drama Decks are card-for-card replacements for the existing Drama Deck that add, on top of all the existing Drama Deck elements, a Cosm-specific condition that affects both the Heroes and Villains during the round.  So, Card #1 in the Nile Empire deck makes every Air Vehicles test Favored (in D&D terms, rolling with Advantage), but all planes must make a Check to avoid colliding with another plane or the ground.  Because the new deck is just like the old deck plus the condition (and new art), you can use or not use the Cosm deck without changing the fundamental game flow.  The diversity of Cosms is the heart of what makes Torg great, and anything that makes playing in each Cosm feel distinctive and unique makes the game better.  The designers get that, which is good to see.

The Living Land:  I pretty confident I am not alone in rating the Living Land sourcebook as the weakest of the original Torg books. It's clear they had an initial idea--a Lost World of jungles and dinosaurs--but then didn't really know what to do with that basic concept.  Perhaps more to the point, the original Living Land was just not a fun place to set games in.  In addition to very low levels of technology, social organization (which, if you are a real stickler, makes it hard to organize things--like adventures), and magic, there were World Laws that basically were just vehicles for the GM to troll the players.  The Law of Decay caused items to randomly be lost from the PC's inventories and food to spoil, while the Deep Mist made it hard to get from place to place and easy to get lost.  It just wasn't fun or interesting, and the writers in the original continuity seemed to recognize this by making the Living Land the perennial whipping boy, turning the whole thing into something of a joke.

So, the Torg: Eternity crew had a lot of work to do with the Living Land.  Much of the rebuild can be seen in the Corebook, where the World Laws were revised to make them more playable and fun, and the dominant religion was tweaked to be a little more "user friendly."  The Living Land Sourcebook extends this project, in a couple of ways.  First, it goes into pretty significant detail about the various tribes of Edeinos (the lizard folks that are the dominant inhabitants of the Living Land Cosm), and does a good job of making each one feel different and interesting in ways that can be used in play.  The one topic I would have liked to have seen more development was the role of transformed humans in and among those tribes--I seem to remember the original version having a human-only tribe, but there's no indication of one here.  The other element that this version of the Living Land really dials up, to good effect, is the idea of savagery and kinetic action.  The World Laws of the Living Land make healing easier, and the social Axiom makes large-scale coordination unlikely, so the best course of action is usually to charge in and go all-out.  Torg in general works when each of the Cosms has a distinct feel, and I think the "new" Living Land has that in a way the old one did not.

The big adventure for the Living Land, The God Box, is . . . OK.  In many ways it is a published Torg adventure in the classical style, in the sense that it is very linear (some might say "railroad-y") and it has the feel of a theme-park ride, whisking you from place to place and showing you the highlights of the Torg world.  The God Box brings back the sub-reality of the Land Below, which I know was a crowd favorite but I never really saw the attraction to or purpose of, and here it feels like a weird detour in an adventure that is supposed to highlight the Living Land.  There was also an Act that felt especially like a theme-park ride, where the PCs are whisked to Chicago to show off the death-worshiping Edeinos tribe, and then whisked away for the conclusion of the story.  Still, despite the problems I had with the middle of the adventure, I liked Act One in Washington, D.C. and I especially liked the last two Acts, set in the jungles of the Yucatan in Mexico.  If I were to run it, I think I would just cut out the Land Below and Chicago stuff in the middle and run the beginning and the end as a shorter scenario.

Overall, the Torg: Eternity incarnation of the Living Land is much, much better than the original.  It's still not my favorite Cosm by a significant measure, but it is a place I would run stories in, as opposed to being a place to be avoided as in the original.  The Edeinos are now interesting and scary, and the place has a distinct feel.  Again, not my favorite, but much better, and that "much better" can be seen in the Living Land materials.

The Nile Empire:  In a way, the Nile Empire presented the opposite challenge for the Torg: Eternity team from the Living Land.  Wisely, the Torg: Eternity designers recognized that the Nile Empire as presented in the original game was fantastic, and thus changed very little of the substance.  It's still the pulp stories of the 30s, encompassing low and medium powered costumed super-heroes alongside adventure figures like Indiana Jones.  It still has all of the weird ancient Egyptian magic and mysticism.  It still has Dr. Mobius, the costumed super-villain/fascist dictator/re-born Egyptian Pharaoh.  It still dials up the action to 11, with heroes and villains dying and making their Inevitable Returns.

So, the challenge here is to give old-school Torg fans something new and make the material feel fresh.  To be honest, I am not sure they totally accomplished that goal.  Upon first reading of the Nile Empire Sourcebook, I thought "this is basically the same stuff in the original Nile Empire sourcebook," and I was a little disappointed.  But, on second read, I think that's unfair.  In part its unfair because the original stuff is so much fun, and not everyone remembers or has access to that goodness.  All of that fun goodness is here for the new incarnation as well, and the designers should be applauded for knowing a good thing when they see it. So, the Nile Empire Sourcebook gives you more pulp powers and Egyptian miracles and weird mathematics and engineering magic and piston-engine fighter planes and all of the good stuff from the original.  It holds on to everything that made the Nile Empire great.

Speaking of holding on to things, we need to talk about Wu Han.  Wu Han, in the original and in this version, is Dr. Mobius's right-hand lieutenant and frenemy, and he is very intentionally designed to be the embodiment of the "inscrutable Asian mastermind" trope.  Now, the use of this trope makes sense in the context of the Nile Empire, as it is a trope that has its origins in the pulp stories from which the Nile Empire draws.  And I should say that high school me who ran original Torg absolutely loved Wu Han, and used him all the time as a primary antagonist.  But, I mean, Wu Han as a character is racist, or at least is likely to be portrayed in an unflattering, racially-influenced way.  I get, in a meta-sense, that that's part of the point, but me of 2019 was way less enthused about the idea of  busting out Wu Han as a villain as the me of 1994.  Particularly in light of the way the Pan Pacifica Cosm steers away from some of the problematic early 90s Japanaphobia of the original Nippon Tech Cosm, I'm a little surprised to see Wu Han retained here.  Because of the meta-context, I get why he was retained, but, yeesh, I don't know.

As for the adventure, The Fires of Ra, here's the thing.  If you are going to play in the Nile Empire, you have to accept the genre in which you are operating (this really applies to Torg as a whole--embrace the genre tropes, don't fight them).  If you come to a Nile Empire scenario looking for deep character moments and subtle opportunities for role-playing, you are missing the point.  You come to a Nile Empire scenario for break-neck action and the piling of challenges one on top of the other ad infinitum.  And The Fires of Ra delivers that, in the form of set piece after set piece, alongside the all but audible voice of the authors shouting "Go Go Go!" at the players and the GM.  This is the sort of adventure where having your plane shot down, finding parachutes, and jumping out of the crashing plane is the set up to a first Scene of an Act.  It looks exhausting to run or play in, and I mean that in a good way.  You have to know what you are getting into, but within those parameters, The Fires of Ra reads as a really fun time.

So, while the Nile Empire set doesn't break any new ground, the underlying idea of The Shadow meets Indiana Jones meets ancient Egypt weirdness is so good and so much fun that it carries the products along with it.  And if you are new to Torg, and so don't have ready access to all of the old Nile Empire material, the Nile Empire Sourcebook is a must-buy if you are playing Torg: Eternity.  It's goofy, but it's goofy on purpose, and it is just so much fun.

Aysle:  In a stream that the designers put on as part of the Kickstarter, Lead Designer Darrell Hayhurst hit on the core problem with the original Aysle Sourcebook.  That book spends pages and pages describing Aysle "back home"--the geography, the factions, the history, etc.  But none of that stuff is really all that relevant for play unless you decide to ditch Core Earth and the Possibility Wars and turn the game into a pure fantasy, D&D-style game--in which case, are you sure you want to play Torg?  But, more to the point, while Aysle is an interesting and well-done fantasy world, it is just another fantasy world, and so not really distinctive enough to bear the weight of being by itself.  Which, of course, was not the point--Aysle is designed to exist in the broader Torg context--but it points back to the question of whether all that home Cosm material makes sense or is helpful.

As you might expect based on Hayhurst's comments, almost all of that background lore is cut out, and there is a strong focus on what is going on in the Aysle realm on Earth.  This is a good decision, and it makes the product much tighter than its predecessor.  But the other thing the Aysle Sourcebook does is that it hones in more clearly on the type of setting it wants to be.  Yes, Aysle is a fantasy world, but there are a number of subtle variations in fantasy worlds.  The Aysle Sourcebook, in a way that doesn't come through as clearly in the original version, grounds itself in the conflict between Light and Dark, in a way that reminds me tonally of movies like Willow and Excalibur (the 80s version) and, especially, Return of the King.  It isn't consistently "grimdark" a la Warhammer, but it also is darker than most D&D-influenced fantasy settings, and it intentionally layers the grimmer and the more hopeful elements next to each other.  Light and Dark are almost tangible elements, and they are at war, and the Dark is winning (though, not overwhelmingly so).  This is in the original version in a game mechanical sense, but it feels like it is more reflected in the setting in this version.

I really like this.  It's just enough of a specific angle to make Aysle stand out from a truly generic fantasy world, without limiting access to all of the standard, generic fantasy tropes.  And, let's be honest, fantasy role-playing games are popular because those standard generic fantasy tropes are good and fun.  You want your fantasy setting to do all of the fantasy things, and Aysle does all of that.

Not surprisingly, much of the game mechanics stuff is associated with magic.  The Aysle Sourcebook really does a great job of threading the needle between providing a diversity of options for magic-focused characters, without ratcheting up the complexity level.  The fundamental choice now is between being a generalist mage who has access to all of the spells, or picking one of four schools of magic (plus necromancy which acts as a fifth school) and limiting your spells to a particular list in return for having more spells (especially in the beginning).  These schools were sketched out in lore form in the original Aysle book, and they have the advantage of being broader in scope than most "magic school" taxonomies, while still being distinct and making for interesting choices.  So, for example, the "Kindred" school lets you affect all kinds of living beings, while the "Principles" school includes light, darkness, magic, "living forces," and "inanimate forces."  It seems a little obscure on first read (especially if you don't remember these categories from the original Aysle book), but it is easy to apply in play.

Similarly, they add a cantrip system, giving all magic using characters access to a fairly robust set of utility spells automatically, but only usable within the Aysle Cosm (though, you can take a Perk to use them in other Cosms).  I love these kinds of systems, because they make magic using characters really feel like wizards and allow players to come up with creative uses for magic, without adding complex systems or allowing wizards to defeat every problem with magic.

Then there is the adventure, Revenge of the Carredon.  Revenge stands-out from the previous two tent-pole adventures in a couple of ways.  First, it incorporates more of the deep Aysle lore, bringing in the two big name good-aligned NPCs, Lady Pella Ardinay and Tolwyn of Tancred.  In doing so, the adventure feels like it has more weight and significance than the previous two.  Second, it has a more open structure, with an opening Act, a set of middle Acts that can be accomplished in any order, and then the finale.  This is not some radical innovation in RPG adventure design, but as I mentioned Torg adventures historically tended to be very linear, so I found this to be a refreshing change.  Likewise, while the quest is get the five Things you need to defeat evil, so pretty standard, I found it to be an interesting and engaging version of that pretty standard outline.  Revenge of the Carredon is a strong offering, and the best adventure I've seen out of Torg: Eternity so far.

The bottom line is that I think the Aysle product wave is very strong, the best of the three so far, and it makes be very optimistic for and excited about the forthcoming Cyberpapacy and Tharkold waves (which are the two Cosms I was most excited about going in).  It makes Aysle distinct without being narrow, and it provides a wealth of interesting play options for Aysle characters.  If you weren't part of the Kickstarter, keep an eye for when it comes to general release at the end of the year.