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, as 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 Aylse "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 Torg adventures historically tend 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.

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