Friday, November 3, 2017

Review of Torg: Eternity

Every time someone tries to reboot some piece of fiction, the folks behind it will give you the same design goals--"we want to keep the good parts of this thing you liked, but update it to be in keeping with modern sensibilities."  That sounds great, but the problem is that this goal only works if the people in charge of the reboot understand what "the good parts" of the thing being rebooted actually are.  Reboots go south when the folks in charge think that the "good parts" to be kept are not actually the good parts, while the stuff removed as part of "updating" is actually the good stuff.  Plus, because taste is subjective, what this really turns into is whether or not the people in charge of the reboot have the same understanding as you do of what the good things are about the property in question.

This question--do these folks have the same understanding of what is cool about this thing?--was at the forefront of my mind when I heard that German game publisher Ulisses Spiele was rebooting Torg.  The original Torg, published in 1990, is probably my all-time favorite tabletop RPG.  Because I love Torg so much, I was both excited and worried about the reboot.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but will these folks screw it up?  I liked what I saw with the new rules set when I played in a demo game at GenCon in 2016, and everything I had seen and read about the project provided reason for encouragement.  So, I backed the Kickstarter for Torg: Eternity, which proved wildly successful, and I have now received the PDF versions of the products (my physical products in a cool box are due in a couple of weeks).  Now with the re-boot in my hands, I can tell you that the folks in charge of Torg: Eternity got it very much right, at least from the vantage-point of what I think is so great about the original Torg.

Image result for torg eternity, imageSo, what did original Torg get right that Torg: Eternity keeps?  The best part of original Torg is the gonzo setting, and that setting has been retained in the main.  Like the original, Torg: Eternity is set in the present in a version of our world (called "Core Earth") with a greater cinematic flavor--imagine a world where the events shown in the Die Hard or The Fast and the Furious series were real and everyday occurrences.  Core Earth get invaded by other realities (referred to in Torg-speak as "cosms"), each representing a different genre and each taking over a specific piece of territory on Earth.  So, for example, the UK and Scandinavia are invaded by Aysle, a dark fantasy reality that is close to Middle Earth if Sauron had captured the Ring.  Through invasion, the reality of the invaders gets overlaid over Core Earth's reality, so if you travel to England post-invasion, magic works but your mobile phone doesn't.  This set-up, as well as a somewhat complicated but workable set of rules for how the realities interact, allow for players to play characters from many different genres--you have can a fantasy sword swinger, a crusading journalist, a techno-ninja, and a costumed super hero as an adventuring party.

Torg: Eternity keeps the vast majority of this fictional set, but makes some smart tweaks.  The cosms that worked well (Aysle, the 1930s pulp heroes and Egyptian mysticism realm of the Nile Empire, the Victorian horror realm of Orrorsh) are mostly kept as-is (though the Orrorsh invasion site is moved from Indonesia to India, which is an interesting change).  Some of the other realms get more extensive revisions.  The near-future, Asian themed cosm called "Nippon Tech" in the original was very much "inscrutable Japanese corporate menace," in the vein of other late 80s/early 90s fiction like Rising Sun; Torg: Eternity broadens it to "Pan Pacifica" and includes more anime and zombie apocalypse influences.  Tharkold, which was a little unfocused and "better than everyone else" in the original, becomes more clearly post-apocalyptic techno-horror in this version, as well as being moved to Russia which works thematically (and is a call-out to plot threads in the original timeline).  The remaining two cosms, the Lost World dinosaurs and lizardmen Living Land and the "Spanish Inquisition using the Matrix" Cyberpapacy, get more moderate but smart changes to smooth out some of the weirdness of the original, while keeping the flavor.

The second best thing about original Torg was the card play mechanics, and here Torg: Eternity also keeps the substance with a few smart changes.  There may have been tabletop RPGs before Torg to use cards as part of the game play, and there have been a few after, but none have done it so well.  Card play in Torg has two dimensions--a GM-facing side that determines initiative in combat and other dramatic situations and assess round-by-round modifiers and conditions, and a player-facing side where the player plays cards to provide one-shot bonuses or change the scene in various ways.  It's not obvious from reading the rules what function the cards serve in the context of overall play (it may come across as unnecessarily complicated), but in play it becomes clear that the interaction between the two dimensions of card play recreates a feeling of cinematic action that many games attempt to generate but fall short.  Clever, non-coercive mechanics reward players for taking creative actions in combat beyond "swing my sword" and "shoot my gun," making combat less of a grind.  The cards also give a way to set up staples of adventure fiction like bomb defusal or other timed hazards that most RPGs struggle to emulate well (and Torg: Eternity extends those rules to cover vehicle chases in a clever way).
Image result for torg eternity, drama deck image
The two major changes to card play in Torg: Eternity are to physically separate the GM cards from the player cards, and to add a third set of decks of "Cosm cards," one for each reality that the players may find themselves in.  Physically splitting up the GM-facing "Drama Deck" from the player-facing "Destiny Deck" makes the learning curve a little easier on new players and GMs (and allows them to put cool art on each card), but the mechanics of how the cards work is basically unchanged.  The real innovation is the Cosm cards, which allow players to introduce genre-appropriate events into stories that are set in a particular cosm--for example, one Living Land Cosm card causes a random group of dinosaurs to attack the party, whereas a Nile Empire Cosm card causes a villain to escape to plague the heroes in the future.  Often, playing a Cosm card creates a disadvantageous situation for the players, in return for receiving additional "Possibilities" (a currency that allows players to get spectacular results or avoid damage), so players have an incentive to make the story more interesting, even if it comes with short-term problems.  Having multiple decks of cards to juggle might be logistically more complex, but reinforcing the feel of each cosm through the cards is worth the additional complexity.

In contrast to the good things, there were some problems with the original Torg.  Most pressingly, original Torg was a bit of a Frankenstein's monster from a rules perspective.  The rules in the original boxed set were a little crunchy from a modern perspective and had a few structural problems, but the real problem was that each cosm-specific sourcebook rolled out a set of unique sub-systems that were mostly self-contained, didn't necessarily work well together (or with the stuff in the core set), and were often unnecessarily complicated.  So, you had 20 pages of gadget design rules that required you to draw a schematic of your device in the Nile Empire Sourcebook, next to 40 pages of spell design rules in the Aysle Sourcebook that generated results that were very different from the spells in the boxed set, along side (what, in my view, was the worst offender) the Power of Fear rules in the Orrorsh Sourcebook that were a record-keeping chore for the GM, stupidly lethal for the players, and made the climatic encounter in the initial adventure in the boxed set unplayable as written.

The rule changes that Torg: Eternity makes are almost all designed around streamlining systems.  Magic, miracles, psychic powers, and super powers all work on the same basic rules chassis.  There have been some complaints online that it sucks some of uniqueness out of the magic particularly, but on balance I think it is worth the trade-off to have everything work the same way.  The game also simplifies the cosm-specific rules--each cosm now has only two straight-forward World Laws that apply to everyone physically in the cosm's boundaries (removing the ambiguity in the original game over how World Laws work), with the rest of the flavor of the cosm handled by the Cosm cards.  Beyond removing sub-systems, there were a host of changes to various mechanical elements, generally in the direction of simplifying and streamlining.  To be clear, Torg: Eternity is not a rules-light game, especially by modern standards--I will confess to having my eyes glaze over when first going through the various situational combat modifiers.  But neither is it excessively crunchy, and I would put the overall complexity around that of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, if distributed differently.  And while I can't say I love every change (I'm very lukewarm about the new advancement and experience rules, for example), the majority of the changes are good and sensible.

The #1 problem with Torg: Eternity, which is both a good problem to have and one that is perhaps unavoidable, is that there is not enough of it.  The core book is only 280 pages, which covers both rules and setting.  That's about the total amount of material that was in the original boxed set, but like the original boxed set there is only a skeletal description of each of the individual cosms.  I am not sure that folks, especially folks brand new to Torg, are able to pick up the current material and run it as is.  If a GM wanted to run a campaign in Torg: Eternity right now, he or she would either have to do a ton of prep work to flesh out the cosms, or borrow from the material developed for the original game.  The Kickstarter provided the full library of original Torg books in PDF to help with option #2, but there are enough changes to both rules and setting that adapting the original material would itself take a bit of doing.  The Ulisses Spiele folks are also promising a new round of cosm sourcebooks for Torg: Eternity, but, given the tentative schedule they have provided, we won't have a full suite of material for at least another three years.

Again, to be fair, the original Torg boxed set had the same problem--the setting is so sprawling and high-concept that it just requires a lot of stuff.  A comprehensive book of Torg's setting alone could easily fill the 280 pages in the Core Book.  But the end result is that if you want a plug-and-play, fully formed setting that you can go with right off the jump, you might be disappointed with what you get in the first round of Torg: Eternity products.  The foundation and frame of what I suspect will be an awesome house are there, but you are going to have to put up the walls and install all the fixtures yourself, or otherwise wait for the Ulisses Spiele folks to roll out their product line.

Still, Torg: Eternity is a wildly successful re-boot of a great tabletop RPG, one that exceeded my cautiously optimistic expectations.  The rule system is worth digging into and trying out, even (or, perhaps, especially) if you have written off turn-based procedural combat systems in favor of a more free-form narrative approach found in things like the Powered by Apocalypse games or the new 7th SeaTorg makes that experience more interesting and more engaging than any other system I have encountered, without getting bogged down in excessive detail or crunch, and all of that is back in spades with Torg: Eternity.  It also has a fun, if out-there, setting that allows for really any sort of character concept or idea.  I am really excited to see what comes next for Torg: Eternity and the Ulisses Spiele folks.

6 comments:

  1. A very useful review. I'll be playing Torg:Eternity for the first time this weekend and I'm excited that they seem to have tweaked the original's few weaknesses and kept the cool stuff. I look forward to rolling the red & blue D20 once again.

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  4. I loved Torg: Role-Playing the Possibility Wars, as it was the first game I ever picked up, in 1990, and the first game I ever ran in 1991. It wasn't until the Torg Eternity Kickstarter that I had hope to ever play this game, again, since I hadn't played it in more than 15 years. When the game actually came out this time, I was very surprised that it could be made even better than it had been; I loved the first edition beyond other RPGs I've played but this version is far superior. Now, if I could just find a good tabletop group to play with, hehe.

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  5. It's lookin' like it might be time to clean up some posts, here, and then close the comments, maybe?

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