Friday, February 9, 2018

The golden age of post-modern role-playing part 2: Torg

Part 2 of a look at early 90's genre-mixing RPGs. You can find Part 1, including a celebration of Rifts, here. 

Of all the games I'm looking at in this series, Torg (West End Games, 1990) was comfortably the most knowing. Literally portraying a clash of competing genres, in it the very notion of reality was contested in a really rather postmodern way. And most of its best bits came from riffing on that.

As with its contemporary Rifts, it's another invasion story. Present-day Earth, a world incalculably rich in (ahem) possibility energy, is attacked by a coalition of initially six different realities, each claiming a corner of the planet for their bridgehead.

Each of the six realms represented a different genre, ranging from the expected (high fantasy and horror) through the then-innovative (golden age pulp) to the rather more distinctive (a corporate dystopia, Catholic cyberpunk and a land of stone-age lizards).
Laws Of The Land

Where Torg got particularly clever was in its model of how the different realities interacted with each other. Each brought with them their own laws (or in Torgish, axioms) governing science, magic, religion and social organisation. For example, The Living Land, home of the aforementioned lizard-men, which takes over much of North America, made it very difficult for technology any more sophisticated than a club to function, but allowed its priests to work miracle after miracle with living matter, especially plants. 

Each reality also had its own laws reflecting genre conventions, such as the pulp Nile Empire running on melodrama rather than realism. 

This was a great system, addressing the advantage that technology (reliable, replicable) usually has over magic or individual heroics in a straight fight. But it also was a neat storytelling device in which the GM and the players could explore not just a clash of weapons but of stories and cultures. 

How would a character from a fantasy world accomodate themselves to a science-fictional story or vice versa? How would someone from Earth submit to or resist the tropes of genre fiction? Torg allowed you to play out some really interesting questions.

Do you speak Torgish?

To make all of this hang togerther conceptually Torg developed its own distinct terminology. All the invading realities or 'cosms' were led by an iconic supervillain or 'High Lord,' each with their own 'Darkness Device' and striving to become 'Torg' (menace #1). Meanwhile the PCs were 'Storm Knights' - either native champions of Earth who were strangely resistant to the invading realities, or heroic renegades from the other realms. 

(given its fondness for capitalised nouns and philosophical jargon it's also strangely fitting that the latest version of Torg - Torg Eternity - is published by German company Ulisses Spiele.)

"If done right"

This is probably the phrase to keep returning to when discussing Torg, not least because like any multi-genre game it took a lot of work on the part of the designers and writers, to say nothing of the GM and the players, to try and keep it all on track.

Unlike Rifts, which had a decade of Palladium games to draw on for rules, background, magic and monsters, Torg also had to come up with all of its material from scratch. Unsurprisingly, given how many sourcebooks and adventures West End Games put out, there was a lot of variation in content and tone.

More often than not, the official material tended to channel the 'anything goes' spirit of pulp. Now, that's not surprising given several of the cosm leant hard in that direction anyway and the rules system was fairly dramatic, with a card deck for the PCs full of special plays. But a narrative of ninjas, superheroes, hackers and Victorian detectives just hanging out, travelling the world and fighting reality wars also reduced the jagged culture-clash/genre-clash potential that made Torg more interesting.

Some of the realities too were easier to keep on the straight and narrow than others. The Cyberpapacy, for example, might win points for the sheer gonzo mashing up of cyberpunk with the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church, but it struggled to make sense (and risked causing occasional offence) as it stood. Similarly, the golden-age pulp Nile Empire was full of gleeful fun but also at times uncritically reflected orientalist fantasies of North Africa, much like its source material. 

And I'm still not really sure why someone thought naming the realm of horrors Orrorsh, after an anagram of, er, 'horrors,' was a good idea.

Torg a la carte?

All of the realities had lots of good ideas - outweighing their faults - and Torg Eternity has probably improved the game and helped it move with the times. At the time though, taking a more nuanced appproach to the background and developing and running good scenarios was beyond the means of teenage me.

These days I like to think I could make good on all Torg's promise. One thing I certainly would do is accentuate the genre-clash elements and go deep on perhaps one or two invading realities. 

Torg a la carte, if you like.

This would mean I would get the benefit of the source material for those realms without having to spread the game too thinly. I could also frame the characters and plot using only these aspects of the overall conflict and make sure the area invaded had some authenticity and colour, rather than risk it being reduced to one combat backdrop among many.

Man, this sounds good already...

Every time I write one of these look-backs, I remind myself what I liked about a game in the first place. As with Rifts, I might come at Torg from a different, more reflective angle these days but the potential I first saw in it back in the early 90's still feels very much there.

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