Torg is a cinematic multi-genre role-playing game (RPG) created by Greg Gorden and Bill Slavicsek and released by West End Games in 1990 and, as of 2015, owned by Ulisses Spiele, which uses several innovative techniques. Players take the role of Storm Knights, deliberately larger-than-life heroes engaged in fighting the invasion of Earth, to prevent it being conquered by several invading dimensions (called cosms), each with its own separate reality; cosms largely correspond with popular role-playing genres.
The title was originally an acronym for the in-house development name: The Other Roleplaying Game. Unable to find a better name, the name was adopted as the official name and applied to the game. Names that were considered but rejected include Shadow Wars, Shadow Spawn, Twilight Shadows, and Endless Earth.
Torg is set in a near future setting, known officially as "the near now." At the games's starting point this world has been subjected for several months to a year, to a pan dimensional invasion by a series of "High Lords" who have changed the natural laws of large swaths of Earth to reflect those of their home dimensions. The players assume the role of "Storm Knights", people from Earth and the various invading realms, who possess limited reality altering abilities, and who oppose the plans of the High Lords.
Torg billed itself as a "cinematic" game and tried to emphasize game play in a manner similar to adventure films such as Indiana Jones. Terminology used in the game reflected this fact. For example, adventures were divided into sub units known as "acts" and "scenes". Conflict resolution also reflected the cinematic nature of the game. Actions were resolved by a player rolling a twenty sided die against a difficulty number. The degree by which the roll exceeded the difficulty number of the task influenced how successful the player was at the action. Rolls of 10 or 20 allowed the player to roll again, adding their new roll to the old. This could be continued indefinitely as long as the player rolled 10 or 20, allowing for fantastic feats in a cinematic style. The wound system, which stressed incapacitating damage over lethal kinds, also mimicked the style of adventure films, wherein the hero may often be incapacitated, but is rarely killed.
In addition, Torg used an unusual card based system to augment gameplay. From Torg's unique Drama Deck, a hand of cards were dealt to each player at the beginning of the game. The rest were stacked in front of the game master. Cards could be used by both players and game masters to influence play. Whenever a combat encounter began the game master would flip over a card which would dictate certain advantages and disadvantages for the players and the NPCs. Players could also use cards to give themselves advantages or even plotlines which could result in extra points.
Players were rewarded with "possibility points." These points could, as in most games, be spent to improve the characters abilities. However, unlike in most roleplaying games, possibility points, or "possibility energy" also existed as an in-game phenomenon, and characters could spend them to achieve certain effects, such as healing, or warping reality.
Character creation was limited, perhaps to allow for people to quickly begin play. Both the basic set, as well as subsequent supplements, provided several character templates based on general archetypes such as "Eidenos Hunter" "Vengeful Human" or "Werewolf". These came complete with a general background story and a pre-set roster of attributes and possessions. Player input was limited to distributing points among an array of skills. Eventually, further supplements allowed for more freedom in designing characters.
Player characters were all "Storm Knights". These were people who were able to alter reality in limited ways. Storm Knights came from all of the different realities in the game but opposed the invaders for various reasons. Some of the Storm Knights were natives of the invaders' home worlds and some were natives of earth who had "flipped" to the invaders' reality. A person became a Storm Knight by experiencing a reality crisis which linked them to a particular reality.
The primary way in which Storm Knights were able to shape reality was the ability to impose the rules of their own reality on a limited area of another reality. Each reality, or "cosm", had a set of four "axioms" which delineated what could be achieved under its rules. The most important of these for game play were the technological, magical, and spiritual axioms. For ordinary people, violating the laws of a reality is hard and becomes increasingly impossible over time. For example, when the neolithic reality of The Living Land invaded North America, soldiers found that their guns and radios no longer worked because the tech axiom of the cosm only allowed for a neolithic level of technology. Storm Knights, however, carried their own reality with them. Normally they could perform under their own reality wherever they went, sometimes requiring a check against their reality skill, the one skill possessed by all Storm Knights, to accomplish feats which particularly violated the rules of a reality.
Storm Knights could also spend possibility energy in order to influence reality. One way they could do this was to impose their own reality temporarily on a limited area around them. The most common use of possibility energy was to effect rapid healing.
Torg is designed to allow players to derive enjoyment from how characters, equipment, and environments of the various realities interact, such as having Terminator-style futuristic cyborgs adventure alongside Dungeons & Dragons-style mages in an Indiana Jones-style pulp setting. It also allows playing a game with an explicitly epic or 'cinematic' overtone (as in Star Wars or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as opposed to RPGs like Vampire: The Masquerade or Dungeons & Dragons).
Torg provides a unified mechanics system suitable for any setting; character attributes and game mechanics use a single sliding scale ('18' can equally mean an hour of time, a truckload of weight, an expert marksman's skill, or $4,000) and a unified method of task resolution involving a d20. At the same time it provides an open-ended die mechanic: one twenty-sided die roll, read through a bonus chart, gives the bonus to a character's skill for that attempt. Barring special circumstances, the die may be rolled again (and the subsequent total added to the first roll) each time a 10 or a 20 is rolled. Along with re-rolls gained through spent possibilities, card play, and other possible influences, this allows truly spectacular feats to be accomplished by player characters.
The game's backstory involves 'possibility energy', which can be used by Storm Knights to achieve heroic feats. In the game mechanics a spent possibility gives a player a chance to make an additional die roll, potentially leading to greater success. Similarly, an included deck of cards provides bonus rolls or skill points and contains ideas for additional character interaction. Some of these cards can be used instead of Possibility energy. It places an emphasis on groupwork and character interaction by exchange and giving of cards, coordination rules, and the use of "group powers."
At the time of its release Torg's 'Infiniverse' campaign was an ambitious attempt at creating an interactive campaign setting. Subscribers to West End's Infiniverse magazine received response forms, through which they could inform WEG of the progress of their campaigns. Player input actually influenced the campaign setting through a 'rumor' system ('rumors' were introduced in Infiniverse magazines and published adventures, and the majority of responses would determine whether that rumor was 'true' or not). While unquestionably innovative, the Infiniverse campaign ultimately floundered after the first year or so.
According to the cosmology of Torg, in the beginning each dimension, or cosm, was separate from every other. However, a ravenous entity known as The Nameless One, who fed on the energy of the cosms, created several intelligent machines known as Darkness Devices and scattered them throughout the cosms. Wherever they landed, the Darkness Devices bonded with an inhabitant of the cosm, giving him great power. Those who possessed Darkness Devices were known as High Lords. Through the power of his Darkness Device, a High Lord could rip open a portal to other cosms. By sending an invasion force through the portal, the High Lord could slowly remake the target cosm into a duplicate of his own while concurrently draining the target cosm of its possibility energy. Because the invader's reality remade the physical laws of the beachhead, his armies were much more effective in combat than the target's defense force. For instance, if a low-tech, high-magic cosm invaded a higher-tech cosm, the defenders' guns would stop working while the invaders would have access to spells for which the defenders had no known defense. In this way, invading other cosms provided both new lands to conquer and tremendous power which a High Lord could use to extend his lifespan, give himself new abilities, and even modify the physical laws of his home cosm.
Amongst the cosms known in Torg, the most successful and powerful High Lord was The Gaunt Man, High Lord of Orrorsh. He had been invading and destroying other cosms for thousands of years before the game opened. According to the backstory of Torg, the Gaunt Man stumbled across the cosm of Earth in his travels and was astounded by the amount of possibility energy available for the taking. Unfortunately for him, that same amount of energy made it impossible for the Gaunt Man to simply invade Earth as he had so many others; the energy backlash would have overwhelmed his portal. The Gaunt Man therefore began forming alliances with the High Lords of several other worlds. They would all invade Earth near-simultaneously, spreading the energy backlash across all their fronts. This invasion is the setting for the game—each invader brings his own, strikingly different realm to Earth so that different physical locations across the globe also have different laws of reality. The realms extant in Torg's original edition are as follows:
- Core Earth -- "our" Earth, the base reality. Given the dramatic nature of the game, however, Core Earth had slightly better technology than the real world as well as some basic access to magic and miracles. At the time of the campaign it had no High Lord, but the United States government had been taken over by a shadowy cabal known as the Delphi Council.
- Living Land—a primitive, Lost World-style jungle covering large swaths of the United States' East and West coasts plus a small piece of Canada. The dominant species were humanoid dinosaurs called edeinos. Technology and magic were almost nonexistent, but the inhabitants had access to powerful miracles. Initially ruled by the monstrous edeinos Baruk Kaah, whose darkness device Rek Pakken took the form of a grove of trees.
- Aysle—a magical, low-technology realm that covered most of the United Kingdom and parts of Scandinavia. The realm was similar to traditional Dungeons & Dragons settings, but with slightly less powerful magic and somewhat better technology. Originally ruled by Uthorion in the body of Pella Ardinary. His darkness device was the ornate crown Drakacanus. Shortly before the invasion, Pella Ardinay forced Uthorion from her mind and regained control of the realm; this was later revealed to be part of a very long range plan to exploit her as a host for The Nameless One.
- The Cyberpapacy—covering France, this is a realm which was initially a repressive, medieval theocracy (that wielded real miracles). En route to Core Earth it melded with a virtual reality and gained cyberpunk technology and attitudes. Ruled by the Cyberpope Jean Malreaux I. His darkness device Ebenuscrux took the shape of a prototypical circuit cross, the symbol of the realm's strange version of Catholicism. This "GodNet" was realm of circuitry and mind, an artificial reality contained within the networked computers of the realm, and stylized as a jazzed up realm of churches and religious artifacts. Storm Knights unlucky enough to be defeated here could be jacked into the virtual Hell, from which no one ever returned.
- Nippon Tech—an ultracapitalist nightmare society covering most of Japan where lies and betrayal were as common as breathing, and where martial artists, computer hackers, and yakuza fought to bring down the corporate-controlled government. Ruled by 3327, who was assisted by a darkness device named Daikoku that took the form of a laptop computer.
- The New Nile Empire—based in North Africa, this realm combined a restored Ancient Egypt with pulp sensibilities. 1930s technology worked side-by-side with Egyptian magical astronomy and "weird science" powers and gizmos, while costumed Mystery Men patrolled the alleyways of Cairo. Ruled by Dr. Mobius, also known as Pharaoh Mobius, one of the most devious High Lords. His darkness device was a crocodile-headed idol called Kefertiti.
- Orrorsh—a Gothic horror realm ("Orrorsh" is an anagram of "horrors") set in Indonesia where the realm's Victorians considered it their White Man's Burden to protect the natives from the unspeakable monsters roaming the countryside. The greatest enemy in Orrorsh, however, was the enemy within: the realm would attempt to seduce Storm Knights to the side of Wickedness. Originally ruled by the greatest of the High Lords, Lord Byron Salisbury (aka The Gaunt Man) from his sinister holdfast, Illmound Keep. His darkness device, Heketon, took the shape of an enormous human heart. He also possessed a powerful artifact, a mirror named Wicked, that permitted him to gain insight into the Nameless One. Early in the war, the actions of several Storm Knights locked The Gaunt Man into a kind of reality bubble; during this interregnum several monstrous beings known collectively as the Hellion Court ruled in his place.
As the game progressed, more realms were added:
- Land Below—not a realm per se but a pocket dimension created as an experiment between the Nile Empire and the Living Lands. This dimension featured primitive tribesmen, giant apes, and hostile native animals, all similar to the Tarzan books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Later this dimension intruded upon Core Earth's reality in the eastern United States ("The Land Above"), supplanting some of the Living Lands.
- Space Gods/Star Sphere/Akasha—a high-technology, spacefaring society out of Chariots of the Gods that had visited South America centuries before. The Akashans had their own colonial empire of alien races which could be added to the game at the game master's discretion. This realm introduced advanced biotech and psionics to the Possibility Wars. it also introduced the idea of reality trees, a non-invasive organic device capable of merging two realities without damaging the inhabitants. This realm was not controlled by a High Lord. However, a sentient group-mind virus known as the Comaghaz had infected some percentage of the Akashan population, including one of its highly placed citizens, Sarila, and sought to perpetuate itself. The Akashans have no darkness device or means of creating inter-cosmic portals, but came this cosm through naturally occurring wormholes called stargates; many of them don't even realize they are in a different cosm, thinking they have only found another galaxy.
- Tharkold—home of a race of magic and technology-using demons that lead a thousand-year war against their world's native human population. Tharkold has been compared to something of a cross between the Terminator and Hellraiser movies. In the game, the Tharkoldu originally planned to invade the Soviet Union but the Soviet Army defeated them with the help of an Earth psychic. They later established a small realm in Los Angeles, and subsequently took partial control of Berlin, splitting their reality with the New Nile Empire. Ruled by Jezrael, a human slave/soldier who took control after the previous High Lord, the technodemon Kranod, failed in his invasion attempts. The darkness device took the form of a carved rod and was named Malgest.
- Terra—not an invading realm but rather the home cosm of the invaders from the Nile Empire, this was a more straightforward pulp realm without the ancient Egyptian trappings and magic.
Players could design characters for any of these realms, so a party of adventurers might contain a magician, a cop, a vampyre hunter, a super-hero, a cybernetically-enhanced gunrunner, a dwarf miner, a six-foot dinosaur priest, or a beetle-like alien with a bad temper, and any of these characters might eventually learn swordfighting, kung fu, magic, or net-hacking.
Torg initially achieved some success in a saturated market. Reviews (both contemporary to the release of Torg and since then) generally cited the uniqueness of the cinematic elements (e.g. the drama deck), the flexibility of rules system, and the expansiveness of the setting. However, various factors such as poor quality control in new products, a large amount of required game material to purchase, and unwillingness to use the Internet as a medium, meant that by 1994 only a few hardcore fans remained. Various attempted sales of the property and failed attempts at revising and resurrecting the game ensued. In 1995, Omni Gaming Products released the first issue of a new Infiniverse magazine, ignoring many of the series-ending events of WEG's final published adventure War's End in the interest of continuing the game under their own management. This quickly fell through.
By 2004, Torg was again under ownership of West End Games (although WEG itself was under new ownership) and a new version was under development. A contemporary announcement by WEG's then-current owner on the official Torg forums explained further:
"To that end, we are beginning our "countdown to the new Torg" event at GenCon 2005; at this event we will have at least two products designed for established Torg fans, but which will hopefully be approachable enough for new people who would want to get started in the grandeur of the Torg universe early.
Ultimately, 2005 came and went without the arrival of the new Torg game. Due to expending resources and time to developing and publishing the new D6 games also by WEG (D6 Fantasy, D6 Adventure, & D6 Space), it became necessary to push Torg into 2006. The new release date was to be in the Fall of 2006.
"Without giving too much away, this will be the beginning of a grassroots effort to get people excited and thinking about Torg again. Those waiting for next year's second edition will get a well-tested system and a universe ready for multi-genre action, and fans who want to come along for the ride through the coming year will learn more about the secrets and mysteries of the Torg universe than they've ever known before."
In addition to an upcoming second edition ("Torg 2.0"), WEG released Torg Revised & Expanded (dubbed Torg 1.5), in order to invigorate interest among longtime fans and to generate interest in backstock of first edition Torg merchandise. This book was released in May 2005 as a PDF file, and was slated to be released as a limited-edition hardback in June 2005, though the release date was subsequently pushed back to July and finally released in August. A limited run of leftover softcover editions, printed for distribution at the 2005 Origins RPG convention, were also made available on WEG's website. The announced Torg 2.0 was never produced.
When West End Games ceased operations in July 2010, Torg was sold to a German game company, Ulisses Spiele. As of July 2014, the company had not published any new Torg material, but had made most of the back catalog available for purchase as PDF downloads in their webstore, aside from the original boxed set. The July 31, 2014 email newsletter from DriveThruRPG announced that Ulisses Spiele were planning new Torg titles for 2015.
While the breadth of Torg was one of its most exciting features, it could also cause significant problems. Because the scope of the game was so broad, and it incorporated such a wide variety of skills, the game became unwieldy to some players. Further, in some cases simple rules given in the basic set were thrown out or expanded in sourcebooks, so that players moving between campaigns sometimes found the rules were not what they were used to; even some of the character templates from the boxed set were not completely compatible with the rules in the sourcebook for their home cosm. This breadth of scope also served to ratchet up the game's expense: each of the game's realms was detailed in its own sourcebook, and those sourcebooks included rules that weren't covered in the main rulebook. For instance, if a character wanted to build his own magic spells, the player needed to own (or at least have access to) the Aysle sourcebook. Likewise, psionics were covered in the Space Gods sourcebook, martial arts in the Nippon Tech book, pulp powers and gizmos in the Nile Empire and Terra sourcebooks, and cyberware/bionics in the Cyberpapacy's. Note, however, that if a Cyberpapacy character wanted to hack the GodNet, they needed yet another supplement for those rules. While this allowed a group to take their game in any direction they wished, it made it difficult to keep up with all the rules. This is especially true because long-term campaigns tend to lead to cross-genre characters, such as mages with cybernetics, or espionage agents who learned the Occult. It reached a point where even published adventures would forget, ignore, or skim over previously established rules.
Successive materials suffered from power creep: as more books were released, the rules and equipment tended to escalate the relative level of power available to player characters and NPCs alike. The Living Lands Sourcebook, while initially formidable, was soon superseded by advanced alien weaponry, more powerful miracles, cybernetics, occult magic, and psionics published in subsequent books.
The later material displayed a penchant for humor, often at the cost of breaking the mood. The edeinos of the Living Lands proved a popular target, transforming to other realities and becoming among other things "Skippy the Edeinos" (who in the campaign setting came complete with an action figure), a Nile Empire "Rocket Ranger" named Captain Verdigris, and an Elvis impersonator. Supplements such as The High Lords Guide to the Possibility Wars went so far as to address this issue and advise readers to read the original material on edeinos to make them more dangerous/serious and ignore the trend WEG had itself established. The Nile Empire also often slipped from the genre of pulp heroes into outright self-referential parody. For example, Nile Empire ninja engaged in elaborate martial art moves and high-pitched battle cries, compared to their stealthy Nippon Tech counterparts who would mock them. Scene titles in the published adventures were often elaborate puns, and there was a Five Realms role-playing game-within-the-game where the author Jeff Mills was a parody of game designer Greg Gorden, and who eventually went on to help save the world in the final published adventure, War's End.
One advantage of the game was that with a virtual army of "Storm Knights," player characters could be fit in to anywhere on the planet. However, this led to a huge "supporting cast" of characters. The initial characters featured in the first trilogy of novels were implied to have great destinies but for the most part slid into obscurity. Individual writers and artists had their own preferred cast of characters they featured in the published supplements, novels, and adventures they worked on. One supplement, the Character Collection, featured a contest of reader submissions for best characters. The five winners were then incorporated into a subsequent published adventure. The end result was an overly large cast of characters where no one individual or group made an impression or could be identified as the primary identifiable characters of the game.
Another problem stemmed from the fact that visiting other realms meant travelling to geographic locations and cultures with which many players and gamemasters were not familiar. For example, there is a specific reference to 1930s gangsters "with an Arab slant," though most players simply did not know how to give such a "slant." Similarly, a lot of references were made to the culture clash between the Victorians and Indonesians, without specific information. In practice, this tended to be ignored in the game's own adventure modules, despite the vague references to culture in the rules books. Also, as not surprising for an U.S. game aimed at U.S. customers, Torg was highly U.S.-centric. At one time or another every invading cosm except one occupied part of the United States, and most of the real-world political focus was on the U.S. government, which was taken over in a political coup by a fascist Senator. Four of the ten book-length adventure modules were set in the United States, with three of those (City of Demons, Operation Hard Sell, Central Valley Gate) set in California. The final major act of the concluding adventure, War's End, was also set in California.
Finally, in some quarters the game was criticized for its alleged anti-Japanese sentiment, as the Nippon Tech realm played into many of the fears and concerns of Japanese business dominating the U.S. industries in the late 80s/early 90s. The portrayal of the Cyberpapacy provoked claims of anti-Catholicism as well with its papacy that among other things spread an artificial AIDS virus. It has to be said that within the game it was actually the Core Earth Japanese and Catholics who were "good guys" fighting evil invaders who embodied these stereotypes. However, that distinction was often lost upon many, and WEG did heavily promote these stereotypical elements in their gaming products even while attributing them to fictional invaders.
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