Torg: A Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Hack (Primer)

Back in 1990, West End Games released Torg, a cinematic style multi-genre roleplaying game.  This game featured many innovative mechanics such as the Drama Deck and Possibility Points, but is best known for its background.  Not only did this game allow multiple genres to be treated with the same mechanics, but then smashed them together and added an invasion of Earth on top of it.

Torg is one of my all time favorite roleplaying games.  Although I have only briefly played it in the last 15 years, I’ve always wanted to go back to playing it.  However, although some of the mechanics (especially the Drama Deck) are great, the system as a whole is showing its age.  From problems such as the ‘glass jawed ninja’ to an over-proliferation of skills (even though it is a skill-based RPG), there are several modern RPGs that are more ‘elegant’ than that system.

When I was introduced to the Leverage RPG last year, and learning about the various hacks to the system, I decided to work on a Cortex Plus hack for Torg.  This has been something of a journey, learning the ins and outs of the various Cortex Plus games.  Originally I planned on making it a straight Leverage hack, but then after playtesting the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game, I decided that it was the best fit.  However, I did briefly flirt with the idea of basing my hack on Smallville as well.

Before I get into how I’m hacking MHR, here is a primer on the Torg setting.

In Torg, a cinematic version of our Earth (known in the game as Core Earth) has been invaded by other realities, led by powerful beings known as High Lords.  These High Lords invade other realities in order to drain their “possibility energy.”  Core Earth has a massive amount of possibility energy and as such, it was necessary for multiple High Lords to invade to avoid the destruction of their own realities from the backlash from Core Earth.

Each reality is defined by a set of four axioms (Magic, Spirit, Social and Tech) which limit interactions between the living and unliving. For instance, in a low Tech reality, someone’s M-16 simply wouldn’t fire. Computers don’t work. In extreme cases, Middle Age era swords are no better than clubs. In low Magic or Spirit realities, magic and miracles don’t work. In low Social realities, people simply cannot fathom the concept of nations or money. In addition to the four axioms, each reality has a set of three or four World Laws that further define the flavor of the reality.

Ordinary people (known as Ords) are unable to contradict foreign realities for long. Once the universe notices that they are creating contradictions, the ‘Everlaw of One’ disconnects them from their home reality. Then, over time, Ords transform to completely integrate into the invading reality, giving up their minute amounts of possibility energy to the High Lords. Possibility rated people on the other hand, are able to rec0nnect themselves to their own reality and even briefly prevent the universe from noticing that they are creating contradictions.

Seven different realities, known as cosms, invaded initially:

  • The Living Land, which invaded North America.  A low Tech, low Social, low Magic reality but with a very high Spirit axiom.  This is the reality of Lost Worlds, dinosaurs and intelligent, miracle invoking lizard men.
  • Aysle, which invaded Britain and Scandinavia.  This is your high fantasy reality. It has a high Magic axiom (such that everyone native to the reality can cast a spell), medieval Tech and Social axioms, with a moderately high Spirit axiom.  It’s a reality where everything that is observed is real, and where honor and corruption is reflected in the appearance of the person.
  • The Cyberpapacy, which invaded France. Originally a reality featuring medieval level Tech and Social axioms, moderate Magic and high Spirit axioms, this was the Spanish Inquisition on steroids. However, a month into the invasion, a massive tech surge swept through the realm, boosting the Tech axiom much beyond our own. It’s now the Spanish Inquisition with cyberware and a Matrix inhabited by devils and angels known as the GodNet.
  • The Nile Empire, which invaded Egypt and spread quickly throughout north Africa and into the Middle East. This is the reality of 1930s era pulp: superheroes and weird science. Indiana Jones would be right at home here. Where good people are Good and evil people are Evil, and can’t act any other way (but can be seduced to the other side). Where things go wrong for the heroes all the time. Where merely being heroic can mean success. The Magic and Spirit axioms here are high, allowing avatars of Egyptian gods to awaken and guard newly discovered tombs.
  • Nippon Tech, which invaded Korea and Japan. This is the reality of high tech mega-corporate intrigue, where any organization larger than 100 people is guaranteed to have a traitor, where money means everything, and vengeance pays.  Oh, and ninjas.
  • Orrorsh, which invaded Indonesia. This is the reality of gothic horror. Orrorsh has Victorian era Tech and Social axioms, combined with magic powered by the Occult and moderate Spirit. The dominant religion isn’t just based on the Old Testament, it’s the Old Testament with a nasty side. In this reality, you can’t win until you overcome the Power of Fear.  In the original Torg, this is where Storm Knights go to die.
  • Tharkold, the reality of cyberdemons and technological terror, failed in its invasion of Russia, repelled by Russian psychics who were forewarned by agents of Nippon Tech.

When the invaders attacked, whole swaths of Earth’s surface were replaced by the new realities. Even in the Canadian arctic, humid and hot jungles appeared. Into this war-torn world, the PCs from various realities join up to fight the High Lords. This is a game where an Elvish wizard, a 30s era pulp version of Iron Man, a lizard man priest, a cyberdecker, John McClane and Sherlock Holmes can join forces and fight Nile Shocktroopers, Cyberpapist inquisitors and Nippon Tech ninjas, sometimes in the same afternoon.

In the next segment, I will discuss the initial changes to the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying datasheets and dice pools, specifically focusing on the effects of Torg’s reality mechanics on the system.

Comments

  1. Torg is one of my absolutely favorite roleplaying games ever. What really stands out is the setting, although the rules aren’t too bad, either. I really loved the genre mashing and my players delighted in picking up the most weird reality combinations (orrorsh werewolf, Nile Empire Ace Pilot and a Hacker from the Cyberpapacy). We had some good times back then. We never finished a long campaign but we finished The Destiny Map, The Possibility Chalice and The Forever City trilogy. I wish I could back and play it all over again. The Drama deck was also a great gimmick that allowed for all kinds of plot possibilities during game.

  2. Damn, That sounds fun…

  3. Now that is one interesting background and set-up! I have never even heard of Torg until now. Very creative.

  4. Oh wow this is great news. Like you I only played Torg briefly a lot of years ago but i have always had hapy memories of the game and the universe. I’ll be following the article with great interest

  5. Worth noting it was written by Bill Slaviscec, who would go on to lead WOTC for a while.

  6. StranderVan says:

    I think noting that Core Earth is cinematic is an important observation, as it’s something easily overlooked on a first read. Core Earth is the modern action/adventure version of our world. A look at the World Book’s archetypes from Core Earth cinches it. You can find your favorite modern heroes right there.

    Looking forward to more. Torg was one of my all time favorite games back in the 90′s.

  7. Arcane Springboard says:

    @Hugo. I actually thought about using something similar to the Drama Deck in my hack, but ended up deciding against it for reasons I’ll probably post at a later date (short version, the Deck doesn’t add much now that already isn’t in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying system).

    @Saroe. Thanks, it is. :-)

    @NewbieDM. And Ed Stark and Greg Gorden as well.

  8. Torg_nerd says:

    Hi everyone.
    I was a Torg nerd for years and bought (almost) all the books. I have GMed it for years with great fun !! It’s delightful to hear of it again.

    My 2 cents :

    About the Drama Deck : it was the GM side of the cards that was the most original : setting initiative, Villains getting better results in “Heroic” scenes, special non-physical actions to get new cards (taunt, trick, intimidation…)
    A bit complicated but cool, really spicing the action : to beat the Big Villain, you had to build your Hands of cards with tricky actions while being bullied by the lesser guys (and stripped of your cards by some NPC tricks, nyark nyark nyark).
    As Torg was heavily action-oriented, it was one of the central flavour of the game. A Torg game without a similar mechanism would not be a Torg game. As the saying goes, “system does matter”.

    Another central point is the same you have in classic fantasy RPG : you can have any level of adversity, up to the Dark Lords. It can be HUGELY epic. I once played a few games with a Tharkoldu and a Ravagon PC, it was great fun to shoot them with rockets, missiles and psychic powers (they experienced the Russian setback). I almost got them !!!

    The “Glass Jaw Ninja” syndrome was easily discarded by adding a “Damage Roll” and ignoring the Level of Success on the “Hit Roll”. To not slow down the game, two 20-sided dice were thrown simultaneously (we even used “dice within dice”, transparent and hollow d20 containing a smaller and colorful second one. Nerd, I told you).
    It was also taking down the DEXTERITY attribute, which was way too powerful.

    The blackest point IMHO : character invocated reality storm : if you played by the rules, the Big Villains were very advantaged by invoking reality struggles on the PCs, to strip each one of his Possibility energy. This thing must be discarded for the balance of the game. It must be a limited power or something very exceptional.
    Of course in this case you must rewrite the original novels if I recall correctly… :)

    Moot point : I have always considered that creating distant Reality contradiction should be forbidden in pure zones. Only close-ranged ones, inside the Reality bubble you must create to do so (or with a Reality Bomb, of course).

    On the same topic, I always thought that most 4-case contradictions (both above the character’s and local reality’s axioms) should be impossible. Where does the Possibility energy comes from to create the contradiction ? The only valid possibility for me is when you are in a Dominant Zone and you want to use something above your axioms and the Dominant Reality’s ones but not above the Dominated second Reality’s. E.g. : you’re an elf from Aysle trying to use a machine gun in a Living Land Dominant zone in the US. As the machine gun is supported by the Dominated Core Earth Reality, the 4-case contradiction could exist (but the elf, as a magic being not supported by both local Realities, is in BIG trouble if he disconnects…)

    On the other hand, usage of an Ayslian high magic item in Nippon Tech’s Japan by a Core Earther should not be allowed. At least to its full extent.

  9. Arcane Springboard says:

    @Torg_nerd Thanks for commenting. As to your points…

    Well, as you say, this is a hack of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, not the original Torg game. I certainly considered adding mechanics for a Drama Deck, and certainly the original game wasn’t the same without it. However, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying carries most of the mechanical load that the Drama Deck had. I don’t think this hack needs it. There isn’t anything in the ‘story’ of Torg that really changes if you have a Drama Deck or not.

    Assets handle a lot of the Supporter cards. Plot Points are more readily available to provide extra rolls like Hero and Drama cards did. Subplots are easily supported via Milestones. Initiative is already inherent in the system (and it works well). The Doom Pool proxies as the “Dramatic” scenes…by the time you get to that point in the Act, the Doom Pool should be scary-big.

    As for epic, Marvel certainly can handle it, as the Annihilation Event will show. However, my point was that you don’t see Torg heroes controlling weather on a statewide level. They don’t teleport across interplanetary space. They don’t throw buses into orbit.

    As for the glass jawed ninja problem, certainly you could change the rules, but that doesn’t really have any basis in my hack, since that problem doesn’t exist.

    Regarding the character invoked reality storm. This definitely is a problem. And right now, the solution is “You can’t do it’”. It’s just something that requires some drama…it’s a very special case condition but worst of all, it can force a substantial change to a player’s character that may be unwanted. I’ll be thinking more on dealing with this at a later date though.

    Anyway, regarding your other points, debates about how the reality of Torg actually works are fun but are beyond the scope of my hack at this point.

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