Friday, December 14, 2012

Torg Zone Types

I haven’t played Torg for a while but it used to be one of my favorite RPG’s. For those not familiar with Torg, the story involves alternate realities overrunning various portions of Earth; each of these realities represents a different genre of roleplaying (fantasy, pulp adventure, and horror, for instance). The adventurers, known as Storm Knights, are assembled from all the different realities to fight the invasion. There are different types of zones depending on how thoroughly the new reality has replaced the old reality – mixed zones, dominant zones, and pure zones. Eventually I noticed we didn’t really use the zones the same way they are described in the rules, so I came up with a new scale of 5 zone types: mixed, semi-dominant, dominant, semi-pure, and pure.

Mixed Zone: Both realities operate side by side. In an Ayslish mixed zone, magic and technology are both fully functional, and can even be combined in ways not possible in either reality alone. This equality only applies to realities which are part of the mixture, other realities are excluded as usual. The laws and styles of the two realities are merged; only the chosen one can defeat the dark lord, but not without the help of a massive air strike in the nick of time. Ords in the zone are able to perceive that things have changed and the new reality is different, but soon acclimate to the new reality and think of themselves as having previously been ignorant. Landmarks of the old reality either still exist in their original form or it is noticed even by Ords that new landmarks stand in their place.

Semi-Dominant: The new reality is in the process of supplanting the old reality, which is falling before it. The old reality still works – the laws of physics are not totally rewritten – but it tends to break down, disappear, and become harder and harder for Ords to access. There are no factories to produce the guns, they run out of ammo, they corrode or are broken, eventually nothing is left but useless relics. Ords retain their identities at first, but over time they slowly “go native”, eventually their previous lives are nothing but an unimportant memory. Landmarks of the old reality still exist but decay into ruins as they are replaced by the new reality.

Dominant: The new reality has replaced the old reality. Landmarks and people of the old reality have been transformed into new reality equivalents, unless they are hard points or possibility-rated, respectively. Ords who enter the zone from outside are transformed. Ords are aware that things have changed in terms of politics and events, but perform their new jobs and use their new knowledge, no longer understanding their old jobs and old knowledge. Ords are aware of the invasion / reality-changing situation, but can’t think in ways inconsistent with their new reality. Storm Knights can use their foreign reality powers normally as long as they don’t disconnect. Ords comprehend that the Storm Knights come from strange places and have strange powers, they don’t refuse to believe their power and back story just because they are impossible according to their own reality. But this is mainly when dealing with Storm Knights directly, Ord society overall operates as if Storm Knights did not exist.

Semi-Pure: Storm Knights who enter the zone are not transformed, but their powers only work to the extent that they can be made consistent with local reality (barring a reality bubble). Their possession and appearance may be slightly adjusted (living plant spears are no longer alive), but in general they look foreign and different. Ords understand they come from the invading realities, but think of those more as exotic new places with exotic new cultures rather than really perceiving them as different realities. So an Ayslish mage in semi-pure Cyberpapacy is identifiably using a different style of magic but lacks her full powers; if she complains she had greater powers in Aysle, locals may interpret Aysle as being “closer to Hell” and full of black magic rather than really treating it as fundamentally different. Ord themselves have back stories fully consistent with their new reality.

Pure: Storm Knights who enter the zone are transformed into local equivalents (a Core Earth tough cop might become a valiant Knight of the Realm, for instance), gaining and losing powers as appropriate. Their back stories change as well, although as Storm Knights they are aware that they have been transformed and are involved in a reality war. Ord society does not grasp the reality war concept, it is interpreted in terms that make sense in their reality (Egypt has been taken over by the leader of a powerful crime syndicate, not by a supervillain).

This grew out of the way we played Torg. Dominant zones were supposed to be the most common so that is what we played in. Most of the time, the concept of the scenarios I created was that the Storm Knights would go on an adventure consistent with a specific reality; a bunch of characters from different realities all going on a classic fantasy adventure. So I was treating Aysle as a classic fantasy realm rather than a realm being slowly converted from Core Earth to a fantasy realm, which is what the Torg rules implied. I could have had the adventures occur in a pure zone, but we never wanted to adventure in a pure zone because you can’t use your cool powers in a pure zone, and where is the fun in that? So my concept of a dominant zone became one where everything but the Storm Knights was fully transformed to the new reality.

Other adventures, however, were meant to deal specifically with the concept of foreign realities invading Earth, and worked better with a different type of dominant zone. This is most especially true of the Living Land. The Living Land’s genre suffers from being rather limited and weird (a dinosaur-infested land of primitives, covered by a creepy mist that makes you lost, unified by one all-encompassing religion which grants great power to the faithful). The interesting aspect of the Living Land storyline is how super-powered primitives backed up by mother nature conquer areas of the United States (funny how this sounds similar to the plot of Avatar). Fully in-genre adventures would involve human savages with divine powers fighting lizardman savages with divine powers. The adventures I wanted to create for the Living Land involved trying to rescue pockets of civilization from being consumed by the mist, running low on supplies, and ultimately going primitive. So for Living Land I was using a different interpretation of a dominant zone, more consistent with the game’s original definition.

So my idea was to change the “less dominant” type of dominant zone to be called a semi-dominant zone. Then I had the idea that since we didn’t like playing in pure zones, but they were supposed to exist, I would change the original description of pure zones to “semi-pure” zones, and make a new type of pure zone. It always seemed odd to me that in Torg, when you disconnect your technology stops working, but still remains identifiably something that does not belong in the local reality. Hence my idea that reality should usually transform completely to local reality. Having characters do so in a pure zone seemed really cool. I have to admit that we never actually used this rule, and it isn’t exactly practical to make a new version of your character when you enter a pure zone. But the idea of trying to figure out what your character would be like in a different reality really appeals to me, I love trying to imagine “what is the Nippon Tech equivalent of a half-Elf, half-Fey elemental sorceress?”


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Defenders and Offense/Defense Character Types

When I saw that D&D4 had made defender powers, I thought it was a neat idea because I remembered that in the games my gaming group used to play – like Champions, Star Wars, and Torg - we used to have powerful bricks who wanted to attract more than their fair share of enemy firepower, and I thought it was cool that there was a rule to force this rather than just relying on GM discretion.

However, I have some problems with the implementation of defenders in play. I tend to feel the defender powers are much more effective at hosing specific enemies than at generally drawing attacks towards your defender and away from vulnerable members of the party. A fighter can really frustrate an enemy by “locking him down” and preventing him from using ranged attacks or powers requiring movement, but that enemy tends to be the one that would have attacked the fighter anyway, so it doesn’t protect the group much unless that enemy is some sort of unusually powerful “boss” enemy.

A second problem, commented on by a friend of mine, is that a balanced character would need to be rather warped in order to be tough enough to take on their own foe and somebody else’s, so (unless the fight is easy) either you aren’t balanced, or you aren’t tough enough and you act as a heroic sacrifice while you friends tear down the villains, or you are tough enough but have toothless offense, or you are supported by an awesome healer who is either unbalanced or has a toothless offense to compensate for all that healing power. I wondered how defender-like characters used to work in the older RPG’s I used to play.

Even if you successully implement a tank, MMORG-style, the problems that came to mind for defense-oriented tank characters in a tabletop RPG setting can be summarized as: having low offense is boring, getting thrashed so that an offense-oriented character can deal damage feels like you are a meat shield for someone else who gets all the glory.

The model D&D claims to be going for, which seems based on MMORG concepts, involves defense-oriented tanks, backed up by healers, distracting foes and sucking up damage so that offense-oriented strikers can destroy them. I thought I’d compare this to how offense-oriented and defense-oriented characters used to work in my pre-D&D gaming groups. I’ve included the actual character names from my gaming group; the wider audience can ignore these.

Most of the characters were just intended to be balanced. These characters just expect to take on their fair share of the opposition and go at it one-on-one. The strong characters would tend to take on the strong foes and the weak characters the weak foes; but if the weak characters were still sometimes outmatched, that’s OK, it’s part of their character conception. Examples: Hotshot, Starlight, Gravlock, Lance Benthar, Farukka, most of the Torg characters.

Many of the characters I would think of as defenders – our classic Champions bricks, for instance – were, in fact, characters who were very powerful overall. They had strong offense and very strong defense. They were tough enough to take on more than their fair share of opponents and be happy to do so, and had plenty of offense making them fun to play. Even if they were forced to deal with more foes than they could handle, it was hard to complain when you knew you were so awesome that they couldn’t defeat you without teaming up. Examples: Atom-Smasher, Hellspawn, Monstrosity, Cutlass, Surge, Dr. Sandar, Solan Ionescree.

There were characters who had strong defense but mediocre offense, theoretically the equivalent of a "tank". But these characters did not feel or work at all like the D&D fighter or MMORG tank. Rather, these were scrappy characters who liked that even if they couldn't win the combat, they wouldn't be taken out of it; they would always get to be present, doing their thing. They might try to take on tough opponents to give the rest of the party breathing room, but more as a special stunt than a routine combat tactic. Mostly, they just liked knowing they would be the last one standing in the group. Examples: Blitzkrieg, Charm, Psi-Knife, Olan (the Star Wars Gambler).

On the opposite side of the spectrum, those characters we made to have relatively poor defenses were usually characters who were not very powerful overall. Since these characters were weak, they merited less than their fair share of opponents, and it wasn't a big stress on the rest of the party if they hid in the "back ranks" and weren't engaged at all. Everyone was happy because the weak characters survived, the party was glad their solid offense was being made good use of, and the front line didn’t feel like mere meat shields because they knew they were more powerful and important than the back ranks. Examples: Backlash, Troubleshooter, Colonel Quar.

There were characters who were arguably high on the offense with relatively average defense. It seems to me that these characters didn’t want to take on more than their fair share of opponents, but would be quite happy to take on one opponent. If that opponent was pretty strong, the fight might be over more quickly than usual but would certainly be fair and entertaining; if the opponent were normal, the powerful hero might be expected to win, then help his scrappy allies who have been holding off the remaining foes. This involved a little GM cooperation (it isn’t much fun if the villains all join up to stomp you into the ground), but everyone ends up more or less happy; since the high-offense character is still taking on a fair share of the enemies, the other characters don’t feel so much like they are being used as defense for a wizard that gets all the glory. Examples: Predator, Shock, ATHENA.

Some characters had average-to-mediocre defense and weak offense. These were typically skill-based characters. They had various ways of dealing with combat. They might find a weaker opponent to go one-on-one with. If forced to take on a fair share on the enemies, they would take on a mindset of being outmatched and take pride in tying up their opponent as long as possible until the cavalry could arrive. The lack of glory in this was not a problem since the skill-based characters got all the glory they needed outside of combat. Sometimes they would decline to take part in combat at all and concentrate on mission objectives, relying on their relatively good defenses to survive crossing a dangerous battlefield. Examples: Psyk-Out, Troubleshooter.

One other type of defense-oriented character is one who has good defense and low offense because they are powerful but incompetent (either due to inexperience or general comedy). These characters don’t mind being somewhat ineffective on offense because that is part of the character conception. And they usually feel pretty dangerous when they get lucky and really do something effective. Examples – Acme, Valkyrie (w/o Einherjar)

Interestingly, I really did not find any characters built on the “tank” model – weak offense, mighty defense, and a “hit me please” mentality – or the “wizard” model – mighty offense, weak defense, uses friends as meat shields. Probably because our early experience with RPG’s had been that such characters do not work, so we made sure not to make any.

I’m not sure what my conclusion here is, except for the observation that the kind of polarized characters designed for the MMORG team dynamic, are exactly the sort of characters that did not work at all in a regular RPG. That might explain why I’m finding that combining the two approaches does not work quite right.