Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Other Roleplaying Game

My regular Thursday night gang took a break recently from D&D4E and cracked open an old copy of TORG for a few weeks, and it was an interesting experience, in that step-through-the-looking-glass sort of way.

TORG, for those who don't know, was published in 1990 from West End games as a universal (multi-genre) system with a central thematic spine. There are different worlds based on different genres (fantasy, cyberpunk, superheroes, pulp, high adventure, horror) so your home campaign can be in a particular genre but have guest stars with other genres, all under the same system. In our case, we were Victorian Super Heroes with our home "cosm" (universe) being invaded by cyberpunks, wolfmen, and agents of The Gaunt Man.

We did see a lot of character transformation between the games, Our 4E bow ranger usually takes it as personal insult if he has to move during combat, but the same player ran "Yoo Die, the West Texas Ninja", who sounded like George Bush and came up with lines like "I hide in the shadow of his fear, and leap out, dance the lethal fandango on his face". Our melee ranger, a semi-legendary figure with dreams beyond his halfling proportions, ran a rabbi who was such a mensch. Even I found myself more in David Niven dry martini hero mode than in wise-cracking punster phase.

The mechanics of the game have a couple nice grace notes worth mentioning. Rolling for results is a three stage process - first a random roll to get a modifier from a chart, with additional rolls for results of 10 and 20 (related to Spelljammer smokepowder weapons and 7th Sea's exploding dice - allowing the potential for large modifiers). Then the modifier is applied to one skill number as a to hit result and to another number (sometimes a skill number, sometimes not) as a damage or effect result. The hardest part is remembering the modifier between the two applications, but it gives the game its own charm.

Also, there are cards (I had an original deck from my set, unshuffled for all these years). The cards have different effects for players (give a +3 on a result roll, or 3 bonus points at the end of the adventure), than for the GM (flipped at the start of each round, it sets (or changes) the tone of the battle - do the Villains go first this round, or do the Heroes? Are there any special attack rules? What kind of actions will get you bonuses? If you are intent on a single style of attack, you can work through it, but it is an attempt to budge players into thinking differently. And with a deck-based system to influence play, you don't have a typical initiative roll situation.

In part due to these changes, the game ran differently in play than our normal 4E session, and it was a hoot. TORG is what they call these days a "High Trust" game (I've seen the phrase tossed about a number of places - I think I saw it first on RPG.net). The idea of a "High Trust" game involves that the players are setting down with a general idea of what their purpose is - both from the idea of genre and the rules themselves. Yeah, the mechanics might be cheesed, but that's not the point - you have a big ball of examples and different ways to resolve them. The GM has to think on his feet to resolve issues, as do the players, and often the GM and the players are teaming up to figure out the best way to resolve a situation. TORG is nicely High Trust, like Marvel Super Heroes and the wayback machine version of D&D of the late 70s. You're not quite sure where you're going to end up in the proceedings, but you know its going to be an interesting trip.

At the opposite end are "Low Trust" games, which try to map out all the possibilities and set down specific rules for handling different situations neatly and effectively. 4E is pretty solid on that, but we can also add Champions from back in the day and GURPs as well. The current thick-booked Basic Roleplaying is Low Trust, but one of its ancestor systems, Call of Cthulhu, is High Trust, but then, if you find yourself in combat in CoC, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Despite the names, I don't want to say that one gaming style is superior to the others. High Trust games tend to engender unique playing styles for the players and the GM, while Low Trust games have as a general goal a repeatable, enjoyable gaming experience regardless of the abilities (or state of mind) of the participants. High Trust can be more casual, while Low Trust more tournament style.

Both have good points, both have bad points. I tend to see more "killer DMs" and "Monty Haul Dungeons" among the High Trust games, and more rules-layering and "Mr. Memory" encounters in Low Trust games. But the interesting thing was that our group could spin on a dime and go from one style of gaming to another without missing a beat. It sort of puts a hole in some of the edition wars craziness, and points out that you can play the style of game you and your gang is most comfortable with. Even it is a handful of different styles.

More later,