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The God Box review (long, somewhat harsh)

Posted: Mon Jan 07, 2019 10:33 pm
by ShirtlessOBrien
The God Box: An Extended Review

(Broken up due to post size limits, Part One of Two)

Spoilers galore ahead. I’m just saying. Practically every part of this module is spoiled below. Seriously, don’t read this if you ever intend to play it. But also, don’t play it. Because it is bad.

I originally planned to do a short and straightforward review of this module, but the review turned of its own accord into more of an extended roast than a review because there was just so much about this module which was, well, bad. And making fun of bad things is how I cope with having to read them. But at the same time art criticism is important even when the art is bad, because it contributes in some small way to future art learning from the mistakes pointed out by the critic. So while I do have some fun with this review please take it as constructive criticism too, an attempt to point out the things which ought to be done better in future modules or in the readers’ home games.

Also if you do decide to try to turn this thing into enjoyable content then I imagine this review will be quite helpful in pointing out the worst groaners that you have to fix.

Imagine, if you will, the Ultimate Phoned-In Torg Module. It would start with Quinn Sebastian in a featureless room with four random PCs who could be literally anyone, and Quinn is saying “Bad people are doing bad stuff, go stop it!”. Immediately afterwards the PCs would be whisked by plot into a fight with two mooks per player character, then a fight with one big thing with lots of Wounds and Toughness but a terrible interaction attack defence, then a dramatic skill resolution, then a fight with one Possibility-rated boss and two mooks per player character. The End. There would be no scope for players to change what happens or express their character’s individuality, there would be no logical connection between the scenes, it would just be an excuse for a series of boring, mechanical exercises in dice rolling.

For a Torg module to be good it has to be something more than a Phoned-In Torg Module, and too much of The God Box is just a Phoned-In Torg Module with a few gestures towards being something more. It is as if the authors realised on some level that this offering ought to be more than just a bunch of mad-libbed fight scenes and Dramatic Skill Resolutions patched together with inescapable railroad tracks, and stuck in some things that kind of felt like they were things a more coherent and professional module might have, but without any consciousness of what actually makes a story or a module good.

What counts as “more”? The short version is that a story makes it more than a bunch of fight scenes, and you create a story by making what happens in each scene make sense, by making what happens in each scene matter to the future scenes, by minimising railroading or other tactics that break willing suspension of disbelief, by giving players opportunities to express their PC’s character and giving the players the chance to earn a feeling of being big damn heroes. All of which is do-able in Torg, and has been done in other Torg modules, but is not done in The God Box.

So what’s this module about? Well, according to the back of the book the players “follow a trail of evil across (and under) the realm”, chasing an evil lizard-woman who has nicked a Mayan artefact from the Smithsonian, the titular God Box, which as you might expect is a box for putting a God in. The evil lizard-woman, Malacryx, is going to stuff the goddess Lanala in the box, marry Baruk Kaah and live happily ever after. The player characters want to stop her, possibly because they want to stop anything that evil lizard-women want, possibly because they are implausibly well-informed about the metaphysics of the Living Land and somehow know that despite the billions of conscious beings across the multiverse who have been brutally massacred in Her name Lanala is not really an evil goddess (honest!) and she isn’t all that into Baruk Kaah and she just needs a bit of a nudge to change sides, or possibly just because the module railroads them into it. The railroad tracks take the PCs from an aircraft carrier off the coast of the USA to the Living Land, into the Land Below, out again and finally to Chichen Itza for a big showdown at The Wedding of Baruk Kaah.

That is the story so without further ado, let us dive into this mess.

ACT ONE

The module starts with the players being sent to Fort Washington by plane, but the plane crashes in the Living Land. Now there’s a reason so many rpg modules employ a flying vehicle crash in hostile territory as a plot device – this goes back at least as far as Volturnus: Planet of Mystery from 1982, so this trope is old enough to vote twice over – because it starts the players in a crisis situation and gets the action moving. But it also denies the players agency, has been done a lot before and makes the Delphi Council look like idiots because they put their team of irreplaceable superheroes on an undefended, unarmed supply plane flying low enough over enemy territory that it got eaten by a random passing dinosaur.

Hang on, I just want to jump back a bit here. Before the plane sets off Sebastian Quinn, the uber-NPC more powerful than a High Lord who can melt Baruk Kaah solo, does two things. He gives the PCs a special encoded plastic tablet cum ID card thing to prove they are official agents of the Delphi Council because paper ones would be no good in the Living Land, and he also tells them that their contact is Colonel Chavez. Remember these plot points for later.

Back to the story. The players are not piloting the plane, even if they happen to be qualified pilots with super-powers, nor does the plane have guns or anything, because this module is a total railroad job and the plane needs to crash to get them to the next scripted scene. Absolutely nothing critical to the plot is going to happen between when the plane crashes and when they get to Fort Washington on foot, it is all just filler and nothing bad would happen if the players outflew the dino and landed the plane safely. So there is no reason not to have allowed the PCs to fly the plane that I can see.

Instead of flying the plane and having agency, the PCs are chilling in the back of the plane twiddling their collective thumbs when there is a giant flying dinosaur attack which the players are totally unable to do anything about or interact with in any way and the plane crashes in a giant tree. The crash knocks all the PCs unconscious, but inflicts no damage, possibly because the writers think that they are writing “cut scenes” for a video game rather than trying to immerse the players in a seamless world in which we can collectively suspend our disbelief. Then the PCs wake up and fight a dinosaur which is stuck to the plane, or they just cut it loose from the plane so it flies away, and that is the end of the dinosaur attack. This fight should be trivial because it’s a normal, bog-standard, non-possibility-rated Lakten against three to five miraculously uninjured Torg player characters. Then they climb down out of the tree.

I know what someone is going to say here, which is “But dude it would not be fun if player characters took damage in an unavoidable plane crash, you have to sacrifice verisimilitude for fun, this game is meant to be fun!”. To which I have a few responses. One is that Torg PCs up against the usual kind of Torg threats we see in this Act are borderline indestructible, and it is entirely routine for groups to finish an Act without anybody even taking one Wound, so dishing out some damage is fine. A second is that first impressions are incredibly important and even if it is a little bit anti-fun to start by inflicting random damage on PCs that is very much the lesser of two evils compared to starting with a video game cut scene effect that undercuts the reality of the story. But thirdly and most importantly this is exactly why you don’t start the module with an unavoidable plane crash – if you make the plane crash avoidable but it happens anyway then the players’ actions have caused them to take damage and that is perfectly fine, and if they avoid the plane crash that is fine too.

Anyway, here things get timey-wimey because when the players get out of the tree, all of a sudden it is night. The plane left an aircraft carrier at an unspecified time headed for Washington, but it would make sense that it left in the morning. It can’t be all that far from an aircraft carrier off the coast of the USA to Washington. So there is a flight and a crash and a brief fight (that could be ended by one roll by one smart player) and a one hour descent from a tree and… now it is night time. Say what?

This is a problem because nothing happens as a result of it being night. The module encourages players to think about whether to camp for the night or press on, and to “plan and be strategic in their thinking” but it makes no difference. This is a fake decision point, a point where the GM is encouraged to waste the players’ time getting them to discuss and weigh up options which are in fact totally meaningless. Plus it only happens because of some time-wonkiness which didn’t need to be there.

The module also states that the players can stock up on rations from the crashed plane on Page 13, then immediately afterwards states on Page 14 that they can’t recover Shock damage by resting overnight unless they make a survival test to scrounge for food. A bit odd considering their packs are full of fresh rations. It’s even more odd because according to the Core Rules (p117) Shock recovers at a point per minute if you are not in a “stressful situation”, and that even in the midst of combat or a Dramatic Skill Resolution you can just take a breather for one round (or ten seconds) to recover two Shock, and nothing bad is actually happening to the players at this point. They are not in a cross-country pursuit or scaling a mountain, the kind of cases that the Core Rules say might preclude getting Shock back. They are just sitting up a tree in a jungle. Or at the foot of the tree, or whatever.
Lastly, I want to highlight that the module specifically calls out MREs, the military ration packs the characters can scavenge from the plane, as being about the only high-tech item that will last the night in the Living Land. That’s a plot point. High-tech stuff does not last one night. The module is emphasising this.

I am harping on all the major errors in this first scene because as I said earlier, first impressions matter a lot. If you start your story with a railroaded crash that magically does no damage, followed by a timey-wimey nightfall that makes no sense, accompanied by denying them Shock recovery in a way that contradicts the usual rules, and demanding they make Survival rolls to forage for food despite the fact they just loaded up at an all-you-can eat military ration buffet, you are beating the players over the head with the fact that nothing in this travesty of an opening Scene makes any goddamn sense or gives the players any agency. And as we will see, even the plot points that do get established are all going get contradicted or turn out to be meaningless within the Act anyway. If your opening Scene makes no goddamn sense and gives the players no agency they are going to think, correctly as it turns out, that this whole module will make no goddamn sense and give them no agency, and that is a bad way to set out on an extended Torg campaign.

So anyway the PCs then do one Dramatic Skill Resolution to sneak through a field of gospog, which on a failure only leads to a straightforward fight against three mooks per PC, and then they make it to the Fort Washington Base. If it’s night the fight might be a bit harder, if the GM remembers to worry about that kind of thing, but it’s really no big deal.

You might think that this gospog field right next to Fort Washington would be a plot point too and the players might come back to blow it up, or forewarn the Fort about an incoming gospog swarm or something, but no. Whether they sneak through it or fight their way through it the outcome is exactly the same and nothing happens and the scene is never mentioned again.

So what was the point of all that? The plane could have just taken them directly to the scene where they emerge from the jungle without all of that faffing about with a crash and a walk. No plot points are established that pay off later, nothing is achieved or lost, there are no real stakes. The Ords on the flight are killed off by fiat (in the same crash that knocked out the PCs but did no damage) so that there aren’t any NPCs tagging along to protect whose survival might be a victory condition. The module even goes to the trouble to spell out that the players cannot possibly die by falling out of the giant tree they crash in. It’s not just that nothing does happen, it is that nothing can happen.

Also the PCs getting dumped in the Living Land by vehicular failure is pretty much exactly the start of the Living Land Day One scenario. Not a problem for people who have not played it, but repetitive for those who have.

When they get to Fort Washington they discover their intended contact, Colonel Chavez, got killed two days before and he has been replaced by Major Chandler. This might look or sound like plot. You might think that is a point which will become relevant later, but it is not. Major Chandler is totally on the level, completely competent and Chavez’s death is never referenced again. Their encoded plastic chit thing gets briefly mentioned once and then it too never comes up again.

So the two things that looked like plot points which were established in the first scene turn out to be total red herrings. This is the start of what will become a clear trend: this module has no real plot. It does not establish that you have a plastic chit and that your contact is Colonel Chavez because this will be important later, it just establishes them so that it looks like maybe there is some kind of plotting going on. It will turn out that each Act is just an empty contrivance to convey the PCs through a few fight scenes to the next one and none of it matters at all.

There’s a detailed map of Fort Washington that you will never use because the PCs will never have to make any decisions about where to go or what to do in Fort Washington.

Things improve very slightly in the second subsection where the PCs go to try to talk a bunch of stranded citizens into taking a boat ride with them back to civilisation, so there is at least something to do besides kill things by rolling dice. The problem that the PCs need to solve is that some of the citizens have transformed and will pop like a soap bubble if they return to a Core Earth dominant zone. It’s a bit odd that an Outstanding success on talking to the group of civilians means all the transformed ones get talked into tagging along to their probable deaths, I am not sure that’s what ethical Storm Knights would try to do, but at least it sets up that the PCs need to pull off a Glory result before they get home to prevent their NPCs popping. But seeing as the outbound trip was a milk run, I think it’s a bit metagamey for PCs to think they’ll be pulling off a Glory on the way home.

As an aside, this section does bring up a recurring bugbear of mine, that the ETorg writers have never all been on the same page about how the hell disconnecting and transforming and whatnot works for average citizens. In the Living Land Day One module almost everyone seemed to have disconnected or transformed within minutes of the Living Land taking over New York, pretty much, except for a handful of NPCs who happen to be standing right next to PCs. Once they have disconnected they are incapable of creating contradictions by understanding technology or speaking in grammatically complex sentences, and Ords cannot reconnect after disconnecting in a foreign Dominant Zone. But here we have a bunch of ordinary randoms with no Stormy types around to lead them, ninety days after the invasion, and almost all of them are talking normally and using firearms. Now there is some kind of selection effect going on here because these are the survivors of a larger group, most of whom presumably disconnected and transformed some time ago, but this is still pretty weird given that these people have lasted tens of days while creating contradictions, while most people last minutes or hours at most.

Speaking of firearms the core rules also state (p180) that non-living objects transform to appropriate equivalents within 24 hours in a Pure Zone and “almost as fast” in a Dominant or Mixed Zone. Which is consistent with how the module talked about everything but MREs breaking down overnight and consistent with the PCs needing a plastic chit ID instead of a paper ID. So how are there pistols, shotguns and M-16s working ninety days into the invasion in the hands of thirty-one connected Ords? Shouldn’t they be an assortment of differently sized rocks and pointy sticks?

Note that this is seen right after a military NPC complains about how they can’t send their troops into the jungle because they forget how to shoot their weapons. This is not even different writers not collectively keeping their story straight in different books, it’s Hensley and Hayhurst not being able to keep their own module straight for two pages. Also the ETorg canon of published content just is not that big at this stage, but it looks like they didn’t even bother reviewing the module they had already published which was set in The Living Land to try to make this next one vaguely consistent with their own canon.

I know some people including some of the paid writers are from the “lol nothing matters pew pew” school of thought when it comes to this kind of cosmological stuff. That’s fine for them, I guess, if we are talking about minor inconsistencies like it being impossible to think about democracy in the Living Land because the Social Axiom is too low at seven, but possible to think about genies granting wishes in Core Earth. But this is the canon blatantly contradicting itself about stuff which obviously matters a lot to this particular adventure.

Also I am being a bit picky here but in the Living Land Day One adventure a river boat exposed to Living Land axioms and World Laws starts rusting and falling apart within minutes and the PCs have to hustle to get it to the side of the river before it falls apart, even if they have become possibility-rated and are piloting the boat. Whereas in this adventure they can happily sail a 112-foot boat up and down a river in the Living Land without any difficulties at all except for a cosmetic issue where it takes two tries to start the motor.

There would have been a really simple fix in just saying that this colony was based around a small hardpoint of Core Earth reality which was fading and so they had to evacuate. That is consistent with the established rules, explains the guns and people not disconnecting, still requires an evacuation and is consistent with some people having transformed if they stuck their head out of the Core Earth zone. Which raises the question of why the module authors didn’t to that.

So anyway, back to the linear examination of the module’s events. The PCs herd the miraculously un-disconnected, gun-toting Ords back to their boat where there is a big fight waiting which does not scale with the number of PCs. This is fine because they have thirty-three Ords to help out and they all have guns. 1/20th of them will disconnect every time they try to fire a gun, after all this time holding off jakatt attacks without disconnecting offscreen, but it all helps. A group of PCs plus thirty-three people with guns should make short work of a dozen edeinos with spears.

The PCs get the boat moving and there is an exciting dinosaur attack on the boat and someone gets knocked overboard and needs rescuing, which is good, but it has to be pointed out that the Living Land Day One module did the exact same scene, also in its first Act, where a sea monster attacks a boat and sympathetic NPCs get knocked off into the murky water and the players have to dive in to help. That sea monster was pretty much game-mechanically identical to the one in this scene too, give or take a point here and there. So anyone who has played the Living Land Day One story has already played this exact scene almost note for note. Given that this is literally the second Torg module they have ever released, it’s pretty cheap to be re-using scenes wholesale from the first one. Or maybe Hayhurst and Hensley haven’t read the Day One adventure book? After all Ulisses Spiele have published two whole books of Torg stuff now, perhaps is has gotten so complicated that they are struggling to keep track of it all.

Hopefully they can farm this encounter for a Glory result because there are no other opportunities to pull one off before they get back to the Core Earth hardpoint. This is fine though because there are apparently no consequences whatsoever for failing to inspire the transformed Ords on the way home. That plot point also goes nowhere. So the bit where the players had to roleplay and make Persuade rolls to get people to accompany them and if they got a good success more people were saved made no difference at all.

When they get back to the military base the players get offered shots to protect them against Living Land parasites, and a big deal is made about how the shots might be risky for non-Core-Earth PCs. Maybe it would have made more sense to give the PCs these shots before they were sent into the steaming, alien jungle to fight dinosaurs in a muddy river? But as you can probably already tell “logic” and “causality” are concepts that the module authors appear to struggle with. Of course absolutely nothing happens either way whether or not anybody takes the shots. This is yet another fake decision point. It would have been trivial to include some consequences for this decision later on, so that this Chekov’s Gun actually fires, but this module is shooting blanks.

Then the PCs get some downtime to relax, share war stories and do some IC stuff. All good.

When the action resumes the camp gets attacked. Seeing as the PCs are superheroes, the base commander does the “logical” thing and tells them to go nursemaid the same thirty-odd refugees they just rescued (minus however many popped like soap bubbles without anybody appearing to notice or care). Except this time the refugees are all unarmed, which is a bit weird seeing as they mostly had sidearms a few hours ago and they are in an active war zone surrounded by genocidal dinosaurs. But anyway, they have no guns because plot so the players save them.

Baruk Kaah himself shows up, but off-screen. To establish clearly that he is the Big Bad of the module and that he is a nigh-unstoppable juggernaut of bestial strength and supernatural power, he gets taken out offscreen by random unnamed Ord marine with a rocket launcher. The player characters hear about this exciting development over the radio. Baruk Kaah’s days of being a standing joke are definitely coming to a middle.

At this point the plot proper starts with the news that Bridezilla, I mean Malacryx, and a bunch of edeinos have made off with the MacGuffin from the museum. Major Chandler orders the players go after them, possibly followed by an NPC, Scarlett, who will insist on tagging along, and as far as I can tell that one NPC is the only bit of the plot far which has any effect on the rest of the story. So all this stuff has just been a sort of bloated teaser, with a few fake decision points and almost no real ones. However you would be overly optimistic if you thought that Scarlett would ever be mentioned again. Ever. The module never talks about how she might react to any future events, she doesn’t even get a stat block or a picture, she is a non-entity.

Also for absolutely no reason I can discern the module is coy about telling the PCs what was taken or why it was important. Which is a bit like making a version of Raiders of the Lost Ark that doesn’t have the scene where they explain what the Ark is and why the Nazis want it. There is nothing the players could do about it anyway, it is categorically impossible for the players to even come within eyeshot of Bridezilla or the MacGuffin at any point at all in this module until the very last scene, so why not tell the players immediately that it’s a Mayan box for putting a God(dess) in, and that the Delphi Council thinks it is a credible threat that someone could use this box to overthrow the gods themselves?

So they chase Bridezilla for a bit, there is a pointless fight with giant leeches and the end of the Act they get a brief speech from an NPC explaining that Bridezilla and Baruk Kaah plotted together to nick the God Box, that Kaah and Bridezilla think the MacGuffin is powerful and would “stop the doubters”, and that the bad guys got away through a portal. Which goes some way towards conveying the stakes and the plot to the players, but doesn’t exactly convey “credible threat that someone could use this box to overthrow the gods themselves”.

The portal is a spooky evil tree-portal powered by the souls of trapped humans - ew! So it would have been an interesting moral problem if the PCs had to make sure the tree was fully stocked and powered up to go through the portal, maybe have to persuade or force an NPC into its spooky evil nightmare-pods, or punch out enemy edeinos and use them as portal fuel. That would be in keeping with making use of an evil Orrorshan reality-warping tree. But that doesn’t happen, they can apparently rescue people from the tree but the portal still works just fine long enough to get them to the next scene. Moral dilemma avoided!

As you read ton you might eventually start to wonder why Bridezilla has to go through this massive rigmarole she has just begun of taking the God Box through Portal A to the Land Below, then through hell and high water in the Land Below to get to Portal B, which takes her to Chicago where she has more grief in getting to Portal C, which finally gets her to her destination D. Given that it is clearly established (a) that Darkness Devices can reroute these portals at will, (b) that Rek Pakken is well aware of what is going on and will later mess with a PC portal attempt and (c) Darkness Devices can dimthread their minions from anywhere in their domain to anywhere else in their domain any time they like anyway, this whole module’s plot only exists because even given the incentive of potentially eliminating Lanala from the picture Rek Pakken couldn’t be arsed to dimthread Bridezilla and her box home. Which it could have done at absolutely any time. While dimthreads are supposed to be expensive enough that they don’t get used trivially, for something like defending a Stela a Darkness Device thinks nothing of dimthreading in a whole bunch of troops, and in this very module the Darkness Device spends the energy to reroute the PCs when they try to teleport to the wedding at the end. So instead of five acts of slogging through various dangers leaving a trail that the PCs successfully follow, Bridezilla could have been home and hosed at Chichen Itza picking out wedding decorations in under an hour leaving absolutely no clue where she went, Lanala would be in a box and Baruk Kaah would be ruling unopposed.

Or in other words, this entire module is an Idiot Plot that only works because Rek Pakken is a moron who forgets they have superpowers.

For that matter Bridezilla is a massively powerful boss monster who is accompanied by a dozen Handmaidens who are well-hard, optimised, possibility-rated bitches in their own right each of whom could give a combat-oriented player character a run for their money in a one on one fight. They are right next to Baruk Kaah’s army with nothing but their jungle home between them and wherever else they want to get to. Why are they in such a hurry to run away from the PCs that they are taking a one-way trip through the Land Below, then through two more portals each of which is heavily guarded by powerful enemies, when they could just rejoin Kaah’s army right away? It’s not like the PC team could even slow them down, and the rest of the army at Fort Washington is just a bunch of Ords. Maybe they can only do the ritual at Chichen Itza, the module doesn’t say that but we can pretend it does, but even if Baruk Kaah refuses to organise a dimthread or a tree-portal back to Mexico then it would still be easier and safer to just go directly through The Living Land from Washington to Chicago, where the portal to Chichen Itza is. Or head north to the New York maelstrom bridge, climb up it, then go through the Living Land proper and down the Piste maelstrom bridge to get to Mexico. Both seem a lot easier for Malacryx and her team than this detour through The Land Below.

In other words, everything in this module is stupid.

INTERLUDE: STORY STRUCTURE

That is the end of the events in Act One, so I would like to go on a bit of a tangent here about how this story is being told. There is a section back at the start of the module in the GM’s overview labelled “The Stakes” that explains what is at stake, as you would expect a section with such a title to do. Which is cool for the GM, because the GM then knows what is at stake. But this information is not conveyed to the players until the very last Act of the module and even then it is conveyed in an arbitrary deus ex machina moment. Maybe the writers assume that the players will read the back of the module? Because that is literally the only way the players will have any idea what the overarching plot is or what the stakes are.

Without any known stakes, the module is mostly just a bunch of arbitrary fights, linked by an arbitrary pointer to the next fight, Phoned In Torg Adventure style. Not only is there nothing very interesting for players to do other than kill dinos, there’s not even an interesting reason for them to do it, and whatever they do never matters again anyway.

To show that I’m not complaining about stuff which is inherent to the nature of a module, compare this to The Destiny Map module for the original version of Torg. In the first scene of that module they encounter a hostile NPC who they could perfectly well kill, or who could be a recurring antagonist or sometime ally throughout the rest of the module. But they do get shot at, probably make an enemy, and get tasked with pursuing and finding that enemy. In the second scene they have to get a file from a police station which is a problem they can solve however they want, using diplomacy or stealth or magic or psychic powers or whatever. In third scene they investigate a crime scene, maybe run into that recurring antagonist again, and maybe find clues about the nature of their opposition. Then in scene four there is a forced fight scene with a new enemy but it was foreshadowed by the evidence in the scene before, and the Possibility-rated enemy leader can die here or become another recurring antagonist, and they can potentially find a code which would come in handy later.

Each scene follows logically from the one before, and each scene has multiple possible outcomes, and those outcomes can have multiple possible effects on the following scenes. There are uses for non-combat skills, only one unavoidable combat to the finish, clear reasons to move between scenes in a logical way, and every Chekov’s Gun pays off. That to me is solid module design.

Then in The Destiny Map in the next act they explore a big industrial complex full of clues, plot points, mechanical locks, alarms, traps and ninjas. It’s a bit like an OD&D dungeon crawl in a sense, with room numbers and locked doors and such, but players can approach the buildings in any order and use whatever combination of stealth, skills, supernatural powers and brute force they like.

The equivalent part of The God Box is just a bunch of mandatory, disconnected fights, fake decision points and fake plot points which make no difference whatsoever to anything that happens afterwards. No multiple approaches, almost no non-combat problem solving, no NPCs that will ever matter again, and the best scene (the river fight) is a straight photocopy of the same scene in Living Land Day One. It literally does not matter what kind of PCs people are playing, because the whole thing would play out exactly the same way.

I do not think I am overestimating the Torg target audience when I say that I think they can string together random fight scenes and attribute checks with no rhyme or reason on their own, if they want. What they might want to pay for is a professionally-crafted module that supports some real player freedom while also being reasonably resilient and coherent. This is not such a module.

So why aren’t the players told at the start of the adventure that The God Box was something important that they had to get out of Fort Washington at all costs, that only Colonel Chavez was cleared to know about it, and that it could be key to turning the tide of the war in the USA? Major Chandler could have been a Stormer in league with another High Lord planning to steal the box to do something nefarious with elsewhere, Colonel Chavez could have been murdered to get him out of the way, maybe Chandler could even have been the one who ordered the plane to fly low enough to get attacked by a dinosaur. It would not have taken that much effort to give the players a proper motivation and turn the fake plot points into actual plot points.

It feels a lot like this module went directly from a scribbled outline on a napkin to a published module without going through nearly enough review, revision or polishing.

ACT TWO:

The unstoppable hand of plot shoves the players through a magical portal into the next Act, and the PCs find themselves in an alien world. To make sure there is no sense of mystery or exploration the canned text immediately tells them that they are inside the Earth in an extension of the Living Land consisting of realms Baruk Kaah previously conquered, called the Land Below. Everyone just knows this stuff apparently.

I have to say I do not like the fact that the players are forced by the plot to jump head-first through a one-way spooky demon portal to who-knows-where. I mean, the cast of schlock shows like Stranger Things at least have the sense to wear environment suits and a tether when they jump through a horrific demon-portal into a possible hell-dimension, this adventure assumes the PCs jump right on through in their t-shirts and shorts knowing absolutely nothing about their destination.

It is one thing for the PCs to have the kind of plot armour that means that they will never actually jump through a portal into hard vacuum or an enemy army or the stomach of a demon-god or something and immediately die. That is fine and normal, but it rubs me the wrong way to force PCs to act like they know they have plot armour in order to push the plot along. This is the bad kind of railroading where the game just stops dead unless the PCs do the one thing the module needs them to do, which is a thing the PCs probably would not do were they acting in character.

But anyway they jump through and everything is completely fine and shortly afterwards the players find a journal of someone’s experiences in The Land Below. Hopefully the players have forgotten that Quinn gave them a plastic chit back at the start of Act One specifically because paper is destroyed almost instantly by the Living Land, because this paper book which has been abandoned for days is apparently just fine. Once again this is not multiple books telling an inconsistent story, this is the module going out of its way to specifically highlight something as a plot point with no payoff and then totally ignoring it later. If you are wondering whether the special encoded plastic chit that won’t disintegrate is ever going to come up again in this module… do I have to spell it out? No, it will not.

The miraculously-intact journal they found brings them up to speed on the Land Below plot, and also explains that they are in The Land Below. But the players just got told that by The Voice of God in the canned text. So why explain this twice? But at least this convenient journal does some actual storytelling, establishing the identity of some NPCs, establishing the goal of getting out of The Land Below and foreshadowing events to come. So at least Acts Two and Three feel a bit more like a connected whole than the rest of this mess.

However this commits the cardinal sin of having the interesting stuff all done by NPCs offstage. Instead of finding the journal of a family who had an exciting adventure falling down a waterfall into The Land Below, learning to survive, setting up a defensible cave home, meeting and making peace with Leopard Warriors and so on, why not have the PCs do all that? That would have been more interesting than the PCs’ story so far. But no, it is just pretty scenery that the players can watch from the window of their railroad carriage as they are conveyed from unavoidable fight scene to unavoidable fight scene.

The PCs then follow the trail of the edeinos NPC villain team who are getting away with the MacGuffin, and by an Amazing Coincidence this just happens to take them right past the one spider cave where the Leopard Warrior NPC mentioned in the convenient plot journal named Chaka Khan, I mean, Prince Chakan, just happens to be trapped.

Then Bridezilla’s trail which they 100% could follow a moment ago abruptly vanishes for no reason at all, no matter what the players roll or what means they employ, because the railroad plot needs the PCs to abandon their attempt to rescue their friends at this point and go off on a side quest with this NPC they met ten seconds ago to rescue the journal people. Let me just emphasise this again. At the end of Act One this trail, made by Bridezilla plus twenty-odd Edeinos carrying a big stone box and assorted hostages through a jungle, was so easy to follow it literally did not even need a Survival roll. At the start of Act Two this trail through a similar jungle, made by the same people, requires a DC10 Tracking roll to follow… but since there is literally no other possible way in the module for the players to get from that scene to the next one except by following those tracks we have to assume that the players can reroll that one until they succeed. And then halfway through Act Two the trail made by that exact same set of people vanishes into thin air and is utterly impossible to follow by any means whatsoever by any PC whatsoever.

Is it possible that Bridezilla used her own amazing Tracking skill to hide the tracks of all twenty-odd of them? Well, no, her Tracking skill is only thirteen which is good but not amazing and she has no relevant Miracles or anything.

This makes me wince because it comes so close on the heels of the last bit of really egregious railroading. I get that sometimes when you are writing to a deadline you need to just push the plot along whether or not you can think of a good way to make it seem organic, but you want to space out the places where the railroad tracks become offensively obvious, and this bit of offensive railroading coming hard on the heels of the PCs being forced through a portal by the plot is too on the nose for me. Plus, again, first impressions. Act Two could be a fresh session with a fresh start where the module sets out on the right foot and says “sorry about Act One, we needed to get that out of the way, now we are going to have good content!”. But nope, it starts out with an egregious railroad move that directly contradicts the precedents it already established for how hard it is to track twenty-odd edeinos plus hostages carrying a huge box through a jungle.

Will anything they do on this side quest matter? Or would they get to exactly the same place only faster if they could continue following the trail of the main plot? I think you can guess the answer.

This NPC, by the way, as far as I can tell does not look like anything. There is literally no description of this dude. The page where you meet him doesn’t even reference his stat block which is hidden back in with the other NPCs, and his stat block also fails to describe him. He doesn’t even get a picture. There’s a write-up on page 105 about the tribe in general from which you can figure out what he probably looks like (Tarzan in leopard-print with Wolverine-style tiger claws on the back of his hands), and that is all you get. For literally the single most important NPC in the module in terms of screen time and influence over the plot.

This seems like it should be Art Direction 101: Identify the key things that the players will want to see a picture of, and include pictures of those things. This module has highly detailed maps you will never use but no pictures of the NPCs like Scarlett and Chaka Khan that the module assumes you are motivated to rescue or ally yourselves with. This seems like the kind of thing that would have to have come up If this module went through any kind of blind playtesting at all, which makes me think it did not see any blind playtesting, of if it did nobody listened to the feedback.

While I am on the topic, do you know what The God Box looks like? The title artefact? The gizmo this whole adventure is about? Probably not. I am not sure I do. There might be a box in the cover art but it might be a bit of architecture too, it all blends together and it is tiny. There is no picture of it in the module. Nor does the God Box itself have any stats or anything. Bridezilla and her maids of honour, the villains you never get to fight and whose stats do not matter, get a full write-up but not the title object. But the canned text seems to assume the players do know exactly what it looks like, because it says things like “The God Box sits on an altar” without explaining what the hell it looks like or how the players know what it is or anything.

Since the God Box is not clearly destroyed at the end of this module (although maybe it was, like I said, it was unclear), and The Land Below and indeed Chicago seem chock full of evil Gods that someone ought to shove in a box, this seems like a bit of an oversight. Heck, if that box can hold Lanala maybe it could hold a Darkness Device? A weapon to disable gods and god-like beings is a great opportunity for the module to provide the GM and the players with material for future adventures. But in this module the title item is strictly a bit of fluff with no game mechanics attached or even a picture.

Where were we? The player characters decide to help Chaka Khan, even though he does not look like anything, because the adventure literally makes doing anything else impossible. The adventure trundles along those railroad tracks for a while, there are fights, and you even get a brief glimpse of a new NPC species called the Larendi that you can either scare or not scare, and which the module says will come back in the next Scene and in that next scene it will matter whether you scared them or not.

Guess what happens.

Yes, the Larendi are never mentioned again and play no role whatsoever in any future scene. Good guess.

So they go to the temple of the wasp riders and the NPC does all the fun stuff and reveals that the PCs were just patsies in his super awesome romantic plan that was cooler than anything PCs get to do in this module, and then he ditches them and the PCs have to run away from an enraged temple full of wasp cultists. In approved Death Star escape fashion, the pursuit only actually consists of six women riding wasps. I know, you can’t kill all the PCs by having the wasp civilisation send two dozen. But it would be nice if they justified the weak pursuit by letting the PCs set off a smoke bomb in the wasp hangar or feed the wasps soporific bug juice or something rather than just having token pursuit for no reason.

Also the text refers to them as scouts, but they use the Wasp Rider stat block not the Wasp Scout stat block, which is a bit confusing seeing as I cannot find any place in the module where the Wasp Scout stat block is used.

Then the gigantic wasp queen attacks which is meant to be a moral quandary somehow, because killing it would be bad, but the module states that the queen will not give up attacking under any circumstances. So there’s nothing to do except hit her until she falls over and hope she makes her Defeat check, which she probably will because she has a relevant stat of 15 and needs a 10 to survive, meaning she won’t die unless you knock her out and then keep shooting her until she rolls a 4 or below on her Defeat test and only if she runs out of Shock to spend as Possibilities. So not only am I not sure how you are meant to succeed in defeating the Queen by means guaranteed to be non-lethal, I am not sure how you fail and kill her except through sheer bad luck (and the GM not letting you spend a Possibility on the wasp’s behalf to save it).

Plus the reason she will never stop attacking is that she is desperate to lay her eggs in someone and is about to literally pop open and die because she is so bloated with eggs. So if you let her live, she is still going to lay her eggs in someone because in approved evil wasp god avatar fashion she apparently can’t lay her eggs in a meatloaf or a cow or anything. But since the PCs don’t know that fact it turns out not to matter. The PCs can just knock her out and run away, and let the evil wasp cultists find a new sacrifice to be paralysed and made into a living incubator for a swarm of ravenous wasp larvae, and the module seems to think this is the good ending.

The Wasp Queen does have an interesting mechanic in that it is really hard to hurt her as long as a believer with Faith skill is nearby, so the PCs will do much better if they clear out all the Wasp Riders before they chip away at the boss. So it is a bit more interesting than the usual Living Land boss which is just a huge pile of Strength, Toughness, Wounds and Shock with a pitiful Trick defence (although that does describe the Wasp Queen pretty well). However it is not at all clear how the players could figure this out, so it is not so much a puzzle to solve as a random kick in the gut. In a better-written module an NPC would shout “the prayers of its followers make it invincible!” or something.

This whole fight scene takes place as the players dangle in two wicker baskets being pulled up a kilometre-high cliff by vine ropes. This has absolutely no game-mechanical effect on the proceedings whatsoever, at least that the module explicates, and all the NPCs are specifically stated to be so enraged they cannot think of trying to cut the vines. Lol nothing matters.

I find this particularly baffling because clearly the authors must have had some sort of clue that fighting flying wasp warriors in a dangling basket over a huge drop is more interesting and cinematic than fighting landbound enemies on a featureless plain, but they did not do anything with it. In a movie there would be baskets swinging and people falling out and other people catching the hands of people who fell out, ropes would creak and snap, bad guys would jump on to the rope and slide down into the basket to fight, or cling to it and try to cut it and have to be stopped, and since there are two baskets one of them would almost certainly fall into the void as somebody jumps out at the last second to grab the cliff. This stuff almost writes itself, or at least I would have thought it did.

So that’s the first two acts, and there are a lot of the cardinal sins of shonky design here. This module so far is mostly a disjointed series of discrete scenes joined by inescapable and glaringly obvious railroad tracks, and nothing that happens in any of them ever matters again. The coolest things are done by NPCs and the PCs get shoved to the sidelines or just are not present when they happen. It makes almost no difference what the PCs are or how they think, or feel, or want to solve problems, they will all have the same fights and be forced to make the same decisions, and the module repeatedly established plot points which either turn out not to matter at all, or worse still which the module almost immediately blatantly contradicts.

We also still have learned nothing meaningful about the plot or the title object or the villain. So the players aren’t in an epic race against time and their arch-nemesis to stop disaster, they’re just chasing a faceless bunch of lizards they have never seen to get back a thingie they have never seen and a couple of kidnapped NPCs they have seen but have no particular reason to care about.

ACT THREE:

I won’t go over the third act in detail, but it’s a bit of an improvement in that it has one big problem, sneaking through the land of a big volcano cult, which players finally can solve in multiple ways using various skills and abilities. Plus they actually pick up some fire resistance gear in one scene which will come in handy in a later scene – actual consequences! But whatever option they pick, as soon as they get to the volcano peak and do their clever plan the railroad tracks return as a scripted fight erupts, the slaves revolt, lave dudes attack, the wasp and leopard NPCs arrive to fight too, and the whole thing gets a happy ending out of nowhere due to nothing in particular the PCs did. Then they get pushed through a portal back to our world and nothing that happened in Merretika ever matters again.

It strikes me that this is very much video game storytelling – the players have control of their character when they have to micromanage the business of combat or platforming (Dramatic Skill Resolutions), but that control is taken away at arbitrary intervals when the players hit some invisible checkpoint and the players turn into spectators as the plot advances inexorably along a predetermined path. The players might want to hatch some complicated heist plot to steal the magic crystals that power the magic portal to get back to the surface or something but too bad, when they get near them they trigger a cut scene and all the NPCs fight and then they get handed the magic crystals and get given a plot railroad ticket to the isolated temple with the portal in it and off they go.

There’s a fight scene where some weirdly-statted lava god avatar things try to punch a temple and it feels like the module expects the players to care and to want to fight them, but it’s not clear why the players should care. The avatars are trying to punch out five columns and they will punch one every other turn and it feels like something bad ought to happen if all five columns get punched but the module says literally nothing about it. If the avatars punch all the columns they jump back into the volcano they came from and that’s it, nothing else bad happens as far as I can tell. The module blithely assumes the players defeat the avatars, and I am not sure how that is even meant to be possible because in a very weird bit of mechanical design the avatars take half damage from “physical attacks”, defined by Word of God as anything which can do Wounds or Shock, which is NOT HOW THINGS WORK IN A LOGARITHMIC SYSTEM, but anyway, they also have Toughness 14 and immunity to Shock, so short of rolling a dozen open-ended damage bonus dice I literally do not know what the plan is meant to be. Their Taunt and Trick defences are nothing special though so maybe the intent is that you get them to fall in the volcano or fall in a well or something.

The pacing feels very rushed here, and I think you could have had an epic multi-act module just in the ground this one Act covers, of sneaking through the lands of the evil slave-ownery volcano cult to the majestic city at the heart of darkness where there are human sacrifices and all that jazz, infiltrating their temple, discovering how the magic portal works and where it is, jacking the magic crystals to open the portal, escaping the city with the loot and the guards in hot pursuit and so on. Plus the biggest evil empire in the Land Below just fell to NPCs in the same Act we first got to see it, so that’s a huge chunk of potential plot that just fell into a volcano. I guess it’s fine if you never plan to come back to Merretika in your campaign.

But credit where it is due, Act Three does have some gestures towards actual narrative and consequences in between the video game cut scenes and unavoidable, pointless fights, and in this Act it does actually matter whether the PCs are four edeinos or four humans or four oddballs from various ends of the cosmverse. If the rest of the module has this level of quality, The God Box would merely be mediocre instead of the dumpster fire that it is.

ACT FOUR:

The fourth act is again totally disconnected from the rest of the story both logically and geographically. The PCs appear out of one portal in Chicago, get told they have to slog across town to another portal, and do so. Afterwards nothing that happened in Chicago ever matters again. Why the Ohibi had a portal to Chicago that nobody ever noticed before is not made clear.

Now I have avoided spoiling this bit because I think Act Four taken strictly on its own (with a bit of work) would be a decent one-Act adventure. There’s a big new threat of a kind that hasn’t been done before in Torg, which opens up some new possibilities for stories, and racing for the exit portal pursued by a horde of [REDACTED] is pretty cool. Since I imagine most of the people who will ever own this module already have it and have paid for it, I think it would be a disservice to say too much about the one bit I think is worth stealing and incorporating into a campaign.

As I said earlier, however, all the cool stuff in Act Four is disconnected from the rest of the plot and stops mattering the second the players get through the end portal. I wonder about the writing process here – did the two authors actually sit down together to craft a coherent five-Act story, or did they sort of divide up the work and then realise late in the process that they were one Act short of the five Acts they promised and so someone jammed in the Chicago Act that they had lying around as filler? Because everything in this module is just so rigorously firewalled from everything else that it makes me feel like it must have been a deliberate design decision to simplify the writing process by making sure nothing ever had any consequences for any future Acts. That way every Act could be written in a vacuum without any need to cross-check it with the rest of the module for consistency, but the price is that this “epic five Act story” isn’t actually a story, it’s just five Acts in a linear order.

This chapter also starts the trend of staggeringly helpful enemy NPCs who are happy to infodump the PCs and even tell them exactly where Malacryx is going so they can follow them despite having absolutely no reason to do so. I guess the writers thought it was about time the PCs learned what the hell all this was actually about, four-fifths of the way through the module.

So the PCs do stuff and jump through another portal and…

(End of Part One due to post size limits, read on below).

Re: The God Box review (long, somewhat harsh)

Posted: Mon Jan 07, 2019 10:33 pm
by ShirtlessOBrien
(Continued)


ACT FIVE:

As they jump through the portal the Darkness Device Rek Pakken then personally intervenes to taunt the PCs with a vision of the plot and explain exactly what is actually going on! Thanks, Darkness Device! Let’s just point out here that (a) it has taken until the very last act for the PCs to really be told why any of this stuff is going on, and (b) it is conveyed with a totally illogical deus ex machina move by the very last being that has any interest at all in helping Storm Knights.

Also can I just point to this total clunker of a line that you are meant to read out to the PCs: “You sense the touch of something old and evil. Somehow you know you are in the presence of a Darkness Device!”. Urgh. I mean, to begin with, the phrase “somehow you know” is the kind of sophomoric literary device that should have been beaten out of any writer or editor’s repertoire before their first sentence sees print. The rule is show, don’t tell. Plus how do the players even know about Darkness Devices? That is supposed to be one of the big secrets of the setting, that the High Lords are all just replaceable tools of the vastly superhuman, sentient, immortal, indestructible Darkness Devices who are the real threat to the cosmverse. You know, “something old and evil”.

The Darkness Device also decides to mess with the PCs by spending massive amounts of possibility energy to teleport them to a crappy Mexican village being oppressed by bandits that by a totally amazing coincidence just happens to be home to a bunch of well-armed potential allies and a fuck-off powerful Reality Shard which is just sitting there and has exactly the power they need to lead an attack on Baruk Kaah’s wedding party. As opposed to doing nothing and letting the PC’s teleport right into the lap of Baruk Kaah and his ten-thousand-strong Edeinos army plus Malacryx and her surviving Bridesmaids which is where the portal went by default. Or spending that possibility energy to yoink Bridezilla and her God Box home from the Smithsonian all the way back in Act One thus entirely preventing the PCs from doing anything about it.

Just for fun the trip through the dimthread tree also knocks all the PCs out so they have to be dragged unconscious out of a lagoon by convenient NPCs. So if they had landed in Baruk Kaah’s lap in that state they would have been totally, absolutely, screwed. They would have been speared and fed to dinosaurs before they even regained consciousness.

At this point it’s hard to say which of Baruk Kaah and Rek Pakken are the bigger doofus. Is Baruk Kaah a bigger joke than Rek Pakken is an idiot? I’ll leave that one to the philosophers. But if you think Rek Pakken has taken the cake with this last act of idiocy don’t be too sure, because Baruk Kaah has more hilarious incompetence to display before this train wreck of a module finally runs out of steam.

It turns out the only person who can activate the reality shard is someone from the local bloodline. That pretty much rules out any PC who is not a genetically South American Core Earther. But there’s a convenient NPC with reality adds right there who has the right bloodline! So odds are the PCs don’t even get to activate their own big plot weapon. They get arbitrarily excluded so that an NPC can have that spotlight time instead. There’s a sort of symmetry to it: the module starts with them getting railroaded out of flying the plane even if they could do it better than any NPC, and it ends with them getting railroaded out of activating the endgame gadget even if they could do it better than any NPC.

It is also really weird that the player characters do not have to do anything epic to earn this Reality Shard. It is just there. It is not at the bottom of an ancient temple lost to time guarded by fiendish traps, they do not have to go on a vision quest to prove their worthiness to the ancient Toltec gods, it is not spoken of in myth and legend by the oldest of the old. It is literally just sitting in a pile of shitty old pots out the back of a Mexican police station. It is sitting right out in the open and by going near it the players magically learn what it is and what it does and that they should take it to Chichen Itza and use it. I swear I am not making any of this up.

So after a brief jaunt through the Living Land the PCs finally rock up to the evil wedding and Baruk Kaah needs to be lured away but he will fall for literally anything without a dice roll because the plot needs him to piss off while the PCs attack so why is he even there in the first place?

The convenient NPCs lure Baruk Kaah away and he is totally cool with abandoning The God Box in his hour of triumph because he’s a doofus. You might think that at this point the players get to launch an awesome plan that they made up themselves and which is based on the experiences or lessons or gear or miracles they found along the way to defeat Bridezilla, or destroy the God Box, or steal the God Box, or let Lanala out of the God Box. Maybe the super-convenient Reality Shard which turns a 5 kilometre radius into a Core Earth Mixed Zone could play a key role, maybe enabling the players to set off a huge Core Earth bomb or something? “Lol no” as the kids say.

Whatever plan they had, as soon as they get near Bridezilla and the God Box they trigger… drum roll please… another video game cut scene! There is canned text and then a reality storm happens for no reason and to save the world the PC with the highest reality skill needs to win a Dramatic Task with the reality skill against a target number of 18, which is probably fine as long as someone in the party powergamed reality a bit and you draw the right cards. Not so much if everyone made Spirit a dump stat. That one PC gets to do the only thing that matters. Everyone else can fight a whole bunch of NPCs for no reason but nothing they do makes any difference.

While the module doesn’t explicitly say so I guess the God Box is caught up in the storm too since there is no hint that the other PCs could make themselves useful by opening it, destroying it or doing anything else logical.

The two NPCs that got kidnapped all the way back in Act One are here but they are tied up and play absolutely no role whatsoever in anything that happens. Not that anyone is going to care about them, having not seen them in the last four Acts. It would have been kind of nice if they had overheard or deduced something crucial that could turn the tide and conveyed it to the PCs or something, but in the end they are nothing more than empty props.

Did I mention that those NPCs have been dropping breadcrumb-trail clues along the way to assist anyone following them trying to rescue them, and that other than reminding the players that they have NPCs they are supposed to rescue those clues made absolutely no difference whatsoever? At no stage did a breadcrumb clue reveal a secret door or provide proof an NPC was lying or anything useful like that. They were just saying “guys, there is a plot, we swear, remember you are chasing those two NPCs still”.

Bridezilla has a full stat block, a write-up, staggeringly high melee and faith skills and ten bonus possibilities, but as far as I can tell there is literally no point in the module where she can make any use of any of it. She too just stands around as a prop waiting for the reality-battling PC to rack up four successes on an arbitrary Dramatic Task and turn her into glowing confetti.

When the reality-fighting PC gets two successes, Baruk Kaah comes back! Except he doesn’t, he is a purely cosmetic threat. He will approach and approach and always get closer but never get there. He is Zeno’s Lizard. As a final insult to the Saar, if the players bugger around for three or four rounds and it becomes impossible to drag out his approach any further, a young girl will run him over with a bus. And that will be it for Baruk Kaah as far as this module is concerned. The PCs do not even get to drive the bus.

Perhaps there will be a sequel module where it is revealed that Rek Pakken has abandoned Baruk Kaah in favour of a more powerful High Lord: a dude driving a bus.

Let’s take a break to review the scores so far:
Unnamed Ord with an rpg: 1
Random girl with a bus: 1
Baruk Kaah, the Saar, High Lord of the Living Land, High Priest of Lanala etc. in his debut appearance: 0

Regardless, when the reality-fighting PC manages to collect four 18s then Bridezilla confettis, everything explodes, Baruk Kaah vanishes up his own butt for no reason, the God Box is probably gone but nobody seems to care any more and the heroes win. The end.

SUMMARY

I think there is an argument that this book, as a whole, isn’t really a story. It is a series of fights and skill checks in a linear order, to be sure, but no part of it matters to any other part. It doesn’t have a beginning, a middle and an end in a logical order so much as five acts of random stuff and then an arbitrary ending. It is littered with fake plot points and decision points and has very few real ones and the real decision points come very late in the module. Some cool stuff happens but rarely if ever by the PC’s agency or under their control, it is always the NPCs who get to romance the wasp-warrior-woman or make first contact with an alien culture or sacrifice themselves to stop Baruk Kaah, the PCs just trot along as spectators and get into a lot of meaningless fights. At the end one of them gets to save the world but not through any kind of planning or remotely predictable plotting, just an arbitrary reality storm that takes away all of the villain’s powers and reduces the primary antagonist to a self-destructing mannequin while the High Lord Baruk Kaah runs around like a Keystone Cop falling over on banana peels.

It might say something that the credits list a lot of playtesters for the original version of the Torg game and the Land Below, but none for the Torg Eternity writing team who wrote this mess. Because if I can spot these problems on a read-through a properly critical group of players should have been all over this mess of a module.

Many of these problems are fixable with minor patches – for example the problematic river boat could have been explicitly stated to have been made out of wood, and the players could have been told that the motor will only last 24 hours at most even with Storm Knights operating it so the mission had a time limit. That would have upped the stakes, resolved the plot hole, made the world feel more consistent and taken no more effort than it took me to write this paragraph. This module’s problems are disappointing in particular because it is such a lazy effort. Each individual customer can identify and patch these holes themselves if they really want to run this mess of a module, but the point of paying “professional” writers is that you should not have to.

However no amount of individual patching can fix the problem that this supposedly epic adventure is so rigorously compartmentalised that nothing that happens in Act One matters in Act Two, and nothing that matters in Act Two matters in Act Three and so on. Heck, barely anything that happens in Act One matters in Act One. You can apply a coat of paint to individual blemishes but the story as a whole does not have any sense of direction or cohesion and it takes more than a few licks of paint here and there to fix that.

The first portal the PCs take at the end of Act One could have taken them directly to the portal exit at the start of Act Five and the story would be that much the better for it, or for that matter to the start of Act Four which is arguably the best bit. Any random Torg PC group could have been dropped in at the start of Act Two and just by virtue of wanting to get out of The Land Below they would have had exactly the same adventure in Acts Two and Three, so nothing in Act One really mattered either. On the bright side this means this adventure can be broken up for parts more easily than a more coherent module. Since nothing that happens matters, you can just yank out any Act that appeals to you, add some actual stakes and plot to it and have a session’s worth of material.

Overall this feels like a project done out of obligation rather than inspiration. It feels like the ETorg team committed themselves to writing an epic full-length module but couldn’t hire anyone with the chops for a project of that size. So they ended up with five fairly pointless one-Act or two-Act adventures strung together with portals and handwaving that failed to make any kind of coherent narrative, develop any sense of cause and effect, or offer players any real options for making the story their own.

I can contrast this with the Living Land Day One three-act adventure, by Aaron Pavao, which had a clear narrative structure and direction, had a story to tell, and came to a logical climax where they players were the stars. The PCs in that module started off with nothing and gradually accumulated weapons, armour, knowledge and experience as they went. The module established that people turned into cave-men when the world changed and explored that idea. The module established that man-made devices and buildings were falling apart and explored that idea. It had serious scenes and darkly comic scenes. Then it brought it all together with a last-ditch defence against an oncoming Edeinos horde in a crumbling underwater tunnel where they could employ all the skills, equipment and knowledge they had developed, in and out of character, to save the day and beat the villains and be big damn heroes entirely on their own. And it did not overstay its welcome. That was good, tight writing where every scene had a purpose in the larger story.

This? This just an incoherent mess of “cool” ideas that a couple of people have tried to squish into the shape of a story like a toddler trying to make a snake out of playdough and only barely succeeding.

Torg modules do not have to be this way: both original Torg writers and modern Torg writers have done far, far better with the setting and the rules than this. Even judged purely against other Torg adventures, this one is a turkey.

Re: The God Box review (long, somewhat harsh)

Posted: Tue Jan 08, 2019 10:33 am
by agarrett
So, did you like it? ;)

I agree with your review, basically. I think the idea was to give a tour of the various places within the Living Land, thus the long detour to the Land Below, and the act in Thrakmoss's control, and finally into Mexico. But in the end, it didn't work because the players were simply railroaded into each place without any reason or volition.

The big question is whether or not it's fixable. I liked your suggestion of making sure the players know what they're chasing from the beginning. A big point I'd change is to remove Baruk Kaah's support for all this - Malacrys thinks she'll surprise him with this, but he would (if he knew about it) strongly oppose her because he actually is a devoted follower of Lanala. That would help a lot with the reason the Darkness Device doesn't take care of things, and also make Kaah's appearance at the end less of a useless dunce move.

The question of player agency throughout is harder to solve, and will probably require scene-by-scene work. Any thoughts on that?

Re: The God Box review (long, somewhat harsh)

Posted: Tue Jan 08, 2019 10:47 am
by Kuildeous
Thanks for that review. Certainly truthful about it being harsh, but I get why you wrote this.

You're right that it doesn't really seem to matter if the plane makes it or not, so I think when I do run this, I'll plan on the plane making it. Now if the players decide to play a Dino Attack… Or even the Deep Mist (which causes a dinosaur to crash into the plane)… Or any other cosm card that adds complications, then I may switch to the lakten attack.

I think that Colonel Chavez's death is a handy reference for how dangerous the war is. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a plot point tied to this, but I wouldn't expect one either. I think here you might be too harsh since I feel this is good background effects, though your suggestions of duplicity does add more drama. I may use your dying hardpoint idea for the holdouts. That hasn't been explored much, and I like the plot elements of hardpoints forming and dying in the wild.

I appreciate the opportunity to talk this out and provide some suggestions. I personally feel that you could've provided many of the suggestions without the underlying snark, but you already know this isn't going to be a popular post and you're not trying to win popularity points.

I honestly can see running just Acts 1 and 5 and saving the other Acts for storytelling that doesn't rush the Storm Knights to the conclusion. I would like to explore more of flooded Chicago and the Rec Stalek cult. And of course there are all manner of fun stories to tell about Merritika. It wouldn't be the first time I tear apart an adventure to make side quests into main quests.

Re: The God Box review (long, somewhat harsh)

Posted: Tue Jan 08, 2019 11:00 am
by Kuildeous
agarrett wrote: The big question is whether or not it's fixable. I liked your suggestion of making sure the players know what they're chasing from the beginning. A big point I'd change is to remove Baruk Kaah's support for all this - Malacrys thinks she'll surprise him with this, but he would (if he knew about it) strongly oppose her because he actually is a devoted follower of Lanala. That would help a lot with the reason the Darkness Device doesn't take care of things, and also make Kaah's appearance at the end less of a useless dunce move.


I like the idea of Malacrys surprising him. Maybe she's not even certain if it'll work. That has a Raiders of the Lost Ark feel; they didn't take the Ark straight to the Fuhrer. If she presents him with the God Box, and it doesn't do what she thinks, then she risks getting eviscerated for wasting Kaah's time.

One problem I have with Kaah being present in both Act 1 and Act 5 is that there is a cosm card that literally summons him. It's only a 17% chance, but that's quite high. Imagine him showing up in Act 1 with the Storm Knights bringing the refugees to the boat. Everyone should run, and that means letting the refugees likely scatter into the jungle and probably will get killed. And that's just weird to play the card in Act 5. Honestly, that card is thematic as hell, but if you're running any published adventure with edeinos in it, have a Plan B ready in case one of your players draws this card (not if they choose to play it, which they can't even do that). It is a game-changer indeed.

So will I remove Kaah from the story? Probably will remove him from Act 1. Aside from the overheard conversation, his presence is not necessary. Maybe someone will draw the cosm card where he shows up anyway. I might remove him from Act 5, though his presence is pretty damn cool. I might do away with the bus though. Let Kaah show up and start murdering Storm Knights. They should have plenty of cards in their pool to survive. It greatly raises the stakes. The only downside I can think of is if the Drama deck is shuffled in a way that a step is perpetually missing, even with copious uses of Seize Initiative. If the DSR continues on for 12 rounds, then that's a lot of damage done by Kaah.

Re: The God Box review (long, somewhat harsh)

Posted: Tue Jan 08, 2019 11:10 am
by TorgHacker
Kuildeous wrote:
I appreciate the opportunity to talk this out and provide some suggestions. I personally feel that you could've provided many of the suggestions without the underlying snark, but you already know this isn't going to be a popular post and you're not trying to win popularity points.



I started reading the review to see if there was some constructive criticism that would be useful in the future...but when I realized how sarcastic the commentary was going to be I stopped.

Just a PSA for those who want to write reviews here. You're perfectly free to criticize, but if you expect me (or other creators) to read it, writing it in a sarcastic fashion is counterproductive to that goal.

Re: The God Box review (long, somewhat harsh)

Posted: Tue Jan 08, 2019 11:35 am
by fougerec
A counterpoint having run the first Act.

This is obviously a starting adventure right down to things like "give the characters a chance to introduce themselves"

The module starts with the players being sent to Fort Washington by plane, but the plane crashes in the Living Land. Now there’s a reason so many rpg modules employ a flying vehicle crash in hostile territory as a plot device – this goes back at least as far as Volturnus: Planet of Mystery from 1982


Yes it's a trope. A trope in a game that is clearly meant to be cinematic in nature.

Hang on, I just want to jump back a bit here. Before the plane sets off Sebastian Quinn, the uber-NPC more powerful than a High Lord who can melt Baruk Kaah solo, does two things. He gives the PCs a special encoded plastic tablet cum ID card thing to prove they are official agents of the Delphi Council because paper ones would be no good in the Living Land, and he also tells them that their contact is Colonel Chavez. Remember these plot points for later.


There's no indication anywhere that Quinn is that potent (quite the opposite actually based on the abilities listed as Omega Clearance in the Primer) nor is there any indication that the ID tablet is important to the plot nor that Chavez is. It's ID and a contact. Simple as that. I know my group attached absolutely no importance to them beyond just that - ID and contact name.

Back to the story. The players are not piloting the plane, even if they happen to be qualified pilots with super-powers, nor does the plane have guns or anything, because this module is a total railroad job and the plane needs to crash to get them to the next scripted scene. Absolutely nothing critical to the plot is going to happen between when the plane crashes and when they get to Fort Washington on foot, it is all just filler and nothing bad would happen if the players outflew the dino and landed the plane safely. So there is no reason not to have allowed the PCs to fly the plane that I can see.


My understanding was that the plane is dropping off the PCs and then doing other things. Hard to do that without an NPC pilot. I had the PCs (other than the Tharkoldian with Sensation Supressors) black out from simple depressurization and Gs. Normal people can handle about 5gs the plane can reasonably expect to pull 6-8, more than enough to cause someone to black out without actual damage.

As for filler; fights in Torg Eternity, especially lower powered ones, serve to let the players manipulate their cards and pick up possibilities for later encounters. Even the flight against the Lakten, properly described is tense but not dangerous. I used the thrashing of the beast to cause the plane to start to fall so there was more impetus on getting out of the plane and away before the whole thing came crashing down.

Anyway, here things get timey-wimey because when the players get out of the tree, all of a sudden it is night. The plane left an aircraft carrier at an unspecified time headed for Washington, but it would make sense that it left in the morning. It can’t be all that far from an aircraft carrier off the coast of the USA to Washington. So there is a flight and a crash and a brief fight (that could be ended by one roll by one smart player) and a one hour descent from a tree and… now it is night time. Say what?


It clearly says earlier "An hour or so later the plane banks. In the far distance you see the top of the Washington Monument, lit by a full moon in the darkness." indicating it's night when the plane is flying to Washington.

The module also states that the players can stock up on rations from the crashed plane on Page 13, then immediately afterwards states on Page 14 that they can’t recover Shock damage by resting overnight unless they make a survival test to scrounge for food.


Again the rules fully support not recovering Shock "Shock is recovered immediately after a fight or other stressful situation ends unless the Game
Master feels there’s no opportunity to rest.


demanding they make Survival rolls to forage for food despite the fact they just loaded up at an all-you-can eat military ration buffet

Any GM worth the title wouldn't force the roll when there's the rations. The adventure is assuming that the PCs don't grab the rations. My group didn't. The Aylish folk didn't recognize the value of them and the Tharkoldian was busy using TK to get the group away from the falling plane.

So anyway the PCs then do one Dramatic Skill Resolution to sneak through a field of gospog, which on a failure only leads to a straightforward fight against three mooks per PC, and then they make it to the Fort Washington Base. If it’s night the fight might be a bit harder, if the GM remembers to worry about that kind of thing, but it’s really no big deal.


My PCs are Beta clearance and this encounter scared the crap out of them. There's roughly 48,000 burials in the cemetery so the DSR was more of a chase as the Gospog (who are Mind 7 and Dex 7 thus average and actually smarter than some PCs). It wasn't 12 gospog, it was 12 they could see initially and more coming and more coming and more coming.

You might think that this gospog field right next to Fort Washington would be a plot point too and the players might come back to blow it up, or forewarn the Fort about an incoming gospog swarm or something, but no. Whether they sneak through it or fight their way through it the outcome is exactly the same and nothing happens and the scene is never mentioned again.


Or the PCs can There's nothing saying they can't. Nothing saying the GM can't build on this. I see many, many complaints about lack of options but IMO options don't need to be expressly laid out. If the PCs do decide to do something about it - excellent. If they don't then the GM doesn't need to carry it through.

When they get to Fort Washington they discover their intended contact, Colonel Chavez, got killed two days before and he has been replaced by Major Chandler. This might look or sound like plot. You might think that is a point which will become relevant later, but it is not. Major Chandler is totally on the level, completely competent and Chavez’s death is never referenced again. Their encoded plastic chit thing gets briefly mentioned once and then it too never comes up again.

So the two things that looked like plot points which were established in the first scene turn out to be total red herrings. This is the start of what will become a clear trend: this module has no real plot. It does not establish that you have a plastic chit and that your contact is Colonel Chavez because this will be important later, it just establishes them so that it looks like maybe there is some kind of plotting going on.


I think you're reading more into the two things that was even intended or even mentioned. It's ID and a contact name and nothing more. I think that had either been more important or if the plot revolved around them things would easily be derailed (which is not better than railroading and in many ways worse). I am curious as to why the name of an NPC and an ID chit would be seem to be so important to you?

Things improve very slightly in the second subsection where the PCs go to try to talk a bunch of stranded citizens into taking a boat ride with them back to civilisation, so there is at least something to do besides kill things by rolling dice. The problem that the PCs need to solve is that some of the citizens have transformed and will pop like a soap bubble if they return to a Core Earth dominant zone. It’s a bit odd that an Outstanding success on talking to the group of civilians means all the transformed ones get talked into tagging along to their probable deaths, I am not sure that’s what ethical Storm Knights would try to do, but at least it sets up that the PCs need to pull off a Glory result before they get home to prevent their NPCs popping. But seeing as the outbound trip was a milk run, I think it’s a bit metagamey for PCs to think they’ll be pulling off a Glory on the way home.


It's one of those things that the characters need to weigh - can they actually bring everyone? Do they want to run the risk? In our case the PCs had gotten a Glory during the DSR chase through the cemetary so they managed to tell that tale to the survivors and fill them with hope.

As an aside, this section does bring up a recurring bugbear of mine, that the ETorg writers have never all been on the same page about how the hell disconnecting and transforming and whatnot works for average citizens. In the Living Land Day One module almost everyone seemed to have disconnected or transformed within minutes of the Living Land taking over New York, pretty much, except for a handful of NPCs who happen to be standing right next to PCs.


This is an issue but reality is weird. Things often transform at speed of plot. I don't think that's likely to change, so it's up to GMs to do things how we need to.

Also I am being a bit picky here but in the Living Land Day One adventure a river boat exposed to Living Land axioms and World Laws starts rusting and falling apart within minutes and the PCs have to hustle to get it to the side of the river before it falls apart, even if they have become possibility-rated and are piloting the boat. Whereas in this adventure they can happily sail a 112-foot boat up and down a river in the Living Land without any difficulties at all except for a cosmetic issue where it takes two tries to start the motor.


Again...speed of plot. Maybe nothing happens, maybe a player plays "Law of Decay" and chooses to have it affect the boat because it makes better story. In our game the PCs know that if they are present then their reality semi-protects things they use. So it became a race against time to leave the boat, get to the survivors, persuade them to come and get back before their boat transformed. For the apartment complex, I simply had a small talisman tucked away in there to make the complex a mixed zone. Easy as that.

I skipped over the stuff on the way back because it simply wasn't germane to the story we were telling. By this point the PCs had been pushing for close to 24 hours and I knew there was more to come.

When they get back to the military base the players get offered shots to protect them against Living Land parasites, and a big deal is made about how the shots might be risky for non-Core-Earth PCs. Maybe it would have made more sense to give the PCs these shots before they were sent into the steaming, alien jungle to fight dinosaurs in a muddy river? But as you can probably already tell “logic” and “causality” are concepts that the module authors appear to struggle with. Of course absolutely nothing happens either way whether or not anybody takes the shots. This is yet another fake decision point. It would have been trivial to include some consequences for this decision later on, so that this Chekov’s Gun actually fires, but this module is shooting blanks.


Assuming the GM read it ahead of time then it's easy enough to play up this behavior. This is like the third time Billy has shown up in our game and each time he's always super keen to inoculate the PCs before and after the go into a cosm.

Baruk Kaah himself shows up, but off-screen. To establish clearly that he is the Big Bad of the module and that he is a nigh-unstoppable juggernaut of bestial strength and supernatural power, he gets taken out offscreen by random unnamed Ord marine with a rocket launcher. The player characters hear about this exciting development over the radio. Baruk Kaah’s days of being a standing joke are definitely coming to a middle.


I dunno. My beta clearance PCs (who had directly encountered him several weeks before) were like...sweet...so now he's just pissed off when hearing about the rocket strike. They have a super healthy respect for his capabilities. Other groups perhaps not, but it's how the GM sells the description. Did he take the rocket hit and disappear or did he take the hit, smile at the attacker wipe some dirt off and get back on his dino? The adventure isn't clear on what happens to him.


At this point the plot proper starts with the news that Bridezilla, I mean Malacryx, and a bunch of edeinos have made off with the MacGuffin from the museum. Major Chandler orders the players go after them, possibly followed by an NPC, Scarlett, who will insist on tagging along, and as far as I can tell that one NPC is the only bit of the plot far which has any effect on the rest of the story. So all this stuff has just been a sort of bloated teaser, with a few fake decision points and almost no real ones. However you would be overly optimistic if you thought that Scarlett would ever be mentioned again. Ever. The module never talks about how she might react to any future events, she doesn’t even get a stat block or a picture, she is a non-entity.


I just grabbed the Realm Runner sheet and voila, instant NPC. My PCs weren't overly concerned about the theft, they were concerned about the NPCs they'd gotten to know. Give your players a push with what matters to them.

The portal is a spooky evil tree-portal powered by the souls of trapped humans - ew! So it would have been an interesting moral problem if the PCs had to make sure the tree was fully stocked and powered up to go through the portal, maybe have to persuade or force an NPC into its spooky evil nightmare-pods, or punch out enemy edeinos and use them as portal fuel. That would be in keeping with making use of an evil Orrorshan reality-warping tree. But that doesn’t happen, they can apparently rescue people from the tree but the portal still works just fine long enough to get them to the next scene. Moral dilemma avoided!


Again, depends on how you present things to them. My group didn't know if the people were a power source or not and decided they didn't want to risk not being able to follow and rescue people so they decided to leave the people in the pods (greater good). The PCs should have no idea what happens if they rescue people or if they don't. Mine made a choice they need to live with.

As you read ton you might eventually start to wonder why Bridezilla has to go through this massive rigmarole she has just begun of taking the God Box through Portal A to the Land Below, then through hell and high water in the Land Below to get to Portal B, which takes her to Chicago where she has more grief in getting to Portal C, which finally gets her to her destination D.


There's no indication that Rec Pakken is involved until much later (after the fight in Chicago), at this point the sidebar indicates that the trees are connected to Heketon so I used that. So Heketon reroutes that portal (because why would it want another High Lord to gain more power) and also sends the PCs to the same place. Start laying the seeds that the Darkness Devices are sentient and have their own agendas. The portal in Merritika isn't controlled by a darkness device and when Malacryx gets to the one in Chicago Rec Pakken is aware and in control.

For that matter Bridezilla is a massively powerful boss monster who is accompanied by a dozen Handmaidens who are well-hard, optimised, possibility-rated bitches in their own right each of whom could give a combat-oriented player character a run for their money in a one on one fight. They are right next to Baruk Kaah’s army with nothing but their jungle home between them and wherever else they want to get to. Why are they in such a hurry to run away from the PCs that they are taking a one-way trip through the Land Below.


There's no indication that she intended to go to Merritika. There's no indication that the trip there is part of her plan. She doesn't do anything there other than try to find a way out. The portal she finds takes her to Chicago and the first thing she does is find the Dimthread Tree to get to Mexico (again) with the assistance of Rec Pakkenr. At no point is there an indication that she didn't try to just portal from Washington to Mexico...just things didn't go her way. Why walk to Chicago when there's no indication that the portal isn't going to work? She has no foreknowledge (unless the GM is metagaming and playing her with access to information she does not have)

And yes a PC can slow down a powerful opponent. Between cards and possibilities and perks things are weighted towards the PCs generally. Sure they'll have to be smart but it's not outside the realm of possibility (heh). Hell I had one PC get close to 60 in damage one game. There is a reason Stormers and High Lords are wary of Storm Knights.

Re: The God Box review (long, somewhat harsh)

Posted: Tue Jan 08, 2019 12:17 pm
by TorgHacker
Kuildeous wrote:
One problem I have with Kaah being present in both Act 1 and Act 5 is that there is a cosm card that literally summons him. It's only a 17% chance, but that's quite high. Imagine him showing up in Act 1 with the Storm Knights bringing the refugees to the boat. Everyone should run, and that means letting the refugees likely scatter into the jungle and probably will get killed. And that's just weird to play the card in Act 5. Honestly, that card is thematic as hell, but if you're running any published adventure with edeinos in it, have a Plan B ready in case one of your players draws this card (not if they choose to play it, which they can't even do that). It is a game-changer indeed.



Something I wish we'd mentioned in the Core Book, and <checks FAQ>...

...and now it's part of the FAQ.

Q: Can the GM play with just a subset of Cosm cards, or must the deck include all of them?

A: If the GM wishes she can certainly 'stack the deck' by including the cards she wishes. In fact, in certain adventures that automatically include aspects that the cosm cards deal with it's highly recommended that you do in fact, leave certain cards out. For instance, I wouldn't include Eyes of the Saar from the Living Land Booster Deck if Baruk Kaah was going to feature in the upcoming adventure, or include You Don’t Look So Good, Outbreak and Is That a Bite? Pan-Pacifica Cosm cards in an adventure that highlights the Infected or where they wouldn't make sense.

Re: The God Box review (long, somewhat harsh)

Posted: Tue Jan 08, 2019 12:41 pm
by Greymarch2000
I've been manipulating the Cosm decks in a variety of wayswith my group (especially since I use expanded decks). My fav thing so far is letting players draw additional cards with a reality skill check but still only getting to choose 1one to keep.

You could also rule that if that card shows Kaah arriving when he's already there just powers him up or makes him make the person who played that card his #1 priority. You don't always have to follow exactly what the card says.

As for the review, well as someone who wasn't in any way involved in making the adventure I found it to be a fun read. But I can see why US staff would be less... enthused about it. I do find the adventure very Railroady, but sometimes that's what groups like.

I agree with some of the points brought up, think some of the others are a bit overblown. I'm sure this thread will be a wild ride though!

Re: The God Box review (long, somewhat harsh)

Posted: Tue Jan 08, 2019 1:09 pm
by Kuildeous
TorgHacker wrote:A: If the GM wishes she can certainly 'stack the deck' by including the cards she wishes. In fact, in certain adventures that automatically include aspects that the cosm cards deal with it's highly recommended that you do in fact, leave certain cards out. For instance, I wouldn't include Eyes of the Saar from the Living Land Booster Deck if Baruk Kaah was going to feature in the upcoming adventure, or include You Don’t Look So Good, Outbreak and Is That a Bite? Pan-Pacifica Cosm cards in an adventure that highlights the Infected or where they wouldn't make sense.


This is true, but I hate trimming the deck. But that's a me problem.

But if I follow that advice, that would make Aysle a little less stagnant if I don't plan to include any courts and players draw the courtly cards.

It's also why I like changing cosms mid-act. Even if they go into a hardpoint. Cosm cards that interest the players will usually get played early on, and the cosm change lets them ditch their current card and draw a new one. Admittedly, that has its own problem as not every unplayed card is an unwanted card.