Thursday, July 26, 2012

RPG System Review: Torg

Greetings, readers! This week, I’m taking a look at a somewhat obscure RPG from the 90’s that took on some ambitious goals—and in many ways represents an innovative step in roleplaying game design. I’m talking about the boxed set containing cyberpunks, barbarian warriors, dinosaurs and superheroes… ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the game known as Torg.

Cyberpunks and Priests. This is actually just one realm in Torg.

Created by West End Games in 1990, Torg is a cinematic, multi-genre roleplaying game from the talented pens of Greg Gordon and Bill Slavicsek. Torg is an acronym for “The Other Roleplaying Game,” and its original presentation was as a boxed set that included rulebooks, a “possibility shard” that was in fact an oddly colored D20, and a “drama deck” of cards (more on these later). Also included in the box was an advertisement for the Infiniverse magazine, a periodical of in-universe information for Torg that promised to track and include the progress of a campaign through “rumors” in the magazine that would be confirmed or denied. This system made use of a response form to tell West End Games what happened during your campaign.

What is it all about?

Yeah, it's kind of like that.

In “the near now,” Earth has been invaded by a number of other dimensions, each ruled by a “High Lord.” The High Lords have changed the natural laws wherever their reign rules supreme, and large areas of the planet have transformed to match the invading reality. The player characters are “Storm Knights,” special people from Earth and the invading dimensions who are gifted with a limited ability to affect “possibility energy,” a rich field that envelops Earth and interacts with all of the invading dimensions. The Storm Knights oppose many of the High Lords and the plans of one in particular, the evil Gaunt Man.

For the rest of the review, click to follow after the jump! 

In my opinion, the most distinct and interesting things about Torg were its setting and its system.

The Setting

Pseudo-Victorian gothic colonialism Horror is just one of many, many parts of the setting.

Torg's Wikipedia article does a better job than I can explaining the various “cosms” that have invaded Earth in Torg, but I will single out a few to mention here that I found to be interesting or unusual.

The Cyberpapacy: This realm is bound to raise some eyebrows with its very concept, and it can definitely make some folks uncomfortable with its portrayal of a pre-reformation—meaning /very/ corrupt and immoral—Catholic Church.

The Nile Empire: This realm rocks, period! The authors of the game are obviously fans of pulp adventure, and it shows through in many places. Not just the Nile Empire, either: Orrorsh, the Land Below, and (of course) Terra are all very pulp-y and flavorful.

The Nile Empire has some really great character archetypes, from the Amazon to the Rocket Ranger, and I heartily endorse it as my personal favorite realm—both to adventure in and to build characters from.

Tharkold: This is a really interesting mashup of the Terminator and Hellraiser… and definitely the kind of place I don’t think you’d be able to find anywhere else. While it is not as interesting to me personally as the Nile Empire, it is still a cool idea and worth checking out.

The System

One notable thing about the Torg system is that it strongly encourages a cinematic approach. Game sessions are divided into Acts and Scenes, for example, and the ways that characters interact with the world are intended to be more epic than a typical roleplaying game. Keep in mind that the following is a very basic overview and that my own experience has been limited to just a few games so far!

D20 and Result: To resolve actions in Torg, you roll a D20 and consult a simple chart. Low numbers on the roll give you penalties, high rolls on the chart grant bonuses. Applying these to the base attribute or skill produced your result. The D20 is rolled again if the player rolls a 10 or a 20, meaning that very high results are possible. The value of a skill is directly added to an attribute for this purpose.

The "possibility shard" d20.

Here’s an example: Rex Steele is trying to hit a cultist serving the evil Dr. Mobius. Rex’s Dexterity is 10 and his Unarmed Combat skill is 3. Rex rolls a d20 and gets a result of 14, which is a +1 result on the chart. Adding the +1 to Rex’s Dexterity and Unarmed Combat gives him a total of 14, which is higher than the cultist’s Dodge. The cultist is roundly struck by the Rocket Ranger’s fist.

Possibilities: The idea of Possibilities is interesting; these represent the Storm Knight’s ability to affect reality. A player can spend a possibility to enhance his roll, giving him an additional roll of the d20 and adding it to his previous roll to find the result on the chart (for example, Rex Steele in the above example spends a possibility when attacking the cultist. Rex rolls an additional d20 and gets a result of 9. Rex adds the 9 to the 13 that he previously rolled for a total of 22. Comparing that number to the chart shows that Rex would get a +8 modifier. Adding that to his Dexterity of 10 and Unarmed Combat of 3 means that Rex’s total result would be 21.).

Characters start the game with a number of possibilities (typically 10) and are awarded more at the end of each game session. Spent Possibilities are gone forever.

Unfortunately, Torg also says that Possibilities are your experience points. Player characters spend possibilities to increase their abilities and attributes over time. 

What is cool is that characters can learn and grow in interesting ways. A mage from Aysle can learn Kung fu. A priest from Orrorsh can learn computer hacking skills. A superhero from the Nile Empire can learn to cast spells. Gaining abilities like this is not cheap, but it is possible!

Characters from the Nile Empire with superpowers were required to spend a number of Possibilities (typically 3) every session to keep their powers working. I’m not a fan of this approach. At all.

Many of the named bad guys (the more important and dramatic foes that you encounter during a session) can spend possibilities as well, and doing so is the only way they can re-roll a low result. However, possibilities can be spent to oppose each other, essentially cancelling each other out. Therefore, a character may spend a possibility to stop a hated foe from re-rolling a low result, or vice versa.

Actions:  In keeping with the cinematic nature of the game, Torg allows all characters to do much more than simply attack an enemy in combat. Other Actions that any kind of character can take include Maneuver (Move yourself or someone else, shift positions, etc.), Trick (get someone to do something you want them to do), Test of Wills (attempt to get an opponent to flee or surrender), Taunt, or Intimidate. These abilities are further incentivized by the Drama Deck (see below), where characters are offered a bonus if they perform the specific action called for on the card.

The Drama Deck: One of the most controversial elements of Torg’s system is a deck of cards known as the Drama Deck. These cards are multipurpose; not only do they determine who goes first in combat (either the heroes—the PCs—or the villains), they determine various effects that occur in combat (such as Setbacks) and offer players a number of options that they can play during combat to enhance their own abilities (such as cards that offer extra actions or bonuses). 

When the Drama Deck is being used to determine initiative, it also offers a selection of actions (see above) that are given a bonus; if the player performs one of the actions during that round of combat, he can draw an additional card from the deck into his hand. Thus, if the card is turned over at the beginning of the combat has “Maneuver/Trick” on it, players are incentivized to use those actions that round. 

Personally, I really like the Drama Deck, as it makes combat interesting and constantly provides something fresh to work with in every part of the fight.

Realities and Cosms: The rulebook also contains some really interesting rules for how the various cosms work; each one has their own “realm laws” that change the way things work when in that reality. On top of that, there are ways for groups of Storm Knights to use their abilities to affect reality, create “possibility shards” to help stabilize their own individual realms, and even carry a portable piece of a certain reality around with them.

In Addition: The game handles separate rules for miracles of faith, magic spells, cybernetics, and superpowers. Later on, psionics were also added.

A Troubled History


Alas, poor Infiniverse... a great idea brought low before its time. I seem to be saying that a lot lately.

Torg had some limited success in the market, but was held back by a number of issues. One of the most notable issues involved the writing of the rules system—while the system itself was sound, the descriptions of how things worked had been left at a very technical stage and there was no time allotted to edit it into something more easily understood. Some sources claim that Torg was rushed into production to compete with Palladium Books’ Rifts game that came out at roughly the same time.

It has been said that one of the common sayings is that if you could send Greg Gordon to every gamer’s house who purchased Torg to run it for them, the game would have been a huge success… this concept was called “Greg-in-a-box.”

Unfortunately, the game ground to a halt only a few years later. Infiniverse floundered, and the game did not take any advantage of the birth of the internet.

A company known as Omni Gaming Products released a new issue of Infiniverse as part of their attempt to relaunch the game, but the attempt failed.

West End Games announced in 2004 that they were interested in and working on a new edition of Torg, but despite promises that the game would be revealed at Gen Con 2006, nothing has actually been produced for a Torg “2.0.”

The Good

Just about anything is possible in Torg!
Torg’s setting and mechanics are, in my opinion, inspirational and revelatory. The Drama Deck is exciting and unique, and the die roll mechanic is a blend of Savage Worlds and D20, with a simple and elegant resolution mechanic.

The game’s focus on cinematics encourages imaginative combat scenes with lots of action and creative stunts.

The system as a whole strikes me as one that is surprisingly rules-light while providing plenty of depth.

The setting is intriguing and presents so many options that it is hard to find something that doesn’t give you a few adventure ideas just on a casual read. In addition, many of the settings (especially the Nile Empire and Tharkold) are quite cool and unlike anything else out there in the RPG industry.

The idea of your character using the universal laws of various dimensions and taking advantage of his own ability to affect reality is especially cool and distinct, and I definitely feel that this is a great game to study as a game designer for some interesting and unusual twists on the normal RPG experience.

The Bad

The way the rules of Torg are written, they are difficult to understand and are not very well explained—a good editing pass and some additional playtesting would have really helped, but in my opinion the rules sections should be entirely re-written with an eye towards clarity and ease of use.

I feel that Torg failed to capitalize on many of the unique opportunities of its setting. A good example is the Victorian-Horror realm of Orrorsh. While you can play a vampyre or a werewolf, some additional attention to playing as monsters (like Frankenstein’s monster) or monster hunters (perhaps in the same style as Solomon Kane) would have really added a great deal of flavor. In the same vein, I think it is good that the realm of Aysle exists in the setting, but I found it extremely difficult to motivate myself to play a traditional fantasy adventurer with all of the other options that are available.

Each Cosm has different ratings in Technology, Spirituality, Magic, and Culture. Generally speaking, if you try to use an item, skill, or ability that has a higher rating than the cosm you are currently in, it has trouble working or may fail to function at all. Therefore, using high-tech gear in the Living Land (which is primitive) or Aysle (which is roughly medieval, much like many fantasy worlds) has a chance to result in failure—the item may disconnect from your home reality or even transform into something more fitting for the cosm you’re in at the time, like a rock or a sword replacing a handgun.

This is generally fine as an idea, but it means that low-tech items remain useful more often than high-tech ones. This means that an Eidinos (lizardmen native to the Living Land) with a stone spear can continue to use his stone spear without too much trouble in nearly every realm. Likewise, a Hospitaller from the Cyberpapacy will find that his power sword, machine gun, and cybernetic implants are far more troublesome to use in nearly every other realm aside from Tharkold. Overall, this means that lower-tech items are more valuable over the long run. Admittedly, this is a bit of a nit-pick, but I feel it is worth mention.

Lastly, I think it is quite a shame that Infiniverse floundered the way that it did, and I wish that the game had more embraced the World Wide Web during its day.

The Ugly

The back side of the Drama Deck cards.
The way that Possibilities act as both a way to boost your abilities in the game and as experience points is a terrible, terrible idea. Punishing players who want to do cool things is a direct refutation of the otherwise cinematic-focused system. Possibilities should be used just as boosts or as ways to interact with the reality rules of each dimension… something completely separate should be earned and used instead as experience points. Otherwise, Drama Cards and the use of Possibilities in-game as boosts become an option that several players—including myself—would simply ignore in favor of developing the character’s own abilities.

Characters with cybernetics are basically screwed right from the start. Oh, cybernetic characters have a lot of built-in advantages; they’re usually better in many ways than other starting characters and have access to very effective gear. Some of the best starting weapons and armor in the game, for example, are available to cybernetic characters.

However, Cybernetic characters have a unique flaw in that they suffer from cyberpsychosis—whenever a card from the drama deck indicates a “setback,” cybernetic characters must make a Spirit test, and the result of that test is compared to the Cyberpsychosis chart. Most of that chart is bad, ranging from suffering minor penalties to being stuck doing nothing for a couple of rounds. Some of the chart is very bad, involving rolls on a systems failure chart (no good results on that one, either) and going bezerk, attacking all other characters for a number of rounds. At the extreme end of the chart (and, admittedly a very unlikely result), the character is removed from play and becomes an NPC. 

The issue here is that Setbacks are very likely to occur around once per game session, and Cybernetic characters don’t really gain any other benefits from having a good Spirit. The Tharkold sourcebook later introduced a skill called Cyberpsyche that could be used in place of a Spirit Test (skills add to characteristics and are generally easier to improve), which did go a ways to help out. Taking into account the technology issues of using higher-tech gear in lower-tech cosms, Cybernetic characters faced significant handicaps compared to other kinds of characters, which is unfortunate given the rich array of character options for cybernetic PCs.

My Torg Experience

My favorite cosm by far.

I bought the boxed game for Torg when it first came out, and I was initially very excited by the game’s promises of cinematic gameplay, multiple genres all crossing over each other, and the living campaign through the Infiniverse magazine.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite figure out how to play the darn game… the rules were written in such a way that I couldn’t grasp what I was supposed to do to make the game work (and this is in the era where I was regularly running Star Wars D6 games, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and Robotech!).

Thus, the box remained unused and forgotten for many years.

Later, I had the honor of working alongside Brian Schomburg at Fantasy Flight Games. Brian had previously been a big part of the art direction at West End Games, and through talking to Brian about many games of mutual interest—amongst them Star Wars D6 and Ghostbusters—Brian brought up the subject of Torg. I hadn’t really thought of the game in years, but after discussing it with Brian, I began to remember some of the more distinct elements of the game and I became interested in it once more.

Unfortunately, Brian and I weren’t able to play Torg during my tenure at FFG, but again Fate stepped in. I was hired at Vigil Games to work with Ed Stark, a luminary of the RPG industry with numerous credits under his belt, including a stint working on Torg.

Ed ran a game of Torg for me that was a twofold landmark moment. It was both the first time I had ever played Torg and the first time I had ever played in an RPG alongside my father. Needless to say, I had a great time, and having played Torg, the mechanics of the game suddenly all made sense.
Since then I have joined another group for a Torg campaign and it is quite enjoyable.

Final Thoughts

I really like Torg. But I do have some issues with the system.

I wish playing a superhero or a cyberpunk didn’t come with so many negatives. I wish that possibilities weren’t also XP. I wish the rule system was easier to understand.

Overall, however, it is an excellent cinematic system for fun, action-filled games. With all the setting material, you can basically play almost any kind of game you want, and I like that there’s a sense that anything can happen. Playing around with the concepts of different rules for each reality is interesting and unique.

People who love RPGs and especially those who enjoy cinematic genres should play Torg to check it out. It is a unique system with a lot to offer even the most jaded gamer. I would love to see a second edition of this system that cleans up the rules and explains them in a much easier to understand way, changes possibilities so they are not your XP, and fixes cyber characters and superheroes to be more playable. I’d love it if a company like Fantasy Flight Games or Catalyst Game Labs would pick up the license for a Torg 2.0 and release a new boxed set of the Possibility Wars.

For more information about Torg, check out these RPG.netreviews.


  1. So it sounds like yet another great setting that suffers form lackluster mechanics.

    If only there were other more friendlier and accessible game systems to use instead.

    Oh wait... ;-)

    1. It's worth checking out for many innovative mechanics that are anything but lackluster--my issues notwithstanding, it's a very interesting game from a design standpoint.

  2. It makes me happy to see this game getting more attention.. Back in 2001, I was at Gencon UK and saw a copy of this game at a charity auction. I remembered seeing a Tharkold supplement back in my gaming infancy, so I picked the game up. After looking through the boxed set, I went a little crazy and bought up every book I could from vendors at the convention. After I got back home to the USA, I went online and completed my collection. And I mean complete. I have every book for the game line, the comic books, and the novels. All I am missing is print copies of the Infiniverse newsletters and a copy of the d20 from the game. Missing the d20 from the game is actually the second most annoying missing item from my game collection (the first begin my missing Changeling: the Dreaming Pooka kithbook).

  3. If anyone here is interested, the latest incarnation of the original Torg discussion group (started in 1990) is now based here ... . We would welcome any one who would want to join us!

    Cheers, Mark.

  4. There was a revised and expanded rulebook released in 2005 that attempted to clarify material and make the mechanics more understandable (that was my goal anyway). A second edition of the game is in the hands of German publisher Ulissis Spiele who bought the game in 2010. Unfortunately since they acquired it there's been nothing more said about it. :(

    1. Thanks for the update, Jim. If there's ever a need for a Torg developer, give me a call. :)

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  6. I have a lot of fond memories of this game. The card system rewarded doing things other than lashing back with your best attack during combat for round after round. It made things feel a lot more cinematic. Nothing has ever replicated it as well - still dust this one off every once in a while and wax nostalgic. And I also loved the mixed-genre setting and the mechanics that went with them.

    Would love to see a TORG 2.0.

    Twitter: @gamermatt64

  7. I ran TORG for a while in the early 90's. I had the Cyberpapacy and Nile Empire sourcebooks, maybe the Living Land one. We found the game mechanics not too difficult to master and worked well enough. (The similar DramaDeck from Maserbooks still sees some use in our gaming group so there are some good ideas there.)

    One drawback was, as mentioned, there was a tendency to ignore higher tech and especially cybertech unless you were going to be concentrating in a couple different geographic areas. It was difficult to sometimes get the local flavours correct before you could Google information and images on locations and cultures. Further, I think we just gave up on all the necessary sourcebooks that needed to be purchased, and the fact they didn't always agree with one another, the published adventures or the core books. (Then again, we eventually played Vampire and Deadlands/Hell on Earth so this problem didn't exactly go away.)

    Rumour had it TORG was primarily intended as a delivery system for selling sourcebooks, which could be churned out in an endless succession. Many other RPGs are that way in some sense, but TORG took it to a new level.