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Review RPG Codex Review: Torment: The Explorer's Guide

Crooked Bee

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Tags: Monte Cook; Numenera; Torment: The Explorer's Guide; Torment: Tides of Numenera

As a PC RPG focused website, it's been a while since we covered anything PnP. The last prominent instance of that, I believe, was our 2014 review of Monte Cook Games's Numenera, on which the upcoming Torment: Tides of Numenera by inXile is based. Well, recently, Monte Cook Games contacted us to see if we were interested in reviewing Torment: The Explorer's Guide, a PnP sourcebook accompanying the video game and exploring the same region of the Ninth World.

Given that Tides of Numenera is a game a lot of people here are looking forward to, it shouldn't come as a surprise that we agreed to review the new sourcebook. Thankfully, esteemed community member and everyone's favorite Pillars of Eternity reviewer Prime Junta agreed to help us with that, and was prompt enough to write up his impressions that we are publishing this on the day the review embargo has been lifted.

Too bad he didn't really like the book much, though, aside from the Bloom. Here are a couple of snippets from the review:

Torment: The Explorer’s Guide is a pen-and-paper sourcebook which describes the setting for inXile Entertainment’s upcoming Planescape: Torment successor. It’s about Greater Garravia, a region around an inland sea beyond the Beyond (a region described in the Numenera corebook). Monte Cook Games made it clear to us that it is not a strategy guide, hintbook, or supplement for the cRPG; rather, it is intended for game masters who want to run pen-and-paper campaigns in the Last Castoff’s footprints.

Sagus Cliffs, the location of the Torment: Tides of Numenera beta, is present in faithful detail in the state it is in before the Last Castoff’s arrival on the scene. The maps and many of the illustrations are plucked directly from the computer game or its concept art. Aligern, Callistege, Tybir, Fulsom, Imbitu, and many other major and minor characters from the game make their appearance. The Guide outlines their behaviour, background, and motivations, and even side quests pop up in “Hearsay” blurbs, although they are presented as adventure hooks only, rather than full-blown quest lines. There isn’t much in the Guide that’s not present, one way or another, in the game – and the game has a good deal of detail the Guide does not cover at all. [...]

With one notable exception, all these locations are standard Numenera fare, not all that different from Guran, Stirthal, or any of the others in the Corebook, although written out in greater detail. They are colourful and filled to the brim with random weirdness, but have little by way of internal logic or coherence, let alone a sense of history or place beyond a general “atmosphere” helpfully described in margin notes. [...] The one area where the Guide rises above its general level of all spice, no curry is the Bloom: a city-sized transdimensional predator inching its way along a ravine near Sagus Cliffs. Thought has gone into what the Bloom is, what it wants, what its capabilities and limitations are, and how it relates to the beings inhabiting and surrounding it. It has some of the internal logic so sorely lacking in the rest of the setting, and consequently the characters and factions in it are much more engaging and relatable than anywhere else. The Memovira is more than just a crimelord in fancy armour. The Bloom cultists and their lost prophet Chila are more than just another robe-wearing victim-sacrificing evil cult. The deranged, damaged, or changed human wrecks circulating in the Bloom’s bowels are more than just local colour. The Bloom shows that an imaginative world-builder can take the random bits and pieces of weird scattered around the Ninth World and make something genuinely exciting out of them. [...]

Other than the relatively unproblematic descriptors and foci, the translation of cRPG gameplay into pen-and-paper form has not been altogether successful. One of the most notable features of Castoffs is their extreme resilience and rapid healing. The Guide mentions this in the description, but provides no mechanical explanation of its gameplay effects, leaving that entirely to the GM to arbitrate. Instead, it introduces a Tidal Surge mechanic which triggers whenever the Castoff takes damage: the Surge passes some of that damage to someone else in some particular form, fixed on character creation. One castoff might cause a selected enemy to go blind, another might cause him to get stunned, or run away in fear, or take extra Intellect damage. This is shallow and repetitive, an automatically-applied awesome-button mechanic requiring no thought to use, and which will get boring fast – more so if playing with a full party of Castoffs.

Worse, however, is the Tides mechanic as described in the Guide. [...] The mechanic, in other words, requires the GM to be so intimately familiar with what each of the Tides is that he can award and track Tidal points on the fly, without interrupting the flow of the action or conversation, and the outcome is a vaguely-defined “reputation” plus something which allows attuned players to awesome-button every single tidally-conformant action with pyrotechnic critical successes every time. This, in a game explicitly intended to be as fluid, low-accounting, and low-arithmetic as possible, and one where most actions are already trivialised through the Effort and Recovery mechanics. Both the awarding/bookkeeping and eventual and occasional scripted results of tidal affinity can work perfectly well in a computer game, but defined this way for pen-and-paper… really, people, did you even playtest this?​

Ouch. I believe George Ziets was involved with the computer game version of the Bloom, so I wonder if his designs influenced how it's portrayed in the sourcebook too - and why it stands out compared to other locations.

Anyway, be sure to read the full review: RPG Codex Review: Torment: The Explorer's Guide
 

Fry

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Oof.

Hated Shame. Hated The Tin Drum. One of these days I'll try to read a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel and will probably hate that, too.
 

felipepepe

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Great review. :salute:

Honestly, that Monte Cook quote already reads like a huge warning signal. Just "make it weird" is as shallow as world-building can be... Gamma World was based on random crazy shit, but that game was designed to be random, almost as a PnP roguelike or Binding of Isaac-like game, with random mutation tables and all that.

A word-heavy, story-oriented game in a "LOL, SO RANDOM" setting where there are no grounding rules will have to rely more on wow factor & weird twists than in PS:T's subversion. :/
 

Crooked Bee

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Poor Monte Cook Games. Certainly gave the copy expecting something neutral-positive, considering the reviewer.

They didn't know who the reviewer was going to be. Alex's Numenera review was fairly neutral and perhaps even fairly positive, though.
 

Ismaul

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Good review. :salute:

What were they thinking, porting the Tides to PnP like that?

Tracking and awarding one type of RP/reward token already breaks the flow of conversation, I don't imagine what it's like when you have to choose which one applies best from the five tides.
 

alphyna

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What a bloody shame.

I've tried the TToN beta, and the most pressing question to me was whether the problems the characters face and questions they strive to answer ever reach absolute, cosmic scale like they did in PST. You didn't just try to puzzle out and decide the fate of The Nameless One; it was intertwined with the structure and even fate of the world itself. TNO's story was actually the story of a man trying to topple the laws of the Multiverse, and the game ends with him submitting to them, thus making all your hours of exploration worth it (you learning about all that shit emulates TNO coming to realize submitting is the way to go). That made the world personal and your own persona grander (since anyone who tries to fight the laws of nature becomes more than a man—after a fashion).

I dunno about the TToN team, but to me that is a core part of the "Torment Experience©™®". If the setting is shallow, we'll get a cool and perhaps touching/epic C&C game, not a Torment spiritual successor. Which is a bloody shame.
 

MRY

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I haven't read the book and haven't actually played most of the game, but I'm not surprised that the setting doesn't seem entirely coherent when you rip out the focal point around which the setting was constructed. In more sandboxy games, the setting should stand alone, but in narrative games, the setting really should exist to reinforce the themes, which, in an egocentric narrative like Torment's, are personal themes to the player character. Trying to depersonalize the setting for stand-alone adventure is like, I dunno, a Gotham City P&P RPG book in which you play as generic heroes other than Batman et al.

Also:
4-Torment_2011-01-30_21-09-57-73.png


maxresdefault.jpg


Two legs bad, six legs good! :D
 
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I haven't read the book and haven't actually played most of the game, but I'm not surprised that the setting doesn't seem entirely coherent when you rip out the focal point around which the setting was constructed. In more sandboxy games, the setting should stand alone, but in narrative games, the setting really should exist to reinforce the themes, which, in an egocentric narrative like Torment's, are personal themes to the player character. Trying to depersonalize the setting for stand-alone adventure is like, I dunno, a Gotham City P&P RPG book in which you play as generic heroes other than Batman et al.

Also:
4-Torment_2011-01-30_21-09-57-73.png


maxresdefault.jpg


Two legs bad, six legs good! :D

I have wondered a little - given sigil's status as a city of portals to other dimensions - whether they're going to make a different setting, but then do a SS2 style twist connection to PS:T. I doubt that they'll go quite that far, but an ambiguous 'Randall Flagg' type connection between a character in each game would be ok.
 

Prime Junta

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It's a missed opportunity. I was especially disappointed in M'ra Jolios because the premise is kind of neat and I really dug the concept art that's been presented. They could've explored that premise, but at least as presented in the book, the underwater thing is just more "make that six legs" weird.
 

Prime Junta

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It's a missed opportunity. I was especially disappointed in M'ra Jolios because the premise is kind of neat and I really dug the concept art that's been presented. They could've explored that premise, but at least as presented in the book, the underwater thing is just more "make that six legs" weird.

Can you explain the "God of Diversity and Inclusiveness"?

That's about all they say about him/her/it. Quoting:


The Ghibra more properly call themselves the Ghibra Ny’kul (“the children of Ny’kul”) after their most prominent god. The legends of Ny’kul praise him as the most accepting god, one who celebrates diversity in all forms, and the Ghibra see themselves as living proof.
 

Prime Junta

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(FWIW I'm allergic to transparent allegories, especially ones with political/religious/didactic intent, perhaps even more so if the politics align with mine.)
 
Self-Ejected

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"Celebrating diversity in all forms" seems like an appropriate creed in a setting like Numenera.
 

Prime Junta

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It's all about how it's done. Ursula K. LeGuin for example made dark skin the default in the Earthsea books, and you won't even notice unless you pay attention. It just manifests in little things, like the Kargad invaders specifically described as light-skinned. Alastair Reynolds also pulled this off nicely in the Poseidon's Children trilogy. It flows naturally.

Or to take examples from computer games -- BioWare did it really badly in DA:I, where the physiognomies were just a random mix that made no kind of sense, and you ended up with unintentionally unfortunate characters like Vivienne, the pro-police-violence black lady. Pillars OTOH did it pretty well -- people from different regions had different skin tones as well as physical and cultural features, it was a bit different than how it is IRL, and some of the implications were actually explored in depth, for example the status of legally male, sterile godlike in a society with somewhat-defined gender roles. I.e. you'd have to be a fairly raging MRA/racist to get upset at black Vailians or brother Pallegina (although of course lots of people did).

Numenera is variably clumsy about this. It deals with gender and sexual diversity pretty well; there are queer/gay/trans/whatever people around but they're just there, they don't go "look muh homosexual!" about it. They're much clumsier about race; almost all of the art in the Corebook f.ex. presents as white, but they say that actually everybody's mostly a sort of middle brown and there aren't any race relations there at all, but then they do a U-turn and put in a location that's a painfully transparent allegory of race relations complete with slavery. I suspect that's because the main authors are white upper/middle-class American liberals who usually have a really hard time addressing race and therefore prefer to find ways to tiptoe around it or pretend it doesn't exist/isn't significant/they don't see it; hence the compromise "middle brown."
 

FeelTheRads

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there are queer/gay/trans/whatever people around but they're just there, they don't go "look muh homosexual!" about it.

I may be affected by you know being part of the Codex, but it seemed to me that 1 out 3 NPCs were described as being one. And I swear every town/village/2-shack settlement was being lead by a strong independent woman.

But I am afraid it's just my Codex conditioning.
 

Athelas

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A word-heavy, story-oriented game in a "LOL, SO RANDOM" setting where there are no grounding rules will have to rely more on wow factor & weird twists than in PS:T's subversion. :/

I thought you loved Undertale?

I don't think T:ToN is intended to have the same deconstructionist angle as PS:T - you can't deconstruct what's already been deconstructed, after all. Hopefullly, it will have some new narrative device of its own.
 
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Crooked Bee

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There is a difference between a comedic JRPG-like (that actually does have a deconstructionist angle to boot) and a supposedly serious RPG setting, though.
 

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