Wednesday, 25 November 2015
The first issue with running a Torchwood game turned out to be the nature of the last two campaigns the group has run - with me as a player, rather than GM. Most recently, we've done Primeval, and before that, Supernatural. There is, let's be honest, a certain theme here, although it wasn't one that was particularly intentional (we'd done Call of Cthulhu and HeroQuest before that). The fact that they're all based on TV shows isn't really an issue, but I felt that the fact that they were all investigators running around the modern world might be if I made it three-in-a-row.
Doctor Who wouldn't have had this problem - alien planets, space stations, trips into history, it's all rather different. But Torchwood ran the risk of, in particular, being Primeval with aliens instead of dinosaurs. It's set in modern Britain, you're agents of at least some sort of vaguely official agency, and so on. Yes, we could have the characters be entirely unofficial remnants of the disbanded organisation, but that makes it more like Supernatural (only set in Britain), so it still didn't feel different enough to me.
The solution: set it in a different historical period.
I considered three options. The 1960s I know a fair bit about, having played in a long-running bulletin-board game set between 1946 and 1970. But if you're going to do the '60s, it's pretty well got to be set in London, where all the cool stuff was happening, and Torchwood One was presumably a big organisation back then, as it was in the 2000s. I wanted the PCs to be the whole of the branch, rather than having a lot of support readily available. So that's out.
World War II also held a lot of promise. It's perfectly easy to justify most of the Torchwood staff being on missions elsewhere across the world, or even having signed up to do something else entirely. So the PCs could be the "Home Front" unit left behind. Except that there'd be a sneaking suspicion that the interesting stuff was going on abroad (where I didn't want to set the game), and the War itself might overshadow the game events. It could work (see Foyle's War, for example), but I felt that it wasn't the best bet.
Which, as is pretty obvious from the title of this post left me with: Torchwood 1890. At this point the organisation has only been going for ten years, so, especially given its low survival rate, it's entirely believable that the London branch consists of just four agents. There is no Cardiff branch yet, and Captain Jack won't be hired for another nine years, so it's an entirely unexplored era. On the other hand, it's far enough in that one can imagine that there has already been some pragmatic employment of less conventional agents, giving the players sufficient leeway to design their characters as they see fit.
The next question is the game system to use. The problem here is that the DWAITAS system is pretty good at doing Doctor Who, but not, to my mind, at much else - even Torchwood, which is set in the same universe. For instance, the combat system is designed to make running down corridors an optimal strategy under most circumstances, and for actual combat to be very much a last resort. And you can whip up high-tech gadgets that do almost anything in a couple of minutes, given no more than a wine bottle, a corkscrew, a couple of napkin rings, and an upturned ashtray.
Torchwood isn't really like that, although the Sarah Jane Adventures kind of is. Even Star Trek, which has the on-the-spot-technobabble, has less of the running about. One could cut those bits of the rules out, as the Primeval RPG does, but that creates problems of its own. Any generic system should be able to run any setting, and the "Vortex" system behind DWAITAS is no exception, but different systems almost necessarily emphasise different bits of the gaming experience. As a result, while GURPS, Fate Core, and d20 Modern would all be perfectly able to run a game of, say, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., that game is going to feel pretty different depending on which one you pick.
There will doubtless be people disappointed that I didn't pick DWAITAS. Or HeroQuest, for that matter... pick your own system of preference. While I did look at a few other options, however, I eventually went with Cortex. A large part of the reason for this is that, since it's the system behind the Supernatural RPG, it's one the group is already familiar with. Familiarity is a big boost, and there are some systems (HeroQuest is one of them, for instance) that I know just don't work as well as I'd wish with my current group, while Cortex worked fine.
For those interested, Savage Worlds was probably the closest alternative contender. Superficially, of course, it looks similar to Cortex in that it has the unusual feature of rating skills and attributes as dice, rather than as flat numbers, although, to be honest, the resemblance doesn't go much deeper than that. But it didn't have the advantage of prior experience, and, besides, I'm a tad uneasy with the card-based initiative system. (It's an extra thing to remember to bring, and I can't shuffle worth squat). Without any compelling advantages I could see, I'm afraid that, on this occasion, familiarity trumped experimentation.
Oh, and I checked out Cortex Plus, too, since I was half way there. The generic "rulebook" is really rather confusing and difficult to use, probably because it's not really meant to be a rulebook, just a tool-kit of assorted ideas. But, from what I can tell, it's rather less my sort of game than the original Cortex is, even leaving aside my group's familiarity with the latter. It looks like another case of a fairly good system being made less useful (to me) in later editions.
So there we have it: a Torchwood game set in and around late Victorian London, using Cortex as the game engine. I've done what I need for the background, and tweaked the character generation rules to fit the setting (honestly, very little was needed), and I have scenario outlines, but I have no idea how well it's going to work yet. We'll just have to see...