Saturday, January 10, 2015

From Russia, with TORG - a GURPS Infinite Worlds crossover

In honor of the current Bundle of Holding, I present to you the following:

The Briefing

 "All right, agents! You all have some experience under your belt, which is why you were chosen for this assignment - make no mistake, this is going to be a tricky one.

This Q6 timeline was designated as Echo-38. Which means, just in case you forgot your Academy training, that it resembles Homeline's past and the 'local time' is 1989 - May, to be precise. Yes, the Berlin Wall is going to come down in a few months, if everything is going according to normal history - which is why we are sending you as a group.

You all know that Echoes can be 'shifted' to a different Quantum by 'changing its history' - making it easier or (usually) harder for us to get to it. And our counterparts at Centrum, over at Q8, seem to have a better idea how to accomplish this than we do - and such a major historical event like the fall of the Soviet Union is likely to be tempting for them. Figure out what kinds of agents they have in place - if any - and put a stop to their activities. Also keep an eye out for Homeline organized crime rings operating there - the Russian Mafiya in particular, will probably know where all the good stuff is currently being buried in this world, and might be tempted to operate there.

Assuming that it is an echo - our Paralabs boffins have muttered about 'weird parachronic energy fluctuations' in this world. Which is also why we are sending one of their boffins with you, to figure this stuff out. Hopefully, it won't require any further actions by us... but you never know.

Your main area of operations should be the Soviet Union, since that's where we expect the most Centrum activity - but expect to travel a lot. So get working on your cover identities!

Dismissed."

Character Creation

The players should be told that most of the campaign will focus on a single timeline - the GM can tell them that eventually, things will go "deeply wrong" if he wants to play fair.

Assuming that the game system used is GURPS, haracters should start out with either the Intervention Service, Penetration Service, or Paralabs Field Researcher templates (see GURPS Infinite Worlds, pages 186-188). Duty (Extremely Hazardous) and Secret (From Another Earth) are campaign disadvantage every PC has and do not count against the -50 point campaign limit, which (a) reduces the cost of the Field Researcher template to 90 points and (b) allows the characters to take additional disadvantages (-15 for Intervention Service, -20 for Penetration Service, and -30 for Paralabs). The characters start with 225 character points. Note that the templates represent their past occupations with Infinity, and not necessarily their present ones - technically, they are all currently assigned to Echo Surveillance, but given the inclination of Infinity towards cross-training their agents in different divisions, this is not at all unusual.

But before they spend their points, they should figure out their cover stories. If they don't have any good ideas, their predecessor on this world bribes some people to make them attaches at the Albanian embassy in Moscow. This works even if most of them don't speak Albanian - everyone "in the know" will assume that they did, in fact, bribe people so that they could operate in the Soviet Union as part of some organized crime ring, but since "everyone is doing that" it will serve as a decent cover story and still provide actual Diplomatic Immunity - mark down 20 character points for that. Which brings us to...

Social Advantages, Wealth, and Income

The players should be informed that since they will spend most of their time on this one world, social advantages (Contacts, Allies, Ally Groups, Diplomatic Immunity, Wealth, etc.) specific to this world will be important - also remind them that they are supposed to keep an eye on high-ranking government officials. Also tell them that if they lose these advantages "due to circumstances beyond their control", they will get to re-spend those character points on other social advantages a month or two later, providing they can come up with a good in-game reason for getting those advantages (and maybe make a successful skill roll or two).

Wealth and Income represents the money they can get access to on "Echo-38". While of course Infinity will help them with some start-up funds, laundering large amounts of off-world funds in a high-tech world can be tricky, and will often attract precisely the amount of attention they are supposed to avoid. Thus, their Wealth level represents the "safe" startup funds they have. They can spend all of this ($20,000 for "Average" wealth) on "adventuring gear" (both Homeline and local equipment) - Infinity throws in a safehouse with facilities for free.

To get further funds, they can either have Independent Income (which they don't have to work for), or work the equivalent of two weeks per month on their "cover story jobs" (as, er, "honorable businessmen"). This should be treated as a "freelance job roll" (as explained in the GURPS Basic Set, p. 516-517) - if they rolled badly, it meant they had to spend more money on their cover story. Don't forget to subtract the Monthly Costs of Living (GURPS Basic Set, p. 265 - $600 for Social Status 0)!

Weird Powers

Player characters can, if they wish, spend up to 25 character points on "weird powers" (characters with more powerful abilities would likely be shortlisted for other assignments, such as ISWAT). Psionic powers are one option, and Magical Aptitude and spells are are another - it turns out that "Echo-38" is largely a low-mana world, which is another reason why Paralabs is beginning to suspect that this is not an Echo after all. Nevertheless, such characters are warned in especially dire terms that they should not use such powers where anyone local can spot them, if they needed telling.

They will have a few months to "acclimatize" themselves into their cover identities - the campaign starts in September 1989, local time. With that in mind...

What is really going on?

"Echo-38" is, in fact, the "Core Earth" of the TORG setting. If everything goes according to the timeline, the Maelstrom Bridges will drop in April 1990 - in seven months. Canonically, the Soviet Union - the area where the PCs are supposed to primarily operate in - is also subject to a failed invasion by the Tharkhold Cosm - thwarted by "Soviet Psychics". Hopefully, the PCs also played a role in this.

The Players

So who is active in Russia - apart from Infinity?

Centrum / Interworld Service: As expected, they are active here, and will treat this timeline as an Echo of "Secundus" until proven otherwise. They are attempting to mold the Soviet Union into some form of authoritarian Meritocracy, hopefully with themselves in charge. The Authoritarianism part in itself is easy, since that's where Russia will swing on its own - the Meritocracy part is going to be tricky, as is getting rid of the corruption and impulses towards the nastier kinds of patriotism. And controlling the whole mess - there is no shortage of sharks among the power brokers of Soviet Russia. And, of course, there are Dastardly Homeline Agents to thward - if Interworld can find them.

Considering their usual lack of native language speakers, some of the Centrum Agents will no doubt pose as American "economic advisors" which infested the country during the time period - and, in fact, they might give rather better advice than their competition. When stumbling across the other invaders of this timeline, they will first suspect them of being Homeliners, and failing that, the Cabal.

Question: What might be good ploys for Interworld to attempt here? What are good resources - books or otherwise - on the final years on the Soviet Union?

Russian Intelligence agencies: These will strive to protect their own turf and influence in all this chaos. They also have some genuine psychics who are getting increasingly agitated by what they claim is a "secret invasion" - another hint that this is no mere "Echo". Many of the more enterprising members of the Intelligence agencies are forming the first mobs the Russian Mafiya.

Source: The GRU SV-8 chapter of Delta Green: Countdown probably makes for a good starting point.

Question: What kinds of resources can you recommend on the late-era Soviet intelligence community and the alleged "Soviet psychics"?

Russian Mafiya: Many Russians who pay attention know that the Soviet Union is falling apart - and grab what they can. The Russian intelligence agencies are especially aware of this, and often have a hand in the creation of particular mobs. The PCs will likely encounter some of the mobs sooner or later.

Source: McMafia by Misha Glenny.

Question: What other sources can you recommend for the Russian Mafiya, especially its early years?

Russian Mafiya of Homeline: As their briefing officer told them, these Homeline crime rings know where and how to loot the best stuff from this particular time and place, and will make use of that knowledge - endangering the Secret in the process. Naturally, the PCs are supposed to stop this - without blowing their cover, or letting the secret of parachronics fall into the wrong hands.

Tharkhold Agents: These will either be slaves who have been wired up with cyberware to make them more effective agents (as well as keeping them under control) or actual Tharkholdu using magic to disguise their true form. They have infiltrated the Russian Mafiya under the assumption (not without cause) that they would have the easiest time taking over groups which are ruled by fear and violence. They are currently preparing to plant the stelae necessary for establishing the Maelstrom Bridge. If they spot evidence of other invaders from a different Cosm (such as Homeliners or Centrum agents), they will initially assume that these are the pawns of a different High Lord - likely either (ironically) Kanawa, Mobius, or perhaps even the Gaunt Man himself - sent to sabotage them. If they discover evidence of parachronics, they will become very interested.

Source: The Tharkhold sourcebook for TORG:

Kanawa Group operatives: These are there to sabotage the Tharkhold agents without getting caught in the act. If they stumble across Homeliners or Centrum agents, they will initially mistake them for Tharkhold agents - or possibly agents of Mobius, in which case they will be happy to let them take the blame for sabotaging the Tharkholdu. If they discover parachronics, they will become even more interested than the Tharkholdu, since this kind of cross-time travel could be immensely profitable (as Homeliners have reason to know).

Source: The Nippon Tech sourcebook for TORG:

Thus, the PCs have about six months for spy games and mutual sabotage efforts against a variety of other groups with plenty of possibilities for mistaken identities. They get to learn that some kinds of demons are attempting to invade the Soviet Union, and then get to thwart them.

And then all the other Maelstrom Bridges drop in April, five different realities invade the world, and they realize that the situation is far worse than they could have possibly imagined.

But what about...

Some further thoughts about this campaign:

What about Reality Contradictions?

Pre-Invasion, it should be assumed that Core Earth is so full of "Possibility Energy" that everything works like the characters expect - including psionics and magic (keeping in mind the "low mana" of Core Earth). Post-Invasion, some of this Possibility is drained, which means that magic-using Homeliners will have to deal with the Axioms of Core Earth (Homeliners should probably have a slightly higher Technology Axiom and a slightly lower Magic Axiom).

(Which incidentally means that GURPS rules for such contradictions are not needed at the start of the campaign...)

Can we call for backup?

Yes, the player characters can call for backup - but keep in mind that Infinity is extremely overworked and the PCs are supposed to be highly competent agents in their own right. The home office is unlikely to respond well to what they see as "frivolous" requests. That being said, supporting field agents is their jobs, and they try to be helpful. How helpful they are depends on how convincing the player characters are - and what connections they have (did anyone invest in a Patron at Infinity?).

Requests for gear are easiest, though keep in mind that Infinity wants to preserve the Secret. Yes, they can produce large amounts of plastic explosives, but what are you going to do with that, agent - and how much attention are you planning to attract? Homeline gear should, if at all possible, be used only at their safehouse, and more obscure gear that fits in with the local technology may be harder to acquire. And anything that can be transformed into cash requires the PCs to launder it.

Requests for additional personnel (other than replacements for dead PCs) will only be granted if there is a major crisis occurring - i.e. if they can provide proof of a demonic invasion force operating in Soviet Russia, or once the Maelstrom Bridges hit. Then it is the task of the PCs to brief those newcomers, and keep them out of trouble. For campaign purposes, it is probably best if they operate in a separate team elsewhere - and too many Homeline agents in one place would attract too much attention anyway. If the situation looks really bad, they might actually be granted assistance by an ISWAT team - but then the PCs should do an operation on a different and apparently less dangerous site than ISWAT, to keep them in the action. And ISWAT will likely leave after the op is over, since they don't have the time to sit around idly...

Another problem is that, when faced with a major crisis like this, Infinity will likely want to observe first instead of intervene - this attitude should also apply to non-ISWAT assistance, while PCs are likely to be more proactive and heroic.

One final question is whether the PCs can actually reach Homeline after the Invasion, and vice versa. Major events in the Possibility Wars, such as the dropping of the Maelstrom Bridges, will certainly count as a major disruption to parachronic travel, requiring penalties to the operator's Electronics
Operation (Parachronic)
skill. More insidious is whether the conveyor can actually reach Homeline - after all, it is definitely a device from a high-Technology Cosm.

If the GM is merciful, he might permit parachronic conveyors to operate normally at the Core Earth axiom (Tech Axiom 23). More plausibly, it might require the Tech Axiom Nippon Tech (24), since "slightly higher than Core Earth" fits Homeline as well. If the GM decides that parachronic conveyors represent some kind of "super-tech" he might require Cyberpapacy/Tharkhold levels (26), though that's probably taking it too far.

The PCs might not know this, of course - their first warning might come when their very expensive conveyor suddenly transforms into a minivan. Though they might get an inkling when they learn about other technological devices transforming in different Realities. Of course, this will make Infinity even more reluctant to make regular "supply runs" and they will prefer to keep the conveyor trips to Core Earth as short as possible.

Are we Stormers?

The PCs do not start out as Storm Knights. However, once the invasion hits, they should transform into Stormers - perhaps their parachronic travels made them "attractive" to Possibility Energy, or something on these lines.

I haven't given too much thought on how to model Stormer abilities in GURPS yet - partially because I am still reading through the TORG rules on them. Right now I am inclined towards a mixture of the Probability Alteration powers from GURPS Psionic Powers and The Magic of Stories from Pyramid 13 - Thaumatology. Basically, once the PCs become Stormers, they get some powers reflecting fortuitous coincidences (modeled by a variant the Serendipity advantage) - with specific types of coincidences being represented by different techniques which can be improved individually. So if a player wants his character to be constantly entangled by romantic subplots, he can learn the Romance technique for this ability.

Final thoughts

I've just brainstormed all this since yesterday, and many details remain unclear. Since I am currently occupied with another campaign, it is unclear when and if I will work out these details. Nevertheless, I hope that this will give other GMs enough to go on to start their own campaign. If you have any suggestions, feel free to share them with me - and if you are actually running a campaign with this, please tell me!