The Cyberpapacy: The Sourcebook of Religious Reality
Author: Jim Bambra (?)
Company/Publisher: West End Games
Cost: $3 to $20, depending on where you get it.
Page count: 120
Capsule Review by Darren MacLennan on 03/24/00.
Genre tags: Fantasy Science_fiction Modern_day Horror Far_Future Espionage Conspiracy Post-apocalypse Gothic Superhero Generic
The CyberPapacy is an interesting, if unsuccessful, attempt at blending a very dark version of the Catholic Church with cyberpunk in modern-day France; and it's to Torg's credit that it's one of the few games where something like this can happen and make sense in the process. However, the book's contents are hampered by an overemphasis on things that most GMs won't really need, and a few elements that are just flat-out silly. It's not a bad book, but the contents run from the silly to the unnecessary to the overly technical to the one-sided, with only a little information that'll let a GM run the game.
What's going on? In Torg, Earth has been invaded by seven different "cosms" - or alternate realities - which are trying to overwhelm the central, core reality of Earth. By planting stelae in a particular pattern, the invading reality can overwhelm the core reality, which then causes the core reality to shift over to the axioms of the invading reality.
What this means in simple terms is this: If you're at home, and the Living Land reality invades and conquer, then everything in your life - including the way you think - is going to be changed. Torg represents each invading cosm through various values and laws that define how advanced various principles are within that cosm. To boot, each invading cosm is led by a High Lord - a person who happens to embody that cosm, and who has also been corrupted by a Darkness Device, which makes cosm invasion possible.
In the case of the Cyberpapacy, the original cosm was a version of medieval France where a false Pope essentially dominates the world. When it invaded, technology stopped working, but spiritual miracles and feats of magic became possible. And then, thanks to a poorly-explained series of events, the False Pope of the Cyberpapacy - Jean Malraux I - wound up recreating the newly created cosm with a dramatically advanced technology. The cosm went from modern-day to medieval to cyberpunk, with a fair amount of disruption as a result.
So, the ultimate result is that the Cyberpope is passing himself off as the spiritual successor to Jesus, manufacturing disasters - which only he can fix - and declaring various other events occurring in the Torg universe as the work of an unseen Anti-Christ. Everybody who's not a Catholic faithful to the Malraux regime is being either killed or herded into ghettoes. The Inquisition is back. There's a Resistance, but it's small and needs the efforts of Storm Knights in order to survive.
So: Does all of this come together? Not really.
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING PART IS MOSTLY PERSONAL PREFERENCE, RATHER THAN ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE GAME. YOU CAN SKIP IT IF YOU WANT.
ALTHOUGH I'M SURE THAT THIS WARNING WILL MAKE YOU READ IT VERY CAREFULLY.
I HAVE TO RETHINK THIS STRATEGY.
One of the primary problems is that there's nothing for the characters to really believe in. True Catholics, the ones that haven't been turned by the false Pope, are scattered and without resources. There's plenty of miracles in the cosm, but almost all of them belong to Malraux and his forces. The only role that a major religion plays is the worst kind of villain; hypocritical, totalitarian and evil to the core. Reading it - even though I'm a lapsed Catholic - felt offensive.
I don't like that. To be sure, religion can be all of those bad things and more, and the Catholic Church has a lot to answer for. But the only counter to the wickedness of Malraux is the news that the Pope is apparently invincible to the attacks of Malraux's agents - this is cold comfort. What I would have liked to have seen is religious figures of any faith being granted additional powers by whoever they worship in order to take down Malraux, which would make for a pretty decent conflict.
Pendragon and Fading Suns apparently both deal with issues of religion; as a matter of fact, I've heard both described as "passion plays in role-playing form." Most of White Wolf's games also deal with religion without resorting to single dimensions, especially Werewolf, Wraith and Vampire. You can play religious characters in Torg, but their miracles are going to seem small in comparison to an entire cosm where they're hunted down like dogs for not believing in a guy who's second only to Antiochus in terms of spirituality. And if the cosm you're in doesn't have a high Spirit rating, you can forget about most miracles. I don't know if I'd call this progress.
I imagine that I sound thin-skinned about this. I haven't heard similar complaints from anybody else on the product, but it is a touch depressing to see the tenets and institutions of a religion that you used to belong painted in the worst possible light for some eighty pages. And I say again: The Catholic Church was incredibly corrupt for quite some time, which led to the Protestant Reformation. It's not surprising that a cosm based on its worst elements would look this way.
Still: One little lightning bolt from above, shoved up Malraux's ass sideways, would have done a lot for this book. (1) (Especially galling is that the Judeo-Christian God actually _does_ show up in the last book in the game series, which resolves in an entirely unsatisfactory fashion and raises a whole host of theological questions that the game doesn't answer.)
What's also annoying:
- The lack of thought that's been given to the player characters in this setting. There's a lot of information on the villains, ranging from street gangs to boosted animals to cyberpriests and - get this - cybernuns, but very little on what the characters can do to improve this world. Uproot stelae and spread stories of their glory, yes, very true; but there's hopefully more to Torg than just the same operation repeated ad nauseum. There's a lot of information on the villains, but very little on the heroes. There's a home base for the characters - Paris, which has been unchanged - but it's described as a mass of tension, with little in the way of potential guidance or equipment for the players.
- The sheer silliness of the adversaries. Some of them, like the Knights Hospitaller and Inquisitors, can be worked into a straightforward game. Others, like cybernuns - for God's sake, _cybernuns_ - and the third planting gospog, who take the form of mythical witches, are going to provoke laughter. There's a picture of a witch/gospog blasting a guy with an energy bolt that'll likely provoke laughter in those who see it.
- The GodNet, the cyberspace of Malraux's realm, in which everything takes on a religious cast. Where is it described in the book? It isn't - or, if it is, it's only in passing. You need to buy yet another book to get the full use out of the CyberPapacy, called _The GodNet_. I imagine that the GodNet is one of the big draws of the setting, but it'll cost you more money to find out. I can't think of any compelling excuse for not including this in the main book, especially with the sheer amount of wasted space.
- Speaking of which: The wasted space. Page after page of wasted information, including detailed maps of France, churches in France, Paris, Paris's metro system - why? - and examples of various locations around the CyberPapacy, like the Papacy's strongholds, or a cyberlegger outfit.
- The game fiction isn't horrible, but it surely doesn't win any awards. There's no real sense of the setting; just people who interact with the various aspects of the world, like spirit chips, or the communication monitors. They don't carry any particular sense of weight, or setting. Interchange some terms, and you could use them in any cosm.
- Lots and lots of dry text on things like weapons and cyberware. It's almost like a weapons catalog towards the back of the book, although Torg GMs who are thirsty for cyberware and weapons will be quite happy with this.
- The authors misunderstand the nature of cyberpunk - which is a really common failing of a lot of role-playing games, including Shadowrun. The cyberpunk elements are mostly confined to cyberspace and giving street punks cyberware, both of which are fairly cliche elements of cyberpunk fiction; there's nothing here to suggest the sheer philosophical scope of books like Neuromancer, or some of Bruce Sterling's more visionary work. They're surely not the only people to do this, but it's a touch depressing just the same.
Things I like? It's an interesting setting, and the villainy of Malraux and his servants is nicely portrayed. I like the idea of an invasion from an alternate reality into Earth's reality. I like the fact that the entire cosm is in disarray, and that the theocracy that now dominates France hasn't adapted fully to the new changes, and that there are still remnants from the original Papacy hanging around. Some of the templates in the back are pretty good - I've a friend who really likes the cybernetically enhanced Senior Citizen, who isn't about to let new Nazis take over the country that he liberated some forty-five years ago.
I like the sheer audacity involved in blending a darkly theological environment with a cyberpunk environment, even if the actual end result isn't as thought out as it could have been. That kind of idea is what attracted me to Torg; and maybe with the second edition, the game will give this setting the attention that it deserves. Would I buy it? West End Games was selling off their old inventory for extremely good deals not so long ago, and if you're interested in Torg, it's a worthwhile buy just for the weapons alone. Otherwise, just take the two elements and make up your own blend; or turn to Warhammer 40,000's superb sense of techno-religious imagery. (The Sisters of Battle make perfect replacements for cyber-nuns, I should note.) But otherwise, give it a miss. Even at $3, there's not enough to justify purchase for those who don't play Torg.
Also, I'd like to note, with pride, that I didn't call the French horse-eating surrender monkeys even once during the course of this review. ;->
(1) Yes, Jesus did say that you should forgive your transgressor seven times seventy, but Malraux gets up my nose.
Style: 3 (Average)