Torchbearer 2e - actual play of this AWESOME system! (+)

pemerton

Legend
Yesterday evening I wrote up a short TB2e adventure, and I ran it today.

Context
I knew who the two PCs would be for this adventure - Fea-bella, an Elven Dreamwalker, and Golin, a Dwarven Outcast.

In our previous session, the PCs had left Stoink broke and poorly equipped, heading back to the Tower of Stars. As Fea-bella had seen in a dream (triggered by a failed Circles check), her friend Glothfindel - an Elven Ranger - had been taken prisoner in the Tower by her enemy Megloss. The PCs wanted to rescue him.

With my limited experience GMing Torchbearer, I wasn't quite ready for a grand confrontation of this sort. I was also conscious that with no food and few wilderness skills, the PCs would struggle to make it to the Tower without already being debilitated by conditions from the toll of the journey. Some time ago, thinking about this, I'd come up with the idea of them encountering Asfathalos, Glothfindel's riding horse, carrying Glothfindel's satchel with some provisions. (This would also compensate for the fact that a PC should be able to get some support from their friend, as a component of PC build.) I'd also decided I wanted to introduce an Elven Sword, with the Dreams-wise property: I decided to call it "Awakener of Dreams".

My idea was that this encounter would occur in the Phostwood Forest, which would be a shorter journey and provide some benefits. Yesterday evening I decided to build it up into a full adventure, following the process set out in the Scholar's Guide.

The Adventure
I've attached my adventure. I was impressed with the effectiveness of the checklist in the Scholar's Guide. Torchbearer was inspired to a significant degree by Moldvay Basic, and that shows in the adventure design process, but I think it is better than Moldvay because of its close attention to mechanical obstacles, and also it's slightly richer treatment of the setting/situation elements. Some of these I'd already thought of, like stirges (they have a classic feel to them, even when relabelled strix as they are in the Loremaster's Manual) and an Elfstone somehow connected to a trap involving explosives; some I came up with prompted by the creation process, like the dream haunt, and the work platform as something distinct (in a distinct room) from both sarcophagus and anvil.

The focus on mechanical obstacles helped me work out the map of my Dwarven Hall, and think about the various challenges I wanted it to present. I'd already collated a list of tasks/challenges and their mechanical obstacles from the scenarios and examples in the Scholar's Guide and the Cartographer's Companion; this list helped me satisfactorily correlate my obstacle ratings with my fiction. Although I'd set out to have 4 to 6 obstacles, I ended up with a few more than that, but was still fairly optimistic it would be a short adventure.

Most of the treasure I rolled up on the appropriate charts. What I didn't roll up but placed via fiat was the Elfstone, the Dwarven Anvil, Mim's chronicle, and Asfaloth with satchel and sword. The treasure rolls shaped some of my design, like adapting the door from the chronicle room to the workroom being openable via the rusty keys. I wrote up the dream haunt, my first monster design for Torchbearer (taking some inspiration from the Vengeful Spirt and Disturbed Spirit in the Scholar's Guide, but purely intangible - an egoless collection of thoughts, memories and dreams inhabiting the Elfstone.

I also came up with the idea that Awakener of Dreams, hanging on Asfaloth's flank on the other side from the satchel, would be digging itself into the horse's flank (scabbarded, so guiding, not injuring), directing it towards the dream haunt. This was the contrivance for linking the encounter with Asfaloth into the fuller adventure.

The Play
We started with Golin's player giving us the prologue - ie the summary of last session - so as to earn a condition removal. This needed a little bit of prompting from his PC sheet as well as fellow participants, but he did remember some bits, and no one was being too precious about it given the several month lapse between sessions of this particular game. He certainly remember the key bit - travelling to adventure with few supplies of any sort, and no food.

The players reviewed their PC sheets, and the various build elements on them. There are multiple player-side systems: Will, Health and skills as the core of the resolution system; Nature as a type of back-up and sometime supplement to these abilities; Wises for helping others and sometimes self-buffing; Traits for self-buffing but also taking penalties in exchange for the checks that can be spent to rest and prepare in camp; and Fate and Persona as points to spend for various bonuses to rolls. I told them to hold off setting Goals for their PCs - the setting of Goals assumes the players know what the adventure will be and what its context is, and that hadn't been introduced yet.

We started with a journey. I told them it would be shorter than they were planning, because - journey resolution permitting - they would be interrupted in the Phostwood. Last session when they journeyed it was early spring, so I decided it was now mid-spring given the amount of healing they'd done during their town phase. A roll for weather showed it to be clear and cool, and then the roll for "trouble" gave good weather, so in fact it was even more pleasant - warm and bright. This reduced their toll of 2 for the trip (distance, terrain) to one, but then they accrued one toll each for performing "roles" during the journey - Golin guiding them (with Fea-bella's help - neither is trained in Pathfinding), and Fea-bella foraging (beginner's luck Scavenger). Golin failed, and I imposed hungry and thirsty as their condition (given their lack of food); Fea-bella found food for two, which - together with two of their three skins of water - enabled them to buy off some of their toll. Each spent their shoes to buy off the rest.

I announced that they could see a horse, which Fea-bella recognisd as Glothfindel's riding horse Asfaloth. Golin successfully called and calmed Asfaloth (beginner's luck Rider) and they raided the satchel and therefore had enough to each relieve their hungry and thirsty again. They examined the sword, which seemed to be driving Asfaloth to a particular point near a large old tree. They asked if the sword had a jewel in its pommel - I decided that it did, a translucent stone with black and white swirls. With an Armourer check helped by Fea-bella's Jeweller skill (against Ob 3), Golin recognised it as an Elven-sword, the Awakener of Dreams.

I described Asfaloth as stopping suddenly, almost having hurt himself at a hole in the ground. They inspected the hole and decided to lower themselves down. This Dungeoneering check failed, and so they fell. Golin succeeded at the subsequent Health check, even though he was the first (so Ob 3); Fea-bella failed, and so was injured with a sprained ankle. I told the players that they were in what was obviously a Dwarven Hall; that there was a shield on the ground; and that they were being attacked by stirges, and that Golin had to be the conflict-captain given that Fea-bella was still sprawled on the ground. I also told them that now was the time to write their Goals, and they were happy with that: Fea-bella's player wrote a Goal about learning why the sword wanted to come here, while Golin's wrote one about finding the Dwarven forge tools in the hall.

They then fought the stirges, and defeated them handily in the first round. Golin had decided to initiate this as a capture conflict, with the idea being that stirges can be sold to an alchemist or similar: as it unfolded, Golin first set of his Fire Flowers (a "flash-bang") to stun the stirges (mechanically, this gave a +1D bonus to his manoeuvre against the stirges); Fea-bella, with the bonus from the manoeuvre, bagged the first stirge with her half-moon glaive; and Golin then bagged the second. I decided that each stirge is pack 1, so he could put the two of them into a small sack. He went through the rest of the adventure with his stirge-stuffed sack inside his satchel.

Golin shifted to "sword and board" rather than his maul for this fight, and stuck with this for the rest of the adventure. Golin also picked up the keys that were under the shield and put them in his pocket. Fea-bella succeeded at beginner's luck Survivalist (Ob 1) to get a lantern lit without a tinderbox.

I described the two entrances. They inspected the curtains, which I'd already described as old and so covered in dirt and grease that they couldn't work out what they were made of. I described the smoke stains on the curtains, especially on the "far" sides, and Golin inferred their must be a smoking/curing room on the other side of them. I also described some chittering that they couldn't recognise. They decided not to try and identify it, but to go the other way instead.

In the sarcophagus room Fea-bella used her instinct ("Read every word!") to examine the symbols (Loremaster, Ob 1), aided by Golin's Dwarven-chronicles wise. (The significance of using an Instinct is that the check doesn't cost a turn and so doesn't advance the grind.) They identified it as the tomb of Mim, the petty-dwarf who had been made to leave the Halls in the hills to the east and set up in the forest.

Golin shoved off the lid, and they took the buckle (in Fea-bella's pocket), the salt block (cooking supplies, under the stirge sack in Golin's satchel), and the bag (but not the rocks). Fea-bella tried to examine the chronicle (Scholar this time), again using her instinct and again aided by Golin, but failed and the chronicle crumbled and tore in her hands. She put the paper into her pack to use it as tinder.

Golin used his Instinct ("Always look for weak points") to examine the door out of the chronicle room, and spent a Persona point to channel his Crafting nature, adding 5 dice to his Scout 2. I also checked the Scout skill description and saw that candles count as supplies: Golin lit a candle (one of the ones taken from the satchel on Asfaloth), and so he had another bonus die. Rolling 8 dice (maybe 9? I can't remember of Fea-bella helped in some way) was enough to meet the obstacle, and he found the key hole for his rusty keys.

I then described the workroom. Fea-bella went for the Elfstone; Golin saw the various powders and reagents and rushed for them. I clarified that he was still carrying his candle. Thus there was a great explosion! I told the players to roll Health against Ob 5 to avoid injury. Golin's player inquired if he could use his leather armour to help: I said that he could, getting +1D, but that in that case I reserved my right to go for twist rather than condition should he fail the check. He did fail it, and I narrated his armour burned and blown away.

It was then Fea-bella's player's turn. I said that, as she was injured, and this was an explosion, death was definitely on the line as a consequence. There was a lot of discussion that resulted, about whether to use a last Persona point to try and get a success despite rolling only 2 dice base (Health 3, -1 for injury); or rather to keep it to ensure that Fea-bella had the will to live. This latter was the final choice. The Health check failed, and so Fea-bella "died"; but had the will to live and so paid the terrible price. Golin's player was excited because he had used his Explosives-wise to give a bonus die for Fea-bella's Health check, and so got to mark use of the wise on a failure (which is part of the progression sequence for Wises); Fea-bella's player made the requisite changes to her sheet to reflect her close call with death. We agreed that this was something she'd already seen in her terrible dreams, before she'd awaken to become a Dreamwalker. She took a failed test in Loremaster. I took away her Hiding descriptor as part of her nature, and stepped her Fiery trait up to Level 2 - she is no longer a hide-y Elf but stands out as a Feanor-like "dark"-elf! Dropping her Nature to 1 meant that a number of new skills opened (because Nature sets the number of tests needed to open a new skill).

I had Golin's player roll a d3 to see how many of the candles had survived the explosion - two did, which were added to inventory. The Elfstone had also survived, and Fea-bella picked it up. I described the sensations of all Mim's thoughts and dreams trying to press in on her; and enquired whether she wanted to dry and drive the dream haunt out using a spiritual conflict. She decided to try to Abjure it. Golin equipped himself with his Dreams-wise sword, which I accepted as an improvised weapon; and Fea-bella used the Elfstone itself as an improvised weapon against the Dwarven spirit. Golin's player recognised the disadvantage the players were at not having been able to read the chronicle and get better "weapons" from that.

As per my adventure notes, the dream haunt had 8 hit points for an Abjure conflict; the PCs (after a roll of 5 dice - Loremaster 4 +1D from Dreams-wise - +5 from Will, -2 from being Exhausted and Hungry and Thirsty due to the grind) had 6. But the players scripted a great first round, and knocked 3 hit points of the haunt while losing none themselves. But then I outscripted them in the second and third rounds, getting an Attack against a Feint and a Feint against a Defend. This is the first time I've ever outscripted Fea-bella's player in our years of playing Burning Wheel together! And so in the end the players were completely defeated - no hit points left while the haunt was back up at a full 8. I enjoyed narrating Mim's terrible thoughts - his hopes and dreams of founding his own Dwarf Hall with his family, and of prospering there; and his reality of dying alone, having to drag himself into his own coffin as he was dying, with his bag of rocks at his feet and his salt block and chronicle at his head. So no abjuring took place: as my outcome I imposed Afraid on both characters and also had the Elfstone become a cursed gem for Fea-bella - the main effect of this is that her Belief has to be rewritten, to be about protecting the gem at all costs. So she's a fiery dark elf obsessed by her stone which lets her brood over the hopes and dreams of a dead petty-Dwarf.

The players identified the stairs out of the workroom as the other way out, and probably the former main way in; but decided that they needed more checks before camping. Golin's player also suddenly worked out that the last room must be the forge room (as a complement to the workroom, and explaining the smoke), and wanted to explore it. I was pleased with this!

They went down that passage, and found that the chittering was more stirges. They decided to try and drive them off. The stirges had 7 hit points; the PCs started with 5. This was a close combat, but not with any terrible scripting failures as their had been in the last one. Golin started by throwing his other explosive device - a smoke pot - to again get +1D to maneouvre, and the PCs won after two rounds, but with only 1 hit point left. I imposed as my compromise injury to Golin (he'd lost blood) and sickness for Fea-bella (some sort of infection from a stirge proboscis). Initially I forgot to mention the money (stirges can't carry coins with them when they fly out through their hollow tree) but remembered a bit later and the players added this to their inventory.

During this fight, the PCs didn't use any traits against themselves and so didn't earn any more checks.

They then decided to camp, but first Golin used his Delving nature (in lieu of Survivalist) to try and find water in the Hall; and with a success against Ob 2, found the water pooled on the other side of the blockage/dam at the stairs entrance. The PCs took a drink each, recovering from hungry and thirst, and I made a d6 roll to see how many waterskins of clean water they could fill: the roll was a 1, eliciting suitable groans.

They then rested, lighting a fire using their chronicle tinder - when I asked about a fuel source they pointed out that there must be some fuel with the forge, and I accepted that proposition. Having no checks, Fea-bella kept watch, and so the events roll was 10 +1 for the Dwarven Outcast, +1 for watch, -2 for unsafe camp (there are stirges about) = 10, or a safe camp in a dungeon (which we all agreed was the right characterisation). Golin made his roll to recover from afraid.

They then decided to travel back to Fea-bella's home town, the Wizard's Tower in the foothills of the Bluff Hills. I calculated the toll as 1, which may have been an error - on reflection it should have been 2 - but sometimes mistakes get made! The weather was Cool and Clear which reduced 1 toll to zero. Fea-bella decided to ride Asfaloth and do the Pathfinding, with the idea of putting her toll onto her horse. The Pathfinding failed, which made her angry - can it be so hard just to find one's way home? - and so did the Riding, which left Asfaloth lame and needing treatment and a good rest.

The town event roll was pit-fighting - a baby owlbear, I decided. Golin took this as a good sign for the saleability of their stirges. Fea-bella watched the pit fight and recovered from angry. Golin bet on it, and rolled well and so doubled his silver coinage from 1D to 2D. Fea-bella stayed with her mum - the roll for the quality of her home showed that she had been somewhat reduced in her circumstances, living in a hovel the equivalent of a stables. Fea-bella also failed her first recovery roll (for afraid), and so remains afraid, exhausted, injured and sick.

Golin stayed with his alchemist friend Vaccin - a roll showed that Vaccin lives in an ordinary house (equivalent to a flophouse). A roll to recover from exhaustion also failed, and so Golin remains exhausted and injured.

We decided to finish the session there, and to take up the rest of their town phase next time. But we allocated Fate and Persona - each got two Fate (both had used their Instincts to good effect, and had pursued their Beliefs) and two Persona (both had achieved their goal, and we all agreed that Golin was the MVP while Fea-bella had helped quite a bit, ensuring Teamwork). So next session each should have spent enough Fate and Persona to get to second level.

Reflections
At the end of the session I described this to the players as the best classic D&D session I've ever run. It had exploration, stirges, traps, saving throws, strange items, etc; and we got through a pretty good amount of content in about four hours of play.

As we all became a bit more familiar with the system, I became more impressed with the huge number of interacting cycles/systems - eg having Nature drop to one makes it easy to open skills, but also makes Nature of little use either as a buff (via Persona) or as an alternative to Beginner's Luck, which will make Fea-bella develop quite differently to the Nature 5 Golin. The players were also more conscious of the relationship between making tests, passing turns, and accruing consequences on the grind; and the alternative possibility of shifting tests to camp phase or town phase where they are paid for in a different (and more individualistic, less collective, currency).

The tone was somewhat serious but not at the level of Burning Wheel, nor probably even Prince Valiant - perhaps more like The Hobbit but in RPG form. The flavour continues to be compelling - despite being bound up in the mechanical intricacies of the system, it keeps coming through with these images of Dwarven Halls, Golin's fireworks and smoke bombs, the sad dreams of Mim, the stirges with their blood-sucking proboscises, etc.

The pre-authorship of an adventure is something different from what I'm used to, and produces play focused around exploration and puzzle-solving rather than the players impacting the fiction via thematic character play. I don't know if this would ultimately be a limit for me on my enjoyment of the system. But today, at least, I was pleased that the adventure I'd designed worked pretty much exactly as I'd hoped, providing clear opportunities for the players to hook on with their characters.

I would recommend this system for anyone who wants to do classic D&D, adventure/puzzle-based play, but with a degree of spontaneity and "lightness" of GMing that is closer to "modern" RPG designs than to classic D&D itself. To me, so far, it really seems to deliver.
 

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One question and one comment:

Question - I remember when we were initially discussing Torchbearer I was talking about how much I appreciated Luke/Thor's "Adventure Length Budget" (number of Problems/Obstacles and Difficulty Level spread; not far afield from Skill Challenge tech!) while you were still unacquainted with it. How do you feel about it now?

Comment - When I run it in the future for newish players, I'm going to be sure to recommend to my players to be inclined toward a liberal use of Feint when they have their adversary on the ropes (where their opposition is going to be inclined toward Defend to regroup and recover Disposition; for those who don't know the system, Defend is negated by Feint so the Defend action is lost and the Feinter makes an Independent Test to reduce the Disposition - HP in D&D parlance - of their opposition). I would recommend GMs make new players aware of this dynamic. The last game for 3 new players was a great game, but it did have an issue with this in one particular conflict. Before that I had only run TB for players that were long-experienced with the system so they well-understood this dynamic. Its particularly advisable when the stakes aren't terribly high and a minor concession for Disposition loss on their part won't be too punitive (because players are apt to want to Defend to recover lost Disposition when they're on the cusp of closing out a Conflict).
 

pemerton

Legend
Comment - When I run it in the future for newish players, I'm going to be sure to recommend to my players to be inclined toward a liberal use of Feint when they have their adversary on the ropes (where their opposition is going to be inclined toward Defend to regroup and recover Disposition; for those who don't know the system, Defend is negated by Feint so the Defend action is lost and the Feinter makes an Independent Test to reduce the Disposition - HP in D&D parlance - of their opposition). I would recommend GMs make new players aware of this dynamic. The last game for 3 new players was a great game, but it did have an issue with this in one particular conflict. Before that I had only run TB for players that were long-experienced with the system so they well-understood this dynamic. Its particularly advisable when the stakes aren't terribly high and a minor concession for Disposition loss on their part won't be too punitive (because players are apt to want to Defend to recover lost Disposition when they're on the cusp of closing out a Conflict).
As you know I'm playing with players new to Torchbearer but not new to BW-type scripting. And both are strong wargamers (stronger than me).

I like that Torchbearer has a very clear procedure for scripting: first the GM does theirs; and then the players do theirs, able to discuss freely because the GM is already locked in. I script mostly by having regard to my characte's/creature's Nature descriptors and Instinct. So, for instance, my stirges began with a manoeuvre (they like to swarm!). And the players guessed that that would be the case, and scripted in response, and this helped them beat the stirges both times.

But with the Abjure, they just couldn't pick it. I didn't think my scripting was especially tricksy or unreasonable, but from the second round, with my opening feint against their defend, it just all went downhill for them. (I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it!)

Question - I remember when we were initially discussing Torchbearer I was talking about how much I appreciated Luke/Thor's "Adventure Length Budget" (number of Problems/Obstacles and Difficulty Level spread; not far afield from Skill Challenge tech!) while you were still unacquainted with it. How do you feel about it now?
I think it works well for adventure/"dungeon" design, as per my OP.

I still don't find the range of difficulties as helpful as the DC-by-level chart in 4e D&D! But with the players having built up a bit of artha (to use the BW terminology for Fate and Persona points), they were able to modulate the difficulties a bit, BW-style. But it's a brutal system! In the session they lost their shoes and a suit of armour, and came out with 4D worth of coins and jewellery (5D after the gambling on the pit fight), two captured stirges, a block of salt, 3 candles, some rusty keys, a Dreams-wise sword, a shield, a cursed Elfstone, and knowledge of the location of a Dwarven anvil.

And Golin is exhausted and injured, while Fea-bella is afraid, exhausted, injured and sick.

Is that breaking even? Maybe just!
 

Nytmare

David Jose
Yesterday evening I wrote up a short TB2e adventure, and I ran it today.
Bravo!

One (super) minor quibble: I don't know if I would have had the candle/reagent explosion happen without a failed test of some kind. I find that my GMing style with TB is far more reactive than any other game I've really played, and when I have clever ideas like that I always try to bank them away as twist fodder.
 
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pemerton

Legend
I don't know if I would have had the candle/reagent explosion happen without a failed test of some kind.
The players were deliberately rationing their tests, because they had no food and only one portion of wine - so they didn't search/Scout. I did clarify - as the flies ran to their respective honeypots, Fea-bella to the jewel and Golin to the reagents - that Golin was still carrying his candle. Otherwise I treated it similarly to the door trap in the Dread Crypt (SG p 245). And also as an Apocalypse World-style "golden opportunity".

I agree with you it's at the hard end of GM moves. Luckily the players didn't find it unfair.
 


pemerton

Legend
In reading through your old February post, how often do you find yourself using Good Ideas nowadays?
Because I'm coming in from Burning Wheel, my habit is to filter Good Ideas through a "say 'yes' or roll" mindset - while at the same time trying to reorient my "say 'yes'" instincts from Does this speak to a Belief, relationship etc? to What is the real challenge here? (that's my attempt to summarise the advice about tests and good ideas on SG pp 216-7).

There are two things I can think of from our Sunday session that fall under the "Good Idea" rubric: the players deliberately had their PCs leave their rope hanging down from the entranceway, giving them a way out without needing to make a test; and the players pointing out that there must be fuel with the forge, avoiding having to make a Scavenger test to find fuel for their campfire.
 


Bill Zebub

“It’s probably Matt Mercer’s fault.”
So, I just bought Mouse Guard to (maybe) run with some kids, and it's an interesting system. It feels a bit more board-gamey to me than what I'm used to and what I like, in that there doesn't seem to be much in-game decision-making, but it's still kinda intriguing.

It sorta makes me want to read Torchbearer.
 

So, I just bought Mouse Guard to (maybe) run with some kids, and it's an interesting system. It feels a bit more board-gamey to me than what I'm used to and what I like, in that there doesn't seem to be much in-game decision-making, but it's still kinda intriguing.

It sorta makes me want to read Torchbearer.

Mouse Guard is nothing but consequential decision-making by players with consequential fallout and a very rich, action-adventure play experience when GMed and played with sufficient thematic aggression and skill.

I’m curious where your reading of the system is lending toward your interpretation of “not much in-game decision-making.”

Torchbearer is MG’s engine with a whole lot more levers and gears and complexity and intensity. In terms of the BW family of games, MG is lowest in terms of levers/gears/complexity/intensity, but it’s absolutely a fantastic game.

If you’d like, maybe point out some passages in MG that you’re thinking about and I’ll see if I can’t clear up how that stuff works in play?
 

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