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

rmcoen

Adventurer
I have enjoyed reading all the synopses of play sessions, but man, I do not want to play Torchbearer! And I'm sure that most of my players would hate it; I tried just getting them to track generic "wounds" gained from Critical Hits in 5e, which minorly impacted HP recovery, and that was a struggle. They are very much "heroic fantasy" minded, and this "every action is a struggle against a world/system designed to grind you under" would be a depressing and hateful experience for them.

And maybe I'm getting the wrong impression, but Torchbearer seems to encourage a "GM vs. the players" mindset. The game is designed for the PCs to fail and suffer, and the GM is encouraged to keep coming up with ways to screw the PCs. (Okay, sometimes the same way over and over - I mean really, how many times have these guys lost their tinderboxes?) I play a game to get away from the realities of life - Hurray, I got a bonus, damn I need to drop $12k on a fricking plumbing repair (which, as a side effect, will also leave me with a destroyed front yard - an area I already have trouble maintaining because of the "full shade" of two massive trees). So let's play a game where I find a major treasure (plate armour), and its main effect is make traveling arduous, costing me all my other equipment and leaving me Angry all the time? Um... no?

I do respect the tightness of the design, though. I don't find the goal fun (adventurers and adventuring sucks), but the system seems to really deliver on its Belief and Goal, so +2 Persona for that, I guess? ;-)
 

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I have enjoyed reading all the synopses of play sessions, but man, I do not want to play Torchbearer! And I'm sure that most of my players would hate it; I tried just getting them to track generic "wounds" gained from Critical Hits in 5e, which minorly impacted HP recovery, and that was a struggle. They are very much "heroic fantasy" minded, and this "every action is a struggle against a world/system designed to grind you under" would be a depressing and hateful experience for them.

And maybe I'm getting the wrong impression, but Torchbearer seems to encourage a "GM vs. the players" mindset. The game is designed for the PCs to fail and suffer, and the GM is encouraged to keep coming up with ways to screw the PCs. (Okay, sometimes the same way over and over - I mean really, how many times have these guys lost their tinderboxes?) I play a game to get away from the realities of life - Hurray, I got a bonus, damn I need to drop $12k on a fricking plumbing repair (which, as a side effect, will also leave me with a destroyed front yard - an area I already have trouble maintaining because of the "full shade" of two massive trees). So let's play a game where I find a major treasure (plate armour), and its main effect is make traveling arduous, costing me all my other equipment and leaving me Angry all the time? Um... no?

I do respect the tightness of the design, though. I don't find the goal fun (adventurers and adventuring sucks), but the system seems to really deliver on its Belief and Goal, so +2 Persona for that, I guess? ;-)
What is funny is @pemerton is playing TB2, which apparently is much more forgiving that TB1. I've got TB1 and will likely get TB2 and give it a go this December.

Some games tend to lean harder towards the enjoyment of survival. It is like playing Diablo on the harder difficulties where if you die, you die. It can be immensely fun! ;)
 
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rmcoen

Adventurer
Yeah, I Iike the adrenaline rush of Hardcore in Diablo / Path of Exile / etc.... right up until the character dies unexpectedly and I have a punch-in-the-gut feeling about all the time now lost. And then I don't play the game any more for a long time. So I'm not the intended audience of this kind of game! :)

My level of "adventuring sucks" is to throw some realistic weather at my players, and enforce the occasional Exhaustion or reducing overnight healing because of marching in 90-degree weather in full metal armour, or shivering in the unexpected cold rain all day and night. [Weather delivered not from a table, but from actual historical weather reports from geographically matching locations, 10 years ago.] Just small reminders that being out and about is not always "a lovely day for a walk"... but that's about it.

The party in my current campaign is in the center of a magically-devastated swamp, shrouded in an enchanted fog that obscures vision completely beyond 100-200 feet, being assailed by quartets of "mudlings" (Small semi-humanoid piles of mud, defending their "work site")... and mostly they are just accumulating minor bruises, and have to search (Survival check) each evening for a solid piece of land to rest on. I can totally see this in Torchbearer, thanks to the great synopses. Pathfinder checks for solid land and just travel, with high Obs because of the mist and terrain; massive Tolls for the environment. Maybe an extended Conflict - per the "Vagrant's Guide" perhaps? - to represent the mudlings minor but constant pressure and interruption to their journey to the ruined castle... Nevermind the mud-walled maze and puzzle-trap required to gain access to the castle! The PCs would all be crippled or dead before even reaching castle in Torchbearer! :)
 

Thor

Explorer
Take what I say with a grain of salt, but I don't think Torchbearer encourages "GM vs. the players." The game is mean to the characters so the GM doesn't have to be. GMs should be fans of Torchbearer player characters, but part of that is putting them in adverse situations to see what they do. It's when they struggle that they get to shine.

I also think Torchbearer is heroic fantasy. It's just not power fantasy. If you choose to have your character try to be a hero, it's a real, significant choice. Being a hero in Torchbearer is hard. You'll probably gain wealth easier and faster if you're only concerned about yourself. Most people assume that you're at best a rootless vagabond that stands outside of society, so they'll meet you with suspicion. Respect and accolades will be hard to come by, Think of the A-Team: the people they help directly know who they are, but most people think they're criminals.

But if you do successfully take the heroic path, it's extremely rewarding! Your character earned that! Made something of themselves despite the odds!

Anyway, I fully agree that the game is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. Just wanted to share my perspective.
 

Thor

Explorer
It may also be worth noting that the Torchbearer GM's ability to kill characters is heavily circumscribed. There are only three ways a GM can kill a character in Torchbearer:
1. If a character has a full condition track (hungry & thirsty, angry, afraid, exhausted, injured, and sick) and the grind ticks over giving them another condition. The only condition left is dead. As far as I know, this only happened once in playtesting back in 2012. I think it's fair to say this is uncommon.
2. If a character already has the injured and/or sick conditions and does something the GM deems dangerous, the GM can declare that "death is on the line." It must be declared ahead of time so the player has the opportunity to spend traits and rewards on the roll. I've seen character death occur this way a few times over the years, but infrequently.
3. If the player characters attempt to kill another being or beings and the GM deems it a "kill conflict" then any or all of the participants might die as a result of the conflict. If you choose to kill, then your character can be killed.

Characters can be ground down, worn out, stripped of their gear, and so on. But character death is almost always a result of a choice a player has made. Even then, there are some optional ways to dodge your fate.
 

rmcoen

Adventurer
That's an interesting limitation, Thor, one that I was wondering about reading the synopses. Facing down a demon and Barrow Wight and a possessed bandit lord, and no one died was a surprise. I can definitely see "grind down more, don't kill" as a theme - and the PCs can (mostly) choose to avoid those "Kill" situations.

I get what you're saying about choosing to be a hero, and earning it, though! Means something more when you choose to be selfless and helpful and other paladin-ly virtues despite society being against you and even the freaking weather constantly ruining your stuff on a simple walk between towns....
 

Take what I say with a grain of salt, but I don't think Torchbearer encourages "GM vs. the players." The game is mean to the characters so the GM doesn't have to be. GMs should be fans of Torchbearer player characters, but part of that is putting them in adverse situations to see what they do. It's when they struggle that they get to shine.

I also think Torchbearer is heroic fantasy. It's just not power fantasy. If you choose to have your character try to be a hero, it's a real, significant choice. Being a hero in Torchbearer is hard. You'll probably gain wealth easier and faster if you're only concerned about yourself. Most people assume that you're at best a rootless vagabond that stands outside of society, so they'll meet you with suspicion. Respect and accolades will be hard to come by, Think of the A-Team: the people they help directly know who they are, but most people think they're criminals.

But if you do successfully take the heroic path, it's extremely rewarding! Your character earned that! Made something of themselves despite the odds!

Anyway, I fully agree that the game is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. Just wanted to share my perspective.

I was going to respond to the above, but this covers exactly what I was going to say. The most important thing to note here @rmcoen is "the game is mean to the characters so the GM doesn't have to be." I'm not sure how many times you've interacted with things I've written (on Torchbearer or other games), but I have called this "system's say" for a long while now.

In a game like Torchbearer, (a) the system has a ton to say and what is essential is both (b) everyone is aware of the dynamics of the "system's say" (it is a transparent game engine...it has to be for the dynamic to work at all) and, (c) because of the convergence of (a) and (b), the GM is fundamentally not adversarial in TB. Adversarilism in TTRPGs are downstream of a combination of (i) rules opacity with (ii) the attendant prospect of "GM effery" looming over play. It creates a kind of "Is this Calvinball(?)" disposition for the players. It may not, in fact, actually be Calvinball...but they don't know for sure so that puts them in a very vulnerable position (both in their cognitive loop during play and in their faith/doubts matrix when it comes to the GM pulling some effery and unilaterally changing the play landscape).

In TB, the chips are out on the table. The system has its say. The GM has their say. The players have their say. This is kryptonite for an adversarial orientation to play.

In terms of what play produces, I've run 8 games (of varying length) of TB since TB1 came out. In terms of "in the pocket/moment" feel for the participants, it is indeed often harrowing...maybe even burdensome some times. But its extraordinarily rewarding (both in terms of the engagement with the varying play loops and engagement and the thematic payoffs therein), particularly when all parties understand their role, the system's role, and how all of that comes together. Most Mouse Guard games I've ran for new folks takes maybe 3-4 Mission/Player's Turn (Downtime) loops to grok the fullness of the gameplay. Torchbearer might be 1.5 x that or double that. But once you get there, there is absolutely a feeling of reward both in the moments of play and in the recounting of play.

And I would say that is totally about the intense and clear engagement with each constituent play loop, how that play loop intersects with subsequent loops and the whole of the thing. And then the thematic payoff. Once the participants know how to leverage their lateral intelligence to bring their relationships and their ethos into play, to stake those things, and that the system not only won't fight them but it will propel and reward that "thematic engine" type of play...that no one has to put their thumb on the scales...that no one has to actively tell a story, be adversarial, or railroad/force ideas onto play (and that is both player-side railroading and GM railroading)...that merely playing the game sincerely, aggressively, and correctly will produce hardship and heroism?

Its pretty damn great. But no, its not for everyone. Its intense, everyone has full responsibility for their part at every moment, and everyone has to possess the ability to "hold on lightly" because the system is going to have its (very ample) say...and that is a good thing.

And last bit. I've run TB games with early, but heroic and meaningful retirements or character exits. Their stories and sacrifice were more memorable than tons of other play I've GMed (in heroic fantasy games), even when brief by comparison (6 session spanning vs 6 month spanning). However, I've run longer term TB games into the latter levels with Precedence (social) and Might (violence) that lets the PCs take on serious antagonists in terms of the D&D milieu. The game can absolutely get to what would be the Paragon Tier of 4e play. Its just not an easy go of it...and in that "not an easy go of it," there is great reward (and relentless reward) if you're up for it.




TLDR: Torchbearer is about transparency, coherency, integrity, and functionality of game engine, participant role, and play loops. This kills adversarialism stone dead. Torchbearer's latter levels (with accrued boons, treasure, status, and levels) can absolutely gain the means (including Precedence and Might) to tilt well into the heroic end of the D&D genre. It just "ain't easy sledding" (there is no letup...no conflict-neutral free play...no passive touring of setting...no side quest detours to catch your breath) and you have to be willing and wanting to undertake that.
 

pemerton

Legend
What is funny is @pemerton is playing TB2, which apparently is much more forgiving that TB1.
I don't know much about the details of TB1. As I've posted somewhere recently, I think I'm at the softer end of Torchbearer GMing - I'm not going to say it's drifted all the way to Prince Valiant, but a little bit in that direction.

On @Thor's comments about character death, we've had 3 deaths in our game. A player failed a Health check when their PC was injured and death was on the line (Fea-bella got blown up), and then twice in the context of kill conflicts. One of those was Fea-bella's player choosing death as part of a compromise, so that the blow to her heart could also purge her of her lust for the cursed Elfstone. That's also something that I see as an example of "the drift to Prince Valiant" (or a more pathos-laden Burning Wheel) and it's something I love about Torchbearer and think other FRPGs I know well (eg D&D, Rolemaster, RQ) don't offer in the same way.

Slight tangent: in our most recent session Golin's player was sick, and so Fea-bella's player and I got in a bit of two-player co-GMed Burning Wheel. Alicia suffered a mortal wound from overtax trying to cast Persuasion to stop Aedhros killing a guard in cold blood; the whole thing was being witnessed by Aedhros's hated father-in-law, the Elven Ambassador to the Port of Hardby and father of Aedhros's dead spouse; Aedhros, to show that not everyone in his care dies, tried to staunch Alicia's bleeding, but failed; he then tried to use his Circles of Spite, and his reputation as ill-favoured, to Circles up a helpful bloodletter necromancer, but this also failed, and so we discovered that Aedhros has another enemy in his background, the Death Artist Thoth ("Where cometh the corpse, cometh Thoth") - and Aedhros reluctantly had to carry Alicia's body into Thoth's secret death art workshop.

It's not identical to Torchbearer, but there's some resemblance to (say) Golin's induction into the Void Kult. The cycle of tests and twists; the framework of relationships (both friends and enemies) and beliefs; these reliably produce high drama and sometimes high pathos roleplaying!
 

Nytmare

David Jose
With regards to player death, I've also had a few TPKs, and they almost always fall to new players (myself included) having to break themselves out of the idea that RPG problems need to be solved by killing something. Once the players recognize the other buttons and levers available to them, it stops being an issue. Death is present, it's a threat that's always lurking around the corner, but it becomes a risk that a player decides to gamble with, and when it does happen, it's important and meaningful.

Convincing... I'm not sure what the best term for it would be, maybe "failure averse players(?)" can be incredibly tough to do with this game. I've run into lots of (I'd argue incredibly pessimistic) people who can not see success at a cost as anything other than the glass being half empty. But at least in my experience, the game isn't about a continuous string of niggling failures and needing to drop money on new tinderboxes every time the party heads into town. Failures are supposed to be interesting. They're the parts of a story that are driving the action forward. "Here's a new problem, how do you solve it?" If you're reading a book or watching a movie these are the moments where the hero needs to fight but breaks their sword, where the soldiers march all night and now they're tired, they scientists stop the crazy guy with a gun but unknowingly put the alien monster in their dog kennel, the moment that the terrorists take over the building and the character runs and hides without managing to put his shoes back on.

When my players are attempting to do something, they're only ever going to roll dice if I've come up with an "Oh! Man it sure would be interesting if THIS happens!" moment. "Your tinderbox breaks" is interesting maybe once, and maybe only if the players spent a bunch of time agonizing about making sure that they had enough torches and lamp oil for this trip. Two days underground, guarding the last flames of their guttering torches against the steadily dripping wet suddenly becomes meaningful and interesting.
 
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pemerton

Legend
@Nytmare

I suspect that @rmcoen was conflating equipment lost due to twists, which is under the control of the GM and as you say should be driven by dramatic pacing concerns as much as anything else, and equipment lost to pay off toll, which is largely under the control of the players and so can be as dramatic or expedient as they choose to make it.

At the table, the drama of the journey is not experienced at the point of paying of toll - which is more of a logisitical/mathematical exercise - but in the rolls that lead up to it, and at least as we have experienced it the weather roll in particular.
 

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