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Torchbearer 2nd ed: first impressions

pemerton

Legend
I backed the Torchbearer 2nd edition Kickstarter in April 2020. My books arrived a couple of weeks ago: the two core book (Dungeoneer's Handbook, Scholar's Guide), the expansion book (Lore Master's Manual) and a book of scenarios (Cartographer's Compendium). I also got PDF of all these plus the Scavenger's Supplement, another expansion.

In this post I'll be commenting on the full suite of this material without distinguishing core and supplements. That distinction is a bit unstable in any event, with multiple references in both core books to material in the Lore Master's Manual. Although the two core books are, in both title and the way they address the reader, meant to emulate a PHB and DMG, I don't think they fully succeed in that respect. There is stuff in the Scholar's Guide that players absolutely need to know, including the core action resolution rules; and personally I would have found it easier with a different approach to the presentation of the material, with less overlap between the two core books and less need (as a reader) to read across multiple books including the Lore Master's Manual to get the full picture of a particular subsystem. But maybe there are going to be some RPGers who just use the two core books, which perhaps justifies the way it's been done.

I've not played Torchbearer in either its original or this revised version. But I have played, and am a big fan of, Burning Wheel, which is the system that Torchbearer is (largely) derived from. Where Torchbearer differs from Burning Wheel is first and foremost in the "theme" or focus of play; and the mechanical differences are then (mostly) built around that. The stand-out items in the Games list in the Scholar's Guide bibliography are:

*The Caverns of Thracia, by Jennell Jaquays
*Dungeon Module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, by Gary Gygax
*Dungeons & Dragons Rules for Fantasy Medieval Wargames Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures, by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, Tactical Studies Rules, 1974
*Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Adventure Game, by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (edited by Tom Moldvay), TSR, 1981.
*A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, by Matthew Finch​

In other words, Torchbearer is what you get if you (i) take the basic Burning Wheel framework for PC build (stock, stats, skills, traits, Wises, Beliefs, Instincts, Resources, Circles, Relationships) and action resolution ("say 'yes' or roll the dice; "fail forward"; pacing and thematically-driven toggling between simple checks and various more-or-less baroque extended resolution systems), (ii) simplify it in places (shorten the length of the stat and skill lists; make traits simpler and more uniform in their mechanical effects; merge the extended resolution systems into a single one - I believe that Mouse Guard did this first, but I don't know it other than by reputation), and then (iii) adapt it and add necessary elements to make it support classic D&D-esque dungeon crawling and wilderness adventuring (classes instead of life paths; levels - from 1st to 10th - as an additional component of the PC; shifting some of the work done by Beliefs into distinct Goal - what are we going to do this session? - and Creed - what's your alignment? - slots; a systematic inventory and encumbrance system; random loot tables, and a whole new suite of downtime resolution systems to soak up that loot).

At a high level of description, Torchbearer can be compared Dungeon World: a modern system dedicated to capturing the feel of classic D&D. At a more detailed level I think there are significant differences; I'll get back to these below.

Anyway, here's my first serious thought about this system: The flavour is amazing. For me, this really started to come through in two ways. First, reading the different settlement types, in the context of the town phase (which is the system's downtime resolution framework) and starting to think through how this might feel in play. The differences between Bustling Metropolises, Religious Bastion's, Walled Towns, Borderland Fortresses, and the not-quite-Rivendell-nor-quite-Lorien Elfhomes - just to name a few of over a dozen settlement types - comes through very vividly.

The second way the flavour struck me was via the classes. Each class has a stock ("race", in classic D&D terms), a trait, some core skills, and a list of level benefit. Around this structure we get Halfling Bounders, Burglars and Stoorish, Smeagol-ish Guides; Elven Rangers and Dreamwalkers (the system's version of an Elven magic-user); Dwarven Outcasts (like Thorin Oakenshield; at higher levels they may be joined on their adventures by their cousins) and Stonetellers (the system's version of a Dwarven cleric); and a variety of options for humans: thieves, warriors, skalds and various users of magic, including magicians with their memorised spells, shamans and theurges (two categories of cleric who are nicely differentiated, and correspond a little bit to druids vs clerics in AD&D) and sorcerers who have no D&D analogue but combine aspects of Burning Wheel summoning and Burning Wheel spirit-binding.

Here's my second serious thought: Play looks incredibly demanding and unforgiving. This is probably the biggest difference, at least on reading, from Dungeon World. There is not the soft-move/hard-move structure of DW; as in Burning Wheel, many checks will probably be failed (due to high obstacles relative to the abilities and augments the players can muster), but unlike BW there is a systematic process for inflicting consequences in the form of debilitating conditions which range from hungry and thirsty to dead. Hungry and thirsty can be recovered by a short rest, provided the characters are carrying rations and/or water. But everything else requires an extended rest to recover (camp phase or the downtime town phase), and the rationing of actions (including recovery checks) in camp phase is brutal; and town phase also rations, not via an action economy but via the need to make a Lifestyle Resources check at the end of each town phase, with the more luxurious accommodations that permit more recoveries also adding to that Lifestyle obstacle. (The relationship between Lifestyle and periodic Resources checks comes from Burning Wheel; the implementation of them in this system is all its own thing!) The death spiral, with multiple layers and moving parts in terms of both PC build elements, the basic structure of play, and the passage of both at-the-table and in-game time, seems as severe as anything I've seen in a RPG.

On reading, it's very hard to tell how the flavour and the play will intersect. I can see how the system has the tools to resolve Bilbo the Burglar stabbing and tricking the giant spiders in Mirkwood to rescue his captured companions. But I can't tell what Bilbo's chance of success would be; though my intuition is that, to Bilbo's player, things would look pretty dire!

I don't know if or when I'll be able to persuade some or all of my group to give this a try. Hopefully at some stage. I think it's a system that wants to be played.
 

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I've got a few games of Torchbearer pending right now. One is on hiatus until a few players are available. The other one just came up emergently Saturday before last as I spent an evening with my old gaming group in person. We talked about TB2, talked about the pending game, I showed them the map (I'll attach it here) and discussed the premise (this Norse-like arctic peninsula is crawling out of their holes after an apocalypse from the last century ruined the connections of civilization and sent their tiny world in a desperate spiral for survival).

They got excited. They each chose one of the iconic characters so we could start play straight-away. We keyed up the map with their homelands and a few areas sufficient for an initial Journey and Adventure and we ran the Journey to the site. I'll say more about that and intersect a play excerpt with the lead post once I have a bit more time. A primer for reference to that subsequent post:


PCs chosen - They went the following route:

Karolina - Human Warrior from Remote Village.

Belief: I am the bulwark that stands between my friends and harm.

Goal: I will find out what happened to Jora.

Instinct: Always go hunting when we make camp.

Traits: Heart of Battle, Defender

Wise: Field-dressing

Nature Answers - Quietly prepare, listen to the wisdom of the elder ones, do not fear those who prey on civilization.

Circles Answers -

Has friends (Njall the Weaver), orphan (mother’s ivory cameo), has mentor (Gudrun the Hunter), has enemy (Grimkell the Warrior).

Skill Selection -

Human skill: Pathfinder
Specialist skill: Hunter
Home skill: Carpenter
Social Graces: Persuader

Taika - Elf Ranger from Elfhome

Belief: I must help my comrades consider every angle before making a decision.

Goal: I will determine what evil haunts this place.

Instinct: Always identify the capabilities of new creatures I encounter.

Traits: First-born, Fiery.

Wise: Elven lore

Nature answers -

Sing the ancient songs, confront evil, prepared for a life of struggle.

Circles Answers -

Has friends (Tua the healer, townsfolk), has parents (Laras and Sanna, mentors), has mentor (Ulla the scout), no enemy

Skill Section -

Specialist skill: Scout
Home skill: Healer
Social graces: Persuader

Aile - Human Sorcerer from Forgotten Temple

Belief: I must master myself to master the world.

Instinct: Always make talismans for my companions in camp.

Traits: Colossal Pride, Foolhardy

Wise: Frost-wights

Nature Answers -

Quietly prepare, listen, do not fear.

Circles Answers -

Has friend (Gaivvas the Shaman), orphan, mentor (Siru the Sorcerer), enemy (Avra the Magician).

Skill Selection -

Human skill: Laborer
Specialist skill: Persuader
Home skill: Theologian
Social graces: Orator

The only house rules we use are as follows:

1) CONFLICTS

Defend vs Attack - 1 HP reduction or 1 HP Regroup (player/GM choice) no matter result of vs test.

2) HELP

Mark for 1 test per session but if failure and its a Condition + Success (rather than a Twist), both the Helper and the primary player gets the same Condition (not a lesser condition as per normal).

3) JOURNEYS

We aren't using the TB2 Journey rules w/ Toll per se. We're (a) treating it like Adventure phase with The Grind suspended, (b) using Journey Legs to represent a day of travel, (b) a Pathfinder Test for off-road Legs (with attendant Twist/Danger-related decision-point pending course charted), (c) Haggler Test for Road to score a caravan (and avoid Road Events) or Road Events if no Haggler Test, (d) mark one food or drink to abate Hungry and Thirsty at the end of each Leg.




I'll do a post in the coming days detailing the map/site conversation we had (their homes, the first adventuring site and premise, the course charted for the Journey) and the Journey phase of play (that is all we got done because we had to cover a lot of things) and have it intersect with the lead post's flavor and unforgiving and demanding components.

The group is going to try to get together at least once a month (maybe every 3 weeks if we can...basically rendezvous is an hour and change drive for each of us). Maybe we'll play online a bit if need be (unclear), but 2 of the players hate online play so I doubt it.
 

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Well, I made a halfling burglar for @Manbearcat. It is definitely not Bilbo! But maybe a somewhat similar theme can be evoked, I dunno.
The grind does sound pretty brutal. Basically every 'scene' is a turn, and ever 4 turns you get another condition. Now, scenes are going to vary heavily in what they represent, legs of a journey, an encounter, some bit of exploration, etc. Given that the FIRST condition you are likely to get is Hungry & Thirsty, and you can cure that reasonably easily, my guess is that as long as you're well victualized you can float around without getting completely worn down. OTOH you're DEFINITELY going to fail a lot of checks, and those will impose MORE conditions. Many of them can only really be dealt with in town, so its pretty clear the drill is you have to gauge when you're approaching the point of no return, and TURN BACK, but if you haven't achieved enough resources to make the town recovery checks when you return, then you're basically forked.

I suspect the most common fate of adventurers is simply to end up utterly penniless, having no equipment or resources remaining, and with so many conditions that leaving town is infeasible. I guess you just lair 'in the streets' until accumulated conditions kill you at that point...

The whole shtick seems to be, thematically, 'adventurers are all scum'. You have 'standing' 0 (and I see no mechanism to improve it), which means literally nobody but peasants and workmen, harlots (yay we have not advanced yet since Gygax), soldiers, and other adventurers are THE ONLY PEOPLE WHO WILL ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR EXISTENCE. Anyone of higher presence than 1 won't even spit on you, you don't exist. I would assume that there's an implied "unless the GM plots otherwise."

Likewise combat is predicated on 'might', though here adventurers are a 3, which makes them somewhat badass (normal humans are a 2, small animals, children, and kobolds are 1s). 7 is a god, 6 is an elder dragon, 4's and 5's are the nasty monster types you MIGHT be able to avoid being slaughtered by if you're lucky. Technically you can capture something up to equal to your might, slay things up to might +1, and drive off creatures up to might +2. This is sort of hard-coded into the combat system as just an absolute limitation of resolution, no matter how good your plan is, how well you roll, or what equipment or etc. you bring to bear, you CANNOT have any impact at all on a might 6 dragon, period.

Your might and presence do increase by one at higher levels. I didn't see in a casual scanning of the material outside of 'how to roll up your character' any mechanism to increase those abilities MORE, so I guess the theme is you were, are, and always will be scum, and even when you reach level 10 (the highest level) there are still 3 ranks of monsters above you (admittedly 1 of those being gods, which maybe aren't really something that shows up in play, I dunno...).

Anyway, I figure you could probably play for years without reaching level 10, simply because this game gonna kill every character dead pretty quick! lol. I could be wrong, maybe items and whatnot, and lucky big treasure hauls, can set you up. I guess we shall see...
 

Bill Zebub

“It’s probably Matt Mercer’s fault.”
Well, I made a halfling burglar for @Manbearcat. It is definitely not Bilbo! But maybe a somewhat similar theme can be evoked, I dunno.
The grind does sound pretty brutal. Basically every 'scene' is a turn, and ever 4 turns you get another condition. Now, scenes are going to vary heavily in what they represent, legs of a journey, an encounter, some bit of exploration, etc. Given that the FIRST condition you are likely to get is Hungry & Thirsty, and you can cure that reasonably easily, my guess is that as long as you're well victualized you can float around without getting completely worn down. OTOH you're DEFINITELY going to fail a lot of checks, and those will impose MORE conditions. Many of them can only really be dealt with in town, so its pretty clear the drill is you have to gauge when you're approaching the point of no return, and TURN BACK, but if you haven't achieved enough resources to make the town recovery checks when you return, then you're basically forked.

I suspect the most common fate of adventurers is simply to end up utterly penniless, having no equipment or resources remaining, and with so many conditions that leaving town is infeasible. I guess you just lair 'in the streets' until accumulated conditions kill you at that point...

The whole shtick seems to be, thematically, 'adventurers are all scum'. You have 'standing' 0 (and I see no mechanism to improve it), which means literally nobody but peasants and workmen, harlots (yay we have not advanced yet since Gygax), soldiers, and other adventurers are THE ONLY PEOPLE WHO WILL ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR EXISTENCE. Anyone of higher presence than 1 won't even spit on you, you don't exist. I would assume that there's an implied "unless the GM plots otherwise."

Likewise combat is predicated on 'might', though here adventurers are a 3, which makes them somewhat badass (normal humans are a 2, small animals, children, and kobolds are 1s). 7 is a god, 6 is an elder dragon, 4's and 5's are the nasty monster types you MIGHT be able to avoid being slaughtered by if you're lucky. Technically you can capture something up to equal to your might, slay things up to might +1, and drive off creatures up to might +2. This is sort of hard-coded into the combat system as just an absolute limitation of resolution, no matter how good your plan is, how well you roll, or what equipment or etc. you bring to bear, you CANNOT have any impact at all on a might 6 dragon, period.

Your might and presence do increase by one at higher levels. I didn't see in a casual scanning of the material outside of 'how to roll up your character' any mechanism to increase those abilities MORE, so I guess the theme is you were, are, and always will be scum, and even when you reach level 10 (the highest level) there are still 3 ranks of monsters above you (admittedly 1 of those being gods, which maybe aren't really something that shows up in play, I dunno...).

Anyway, I figure you could probably play for years without reaching level 10, simply because this game gonna kill every character dead pretty quick! lol. I could be wrong, maybe items and whatnot, and lucky big treasure hauls, can set you up. I guess we shall see...
That was actually both entertaining and informative. Thanks!
 

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