Torchbearer 2nd ed: first impressions

niklinna

Legend
Well, that and the fact that you are pretty limited if you run out of persona/fate points is going to MAKE you go for 'in-your-face' kind of play, because you will simply dry and die as a non-entity... Of course that also means you really need to horde those suckers, which is the whole other dynamic at play.
I have definitely not been hoarding my fate/persona points. Looks like I'll be in trouble soon!

Currency/limits reminds me that I need to look up what's involved in getting a trait up to 3, at which level you just have +1s to all applicable rolls. What better excuse to start reaching? :LOL:
 

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clearstream

(He, Him)
As best I can tell, the function of the "reaching" rule is a reminder to keep the fiction coherent (whatever that means for a given table) and vivid. If a player can think of a way in which First Born figures despite the absence of trees, stars and ancient memories - perhaps the blandness of their preserved rations makes them pine for lembas, and that sets back a test being made on the back of a recovery from hungry and thirsty - then to me that seems to be a virtue rather than a flaw. To me, at least, it seems that characterisation in Torchbearer is expected to be bright-hued and in-your-face, and traits are part of that, and the reaching admonition is part of that.
The first part seems right (keep the fiction coherent), but the second part raises questions for me. The Reaching rule reads

Reaching There’s a phenomenon with traits that we call reaching. It’s a situation when a trait clearly doesn’t fit, but a player is working really hard to convince the group that it’ll work. This behavior is not creative. It’s just short of begging, and it’s certainly always bull. If you feel a player is reaching, tell them so. Give them a moment to readjust. If they don’t have anything better to add, then move on. The trait doesn’t apply.
My take is more that it admonishes against trying to spatchcock traits into every situation. What do you think? Here is an example trait

Bitter Some turn bitter in their travels and grow to feel all their efforts are for nothing. This bitterness may protect them from the many and varied disappointments of life as an adventurer, but it also burdens them. They have trouble taking the optimistic course.
Many of the fictional elements in Torchbearer are bleak, and we interpret it as a grim story. In-your-face feels right. Bright-hued not so much!

[EDIT Or do you mean bright-hued in a blood-against-snow, bright-blade-edge sort of way? We've seen the world as grimier, but I can see that working too.]
 



pemerton

Legend
The Reaching rule reads
It’s a situation when a trait clearly doesn’t fit, but a player is working really hard to convince the group that it’ll work. This behavior is not creative. It’s just short of begging, and it’s certainly always bull. If you feel a player is reaching, tell them so. Give them a moment to readjust. If they don’t have anything better to add, then move on. The trait doesn’t apply.
My take is more that it admonishes against trying to spatchcock traits into every situation
This is not written in a technical fashion. It begins by positing that the trait clearly doesn't fit, but then allows that the player might "readjust" by adding something better. In a technical text, that would be contradiction. But in this text I don't take it to be a contradiction, because when it posits that the trait clearly doesn't fit, what it really means is that the player hasn't offered some fiction in which the trait figures coherently. If the player can "readjust" by coming up with some better fiction, then the trait does apply. Hence why I posted, upthread, that the concern is with coherent and vivid fiction, not with rationing the use of traits - the rationing function comes from elsewhere, and is based on cues - end of session refresh - and not fiction.

Other parts of the text encourage players to use traits against themselves, and remind the GM to remind the players of this possibility (DHB p 82; SG p 220). This reinforces, to me, the view I've expressed about how traits are to be rationed, and what it is that the reaching rule is concerned with.

Many of the fictional elements in Torchbearer are bleak, and we interpret it as a grim story. In-your-face feels right. Bright-hued not so much!

[EDIT Or do you mean bright-hued in a blood-against-snow, bright-blade-edge sort of way? We've seen the world as grimier, but I can see that working too.]
I mean bright-hued as opposed to subtle. Burning Wheel can be subtle. I think Apocalypse World is intended to admit of subtlety. Torchbearer doesn't strike me as subtle at all in the characterisation and setting it fosters. The PCs are painted in these bright, broad brushstrokes. The setting elements have their gameplay function called out front and centre - camps for camp phase and settlements for town phase - and they have shrines for blessings and temples for joining cults and guilds for crafting and taverns for drinking and learning rumours. Your friends always put you up, and your parents always have a small gift for you, unless a disaster has wiped their settlement from the map!

It's a game that knows, and embraces, its tropes.
 
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clearstream

(He, Him)
This is not written in a technical fashion. It begins by positing that the trait clearly doesn't fit, but then allows that the player might "readjust" by adding something better. In a technical text, that would be contradiction. But in this text I don't take it to be a contradiction, because when it posits that the trait clearly doesn't fit, what it really means is that the player hasn't offered some fiction in which the trait figures coherently. If the player can "readjust" by coming up with some better fiction, then the trait does apply. Hence why I posted, upthread, that the concern is with coherent and vivid fiction, not with rationing the use of traits - the rationing function comes from elsewhere, and is based on cues - end of session refresh - and not fiction.
I see. Your take is an appealing one. I find it off the mark because to me it doesn't speak to where traits sit in the game economy. I see the pressure on players to use them wherever possible, and Reaching articulates a natural design response to that. It admonishes against begging and advises the group to move on. How that might play out is a small delta in the game economy between our tables.
 

I have definitely not been hoarding my fate/persona points. Looks like I'll be in trouble soon!

Currency/limits reminds me that I need to look up what's involved in getting a trait up to 3, at which level you just have +1s to all applicable rolls. What better excuse to start reaching? :LOL:
Well, my problem was I guess I didn't really push as hard as I should have on my character, which meant that I got NO persona points in the first end of session, and thus I had just the one I started with, which ran out pretty fast... (and even that's a non-canonical @Manbearcat gift, lol). I did earn one at some point, and now I've earned a third one and haven't spent that yet! Fate points seem to be slightly less potent, but are still pretty useful. I mean, Tap Nature is really basically THE most potent move you can make in the game, especially if it is aligning with your descriptors. So there is REALLY strong incentives to accomplish your goal, or go against your belief. Using your Instinct of course being the 'easy' way to get fate, though I didn't actually find it THAT easy, since it seemed like doing it in my case would tap the grind...
 

Alright.

@AbdulAlhazred , @kenada , @niklinna . You’re through 2 x Journey/Adventure/Town phases of play with 3 x Camp phases.

You’ve lost 2 PCs but heroically/nobly (RIP Ruby and Jasper.

You’ve rediscovered Elfhome (Woodcleft), rescued an elven babe and gained Precedence with the Elves.

You’ve barely survived a Spiritual Conflict with a fell entity from another world (fleeing with Ruby sacrificing herself so the others might live.

You’ve dealt with your Enemies (Merrick and The Bear) for both good and for ill.

You’ve recovered Awanye the Elf’s sister’s body for proper burial in their homelands.

You’ve mapped an entire mountain expedition.

You’ve dealt with a haunted Hangman Tree.

You’ve lost a Trick Conflict to a Witch who lured you into an illusory enchanted forest where Jasper was cursed to do her bidding (which later led to his noble fate).

You’ve ritually thawed the Valkyrie stop her mountain perch by relighting Orin’s Everburning Brazier, heralding the return of warriors from faraway lands as she can once again watch over their battles and take them to Valhalla.

You’ve fearlessly (or foolishly!) fought a White Dragon (neither Adult nor Ancient…but Dragon nonetheless!) by her side and taken its horde.


Thoughts on Torchbearer 2 thus far?
 
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Alright.

@AbdulAlhazred , @kenada , @niklinna . You’re through 2 x Journey/Adventure/Town phases of play with 3 x Camp phases.

You’ve lost 2 PCs but heroically/nobly (RIP Ruby and Jasper.

You’ve rediscovered Elfhome (Woodcleft), rescued an elven babe and gained Precedence with the Elves.

You’ve barely survived a Spiritual Conflict with a fell entity from another world (fleeing with Ruby sacrificing herself so the others might live.

You’ve dealt with your Enemies (Merrick and The Bear) for both good and for ill.

You’ve recovered Awanye the Elf’s sister’s body for proper burial in their homelands.

You’ve mapped an entire mountain expedition.

You’ve dealt with a haunted Hangman Tree.

You’ve lost a Trick Conflict to a Witch who lured you into an illusory enchanted forest where Jasper was cursed to do her bidding (which later led to his noble fate).

You’ve ritually thawed the Valkyrie stop her mountain perch by relighting Orin’s Everburning Brazier, heralding the return of warriors from faraway lands as she can once again watch over their battles and take them to Valhalla.

You’ve fearlessly (or foolishly!) fought a White Dragon (neither Adult nor Ancient…but Dragon nonetheless!) by her side and taken its horde.


Thoughts on Torchbearer 2 thus far?
I think its interesting. In terms of basic game design aspects, I am of a mind that less is more, and TB2, like its parent BW/MG systems, is definitely more of a 'more is more' kind of design philosophy. Also the books are horribly badly organized, lol. OTOH it is pretty solid, the system WORKS and it is, presumably, supporting the type of gameplay, themes, and genre that the designers intended. We're having fun, or at least I've been having fun.

In terms of theme/genre/tone, I think TB2 clearly has a goal of laying on a kind of 'crapsack world, but with a chance of being an actual hero'. From a standpoint of a goal of skilled play I think that's generally a pretty effective spot to be in (I'd note that Stonetop sounds like it isn't too far off from that thematically, though with more of a feel of society will eventually flourish even if these are rough times. TB2's conceit seems to be more like "civilization is doomed, but maybe you can put a pin in it for a while."

Anyway, its fun and I assume we will try to keep playing, as I'm happy to go on trying to figure out what the next threat to Elfhome is and attempt to thwart it (though I could also see some sort of personal crisis on that point, if say a love interest or something interfered, except TB2 is kind of grim, so I guess its a question of whether the doomed love interest would outweigh helping the doomed community, lol).
 

niklinna

Legend
It's a mixed bag for me. The game delivers on the tone it promises: Everything is scarce, every choice is difficult, danger is ever-present. Unrelentingly so, as your personal strength is ground down the whole time. Even when we got the dragon hoard we were like, "How are we even gonna carry all this stuff!?" and had to plan a return trip, and then lost a bit of our loot on arrival at town too. I'm not sure how much I need to be emulating that feeling in a game given the state of the real world right now, but Torchbearer 2 certainly has it, which has made for some very engaging play.

I find the rules overly complicated, poorly written, and poorly organized. It has many distinct yet interlocking subsystems: abilities & skills (with several special ones that have additional rules), instincts, traits/checks, wises, persona points, fate points (because why have just one currency?), conditions, conflicts, arcana, invocations, and more. Every rule seems to have exceptions. No given thing is described completely in any one place, except perhaps spells & invocations: I was routinely surprised to learn new things about something I thought had been covered as I read through the two base books—which do not split material into player/game master stuff, but mostly PC creation and "everything else, including some stuff you wish you'd known while creating your PC".

Speaking of character creation, it's a mix of package-deal classes, questionnaire-based "customization" via a few either/or choices, and a random roll or two just for good measure. I'm not a fan of any of those methods of character creation and the particular combination here, along with the winding prose, made this process not at all fun for me. The game seems to assume a party of three as the baseline, and there's no way to cover all the bases with only three characters—which does perhaps fit back into the tone they're going for!

Gameplay is interesting. The rules are difficult to learn, but once you have a grasp of them, they do work. But they are always front and center, standing in between me and the unfolding drama/action, as we go from the description of the situation, to determining which currencies we have in what amounts and how to combine them to deal mechanically with the situation. The agony of small and dwindling inventories is cool; the agony of calculating how many points of this currency feed into that currency is more like bookkeeping (which is funny because in most games I've played, players hate tracking inventory/supplies but don't mind tracking hit points and spell slots and such!). It's nowhere near as smooth as Apocalypse world or Blades in the Dark, where the rules do their best to keep things moving along—any delays are usually due to player dithering on position & desired effect.

Skill tests are cool. I can see some traditional players not being happy with "fail" not meaning, well, failure, and I'm still adjusting my gut reaction to the term in play. But it's really neat that you can fail the test and still get what you want, but also get something you don't want, rather than merely whiffing, which I've always felt is boring (which I also like about Apocalypse World & Blades in the Dark). Scrambling for more dice to boost your roll is fun, but again there are too many fiddly different ways of doing that.

I like the advancement system, in spite of its exceptions. It makes sense that you get better at something after some number of both successes and "failures".

I found the conflict rules utterly confounding at first. They simply don't make sense to me and occupy this weird Tunnels & Trolls space of "throw some points around", but in a way more complicated manner. Again, as I become more familiar with the process, it's going a little more smoothly, but it's definitely an odd beast of a system compared to those I'm familiar with. (God help the people in the simulation thread if they were to try it.) Planning actions and then revealing them for resolution is interesting, and captures some of that feel of "no plan survives first contact".

I gotta run soon, I'll try to write more later.
 
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kenada

Legend
Alright.

@AbdulAlhazred , @kenada , @niklinna . You’re through 2 x Journey/Adventure/Town phases of play with 3 x Camp phases.

You’ve lost 2 PCs but heroically/nobly (RIP Ruby and Jasper.

You’ve rediscovered Elfhome (Woodcleft), rescued an elven babe and gained Precedence with the Elves.

You’ve barely survived a Spiritual Conflict with a fell entity from another world (fleeing with Ruby sacrificing herself so the others might live.

You’ve dealt with your Enemies (Merrick and The Bear) for both good and for ill.

You’ve recovered Awanye the Elf’s sister’s body for proper burial in their homelands.

You’ve mapped an entire mountain expedition.

You’ve dealt with a haunted Hangman Tree.

You’ve lost a Trick Conflict to a Witch who lured you into an illusory enchanted forest where Jasper was cursed to do her bidding (which later led to his noble fate).

You’ve ritually thawed the Valkyrie stop her mountain perch by relighting Orin’s Everburning Brazier, heralding the return of warriors from faraway lands as she can once again watch over their battles and take them to Valhalla.

You’ve fearlessly (or foolishly!) fought a White Dragon (neither Adult nor Ancient…but Dragon nonetheless!) by her side and taken its horde.


Thoughts on Torchbearer 2 thus far?
Torchbearer does a really good job of deploying its mechanics. Having inventory and light and all those things actually matter is great. It’s helped me give me a target for that kind of play in my homebrew system. It’s also helped give me an idea of how far I should not go.

However, I find it difficult to articulate how I feel about the game overall. I’ve enjoyed our session and our group, but I’m not sure I’d want to play another TB campaign or with another group. In a way, it can be exhausting to play. Even though I can point to the items on my character sheet that show Jakob has gotten some nice gear, it feels like he’s no better or possibly worse off than before we started playing. My helmet and cloak are still damaged, and he could just barely afford to buy food rations after returning to town with a dragon’s hoard. On top of that, and I understand this was the result of choices made by the players, instead of getting to celebrate our victory, we get to find a new companion (again).

One area where I struggle with the system a bit is that almost every decision we make while adventuring is tied to a test. I don’t know if that’s the fault of having the scale of adventures tied to a certain number of obstacles or just what we’ve done so far, but in spite of trying to be evocative of old-school dungeoneering, it doesn’t feel very successful at it. There have been few opportunities to deploy player skill or to solve riddles or problems without invoking a test. Skilled play has been how we engage with the system rather than how we engage as our characters. I peeked at the example adventure in the Scholar’s Guide, but it seems more like a modern adventure (a series of challenges) rather than an old-school dungeon. Could one even run something like Winter’s Daughter using Torchbearer? How would the grind make sense during a wedding party?

I will also echo that the books are awful. I stopped reading them because I thought I had read enough of the Scholar’s Guide (up through town phase), but it seems like that’s not enough. While the Lore Master’s Manual is purportedly optional, it seems like one is best off to read all the things. At least it’s not letter-sized, but it’s still a lot reading. It doesn’t help that the PDFs’ tables of contents are horrible. Whoever thought putting the index in the PDF ToC was a good idea should have their InDesign license taken away. I also don’t understand the split sometimes. Why are the diagrams for the phases included at the back of the Dungeoneer’s Handbook when the phases are explained in the Scholar’s Guide?

With all that said, I just want to end by reemphasizing that I’ve been enjoying our sessions and our group. It’s been fun, and I want to keep playing.

Edit: Oh, and I don’t like how skill advancement works. I’m pretty sure I have messed up tracking my skills. “Use it to advance skills” is a thing that makes sense but feels crappy in practice, especially when whether you get to mark advancement depends on how the skill is being deployed. For a new player, it feels safest to err on the side of not marking, which means I’ve probably shorted myself a bunch.
 

kenada

Legend
Speaking of character creation, it's a mix of package-deal classes, questionnaire-based "customization" via a few either/or choices, and a random roll or two just for good measure. I'm not a fan of any of those methods of character creation and the particular combination here, along with the winding prose, made this process not at all fun for me. The game seems to assume a party of three as the baseline, and there's no way to cover all the bases with only three characters—which does perhaps fit back into the tone they're going for!
I want to add to this. I didn’t like how there were trap options in the questionnaire. My character is a loner, which means I was supposed to sit out that part while everyone else finished their questionnaires. All I got was a trait in exchange for terrible circles and no friends or family. Doesn’t feel worth the trade-off at all (and I’ve read TB1 was even worse!). I also didn’t like that I was being asked to make decisions on things before they were introduced and explained.

“Write a belief”. Oh, okay. writes a belief

Here’s the chapter that explains beliefs, instincts, etc. reads how those are supposed to be written Time to rewrite some things…. 🤦🏻‍♂️
 

Good posts @AbdulAlhazred , @kenada , and @niklinna ! That kind of honest, thoughtful, and thorough review should be helpful for onlookers thinking about playing.

The only thing I’ll add is the following:

* Personally, I loved @niklinna ’s decision to risk his life by sparing the child and engaging with her spectral mother to remove his curse. He could have trivially removed it. His death is extremely meaningful. When I GM these types of games I love these brutal decisions no matter how they turn out because they reveal the character to us. And personally, I love tragic themes and meaningful sacrifice so Jasper has just become a much more meaningful character to me than he would have been if he would have just marked the child’s door for the witch. I will remember him.

* I totally understand that it is a grueling experience player-side (as intended), but I want to let folks know that (once you understand the system) it isn’t such GM-side. If you’re a curious GM, if you enjoy the themes/premise of the game, and you like creating these types of thematic/decision-point-intensive “obstacle courses”…TB (and TB2) is a joy to GM.
 
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kenada

Legend
I totally understand that it is a grueling experience player-side (as intended), but I want to let folks know that (once you understand the system) it isn’t such GM-side. If you’re a curious GM, if you live the themes/premise of the game, and you like creating threes types of thematic/decision-point-intensive “obstacle courses”…TB (and TB2) is a joy to GM.
I think that’s a good summary of the problems I mentioned with the example adventure. Looking at it wearing an OSR GM hat, a good OSR adventure isn’t just an obstacle course. When I hear “obstacle course”, I think “modern” adventure design where dungeons are reduced to a series of challenges. In particular, it seems like there have been few or no opportunities to use a Good Idea to avoid a test (and thus advancing the grind).
 

Good posts @AbdulAlhazred , @kenada , and @niklinna ! That kind of honest, thoughtful, and thorough review should be helpful for onlookers thinking about playing.

The only thing I’ll add is the following:

* Personally, I loved @niklinna ’s decision to risk his life by sparing the child and engaging with her spectral mother to remove his curse. He could have trivially removed it. His death is extremely meaningful. When I GM these types of games I love these brutal decisions no matter how they turn out because they reveal the character to us. And personally, I love tragic themes and meaningful sacrifice so Jasper has just become a much more meaningful character to me than he would have been if he would have just marked the child’s door for the witch. I will remember him.

* I totally understand that it is a grueling experience player-side (as intended), but I want to let folks know that (once you understand the system) it isn’t such GM-side. If you’re a curious GM, if you enjoy the themes/premise of the game, and you like creating these types of thematic/decision-point-intensive “obstacle courses”…TB (and TB2) is a joy to GM.
Just as an observation, Awanye FULLY expects the party will be 'haunted' by the ghost of Jasper from now on, lol! Whether he's a helpful ghost or a baleful one (or maybe some of each) I guess will be up to how we leverage that in play, hehe. And, I think TB2 definitely has tools that can work for that, It certainly would be easy enough to describe losing a tie, or tossing an extra die using a Fate point as having some supernatural explanation!
 

kenada

Legend
Personally, I loved @niklinna ’s decision to risk his life by sparing the child and engaging with her spectral mother to remove his curse. He could have trivially removed it. His death is extremely meaningful. When I GM these types of games I love these brutal decisions no matter how they turn out because they reveal the character to us. And personally, I love tragic themes and meaningful sacrifice so Jasper has just become a much more meaningful character to me than he would have been if he would have just marked the child’s door for the witch. I will remember him.
I want to respond to this because rereading your post made brought something important to mind. I think this event very nicely exposes the tension between skilled play (Step On Up) and Story Now in Torchbearer. After the harsh adventure, I shifted fully into the former because I didn’t want to “lose” town and not be in a good position to have a better next adventure. That’s why I went for help instead of getting pulled into a conflict with the thugs in the market, and it’s why I hedged to avoid taxing my resources again when I left town. @niklinna on the other hand went fully into what Jasper would do. I don’t really have more to say other than to point that out for illustrative purposes.

Also, isn’t it theoretically possible to remove the dead condition? 🤔
 

@kenada and @niklinna and @AbdulAlhazred

Look at Pay the Terrible Price (LMM p 94) . This gives procedures and thematics for what you're talking about.

Journeys to Hell and other things are covered as well there.

EDIT - Interestingly, what you're describing above is precisely what makes D&D 4e such a great synthesis of Step On Up and Story Now priorities; the allocation of the Step On Up component overwhelmingly being at the scene level rather than overwhelmingly as an aspect of a strategic through-line that transcends scenes. Blades has a similar allocation to 4e (the both have Skilled Play that manifests as a strategic through-line that transcends scenes...but the big bulk of Skilled Play is deft management of move-space and resource deployment and fictional positioning within the scene).

That is a huge deal. Overwhelmingly, games that coherently express both priorities (at least in part if not "whole-hog") are possessed of this architectural feature.
 
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kenada

Legend
@kenada and @niklinna and @AbdulAlhazred

Look at Pay the Terrible Price (LMM p 94) . This gives procedures and thematics for what you're talking about.

Journeys to Hell and other things are covered as well there.
Wasn’t sure that was in play, which is why I didn’t mention it explicitly, but yes. On the other hand, I do think Jasper had a good end. It’s certainly better than falling off the side of a mountain or being eaten by a tree.
 

niklinna

Legend
Edit: Oh, and I don’t like how skill advancement works. I’m pretty sure I have messed up tracking my skills. “Use it to advance skills” is a thing that makes sense but feels crappy in practice, especially when whether you get to mark advancement depends on how the skill is being deployed. For a new player, it feels safest to err on the side of not marking, which means I’ve probably shorted myself a bunch.
Wanted to hit this point before I continue reading. I do agree here; it's very easy to forget to actually mark the advancement. I feel that's more due to us playing remotely for some reason—this is not the only game stat I've noticed is harder to track playing virtually. I feel that if I were playing in person with paper sheets, it would be pretty easy to keep track of. I could be wrong.
 

Wanted to hit this point before I continue reading. I do agree here; it's very easy to forget to actually mark the advancement. I feel that's more due to us playing remotely for some reason—this is not the only game stat I've noticed is harder to track playing virtually. I feel that if I were playing in person with paper sheets, it would be pretty easy to keep track of. I could be wrong.
I think it is easier, but maybe not SIMPLE. Does TB2 have roll20 support? If so that might be useful as there would likely be automatic tracking, as well as hopefully it would help with knowing what mechanical options you have at any given time, at least in rules terms.
 

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