Torchbearer 2nd ed: first impressions

niklinna

Legend
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.
Oh I did find myself wondering if I shouldn't just take the easy path, as a player. I was actually a little surprised to see that my options were starkly success vs. death rather than the usual "you might get what you want, but with some complications". And that being so different actually prompted me to go for broke—only to come up with zero successes on 7 dice!

I think if the little girl hadn't—perhaps mistakenly, now that we know more—tried to protect Jasper when we met, he would not have felt a need to remove the curse other than by fulfilling the command.
Also, isn’t it theoretically possible to remove the dead condition? 🤔
Why yes, it is. How badly do you want Jasper back? :)
 

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niklinna

Legend
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.
I think marking bubbles on a track is pretty simple, myself.

In any case, I put formulas in the character spreadsheets we're using so that when you enter the right amounts, you get a big bright red indicator to level up the stat. But you still have to remember to update the fields....
 

Oh I did find myself wondering if I shouldn't just take the easy path, as a player. I was actually a little surprised to see that my options were starkly success vs. death rather than the usual "you might get what you want, but with some complications". And that being so different actually prompted me to go for broke—only to come up with zero successes on 7 dice!

I think if the little girl hadn't—perhaps mistakenly, now that we know more—tried to protect Jasper when we met, he would not have felt a need to remove the curse other than by fulfilling the command.

This is good conversation for both you guys and any bystanders as to how certain intricacies of Torchbearer work:

* While injured, an adventurer is at serious risk. If a test involves the risk of physical harm, the game master may apply the dead condition to an injured character as the result of a failed test. The game master is obligated to inform the player that death is on the line before the player rolls the dice.

* While sick, a character is at serious risk. If the circumstances of a test involve sickness, disease, poison, madness or grief, the game master may apply the dead condition to any sick character as the result of a failed test. The game master is obligated to inform the player that death is on the line before the player rolls the dice.


So for this particular situation sub "cursed" for injured/sick and sub in test involving "removing the curse" for test involving <all the stuff mentioned above>.
 

niklinna

Legend
I'm back from board games. Fun was had. Back to Torchbearer 2!

@kenada raised a good additional point about character creation. I'll expand that to leveling up. You get two exclusive choices each new level, and you cannot pick a lower-level choice later on. I have always hated that arbitrary kind of limitation in ability selection. At several levels I definitely wanted both picks, particularly magician level three: spell slot vs. familiar. I mean, come on. Grr.

This leads into the magic system. It is, like the game at large, restrictive and claustrophobic, mostly in a good way. Beginning wizards have a random set of three spells they know, tied thematically to a school. They can have exactly one spell memorized, and if they want more versatility they can chew up two inventory slots to carry their spellbook, or scribe some scrolls (after their first adventure, if they can spare the lifestyle cost). I really don't like randomly rolling up my spells, as those determine the sort of magician you're playing and I think that should be up to the player. Having only one spell is fine, as is needing/being able to cast from your spell book (better than AD&D Magic Users got!). Unfortunately, magicians in TB2 are fixed at Scholar 2 with maybe one option for bumping that—tied to your hometown—and so casting from your spell book means you have to make a very difficult test to copy back from your master library, which you must do in your hometown and possibly incur lifestyle cost. On the one hand, I feel that yes, this captures what a fantasy wizard should be, and on the other hand, it's a lot of bookkeeping hassle. And considering the hard choices you have to make just to get a mere handful of spell slots (see above about leveling up), well, I sometimes wonder why I decided to play a magician, if I can't do more magic! But being the knowledge guy has its perks.

(I'll add that you get saddled with Alchemist as a magician, whether you want it or not, and while the skill doesn't look useful at first, it could be a nice supplementing to making camp if folks have certain conditions that need clearing. It also might come up in further play, but frankly I'd rather my Jasper had ranks in Theologian since he was a lore-hound and geek.)

My character's randomly rolled spells were divination: Aetherial Premonition (Alarm), Supernal Vision (Detect Magic), and Wayfarer's Friend (sub Arcanist for Pathfinder). At first I wasn't thrilled to get them, but they all turned out to be very handy. So much so that I did cast them out of my spell book and had to re-scribe them later. Now I'm creating a new magician—I don't feel our party will do well without one—and facing that random roll again, and not liking it one bit. My one consolation is that we have Jasper's spell book and gear to rob so my new character can do the tests to learn those spells (at some lifestyle cost). We'll see how that pans out.

I read the chapter on Invocations once, and decided I want nothing to do with that system. It definitely overflowed my buffer for rules complexity, both in being yet another distinct subsystem, and in being hard to understand on its own. It also looks like no fun to keep track of. And yet theurges get the ability to do manageable spiritual conflicts, whereas magicians have to commit to a kill conflict. Ah well!
 
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niklinna

Legend
Now, while I feel the game goes overboard on its various currencies and interlocking subsystems, I really like the principle that you have to court danger to get opportunities for recovery. I am talking specifically about taking checks through using your traits against yourself in order to be able to make camp and do recovery rolls. It harks back to my time playing Fate with its double-edged aspects, which was one of my big "aha" moments in gaming. I really like this idea a lot, even though we've been pretty bad at actually using it. I've had to remind myself several times of good opportunities to do it with low risk, or to do it even though the risk is high because it makes the drama more fun.

Light deserves a mention of its own. It's a truly oppressive, overbearing, inventory-stuffing factor that makes this game so much grittier than any D&D I ever got to play. Somebody has to carry that lantern, or somebodies, plural, have to carry those torches, and that means hands not free for tools & weapons. Tracking multiple light sources along with the Grind is a bit of a hassle, but the feelig of claustrophobia and limited time adds so much to the tone of the game. I don't get the impression from the rules or the sessions we've had, but I can imagine a party making multiple forays into a dungeon just to lay down supply caches so they can penetrate deeper. I don't know how much fun RPing that process would be, but it definitely comes to mind.
 

niklinna

Legend
This is good conversation for both you guys and any bystanders as to how certain intricacies of Torchbearer work:

* While injured, an adventurer is at serious risk. If a test involves the risk of physical harm, the game master may apply the dead condition to an injured character as the result of a failed test. The game master is obligated to inform the player that death is on the line before the player rolls the dice.

* While sick, a character is at serious risk. If the circumstances of a test involve sickness, disease, poison, madness or grief, the game master may apply the dead condition to any sick character as the result of a failed test. The game master is obligated to inform the player that death is on the line before the player rolls the dice.


So for this particular situation sub "cursed" for injured/sick and sub in test involving "removing the curse" for test involving <all the stuff mentioned above>.
True, and you were quite up-front that I was risking Jasper's death on a failed roll. The condition simulating the curse was Exhausted and not Injured/Sick, but I knew the danger. Again, if I were playing to "win" (or perhaps, given the game, just "not lose"), I should have turned right around and marked the door then and there. But I am a dirty narrativist player at heart. :)
 

True, and you were quite up-front that I was risking Jasper's death on a failed roll. The condition simulating the curse was Exhausted and not Injured/Sick, but I knew the danger. Again, if I were playing to "win" (or perhaps, given the game, just "not lose"), I should have turned right around and marked the door then and there. But I am a dirty narrativist player at heart. :)

Yup!

There is a reason I selected Exhaustion as the placeholder for Cursed here! Because if I made it Injured or Sick then, effectively, I would be putting you in a better position by Cursing you than if you had either of those two Conditions (because it would be taking the Dead Condition off the table for tests that risk physical harm, sickness, disease, poison, madness or grief)!

I learned that little trick a long while back GMing TB1!

So any GMs in the future wanting to run TB2, take note: Don't make Sick or Injured the placeholder for Cursed. Make it be Exhausted as that won't contract the danger for the PC (which would effectively and oddly turn Cursed into a boon).
 

niklinna

Legend
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.
Agree 100% here.

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).
Yeah, I didn't want to give any kind of summary "I love it" / "I hate it". I'm definitely enjoying the experience of playing with our particular group, but for all the reasons we've both given, the game has its problems!

I do feel a pang of regret at losing Jasper so soon after we lost Ruby, particularly since we had just returned triumphant, as it were. I should have remembered that every singel die roll we made involving that witch went poorly....

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 agree with this too. To me it feels, again, like mechanics intruding on story rather than supporting story. It's clear that they're trying to support the story/tone/etc., but I don't think it's working particularly well.

Or maybe it's just our lousy GM's fault 😉
 

niklinna

Legend
Yup!

There is a reason I selected Exhaustion as the placeholder for Cursed here! Because if I made it Injured or Sick then, effectively, I would be putting you in a better position by Cursing you than if you had either of those two Conditions (because it would be taking the Dead Condition off the table for tests that risk physical harm, sickness, disease, poison, madness or grief)!

I learned that little trick a long while back GMing TB1!

So any GMs in the future wanting to run TB2, take note: Don't make Sick or Injured the placeholder for Cursed. Make it be Exhausted as that won't contract the danger for the PC (which would effectively and oddly turn Cursed into a boon).
Not sure I understand. Are you saying that if you had made me take Injured to simulate the curse, you couldn't have applied that as its own thing, thereby masking the very possibility that Jasper might actually be injured? That seems more like an artifact of the character sheet. I don't know if this curse thing was something from the rulebook or not...did it have to be handled by applying a condition that isn't really a condition?
 

Not sure I understand. Are you saying that if you had made me take Injured to simulate the curse, you couldn't have applied that as its own thing, thereby masking the very possibility that Jasper might actually be injured? That seems more like an artifact of the character sheet. I don't know if this curse thing was something from the rulebook or not...did it have to be handled by applying a condition that isn't really a condition?

You got it.

Traps and Monsters and stuff can cause special Conditions. You can just have them eat up Exhausted or a lower condition (which is the easiest thing in my opinion) or make them entirely separate conditions that require different means to recover (like a different Recovery Test, or a metagame currency spent/reward on end of session earned, or a particular bit of fictional positioning like in this case).

Cursed is easiest to sub in for Exhausted.
 

My feelings on TB2 chargen is that PCs are much closer to pregens than to fully defined PCs. Races and classes have pretty narrow stereotyped setups, etc. Every halfling is a burglar, every burglar is a halfling. All halflings are obsessed with food, etc. You can diverge a bit, but in basic outline you really just pick a pregen.

I think it's easy enough to open it up more, though I am not sure if it's really going to add to the game.
 

kenada

Legend
Torchbearer reminds me of basic D&D. It has (almost) race-as-class and a similar equipment list. The grind is very reminiscent of the exploration structure in that game, which also imposes penalties unless you rest regularly.
 

Torchbearer reminds me of basic D&D. It has (almost) race-as-class and a similar equipment list. The grind is very reminiscent of the exploration structure in that game, which also imposes penalties unless you rest regularly.

That is because Moldvay Basic is the exact inspiration for it!

TB1 even more so.

It’s basically Moldvay Basic Mouse Guard-ified!
 

That is because Moldvay Basic is the exact inspiration for it!

TB1 even more so.

It’s basically Moldvay Basic Mouse Guard-ified!
Right, that is definitely the basic inspiration for the character selection. Basic D&D is much more 'free wheeling' though in terms of not really having a 'grind' in nearly as explicit a fashion. Yes, you can run out of torches, for example, and that would be BAD, but taking a minute to accomplish some minor task won't burn a turn, and its quite happy to let the party members multi-task too! So it is a LOT less structured in many respects, plus of course the lack of 'currencies' aside from hit points (I guess you could also call spell slots a currency). At the very least Basic put a lot more leeway in the hands of the DM as far as handling this kind of stuff went. I can remember games where we stuffed our packs with rations and water skins and torches and never even bothered to track what we used, perhaps noting that we burned a few spare silvers of pocket change restocking them. Other games the DM was pretty detailed about tracking supply use, at least at low levels. TBH it ALWAYS became kind of tedious and generally got elided for the most part later on.
 

kenada

Legend
It’s the tyranny of rule zero. If the referee can decide that the rules have no teeth (and I’d argue that’s what allowing multitasking and actions that take less than a turn do), then there’s a high risk that the experience the rules were trying to create will be undermined or broken.

The encumbrance rules stank though. Tracking with an abstraction is fine, but coins is too much granularity. Item-based inventory systems seem popular right now in OSR games. I like the slot-based system in Torchbearer for its visual approach and implemented something similar (but less granular) in my homebrew system.
 

It’s the tyranny of rule zero. If the referee can decide that the rules have no teeth (and I’d argue that’s what allowing multitasking and actions that take less than a turn do), then there’s a high risk that the experience the rules were trying to create will be undermined or broken.

The encumbrance rules stank though. Tracking with an abstraction is fine, but coins is too much granularity. Item-based inventory systems seem popular right now in OSR games. I like the slot-based system in Torchbearer for its visual approach and implemented something similar (but less granular) in my homebrew system.
Yeah, I've debated whether I want to go to something abstract in HoML, like just having the players decide what sort of luggage they have, and then let them try to pull stuff out of it that is relevant to the current situation, a bit like the way BitD works. I started out with just basically the 4e encumbrance rules, but it seems like maybe it isn't really hauling its weight...
 

pemerton

Legend
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.
Tracking advancements in Burning Wheel/Torchbearer is also a pain using paper sheets!

I put formulas in the character spreadsheets we're using so that when you enter the right amounts, you get a big bright red indicator to level up the stat. But you still have to remember to update the fields....
I have an Excel sheet for Burning Wheel that similarly keeps track of how many advancements are needed, and when your ability is due for a raise. But the tracking of the advancements is still something that has to be done by the player.

I read the chapter on Invocations once, and decided I want nothing to do with that system. It definitely overflowed my buffer for rules complexity, both in being yet another distinct subsystem, and in being hard to understand on its own. It also looks like no fun to keep track of.
Another complication with Theurges and Shamans is that (a bit like B/X and AD&D clerics) you have access to the full list of invocations all the time.

For that reason, I advised my players in our first session not to create any theurges or shamans, as being too hard to play when you're still learning the system.

I sometimes wonder why I decided to play a magician, if I can't do more magic! But being the knowledge guy has its perks.
Arcanist also lets you cast spells from scrolls (should you find any . . .).

One of the PCs in my (two sessions only so far) campaign is a Dreamwalker, who has a magician-like spread of skills (though Healer rather than Alchemist) but no starting magic: only at 2nd level can a Dreamwalker start building a memory palace. The knowledge skills have proved useful so far. And a Dreamwalker does get to start with a half-moon glaive (= halberd) rather than a dagger!
 

pemerton

Legend
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
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.
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 suprised to learn new things about something I thought had been covered as I read through the two base books
Spells and invocations are also covered in the conflicts chapter of the SG, though I think it might be overlap rather than new information.

It's interesting to see such unanimity with, or even stronger opinions than, what I said in the OP:
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.

On the "more is more" thing, I remember reading a rpg.net review of a Luke Crane game - Mouse Guard, maybe? - that objected to the two currencies (Fate and Persona). Of course Burning Wheel has Deeds points as well!

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.
This also seems consistent with the OP:
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.

<snip>

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

<snip>

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
But I don't think my OP quite called out the place of the mechanics in the scheme of play (in Baker's terminology, how much time one spends dealing with boxes rather than clouds).

Finally, this reminded me of the experience of my own play, limited as that is:
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.
The PCs in my game, leaving town after their first town phase, are no longer fresh, are still Resources zero (having spent all their loot), and have fewer supplies. In exchange, they have some advancement checkboxes ticked (though no one has actually advanced a skill or ability yet) and they have some Fate and Persona. (But not enough Persona, after two sessions, to earn second level, even if they were to spend it all.)

Also, one has added to his Enemy list, while another has learned that her Friend has been captured by her Enemy.
 

niklinna

Legend
One new little thing I noticed playing tonight: We went back to the last area we explored, and had fully mapped out. It costs us no light/food resources to just traipse the whole way up that mountain now. Not terribly "realistic," but very convenient!

Also, my character—having come back from the dead—is already level three and must decide between a second spell slot and a familiar. That's still a really tough choice. Any thoughts? Familiars in Torchbearer 2 do look to be much more capable than in D&D. Of course, you need the 2 spell slots to even be able to cast 2nd-circle spells.... Sheesh.
 
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One new little thing I noticed playing tonight: We went back to the last area we explored, and had fully mapped out. It costs us no light/food resources to just traipse the whole way up that mountain now. Not terribly "realistic," but very convenient!

Also, my character—having come back from the dead—is already level three and must decide between a second spell slot and a familiar. That's still a really tough choice. Any thoughts? Familiars in Torchbearer 2 do look to be much more capable than in D&D. Of course, you need the 2 spell slots to even be able to cast 2nd-circle spells.... Sheesh.

Its really as simple as this. The Familiar will give you more breadth of competency in terms of the groups' capability of positively resolving a variety of conflicts (more Help overall for and more cross-conflict competency). Your extra spell slot will give you a greater chance of having a specific answer to a specific problem and open up your move space a little bit when it comes to obstacle approach. Which of those two do you value more?

Any other thoughts on last night's session? On your PC Paying the Terrible Price and the consequences upon your play and play generally?

@AbdulAlhazred and @kenada , any new thoughts come to mind about last night's session (system, your play, your collective play)?
 

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