Bearing the Torch for Everyone Else

 After finding the book in my local game store, and having the game recommended by an acquaintance, I got inspired, recently decided to set up a Torchbearer campaign with IRL friends.

I got quite hyped (part of the problem, maybe) about the game and put quite a bit of effort into preparing it, going to the lengths of creating cards, and various table-tools and cheatsheets to deal with the rules complexity.

Despite the level of effort put in, it took barely two sessions for the enthusiasm to deflate and settle into disappointment. I credit the learning I have done at this site for being able to identify this as early as I have.

The text sells itself as an intricate gearbox that once learned promises to deliver amazing gaming moments — my experience is that most of this is false advertisement.

In practice what I've noticed is that the intricate rules require a lot of text-referencing, since precise rules exist for any situation, while leaving very little to the GM's interpretation. This is not bad in general, but in this case playing the GM-role felt like being a passive executor of the mechanized wankery — at the same time demanding and boring — with little space left for GM-agency.

At the same time, there are moments where it seems that the system does as much as possible to avoid constraining outcomes — which is resolution mechanics ought to do. In particular, the conflict system has turn-by-turn clever double-blind action selection system, but all it manages to achieve is to prolong resolution, without having a significant effect on conflict outcome, or even on narration — we adapted to barely describe actions to keep the conflict time manageable.

In the moment where outcome authority had to be applied, I felt completely abandoned by the system, which for simple rolls offers a fail-forward system that allows the GM to choose between giving a condition and allow the roll to succeed on failure, or generate a "twist" and allow it to fail. On the other end it seems to encourage players to attempt to pile as many dice as possible on any task to ensure they pass it. The result is that failure often becomes something unexpected and undesirable, and that as a GM I felt often compelled to rob the rolls of their meaning, lest I break the finely-tuned machine.

For extended conflicts, there's a clear winner, but the system offers a sliding scale of compromises based on how many disposition points (conflict HP) were left for the winning side, with very little constraints — conflict outcomes are explicitly negotiated between GM and players.

The most bizarre rule was that in Kill conflicts, compromises include people dying on the winning side — with absolutely no constraint to determine who dies! So, the GM and players need to negotiate on who desrves to die more, with the player "captain" having the final say. I wonder if this rule was even playtested, it seems so bizarre and we had a lot of trouble applying it.

The Belief/Impulse stuff also felt kinda carrot-and-stick and players didn't really engage with it at first, only starting to do it to get the brownie points they needed to spend to do cool stuff. It felt forced.

The entire system felt to me it's an intricate set of levers designed for the GM to make play run "smoothly" towards the desired game experience — essentially more of a widget than a game. I felt I couldn't contribute significantly to the game as a GM, and despite having all the power to walk PCs anywhere I wanted, I was singing my own song.

That said, there are a few things I like — how skills improve by using them and characters end up reflecting the things that they have done in past sessions. But they's really minor details.

Is this a review of the game? Not really. I'm open to considering that I've completely misunderstood it. But I'm only going to tolerate this kind of play for a few more sessions — I can already see my gaming group is getting tired, compared to our successful experiences with The Pool.

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17 responses to “Bearing the Torch for Everyone Else”

  1. I have never read Torchbearer but…

    For a while I was very excited with the prospect of running Burning Wheel, of which Torchbearer seems to be a streamlining. Based on that, I'm curious about this statement:

     

    That said, there are a few things I like — how skills improve by using them and characters end up reflecting the things that they have done in past sessions. But they's really minor details.

    Because that one of the aspects that I liked the most about Burning Wheel. Why you consider character advancement to be a minor detail?

    The main reason I never ran BW was that I was intimidated by the prospect of having to guide all my friends through the ordeal of character creation. Torchbearer seems to lack that particular hurdle.

    • From my perspective, I didn’t

      From my perspective, I didn't mean that I consider character advancement to be minor. But as compared to other games I've played — who all contain character advancement of some kind — I didn't feel a big difference in how this works, more like a "oh, neat". 

      That said, it could also be that we haven't played enough sessions.

  2. Only Deadbeats Dungeon Crawl

     

    First, as someone who has played Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard AND Torchbearer, I want to say that these are three very different games. The notion that Mouse Guard is Burning Wheel Lite is just wrong. They use similar mechanical components but the role of those components are extremely different in each game.

    So, I want to focus on Torchbearer. I have both played and run Torchbearer but not a lot of it. My experience is with the first edition. I have not taken a close look at the newer second edition. My friends played in a 20+ session campaign of Torchbearer I was not involved in but heard a lot about.

    I also want to acknowledge that I see a lot of merit in what Claudio posted. I’m not trying to post a refutation or a defense of Torchbearer. This is just some of my experiences with the points raised.

    One of the things I find fascinating about Torchbearer is its attitude toward adventurers. It’s almost a satire. The premise is that the player characters are basically losers unfit for honest work. Their only prospect for survival is to go into dangerous places and strip copper filigree from ancient murals in the hope that they can scrape enough together to pay for a meal and lodgings at the end of the day.

    The initial thrust of the game is this: “go risk your life for meager coins, so you can survive long enough to go back and do it again, every day, forever.” If that premise doesn’t work for you, even on the level of masochistic humor, the whole game will not work for you.

    Starting with that view point, unlike Burning Wheel, Beliefs and Instincts are not the primary drivers of play, Time and Money are. Beliefs are moral inconveniences that complicate that drive. You have a Belief about slavery. Turns out this old ruin you’re stripping of valuable tapestries is being used as a hideout for a slave trade. Are you going to fuck up your and your companions dinner and lodgings tonight over that?  Maybe yes, maybe no.

    Die rolls cost you Time. Satisfying curiosity means you starve. Heroics means you starve. Claudio mentioned piling on dice to succeed. My experience is that, yes, players leverage resources for dice but also that Obs are so high that striving for 50/50 odds is pretty work intensive. What’s better is to avoid rolls altogether.

    I’ve noticed that when people play Torchbearer they overlook the importance of the Describe To Live and the Good Idea rules. You can make a roll to search for a trap, OR you can pour the water out of your wine skin around to see if it flows into any hidden spike holes. The key is that doing the second thing automatically succeeds and costs no Time. Yes, whether or not a Good Idea actually works is a GM call.  And yes, there are some rolls that no Good Idea can get around but you should always be on the lookout for opportunities to solve problems by detailed action alone.

    I once ran a Torchbearer game at a convention where a woman at the table was disturbingly good at this. I had started to wonder if she was an experienced spelunker. She was so good at leveraging gear and describing its usage that I just kept saying, “Sure, that works.”

    Now looking at the issue with failure. I agree failure is rather open ended.  Conditions are a good go to choice for when you don’t have a good idea about how the situation gets worse. That is what a twist is supposed to be: the situation gets worse. There ARE guidelines in the book about what sorts of twists are appropriate for what kinds of tests. However, I have noticed that twists don’t have to be connected to the action. A player could fail a lock picking test and the twist is that a monster shows up and interrupts them.

    What I do think helps though is to remember that the GM is supposed to be playing the dungeon as a whole with no concern for whether the players successfully navigate it or defeat the dangers or even come to understand its lore and history. So for twists, just hit them with whatever the environment demands goes wrong. When that isn’t obvious use a Condition and move on.  To me, that’s where the GM’s input comes into it: Play the dungeon like it’s a character.

    Conflicts are an interesting thing I’ve given a lot of thought to because it’s totally fair to say that description of your actions don’t matter. In one game I was playing in we came across some skeletons in a room that had a big pit in it. One of the players wanted to “knock one of the skeletons into the pit” and it was instantly obvious that the system doesn’t handle that kind of thing well. It’s either a Maneuver where the best you can hope for is that you drive the skeleton closer to the pit making it more vulnerable OR make it some kind of attack and if you succeed in knocking off its hit points describe it as having fallen in the pit. Even if you do the latter, a Defense action that could potentially bring that skeleton back into play becomes hard to describe and justify.

    That was the moment I realized how weirdly all my friends and I had simply just accepted the Attack, Maneuver, Defense, Feint structure without ever really questioning it. We just gleefully  kept everything we did well within the bounds of the implied actions and never thought beyond them. I haven’t played Torchbearer since the skeletons and pit conflict, so I haven’t really had a chance to explore that kind of thing further in play.

    There is, however, an insight I did have about the actions of conflicts and the resulting compromises. If you don’t describe the action and only play the mechanics then you land exactly in the state Claudio describes. You have no idea what the compromise should be. However, if you DO describe the action even though it doesn’t really impact the die rolls then that all becomes information for making the compromise. Compromises become more obvious in the face of the details of the action.

    As I said, my friends played a 20+ session run of it that I couldn’t participate in at the time due to scheduling. I have only ever played or run single adventures. I am curious to participate in a longer game but its not high on my list at the moment.

    • Regarding the “adventurers

      Regarding the "adventurers are loser vagrants" trope, I like it as well, but I can't say it was new to me — I ran into it already when playing Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Into the Odd. I don't think we had a problem grasping that.

      The issue I have it more than anything else is that the game seems to suggest that "you are deadbeat vagrants, you will go into ruins, then you'll get tired, then you'll suffer these consequences, then you'll go back to base and recover" — I don't see where the space for the people at the table to actually matter is. Which is something that I can say for the aforementioned two games.

      We got the time as a resource part, it felt "punitive for trying to have fun", as one of the players put it. We had some use of the "good idea" rule, but personally I don't feel constantry trying to figure out what constitutes a good idea for the GM makes for a good game.

    • We got the time as a resource

      We got the time as a resource part, it felt "punitive for trying to have fun", as one of the players put it. We had some use of the "good idea" rule, but personally I don't feel constantly trying to figure out what constitutes a good idea for the GM makes for a good game.

      I've had some truly bad games of Torchbearer and some good ones. The key difference was in how the rules were applied within the game. The mechanics for Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard and Torchbearer *need* solid grounding within the fiction, or else the game spins off into widget mode.

      I want to build off what Jesse said a good idea isn't a special or clever or "the most creative" solution. It is simply, looking at the situation, and having a logical and unambiguous solution to the problem. This is no different from a game of Moldvay Dungeons and Dragons, or the like.

      Likewise, how describing your actions can lead to “a good idea”. Help in and out of conflicts need to make fictional sense. If two player characters have a pit between them, they can’t help the other defend from being run through the gut by a skeleton.

      Games that were kinda shit, and felt like just pulling levers to watch numbers change lacked this. When I understood that Torchbearer, is interfaced just like any other rpg, the game flowed a lot more naturally.

    • We tried at the beginning to

      We tried at the beginning to put extensive narration into every rule-activation, but I'll admit — the mechanics were so convoluted that very quickly we adapted to extremely succint narration to actually get the game moving.

      Maybe we should have given it more of a shot, I don't know — I have little tolerance for spending time on things that don't seem to do anything, but I might have misjudged in this case.

      It still begs the question of what is the object of the rules complexity. I've played complex games where this was clear after only a few minutes of playing. Torchbearer didn't have this effect — there are some claims made on the book, but I really didn't see it happen.

    • Example: One of the first

      Example: One of the first instances where this happened was with wise-activation. At first it was "Ok, you use your Stone-wise to help the Lore roll by providing advice on the type of stones used for the amulet."

      After a while it was just "Alright I use my Stone-wise again to add one die!". You need to do so many of these for every roll, and the game seems designed for it, that we really felt like we wanted to get this done quickly.

  3. Like filling tax forms

    I regret I have nothing to add to this interesting conversation about agency and authorities in Torchbearer.  My group and I gave the game an honest try a few years ago, but we never did figure out the system.  We all read the rulebook, made notes and cheatsheets, made characters and played a few sessions, but eventually gave up in bewilderment.

    There are so many currencies, or traits that might be currencies or that sometimes act as currencies.  Supplies, Persona, Resources, Nature, Checks, Traits, Skills, Instinct, Wise…  Oh, I can spend a Check at this point?  Well, how do I earn more Checks?  What else are Checks useful for?  How do I decide whether spending a Check now is a good idea?  The book doesn't explain, in one place, everything I need to know about any currency in order to make meaningful decisions about it.

    I like the concept of Torchbearer, but found the system to be an opaque tangle of random and randomly interrelated mechanics.  Anyway, I'm glad others have been able to figure it out.

    • In this group of people is we

      In this group of people is we were all engineers, computer scientists, and the smartest person at the table was a woman who is a researcher in quantum computing. This not to show off, but the level of system complexity offered by Torchbearer was severely lower than anything we did in our daily jobs — we didn't mind it and everyone had the various rules and options clear after reading the manual (I insisted everyone did).

      What I ended having a problem with was more how none of this complexity seemed (to me) to result in anything actually worthwhile from the play perpsective — on the contrary, it seemed to mask some negative-feedback mechanics that make sure that over the long term your choices don't matter much, keeping you straight inside the 'experience'.

  4. A Defined Experience

    The entire system felt to me it's an intricate set of levers designed for the GM to make play run "smoothly" towards the desired game experience — essentially more of a widget than a game. I felt I couldn't contribute significantly to the game as a GM, and despite having all the power to walk PCs anywhere I wanted, I was singing my own song.

    and

    What I ended having a problem with was more how none of this complexity seemed (to me) to result in anything actually worthwhile from the play perpsective — on the contrary, it seemed to mask some negative-feedback mechanics that make sure that over the long term your choices don't matter much, keeping you straight inside the 'experience'.

    I want you to expand on this, because I am not quite sure what you mean here. Do you mean "a desired experience" as the game mechanics "ran the show" and the color was just perfunctory? Like, it wouldn't matter what was said because the end result was the same?

    • I don’t see Torchbearer as a

      I don’t see Torchbearer as a widget-driven game that pops out an experience. I’ve had truly awful experiences, much like yours and some very excellent ones too. I’ve also seen the game vary widely in tone, theme and characters.

      One game I ran was grim forest fantasy, the adventures and problems were of more talking wolves and wicked fey spirits, while another one was straight up goblins & slimes in 10’ corridors.

      In each, the situation of being a crappy poor adventure had extremely different contexts. The former was a desperate doomed world, I played up the idea of the wilderness encroaching civilization a lot and how the characters developed into more heroic figures was VERY different from the Dungeon Fantasy game where the character’s became self-interested petty grave robbers, slightly amoral but not outright vile.

      Each time, I as the GM played differently, in the forest game we used less of the dungeon and light rules since the “dungeon” was in the woods. It had a very different rhythm than my purely Dungeon Crawl. If anything, the later one was harder to do because of the larger variety of stuff that went on in the dungeons I design.

      Likewise, playing the game does increase ones skill and allows for further exploration – you can go some places. Growing into a hero is part of the journey and but the game doesn't tell you what makes a hero, the GM can't tell you that either since they only "play the world" and moderate the rules.

    • I want to acknowledge that

      I want to acknowledge that all of the BWHQ games are extremely vulnerable to being played in a mechanics forward way. Players will start pulling levers and pushing buttons because they're there to be pulled and pushed and get over excited about mastering their interactions. My friends who love these games I think fall into that trap themseleves a little too often for my taste.

      To clarify a bit, there's basically two ways to play.  One way is for you to just do what you're going to do creatively in the fiction and then apply the mechanics based on what everyone is doing.  But you can also play in the opposite direction. You can look at the mechanics, decide what you want to "make happen" work backwards from the mechanics to optomize your chances and then come up with whatever ficitonal action justifies that.

      I think almost every game has elements of both but BWHQ games are particularly enticing to do A LOT of the latter. If the players get too deep down the mechanical rabbit hole such that they are MOSTLY playing the mechanics for desired effect, you really do start ending up in widget territory.  That's why I try to clamp down on that kind of thinking when running these games.

      I posted this here because Torchbearer is the MOST vulnerable to this kind of play. And it's probably a fair criticism to say that Torchbeaerer's levers, buttons and dials make that kind of play TOO enticing. It has perhaps gone over the clockwork event horizon and it's not worth the social effot to pull the group out of that mindset.

    • As an engineer I often deal

      As an engineer I often deal with "well, you can do that with this tool/library", which is often not important, the real issue being if you should, or if it's effective.

      I think we're getting close to a similar issue here — after hearing your points of you the natural thing that I ask myself is: why the complexity then? If the practical effect is to create an enticement towards a certain kind of non-play, then why adopt these rules? Is there value to be found or are they complex for the sake of it?

      I haven't really seen anything I find convinces me that I should, only "well, it's not necessarily like that, if you're careful and do this" — which doesn't really pass my threshold of "I should at least have as much fun as The Pool".

    • I am familiar with Burning

      I am familiar with Burning wheel and Miseries and misfortunes, not so much Torchbearer (which does not interest me), but one reason for me to be interested in these is that their take on the fiction is not complicated, it also says something about the world.

      Like how pretty much everyone is poor or in debt in BW and how nobody starts with as many things as they would need at minimum for their life, how hesitation is hard to beat and the most heroic of characters still tend to run screaming, how magic has delightfully outcomes and is (for once) not trivial to master and learn, and so on. It feels much more true to life and compelling than most other similar roleplaying games. M&M has similar good sides.

      Maybe Torchbearer does the same and has a compelling view of adventuring embedded in the dynamics of the rules and written down in all the lists, or maybe not. But that possible compelling vision would be the only reason I would consider giving the game a look. As mentioned, I have not read the game or played it, so I am not qualified to comment whether the vision is there.

    • I think we’re getting close

      I think we're getting close to a similar issue here — after hearing your points of you the natural thing that I ask myself is: why the complexity then? If the practical effect is to create an enticement towards a certain kind of non-play, then why adopt these rules? Is there value to be found or are they complex for the sake of it?

       

      The complexity makes the GM and Player experience the same stressors and makes the petty and difficult hardships unavoidable. You start to face choices like "do I dump food for this treasure and deal with being hungry for an unknown amount of time?". You can't handwave this away. As a GM, you can't predict the outcomes, especially in aggregate. This puts the consequences out of any one participant's hands.

       

      I haven't really seen anything I find convinces me that I should, only "well, it's not necessarily like that, if you're careful and do this" — which doesn't really pass my threshold of "I should at least have as much fun as The Pool".

       

      The game won't play itself – you have to meet it on its own terms. Playing it in such a mechanical only way *actually makes the game harder, and success more difficulty* as the rules are tuned to be punishing, if played that way. Likewise it takes time to gain fluidity, since a lot rules take skill to apply. This argument is close to ones leveled at 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons in the 00s, or even AD&D in the 1980s. We're getting close to the nonsense "Role vs Roll" chatter. It is okay for a game to work, be functional and not to your taste. Me? I never ever want to touch any game derived from early-Dungeons & Dragons. Do the games work? Yes. Have I had decent times? Sure. However, every time I felt playing was like having a sandwich on the beach during a windy day. It was unpleasant to chew through, and I soured on the experience.

    • We’re getting close to the

      We're getting close to the nonsense "Role vs Roll" chatter.

      I don't think this is a fair way to frame what I've been saying. I am perfectly fine with complexity, as long as it serves a purpose. I picked this game, didn't I? I definitely didn't expect it to play itself.

      But in any case, I don't see bouncing back and forth like this as very fruitful for either of us.

      I'll keep the discussion in mind the next time I play Torchbearer. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

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