Monday 3 August 2015


Some time ago I got a chance to playtest Torchbearer, and it forever changed how I view dungeon crawls.

Torchbearer takes encumbrance, light and hunger and makes them chunky enough to use all the time, and then makes them central to game play.

The net effect is that dungeoneering feels like spelunking or even scuba diving: a descent into a place that is inherently hostile to human life, and where a misplaced tinder box or a torn backpack can mean the difference between a comfortable trip home and a harrowing tale of survival.

The core of gameplay is the same as many other RPGs, the players say what they're doing until the GM feels it requires a skill test of some sort. Characters have a bunch of skills (e.g. Fighting 3, Cooking 2, etc.) which tell you how many d6 to roll. If you roll enough 'successes' (4-6 on the d6), you've made it.

This happens inside 'the grind', the steady wearing away of the characters' resources. Every meaningful action the party carries out takes a turn. Torches last 2 turns, lanterns 4, and every four turns the gnawing of hunger worsens. If you have food or water to eat, great, otherwise you start earning Conditions.

Characters don't have hit points. Instead, injuries, bruises and all manner of mishaps are represented by conditions: Hungry, Angry, Afraid, Exhausted, Injured, Sick, Dead. Most of these come with mechanical penalties. Unlike the 1hp fighter who's basically fine, a Torchbearer character with a lot of conditions feels like a half-crushed insect crawling for cover. A badly roughed up party is a sorry thing indeed.

One tool the characters have to help with time is their Instincts. Each character gets one, an instinctual action they automatically take without having to coordinate with the others. The thief's might be, 'Always probe the ground ahead for traps,' while another character might have, 'Whenever we camp, make poultices for the injured'. Instincts don't take up a turn to carry out, so a party with well-chosen instincts feels like a well-oiled machine.

Overlaid on top of this is a large-scale turn sequence, divided into "phases". In the Adventure Phase, characters explore, fight, disarm traps, haul loot, and so on. By expressing their characters' flaws in various ways, they earn 'checks', a sort of metagame resource that allows them to camp - where they can rest, recharge spells, try to deal with their wounds and ailments, make preparations. The number of checks you earn limits the amount of stuff you can get done in camp.

This is one of a couple of places where the system isn't trying to be naturalistic, to 'get out of the way' and help you resolve situations 'that would occur', it's definitely trying to make situations occur. Going with the flow involves treating this like another tactical challenge to be mastered: when do we camp? Which tests can be we afford to blow so we can earn some checks?

Instincts are part of this. Our playtest group wound up with a lot of camp-related instincts, which was awesome: the moment we decided to camp, everyone knew exactly what we all needed to do.
This brings me to skills, one of my favorite parts of the game. Torchbearer skills form a well-designed little knot of mechanics, each referring to one another through hidden economies that make them all useful. During character creation for our second playtest party, we were actually looking around to make sure someone had Cooking skill - it's that important.

"Fine, I'll go back to look for the cooking pot."
Combat is handled using the 'Conflict' mechanic, a generalized procedure for resolving complicated situations like fights, an escape through a labyrinth, bargaining for one's life with trolls, and so on. Conflict is pretty neat, but I have mixed feelings about it.

All conflicts have a goal, which is awesome - before any fight, for example, the party has to decide what they want. Are they merely trying to drive off the stirges, or actually kill them? Or is the party trying to get away, using violence as a deterrent to pursuit? This determines what's at stake. If you're fighting to drive off the enemy you're risking serious injury and there's an off chance someone might die, but if you're really surging forward to do fatal battle, death is on the line for everyone.

Conflict resolution is handled by comparing a script of three secretly chosen actions: Attack, Maneuver, Defend, or Feint, each of which has a lead character, round robin style. (Our side's script might be Wallen Attacks with his sword, Bortle Defends by casting Shards of the Ancients, followed by Zebulba Attacking with his bow.)

As you reveal actions, they interact with the enemy's choice, and ultimately do 'damage' to each side's 'disposition', a number representing the quality of their tactical position. Attack reduces the other side's disposition, Defend improves yours, for example.

Weapons interact with this in neat ways - mutual Attack is a brutal melee that does massive damage to both sides, unless one side has bows, in which case it's turned into an opposed roll. (Always have bows.)

When one side hits zero, the conflict is over - the winner's remaining disposition determines how bad it is for them. Beating an enemy without taking damage means your team's in great shape and wins without compromise. Winning with only a point or two left feels a lot like losing.

This leads to some extremely tense moments. My players were trapped by a pack of crypt servants, and had to decide whether to try to drive them off, which is hard to do to unthinking undead, or kill them - easier, but exposes them to fatal injury. They opted for the latter, and toward the end of the fight found themselves winning but having lost a ton of disposition. This meant certain death for several of the party members, so there was a desperate last-minute attempt to weave in some Defends to prolong the fight, to secure a better position to try to save everyone.

This is awesome, but always a little abstract. This isn't a system where you lobby for an advantage for fighting from the staircase, it's a system where you script Maneuver and then characterize your maneuver as the clever use of the staircase. It's a subtle difference that requires you to direct your cleverness into the tactical minigame rather than clever use of the environment as described. If you roll with it, you get a fun tactical game; if you fight it, it chafes.

Because the GM assigns conditions based on the final disposition score, this can occasionally put the GM in the position of deciding which character(s) should die.  I tend to prefer a bit more support from the system for such brutal turns of events.

As a GM, running Torchbearer was quite eye-opening, in two ways. First of all, there is so much player-to-player conversation about the tactics and logistics of the situation. In some systems (e.g. Dungeon World), logistics become a problem when it's awesome for them to be. It's as if a narrator is saying, "On this episode, the adventurers find they're short of food.."

In Torchbearer, this sort of thing emerges from the mechanics, and so the players are the first to know.

The players know how much food they've got, they know that the fighter is hampered because he's carrying a torch as well as his sword, so the wizard has to carry the large sack in both hands, which means he can't climb the rope. They're aware of the constraints, the risks and their options, so there's a constant stream of player-to-player planning, querying, and planning, whenever a novel situation presents itself, which is music to my ears.

The consequence of this, however, is that the GM isn't fully in control of the danger level. This really blew my mind.

It's okay, we're leaving!

The constant question for a Torchbearer party is this: should we go on? If we do, will we die? Or, if we don't die, will we be so badly hurt that we can't easily survive the return journey? Have we already passed that point?

Once the party has climbed down a natural limestone curtain, crawled through a tunnel half-filled with ice water, and taken a beating while fighting some kobolds, they might already be dead.

The accumulated dangers from having to get past those obstacles, each of which has an established danger, might already be enough to kill them. This can really sneak up on you, and the sense that you're starting a downward spiral from which you might never pull out is tangible at all times.

The party, and the mechanics of injury, conflict, conditions, time and light is like a Rube Goldberg machine - you put challenges, danger and adversity in, and it might not be until half an hour later that you realize the dose was lethal.

Even between adventures there's no relief!

Adventurers are by definition dirty outcasts with no social standing, and this means that any time they're in town they're facing extortionate bills for everything - accommodations, food, replacement gear, healing, research. The speed of business is slow in dark ages fantasy, so nearly everything you try to do jacks up the difficulty of a lifestyle test. It's another kind of grind!

Adventurers are caught on a treadmill of poverty, injury, and exhaustion.. until they either manage to catch a break, or die.

The one thing you always keep is your improved skills. If you can survive, you'll inevitably improve.

(Note: I was a playtester for Torchbearer, and contributed a few pieces of interior art.)