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Friday, 7 June 2013

Torchbearer

Friday, June 07, 2013

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A few days before Deadzone came to an end another Kickstarter had its deadline: Torchbearer. It's a new roleplaying game from Thor Olavsrud and Luke Crane and is labeled as "A dungeon crawl roleplaying game and love letter to Basic D&D" - in fact, at first it was called Dungeoneers & Dragonslayers! Which would have been awesome, except they were worried about litigation. Anyway, Luke Crane, as you might know, is the mind behind Burning Wheel, Burning Empires and Mouse Guard. Thor Olavsrud has been a long time collaborator but has this time taken the reins with Luke working more as an editor.

So what is Torchbearer? Well, it's a dungeoncrawler built on the foundations laid out in Mouse Guard and Burning Wheel. It's designed for classic D&D style play but with a more modern system. In regards to the rules it's described as advanced Mouse Guard, but not quite as involved as Burning Wheel. The largest addition is a level of resource management that is not really common in rpgs.


Thor has mentioned that he went spelunking a few years ago and how that experience heavily inflluenced his design choices in Torchbearer. Basically, it was nothing like you see on tv and in movies, or how you usually play it in roleplaying games. Instead it was claustrophobic, dark and your life depended on what you brought with you. Today we have all kinds of electronic gizmos to help us out, but imagine going into a cave 500 years ago, where you literally have to crawl to squeeze through and if you loose your torch it's complete and utter darkness!

One side of the character sheet, with the inventory slots at the top.

So while you will be fighting dungeon denizens and gather treasure a large part of the game seems to be the struggle against the environment and what you bring with you in is vital for your success. Each character has a certain number of slots to put equipment in, kind of like a videogame - there's a head slot, a chest slot, several backpack slots, slots for your hands etc. So everything you carry with you is allocated to these slots and different things take up different amount of slots. A small pouch of gold coins might only take up one slot, but a chest will take up several! Are you prepared to leave some of your equipment behind to be able to bring that treasure with you? 


Thinking about it now the Torchbearer seems to have quite a few elements of the Survival Horror genre in it - limited resources, monsters lurking in the darkness and a deadline creeping ever closer (you track how long each torch burn!). Of course the Mouse Guard system is robust enough to adapt to any situation and I think Torchbearer won't be much different. Switching the dungeon for a dark and oppressive forest or an icy mountain during a snow storm would likely be easy, although removing the threat of the environment might perhaps lessen the game.

When I first read about Torchbearer I was intrigued but thought that I would simply go for the PDF as the international shipping was quite... steep. But as I read more about it and noticed the special linen bound hardback that Thor and Luke are producing I just had to go for the dead tree version! Apparently the pair is finishing up the final manuscript as I write this and they are hoping to send it to the printer by the 15th! This is quite a quick turnaround when it comes to a kickstarter project. This also means that us backers should have the PDF in hand somewhere around that time. So more on the Torchbearer when I've actually read it!

What also appeals to me is the opportunity to play through classic D&D modules that I've heard a lot about, but simply avoided because of the D20 system, which I really don't like. Thor himself recommends Keep on the Borderlands, The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, The Village of Hommlet (also available as part of The Temple of Elemental Evil), The Secret of Bone Hill and Horror on the Hill... among others. There are loads over at dndclassics.com!

There are a couple of excellent articles on Forbes about the new game so head on over if you want to read more about it.


Being fired up about Torchbearer I've gone back and started reading Burning Wheel Gold again, this time with some better understanding of the basics of the system, thanks to Mouse Guard, and I'm getting very eager to try it out! I'm just about finished with the Hub and Spokes and as always Luke's design ethos really speaks to me. Something about his way of thinking and writing appeals to me enormously! I don't know what will hit the table first though, Torchbearer or Burning Wheel. Remember, you can download the Hub and Spokes (basically the whole basic game of Burning Wheel!) for free right here!

I also emailed Archaia and asked them about the upcoming re-print of the Mouse Guard RPG Boxed Set (review here) and they told me that although the date keeps slipping they will have it done before Christmas. While I have the box I really want to pick up a few dozen more dice and I wouldn't mind getting the rulebook as a hardback as well. 

Speaking of dice, I just ordered 40 regular D6 and some fudge dice from EM4 Miniatueres for use with Burning Wheel and FATE respectively. All that, plus a box of plastic "crystals" was cheaper to order from the EM4 in the UK than it would be getting half as many locally. Weird.

Finally, here's a sketch of the cover for Torchbearer by Peter Mullen. Looks awesome!



EDIT: Alright, so now I've actually managed to play a game and we had a great time! First impressions and session report here.

9 kommentarer :

  1. I actually pulled out of the Exalted 3rd edition kickstarter and pledged for this instead. While I have fun memories of the original Exalted (never played the 2nd edition), the coming 3rd ed would have been almost a pure nostalgia buy. Me and my group have no plans of running a game of Exalted.

    Personally I feel Monte Cook's Numenera, which will be released this August, will be sating that epic fantasy graving for our group the coming autumn. And if I ever feel the urge to take a trip back to Creation, Exalted 3rd edition is a prime example to the test out the DrivethruRPG's better print-on-demand options.

    When I started to read more about Torchbearer, I had a feel that Torchbearer could provide an excellent system for post-apocalyptic fantasy setting. A setting where resources are limited and how to best apply those resources are key to survival. And do this with out over simulationist approach to resource management, calculating fatigue based on weight or other rather rules/bookkeeping heavy approaches.

    Personally a have nothing against d20 systems. I like to participate in games of D&D, Pathfinder and so on as a player, but I'm not interested in running it because the system is quite heavy on the GM end. And these days D&D (and Pathfinder) feel a bit more like fantasy super hero games than the "Fantasy Vietnam" as originally conceived by Gygax. I think Dungeon Crawl Classics was on the right track to the feel what Torchbearer is aiming for, but how much they differ in feel we'll see when Torchbearer is actually released to kickstarter backers.

    Anyway, I also pledged for the hardback despite quite high shipping costs as Luke and Thor dished out the additional silver lining for the dead-tree format basically out of they're own pockets. It's nice to see that some people don't stare too intently at profit margins, they're in it for the fun.

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  2. I have no experience with Exalted. Come to think of it, I really have no experience with Epic Fantasy roleplaying. The closest we've come was when we played Drakar & Demoner ages ago and one of the campaigns had some hints of epicness to it. We were still pigfarmers and backstabbing nobles though, so I'm not sure that counts. Hehe! I can't even remember any of us playing a wizard for any lenght of time. Or even rarely anything else than bog standard old human. Hmm...

    I've always been more interested in the grounded, dirty and deadly fantasy settings when it comes to roleplaying games. But perhaps it would be fun to try out the other end of the spectrum. Numenera certainly looks spiffy, especially as that kind of post (very post) apocalyptic science fantasy setting is something I've been thinking about doing myself in the past.

    As for post apocalyptic resource management... I seem to recall Apocalypse World touching on this, although I've only skimmed through it. It's not as detailed (what you wear, what you carry...) but if I remember correctly it does deal with the necessities needed to uphold your little sliver of civilization. Might be more from a logistics standpoint though.

    Oh, as a player I'm up for pretty much any system and any setting, but that's because I'm desperate to do something other than GM! Haha! Not that I don't enjoy GMing, but a change of pace would be nice. I've actually been toying with the idea of digging up my old DnD red box (translated into Swedish. Ha!) and try and run an adventure using it.

    Reading more about torchbearer and looking at classic DnD dungeons made me so eager to get crawling that I bought a copy of Dungeon World and tried it out last week. It was a lot of fun! Very light weight system that allows for a lot of player input and dynamic situations. You have to be on the ball as a GM and be ready to come up with new interesting stuff, but a lot ot fun. Will do a proper write up after our second session next.

    Really looking forward to getting my hands on Torchbearer now and I'm glad it's going to print so soon after the kickstarter ended. Hoping we'll have the PDF before the end of June...

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  3. Okay, this is going to be a long one :D

    It's actually quite hard to put my finger on what defines Exalted and makes it work so brilliantly, as it's an amalgamation of various different influences. It might be said to be mythic bronze age setting with influences from Greek and Chinese epics, like Iliad and Romance in the Three Kingdoms. The player characters are near demigods almost from the beginning. Players can start out as movers and shakers of the world or quickly rise to such power. They're meant to be way above the average mortals.

    Exalted might be said to be an ancient oriental setting, because of the world creation myth, with strong influence in martial arts. And while martial arts play a large role in Exalted, the inherited power of the Exalts come from the very forces that formed the Creation. At the same time the actual game system encourages high fly kungfu fights through the use of mechanics that reward descriptive combat. You could just say: "I attack the enemy in front of me with my sword.", but in Exalted your rewarded with bonus combat dice if you would've said something like: "I run up a near by wall and launch myself towards my enemy, while slicing his head off his shoulder in midair and landing on the spear pole of the enemy behind the first."

    How well you pulled the said maneuver off is based on the dice rolls, but stunt bonuses encourages to try out crazy stuff. And of course the actual Exalted powers, or charms, give you more powerful stuff throw at your enemies. It's meant be this way, so the players feel powerful. And while players wield power to singlehandedly oppose an army of regular soldiers, there's always someone more powerful lurking in the edges of Creation.

    Exalted might be said to be anime roleplaying game as there's major influence in visual style of the game from animes like Escaflowne and The Twelve Kingdoms. There's even giant mecha -like warstriders and power armor as magical artifacts from the previous First Age.

    Exalted might said to be post apocalyptic fantasy, because the golden First Age basically ended with a almost world shattering war and surviving Dragon Blooded Exalts formed the Dragon Empire. The Empire is basically a tyranny ruled by the Scarlet Empress and holds on to power with the artifacts salvaged from the ruins of the First Age. It's the age of sorrows as the world is diminishing and the reborn Solar Exalted, the default player characters in the setting, are mere shadows of the power they once wielded.

    Ultimately Exalted is all of these things and much more. The setting is sprawling in its complexity and the opposing forces are interwoven to such extend that players actions usually affect not just one, but several others at the same time. So if they beat the bad guy, his allies come calling later. The setting became a victim of White Wolf's metaplot tendencies and was heavily developed during the first edition. The feel of the game is quite different from the beginning of the first edition to the start of the second edition. I hear 3rd edition will be rebooting the setting to some extend, but I don't expect any major overhauls.

    All in all Exalted has a wonderful fantasy setting, but I feel the Storyteller system (used also in other White Wolf's games) might not have been the best system for Exalted. While I like Exalted and had a blast with it during the years it was released, I personally feel Numenera and recently translated Tenra Bansho Zero (http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product/111713/Tenra-Bansho-Zero%3A-Heaven-and-Earth-Edition) are be much better alternatives for epic (science) fantasy roleplaying, at least mechanically.

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  4. And I also meant to write something about Torchbearer before going all out on Exalted ;D

    While Torchbearer Kickstarter backers will be given free access to the Middarmark gazetteer, when finished, I hope Torchbearer's inventory system and general rules are something that can be import to other settings or homegrown world building easily. Not that Middarmark as of itself doesn't sound interesting, I'm really looking forward to because of the strong Scandinavian influences.

    I've mentioned the Finnish roleplaying game, Praedor, on my comments before and I really feel Torchbearer could bring something new to table for this setting in terms of mechanics. While the original rules are good and entirely workable, I feel they aren't the best for representing the often foolhardy expedition the adventurers make beyond the borders of relevantly safe and stable lands of Jaconia.

    The game's name, Praedor, implies to adventures who make their living by exploring the ancient ruins of the collapsed super culture, Borvaria, which surrounds the lands of Jaconia in all directions. These ruins extend far beyond any means of normal travel, some say indefinitely, and expeditions there are extremely perilous, but the rewards are high. No one knows what horrors lurks in the ever shifting collapsed dimensions of the Borvarian ruins or what'll even happen when adventures get there.

    Every expedition is different from the previous one and stable landmarks that were there before might not be there this time around. One successful trip to Borvaria could set a Preador up for life, but often Praedors return empty handed barely escaping with their lives. And quite often entire expeditions are lost.

    Praedors also make up a social caste of their own in the Jaconian society, apart from the alchemists, soldiers, nobles, immortal wizards and the common folk. They're often regarded as dangerous madmen and women, but valued highly for their expertise in acquiring ancient valuables and artifacts from Borvaria.

    Closest analog (and clear inspiration) for Borvaria are the "zones" of Strugatskys' novel Roadside Picnic or the Tarkovsky's film Stalker. It's a place of wonder, sometimes beauty and riches, but most of the time it's an alien place of impossible occurrences and utter hostility.

    This is where I see Torchbearer's resource management as a strength of the system and why I think it might be a good engine for settings similar to Praedor. It's basically dungeon survival where the tension isn't exclusively built from the monsters you face, but from decisions the players make regarding the use of their gear. Do they have enough clean food and water to make the trip back? How long they can stand against the effects of weather, fatigue, hunger and thirst while at the same time staying vigilant more feral dangers of the dark.

    I'm also curious how far the "dungeon/wilderness survival" system can be bended as I see Torchbearer having the potential for running other survival oriented settings, like Dark Sun where every trip outside the city-state's walls is a challenge against scorching heat and Athaian flora and fauna. Or something similar to the world of Dark Souls, and its predecessor, where the world is diminishing and its last embers are fading. And possible even the Old World of Warhammer Fantasy, the siege mentality of Torchbearer deals out rings many bells for earlier 1st edition fluff.

    I know, I'm getting hyped and Torchbearer might not live up my expectations but it sure has fired my imagination :) Hopefully the PDF's will be out soon!

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  5. Now that the Torchbearer PDF has been released to kickstarter backers (and probably to everyone else, who want buy it), I had a quick skim through it this morning. A few dnd'isms like race-as-class and class based weapon restrictions stood out and irked me a little. Personally in this day and age of game design I would have thought these seemingly artificial restrictions would've been a thing of the past, even if Torchbearer aims to be a love letter to Basic Dungeons & Dragons.

    The main rulebook only being for levels 1-5, might have irked me if I hadn't played Dragon Age. In a sense you might feel that your not getting a "full" game, but level progression seems fairly slow when compared to DnD. So I expect the game to give a lot back even before the players feel the need to rise beyond level 5. And Luke and Thor seem be aiming for a actual game line with Torchbearer, so it seems natural that the there's going to be an expansion to the core book.

    This might all seem a little critical, but that's because I haven't had the time to read through the book with detail. I'm just pointing out things that popped up during the first glance of the book. And there's also a lot to like with Torchbearer. The inventory management doesn't feel like an accounting exercise, the basic rules seem vey easy to pick up while still offering deep level of options, twists bring a lot to the table concerning task resolution, Safe Havens and Other Poor Assumptions -chapter is just pure gold and the systems seems to be quite suitable for setting customization.

    On the side note regarding game dice: It occurred to me that the custom d6 dice for the One Ring RPG would work nicely with Torchbearer since the target number for tests seems to be always 4, 5 or 6 as opposed to Burning Wheel where you might have differing target numbers for successes.

    All in all, I'm really happy that I pledged for this game and it feels like the best "old school" rpg I've come across to this date. Instead of trying to emulate a ruleset nearly four decades old, Torchbearer emulates the feel with a fresh take on the rules.

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  6. Since last time commenting about Torchbearer, the game has actually taken quite a step forward in production. Printed copies are ready and will be shipped to backers during September. Yay, the first physical Kickstarter product to reach my hands! :)

    I've also had the time to read the whole rulebook and I've run a short one shot adventure of my own design for players from my group. I left the magic wielding classes out as I felt the system had enough moving parts with the inventory system for the first game. So the players ended up with one dwarf adventurer and two human fighters tasked with arresting a marauding brigand leader hiding in nearby caves. I chose arresting the brigand leader as I wanted the players to try out something some other conflicts than killing when facing the brigands.

    All in all, Torchbearer got a good reception by the players although the highly structured nature of certain phases and how some types of conflicts are handled got mixed reactions from the player with an eye for more reality simulating mechanics. But once he "got" the system, rest of the game went really nicely.

    I'm more and more inclined to run our group's next venture to the Old World of Warhammer using Torchbearer since the class structure can be quite easily fixed to reflect the various professions of the Empire by creating custom character classes. Also nature in Torchbearer is tied to your culture/race. By shuffling around the nature descriptors and traits derived from nature based on the cultures and races of the lands of the Old World, you're actually making new playable "races" to game. And best of all, this actually can be done with minimal fuss if the GM is familiar with the setting he intends to run.

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  7. Rolling Intentions blog has actually a good video podcast detailing character creation and and their first session in Torchbearer. They run the House of the Three Squires. Good stuff :)

    http://rpgbg.blogspot.fi/search/label/Torchbearer

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  8. Your first time experience pretty much mirrors mine. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves although the conflict mechanic needed some extra explanation at first. We also had one guy in the group who felt the game was a bit too "structured" which I can sympathy with, although I don't agree with it.

    Will type out a proper report once the Dust 150 is out of the way. So probably early next week. ;)

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  9. Session report and first impressions going up tomorrow. Finally. :)

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