Finally, I hear some of you think! Or something. After a fairly long detour into the wartorn Eastern Front in the autumn of 1947 we're making our way back to the dank dripping caves filled with kobolds and other more... nasty critters that I posted about back in June. Let's talk Torchbearer!
Ever since I read a series of session report by a group who used Burning Wheel to play Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay I've been fascinated by everything Burning Wheel related. I actually tried to find the reports in question but was unsuccessful - this was maybe three years ago and I seem to recall it was on rpg.net. Oh well.
Anyway, we've played Mouse Guard a couple of times (awesome!) but we have never tried Burning wheel. Although I did try to adapt Beliefs and Instincts into our now defunct WFRP3 campaign, without success. Now, Torchbearer is fourth game in the Burning family, after Burning Wheel, Burning Empires and Mouse Guard and it is really Mouse Guard that it resembles most closely. Advanced Mouse Guard as Thor puts it in the book. I won't really going into detail about what the game is as I think I mostly covered that in my June post. But basically it's conceptually an old school dungeon crawler but dressed in the modern roleplaying garb of Mouse Guard.
In the middle of July I was invited by my friend Kosta to try the game out with his gaming group, which I jumped at immediately of course! We had four players and a GM and we were going to try out the introductory scenario, "Under the House of Three Squires". A couple of us in the group had some passing familiarity with Mouse Guard but only Nils (the GM) and myself had actually read through the Torchbearer rules. After some discussion of the system and its concepts we had a look at the pre-generated characters. We ended up with a group consisting of Beren the Dwarf adventurer, Karolina the human warrior, Gerald the halfling burglar and myself as Taika the elf ranger. Here's Jordan Worley's take on how these characters look:
What follows is a short session report that, naturally, is filled with spoilers for Under the Three Squires. Read on at your peril...
We fiddled around a little bit with equipment, making sure we brought enough supplies to last us through the dark. I bought a bow for Taika as I felt it only right and proper for an elf. Mostly though, we simply ran with what was on the sheet.
We approached the inn but soon discovered that something was amiss, the door stood ajar, some furniture was tipped over and there was no trace of any people. After some recon work by Gerald the halfling we came to the conclusion that someone or something had been dragging stuff down into the cellar. As we pushed the door open only darkness and a rickety old staircase greeted us.
Beren lit a torch and was about to step onto the stairs when I stopped him with a quick hand on his shoulder. The staircase was a trap! My sharp elf eyes had spotted that someone had sawed halfway through the beams, meaning the entire structure would collapse if enough weight was put on it. Perhaps Gerald was light enough to cross, but it would be impossible for the rest of us. A few minutes discussion lead to Beren, with his considerable dungeoneering experience, using his axe to cut into the hard-packed dirt wall making hand and foot holds that we could use to climb down.
[Torchbearer is played in turns. A turn is not a set amount of time, instead each test (a roll of the dice) takes one turn. This means that you only really roll when there's something on the line. It's not quite as strict in this regard as Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard, but you still whould only roll when it really means something. Wasting time (tests) is not a good idea as torches only burn for a set amount and you get Hungry and Thirsty (or worse) as time goes by. In this instance I rolled a Scout test to try and see if there were any traps or similar in the cellar. With some help from the other adventurers Taika succeeded. Beren then took the lead in getting us past the stairs and he succeeded on his roll as well. This took two turns which meant that in another two turns we would become Hungry and Thirsty. It also meant that we had burned almost burned through our first torch.]
The room we found ourselves in when we got to the bottom of the stairs was strewn with rubble and debris, mostly consisting of smashed furniture and broken bottles. We could see two closed doors, one of which was hastily barricaded. As we sat down to rest up for a bit and have a drink of water Gerald could hear a high pitched whine coming from the other side of the barricade. He immediately started tearing at it, trying to get the door free. Although the halfling asked for help none of us felt this was a good idea so we let the him go at it alone (hah!).
To our amazement Gerald managed to clear the door, although he was huffing and puffing from the exhaustion. Interested in what might actually be behind it we drew our weapons and pulled the door open! Inside we heard something move and realized it was... a dog! It whimpered and hid under a desk but we ventured into the what we discovered was a wine cellar and Karolina, who is a competent hunter, tried to calm the dog. Just as it seemed like the half-starved creature was about to come out the door slammed shut behind us and we could hear chattering language and the sound of the barricade being rebuilt.
[All of us, except Kosta who played Gerald, really thought it was a bad idea to waste time trying to clear the barricade and didn't want to get drawn into the consequences of helping him. I quite liked the scene of the three large adventurers sitting down and having a snack while the little halfling struggled with the debris! Kosta actually failed the roll but Nils, the GM, opted to have him succeed at the cost of becoming Tired. As we discovered the mongrel dog Karolina tried to roll for Hunter to calm/tame it but failed and Nils hit us with a twist: the door slammed shut and someone was trying to lock us in! Two tests meant another two turns.]
The unknown assailants didn't have much time to rebuild the barricade and we managed to make our way outside in a couple of minutes. The room was empty though, whoever did it had fled the scene. Carefully we made it to the other door and entered the room beyond. It was a cold room for storing meat, but was also mostly covered in debris. A large hole gaped in the wall in front of us and it looked like it had been smashed open from the other side. Just as we were moving toward it three giant rats sprang up from the rubble and attacked! The fight was quickly over, but not until both me and Gerald had been bitten by the disease carrying rodents! This wasn't really anything we could do much about at that time so we decided to have a look at that hole.
[This was our first conflict. In Torchbearer the players tell the GM what it is they're trying to achieve in a conflict which the GM then interprets into one of nine conflict types. In this case we thought we were strong enough to handle a few rats so we actually tried to kill them, meaning a Kill conflict rather than Drive Off or Capture. Me and Kosta rolled poorly so got poisoned by the rats, but Karolina stepped in and saved the day single handedly! Another turn.]
Beren and Karolina readied their weapons but I suggested we try and trick them into running past us down the tunnel from whence we had come. At first we talked in loud voices to get their attention and as they drew their weapons and approached we hid in a natural alcove. The kobolds hesitated for quite some time and for a tense few minutes it seemed like they weren't going for it. Those stupid lizards! Finally Gerald picked up a rock and threw down the tunnel behind us. This was enough to make them want to investigate and they scampered past us. We snuck into the larger chamber where Beren swore loudly about how it would have been better if we had killed the critters.
[We could have tried and figure out where the voices were coming from, but didn't want to waste the time so simpy picked a direction at random. Our second conflict. At first we looked at a Drive Off conflict, but then I remembered Taika's Belief: "The wise consider all angles before making a decision." and I thought this was an excellent opportunity to try and play into that. I suggested trying to trick the kobolds into going past us, making it into a Riddle conflict. We rolled so-so in the conflict and generally had a bit of trouble describing the scene and our actions. There was some discussion about wheather us rolling badly would mean they detected us or not, but in the end the minor compromise we owed the kobolds meant that we became Angry. Another turn.]
After looking through the room and not finding anything of value we continued down the tunnel that slowly turned right. We came upon a much larger chamber that was lit by torches and inhabited by a number of kobolds! Watching from the shadows we could see a group of them torturing one of their own on a rack. A man with his foot cut off was lying bleeding and whimpering on the floor and what looked like a chief of some kind was questioning the kobold on the rack. A confusing scene to be sure, we didn't know what to think!
There were two tunnels leading out of the room and suddenly we noticed a small girl standing in the left tunnel opening! The kobolds obviously hadn't seen her, but she looked terrified and it was only a matter of time before she was discovered. Beren suggested that this wasn't our fight, but was voted down by Karolina and the rest of the group who wanted to save the child. There were probably a dozen kobolds in the room and we were hesitant to do a frontal assault. As I have a closer understanding of how the world works than the younger races I decided to try and use some elf magic to lift the girl to safety. I was on my own on this though, as no one else was skilled in the art of magic. The girl started to lift from the floor and slowly glided up towards the ceiling. She hovered towards us and it looked like it was going to work when I lost my concentration half-way through!
The girl landed straight onto the kobold on the rack and after a split second of stunned silence kobolds were running everywhere! Not knowing what just happened half of them ran into one of the tunnels and the other half found themselves face to face with four angry adventurers. In the confusion Karolina and Beren dispatched a couple of the little creatures and arrows from me and stones from Gerald's sling chased them as they slunk into the dark tunnel that their companions had run into. As we caught our breath in the short lull tat followed the girl ran up to us and asked us to take her out of there, and to save the man bleeding on the floor. It was her father. Beren also discovered that his backpack had been torn open in the fight and was rendered pretty much useless.
[Our characters Beliefs again came into play here as Beren's ("There’s naught for me but blood and treasure, spent and earned.") clashed somewhat with Karolina's ("I am the bulwark that stands between my friends and harm."). Granted, the girl wasn't strictly a friend, but we all thought that it would be in Karolina's nature to try and protect her. We hadn't done all that well in conflicts up until this point and a room full of kobolds with their chieftan looked like a tough match. I was looking through my character sheet, wanting to "consider all angles before making a decision" when I noticed the spells that I had all but forgotten.
It seemed like a cool thing to try out and a very "Yes, awesome!" moment if it would succeed. However with only Arcanist 3 and no one to help her it proved too much for Taika, and the twist Nils introduced was having the girl plopp straight down into the room! This also made for a great scene of pandemonium with kobolds running every which way and us charging out from cover. In this Drive Off conflict we actually rolled quite well but and quickly cleared the room of kobolds, however we did owe a compromise which took the form of Beren's torn backpack. Another two turns.]
The girl told us that her name was Elsa and her father's name was Joerg. Apparently he was the owner of the inn and for some obscure reason the kobold on the rack had cut off his foot! By now Joerg had lost consciousness and looked very pale - he was obviously not going to make it if we didn't help him. Beren muttered something about how "bleeding hearts will get us all killed", but didn't protest all to much when me and Karolina lifted up the innkeeper.
The air suddenly rang with the sound of drumming! Drumming coming from the tunnel the kobolds had retreated to. Gerald piped up: "Kobolds are easily startled but they'll soon be back, and in greater numbers." After a moment of surprised looks we started making it down the other tunnel, away from the drums. We clambered down a crudely carved stairway and came into a small chamber crammed full of stuff from the inn. Loads of cutlery, a few books, some broken chairs and a large, quite heavy wooden desk.
I have at least some knowledge of healing so decided to do what I could to help Joerg, but the darkness and the stressfull conditions didn't make it easy. While I did manage to stop the bloodflow and bind the wound it sounded like the drums were coming nearer and I could feel cold sweat on my neck! However, they never came and we spent some time swigging from our flasks and looking around the room for any possible valuables. It was mostly useless junk laying around although the desk looked like it might be worth something. We also found a large bronze key in one of the drawers. A key to what?
[It seemed like the kobolds would return so we went into the opposite tunnel where we found the room full of junk/treasure. I rolled for Healing but failed, however Nils decided to let me pass at the cost of becoming Afraid. We also searched the room successfully and found the bronze key as well as some small knick-knacks. Another two turns. By this time it was quite late and we decided to call it a day.]
Alright, our first game of Torchbearer! And the first time for me playing an RPG (as opposed to GM'ing) in... probably 10 years. That deserves a wooo!
As I mentioned it was late by the time we ended so any post-session talk was quite brief. I think we all enjoyed ourselves, however Kosta and Simon (who played Karolina) did mention that they felt a bit constrained by the very structured turn sequence and also somewhat by the conflict rules. We all agreed that we needed to be better at descriptions in conflicts, but that is something that will come in time.
As it happens Kosta
Yes, the system is very tightly structured, but Thor and Luke often says that this is not a system for one-off games. It's a system meant to be explored half a dozen sessions or more, and I think that as you play it more the very structured system will paradoxically provide a kind of roleplaying freedom that other, more light weight games, often lack. It sounds backwards, I know, but it's just the feeling I get when reading stuff related to Burning Wheel and thinking about our Mouse Guard and Torchbearer sessions.
Personally, I had a blast! And that's not only for being roleplay starved and finally getting my fix. I genuinely think it's a genius system that is simply difficult to wrap your head around (very much like the games by Phil Eklund, if you're up for a board game analogy). For some people it will never work, but I think most of the time it's all about understanding the system and how it all hangs together. Grokking it (if that's the right word). However I'm a firm supporter of Torchbearer and am waiting eagerly for my physical book to arrive. I'm also looking forward to the conflict cards that hopefully will be up for sale in the not too distant future.
I'd love to play again but I'm not sure if we'll actually ever continue on this particular session. I know Nils is preparing for a sci-fi campaign using FATE Core so I imagine he's busy with that (also, room for one more guys? You know I'm a nut for sci-fi stuff! ^_^) and the rest of the group seemed lukewarm when I suggested I'd run an old Swedish adventure adapted for Torchbearer. We've also talked about trying out the Star Wars Beginner Game, so there's that as well.
Hmm... it'll be interesting to see what the future holds whatever happens. But I certainly would like to play more roleplaying games!