So a largely OSR GM (who is likely the best minimalist rule-cruncher I know) and a mixed selection of OSR(LBB, B/X), 4E, Pathfinder and Story Game players attempted to play Torchbearer using a pack of pregens and some sort of introductory module. I was both baffled and enjoyed myself – now this might just be because the fellow players and GM were cool folks, but the system was interesting in many ways.
The pregens were boring. I’m sorry, I like a gonzo game or at least something that feels a little different from Tolkeinesque Beardy Scotch Dwaves and Whimsy Elves. Torchbearer is a consciously ironic nostalgia based game where the fantasy archetypes aren't just strong, they seem necessary to the game. Now this isn’t to say the game is snidely ironic, it’s clearly a homage to old school games trying to capture the gritty feeling of nebbishes crawling about in a miserable underworld. The problem for our game is that Torchbearer is a complex and convoluted system that appears mechanics focused - and we weren’t prepared for it. Not that we didn’t try to prepare, I mean the GM and some of the other players had clearly poured over the rules. Due diligence was preformed, and yet this session was very limited and a lot of time was spent flipping about through the rules.
|Yeah - this was the party ... yawn|
We are a band of adventures, the a clichéd fantasy adventuring party of whimsy elf, beer dwarf, grim fighter, bald glow eyed warlock, hooded thief and cleric hanging about in a quasi medieval town. We climb down a slanted well into an ancient underworld, somehow a dragon was involved but it left earlier so it shouldn't be an issue. Climbing took a long time to figure out because we didn’t realize how the rules worked. We got down the hole though and went into a room, with some underworld sort of defensive pillars and a dead tarry monster corpse. My elf (later I decided she was a Meth-Elf - don’t ask) had a goal to collect monster parts in a whimsical manner, so he sawed the head off the dead beast while struggling with nastiness of this act. While the party tried to decide what to do next, our paranoid thief, inspecting some mosaics, spotted a pair of twinkling red eyes atop one of the pillars.
The doughty fighter (who lacks characteristics beyond doughtiness because these are pregens of excruciating boredom) wandered up to investigate the pillar beast and was promptly grabbed by a long rubbery arm of white puckered flesh. The adventurers reacted with violent glee, trying to pull the fighter back and slaughter the horrible beast. The following fight was rather one sided as howling with supernatural fury the beast leaped into the adventurers midst and slashed about with filthy claws. Even an arrow through one of its arms failed to stop the monster and it carried off the fighter, dashing to the East. Resolving to rescue their companion and recover a silver armlet that the money hungry dwarf spotted on the lanky monster’s arm the party painfully stood up, battered and scratched to hurry after the horror.
The second chamber contained a tusked statute, similar to the dead monster discovered in the first chamber, but from its multiple heads, obviously representing a divine being. The fighter, kicking and shouting in the vise grip of the pallid best’s corded arms, was barely avoiding the monster's gnashing teeth. Deciding that a battle is likely to end badly for them, the adventurers cast around for a means to free their companion. The Elf recognized, with her fairy dust fueled memory, that the creature resembles a recently vanished forester and surmised that the thing is somehow a man transformed. Using her skills of singing and remembrance to help the benighted creature recall its human nature (and hopefully consider the impropriety of devouring the fighter) he began a song and dance number involving ribbons and mournful high pitched keening. The rest of the band joined in, the dwarf riddling with snide jokes about ghoulishness and the cleric hectoring the beast into shame about its condition. Despite the monster’s attempts to distract the party (including biting one adventurer in the arm) the ghoul was soon reduced to a weeping husk, blubbering about abandoned children. The entire party promptly shanked, decapitated and bludgeoned it into non-existence, looted the valuable arm band, and ended the session with much sanctimonious back slapping.
This system is complex. While Torchbearer appears to have some neat subsystems (the conditions for example) and the mechanics theoretically (assuming one can master them) have a fun rock-paper-scissors element, it was hard to see much of this as our group waded into the system blind.
The advantages of Torchbearer are smooth timekeeping (a turn by event system) that allows for resource management and a party-centric mechanical system. For example, Torchbearer’s light system of each type of light source providing a certain number of characters illumination is great, and along with the limited turn structure, it makes keeping track of light source exhaustion easy and a real limit on exploration. The mechanical system is interesting, it focuses on group action and cooperation rather then individual character actions. Torchbearer's conflict resolution is very complex, but I think it could become fairly streamlined with practice and fun from the prospective of solving the mechanical logic puzzles of each conflict while justifying them with narrative.
However, even the short taste that I had of Torchbearer made me aware of how different it is from the simple OD&D and B/X D&D games I enjoy. By placing complex mechanics first there is less focus on player skill. What a player says her character does is less important than what skill might apply. The system pushes every action into a mechanical framework first, and demands narrative second. This might be the result of my inexperience with the system (The GM could theoretically adjudicate actions into the mechanical matrix after they were described rather than allow the players to determine mechanical effect and then justify), but I found this somewhat less open-ended then early D&D games. Likewise the single complex mechanic rather than numerous simple mechanics makes the resolution of every task, even simple tasks, into the same thing, focusing the game on character skill. While the use of special traits and unique skills (I.e. my elf isn’t a good trickster, but was able to do will with the ghoul because she/he had unique traits of sing & remembrance) moves away from pure character skill, and allows the player opportunities to justify and roleplay to a degree, this still only allows the player to adjust or game the mechanical system to a minimal degree. I guess what I am saying is that for all the discussion I hear of ‘narrative control’ in storygames, Torchbearer is far less focused on narrative then mechanics then I expected, it seems more mechanically forward/dependent then OD&D, B/X or AD&D for example. I spent an awful lot of time trying to make sense of my very complex character sheet.
None of this is to say Torchbearer is ‘bad’ or fails to do what it sets out to, and the use of a single mechanical ‘combat’ system to resolve all conflicts (diplomacy, exploration, and environmental) makes the non-combat obstacles into complex mechanical struggles in a refreshing way. I’d play Torchbearer again, though I would like to do so in a less vanilla fantasy world.
I think Torchbearer would work especially well for a fairy-tale world, where clichés were used extensively (Torchbearer’s system of justification/skill selection depends on players and GM having shared expectations and understanding of character), but that dispensed with the exasperating overly dramatic bathos of Tolkien. A mine kobold, animated rusty suit of armor, deposed princess and talking cat in boots would make a far better torchbearer party (because the archetypes are stronger, fresher and more fun) then a dwarf, paladin, elf, and rogue.