Friday, March 7, 2014

Dungeon of Signs Plays Torchbearer - A Play Report

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.


  1. Thanks for this review. I have had this game recommended to me numerous times but reading your review only confirmed my suspicions. I will be sticking to my OSR roots.

    1. I think you should talk to Brendan who ran it, because there are plenty of rules worth lifting - the light rules are directly portable to OSR games. It's was a fun test.

  2. I was in that playtest, and it was interesting. I played the Cleric (although I didn't really hector the ghoul in the end, but it was getting in a bit of a jumble at that point). It was my first hangout game ever, so I was probably less active than I might be otherwise.

    I agree the characters were pretty bland, and I'd probably love to have a crack at creating my own character in the future. Having more investment in the world and the characters might have changed the tone a lot.

    I agree with with a lot of your assessment. As I said afterward, I think it'd be interesting to dig into the mechanics and create some home rules. There seems to be a lot of interesting bits, stuff that could be lifted into other systems, that you could remix and make more interesting.

    1. Largely agreed - it was getting late and I was tipsy, I'm not sure who did what towards the end. Thing with that system is I think it's be really hard to mod, because it's so mechanically focused. I do think Torchbearer is an interesting system and it does try to focus on the grotty dungeon feel, but I feel like it's mechanics first approach might make an evocative environment hard - Characters less so.

  3. I do not think the Tolkien atmosphere is really encoded in the rules at all beyond character generation. So creating a new set of classes would probably just require creating new character creation scripts to do that (though that would still be a decent amount of work). Some weirder classes might interact strangely with the gear system, but I imagine reasonable players could make that work.

    The dungeon was actually pretty weird! We just didn't get all that far into it because we were trying to learn how to use the system at the same time.

    1. When I'm talking about the cliched aspect I was being harsh on the pre-gens, but I do feel like without the cliches character nature would be hard to use. Yes, if everyone around the table had buy in to the setting it might work, but I wonder how well one could get agreement on how to use the skills and other quasi-skills if the world was all topsy turvy and characters weren't playing their vanilla fantasy scripts. You could use it with other set worlds that everyone knows. This is why I suggest nursery rhyme characters - which would be a great setting especially for a game that seems to encourage non-combat solutions. Like Little Bow Peep is not going to be that effective of a PC in a OD&D game without taking some serious leeway, but in Torchbearer she'd be easy to write up and a benefit to the party (those her goal would always be finding her lost sheep I suspect).

  4. I didn't mind the bland characters in what was essentially a playtest. Adding weirdness is very easy, starting with a rock-solid system is a lot harder.

    In a way, it's an mechanically restrictive as 4e ever was, but in a broader, dungeon-wide sense. 4e has very specific ways to swing your sword, Torchbearer has very specific ways to interact with with monsters and the dungeon. And in both cases, the walls of the cage are very palpable. It's a very new school approach to old-school gaming, but just not *D&D-style new school*.

    I did appreciate the freedom that Torchbearer gives you to approach combat. Overcoming a ghoul by reminding it of it's lost humanity is awesome, and I wish that D&D has some more mechanics in place to support unorthodox approaches. (Like, there are a lot of rules for swords and grappling, but a lot fewer mechanics for riddles and tricks.)

    Having said that, I didn't enjoy all the mechanical frontloading that the system imposes. It has a lot of abstracted mechanics that aren't very intuitive. And I feel like system familiarity is required to be effective (much like 4e).

    But that's about the end of my criticism. If the mechanics were more intuitive, I would have loved it.

    1. Yeah Arnold that's pretty much how I felt as well. I also suspect that the grind of accumulating conditions would be pretty engaging, but we didn't really get to that.

    2. It's odd, I haven't played anything except 1 game of FATE (Which baffled me) and OD&D (or OD&D derived systems) since the early 90's. I felt a bit like I was trying to play Champions, or doing Mecha fights with Mekton - which were both complexish combat oriented systems. I don't have any 4e or Pathfinder experience though to compare to, but I think your diagnosis sounds right. I was under the impression that storygames were narrative first, mechanics second, and I couldn't help but think that story, setting and character drove my ASE game the night before a lot more then it drove torchbearer. Likely a lot of this was because we all know the rules to B/X but I think a lot of it is the loose rules themselves.

    3. Gus, your confusion about the relative weight of story v. mechanics is understandable, but among the story game crowd, Luke Crane and Thor Olavsrud are kinda known as "the mechanics guys". Torchbearer derives a lot from its even more mechanically complex epic fantasy progenitor Burning Wheel.

      Arnold and Gus, something that these fellows have said in their interviews is that for them, part of the enjoyment of a game is figuring out what works, what doesn't, what unsuspected interactions there are, and so forth. So, for them, the type of "player skill" they like (and build into their rules systems) is the skill of familiarity and facility with the rule system, rather than the player skills of lateral thinking and accurately understanding the described situation. So, while I would side more with y'all that I'd rather have some intuitive rules, the non-intuitive nature of the rules is viewed by its designers as a feature, not a bug, from what I can tell anyway.

      All of that being said, I've only read the games, never gotten to play them, so what do I know?

    4. Jeff, As I mentioned I want to like the Torchbearer rules in as far as they require a concerted group effort to overcome problems and are focused on modelling other conflicts besides combat. What I didn't like was the absurd levels of mechanical complexity, we covered two rooms and one protagonist in a 3 hour session. These weren't complex rooms. Additionally the opacity of the rules is not a feature. The sort of 'rules mastery' that requires a player to have poured over some arcane text and figured out optimal systems to play is a rules mastery I despise. I like a game where someone can pick up a character, use their imagination and have fun with it. So I guess if you're telling me that the intention of Torchbearer and Burning Wheel is to be systematically complex and stultifying I think they need to give the name "story games" back to OD&D and go with "Spreadsheet games" or something.

    5. Gus, I largely agree with you, I hope I didn't come off as saying "you're playing it wrong and you should like it better". I find complex mechanics fun to think about and get a grasp on, but I agree that if lack of understanding gets in the way of having fun, that's not what I want. I don't have any stance on "story games" as a term, but after an initial infatuation with reading many of those games, I've found hours of actual fun playing OD&D.

    6. Gus, I'm not sure your comparison here is entirely fair. You already know how to play D&D (see: curse of knowledge). None of us during this session really knew how to play Torchbearer, so we were trying to figure it out as we went. I certainly didn't really know what I was doing.

      That said, it is probably a bit more complex than basic D&D. But I don't think by that much. The entire book is only around 180 pages, after all, in rather large type, and a decent portion of that is content like spells, monsters, and a sample adventure.

    7. Brendan, it's absolutely true that we had no idea what we were doing, but I was responding to what I getting from Jeff about the idea that part of the Torchbearer paradigm is optimization of systems (knowing how to bulk up a really good set of rolls with all the add on and how to juggle the rock paper scissors system). I understand the appeal of a logic puzzle, but for me the essence of tabletop roll playing games and what they do better then there computer counterparts is allow players and GMs to share narrative control by inventing things. E.G. the Beni Profane "Wizard Protocol" or the "Unseen Servant Cruise Missile" which are largely outside the mechanics of the game.

      Torchbearer is totalizing, in that it's system has a size fits all metric for conflicts and perils, and I really like the idea to a degree, but I also think it loses something, and the suggestion that the way to 'replace' or make up for the narrative loss is through system mastery. I dislike min-maxing for the same reason.


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