Torchbearer is a new roleplaying game from Burning Wheel HQ, the guys who brought us Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard, among other things. Their games have a great track record, so I rushed out to get this one as soon as it was available, freshly minted from a successful Kickstarter campaign.
The game itself is, as the designers describe it, a riff on the oldest school of Dungeons and Dragons. It’s a callback to the days before we had fancy things like feats, or even THAC0. The objective is to recreate those magical feelings of awe and wonder that many of us remember from our first dungeon crawl. Rather than simply going back to Gary Gygax’s original rules, Torchbearer uses all the benefits of modern game design.
Torchbearer is based on the Mouse Guard rules, so we know the basic mechanics are solid. The core die mechanic, the advancement system, and the roleplaying rules all work great. The unknown element is how well Torchbearer does at its stated goal: creating a fun dungeon crawl. Things start off on a good note because…
The Book Is Really Fun to Read
Have a look at this quote from page 4, under the section The Light of Civilization Flickers.
Our forebears succeeded in wedging a toehold—a small point of light in a vast, weird darkness. Their hubris led them to believe they had won, that victory was inevitable. But they were wrong. The forests fought back. The mountains rebelled. The seas heaved in protest. Things issued forth from crevices and caves; the foam and fire spat forth a writhing, crawling answer to our fathers’ “conquest.” We fought them. We banished them. We flung spell and prayer at them. But they came like a creeping tide, forcing us steadily back.
Doesn’t that sound awesome? The above quote is one of many to be lifted from Torchbearer, and it really gets you fired up to play the game. This might not sound that important, but it has a major impact. So many roleplaying books have flavor text that makes you want nothing more than to skip ahead and find the mechanics. Torchbearer starts getting players and GMs in the right mood from the very beginning.
It isn’t only the flavor text either. The rules are exciting to read too, not just a necessary task before playing the game. It’s strange to describe a roleplaying book as a page turner, but the term applies here. Even the formatting is great, with just enough minimalist art, and text fonts reminiscent of the very first D&D manuals.
Reading through this book, you feel like it’s time to explore some dungeons, get some loot, and maybe hold back the ever consuming darkness just a little, and that’s fantastic. Any game that can get people excited before even sitting down at the table has some major points in its favor. Of course, the rules have to deliver as well…
Torchbearer Improves on the Mouse Guard Conflict Resolution System
Mouse Guard scored a major accomplishment with a conflict resolution system that could be used for anything, from a one-on-one sword duel to keeping your ship afloat in a storm. All you had to do was pick a few relevant skills, write down an objective, then plug it all in and roll the dice. Torchbearer uses that same system, only with a few tweaks to make the whole thing more tactical.
If there was one complaint about the Mouse Guard system, it was that the experience felt like a very long Rock-Paper-Scissors exchange. Torchbearer addresses that issue both by increasing the information players have about their opponents, and beefing up the importance of individual characters in a fight. This makes the system a bit more complicated, but it works extremely well once everyone knows the rules.
Because Torchbearer still has objectives to a fight other than ‘kill the other guy,’ it also means the PCs can actually lose conflicts without ending the campaign. The value of this cannot be underestimated. It adds both tension and a feeling of accomplishment, because players know they might not always come out on top. Plus, it can be really fun to roleplay the results of half the party being captured by goblins.
Even better, the system still works for conflicts besides physical combat. A formal debate isn’t likely far below ground, but you can never be sure just what kind of problems you’ll face in the dark. Just remember to bring a lantern because…
Light Management is Elegant and Functional
Visibility is one of those issues that GMs have been ignoring since the invention of roleplaying games, and who can blame them? Keeping track of how many minutes each torch lasts and how far out its light extends is a huge pain that distracts from what’s actually interesting. It gets even sillier when half the playable races have some form of dark vision, negating even the pretext of needing light.
Torchbearer, on the other hand, takes the view that knowing how much light you have in the otherwise pitch black dungeon should be part of the fun. Light sources are measured in turns,* which makes them easy to keep track of. After two turns, your torch gutters out. Time to light another one! In another improvement, light is rated by how many characters can benefit, rather than how many feet it extends. The aforementioned torch can cast enough light for two people, which means your group will probably need more than one at a time.
The penalties for not having enough light are both simple and immediate. In dim light, just about everything gets one step harder. With no light, most tasks become impossible. Your characters stumble about, hands outstretched for that dropped candle. The elder races’ ability to make do without light is gone as well. Everyone is on even footing deep beneath the earth.
It’s surprising just how much drama light management can add to the game. Instead of being a chore, making sure the lantern stays lit becomes part of what makes the game awesome. It all contributes to an understanding that going into a dungeon is a completely different experience from the above ground world. It’s full of unknown dangers, and you have to carry everything important with you. But that’s okay, because…
The Inventory System Is Wonderful
How much a character can carry is not something most people dwell on in roleplaying games. We’ve all grown so tired of light loads and medium loads and heavy loads that more often than not, we’ll just handwave the issue and assume characters have whatever they need. This is compounded by the fact that most of the random items in our inventory don’t even have mechanical effects. Not so in Torchbearer.
In this game, how much your character can carry is really important. After all, when you’re two levels deep in a dungeon, it’s difficult to go back for something you’ve forgotten. Instead of only measuring how much something weighs, Torchbearer gives you a certain number of slots on your character’s body where important items can be stored, and absolutely everything has a mechanical impact.
Does your character wear a backpack? It lets them carry a lot more, but it also restricts movements when scaling a sheer wall or fighting off an orc. Are you bringing a backup weapon? You’ll be glad you did when kobolds steal your sword. What about rations? Do you leave any space open for carrying back your loot?
Even more fun is doing this together as a group, trying to figure out who’s got room for a few extra flasks of lamp oil. Maybe you’ll decide the party’s main fighter can afford not to bring a backpack so they’ll be more ready for a confrontation, or maybe the rogue will have to pack some extra rations to make up for the wizard’s bulky spellbook. Gearing up in Torchbearer is a lot of fun, which is something I haven’t said about a roleplaying game for a long time.
In a similar vein, the rules for money are great as well. Adventuring is a business with high costs and high rewards. Sure, you might come out of the dungeon loaded with gold and jewels, but how much is it to replace that lost sword? What about a place to stay? Inns aren’t cheap, you know. Using the Resource stat, these rules create a brilliant setup in which the characters are constantly struggling to save up enough so they don’t have to go out and risk their lives every day just to make ends meet. And there is no question that they are risking their lives because…
Exploring a Dungeon Feels Dangerous
In the Kickstarter video, one of the game designers shares an experience he had while going caving, and it really makes you realize underground exploration has plenty of thrilling danger even without supernatural monsters trying to eat you. There are sharp rocks, pitfalls, cave-ins, and long miles of tunnel that will turn you around until the surface is but a distant dream. Really, people going into those places covered in armor and pointy weapons sound crazier and crazier all the time.
Torchbearer takes that aesthetic and makes it part of the rules. The longer you spend creeping around in a crumbling tomb, the more your character is worn down. You get hungry, tired, and afraid – and that’s assuming nothing truly goes wrong. Your food runs out, and your party members’ tempers fray from constant stress. This is called The Grind, and it brings home that your character is a flesh and blood creature, not some superbeing who can be pushed beyond all limits.
This is a great roleplaying tool, because never is your identity more important than in the face of adversity. The moment when the whole party huddles around the last candle’s flickering light is a great time to discover who your character really is. Will their belief in justice hold, or will they seize the last supplies for themselves and damn the others? It’s ironic that the dungeon crawl, a genre notorious for its lack of roleplaying, now hosts a game like Torchbearer.
All of these things lend themselves to an authentic dungeoneering experience. Unfortunately, not every rule in Torchbearer works as well…
The Rules Can Be Contradictory
One of the oddest things that gets repeated in the book over and over again is that there should be as little time as possible spent roleplaying when the characters are in town after completing a dungeon. It looks like this advice is in place to ensure that the real meat of a game is always focused on the underground depths, except that the rules don’t support this idea. A lot of very interesting stuff happens in town. The characters spend their loot, they interact with friends and enemies, they hear rumors. There is a random event generator for stuff happening in town, and one chapter gives specific advice on how to make towns more memorable. Yet, other parts of the book would have you believe that there isn’t supposed to be any roleplaying there.
This isn’t the only strange contradiction in the book. Torchbearer is a game that openly invites all players to read through it, which I believe is a good idea. The group will have more fun in general if everyone knows the rules. Despite that, there are some sections that the GM is not supposed to tell players about – in particular, how the special abilities of the different fantasy races can be used. The players are supposed to discover these abilities by spontaneously trying them in play. The suggestions are good ones, such as halflings being able to use their merrymaking nature to assist other characters suffering from fear, but it’s baffling why the GM is supposed to hide this information until the players stumble upon it.
In almost all cases, GMs will benefit from being as open with their players as possible. Said players will not be happy if, five or six sessions into the game, they find out that their character had some kind of ability that would have been very useful if they had only known about it. Roleplaying rules can be difficult enough to understand without information being intentionally held back.
Luckily, this is mainly a case of bad advice and can be easily fixed. More difficult to address is that…
The D&D Parts Don’t Always Match the Mouse Guard Parts
As mentioned before, Torchbearer takes a lot of its inspiration from super old school Dungeons and Dragons. In some cases, like the rules for creating devilishly inspired traps, this works really well. In others, not so much.
Unlike Mouse Guard, Torchbearer features D&D style classes. These are harmless enough; groupings of skills can be quite helpful for players who like more structured character creation. Where things get a bit weird is in the ‘level’ mechanic. In Torchbearer, skills are very broad, and are ranked on a 1-6 scale. A wizard with a high Arcanist skill is very good at casting spells, and yet if their class level is 1, they are still considered a neophyte. It’s unclear why a level 2 wizard with Arcanist 4 gets more spells per day than a level 1 wizard with Arcanist 5.
There are a few other cognitive disconnects as well. Wizards can only ever use daggers, no matter how high their Fighter skill gets. A thief can never learn to use a spear. These restrictions make sense from a game balance perspective, but when trying to justify them in character, you run into problems.
Then there’s D&D’s Vancian spell casting system. This magic system was arbitrary when Gygax first started using it, and it still is. It just feels incredibly silly for a wizard to cast one spell and then be done for the day. To Torchbearer’s credit, wizards are able to stay useful by using their skills, and the few spells they do get are a lot more potent, but it can still be very frustrating.
I wish I could say this was all the fault of big bad D&D, but Torchbearer’s most serious problem wasn’t inherited from any other games.
The Turn Tracking System Is Nearly Unworkable
Like Mouse Guard, Torchbearer doesn’t concern itself with the passing of hours or minutes, but instead divides the game up into turns. A turn is defined as enough time to do something interesting, and they are used to keep track of anything time sensitive. This includes light sources, spell effects, and how long you can go without putting some food in your face. It looks great on paper, and it would be, if not for one major issue.
The problem is that the turn counter advances whenever a character does something interesting enough to need a roll. One character rolls Scholar to decipher some ancient runes, a turn passes. Another character picks a lock, a turn passes. Every turn that passes means more light and food has to be consumed. This created the bizarre dynamic that when there are more characters in the party, time passes faster. Alternatively, one character is actually doing something while the others simply watch in awestruck wonder.
When my group tried this, there was very little opportunity for roleplaying because we were all obsessed with trying to figure out the most efficient use for our one action per turn. No one dared do anything spontaneous in keeping with their character, because that would mean selfishly using up a precious resource. We felt less like individual characters and more like the arms of a starfish.
That might sound like a condemnation, but it isn’t. In a second game, we tried a house rule allowing each character to make one roll per turn, so long as their character wasn’t preoccupied with anything else. This more or less fixed the problem, and made for a really fun session of dungeon exploration. No doubt the guys at Burning Wheel HQ had their reasons for making the rules the way they did, but this way worked much better for us.
Torchbearer is a game with a lot of potential, but it certainly isn’t a game for the inexperienced. Having experience with other Burning Wheel games, especially Mouse Guard, will be very helpful when it throws you a curve ball. GMs less experienced in handing out house rules may find their players frustrated by some of the game’s less intuitive systems. That said, Torchbearer makes dungeon crawling fun again, which is an accomplishment not to be scoffed at.
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.