I ran Torchbearer this weekend. I had fun, and I want to run it again.
Damn does this game have a learning curve, though. We were fumbling around with the rules the entire session, and once I sat down and re-read the book I found a bunch of places where I’d missed subtle rules or screwed up completely. I can see how it’ll come together once I have more of it internalized, but my players especially (Kiel, my brother, and my brother’s fiancee) found it frustrating.
I knew that going into it, though. This game was a test run, so I could get a feel for how the game works in play, and get prepared to run a proper campaign once I move to San Francisco. I want to write my own stuff but didn’t trust my ability to do that without actually playing, so this was a chance to try out the intro adventure, and get my fumbling done with people who I expect to laugh at me anyway.
We played the starting adventure that comes with the book, and didn't get very far. They delved into the cellar, fought some rats, went further into the caves, discovered kobolds, tripped over an alarm the kobolds had set, attempted to scare the kobolds off by making spooky noises and shouting the name of their god, and then ran away when that failed and made camp.
The main thing I screwed up was actually the main mechanic, which is subtle enough that I missed it the first time, even though it’s a very similar one to the classic OD&D-style dungeoneering that I’m especially fond of. I default to my more 3e-ish habits, and it had a definite negative impact on play.
Basically, Torchbearer has in common with OD&D that play should proceed primarily by players and DM trading descriptions of action and reaction, until you get to the point where the DM thinks something bad should happen-- the players did something stupid, or inherently risky. At that point in OD&D, you’d roll a save-- you screwed up, but I’m going to give the game a chance to save you-- or get into combat. In Torchbearer, you roll a “Test,” which uses the skill system but is actually quite different from the 3e and later subsystems of that name.
In newer editions of D&D, and a lot of “traditional” (as opposed to old school or indie/narrative) the consequences for failing a roll is that you don’t succeed at what you were trying. They can be either player controlled or triggered independently by the DM.
In Torchbearer, the consequence for failing a roll is that something bad happens, even though you succeed at what you were doing (with a couple of exceptions, mostly having to do with recovering from consequences like injury). They’re always (a) triggered by player action but (b) called for by the DM. So none of that “roll a perception check to see whether you notice (secret thing) when you enter an area” business (which is where I messed up-- in my defense, the intro adventure implies that you should do this at one point, at least if you’re coming into it with D&D instincts). Either the information in question should be given to the players when they enter the area, or when they take an action to directly uncover it. Because failing a roll always imposes negative consequences, imposing a roll without the players feeling like they directly triggered it can be frustrating.
I also fumbled on the conflict rules (deciding when to start a conflict is actually kind of tricky, and I hadn’t read the rules for setting up the monster side at the start of them carefully enough), didn’t realize how nasty adding another 6 kobolds would make an encounter for 3 players, and didn’t handle people asking if they could apply this or that trait to a situation well-- I should have just asked them “what are you actually doing that’s using that trait?” and decided based on their description. I also nudged them a little too hard towards collecting checks. I suspect after re-reading that section the most natural way for new players to discover checks is through tiebreakers, and that once they got the hang of that they’d start looking for opportunities to get them other ways on their own.
All that said, I’m pretty psyched about running Torchbearer again. I’m re-reading the rulebook, and have a better idea how to read it now that I’ve run it once. I’ve started thinking about how I’ll set up the actual campaign, and making notes on the first adventure. (Still deciding whether to use my existing San Draso setting, or try something totally new.)
I am a little wary about introducing it to new players, and to players who aren’t already enthusiastic about learning the game. The nice thing about Basic or OD&D is that I can get a new player up and running in about 5 minutes (“roll what I tell you to roll, when I tell you to roll it, otherwise don’t worry about it”) and there aren’t many rules for them to deal with. While I’m optimistic about my ability to interface with the system for new players as they get their bearings, at least once I get a solid handle on the rules myself, there are a lot more bearings to get in this system.
I’m also concerned that it could be pretty punishing to players who aren’t interested in engaging with the rules, and I suspect the potential frustration factor is a lot higher than in D&D. In D&D usually if you screw up the worst thing that happens is that your character that you spent 5 minutes making dies. In Torchbearer you can get saddled with conditions and get abilities taken away from you during play, and character creation takes a little longer, so you have more invested out of the gate.
In general I don’t think this is a game that most people who’re already happy and well-served by old school D&D dungeoneering are going to be interested in, at least for extended play. The game is probably worth playing a few sessions of, especially if you don’t already feel confident with the way you manage dungeon atmosphere and the resource restriction of low level play, and the encumbrance and light rules are potentially worth borrowing. But it’s really more “an introduction to dungeoneering for people who like Burning Wheel or indie/narrative games” than an alternative to Basic per se.
For me, though-- not only do I like to kill people, and otherwise inflict nastiness on their characters, I’m pretty much all about emergent behavior arising from proceduralism. D&D does a lot of that on the DM side, but it’s interesting to see a game that really brings that to the player side of the table.
I’m particularly interested in the opportunities that the trait system affords for “emergent roleplaying.” At one point my brother was looking for a way to use a trait against himself, and came up with the idea that “maybe the gods are telling me not to kill this rat, and that makes me doubt myself.” Then the other characters picked up on that as the cleric being not quite all there, and started roleplaying that.
I do agree with the creators of the game that it’s not terribly well suited for one-shot play, and I’m hoping to get the chance to run a continuing game soon. I really appreciate that it has clear guidelines for how to prepare a campaign, and how to run a game that starts with just a single adventure prepped and builds out from there. I wish there was a little more discussion of building out the campaign world as play proceeds, and procedural generation for adventure sites in general, but I can lift a lot of that from D&D.
Of course, I’m also not sure how long it’ll hold my attention. I’m focused on it for now, but it’s definitely possible that a few sessions in I’ll get tired of futzing with the shiny rule set and get back to Basic.