I ran my first game of Torchbearer last night, and it wasn’t terribly successful so I’d like to share some things that happened and get some feedback.
We used the pregens, specifically the Fighter, Cleric, and Halfling. And the default module (House of Three Squires).
After a cursory search of the above-ground elements, the first real act was for the Cleric to go down the stairs. Failed the Ob 2 Health check, and twisted his ankle (injured condition). Then we hit our first rules question: the Cleric had the only lit torch. Previously, we had established that the Cleric and the Fighter were in the light, and the Halfling was in the dim. Now that the Cleric was down in the cellar, does the torch light extend up to the other two? I ruled that because of the distance, the Fighter and Halfling were both in the dim.
Then they tried to think about how to get the rest of the part down to the cellar safely. They feared the grind, and when I kept saying that their suggestions would require a test, they would become irritated and suggest something else instead. This went on for a bit (amid grumbles of “this game punishes you for playing it”) before they eventually asked how tall the distance was, and if they could just lower the Halfling down (because he’s light). I let this happen without a test, and they were satisfied.
Then the question was how to get the Fighter down. More trying to figure out what they could do that wouldn’t result in a test. Eventually the Halfling threw a rope up and the Fighter slid down.
OK, now we’re in the cellar. I describe the two exits, and the water pump. Cleric checks out the water pump and finds the loose mortar. They do a laborer test and pull the wall apart to reveal the tunnel. Thinking that “secret door means more awesome” they all go that way and find the bubbling pool of cold water. They ask where it goes, and I say they can find out for a Scout test. They hate that idea (again, fear of grind). So the Cleric strips naked and decides to “just go for it.” He emerges on the other side shivering and cold (sick condition).
They have now spent three turns total, and are one away from grinding, and don’t have a single check yet, so they are really determined to not to have to roll any dice. They keep proposing all manner of techniques they could use to get the rest of the party through the tunnel, and asking if it would require a test. I kept trying to defend that it was a curving tunnel through uneven rock in freezing cold water in the pitch dark: it wasn’t going to be easy! Eventually the Fighter goes through carrying the Halfling. Fighter is now sick, Halfling merely afraid. And because that was the fourth test, now everyone’s hungry. So they all drink wine. Oddly, no one thought to drink the water that was right there. Maybe they thought that wasn’t allowed within the structure of the game.
Anyway, this gives you an idea as to how things are going. The party next confronts the chasm, and suffice to say, it goes similarly. I will call out one odd thing that happened during it though. I ruled all their torches were soaked, and now required a Ob 1 Survivalist test to light. The Cleric, who is already injured and sick (and thus down to rolling only one die on Beginner’s Luck for Survivalist), hedges his bets and says “this is clearly a test from the gods” (using his trait against himself for -1D) and thus drops himself down to zero dice. He tests with zero dice and fails. Therefore his torch is lit, but he gets the angry condition (it’s frustrating trying to light a wet torch), but he gets a check out of it. This felt weird to me.
They do manage to accrue a check in the process though, and camp on the far side. I decide it’s an “unsafe underground” (because at this point I figured if I used the “dangerous underground” rules I might have a table revolt), and we set about camp. At this point, the Fighter and Halfling notice they both have camp-centric instincts. It was interesting to see how the party felt very entitled to use their abilities, even though they didn’t make much sense. (The Fighter has “I always hunt before camp” and I tried to suggest this wasn’t exactly a good place to hunt.) I think they all felt very pressed down and beaten by the rules, and they were desperate to reclaim a semblance of control from what was otherwise an abusive experience. Anyway, I let the Fighter catch rats (she caught a lot) and the Halfling cook them (but only got one success), and I had trouble figuring out what that means. I ruled that he only cooked enough rat for one party member, which made the Fighter sad, because she had caught a lot of rats, and felt short changed.
Then it came time to alleviate conditions. Only the Cleric had checks, but he had two of them. The Halfling wanted to use Merrymaking to cheer him up. I didn’t know what to do here, so I just winged it, and said that the Cleric has to give one of his checks to the Halfling, who then rolls nature, and if he gets at least 2 successes (the difficultly to heal angry), then the Cleric recovers. No idea of that’s right. Anyway, we did that and the Cleric healed angry. The next condition down was exhausted, and the Cleric had a check left, so he spent it to roll health … and failed. Unsatisfying.
Anyway, from there they discover the tunnel filled with cobwebs and head down it, right into the giant spider’s lair. So now it’s time for our fight combat in this system (both mine and theirs). I assign three actions to the spider, and tell the players to secretly record their actions. They see no reason to do this in secret, so they just write out their three actions in the open (I had already picked mine, so I couldn’t see a problem with this). We made a lot of mistakes (forgot to keep track of who was in light vs dim, forgot that afraid characters can’t help, forgot armor entirely, etc.). None of us had ever played a Burning Wheel derived game, and it was all pretty foreign to us. We really didn’t understand why we were scripting things out in units of three. We all agreed that it would be more exciting to just script one unit at a time. (Our fight ended up going 15 units, so we had five sets of scripts.) Does anyone know the design decision on this?
Anyway, early on, we ran into odd moment where both the party and the spider had chosen Defend. Everyone was still at original disposition, and I think that’s maximum, right? Anyway, so the Cleric (whose turn it was) once again goes on about how this is a test from the gods and drops himself down to zero dice, auto fails, but earns a check out of it. He thinks this is a great way to milk to system, and so he ends up doing this many more times this combat, and ends up with six or seven checks before the battle is through. This felt weird to me.
At one point in time, we both end up selecting Maneuver. I roll awesome and have a net of four successes. I happen to be up against the only person holding a torch, so I spend three of my successes on a disarm, and rule that I chomp down and eat their torch, plunging the entire fight into absolute darkness. Seemed cool to me, but the party was a bit incredulous.
The next action was us both selecting Attack, and was the Fighter’s turn. Now, the Fighter is in total darkness, so we didn’t know what to do. I ruled that she could spend her turn to light a torch. Therefore I (spider) made an attack, and the Fighter didn’t. Then we moved on to the next player’s turn, and said he was in the light. No idea if I did that right.
Nearish the end of the fight, the spider finally lands a bite with her poisonous fangs against the Cleric. Cleric rolls to resist the poison and fails. The printed failure condition is “sickened”, which the Cleric already is. So I didn’t know what to do. The Cleric was also already injured and exhausted. The next available condition was afraid, so I gave him that. It felt weird that being already so crippled insulted him against getting a bad condition, so instead he got a lesser one.
As I said above, I have no experience with Burning Wheel style combat. So I don’t know how the ebb and flow is supposed to feel. Also, neither myself nor the party had any grasp of tactics, we basically just picked actions at nearly random. But it was a real whiff fest. After 12 or so rounds, the PCs had only lost 2 disposition, and I had only lost 1. It felt like we spend a lot of time for nothing to happen. What’s the normal cadence? Then all of a sudden, in rounds 13 and 14, they’re both attack vs attack, the PCs roll terribly, I roll awesomely, and I TPK. It was very sudden. Again: what’s the normal cadence of combats? Going from literally a dozen rounds of stalemate and then two rounds to dead, felt weird.
But hey, the Cleric died with about eight checks on his sheet.
I had high hopes for Torchbearer, and I want to give it another shot. My players on the other hand, do not. I know other people, and maybe I can cobble together a different group, but when I do so, I want to make sure that I do it right. 'cuz I’m pretty sure I didn’t do it right. Any advice greatly appreciated!