first time playing last night, I think I did it wrong

I ran my first game of Torchbearer last night, and it wasn’t terribly successful :frowning: 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. :frowning: 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. :frowning: 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!

This is a feature, not a bug; it’s called The Grind for a reason. If your players can’t get something out of this premise, than perhaps this isn’t the game for them?

Hi efreund! First, it’s not the end of the world. The game has a steep learning curve.

So, the whole bit about proposing an action, finding out a test is involved and backing out is against the rules. See Describe to Live and Don’t Negotiate on pages 116 and 117, respectively.

The players can talk and kibbitz all they want, but nothing happens until they describe what their characters are doing. Once the characters are in action, the GM decides whether that action is worth a test and, if it is, tells the player whose character took the action what skill to roll and what the obstacle is.

As the GM, part of your job is to interpret what the environment means to the characters. Deciding that a torch at the bottom of the stairs wouldn’t provide bright light to a character at the top of the stairs was a totally valid call. Another example: the rules never explicitly state that one of the characters in bright light has to be the character holding the torch, but come on, you know?

I would have called for an Ob 4 Survivalist test to light those torches. Starting a fire in bad conditions is the third factor in Survivalist, +1 factor for the darkness. Not a big deal though!

The bit about being Injured and Sick and using a trait against himself is an interesting edge case. You can’t actually test if you don’t have any dice, so that wouldn’t have flown with me. He could have gotten help though! When you’re rolling Beginner’s Luck, everyone can help. Note, though, that assuming his Nature was 4 or better, he could have used that. You can always default to your Nature if you don’t have the skill!

Hunting rats is OK if the group is down with eating rats. Cooking them all for the party should have been an Ob 3 Cook test (prepare meal from game, whole party). Failure leads to a twist or condition like any other test.

You handled Merrymaking exactly right. See Secret Nature Rules on page 119. I allow stuff like Merrymaking to take care of the Angry conditions of the whole party if they’re successful. As for failing the test to get rid of Exhausted…sometimes it happens. You’ll just have to muddle through, get a check and try again another time.

It’s not a big deal to make mistakes. Just note them and try not to make them again next time. As for choosing three actions, it is the result of years of playtesting and development. You have to create a plan based on your understanding of your own skills and weapons and your opponent’s capabilities. It’s a definite skill and players can become very good at it over time. Choosing actions one at a time provides too much information and makes the whole thing dull and lifeless.

Characters can’t continue to fight if they don’t have any light at all. It would have turned into a Flee conflict instead. Seems like you made a reasonable call in the heat of the moment though!

As for the spider’s poison, note that both the Injured and Sick descriptions state that when suffering from those conditions, the GM may apply the Dead condition as the result of failing any test involving physical harm. You’re not obligated to, but I would have opted for giving the Dead condition.

You matched up 15 actions without getting Attack against Attack or Feint against Attack or Feint against Defend/Maneuver? A round in Torchbearer is a set of 3 actions. My conflicts generally go between 1 and 3 rounds with lots of ups and downs.

I’m sorry the game didn’t go well. Much like basic D&D at 1st level, the first couple of sessions of Torchbearer can be really harsh. You don’t have any Rewards with which to modify your rolls and the game can be punishing to boot. You definitely need some buy-in from your players – they have to be into the idea that their characters aren’t heroes, they’re rootless vagabonds trying to scratch out a living in a very dangerous environment that is actively hostile to them. They have to be prepared to enjoy their characters’ misfortunes. But…the game is not just lousy probabilities and misery. In fact, player skill is very telling in Torchbearer – as you begin to learn the game and understand how best to use the rules to your advantage, your characters will perform better. Most players are going to be bad at it when they start. But they don’t have to stay that way.

Finally, I will note that it is also important that the GM has a lot of leeway in Torchbearer. You don’t always have to call for a test (which you seemed to intuit). When you do call for a test, you always have the choice of going for a twist or condition upon failure. Use that power to tailor the game to your players’ frustration level. I’m not trying to second guess your calls here, but just for the sake of example, when the cleric failed to make the Dungeoneering test to swim between the two pools, you didn’t have to reach for a condition. Maybe the twist was that he got in the water and was about to start swimming when something or someone came swimming out! Or the giant rats attacked them. Or they heard a patrol of kobolds coming into the cellar to make sure the barricade they built against the dog was still intact.

It’s important to make sure that you introduce a good mix of twists and conditions upon failure. Give too many twists and it feels like things are constantly spiraling out of control. Give too many conditions and they’ll feel like they’re making forward progress, but also that they’re getting beaten to hell every time they do something.

Wait a minute. When you use beginner’s luck everyone can help? I thought they had to have skills that could help the skill your using beginner’s luck for… But since its stats everyone can help??? 0_o Epiphany! o_0

There’s a part of me that really enjoys the depth of Torchbearer and unraveling how it works properly. Though, I also wince at all the times I got it wrong.

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.

And was it?

The spider attacked the fighter while the fighter was lighting a torch and rolled no successes at all? When we script a few exchanges in and We’re bleeding disposition all over the place. You were helping each other, right? Spending Fate and Persona? Using traits for more dice? Tapping Nature?

Jared knows that scripting things one at a time is boring as fuck, because there’s no surprises. With the GM scripting in secret three in advance and then the party coming up with their 3 move plan, thinks get crazy real fast. Once in a while you script a defend because you expected to need it, but didn’t. But that’s just a welcome break in the action.

Unless characters with the Affraid condition, beginner’s luck uses Stat. Stats can help Stats, skills can help skills. Also, anyone can use a Wise to give a dice, as long as it is revelant to the situation.

I would suggest easing your group into the game. For example, their first failed test resulted in the Injured condition. That means the cleric went from +1D to tests for the Fresh condition to -1D to test for injured. That is a 2D swing for trying to go down stairs! Harsh, and while perfectly acceptable for Torchbearer it can really kill party morale for new players. Experienced players will know how to continue, but new players will start complaining about being punished for playing.

A second example is the spider. They are really hard to defeat in torchbearer! Why not introduce the group to conflicts with giant rats or a couple of skeletons. Throw something at them that they should beat. Let the, get familiar with the rules before throwing the, into a potential TPK situation.

Another piece of advice I can give you is that some players will refuse to accept the ramifications of a Kill conflict (meaning it is probable someone will die) as a deterrent to the desire to kill everything. This will result in a lot of PC injuries and death. In my experience if a player wants to kill everything TB is not for them. A good tactic is to remind new players about the implications of a Kill conflict before they react. I only use this with GMing for new players. If you give your group some experience with conflict before putting them on a life-threatening situation they will understand that losing Disposition in a Kill conflict will have serious consequences.


I’ve definitely had sessions like this one, efreund, and know how it can demoralize groups.

One of the first steps to running a successful game is making sure everyone is on the same page. Make sure your players understand that Torchbearer’s focus is on resource management and creative thinking rather than high-fantasy heroics and killing monsters. That will make a lot more of the design elements make sense, I think (turns, scripting, etc).

Reading over your summary, you definitely overburdened them with conditions too quickly. As Thor noted, new groups don’t have much in the way of resources and a few conditions can reduce dice pools to the point where even the most basic actions are impossible at first level. Choosing Twist or Condition is definitely contextual, but I find the cadence of a few Twists snowballing into a condition more natural than every failed roll making them hungry, sick, injured, etc. It’s also a great way to get players invested in a dynamic situation as they will have to react to whatever their failure has caused.

Other people more or less covered combat, but one trick for making it flow is to roll the dice first and then narrate the outcome based on the results (let the aggressor start, if there is one). For example, I script Attack and you script Defend. We roll the dice, I get two success and you get three.

Me: I lunge forward with my spear and try to pierce your heart.

You: I crouch behind my shield, brace myself for impact, and stop the blow.

This will help create a rhythm to each volley and will make things like swapping weapons at the top of a round feel more natural. Combat is more cinematic and less wargame-y in Torchbearer, so don’y worry about exact positioning and that kind of stuff. As an aside, the reason your combat went on too long is likely due to low dice pools from being overburdened by conditions.

Also make sure to narrate how someone helps if they added a helping die. Helping should be as well described as the primary action. The helping character is doing something. Everyone should know what that something is and how it helped or not.

Absolutely this. Basically, no one rolls/adds dice with narrating what they are doing.