Hey, Conflicts are Really Complicated!

First, let me say that the title is intended in jest. Having played Burning Wheel and Mouseguard, I grok the basics.

However, I sprang Torchbearer on my group for the first time last night to a lukewarm reaction. One of the complaints they had was about changing intents. In one conflict, they started out intending to capture their target, but, by the end just wanted to kill. I instructed them that if they succeeded in capturing, they would more or less be able to do what they want (including kill). Is this the right call? It felt so.

More importantly, I’m looming for advice on smoothing over the conflict rules. Everyone in my group is coming from Pathfinder for the most part. Anything from zeroing in on intents to learning how the four actions interact with one another. Any advice?

We’ve agreed to give TB 3-5 sessions before making a final assessment as a group, and I want to ensure this game comes out for future campaigns.

If you capture them, yeah, they’re at your mercy, as I recall.

I might give a captured enemy one last chance to get away (A kill conflict where if he wins he escapes) if it’s a big baddie, but for a grunt it’s probably not worth it to play that out.

Conflicts are a Game of Rock Paper Scissors. Attack is Scissors, Defend is Rock, Feint is Paper. Maneuver just makes your next action more bad ass. That might make it easier to think about, if it wasn’t immediately obvious.

I would stress that the focus of the game isn’t a hallway of monsters but actually on the dungeon delving itself. If they aren’t getting into Describe to Live it will fall flat because it will just be a Rock Paper Scissors combat game instead of a tactics/craps combat game. So make sure you play verbally an only bring the rules, tests, turns into play once they do something that’s actually has real risk, and then respect the descriptions they made. I think if you play it right they won’t always know when a test is coming, which will add to the suspense. Instead, they’ll be into the game of questions, answers, and more questions and suddenly the rubber will hit the road and they’ve just spent a turn and also possibly picked up some conditions or twists.

I think that’s all the general thoughts I have on it. If you have any more specific questions I’d be delighted to offer more completely a priori advice :wink: (Still haven’t actually played :frowning: )

I’ve definitely done all of the above. I think the big issue is that they expect every action to require the roll of some dice. One player was frustrated that turns weren’t a solid unit of measurement. I pointed out that we rarely, if ever, followed those rules consistently in D&D, but that didn’t help.

As far as specific questions, it’s really about how to get my players to buy in. Conflicts were what they struggled with the most.

They did however earn some Fate and Persona. Hopefully that makes them appreciate the system a little more.

Do you have the conflict cheat sheet for the players? I find it to be practically indispensable. It even includes a matrix of what happens when you play any move against any other move.

I have a friend that will only play d&d 3.5 (and sometimes pathfinder), that’s what he grew up on, and that’s what he likes. He’s also very much into the hallway of monsters and traps, again, it’s what he likes and expects when you say role-playing. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to play Torchbearer and certainly not Burning Wheel with that friend. It’s fun to tromp through hallways killing monsters too (and optimizing characters) but when I sit down at a table with him or really that whole group of friends, I know what I’m going to get (for the most part, there are occasional exceptions and I like to push the boundaries sometimes even if it does annoy them a bit).

It’s entirely possible that’s the situation you have in which case the only cure is finding new people to play with (though you can keep these one’s around for hallways of monsters and traps if you enjoy that too). However, it’s also possible that it’s just a matter of growing pains, and that they really would enjoy some old school descriptive dungeon delving if they gave it a chance. As for things that can help them understand what the game is trying to accomplish… it’s really just a matter of them buying that the story and the back and forth of descriptions, questions, and answers is really what roleplaying games are all about. Tell them to think about mechanics as just the system that resolves things and, in Torchbearer, that creates tension. As long as the story doesn’t feel wrong, don’t worry about whether you get thirsty after 4 hours or 8 hours. If it was a rough 4 hours, then you get thirsty sooner. These mechanics get out of the way, so that you can have the story without the tedium of rolling for every square you enter, or trying to justify spending 4 hours crossing a single hallway just so that you can take 20 and don’t have to bother rolling 100 times.

Your players may just not be comfortable with the level of abstraction that the game thrives on. You can’t change intents in the middle of a conflict because you’ve already rolled for a disposition based on the original intents. Changing your intent means that first conflict would have to be over.

Why is it so important that turns take a fixed amount of time? Lets say a torch burns for 30 minutes. How far can you walk before it burns down? There’s no way to know, unless we know everything about the conditions you face, your level of fatigue, the terrain, whether something tries to stop you…etc. All those things can change in an instant with a Twist or a Condition. So, what do we really gain by defining how long a turn takes?

I think I’ll just draw up a list of things to cover at the top of the session. How/when/why to spend fate (one player lamented the loss of critical hits), when to even bother rolling dice, etc.

I’ll definitely get a Conflict cheat sheet for them. Can anyone link it? I’m not seeing it anywhere (unless I’m to just use the MG one).

I think they’re just not used to the abstraction, yeah. Turns have fixed amounts of time in other games (though combat is really the not time anyone bothers to track them, for the most part). I think they’re used to dealing with the nitty-gritty of details like weights, sword damage based on size, and knowing everything exactly. Not really sure how to address this.

A critical hit is when you match your attack to their feint or your feint to their defend and roll all 6s.

The abstraction can sometimes grate against what some players feel are their player agency, I’ve noticed, and this can really be hard to get over. The game rules seem to depend heavily on a joint decision to tackle them as a group, and to play with them and not against them.

Take different conflicts; some players can’t handle the fact that they’ve initiated a Kill conflict and are being beaten, and now can’t simply run away. They feel it’s taking away their agency, and claim that it’s totally wrong. “Why can’t I run away? I want to, so my character should.” The problem here is that the choice has been made already; a Kill conflict is something that needs to be seen through to the finish. Correct? I’m not going to speak out on that, and I don’t really think there’s a right or wrong answer, but when you’ve sat down to play TB you need to play along with the rules.

This makes it doubly important to make sure the players know the rules, and know them well; the game doesn’t hold hands, and once committed to an action the consequences can be devastating.

Think about it this way. You’re in the conflict now, you want to flee? Great, you’re fleeing now. Unfortunately people have already started to die and your enemy is pissed off, so the only way to flee is to cut your way through them. If you’re losing it means that they have you surrounded and are doing some serious damage, so fight back and cut your way out or die trying. Don’t start drawing blood unless you’re willing to shed some, but that’s totally alien to D&D where killing really is the only business (or at least the primary one).

I absolutely agree with this. All of my players have read some amount of the PDF (they didn’t spend as much time reading conflicts). I’m going to stress to think carefully before expressing their intent prior to committing to a conflict.

I fully agree that there is always a way to fit things into the fiction, but the important thing to many players is they are not used to this; they are used to the fiction adapting to them. Thus, when they say they run and the game doesn’t automatically change into fleeing mode, they get frustrated.

It think the really important thing is the buy-in; the players must be on board with you as a GM with what you’re playing and what the terms are.

It’s definitely and unapologetically a game meant to be played. Not a reality simulator.

The fiction does go into fleeing mode… you’re fighting for a major compromise. But whoever you’re fighting is good enough that at best, one of you will get away, gravely injured. Most fights are not killing fights, really. Who cares if you kill those goblins? It’s not worth /my/ life to kill them. You just want them out of the way, so you spar a little, maybe inflict a wound or two, and the losers run. Because while the PCs don’t want to die, neither, particularly, do the monsters.

Killing is serious business. Killing only happens when you care enough about the situation that you’re willing to stake your life on it. Most of the time, that shouldn’t happen.

For example: a drive off contest is two guys at the bar who get drunk and start shoving each other, or when I’m trying to steal your cattle. Deaths may occur, but they’re kind of incidental. A kill contest is when you’ve destroyed my life and I want revenge.

I can definitely see D&D players walking into a room and basically saying “let’s kill them”. As a GM you kind of have to not take that at face value. What are they really trying to accomplish? Press that point, and make sure that they really mean that they are willing to die as long as this jerk goes down with them.

A kill conflict is like the game of thrones, you win or you die, so best be prepared to lose a few Starks.

Yeah, but the thing is that the fiction can adapt to them, because the fiction is whatever you describe. The mechanics aren’t the fiction, they serve the fictions, and that’s where the confusion lies. In D&D the fiction is in the background, and you don’t really play it for the fiction, you play it for the killing and the advancing. When you are playing Torchbearer you have to be into the fiction first. As long as you can describe what you are doing and how, there’s no reason to be upset with the way torchbearer resolves it, and I can’t think of many situations where Torchbearer restricts what you can do or how you can describe it. If you’re diving into the mechanics and thinking as a player about what tests you want to make or what conflict types you want to engage in, then you’re already playing the wrong game.

The best part about the abstraction in the Conflict rules, for me, is that there’s next to no mechanical structure to enforce time or space in the fiction - that is to say, there’s nothing to say “you can’t leave this five-foot square” or “you have to wait until these six seconds have passed before you can start to run away.” Things start to look dire in a Kill conflict? “We retreat down the corridor!” Sounds like a fine Defend action to me, and you might even manage to pick up a stunned or wounded friend and get her back on her feet while you fall back. The goblins follow in hot pursuit, rusty blades chopping at your heels - their Attack vs. your Defend. Success buys a short-lived escape and a moment or two to catch your breath (represented by the disposition recovery). Soon, they’ll find that they can’t shake the goblins, so they’ll have to rally and redouble their attack!

That may not be enough for some, of course, but I suspect those folks aren’t going to like Torchbearer no matter how you slice it.


Can you be a bit more specific about what happened in your game? There’s not a lot to go on from your post.

How did they get into the conflict?
How did they elect a captain?
Did they use the help rules?
If they had rewards at their disposal would it have made a difference?

Speaking on the transition from the more regimented D&D to Torchbearer - our group has been oddly on board. Basically we are a group of munchkins who revel in our munchkinry and min-maxing. We had an entire 6mo campaign that was basically ‘min-max or die.’ We play Fourthcore which is a brutal third-party created set of dungeons, and our DM even developed a team pvp tournament which has run a bunch locally, and twice at Gen Con. We are the epitome of stat and dice guys, and yet we find ourselves really enjoying the narrative of Torchbearer.

We were more sold on the survival aspect of things. Keeping track of where all the gear is and how much we have of it! What happens when someone drops a bag, or loses their pack. How many torches do we have left, etc. I might suggest leaning on some stuff like that as it is quite similar to how older D&D ran.

As for handling conflicts, we use cards for everything. So every player has a card for their weapon, and as a group they pick ‘Attack,’ ‘Defend,’ etc and each one tells them what happens when they roll it and how it effects others. It really helps them keep on the same age and know what the potential outcomes will be.

Brodie’s got it. In a Kill conflict, fleeing would be a Defend.

And I think that’s pretty true to D&D.

When you engage monsters in D&D, you usually have a movement rate of 20’ or 30’. Monsters frequently have a movement rate of 40’ or 60’. Once you’re engaged, there’s no running away unless some characters sacrifice themselves to tie up the enemy while the rest of you flee.