Our first go at Torchbearer

For the past 2 years now, I’ve been running several amazing Burning Wheel games as well as an oldschool B/X D&D sandbox campaign. When Torchbearer was announced, I was of course very excited by the prospect of a game which married my two favorite methods of gaming, and it hasn’t disappointed. Just wanted to share some initial impressions and confusions, as I wrap my head around the unique way in which this game is played in relation to what I already know from a lot of experience with BWG and B/X. (It’s worth noting I never played Mouse Guard.)

(1) I love that this is a “just describe to me what your character is doing” game, like oldschool D&D.
(2) In Burning Wheel, the players (and GM) must actively design, step up to, and with a great masochism, spin the wheel into motion in order for the game to work and the narrative of events to unfold dynamically and naturally toward their unknown conclusion. With Torchbearer, I feel like “the wheel” itself is more ominous. It’s already there… slowly ticking away bit by bit toward your inevitable demise, and you’re struggling to stay one step ahead of it, in a more reactionary sense. This is a resource management game, with events of narrative importance (tests and the turn count) being the basic system of economics. I love it.
(3) Finally I can bring more novice/casual players into my BW-style games. BWG was just too much, too intense, for most of the people I game with… casual players simply don’t work in that game. Torchbearer makes it possible for them to focus on the story and roleplay without having to know much about the complex mechanisms behind gaming the system. Yay. (But I’ll still always love Burning Wheel, with those who are crazy enough to play it with me.)
(4) In my first play sessions, I found it difficult to know when to call for tests related to Scouting for traps, etc. Some recent threads I’ve read here have cleared that up nicely. I’ve always hated “spot/perception” checks in games in general, I like how this game intends them to be handled.
(5) Just out of personal interest, it’d be neat to see a list of intended differences between this game and Burning Wheel, as the designers see it.

Anyway, guys, thanks for a great game. I’m excited to continue running it weekly over the next few months.

Thanks for the kind words. Your #5 seems very daunting to me! I think I’ll let others jump in with their thoughts before I wade in.

At thor’s invitation:

It’s purposeful - BW was a sandbox, or even less than that, a set of tools you can use in a sandbox. TB is a dungeon delving game.
It’s direct - BW read like a philosophy book as much as a gaming system. It explored a way of roleplaying and arranged the tools to encourage that exploration of character, intent, and storytelling. TB says what the rules are and how you use them to achieve the purposeful goal of dungeon delving.
It’s thematic - Survive! Everything is a grind, and like the OP says, it turns whether you like it or not!
It’s more system and GM directed - BW had a stronger flavor of collaborative storytelling. The story revolved around the characters and played out at their direction. In TB it isn’t really the players in the spotlight, it’s the location and events. The players are actors on the stage, but it’s really the stagecraft and plot that shine.

I think that’s good for a start. I’m sure there’s a lot more to say, but that’s a big picture look at what I see as fundamentally different.

I definitely agree with all of that.
I am a big fan of games that are shamelessly specific on the type of experience they are trying to create… I dislike the 3e/4e mentality of “this game can do anything, cater to each type of player in your group.” With Burning Wheel I felt like it was a game made to create a very specific experience, but the details and focus of that specific experience had to be decided upon by the players up front, with a lot of thought and care put into that initial situation and character/world burning. If you tried to play it more “generally” without a very good idea of what you were trying to focus on, the wheel didn’t burn. This game, the type of game you’re playing is a given, and the mechanics are tailored around it. I love both.

Torchbearer -> Survive Theme
Burning Wheel -> Personality Development/Exposing Theme

In three sessions I saw this difference mirrored in no greater way than in the difference of how the Instinct(s) work. In BW Instincts that are very much character flaws are golden, TB will double whammy you with no carrot and a You Are Dead stick if you try use that type of Instinct.

True! Though at the same time, Traits become far more potent as “character flaws are golden” elements. Essential, even.

BW Traits, Char and otherwise? And [edit:TB] Traits come from a very short list and even shorter on selection choice, and hard to expand on the list. Nah, not ‘even’ nor is it supposed to be. Game has a different focus/purpose, personality rides at the back of the bus not the front. Better than being left at the side of the road, or dead in the ditch, to my way of thinking but it is what it is.

P.S. I’m not so big on Checks economy anyway, subjectively. It feels a little too ‘obvious’ and ham-handed to me. shrug But that’s something it shares with MG, nothing new.

Well, the way I see it, checks in TB/MG are way more powerful than having Fate from BW Traits. Checks are pretty essential (from what I’ve seen) to surviving in TB, since you don’t get any freebies and have to spend one to initiate camp. So that means traits-as-hindrances will come to the forefront way more than in BW, especially because you can use them to ream lots of checks.

Burning Wheel is very focused on challenging Beliefs through what you’re willing to risk in order to get what you want. So risk and reward. You can see this theme running throughout the game. Fate awards focused on bringing Beliefs into play. Task and Intent so everyone knows what you’re pushing for. Failure conditions stated before the roll, so you know what you’re risking and how hard you should push. Let It Ride, so the roll matters and you’re not going to be able to try again. Advancement that encourages players to make the hard, even impossible rolls, so the GM gets opportunities to test your willingness to accept risk and setbacks. Also, you don’t get a modifier to your roll when following your Beliefs. The rewards come later when Artha is doled out. In the moment, Beliefs are not sources of mechanical benefit.

TB is focused on survival through overcoming challenges and resource management. Beliefs are there to give characters a through line, but the game doesn’t pound on them as hard. It doesn’t need to because so much else is going on. Struggling against insurmountable odds as a team, trying to make the best out of limited resources. Despite debilitating conditions. Checks and advancement to reward failure and encourage using failure like a resource in it’s own right.

I have this feeling it ought to be really easy to adapt TB into an apocalypse survival game.

Not the fancy Mad Max style “we’ve got a new society going now, only it’s all about dressing in leather and fighting with chainsaws and oh it’s so cool”. More “there are zombies all around and everyone’s dead except us and we are the ones too screwed up to just lie down and die” style…

Except no Town Phase… just a sad, terrible and endless grind.

God, I’m depressing.

Very short list of choice to start with (constrained by class choice). Alterable only every 10 sessions or so (Winter)

Used in reaction to a die roll, not in initiation of action.

Very different things.

Liz, when I first started reading Torchbearer, I was actually really afraid of your #1! I’ve been burned by too many games where the ‘system’ is the narrative (and not much else) that the “Describe to Live” section was sort of freaking me out. But in practice, it’s a kind of beast I haven’t really encountered before. There’s definitely a lot of interaction with the system, and the system is its own entity related to the narrative - not entirely distinct from it, but not subsumed by it - and yet the narrative shapes how you interact with the system. I really, really like it. Two thoughts that have been percolating in my brain since the start of our game:

  1. My players are Burning Wheel veterans who are still trying to approach the game in BW-think. “What’s the Ob to climb over the rocks?” “Can I get an advantage die if I use my sword as leverage?” At first, I fell into the trap of approaching tests like in BW: “Oh, it’s Ob 4. You sure you want to try to climb over the rocks?” That’s not how Torchbearer works! I’ve gotten much better about demanding specifics of character action, and using that as a guide for when to engage the system - and when you engage the system, that’s it! It’s time to test! There’s no backing out, no fishing for lower obstacles - you told me what your character is doing, and now we invoke mechanics to resolve it. It’s actually very different than in BW! I’ve been trying to explain it to my players, and the best I could come up with was: in Burning Wheel, we operate at an ‘author’ level most of the time, approaching problems first in terms of task/intent and mechanics, and then “diving down” to ‘roleplay’ level to play out what’s going on (although the process is very seamless); in Torchbearer, we operate at ‘roleplay’ level most of the time, and then when that triggers mechanics, we “zoom out” to ‘system’ level and resolve. It’s like…the wave function looks similar when graphed - similar amplitude and wavelength - but the phase is very different! (I guess this is really more toward your #5, eh?)

  2. We know of course that Torchbearer was designed to emulate old-school D&D, in the “tell me what your character is doing” sense and in others, but I’m struck by a particular similarity. There’s been plenty of discussion over at a certain other RPG forum about old-school D&D and system avoidance - things were so stacked against characters, particularly low-level starting characters, that you did everything you could to avoid engaging the mechanics. “Playing the GM, not playing the system,” some people called it. Yet here, I think the Good Idea rule looks a lot like that; it provides the players a means to avoid engaging the punishing mechanics (the Grind!) by playing to their GM. But after playing the game (and using the Good Idea rule), I don’t think it works quite the same way. The way character skills and abilities work in Torchbearer provides a lot of contact points with the system, as opposed to the more bare-bones character mechanics of o-sD&D. It’s easier to see “that should probably be a Scavenger test” and look at the Scavenger factors to derive an Obstacle number in response to the characters’ actions in a situation. There’s more guidance from the game itself, so I think it’d be harder to go an entire session with only a few die rolls. Also, the players get something out of mechanical interaction, too: checks, advancement, and even further mechanical advantage in the form of supplies and the like. The system guides us away from the “avoid the mechanics” mentality, although the danger of engaging the mechanics is still present somewhat.

Torchbearer sure is an interesting case study! :wink:

You hear that, everyone? Under a Torchbearer Sun!


t’s like…the wave function looks similar when graphed - similar amplitude and wavelength - but the phase is very different! (I guess this is really more toward your #5, eh?)

Now you’re speaking my language, I’m an electronics engineer. :wink:

“Describe to Live” is the first concept I struggled with when running the game last Sunday, but now I think I’ve got it. In any game with a list of skills, players tend to go straight for “Can I use my SKILL here to GET ME PAST THIS THING?” Description first is very natural in oldschool D&D because there is no list of skills the players can consider as access keys to the obstacle in question. It’s different from Intent/Task in BW, which was also a very hard concept to drill into my players. Torchbearer is its own odd duck in the sense that you still want to keep your character’s abilities and goals and the turn count and all these gaming-the-system-things in mind /while/ roleplaying and describing… it’s just the order of doing so is different… so there are still some authorial, “character piloting” sorts of thought processes to go through.

I love talking about this shit. :slight_smile: