Players wanting epic / noble story arcs

Hi. Reading the 2e rules, the creators seem to make a lot of references to Torchbearer being about dirty deeds done dirt cheap. My players find Torchbearer really fun (8 sessions in!), but are too nice to really enjoy murder-hobo-ing (to their credit imo). Can TB work for the more heroic story that they’re asking for?

To be more specific: the hook for our first adventure was that the king’s guards had gone missing looking for a mysterious treasure. Players found the magical item in question. After a series of short adventures players found a cache of said magical items guarded by a monster, who told them the artifacts contain human souls. Players are now really invested in saving the trapped souls. I feel like it’s a good thing, but I’m worried I’ll be fighting TB’s mechanics if I keep taking the story in this direction.

Tips on making it work?

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Sounds like the king is looking to claim himself some soul-powered magics.

Maybe the heroes won’t make him too happy looking into it.

That should put them comfortably on the outs with authority, and all the dirty deeds stuff will work just fine.

Down with the monarchy.

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Sounds to me like things are going well and everyone is having fun.

Torchbearer can support all sorts of settings from an Aliens hack to Wild West to UVG West Marches, but it just means that it puts a little more work on the GM. You might have to hack the game a little depending upon how far you want to take the ‘heroic’ approach. You might check out those or other hacks to see if you can glean any insight.

I don’t think it has to be a murder-hobo game though. I know TB gets a bad rap for encouraging that style of play, but that’s a pretty limited view. It is more that “society” and “the civilized” view adventurers that way. But players have a choice on whether they succumb to that type-casting. So, you can control how the townsfolk react to the adventurers and adjust accordingly.

Although, TB is a bit more anti-hero in its genre. Adventures do not start as heroes, but they may aspire to become one. It is more like a picaresque novel, where adventurers are down on their luck and have no other options. That’s what really distinguishes itself from other fantasy RPGs: no one in their right mind would choose this life. Just as Lázaro, in ‘Lazarillo de Tormes,’ struggles to survive against the odds, so too do our humble adventurers struggle for every scrap.

So, it might work better with characters more akin to Don Quixote or Oliver Twist than Conan the Barbarian, but plenty of people have stretched the system to do more.

If you go the heroic route, be prepared to make your own Town Event tables and reconfigure relationships to fit your setting.

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Hi there! Glad you and your players are enjoying the game!

As Koch notes, it’s not that PCs shouldn’t be heroes in Torchbearer – the Creed rules exist to support and encourage players to have their characters care about something larger than themselves – It’s that the rest of the world looks down on and despises the PCs for being poor and having no place in “civilized” society. To start.

Our conceit is that PCs don’t start as heroes, but they can choose to become heroes if they do the right thing. But doing the right thing is hard! Sometimes it means you walk away with little or no treasure and it’s hard to eat good deeds.

Often it feels thankless. You might rescue the innkeeper and his family in Under the House of the Three Squires. Maybe they’ll even become your friends and put you up for free or give you free drinks when you pass through – though that’s a hardship for them if you accept. They’ll think of you as heroes. But other people will still treat you like dirt for being rootless vagabonds. Maybe you can win them over too, if you’re willing to do what it takes to win their trust and admiration.

Anyway, I don’t think you have to change a thing to make it work. Your players just have to make the choice that their characters will try to help people selflessly.

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But doing the right thing is hard! Sometimes it means you walk away with little or no treasure and it’s hard to eat good deeds.

This sounds about right! The players would have made a good haul if they had fenced the magical treasure, and are currently really strapped for cash. I’ll lean in on that conflict a little more. Thanks :slight_smile:

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You gave me the idea of working in more hostile encounters with the king’s allies, thanks

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I think I will challenge the players a little more to go the anti-hero route, thanks

What do you mean by “reconfigure relationships”?

I would add to Thor’s response that the entire game system is structured to present the players with the choice of becoming heroes or anti-heroes.

To frame this decision, we explicitly state that at the outset, player characters are not heroes. However, as Thor notes, that stance is up to the players to embrace or repudiate once play begins.

Change is a necessary ingredient of all good narrative structures. In a typical narrative, if someone or something begins as wholesome, we can be assured that they will end the narrative fallen or even more righteous than they began. If someone or something begins a narrative as evil or amoral, we know that they will either be redeemed or be proven to be even more monstrous that we imagined. Characters cannot end a narrative arc in the same position in which they began—it’s against the rules.

So by forcing the frame of TB characters as outcast vagabonds, we are inviting you all to explore redemption arcs…or to show us just how awful life in our world truly is. It’s a path chosen by the actions the players take in game. And we measure their progress at each fork in the road by how they respond as their beliefs, goals and instincts are challenged.

You group seems like it’s headed in the right direction. I hope that we’ve added some clarity, so you may continue to challenge them in an engaging and credible manner!

Best,
-Luke

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Thanks Luke!

Your comment made me think of something that’s been bugging me… Torchbearer lends itself well to classic character arcs based on a Goal and a false or contradictory Belief. In writing, characters generally also have a Truth that they realize at the end of their arc (if they grow rather than fall).

Are there any mechanical ways in Torchbearer to conclude a character arc? Creeds don’t seem to quite fit (although Crisis might… we haven’t encountered that yet).

My players are savvy enough about story structure that this is something they would dig if it existed.

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There are relationships like parents, friends, townsfolk, farmers, jarls, lendermenn, etc that respond to the adventurers in ways that are not typical to a setting like Forgotten Realms or Lord of the Rings. Heroes in those settings follow the epic tradition and often—although not always—enjoy a triumphant return back into the community after doing something heroic. In most heroic quests, the adventurers are welcomed back into the fold of civilization or at least not shunned. At no point are your typical fantasy heroes overwhelmingly feared, cast out, disowned, ridiculed, looked down upon, or systematically taken advantage of by the average townsfolk.

In Torchbearer, adventurers are literal “zeroes” and have no Precedence. They are in the same social strata as thralls and outcasts, have no clan accountability, live outside the norms, and are feared because of it. That doesn’t mean they are bad guys or anti-heroes though. I think the whole ‘adventurer as an outsider’ concept creates a sympathetic pathos that makes us love these characters all the more for their flaws and the adversity that they face.

The Dread Crypt illustrates this disparity. On SG, p. 258, at the conclusion of the adventure, Lady Gry enacts a new law that makes defiling a tomb punishable by execution. There’s a lot to unpack there (certainly this is aimed at preventing future problems), but the subtext is also clear that the adventurers have dodged a bullet this time but not the next.

On the next page, SG p. 259, again the subtext continues:

You’re No Hero

No matter what the adventurers do, they will never be welcomed as heroes in the village.

Even if they should rescue Jora and drive out Haathor-Vash, they will be shunned. The villagers will see in them their own shame for tampering with the crypt; they’ll see in them the memory of the dead children; and they’ll resent the adventurers because the village required outsiders to solve its own problems.

Still lots to unpack for another time within there, but the key piece is that the adventurers are outsiders—the source of the villager’s shame.

If players expect to start as heroes and always to always be loved, lauded, and praised for their good deeds, then they might bump up against a few passages and mechanics that really only make sense if you follow the general conceit that adventurers are outsiders and outcasts. In my experience, players that assume to be treated as ‘heroes’ get confused when a result in town means you get kicked out, or can’t use the market, or because you’ve outworn your welcome.

In the Middarmark, a hero is typically a deceased ancestor that did some notable deed, but adventurers are clanless orphans and outcasts. For example, Beren is an oathbreaker and an outcast. There is no real path back into the clan within the strict confines of dvergar society. There is nothing for him but blood and treasure (and Karolina perhaps). He will never be triumphantly welcomed back in Nidavellir, however, he can make a name for himself, accomplish legendary deeds, increase Precedence, and gain titles and status within a heroic character arc.

To contrast, in Forgotten Realms, there are more living heroes running around than you can shake a wand at. Every day there is some archmage defeating some demon, there is an adventurers’ guild, and villagers often throw their hard-earned coins at these heroes to save the day. Those things don’t exist or aren’t very typical in Torchbearer. In Torchbearer, you may be rewarded, make friends, and be heralded as a savior for the day, but you will not be welcomed to stay because you are a clanless outsider and considered an unknown entity, a wild card, or a dangerous force on the edge of Chaos.

To bring it all together, when you create your character, you are asked to explain how you got into this mess (the context of being a destitute adventurer with no other options).

Maybe you stole from your parents or friends, the book suggests. If you are an orphan, there is some heirloom that you possess that at some point you might have to sell just to buy some torches. Under normal circumstances, even if your parents were too poor to support you, the point of a tribal structure and life within a clan is that there would be some relative that would take you under their wing and you would work for them. But you’re not living with your tribe and doing the family trade. You are no longer contributing to your clan. All you do is take from your poor parents. You can stay with them for free, and in a base camp they will feed you at their own expense. Your friends will loan you money just to be rid of you.

Elsewhere, peasantfolk are forbidden from interacting with you.

LMM, p. 180

In most settlements, it is illegal for adventurers to so much as talk with laborers, farmers and herders; it is likewise illegal for the peasant folk to do any business whatsoever outside of a market. Violating these terms is punishable by hanging.

Furthermore, lendermenn treat you as “guests” to do their dirty work, and you are not welcome in the mead halls of the karls.

None of these things are dealbreakers, and you can reframe them to fit most settings. Many of these points are so subtle that maybe your players won’t even notice. You certainly don’t have to make any tweaks to play the game, but, in my experience, you either need to set player expectations toward ‘not-starting-as-a-hero’ or account for some of those town results and mechanics.

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I see what you’re saying.

I’m not sure that my players see their characters as starting out heroic so much as optimistic. Two try to befriend everyone they meet, and have so far met NPCs / monsters that have variously tried to trick them, possess them, arrest them, and swallow them whole. Doesn’t deter them lol.

Up until the most recent session, the PCs were roleplayed more like the guy in Road to El Dorado - excited about adventure but mostly in it for the money and excitement. It’s just the twist in the most recent session that made them want to act heroic rather than like swashbuckling con artists (one player always tries to sell NPCs the forged deed to the most recent dungeon they visited lol).

As for adjusting town events - I will probably customize them a little, but so far towns have been pretty hostile and the players have mostly made friends with intelligent monsters, vagrants, etc.

Right now I’m thinking I’ll have a progression - the towns start out with classic TB hostility, but with more possibility of endearing yourself to a settlement’s population

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Character arc is a broad term, so I’m not exactly certain what you’re asking. Narrative, story and arc are all dangerous terms in relationship to a game. They are terms borrowed from linear fiction. Generally, since an RPG is a non-linear format, these are states that we assess for or create after an instance or multiple instances of play.

That said, Torchbearer is meant to mimic the feel of serial, pulp adventure stories. We’ve incorporated multiple systems and mechanics to facilitate the emulation of linear fiction. For example, the adventure phase is where the action takes place. Camp and town are where the interstitials and denouement occur. So the three phases could be construed as an arc.

The leveling system enforces change upon the character as well. After level 10, no matter what the player desires, their character ceases to be a protagonist in the ongoing story, instead they are transformed into a supporting cast member, antagonist or even a part of the setting. That’s another possible character arc.

The rewards system—specifically accomplishing goals, moldbreaking a belief or undergoing a crisis—offers opportunities for catharsis. These are perhaps the most foundational mechanics of all of our games, as they allow for introspection, change and growth on the part of both player and character. Moving through any of those mechanisms could be construed as a character arc.

And, lastly, the ultimate arc for a Torchbearer character is of course the struggle against death. Using the Terrible Price rules, a character will be transformed and challenged in their mortality. Each death is an arc, and should death claim a character completely at last, that would be their final arc!

So, if I’ve understood your question correctly, the best answer we can offer is “yes, but the solution is to immerse into the character and make choices in the systems presented. The game will create character arcs organically.”

-Luke

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I think this answers my question - these mechanics support a character’s transformation into a more heroic figure, even if it’s not as cut-and-dry as in linear fiction.

However, now I’ve looped back to my original problem of “are we even playing the game right”… the overarching story has been fairly linear and I’m not sure if I should be doing it differently. When we finished our last session, my brother said that it felt like a good conclusion to the “first act”, so definitely thinking of it in classic plot structure terms. If players want an act structure / classic plot feel, to me that just means I give them a game-changing “oh sh*t” moment every 8 sessions (if we keep a consistent pacing), and it will feel “right”.

If it were static fiction it would mean that character development happens in tandem with those turning points in a predictable way. I think that’s where my question came from - what do those moments look like in the mechanics. However as I’m writing this, I can see that providing those big moral challenge moments will drive changes in beliefs, goals, and creeds and I’ve just answered my own question lol.

Thank you for taking the time to respond to all my questions!

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My pleasure!

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I’d like to echo comments about the relationships and precedence. While the characters might do noble things, or make noble decisions at key moments, not many folks will learn about that and will take it as a credible story. Parents, Friends, and maybe Mentors will possibly take it as true when a report from the character describes something ethically challenging but they took the noble choice–including the possibly undesirable outcome. But, Enemies and common folks will generally not give that benefit of taking them at their word.

Then, the rules for precedence will keep their station in society fairly small and isolated. There are not many ways to permanently change precedence by advancing levels. Most of the changes to precedence are temporary or built through narrative association with a mechanical element. So, after taking up noble conduct, they are still going to be of low precedence so long as they cannot secure a narrative change in circumstances, like gaining a deed or title, like building a cult following, like telling tales in lots of towns and having good rolls on the table. It is going to require concerted effort and investment of time and resources to move the needle on precedence.

As far as my experience has been, I feel the kid gloves are difficult to remove. It has for two campaigns been challenging to make the characters seem deprived of love, acceptance, or value in the world. Partly, that’s my disinterest, but also that’s due to not having players attempting to contact nobility or royalty, or the clergy, when visiting town. For both campaigns, the characters have been content and capable just dealing with the lowest of the low-precedence opportunities always available. I mean, there has been some issues in these most recent sessions with closing the gap, but it doesn’t often come up.

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Thank you! You’re right, those opportunities to talk to important people don’t come up much and players have mostly interacted with “low” NPCs. If the opportunity comes up I think the nobility will be pretty hostile to the players though.

To clarify a bit:
Linear fiction means that 1) the story is written/structured/recorded in advance of the audience interacting with it and 2) anyone can flip to the end and read it/watch it, and it’s the same for everyone.

RPGs 1) create the story from the interactions with the game mechanics on the fly (and from how we retell the events after the fact) and 2) have no predefined ending that we could flip to and read. Even if there’s a planned encounter with a menacing antagonist, how it plays out is unknown…until the players interact with it.

Borrowing terms from the structure of linear fiction can be helpful in planning beats for adventures and campaigns, provided that we jettison the notion of results of those scenes or acts being predetermined. Thus, your brother’s assessment of the “first act” feels right to me, because he’s reflecting on the events that have transpired to date and wrapping them up in a neat little package.

-L

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Another angle is that some of the characters WANT to be on the fringe. Everyone wants Han Solo to stay for the Battle of Yavin at the end of Star Wars, but all he wants to do is get paid. He doesn’t want relationships, to be tied down. See also Pee Wee Herman in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. But he does end up getting pulled into the Rebellion because… friendship.

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This really clarifies what I was asking about… if I continue planning beats (without an intended outcome) in the way I’ve been doing, the players can choose to make it a heroic story, and it all works with TB as it’s intended. Cool :slight_smile:

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