Ok, as documented here, my first attempt at Torchbearer wasn’t exactly a resounding success, leaving both me and the players frustrated. Still, we decided to give it another go, and I’m happy to report that this time it was a big success! (ran the game a few weeks ago, but been too busy with Stuff™ to write here since).
I went with Three Squires from the core book, pretty much “by the book”. We used the same characters than before (stock ones from book), with the retcon that instead of Skogenby they had gone on an unspecified earlier adventure and avoided dying there; an excuse for them to use the same characters and for me to award rewards (fate & persona) based on the first game. Proved to be a good decision, some players actually had skills advance this time and the players had fun with Fate & Persona.
This time, we went in more prepared for the game. I had read the rules more thoroughly (I had gotten a lot wrong the first time), and also this forum provided a ton of great feedback. I also talked with the players and we tried to analyze what went wrong, and they decided to do less minmaxing and more roleplay, not focusing too much on the Grind. The sum result of both was a dramatic increase of fun for all.
I don’t have exact notes, but from memory:
the PCs saw the initial situation, and wrote down Goals (many of which included beer…).
they spotted the trapped stairs, and solved things quite elegantly (halfling was lowered down with rope, and a ladder, scrounged from below, was raised)
they scouted around, finding the poor starving dog. A spectacular roll made the dog instantly fall in love with the PCs (some raw meat also helped), and they proceeded to camp and heal the poor thing. A twist on some roll (don’t remember which) broke up camp, with wet giant rats breaking down poorly mortared wall to get at PC’s yummy food. Camp stops, combat begins, and the rats are forced to flee. Here the players started to really understand the conflict mechanics, helped by the fact that this time I understood them better.
A lot of scouting and preparation was done. The cleric decided to look around with Beginner’s Luck, and rolled 3 successes on an Ob3 test (!) – finding the secret door and the trap above it. Was a really fun moment, and helped the players understand that they can try anything (and maybe even succeed).
The PCs finally proceeded to the “dungeon”, and decided to head for the sounds they were hearing – running straight into the now-alert kobold guards. Now, here is where it gets interesting. In basic D&D this would have been a normal “hack&slash, kill kobolds” thing… but the players surprised me. Since they had someone along who spoke kobold, they decided to go for the “let’s talk” option; they had a dog along as intimidation, and proceeded to tell the guards that they demand passage to see their leader(s). The kobolds, after some bluster, talk back, and we get a convince conflict. Which the PCs won, due to good rolls and nice tactics + roleplay. Result: guards decide it’s Someone Else’s Problem, and let them through, and (due to a nice Feint on conflict) also drop a few clues about some “Monster” the kobolds are scared of. “Hmmmm!” go the players
The PCs enter the chamber where lots of violent stuff is happening… where everyone freezes suddenly, staring at the intruders. From the opposite side of the chamber runs (one of) the chiefs, with honor guard, alerted by a guard (from previous encounter). The PCs grab the initiative and demand to speak, that they have “important information that will benefit everyone”. The chief agrees to talk (hey, she can always order them slaughtered later), and the PCs proceed to hand her exactly what she wants: an offer to rid of them of the spider horror hunting them. After some negotiation (via Conflict), it’s agreed that the prisoners will be freed in exchange, since with the monster gone, the kobolds can return home, which the chief has been advocating all along. Of course, not all kobolds are happy with this, but the majority sides with this chief. Kobolds are easy to convince, as long as you can get them talking…
They healed the critically wounded man, before heading off.
… so instead of stumbling around in the dark and falling into traps, the PCs (and their scary dog) are actually escorted safely through the tunnels and pointed towards the monster’s lair. The climb up the slope and make a quick camp, to prepare. Unfortunately, a twist (due to a failed test, maybe Scavenging?) has the spider spotting them well in advance and retreating, ready to make her ambush.
Cue the big “boss fight”… which might have been deadly in other circumstances, but the PCs pretty much aced this one. The spotted webs, tested to see if they burned, and then proceeded to enter the lair while burning all webs around them – removing most of Uttan’s advantage. In the end, she was forced to go on the offensive, since the PCs removed all sneaky options. This was a slaughter, the PCs very nearly one-shotted her. I tried being clever with Maneuvers and Feints, but all my choices were exactly the wrong ones. The Conflict ended with Uttan dead and the PCs without a scratch on them (zero dispo lost). Impressive.
After this, they looted what was left (not everything burned), and threw the giant spider corpse to the kobold horde below, shouting at them “here, make some soup of this!”. Which the kobolds, after initial amazement, proceeded to do.
I decided that the kobolds weren’t going to try anything sneaky after this: they had gotten their ticket back home, and these guys had just effortlessly slaughtered the huge monster which had forced them to flee in the first place. No sir, we will not mess with these guys, please leave and take your friends and these ex-prisoners with you, have a nice day!
I ruled that one of the ex-prisoners was a merchant from a nearby town, who proceeded to promise a free town stay for the PCs. We didn’t actually play the town stage, but just talked about how it would proceed, and about how much help a free place to stay is, even if it’s just for a short while.
During the various camp phases, the players had a lot of fun with the Elf singing and the Halfling making up comedy skits (to relieve Conditions). The final Camp had them do a dual “it’s just a tiny harmless spider!” song& dance show, to cure someone’s Afraid condition (it worked :). Lots of fun table banter around that.
So that’s that. We managed to do the whole thing in one 5+ hour session, much due to PC’s creative decision to talk their way to victory instead of going for the automatic “let’s kill kobolds!” route. They did amazingly well, much due to lots of lucky dice rolls from them and lots of really bad Conflict action decisions from me (I wasn’t trying to softball things at all, I just happened to make really bad choices by chance :). They actually walked away from this one with just one Angry condition, and a pile of loot plus a promise of lodging. Not bad at all.
Player comments, paraphrased:
- “It’s great to see how the system actually works”
- “Total 180 degree change from last time”
- “This system of rewards based on roleplaying is pretty neat”
- “The conflict system is great since it allows for lots of stuff, not just combat”
They also noted that everyone was going “the next time, we do X and Y”… even though this was a one-shot :). The game clearly promotes long-term campaign play (and, as a counterpoint, is maybe not ideal for one-shots due to complexity and learning curve).
All in all, I’m very happy with how things fell. Thanks to everyone who contributed with comments on my previous threads, they really helped.
My take-aways from this:
- Don’t try to explain the rules too much in advance, just try to dive into action as soon as possible
- Avoid getting the players to panic about the Grind, emphasize that the first condition is trivial to fix in normal situations. In our first game, the players fixated on the Grind (and minimizing it), which led to all sorts of non-fun repercussions.
- Read the rules, then read them again. Not everything there is completely clearly explained (though I’ve seen much worse!), and it’s a complex ruleset with lots of moving parts.
- Use helpers. I used cards for conditions and glass beads for disposition management, and also some trackers from Warhammer 3rd ed to track grind and light sources.