* Your kid has lice! You catch them in time but you almost burn the house down what do you doooo
* You keep your house from burning down but your air conditioner needs to be replaced what do you doooo
* Your suddenly unlivable house means you must now relocate your niece’s birthday party! You move it to the grandparents’ but they have a family friend die and must cancel all social engagements what do you doooo
If I were a player in my game I’d be so ready for a dungeon.
Torchbearer Prep-hate and Hate-prepping Premise vs Theme vs Setting
Maybe it’s the overloaded week-and-some I’m still in the middle of — on top of nearly burning the house down after a lice scare, now I’m managing an AC replacement and my niece’s birthday party — but I’ve got serious reservations about my decision to run Torchbearer next.
Low investment? Not after I start plowing real hours into prep! Maybe that’s a sunk cost fallacy thing. More likely, I just forgot what managing a more traditional RPG really felt like.
It doesn’t help that I hate prepping. It’s not a waste of time but lonely fun is my least-favorite form of fun. It is kind of nice to sit there and daydream about what all we’re gonna talk about. Especially in a game like Torchbearer that has at best a lightly implied setting, there’s quite a lot of work I feel like I need to put in on making a sensible place full of sensible pressures that support the game’s focus. At least in Torchbearer it’s got laser-like focus: you’re all losers who can’t hold down a real job, otherwise no way in hell you’d be going down dirty holes looking for old junk.
But where did those holes come from? Why are there such downtrodden, yet variously skilled, people at loose ends?
The dungeon-delving fantasy adventure genre, I think, has always had something of a post-apocalyptic quality to it. A fallen age that’s left behind scraps of wonder and hints of beauty. A very loose and localized power structure where strongpersons hold sway through fear and allegiance. Tremendous ongoing fear of the Other. And if you’re doing it right, a strongly superstitious worldview. I mean this stuff is all readily obvious, right?
So I’m going through Torchbearer for the first time in … four years? A lot of years. And while I’m ostensibly tightening up my grasp of the game’s procedures, what my brain is really chewing on is the why, the fictional through-line, the themes. It’s probably a huge and frustrating mistake; Torchbearer isn’t really a theme-y game. But I can’t avoid it. I just … cannot shrug when someone asks “so why are these losers risking life and limb spelunking for trash?”
It’s bearing some fruit. Other than the big core theme of hard-earned heroism baked into Torchbearer itself via its economies and procedures, the rest is left up to the GM. Or not, fuck it, just start hitting obstacles. What a difference from my long streak of more story-oriented play! I’m very much hoping some stoooory percolates up out of my prep, character setup, and Town events.
The game starts with a sorta-collaborative exercise in creating a map of the adventuring area. There’s always an elven land, a wizard’s tower, a big city, a small town, a religious bastion, dwaven halls, etc. Those all match up one-for-one with the home town question you have to answer during character creation, so that’s all good. I remember, when we were playtesting this, that we ended up with a pretty good but utterly generic fantasy setting. I guess it’s the ease of falling back onto an utterly generic fantasy setting that makes me wrinkle my nose a little. Then again it’s not really that different than the utterly generic cyberpunk sprawl we all probably end up with running The Veil or the utterly generic urban fantasy city you get from Urban Shadows.
Now I’m kind of treating my prep as hate-prep. Like, I hate it so much that I’m doing it just to get angry. I get angry at the tropes I’m drowning in! So I cook up something weird and novel and probably alienating to the players who really just wanted to show up and dodge gnoll spears. Then I get angry at that and think, ehhh fuck it, it was supposed to be a low-investment exercise until the school year starts and everyone’s schedules settle down. Probably if I left all this to the players, we’d end up with a perfectly playable pastiche and nobody would be unhappy. Except me, of course, for all the worst reasons.
This Shel Silverstein poem crawled into my brain a couple months ago and I can’t shake it loose. Gotta do something with it.
This was actually the start of a project where I was playing with the idea of a GMless RPG but with legacy-like qualities: sealed envelopes, destroyed materials, named bespoke in-game assets. And then I realized that kind of all RPGs are legacy-like, aren’t they?
These three games are about as different from one another as you can get in the traditional rpg (GM + character-monogamous players) space.
Torchbearer reimagines a genre/play style/aesthetic invented in the ’70s and ’80s. It adds some modern indie twists (incentivized nudges toward juicy drama) but its about-ness is squarely centered on the dungeon delve.
Unknown Armies has been dolled up a bit but is still fundamentally a child of the ’90s, an iconoclastic personal vision. No real tie to outside media. In fact more likely there were dreams of doing the transmedia thing, movies and toys and video game tie ins. UA isn’t “like” anything. But lots of things are like UA.
Then there’s The Veil, which is a self conscious mashup of dozens of media influences. You might sense the Burroughs influence in Unknown Armies but they never came right out and said it. Or “this game is like Neuromancer and Ghost in the Shell and Windup Girl,” which The Veil very much does.
When I get uneasy about many modern games and their slavish devotion to emulating their source material, this is what I’m thinking about. I’m stoked to run The Veil for sure. Procedurally and formally it’s a better game than the other two (fight me). And yet I’m left looking down the barrel of a lot of prep and thought about how to make it my own and not just celebrate Neuromancer, Ghost in the Shell, Windup Girl.
You know what it’s like? It’s like figuring out how to compose entirely unique music on one of those keyboards that comes with built in rhythms and instrument sounds and effects. It’d be so easy to toss off something that sounds a lot like a movie soundtrack and everyone would probably like it. I made something that sounds like Jerry Goldsmith!
This could very much be a generational thing. I get that. Might be that I was unconsciously nudging my dungeon delves toward Moria the whole time. But I don’t think so. Designs were more…meta, I think. Some designs today still drill down to the themes that underpin whole story families. Urban Shadows strikes me as enormously more meta about its subject matter than just being “like Charmed” or “like True Blood.”
I have no particular suggestion here, nor am I really saying there’s a “problem” of any kind. It’s just notable to me, reading these particular volumes side by side, how many approaches there are in This Thing of Ours. How many different kinds of instruments for us to play.
Finished my critiques and turned them in, because I’ve got all kinds of time on my hands when my kid has us up at 0530.
It felt like an exceptionally strong year. Three of my four games got me talking way more than the 1-3 paragraphs they otherwise require. That’s a good sign! And my “best game” nomination was legitimately difficult.
Finally settled on our next short-run low-investment game last night, and thank you to Andi Carrison for floating the idea that the investment was the problem. I’m all-in on doing a short thing of Torchbearer.
So I started re-re-re-reading the rulebook again when I couldn’t sleep last night. I think my recent run of PbtA games is making my mind mushy, because god damn these are some fussy, detailed rules. And I’m listed in the book as a “developer” for heaven’s sake! But it’ll be fun and challenging to dig back in.
I also think we’ll have…6? I think that’s right. Big big table. TB is almost certainly the wrong game for that size, but I think it’ll also be the right game for these particular players. Fingers crossed.
Then I think my next higher-investment game will be The Veil, which has also been interesting to re-read with actual play in mind. That’s a subject for another post.
Summertime is bullshit for setting up a new RPG, amirite?
I feel a little discouraged by our premature ejection from our last game. Kind of a combination of the vague disinterest folks developed in the face of constant delays, and feeling, I dunno…maybe a little taken for granted. Like, I’m totally confident that I’m very good at running games. But I also feel like that very good pianist at the bar you like to go to, who’s always good so you don’t really notice because it’s comfortable and expected and just part of why you like going to that bar. It’s fine, really. Just kind of a funny observation, since I think at least one of my players has felt taken for granted as well.
I’m not quite feeling pumped, like, anxious and itchy, about getting another game going. I love it — looove it — when I’ve got one cooking and we’re meeting regularly and everyone is at least modestly excited about playing. But summer is bullshit, as posited above, so nobody’s sharing that urgency with me right now.
So I grabbed a piece of paper and started going over my uh rather extensive collection both on my shelves and in PDF, looking for the games that for-real interest me. It’s a good way to start feeling excited, for me at least! The list ended up being pretty long. Now I’m slowly ordering the games by how bad I actually want to run them: for this particular group, at this particular time.
Here’s what made the cut, in order, and my current priority list along with notes to myself.
Apocalypse World 2E: I haven’t actually played OG AW since 1E came out! Many years now. Gone through tons of PbtA and hacks but man…the (new and improved) original is up there. Downsides: Lukewarm enthusiasm by at least one and maybe two players for PbtA-style play. We just ran a Dungeon World hack. And I’m not sure I’m ready for what I’m sure would be a pretty grim story.
The Veil: Looks rad as well as pretty distant from straight Apocalypse World. Jonathan Perrine, one of my newest additions to Tuesday Game Night, says it feels more like a more-distant PbtA relative, like Headspace or Uncharted Worlds. I’ve got this concern, and it’s so dumb, about running back-to-back games on the same platform. But I’ve got at least one player actively interested in the subject matter.
Blades in the Dark: We ran a couple sessions out of quickplay 6, maybe? And another of my players ran his own side game from the same quickplay. We have two copies of it floating around. Downsides: I wish I had a better sense of how robust the not-criming part of the game is. It was not especially strong out of the quickstart rules. Grinding out job after job didn’t feel awesome but I think that was just a limit of my understanding of the game.
Torchbearer: I haven’t played since the playtest! And I’m still feeling uninspired to take on full-bore Burning Wheel. But! I’m still not persuaded Torchbearer is “fun” in a way my players would enjoy. It might get my Burning Wheel cultists off my back, though. That’s no small thing.
Coriolis: It’d be straight space adventure, which I’m reflexively mehhhh on because my best players also prefer strong melodrama, which I don’t think Coriolis really gives a shit about. But it looks like fun, for real, and Fria Ligan has consistently delivered fun games, at least in the short term.
Soth: Been on my list since last year’s BigBadCon. And I think I could do it in two sessions. Strong contender. Feel like I need five, though. Given the short run I think it might be a good match. But! I think one of my players has played it before. I know there are alt rules for replays, so not a big deal. Hmm.
The Clay That Woke: I can’t tell if this is a sunk-cost fallacy thing happening (I spent $70 to get the wooden tokens, it must be good!) and I’m intellectually intrigued by how it plays out. And I’ve got a players who’s played it in a con setting, I think. It doesn’t really viscerally speak to me. But I confess I’ve been interested since I got it. Weighing whether I actually want to ask my players along for the ride.
Epyllion: Lands in a funny space for me. I really enjoyed a con game of it, but it’s … gentle, I guess. Not explicitly “childish” in any way. But the central themes of friendship and teamwork and mutual support…I feel like my local players might scoff at that? Also, I’ve got the Jonathan Perrine factor: he’s probably the single most experienced Epyllion player on the planet due to his Magpie connection, so I both feel a tiny unease asking him to run it even more as well as my own har har let me show you how it’s done! impulses.
Urban Shadows: I want this game to work so, so bad. I’ve run it…hm…one longish campaign, two short side games, two one-shots. And I finally got to play for the first time at NewMexicon. It pushes a lot of my buttons. My Tuesday Game Night players have been through it, though, and I know at least one of them was deeply dissatisfied with how it played out (and acknowledges that we all learned how to play it better). This and Sagas of the Icelanders are my favorite PbtAs. And I feel a tiny bit like maybe I should offer up a not-PbtA next. So.
Wrath of the Autarch: Looks rad but also too long-term right now. Also pretty game-y and not really role-play-ish. Not sure all my players are up for really digging into how to play it well. If I had a better sense of whether or not it’s a good experience in, say, five sessions, I’d have a stronger opinion. Maybe Phil Lewis can chime in.
Masks: You know, maybe? Don’t love supers but I hear nothing but the very best from folks about this game. Kit La Touche says it puts off Strong Female Protagonist vibes. The teen thing again, though. Same problem I have with Tales from the Loop and Monsterhearts. I need to find a way past that I think.
Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine: Tough one. It’s like The Clay That Woke in that intellectually, I’m super-interested in decoding it. How does it work? Why did she write it this way? My players even surprised me when I brought up the heartwarming aspect of the game before, and they replied that they had grown tired of grim/dark/grimdark. I’m having a hard time getting stoked about rewiring everyone’s expectations of how a session “should” play out.
Legacy: Life Among the Ruins: I have the hardest time fitting this and Apocalypse World in my head at the same time. Quite different games and quite different tones! I feel like I’d need to run these, like, a year apart from one another. The family-building aspect is super interesting to me, though, because I’m looking at similar tools for my secret Real American West project.
Tales from the Loop: Another Mutant hack. The kid thing isn’t speaking to me. And someone pointed out that the central mystery of the game — the Loop itself — is never really addressed. It’s just the excuse to have weird-shit-of-the-week type play. I may just need to be in the right mood for it.