Torchbearer

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.

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0 thoughts on “Torchbearer”

  1. I’m willing to bet you’ve just forgotten how to do it well. Running PbtA-ish games has made D&D style games hard. Then I remember running AD&D for years and never prepping a thing, never reading monster entries beyond a few bits I cared about (who the hell uses Move or Morale for monsters?!), and most certainly never making maps ahead of time.

    How did I (we?) do it? I bet it’s just familiarity.

  2. It’s easy to forget its Torchbearer just how little you need to get through in a session. Paricularly if you have a few fully blown conflicts. Just prep what you need for the next session. ‘Describe to live’ works for setting detail too. Lately I’ve been paring back and running it more in a Mouseguardy way. Michael Prescott’s Tannoch has become my yardstick.
    I also just used one of Randy M’s cool maps and just winged it, making up stuff with the players as they delved deeper and noting that with tony dowler-esque labels as I went. Worked a treat.

  3. (To expand on my earlier comment, what I really enjoy about Torchbearer prep is that part where I go from throwing things at the wall to realizing how it all comes together.)

  4. I go in and out of this mode of hating prep. On the one hand, I’m endlessly inspired by the dungeon setting. On the other hand, there’s nothing I hate more than taking the mystery of the dungeon and turning it into a bunch of predictable cookie-cutter encounters.

    I feel like one of the strengths of Torchbearer is its ability to take the truly mundane details of dungeon delving and give them new life. We played a game set in a sea cave that could only be approached during low tide. The idea that our exit could be blocked, or that seawater could flood the area at any minute was genuinely terrifying in the context of the Torchbearer rules. I recall a moment where I decided to use one of my traits against myself while opening an urn. The GM decided that a sea sponge hiding in the urn gave me a poisonous sting. Getting poisoned while searching for loot is an obvious D&D standard, but it felt fresh and new because the game gave it teeth in a new way.

    As far as big mysteries go, when I played I felt like Torchbearer puts these beyond the reach of mundane characters. We’re never going to discover why these disturbing carvings of octopodes are in this ancient cave. That’s way above our pay grade. I suspect that GM had a reason for those carvings existing, but we never found out what it was. On the other hand, they feel all the more mysterious and ominous for being that. Sometimes it’s OK to do prep that the players don’t interact with. It will still inform how you present the world.

    I have a love-hate relationships with Torchbearer. On the one hand, I think it gives fresh life to some of the core themes of the dungeon crawl. I LOVE to play it. I also find it impossible to game master. It runs totally contrary to my GM-ing inclinations.

  5. Skogenby kind of sucks. By which I mean, I felt constrained by the sorts of actions the author had thought to DR, and kept inadvertently trying to steer the players into these choices. Felt a little like running Call of Cthulhu.

    In contrast, when I went through adventures and figured out all the likely DRs myself, I did a much better job at anticipating things my players were actually likely to try, and felt a lot more confident winging it as needed, since I’d pretty thoroughly prepped all the encounters.

    It’s pretty time-consuming prep, but it speeds things up at the table a lot.

  6. Larry Lade the bit where they have a chance to explore the situation a bit but are chased right back out? I confess I don’t quite understand that other than to enforce a militant kind of grind mindset.

  7. I found playing TB to be too easy! I enjoy running it and I BAAAARELY prep for it. Of course, I use Skogenby, Three Squires, or Hand in the Pit.

    Lazy hint: you can just run whatever dungeon and just use the factors in the skill chapter.

    Story and motivation are up for the players to suss out. Write that shit down when they mention stuff, but it’s up to them to pursue it. Even the book says that beliefs are their job!

  8. Paul Beakley There’s a particular mathematical strategy that is very effective in town. It is spelled out nowhere. It is left for the players to figure out based on rule references scattered throughout the book.

    Until they figure it out, town is this awful cutthroat collectivist nightmare where the players have to fight each other over scarce needed resources. It’s genuinely stressful!

    I’m not going to spell it out either, because I think it is done this way by design. One of many tests of player skill put into the game so the players can feel proud of themselves when they figure it out.

    Yeah, the thing where you’re not supposed to role-play in town sounds cool in theory (I’m in the aggrieved “God dammit can we stop fucking around on shopping adventures and get on with the quest?!” camp of RPG play) but gets awkward when someone fails a test which creates an interesting roleplay complication.

    Jesse Coombs If I have to look at that skill factor chart every 5 minutes I have already lost.

  9. Jesse Coombs sure, yeah, but doesn’t it strike anyone (but me because I’m apparently taking crazy pills) as weird and kind of…pointless maybe? Nihilistic at the very least.

    This might very well point at TB being entirely the wrong choice.

  10. Until the PCs can get their Resources up a bit, cash and loot can provide a strong buffer against the worst Hobbesian impulses of Town phase. If your first Town phase leaves too many scars, be a little more generous before the next one.

  11. There’s a lot in the original post I can relate to, since I’ve more or less intentionally set myself a high-prep GMing experience. And exactly like Paul, tonight’s session happened at a time when I’m feeling overwhelmed by all the other things going on that prep is inconvenient rather than fun. (And I do prep for like, a side gig!)

    I’ve ended up in exactly the same spot as Paul re: the post-apocalypse nature of the setting. Maybe it’s obvious, but it took me a while to get to.

    I think it’s might also be a more recent trend, spurred on by trying to avoid colonial conqueror themes – instead of, “Let’s go to the lizardman island and take their shit!” it turns into, “Let’s explore the fallen temples and tombs of our ancestors.”

    I find having a couple of named ancient eras is really helpful for ad-libbing details.

    I’m also learning to love random tables… very slowly. This is such cliched advice, but I have a particular mental block about it, it feels like I’m passing the buck on ‘being creative’ or (even worse) ‘being original’. Perhaps it’s more that I’m learning to trust random tables.

    Hate prep sounds fascinating and.. painful.

  12. I had this epiphany Michael Prescott, that Vincent Baker taught me – random tables are just big lists that have numbers attached. Vx just says ‘pick from a list and cross it off ‘in a lot of his games. Once I started seeing random tables as just big lists of inspiration that I could choose from, I began to trust them much more. Simple and rather obvious, but wasn’t for me until I read Dogs.

  13. Sounds like you’ve forgotten a lot of the things you learned from other BWHQ games.

    Your characters don’t like some element of the game fiction? Set out to change it! A town treats your psychotic murder hobos like psychotic murder hobos? Change their minds. Make friends. Show them that you rootless vagabonds actually do have a place in a well-ordered society.

    The world is set against you. Your parents couldn’t secure you a respectable apprenticeship. The family farm is gone. You have no place in the world except the one you can make for yourself. And you’re different than normal people. Your parents and friend will help you if they can, but no one else will stick their necks out for you. So what’s it going to be? What will you do to earn a place and respect (or burn it all down)?

    Need to go to town to recover but don’t have any money? Go. Live it up. Run up your lifestyle. Stay in a hotel. Use all the services the town has to offer. Then try to sneak out without paying your bills. Sure, they won’t have you back and will probably send some leg breakers after you, but what do you care? You’re rootless vagabonds.

    You don’t need a ton of depth and prep. Yes, you need to create a sketchy map, and put some places on it, but you don’t need to know anything about them. You need one place and its problem. Play that. Roleplay. Ham it up. Worry about the other stuff later, when it’s actually poised to enter the game. Let the world grow organically as play demands it.

    Embrace the randomness. When you get a random result on a table, don’t just perfunctorily introduce it to the game. Think about it for a moment. How can you use it dramatically? Use it to inspire your imagination. It is an RPG after all.

  14. I’m not really in the mood to start a big ranging internet argument but uh…no, of course I haven’t “forgotten” any of that. How patronizing.

    Moods and tastes change.

  15. Paul Beakley The folks I know who game master TB very well are very detail oriented GMs who always have tight control of the situation, mechanically speaking. I’m an impulsive GM and I improvise very quickly. I don’t want to keep track of details like torches and time.

    As a player, on the other hand, I really like the mechanical challenges that TB presents. I can focus on my character and how I’m playing them and I don’t have to worry about the mechanical arc of the game.

    Come to think of it, Torches & Time might not be a bad name for this game.

  16. tony dowler I am a super improvisational GM too and I’m also very absentminded, so I force the players to track time and torches. It’s worked out well!

  17. Bret Gillan I think you make a good point. TB is a game of player mastery as much as it is about GM mastery. The players should be ready to step up and take on part of the workload. I don’t think I’ve ever had a group that was invested enough in TB to do that, though, which is another reason it doesn’t get played.

  18. tony dowler Yeah, that’s historically been my problem too. Too crunchy for story gamers, and D&D veterans balk at learning a new way around a style of game they already have systems for that they’re familiar with.

    Someday I’ll run my long-term Torchbearer game. Someday…

  19. Yeah, we’ve historically never done terribly well with RPGs that demand a high level of system mastery from the players, which is weird given that most of us play high complexity big-box board games every other week as well.

  20. If I sat down at the table and the GM was like: “Jesse, I need you to keep track of light for the whole party.”, I would really love that, myself, but I’m a weird breed.

    Larry Lade, if I the players were rolling every 5 minutes, they’d be dead!

    Most of the sessions I run are 80% conversational, really just like PbtA games, to be honest. I like TB (and Mouse Guard) just a touch better than even my favorite PbtA game because the rules take care of structure and pacing for me. I still don’t know what the hell to do with a front or a count-down clock.

  21. The process described in the TB book for creating a dungeon is sound, produces great dungeons I’m sure (didn’t have time to try), and probably way too much prep in my book regarding my resource allocation.

    After initially being enchanted with the idea of running TB (it does a good job selling itself!) I actually realized I don’t even enjoy running Mouse Guard when I managed putting it to the test… So, not my cup of tea after some soul searching regarding what I actually personally enjoy instead of “drinking the kool aid”. (Which is true for any game, not just TB or MG.)

    I can empathize with being overwhelmed with prep. You’re trying to do a great job there, Paul Beakley. Not just slapping something together but giving it an inner logic and some depth. It’s not always easy to find the time for that. I admit I often evolve these details during the game, then sit down and add them up and try to give them sense. My improv is better than my prep except when I’m laying down the broad strokes of a setting. Once I have those I just add details within. It saves a lot of work and just occasionally needs a bit of added effort to keep it consistent enough.

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