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.