Torchbearer: Session 4

Got back to our Torchbearer game last night. One week off didn’t do any real damage, although the recap was iffy. Good thing it’s built directly into the game!

This was the climax for their delve: facing a pair of guardian statues, loaded with conditions, out of food, balanced on the edge of their 16th roll. Go for a kill, using the warrior’s instinct to always do so (and not take another condition by making that 16th roll) or run the hell away? They chose run, which normally would be great because statues are slow AF and their party size generated a huge dispo (11?). Yet they still fought to a tied-at-zero, because when I put my mind to it I’m a brutal scripter. Everyone escaped, and everyone was injured.

They tried sealing the guardian room with a spell. Failed that, and instead sealed themselves inside an old warehouse infested with giant spiders. No way out but down. Finally they found a decent (only unsafe, not outright dangerous) camp spot, loaded with a zillion checks, and still it was a narrow thing to clean up everyone’s conditions. It was the halfling player’s first camp phase so there was lots of explaining to do. Good news is that now she has a firm grasp of just how important earning checks is — she’d picked a couple up at the prodding of other players but hadn’t completed the circle.

Finally, with a decent map in hand (it’s been 4 sessions and the mapper just now got around to it), they steeled themselves for a final Drive Off, which of course is enormously harder to beat mindless automatons at (dispo 12 + 2 for the number of monsters), yet they fought down to their last dispo, fought it back up, and did the thing. Loot, so much loot. And some intriguing leads going forward.

It’s been remarkable how every scripted conflict has been a nail biter. I keep thinking the party size provides so many dice that they’ll steamroll anything. And they can’t. I may be misinterpreting a rule, though: can only the non-scripted party members provide help? We have six, so we always have an A Team of 3 going with the 3-person B Team providing help dice. I think it’s right.

A few observations, four sessions in:

* I really thought I’d set up, you know, a nice little tutorial dungeon. I did not! They survived but it took extraordinary teamwork and a huge party to pull off. If I start or one-shot another TB game I’ll have a much better idea of how to scale it.

* Everyone, I think, will level up when they get back to town. Some of them are even close to level 3 now. Because of the extraordinarily tough dungeon and brutally dangerous script-fights, everyone’s blowing all their points all the time. I gotta say, I really like how leveling is keyed to artha spends. That’s sharp. Almost entirely eliminates artha-hoarding like you get in Burning Wheel sometimes. I kind of wish leveling was a bit more dramatic.

* I feel like the players are forming a tangible esprit de corps because of the shared danger and absolutely obligatory teamwork. So that’s neat. It’s getting hard for the loners to go it alone.

* We had a few moments where Beliefs 100% drove difficult play. The dwarf adventurer would not leave without a better payday, even when the rest of the party was ready to call it quits, and talked them into sticking around just a bit longer. The human warrior struggled mightily against his Instinct (free Kill conflict) knowing it was probably suicide for everyone else, even while not really caring about his own life. And so on. I’m glad the BIGs are providing good differentiation, although I’m hoping we’ll revise them a bit during/after Town. There are some not-awesome Beliefs that are kind of a stretch to trigger, although I err on the side of generous artha so mechanically it’s not a big deal.

* The halfling stumbled into her Secret Rule! I was blown away, and it was such an emotional high point (they’d just fled the stone guardians and were beat to hell) that I’m revoking my uhhh intense dislike of the “secret rule” idea. The halfling’s is IMO the most pronounced; the other “secret rules” seem more like helpful guidelines about some of the more vague descriptors.

* We had time to kill before the game because electricians had to rewire the lighting in my gaming space, and a couple players expressed that they miss the tighter bond between fiction and action in our PbtA games. They feel the drag of building out the die pools and the abstraction of mapping out scripted conflicts. The entire vibe is different, and when they think on what they’ve gotten done in the fiction it seems like the game is crawling. And it is. But they can also feel the high level of engagement with the process of surviving the delve.

*They’re headed into a Town phase. I’ve never done one. Exciting!

0 thoughts on “Torchbearer: Session 4”

  1. We’re likely it to begin our 2nd pass at TB in the next few weeks. My first time running it.I’d love to hear how’d you go about it differently from the beginning!

  2. Hey Paul, re: conflicts. Just to be clear, everyone can help as long as they still have disposition. If your ‘A-team’ takes the actions in the first round, your ‘B-team’ has to take the actions in the second round (if there is one). Basically, everyone with disposition has to take an action before anyone can take a second action.

  3. Thor Olavsrud yeah, we’ve swapping back and forth between the teams, no problem. I guess I misread the help-with-four-or-more rule. You were clarifying that the non-actors can still help, not that only non-actors can help.

    Cool cool, no big, they’ll be thrilled 🙂

  4. Something I’ve discovered about big groups and small groups over the years: Large groups can (unsurprisingly) handle bigger challenges. They can muster more dice to take on tough foes. Smaller groups will have smaller pools. BUT! Large groups tend to be brittle while small groups are more resilient.

    You note that the group generated 11 dispo for a drive off conflict. It’s a big number, but that’s one or two points of dispo for each character. Any decent attack or feint by the opposition is likely to knock out several characters.

    Smaller groups generate less overall disposition but usually get three or four points each when they’re distributed. That means that a character in a smaller group can often weather an attack or feint and keep going.

  5. Yes! We totally saw this and it was ugly. Interesting artifact.

    Defends also bring lots more dice back into play. I kind of like the dramatic swings, when they can hold on long enough for a big comeback.

  6. That effect definitely prompted big-damn-hero moments, mostly in tapping Nature to make the big play. Our otherwise-useless wizard has a huge Will and did the hero thing to bring back 10 of their 11 dispo on one Defend.

  7. *Spending artha to level up is one of my favorite things about advancement in Torchbearer. When I play Mouseguard its what I miss most.

    *I want to ask about pacing! You said there was a shift of pacing when you moved for Saga of the Icelanders to Moonicorn. That because advancement was tied to failure on rolls you were motivated to go to the dice more often in Moonicorn than in Saga. I’m curiuos how that compared to the pacing of Torchbearer. In moonicorn did you get more dice rolls by throwing more threats at them or did each threat take more dic erolls to overcome? In either case did you feel the fiction momentum was slower in a similar way as with Torchbearer?

    From the sounds of it your players are take the twists in stride and you sound pretty confident and dealing them out. The twist/condition labor has been hard for me to firmly grasp in the past with TB. Do you think your previous experience with BW helped you with this?

  8. Thor Olavsrud Related to the big/small group situation, what if some players want to sit out a conflict? E.g., what if everyone wants a kill conflict and the cleric doesn’t want to be a part of it, doesn’t help either side, etc. Is that ok? What if the opposing party wants to capture everyone, so the cleric is already “in” the situation?

  9. Aaron Berger​ sorry, lost track of this question!

    Pacing-wise Torchbearer is glacial compared to Space Wurm vs Moonicorn, both in terms of fiction experienced and in handling time. SWvM is all about hitting fictional highlights and going to the dice a lot, quickly. Sagas is kind of in the middle, not hitting the dice as much because there are fewer move triggers and mostly just talking through scenes. Torchbearer is like the movie where the camera zooms in on the beads of sweat and the dilated pupils.

    The BW-style die pool building procedure is, I think, a very deliberate process. You have to think through every option at your disposal, and there are often many of them. They’re also different in TB than BW, so we keep catching ourselves looking for FoRKs or forgetting about Wises. But that deliberation creates a very specific feel at the table. It took me a session or two to not feel antsy about how slooooow it feels, and get to the point where I’m okay with it not being about zooming through lots of story-stuff.

    Re twist/condition management: sometimes it’s hard! When it is, that is a tiny lesson to me that it probably should have just been a Good Idea (which, taking those tiny lessons into account, I’m getting better at). I think the balance of Good Ideas, Twists, and Conditions is where the real craft of running Torchbearer lies. I’m getting there, but sometimes I screw up. I also feel like, maybe, the layers of structural obfuscation (too many individual game states for me to keep in my head) make it so I can’t bring too much of my own pacing desires into play. Mostly I just inflict a condition if a twist doesn’t come immediately to mind, but that is occasionally even worse than a twist.

  10. I’m Curious Paul Beakley, do you ever just roll a single test for a less significant fight, rather than go to the conflict scripting rules? I found this was a pacing choice I had as GM – and made the scripted conflicts even more nail-bitey for their tension.

    Great AP by the way! I can’t wait to see how the players react to the ‘succour’ of town. Heh Heh.

  11. Nathan Roberts occasionally I do. Very occasionally. Like…if it’s a lone wandering monster of might 3 or less, I’ll probably just do fight versus nature, BW style.

  12. Tresi Arvizo in general I’m against the idea. If your character is present, they should be part of the action. I also don’t like the idea of creating incentives for players to ask (or tell) other players to sit out.

    That said, use your best judgment as GM. Maybe it makes sense given a particular situation.

  13. Side note on party members sitting out: it came up a couple times in our game! They had nothing to do, including help, or earning advancement, or spending artha to level up. But I also let them be removed from the consequences, like not dying in a Kill. But also not escaping on a Flee. It mostly worked out but my mathletes haven’t tried gaming it out too hard.

  14. Regarding long-term play, sitting out conflicts will slow leveling considerably. At higher levels, the hardest thing is spending enough Fate.

    Tests are relatively scarce in Torchbearer, especially in a larger group. That means you’re only likely to get a few tests per session where you can spend Fate.

    Conflicts are one of the few places where you’re always looking for extra successes and so can justify spending that Fate.

  15. Remember: entering Town phase with the required spent rewards allows you to level up one level only, not the level dictated by your spent rewards. Bummer, right?

  16. Charles Picard I’d have to think a while about how best to one shot it. It’s so grindy and slow, and if you add new players to the mix, jeez. Maybe three rooms/problems and one big script.

  17. I strongly suspect folks are just starting on Three Squires and going as far as they can.

    That seems to be a fairly common con strategy, rather than trying to engineer a complete-feeling experience.

  18. Kinda want to have a “hole in the ground” scenario that starts with a disposition roll based on Dungeoneer skill/Health—then that’s the amount of turns the players have until a rival adventuring group makes it to the treasure deep inside.

  19. Skogenby is a better con scenario. Focus on Describe to Live. Guide them through mechanics based on description in play. Don’t overload them with mechanical options. They won’t have any Rewards, so you don’t need to worry about some of the most fiddly rules (spending Fate and Persona).

  20. Paul Beakley, I started by running three squires all the time, but now prefer Michael Prescott’s one pagers. My absolute all time favorite ‘introductory’ scenario is Tannoch.

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