Torchbearer: Session 3

Getting learned up on how best to run Torchbearer has proven to be quite a lot harder than I remembered!

We had our sixth and, I think, final player join us this week. Six! It’s a full complement of class/stock sets, because why not. Everyone but the noob has a little supply of artha, pretty much everyone understands the various gears in motion and how to keep their economies lubricated. There is, I think, just the right amount of tension between the feels and the logistics — the killer app of Torchbearer imo.

What I’m constantly checking myself on is maintaining the right amount of pressure. Like, I couldn’t sense the difficulty of dealing with The Grind until the end of this session, because it seemed like they had infinite food available to them. Which…they don’t. So for a while there, you know, I’d be all “okay, fourth roll, drop your lights and go hungry” and they’d all happily turn their little torch cards and scratch off another ration. We knew it couldn’t last forever, but there was no urgency. Until last night.

In my head, I feel like I should be able to run this totally sandboxy: if something is too hard to face, it’s on them to run the hell away, yeah? And we’re all on the same page there. Where my skills are still lacking is in what to do with twists. Getting angry might not be bad at one moment of play, and utterly devastating in another. Spooling them off into an obnoxious little side-survival-adventure is nbd and then all the sudden, oh god, they’re 14 rolls into the Grind with no place to safely camp and facing a very fucking dangerous conflict the moment the next session starts.

So, all in all, I think things are going well. đŸ˜‰

But there is definitely a tension in my head, running the thing, when it comes to inflicting consequences. On the one hand, sure, be true to your prep (mine has been frankly inadequate, given just how much stuff six players can throw at any situation). But on the other, there’s still the soft art of setting up bigger and more interesting challenges. Sometimes a twist isn’t a whaddayadowhaddayado crisis, it’s Announcing Future Badness. I mean shit, probably the most panic-inducing moment last night was when the dwarf invoked his “always look for traps” instinct while inspecting an ancient sealed door inscribed with a dire warning, failed… and the door opened.

“The door opened? That’s the twist?” he asks.

“Oh yes,” I say.

There’s also the balancing act of keeping things moving but not too fast (because The Rules kind of don’t allow it, even invoking the Good Idea rules on the regular) so as to maintain my own interest. I’ve got stuff prepped! And it’s gonna take a lot of fussy rolling and check-earning and artha-spending and help and wises and teamwork to get there. Every moment of play feels overwrought and slow even when the outcomes are solid and tense.

It’s definitely fun. A different kind of fun than I’m accustomed to. My instincts are to keep spooling out plot and story and implications and hints. This game isn’t about those things.

0 thoughts on “Torchbearer: Session 3”

  1. My total inability to gauge the current difficulty level was definitely something I experienced.
    “Hmm, I dunno, you stumble at the edge and your dagger falls in?”

  2. It’s probably as much a bug as a feature, right? Like, it’s probably a good thing to insulate the GM from too much hands-on fiddling if the point of the game is to feel legitimately dangerous/challenging.

    It’s a very hard impulse to give up.

  3. I have complicated feelings about it. I have lots of fun in “dramatically appropriate outcomes” systems like Dungeon World and Burning Wheel. The system doesn’t tell you what happens, not specifically, because you’re expected to take into account how the situation affects the characters, the feel of the moment, etc. In those systems, I need to be able to tweak outcomes. I have no problem deciding what goes wrong after the dice come up short.

    In, “this is a tangible logistical challenge” systems, I like to stock a dungeon (or whatever) with what would be there (of course using some contrived, adventure-producing interpretation of naturalism), make sure the players have the tools to sniff out danger (or to at least grapple with the risk vs. prep trade-off).

    But in that kind of play, I really want some system to disclaim the life and death decisions to. I don’t want to get to the end and then the system asks me to choose who dies!

    Another way this comes up for me is when I’m mulling over what the consequences would be in some faux-naturalistic way, but then the players let me know that so-and-so has only 2hp left. đŸ˜›

  4. Michael Prescott​ I’m so on board with all that.

    It’s a major point of…maybe friction, not sure yet but something, that my BW fans are feeling about how things are going down. It’s not the BW-lite game I think some of them were expecting.

  5. I find that the ‘structured episodic’ nature of the gameplay (combined with the GM’s instinct for tension) informs those twist vs condition choices far more than the appropriateness in the narrative.

    That’s the rub as Michael Prescott so eloquently illustrates above. Its like one of your key responsibilities is to gauge how much ‘pain of the grind’ that your (individual) players enjoy.

    I’ve found some peeps will grind their character to death, and take a perverse pleasure in doing so – confronting obstacle after obstacle, spending artha like mad and just hoping on hope they may just pull it off, but if they don’t (and die) they are just as pleased and rave about ‘what a great session that was’.

    Whereas other folks HATE having conditions and will focus their gameplay around relieving / mitigating the effects.

    I find player gamestyle is the metric for challenge I use: both in terms of both the ‘describe to live’ narrative adage of the obstacle, and the mechanical implications of test failure.

  6. Man, TB is a struggle! I’ll bring it back to my table next. I don’t quite have a handle on it but am happy to steal from y’all! I love playing the grind and I’ll grind a PC down to death!

  7. MadJay Brown Please do! I want a chance to get to play TB some more. I’ve ran a few sessions, but I’ve only actually played once back before it was published.

  8. My instincts are to keep spooling out plot and story and implications and hints. This game isn’t about those things.

    I played one session of TB when I was mostly interested in getting plot and story out of tabletop games, and I hated it. I think I would try it again now that I’ve played some more sandbox and non-plot-focused games and enjoyed them.

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