I hope someone writes something before I finish posting this cause I don't want to double-post.
The Light Of Civilization Flickers
This is the first chapter and it’s your general introduction to RPGs and whatever, but it’s done in a pretty good way so I want to mention that and give it props.
Also it’s dedicated to the author’s mother who has passed away and, hey, if you’re gonna dedicate a book, even one about pretending to be elves with scurvy, that’s a pretty good thing to dedicate to where I come from.
There’s a brief intro to the generic assumed setting being defended towns surrounded by ruins of past great civilizations and goblins and Things That Go Bump in the night. It’s effective and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Then it has a brief but good description of “What is a Role Playing Game” that (I think) both explains to a complete newcomer what an RPG is, while also getting across to a more experienced player what tone it’s going for and addressing the themes that will come up in play (short version : I’m really not joking about all the dying of disease in a cave alone and cold). You need friends, someone to be the GM, a bunch of six-sided dice, pencils, etc. The usual.
Then it gives a run down of the subsections of the book that I’m gonna steal as a way of sign-posting what’s to come :
The Adventurer’s Essential Guide to Life on the Road is character generation and basic rules and stuff. It’s the bare minimum necessary to play the game, basically. This is like how skills and gear and stuff work.
The Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide is the meat and potatoes of the rules and shows how the actual engine of the game functions. Things like how combat works or Conditions. (I’ll be covering Conditions in detail when we get to them, but in brief : they’re things like Hungry and Thirsty or Injured ; Torchbearer doesn’t have HP or anything like it, so this is the equivalent.)
Safe Havens and Other Poor Assumptions is downtime mechanics. Of which there are a lot. Basically the players and the GM each have “turns” so to speak, with the GM having a “turn” i.e. an adventure, and then the players having a “turn” to rest in camp and recover or buy shit in town. These are discrete phases with different actions and rules available. Did I mention that this game loves being abstract but also super crunchy?
Skein of Destiny is leveling up your mans.
Calamity, Calumny and Catastrophe : Rules for the Game Master is the GMing section and I can’t wait to get to it. It’s probably my favorite part. It’s like John Wick’s Playing Dirty but written by someone who isn’t a walking back of cocks, so it’s actually, you know, good instead of a trash fire. It also emphasizes that you’re supposed to make the characters’ lives hell so it’s even better when they succeed, not because you’re just a power-mad dick. Stop just killing your players for fun, Todd. Nobody likes it. Fucking Todd.
Then there’s a good description of best practices at the table that I’m not gonna delve into, but it’s pretty good for what it is. Pass the spotlight, don’t be a dick, be polite, etc. It’s good but it’s kind of generic advice that everyone should follow. The one thing I’d have preferred is it doesn’t explicitly have a section mentioning things like X cards, but the game doesn’t by default have anything that goes towards that tone, and so few games actually have that in the rules that I feel like I’m quibbling a bit. But it’d have been cool if that was included cause that’s a thing more games should have.
Structure of Play
These are the phases of the game I mentioned earlier :
Prologue : If this isn’t the first session, someone summarizes what was happening last time and gets a bennie. Then people do some light book-keeping, because crunch crunch munch bunch.
Adventure : The GM gives the players challenges and they do them. It’s like every other game in the history of ever.
Camp : Players take a nap, eat some food, try to recover from Nasty Shit from the Adventure Phase by spending various abstract (drink!) resources and hope they can shake off the bad case of Kobold Rubella they got.
Town : This doesn’t happen as often, cause, shockingly, it only happens when the players go into a town. This is buying more lamp oil or twine or whatever. Yes it has its own little subsystems, because look deep in your heart you knew it was going to have those.
Finally it gives the briefest of brief overviews of the system that I basically already gave but I’ll do it again : you will have some kind of Score in Thing at A Number. You Roll Number many d6 (which the game just calls a D because there aren’t any other kind of dice used ever*) and any results of a 4+ are successes, other numbers not. You need to get as many successes as your Obstacle, i.e. how hard the thing you’re doing is, with 2 being the standard. If you get a bigger number than the Obstacle (abbreviated as Ob.) you did it, hurray. If you didn’t the GM can either give you a twist (something breaks, you failed, bad things happen, you suck) or a Condition, e.g. you broke down the door but it took a lot out of you so now you’re Hungry and Thirsty. So it basically has fail-forward baked into the rules resolution. (Yes I know I still haven’t explained Conditions yet, this book is dense. We’re on page 8 right now, work with me. Just know that they’re Bad Things and I’m gonna keep Capitalizing Them.) Then it defines some terms/notation it’ll be using.
+D/-D : Add or subtract dice from the dice pool. What a strange and rare idea in a dice-pool game.
+s/-s : Add or take away successes, after the roll has already beaten the Obstacle. Fiddly but they actually explain the math and use it as an appropriate lever so it works, trust me.
Reroll 6 : sometimes you re-roll 6s. When it specifically says to. Just use your reading eyes and it’ll be okay.
Margin of Success/Margin of Failure : how much you beat or missed the Obstacle by, e.g. if you rolled 4 successes to beat Ob. 2, your Margin of Success is 2.
And that’s the first chapter!
I’m gonna try to find a good scan of the art cause it’s beautifully old school yet amazingly modern. I really love the art, but my only scanner is my phone and… I’m very, very lazy.
*I think I might technically be lying and they might use like a d3 or something on one table somewhere, but shut up, Todd. What the hell is wrong with you, Todd. This is why Karen doesn’t talk to you any more. We all miss Karen, Todd.
Fuck it sure let’s keep posting.
Anatomy of an Adventurer
This is the basic intro to character generation and it starts off with a good summary of the tone it wants you to keep in mind for that : you are a murder hobo. No not like people joke about with D&D. Your profession is literally just sleeping on rocks and shanking dudes for money. You’re fucked up and normal people (rightly) think you’re super weird.
Now let’s make one of these daring adventurers!
You uh. Pick a name. The game notes that while your parents might have named you “Greg” or whatever, you’ve probably changed it. Cause, well. Greg.
Dwarf, elf, halfling or human. That’s an exhaustive list. Yes they are all exactly as you picture them. No tweaks on the genre.
I do like that they didn’t use “race” as the word, jesus christ why did it take so long to stop doing that hell.
How old are you? Elves and shit live longer so make up a higher number. Exciting.
Pick a hometown. Either talk to your GM, make some shit up, or go with a generic list. This will add crunchy bits in a minute.
Pick your outfit. No crunch, just fluff. The five dollar word is free though.
You probably have them. Unless you don’t and you’re an orphan. Yes that has mechanical effect. We’ll get there when we talk about the cutesy little pseudo-life path system.
You have someone who taught you swords or baking whatever. They exist.
(Sorry I’m being so blithe with these things. I really think they’re cool details to make you flesh out in character creation, but I have nothing to add to them while also being compelled to mention that that sure is a step of character creation.)
If you need me to explain the concept of a friend to you, you have bigger problems than not knowing how to play Torchbearer.
No like lock your door. Todd could be anywhere.
You default to level one. It’s a level. You know what this is.
Similar, but at least alignment is basically just total background fluff that never comes up. (I actually forgot it was even in the game until I started this.)
Okay, woof. Sorry. Those are all cool but I just had nothing to add to them. Now we get to stuff that’s interesting. I promise I’m not just listing things and making sarcastic comments.
This is something inherent to your character that drives you and makes you succeed. Something like “always protect the weak” or whatever. This is your capes-comic motto, your “with great power yadda yadda”. If you act in accordance with it, you get a bennie at the end of session (assuming it was significant, no points for just not murdering a toddler or whatever). However if you go against your belief in an interesting way, you get a different bennie. Welcome to having a super abstract system funneling you to act in specific ways! Come on in, the Skinner Box is fine!
During the prologue phase, after the GM describes the premise of the adventure, you decide on your goal. This shouldn’t be something grand, but should be something to be completed during the session (cause you get bennies for doing it). Think “find out what happened to the innkeeper” and less “Become king of all of the dragons”.
I might have a broken brain, but instincts took me a second to get. Basically, it’s a simple if ==>then statement, or a prohibition or something you always do. Always, reliably. So that in the fiction it’s kind of assumed you did it.
Doing a roll usually takes a turn (in game time ; we’ll get there, I promise), but if it’s in line with your instinct it’s assumed you did it in the background so you already did it and it’s free. Like, if your instinct is “Always light a fire when we make camp” you just get to do that for freesies. Or if it was “Never go unarmed” you could roll to have a knife on you or something.
Allies and Additional Enemies :
I won’t just post a link from lmgtfy.com. I’ll be strong.
Traits! Traits are amazing. Think of them a little like Aspects in Fate. They’re crunchier (drink!), obviously, and come in multiple levels and kinds that we’ll get in to. But they’re basically some trait (e.g. “Fiery”) that you can either use to add to your rolls, or you can invoke to hurt yourself but you get bennies. They’re literally Fate Compels but totally player facing.
I like traits a lot. Thankfully Torchbearer doesn’t have Burning Wheel’s literal hundreds of them, but the ones there are good and you can make up more trivially.
There is now a tiny mention of how there are two kinds of bennies. Fate points and persona points. The game doesn’t explain them so neither will I. (They do good things for you. You want them.)
Abilities! We finally can talk about stats! Sorry!
So you have raw abilities. Your basic competence and things. These are Will, Health, Circles and Resources. They’re this vaguely named because they’re super basic. You only roll them if you don’t have a relevant skill.
You can probably figure out what they do, or at least most of them. Health is anything physical, pretty much. Will is everything mental. Circles (as in “circle of friends”) is what you roll back in town to know a guy who knows a guy (note : not convince them or do other social stuff, this is just being plugged in to the society). And Resources is your super abstract (drink!) money stat. It’s 0. You can eventually raise it, but it’s 0 now, basta. You can add to it by spending fungible materials. Like if you spend money you get +1D or even more if you have the dosh.
I once had a player hock a painting that wound up being +3D. I know that’s niche, but it really sold me on this game. He’d spent forever getting this fucking portrait out of a dungeon, and this is what it meant. It was like some art shit.
Might is technically another stat but everyone’s might is the same : 3 for being a humanoid. It’s where you sit on The Scale of Might, an abstract (drink!) way of showing how you can interact with things in Contests (abstract (recursive inside brackets drink!) form of combat/debate/riddling etc.), that lets you know what kinds of contests are allowed, i.e. you can debate a dragon as much as you want but no you can’t fight it bare handed. Just no.
Wises are a way to get bonus dice to a roll because you know about bees or whatever. It has its own full on chapter, we’ll get to it. You can get bonuses in various ways for knowing about bees.
Finally skills. You have them. They work how you’d expect : your skill rating is how many dice you roll to do things. The cool part is that if you don’t have a skill you can still roll for it with Beginner’s Luck, where you roll either Health or Will at half, but then you get to start leveling up the skill itself.
Yes you literally level up each individual skill. All of them. Wait until we get to how advancement works!
(I fucking unironically love this game. It was basically written for me.)
I need to start timing these better so I'm not double posting.
You All Meet at an Inn…
If it wasn’t obvious these are no shit the actual chapter names.
So, character creation!
We’re gonna be making Reginelf E Elfington III (the E stands for “elf”) and totally Not Bilbo Baggins. Bil-no Baggins.
Our classes and stocks are entirely locked in for the sin on not being human so Reginelf gets :
Class : Ranger
Raw Abilities : Will 4, Health 4
Skills : Fighter 3, Arcanist 2, Lore Master 3, Scholar 2, Scout 2, Survivalist 2 (I’ll go over skills in depth later, but they basically do what you’d expect for now)
Trait : First Born (i.e. we’re elves and we’re old and sad about it)
Weapons : Bow, sword and dagger (This is weapons they know how to use, not that they own)
Armor : Leather or chainmail (same as weapons)
Bil-no gets :
Class : Burglar
Raw Abilities : Will 5, Health 3
Skills : Cook 3 (this is actually amazing), Criminal 3, Fighter 3, Hunter 2, Scout 2, Scavenger 2
Trait : Hidden Depths (i.e. I really can be a hero! I swearsies!)
Weapons : Any except crossbow, two-handed sword, halberd, polearm and lance
Armor : Leather, chainmail helmet and shield (so yes hobbits wear more armor than elves, which uh sure is a take from the source material)
Then we pick a hometown for our plucky adventurers. I’m gonna just use the generic stuff the book provides for now. This gives us another skill at 2 (if you don’t have it already, then it gets a plus) and a trait.
Reginelf is from the Elflands cause he’s original like that and gets Pathfinder 2 and the Quiet trait.
Bil-no will be from a Remote Village cause I’m going for the feel of The Shire, so he gets Peasant 2 (sounds dumb but is fucking amazing ; it’s one of the basic Do Anything Physical skills) and the trait Rough Hands.
Then we chose how they interact socially : Are they a Haggler, a Manipulator, an Orator or a Persuader? (This gives them the appropriate skills). I’m gonna say Reginelf is an Orator because lol elves and he has Orator 2 and Bil-no will get Haggler 2.
Next everyone gets a specialty, something they are uniquely good at that no one else can take ; this is a another skill bump. Reginelf takes Scout to bump him to 3 and Bil-no takes Cook cause fuck yeah hobbits gonna hobbit meaning he’s at an impressive Cook 4. I’m dead serious the Cook skill can be life or death. We’ll see it as we go on.
Wises! I talked about these before. They’re basically just called something like X-wise and when you knowing all about apiary science they give you good stuff. Still not gonna talk about them too much cause that’s a literal full chapter that’s soon. Possibly next but I forget and we still got a lot of this chapter. I’m very lazy. Either way, both characters choose one wise from a very small list and then any others they feel like, including making them up. Reginelf takes Elven Lore-wise to know elf shit and Nature-wise cause knowing about plants is cool. Bil-no takes Little Salt-wise (as in he knows to salt food the right amount ; no I’m not fucking with you) and Rural Tuber-wise (I just made that up but I’m staying on brand #dealwithit).
You can have all sorts of wises and just make them up as you go, but the the book notes to not be a dick and pick Adventure-wise or Plot-wise or GM-wise or shit that’s just annoying, Todd. Todd you were so much more fun when you drank.
Next is a secret stat I haven’t mentioned : Nature! This is literally the stat for how much you are like your stock. So if you’re an Elf it’s literally +Elf. It’s kind of like a super specific skill that let’s you get bonuses to things only your stock is, but also you can spend it like a metacurrency where you get less dwarfy to get bennie points on rolls and possibly have a fucking epic dice-pool in a clinch situation. I’m gonna admit it’s straight up weird and takes some brain-wrinkling to fully get, but it works great after you drink at it hard enough.
Each stock starts at 3 Nature and then there’s a little babby’s first life path list of question that monkeys with it. I’ll get there in a mo. Right now let’s note what specific descriptors the various stocks get to see how it shows off the stocks :
Elves can use their nature to aid in Singing, Remembering and Hiding. Because well. Elves yo. Just fucking Elves.
Dwarves get Delving, Crafting and Avenging a Grudge (I thought you’d like the last one, Night).
Halflings get Sneaking, Riddling and Merrymaking. They are adorable and of course we needed another The Hobbit reference.
Finally humans get Boasting, Demanding and Running. I really, really like that humans are not the default store-brand in the setting and it’s little things like this that portray humans not as the generic stock, but actually the youngest sibling little shit. A fucking bonus to Boasting, really??? Jerks.
O dear god there’s still so much to go.
I’m not gonna do both life paths because that means typing up the whole thing basically, so I’m just gonna give the elf one so you get the idea. It’s a series of questions the player answers about the character that raises or lowers Nature and gives skills and traits. This will also be one of the very few times I just use verbatim text because I want to get across the tone. Sorry, Thor, please don’t sue me.
Do you walk among the ancient trees on moonless nights and listen to their songs? Or has your heart hardened in the long ages since the Dawn?
-If you listen to the ancient songs, increase your Nature by one.
-If your heart has hardened, you may replace or increase [a trait] with Bitter or Jaded.
When evil stalks the world, do you confront it or do you retreat to the hidden places of the elves and allow time to defeat your enemies?
-If you retreat and hide, increase your Nature by one and decrease your starting Fighter skill by one. (XD note : fucking ow!)
-If you confront evil, your Nature and Fighter remain the same.
Do you yearn to follow the cries of the gulls to the sea and journey west beyond all knowledge or are you prepared to live a life of struggle and grief?
-If you yearn to journey west, increase your Nature by one.
-If you do not yearn for the west, you replace or increase [a trait] with Fiery, Curious or Restless.
No I’m not doing this out for Reginelf and Bil-no because they are toy examples and you can imagine what answers would look like.
Now remember Circles, you basic social stat? It’s also determined by a little list of questions. Your Circles start at one and then you answer these :
Do you have friends who enjoy your occasional visits, or are you loner, tough and cool?
If you have friends, you get +1 Circles. If you are a Loner you get the Loner trait and that’s it for you for the questions for deciding to be cool and edgy. Go and get everyone else snacks while they answer the other questions. (Yes the book says this.)
Do you have parents that you can stomach talking to or are you an orphan?
If you have parents, +1 Circles and they exist and will take care of you if you visit your hometown. The GM is encouraged to have them fuss over if you’ve been eating enough and why didn’t things work out with Sharon. If you’re an orphan you get a trinket worth +1D Resources.
Did you have a mentor or did you make your own way in this rough life?
In a shocking twist, if you have a mentor you get +1 Circles and you have a mentor. Note them down on your character sheet. If you don’t, you get 2D worth of treasure. Yay stuff!
Lastly, have you made an enemy in your life or have your dubious deeds managed to escape notice?
If you have an enemy, get +1 Circles and note down who your enemy is. The GM will make sure they come up, trust me. If you don’t have an enemy : your bonus is you don’t have an enemy.
So yes the munchkin option is to have lots of friends and family and be part of the community. This is on purpose.
There is a whole section on starting gear that I’m just gonna not get into cause there’s a gear chapter and I’d need to talk about how inventory management is literally writing your gear onto a paper doll on your character sheet marking where it is on your belt or whatever. Also they summarize beliefs and instincts and stuff again, but they also have their own thing and I’ve been typing for a while and really want to finish this and have a cigarette so this is the world we live in.
Finally, everyone starts off the game with the Fresh Condition, the only condition that isn’t shit and terrible and just gives you extra dice for free. You will lose this in a hot second into gameplay and probably never see it again, but those 2 minutes of real time gameplay are really nice.
Next time : Wises!
Hey. Sorry for the delay. Short version : depression sucks.
Anyway, let’s get back to talking about Torchbearer and give the last bits of character creation that I skipped last time.
Starting Gear and Spells
I know I keep kicking the can down the road and saying that I’m doing brief intros to things that then get their own chapter later, but well. Guess what I’m gonna do now.
A brief intro but I promise both of these topics get their own chapter that I’ll get to later! I swearsies!
First let’s talk magic, by which I mean if you are a spell-casting class (Magician, Ranger or Cleric) you roll on a random table to see what spells you get. All of the spells have their own new names but roughly correspond to D&D spells on a thematic if not mechanical level so I’m going to be giving translations.
Cleric : ha ha I lied you don’t get spells until 2nd level. You start with Fury of the Lords of Life and Death, a.k.a. Turn Undead.
Magician : You get three spells, and you have them in your traveling spellbook. One is automatically Wisdom of the Sages, a.k.a Read/Comprehend Languages, and then you roll 2d6 (my god we’re not using the normal dice system!!!!). The actual mechanics are, you guessed it, crunchy abstractions (drink, drink!) rather than D&D’s “Hi I’d like to totally circumvent the rules of the game and just make narrative declarations k thnx” ; you’ll see when we get to the Magic and Miracles section :
2 : Thread of Friendship (Charm Person)
3 : Celestial Music (Ghost Sound I think it’s called? It makes fake sounds.)
4 : Arcane Semblance (Disguise Self)
5 : Dance of the Fireflies (Dancing Lights/Faerie Fire)
6 : Supernal Vision (Various divination spells)
7 : Eldritch Darts (Magic Missile)
8 : Wizard’s Aegis (Shield)
9 : Mystic Porter (Unseen Servant/Tenser’s Floating Disk ; this is one of the best spells in the game, as you’ll see when we get to the inventory mini-game. Carrying shit is awesome!)
10 : Word of Binding (Hold Portal)
11 : Lightness of Being (Levitate)
12 : Destiny of Heroes (Generic buffing spell)
If you are very lucky little dude in a bathrobe and you roll the same spell on your second try, you get the choice of picking whatever spell you want, you decadent slut. (I pray to god someone gets my HBomberguy reference.) If you’re new to Torchbearer but played some D&D you’ll probably pick Eldritch Darts. You are also wrong and the game will punish you. (Haha it was going to do that anyway.) You pick Mystic Porter. Always Mystic Porter. Because carrying shit is the best thing you can do in this game. You can’t shoot magic bolts at treasure. Or well you can but it’s not productive.
Elves : You only get one spell, it can’t be Wisdom of the Sages so uh I hope you like your starting languages, and you can’t choose it and have to roll on the same table as the Magician.
This is the beginning of the game telling you to go fuck yourself for being an elf.
On that character sheet, on the second page, taking up almost half the page is the inventory system for this game. It’s a super abstract (drink!) pseudo-paper doll kind of thing with little slotty-do’s for all the shit you can carry. Want to carry an axe? Great, that’s either your dominant hand, one of your 2 belt slots or a slot in your pack/satchel/whatever.
Then there’s a little table like you’ve seen in every RPG ever, pretty much, with possible starting gear with how much space it takes up on the aforementioned abstract (drink!) paper doll. The catch : you don’t have to pay for any of it. Take as much as you want, the game says. O yeah, go hog wild. You want shoes (yes, you have to pick if you want shoes), have some shoes. What about Stakes (3) and a mallet (pack 1)? Fuck yeah, what if you run into some draculas or something. There’s garlic too if you want! (hand/carried 1 or neck/worn 1) (There are no rules for vampires to my knowledge. At least not in the base game.) Torches (4)? Yeah you want some fucking torches. (Hand/carried 1 or pack 1). Maybe get the value pack, you’re gonna want a lot of fucking torches, my dude. Oo, maybe a jug? (pack 3 ; I guess you can’t hold jugs…?)
This has been the game baiting you into a trap. Yeah you can have all that shit, go to god damn town. But.
YOU NEED TO CARRY ALL OF THAT SHIT WHILE YOU’RE BASICALLY GOING SPELUNKING AND ALSO FIGHTING ORCS
And if you’re successful you probably are carrying a bunch of treasure back out with you and fffffuuuuuuuuuck... The Real Torchbearer Experience Starts Here.
We’ll get into the full song and dance about inventory management when we get to that chapter (yeah, I know I keep doing this, the game is very dense, sue me), but I wanted to give you all a taste for how a big part of the central concept of the game is no bullshit inventory management. This is part of why one of my go to descriptions when I do the elevator pitch for this game is : The Things They Carried but with goblins. Every single choice you make in what to carry could save your life, or kill everybody because why did you bring 7 things of wolfsbane, Todd. Personally, I find it perfectly blends being crunchy enough (drink!) to make all of these decision seem worthwhile, but abstract enough (another drink!) to where you don’t feel burdened like you’re counting every bit of bullshit. I really love it as a bit of design.
Last we get a thing on what starting weapons you can possibly use/have :
Cleric : You can use a flail, mace, sling or warhammer and get one. You can never use any weapon with an edge because Gary read a thing about a medieval bishop once and thus it is canon like it was a fucking papal bull. But you can also have a shield.
Magician : Gonna quote this verbatim cause I find it delightfully terse “You start with a dagger as a weapon. You may only use daggers.” Something about breaking that up into two short sentences just makes me chuckle. But I’m also that jerk who thought a PhD in Linguistics would be a good idea so maybe I pay too much attention to language.
Elf : You may use a sword, bow or dagger. But you only can start with a dagger. Because go fuckyourself, pointy-ears, that’s why.
Warrior : You can use anything, and you start with one [anything] and a shield, if you want it.
Halfling : You can use every weapon besides crossbows, two-handed swords, halberds, polearms and lances. Start with one of whatever isn’t one of those. But no shield for you, small fry. Soapwart McFuggletoes ain’t carrying no shield, don’t be ridiculous.
Dwarf : You can use anything except bows, two-handed swords and lances. Start with whatever, and you can have a shield. Nice beard, by the way.
Everybody but magicians and elves can start with leather armor and a helmet. Magicians get nothing because tradition and elves because I think Thor Olavsrud's girlfriend left him for Orlando Bloom or something.
Also, that wasn’t my fuck up and I just started using the race names for convenience instead of the class names. That’s straight from the book. The veil on this whole Race as Class ruse slipped away already in the character creation chapter.
So that was character creation wrapped up! Next time, let’s get all sly and talk about Wises.