Torchbearer impressions


Torchbearer cover image, by Peter Mullen

This is not a review! It is a haphazard collection of initial thoughts occasioned by a first read-through. I have no previous experience with other Burning Wheel branded games. I gather that Torchbearer is sort of like advanced Mouse Guard. I have a particular weakness for dungeon crawling, especially the kind built around resource management attrition and survival horror. It is for inspiration regarding game systems to facilitate this sort of play that I originally backed this project on Kickstarter. As far as I know, the game is not yet available to non-backers.

My first impression is that this is a complex game. There are a lot of moving parts, and several different kind of game resources (not even considering character resources, such as food and light), which players need to manage. Skills, wises, nature, goals, beliefs, instincts, fate points, persona points, spells, and the list goes on. That’s a lot of mechanism for a treasure hunting game. However, I will say that the complexity is systemic, not character-build oriented. That’s a positive for me. I don’t necessarily mind complex systems, though I don’t generally enjoy games which require consideration of a large number of options (feat selection being the main example of this kind of game design).

The most interesting aspect of the system to me is how the treasure hunting and conditions (afraid, injured, etc) interact with the recovery and resupply system (which happens at camp and at town). Some parts of this are heavily abstract where D&D is extremely concrete. For example, prices are settled in abstract resources, which treasure provides. Characters pay their bills when they leave town using a single roll (things like haggling are skill options that have their own risk and reward). How well a character recovers depends on accommodation quality in town (some options are on the streets, flophouse, and inn). Of course, the better recovery options increase the difficulty of the bill payment roll, making it more likely that the character will end up in debt.

The system of phases (which leads to sequences like: town, adventure, camp, adventure, town) also moves time forward in the game: after three adventure phases, there is a winter phase. I like the sense of actual change this provides. Too often, this sort of thing seems to be an either/or of perfect calendars (the Gygaxian STRICT TIME RECORDS MUST BE KEPT) or not giving a shit at all, which is unfortunate. There are a lot of ideas that could be borrowed in various ways here for trad games.

The camp system is basically a specialized random encounter system, and, shorn of the “check” mechanics, could easily be used in D&D (there are different event tables for camps with different danger levels and locations). I really like this, and my only complaint is that the event tables are relatively limited (I bet there would be repeats relatively quickly). The check system could also be replaced with a simple set of potential camp actions and some quantity of HP recovery (one hit die worth, perhaps?).

There is some great art, as should be unsurprising given the participation of artists like Russ Nicholson and Peter Mullen. I particularly like the troll picture (page 157), the gear chapter header image with the rats in darkness (page 37), and the splash page for the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide section (page 57). The depiction of the example characters (reused throughout the illustrations in the manner of 3E “iconics”) is less interesting to me (as they are all pretty bland).

Some of the rules are decidedly non-diegetic. For example, every four turns you gain a condition (think of this sort of like a health track), the first being hungry and thirsty (which can be recovered from by eating, assuming you still have rations left). This track goes all the way up to injury and death, which can happen just by adventuring without resting. Another example. The party can’t make camp unless they have at least one “check” between them (checks are a meta-game resource). I imagine that this might be a bit jarring to players used to the “do anything” ethos of D&D (though many versions of D&D have their own list of similar non-diegetic rules, including weapon restrictions and the levelling system).

The magic is heavily inspired by classic D&D spells. Some examples:

  • Dance of the Fireflies (dancing lights)
  • Eldritch Darts (magic missile)
  • Lightness of Being (levitation)
  • Mystic Porter (floating disc)
  • Supernal Vision (detect magic)

And so forth. I really like the implementation of spell components. Rather than being required, they provide a casting bonus, meaning that players can trade GP and encumbrance slots for increased facility casting spells. The number of spells that can be cast per session is on par with traditional D&D, and you have to roll for them too, so I’m not sure exactly how that would play out in practice. I don’t necessarily mind magic being less accessible, but it is an interesting choice.

This is a dense game, and there is a lot more here to consider. I didn’t touch on most of the social mechanics (circles, which are used for connections in town, for example). Or the conflict rules, which involve aggregating character capabilities using teams in a manner that is quite unique (basically, the team as a whole takes an action with various characters adding dice based on how they contribute). I would really like to get a chance to play at least a few sessions by the book so that I can see the game systems in action.

6 thoughts on “Torchbearer impressions

  1. jon in seattle

    Thanks. I missed the kickstarter but I’m really interested in checking this out. Like you, I’ve not played any of the Burningwheels or relished “non-diegetic” mechanics but I’m still very intrigued by what I can steal from this game for my favorite genre.

    1. Brendan Post author


      Glad the review was useful. Would be curious what you think of Torchbearer if you get a chance to look at it.

  2. Ynas Midgard

    I managed to run the intoductory module with two different groups last weekend; I intend to post about it on my blog sometime this week (probably towards the end of it). The only thing I’d like to say in advance is that it is very time-consuming to teach this game to players who didn’t read the rulebook; it took only a few tests and a single conflict for them to get the hang of it.

    1. Brendan Post author


      Did you mean to write that it is NOT very time-consuming to teach? “it took only a few tests and a single conflict” sounds like it was easy to teach; is that right?

      1. Ynas Midgard

        No, it WAS – for I had to explain a lot of rules to them whilst creating their characters. The actual game went rather smothly, nonetheless.

      2. Brendan Post author

        Ah, okay. Got it. To be honest, I’m not sure I completely understand the conflict rules yet. I suspect I will need to actually play through them to get it.

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