Tag Archives: Torchbearer


St. Sebastian with lantern (source)

St. Sebastian with lantern (source)

Torchbearer has many rules that I think could profitably be spliced into more traditional dungeon crawling games. Of these, light coverage is perhaps one of the easiest to apply. Light coverage is the idea that the amount of illumination provided by a given light source is limited. Rather than trying to measure this using a literal approach of light radii as is commonly done in D&D, Torchbearer measures illumination by the number of characters that can benefit from a given light source (1 for candles, 2 for torches, and 3 for lanterns).

In addition to the number of characters fully covered by a source of illumination, a similar number of characters are in dim light. For example, a party of seven adventurers with one torch would have three characters in full light, three characters in dim light, and one character in darkness. Both dim light and darkness are factors in Torchbearer tests, which could easily be modeled as situational penalties in other games. The exact numbers here do not really matter, and could be adjusted to reflect however various light sources are conceptualized.

While considering how to handle grenades or other area affect attacks within a monologic combat framework*, Gus suggested that perhaps various area affect attacks, such as grenades or fireballs, could have an explosion rating indicating the maximum number of enemies that could be affected. I immediately thought of light coverage. Splash or blast damage, like movement distances, are hard to resolve satisfactorily and without handwaving when using fictional positioning. In the past, I have thought of area affect

The coverage rating would reflect the most targets that could potentially be affected by a given effect or item. The referee would still need to make a ruling about whether or not this coverage capacity was “filled up,” but the coverage rating would provide convenient and easy to understand guidelines, along with an upper bound. A second tier of effects, similar to how Torchbearer handles dim light, could be used to model something like secondary splash damage from a molotov cocktail. Coverage ratings could also be used for weapons such as nets, or even potentially special attacks using more conventional weapons (two-handed sword sweeps and missile volleys come to mind).

I suspect this general coverage approach could also be applied to abstracting other rules that are difficult to get a clear shared geometric understanding about.

* See: monologic combat.

Torchbearer grind record

In Torchbearer, on every fourth turn candles go out and PCs gain a condition, on every third turn lanterns go out, and on every second turn torches go out. (Conditions are things like hungry, angry, and dead.) This is called the grind. I found that I wanted a nice record sheet that had this stuff on it, so that I could mark turns as they passed and know what was happening without needing to think about whether the turn was divisible by two, three, or four (and also because a record is nice to have).

So I made a grind record sheet, and here it is.

(The image below is kind of low-res, but if you click on it, you will get a PDF.)

Necropraxis Torchbearer grind record

Necropraxis Torchbearer grind record

Torchbearer primer for D&D players

Torchbearer cover (source)

Torchbearer cover (source)

Unlike D&D, Torchbearer uses a dice pool system for task resolution. When making a test, a number of six sided dice is rolled equal to the stat or skill in question, with bonuses causing extra dice to be added to the pool. Three or less on a die is a failure and four or more is a success. Every roll is versus an obstacle number (essentially, a difficulty class) which is set based on the number of factors involved in the particular test. Factors may be set by referee ruling but are also explicitly listed in the rules along with most stats, and the lists of factors seem to be rather comprehensive.

A PC’s character sheet is made of an array of stats which include many terms similar to those found on a D&D character sheet, such as stock (which means race), class, will (which stands in for the mental ability scores), health (which stands in for the physical ability scores), and skills. However, there are also a large number of other game constructs which may seem more opaque to a D&D player, such as traits, wises, a belief, a goal, an instinct, and several others. It is important to emphasize that these are not merely descriptive. For example, acting on a belief during a session earns a PC a special kind of resource at the end of a session (called a fate point) which can be used in several ways. Triggering an instinct allows a roll that does not cost a turn. And so forth. I admit that the diversity of systems that a player has access to for augmenting rolls in specific contexts is a bit bewildering, but I suspect it becomes more tractable with experience. That said, these are systems that players will need to learn how to use to be maximally effective.

Torchbearer uses a turn structure heavily. As written, D&D does, too, though in the case of D&D, turns are often hand-waved in practice, with dialectical narrative quickly taking over. Within an adventure, every test or conflict costs one turn. PCs earn a condition for every four turns that pass. Conditions are similar to a health track, and include hungry, exhausted, angry, sick, injured, afraid, and dead. Most of these conditions can be recovered from explicitly with skills, equipment, or spells. Rations, for example, can be used to eliminate the hungry condition. Light sources deplete as turns progress (torches in two turns, lamp oil in three turns, and candles in four turns). Light sources also only explicitly cover a set number of PCs, and any PC not covered by a light source has test obstacles increased. (I will almost certainly find a way to use a similar light coverage rule with D&D at some point.)

In addition to turns during the adventure phase, there are several other phases, including camp and town. Camp and town phases are used for different kinds of recovery. After three adventures, there is a winter, which affects the next phase (either town or adventure). Resources are more dear during the winter, but there are also several special opportunities available to PCs for learning and improving skills. Adventuring in the winter is more dangerous (conditions are earned every three turns and exhausted, injured, or sick can all lead directly to death). The important takeaway here is that time moves forward in a structured manner directly tied to game mechanics.

Value is handled more abstractly than you are likely used to from D&D. Instead of recovering treasure, calculating its exact GP value, selling it, and them buying things with the proceeds, everything is modeled as bonuses to a roll. To buy things in Torchbearer, you need to test Resources, and prices are handled as obstacles to a Resources test. Treasure is listed as a die value, and serves as a temporary bonus to a Resources test. After being used, recovered treasure is removed from a PC’s inventory. This makes it seemingly much harder to accumulate significant wealth.

Conflicts (which include, but are not limited to, combat) are team, rather than individual, based. One player takes the role of conflict captain, who serves as the coordinator (from a rules perspective) of the team. Every PC participating can help, but each team specifies only three actions (from attack, defend, faint, and maneuver) per conflict turn. The actions are assigned to different PCs if possible and revealed in sequence in opposition to the opposing team’s actions, leading to a kind of rock, paper, scissors dynamic. Specific skill tests to accomplish the different actions vary based on the kind of conflict in play. There are eight different kinds of conflict specified, and custom conflict types may be improvised as well. Just for one example, the Convince conflict uses the Persuader skill (for Attack and Defend actions) and the Manipulator skill (for Feint and Maneuver actions).

Each team has a disposition which is determined for the team as whole based on skill rolls, and then divided into individual pools of HP by the team’s conflict captain. Unlike HP in D&D, disposition in Torchbearer is separate from health conditions, determined by skill rolls, and per-conflict. This emphasizes its abstract nature and also changes the resource dynamic of HP. Conditions persist (and may serve as factors for test obstacles), but disposition (and thus HP) is determined separately for each conflict.

Advancement occurs in a much more fine-grained manner than in D&D, which hooks most character development into the process of gaining levels. Abilities and skills improve automatically after passing and failing a certain number of tests, based on the current rating (the P and F bubbles on the character sheet by skills are used for this purpose). Increasing character level occurs after spending a set number of fate and persona points. New levels grant abilities similar to what you might expect, such as more spells for magicians and various extra abilities for other classes, generally phrased a choice between two options. What this means is that the driver of character development is making tests and spending the metagame resources of fate points and persona points, not treasure recovery directly (in contrast to D&D).

It is worth emphasizing that I am not an expert in Torchbearer at all. This post is just as much a method for me to get a handle on the mechanics as it is to communicate them to others. (In fact, that sentiment could be expanded to cover the entire project of this blog.) There is a lot that I have not covered, but hopefully this will be a useful starting point nonetheless.

Players will likely be interested in the Torchbearer free PDF bundle, which includes a handout summarizing the conflict rules.

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.