Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Torchbearer Review Part II

Adventure, Camp, and Town

Campaigns in Torchbearer progress in three phases: adventure, camp, and town. The adventure phase is going to compose the bulk of your game. This is the part where your group of intrepid adventurers trek through the wilderness, slay Kobolds, disarm traps, and hopefully manage to snag enough loot to tip the bartender and salt their wounds. Play in this phase advances in turns. Each time you roll the dice, the turn clock advances by one. Every four turns, the party earns a condition, such as Hungry & Thirsty or Exhausted. Each condition makes your character's life harder, such as reducing the number of dice you roll or barring you from using certain abilities. Light is also tracked meticulously, be it torches, candles, or lanterns.

That might seem a bit extreme, but you don't roll dice as often in this game. Dice are only rolled when there is considerable risk of failure or someone or something is actively standing in your way. When it comes time to call upon a skill, ability, or nature, players assemble a pool of D6s and roll, counting success on a 4+. Without getting too far into probability, you generally want to roll a number of dice equal to twice the target obstacle (ie, for obstacle 3, you want to roll 6 dice). This is where the game requires system mastery.

When players create their characters, none of their skills will have a rating higher than 4. While advancement of skills and abilities happens in real time based on tracking successes and failures as they occur, players will have to rely on several tools rather than any single one. They can accept help from their teammates, the can call upon their traits or wises, or spend fate or persona to add to or manipulate these dice pools. Each of these avenues comes with its own risks and benefits.

My players found themselves overwhelmed by this part of the game. It takes a patient group to learn the various subsystems and how to manipulate them, and people may find that the number of moving parts is too much for their taste. However, groups who are willing to rise to the challenge will find themselves an intricate game of resource management and risk assessment with a huge pay off.

Risk management is one of the central themes of this game. Every time you roll the dice, you're opening yourself up to one of two things should you fail. The GM can grant success, but apply a condition, or can introduce a "twist", such as a monster, a trap, or some sort of unforeseen environmental hazard. Thankfully, the book has an extensive list to cover many occasions should you need examples or simply find yourself needing one on the fly. These dynamic failure rules ensure that you never hit a dead end. Failure is never a dead end.

For more complex challenges, Torchbearer uses a rock-paper-scissors conflict system to cover chases, arguments, kill conflicts, and a whole slew of others. Two teams square off, scripting either Attack, Defend, Feint, or Maneuver, and reveal their actions one at a time. Each of these actions interacts in a unique way against the other actions, and its up to the group to put these into the context of the situation. For example, an attack in a pursuit conflict is likely going to be the group closing distance on their prey whereas an attack in an argument is going to flavored as a point. It took my group a few tries to get the hang of things, but once they did we found this more dynamic combat system immensely satisfying.

Eventually, players are going to be too bogged down by conditions to continue any longer and forced to break for camp. However, in order to do so, they have to have at least one "check" amongst the group. A check is earned whenever a player calls on a trait to make their life harder. During camp phase, these checks can be spent to attempt to roll for recovery, make skill tests, or engage in a conflict with a player. Once all of the checks have been spent, the adventure phase resumes.

This was the thing my group struggled with the most. Asking players to increase their risk of failure is already hard enough, and tying it to the recovery system may only breed animosity towards the rules. I can see both sides. From a design perspective, I think it's brilliant. I would love to be a player in this game (which is, sadly, unlikely), but I also understand the people who do not enjoy this.

An adventurer is likely to alternate between several adventure and camp phases before a single town phase. Once you have run out of resources, filled every nook and cranny possible with loot, or completed your quest, it's time to head back to town. Town is essentially a maintenance phase. You sell your loot, buy new equipment, fish for rumors, and rest up (hopefully refreshed for the next adventure).

Unlike most other games, Torchbearer does not track your wealth to the exact copper piece. Instead, you have a stat called Resources, and it is rolled like any other skill. All loot is represented as one-time use cash dice for the Resource roll. As you leave town, you total how much you spent and attempt to pay your bills. Failure means you're taxed. Repeated failure means the authorities are after you, or they start leaning on your friends and family to pay your debts.

Some may not enjoy this method of tracking material wealth (my group did not), but I think there's an argument to be made in favor of it. In other games, it's overwhelmingly been my experience that the loot economy is either broken or irrelevant. Allowing players to purchase magic items is one the quickest ways to unbalance a game (not to mention, it saps the motivation to adventure for them when all it takes is a trip to the market) or players have nothing to spend their hard-earned lucre on. By having hard rules for lifestyle maintenance that directly impact on your ability to succeed, every piece of loot becomes a lot more valuable.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome article!

    (Also, did you mean "/salve/ their wounds"? Salting their wounds seems pretty masochistic. :) )