Monday, October 21, 2013

Best Stretch Goal Ever

Frog God Games is Kickstarting an adventure setting for either Pathfinder or Swords and Wizardry (you choose). However, among the usual stretch goals, there is this:
From SG:
When we get to 400 backers, we're going to post the Swords & Wizardry Complete rules pdf (only) for free. Forever. PDF download only.
Yeah, we're doing that!
 They're currently 329 backers with 25 days to go, which means that this will happen. Get in on the action here.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Kickstarter: Adventures in the East Mark - The Red Box

The Spanish game "Aventuras en La Marca del Este" began from the mind of Pedro Gil as a homebrew campaign for some friends in Spain playing the world's most famous game. Now, many years later, it is one of the most popular role-playing games in Spain. By enlisting incredible artists that are now rising stars in the RPG industry such as A.J. ManzanedoJorge Carrero and VĂ­ctor Guerra, the "La Marca" team produced an incredibly captivating "retroclone" role-playing game that is an old school experience wrapped in old world flare. The game is published in Spain by Holocubierta Ediciones.

Check out the full project here.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Broken Faith: Why the Cleric is Flawed by Design

The optimal adventuring party is composed of a Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, and Cleric. You could also read that as the optimal adventuring party is composed of a Tank, Skill Monkey, Mage, and Healer, as plenty of classes fill those same roles without leading to a "sub-optimal" party with one exception. While you can easily swap a Barbarian for a Fighter, a Ranger for a Rogue, a Sorcerer for a Wizard, it's hard to find any other class that does what the Cleric does just as well, and that's a problem.

The first issue is that it means one among your group needs to play a Cleric if you are going to have any chance of surviving. Healing in D&D tends to come from magical sources (see: Cleric's spells) most of the time. RPGs should never force the players into a corner in terms of character options as the entire point of tabletops games is to offer player choice in ways that video games and board games cannot. This wouldn't be so much of a problem if the Cleric's other abilities weren't competing for those same spell slots. They have access to some great buff spells and, at higher levels, some powerful offensive spells, but will find few opportunities to use them.

Beyond their spells, Clerics do not have much in the way of utility. Their martial skill is generally adequate, but, due to their role as party healer, they will not want to be on the front lines. Their ability to Turn or Rebuke is nice, but it only affects one type of enemy. Clerics are not generally known for having many skills, and the unique ones they possess are likely to be knowledge skills, which are of varying and situational use.

And then there's the business of keeping your god happy. This is the part of the character that appeals to me as a player, that you have a direct, if somewhat vague relationship to a deity of some sort. The problem with this is that it's tied to the terrible alignment system, and is almost always punitive in nature. If you deviate from your path, you may be stripped of powers. What happens if you're exceptionally devout? Usually nothing. I think the struggle to maintain one's faith would be a great campaign, but that is likely only to appeal to one of the four characters in the party.

I've moved away from more traditional games in the past few months, and this kind of bad design is why. The Cleric is essential to making the game function well, but no one wants to play it. Being your party's healer is a thankless job (which is great gristle for RP purposes), but, more importantly, it's not fun, which is really the point, isn't it?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Freebie Alert: Mini Six

Mini Six is a variant of the OpenD6 system. It's generic, though there are several starter campaign ideas presented including fantasy, science fiction, and a lighthearted take on a 1970's cop action show style game.

The mechanics of Mini Six revolve around rolling a dice pool made of a number of six side dice, resulting in a total that is compared to a target number set by the game master. You can download it by clicking here.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Torchbearer Review Part III

Calamity, Calumny, and Catastrophe

I've talked a lot about Torchbearer from the player's perspective, but the area that's most important to me as a full-time GM is how much work it takes to run an adventure. Thankfully, Torchbearer is comparable to other games in terms of time commitment to design adventures. The major difference is in how that time is spent.

Whereas other games might require you to plan a dozen or more rooms/encounter areas for a single session, a game of Torchbearer only needs a handful to thrive as players tend to spend more time engaging with each challenge. My group consistently made it through four rooms during our three-hour sessions. This means that larger dungeons will take several sessions to complete and it's plausible that an entire campaign could unfold within a single locale.

Despite this, you will still spend just as much time on those few rooms as you incorporate ways to challenge the player's beliefs, introduce interesting twists, and keep the story moving. That's the real challenge of GMing Torchbearer, turning ordinary traps and monsters into something the players care about. Some may argue that this has always been the case (and they would be right), but because Beliefs are what drive advancement, it's doubly important to learn how to present opportunities to call on those Beliefs without forcing them to do so. A simple way to encourage your players to do so is to read their Beliefs prior to making any important decision.

The other challenge is going to be rules mastery. In a previous article, I encouraged GMs to read the rules a minimum of three times. Torchbearer was the game I had in mind while giving that advice. I don't want to give the impression that this game is overly complex because it's not, but there are enough moving parts and situational rules that it does require more than one look. My general guideline for rules competency is this: you should be able to explain what every item on the character sheet is, as well as how to incorporate it into play.


While most games that emulate the world's most popular roleplaying game take a back-to-basics approach to rules design thanks to the OGL, Torchbearer relies on the ingenuity of more modern game design to add a fresh twist to the tried and true dungeon crawler experience. It is, admittedly, not for everyone. The sheer number of rules means there is a pretty steep learning curve, and some players may find the design philosophy jarring compared to more traditional games.

I'll close by answering the same question I asked in the first part of this review. So, what exactly is Torchbearer?

Torcbearer is a game for people who want purposeful dungeon crawling with hard rules for resource management. It is not a game about killing all the monsters and getting the treasure; rather, it is a game about what you'll risk just for the chance to rise above the squalor of the masses. Will you risk hunger, exhaustion, and your health for nothing but a rumor of gold? Are you willing to profit and suffer from the best and worst parts of your personality? Can you stand for your beliefs to be challenged, and, if they change, will you go home demoralized or embrace them just as fervently?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, this is the game for you. Now count your torches, ration your food, and swing by the Burning Wheel store for any supplies you may need.

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.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Torchbearer Review Part I

Torchbearer made a pretty big splash a few months ago when it was announced. It got coverage in Forbes and the Kickstarter funded in less than a day (this doesn't sound that impressive, but consider that it offered nothing in the way of stretch goals). Those who backed the Kickstarter have had the PDF for a few months, and the physical books should be arriving soon (mine just came in). For everyone else who is considering throwing down for the PDF or the physical book, this is for you.

So, what exactly is Torchbearer?

From the website:
Torchbearer is a riff on the early model of fantasy roleplaying games. In it, you take on the role of a fortune-seeking adventurer. To earn that fortune, you must delve into forlorn ruins, brave terrible monsters and retrieve forgotten treasures. However, make no mistake, this game is not about being a hero or about fighting for what you believe. This game is about exploration and survival. You may become a hero. You might have to fight for your ideals. But to do either of those things, you must prove yourself in the wilds. Because there are no jobs, no inheritance, no other opportunities for your deadbeat adventurers. This life is your only hope to prosper in this world.
This description is similar to any number of games being put out by the OSR community right now. However, for whatever intentions it shares with the likes of Labyrinth Lord, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Swords and Wizardry, DCC RPG, and countless others, Torchbearer is far more different than similar to any of those other games. It meticulously tracks turns. There are strict inventory rules. Campaigns progress through highly structured phases. You'll never roll a D20. I could go on, but let's start with the easy part: the physical book itself.


Peter Mullen, who has contributed to many of the high profile releases of the OSR community, illustrated the cover for Torchbearer. It depicts your group of typical adventurers plumbing the depth of some cavern: their weapons are drawn, their torches lit, and they stand feet away from a grinning dragon. Anyone familiar with Mullen's work can tell you that it's about as far away from the sleek stylings of Pathfinder or more recent editions of D&D. On the artwork alone, this book will fit in well next to your tattered copies of the AD&D core books.

Torchbearer takes that aesthetic one step further. Not only do the books look like they're straight out of 1978, they also feel like it. This is hard to explain, but anyone who has laid their hands on the original core books will know exactly what I'm talking about. Luke and Co. have always been about producing "books-as-artifacts", and this is no different. It's a nice touch, a subtle nod to the game's biggest source of inspiration.

The interior of the book is all black-and-white and printed on similar paper to The Burning Wheel rulebook. Torchbearer doesn't feature as much art, or as varied a style as some other OSR releases, but this is not a bad thing. Every section header has a distinct piece, and the illustrations that are placed throughout the book are all top-notch. Quality, not quantity, is the name of the game here.

The only issue, I think, is the price. Torchbearer retails for $35 and clocks in at just under 200 pages. The Burning Wheel rulebook, while printed in the smaller A6 format, is three times larger at 600 pages and only comes to $25. Personally, this isn't an issue for me, as getting a complete game for under $40 in hardcover is a steal (doubly so considering I got the PDF for that price), but I can see some gamers balking at the price of admission. Luckily, Luke and Co. have decided to offer PDFs of this game. If you're curious (or just prefer your books electronically), you can get in on the action for $15.

Character Generation

The Burning family of games has one of the best character creation systems ever designed. While not quite as robust as Burning Wheel, players build their character to be far more than a collection of stats. You answer questions about your past. Your answers determine who your friends are, who your enemies are, whether or not you have any surviving family, in addition to what skills you have picked up in your life. At the core of these games are Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits. Beliefs articulate perhaps the greatest relevant moral guideline your character lives by. Instincts are the more knee-jerk reaction part of your character. Traits play a vital role and will affect your character both negatively and positively.

Torchbearer deviates from the other games in the Burning family and includes classes. In keeping with its nod to the old days of D&D, these are race-class hybrids. Players may choose to play the Dwarf Adventurer, Elf Ranger, Halfling Burglar, or, if they choose to play a human, Cleric, Warrior, and Magician. Each class offers a standard package of skills, ability scores, traits, and weapon and armor proficiencies. Each race also offers a specific Nature. Nature is defined as three descriptors, such as Hiding, Boasting, and Remembering, and is used in place of skill or to bolster your odds of success. Players differentiate themselves through deciding their Homeland, Social Graces, Wises, and Specialties. This process is very smooth and lends itself especially well to group character creation.

The one part that I find players struggle with is writing Beliefs and Instincts. It is, admittedly, difficult to define your moral code and automatic reactions in a single neat sentence or two. In general, I've found players grasp this within a few sessions as they try to incorporate them into play and revise them as necessary. Some may find this frustrating, as advancement is linked to working these into the story, but levels in these game matter far less than in others. If a player is struggling to incorporate these into the story, they either need to be reevaluated or the GM needs to do a better job of offering situations where they might be applicable.

Torchbearer also deviates from pretty much every other game in how starting gear is purchased. To put it simply, it's not. Whereas other games allow you to equip your character according to resource points or starting gold, the only limiting factor here is what you can carry. This is brilliant. Since each item takes up an exact amount of space in your inventory and said inventory is fairly limited, players learn to make the tough decisions betweens wants and needs before even stepping foot in a dungeon. This is a useful skill to have as resource management is one of the central parts of the game.

Once characters have been made, you're ready to set out on your first adventure.

Friday, October 4, 2013

DM Tools: Dwarven Forge Mapmaker

A few months ago, Dwarven Forge, the company that makes the best terrain for fantasy roleplaying games, launched a successful Kickstarter. As part of that campaign, they released a mapmaking tool. This will be a great asset for anyone who backed the Kickstarter or buys the tiles, but it's also a great map maker in its own right.

Take a look here!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Freebie Alert: Fate Core

Grab your plasma rifles, spell components, and jetpacks! Name your game; Fate Core is the foundation that can make it happen. Fate Core is a flexible system that can support whatever worlds you dream up. Have you always wanted to play a post-apocalyptic spaghetti western with tentacle monsters? Swords and sorcery in space? Wish there was a game based on your favorite series of books, film, or television, but it never happened? Fate Core is your answer.
Fate Core is a tabletop roleplaying game about proactive, capable people who lead dramatic lives. The type of drama they experience is up to you. But wherever they go, you can expect a fun storytelling experience full of twists…of fate.
Grab the accelerated version here