by Delos

Torchbearer

A friend showed me this interesting RPG written by the guys that did Mouse Guard. You can find their site here. My friend told me this was a pretty hard core dungeon crawl game that plays like Burning Wheel (which didn’t really help me at all since I haven’t played that, but maybe you have). She wasn’t kidding about the hard core part.

Familiar Setting

Torchbearer is set in the usual medieval fantasy world that most D&D games are. Elves and Dwarves rub elbows with Humans and Halflings, Orcs run rampant in the wilderness, and Dragons are the closest things to gods that people see. The players are adventurers trying to become rich by doing something stupid and dangerous and dungeons are their office. A twist on the adventuring life style is that Torchbearer makes it a point to say that adventurers are looked down upon. These people are doing this because they have nothing else they can do. They are not the rock stars of Middle Earth like some games make adventurers out to be. At least not at the beginning.

School of Hard Knocks

When I said this was a hard core dungeon crawl, there is no exaggeration there. You need to have your stuff together or you will die. This game emphasizes keeping track of your inventory and supplies. In my RPGs I usually glaze over the heroes needing to eat. Here if you don’t make it a point to take a break and eat you are penalized. The game has an interesting mechanic that kicks in after a certain number of moves are made. Think of it like Apocalypse World or Dungeon World. After you make a few moves that require rolls something bad happens. First you get hungry and start taking penalties until you eat again. If you hold off on eating (or run out of food) then you need to worry about starving, getting moody, etc. The longer you take to take care of yourself the worse you’re going to get. And don’t think you can carry as much food as you want. You have a very limited number of item slots to lug stuff around and you can not carry everything you need. Do you grab rope or food? Do you take the gold you found and put your sword away so you can free up a hand? This is a very dangerous line of work cause if the monsters don’t kill you the elements or lack of food will.

The Play Test

My friend (Ingrid) GM’d for myself and two others (Rick and Jacob (not the one that writes for this site)). We had a prewritten adventure (Dread Crypt of Skogenby) and premade characters. We picked our classes at random and we ended up with a Burglar (me) a Wizard (Jake) and a Ranger (Rick). The idea of doing at random may have been a bad idea. We didn’t have anything close to a beef cake. I would suggest that at least someone pick the Cleric or Adventurer (their version of a Fighter) because our run through was really difficult and I’m not sure if it was due to poor party composition or bad luck. Also be sure to use the suggested spells if you get spells. Our Wizard ended up picking a spell that was mostly useless.

Our party heard that some monster had grabbed a little girl and was now hunting the villagers that live near its lair. So we did what any desperate group would. We crawled in head first to poke the monster. That’s when Ingrid told us the rules for light sources. It’s a very simple system. Light sources can cover X number of people. So since we only had three people, one torch would be fine since a torch covers three heroes. If we had a forth we would need to light another light source. The drawback to this is that now we’re losing number of hands available to wield weapons and shields.

The first room we came into had a 4 skeletons pop out of coffins. Ingrid asked if we wanted to drive them off, kill them, or run away. This got kind of weird since I’m use to Dungeon World where you just do what you want when you want to and if things change you can adapt. Here we were basically picking out what game mode we wanted to do. Once you choose one you’re locked in it until the encounter is finished. It was interesting because you are only in risk of dying if you choose to try to kill something.  If you try to run something off and fail, you can’t die. I wasn’t expecting that from a hard core game. We choose to kill the skeletons since we didn’t want to deal with them later and we were at full HP.

The mechanics for using skills is dice pools. You look at your skill rating and roll that many six siders. You can manipulate the rolls using a few resources but we didn’t get to hardly use said resources so I can’t really comment on how well they work. You roll a 4-6 and that’s a success. Simple enough. As for the extra resources, you gain them when you accomplish something that is important to your character. For my Halfing Burglar it was keeping my spirits up and cooking a good meal. Now there is a mechanical benefit for role playing your character. A different resource you get are checks. You purposely give yourself a penalty of some sort and in turn you gain a check. When you make camp you get to cash your checks in to do actions while resting. If you have no checks then you don’t get to rest much. Also if one player has a bunch of checks but the other players don’t, then that one player loses a them since you have to spend checks in turn. You can’t spend two of your own checks in a row, so if no one else has any then you lose yours.

We got screwed up pretty bad via traps and other hazards and needed to go back to town to heal up. Unfortunately we weren’t doing the healing rules right, so if you plan to run this really get those down. We didn’t do this (due to ignorance) but when you go to heal if you fail your roll to heal you can say “Screw it, gonna press on.” If you do so then you lose the negative condition that is afflicting you but one of your skills or stats drop by one (on a scale from one to five-ish).

After a few more hours of playing we ended up beating the big bad, but holy smokes we were screwed up. We headed back to town only to find that the whole town was on fire (thanks to a roll on the “Return to town” table). We called it at that.

tl;dr

This game is super crunchy. If you are looking for a hard core rules heavy game this might be a good fit. Also if you like Mouse Guard then you should try this since this is the baby of Mouse Guard.

Thanks for reading.





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  1. By Ingrid

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