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Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: Torchbearer

Torchbearer is an interesting and somewhat unusual game. Designed by Thor Olavsrud and Luke Crane (of Burning Wheel fame), it’s a “dungeon crawl roleplaying game and love letter to Basic D&D”, from the original Kickstarter blurb… and it really is that. On the other hand, thinking of it as a D&D clone is misleading. It starts off from the same premise as the original D&D: “dungeons” (i.e. caverns) filled with hostile creatures and deadly traps. From there, D&D slowly evolved into more of a super hero game, over each iteration, to the extent where nowadays “D&D” evokes images of hack’n’slash monster killing, then looting the corpses. The classic “murder hobos”, using an rpg.net -coined term. Sure, D&D had tons of rules for logistics and the environment itself: encumbrance rules, all sorts of environment variables, rules for light sources, etc etc. If you ran Basic D&D strictly by the book, it would be brutal. Thing is, pretty much nobody ran it that way, most people just skipped the logistics and proceeded to mash monsters. And that’s fine… but not what Torchbearer is about. In Torchbeaerer, logistics is what makes or breaks your expedition, and the environment is at least as dangerous as the monsters are. In other words, it takes the initial setup and tropes of D&D, and walks off in a completely different direction. This is both awesome and a potential source of problems.

The game actually has the PCs playing those “murder hobos”, people so poor and desperate that they will do anything, even venture into nasty, cold holes in the ground looking for loot. Because the alternative is starving, and that’s no fun. Initial characters have no resources other than a few basic supplies (plus weapon and such), and hope to strike it rich and retire to live the fancy life. Few do.

The system is complex. It says so right in the book, page 4:

“This is a hard game. It’s not a simple game. There are many moving parts and it’s not possible to experience the whole game in one or even two sessions. If you prefer lighter games, there are many other excellent choices available for you designed by our friends.”

so there’s that. It’s clearly a system meant for campaign play, which means that on the flipside it’s not ideal for one-shots. You could think of it as “Advanced Mouse Guard” in complexity, and while it is less complex than full Burning Wheel, it has the appearance of in-your-face complexity since it’s not modular like BW; you need to learn all the moving parts, at once. Well, most of them anyway.

Since it’s a Burning Wheel game, it’s very “gamist” and has subsystems and mechanics that strongly push for a certain type of play (and limit others). I’m fine with this, but some people, more used to freeform “the GM describes stuff, the players say what they do, and the GM comes up with something” sort of playstyle, may find the rules limitations hard to swallow. This is not a game that everyone will like, I think it’s safe to say… and the same goes for all of Luke Crane’s games, they are an acquired taste. I personally like them, quite a bit. With some caveats.

As an example of the rules, the main game loop has the concept of the Grind. After every four tests (by anyone), the PCs all get a Condition. The first one is “Hungry and Thirsty”, and it escalates from there. So yes, parties doing as lot of tests will need a lot of supplies. And yes, this may become a bit strange at times, but it’s important to put it in context: in Torchbearer, you only test if it’s something important. Looking for a secret door? The GM only asks for a test if there’s something there to be found. And so on. Also, many tests will take quite a bit of game time to perform, so “hungry / thirsty after 4 tests” isn’t actually all that strange most times, especially since just drinking some water gets rid of it. It’s the Conditions after that which start to be nasty and are harder to get rid of, but as long as you’re stocked with supplies, those don’t escalate so easily. But yes, supplies matter. Also, all take up a slot or slots on your character sheet, and there’s a very limited number of slots. It’s sort of like some computer rpg games, in that regard.

Also, you need some “checks” in order to make a camp, and you only get these by using your own Traits against yourself (example: “I take away one die from this sneak roll, since I’m so Proud that I have trouble remembering to hide”). Whether or not you succeed in the test, you get a “check”, which you can use to “buy” certain things while making camp (trying to heal, for example). Yes, there’s a separate Camp phase (and also Town phase, etc). This is mechanic that I’m split on: on one hand, I like the game mechanic, it forces you to roleplay your traits in negative ways, which is cool. On the other hand, there is no logical connection between it and what it enables. Why do I need to act in a certain (detrimental) way in order to be able to later heal myself? Makes no sense. So while I understand the need for the mechanic from the game viewpoint, I wish it was done via some other mechanism (no ideas on that front, though).

Anyway, those are just a few examples of how unconventional this game is. There are tons of unconventional (but, largely, very cool) mechanics here. For example, conflicts are handled as a group instead of character-by-character, but each character gets the spotlight and gets to use his/her special stuff. Also, the conflict mechanic is the same for armed conflict, arguments and even stuff like running away. It’s all a conflict, resolved via the same mechanism. This rocks, and it’s very fast in practice.

Having read the game, I wanted to try it out, so I got some players together and ran them through a one-shot (yes, I noted earlier that this game isn’t best at one-shots). The results were less than impressive: the players felt frustrated by the rules, and focused on minimizing the Grind… which led to all sorts of non-fun things, like optimization of tests and the “only the best skill in the group ever gets to try” syndrome. This was partly my fault, I over-explained the rules beforehand (instead of jumping to the action as fast as possible), and also over-emphasized the Grind (making the players wary of it). In addition, I didn’t know the rules well enough. There were some fun scenes in that game, but the result wasn’t too satisfying to anyone.

To their credit, the players said that they’d like to try again. So I read up on the rules a lot more, got a lot of great tips from the Burning Wheel forums, and tried another one-shot (the game from the core book, “Under the Inn of Three Squires”. The result, this time, was spectacularly different. The players (as agreed after our last game) didn’t fixate on the Grind too much and focused more on roleplaying, and the fact that this time around I knew the rules better helped a lot too. We had a lot of fun, and the PCs managed to save the day and walk away from that one without a scratch on them (I think they only had one Angry condition at the end). Plus, they got loot.

Things we liked, paraphrased from the player comments:

  • combats don’t dominate the game time, more gaming time was spent in camp logistics and roleplay
  • the same mechanic can handle a lot of stuff
  • the fact that character level advancement is strictly tied to roleplaying-related mechanics is nice, there is no “XP”
  • characters improve a small bit at a time, leading to a feel of character growth, which leads to nice campaign play support. Skills advance when you use them, so characters may change and improve in somewhat unexpected direction (since you can actually learn any skill).
  • after the initial steep learning curve, the base mechanics are actually quite lightweight

Things people were iffy about

  • there are lots of moving parts, are all of them really needed? (not sure on this myself… “maybe”?)
  • the fact that the cleric has zero player-chosen “spells” on first level was seen as a bit too weak by a player (they only have a “turn undead” style thingy)
  • managing what the characters are carrying is a bit cumbersome, could use some sort of helper system (whiteboard? tokens?)
  • the pre-generated Halfling character seemed semi-useless at first (“Cooking? Wtf?”), but second time around the player found him a lot less useless.

From a GM viewpoint:

  • the game offloads a lot of book-keeping to the players, making this one actually a relatively lightweight thing to run (after initial learning curve, which is steep)
  • monster stat boxes are nicely done, running combats and other conflicts is easy

In the end, I like this game quite a bit, and I’m thinking of maybe doing something more with it. I can recommend it, but please be aware that it’s not a D&D clone and that it has a ton of mechanics, many of them unusual. If you or your players are allergic to “gamist” systems, and are unwilling to narrate the gap between the rules and the game world (i.e. add color and improvisation to “why” and “how” something happens), you’ll probably end up hating this.

To people already familiar with and fond of Burning Wheel and/or Mouseguard: you’ll probably like this game, too. It’s a more complicated version of Mouseguard, tuned for gritty and grim dungeon exploration. There’s even a Mouseguard-inspired “Winter” phase, in addition to the semi-abstract Town phase.

It’s not a boring game. You’ll have an opinion about this one, after running or playing it.

Added: I also wrote about our experiences on the Burning Wheel forum, but be warned that that writeup contains spoilers for the scenario!

Added: Luke Crane posted the following on a related G+ comment thread, reposted here with permission:

“Let’s talk about checks being divorced from the fiction!

It seems like there’s no direct relationship between using a trait against yourself and camp activities.

I think the relationship is steel-linked, like mail. Using a trait against yourself makes your character more interesting to the audience. A character who is more interesting is rewarded with a little more screen time during the quieter moments of the game.

Using traits necessitates engaging with the fiction. They cause the spotlight to shine on you for a moment. That fiction then takes us, circuitously, to camp in which we get to see a little more about you.

So there’s no direct ‘drinking healing potion, regain HP’ link, but there is a strong connection written in the fiction.”

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Minireview: Mouse Guard (box set)

The Mouse Guard boxed set is a fancy version of the base Mouse Guard roleplaying game, based on David Petersen’s Mouse Guard comics. The comics portray a fairly grim feudal fantasy society… of intelligent mice. They live in the “Mouse Territories”, surrounded by yet more wilderness and dangerous, large predators like snakes, badgers, owls and such. No humans exist here, the only other intelligent civilization are the weasels, a warlike race the mice recently had a major war against. It’s a somewhat unusual (but good!) comic, and the game models the comics extremely well; at least in the sense that it is tuned to tell stories like in the comics.

The game is designed by Luke Crane, of Burning Wheel fame, and the game mechanism is a version of that system. It’s not “Burning Wheel Lite”, like some people assume; while it is slightly streamlined in places, it is still complex and there are lots of new subsystems to model the storytelling tropes in the comics. As a result, this is not a roleplaying game for children, unlike you might (also) assume. It’s mechanically much too complex for that. That’s not to say that you couldn’t run this for kids, but you would need to hide lots of the crunch unless the children in question were exceptionally interested in that sort of complexity – most don’t have the attention spans for it. Of course, that depends vastly on age and personality.

It’s an awesome game, at least based on a read-through. I like Burning Wheel as a system, and this variant has tons of nice tweaks and throws out a lot of complexity which is not needed here (for example, there is no magic of any sort here). It’s extremely character-driver, though there is a framing device here: each game is presumed to be a “mission”, where the guard team (which the PCs are assumed to be) gets orders from the Mouse Guard leader, and then goes off to do their thing. Each PC gets to choose a main goal for that game, which may or may not align with the given mission goal (it’s always interesting if there is some personal goal conflict, even if it’s not intended that there’s vast amounts of intra-group conflict; this isn’t intended to model Paranoia, after all). All of this is termed the “GM’s Turn”, where the GM sets the pace and presents conflicts. After that is done (i.e. the mission is resolved (or failed) in some manner, we switch to the “Players’ Turn”, where each player gets one (by default) conflict or scene. This may be whatever; for example, a PC may decide to use his/her allocation to visit his mentor. Or he may decide to challenge someone else to a duel. While this sort of framing and limiting of allowed actions may be alien to some players, I’d be willing to give it a try. it’s there for a reason: force the players to decide what’s really important to them. Of course, smart GMs will also allow “color” scenes and other stuff, in addition.

In the framing department, the game also has the concept of “seasons” (again, to model the comics). Each mission takes place on a specific season (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter), and that choice has potentially huge consequences. The game recommends that beginners start with spring or summer missions: things are easier, in general, at least with regards to weather. Winter is the most difficult, by default nobody (sane) wanders the countryside during winter, instead they just hole up with stores of food and try to stay warm. In Winter, you’ll either be given an important emergency mission, or Winter may be used for an annual gathering of the Mouse Guard, where “tenderpaws” are perhaps promoted to full guard status, etc. The whole ruleset for season effects is really nice, and makes them really matter – unlike in all too many fantasy games, where winter just means that cross-country travel is a bit slower.

The box set is quite nice. It contains the rulebook (softcover edition), and a small supplement with extra rules tweaks and some more example missions. You also get a map of the Mouse Territories, cards for combat actions, equipment and suchlike (very nice!), character sheets, pre-printed GM tracking sheets, dice, plastic mouse tokens (to model the wood(?) ones seen in the comic and used by the Mouse Guard leader to track patrols) and a GM screen.

This is a really impressive game. You don’t need to have read the comics beforehand (but it does help, of course). Since the core rules are based on Burning Wheel it’s a very robust and tested ruleset, and the additions (season rules, mission framing, etc) sound interesting – of course, final say on how fun they are rests on actual playtest, stuff like that is hard to evaluate just based on reading.

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Minireview: Adventure Burner (Burning Wheel)

Adventure Burner is the third supplement (and fifth book in total) for Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel game, with the previous supplements being Monster Burner (how to create monsters from scratch and also explanation of the system’s “under the hood” mechanics), and Magic Burner (tons of different systems for magic). This book is less focused, but that doesn’t detract from quality. It’s a fantastic book.

In short, it’s sort of a “GM’s Companion” for the game. It contains a ton of discussion on how to run the game and how to use (and how not to use) the various subsystems, notes on many design decisions behind the game, some new rules and rule tweaks that have come up in the author’s games since the original game was published, and three scenarios to get you started and give you ideas. The first one is the classic “The Sword” (also available as a free download), which is just one scene: a group finally finds a sword they have been questing for, and must decide who gets it. Naturally, all the pre-gen PCs characters want it, for different reasons. It’s built to showcase the combat system and/or the social combat system, and apparently works pretty well for that – haven’t tried running it myself.

The second offering is a new one, not available outside this book. It’s called “Trouble in Hochen”, and it’s a proper scenario and not just a “scene”. The PCs arrive in a small town which is (maybe) being overrun with… something, maybe the undead, and must set things in order. It’s a fun, volatile little thing, which is guaranteed to cause conflict of some sort. There is also a follow-up scenario available as a free download (PDF), named “Dinner For One”. Putting those together you get a very decent scenario, which should set you up for a few game sessions at least. Lastly there is “Thelon’s Rift”, which is a showcase on how to do dungeon crawling, Burning Wheel style. Seems fun enough, and the “instant minidungeon” idea is amusing.

To round things off, the book also contains 42 fully generated sample NPCs (also usable as PCs), with pictures of each.

If you’re running or thinking of running Burning Wheel, you really want this book. No question. The GM advice given is valuable and well-written, the scenarios are fun, and pregenerated NPCs are always useful. Oh, and you also get a few brand new rules, many of which look nifty.

I like Burning Wheel. I haven’t gotten to use it much yet, and yes, it’s complex, maybe overly complex in places. But it has a weird intricate character of its own in how the various subsystems interact, and I really like the way characters advance in this game. I’m not that much into Luke’s preferred “communal game world building” model, I’m more old-school as a GM by default, but the system doesn’t force any one game model on you – though it is an “opinionated system”, with a strong bias towards certain gaming models.

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Exhausted

Though I hadn’t planned it as such, the last few weeks have been quite a get-into-better-shape workout. First a week out on the tundra, and then this week I’ve done a whopping 13 hours of swords practice. “Normal” rapier on Wednesday, then Ilkka’s limited-run Bolognese sidesword course on Friday, then 5 hours of Bolognese sidesword + buckler yesterday and lastly 5 hours of Bolognese/Fiore pollax techniques today. I’m pretty bushed, though in a good way. Oh, and it was fun, lots of fun.

Now I need to keep my head clear (and awake) long enough to go through the Burning Wheel rules one more time, and to do some game planning for tomorrow. We’ll see… it’s a fun game system, but damn is it complex. It’s not every day that a system feels actually more complicated then Exalted. Not sure if it actually is or not, but since we’re used to Exalted and now trying out Burning Wheel, it feels extremely complicated.

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Minireview: Magic Burner

Well, the long-awaited (by some) Magic Burner is finally out. It’s a “magic system toolkit” for Burning Wheel, expanding on systems given in the core game book and adding a ton of new options. There’s also a system from creating your own magic systems, which was used in the creation of the systems presented in the book – a meta magic creator, if you will. The systems themselves are pretty cool, providing lots of different views of magic, how it is used and (this is important) what it costs you. The last part is ignored too often in many fantasy games, where you just have “magic points” and magic works just like a superpower. That can be fun, of course, but to me the most interesting magic/supernatural systems in games or fiction in general have always been ones where magic is subtle, mysterious and/or dangerous to use. This book provides lots of options for bringing all that to a Burning Wheel game.

I can’t say much more about this book than “looks cool”, since I have yet to actually run Burning Wheel and cannot really comment on how the systems might work in practice. It looks solid, but the real test is always in how it plays. I do know that I’d probably want to try some of these options out, were I to run BW at some point.

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Heavy Gear resurrected, plus Magic Burner

In the “best news for a while” department, the kick-ass scifi military / power armor game Heavy Gear is coming back in rpg form. Dream Pod 9 and Steve Jackson Games just announced that they will be collaborating on a new 4th edition of the Heavy Gear roleplaying game, coming out in 2009. The line design will be headed by the esteemed HG-guru and line editor John Buckmaster, and will feature a new streamlined version of the Silhouette rule system with focus on making it flow smoothly and fixing some current warts in the design (Complexity, etc). There will probably be 1-2 core books in print format, and then a pile of setting material and support stuff in PDF form (and possibly POD, as well) via e23.

This is fantastic news. I’ve always had a fondness for Heavy Gear, it’s probably the most detailed scifi world in roleplaying today and it tries very hard to be realistic on many levels (well, as much as a game featuring giant power armor suits can be “realistic”). There is enough “realpolitik” in the game to make your head spin. A new edition which would compile it all into smooth form for newcomers is just what the game needs, and we can always hope that it’s reasonably easy to integrate with Heavy Gear Blitz, DP9’s excellent miniatures wargame set in the Heavy Gear world.

There’s also a thread about this on rpg.net.

In other but also game-related news, my signed copy of the Magic Burner limited first batch (#62/200) arrived today, along with a spiffy t-shirt. I’ve only had time for a quick browse so far, started to read the thing on the way to work today. So far, looking extremely good. The guys quote Ursula K LeGuin as one of their main inspirations on “how magic might work”, and that gets huge points from me – I’ve always preferred LeGuin’s (and Cherryh’s) subtle magic to the D&D “eat fireball, kobolds!” style… though that does have its charms, too :). Like the other Burning Wheel books, this is more of a toolkit for building magic for your game than a ready-made list of spells.

If the rest of the book ends up being as cool as the beginning, I may just have to actually run a test game of Burning Wheel at some point.

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Indie excitement

Lots of anticipated indie rpgs (or supplements) are suddenly popping up. Maybe it’s the influence of Origins and the upcoming Gencon, or maybe it’s just synchronicity.

First off, John Wick’s eagerly-anticipated “anti-D&D” game Houses of the Blooded is finally on its way to the printers, and us preorder people got our PDFs last night. There’s no way I can give any sort of impression on the thing yet, it’s 400+ pages and I’ll probably wait to seriously read it via the print copy, when it arrives. There’s something very cool about this game, the “fictious myth as history” attitude that’s embedded in it and the general “everything that is true in D&D is not true here” thing. It looks complex, it looks like something I need to run at some point.

The second event, also last night, was the “Burning Wheel Summer Surprise”, which turned out to be the (very!) long-anticipated Magic Burner book. A 200-copy run of preorders, signed and numbered, went on sale last night at about 23:00 Finnish time – and the burningwheel.org server promptly melted. I don’t think Luke and the guys quite anticipated the demand here. After over an hour of retries and re-refreshes, I finally managed to place an order for a copy (plus a spiffy limited-run shirt). The run sold out sometime during the night, so if you didn’t get a copy you’ll have to wait until the normal print run goes on sale and have to do without a signed copy of the book. The pain, the pain…

There’s also Don’t Lose Your Mind (a Don’t Rest Your Head expansion) coming up, in addition to Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor and Curriculum of Conspiracy (add-ons for the uber-cool Monsters and Other Childish Things). It’s a good time to be a gamer.

Friday, yay!

Been feeling a bit under the weather, maybe some shade of a flu coming on. Nothing serious. just feeling more tired than normal.

I think I’ll try to get at least some part of the BM pictures done this weekend, and there’s also some prep for the next Exalted game to be done. Still not sure when we’ll manage to play, people have been having some calendar problems (what else is new :), but anyway. Should also take a look at the new car and see if I could fix the glove compartment latch thing and a couple of other things. Depends a bit on the weather, too, if it’s dark and/or rainy, I’m not twiddling with the car or anything else outside, if I can help it.

Found someone (actually, a couple of someones) who are interested in the old car, which is nice. That should sort itself out within the week.

I suspect the hood mechanism repair on the new Cabriolet will require a shop that knows Peugeot tech, so that means either the main importer (Automaa) or a Peugeot-specialist shop. Found one of those, Autochic Oy in Lauttasaari, but it gave the impression of being very expensive and a quite Google resulted in some forum comments about it being in the same price range as official repair shops, so…

If anyone knows of a good shop that does Peugeot repairs in the Helsinki/Espoo area, please let me know. Some of the stuff I can do “wherever”, of course, but it’s good to have options.

I’ll probably wait till next month to schedule shop time, my salary just came and went via my account, the last big part of our USA/BM trip (car rentals, etc) took care of emptying my cash register. Will have to be semi-poor for a while here.

I’ve lately been thinking of running some other game(s) “on the side”, besides the Exalted game. Maybe with a (partly) different set of players, to help with the calendar problems. Dunno what, though, the problem is too many great games. The are a couple of game systems I’m interested in trying out in practice – Burning Wheel and Reign – so maybe something fantasy-oriented using those (since both are fantasy rulesets). One option I’ve been toying with is a short game set in Freeport, using Burning Wheel rules. Pirates, evil cults, swords, mayhem… all that good stuff. Might be fun.

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