Warning: RPG Content Ahead
I don’t often write about roleplaying games. That’s because I don’t really play them. Anymore at least.
That is, until this past week.
Yes, dedicated reader, I did play through the Animal Adventures boxed set with my daughter; it was a grand time. And while I don’t want to lessen that experience, it wasn’t quite as impactful or interchangeable with the gut-wrenching storytelling that dominated my formative days. RPGs were a big part of my life for over a decade, and then they weren’t, cast aside for the more methodical format of board games.
We played AD&D for years in the mid-90s. Moved to third edition, and 3.5, Star Wars D6 and D20, Deadlands, World of Darkness, then everything changed with indie games. We played so many of them. We played all of them. From Sorcerer to The Mountain Witch to Lacuna.
I would still list Vincent Baker as my top designer, but even his best work does not comprise my favorite indie title. That would go to Burning Wheel.
BW is such a magnificent game. It’s crunchy and heavy, difficult to learn. That’s not something I necessarily prefer, but it forms a great bridge from more traditional games to the indie sphere.
The magic of Burning Wheel is in how everything is focused through your character’s beliefs. The entire campaign and story should revolve around the core of the characters and what they are fighting for. Their change and evolution over the story arc is the purpose of play. Characters are not incidental to GM prepared story, rather, their beliefs are mechanical indicators of what the prep-work should be about.
A couple of months ago I tried something. I tried to introduce my board game group to the BW. Of course, it didn’t work. But that’s not what this article is about.
Torchbearer 2nd Edition delivered to backers right around that time. I’m not sure why I backed it. Something told me to. I listened.
It’s an old-school OD&D influenced work that is derived from Thor Olavsrud’s early work on running ancient TSR modules with Burning Wheel. Originally titled Burning THAC0, I remember its rough early playtest stages. I was out of the game, however, when it was compiled and released properly as Torchbearer.
Now I’m running the 2nd edition of this great game. Two of my players first put pen to paper and rolled polyhedral dice with me in 2002. We all are more weathered and less cool, but the hobby feels just as good now as it did back then.
And Torchbearer is killer.
It’s more structured than perhaps I’m used to. It’s funny saying “used to” in this context because I haven’t played a proper campaign of anything in over a decade. But we are more familiar and comfortable with a heavily player driven narrativist style of play. Torchbearer allows some moments informed by those Burning Wheel bones, but it’s also more formal in its pressures, those bits derived from its D&D B/X influence.
It formalizes concepts like your light sources lasting a limited number of turns. Turns abstract segments in this game which could span multiple scenes. Additionally, every four turns players suffer conditions as part of the core loop of “the grind”. You don’t track hit points, instead you track whether you are hungry, tired, afraid, angry, exhausted, or sick. These conditions build up and much of the dungeon crawling is balancing how long you can endure this suffering before returning back to town.
Even town is harsh, however. You accrue living expenses as coin and treasure flow faster from your hands than into ’em. Torchbearer, at least from my initial impression, does a masterful job of capturing that Cowboy Bebop-like sense of desperation, living off the grid, job to job, just trying to hack it in a world that doesn’t want you to live. It’s a very different take on OSR-style play, one more gritty and emotionally taxing on its protagonists. I’ve seen people describe it as “Darkest Dungeons & Dragons”, referring to the popular Darkest Dungeon video game.
The level of preparation required was a cudgel to the head. I was naive I suppose, expecting something just a degree beyond my typical process in the days of old – writing challenges built on moral dilemmas targeted at player’s beliefs. That was familiar, something I’m still comfortable doing. Writing a whole dungeon of creative obstacles and varied solutions, a dungeon unified under thematic considerations, which in turn are woven into the greater motif of the planned campaign; that’s a fucking commitment.
I’m not really sure what I can offer with this article. This isn’t a review of Torchbearer 2nd edition. I don’t have the knowledge or relevant current experience to offer much in that regard. Additionally, I wouldn’t dare review a game with such a basic understanding of its constitution. But I felt the need to write about this new endeavor.
I’ve known this always, but I dearly miss RPGs.
I miss the days leading up to the session, mind consumed with the possibilities of adventure. I miss the nervousness in the moments of opening ceremony, the silence before we begin and the transition to another place. I miss those moments where someone does something unexpected, driving the story to somewhere unimaginable.
There’s something about roleplaying that is entirely absent from board games. I’m talking about the emotional and underlying stratum. There’s such a deep satisfaction in the process of co-authoring narrative, something beyond the clever play and externality of its tabletop sibling.
I feel like what we build is lasting and impactful and meaningful. A thing I can reflect upon years later, proud of the literary output in our communion.
Now I’m tingling for the next session. Curious whether the players will flee from, banish, or serve the restless spirit of a noble woman abused and buried alive by a monstrous man. Whether they will fulfill their agreement with the unscrupulous patron that sent them or betray their interests and appeal to justice.
I will be humming for a few weeks, as this is not going to overtake or diminish my time with the hobby of board games. Although I can’t help but wish I was young again, time aplenty and commitments few.