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What To Do With Torchbearer?

Occasionally, I purchase or acquire new role-playing games from the bargain shelves of gaming stores or from friends who are cleaning out their book collection. I take a look at them, read them through, and make a determination of whether I will do one of two things:

1) Shelve it and never look at it again.

2) Waste hours considering the campaign I’d like to run based off the game, even though I do not, in any way shape or form, have the time to run an RPG campaign.

Damn you, clever rule system!

Damn you, clever rule system!

Option #1 is usually the more prudent choice. I am in the midst of running 2 campaigns right now, both of which are temporarily stalled thanks to me being too busy to think about them, so the idea that I might spend any amount of time thinking about an additional game to play is silly and wasteful.

…and yet here I am.

I just acquired the hard copy of Torchbearer the other day, which is a new RPG by the same guy who did The Burning Wheel, which is at once one of the more fascinating and frustrating rule systems I’ve encountered. Torchbearer is essentially a stripped down version of Burning Wheel, using the same basic rule mechanic but tossing out the fourteen tons of character-intensive soul-searching off of which that game operates. It’s a throwback to the old dungeon-centric games of my youth – players portray a basic archetypical character all of whom collectively need to make their living by invading the dark and forbidding places of the earth for treasure. The best thing about it is that it has de-romanticized dungeon crawling – people who spend their time hunting treasure in deadly places are not heroes, they are not the finest examples of humanity, they are not whimsical storybook characters. They are desperate, poor, and probably starving and the only reason they are doing this is because they haven’t the connections, the will, or the wits to live a more respectable life.

I sort of dig that idea. And I do like dungeons.

The problem (and the debate) that occupies my time, though, when considering whether a game is worth running and planning or not is two-fold:

1) How will this game be different from other games I have run?

2) How can I make it into something new and interesting in its own right.

Torchbearer’s basic world/setting is, frankly, not very interesting. Granted, it is expressly intended to be a throwback game, but just because that’s what the authors intended doesn’t mean that’s what I would do with it. I have run so many medieval fantasy world campaigns that the thought of another, even a gritty survival based one (which, it should be noted, I have already done) sounds fairly dull. So, in the interest of completeness, let me list off the similar campaigns I have run in the past couple years or so:

  • The Amazing Race: Talislanta: a campaign where I created two separate adventuring parties who had to go on a cross-continental race to steal a mighty treasure from an unknown land for a fabulous reward. Set in Talislanta, using that game’s system. It was fun.
  • Alandar: A game set in my own world with my own modification of the Roll-and-Keep system which ran for a few years and was quite epic in scope and depth. I’m never doing that again (most likely), so there’s no point in pretending to try.
  • Burning Imperium: A personal mod of the Burning Wheel system to fit the Warhammer 40K universe. Team-oriented play, dark world, etc.
  • Riddle of Steel: Japan: A mod (getting a trend here?) of the Riddle of Steel system adapted to a quasi-historical medieval Japanese setting. Very gritty rules, very character oriented, but mostly political intrigue based.

I will leave out the 3-4 Dungeons and Dragons campaigns I ran as a kid, as well as the umpteen-billion D&D-ish one-shots I’ve played in. I’m probably missing a few things in there, too. Anyway…

Stuff I haven’t done includes Post-apocalyptic settings, anything set in the Warhammer Fantasy universe (which might be fun), as well as anything in a player-generated, collaboratively created world. All three of these seem like decent possibilities. The first would require the most adaptation on my part (though it would a very awesome take on the old dungeon-crawl trope: trawling ancient ruins for stuff to survive the wasteland of far-future Earth), the second is just a setting I love and would be fun to play with (though my enthusiasm may be unique in that regard – not a lot of WHFB fans around here), and the third would require the least work on my part, but would rely on actively engaged players contributing to the creation of the game. At my age, I don’t know a whole lot of people with the kind of free time and attention necessary to do that, as fun as it would be.

Ultimately, at some point, all gamers at my age need to understand something that is, regrettably, true: You’re never going to be 15-24 again. You will never have the kind of free-time you used to have before you had a family and a career and so on. All the crazy campaign Ideas you come up with can only come to fruition if, by some work of sorcery, you can pry the rest of your friends away from their real lives long enough to eat up 6 hours of their lives every week or two in order to imagine yourself somewhere else. So, would I like to run a Post-apocalyptic Torchbearer game? Yeah, I would. Will I?

Christ, man – I haven’t even gotten that Ravenloft campaign back up and running yet. I’ve got novels to finish, stories to sell, papers to grade. I’ve got that Warhammer habit to feed. I’ve got two kids, a dog, and a wife. Get out of dreamworld, Habershaw! Get back to business!

The Magic of RPGs

Most role playing games involve some kind of magic, whether they actually call it that or not. If it’s a fantasy setting, you’ve got wizards wandering around; if it’s science fiction, you’ve got psychics; if it’s modern, you have eldritch rituals and witchcraft and some such. With rare exception, however, magic is seldom ‘magical’ in RPG settings. It might be interpreted as such by the inhabitants of that setting, but when the rules get slapped atop the sorcery, it rapidly becomes what I’d call ‘mundane’. It is rare that I’ve run across a magic system I’ve liked, including the ones I’ve created myself.

How Magic Usually Works

In most role-playing settings, magic give characters the ability to alter the environment for the purpose of destroying enemies, assisting friends, or acting as a toolbox by which the player can do things he otherwise couldn’t–climb cliffs, open/lock doors, clean his room, carry stuff, etc.. In this role, I usually fail to see how magic differs from, say, equipment. I’ve got a longbow and you can throw lightning bolts–what’s the difference, really? Well, usually it’s two things: (1) magic is more potent and (2) magic costs more. The lightning bolt really only differs from the longbow in the fact that it does more damage than the bow (in most cases) and it requires the character to pay some kind of price for its use, including things like being lousy in combat, taking some kind of drain on their person (aging, a headache, the chance they might catch on fire, etc.), or having some kind of limit on the number of times it can be used.

All in all this arrangement is fairly functional and easy to manage. The trope of the wizard who can throw giant fireballs but can’t defend himself in a wrestling match is well known, as is the ambitious sorcerer who calls down a little too much power and burns themselves up. My problem with it is that, all-in-all, it is fairly uninspiring stuff. I don’t really want magic to be equitable to equipment–I want it to be special, impressive, even frightning. Now, some systems try to achieve this to varying extents (Riddle of Steel is probably my favorite–http://www.driftwoodpublishing.com/whatis/), and others don’t even bother (4th Ed D&D, for instance, has some of the most boring magic in existence, and it is literally indistinguishable from the abilities of other non-magical players). This is not to say magic isn’t fun (the only character I ever play these days in D&D is a wizard), but it really doesn’t capture what I want magic to capture.

What Magic Should Be

To my mind, magic should be unique, impressive, flexible, and dangerous. I want wizards to toss spells that do more than simple damage to their enemies–I want them to do things that make everybody else in the game go ‘whoaaa.’ I want wizards to have a few spells they use regularly (the simple stuff, like telekinesis and little bolts of energy or whatever), but also have access to spells that they only ever use once and that very well may be unique to themselves. I want the execution of those really impressive spells to have a huge cost for the wizard or the environment or the plot or something. In short, I want magic to be a Big Deal.

This goal, of course, raises a lot of problems in an RPG. The first, and the one most often groused about, is regarding ‘game balance.’ Now, first of all, I don’t really think game balance is all that important in an RPG, mostly because game balance is a concept best applied to competitive or adversarial games, like Risk or Warhammer or Baseball. Since an RPG isn’t adversarial or competitive, but rather collaborative, it shouldn’t really matter if one player is ‘better’ than another. Furthermore, if you’ve got a good GM who allows players to solve problems creatively and is able and willing to raise or lower the level of challenge to make sure the game remains interesting (and you’re using a system that allows such things–i.e. not D&D), then the comparative power levels of the PCs and NPCs doesn’t so much break the game as dictate tactics. Obviously you should not engage the superwizard in a wizard’s duel–you’ll die. Figure out a way around it, folks.

Related to the game balance issue, however, and something that is (to my mind) more important, is the fact that magic, if too powerful, kills the challenge inherent in a game. Players always want to do things easily and almost always want to avoid difficulties or risk whenever possible. Paradoxically, if this desire is indulged, the game becomes no fun. If I ever have to say ‘congratulations, you infiltrated the Tower of Despair and escaped with the Crown of Doom without anyone noticing’, I have failed as a GM (that is unless, of course, the Tower of Despair isn’t the main objective of the mission but rather a sideshow that is best dispensed with quickly, but I digress…). Danger is essential to fun in an RPG. It comes in many forms, of course–not all danger is purely to life and limb–but it must be present. Something must be at stake, and there must be a very reall chance of losing it. Therefore, magic that is too powerful without there being some kind or price inherent in it can kill the game and, furthermore, granting players power that they will abuse for the purpose of eliminating challenge is counter-productive to a successful game. This kind of ‘game-balance’ (not the intra-character kind) must be carefully managed. Again, a flexible GM can fix this often enough (by raising the level of difficulty on the fly), but all-powerful wizards can still derail this if magic isn’t properly managed.

So, with these things in mind, let me outline how the ideal system of magic should work, so far as I’m concerned:

Power

If and when a wizard throws a curse at a person, that person should suffer for it. There is nothing I dislike more than a system where somebody gets hit with a giant lightning bolt and keeps going like nothing happened. Super lame. Combat spells should hurt, defensive spells should be potent, movement spells should do what they say they do. Shadowrun was always pretty good at this (http://www.shadowrun4.com/), as is Riddle of Steel. I, of course, like deadly games, so perhaps that’s just me.

Flexibility

Spells should be applicable in multiple situations or, barring that, wizards should have general knowledge of entire schools of sorcery so that they can execute spells that fulfill a variety of roles. If you can produce a telekinetic blast, I see no reason why you shouldn’t be able to produce a telekinetic hand to pick something up or to hold somebody in place. Talislanta is pretty good at this, as is Riddle of Steel (which is actually too flexible, but anyway). 

Limitations

Wizards should have sharp limits to their power in that they should either not know everything or not be good at certain things or have magic that possesses certain liabilities (like the need to carry around certain objects to do it, or need certain quantities of time, etc.). This is needed so that a wizard can still be challenged and, furthermore, so that the other players won’t feel useless. This is one area where Riddle of Steel falls a little short–those wizards can do just about anything, though they need a few seconds. Talislanta is marginally better, with all their various Schools of Sorcery having unique and particular limitations to their use.  

Price

Those who use magic should be wary, since it should exact a stiff toll on them if they overstep themselves. I want wizards to have the capacity to obliterate city blocks, but should be forced to balance that with whether or not it’s worth it. This effect needn’t always be physical. You don’t need to burn out you brain or age, for instance–you could instead simply owe progressively more of your soul to the underworld, or be forced to repay the favor the Gods did you in some fashion to be named later. In terms of price, Shadowrun is okay at this (wizards who overstep themselves routinely fall unconscious) and Riddle of Steel makes an effort (but who really cares about aging their character? How is that interesting?), but no system I’ve seen really nails this idea. Burning Wheel  (http://www.burningwheel.org/) leaves the possibility open in their Magic Burner, but don’t really explore it much.

Wonder

Finally, magic should be really cool in its application and execution. I don’t really want it to function identically to other game mechanics–it needs something special. It must be at least partially apart from the other ways of doing things because that’s what it is–magic. I understand and appreciate the wish to streamline rules and gameplay–I really do–but I don’t wish it done at the cost of flavor, if you will. To this end, D&D falls flat, as does TalislantaRiddle of Steel, Burning Wheel, and Shadowrun do it pretty well, but often at the cost of extremely clunky rules and confusing sets of new stats. I’d like to find a balance, if possible.

Conclusion

As those of you who know me can probably guess, I have been tinkering with an attempt to create my own ideal magic system for some time now. It is all going along with my revamp of the rule system I created for my own fantasy setting, Alandar (in which the story “The Martyr” is set, incidentally, along with a novel I’ve written and a huge quantity of background material). Perhaps someday, perhaps even on this very blog, I’ll debut it. It isn’t ready yet, though. Not yet. For now, I and all of us must make our way as best we can with the magic that we’re given, as pedestrian as it might seem.

My Favorite Dungeon

In all my years of playing RPGs (about twenty, at this point), I’ve had a lot of memorable moments. I won’t list them here–it would take a long time (it’s been two decades, after all)–but I will say this: very few of those moments took place in dungeons.

Dungeons have a problem. They are, in their most commonly encountered form, a concept much better executed in a video game than in a pen-and-paper role-playing game. The reason for this is pretty simple: there is no conflict. That’s right–no conflict. There is no doubt that the PCs are going to scour the dungeon for all the wealth they can find. There is no doubt that the monsters encountered within are going to try to kill/eat them. Everybody is equipped to handle the problem, on both sides, and their tactics are mostly already in place. Everybody knows their job, is ready to do it, and the only thing that really matters is how the dice fall.

BOOOOORING.

Yeah, we all like getting treasure. Treasure is neat, it makes your character ‘better’ (a silly concept in an RPG, but I’ll touch on that later), but does it really make the game more fun? I personally don’t think so. Imaginary stuff isn’t ‘fun’, and I don’t think an intelligently designed pen-and-paper RPG should hinge upon the acquisition of imaginary stuff with few exceptions. That’s for video games, which need those things and can do them better, since it is adjudicated by a computer and not a person (the GM) and doesn’t have the benefit of being played while sitting in a room with your buddies. In short, video games are not a social endeavor (not even MMORPGs), and must rely on other things to provide entertainment value. You want your character to look cool, make cool noises when she/he swooshes a sword, and kill the larger baddies that hitherto have banished your character to the last save point (something lacking in pen/paper RPGs, and rightly so).

The thing that separates pen-and-paper RPGs from video games is the potential for real, actual conflict. Conflict is only had between people or thinking beings. You can’t be in conflict with a Gelatinous Cube–it’s an obstacle, not a conflict. It only does one thing, it doesn’t think, and you beating it is more of a logic problem than a conflict. Good GMs try to make the NPC monsters or baddies in dungeons into sources of conflict–they have needs, wants, assumptions, and goals that are subject to change and enable them to react flexibly to the assault by the PCs. They can be outwitted just as they can outwit the opposition, they can be bargained with, intimidated, charmed, or even simply avoided by the clever and the resourceful just as easily (or perhaps more easily) as they can be attacked and smashed by the belligerent. Well realized monsters in a dungeon make things much more fun, more interesting, and more challenging. They only go so far, however.

For my money, the absolute best kind of conflict to be had in a dungeon is between the players themselves. I want players to doubt their abilities, I want them to debate the proper plan of action, and I want them to be worried that one or the other of their party aren’t going to hold up their end of the bargain. You need a special group of players to do this well–you need players who like the ‘Role-playing’ part as much or more than the ‘game’ part. These players are able to separate their own emotions from the emotions their characters are feeling. They are in it for the story, not the reward at the end. When I introduce a conflict that forces their character to make a horrible decision (e.g. “You can hold on to your sword and be possessed by the daemon, but kill your enemy OR you can release the sword and watch your enemy escape with your lady love”), I want them to smile and say ‘that’s awesome’. Obviously it sucks for the character, but it makes for some fabulous fun for the player. These kinds of players don’t care so much about their character getting ‘better,’ though it is nice; they much prefer having fun with the character, even if they wind up begging for food in some alley somewhere, with only the memory of glory in their past (which is, of course, when the desperate young princess seeks them out and asks them to swing into the saddle one last time…but at a price). 

If you can find a group of players like this, you can build a dungeon like the following. It is, for my money, my favorite dungeon of all the dungeons I’ve ever designed:

Background

This campaign was set in the world of Talislanta (http://talislanta.com/). I titled it The Amazing Race: Talislanta and the  premise was two competing parties (Team Love and Team Money) racing across the continent to some unknown land to find a fabulous artifact which, if transported back to the city of Cymril, would earn them a stupendous amount of wealth. 

Obviously speed was very important in this campaign, as was choice of route, as were maps (they didn’t really know where the place they were going was, and the only maps I let the players look at were incomplete ones I fashioned myself). I furthermore made a rule that stated if a team wanted to find some treasure, they could let me know and I’d find a way to work in a dungeon of some kind for the next session. Team Money, feeling as though they were falling behind, decided to do so. They wanted to find some kind of treasure that would speed up their overland route, and I obliged them.

The Puzzle Vault of Sharahad

In the mountains of Arim is built a vault near the headwaters of a great river. It was fashioned upon the orders of the ancient Arimite Exarch, Sharahad the Miser, who wished that his riches never fall into the hands of another. He commissioned a master Kasmiran Trapsmith to construct the vault, and it is designed so that, even if someone is exceptionally skilled, they could never manage to steal more than a few coins of the Miser’s wealth, as the danger was far too high and it would require the thieves to have unerring trust in one another to do so. Accordingly, the vault has remained relatively unplundered for all these years.

The basic trap is fiendishly simple. The vault is built beneath a waterfall, and all of its workings are powered by the running water above. The top chamber is the main trap: In order to release the stone over the stairway that leads to the vaults below, someone must put their arm inside a stone lion’s mouth and pull the release switch (a complex device that requires a five-fingered human-sized hand to operate). When this is done, the lion’s mouth locks around the unfortunate’s hand and the switch locks around his fingers, pinning him in place. Then, a massive blade begins to slowly drop towards the pinned individual.

It is then that I, the GM, start the stopwatch. I tell them they have ten real-world minutes to get through one of the vaults, pull the release switch, and get back with the treasure. Beneath were four vaults, each built similarly. There would be a long hallway from which water had been drained, followed by a room with a complex trap (checkerboard floor with drop-away segments, a complicated blade trap, a series of mirrored doors in a maze, etc.), followed by a room filled with treasure in which would be hidden the release switch. Once the switch was pulled (provided it could be found), the players had 1 minute (again with the stopwatch) to grab what they wanted and get out before the hallway they used to get here filled with water and they’d be trapped and soon suffocate.

If the 10 minutes elapsed before they could solve the puzzle, the PC who put his arm in the activator would die (as severing a brachial artery is likely to do without modern medicine) or, at the very least, be one-armed for the rest of the campaign (provided a healer was present, where there wasn’t). Furthermore, the PCs who solved the puzzle couldn’t sit around and do the boring, slow, safe way to solve all dungeon traps–they had to move, and they didn’t have time to be careful. Finally, they couldn’t sit there and assess and weigh each piece of treasure before heading back up–they had to run.

Also (and my players never knew this, since it never came up) the deactivator switch would reset to a different location each time the vault was activated, meaning doing the same vault over and over again was just as dangerous as the first time. The whole thing was fiendishly evil and ridiculous fun.

The Result

Team Money was made up of characters who were, essentially, mercenaries brought together by the promise of gold. They didn’t trust each other or even really like each other, and this dungeon was designed to put them at each other’s throats. It worked beautifully, too. When I started the stopwatch the first time, all of my players went white with terror. “Seriously?” They asked.

“Seriously. Better get moving.”

The guy who put his arm in the trap first (Blake), started freaking out immediately. “Go! Go! Go!” he started yelling.

What followed was the most intense run through a trap I’ve ever witnessed in a game. Everybody, including me, was on the edge of their seat. The guy who volunteered to brave the blade trap and find the first activation switch (RJ) only pulled it off by 5 seconds. He had to pocket the first couple things he saw and ran up for all he was worth before his character was drowned or suffocated. Everybody let loose a sigh of relief, examined the treasure, and saw that it was all very very valuable.

I then popped the question: “Want to do it again?”

The debate exploded as to who was going to stick their hand in the trap next. Nobody wanted to, but the lure of the treasure and the possibility of something that might get them ahead of Team Love was too great, and they finally strongarmed another character into it. This time they solved the task by only 2 seconds, and they guy who did it almost died from the series of traps he had to face. They escaped with just a few more items of interest. They risked a third time, but only after making deals and arguing for about half an hour. The third time, two of the three who went down were knocked unconsious by poison darts, and the last one had to drag them out, barely alive, after finding the switch. They escaped with almost nothing that time.

They didn’t want to do it again after that.

The Puzzle Vault was tense, exciting, conflict inducing, and I gave them a flying carpet and a magic, teleporting tent out of the deal (which wound up being major McGuffins for the rest of the campaign). There were no monsters, no slow dungeon crawl nonsense, and no remote-control obstacles that mattered. The real challenge was getting somebody to put themselves in harm’s way so another PC could find treasure. It worked fabulously, and has become my gold standard for all dungeons I design from now on.