Torchbearer Skogenby Session 3

I want to start writing small summaries of the RPG sessions I’m involved with, even if just to keep a record and remind myself of them. For this session, that’ll be a little odd, since it’s the last of three sessions but there’s no better time to start than the present. A friend of mine was running a Torchbearer adventure for us, namely the demo adventure The Dread Crypt of Skogenby (that’s the full adventure, so beware of spoilers). It was mostly for us to experiment with the system. The DM and I had played the game before, around five years ago, in an adventure run by Eric Vulgaris. However, with the new edition coming out, the current DM felt motivated to run something again.

The Session

As I mentioned, this was actually the third of a series of short sessions, and actually also the last one we had planned as a regular session. At the point of starting this adventure, our group of adventurers found ourselves in an ossuary, after having delved a little ways into a crypt while looking for treasure. We had just fought off four animated skeletons in the previous session, so our characters were all somewhat put off and ready to head back to town. However, before then, some shenaniganry had to happen. Not only did Merrick, my Halfling character, rummage through a set of skeletons in search for loot but Fingala, the Elf, had decided to sort through all the bones available to reach an accurate count of how many bodies were actually interred here. All this to the consternation of Dillah, the Dwarf, who wanted to get out as swiftly as she could.

On our way back to Skogenby, having only mildly lost our way, the party ran into Jim, the peasant, who was stuck on the side of the road. Fortunately, helping him out with his cart netted us a kind invite to a stay over at his house, despite the condescending demeanor of the elf. Torchbearer has an interesting separation of the Adventure Phase and the Town Phase, each with their own (though parallel) systems to deal with game progression. Where in the Adventure Phase, your worry is the ever-ticking clock called The Grind, that burdens down your character with Conditions, the Town Phase turns this around by putting a monetary cost on all your actions: the more you do in town, the higher your eventual debts will be come time to leave town. So, having an invitation to stay somewhere for free for a night is an amazing offer.

While deciding how to move on from this town, now that our heroes had stolen some treasure off those animated skeletons, we happened to show one of the gilded torcs we’d taken and, surprisingly, our host recoiled in horror at the sight. Clearly, there was more to investigate here. After looking around for a while, the party found an elder of the village, the Priest Jesaiah, who informed us all that the fear evinced by Jim was caused by a spate of odd deaths that had occured recently. All this started after a young girl disappeared in the crypt, having been dragged in by an arm emerging from it when she and a young kid named Marius went exploring there. Given that family members everybody who went to the crypt to look were the ones suffering those mysterious deaths, the priest suspected there to be some manner of plage in the crypt. Hence, the villages were quite fearful of anything to do with it.

Merrick immediately decided that the girl needed help, as nothing is ever too broken to repair, and offered help. Fingala and Dillah, however, were more interested in hearing whether there was any money to be had in doing that, considering they already had treasure burning a hole in their pockets. Fortunately for the girl, the priest did offer some compensation, so the elf and the dwarf also decided that some services could be offered. With the priest offering the party an armring from the crypt that was recovered in some of the first visits, the party got ready to head back into the crypt.


Though all our sessions had been set up to be brief, because it’s hard to make our schedules match and we also wanted a low-barrier experience, this one felt a little shorter than usual to me. In part, though, It think it might also be that I was only now getting back into the swing of things again. I didn’t feel too good in the second session, and in the first session I was still finding my roleplaying groove again, so this was the first session I felt more comfortable playing again. Another reason would be that with the Town Phase, we were engaging with a new mechanic again, so we had to reference the rules a bit. All the Burning Wheel style games do ask for some system mastery, so when you start out it does take a bit of experience to get comfortable with the rules. As a result, exploring the Town Phase had a lot of breaks in it.

Overall, though, I liked it. My character, Merrick, is starting to develop some, well, character. As always, it takes me a few sessions to get a grip on what I want to do with a character, both to see what interests me in the game but also to see how the character meshes with the characters of the other players. I do feel like we’ll need a few more sessions before we really engage with the game fully as a party, though. We’ve explored the rules a little bit, we’ve explored the crypt in-game a little but, but it all feels like build-up to the actual game so far. Particularly given that we only now hear the story of the missing girl in-game, it seems like we’ve had the first hook to the story but only now to we get the hero’s call to move forward.

I’m not sure whether we’ll be continuining the game, though. As I mentioned, this is the last of the original scheduling that we had done, so there’s no particular moments scheduled after this. The other two players, as far as I am aware, were new to Torchbearer, so for them it was also a question to see if they liked the system. While, as I mentioned, I do believe we need more sessions to have a fair look at how it works, this is also a quite natural moment to step out if they just don’t like the system at all. So, we’ll see what comes of this.

An Argument For Useless Characters in RPGs

Yesterday, I was playing in a game of Torchbearer being run by a friend of mine. I enjoy Torchbearer as an interesting critique of Dungeons & Dragons while at the same time being an homage to the older Advanced Dungeons & Dragons from the ’70s and ’80s. Roughly speaking, D&D tends to be an action-oriented tabletop tactical fighting game–most of the rules in D&D tend to be combat-orientated, and most rules for non-combat actions are often a little hand-wavy. Torchearer, on the other hand, is based off the game Burning Wheel, which places a much, much heavier weight on storytelling and narrative structure than it does combat. Torchbearer is a bit of a mix of the two: it shares the focus on resource-management that the old AD&D games had with a more narrative focus that BW espouses. It hits a sweet spot for me that is quite enjoyable.

Before I continue, I should acknowledge that the creator of BW and a co-creator of Torchearer, Luke Crane, is a problematic figure in the tabletop RPG scene. It’s a long and winding story involving the problematic Adam Koebel and how he transgressed against one of his players followed by Luke Crane’s involvement in a Kickstarter campaign where he deceptively included Koebel without the knowledge or consent of the other creators nor any transparency towards the backers of the project. I have little desire to financially encourage this person any further by buying his work, though at this point already own several copies of BW and had also already bought both editions of Torchbearer. So, I do have to admit to loving both systems but would like to make sure that anybody who would discover either via this post be aware of these issues.

With that said, back to the post at hand. Every time I play an RPG with people, I tend to get the same accusation from fellow players, which is a variation of “Ah, it’s one of your characters. One of those.” What is commonly meant there is that the characters I play tend to be flawed or damaged in crucial ways–nowadays, they’re my favorite type of character to portray in RPGs. To argue why, though, we’d have to go back a little ways to my first experiences with RPGs.

When I started with RPGs, it was, as for most others, with D&D. Baldur’s Gate had just been released (a computer game based on AD&D), and my father had bought a copy for me during a business trip in America. For the almost 25 years since then, I’ve replayed that game so frequently, even though the original 5-pack of CDs had since been replaced by a DVD, and later on just by a digital copy. Around the same time, me and some friends of mine discovered D&D 3rd edition, and met up to play that pretty much all the time. It was a great way to be social together.

As so many others at that time, I would min/max my characters–I’d design them to have the best numerical advantage in combat (the “max” part) by spending almost no in-game money or attention to the non-combat parts of the game (the “min”). The natural consequence is that there’s an excessive focus on combat in the game sessions and that actual roleplaying gets mostly ignored. A side-effect is that all characters start looking the same, in part due to the fact that there’s very little character to them, and in part because they all do the same thing: hit very hard. As you can imagine, that gets boring after a while. So, I switched over to building weird characters. I’d apply the same min-maxing zeal to bizarre characters, such as home-brewed four-armed demons that wield different whips in each hand, or a shapeshifting goo creature that has no real shape of its own but changes to fit whatever is necessary at the time. That was fun for a while, but it had the same essential problem of being a really strange fit for the story being told.

It was after all this experimenting, I stumbled across a much more interesting way to play RPGs: just make actual characters. Not characters for a game, or something equipped to solve the problem at hand, but make just an average person. An argument I often use is that a character in a horror movie doesn’t know they’re in a horror movie. That’s exactly why they go into that dark basement because they heard a funny noise down there; after all, if I hear a funny noise in the kitchen in the middle of the night, I also go stumbling out in the dark to see what my cats knocked over this time. Yet in tabletop RPGs, so many people have their character act like a SWAT-officer about to storm into a hostage situation–makeshift weapons are sought out, careful armor prepped, and tactical plans are written out.

It took me a while to figure out exactly why that bugged me, but I settled on the idea that when a person plays like that, they’re playing against the game. The game is an adversary that they’re trying to beat by circumventing and solving all the problems. That goes counter against against having an interesting story, and reminds me of that Community clip where the character of Abed tries to tell a scary story. Trying to solve the central problem efficiently doesn’t make for interesting stories. If Frodo was just put on a giant eagle to airdrop the ring into Mount Doom, Lord of the Rings would be the most boring two-page story around (and yes, it’s been discussed frequently before. See this page for one example). Rather, Lord of the Rings is made interesting, because a quartet of unusual characters, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, who are initially wholly unsuited for adventure get thrust into just that regardless. The actual adventurers involved, like Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are quite dull by comparison. I would argue that’s because LotR is inherently quite Marxist, and the latter three characters represent monarchies and old power structures, whereas the four hobbits represent a rather unusual political stance called anarcho-monarchism, but that’s a whole different blog post altogether.

In short, I shifted from making overpowered cardboard characters, to bizarre characters, finally settling on making just regular people. In a game where the party played low-level goblins who were part of a giant army from the Underdark swarming the surface world, I decided to play a barbarian who really just wanted to belong. So, at second level, he multi-classed a level of cleric, and he became something of a shaman-type figure, cooking food and sharing it around his immediate surrounding. He wasn’t a particularly good barbarian, nor was he a good cleric, but he sure was interesting. Playing him was so much fun that ever since then, I’ve made characters using that same methodology, like a reporter in a cyberpunk adventure that’s is desperate to look tough and move up in the world, an out-of-touch magistrate in a medieval setting that gets confronted with life for the average person, or a kobold that’s not evil at all but just really playful but has a hard time of communicating that to others.

RPGs have been much more fun to me since the characters I create are all just average people in odd situations. The crucial thing to then add to that is to focus not on the characters but on the story. It’s good when my character gets hurt really badly, because that gives them an opportunity to grow and change. The term for a character in a story that is the same going in as they’re coming out is flat. So, I make sure to have my characters make some mistakes every now and then. Instead of fighting off the entire band of muggers, I like to let one run away; now we have a chance at a returning nemesis! Speaking of that, why even fight that band of enemies right away? Is that really rational? I don’t know about you, but if I had four skeletons raising from the dead in front of me, I wouldn’t be fighting them, but I’d be running away–let somebody else deal with that noise. Plus, that creates a great opportunity to rush blindly into even bigger problems. After all, even Star Wars began when a bored farmboy chose to bring a malfunctioning droid to this old dude that he knew just to see if something interesting would come of it.

So, my current characters always share some larger characteristics. They’re not necessarily suited to adventures; I’ll figure out later how to use the skills they do have to help out in what’s happening. They have some essential flaw (or multiple); without a way to cause trouble, how are they ever going somewhere interesting? I want my characters to make realistic decisions; nobody is rational all the time, and sometimes people act in ways because they’re angry, hurt, afraid, or unsure. Along with that, I as a player want to make interesting decisions; I’m not necessarily motivated to keep my character alive, nor am I motivated to kill them–I’m motivated to make things happen. I want to be part of an interesting story.

To me, this is the best way to play RPGs and get a story happening. Having also led my share of RPG sessions, I can also say that, in my opinion, it helps the storyteller along. So yes, my character will stick their head into this dark room to see what’s going on. My character will reach out to touch that shiny treasure that we all know surely must be cursed. I’ll make sure that my character is thirsty enough to not care what’s in this gross water in the dungeon. It’ll help give them some scars, and scars have cool stories behind them.