Nature is one of the most abstract rules in the Torchbearer RPG. You could, in theory, play many sessions without rolling it at all. Even so, a lot of the other mechanics hang from it, and once mastered it is perhaps the most powerful tool in the game. Today we're going to take on the Nature rules, what they represent, and how best to use them during the game session.
What Nature Represents
Nature tells us just where your personality falls on the spectrum between dull (Nature 7) and insane (Nature 0). This means something different in the fiction for each stock. What elves consider normal is madness to dwarves, and so forth.
High Nature indicates you’re dull; not interested in adventuring and content to whittle away your remaining days doing whatever it is that your stock excels at.
Low Nature means that dungeons have driven you mad. Usually by the time you've played enough Torchbearer to bottom out on nature, no further explanation is needed.
The moral here is that you must be slightly more insane than the average person of your stock to be an adventurer, but not so insane that you can no longer function.
Current and Maximum Nature
Nature is represented by two ratings, your Current Nature and your Maximum Nature.
Current Nature tells us what kind of stress you're under in the moment.
Maximum nature represents your nature on your best days, absent the stresses of dungeon survival.
Be advised: the rulebook can be a bit inconsistent with terminology, sometimes referring to "Current Maximum Nature", "Current Untaxed Nature", "Original Nature", etc. In general, the words "untaxed", "maximum", or "original" are clues that Maximum Nature should be used. Otherwise you should use Current Nature. For the rest of this explainer we will use the terms "Current' and "Maximum" explicitly.
Every stock and monster has three descriptors that answer the question: "What does this stock/monster DO?" When using your Nature rating to Fake It or to tap into an Ancestral Insight, the GM will make a decision as to whether these descriptors apply. If they do, we say you're "acting within your nature" which is almost always preferable. If the descriptors don't apply, you're "acting outside of your nature" (or sometimes "against your nature"), which means you may be taxed. How much tax depends on how your nature is being used — see Faking It (Rolling Nature) and Ancestral Insight (Tapping Nature), below.
It's worth noting that even when you risk tax from acting outside your nature, it is still an option! Many players will avoid this altogether due to the risk of tax, but there are certain situations where taxing your nature is actually a good thing; for example, if you are at risk of exceeding the Nature Cap.
The Nature Cap
If you end a session with a Maximum Nature of 7 (or possibly a lower number if you have paid the Terrible Price), you succumb to your most basic urges as a member of your stock. Elves sail west, halflings build cozy homes and dwarves lock themselves away in ornate halls of treasure. Humans take an arrow in the knee, retire from the life and hand out adventurous rumors in drinking halls. At any rate, you stop adventuring and therefore surrender your character to the GM.
This isn't really a much of a risk, it turns out. Logging advancement tests for Nature is exceedingly rare, and you have the opportunity to voluntarily lower your Maximum Nature if you have any tax at all. This means that retiring due to the Nature Cap is probably a choice. If you do not wish to retire, be very cautious about rolling Nature (see Faking It, below) when your Maximum Nature is 6.
Giving Up (Lowering Your Max Nature)
If your nature is taxed, you may at any time choose to permanently lower your Maximum Nature by 1 and restore any taxed nature.
Freaking Out (Current Nature Zero)
On the other end of the spectrum, if your Current Nature ever reaches 0, your Maximum Nature is reduced by 1 and you change a trait to something awful of the group's choosing. Note that this changes an existing trait, and that's not usually a good thing. Though it is not explicit in the rulebook, the new trait is probably supposed to be at Level 1, meaning you could lose a Level 2 or 3 Trait in this event.
Watch out when rolling or tapping Nature outside of your descriptors, lest you end up with the "Stinky" trait!
Going Mad (Maximum Nature Zero)
If your Current Nature is taxed to zero while your Maximum Nature is 1 (perhaps because you paid the Terrible Price), you go mad and leave the game permanently. This is a much greater risk than capping out at Nature 7, because there is little you can do to avoid a nature roll in some circumstances, such as when the skill you need is reduced to zero from sickness or injury.
Maximum Nature defines your aptitude for learning new skills with Beginner's Luck. Essentially, the more paranoid dungeons have made you, the more open you are to new experiences. If you have a high nature, you’re very set in your ways (or the ways of your stock), so it's harder to learn new things.
Aptitude and Mentoring
Interestingly, the obstacle for Mentors to teach a skill is the Current Nature, not the Maximum. This reveals why kung fu masters are forever tormenting their students with physical and mental trials — they're simply lowering their own obstacle to Mentor!
Now we're going to have a look at how Nature is used during the game. The rules for using nature are formally known as "Rolling Nature" and "Tapping Nature", but in order to make things a bit easier to explain we are going to frame them as Faking It and Ancestral Insight.
Faking It (Rolling Nature)
When faced with rolling a skill that isn’t rated, you have a choice: give it a try with Beginner’s Luck or Fake It and roll Nature. Beginner's Luck is how you learn new skills, and it's pretty well covered in the rulebook on page 26.
When you roll nature in place of a skill you lack, it is known formally in the rules as "rolling Nature." This leads to a lot of confusion with the other nature rules, so let's go ahead and invent a new term: Faking It.
When you're faking it, you can't have any real knowledge of the skill you're faking. If you have a rating in the skill, you must roll that skill.
When you roll Nature in order to Fake It, you log the test for advancement in Nature. This is really the only way to raise your Nature, so beware! Mastering every skill in the game by going to Nature 1 leaves you spread thin and out of touch with who you really are, not to mention the risk of tax driving you permanently insane.
You're a Natural!
Your stock's descriptors tell you what kinds of activity your people do most, and therefore you're best suited to pretend competence in. Dwarves are known as craftsmen. They grow up around crafting. When it comes time to try a new craft, they're just better off Faking It than a less crafty stock would be.
The main advantage of Faking It with an appropriate Nature Descriptor is that there is no risk of being taxed. You're able to learn the most from your failures and log those precious failed tests toward advancement without then worrying about how to recover your taxed nature.
You're out of your Element!
When you Fake It at things your stock isn't great with—meaning you have no descriptor that applies—you run the risk of losing some Nature. This makes a bit of sense; by trying things outside your cultural norms and then failing, you lose a bit of faith in your norms.
It's worth pointing out how this differs from Tax for Tapping Nature, which we will cover below. When Faking It, you are only taxed if you fail AND the roll was outside your nature. This is a frequent point of confusion, even for experienced players.
Faking It Example
Chicken Legs, the human monk, does not have Dungeoneer and is faced with an Ob 3 test to disarm a deadly trap. Instead of rolling Beginner's Luck, he rolls his Current Nature to make the test because he wants to be heroic and get more dice for the roll. However, because the test is neither boasting, nor demanding, nor running, his is acting outside his nature and runs the risk of being taxed. Indeed, he fails by one, and his Current Nature is taxed from 5 to 4. His Maximum Nature will remain at 5 until the current nature rating reaches 0.
Ancestral Insight (Tapping Your Nature)
What if my dwarf is already an armorer? Doesn't she benefit from being a crafty dwarf as well as a skilled armorer? Why, yes, and that's where Tapping Nature comes in. For the price of a single persona point, you may add you Current Nature in dice to a roll, whether or not the roll is acting within your nature descriptors.
You can think of Tapping Nature as a kind of Ancestral Insight. In fact, because the terms "Tapping Nature" and "Rolling Nature" can cause a lot of confusion for newcomers to the game, we recommend referring to "Faking It" and "Ancestral Insight" instead.
Ancestral Insight is your stock's bonus representing your cultural and physiological advantages. It also happens to be the single most efficient source of dice in the entire game. If you want to make big moves in Torchbearer, earn persona and tap nature.
Game Masters, take note. We're going to cover the game balance of persona exhaustively in a later post, but for now you must understand that Persona + High Nature makes otherwise preposterous obstacles attainable. You should be aware of who in your party has a high nature, and what their persona reserves look like.
The Price of Insight
To tap into your Ancestral Insight, you must pay a persona point. Additionally, if the act is outside your nature descriptors, your Current Nature is automatically taxed by a minimum of 1, regardless of the outcome.
Tax on Failure
When you fail a test tapping your Nature, you are taxed by the margin of failure on the roll. This is the same as the consequence of failure while Faking It, and for much the same reason.
In addition, if the roll is outside your nature descriptors, your Nature is taxed by 1 even if you pass the roll. There are limits on how much your cultural background can help you with, and if you spread yourself too thin you risk losing touch with the ways of your people.
As explored in the Nature rules on page 28 of the Torchbearer rulebook, you can "double-tap" nature. It's a somewhat misleading term, so let's look at what it represents in the fiction. First, you're Faking It; relying on your background cultural knowledge to get you by. Then you're tapping into your Ancestral Insight, drawing on your personal accomplishments and legacy in the form of a persona point.
It's important to note that if you're Faking It, you can't know the skill in question. So you can only double-tap Nature for a skill you don't have!
Example of Ancestral Insight
A Gott—one of the horse riders from the Middarmark—has the "riding" nature descriptor. If the she has the rider skill also, she can spend a persona to add nature on top of the riding skill. Since the Gott has the Rider skill, she must roll the skill and cannot choose to use the Nature rating instead.
Nature is a balancing act. There are advantages to high and low nature both. High nature characters are great at representing their stock's strengths, so if you were really more interested in playing an elf and not a ranger, this is a good way to go.
Advancing to Nature 7 means leaving the game, but this is more of a choice than anything. In reality you only ever advance in Nature by Faking It, and it is much, much harder to raise nature than it is to lower it. This means you can comfortably reside at Nature 6 as long as you can avoid tax, and if you're every in danger of retiring you can just push through some crazy and possibly inappropriate tapped nature rolls.
Low-Nature characters are great for playing jacks-of-all-trades. Also, if gritty and downtrodden is what you're looking to play, bottoming out nature can change your traits more in the direction of a haggard murder-hobo on the quick.
Beware opening too many skills with your low nature, however. You will need to leave a few key actions to advance your nature by Faking It.
Tracking Your Nature Questions
Did you know that during character creation, each question you answer during the Nature step corresponds to a nature descriptor for your stock?
When I found out about this, I began the practice of underlining those descriptors where I answered "yes" during character creation. It's certainly not necessary, but it can be nice to have a record of how you answered— especially for GMs who may be thoughtfully studying your sheet.
Suggested House Rule: Log Nature Advancement on Prologue
Occasionally you get together for a session of Torchbearer and miraculously nobody has any condition or nature tax. "Who's going to deliver the prologue?", you ask. Everyone shrugs. "Doesn't matter, I don't need to."
This is doubly shameful for the GM who enabled this state of affairs. Not only did you fail to keep the party miserable and downtrodden, now you have an unenthusiastic prologue to kick off the session.
Mordite Press suggests the following: a player with no condition and no taxed nature who delivers a satisfactory prologue may log a passed or failed Nature test for advancement. This should encourage a little enthusiasm on those rare occasions.
That's all we have for Nature this week, but stay tuned! In a future blog post we will cover the techniques and math that GMs can use to predict just what their party is capable of. Nature — especially Tapping Nature with Persona — is a big part of that.