The Torchbearer rulebook has solid advice on running the game, and I recommend periodically re-reading it as your Torchbearer campaign unfolds. Specific headings like Describe to Live and Obstacle-to-Obstacle are worth contemplating regardless of your experience level as a GM. But beyond the good advice in the rulebook, what else is there to say about running Torchbearer?
In the Master's Manual series, we'll explore techniques that we've used during our time running the game. In Part I we'll discuss the pacing of the game, and how to use the different resolution systems to keep things dramatic and interesting. In Part II we'll discuss the mechanics of setting obstacles, and what variables really affect the outcome of rolls. In the final Part III, we'll talk about designing creatures and how to ensure that there are no surprises during the session.
When to Roll
Every RPG has its own central premise that drives the action forward. In most traditional fantasy RPGs, the physical space defines the sequence of the action. The game rules do their best to measure what the characters can do in an imagined physical space. If a character climbs up a wall, we roll their Climb skill to see if they make it without incident. If they climb back down that same wall it's another Climb check. The players can presume a roll occurs based on their action in a consistent physical space.
In Burning Wheel, the GM is mandated to essentially ignore anything that doesn't challenge a character's belief. If the wall doesn't threaten a belief or obstruct a character's goals some how, we don't roll. Granting a roll for simply climbing up and down would needlessly inflate advancement. Players are really only rolling when there's a dramatic risk that might merit a twist and further embroil them in their quest to satisfy their beliefs and goals. If there's nothing on the line, there's no roll!
In Mouse Guard, the GM is allowed a turn to explicitly drive the action forward with the parameters of the mission (and the twists that may emerge). The players have their own turn to drive the action through rolls they earned with roleplaying rewards. Beliefs enter into this, but the mission is a gauntlet through which they must run. They don't really get much decision in how to approach each obstacle, but rather the players are tested as they are. This is why Mouse Guard is so fast-paced!
Torchbearer has perhaps the most complex system of all to determine what merits a roll, and it is a combination of all of the above systems in part. Players are given free rein to explore an imagined space (like in D&D) but it is the drama inherent in the obstacles they face that determines what is worth rolling for (as with Burning Wheel). There is no relentless gauntlet of tests as there is with Mouse Guard, but the players can still earn the chance to control the action directly with the Camp phase.
What results is a system that combines some of the best features of all of those systems. But it is a lot to manage as a GM!
The Hierarchy of Risk
When GMing Torchbearer, you first describe a situation for the characters to react to (or interact with). Then, based on what they did, you have a few options:
- A Good Idea
- A Test
- A Conflict
These three resolution mechanics form a kind of hierarchy. If an action isn't risky enough to merit a twist or a conditional success, it's a Good Idea. If it is risky (or perhaps "pregnant with crisis") then it's probably a single test against an obstacle. If several consecutive tests seem to be called for, then perhaps it is a conflict. Let's consider these three types of resolution in detail.
The Good Idea
Good Ideas should come up in every session. It's not just about rewarding creative or careful thinking, although it is nice that it does that. Instead it allows the narrative to acknowledge actions that aren't dramatic enough to be a test. If Good Ideas aren't coming up much, it may be a sign that you are not presenting the scene in line with "Describe to Live" (p.116), or that the group is focused too much on applying specific Skills to the situation instead of interacting with the described scene.
When the players declare a course of action, the first thing you should consider is whether you should simply allow it to happen without a roll. This is an option often overlooked by GMs who are eager to engage the skill system and put pressure on the players.
However, when applied correctly, Good Ideas actually increase the dramatic tension. Players anticipate rolls that don't occur and leave a string of obstacles behind them that might cause trouble down the line. They get the sensation of going deeper into danger without effort, and begin to wonder when the other shoe will drop. By saving the tests and twists for more obviously risky actions, you are able to speed them into the more interesting parts of your adventure site and avoid getting bogged down in the comparatively straight-forward stuff.
Here are some criteria you might use to decide if a good idea is warranted:
- Is the situation urgent?
- Did the player acknowledge details noted by the GM's description?
- Did the player interact with the situation to gain information or prepare?
Tests and Obstacles
After you've considered the potential for a Good Idea, you may find yourself saying "no, this is too risky/dramatic/important to simply narrate." This is a good sign that a test against an obstacle is appropriate.
A good practice is to acknowledge a potential twist as the obvious consequence of failure before the test is made. Luke Crane mentions this in Burning Wheel — the GM should be announcing "If you fail this test, then..." frequently. This works the other way around, too — situations that don't suggest twists on their own are an indicator that maybe it should be handled as a Good Idea.
There's temptation for the GM to assign obstacles to tests ahead of time and treat the tests as physical obstacles in the dungeon. While it can be helpful to research some obstacles ahead of time so that they're ready if they come up, it can also lead the GM to jump to a test without fully considering the potential for a Good Idea.
It's better to be familiar with the factors from the skill chapter, but remain flexible as far as what will actually be a test. This is the best way to make sure that Good Ideas get their due, and that every time you roll the dice it is exciting.
Conflicts are the most specialized resolution system, and they should be used sparingly compared to tests and Good Ideas. However, the stories we tell in Torchbearer do often include chaotic and climactic scenes where conflicts are appropriate. We'll follow up with a whole blog post (or several) dedicated to Conflicts, but in the context of pacing let's focus on when it is appropriate to run a conflict instead of a test.
Conflicts serve a few specific purposes in the system. A conflict allows for a quick succession of rolls made by different characters that all contribute to a single outcome. This allows many characters to participate in a single scene on a more direct level than help and wises normally allow.
Conflicts also suspend the normal consequences of failure. Twists and conditions are hugely important in the game, but when action-packed rolls come one after another, twists can be disruptive and conditional success too lethal to actually finish out the scene. By suspending the normal outcomes of failure and rolling the group's collective success or failure into the compromise at the end of the conflict, we allow many individual actions to affect the scene without dragging things off track.
And lastly, conflicts constrain the amount of advancement that the party can gain by making similar rolls over and over. This lets us zoom in on a scene and spend time on each push back and forth without characters skyrocketing their pass and fails for advancement.
These mechanical functions of a conflict are also a good measure of when conflicts are appropriate. Conflict work best when you have:
- Many characters acting directly on a single outcome.
- Sustained action that should not be derailed by twists or pile on multiple conditions.
- Many similar tests that should be grouped for advancement.
Just as we mentioned not going for a test without first considering whether a good idea will do, you should also not reach for a conflict unless you need to satisfy some or all of those points.
A common notion is that any armed conflict in the game must be a kill or drive off conflict. However, it is often practical to use a single test (and help) to quickly cover minor combat situations, especially in the context of the greater story. In films, the heroes are often quickly able to subdue lesser threats (in order to steal a uniform for a disguise, for example). That's a good example of when a full on conflict may be inappropriate and cumbersome to use in lieu of a simple test.
While those mechanical criteria for conflicts are good and proper, don't let this scare you away from conflicts altogether. You can run many sessions without a conflict at all, but if you do you will find that players can stockpile their Fate and Persona awards, and that can make it difficult to challenge them in the future. Instead, you should aspire to create situations in your game that are worthy of the conflict system: perils that everyone has a stake in, villains that everybody wants a crack at, and action that doesn't let up.
There's plenty more to be said about each of these resolution types in Torchbearer, and we will surely cover each on in depth in future articles. But for now it's worth considering how the three work together, and what are the criteria for each. Do you consider Good Ideas first or do you tend to think of everything as a test? Do you plan your obstacles in advance or focus on creating a situation that is pregnant with crisis? Do you reach for conflicts every time swords are drawn?