The Kickstarter for The Grind Turn 2: Mistvale Nights is thriving. There's still time to support this spooky gothic horror gazetteer-style adventure! On this week's Mordite Monday, let me tell you a bit about why we've settled on a town-centric format for Torchbearer adventures, and maybe it will convince any stragglers out there to get on board for this awesome next installment in the Grind.
What Makes a Torchbearer Module good for Torchbearer?
With its laser-beam focus on survival and exploration, Torchbearer is a great fit for modular adventure content. But in the seven years the game's been around, we Mordites have been gradually updating our assumptions about what kind of module works well with the game.
A lot of these updated assumptions come from our experience developing our own Crypt of Khaab'r and Roost of the Condor Queen, and playing other Torchbearer-specific modules like Hand of the Pit, Stone Dragon Mountain, and Secret Vault of the Queen of Thieves. We've also gleaned quite a bit from running old-school D&D modules—Keep on the Borderlands, and (god help us) Tomb of Horrors.
Each of these modules was a blast to play, but in all of them there were aspects of the Torchbearer game flow that didn't quite fit. At this point, I feel a state-of-the-art Torchbearer module should be:
If you're coming from a background in D&D or other games, there is a temptation to list out specific obstacles. While this is fine for unique situations or to save the GM from having to look up and factor the obvious, improvising factors is best left to the GM. The text in a module is best used creating a pervasive sense of risk that will beg for tests. Let the factoring system do this work for you.
What's the best way to convey a sense of risk without using a thousand words? A picture! The classic style of dungeon map is nice, but an architectural/isometric style of map does a much better job than boxed text. The maps of Michael Prescott, Guillaume Tavernier (whose fantastic book of maps I just obtained), and Randy M suggest so many Dungeoneer, Criminal and Scout tests, which you can then leave out of the wordcount!
Rooted In Town
If you've never played a town phase in Torchbearer, you've arguably not played the game at all. With the exception of the very first session, most modules begin and end in town, and maybe visit a few times in between. This cycle is absolutely critical to an ongoing campaign of Torchbearer.
Every adventure site in Torchbearer needs a link back to a town. The town is as important to the design of a Torchbearer module as any trap or treasure.
Treasure defines Torchbearer. Its existence is what tempts the characters into perilous situations. Its bulk is what poses the greatest challenges. Treasure must not be allowed to become an afterthought in a Torchbearer module. Ideally, you could ask the players at any time what they hope to find in your site, and they should be able to answer with a specific, famous treasure they hope to find, even if it is "Myleau's pile of coins!"
The "Description Forward" mantra is the backbone of the game, but it does result in cautious play for most parties. To have any hope of completing a site in a single session, you'll need to limit its scope to 4-5 rooms at most. I think Koch covered this elegantly in his Seven Obstacle Dungeons.
Huge sites are not off limits by any means, but the game thrives on a series of smaller sites that allow the players to occasionally experience closure, and allow the town lead cycle to take hold in the campaign.
For the Grind (Turn 1) zine, we looked at making short, architectural, flexible, and treasure-laden dungeons. One-page dungeon formats capture all of these points, and that's another reason they have great potential as Torchbearer modules, as Michael Dunn-O'Connor explores here.
But something was missing. Presuming you loved every one of our short adventures in the Grind, it would be nearly impossible to play through them in a single, cohesive campaign. And the one-page dungeon format simply doesn't allow for much space to commit to fleshing out the town.
The solution? A gazetteer-style module, with several one-page dungeon sites all set in the same town. A substantial town section allows us to really engage with the economic and lead-generating aspects of Torchbearer, while the short-format adventures ensure that the party will actually be able to visit town from time to time.
Thus the "Towns & Treasures" format was born, and so named by Koch. The Grind Turn 2 is only the first in a planned series. We Mordites do adore our gothic horror adventures, and it is in Mistvale where they shall (un)live. Some day in the future, your game rooms will be littered with Torchbearer zine gazetteers. Prepare yourself.
Horse-thief illustration by Rebekie Bennington